Sailing to Stuart Island

Sailing to Stuart Island while munching on an awesome lunch.

In a word, this past weekend was an Orca-gasm. I saw more whales than I’ve ever seen in my life, combined. Staying mostly to the east side of the San Juan Islands, it’s rare for me to see even one whale. This weekend, it seemed like I couldn’t get away from them.

The weather over Memorial Day weekend was rainy and there was work to do at the office. I postponed a three-day vacation and worked on Memorial Day. As compensation, I took Monday off this week. Boy, oh boy, did I get the better end of that bargain!

A friend joined me on this three day trip to Stuart Island. The sail to Stuart Island was as perfect as sailing gets. We had a slight flood tide in our favor all day. The winds were steady at about 10 to 12 mph. We sailed a little past Patos Island and then motored in, as it was 4PM and we had been sailing for eight hours non-stop.

Driving the boat

Kari driving the boat.

The next day we hiked to the Turn Point lighthouse on Stuart Island. This is the most northwestern land in the USA. Before getting to the lighthouse, we stopped for lunch at the cliff above it; about 100 feet above the water. We sat there for a half hour, watching the massive tankers and tugs traverse Boundary Pass.

As we watched, first one, then two whale watching boats appeared. I cautiously crept to the edge of the cliff but couldn’t see anything of interest. As I continued to watch the lighthouse point, suddenly four Canadian whale watching boats emerged around the corner. “Get ready, Kari! They’re coming!” I shouted with glee as I jumped up and down with anticipation, careful not to fall off the edge of the cliff. Thirty seconds later a big male broke the surface. J-Pod came steaming around the corner on the hunt for salmon!

From our hundred foot vantage point, we could see almost twenty feet into the water as we looked down at the Orcas passing below us. The view was epicly better than any of the views from the whale watching boats. The Orcas passed quickly, obviously not finding any salmon, and continuing the hunt along the west coast of the island, quickly passing out of sight. There were no antics or big splashes, just grace and speed through the water. Still, the beauty and synchronicity of the experience left us with goose-bumps.

Roda Roca

Adam’s boat, the Roda Roca flying its mizzen.

After the hike and a short siesta, we took a dingy ride around Prevost Harbor. At the exact, opposite end of the harbor we spotted the Roda Roca, Adam Nash’s boat with it’s mizzen flying proudly at anchor. We pooled our resources into an awesome stew. Adam cooked it on his pressure cooker while I played a game of story-dice with his son, Jake.

The winds on Sunday really picked up. I had hoped to sail south down Haro Strait and then east along the Strait of Juan De Fuca on the return trip, but the winds were intense and the waves were big. I was game, but needed to consider the comfort of my company. Instead we motored home the way we came, fighting the same flood tide the whole way.


Big tanker traversing Boundry Pass.

After a long grueling ride, we got about half way down Rosario Strait when J-pod showed up again. They were fishing the currents, but this time there wasn’t a whale boat in sight and the pod was much bigger. We shut down the motor and sailed with them for over an hour, but made no progress towards home thanks to the contrary current. Still, it was magical to be so close to these beautiful animals.

We attempted to follow the law of staying 200 yards away, but they were everywhere and were not shy about coming up to say ‘Hi!’. The males are approximately the same size as my boat, but of course, move much faster. We had several breaches within 50 feet of the boat and a female at one point came up to look at the dingy we towed behind us, then dove down, and swam under Solace, emerging on the other side to catch her breath before continuing on to hunt for salmon.

Solace at anchor

Solace at anchor behind this field on Stuart Island.

Eventually, the whale watching boats showed up and the pod moved south at a rapid clip, leaving us to slowly crawl after in their wake. Once the whales were a good distance from us and clearly moving south, we fired up the engine again and continued toward my home marina.

I didn’t bother to try and take any pictures as I didn’t want to miss any of the awesomeness by fiddling with my camera. I leave that to the experts, like Katie Jones, who sells amazing wildlife photography on her site and donated this shot.

Orca Whales

Orca whales in the Puget Sound. Photo by Katie Jones of Spyhopper Travels Photography.

We got about 500 yards from the marina entrance and ran out of gas! Fighting the flood tide all day took a tiny bit more fuel than I had planned. I sailed the boat about 200 yards south of the marina entrance, dropped anchor, and called Vessel Assist. I could have taken the dingy in to get gas, but I’ve paid for Boat US insurance for three years and never used it. I figured I’d give it a go. Twenty minutes and 5 bucks later, we had a gallon of fuel in our tank. With a big grin and tired muscles, I pulled into my home slip. What an awesome trip!

Stuart Island fades into the distance as we work our way home.

Stuart Island fades into the distance as we work our way home.

Madrona Jungle

Stuart Island is a Madrona jungle.

Old Plane

This old plane behind the tree looks like it may have hit the tree and then been left to rot.


A dead butterfly I found in the grass.

Madrona Bark

This the color and texture of this Madrona tree was pretty amazing. Dead wood, trunk, and bark.

Indian Pipe Flower

Indian Pipe flower is getting ready to bloom.

Doe with fawns

This doe had two twin fawns.

Madrona Flowers

Madrona flowers litter the ground.

Boats in Boundry Pass

A speedboat passes a sailboat. Photo taken from cliff above Turn Point Lighthouse.

Madrona Bench

This madrona branch made a nice bench.

Related posts:

The Gnomes of Stuart Island
Rosario Resort - A Honeymoon Destination!
Back to Anacortes
6 Responses to “Orca-gasm!”
  1. Oh how envious I am!! I totally need some island and whale time this summer. Great photos!

    • Chris says:

      Let me know when you get your new boat up in this neighborhood and we’ll go hunt whales together! I sure hope I can see your new boat in real life some day.

  2. Sounds like an amazing weekend Chris! The orca sightings sound AMAZING. What incredible creatures they are! (Love the vessel assist story too!)

    – Katie and Mark

  3. Harold B says:

    Turn Point on Stuart Island is not the the most Northwestern land in the USA. Pick a spot in Alaska,any
    spot therein is in the the USA and is further North and/or West than Turn Point, or it was the last time I was there. The first time I went to Alaska it was a US Territory, not a state. Is that telling on my age? You
    will like Alaska too, if you have not yet enjoyed the experience.

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