With Jill at the helm and me working lines and placing fenders, we coaxed Yahtzee off the dock against the protests of a stiff cross-breeze at Cap Sante Marina in Anacortes. It was one of those winter southeasterlies that makes you think twice about leaving, “Maybe we should just stay for one more day.” Alas, we needed to go.

Successfully off the dock without incident and weaving our way toward the breakwater, I suddenly heard a somewhat familiar voice call out, “Hey, Yahtzee! I hope you guys are feeling better!”

We were… mostly.

The much appreciated salutation was from a reader who had noticed our boat, and it brought a smile to my face. I’d met him outside the marina restrooms the day prior and when he wanted to shake hands, I explained that our family of four was just getting over a nasty bout with the flu, so I’d grab one next time. (Note: This story took place prior to the Covid era.) We’d been dealing with this illness for more days than any of us would have liked, and during the dregs of winter winds and rains, life aboard was uncomfortable. Certainly, it was not the glamorous part of living on a sailboat. But our fortunes would soon change.

Jill paddles home to Yahtzee after a trip ashore.

With our family on the mend, we decided to head back out toward the San Juan Islands for what would end up being a rejuvenating stretch of winter cruising. Fully provisioned and ready for some island time, our plan was to visit quieter offseason spots before ending up in Friday Harbor a week or so later. Our hope, too, was that we’d have decent enough weather to stretch our legs ashore, sit by a few beach fires, and do some exploring in our rowing dinghy and kayak.

We set the mainsail with a single reef, rolled out most of the genoa, and shot through Guemes Channel on a favorable tide. Pressing out into Rosario Strait, I felt like a heavy weight was slowly lifted from my shoulders. Our family was feeling better, almost back to full strength, and the tranquility of the islands beckoned with open arms, welcoming us home to a place we know well and love dearly.

Our first stop was Spencer Spit State Park and, when we pulled into the northern mooring field, not a single other boat was there. After securing to a ball closest to shore to avoid fetch, we took in our surroundings — the scenery popped in the now fading light. We decided to stay on the boat, turn the heater on, and make a slow cooked meal instead of heading for shore. We were in no hurry, settling back into a more lackadaisical pace of cruising life, and the mainland seemed a lot farther away.

Yahtzee sits on a mooring at Patos Island.

The islands feel like a totally different cruising ground with fewer boats around and it seemed like we had the whole place to ourselves. Accordingly, instead of worrying about how full anchorages, docks, and parks might be, we could take each day as it came.

Yahtzee uses a fresh breeze to sail towards Patos Island.

Overnight, the southeasterly wind abated and we had a slow, meandering sail to Jones Island the next day. Our boatspeed hit 5.5 a few times, but mostly stayed at a steady 3 knots. It was one of those lazy sails — no matter how much our speed fluctuated in the erratic current, it was of no consequence how fast or slow we went. We were sailing, and that’s all that mattered.

When we got to Jones, the wind had gone mostly east and wasn’t supposed to be strong overnight, so we picked up a mooring ball on the south side. Once settled, the dinghy and kayak were promptly launched and we made for shore to let the boys explore and to get in a much needed walk. Truly, we felt like we were in our element, rowing and paddling, and unwinding around the park for the afternoon and into the evening.

Jones Island has a faraway feel in the winter. The solitude is palpable and, while walking the trails or just sitting on the beach, it made us wonder what life would have been like for those who came before us. How did the First Nations people use the island? What was life like here when Commander Charles Wilkes and his crews came through during the United States Exploring Expedition in 1841? And what were the trials and tribulations of homesteading the island after that? All questions that are easy to ask of the San Juan Islands, but not necessarily simple to answer.

The author’s sons, Magnus and Porter, enjoy the ride.

While returning to Yahtzee, a lazy drizzle turned into a steady downpour that chased us aboard and had me quickly lighting our Dickinson heater to dry out foulies and warm the boat. Soon, the oven went on for pizza night, and I read aloud to the boys on the settee. Rain steadily pitter-pattered on the cabin top and it truly felt like winter cruising. The day had been short but fun, and the weather moody. Yet, it was rewarding, relaxing, and healing.

Throughout the rest of the week, this same tone would repeat itself as we hopped from Jones to Matia, Sucia, and then Patos islands. Patos is always a favorite of ours and it was particularly special to be there alone. We walked out to the lighthouse, threw rocks in the water, and watched several bald eagles catch a meal near our boat. Then, while having an evening fire at one of the campsites, we realized we were ready for a slice of life ashore again. Our family’s health had returned and time in civilization sounded great, luxurious even — friends, a meal at a favorite restaurant, grocery shopping, and new books from the library.

The next morning, we woke to an odd snow shower that gave way to brilliant, warm sunshine. With the kayak and dinghy still in the water, we headed to shore for one last walk on the beaches and grassy green trails. The boys laughed, played, stomped in puddles, and wrestled. At one point, I found myself sitting on the end of a picnic table with Jill just watching and smiling. It felt great.

A few hours later we let go of the park mooring, hoisted Yahtzee’s mainsail, and set out for Friday Harbor. The sun remained bright overhead while a 10 to 12 knot northeasterly pushed us south past Waldron Island toward San Juan Channel and then into the harbor just before sunset. Along the way, I chatted on the phone with a buddy who has a family home on San Juan Island, and I think he could tell we were in need of a good meal and some time with friends. A dinner invitation was extended for the following evening and my response was a quick yes.

A beautiful winter sunset in the San Juan Islands.

Tucked into a slip in Friday Harbor, our crew’s excitement was evident. It was good to be in town again and all of us could feel it. Over the course of the next few days, we did exactly what we’d hoped; caught up with great friends, went out to our favorite restaurant, and re-stocked Yahtzee with food. It was a far cry from the day we departed Anacortes, which seemed like a lifetime ago. But the well wishes we’d received still rang in my ear, “Feel better!” Indeed, we did, cruising the San Juans in the winter was the perfect cure.

Andy Cross is the editor of 48° North. You can follow his family’s cruising adventures at SailingYahtzee.com.