From the January 2007 issue of 48° North by Jo Bailey & Carl Nyberg
Strong currents, heavy seas and blustery winds are often the order of the day, especially in winter, where the most northeast and northwest shores of the San Juan Islands lay along the edge of Georgia Strait and Boundary Pass. It can get really wild out there!
Currents can be ornery on both the U.S. and B. C. sides of these major waterways; they become a fast-moving saltwater river. “Heavy dangerous tide rips” are between Patos Island and East Point (Saturna Island, B.C.), warns the U.S. Coast Pilot.
Large commercial vessels use these passages daily as do some intrepid area sailors, including those who sail the annual Round the (San Juan) County Race each November. They know first hand of blustery winds and huge waves, especially if they see their sails shred and gear bend or break.
These islands along the northwest edge of the U.S. are Patos, Sucia, Matia, Clark along the northeast, and Waldron and Stuart on the west. They are some of the most fascinating islands in the San Juans, remote and seemingly floating in these waters. Amazing to visit, especially in the off-season when they seem so remote after most boaters have left. Their unique geology of sandstone shorelines attest to millions of years of winds and waves that have shaped them into otherworldly shapes.
These islands are far from the populated ferry-served islands; they were home to Native Americans long ago, later settled by pioneers and now are state marine parks—the most popular and crowded of all the parks. They are magnificent at any time, but sailors must always be aware of the uncertainty of winter weather, which means they need plenty of time to stay longer than planned because of extraordinary circumstances. We love to sail there, especially in the off-season when we sometimes are the only boat in one of the bays, and can wait out the storms.
No matter what time of year you choose to go to these incredible islands “at the edge” it is an enchanting, exciting experience, one we hope all sailors can have.
Patos, at the junction of Boundary Pass and Georgia Strait, is the most isolated, farther north than the other islands, more exposed to strong currents and vagaries of winds. It has an isolated feeling, different from any otheri sland. It’s a terrific spot, sometimes sending an eerie feeling. It’s just you, the winds, waves, currents, and an incredible feeling of being alive.
Patos is a small lump in the midst of swirling currents, exposed to winter’s gales. It’s just 1.3 miles long east to west, and 0.25 mile north to south. There are several spots on the island where the land rises to 100 feet, the rest is gentle hills.
Active Cove, at the west end of Patos, is the island’s main anchorage, with two buoys and strong enough currents running through the cove that park rangers advise those boaters who stay overnight to take a buoy if at all possible. They don’t recommend it as a good overnight anchorage when there are wide tidal ranges because of the rocky bottom, eelgrass, strong currents, or storms washing into the cove. All those, plus swells from passing tankers which can cause anchors to drag.
If you can nab one of the two state park buoys in Active Cove, it is a wonderful spot, the favorite of many boaters like 48° North Editor Rich Hazelton and his family who visit nearly every summer.
Patos, which means “ducks” in Spanish, was named by the Francisco Eliza Spanish Expedition in 1791 when they explored the northwest waters of America.
There are wonderful tales about Patos, best memorialized in Helene Glidden’s book, Light on the Island. She grew up on both Patos and Stuart islands where her father was lighthouse keeper at the end of the 19th century. She writes a personal account of her large family’s life on remote Patos with smugglers, shipwrecks, storms and tragedies.
President Teddy Roosevelt in 1904 went near enough to Patos on his ship to dip the color to his old friend, Helene’s father, who was manning the lighthouse at Alden Point.
Sucia is practically our second home after visiting it for over 60 years. (Carl first visited in the 1940s, Jo in the 1960s, and still go there whenever possible.) Like hundreds of thousands of other boaters, we love it and find something new about it each time we return. The island has nearly 15 miles of shoreline, six major anchorages, more than 10 miles of trails, sculptured sandstone bluffs, fascinating history, many bays and family fun. There’s plenty to do: camp, swim, fish, dig clams, scuba dive, beachcomb, birdwatch, gunkhole about in the dinghy, just relax and enjoy. Land area of all 10 islets officially in the Sucia group, now owned by State Parks, is about 749 acres with six major anchorage areas. Sucia was purchased in May 1960 for the amazingly low price of only $25,000, paid in part by the recreational boaters of Puget Sound who gave it to Washington State Parks to be used by visiting boaters in perpetuity.
Sucia in Spanish means “foul”. A quick look at the charts gives an indication of why Spanish explorers in 1791 decided the many rocks and reefs surrounding the Sucia Islands were “foul.” They’re well charted now, but too late for those early arrivals.
Shoals include Clements Reef off the northeast, Danger Reef at the southeast, reefs in Ewing Cove, Wiggins Rock in Echo Bay, extended reefs off Little Sucia, West Bank reefs only 0.5 mile west, and reefs off Ev Henry Point at the entrance to Fossil Bay. Many of these charted shoals are “re-discovered” each year by first-time skippers in the islands who leave bottom paint, if not the boat, on the rocks.
Fossil Bay on the south shore is the busiest of all Sucia’s bays, with 16 mooring buoys and 778 feet of space on the moorage floats. If we feel like being with lots of people, this is the spot. Jo and her kids found small fossils when sifting through the sand and gravel on the beach at Fossil Bay in the 1960s, but have found none since. Swimming water is fairly “bracing” here, but should be tried–in summer.
Well-marked trails and roads spread over much of the island from Fossil Bay. Wander through deep forests and along spectacular cliffs out to Ev Henry Finger, Johnson Point, Echo Bay, Shallow Bay, Lawson Bluff and Ewing Cove.
The park rangers’ boat moors at Fossil Bay and the rangers live nearby. Like many marine parks there are campsites, picnic tables, water and toilets, but no pumpout.
Echo Bay is the largest bay and is exposed to southeasters which often seem to spring up suddenly any time of year. There’s a 25 mile fetch and wind and waves can be pretty impressive. It’s fairly common to drag anchor in here. The chart shows a mud bottom but we’re not sure of that given the way our anchor has skidded across it a couple of times. Echo Bay has 14 mooring buoys and a linear moorage system. A narrow isthmus connects Echo Bay and Shallow Bay.
Shallow Bay is an exquisite dream of a place, with a well protected, narrow entrance, beautiful views to the northwest, incredible sculpted sandstone rocks extending along the beaches and back into the forest, and a fascinating history. It’s a good anchorage with eight buoys, most in reasonably deep water, although occasionally those nearest the shore may seem a bit shallow. Check the fathometer before tying to one, especially on low or minus tides. Anchoring is possible in just about any part of the bay.
Sunsets are magnificent out across Boundary Pass into Canada’s Gulf Islands. Swimming is warm, comparatively, and hiking and beachcombing are easy. The scenery is beautiful. This is a good place to gunkhole in the skiff, sail the dinghy, and do a little windsurfing. Seasonal thick fog banks that hang over the bay are part of the ambience. We counted nearly 100 boats stuck in Shallow Bay for two nights during a horrendous fog one Labor Day weekend not too long ago. Most of those who ventured out into the murk tiptoed back into the bay in a short time, despite GPS, radar and other electronic devices.
Enormous China Rock looms against the northeastern shore, an eroded sandstone giant. Shadows engulf the huge rock as it spreads back into the woods; a dragon-like sandstone sculpture guards the rock as it might the entrance of an ancient Chinese temple. One theory for the name is that smuggled Asian laborers entering the U.S. from Canada were hidden in the caves in the rock to escape detection from U.S. customs and immigration authorities in the mid-to-late 1800s.
There are easy beach accesses in Shallow Bay. The north access near China Rock with a delightful sandy beach is our favorite and the best beach for kids to play and swim. Jo claims swimming is good in the bay (summer), the warmest spot in the islands.
The third access is at the south shore, where ghostly, silvered dead trees stand beyond a marsh, a favorite with amateur biologists. At first glance, it looks like an inland moorage with hundreds of white masts.
Trails spread out from Shallow Bay’s beaches around much of the island, and campgrounds, making the bay a popular stop for camping kayakers and kids who want to camp ashore on their own instead of staying on their folks’ boats.
Matia Island, also named by the Spaniards in 1791, has several meanings, including “no protection,” and something to do with lush plant growth. It is correctly pronounced Ma-TEE-ah, but is called “May-shah” by the locals.
Matia, like Patos, is a small island perched by itself in the southern Strait of Georgia. Rolfe Cove, between Matia and Little Matia Island is at the northwest tip of Matia. The state park dock and two mooring buoys are in this cove. A narrow pass of about 100 feet is between the two islands.
We’ve anchored in Rolfe Cove briefly, but we don’t consider it a good overnight anchorage because of winds, strong currents and a rocky bottom. We suggest the buoys or the dock as better alternatives.
Anchoring is possible for one boat in the beautiful tiny bay just southwest of Rolfe Cove inside Eagle Point. The boat should be stern-tied to shore for a secure anchorage, a delightful gunkhole, sometimes known as Honeymoon Bay or Birthday Bay, depending on the whim of the visitors.
Anchoring is also possible in the bay at the southeast end of the island in depths of about 2 fathoms. This is a pleasant gunkhole, if there’s no southeaster blowing.
At the southern edge of Georgia Strait, Clark Island is the last of these “outer islands,” about three miles southeast of Matia. It’s skinny, about one mile long with 55 acres, and is intensely used by kayakers who enjoy both camping and paddling. The eastern shore is often pummeled by heavy winter storms.
There are nine mooring buoys on the southeast side in a crescent-shaped cove. At the south tip of the crescent, jagged rocks hook north about 200 yards and are visible at a 5 to 7 foot tide. A charted rocky underwater ledge and a rock barely awash at high tide extend another 200 yards. Caution is advised as this whole reef poses a hazard, especially approaching from the south. It’s difficult to see in rough water.
Clark’s fabulous west side has one of the most beautiful sandy beaches around, but swimming is icicle cold. The sky seems incredibly blue here, with madrona trees overhanging the beaches. It is glorious. Two paths cross the island from east to west shores.
With the exception of these trails across the 300 yard wide island, most of Clark is heavily overgrown and the brush is almost impenetrable.
Sitting on huge driftlogs, sunsets from this western shore are a spectacular treat. Sunrises on the east side can be as glorious as west side sunsets.
From Sucia Island Boundary Pass trends southwest, past Skipjack Island which is less than a mile off Fishery Point at the north end of Waldron Island. Less than 1.5 miles northwest of Skipjack predicted flood currents may reach nearly 7.5 knots with more than 3.5 knots on the ebb. Strong ebb currents also run between Waldron and Skipjack, in fact they are strong along the whole western shore of Waldron. Some residents told us the ebb currents are very loud at times. A light on Skipjack helps keep sailors off the rocks and reef in the area.
And lastly we head for Stuart Island, the last island on the edge, with its protected bays and two marine parks.
Turn Point, at the northwest tip of the arrow-shaped island, points toward the angled U.S. and B.C. boundary, only three miles from Canadian Islands at the junction of Haro Strait and Boundary Pass.
The sheer rocky point rises nearly 40 feet above the waters where currents may actually reach or exceed 6 knots, based on others and our observations. There may be overfalls if the wind is blowing up a gale. Strong backeddies off the point can be very useful if bucking the mainstream flow, otherwise we avoid them like the plague, especially in winter storms. But the whole area gets nasty, as we have found, when wind is against the current.
Nevertheless, we’ve spent several January cruises at Stuart Island at both Prevost and Reid Harbors, both protected from stormy weather, both state marine parks. It was often stormy getting there, and getting away, but it always worked out. And of course, we’ve made many other cruises to the island over the years.
Both harbors are charming, with twice as many buoys in Reid as in Prevost, plus a linear buoy moorage system at Reid. There are docks with floats, hiking trails, camp sites, even a pumpout at Reid. And it’s warm swimming at the head of Reid Harbor, according to Jo, but only in the summer. There’s more than we can begin to tell in one shore article about this marvelous island, another favorite of ours.
The main things, however, about sailing close to the edge, is to know your boat and your capabilities, watch the weather, use good common sense and have a glorious time, no matter what time of year you’re sailing!
Charts & Publications Useful in this Area
Chart 18421, Strait of Juan de Fuca to Strait of Georgia
Chart 18423, Bellingham to Everett, including San Juan Islands Chart 18430, Rosario Strait, Northern Chart 18431, Rosario Strait to Cherry Point, Patos, Sucia, Matia,
Chart 18432, Boundary Pass, Patos,
Chart 18433, Haro Strait—Mid-Bank to Stuart Island
Washburne’s Tables in combination with the Canadian Current Atlas are a great help in determining current speeds and directions in the areas covered in this article.
For more information about cruising in the San Juan Islands we invite you to read Jo and Carl’s Gunkholing in the San Juan Islands, a Comprehensive Cruising Guide Encompassing Deception Pass to the Canadian Boundary. They also write Gunkholing in South Puget Sound, from Kingston-Edmonds South to Olympia.