Island Bound

See the secret side of the San Juans by sailboat.

By Lia Steakley Dicker January 4, 2009 Published in the April 2008 issue of Seattle Met

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.

The next morning we set sail for Orcas. “The Gem of the San Juans” is the largest island in the archipelago and considered the most scenic because of its horseshoe shape and hilly terrain. The name doesn’t pay homage to the 90 whales living in the area, but rather to an eighteenth-century Mexican viceroy and explorer by the name of Don Juan Vicente de Guemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, Segundo Conde de Revillagigedo. Fortunately the viceroy went by the decidedly shorter handle of “Orcas.”

Nearly cut in half by the Eastsound Channel, the island features two villages, Eastsound and Orcas Landing, and Moran State Park, a hiker’s paradise with a 5,252-acre forest and the 2,409-foot Mount Constitution. Marching around the island we spotted bald eagles and (another perk of visiting in spring) fields of bright wildflowers such as fuchsia shooting stars, foxgloves with delicate bell-shaped pink petals, and fairy slipper orchids with magenta petals that fan out from atop an elongated petal with reddish-brown spots. The Orcas Island Shuttle runs between the villages and major hotels, including Deer Harbor Inn and Rosario Resort and Spa, which both have marinas.

Speaking of Rosario, the largest resort on Orcas Island, we thanked Njord for its very existence. The historic mansion-turned—hotel (once the home of two-time Seattle mayor Robert Moran) grants marina guests access to the pools and hot tub, a godsend for relieving sore sailing muscles. We also took advantage of the afternoon shuttle to Eastsound Village for a lunch of pan-seared halibut sandwiches and thin-crust pizza at Roses Bakery Café. At night we hit the Inn at Ship Bay restaurant, where we devoured -pancetta-wrapped figs and scallops with citrus risotto, sweet herb salad, and lemon aioli.

But it was from our post at Deer Harbor a day earlier that some of the real treasures of the San Juans were revealed. We spent a full day zooming around the San Juan Channel and exploring the coves of Shaw Island. We anchored near Hoffman Cove and took the dinghy to University of Washington’s Cedar Rock Biological Preserve, dominated by Pacific madronas and Douglas fir. Farther east we ducked into Indian Cove for one of the most secluded beaches in the island chain, South Beach County Park. We only spotted a few other boats throughout the day, so it felt like we had left civilization for good.

Later, after chores and shooting the breeze with other seafaring visitors on the docks of Deer Harbor, we took the dinghy to nearby Yellow and Crane islands and got an eyeful of the private homes tucked away in the trees. The sight of those houses reminded us of our own homes, our own beds. Our rowing and sailing muscles ached. On the way back to the docks and the sailboat that would take us home, a friendly harbor seal surfaced next to the dinghy. It stared at us curiously and swam alongside the boat a few lengths.