Sailing the San Juans – America’s most under-rated vacation adventure

1 Jun


The San Juan Islands may be the most underrated vacation destination in all of North America.

Located off the coast of Northern Washington, the islands are only a half-hour flight or an hour-and-a-half drive from Seattle. You can even sail Seattle to the islands in a few hours if the wind is on your side.  It’s the perfect distance for a quick day trip, but you may be disappointed if you don’t leave enough time to fully explore the islands.

Four of the islands are accessible by ferry: Orcas Island, San Juan Island, Lopez Island and Shaw Island each have ship harbors for both the ferries and private boats. While these islands are where most people live and offer the most options for restaurants and lodging, they only begin to scratch the surface.

“Local residents claim there are 750 islands at low tide but only 450 at high tide, but that’s really an unresolved questions,” according to an article by Chris Caswell in PassageMaker. Of those, 172 of the islands are named and make up more than 350 miles of coastline.

“Without going more than a half-day in any direction at a leisurely pace, you can find hundreds of small coves, wildlife to watch, fossils to hunt, small villages, resorts to enjoy, beaches set in pine forests, and protected waters suitable for boats of all sizes,” writes Caswell. “There are a dozen Washington State Marine Parks in the San Juan Islands, with most of them accessible only by boat. Each is in almost undisturbed condition, with a few picnic facilities, piers for landing, and trails to build your muscles and appetites.”

The San Juan Islands get half the rain of Portland and Seattle and an average of 247 days of sunshine each year. This perfect weather is paired with a slower, more relaxing island lifestyle compared to hustle and bustle of the cities on the mainland. In fact, there’s not a single traffic light on any of the islands.

The Islands are a perfect place to sail, and it is easy to plot a course lasting a week or more. While the idyllic weather makes for a picturesque expedition, the mild winds ensure those who set sail have an opportunity to fully appreciate the region’s beauty.

San Juan sailing will be an experience of a lifetime, but it’s important you plan ahead to ensure the memories you create are cherished and not a harsh reminder of poor preparation. While it’s possible to find a boat charter that comes complete with a trained crew ready to ferry a group of friends around the islands, you can save a lot of money and have a lot more fun by learning to sail yourself.

It isn’t hard to learn to sail, but it will take some time. You can be certified to crew — or assist in the the sailing operations — in one day. While it takes months of training to learn the skills necessary to skipper a 42-foot boat on a multi-day expedition, in just three 8-hour lessons you can be certified to take a 27-foot sailboat on the water yourself. At Windworks Sailing these courses are typically taught over three weekends, but can be taken over the course of a single week. For anyone visiting the Pacific Northwest, Windworks recommends purchasing private lessons in order to maximize the time spent on vacation.

Christopher White embarked on a five-day charter through the San Juan Islands for Sail Magazine that left him eager to return for another adventure.

The first stop on our cruise was Thetis island, which the Island Charters team said would give us a good taste of the lifestyle and beauty of the Vancouver islands. And I can’t argue with the recommendation,” writes White. “While I had packed for the cold nights and dreary weather typical of fall cruising in the Pacific Northwest, the dog days of summer were in full swing for the first few days of our cruise, with blue skies, plenty of sun and temperatures creeping into the 80s. Our trip from Montague to South Pender was pure Pacific Northwest cruising at its finest. The warm weather held right up to sunset and the wind built a bit as the evening approached, allowing us to raise sail and have a bit of fun as we made our way out past the tip of Mayne Island.”

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As the San Juan Islands are so close to the Canadian border, it’s a good idea to turn on international roaming on your cell phone before making the trip. Though travelers may never set foot in Canada, it’s possible that the nearest cell tower is located on the other side of the border, and a quick call to the cell provider ahead of time can save expensive roaming charges.

In a USA Today article recommending the San Juan Islands as one of the top sailing destinations in the world, the newspaper provided this helpful guide for visitors to review before casting off:

  • Check cruise ship routes and schedules so you can plan your itinerary to avoid the crowds.
  • Download nautical navigation and GPS apps to your tablet or phone to map your route and get familiar with the waters before you sail.
  • For several couples chartering together, consider renting an additional dinghy so everyone can move about more independently.
  • Investigate costs of transportation from the airport to the boat. Some charter companies provide free transportation depending on your arrival time.
  • Ask about reduced fees for staying onboard your boat the night before your charter begins. Staying aboard is usually less expensive than putting up the crew at a hotel.
  • Get a nautical guide to your destination, which will serve as a reference for sightseeing and offer advice on anchorages, sea states and hazards in the area.


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