A typical day of sailing during this year’s rally.

Beautiful weather and new friends create cruising success

Working our way along the northwestern shore of Orcas Island, I counted five boats with full sails enjoying the summer sun and breeze. All five were rally participants, and as the lead boat, I was happy to see our crews sailing well toward the next destination. I could also spot the lone powerboat in this year’s rally, the custom, all-electric catamaran Electric Philosophy pressing through the waves and using the sun for fuel. With a backdrop of the San Juan Islands, the scene was truly a moment of beauty.

This is exactly the type of day I had hoped for when I was asked to lead this year’s 48° North-Ullman Sails Cruising Rally along with Chuck Skewes from Ullman Sails. Chuck is a veteran of these annual rallies, so I appreciated his guidance in getting things started and keeping the rally running smoothly throughout the week. Using a friend’s Ericson 33 that we dubbed Mothership, the two of us met the rally participants — eight boats in total — at San Juan Island Brewing Co. in Friday Harbor on July 31 for an opening meet and greet.

Chuck explained that the concept of the rally is to get boat owners together for a week of cruising in company throughout the stunning islands of the Salish Sea. This year it was the San Juan Islands; other years it has been the Gulf Islands. Along the way, we’d ofter up tips on anchoring and rafting, route planning, knot-tying, and anything else that participants wanted to learn.

Of course, we all know that the San Juan Islands in the height of the summer cruising season can be a busy place, which meant we needed to be fluid with the week’s schedule. Accordingly, Chuck and I explained that our itinerary for each day would be kept open, allowing us to make adjustments based on how crowded certain anchorages might be and what the weather would allow. Also, a core principle of the rally is that each boat decides what is best for them, taking into account the conditions and their abilities — and we wanted crews to feel like they were welcome to come and go as they needed. Alas, the “keep it loose plan” worked. Here are a few of my highlights from an incredible week of cruising with new friends.

The group’s first raft up at Jones Island.

Jones Island

On Monday morning, the first day of August, we shaped a course from bustling Friday Harbor to the north cove on Jones Island. With a south breeze predicted, we figured this would be a great spot for our first night. When Chuck and I arrived, the typical array of boats were coming and going from the park’s mooring buoys and dock. Our plan was to anchor, stern-tie to shore and then set up a raft of rally boats. We found an adequate spot to the west of the park dock, and after getting our anchor and stern line set, we helped each boat come in and do the same.

Our eight-boat raft didn’t actually take up much space in the cove, and that night, crews mingled from boat to boat sharing stories from the day, and food and beverages. Collectively, we decided that time to explore the island was in store for the next day, and that decision didn’t disappoint. Tuesday dawned sunny and clear, and crews took advantage of the nice weather to kayak around the cove, soak up some sun on the beach, and stretch their legs on the island’s many scenic trails. Indeed, Jones Island is an absolute gem,

An Orca Show

While anchored at Fox Cove on Sucia Island, an unexpectedly strong southerly wind kicked up in the early hours of the morning, which caused us and boats from several nearby bays to scatter. That can happen, and we adjusted the plan to deal with it on the fly. All the crews were diligent in making a quick departure to keep all the boats safe, and the rewards were worth the extra effort. Not only was the breeze great for sailing, but we were treated to an epic orca show.

We were heading southwest between Waldron Island and Orcas Island when Chuck said, “I think I just saw a spout!” Sure enough, a pod of what turned out to be six orcas was feeding just south of Point Disney. Keeping our distance, we drifted and watched through the binoculars as they dove out of the water time and again, swirling one way in a frenzy and then back. If we were playing a game of “Cruising the San Juan Islands Bingo,” this was surely a winning spot on our card!

The rally crews at Spencer’s Spit on Lopez Island.

Sunny Spencer’s Spit

Spencer’s Spit is a favorite anchorage for novice to seasoned San Juan Islands cruisers alike. Jutting out from the northeast side of Lopez Island, Spencer’s Spit State Park has mooring buoys and anchorage available on both sides — making it good in a south or north breeze. We found plenty of room on the northeast end of the spit to employ a raft-up technique that we call “The Zipper.” In this setup, boats alternate bows and sterns, with each boat setting an anchor off its bow. In our case, we placed the south-facing bows into the wind and the north-facing bows into potential wakes from passing boats.

With five of us rafted in zipper formation, one on a mooring buoy, and another anchored, we enjoyed yet another sunny Pacific Northwest afternoon. The continued nice weather was almost hard to believe. Crab traps were set and then we all headed to shore for a happy hour potluck and knot-tying session in the old log cabin at the end of the spit. This was my favorite gathering that we had as a group. It was the second-to-last night of the rally and we’d all become well-acquainted with one another by this point, making conversation light, fun and jovial. This is what group cruising is all about.

Doe Bay Delights

Reviewing anchoring and rafting techniques outside the Shaw Island General Store.
A portion of the crab catch throughout the week.

If there was one place that Chuck and I had hoped we’d be able to stop on the rally, it was Doe Bay. We’d both been there multiple times before and thought it would make for a great last stop, allowing participants to head nearly any direction they needed to the following day. With a bucketload of crab from a successful haul at Spencer’s Spit, we cut through Peavine Pass and made for the small nook on the east side of Orcas Island. On approach, we were surprised to not see a single other cruising boat anchored in the bay or at nearby Doe Island.

When our hook was set, I cooked our catch and then we made for shore to poke around the grounds at Doe Bay Resort — a quaint spot with cabins, a small general store, and a cafe. The heat of the afternoon sun beckoned for a cold beverage under a shade tree, and as we looked out over Rosario Strait, a couple of our rally boats trickled in. With some participants needing to head for their homeports, which was expected, we ended up with three boats for our final night in Doe Bay.

Wanting to share our crab, we all scrounged what was left of our provisions and headed to a quiet picnic spot on Doe Island to feast. The crab was devoured quickly and with appetites not fully quenched, the group decided to meet that night at the cafe for a parting meal together. Doe Bay Cafe is a real treat. If you’ve never been, put it on your list. The food was delicious and the company was even better, making it the perfect way to cap yet another successful 48° North-Ullman Sails Cruising Rally.

A stunning sunset from Fox Cove, Sucia Island.

The Rally Experience

The author watches sunset from the bow of Mothership
in Fox Cove.

A week to the day after leaving Anacortes for the start of the rally in Friday Harbor, Chuck and I nosed the Mothership back into her slip at Anacortes Marina. We hosed off the deck and cockpit, vacuumed the cabin, washed the dishes, cleaned out the icebox, and tidied up the dinghy. Looking back on the week, we reminisced about the good times we’d had, the wonderful people who had now become friends, and the incredible streak of weather that we’d been fortunate enough to have. We felt ready to head back out and do it again.

While sailing rallies certainly aren’t for everyone, they do offer a lot in the way of camaraderie, connection, learning, and experience that you can’t get anywhere else. Throughout islands and anchorages, our crews went with the flow of a changing itinerary, all the while growing into a cohesive unit that assisted one another and shared a lot of laughs in the process. If you and your crew are so inclined, we’d love to have you join us next year!

Andy Cross is the editor of 48° North. After years cruising the PNW and Alaska with his family aboard their Grand Soleil 39, Yahtzee, they sailed south and are currently in the Caribbean Sea.