Don’t Tap Out in the San Juan Islands

Sometimes boaters can forget they need to mind their bottom.

Grounding 038 copy In Washington state, north of Seattle, west of Anacortes and in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains, lie the very popular San Juan Islands. This galaxy of 170 enchanting islands offers boaters safe and protected waters, seaside villages, state and county marine parks, anchorages, and historic sites.

Thousands of boaters visit these charming islands yearly, but navigating the islands doesn’t go without its hazards. Every year a handful of boats of all sizes tap the bottom or, worse, go aground, doing damage to the boat, the owner’s pride and spoiling what should be an enjoyable time in the islands. What the hazards have in common is they’re not visible from the surface; therefore, the area or passage appears to be safe for transit. A quick review of the chart would reveal that this is far from the truth. In no particular order are the following dozen hazards that tag unsuspecting boaters year after year.

You wouldn’t think well-marked and highly visible Bird Rocks in southeast Rosario Strait would be a hazard, but I’m aware of two 50-foot pleasure vessels that ran aground, a week apart, in the area last summer. The rocks are surrounded by shallow water and rock pinnacles on the west side. One can only assume they were trying to get a close look at the seabirds and seals on the rocks.

Prudent boaters stay well off the shallow Lopez Island shoreline, when entering from Rosario Strait, until they are lined up for a southwest approach to the pass. Cautious skippers will maintain a southwesterly course until passing R “4” buoy marking Ra Reef to starboard before turning to the north.

Many boaters cruising to the San Juans from the south chart a passage from Deception Pass to Cattle Pass. Boaters should avoid getting too close to the southeast shore of Lopez Island. The many reefs and rocks in the area provide ample opportunity to tap bottom. Staying a distance offshore and turning directly into Cattle Pass provides a safe entrance into the islands.

Turn Island is a beautiful marine park east of Friday Harbor, but visitors must exercise caution when securing the most southern park buoy on the west side of the island. At high tide, all appears safe and tranquil, but approximately 35 yards south lies a large rock awaiting unsuspecting skippers. The rock is noted on the chart and is visible during low water.

Across San Juan Channel is charming Fisherman Bay and village. Entering the bay through the narrow and shallow access is not without its hazards, requiring caution but not paranoia. The first hazard is a rock below the surface that lies to port just before the entrance. At a zero tide there is only 9 feet of water in the channel entrance and the anchorage. The narrow channel is well marked but the charted rock at the entrance is not. A lack of vigilance catches more than a few boats each season.

Blind Bay, a large protected bay indenting the northern shore of Shaw Island, is a convenient anchorage in the heart of the San Juan Islands. Tiny Blind Island in the center of the entrance of the bay is a marine state park.

The entrance route we prefer passes carefully to the east of Blind Island, favoring the island shore and avoiding a dangerous rock 150 yards southeast of the island. The rock is marked with a day-beacon and dries at a 3-foot tide.

Entrance can be accomplished via the west side of Blind Island, and it’s a seemingly unobstructed passage during high tide but not recommended. A large unmarked shoaling area lies just northwest of the island, making this approach hazardous.Grounding 001 copy

The hazards of Pole Pass are located on the northwest side of the pass; shoaling water and numerous rocks lie along the north shore of Crane Island.

The Wasp Passage area appears to be a route of safe passage from the surface and looks easy to navigate when reviewing the chart, but it’s riddled with hazards and requires an unmarked serpentine course for safe passage. The most infamous spots are the rock-strewn area southwest of Yellow Island and Shirt Tail Reef. Red Nun “4” south of Yellow Island marks the southern end of the rock-littered west side. Taking a shortcut inside the marker or running too close to the west side of the island has provided many boaters an unforgettable experience.

To the south is Shirt Tail Reef, and although the reef is marked, it has claimed a few unsuspecting boaters.

The safest passage through the area is to pass south of Crane and Cliff islands. The route seems narrow, especially when sharing it with a state ferry, but is well marked. There is good reason why the ferry system uses this course rather than transiting north of Cliff Island.

Prevost Harbor on the north shore of Stuart Island is a beautiful anchorage popular with boaters, but it doesn’t come without its demons. The safest entrance to Prevost Harbor is between Charles Point and Satellite Island. Several well-charted shoals lurk beneath the surface once in the harbor, and boaters tempted to take shortcuts may find themselves unhappily sitting high and dry on the rock waiting for high tide. To enter the harbor safely, proceed at no-wake speed toward the shore opposite the entrance until you are comfortably on a line down the middle of the harbor, then turn to port and proceed in mid-harbor until you’re off the park float. Don’t try to head directly from the entrance to the float, as tempting as it may look at high water.

Only a serious rock hound would attempt entering the harbor through the drying rocks and shallow water on the east side of Satellite Island. I have witnessed more than one skipper pay the price.

Johns Pass, between Johns and Stuart islands, is not problematic to transit. Even so, many boaters run into trouble in waters south of the pass, off the southeast tip of Stuart Island. There is a reef that extends well across what would seem to be a safe course.

Ewing Cove lies north of popular Echo Bay, surrounded by Ewing Island, Cluster Islands and Stoney Reef. It is a spectacular moorage with sandstone sculptures exposed at low tide. It also has a tricky entrance.
The safest entrance is from the east between Ewing Island and Stone Reef, which is marked with a white can. Visitors want to favor the Ewing Island side of the passage. Submerged rocks extend northwest of the marker and there is an underwater rise between this mark and the southeast tip of Ewing Island.

Mosquito Pass connects Roche Harbor and Haro Strait. It’s narrow enough and meanders even more to make it interesting; tidal currents must be considered most of the time. The narrow navigation channel snakes through what appears to be a wide, safe passage between Henry and San Juan Islands. The passage is not difficult if you’re vigilant, follow the navigational aids marking the curving channel and don’t cut any corners. Sounds like basic straightforward navigation, but you would be surprised how many boats cut the corners and run aground.
Enjoying the San Juan Islands requires caution and awareness, but not paranoia. Relax – you’re on “island time.”

2 thoughts on “Don’t Tap Out in the San Juan Islands

  1. So why are there not more buoys out there for the obvious taps?
    I mean the locals know this stuff, so does US Tow, and charged us $1000 for a 20 min tow after we lost both outboards south of John’s Pass. It can never be safe of course, but known navigational hazards should be dealt with


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