Sucia By Sail And Oar

Last week (May 2022) I rowed and sailed my modified CLC Skerry across the Strait of Georgia to Sucia Island in the San Juan Islands, for three days, and two nights. It was fantastic, one of those everything adventures; moments of bliss, beauty, frustration, thrilling excitement, fear, and pain.

The Trip Plan

The plan was to jump on a ferry in Port Townsend and trailer my boat up to Sandy Point Marina, which is just north of Lummi Island. From there I would launch, and sail across the Strait of Georgia to Sucia Island. I had thought to spend three or four nights out, and I had food and water enough for a week, in case I got stuck out there in bad weather. I only stayed two nights for a few reasons you will learn.

In line for Port Townsend ferry.
Aerial view of Sandy Point Marina and the exit.

The Tricky, Tide Dependent, Sandy Point Marina Launch

Sandy Point is a manmade “bay” dug into the point for nearly a mile, with a small marina, and lots of homes with docks and boats. But, because of silt buildup, the entrance to the ocean is literally just a ditch now. It is very narrow, and very shallow, and has shifting sand bars within. So you can only get out on a higher tide, and only with a shallow draft boat. There are some really huge boats inside that I bet can only leave via a crane. They have wanted to dredge it for years, but the Lummi Nation, well within their treaty rights, has appealed the permit, requesting an environmental impact statement, because of concerns the dredging would impact their shellfish beds in the tidelands south. You can read more about that at a link at the end of this story.

So I needed to leave on a high tide at around 7am. That required me to spend the night before at a campground at Birch Bay State Park, just north of there. It’s a pretty park in a lush green forest, right next to a little river and a short walk to the ocean. Unfortunately my experience camping there was like living in an apartment building full of rude neighbors. Parents screaming at kids, dogs barking constantly, and a full on party right next to my tent until midnight. And my sleeping pad and bag were not warm enough. That was my first night of little to no sleep on this trip.

Birch Bay campground, with boat.
Birch Bay State Park

I launched at Sandy Point at around 7:30am. The ramp fee was just $20, which included storage for my vehicle and trailer for all the days I was out. (Note, some friends were charged an extra $15 a day for parking, just a few weeks later, so things may have changed.) I lucked out and got the last parking spot. My tiny car and trailer sitting in line with all of those huge trucks and boat trailers was comical. It reminded me of when I had a 1967 Triumph Spitfire convertible car in high school, and the damned football team picked it up and moved it to a different parking spot.

Sandy Point boar ramp.

It was a stunning morning, crisp and clear, and not a wisp of wind. I rowed the mile south in the protected waters of the marina, heading for the exit, checking out all the boats along the way. There was a huge Constant Camber trimaran, and even some trawler type motor boats. I wonder how long it has been since they have been able to leave Sandy Point?

Mount Baker behind some boats and homes at Sandy Point.
Mount Baker Behind Sandy Point Marina

Even though I knew what to expect, I have never launched from here before. And the entrance to the harbor truly is just a little shallow ditch, and this on a fairly high tide. You can watch me row through in the video below. I was wondering what currents I might expect to row against, and if there would be any waves once out into the strait. I need not have worried. Once outside, in the southern end of the Strait of Georgia, it was as calm as a small lake.

Skinny channel into Sandy Point.
Looking at the entrance to Sandy Point Channel from outside.

10 Mile Crossing By Oar

I was in for a row. I had about 10 miles to cover to Sucia. I left the entrance to the marina at about 8am, and arrived at around 11am. On the way over I thoroughly enjoyed the views, with snowy Mount Baker standing tall to the east, the pinnacle of the Cascade mountain chain, and the steep western shore of Lummi Island to the southeast.

I needed to cross shipping lanes. To make that as short as possible I headed for a mid-channel marker nearly due west from Sandy Point that marks the south end of a shallow reef. Fortunately I could see for miles, and rapidly crossed the lanes, without a ship in sight.

Only once, close to my destination, did I try to sail. I scared a nice little breeze away by raising sail, and let the current suck me south of Sucia in the process, so I had to row back.

Marine chart showing course from Sandy Point to Sucia Island.
Midway across Georgia Strait, looking back at Mount Baker.
Looking back at Sandy Point & Mount Baker
Small sailboat bow, with Sucia island in the foreground.
Getting closer to Sucia

It was honestly an easy and enjoyable row across. And that is why I like this boat, and why I put so much effort into converting it into a mini cruiser. Fully loaded for a week of cruising, I can row it effortlessly at 3.5 mph. And with just a little muscle I can do 4 mph for awhile. While a larger sail/oar boat would be more comfortable, and theoretically safer, the penalty of all that weight and wetted surface area is rowing speed. I think 2 mph is what I could expect under oar in a bigger boat. Owners of larger craft often claim the weight and wetted surface is not an issue, saying “once you get them moving it’s fine.” But I am not a big guy, and can feel a 250-350 pound boat with every stroke of the oar, and that is without a week of camping gear weight added, and all the other extra crap you take because you have room for it in a bigger boat. You probably don’t hear a lot of successful race boat designers saying to their clients “the weight is not a problem, once you get it moving.” I am no racer. But I like a swift rowing craft, and it proved itself again on this trip. There was not much sailing.

Sucia island, at entrance to Fossil Bay.
Looking into Fossil Bay, on Sucia Island

Approaching the San Juan islands I expected to be hit with lots of motor boat wake from pleasure boaters, tossing my little rowboat around annoyingly. But it was not bad at all. One big boat blazed by a little too closely. Thousands of tons of lovely energy filled waves rolling off behind, created and paid for by the motor boater. My little boat easily rode over them. I did not feel smug, rowing across the strait, at zero cost to me or the environment (at least for the last few hours).

What a joy it was to be back in the San Juan Islands. My early 20’s were full of sailing trips up here, mostly in 25′ monohull sailboats and small multihulls. I even lived in Friday Harbor for a summer, renting mopeds at Susie’s. I lived on her property in my VW camper van. After a long day of bandaging up road rash on tourists who had wiped out on their mopeds, I would unmoor my VW from its campsite, and trailer my 18′ Solcat catamaran down to Jackson Beach, for some evening sailing around North Bay. Other evenings I would ride my bike into town to hang out and play some hacky sack with some other lowlifes who lived on boats at anchor in Friday Harbor. It was a fun summer.

As I rowed into Sucia, it felt like coming home. I had not sailed my own boat into the islands for many years. There is a smell and feel to the San Juans, particularly on a warm sunny day. I felt elated, and immediately looked forward to more visits in the future. It is still a very special place.

Modified CLC Skerry sitting on the tide flat at Fossil Bay, on Sucia Island.
Long mud flat at the head of Fossil Bay

The island is just full of life, on land and in and under the surface of the ocean. It is a great place to just relax for a few days, walk, and enjoy nature. It is popular though, so better visited on weekdays or off season.

Mud Bay on Sucia Island.
Mud Bay
Forested trail on Sucia Island.
Sandstone shoreline, on Shallow Bay.
Shallow Bay
Red Indian Paintbrush flowers on Sucia Island.
Pretty grass heads on Sucia Island.
Colorful Succulent plants on Sucia Island.
Looking out of tent on small sailboat at Sucia Island.

I had a relaxing light wind sail out of Fossil Bay. And of course the wind died at the opening of the bay, so I rowed slowly, following the shoreline closely counterclockwise. Near the point of Wiggins Head there are some beautiful sandstone formations. I also encountered a chatty group of Pigeon Guillemot on the rocks and in the water close to shore. They did not mind me too much. I passed by Snoring Bay and rounded Johnson Point.

Interesting sandstone formations along the shoreline of Sucia Island.
Pigeon Guillemot sitting on a rock on the shore of Sucia Island.
Pigeon Guillemot

From there I rowed and drifted for several hours down the entire length of the southern shore of Echo Bay, about a mile and a half, with South Finger Island on my right. Although it was midday, there was a light haze, and there was some shade being thrown onto the water by the trees on the shoreline. This created some really nice light for photography of the beautiful shoreline, trees, and flowers, as well as the amazing underwater life close to shore. There was kelp and seaweed, and schools of little fish to watch.

Kelp on Sucia Island.
Shoreline purple flowers on Sucia Island.

I and my wife are avid snorkelers. But we travel to warm water for that, not enjoying the very cold water in Washington. We also really don’t enjoy heavy wet suits or the cost of immersion dry suits. But the underwater life was so beautiful along this stretch that I think I will return and snorkel it in the future. It would need to be carefully done though. There is a serious danger of getting hit by a boat in this narrow channel, so a bright surface marker would need to be used, and probably a watch boat. And I would probably drift with the current in one direction here.

Kelp along a forested shoreline of Sucia Island.
Canada Goose

While there are downsides to all boats, being able to explore coastlines like this is one of the greatest benefits of my boat. I had one of the best days on the water of my life, just drifting along right next to shore, taking pictures.

Enjoy The Video

Check out the video below. This was all taken with a new camera I was testing out, an Insta360 One X2. It takes 360 degree videos. I really like it. It frees up my hands, allowing me to frame what I want to show on the computer later. It is the solution to sharing videos of my boating adventures that I have desired for a long time. The software also magically removes the stick it is standing on. Although you can see its shadow if you look. I have a mount for it on the stern and bow, and I can also mount it up on my mast, which I did not end up doing on this trip. You can read all about that camera and how I use it here.

I had also intended to use my audio recorder to get better sound, but had too much going on. Future videos will have better sound.

Trip Downsides – Cutting It Short

Orange Indian Paintbrush

The trip was not all golden though. In addition to not sleeping much the first night at the campground, I also got little sleep the next two nights on the boat. My sleeping pad and bag were not warm enough. Even wearing lots of warm clothes in my bag I still woke up cold. And my sleeping pad was not thick enough, so my shoulders and hips ached, and I started to develop a low back spasm. It’s almost like I am not a kid anymore. My rudder also banged up and down at night making noise that kept me awake.

I was also testing out a bunch of new boat systems and gear. My tent was new. And dealing with long tidal flats was a bit of an issue, deciding where to put my boat, and when to let the tide go out on it.

I also was dumb and walked miles in my rubber boots, developing a blister on the ball of my foot.

All of this added up to me feeling pretty exhausted. And I make poor choices when super tired. I decided to cut the trip short.

The Trip Ended With A Hairy Sail Across The Strait

Kelp in green water.

So on the third day I sailed back. I could feel a small amount of wind on Sucia. The weather forecast was only calling for 5 mph winds. It was coming from the south, and the tides were not moving much. So logic said the strait should not be very rough. But I had a feeling I was going to experience a bit of action. So before I took off I carefully strapped in all gear, put on my drysuit, got my phone into its waterproof case and pulled up Navionics. My life vest was on, the VHF radio was attached to me and was on.

And sure enough, not long after sailing away from Sucia, the wind picked up more than forecast. It was blowing probably a steady 10mph, which is not much. But mid-channel, right in the shipping lanes, the wave sizes really started to pick up, and the wind probably increased to 12-15mph. It was becoming a rough and wet ride, and I was having to work the mainsheet actively, so much so in fact that I put a lot of wear on a glove. I sure was glad to be wearing my drysuit.

I have my portable VHF radio mounted to my PFD shoulder, right next to my ear. And I kept hearing reports to the Coast Guard, from other boats needing assistance, and I was hoping I was not going to be next.

As the wave sizes built a little more, I was navigating through three footers without issue. But occasionally I would get much larger wave sets, in the SUV size, and would need to turn to take those on the bow. I was happy to see that my decks and coaming kept out a lot of water. Although I was picking up a fair amount of spray that I did bail out at one point, before it became a sloshing problem.

Despite the increasing wave sizes, all much bigger than I have experienced in this boat, the wind was staying relatively steady, and not too strong. Normally I would put a reef in anything above 10mph in this lightweight little boat. But when packed with travel gear the boat is much more stable and can stand up to more. I also know from experience that when trying to sail on a close reach, in waves, this little boat needs power to make headway. The wind was coming out of the southeast, right up the side of Lummi Island, I was close hauled, heading for Sandy Point.

I kept watching my Navionics charts on my phone. Despite the conditions, I was making good time, maintaining 3-4mph. And after a few hours of nervous sailing, about two thirds of the way across, the bigger wave sets stopped. I started to relax in conditions that would have made me nervous before. Once I reached Sandy Point, I had to drop sail, and there was a strong current around the point. I had to work the oars a bit to enter the marina. Once inside the wind was blocked, and it was a pleasant row back to the ramp.

The trusty little boat had brought me home, once again. It performed very well and I had no breakages in my rig or rudder or daggerboard.

Is Crossing The Strait Dumb In This Little Boat?

Small boat anchored next to rocky cliff, Sucia Island.

Yes and no. It sounds scary, and it was. But I had lots of options if conditions had worsened. I had two reefs I could put in. I could have dropped sail completely, put out my sea anchor, and laid down in the hull. I could have turned back earlier. I could have run downwind, even if it meant missing my destination. And I could have called the Coast Guard if a problem developed. The biggest danger was capsizing, which I was doing my best to avoid by actively steering around and into different wave sets.

Some will argue that crossing the strait in this small boat is stupid. But it really depends on the skill of the sailor. Some racing dinghy sailors would have been having the time of their lives in even smaller boats. It was a bit much for me, and more excitement than I like. I am very aware of the danger of capsizing and the chances of recovery. I have modified my boat to be able to recover easier from capsize. It has lots of sealed buoyancy, but I have not yet tested it out. This summer I plan to. Going across a strait without having capsize tested? Yes, that is a bit dumb.

Based on this experience, I probably won’t cross a strait again in this boat, not because it could not do it, but because I don’t find it fun when things get that big and on the edge. And it could have gotten much much worse had the wind speeds picked up more.

Small sailboat sitting on the shore.

Nope, I will save those crossings for our fast, seaworthy, and fairly fuel efficient Lavro Dory. From Port Townsend to Sucia island, it would be a 50 mile run, and would cost less than all the ferry fees, gas, camping, and ramp fees I had to pay for this trip. And it would only take a few hours. I would have to take a little boat with me for exploring though.

More About Sucia

The entire island of Sucia is a Marine State Park, only accessible by boat. It is 814 acres in size, with 60 campsites dotted around it. There are a few docks for moorage, and lots of mooring buoys. There are lots of places to anchor, in good holding in mud and sand. But there are long shallow zones, and tide flats to be aware of.

Many boaters show up in small motor boats, and camp on shore, using paddle boards or other shore craft to ferry their gear back and forth.

Docks and mooring pins at Sucia Island
Docks and lines of mooring pins at Fossil Bay.

More About Sandy Point

Sandy Point Marina

Sandy Point Dredge News Article

Future Boat Improvements

It seems that after every trip I end up with a list of things I want to change. Right before this trip I finished my tent, added straps to hold my oars in place while sailing in case of capsize or a wave hitting them. I also added new strap points for my gear bags and to keep my rig from moving when rowing. And I added mounts for the new 360 camera.

After this trip I once again came back with a list:

  • Buy thicker warmer camping mat
  • Bring a warmer sleeping bag
  • Get a yoga mat to lay down after the tent is up, for a dryer spot to relax before the sleeping pad goes down
  • Add plywood bulkheads to help keep gear bags and anchoring stuff contained and out of the bed foot area
  • Add a bungee cord between the rudder pintles and gudgeons, to stop the small amount of slop from making noise at anchor at night
  • Sew some leather onto my neoprene cold weather gloves to protect against line chafe
  • Try some different lubricants on my kayak type rubber hatches, and if that does not make them easier to close tear them out and make new hatches.
  • Shop for other PFD options when rowing in calm weather
Fossil Bay panoramic.

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