Pacific Northwest Motorboating: The Marinas, Anchorages and Towns from Puget Sound To Vancouver Island


For the past few summer cruising seasons, we were aboard our Meridian 381 Easy Goin’, Arlene and I cruising the Pacific Northwest waters between the southern reaches of Puget Sound in Washington state and the northern tip of Vancouver Island. We averaged 100 days aboard annually, and our many days on the water provided us with many memories.

The 2019 cruising season was a little different. We were unable to spend as much time on board as we would have liked, thanks to family obligations, visits from out-of-town friends and a handful of medical issues. But our memories made us eager to return.

We found ourselves, from time to time, revisiting our past experiences and adventures. An endless procession of “Do you remember when…” sessions kept us going all summer. Then we received an email from Mike Werling, Sea’s managing editor, asking if I would be interested in writing a cruising feature. His instructions were to write 25 to 30 of the places — marinas, anchorages, towns, etc. — we had visited in the last two or three years on individual pieces of paper, put them in a hat, mix them up, draw five out and write a vignette about each of the locations.

I told him, “No problem.” Little did he know that Arlene and I had unknowingly been drafting an outline of the article in our memory all summer long.
It didn’t take long to identify 30 locations. The resulting luck of the draw — pulled from my favorite Sullivan Bay, B.C., baseball cap — gave me the five locations. Then it was my turn to record the five experiences.

01 Russell Island via Motor Yacht

Russell Island - Easy Goin' at anchor.

Easy Goin’ rests at anchor off Russell Island’s western side. The anchorage provides easy access to the island and is the site of amazing sunsets, which Arlene enjoys here.

A 32-acre Gulf Island National Park, only accessible by boat or kayak, Russell Island is seven miles north of the U.S-Canadian boundary in the mouth of Fulford Harbour, on the southern end of Saltspring Island. Anchorage is only possible at the island’s western side, and though it is exposed to the Fulford Harbour Ferry’s wash and northerly winds, it provides good holding and protection from the predominant southerlies.

What visitors will discover ashore are a beautiful shell midden, Pacific Madrone trees with ruby-red trunks, towering Douglas firs, and the remnants of previous inhabitants. Prior to the late 1800s, First Nations people used the island to fish and farm clams. By moving large stones down to form a retaining wall at the low-tide line, they created productive clam beds that are still evident today. The Hul’q’umi’num’ people call the island tth’umuqwa’, which refers to the kelp greenling, a colorful fish commonly found in the area near kelp forests and rock reefs. A walk of the island’s 0.8-mile-long loop trail, dotted with informational signs, reveals culturally modified trees, identifiable by scars from bark removal that occurred many years ago. I find it easy to imagine what life was like on the island in previous centuries.

One of our — OK, maybe my — fondest memories of the island goes back to our first visit many years ago. We were alone on the island; I was on the beach in front of the homestead when I heard Arlene scream. I hurried up to the homestead to find her standing on the back porch. She was screaming, “Snakes, snakes. They are everywhere in the grass!”

“They probably have a nest under the porch and are coming out to warm up in the sun,” I started to say, and she jumped off the porch and high stepped it back to the dinghy before I could finish. You may have guessed, Arlene is deathly afraid of snakes, even harmless garter snakes. To this day she refers to the island as Snake Island.

In the quiet of the summer evening, and after Arlene’s heart rate returned to normal, we sat on deck and absorbed the spectacular sunset.

02 Hadlock Washington’s Ajax Cafe

Port Hadlock - Were hats during dining work as an icebreaker.

One of the traditions at Port Hadlock’s Ajax Café is that diners wear hats while they eat. Arlene found one she likes.

One of our favorite things to do during any visit to Hadlock, Wash., is enjoy dinner at the Ajax Café. A local favorite since 1977, the café — open Tuesday through Sunday with entertainment on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening (reservations recommended) — is located on the waterfront in the historic district of (lower) Port Hadlock and offers one of the most interesting dining venues in all of Puget Sound. At first glance, one would never suspect a fabulous restaurant is part of a cluster of aged bungalows and clapboard warehouses left over from Port Hadlock’s glory days.

Since the café is located just steps from the public dock at Irondale, in the northwest corner of Port Hadlock, cruisers can tie up at the dock or anchor out and arrive by dinghy. Boaters can stay at the dock up to four hours while they dine at Ajax Café.

Menu selections are prepared using local ingredients to create memorable cuisine at a reasonable price. The culinary talents of Chef Graham and his team create an array of tasty selections, which include seafood, beef, poultry, fruits and vegetables, homemade bread and desserts.

A step inside the 130-year-old yellow and green false-front structure — once home to the town’s founder, Samuel Hadlock — results in a warm reception. Visitors can’t help but notice all the hats hanging on the walls near the entrance. Patrons are informed, by the enthusiastic receptionist, that wearing a hat during dinner is customary in the restaurant, and she encourages everyone to select a hat.

The dining room is filled with brightly colored chairs and tables of varying colors and styles. Photographs of famous musicians and movie stars hang on the walls. The utensils, glassware and dishes don’t match, which creates a unique décor. Draft beer is served in a wide-mouth Mason jar and margaritas arrive in a 16-ounce Coke glass from the 1960s. The menu pages are housed in old vinyl album jackets, which stimulates conversation. The atmosphere is one big party. Who would have thought something as simple as hats could break the ice among strangers and even melt some folks’ shyness.

Before long diners are visiting with others seated around them, all making for a great combination of excellent food, casual atmosphere and great fun.

03 Gig Harbor’s Maritime Gig Festival

Gig Harbor - Blessing the fleet and then eveything that floats.

During Gig Harbor’s Maritime Gig Festival, the parish priest blesses the fishing fleet as part of the festivities. After that, he blesses darn near everything that floats, including dinghies and tenders.

Anyone not looking for it might miss Gig Harbor’s narrow entrance, guarded as it is by a sand spit to starboard. But to miss the comfort of the harbor’s protection would be a misfortune. Seven miles west of Tacoma and centrally located between Seattle and Olympia is Washington’s pleasant and historical Gig Harbor.

In 1841, two ships from the U.S. Exploring Expedition commanded by Capt. Charles Wilkes found the elusive entrance and took full advantage of its protection. Crewmembers surveying the area in the captain’s “gig” stuck the name in their journal. Capt. Wilkes then transferred their notes and named the bay Gig Harbor.

Arlene and I have visited Gig Harbor many times over the years. One of our favorite times to visit is the first weekend in June, because the community of about 8,000 people comes together for its annual Maritime Gig Festival, which celebrates the town’s maritime heritage with a parade, live entertainment, food, classic cars, a wooden yacht display and a sailboat regatta in the harbor.

Gig Harbor - Commercial fishing fleet line up for blessing.

Gig Harbor – Commercial fishing fleet line up for blessing.

The celebration concludes on Sunday afternoon with a blessing of the commercial fishing fleet. In the morning, local fishing vessels anchor and raft-up off the Jerisich Park dock with crew and family members, and they host barbecues and even live bands aboard. At noon, the bells from the church up the hill ring out and a procession to the dock begins. The first to appear is the children’s choir, its members singing hymns. They are closely followed by the Knights of Columbus and the parish priest.

Once everyone is on the dock, community leaders say a few words and the priest has his turn, finishing with a prayer/blessing. He then steps aboard a small runabout, motors out to the fleet, places a wreath of flowers in the harbor for fishermen who did not return from sea, and begins to sprinkle holy water on each boat in the fleet. Once the blessing is completed, he continues around the harbor and blesses each of the pleasureboats — anything and everything that floats, really. The holy water is flying everywhere. After that, it’s party time aboard the fishing boats; the barbecues are lit and the bands begin to perform.

04 British Columbia’s Princess Louisa Inlet

Princess Louisa Inlet - The view is undescribable.

Waterfalls cascade hundreds of feet down the sheer cliff faces that surround Princess Louisa Inlet. Chatterbox Falls is the crown jewel, but they all deliver the wow.

Because of its beauty, British Columbia’s Princess Louisa Inlet is referred to by some boaters as the eighth wonder of the world. Until mid-June, melting snow high above feeds streams that create more than 60 waterfalls down its sheer rock faces. At the head of the inlet is the crown jewel: Chatterbox Falls, which drops 120 feet into the inlet.

Boats enter the inlet through Malibu Rapids, which is one-third of a nautical mile in length. The reversing saltwater rapids protect the inlet with currents up to 9 knots on spring tides. Most vessels should enter Malibu Rapids at or very near slack water, because the currents are strong.

We enjoy the slow cruise up the 3.7-mile-long, half-mile-wide inlet, taking in all the beauty it has to offer. On every visit we are awestruck, and it never gets old. The mountains tower at elevations of 5,000 to 8,000 feet, while the 660-foot-deep emerald green water passes under the keel. There is a tranquility that stretches from the mirror-like surface straight up into infinity. The deep silence is only disturbed by the muffled roar of waterfalls as they plunge over sheer granite cliffs. We must remind ourselves we’re in a saltwater fjord, as it seems more like Yosemite National Park.

On one of our visits, we followed a trail through a forest filled with trees that dripped with hanging moss, to the base of Chatter Box Falls. We wanted to get a real appreciation of its beauty. On our walk back we discovered ripe wild mountain blueberries along the trail. Not wanting to squander an opportunity, we picked a few, figuring they would add some sweetness to our morning pancakes. They were as sweet as anticipated, and the following day we returned for a few more.

The day was warm by Northwest standards — one might say downright hot — at 85 degrees and with not a breath of wind, so we took the dinghy across the inlet to where one of the many waterfalls enters the inlet. Melted snow falls thousands of feet over the sheer rock cliffs, tumbles into a large pool and then flows through a couple of smaller pools before it enters the inlet. We found the pools a perfect place to get a little relief from the heat. The once-icy water warms as it spills over sun-heated rocks, which makes it comfortable. We enjoyed soaking in the pools for more than an hour before we decided to get out and return to Easy Goin’. We didn’t want to turn into prunes. Besides, it was almost happy hour.

That evening we enjoyed a rare experience with our new friends aboard HONU, Barry and Irene: We had the inlet to ourselves. While that may not be so rare during the winter, we were there in the middle of June. As the sun set and cast shadows across the inlet, a nearly full moon rose above the opposite hillside. After sunset it was a stargazer’s delight, as we identified the different constellations in the cloudless evening sky.

05 Sucia Island Marine State Park’s Shallow Bay

Shallow Bay - Best sunsets in the San Juan Ialsands

Shallow Bay in the San Juan Islands delivers the best sunsets around, as this photo and countless others can attest.

Just south of the U.S-Canadian border, in the northern portion of the San Juan Archipelago, is Sucia Island Marine State Park, which is known as the “Crown Jewel” of Washington’s San Juan Islands. There’s something very special about the island’s beauty; its many bays, coves, beaches and forest trails inspire firsttime visitors and park veterans. Its shoreline is the product of Mother Nature’s artistry, a mix of smooth sandstone curves, rounded arches, honeycomb hollows and six bays, each of which possesses its own personality.

This cruising destination, only accessible by private vessel, receives more than 100,000 visitors each year, making it the most popular of all the San Juan Island marine state parks. Visiting boaters can spend a week at a time, every night in a different moorage.

Our favorite is Shallow Bay, a west-facing bay that offers eight mooring buoys, limited anchoring, sandy beaches and some of the most spectacular sunset viewing anywhere in the San Juan Islands.

Two day beacons mark a 75-foot-wide opening in the rock reef that protects the small bay. As Shallow Bay’s name implies, it’s only 8 feet deep in its center at zero tide. The sun can warm the water enough that brave individuals can swim or wade in it.Potholes in the cliff at Shallow Bay are the product of a microclimate that results in the weathering of the rock. Small cavities grow larger because the rock inside is damp and shady, which increases the decomposition rate of minerals that affect the weathering rate of the sandstone. These particular cavities are known as China Caves, because they were used as a hiding place for Chinese workers smuggled into the country as illegal laborers in the late 1800s.

A narrow isthmus separates Echo and Shallow bays, and the walk between the two is brief, so many times this is our starting point for an exploration of the island. The hiking trail system crosses the isthmus and fans out across the island.