Braving freezing temperatures, Tor Johnson enjoys a rare opportunity to explore the Pacific Northwest’s San Juan Islands in total tranquillity

The weather looked truly terrible for a sail through the San Juan Islands. The week’s National Weather Service forecasts displayed that unwelcome ‘cloud and rain shower’ graphic, puffy gale symbols, and even a few icicle icons. But what did I expect in December at 48° north latitude, on Washington’s west coast?

Yet I was determined to go sailing. Optimism, that essential sailor’s friend, ruled the day. I counted some factors in my favour: tucked 70 miles inside the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the San Juans lie in the rain shadow of both the Olympic mountain range and Vancouver Island.

This would temper both rain and gales. I’d also have plenty of shelter: the San Juans abound in perfectly protected anchorages, with good depths and sticky mud that positively grabs an anchor. And I’d have this popular cruising ground almost entirely to myself, since few boats sail here in the winter.

Kāholo passes Lime Kiln Lighthouse in Dead Man’s Bay on the western side of San Juan Island. Photo: Tor Johnson

This would also be a chance to visit friends who live in the islands. And in case conditions got really bad, I could even stop at some popular harbours like Friday and Roche, where I could hide in a marina and sip hot cocoa in town. Docks would be wide open, without the summer boats.

Sure it would be cold. Temperatures would hover around freezing for much of the sail. I’d be single-handing Kāholo, our 2012 Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 509. I’d sailed this boat across the Atlantic and Caribbean from Europe a few years back, and cruised here in this area. She was ready to go. Kāholo has roller furling all around, and all sail control lines lead aft, so she is quite easy to single-hand.

I hadn’t had time to install heating, but thanks to Amazon, I did have a new portable diesel heater that I was just itching to try out.

Approaching the Deception Pass bridge en route from La Conner to Friday Harbor. Photo: Tor Johnson

Departing Deception Pass

Despite dire predictions for gales on my departure day, it dawned beautiful, if a bit late (we were nearing the shortest day of the year in December at a bit over eight hours of daylight). And cold. The first step was dicey: the steep ramp to the dock had a thin coating of treacherous ice.

I decided to pile on extra layers in advance, starting with some good insulating fleece, and ending with full foul weather gear, hat, gloves, and sea boots. Once I shoved off, going below to locate and then wriggle into another layer while solo navigating through tight channels might not be an option.

Motoring out of Shelter Bay into the Swinomish Channel, I was serenaded along the Skagit River delta by several hundred loudly honking Canadian Geese, flying in perfect V formations, their synchronised wings flashing in the slanting light. An osprey flew by low and close, glaring at me, indignant that I’d come too near his nest in the top of a channel marker.

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The fertile Skagit Valley here is an integral part of the Pacific Flyway and the great migration of birds from Siberia and Alaska. Tens of thousands of snow geese, tundra, and trumpeter swans overwinter in Skagit fields, much to the delight of birders, but to the chagrin of the local farmers, whose crops are often dug up or devoured.

A moderate southerly wind filled in from directly astern, so I set the jib alone, riding the ebbing current out of Deception Pass under sail. Captain George Vancouver named this extremely narrow pass after being ‘deceived’ into thinking that Whidbey Island was a peninsula. He didn’t find the narrow pass until he reached the northern end of Whidbey, revealing that he’d actually been surveying the second longest island in the contiguous US for over 40 miles.

Tor uses graphic navigation software from TimeZero. Photo: Tor Johnson

Deception Pass is a popular gateway to the San Juan Islands, but it can be treacherous. A lot of water is forced through the narrow sluice, where currents often reach 8 knots. Whirlpools, overfalls, and cross currents can cause low-powered boats to come to grief.

Interestingly, planing power boats seem to fare much better than sailboats, slipping over the top of the maelstrom. After using the pass for a few years, I now avoid running the pass with more than 4 or 5 knots of current, even when it’s in my favour, like today.

Outside of Deception Pass, the four-mile wide Rosario Strait runs north and south, separating the San Juans from the rest of Washington. Here I was exposed to the southerly wind, which began to build.

A tanker making good speed for the refinery in Anacortes approached Kāholo from astern on port, with a large tug attending. Rather than risk crossing the straits in front of them, I decided to slow down and let them pass. As a rule, I try not to cross the bow of a ship when it can be avoided.

Unfortunately, the wind increased again, and I began to pick up speed, even under jib alone. Meanwhile, the tug took a line from the stern of the tanker, and began to slow the ship down by towing them backward. I double reefed the jib, but slowing Kāholo down in what was now 35 knots of wind dead astern wasn’t easy.

Tor Johnson at Kāholo’s wheel. Photo: Tor Johnson

I brought the boat up onto a beam reach, in a fair sized chop and heavy rain, with limited sea room. The ship finally passed. I gybed and fell in under their stern to cross the Strait.

Not long afterward I was hailed by a different container ship on VHF, this one headed south from the terminal at Bellingham. The officer on the bridge politely mentioned that AIS predicted that I’d pass ahead of them as long as I kept my speed.

The wind had dropped a bit, so I raised more sail to make sure I passed ahead. I began surfing at up to 10 knots in gusts. As I entered Thatcher Pass into the San Juans, a ferry raced past at 16 knots, close on port. So much for the solitude of winter sailing. True, there were no yachts in sight, but commercial shipping, like Santa Claus, doesn’t take a break in winter.

Drifting logs finding their way into the waterways from the wooded slopes are an ever present danger. Photo: Tor Johnson

Storm-bound in San Juan

Just as I entered the San Juan Islands, the rain suddenly stopped, and the sky cleared. I found myself rapidly wriggling out of several layers, and sailing into Friday Harbor under a perfectly clear blue sky, where I dropped anchor in a small cove.

Fellow sailors Bill and Heather Whidden sailed out to greet me with their son Ian on their Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 409 Andiamo, little sister of our 509. I was also able to connect with an old sailing friend, John Neal, in his fantastic home on Friday Harbor. John is a legendary bluewater sailor, who has taught more cruisers to live their dreams than any person I’ve ever met.

Back aboard Kāholo, the temperature dropped below freezing as the sun sank behind Friday Harbor, which glittered in Christmas lights. This was my chance to try out my new Chinese portable diesel heater. Ingeniously designed as an all-in-one unit with an onboard diesel tank, the unit lives on deck, and pushes warm, dry air into the cabin via a duct.

The route.

Since combustion and exhaust happen outside, no fumes or carbon monoxide enter the boat. I was pleased with the results, as the heater managed to keep the boat relatively dry, and warm up the immense interior of the 509 to a tolerable 60°F (15.5°C).

The weather soon deteriorated, with gale warnings once again. The harbour was mostly deserted, so I borrowed the San Juan Island Yacht Club dock. Signing in at the harbour office register, it appeared I was the first visitor in nearly a month.

The south-easterly gale went almost unnoticed here in placid Friday Harbor, in the lee of San Juan Island with barely a creaking dock line. Between rain squalls, I toured the historic town, and even managed to meet up with sailors Tammy Cotton and Ben Hempstead, who had a giant canvas print of one of my photographs proudly displayed in their living room.

I’d taken the image of them on their first voyage together on Ben’s classic Mason 43 sloop off Turn Point, framed by glacier-clad Mount Baker on a magical romantic pink evening.

Ospreys are among the wild birds to be seen in the Skagit River delta.

Going with the flow

When the weather moderated, I continued on through the San Juans, stopping at favourite anchorages, all of them deserted. Now the biggest challenges to navigation were drifting logs, many weighing tons. Rivers were full from recent rains, combining with king tides that floated huge logs off the heavily wooded shores of Washington and the logging slopes of British Columbia.

Alone at pristine Watmough Bay, on Lopez Island’s southern tip, I slept to the high pitched skittering cry of bald eagles, a sound somehow odd for such a noble bird, and the mournful hoot of immense great horned owls calling from perches on the vertical cliffs above me.

Roche Harbor at night. Photo: Tor Johnson

I set out early the next morning up the Rosario Strait for Anacortes, using a graphic navigation software called TimeZero to time my departure to coincide with a 3-knot flooding tide. Even in light airs, I made 6 to 7 knots over the ground under sail, right past the Anacortes shipyards on the Guemes Channel, almost into Cap Sante Marina. If I’d left during the ebb, by contrast, I’d have needed full engine power and struggled to make 4 knots.

Out of Season

Anacortes is a hub for ferry transport on the coast. It’s a funky mix of artists and industry, commercial fishing, yachts and shipyards. Here I connected with Daniel Joram, a tech with TimeZero Navigation, for help setting up a new-to-me computer on board Kāholo. Daniel lives aboard his classic wooden ketch in an old-school marina that actually has a rotting square-rigged brigantine serving as part of its break wall.

Conquering some complex issues with my computer, he had the machine connected to my instruments and up and navigating in no time. With a passion for wooden boats, and yet the skills to navigate the digital future, Daniel is exactly the kind of guy you might meet in Anacortes.

Sunset cruising in the Rosario Strait. Photo: Tor Johnson

The weather cleared again for my sail back to Deception Pass. It was an idyllic sail. A shy black harbour porpoise appeared to show me in to Bowman Bay. I’d wait here for the morning tide. Winds were light as the sun set in a blaze. But this was the calm before the storm. And this time the storm looked like the real deal.

Early the next morning I suited up again in the dark to beat the weather, and motored into Shelter Bay, just as a heavy rain began to fall.

Soon gusts up to 50 knots were whipping the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Kāholo, safe in port, leaned hard against her fenders. I made a hot cup of coffee and allowed myself a little gloat about a fantastic winter sail.

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