Queen Charlotte Sound

Cruising the San Juan & Gulf Islands – A couples cruise to nirvana

Article & Pics by Linda Kissam

San Juan Islands, WashingtonIf you search the Web, you can find many stories from a technical or nautical viewpoint on cruising the beautiful San Juan Islands in Washington State and its twin sister the Gulf Islands in Canada. This is NOT one of those articles. This is my personal take on a couples fall-time cruise through the two island groups. Yup, just me and my husband kicking back for a week long escapade amongst soft breezes, brilliant sunshine, intimate moorings, and gurgling blue waters.

There is definitely something to be said for how a couple of empty-nesters with hectic jobs, major responsibilities and plugged- in -lives stopped their whirlwind schedules to stand down, relax, and reconnect. Just getting a date we both could agree on was a huge issue. I sense some eye rolling and head nodding out there in reader land, so I know you’re feeling my pain. Agreeing on what type of boat to rent was another whole challenge. I was looking for “Mr. Big” with all the amenities. My husband the sailor was looking for compact, maneuverability, and minimum maintenance.

On all issues we ended somewhere in the middle. Giving up my hair dryer, Wolf Stove, wine refrigerator and Riedel glassware sucked. Arguing over terms like aft, stern, lines and so forth is never a pleasure. I want to converse in everyday words; my husband is a stickler for sailing terms. But then again toasting stunning sunsets from the stern (back of the boat) , drinks on the patios of some amazing island wine bars, the quiet lap, lap, lap of the sparkling blue water, and relatively good Internet connection everywhere certainly has its benefits.

Tying up in the San Juan IslandsOur vacation started with an early one day fly-in to Bellingham Airport. This would give us time to inspect the boat, have my husband take his “boat driving test” and stock the boat up with supplies. We rented a car and were on our way 15 short minutes to the Bellingham Marina where our boat was waiting for us at Bellingham Yachts. We chartered a 33’ Back Cove power boat with many of the comforts of home. Limited seating and cooking facilities
met this would be a simpler experience than when we charter a 42’ boat two years ago. No fancy dinners, lots of overnight guests or dancing till midnight, but its small compact demeanor had its own charms. As expected, the Bellingham charter staff was kind, knowledgeable and eager to please. The boat was clean, fueled and ready for us to board.

As peaceful cruising and a good glass of wine at sunset is a part of reaching vacation nirvana, we set out around 11 a.m. the next day chugging along at six knots to our first stop Lyall Harbor. I think we were supposed to start out earlier, but I took the time to use the curling iron one more time and chat up all the yacht dogs and their owners before we set out. At some point someone mentioned that
my husband was doing some sort of energetic jumping jacks to get my attention, so I rightly guessed I missed the official sail-off time.

Lyall harbor in Canada was out first stop. It is located in the southwest portion of Plumper Sound, attached to Saturna Island. Lyall Harbor wharf is adjacent to the BC Ferries dock. If you’re not use to cruising around the big ferries, it can be quite a shock to see these big boys barreling towards you. Luckily my husband knows the rules of the road (sea) so there were no near misses, but just saying, get a rule book if you haven’t done this before.

Queen Charlotte SoundWe had a choice to make, as we would each night. Should we dock at a private or public
marina or gunkhole it? No eye rolling please, this is a real word. Gunkholing by definition is a quiet anchorage where small yachts anchor into soft mud or “gunk” — so gunkholing applies to those who engage in this low key relaxed style of cruising. We opted for anchoring in the quiet bay, a light dinner, a rich glass of Pinot Noir and a long lazy look at the seductive sunset.

I had thought we would get off the boat the next morning to do some wine tasting at Saturna Winery. I’ve been to this winery before and enjoyed its ambiance and wines. If you’re near, make sure you take the time to stop in. Unfortunately we found out that we needed to get over to Canadian Customs immediately. So we pulled up anchor and headed to Bedwell Harbor on Pender Island where all passengers must report their presence as tourists. You can do the initial registration process by telephone or avoid it by registering in advance on online. Luckily the process was quick and off we went for a 2—day stay at the popular private Ganges Marina on Salt Spring Island.
There was a bit of head spinning at the price of mooring. But you get what you pay for. In this case it meant clean and gated docks, a friendly hand to help you dock (something I am hopelessly not adept at), nice showers, Internet access, and calm waters. This is one of my favorite stops to make. Just a few steps from the marina gourmet food is available at the local market, and the restaurants are varied in price and cuisine. There are lots of shops to browse and my favorite jewelry shop is located here. It’s a good thing this boat had good storage as my credit card got a nice work out here.

Relaxed, rejuvenated, and stocked up on wine, food, and jewelry we motored back to the US to Roche Harbor in the San Juan Islands. Another 2-night private mooring stay meant there was plenty of time to explore this quaint island before we picked up a guest.

Roche harbor has a small but classy shopping center which is just steps from where all the
boats moor. There are several waterside eateries, a marina full of beautiful yachts, and local artisans’ booths in summer—showing off jewelry, wool, paintings, pottery, and more.

Pretty much two restaurants serve the boaters and locals. The Madrona Bar and Grill focuses on coastal casual cuisine and creative cocktails. Its deck overlooks the harbor, offering diners the only island sunset view over water. Fresh salads, creative grill sandwiches and famous BBQ ribs are menu favorites. Open 11am-10pm mid-May to the last day of September, which you should know is known as “the season.” The Lime Kiln Cafe is a classic for hearty harbor side breakfast. Sandwiches and fish & chips round out a lunch menu that makes decisions difficult but delicious. Open 7am-8pm daily during “the season.”
Quirky sailing and luxury in Washington StateWhen you’re finished noshing and catching up on your email, strike out to see the San Juan Islands Museum of Art Sculpture Park. It’s about a 10 minute walk from Roche Harbor and has more than 100 sculptures placed in an open, 19-acre, natural setting. You can ramble among the sculptures or follow the nearby nature trail that takes you into a native forest and close to Westcott Bay, home of the world-famous oysters. I loved the sculpture park and spent a good 2 hours just wondering from one amazing art piece to another. It’s a photographer’s and art lover’s dream stop.

An old high-school friend of my husband’s met us early the next morning. He had spent his early a.m. hours taking a ferry from Anacortes to Roche Harbor to connect with us. Once aboard, we untied the boat and where off to Deer Harbor on the western side of Orcas Island. This was to be another gunkholing experience. Now, with two co-captains aboard, finding “the spot” to anchor took some time and discussion. Finally we dropped anchor and the “boat people” watching began.

It was a beautiful day for boating, canoeing and other water-tight vessel sailing. And so it
was with a chilled glass of Riesling the 3 of us sat back on the stern and had the time of our lives watching the skilled and the not-so-skilled glide pass us. At this time of the day I am usually pounding out 50 trillion emails, catching up on paperwork and articles, and arguing with various Internet providers about the latest hacker and spam attempts. But today, it was a pleasure to put that all aside and just enjoy the scenery. What a treat to discuss no more than the lively seals, the fearless teenagers in tiny canoes, the hot- rodding young men breaking every no-wake rule in the area, and the odd hippy couple floating by in what could best be described as a version of an oar- powered Nile boat. They all seemed to be doing fine without computers, fancy stoves and screaming Internet connections. There’s a lesson to be learned here. And for some reason, I had no thought of taking our power raft to the tiny store in the even tinier marina. We all did fine on a simple diet of canned clam chowder and beer.
Cruising in the San Juan Islands, WashingtonRunning from the fog -laden morning at Deer Harbor we exited the San Juan Islands at Thatcher Pass and motored past the Anacortes ferry pier. We thought we might be able to drop our guest off next to the ferry terminal, but that was wishful thinking. We had to go to the Anacortes public marina at Cap Sante to fuel up for the final leg of our trip and drop him off. He helped out with the fueling process and with a casual wave of his hand he was off to his home in Seattle (lucky, lucky man).

Returning to Bellingham from Anacortes is another three hour run from Anacortes when operating at chugging speed. The boat was due back in at 10 AM the next day so we had thought we might gunkhole it one more time. On this trip however, the risk of morning fog forced us to run back to the home marina. My husband put the pedal to the metal for about an hour on our way back literally hurling us back to civilization, schedules and bright city lights. I much prefer chugging, but it was a treat to see my husband really having fun powering away (which I am sure is not a technical boating term, bit it paints the right picture).

What we gave up in another night on the water, we made up by having dinner at Anthony’s
in Bellingham Marina which is just a few short steps from where our boat made its final docking. This is a long-time favorite restaurant of ours, so not such a tough trade really. We spent the night on board the boat and the next morning hitched a ride to the airport from the charter manager. While my husband traded sea stories with him, I turned on my iPhone and reconnected with my real life once again.

Considering this trip? Inexperienced skippers need not shy away from this trip, but for safety sake take an experienced person along for a few days to avoid disaster. Bellingham Yachts will charter the boat and provide training or help you to contract a training skipper. The cost to charter one of the boats in their fleet ranges from $2,138 for the smallest of the boats off season to $6,545 in season for the largest of the boats for about a week. Of course prices and types of boats are subject to change. There is a minimum $3,000 (up to $9,000) additional refundable damage deposit required depending on the boat you choose. You must return the boat full of fuel at your own cost. Book your charter by calling 1-877-310-9446.