Rediscovering a sense of surprise and wonder while cruising close to home

From the October, 2020 issue of 48° North.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit we’d never really heard about Watmough Bay near the southeast tip of Lopez Island, nor given it even a passing thought during many years of cruising around the San Juan Islands.

Approaching from the south, following an uneventful morning crossing of the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Meridian, our 1984 Passport 40, Watmough was slow to reveal itself.

Gradually, we began to catch sight of the 500-foot cliff looming dramatically over the north side of the bay. Then the picture-perfect sandy beach that formed the head of the bay. Then the richly forested southern arm peppered with the classic Northwest combination of Douglas Fir and Arbutus trees.

We spent the next two days enjoying stunning views of Mt. Baker from our cockpit and two of the most spectacular hikes in the San Juans—up 470-foot Chadwick Hill on the north side of the bay, offering sweeping views of the Sound and Olympic Mountains, and the easy walk out to Point Colville on the south side, which winds through lush forest before emerging onto grassy bluffs with wildflowers and more panoramic vistas.

“Wow,” we thought. “How have we never been here before?”

It wasn’t the first time we asked ourselves that question this year. Or the last.

For years, we’ve looked to extend our cruising range, pushing ever farther north from our homeport in Seattle. A summer spent journeying nearly 2,000 miles to Southeast Alaska and back only whetted our appetite to find new and more exotic locations.

That wasn’t to be in 2020. With the border to Canada closed to recreational boating, we were forced to limit our cruising horizons to the cozy coves, protected anchorages, and favorite marinas of Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands.

Spencer Spit may be an old fave, but still held new discoveries in 2020.

Much to our surprise, this cruise showed us that even the most familiar Pacific Northwest cruising grounds can provide all the wonders we could want. And those moments made for one of the more memorable cruises we’ve had.

Our boating season started late, after Memorial Day. We’d spent all winter completing a major project in our ongoing refit of Meridian—repainting the mast and boom and replacing and upgrading our standing and running rigging.

When that was finally finished, we were itching to spend some time enjoying the boat. And since our jobs allow us both to work remotely, we packed up our laptops and moved aboard.

In early July, we pointed our bow south and caught a ripping strong flood through the Tacoma Narrows to poke around South Puget Sound. Over several previous cruises south of the Narrows, we’d come to really appreciate the quieter, more rural feel of the South Sound.

At first, we stuck to places we had visited before, pulling into Filucy Bay on Key Peninsula and dropping the hook at McMicken Island. We’d heard that Jarrell Cove off Harstine Island was one of the crown jewels of the state marine parks. But it was just enough off the lightly beaten tracks that we’d never been there before. This time we had a reason to go—Deborah wanted to visit a wild cat sanctuary on Harstine and it was within walking distance from Jarrell Cove (and is well worth a visit).

Pulling into Jarrell Cove, we eyed the numerous empty state park mooring buoys sitting across from a small private marina. Nice, but hardly a crown jewel. What we didn’t know then was just how much of the park lay beyond our field of vision. An hour or so later, we got into our dinghy and started poking around the twisting reaches of the cove. We found ourselves floating in a wonderland of wild Northwest beauty and discovering a marine park that completely lived up to the hype. Once again, we thought, “How have we never been her before?”

As much as we enjoyed working aboard and cruising the South Sound for a week, we were even more excited to head to the San Juan Islands for two uninterrupted weeks of vacation cruising in late July. After the wonder of Watmough, we headed to an old time favorite, Spencer Spit, to buddy boat with some new friends who were exploring the islands for the first time in their own boat.

Their enthusiasm was infectious and brought us back to the first time we cruised our own boat in the islands—and the years of subsequent trips there. How many times had we swung on a mooring buoy here over the years? Surely we knew about all there was to know about this lovely state park.

But the next day, we all decided on a hike through the park. We soon found ourselves on a county road, following our new friends as we walked the mile and half to a farmstand they knew from a previous land-based visit to the island. The landscape unfolded before us in full summer hues, the old farmhouses and barns seeming like they’d always existed in just that perfect location. We stopped to chat with a farmer working to move cattle across a tricky intersection in the road. We saw flocks of small birds dancing and darting in the air. We strolled past sheep grazing peacefully in the field and a colt nuzzling its mother while eyeing us with charming curiosity.

Reaching Horse Drawn Farm’s stand, located at the end of a long driveway past a cottage with a flower garden out front, we excitedly filled our backpacks with farm-fresh vegetables and local meats, gathering the makings for a delicious boat meal.

For at least the third time this summer, we found ourselves asking, “How have we never been here before?”

As seasoned boaters with a lust for sailing off to new locations, it’s easy to take for granted the incredible cruising grounds in our own backyard. What we thought would be a summer spent enjoying the tried and true, instead became one of the most memorable cruises we’ve ever had.

It’s an important lesson we’ll carry with us for years to come—you don’t need to travel very far to discover something new. There’s new magic even in the familiar places.