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San Juan Islands: Five Harbors in Seven Days

You could spend a lifetime exploring the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state, but what do you do when you only have a weeklong charter? Here are five things not to miss in this compact cruising ground that can take a lifetime to get to know.

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San Juan Islands Overview

The San Juan Islands are a part of the San Juan Archipelago in the Salish Sea between the US and Canada. Of the total 450 islands, fewer than one sixth are permanently inhabited. Wildlife is abundant here both on land and below the crystal waters. Walking along you might see a black tail deer, red and silver fox, wild turkey and even a bald eagle. The sea life is plentiful as well with harbor seals, Minke whales, Dall’s porpoise and the very popular orcas.
There are thousands of coves where you can drop the hook ad relax on island time for a very long time. However, if you only have a week, here are some highlights you might want to include in your itinerary.

New meets old in fog of Coronet Bay

Friday Harbor on San Juan Island is an easy first stop that sets the mood for the quaint towns of the Pacific Northwest. Downtown Friday Harbor is basically an extension of the busy marina that has ferry and seaplane traffic buzzing all day and into the night. The town offers a variety of great restaurants, bars, art galleries, hotels and organized activities including biking, kayaking, and whale watching tours. The whale museum is worth a visit as is the farmers market with 40 vendors bringing in locally grown goodies on most Saturdays. The marina has good facilities, including showers, and their staff will make sure you can tie up even if it means a side tie to another guest on busy summer weekends.

Friday Harbor's "Downtown" is really just an extension of its busy marina.

Next, head north to Orcas Island and the historic Rosario Resort and Moran Mansion museum. Shipbuilder and one-time Seattle mayor, Robert Moran, purchased 7,000 acres here in the early 1900s and built an Arts and Crafts style residence that is now a museum open to the public. Moran’s nautical background is evident in all the furnishing and fixtures. The music room features a 1913 Aeolian pipe organ, 1900 Steinway grand piano, a Belgian stained glass window picturing the harbor at Antwerp and two mezzanine libraries overlooking a Tiffany chandelier. Six days a week at 4 pm, Christopher Peacock, accomplished musician and Rosario historian, presents a free concert that includes music and original silent film footage from the Phantom of the Opera. Peacock’s excellent hour of entertainment covers the history of the mansion and the Moran family.

Rosario Harbor

Back on the northern tip of San Juan Island, and only 15 miles from Canada, is Roche Harbor, a postcard-perfect little marina with 377 slips and the friendliest staff around. Listed on the National Register of Historical Sites, the Hotel de Haro, built in 1886, serves as the center of “town” and still offers 20 rooms and a lobby full of old photographs that tell the story of this former lime quarrying center. In the summer, the grounds are a gardener’s delight and there are a couple of excellent restaurants to get you off the boat and into the local social scene. Attend Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Good Voyage Chapel, or walk further up the road for a self-guided tour through an outdoor sculpture garden and the McMillin family mausoleum in the woods.

The Hotel de Haro, built in 1886, serves as the center of Roche Harbor

From Roche, sail out onto the Haro Strait that separates the US from Canada. This is the feeding place and playground for pods of orcas. These beautiful whales can be seen daily as they travel the channel, breeching and splashing. Local laws ensure that boast stay at least 100 yards away from the whales but sometimes if you’re lucky, they’ll swim right to and around you. As you make your way to the other side of the island, you can drop anchor in one of the hundreds of quiet coves and take in majestic snow-capped Mt. Rainier in the distance.

Churning waters near Deception Pass

If you’re up for a bit of adventure, head to Deception Pass, which separates Whidbey Island from Fidalgo Island and is topped by a picturesque bridge. Although it’s advisable to transit the pass only at slack water due to the strong currents, if you arrive a couple hours before and go in with the current, you will think you’re sailing down the Colorado River as the water boils around you and the boat speeds up to 12 knots while nearly in idle. Once through the pass, you can tie up at a dock at Cornet Bay. If it’s August, you might catch a glimpse of the tall ships Hawaiian Chieftain and Lady Washington staging mock old world battles in the bay.

The bridge over Deception Pass

There are numerous places to charter in the Pacific Northwest, but to maximize your time, why not start right in Anacortes, the gateway to the San Juan cruising grounds? The most prominent charter company is Anacortes Yacht Charters (AYC). Both have a good selection of well-maintained yachts with AYC offering a broader selection of sailboats. Remember however, that the distances are short and the winds are fluky and elusive, so a powerboat might be a good and comfortable option. This neck of the woods is sure to charm you for a week or a lifetime.

Editor's Note:  Photos courtesy of Zuzana Prochazka.

Chart of the San Juan Islands


San Juan Islands: Photo Tour 

To find a charter boat, visit the Pacific Northwest page.

Pacific Northwest: Weather

Though not considered prime season, September and early October charters can be delightful as the crowds are gone and the weather is usually still amenable. Periods of rain are common in May and June and even into early July. Each year is different of course, but fall and spring storms around the British Columbia coast can get gnarly. Visitors tend to stick to the eight glorious weeks during the sunniest part of the year.

Pacific Northwest visitors tend to stick to the eight glorious weeks during the sunniest part of the year.

The islands off the coast of Washington are known as the ‘Banana Belt’ where the storm blocking effects of the surrounding mountain ranges make for a drier and milder climate. Average temperatures include highs of 60-70 degrees Farehnheit in the summer months with temps dropping into the 50s at night. In winter, you can expect about 20 degrees less for both highs and lows. Some areas of these sheltered waters (like Deception Pass) are prone to fog, so consider a charter boat that has radar.

Other destinations like Victoria, British Columbia are milder, but always expect the unexpected. We went from 43 degrees to 82 degrees on the same mid-August charter. Typical annual precipitation is about twenty inches, with a significant increase in rain in the winter months.

Winds are light and fluky so long, lazy days under sail can be elusive. On a recent week-long charter, we managed to sail about three hours in total with wind speeds from a frustrating five knots to a challenging 25 knots on the nose—all within the same afternoon. Unpredictable and mostly nonexistent sailing breezes make powerboats a good option, and there are many to choose from at most charter bases. If you’re looking at the shoulder season, ask for a boat with a cabin heater.

Weather affects just about everything you’ll bring on a charter: personal electronics, clothes, toys. Some items that will be helpful include a smartphone or tablet with marine apps on weather, AIS, tides and marina bookings. Most charter boats won’t have AIS enabled radar, but you can get that information on your iPhone with an inexpensive app. Although it’s not necessary to have this, it’s fun to track and identify the ships nearby.

Another consideration is toys. Depending on the time of year and on how hardy you are, you may or may not be spending time in the water. If you want to snorkel, swim, kayak or generally play in the water, consider bringing your own light wetsuit. Electronics or board games are also helpful to entertain all ages on rainy afternoons at anchor. However, don’t underestimate the sun factor; bring lots of sunscreen, hats and glasses.

For clothing, think layers. In August we managed to go from wearing three layers and foulies to swimsuits and flip flops. Bring lots of options, some rain gear, and even consider tossing in an umbrella for shoreside strolls through towns.

Photo courtesy Neil Rabinowitz