Matia Island State Park

High winds caught us by surprise while anchored at Matia Island for Memorial Day. Fortunately, I followed the steps listed in my marine safety article before going to bed and we were able to avert running aground when both anchors began to drag.

Boating to Matia Island

My friends Ken and Sherrie, my wife, and I had made plans months ago to redevous at Matia Island for Memorial Day weekend. I made a hard push in May to get my hands on the new Torqeedo Cruise 4 electric outboard and get it installed for this weekend. I got it done just in time!

We set off with a flood tide in our favor. Cruising with one engine at idle and the Torqeedo running at 3KW, we made it about 10 miles into the 22 mile trip before we hit water choppy enough to justify running on the engines. The boat handles rough water better the faster it moves. However, we managed to average 5.5 mph while running on electric and I estimate the one engine only used about a gallon of fuel; a significant cost savings.

We had planned to anchor and raft up together at ‘hermit harbor’ on the southeast side of Matia Island. Its got a mud bottom for good holding and the weather was forecasted to be calm. The roughest weather was forcasted to hit on Saturday evening with an average of 12 mph coming from the southwest. The cove is long and narrow, facing the southest. There is a steep cliff on the southwest side to block wind from that direction. Its about as nice of an anchorage as you’ll find in the San Juan Islands.

You can check out all the locations around the Island, as well as a GPS breadcrumb trail on this Matia Island hiking trail map that I created:

View Matia Island in a larger map

Anchoring and Docking

Rolfe Cove on the northwest end of Matia possess a sixty foot dock and two mooring buoys (though I swear I only saw one when I was there in summer 2012). The dock is also removed in winter to protect it against nasty weather. Anchorage in Rolfe Cove is not recommended as the current and tidal changes are crazy. The tidal current can make it even more difficult to maneuver in the small, crowded cove.

This home video created by Greg Keeler gives you a really good idea of what Rolfe Cove and the dock looks like. You can see that the dock fills up pretty fast!

Just south of Rolfe Cove is a narrow, unnamed cove. My friends and I have successfully anchored here by backing toward shore and running a stern line to shore to prevent swinging. The bottom is good mud with solid holding. There is no trail access to the rest of the island from this cove, so you’ll have to take your dingy around the corner to Rolfe Cove to explore the island.

On the southeast side of the island is another unnamed, but long and roomy cove that is referred to by locals as Hermit Cove. Favor the northern shore when entering, and give the southern peninsula a wide berth as there are submerged rocks in its tail.

The bottom here too is mud and makes for excellent holding ground. It is exposed to the southern wind, which can get pretty violent in this area, so check your weather forecast. Also, don’t anchor too far in as the tidal changes here are quite severe.

The Hermit of Matia

matia island

The Rock 'n Row and Agadda Da Vida rafted together and anchored in 'Hermit Harbor' on Matia Island

The San Juan Islands in summer time are dangerously alluring. Now that Memorial Day has come and gone, the island winds are just beginning to mellow into their summer slumber. The violent southerly winds subside to be replaced with mellow northerly ones. The nasty bodies of water, like Rosario Strait, frequently take on the placidity of a pond. In these ideal conditions, it’s easy to dream about living out here year around. Perhaps the retires have it figured out; many live on their boats here for the best 6 months of the year and then spend the rest of the year somewhere calmer and warmer.

Being anchored up in ‘hermit cove’ on Matia, I can’t help but think of what it would have been like for the hermit who lived here. The mouth of the bay opens to the southeast; wide open to those violent winter winds. How did he weather the winter? The lonely northern islands of Matia, Sucia, and Patos are exposed to winds and tides from all direction, creating a violent winter, in my imagination.

Was he happy living here? I’ve toyed with the idea of dropping anchor here for several months. It’s private and is near the towns of Olga and Eastsound on Orcas Island. The story goes that he had a little row boat and would row to Eastsound for supplies once a month. One month he didn’t show up at the appointment time and search for him brought up nothing. It’s assumed that he met his fate on the row boat in route to Orcas.

A drowning death comes for many who make their lives in the San Juan Islands. It’s an occupational hazard here. However, I like to focus on his life rather than his death. How did he pine his years away here, alone, on the island? Did he go hungry at times? Or was the fish, seaweed, game, and plants on the island more then enough to feed him? Did he eat conventional staples, or did he learn to harvest ‘exotic’ foods like ulva sea lettuce? Did he get many visitors or did he prefer his privacy?

Dragging Anchor


Warming our toes by the chiminea.

Friday night was calm and beautiful, as was Sunday night. But Saturday night was full of adventure. After eating a wonderful dinner of fresh caught greenling, sauted cattails, beans and rice, we ascended to the upper deck, wine glasses in hand, to warm out toes by the chiminea and watch night descend. It was a perfect end to a beautiful day. The tranquility of the evening was matched however, by the ferocity of the nighttime.

Weather forecasts had originally predicted 12 mph winds from the south-west. As hermit harbor opened to the southeast, and we were tucked inside behind a cliff, I thought we had little to fear. Ultimately though, the wind shifted to the southeast, hitting us face on, and the average predicted wind speed built up to 19 mph, though I believe it was quite a bit higher.

The day before, I had been very careful to set the anchor by dropping the hook with a 5:1 scope of line. 7:1 is recommended by the coast guard, but being close to the cliff face, I wanted to minimize the radius of my swing. To make extra sure of a good hold, I put the boat in reverse in order to dig the anchor into the mud and ‘set the hook’. However, I backed away from land into the open water. On this night, the wind was blowing us onto land.

Around midnight, we were rudely awakened by the crash of the boats hitting one another. We had rafted together side-by-side as was our usual standard. We quickly added more fenders to pad the boats. But as the wind and waves began to increase, the anchor began to slowly drag. We were able to respond to this fairly quickly thanks to the early warning from the anchor alarm on my laptop.

Ken dropped his anchor so that we’d have a double hold, but as the night got darker and more violent, and we became even more exhausted from repeated banging and alarms and lack of sleep, it became obvious that we were still very slowly dragging both anchors into shallower water.

The forecast was for the winds to peak at 5 AM and then subside over the next day. About 3 am, after it was obvious we were dragging and getting into very shallow water, we had a slight break in the wind. We fired up the engines on both boats. First Ken took the wheel and pushed our raft forward while I brought in my anchor. Then he put his boat in neutral as I hopped up to the flybridge to power while he brought in his anchor. I powered us slowly through the chop into the middle of the harbor. Once in place, we again both dropped our anchors and let out about 70 feet of line. It was still bumpy and rough, but we both felt confident that we’d make it into the morning without any more dragging.

The beauty of the dawn was a stark contrast to the violent water. By 6am, the wind was dying down significantly as it shifted to the southwest and we were increasingly shielded by the cliffs on that side of the island. The water however was still angry. All throughout the day we continued to rock and bump. It was like the water had a bad attitude and didn’t want to give up without a fight. Still, there is something about sunlight that really knocks the teeth out of treacherous water.

Lessons Learned

Despite the stress and fatigue, we were never in any significant danger. The wind was blowing us on to a muddy shore. Even if the boats had bottomed out, they probably would have escaped without any damage. However, by following my marine safety practices, we were able to efficiently handle the situation.

Also, despite the rough weather, I highly recommend this anchorage in calmer, summer weather. It is a very nice holding ground, normally.

This adventure also turned out to be an excellent test of my ground tackle. I now know that the 35 lb Danforth anchor that I got with the boat and 30 feet of 3/8” chain does not provide adequate holding power. I had already ordered a windlass, and planned on adding 150 feet of 5/16” high test chain, but now I’m also going to get a quick-set Delta anchor like Ken’s.

Related posts:

San Juan Islands, 7 S. Dungeness Crab - Week 2
Planning An Extended Backpacking Trip
Sailing the Gulf Islands, Part 2
2 Responses to “Matia Island State Park”
  1. Ken says:

    In retrospect, when the wind started to come up we should have separated and each set our own anchors. I know that this would have been somewhat inconvenient at 0:dark-thirty, but it would have been the smart thing to do.

    Either of our anchors would have held our individual boats without a problem. With the two of us together, our weight and windage are doubled or tripled. Even after I dropped my anchor to supplement yours, with the boats swinging in the wind, the entire strain was alternately put on your anchor or mine as we swung back and forth.

    We were very fortunate to keep off of the beach.

    Even after we moved and our anchors were holding, there was enough lateral strain to bend my bow roller. That didn’t even happen at Thanksgiving when we dropped hook in 40+ knot winds.

    God watches out over the young and the foolish. With luck, we survive to learn from our mistakes.

  2. Chris says:

    Had a similar experience on Patos, makes for a lousy night of sleep! 10 mph winds in the forecast became 15-20

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