Safe Harbour | Winter Boating in the San Juans

Three weeks have elapsed since I wrote from Sucia Island. Since then, I’ve been wandering around the San Juans, trying to stay warm and avoid the worst of the windy weather we’ve been experiencing. Destinations have included Jones Island, Fisherman Bay, Blind Bay, Friday Harbor, Sylvan Cove, Brigantine Bay, Cypress Island, and more. I haven’t been in the San Juans since August, and it’s amazing how different they are this time of year.

What’s different about winter cruising, you ask?

Weather, of course. The temperature has rarely been over 45, and many days the high is below freezing. A good furnace is a critical piece of gear, especially given how poorly insulated most boats are.

Snow just above sea level at Cypress Island
A dusting of snow in Friday Harbor

My boat is equipped with an Espar D8LC forced-air furnace, a 28,000 BTU monster that keeps the interior toasty warm even when the exterior temperature dips into the teens. But the Espar is thirsty for both fuel and electricity, burning a liter per hour of diesel and about 15 amps of electricity (12 volts). On cold days, I’m routinely using 200 amp hours of electricity while sleeping and another several hundred during the day. This high electrical consumption requires more generator run time, which means even more fuel. The result? My fuel burn us hovering right around 2 nautical miles per gallon, compared to nearly 3.5 nmpg during summer cruising.

The cold temperatures have another big impact: no fresh water. When the temperatures drop below freezing, most marinas shut the water off. Not a big deal for a couple of days, but when the cold spell lasts longer, water becomes difficult to get. The watermaker is getting a workout.

Winter weather isn’t limited to cold weather, either. The last few weeks have been windy. Hardly a day has passed without at least one gust over 25 knots, several with winds much higher. Traveling between anchorages and selecting sheltered destinations is much more difficult with this windy weather pattern, especially since it seems to alternate between north and south every few days.

Windy at Sucia Island

Oh, the darkness. The days are finally getting longer, but right now there’s only about 8 hours a day when it’s light enough to safely be underway. The short days limit the distance one can cover in a day, limit the amount of exploring off the boat, and greatly increase the amount of time hanging out inside the boat.

The tradeoff for these challenges? Solitude, for one. We had Sucia to ourselves. And Blind Bay. And Jones Island. In summer, people compete for space to anchor or moor, but this time of year, the state parks and marinas are deserted. It feels like cruising much further north. Winter sunrises and sunsets are easy to see, too, since they occur during normal waking hours. And as much as the weather can be challenging, successfully dealing with the weather is rewarding.

Snowcapped Mt. Baker from Friday Harbor
Sunrise underway, 8:00 a.m.
Sunset in Brigantine Bay
Another sunrise underway

I’m out for a few more weeks. Off to Canada tomorrow with Airship, and hopefully Princess Louisa Inlet by New Years Eve.