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4/28/2019

First Timers Guide to the San Juan's

Matia Island
Matia Island
 

  From time to time I refresh my thinking and remember our first visit more than twenty years ago. Specifically what a pain it was not knowing the simplest answers to questions many of us take for granted today. This post is written to help new cruisers headed to the San Juan's needing the same simple answers we needed.

     I define the San Juan cruising area not by county or even country, but rather by places we want to visit and spend some time. But that also means, places we have the capability to get to without too much effort or time.  So that being stated, I think of Port Townsend and Deception Pass Park (Cornet Bay), and Swinomish Channel as our loosely defined southern boundary.  I think of Vancouver BC and Nanaimo as our northern most point, and everything in between Vancouver Island and the mainland completing the east west box. Keep in mind, with a day or two extra, you can run down to Olympia or up to Princess Louisa Inlet, but for this discussion, we are sticking to the core San Juan Island area and what you need to get there.


Basics

  • You need a boat, but you can rent a sail or powerboat in Anacortes or Bellingham if you prefer, and it doesn't take much experience to qualify.
  • Size matters, bigger is more comfy, costly and feels imminently safer in a storm. As size goes up, so do your skill requirements. Once past about thirty five feet you will find you don't fit at some docks and fuel burns at over twenty five gallons an hour. Smaller is  better at times. Eighteen foot ski and fishing boats or day sailors are very easy to get in and out at virtually all places but with all your food and gear, you will be crowded on board.  Above all - don't let your lack of a perfect boat cause you not to go. Take what you have, you can make it work.
  • Bring a dinghy, even a two person inflatable kayak is okay.  You need a way to get to shore where there are no docks. You don't have to carry the dinghy on board, you can tow it everywhere you go. Yes you can beach your runabout and let the tide leave you dry but bringing a dinghy is so much easier.
  • Sleep on board, at anchor, at the dock, or in the many park campgrounds. (there are about twenty marine campgrounds, you can camp at a different park every night) If preferred, you can spend every night at a marina or resort and sleep on shore.
  • The best weather will be in July and August, but the shoulder seasons have less people and okay weather too.
  • I suggest you plan a week, but you can make a weekend work.  If you have a comfortable all weather boat, spend the summer.
  • If you rent, don't forget you have to park your car(s) If you trailer, plan on a daily parking fee of around $12.  (Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham is free, even long term)
  • See this posting for launch ramps. ---launch ramps with long term parking  This is probably the only real planning decision you need to make before you go, but we have changed our planned take off point as we drove up the highway.  Do not start your San Juan cruise down south in Olympia, Seattle or Everett or Port Townsend or Port Angeles. If you do you will spend much of your time motoring long distances (both ways) My advice is to start in Bellingham or Anacortes using one of the ramps from the list above.
  • You need with you on the boat, a chart, or you will get lost, count on it. You should have a list of parks, marinas and resources preferably marked on your navigation chart. Get this chart. Noaa # 18421  -  We use noaa chart # 18421 you can see it by clicking here or anywhere charts are sold.  Navigation charts do not show what's on shore, (roads, city's, marinas, parks, etc) so we carry a highway map as well.
  • Don't run out and buy an expensive chart plotter. At minimum, you need a paper chart, a  portable GPS and a compass, your smart phone will probably do.  All boats need a depth sounder or you are risking an expensive grounding.

  • Sample itinerary:  #1. Begin at Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham (open 24/7).  2. Head for Friday Harbor and get a slip for your first night or every night (they take reservations).  3. Use Friday Harbor as your base, returning every night to your own slip with power, water, restrooms, on shore restaurants and entertainment. This plan will work for virtually all boaters regardless of  gear, experience or creature comfort requirements. None of the Marine State Parks have reserve-able docks or anchor buoys, everything is first come first gets it. This means you should plan on anchoring and using your dinghy,  it also means when someone pulls out you may grab the spot at the dock. Rafting is the term  used when several boats tie together at anchor or the dock.
  • Sample itinerary:  #2. Begin at Squalicum again but this time head for Matia or Sucia. Next, Jump over to Stuart and then Roche Harbor or Jones, then to Friday Harbor, then Fisherman Bay. This itinerary will make sure you have a shower and food store available (Roche and Friday) when you really need and want both.  
  • Fuel is readily available but you should try to have a minimum range of seventy five miles just to be sure should you encounter adverse conditions.
  • How many days you spend at each park is up to you, your car and trailer will be waiting in the free parking lot when you circle back to Bellingham.

  • Get my San Juan Islands Cruise Guide, it  has all the parks, marinas, fuel, resources, phone numbers, etc. and is written specifically for visitors coming by boat. My companion book, the San Juan Islands Travel Guide is written for visitors coming by car or boat.
              San Juan Islands Cruise Guide     -----   San Juan Islands Travel Guide
         Don't be cheap, the books cost less than a meal and will pay for themselves in saved frustration,  making your cruise a real success.
  • Lastly, I can't address everything you may want to know in a single post, so I suggest you search this site and read some more articles. There are several with detailed day by day itineraries. Next, after becoming more knowledgeable about what and where you want to go and do, set aside a week and go. It really is that easy. The central cruising area is small enough that you can completely change your plans on the fly. You don't need reservations, you don't need a plan, you don't even need to bring food, just grab your gear and boat and hit the road. OH - bring some cash for, fuel and park fees and that food I just said you don't need.
If you happen to see us on Kraken somewhere, please say hello. We hope to be anchored in Fisherman Bay for the Lopez Island 2019 4th of July show.

John and Linda
              feel free to use the e-mail contact form with your questions





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