Islands in the Straits

In search of flowers and fine foods, a band of Northeast sailors falls under the spell of the San Juan and Gulf islands, in the Pacific Northwest. A feature from our August 2008 issue

January 28, 2009

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A trip to the Pacific Northwest turned into a busman’s holiday for chef Peter Davis, who we pressed into daily galley duty. Mark Pillsbury

Our hunt for a working ice machine had taken on comic proportions and gobbled up a darn good chunk of a fine July Saturday morning, but then a combination of quarters and kicks bought us a 20-pound block and we were on our way, free at last of the Squalicum Harbor breakwater and the Port of Bellingham, Washington. The blustery, early-morning breeze had quieted some, and clouds were giving way to sun-filled skies as we unfurled main and jib and settled in on a close reach, headed for the first of the San Juan Islands on the far side of Bellingham Bay. An hour into it, we were ready to round Point Francis, on Portage Island, and run up Hale Channel, along the northeast shore of Lummi Island. That’s when we first spotted Mount Baker off in the distance, its snowcapped peak set off against a deep-blue sky. For the next week, as our journey took us across the Canadian border and then reluctantly back, Baker would be our most reliable geographic reference and a constant reminder to this group of six New England sailors of just how spectacular a cruising ground we’d landed in.

This little adventure had begun months earlier when Rick Sale, general manager of San Juan Sailing in Bellingham, e-mailed me an offer to explore the islands from which the company derives its name. Or better yet, he wrote, baiting his hook with an enticing story line, take the Jeanneau 43 DS Illumine and sail a little farther north and off the beaten path to visit the South Gulf Islands, along the Strait of Georgia. In the space of a few paragraphs, he lured me in with promises of eagles, whales, lonely coves, quaint villages, and easy sailing. Then he set the hook, suggesting the trip include a visit to nearby Vancouver Island to see the renowned Butchart Gardens.

By happenstance, my wife, Sue, is a flower nut, so the idea of a little sailing mixed with potting soil was a big hit on the home front. Then there was my old friend Joe Baptista, who’d been bugging me for months in his own modest way to line up some sort of adventure. His friend, Annie Wilson, is a professional gardener at one of the mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, so we figured she’d even know the Latin names of what we’d be gawking at. And since a guy’s gotta eat and because Illumine has a three-cabin layout, it only made sense to invite sailing pals Peter and Peggy Davis. Peter’s the chef at Henrietta’s Table, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If it walks, slithers, swims, or grows, he’ll figure out how to cook it, so we were certain to eat well.


To be honest, it was a bleary-eyed but eager crew that set off at 4 a.m. from Boston on a jet for Seattle, where we rented a car and made the 100-mile dash through Friday-afternoon traffic to get to the San Juan Sailing offices in time for the skippers meeting at 1630. There, company owner Roger Van Dyken began his weekly sermon for the soon-to-be-converted and the returning true believers who cherish this blessed cruising ground. Along with his wife, Marlene, Roger has spent years plying the waters that flow between the mainland and Vancouver Island, and he quickly put to rest some of the dire warnings found in the cruising guides we’d read. On this particular Friday, he was recently back from leading a monthlong flotilla to the far north of Vancouver Island, his annual getaway with customers that affords him some time for exploration.

His advice: Sail counter-clockwise through the San Juans to take advantage of the prevailing southwesterlies. Keep in mind the effect of the sometimes-quite-strong current that sweeps between islands. When anchoring with the all-chain rode found on the charter boats, go with a scope of 3-to-1 or 4-to-1; that’s what the locals do. Remember, you’re sailing around a flooded mountain range; the islands you see are really mountaintops, and the valley can be quite deep, so don’t panic if the depth sounder freaks. If you’re searching for whales, simply watch for the colorful high-speed boats that whisk the tourists in for a look. Good luck with the crab traps aboard each boat; just remember to get a license, and be sure it’s legal to fish that day.

Preaching the pleasures of the Pacific Northwest, Roger even closed the meeting with a prayer asking the Lord to keep us free of all ledges. Amen. Then all were invited to the dockside barbecue, a Friday-night tradition.


On Saturday afternoon, we were running north along Lummi Island, and Mount Baker wasn’t the only local feature that had us in its grips. Illumine was caught in a swirl of current: Our speed over the water was an impressive six knots, but our speed over the ground was three knots and falling. Nevertheless, after 24 hours of flying, driving, provisioning, and ice hunting, no one was in a hurry. The engine remained off, and we took in the scenery as we enjoyed an early afternoon happy hour.

Soon enough we were in open water and reaching westward to encounter our first ferry and, soon after, our first towboat and log boom. Over the next few days, it would seem to us as though both type of craft are about as common as seals in these waters. The ferries, steaming to fixed routes and schedules, aren’t bashful about relying on tonnage when determining right-of-way. We determined that it was the prudent skipper who’d tack out of their path, especially near the entrance to harbors. The much slower towboats were far less threatening, but given the number of breakaway logs-called deadheads-floating freely in the current, we wondered if there might be a more efficient way to get trees from here to there.

By midafternoon we were at Matia Island, naively hoping to anchor in the tiny but alluring spot mentioned in the cruising guide. We should’ve known that on a summer weekend there’d be plenty of earlier birds going after that particular worm. Indeed, with four boats already filling the cove, we continued on in search of decent swing room elsewhere. Just ahead, sailboat masts sprouted up throughout the two harbors on the east end of Sucia Island, so we continued along it’s pine-covered southern shore to the snug channel and cove at the western end. Like many of the San Juan Islands, Sucia is a state park that’s accessible only by boat; a crowd was camping ashore, and moorings had long since been snapped up. There was, however, plenty of room to drop the hook, which we did in about 40 feet of water, just yards from the cliff-lined shore.


Before heading for Washington, my mates and I had been advised to dress in layers and be ready for cold, damp skies, little wind, and lots of motoring. Instead, when we arrived in Bellingham, everyone was talking about the approaching heat wave. At Sucia, we found the mercury pushing 90 F and decided a dip was in order, even if it appeared there weren’t a lot of other swimmers. I won’t say the water was warm, but it was invigorating, and a swim-albeit a quick one-became a daily ritual for some of us. I’m not sure that Joe got fully wet in his one jump off the boat-he was back aboard very quickly. I am certain, though, that anyone along the shore heard his colorful description of the experience.

That evening, we dug out the crab trap (really more of a net), baited it up with chicken, and set it adrift to fetch our dinner. Luckily, Peter had brought chipotle pepper-spiced pork tenderloin, broccoli, mashed potatoes, and salad along with the crab bait, since it seemed the creatures were on to our tricks.

The next morning, though we’d been warned that Homeland Security had made border crossings more complicated and three in our group hadn’t brought passports, we decided to take a chance and push north into Canada to see the South Gulf Islands. We cleared in at Bedwell Harbour, which lies in the long, deep cut between North Pender and South Pender islands. At the docks at South Pender’s Poets Cove, we tied up to the government float, and I climbed the ramp to the customs office, where I found a bank of phones that provided a direct dial to bureaucrats somewhere. Did we have more than a gallon of booze per person? No? Well, “Welcome to Canada, and enjoy your stay.” Two cheerful officers just back from patrol were helping another visitor tie up his boat and wished us well, too. So much for strained relations on that side of the border.


With more wind forecast for that night and everyone ready for a walk, we decided to rent a slip, and soon we went off exploring in separate directions. The buildings and grounds of Poets Cove Resort and Spa are set into the steep hillside on the north side of the harbor. A five-minute strenuous climb brings you to a ridge and road that runs alongside the water, then curves inland through woods and fields. Sue and I followed a walking trail that led us to a sign announcing we were in “The Enchanted Forest.” With glimpses of water, dramatic views, and an alien-to our East Coast eyes, at least-array of shrubs and flowers, it was a pretty darned good show. Joe and Annie walked the other way and eventually came to a trail leading to Lake Green, park land that had recently been set aside for recreation.

As they left to go walking, Joe spotted a pair of bald eagles in a tree overlooking the main dock, and by the time we’d all returned, the birds had become celebrities of sorts. Crewmembers from one of the larger trawlers were jigging for fish and letting the carcasses float near the dock to lure the birds down for a tasty treat. These sportsmen, apparently, had already gone through several pounds of bacon, laying it out on the dock in hopes that the birds would land.

Our dinner that night was beef cooked on the barbecue along with asparagus and roasted potatoes. The meat was topped with a red wine-and-fruit reduction using the fruit salad left from lunch. Yes, we were roughing it, but we were holding up well.

The promised wind arrived overnight, and in ample amounts, giving us a rollicking sail south to Sidney, on Vancouver Island, and its immaculate municipal marina. There we found a bustling downtown and a bus that would take us to The Butchart Gardens. By luck, we had a new driver who hadn’t yet mastered the route, so we enjoyed his extended tour at no extra cost.

The Butchart Gardens got its start at the turn of the last century when Robert Pim Butchart opened a quarry and cement factory at Tod Inlet. A few sweet peas and a single rose were given to his wife, Jeannie, who planted them outside their home. Gardens soon surrounded the house, and eventually tons of topsoil were brought in to transform the gaping quarry into what is today the Sunken Garden. Walking past giant hanging plants and a rambling rose garden, then through the dark shadows of a tree-lined path, you turn the corner and come to the edge of this spectacular canyon filled with ponds, trees, ivy-covered cliffs, and flowers of every description. Colors and smells were equally overwhelming as we followed the path down to the garden floor and, from there, through a maze of formal and informal gardens modeled after those found seemingly in every country in Europe and half of Asia.

While we chose to travel overland so we could check out the marina in Sidney and visit the local restaurants, it’s possible to sail to Tod Inlet. There’s a dock near the rear entrance to the gardens, and moorings and a protected anchorage close by. On Saturday nights in the summer, you can enjoy the fireworks over the water, but get there early; the cove reportedly fills up fast.

Once out of the protected marina the next morning, we found a stiff north breeze. We could’ve turned south and run with it back to the San Juans. Instead, we rolled in a third of the main and jib and headed northwest, back to the Gulf Islands in search of crabs and scenery. Once in Swanson Channel, one long port tack carried us between North Pender and Prevost islands. We saw seals and ferries but no other boats as we then beat our way along the coast of Galiano Island and into the channel that runs behind Parker Island, forming Montague Harbour.

A marine park, a beach, and hiking trails lie at the north end of this large but protected harbor. There we waded through a shallow salt pond and across the spit of land until we could see up into Trincomali Channel, where whitecaps shimmered in the late-afternoon sun. We walked back along paths that wound through pines and past campsites that, at midweek, were empty.

We’d chosen to anchor just outside the park-maintained and filled-to-capacity mooring field and abeam of a handsome ketch that we guessed to be in the 50-foot range. All afternoon, a pair of older gents could be seen in the cockpit. Eventually, Peter and I took the dinghy over to inquire about the boat. The owner and builder, Roy Davenport, of nearby Saltspring Island, was aboard. He and his relatively boyish pal, 70-something Phil Potts, both retired Vancouver homicide detectives, were off for a getaway while their wives visited back home.

“They’re bitchin’, so we’re bachin’,” quipped 80-something Roy as he and Phil abused each other and visitors, in no particular order.

“If you turned your face upside down, your hair would be where it belongs,” Roy told my bearded but balding friend Peter.

Back on Illumine, we watched vultures doing acrobatics along the cliffs, where cottages perched precariously among the rocks. As the sun set, Peter whipped up a dinner of grilled sirloin with red-wine sauce, roasted potatoes, grilled vegetables, and fresh cream-of-broccoli soup. By now the wind had blown itself out. The anchorage was calm, and the stars overhead crowded the night sky. We heard later that northern lights had painted the horizon that evening, but we saw none of it. We all turned in early for some well-earned sleep.

Our next destination was a return to America at Roche Harbor, on San Juan Island. All day, Mount Baker hovered over our port beam as we sailed south in a light breeze. We kept our eyes peeled for whales but saw only eagles and seals as temperatures climbed once again into the 90s F. By midafternoon, the water around Illumine turned glassy, and we eventually sparked up the engine so that we could clear in at customs before the office closed. Our return to America was, unfortunately, the sole squally patch we ran into during our weeklong adventure. At the customs dock, I took the crews’ papers and encountered Officer Wentworth, who, since I had a Massachusetts driver’s license, felt compelled to lecture me on the evils of the Kennedys, the curse of illegal aliens, and the shortsightedness of liberals who tinkered with law-enforcement budgets. And though passports were not then required for returning U.S. citizens, he took the opportunity to visit the boat and dress down members of the crew who had only photo IDs. It was distressing to see our tax dollars put so poorly to work.

Officer Wentworth aside, Roche Harbor quickly had us in a better mood as we wandered through its many shops and stopped at the Hotel De Haro to visit the gardens and sit down for a beer. The busiest boat in the harbor appeared to belong to the pumpout crew, whose sign proclaimed: “We take crap from anyone.” Dinner that night was ashore at the Madrona Bar & Grill. We sat on the porch and ordered lamb burgers. As the sun set, we were treated with the nightly striking of colors-American, British, and Canadian-and the cannon salute and anthems that accompany the ceremony at the Roche Harbor Marina next door.

With just a day and a half left, we set out early in the morning to sail around the southern tip of San Juan Island in search of whales. This was our first gray day of the trip. As we headed south into a brisk southwest wind, drizzle fell, and the girls chose to enjoy the scenery along Haro Strait from below, through the large deck-saloon windows. We eventually were able to crack off as our course took us more to the east. As we crossed Kanaka Bay, near the southern end of San Juan Island, we spied the brightly colored whale-watching boats off in the distance, too far away to chase. Closer at hand, the wind abruptly dropped from 20 knots to less than 10, and we were surrounded by steep, current-driven waves. From below in the galley where I was making sandwiches, I felt the boat being pushed and pulled by whirlpools, and I watched all sorts of deadheads and debris swirl past.
We were soon at Cattle Pass and motorsailing between San Juan and Lopez islands at better than 12 knots over the ground. At the wheel now, I paid close attention to the current pulling us to either side of the channel and held on in amazement when we suddenly hit a foot-tall wall of water and our speed dropped to 2 knots. I guess we’d crossed the line between flood and ebb.

Progress was slow as we pushed north, leaving Friday Harbor behind for another visit and regretting that there wouldn’t be enough time to ply East Sound, which cuts deep into Orcas Island. Instead, we motored through Peavine Pass and past lovely homes along the shore, our destination for the night the few moorings available on the northeast tip of vacant Cypress Island. The cruising guide promised trails there would lead us to the top of Eagle Cliff and a spectacular view of the San Juans, but we’d arrived at the wrong time of the year; the area was closed for wildlife breeding. Instead, we spent our last late afternoon watching the weather clear, walking the stone beach ashore, and motoring our inflatable around the mirrorlike water in the mooring field in one last attempt at cornering an unsuspecting crab. Our dinner that night of spaghetti and leftovers couldn’t have tasted better as we liberally toasted the spirits that inhabit the mountains and sounds we’d sailed through.

With a noon deadline to be back in Bellingham, we left early and motored down the coast of Cypress Island to explore one last anchorage before we turned Illumine’s bow northeast a final time. With Mount Baker as our guide, we crossed our outbound path at the southern end of Lummi Island and all too soon were tied up, tidying up, and tallying up the list of the things we’d visited in a week’s time and what we’d missed. It was then-when I realized how much, but how little, we’d seen-that it became all too clear why Roger Van Dyken’s flock keeps coming back for more.

Mark Pillsbury is CW’s senior editor.


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