Christmas in the San Juan Islands


We always spent Christmas afloat, usually in Canadian waters. Some years we've travelled to the Sunshine Coast, Desolation Sound, or the Broughtons. This year we stayed closer to home, in the San Juan Islands. Winter storms--and we had many this trip--definitely are the downside of winter boating. The upside is that we have all the best anchorages to ourselves. While its not fun to be out in the storms, we really enjoy being safe at anchor while a storm rolls through, especially if we have a view out to the wind and waves.

For our winter boating tips and techniques see
"Winter Cruising", (Pacific Yachting, January 2006) and "Christmas Afloat", Pacific Yachting, December 2004). And for general boating tips and techniques, along with many wonderful, little-known anchorages, see our Waggoner cruising guide, Cruising the Secret Coast.

Mats Mats Bay was our first stop on the trip. It's a lovely, quiet, and sheltered anchorage, but the shallow, narrow and twisting entrance is difficult enough to warrant range markers. We arrived just past dusk with a low tide, making for an exciting entry. (Trip map.)
Leaving the next morning, we saw a Coast Guard cutter with its lights flashing. The cutter was the rear escort for a submarine that was heading towards Naval Base Kitsap at Bangor along the Hood Canal. The sub had two Navy escorts close on each side and another Coast Guard cutter in front. (The sky really was that color--we didn't edit the picture.) Before 9/11, we frequently saw subs running without an escort. Now they always have several boats with them.
  We took the Port Townsend Canal towards Port Townsend past Naval Magazine Indian Island where two large Navy boats were docked. The crane at the ammunition pier there is the Department of Defense's largest. (Trip map.)
  Conditions in the Strait of Juan de Fuca were reasonably calm, but a southeast storm was forecast. When we reached Smith Island, the wind had started to pick up and was blowing waves across the spit to Minor Island. The resident eagles were not about. (Trip map.)
  We anchored for the night in Watmough Bay on the southeast side of Lopez Island, thinking it would have good southeast protection. It didn't. The winds were still howling, but we weighed anchor at first light the next morning for calmer waters. Rosario Strait was a mess. The waves were about as big as we'd want to take on: 8-10 feet and tightly packed. Waves never look as big in a picture, but this is the view in slightly calmer conditions as we approached Lopez Pass. (Trip map.)
  We'd anchored in Mud Bay before during southeast storms, and knew it had good protection, so stopped there for the night. It was nice to be in calm, protected waters after the beating we'd taken, although we were barely a mile from Watmough Bay. The weather settled down later that day and we even got some clear skis and sun. This is the view looking north, with Orcas Island in the distance. 
  Another storm was coming up as we left the next morning for Fisherman Bay. This tugboat was anchored south of Spencer Spit with a flat boom pulled close.  Perhaps the captain was waiting for calmer conditions or more favorable tides. (Trip map.)
  At Fisherman Bay we anchored off the Galley restaurant and took the dinghy ashore for lunch and to watch the Seahawks game. The restaurant has a nice new dinghy dock, providing easy shore access. The forecast storm blew through that night from the southeast, swinging and bouncing us around a bit. But nothing like Watmough Bay. Conditions were calm and clear again the next morning after the storm had passed. This is looking northwest towards Friday Harbor over the spit at the entrance to Fisherman Bay as we left.
  We refueled in Friday Harbor and headed to the outer islands. Fossil Bay in Sucia Island Marine State Park was predictably empty. The only surprise was that a park dock was still in place. Most are removed in the winter to prevent storm damage. This one likely is kept in place for the caretaker that lives ashore. (Trip map.)

The sun was shining and, out of the wind, the temperature was reasonable with a couple of layers on. We carried a picnic lunch ashore, hoping to find a sheltered table, and lucked out. A beautiful, new cedar picnic shelter stood a short distance from the dock. We ate our lunch inside, with views into Fossil Bay through the windows.

We had considered overnighting on the dock at Fossil Bay until we checked the tide: Dirona was in 13 feet on an 8-foot tide, and the tide height would go negative 3 feet overnight. So we moved around to Echo Bay and anchored there instead. The complex sandstone cliffs along South Finger Island glowed in the late afternoon sun. (Trip map.)
        Conditions were calm when we arrived at Echo Bay, but overnight we recorded frequent gusts to 30 and big waves rolled into our anchorage, tossing the boat and keeping us awake. Another big storm was forecast (70-90km winds were expected in Victoria).
We've not found any sheltered anchorage on Sucia in southeast winds (waves even wrap around into Shallow Bay along the north shore), so we left early for Rolfe Cove on Matia Island (Trip map.) Rolfe Cove is a great place to ride out a southerly storms, as it has good southerly protection and we can see the action in the Strait of Georgia from the anchorage. The barometer fell 6.8mb in three hours that morning, a good indication that a storm was imminent. Safe and snug, we had our traditional on-board Christmas dinner and relaxed while the storm blew outside.
We had a day or two forecast weather reprieve, and decided to stop at Patos Island before heading back into the main islands. The small bay there, Active Cove, has two mooring buoys and reasonable southeast protection. (Trip map.)
        This is the view from Active Cove looking northwest towards Vancouver Island. The anchorage is popular in the summer--it was wonderful to have it all to ourselves. Besides the view, we enjoy watching big ships go by through Boundary Pass. (The ship isn't as close as it looks.)
The weather was ideal for a winter hike. We followed well-maintained trails to the lighthouse at Alden Point. The lighthouse once was manned, with a dock at Active Cove and several buildings at Alden Point. Most of the buildings have been removed and the dock has nearly deteriorated. Except for the main lighthouse building, concrete sidewalks lead to empty plots, with perhaps a bit of foundation visible through the grass.
A rougher trail circles the island, with great views along the way. This is looking southeast into the Strait of Georgia, with the eastern tip of Patos Island visible in the distance. The winds were mostly calm now, but on the way to the lighthouse we saw much evidence of the fierceness of recent storms, including trees snapped off at their base and debris all over.

At first light the next morning we set off for Prevost Harbor on Stuart Island. A gale warning was in place for the San Juan Islands and the pressure slope was beginning to rise. We wanted to get to Prevost before it got nasty, and fortunately we did. We normally prefer the privacy of anchoring out, but the park dock at Prevost Harbor was empty and we didn't expect company with the storm--winds were steadily blowing 30 knots. Wind patterns are visible in the water to the right (south) of the dock in this picture. (Trip map.)

We went ashore for a quick walk to check out Reid Harbor. It was equally deserted, but looked much more exposed than Prevost.
We couldn't resist making the 2.5-mile walk from Reid Harbor out to Turn Point, both to check out the lighthouse and the weather conditions. The waters off Turn Point weren't too bad, but Haro Strait looked rough. A small boat was making its way across--we were glad not to be out there. (Trip map.)
We stayed in Friday Harbor for the next two nights, the first night at anchor, and the second on the dock. We'd come into town to watch the Seahawks game. James' father Rob came over from Victoria to watch with us and spend the night aboard in the marina. (Trip map.)
        Some big boats were starting to arrive in town for New Year's Eve. Sometimes our boat feels big and sometimes it feels small. With the 130' Infinity docked behind us, that definitely was a small-feeling day.
When we left Friday Harbor, winds were predicted to blow NW 10-20, then SE 10-20. That made choosing an anchorage difficult, as most had some exposure to either direction. We decided to try Blind Bay on Shaw Island. Another pleasure craft, the first we'd overnighted with the entire trip save Friday Harbor, was along the west shore. We tucked in farther to the south and had great protection. The following morning was cold and clear, with sea fog drifting across the water as the sun lit the clouds behind. (Trip map.)
After a night at Spencer Spit, we crossed Rosario Stait over to Anacortes. (Trip map.) The forecast was for SE 15-25 winds that afternoon then 20-30 that night. It was already blowing 20-ish from the south when we left Spencer Spit, and we expected Rosario Strait to be rough, but it was not a big deal at all. Conditions were much worse—steeper waves—near Anacortes. The Washington State ferry Hyak was in drydock there for scheduled maintenance, but had drive motor problems on its first run after returning to service.
Two tankers, the Prince William Sound and the Seabulk Pride, were anchored around the corner in Padilla Bay off the Shell Puget Sound Refinery. We enjoy watching the big tractor tugs work these tankers onto the refinery dock, and were hoping that one might dock, but it didn't appear that anything was going to happen soon.

We'd not stayed at Pleasant Harbor in Chuckanut Bay before, so we decided to give it a try as it appeared to have good southeast wind protection. Conditions along the way were fairly rough for inside waters—especially as the waves were coming on the beam—but not difficult to manage. Pleasant Bay was nice and calm with zero wind. A scenic beach and a big cliff were behind us along the west shore. (Trip map.)
        The wind really howled overnight—we recorded 49-knot gusts—and the wind noise occasionally woke us up. But the waters were reasonably calm, unlike Watmough.

LaConner was our final stop before running south towards Seattle. It's a wonderful marine town along narrow Swinomish Channel. (Trip map.) The public docks usually are packed in the summer, but often are empty in the winter, as they were that day. We arrived late and spent much of the next day touring around, including a pass by the Pacific Mariner factory where we watched a huge hull being transported from one side of the facility to the other. Besides the marine industry, LaConner has several good restaurants and quirky shops, and is full of impressive outdoor art. We like it there.

We anchored a final night in Utsalady before heading home. The anchorage there is completely exposed to the northwest, but has good southeasterly protection and was calm with a southeast gale forecast for Admiralty Inlet. We slept well. Another big storm was brewing during our final leg the next day—the barometer fell 8.2mb in 3 hours. Fortunately conditions mostly were calm for the run home, except for a brief patch of rough water between Shilshole and Elliott Bay.  (Trip map.) Many storms had come through, more so than most of our winter trips, but we'd had a wonderful time.




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Copyright 2012 Jennifer and James Hamilton