Sailing in the San Juans

By Robert & Paula Clawson

In summer, we head north to enjoy the temperate climate of the Pacific Northwest. And one of our favorite activities is to charter and sail in the San Juan Islands and up into Canada. For those who haven’t experienced the San Juans, they are an archipelago at the Eastern end of the Strait of Juan De Fuca, a series of islands that separate the Puget Sound from the Strait of Georgia in Canada. They are protected from the Pacific Ocean swells by Vancouver Island, as well as from storms. In other words, a boating paradise.

We take 2 to 3 trips, ranging from a week to several weeks, into these waters each summer. We charter primarily with San Juan Sailing in Bellingham, Washington. They have a large fleet of boats, both sail and power, ranging from 34 to 50 feet; they are extremely well cared for and supported with a level of service that can’t be beat. We’ve chartered with several companies (Sunsail and many smaller ones) in the Pacific Northwest and abroad, and we’ve not found anyone who comes up to their level.

We also like to have old and new friends join us on these trips. It’s a great way to get to know each other and to share one of our favorite places doing one of our favorite activities. So far this year, we’ve made two trips, one week in July and one in August. Both were in the San Juans, one with a new friend and one with just the two of us (as we planned it very last minute).

L-R: Paula Clawson, Donna Benson, Robert Clawson

On our first trip, Donna Benson, a new friend and longtime member of the AYC, joined us. She flew into Bellingham and we picked her up and brought her to our “Northwest Basecamp” in Blaine, right on the Canadian border. We spent a day provisioning and making a general float plan. And then it was off to Bellingham (a short 20-minute drive) to get introduced to our boat, Marie Katherine, a 2022 Beneteau 40.1. We checked her out (she’s a beauty), got our briefing, loaded our stuff and bedded down for the night.

The next day we headed out for a week amid the San Juans. We sailed every day in 5 to 15-knot breezes, which, combined with 50-degree water, makes for the need to layer up. Wildlife surrounded us: seals, bald eagles, and more sea birds than we could count. This trip we weren’t blessed with any Orca sightings (but there’s always next time). At the end of the sailing day, we shed layers and enjoyed sightseeing and lounging at anchor in bays and harbors throughout the islands. For dinners, we all chipped in and put together pretty impressive meals, which Donna sent pictures to all her friends. 

Eating well on Marie Katherine!

We quickly made plans to get out there again after having such a great time on this trip, so Paula and I chartered Tivoli, a 2011 Jeanneau 409, in early August. During this weeklong voyage, we sailed daily in 5 to 20-knot breezes, with only slightly warmer water, so back to the layers. We went to different places, some new and some familiar.

One simple change we made, which goes down as a marriage-saver, is the addition of a pair of headsets to use while sailing, anchoring, and docking. One of us is hard of hearing, and we’ve never been able to make hand signals work, so the headsets made communications simple and possible at separate ends of the boat, especially when the wind is blowing. We got some funny looks, but who cares if the level of tension is measurably lower.

A typical bay in the San Juans, serene and uncrowded!

So, how is cruising in the Pacific Northwest different than elsewhere? A lot of it boils down to currents, tides, and variety. The water flowing from the Pacific, through the San Juans, and into the Strait of Georgia is considerable, in and out twice a day. As a result, knowing how it’s flowing, especially in the narrow spots, is essential to planning your route. While local knowledge is good, books and apps can give you what you need to do your planning. The same with tides, which range from 6 to 10 feet, so you need to consider them primarily when anchoring. And while land’s always in sight, routes involve turns and wind direction changes. Using charts, chartplotters, and/or apps like Navionics, are a must. We find it a very enjoyable and rewarding way to cruise.

So what’s next? In mid-September, we’re off again on Spiritus, a 2023 Jeanneau 440, for 17 days. We plan to get into Canada and head North into the Gulf Islands and wherever the wind takes us. We’re still looking for folks to join us for all or part of the trip, but that’s a subject for another article.

We invite you to come join us in the PNW! Contact Robert if you are interested.

Relaxing in Pleasant Bay.