TRIP REPORT: Surfski Touring to Sucia Island in the San Juan Islands of Washington State.
My friends and I put in at Fairhaven with fair skies and light wind. We then paddled across Bellingham Bay to Portage Island, and then up to the Northern tip of Lummi Island where we took a quick pause on a beach before crossing the Rosario straight.
While on the beach, the land owner came down to see what the fuss was all about with a booming shout of "WHAT DO WE HAVE HERE!?!" at the very moment one of my friends was relieving himself. Feeling a bit like Peter Rabbit, I greeted him with a quick handshake and introduced us as a "traveling spectacle of spandex!" to break the ice. It worked, he laughed out loud and we ended up having a pleasant chat with a man who has lived his entire life on the island. Spend enough time on the water, and you'll soon know you need beach access to regroup on long days. I am typically careful to empathize with the land owner, as the law is on their side and they pay the taxes to prove it. A little understanding goes a long way, and I have met some really kind people over the years who have become very frustrated with large groups of guided kayakers who often bring entitled attitudes and leave trash and feces on their beaches.
The wind shifted, and we enjoyed following seas as we paddled into the San Juan archipelago. We covered roughly 21 miles in 2:54 of paddling, averaging just a tick under 7.0mph. Not bad considering each person was carrying close to 50lbs of gear and food.
Upon arriving at the island, it's appeal was immediately apparent with coastal reefs and tide pools hemmed in by jumbled stone cliffs and wind twisted pine. There are numerous coves and bays on the island that offer shelter from the frequent storms that blow in.
The name "Sucia" translates literally as foul, as legend has it the first Spanish explorers found it rather irksome to safely visit and harbor. Either that, or in a stroke of genius and foresight they camouflaged a very pleasant island with an unpleasant name.
We camped in the charming Fox Cove bay and were dismayed to learn that the water supply for the island was not yet turned on. This of course meant we would have to charm our fellow yachting guests into giving us some of their supply. The task proved remarkably easy, and in addition to water we were offered cold beers and a great conversation around a fire that night. In a strange twist of fate, one of the people we met was from my hometown of Billings, Montana. We had a great laugh, and in typical Montana fashion set about figuring out who we knew in common. Quite a few people it turns out.
Saturday the clear skies continued, this time with the addition of significant westerly wind blowing close to 20mph throughout the day. I typically try to bring one great meal on a trip, and treated my friends to breakfast burritos. My friends elected to head west to explore more islands and then perhaps surf back if the wind held. I chose instead to do downwind laps near the island in the good weather and wind, and practice remounting my ski in the rough water and relative safety of the island. As I suspected, the wind soon eased up and the waves laid flat. This called for a proper nap in the warm sunshine.
On the the third day, a storm blew in packing 30 mph wind with a strong easterly component. We knew we'd have our hands full with loaded surfskis paddling beam in confused seas and very technical conditions. We were not wrong. Our plan was to paddle from Sucia Island to Orcas Island in search of wind shadow in the lee of Island and then "possibly" surf with the wind down the Rosario straight back to the north side of Lummi Island.
As soon as we put in and departed the island, we had a stiff reality check with one of my friends taking a prolonged swim and difficult remount about a mile offshore. I made the crossing to Orcas as planned, while my two friends turned back to regroup on Sucia. We coordinated by radio, and 20 more miles in these conditions was simply not going to happen. The guys were able to score a boat ride to haul us and our gear back to Bellingham (small craft advisory be damned!) with a very kind local named Robbie who happened to be sheltering in Fox Cove with us. Having a brother named Robbie, I've yet to meet one I don't like.
Late winter / early spring in the San Juan's is not to the time to expect sunshine and lollypops on the open water. We knew heading in that we would see challenging conditions, and we embraced it.
As Yvonne Chouinard famously said, "For me, when everything goes wrong – that’s when adventure starts.” Adventure indeed!