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Cruisers Packing List - don't forget the ?

      If your a beginner to the San Juans as well as a beginner to cruising (boat camping) you may find some useful advice here.  But some people don't like being told what to bring or what not to bring, or ask for directions when they are hopelessly lost.  So stop right here if you recognize yourself, and move on.

        Okay, now that the captain and skipper have quit reading lets see if we can ease the pain somewhat.  I'm not going to try to be all inclusive here, but just some little reminders to get you thinking about your cruise.  Obviously you have a spotless well equipped boat and many things are already on board.
  • I'll bet you don't have an underwater flashlight, they are great for teasing sea creatures after dark, and will add hours of entertainment time to answer your children's "I'm bored" comments. (hint, stick a cheap flashlight in a ziplock bag) Now tie it to the end of your boat hook and poke it under water
  • How about heavy duty zip lock bags, or the ones they sell at the outdoor outfitter stores for river running, you know for your cell phone, ipod, camera, wallet, etc, etc, etc.....
  • speaking of waterproof have you got any good wood matches in a waterproof container?
  • here's one you really miss and then its too late  - chap-stick with spf 99 (how high do the #'s go?)
  • remember that hat that blew off into the water?  ditto for glasses!  you need a chin strap or leash.
  • OK, this is a good one, get a second or third corkscrew, uh huh! (try em at home to make sure they work well)
  • Dramamine in all forms for everyone
  • cheap little led flashlights, lots of em, they're cheap
  • plastic kites for beach fun, don't forget the string
  • multi-function tool that you carry in your pocket all the time
  • boat cleaning supplies, wax, polish, paint thinner to remove tars you track on board with your shoes. We seem to do our heavy cleaning while on a cruise, I see others doing the same.
  • misc. boat repair supplies and tools. (sail tape) get a bottle of soft scrub it's my best friend (paint thinner too)

These are just some starter ideas, feel free to add your favorites.
Since some folks really benefit from in depth detailed instructions and are lost without to-do lists, I have added below a list created for a general travel article.
Click here and read more >>>>>


why you should use "Active Captain"

This may seem like a blatant promotion for a web site, well duh! but before you go cruising, you should check out  You owe it to yourself and crew to be informed. A picture is worth a thousand words, or maybe much more in this case. These snapshots only capture a small amount so I snapped three to really show how much is available, and I left off the local knowledge label so you could go look it up yourself.

All the pictures include the area from Victoria to Bellingham to Anacortes, which means you may have to scroll to view entire picture. Remember, these are snapshots, you need to go to web site for functions to work (try clicking on pics for a bigger view)
  Red markers show marinas and docks

Yellow markers show navigation warnings

Green markers show comments and reviews from cruisers like me and you
Nothing works because these are snapshots, you need to go to the real web site


How to Bicycle Between San Juan Island, Lopez Island, Shaw and Orcas Island Without a Car

Bicycling the San Juan Islands
  For most people, bicycling the San Juan's means arriving with your bike and gear in a car on a Ferry.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Savvy cyclists leave their cars in Anacortes and ride the ferry to the San Juan Islands.  Once in the islands bicycle travel is the way to go.

First let's explore a likely scenario for those without a boat, bear with me, this will get a little wordy:

      You drive to Anacortes and find a place to park for free for a week, maybe more. Or park at the ferry terminal long term parking lot for about $40 per week. Next, jump on the ferry paying a small nominal fee for one passenger and bicycle for a lift to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, or Orcas, or Lopez, or Shaw.  FYI: foot passengers and bicyclists never need reservations or need to wait in line like car travelers.
So far so good!

      The day is still early, start touring (ride your bike). At the end of the day you will end up in a motel, B&B, campground, or any number of resorts.  You probably will be well advised to have some reservations lined up in advance. Oh, and bring a pocket full of cash because restaurants and beds aren't free. The next day tour around some more then jump on the free for foot passengers Ferry to other Islands and repeat. Eventually you will end up back in Anacortes where your car is waiting for the drive home.

      This is a great plan if you are into minimalist and don't have a boat, but there are a few weaknesses; number one, where is all my extra gear that I take when I travel, oh yeah its back in the car parked in Anacortes while I'm gallivanting around on an island with nothing but my pocket full of cash and what fits in my bike bags. (not good for some of us) Excellent plan if your a hard core bicyclist. Number two doesn't matter, I'm still back on number one.

Ok, here's the boating/bicycling scenario:  


WHY own A BOAT? and for me "Why a Sailboat" when what I really want is to go camping somewhere in the San Juan Islands

      Why a boat? is a fair question, and one usual quick answer is, "why not a boat"
Aha! got me again, remember if you don't like the answer, ask a better question.  Okay, how about this question,  "why take a boat for a cruise instead of taking a car and camping?" Now were getting somewhere;
Spending most of our lives on land, a boat, at least for me, offers wide open spaces, freedom, and much more. The journey is my desire, my wish, my goal, the destination is simply a mark on the chart, a mere way point in life. The boat is at once a complicated machine I must master, or at least control, and yet a simplistic drifting raft,or racing hydro-foil will also fill the bill. While journeying by water my mind is filled with the pressing matters at hand, what course is safe, what hazards lay ahead, are we drifting toward that menacing lee shore,  will we clear the point, should we tack now or risk thin water, what is that new sound? motion? vibration? Looking ahead I see a rock, a quick glance at the gauge hints at the waters depth, the rock is gone, now it appears to one side, as we glide closer I see it has eyes and a nose. I feel a mariner's connection, and an urge to wave, but no response is forthcoming. Anxiously checking the depth again, I'm ready to start the motor; The wind shifts, the sails fill, a little gust, and the lines pull taut. Looking up the mast to the top, I see the wind-vane has changed direction and is  pointing 90 degrees to starboard. The sails hanging like billowy white clouds floating above the boat are spilling wind, I let out the main sheet, and slack the jib.  click on read more...


Step by Step guide and Itinerary for making that Dream Boat Trip to the San Juan Islands

     This cruise itinerary is for the first timer with the boat on a trailer. The novice skipper with family for crew will find this article contains just what's needed to get going on that long talked about trip to the San Juans. While this is a step by step action plan to follow, some skippers do not need all the steps and prodding and so they should skip ahead to      Day #1.  for the daily itinerary  

For the rest of us, these steps are important, so I've numbered them.
  Before you go

  1. Right now, go put two marks on the calendar. Mark the day of departure from home and one week or so later mark the day your returning. Do it now or forever hold your peace and admit your not really going boat camping in the San Juans.
  2. Go to your local chandlery or go online and purchase a big color map or chart of the San Juans. I'm not telling you which one, it doesn't matter, just big and one you like to look at.
  3. Got the map? Good now nail it to the wall where you can see it all the time. Do it now!  OK, the hardest part is over, you have now made a commitment to yourself and crew. Your really going.  Kick back a little, relax, do some day dreaming.  Your trip (cruise, vacation, what ever you want to call it) is already well underway. By now you should be  getting into the  excitement that comes with planning and preparations.    Note:   Don't let worry and stress build up, your really going to enjoy this outing and it will be easy, trust me  (heh, heh, heh)  Relaxing good times should be part of the  process that started when you made the X on the calendar. Remember, on this cruise there are no deadlines to meet, no times to beat, no "sorry no vacancy's" to worry about. You are on your own schedule to do as you please. What could be better besides a gourmet chef and staff.  Study the map with your crew, locate Friday Harbor, Jones Island, and Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham. Do some internet searches, read peoples reviews.
  4. Start compiling a list of supply's and provisions that you think you need. Click here for help with that list >>  Cruisers Packing List this list may be a little too much, so pick and choose.
  5. Start making a list of boat and trailer, must do's (like greasing the wheel bearings) I mention wheel bearings because there are a few "must do's" that will potentially ruin your plans, having a bearing go out from your neglect is avoidable, so are boat motor issues. We once went with an untested, worrisome diesel motor, and sure enough it quit, but because of suspected problems I had mounted an outboard bracket and brought my trusty 7.5 hp Honda along which not only saved the trip, but allowed us to extend it a few days.  Another time with a different boat I towed a dinghy which sole purpose was to carry a spare outboard just in case.   Another mistake not to make is inadequate packing for inclement weather, (hope for warm sunny days, but plan for cold windy rain).  Don't forget seasickness pills (Dramamine)  or other medication, one persons needs could ruin the trip. There must some other must do's that are particular to your family??? Spare tire for trailer! Hmm!
  6.  #5 was a downer, lets lighten up.  You need to bring an ice chest if your boat has none, maybe two, plan on ice lasting 3-4 days and then resupply time.  For a food menu, you should plan to eat well, especially if you have bad weather when hot food hits the spot and improves spirits. Sandwiches are easy to prepare and bring lots of trail mix and snacks.  You will need lots of water, don't plan on any being available once you shove off. We bring our water in 5 gallon jugs and pour it into smaller bottles
  7. You will need a propane cook stove and fuel bottles to last entire trip (propane is $7+ in the islands)
  8. Garbage:  I need to mention it now after suggesting you bring all the junk food.  Your little boat will quickly become overrun with trash, bring bags, the outside islands have no garbage service. Think about all that convenience food packaging material I just told you to bring.  Some of the packaging may be left at home. Prepare things in advance and freeze meals ready to go as they thaw (2-4 days in ice chest)
  9. Under boat equipment, the list is very subjective so lets just list a few must haves.  PFD's all around and all coastie required equipment (whistle, type 4, fire ext., registration, lights, etc) Plus I think you need a minimum of two anchors and extra rode, extra fuel if your tank is small.  Your boat should have a range of 75 miles. The rule is 1/3 outbound, 1/3 to get back, 1/3 for reserve. It could be 25 miles between fuel stops, so a 75 mile range gives a good cushion. Many boaters simply tie 5 gallon jugs on deck.  If your boat is open and it really rains hard, bring a tarp and ropes to lash it down. You may sleep on shore so a tent is needed. You need a hand bilge pump and a bucket (they look like a big suction tube and flex hose.
  10. Bring a GPS,  You can get by without one but they are fun and really are useful. Some phones have apps available. Bring your cell phone (they work good almost everywhere) Bring the map or chart nailed on the wall or better yet go buy a real navigation chart with depths and rocks all located.  Bring a compass (hand held is OK) Bring a vhf marine radio (you can buy a portable battery one for about $100.   
  11. The boats loaded your ready to go. Don't forget to tell someone where your going, and when to call for help if you don't check in as planned. That person could be a friend or relative that doesn't panic over  icky weather reports.  They should call the San Juan County Sheriff or Coast Guard if needed, or someone you have prearranged to call, 911 works too. Remember, your plans may change as the week progresses, but you can check in with a cell phone call most of the time.
Time to go 
The blue line indicates general route, red dots are overnight stops. 80 miles

Squalicum Harbor Marina - red dots = boat ramp, restaurant, showers, parking, guest docks
  1.   Day #1  Your destination is Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham. (not Anacortes) Squalicum has the best boat ramp around, and free long term parking for your trailer and tow rig. Cap Sante in Anacortes has a sling and pay to park.  You can arrive and take right off but I would plan to spend the first night at the guest dock or in your parked rig. Do not cast off unless you are sure you will have enough light to make it to your anchorage or marina. Navigating in the dark is risky business and requires more of you than you bargain for, and may easily become a really stressed vacation.  Its still daylight until around 9pm, so if you arrive around  6pm there is plenty of time to get the boat launched, go shopping, eat in a restaurant, hang out.  The marina has bathrooms, showers, lots and lots of parking.  If your the worrier on this trip and need to talk to people, you can call them during regular business hours.  The launch fee and guest dock payments are made at a self serve kiosk, you could arrive at midnight, its a 24 hour deal.  No stress, just show with your boat.
  2.   Day #2   In the morning, you can eat at the restaurant overlooking the marina next to the bathrooms, (the food is good and priced right) jump in the car and run to Walmart or just cast off at sun up. I like to walk around and talk to other boaters coffee cup in hand.
  3. Your destination is Echo Bay at Sucia Island, its about 20 miles so you will have plenty of time even if you hang around Squalacum until early afternoon.   If you get there a little earlier you will have time to hike and explore, or maybe first go to Fossil bay where you may get a spot at the dock.  Of course tying up to an anchor buoy or the dock requires a fee whereas                                                                                   anchoring is free.
  4. Sucia Island with Echo Bay and Fossil Bay marked with red dots
  5.   Day #3   On this day you may want to stick around Sucia for some exploring, fishing, or kayaking if it suits you. You could easily spend several days just hiking.  
  6. Lets up anchor at noon, our destination is Jones Island, a distance of only 12 miles.  On the way to Jones you may want or need to stop at West Beach resort/marina on Orcas.  West beach is right on the way and wont add much time or distance to this leg.  At West Beach you can get fuel, waffle ice cream cones, ice and groceries. West Beach is just past Point Doughty on Orcas (check your chart/map and find pt Doughty) Did you bring binoculars, they will be helpful in spotting some far off places across the water and West Beach is one of those places? Once again, like Sucia, if you get to Jones early you may get a space at the dock, but you can always snag a buoy or anchor for free. Jones is pretty small but about perfect, you can beach comb, explore, kayak or hike trails, circling the island in about an hour.
  7. Jones Island
    Jones Island
  8. Plan to stay a day or two at Jones it could easily be your favorite stop, it is mine.
  9.   Day #4   But it could be day 5 or 6 if your getting into the boat traveling thing.
  10. Once again there is no need to take off early, but by now you may have noticed that currents play a big roll in passage times, and fuel used. I check my current charts and then ignore them mostly, but at least I know what to expect. Leave Jones Island in your wake and set course for Friday Harbor, no need to rush, its only 5 miles and they never turn boaters away. You can make a reservation for a slip in advance but there really is no need and its nice to not have a rigid schedule.  You can also just stop by for a few hours for free and walk around town, buy souvenirs and provisions and then move on.  I recommend on your first trip that you spend the night at Friday Harbor, visit the Whale Museum, hang around town and waterfront goings on, eat at the many places, and above all by now you will be wanting a shower, which is available right on the docks.  When you arrive near the breakwater, you can call the Harbormaster on the radio or use your cell phone, or simply tie up at the outer dock, sometimes they have a little harbormaster shed office out on the end and you can talk across the water.  It's all very simple and low key, even after hours  when the security people will take care of you. One visit we rented a slip for two nights while we bicycled around San Juan Island.
  11. Friday harbor 
    Friday Harbor 
  12.   Day #5    Check out time is after lunch sometime so again, no rush. Set course for Rosario in East Sound on Orcas Island.  The distance is about 11 miles and you may end up with a modest current either for or against your plans, you may want to arrange your transit according to favorable currents.  See current guide info right here  >> Current Atlas  <<    Around Friday Harbor is a lot of boat traffic and you will see more than one ferry for sure, don't worry, just use your common sense.  On your way to Rosario you may want to take a little side trip over to Olga for a short stop over at the public dock, (Olga is also on Orcas just south of Rosario) when you get to Rosario you will be able rent a slip, hang on a buoy or anchor out. Rosario resort has some nice grounds, restaurants, provision store, fuel, and tours of the Mansion turned museum. Because you will probably have time to kill I would seriously consider showing up later in the day or making your visit a two hour stop over and then move on to another stop for the night.
  13. Rosario picture 
    Rosario (Mansion/Museum is in lower left, marina restaurant at top
  14. An alternate stop would be past Rosario at East Sound where they have a public dock.
  15. Another alternate stop just a little further, but heading more toward your car at Squalicum would be Pelican Beach on Cypress Island.  Pictorial  >> Pelican Beach pictorial  << Pelican Beach has about 4 or 5 buoys and we have always been able to squeeze in and anchor.  In a pinch you can run half a mile down to Eagle Harbor where they have 18 or so buoys. BTW Cypress is DNR land so everything is free (no buoy or camping fees) If your into hiking this is probably the best around. The beach is a favorite for kayakers from Bellingham and Anacortes, expect to enjoy good conversation around the many campfires lining the beach.
  16. Pelican Beach map here  
    Pelican Beach on northeast end of Cypress Island

  17.   Day #6   Today's destination is Squalicum Harbor and head for home. Its about 15 miles so it will take a some time.  By now you should have a pretty good idea of your boats ability to get around and deal with wind and currents. Bellingham Bay seems to go on forever, especially when the elements are lined up against you. 
  18. If you have time for a quick lunch stop on the way, you should really consider dropping hook in Inati Bay on Lummi Island
  19. Inati bay map 
    Inati Bay on southeast side of Lummi Island
  20.   Plan your departure from Cypress so you arrive back at Squalicum with time to load up and head for home, or I recommend you plan one more night on the boat at the visitor/guest docks at Squalicum Harbor.  This way you will be showered, fed and refreshed in the morning and have the whole day to load up and drive towards home. In my opinion driving home in the dark after a long last day of boating is no way to wind up a relaxing vacation.
That's it
  • I hope I was able to give you the incentive, motivation and pertinent information to get going on that first trip to the San Juan Islands.  My recommendations are by no means all that there is to see and do. Please do some research and modify my suggestions to suit your situation, for instance it is entirely possible to stay at resorts and eat in restaurants every night. The more budget minded may choose to anchor out everywhere.  (yes you can anchor next to the docks at Friday Harbor and then paddle over to their dinghy dock, no charge) You may also start and end at Cap Sante, La Conner, Deception Pass, or even start out far far south in Olympia like we did once.


Christmas has come and gone, so where is my new boat?

I actually had hopes that somehow, in some unbelievable fashion, I would get my long wanted pilothouse sailboat for a present. Maybe under the tree would be a little card in a plain manila envelope, and inside would be a photo of her at a dock somewhere. There would be a big red bow on the cabin roof or around the main boom. "Pop" goes the bubble of my dream world, Christmas has come and gone, and I'm still waiting for my new boat (new to me) to magically appear. If you see my new boat out there somewhere, please let me know, I really need to start outfitting her for next summer's cruises.
BTW my birthday is in April.

See my belated Christmas present >> New Bombay Pilothouse Project


Why go to Cypress Island? Just go somewhere else - Please

        I hesitate to write about Cypress Island, my impulse is to keep the secret.

     For some, Cypress Island is a destination. For others it's just a stop on the way to somewhere else.
For me, it's a dependable refuge that I return to again and again.

        This selection of images is from Pelican Beach on Cypress Island.  The beach is very dinghy friendly. Pelican Beach should be visited for one hour or overnight, or you are missing out on something truly special.

Find your own trail on Cypress

Please use this link for all the other parks and keep Cypress secret.


Using Current Charts Will Get You a Free Ride in the San Juan Islands - Riding the Current North in Burrows Bay

      Who ever said there's no free ride has never been to Burrows Bay. If you are a kayaker and your kayak paddle is  getting heavy, or your in a putt-a-putt puttster boat and need another knot of speed, you should know that the current pretty much  always flows north in Burrows Bay.
        Don't believe me, check your current atlas and find a day of the year or time of day that the current is forecast to flow south.

        Burrows Island and Allan Island are strategically located to create a whirlpool counter current within the bay, so along the shore is a dependable northward current at all times.

      What this means is that when you are cruising from Deception Pass north to Anacortes, or anywhere north, in Rosario Strait, it will pay you to come in close to the eastern shore and get a little boost. Of course if you're heading south you should stay out in Rosario Strait.
        Hugging the shore in Burrows Bay  will get you about 4 miles of free current to ride. Wouldn't it be great if all the channels and passages were this helpful, this back and forth tidal thing is nice, but doesn't always  keep to my schedule.


How Small of a Boat is Too Small, for the San Juan Islands?

Using common sense and smart practices, just about anything that floats has a time and place. Hobie 16's - 14's - inflatable kayaks, canoes and hundred foot palaces, all work for cruising and boat camping in the San Juan Islands.

If you look in the background of these three pictures, you see calm tranquil waters
While its true much of the summer you can expect these conditions, you should still be prepared for some nastiness.

Being prepared sometimes means simply changing your schedule so as to not get caught in the middle of Haro strait during a blow. Or worse, accepting your fate and being  forced to spend an extra night at Jones Island, or Rosario while the weather gods sort out the big plan.

If you travel light and are flexible, sensible and not too foolhardy just about any boat is suitable for travel in the San Juans.

We once passed a couple of young men paddling their becalmed  little 16' sloop part way between  San Juan Island and Stuart Island.  The current was helping them along at about 1 mph and they had six or more hours of daylight left. Later that afternoon we noticed they had tied to the dock a few boat lengths down from us, apparently none the worse. That night one slept on the dock and one in the boat.  The next morning they were comparing who had the most uncomfortable sleep. 

Sometimes we see groups in open long boats from local camps, they will come ashore to unload gear and then using an anchor and  long rope loop, pull their boat out to deep water for the night.

I have seen ski boats so overloaded with camping gear and people that they have no reserve buoyancy, essentially they are waiting for a rouge wave or wake to sink them. Small boat cruising is perfectly acceptable, but you still must follow basic boating seamanship and safety rules.

A sailing partner of mine in Portland wants to bring his Hobie 16 to the San Juans. My first thought was --your going to freeze to death-- but then I remembered he uses a wet suit.  He asked if I thought a 1 hp outboard could be rigged up for an auxiliary (about 25 lbs I think) I said why not, as long as you don't weigh yourself down with camping gear, all you need is 1 hp,  a gallon of extra fuel, wet suit, booties, gloves, hand held waterproof VHF radio, and a dry bag  (or two).
But if he flips the boat and needs help, he could be in trouble and all Hobie Cat sailors like to fly a hull.  I suggested he travel in company with other boats, so they could carry his camping gear and cruise nearby for emergency's, just in case.

We came across a family with a dog in a canoe halfway to Patos Island,  gutsy or foolish, maybe just ignorant, but they were a long way from land.

I have never seen a paddle-board being used to cruise, but I'm sure I will.


Seven important rules to be aware of when boating back and forth between the US and Canada

Dealing with customs;
      About the most important point I can make is that you should not let customs check-ins impact your plans.  Except for the obvious route planning details, its not a big deal. Some places in Canada you can check in after hours using a special phone on the dock.
You will need to check in with Canada customs when you enter Canada; you will need to check in with US customs when you come back to the US.  When you depart either country you don't do anything except leave.

     There are some rules that you or your crew may stumble over, and they apply going into both country's.

  1. When you enter Canada and come back to the US, you must not stop anywhere (no parks, gas docks, bathrooms, nothing) until you have checked in, even if it means traveling hundreds of miles out of your way.
  2. You may pass through without checking in if you don't stop anywhere.  This means you can sail over the international property line, circle around and come back, and no one cares. It also means you may sail all the way to Bellingham (skipping Roche) to check in, but you may not stop anywhere, (even to get fuel at Orcas) You may run all the way to Alaska, just don't stop without checking in.
  3. "Checking in" means to go to a port of entry where they have a customs facility and tell them.
  4. When you arrive at the red painted customs dock  everyone must stay on the boat, only one person goes to check in. (no, your crew may not run down to the bathroom until after you're checked in)
  5. Bring with you to check in; birth certificates, visas, passports, name of boat, names and ages of all on board, name and registration number of boat.
  6. They will ask you questions; where you live,where you been, where you going, purpose of visit, how long, etc.
  7. You can't stay at the red painted customs dock, after checking in you will need to move on, sometimes at Roche Harbor for instance the boats will be stacked up circling, waiting for a spot at the check-in dock.
That's it, real simple, fast, and very inconvenient if you now have to back track miles and miles to your favorite island, but that is why we plan our route.

Rules and requirements probably are changing as you read this, so you should probably make some phone calls or search online for new info.
  • Not checking in at all, may have severe consequences. In today's heightened alert, they take things seriously, but it is not difficult to check in.


First Time Trip to the San Juans Suggested Itinerary for a Nine Day Trip

San Juan Islands for First Timers

Suggested Itineraries for  San Juan Island boating trips

(Updated (2014) alternate itinerary with Echo Bay at Sucia Island as 1st stop)
click here  Sucia Trip Intinerary

(For a  shorter itinerary on your first cruise and with different island stopovers (click here) 

      This article is designed to get you going on that first boating/sailing trip to the San Juan Islands in Washington State.

Below is a snapshot map of your dreamed about vacation land (or water) 

The map above identifies many  (not all) common names and places

Take a moment to familiarize yourself with some locations you may have read about.

You may want to follow this link and take a quick look at the detailed marine parks list and then come back to the suggested itinerary below, "MARINE PARK LIST AND MAPS" click here 

You may skip all this and go right to the day by day itinerary >  just scroll and scroll until you see
day #1     but all you first mates and newbies should keep reading.

Boat launches: 

  • Cap Sante  ( Anacortes)                                                
  • Squalicum Harbor  ( Bellingham)
  • Cornet Bay  ( Deception Pass Sate Park)
  • there are others (search this site for "ramps") but these three are really the only ones to consider.

Resorts and Marinas:

  • Roche Harbor  (San Juan Island
  • Deer Harbor   (Orcas Island)
  • Rosario    (Orcas Island)
  • Friday Harbor  (San Juan Island)
  • Of course there are more (search "resorts"

The following text and pictures briefly outline:

  • basic information
  • where to launch
  • parks to visit
  • suggested itineraries
  • Swinomish Channel and Deception Pass

Let's start with a few fun observations

Water levels fluctuate. (tides)

       The San Juan's have high and low tides every day, some very high, some very low. This means you will need to be prepared to deal with going ashore at locations lacking floats.  The easiest solution is to bring a dinghy; if you don't have a dinghy I suggest you buy a cheap inflatable boat or 2 person kayak for around $75.  Once in the San Juan's most people simply tow the dinghy everywhere they go, or deflate and stow it away. Those of you going in a ski boat or skiff may be thinking you can beach your boat, which will work, but only for a few minutes. On a falling tide in ten minutes your boat may be high and dry, unless you can carry it, you're stuck until the tide comes back up. On a rising tide your boat will float away while your on shore.  Since you're going to anchor in six feet of water at low tide you will need one hundred feet or more of anchor rode to accommodate a ten foot plus increase at high tide. Smart boaters bring two anchors and rode and very few beach their boats intentionally.


       San Juan currents are notorious, and the root of many stories. For fast planing boats you can pretty much ignore adverse current; however slower boats live and die by planning passages to get an assist from the current. A typical sailboat may putt along at 4.5 mph, against a 2.5 mph current their real speed over ground is 2mph.  Going with the same current their sog is 7 mph.  So a ten mile passage takes 5 hours the dumb way or 1 hour 25 minutes the smart way. There are many prediction and forecast books and charts available and online. (search this site for current chart)  While you don't need a publication, I recommend that you buy something and keep it with you. I would also go online and print out a tide schedule for the time and area you expect to cruise.

In a nutshell: 
       Here's a simple rule of thumb to follow.  On a incoming or rising tide, the water in most straits and passes flows "north" while during a falling tide the water reverses and flows "south." (in Puget Sound it's the opposite) When the current hits an island straight on, the water will split and flow around the island usually at a slightly higher speed creating eddies at headlands and the tips of the island.

Weather could be fog:

     You can get lost in the dark, in the fog, or just plain lost on a sunny day.  You need to bring with you a chart, (your smartphone app is not a paper chart) and you would be smart to protect it from getting wet or torn up. I sandwich mine between two clear acrylic sheets held together with velcro.

Some will say the chart needs to be new and of the highest resolution, which may be true for ship captains and other navigators.  What were talking about here is not getting lost, even a google print out may do the trick.  If you are going to boat in the fog you must have a compass, and  GPS, a portable handheld GPS will do fine and some new phones may do the trick too. (in thick fog you will go in circles and be totally disoriented without a compass - true!) 
To hammer home this point: boating in thick fog requires a compass and a gps, one or the other is not enough, you must have both.
 Many times in the San Juan's visibility may be down to 3 or 4 miles and you think you can sneak across some open water to the next island, and you probably can, but if the fog thickens to pea soup you will be glad you have your compass and GPS.  BTW, fast boats can't always go fast when waves and swells stack up. And only very dumb skippers go fast when they can't see.

Wind or lack of wind:

      Okay, here's some bad news for sailors.  The San Juan Islands are not known for great sailing winds in July and August. Out in the straits (Haro, Rosario, Georgia, Juan De Fuca) you may get some decent sailing, but inside the islands, don't bet on it.

Crowd control:
      Most likely you wont have any problems with crowds except on the 4th of July and Labor Day.  The good side is that you will always find a place to anchor, even on holidays, the dinghy ride may just be a little longer for some.  Most marinas take reservations and you may as well take them up on it, but you don't need to.   I suggest you slow down a little and enjoy the freedom of not planning ahead, take one day at a time and see where you go.  Lastly, because this area is so close to Bellingham and Anacortes many boaters are day boaters.  At the end of the day they head for home, leaving some resorts and parks half empty, especially on weekend Sunday nights. Monday or Tuesday are good days to begin your outing if you want to be alone.
Roche Harbor 4th of July balloon contest for kids in dinghys

yes, there was room for more, lots more

DNR buoys are free (Cypress Island) State Park buoys are $10, many park floats are 50 cents a foot,  Marinas charge between 75 cents and $2 a foot. (2010 prices - expect modest increases) Gasoline is a little more expensive than on land, but not much more.  Food, groceries, ice are just a little more than the mainland but very fair priced overall.

How many days to plan:
Plan a minimum of four days, but up to two weeks depending on what you like to do. (I like to sit on the dock at Jones Island and read my book between naps and walks, then I make a campfire in a empty tent site and cook Kielbasa followed by a glass of wine. Then retire to my boat for a good nights sleep.  The next day, do it again)

Salt Water:
Salt water drys sticky and does not suds up well with soap, you will get it all over you and your boat, count on it.  After a week you will look forward to a shower.  Your boat will be covered with salt crystals.  Most marinas have little water and don't want you washing your boat.
Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham has boat and trailer fresh water wash-down hoses in the parking lot.  You should use them each time you dunk your trailer.

For the most part you will want to provision before you leave on the boat.  Anacortes and Bellingham have all the big stores and each has a West Marine store.  All the resorts and towns have grocery stores, if you drive a fast boat, supply's may be only minutes away, putt putt's should work a store visit into your circuit.  I say circuit because most cruisers will follow a circle of some sort trying to hit many stops.  We find that ice needs renewing after four days, so a stop over at Friday Harbor, Deer Harbor, Roche Harbor, Blakely's, or Orcas landing fits the bill.  All these places  except Orcas, have gas and showers. Showers will cost a handful of quarters so be quick or be poor. Cold showers are free.

All the parks are pack it in and pack it out, the marinas have dumpsters.  If you are new to boat camping you will find garbage to be a pain because you are not used to storing everything in your boat.  Little things like empty water bottles suddenly take space you don't have.  You must give careful thought to what your bringing, and the garbage it will generate.  We don't use disposable bottles, minimize pop consumption, and try to have campfires to burn burnable trash.  It is against the law to toss anything, (even a apple core) in the water.

Your dogs must be on a leash, period, everywhere.  Raccoon's are on all islands and will climb right into your boat or kayak in the daytime if you let them.  Deer are all over too, but they shy away, except on Jones Island where you can hand feed them.
Otters live under most floats and docks, they will crawl all over your boat, get into things and make a mess.  Otters will mark their territory by pooing on your stuff, coiled dock lines are a favorite and not very cute.

All the parks have nice composting toilets, (each island mentioned for overnight is a park) the rangers service all parks on a regular basis.  You will be pleasantly surprised at how clean the facilities are.

   Where to launch   

Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham is probably the best of all places. At Squalicum you will find a four lane all tide all hours ramp with floats. There is a freshwater wash down area, truck and trailer parking is free for long term or short term stays. The guest docks are 75 cents a foot

Cap Sante in Anacortes has a sling hoist and a travel lift for bigger boats. They can step your mast for a fee.  You probably should book your launching in advance and then be prepared for delays. Check for hours of operation, parking fees are charged for trailers. 

Washington Park is a city park in Anacortes, the ramp is exposed to the strait, has a float and sometimes is covered with sand.  Parking is limited and signs warn you to make sure you have a space before launching. On weekends they fill up.  They also have a campground onsite which may work into some people's plans. (if you have a fast boat, camp at Washington Park and make day trips to the islands coming back each night)

Cornet Bay at Deception Pass State Park, the ramp is four lanes with floats and lots of pay parking.  The dock adjacent to the ramp has plenty of room to overnight, on shore are some so so bathrooms and quarter pay showers. Parking is $10 each 24 hours.

Ramps are in most cities, but are further away, you might consider, Twin Bridges (ick), Oak Harbor, or La Conner.
Even if your boat is fast, do not consider Port Angeles, or Port Townsend or any launches across the Strait of Juan De Fuca because weather and sea conditions may ruin your vacation.  Leave crossing Juan De Fuca for another trip.

    Parks, Parks, Parks   

This a partial list of lesser known islands and parks I judged to be of value and worth a visit when cruising, resorts are not included:

James Island, Jones Island, Sucia, Matia, Patos, Stuart, Cypress, Saddlebag, Obstruction Pass, Spencer Spit, Odlin County Park, Doe Island (closed), Deception Pass.

     Suggested 80 mile Itinerary  (5+ days) starts right here.  

   Lets start this cruise in Bellingham at Squalicum Harbor   

   Day #  1   You arrive late in day and launch boat, (don't forget to hose down the trailer) then secure a space at the overnight dock and pay at the self pay kiosk. Bathrooms, showers, restaurants are all on site for you to use, now park the trailer and drive into town (ten minutes) and shop for all those last minute provisions. (Costco, Walmart, Fred Meyer,. etc.) Eat dinner out or come back to boat for a Barbecue, and your first night on board.  It is ill advised to cast off late in the day or at dusk.  NAVIGATING IN THE DARK IS NO VACATION FOR NEWBIES!

Day # 2  Cast off for Cypress Island, leave early or late it doesn't matter, (you're now on Island time) Bellingham Bay should be good sailing, make your way to Inati Bay for a quick look, or anchor for lunch. Head for Pelican Beach on Cypress Island, grab a free buoy or anchor, there's no docks on Cypress.  If for some reason you can't stay at Pelican Beach, no problem just motor south about one half mile and tie up at Eagle Harbor where you will find 16 more free buoys and lots of anchor room. Pelican Beach has a steep gravel (90% skipping stones) beach suitable for dinghy's at all tides. On shore are camp sites, campfire rings and bathrooms. If you have some daylight, take a quick hike on the Islands trail system.

Day # 3  You may cast off for Matia but I suggest you stay put and hike up to Eagle Cliff, on your way back detour to Smugglers cove on the Rosario Strait side of Cypress (don't forget your camera, it will be worth it) If you want to spend another day hiking you can hike the ten miles or so to Cypress lake and the old airstrip. Back at the boat, relax, but be sure to go ashore and mingle with the kayakers, wrap up the day with a sunset campfire with s'mores and drinks.

Day # 4  Rise and shine, say goodbye to Pelican Beach and head for Matia Island. The current may be against you, if you have a puttster boat you should wait for the tide change, then get a free ride all the way, remember your on Island time now.  On your way to Matia, swing into either side of Clark Island for a quick dinghy ride to shore and lunch stop.  Clark has anchor buoys and a  campsite on shore, but doesn't get much use probably because it's not that cool of a place and has no trail system).
When you get to Matia, run straight to the cove on the far west end and hopefully get a spot at the little four boat dock, there are a couple anchor buoys and room for a few anchors to be dropped.  If for some reason you can't stay at Matia, that's OK, simply move on to Sucia. Sucia is only an hour further and has unlimited room.  Matia is a little gem and should not be missed, there is a cove on the east end where you can anchor if the west end cove is full.  On shore are the standard state park composting toilets and a great trail taking you through a rain forest setting.           Unfortunately campfires are not allowed and pets may not use the Matia trails.  However -- If foul weather, fog, high seas, or beach combing keep me in port, Matia is where I want to be.  It is easy to spend quality, quiet, leisure time.

Day #5  Pry yourself away from Matia and set course for  close by Echo Bay or Fossil Bay on Sucia Island.  Sucia has many, many bays where you can find good anchoring plus a host of buoys and linear tie ups. (Fossil Bay has two docks)  It is easy to spend several days exploring the trail system on Sucia.  You can spend some more days exploring by dinghy.  For many, Sucia is the ultimate destination, and boat clubs routinely have gatherings. (rendezvous)

Day # 6 (or day # 12 if you've been taking my suggestions) check your tide table and up anchor when a favorable current will assist you, then set course for Jones Island, home of the famous tame pygmy deer you can pet, feeding them is frowned upon. On the way to Jones cut over to West Beach Resort on Orcas Island.  Tie up at the dock and enjoy a waffle ice cream cone from the small store.  You can also pick up ice, groceries and gas.  At Jones Island sail straight into the north cove and grab a spot at the dock, the dock holds six to ten boats depending on size, if no dock space, there are half a dozen buoys and plenty of anchor room. Jones is a favorite spot for day visitors and kayaker's from Deer Harbor, expect boats to come and go, be ready to move to the dock should a space open up.  The cove at Jones is very protected and is a great place to weather a storm.  Hiking and tide pooling are awesome.  On shore are lots of campsites, running water, and a great shoreline trail. Deer wander around and may be approached. ( they say,"don't feed the animals, they will come to expect it, then starve when you leave," (phooey) these deer have got it great) There are apple trees, help yourself.

Day # 7  It is hard to leave a place you enjoy, and most likely will have met some new friends too. Jones is a place you will come back to again and again, but for now, cast off to the fair winds, leave Jones Island and set sail for Deer Harbor.  Its just a short run to Deer Harbor on Orcas Island, you can skip this stop, but should you need anything, the on the water resorts store and deli has what you want including overnight slips, gas, etc. You can also skip the next stop at Orcas landing, but it is right on the way, the docking is easy, so why not stop for a few minutes.  A few feet up the plank at Orcas, you will find a gift shop, restaurant, a park for lunch, public bathrooms with running water, wahoo. The ferry lands here and is a good place to watch them coming and going.  Now get going for James Island our next overnight-er is still a long way to motor.  You probably will have some adverse currents that can't be avoided since leaving Jones, the good news is that the currents are less on the inside than they were out in the straits.  At this point in the trip you could detour and stay at Friday Harbor or Rosario, or skip James and head straight for Bellingham to end your cruise.  If big city life at Friday Harbor doesn't beckon you, go to James for your last night in the San Juans.  At James is a small four boat dock and a cove to anchor. The cove on the Rosario Strait side has some buoys. James has a shoreline trail plus two summits you can hike. On shore are bathrooms, campsites with fire pits.  Otters and raccoons are a real nuisance on James, they will leave muddy footprints all over your boat, make sure your cooler is latched or tied shut. From James you may spot orcas in Rosario Strait.

Day # 8 Study your tides and currents, time your departure properly and you may get a free ride all the way to Squalicum Harbor.  With a little luck the wind in Rosario Strait and Bellingham Bay will team up for a fast broad reach all the way to the guest dock.  When you arrive back at Squalicum late in the day, plan on spending your last night on board but take a long hot shower ashore.  The boat basin never closes and they have three or more areas for transient boaters with self pay kiosks. As a last resort you can always go get your trailer and sleep aboard in the parking lot. (they don't officially allow sleeping in parking lot)

The official transient boater policy at both Friday Harbor and Squalicum Harbor is that they never turn boaters away, they will always find room.  If you arrive after office hours (about 5-6pm) contact security for guidance.

Day # 9  Load up and drive for home, while driving make plans for your next trip to the San Juans, you're no longer a first timer.

      Swinomish Channel and Deception Pass       
        Oh boy, here's a love hate relationship for sure, although I think most would swing towards love after some wild (fun for some) experiences.
Scroll back up to the map at the very top and familiarize yourself with Deception Pass and Swinomish channel.  When heading north Deception Pass provides quick access to Juan De Fuca Strait and the San Juans, but along with that you get big open water to cross, the potential for heavy seas and nasty pea soup fog. Plus the pass itself may be impassable to slow boats if the current is against you.  Many years ago, along comes the Corp of Army Engineers, and cuts a channel through to Padilla Bay creating Swinomish Channel  and a neat bypass route to avoid the aforementioned nastiness.

    Some people coming from Seattle or even Olympia will travel the other side of Whidbey Island, past Port Townsend and out into the Strait of Juan De Fuca on their way north. That is just fine, but they deal with commercial traffic, heavier seas, and could run smack into a wall of fog with no way around. Deception Pass is subject to two high tides, two low tides every day and the resulting currents that accompany tide changes.  Because some tidal changes are huge and some not so huge, the pass will see fast and not so fast currents (0-9 mph) along with standing waves that are less big at times, and then much much bigger (1ft and up+++)

       Don't be scared away, the scenery is spectacular and well worth your visit, just consult your tide tables and arrange to go through near low or high tide (slack water) the water will be still, flat, calm, and glossy smooth as silk.  Fog is another thing and does not respect tides or your schedule, remember your on island time, your schedule is, and should be subject to change.  Many times the fog will hover at the pass and outside all the way to the islands, while inside is sunny, sometimes for days. Transiting the pass is a five minute 1,000 foot ride, but if you miss your time slot you may have a 4+ hour wait. Waiting it out at Cornet Bay (Deception Pass State Park) is not a bad thing, our son once talked us into staying there two extra days. (it's an easy place to hang around)

      Okay, now about Swinomish channel, it's about 11 miles long and supposed to be dredged to a 12 foot  channel depth.  The south entrance is only 5 or 6 miles from Deception Pass, so when heading north or launching at Cornet Bay, it is easy to make a final decision of which way to go after you arrive in area.  If your destination is the Bellingham Bay area or Anacortes, the channel may be your first/best choice, and visiting La Conner  along the way is a major plus anyway. (you can overnight, get gas and provisions at La Conner) I personally like using the channel because it is dependable.  Rosario Strait is like a crazy relative  throwing fits once in awhile, making you wish you were somewhere else.

       Lets not forget the current in Swinomish Channel, if your driving a puttster, the current may take half your speed away, or double your sog (speed over ground). Locals joking, have told me that the current flows northward for 23 hours and south for only 1 hr, and no one knows when that hour is.  My experience has been that the current seems to be against me both ways, but after stopping in La Conner for ice cream, I don't care.

    That's it, I have tried to give you some basic answers to help get you going.  If some little thing is holding you back and you need an answer, you may e-mail me or -  post a comment so others may benefit.