9 reasons to charter a boat to explore the San Juan Islands


“Is it a fin? “

As I walked up the stairs from the sailboat lounge, I could see past Captain Mike’s shoulder as he stood behind the wheel. For a moment, I thought I saw a narrow black triangle – a male killer whale’s dorsal fin can be up to six feet tall – above the water in the opening between the islands that led to Boundary Pass. The wide canal marks the border between the United States and Canada.

I grabbed the binoculars and sure enough the black fin came out of the water as the orca (also known as the killer whale) breathed before sinking under the waves again.

” Killer whales ! I called the lounge, triggering a flurry of movement from four teenagers as Captain Mike turned the steering wheel and pointed the boat at the pod of killer whales residing at Boundary Pass.

It’s just one of the things our family enjoys about chartering a boat in the San Juan Islands of Washington state – a change of plan is as easy as turning back. There is no set itinerary, no schedule to follow, and the islands are close enough to each other to facilitate navigation or motoring from island to island.

Charter companies in Anacortes and Bellingham, Washington, make it easy to cruise the islands on a charter boat for a week, with or without a hired captain. Another option is to take a one-week hands-on course on board to acquire the necessary skills. San Juan Sailing even offers courses for women only.

Here are nine reasons to charter a boat in the San Juan Islands during your family vacation:

Friday Harbor (Photo credit: © June Russell-Chamberlin)

1. A multitude of islands

Ferries only service the four largest of the 172 named islands, islets, rocks and reefs of the San Juan Islands. Lopez, Orcas and San Juan Islands – where ferries dock – are known for their quaint villages, farmers’ markets, quality restaurants, fields, historic parks and farms. They’re worth seeing, but they’re not the only islands with attractions worthy of anchoring. Each island is unique, and 11 are designated marine parks (accessible only by private boat and often uninhabited). Over the course of a week (the typical length of a charter), we typically enjoy experiences ranging from dining and shopping in town to baking marshmallows over a campfire and taking walks on deserted beaches.

Kayakers at sunset near Matia Island
Matia Island (Photo credit: © June Russell-Chamberlin)

2. Escape the crowds

Summer is the busiest season on the islands, but it’s not even hard to escape the crowds. Once you leave the marina or town, other tourists and boats disperse. It is not uncommon to walk or walk the beach virtually alone on Marine Park islands such as Stuart Island or Cypress Island. Matia Island is perhaps the least populated; Anse Matia will only accommodate two or three boats. Even on a populated island like San Juan, you’ll likely have the National Historic Park sites to yourself.

Pro tip: The best time to explore the islands is from May to September (winters are wet and windy). Summer days are often cool in the morning, but hot in the afternoon. If you want to sail, keep in mind that warmer weather usually means less wind.

Sail near the San Juan Islands
© June Russell-Chamberlin

3. Define your own itinerary

A boat in the islands gives you the freedom to choose your destinations and explore at your own pace. Cruise guides (available on Amazon.com) can help you find out what’s on each island, and charter company staff can make suggestions as well. A book we often use to find anchorages under the radar is the Dreamspeaker Cruise Guide: The San Juan Islands. San Juan Islands Sailing Guide provides an example route, and the ActiveCaptain Community Mooring reviews can help you choose a safe place to drop anchor. Remember to take currents and tidal changes up to 13 feet into account when planning your route and anchorages.

© June Russell-Chamberlin

4. Food and accommodation accompany you

A cruise ship (motor, sail or catamaran) is like a motorhome or a floating vacation cabin: the beds, the bathrooms (called “heads”), the kitchen (kitchen) and the living areas. life go wherever you go. It’s the perfect COVID “bubble”. The boat gives you the freedom to drop anchor in a secluded cove or spend the night in a marina with equal ease. A fully equipped galley with a stocked refrigerator keeps the crew and guests fed wherever you take a walk. We often leave in the morning while other crew members (who’ve stayed up late to play games) are sleeping, and everyone has breakfast or snacks whenever they’re hungry. There is plenty of space to relax or play games, both inside and outside on the deck.

Pro tip: Plan your meals and buy what you need on the mainland or in big cities like Friday Harbor. Some small marina stores only get deliveries once a week and may be running out of whatever you’re looking for. For example, on one occasion the dockside store ran out of cheese and milk, so we had to make do with beer, cookies, and ice cream. Some rental companies will offer you a supply list to choose the food and supply the boat.

Sailing border pass
© June Russell-Chamberlin

5. Share it with your friends and family

When we first started exploring the islands by boat over ten years ago, they were just our immediate family. But we soon found out that it’s more fun to take a boat full of family and friends, which makes for a dynamic, multigenerational crew. The youngest crew member started sailing with us at the age of six; the oldest is over 80 years old. Common sense safety rules ensure the safety of even the youngest crew members. Good balance and some agility are required when getting on and off the dinghy and kayaks, as well as getting around the boat while sailing. Stairs are standard on sailboats between the salon (salon) and the cockpit, although catamarans do not have stairs except for the sleeping quarters.

Pro tip: Bring your own life jackets, especially for children. Universal adult life jackets will keep adults afloat, but they are often not suitable for teens or smaller adults. The charter company usually provides life jackets.

A beach on Jones Island
© June Russell-Chamberlin

6. Unplugged family time

Although Wi-Fi is increasingly common on ships, many charter boats still offer unplugged island vacations. Our crew members are entertained with cards, board games, books, bird watching, wildlife viewing, and shore adventures. A frequent activity is looking through cruise guides to find our next destination.

Stuart Island Hiking Trail
Trail on Stuart Island (Photo credit: © June Russell-Chamberlin)

7. Adventures on land and afloat

Hiking, kayaking, and raiding the local glaciers are top of our list of activities, but we also visit all of the shops, lighthouses, beaches, tidal pools and historic sites that the islands have to offer. Bikes, mopeds and scooters are available for hire in major towns and make it easy to get around the rest of the island. Kayaking is a great way to explore the shore, sneak past wildlife, and linger in areas too shallow for cruise ships. You can also take the canoe ashore.

The various state parks and the 11 islands in the marine park all offer hiking trails, although on the smaller islands the trail is just a circle. One of our favorite hikes past the Museum and Teachers’ School on Stuart Island to the historic lighthouse. On Cypress Island, the 600-foot Eagle Cliff trail rewards hikers with panoramic views of nearby islands.

Friday Harbor on San Juan Island has the largest selection of shops and restaurants, and we often shop here for groceries, baked goods, and even shoes. Roche Harbor, a beach resort and marina on the other side of the island, offers some of the best ice cream around, as well as an outdoor sculpture park, intriguing memorial, gardens, and spa. Don’t miss the local artisans selling their products near the docks.

Sucia Island at Sunset
Sucia Island (Photo credit: © June Russell-Chamberlin)

8. Landscapes worthy of a photo

The San Juan Islands benefit from the rugged natural beauty that has become synonymous with the Pacific Northwest. From clear, green seas to forested mountains and rocky shores, the islands reward visitors with stunning scenery. Summer sunsets and sunrises are incredibly colorful.

Among the most picturesque islands is Sucia, famous for its sculpted sandstone galleries and pink sunsets with views of Mount Baker. James Island and Matia Island offer unspoiled nature. Photogenic lighthouses dot the islands, such as those on Patos Island and Turn Point on Stuart Island.

Deer at Jones Island
Deer at Jones Island (Photo credit: © June Russell-Chamberlin)

9. Wildlife observation

Wildlife abounds in the islands, both on land and at sea. Bald eagles, great blue herons, seals and deer are common, but you can also spot porpoises, raccoons, oystercatchers and otters. Starfish, crabs, oysters, and other underwater creatures are also common.

The islands’ most famous animals are the endangered southern resident groups of killer whales. It’s exciting to see them in the wild. Unfortunately, the population of killer whales is declining; at the last count, only 75 are left. If you come across a group of orcas, be careful and help them protect them by keeping a respectful distance and using binoculars instead.
Pro tip: The easiest way to spot resident killer whales is to go on a whale watching tour in Friday Harbor. You also won’t want to miss the Whale Museum to learn more about these iconic creatures.

The boat rental options are many and varied:

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