Cruising Stories

Chartering the Pacific Northwest

The San Juan Islands

pacific northwest

If you are visiting from another part of the country, chartering a boat in Anacortes or Bellingham is a great way to cruise the San Juan Islands in Washington state. Last year, Peter and I chartered a power catamaran from San Juan Yachting in Bellingham for a five day cruise. We were novices to a boat charter, having spent most of our cruising hours aboard our own boat.

We were excited to cruise our native waters with friends from Maryland who had never cruised in the Pacific Northwest before. We wanted to show them why we love this part of the country and hoped they would understand the magic.

Peter and I flew west from Baltimore to Seattle early on August 26, so we could get to Bellingham by 3 p.m. for the Marine Life and Skipper's Safety Briefings. We didn't want to rent a car, so we took an airport bus from Seattle to Bellingham, a two-hour drive north up I-5, and then took an Uber to the marina from the bus stop.

San Juan Charter is one of the most well-respected charter companies in the Pacific Northwest with a large fleet of both sail and power boats. They sent us a Skipper's Handbook a month in advance, and then during the briefing (that all charter customers are required to attend), they pointed out navigation hazards, areas with strong currents, customs information and other essential tips. Even well-seasoned Chesapeake Bay cruisers would find cruising in these waters somewhat challenging. The water temperature stays in the 50s all year long. Therefore, the air temperature rarely gets above the mid-70s. The water depth is measured in fathoms not feet, so anchoring is much more challenging. The tides are 14 feet, not 1 to 2 feet, and the beaches and coastline are unforgiving rock, not sand.

Our friends Jan and Steve, arrived in a rental car later in the evening, and as we waited for our charter boat to be ready we made a grocery list and took the rental car to the nearest grocery store.

Upon our return, we boarded All Heart, a 33-foot PDQ. She was a good boat for two couples because the layout included plenty of common area in the center with the sleeping berths in each of the hulls for privacy. We unpacked, stowed the provisions and familiarized ourselves with the systems on the boat before berthing down for the night.

Our itinerary had been tentatively laid out by Peter weeks before we arrived. Since he grew up in this part of the country, he knows the area like the back of his hand. We wanted to travel short distances in protected because, from experience, Peter knew that wind is elusive in the summer.


Our first morning we were speeding across Bellingham Bay towards Sucia Island by 7 a.m. We picked up a state maintained mooring ball at 10 a.m. in Echo Bay and prepared lunch. We put the dingy in the water and headed to shore to explore the many nature trails on the island. This marine park is very popular in the summer, and it was no surprise that old friends of ours were there at the same time. We invited them aboard for dinner after a day of hiking and kayaking (our boat was provisioned with two tandem kayaks). It was a great first day for our friends from Maryland. To make them feel at home, we spotted a boat named Chesapeake on a mooring close by and, amazingly, there was a beautiful Trumpy yacht in the harbor as well.


We departed before most other cruisers were having their first cup of coffee. Taking advantage of the tide, we were flushed out of the deep narrow bay and then headed toward the Canadian Gulf Islands. We stopped briefly at Bedwell Harbour to clear customs. There were no other boats at the customs dock, so we cleared by phone very easily and then explored the marina and Poet's Cove Resort & Spa before continuing on to Ganges Harbour on Salt Spring Island.

At Ganges, we docked at Kanaka Public Visitors Wharf, which was in easy walking distance to the restaurants and shops. Ganges is a thriving town with markets, restaurants and galleries filled with arts and crafts from local artisans. Our friend Steve had researched things to do before the trip and found out that there was a farm to table pop-up dining opportunity a mile down the road from the marina. He made reservations for Sunday evening, and we walked in a light rain to Bullock Lake Farm where a beautiful new barn adorned with twinkle lights and filled with place set tables surrounded by chairs covered in sheepskin rugs stood waiting for us in the woods. We toured the nearby garden with farmer Zachary and several other dinner guests and then enjoyed a wonderful meal prepared by Chef Haan Paleu-Chang from Toronto, who had partnered with Zachary and his wife, Molly, over the summer to create gourmet meals using all produce grown on the farm. Even the roasted pig that was served was raised on the farm. It was a magical evening. We were able to call a cab for our return to the marina.


We woke to fog and, to bide time until it lifted, we enjoyed breakfast at the Tree House Cafe and poked around the shops. At 11 a.m. we departed for Saturna Island. When researching where to dock, we first investigated Lyall Harbour, but could notfind any dock space, so we continued to Thomson Beach in Breezy Bay. After docking, we talked with a gentleman on the beach who gave us a ride to the top of Mt. Warburton Pike, the highest peak in the Gulf Islands at 1,300 feet. The panoramic views of the snow covered peaks on the mainland and the fascinating island jewels of the Canadian Gulf and U.S. San Juan Islands were spectacular.

In the late afternoon, we departed for U.S. waters and arrived at historic Roche Harbor on San Juan Island to clear customs. Re-entry into the United States wasn't as smooth as we hoped. The customs agent confiscated all our citrus fruit, avocados and tomatoes, which was ironic because we had purchased them all in the United States.


Once cleared, we anchored in the picturesque harbor and enjoyed a steak dinner on All Heart's flybridge. Early the next morning, Peter and Steve took the dinghy to buy the locally renowned donuts for breakfast. Afterward, a walk on the island was definitely warranted. It was a beautiful early fall day and we took full advantage by walking the beautiful grounds around the resort. The charming sculpture garden was a highlight. We topped off the day with dinner at McMillin's Dining Room.


We woke to rain and were disappointed because we had planned a day of hiking and whale watching. After some discussion of various alternatives, we decided to stick to our plan to explore Stuart Island. After all, rain should never be a deterrent when traveling in the Pacific Northwest. We found dock space in Reid Harbor, bundled up in rain gear and walked the three miles to Turn Point Lighthouse, which is located on the furthest northwest corner of the continental United States. It rained off and on, but we were rewarded by an orca whale sighting when we arrived.When we got back to the boat the decision was made to cruise the outside of San Juan Island to see if we could find the pod of orcas seen earlier at Turn Point. We hit the jackpot. We were able to slow the boat down and follow a feeding pod for over an hour. It is such a treat to be surrounded by these magnificent mammals. We finally pulled into bustling Friday Harbor at 6 p.m. just in time to get the last available slip for the night. We had a first-rate meal at Vinny's Ristorante, a terrific Italian restaurant in town.


We decided to top off the fuel before heading to Orcas Island, and were surprised at how little fuel we had used even though we had been cruising for four days.A familiar mooring ball was waiting for us as we entered Doe Bay at the east end of Orcas Island. This is where Peter's parents have lived for over 20 years, and for 30 years before that, this was where Peter vacationed every summer when his family lived in Spokane. We were warmly greeted by Peter's parents when we walked up the hill to the family cabin. For Peter and me, this was the end of the cruise. We planned to stay with Peter's parents for an additional two weeks. The six of us enjoyed a final meal of oysters and crab from nearby Buck Bay Shellfish Farm. We shared the highlights of our cruising adventure with Peter's parents the amazing pop-up dinner, the thrill of watching whales feed, the perfect balance of on water and on shore activities, the beauty, the camaraderie, the serenity.


Steve and Jan slept on the boat, and the next morning we watched them depart into the fog to return All Heart to Bellingham Bay. I think they understand the magic of this place.

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