Challenging Early Season Cruising in the San Juans

Last year we cruised the San Juans in April and loved it, so we weren’t surprised to enjoy it again this year. Empty anchorages, all the park mooring balls open (makes it easier to grab one under sail!), and great wind for sailing (in fact there was no day where we couldn’t sail).

That said we’ve found this April to be much more challenging than last year. We’ve had more rain than last year so far – equaling a lot of pretty chilly days. On grey, wet days we need to run our diesel heater, but on sunny days we don’t (these have been rare though).

We’ve also had more wind, from fairly strong cold fronts moving through. We’ve already exceeded the highest wind speeds we experienced in last April and May combined – gusts to 34 knots while sailing, and 25 knots at anchor/mooring. Last year there was only one month out of six (June) where we reached those levels.

Admittedly the 34 knots while sailing was our fault – a poor decision to go out on a borderline day. We’ve had a tough time making the go / no-go decision this month, partly because the weather forecasts have been so complex. Making the right call is incredibly tough, as the line between fun conditions and not-fun is very thin. If anything this month has taught us to lean towards conservativism, which seems to be a lesson we need to be retaught every year – it’s easy to forget the power of high winds pushing against opposing current.


Watmough, SE Side of Lopez Island

We started out in Watmough after crossing the JdF, and found it to be a very rolly anchorage. We’ve been here before, but must have forgotten how much reflected swell from Rosario Strait can get in there. We rolled all day and all night. We were eager to move on and the next day went through Lopez Pass to Mud Bay. Much better! No more constant rolling. Watmough is beautiful but we’ve made a note now to cross it off our list.

Spencer Spit

From Mud Bay we tacked up in a N 5-8 breeze to Spencer Spit, a popular San Juans spot we hadn’t been to in a while. No other boats were there and we grabbed a mooring ball on the south side (better protection from ferry swell, but not an entirely easy decision because we knew south wind up to 10-20 was coming overnight).

We had our first sunny day and got some sweet solar from our newly upgraded solar array (300W). We hiked the spit, paddleboarded, did bow yoga, and grilled brats. We knew we had to enjoy our one day of summer because rain was coming back the next day for up to a week.


View looking north from shore on Spencer Spit

Passage to Sucia Island

Saturday the 13th we took off early to Sucia, exiting through Thatcher Pass. We planned an early departure because the San Juans have big, powerful ebbs this week that last from about 9am-3pm and we didn’t want to face the worst of that (current against us, *and* against up to 25 kts of wind – bad news for wave state).

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The ECMWF forecast called for SE 17-20, but a big mistake I made here was in not focusing on the “gust” forecast (up to SE 27), which is typically more accurate / representative in Windy. Also both the ECMWF and NWS under-estimated the wind that ended up occurring.

The NWS forecast was SE 15-25, but only about SE 10-15 was up at 8am. Perfect for rolling out just the headsail and going downwind up Rosario Strait. We had no problem until we got to the eastern tip of Orcas Island, where we started to hit big rolling waves (from the southeast bound current opposing the ESE wind).

At that point the wind also suddenly picked up, within the span of only about 5 minutes, to 25 knots gusting to 30. A full 135% headsail is way too much for those conditions so we scrambled to reef – triple reefing it to about 90%. Our new autopilot came in handy again, holding us while careening down close spaced square waves at 8 knots. After triple reefing to 90% we were still doing 7 knots, and occasionally got gusts to 34 kts.


The biggest problem now was we were towing our dinghy (“Matilda”, a Portabote). She was careening down waves sideways, running up almost to our stern, and snapping taut the tow line (we use 2 tow lines, one as backup, for this reason). For conditions like these we would normally stow her on deck, but had only been expecting 15-25.

We were really discouraged by our poor decision making. We should have listened more to the ECMWF model in Windy, rather than choosing the more favorable forecast from NOAA of 15-25. We also need to remember that 25 kts against just 1 kt of current (not peak) can make for pretty awful waves. Lastly, when the models forecast for 25, if they’re wrong by just 5 knots, 30 kts is tremendously different (about 44% stronger wind force). Nearby wind stations later corroborated  our wind meter’s measurements (Sandy Pt Shores read 30 gusting 33).

Fossil Bay, SE Side of Sucia Island

We “made landfall” in Fossil Bay and found unfortunately 2-3 foot wave swell was making it all the way to the back of the bay. We grabbed the last mooring ball and bucked and rolled for 5-6 hours. The ESE wind was perfectly aligned to drive wave fetch into Fossil Bay. Previously we’ve had good experiences here in southerlies, but those were more south or southwest.


Standing on the bow was like riding a bucking bronco – the mooring ball was coming up almost to our anchor roller (3’ off waterline). There was no risk of it actually hitting because I had dual mooring lines out on about a 10 foot lead.

About 5pm everything calmed down and the sun even came out. The weather sure has been changing quickly up here!

On Saturday during the storm there were 3 or 4 boats on the dock, but on Sunday everyone left and we had the place to ourselves, so we moved to the western-most dock.


I made my NY-style bagels. Yum!

Jones Island

We sailed down to Jones Island in N 4-9 and favorable current (a nice change from our last sail!). We like Jones for its great perimeter hike trail. It’s often difficult to get into the small cove in the summer though, as it only fits about 12 boats. It was no problem now though, and we got a spot on the dock.








Coming Up

This has been a tough first two weeks. While last year it was hard to see why more people don’t cruise in April, this year it was easy to see why. At the same time, the contrast between easy sailing days and tough days is part of what I love about PNW cruising and what keeps it interesting.

In the coming week, we’ll be hanging out in the San Juans a little bit longer and then crossing over to the Gulf Islands.

By the way if you want to follow our track daily (or less) you can use the Marine Traffic app or website. I’ve started broadcasting our Internet-based AIS position through Boat Beacon when we’re underway. I don’t always turn it on, but every couple days do so (at least until we no longer have Internet – around the Johnstone and Broughtons areas). You can also set notification alerts in the Marine Traffic app so you know when a boat starts moving.


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