One For My Bucket List

The Pacific Northwest's San Juan Islands move to the top of Tim Zimmermann's "Places To Cruise Before You Die" list.
San Juan Islands

San Juan Islands Sunset

When you are a cruising sailor, your perspective on the world is permanently warped. No matter where you go, if there is water, if there is wind, if there are harbors, you tend to ask one question: Would this make a good cruising ground? Sometimes that question can distract from your ability to see a beautiful place for what it is, especially if the Great Sailing God has not specifically placed it on the earth for your cruising pleasure. So worthy locations can be unfairly diminshed, even if they have lots of other qualities to recommend it. But too bad. If you are a sailor, this is a very important question to be asking, because it helps you continue to build your all-important “Places To Cruise Before You Die” list. And that is a critical list, because how else will you know where to go the next time life gives you the chance to ship out, and explore by sail.

It may be annoying to other people (like my wife and kids), but I am grateful for this strange view of the planet. And I am especially grateful when I come across a place that immediately vaults to the top of my cruising list, which is exactly what happened when I set down on San Juan Island recently for some land-based work. San Juan Island is the largest of the San Juan Islands, which lie just north of Puget Sound, and across the Haro Strait from Vancouver Island. It wasn’t 5 minutes after the car ferry departed the terminal in Anacortes, bound for Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, before I got that familiar shiver of excitement that hits me when I realize that I am venturing into a spectacular cruising area.

Of course, I had heard how beautiful the Pacific Northwest is, but here I was on a ferry wending its way through fir and rock-covered islands, as a late-evening sun cast a perfect light across rippling water. In short, there is no substitute for seeing something for yourself. At first the seascape might feel familiar, perhaps a bit like Maine. But the islands are more closely grouped, veined with narrow channels that create ripping currents, and you feel as if there is a snug and welcoming anchorage around just about any corner (which there is). Add in bald eagles, otters, dolphins, and killer whales, and you have a world-class cruising ground that looks entirely unique.


The area was first charted by Spanish explorers, and George Vancouver, who pretty much tied when it came to labeling all the straits and islands with Latin and Anglican names. You can find isloation in the endless coves, or warmth in hospitable towns like Friday Harbor.

Even when you are well inland on San Juan Island, you rarely go more than a few minutes before the sea sweeps into view again. And even when it is not in view, you suddenly stumble across an inland sailing lake.

Okay, I am thinking, the place is off-the-charts beautiful, and that is reason alone to push it high up my cruising bucket list. You add in that there is real navigation to do, so you exercise that sailor brain. The weather can range from sunny and calm to wet and windy, so you’ll never get bored. And then there is this: Spend enough time sailing the San Juan Islands and you will come across killer whales. There are three resident pods in the area, numbering almost 90 orcas, and this is their cruising ground, too. They spend their days traveling the shorelines, hunting and eating salmon, or simply socializing and messing around. Often that means there is a killer whale–which is a stunning animal up close–suddenly huffing or breaching nearby. You throttle down, let your boat drift, and sink into the wonder of watching the ocean’s most intelligent and evolved predator go about its day. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and there is no cruising ground in the world where you are more likely to become part of their world.


Of course, I don’t know when I will make it back on a cruising sailboat. Life is not always easy to plan. But I do know that somehow I will. And this is what is waiting: