Our charter yacht, the 75′Jamal, steams out of Bellingham, Wash., across the shallow boot heel of the notorious Strait of Georgia along the north side of Orcas Island. Traversing the terminus of a 75-mile fetch, the Hatteras marches through whitecaps as we sit down to a luncheon starter of pumpkin soup in carved acorn squash. Just as the spoons hit our mouths, Capt. Jim Hanna steps down from the bridge and says, “You might want to check out the Orcas.”
Although I have cruised the so-called “Boundary Islands” on the perimeter of the American and Canadian San Juans for a quarter century, I have only encountered killer whales three times. Scrambling madly to the rail, accompanied by my son Roger, cousin, Jim Schneider, and photographer, Brad Kasselman, I mutter in disbelief as the count exceeds 80 Orcas. Surrounding us in loose formation by what must be the San Juans’ three resident pods, the mammals roll, breach, hunt and copulate.
While still enveloped in the Orcas’ aura, Jamal nudges into the largest and longest of hand-shaped Sucia Island’s finger spread anchorages. Roger spots two juvenile river otters sunning and sliding on a flat sandstone outcropping. A pair of curious, Snoopy-eyed harbor seals trails the vessel while a sentinel bald eagle ignores our progress. Within minutes of anchoring, we are loaded in the shore boat aimed for an afternoon of tidepooling, hiking and napping on a handful of the marine park’s scalloped coves.
The Boundary Islands comprise a compact area that runs contiguous to the U.S.-Canada border. During our time aboard, we combine the paradigmatic Northwest wilderness experience with five-star cruising on the periphery of civilization.
Today, Kaiser Wilhelm, who arbitrated the territorial dispute in 1871, would see a grouping of often-overlooked islands. While popular and acknowledged premier anchorages, the Boundary Islands tend to be relegated to customs stops or bypassed altogether due to many boaters’ compulsion to make a mad dash north to Desolation Sound.
Instead of attempting to cover lots of ground, we focus our cruise on visits to Sucia and Stuart islands in the States and Pender and Sidney islands in British Columbia. Our only mainland stop at Port Sidney on Vancouver Island gives us a chance to cycle to Butchart Gardens and sip microbrew at a cozy pub. The easy access of these marine parks, bountiful waters and hamlet ports of the Boundary Islands encourages us to savor the Northwest’s nearby outdoor superlatives, accented with a smidgeon of city pleasures.
Exploring Sucia, the largest of the 11-island archipelago known as the Sucias, reminds me why early Spanish explorers named the island what they did (pronounced SU-shuh). They did so because the sandstone makes the waters “dirty.” And due to the glacial till deposited some 75 million years ago, the 564-acre marine park’s shoreline is a series of pocked and sculpted covelets carved from the soft stone.
From our anchorage in Sucia’s Echo Bay, we shanghai the tender for salmon fishing and crabbing. Roger and I dive the artificial reef at Sucia’s underwater park. Like kids let loose in “Marine World,” we only return to Jamal’s comforts after the raspberry tint fades from the October sunset.
On another adventure, we walk past an eroded cliff where the cobblestones for Seattle’s first streets were quarried. At low tide Jim and I scramble up on the “mushroom” formation in Fox Bay, where the panorama reaches far beyond the U.S./Canada border only four miles distant. We spot oyster catchers and a circling osprey as we hike the trail by Chinaman Rock, a formation with a body-size indentation named for the Chinese laborers who allegedly hid here before being illegally smuggled onto the mainland.
Returning to Jamal, we deposit ourselves on the oversize sofas in the warm, roomy saloon. Our convivial chef Sally Jones, presents a miracle meal headlined by grilled chicken breast with spinach soufflé, mashed potatoes and wild mushrooms. After a dessert of chocolate decadence cake, cognac and cigars follow on the fantail under a stretch of Milky Way.
Later, while motoring 12 miles down President Channel to Stuart Island, Hanna explains how the 1970-built Hatteras was one of seven hulls constructed to ocean-going specifications. The ocean trawler-style motor yacht displaces 400,000 lb. and carries a 10′ draft with a 22′ beam, offering guests as much living space as many 120-footers. Refitted in the early 1990s after Hanna purchased the vessel, Jamal operates with a full complement of electronics, bow thruster and a single screw. Redesigned with picture windows, she cruises comfortably at 8 to 8 ½ knots.
The yacht carries 6,000 gallons of fuel, leaving Jamal well equipped for her annual pilgrimage from Seattle to Southeast Alaska for spring charters. Hanna returns to charter in Northwest waters from late July well into October.
Quartered in the after stateroom like a desert chieftess, I enjoy a nomadic palace complete with an enormous bath and shower. I say chieftess because the name Jamal means “ship of the desert”. Once aware of the connection, the recurring desert motif envelops us in a comforting atmosphere.
My entourage of young sheiks camps in the two double cabins. Each is nearly the size of a typical stateroom with large, ensuite heads. Additional guests can bunk in Jamal’s elegant, master stateroom that features separate dressing room and ensuite master bath with flush toilet and bidet.
Anchoring in Reid Harbor at Stuart Island Marine State Park at the confluence of Boundary Passage and Haro Strait, we are so close to Canadian waters that a five-minute ride in the inflatable would place us over the chart’s “dotted” border line. On the opposite side of Stuart Island at Prevost Harbor, we chat with a gaggle of friendly San Juan Island YC members as they scurry up the float ramp for an onshore cocktail party. Anticipating Sally’s next five-course orgy, we hike a mile-long trail along the park’s high cliffs where ancient arbutus thrust burly arms from under the forest canopy as twisted roots grasp for a purchase in the shallow soil.
The day we cross the boundary, Hanna maneuvers Jamal into the Canadian customs dock at Bedwell Harbor on South Pender Island. Sheltered by 80′ granite cliffs, we anchor at nearby, and nearly deserted, Beaumont Provincial Marine Park.
Ordinarily, spotting a pod of Dahl’s porpoise would be grounds for overdose. Yet, this morning after 10 minutes watching the black and white mammals torpedo Jamal’s bow wave, I am anxious to get across Swanson Channel to Princess Bay off Portland Island. Here Kristine Carter of Lady Blue Divers based out of Victoria and Sidney, B.C., picks us up with her 45′ vessel for a rendezvous dive on the 160′ freighter, G.B. Church.
Roger and I are two-time veterans of this artificial reef sunk in 80′ of water in 199 1. Still, we can’t wait to see how much the reef has changed in two years. Once down the line, Kristine motions us to turn on lights and peer into a crack formed between the ship’s hull and the sand. She cracks a rock crab in half to lure an octopus with tentacles the size of my legs out of his den. During a slow prowl ascent we are pleased to see the ship’s four decks supporting prosperous colonies of plumose anemones, blood stars, cloud sponges and orange cup corals. Enveloped in that slightly “narc’d” euphoria a good dive elicits, we barely get showered and changed before Jamal pulls into Port Sidney Marina on Vancouver Island. Port Sidney, with its panoramic view and dozens of huge, hanging flower baskets, simply sparkles. The 324-slip marina is only a couple of blocks from some salty boutiques, museums, restaurants and pubs. Ever in touch with our manic sides, we secure rental cycles at the local hardware store for a 14-mile round-trip peddle to world famous Butchart Gardens.
Sidney Spit, barely three miles across from Sidney Channel, is my favorite spot in all the islands. The finale of our cruise, we spend most of the last day playing on the mile-long spit and forested headlands. Sidney Spit Provincial Marine Park covers the most attractive third of five mile-long Sidney Island.
Roger rips off his shoes as he strides across the narrow spit where he spots, digs and then wrenches a giant horse clam from its foot-deep burrow. Later we use several of the meaty clams for crab bait. On a leisurely hike around the park, we spot progeny of whitetail deer imported to the island decades ago. Campers and kayakers nod “hellos” as we count more than a hundred great blue herons feeding in the tide-drained lagoon.
Concluding the cruise, we choose to retain the fresh, wild feel of the trip by quickly clearing U.S. Customs in Roche Harbor on San Juan Island. Hanna powers Jamal into Spieden Channel for a peaceful run parallel to Spieden Island, unusually barren with its long spiny ridge. Heading northeast, the autumn sun warms the top deck to toasty as Mount Baker’s massive snowy mantle dominates the Cascade Range.
Gazing past Spieden along the invisible border where our active exploration has treated us to excessive nature plus a couple of city comforts, we reflect on the pleasures of cruising this compact area. Refreshed by the combination nature of our charter, we return lots better off for relishing the best of what the Northwest offers in the Boundary Islands.