Before I even boarded the vessel at Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham the captain explained the rules: “There’s only one captain of this boat. I’m the captain, you’re the crew. You listen to me.” The captain, it bears mentioning, the fearless skipper of the 42-foot Tayana sailboat bound for the San Juan Islands, was my father. His crew: me, my mom, and my fiancé.
We were just hours away from that archipelago of 428 islands—743 during low tide when islets and reefs are exposed. The San Juans offer pristine spots to drop anchor and drop off the grid at every bend. Despite the chilly, overcast weather, spring is one of the best times to visit. The droves of tourists have yet to arrive, demand for marina slips (essentially boat parking spots) is lower, and charter schedules are more flexible. For those lacking in either a vessel or an experienced captain, boat rental companies in Friday Harbor such as ABC Yacht Charters or Bellingham’s Bellhaven Yacht Sales and Charters can fill in the gap. To charter a sailboat would-be captains submit a résumé detailing their boating experience and navigation training when reserving a vessel. The companies can also provide you with a captain—or you can complete a three-day captain-training course prior to departure.
Another reason why spring is a perfect time to go: The rental companies allow you to depart any day of the week and, as opposed to the peak-season full-week minimum, only require that you rent for three nights—plenty of time for a quick trip around Orcas Island and an overnight visit to a lesser-known island. Our itinerary included Sucia Island, a 564-acre state park located north of Orcas, and Deer Harbor and Rosario Resort on Orcas Island. But barely out of the Bellingham harbor, Captain Steakley was already frantically barking orders. The dinghy, which is towed behind the sailboat, had broken free and was riding the waves toward shallow water. It was a tense moment—made all the more hectic by stares from the Coast Guard officers nearby. Captain Steakley practically went Ahab on us, ordering me and the other crewmates to lie on our stomachs on the deck to capture the wayward craft with boat hooks and haul it on board.
Later that evening, having finally made the 25-mile crossing without further incident, we anchored at Sucia Island’s Echo Bay, where we gazed at Mount Baker, engulfed in pastel pink light, and laughed about the mishap over a bottle of wine. We watched the sun slip behind the forested island and toasted Njord, the Scandinavian deity of seamanship, and asked that the remainder of the trip be smooth sailing.
Marinas provide all the comforts of home—laundry facilities, full-size showers, power, fuel, and Wi-Fi—and make the experience less like camping on the water. But marina culture can be a curious thing. Other boaters watch every move to gauge the crew’s boating competency. Safely parking in a slip, neatly arranging the boat lines in figure eights or swirl designs, and immediately washing and tidying up the vessel wins your crew credibility and respect. Poor marina etiquette makes you the target for snickering. Another thing you’re obligated to do, especially if you’ve got Captain Steakley at the helm, is make friends around the marina by walking the docks, complimenting boats, and asking captains about their ships.