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Captain big boat without going all the way


For most of us, a "yachting holiday" to the San Juan Islands is out of the question. Donald Trump, maybe, Average Joe Working Stiff, forget it. Yachts mean money and few of us have the money to splurge on such non-essentials.

But wait a minute. We were able some time ago to take an extraordinary vacation in the San Juans — yes, on board our own "yacht" — and we're not the Trumps. Okay, we're travel writers, but we paid for this week-long adventure out of our own pockets. How could we afford it?

In our case, we shared a boat. And fortunately our YachtLease program does not require all leasing families to be on the "yacht" at the same time.

This is one example of how average wage-earners can enjoy some of the best scenery and experiences our region has to offer. Nowhere is it more beautiful than the "undeveloped" San Juan Islands, and no viewing platform gives you better perspective than your own boat.

While YachtLease is one way to go, many people simply charter for the weeks they want to use the boat. With YachtLease you pay a monthly lease for a minimum number of days to use the boat each year. With charters you pay only for the time you will use. As you might expect, though, charter rates are higher, especially if you have your eye on those prime months of July and August.

Whichever way you go, "big boating" opens the door to an exclusive club. Instead of crowded state campgrounds and parks that everyone can reach by car, your playground now will be more remote island state parks and, even better, quiet little coves and inlets where there's scarcely another boat or camper.

Obviously you must feel comfortable on a boat to have a good time on a boat. And feeling comfortable begins with learning good seamanship and how to safely operate whatever size craft you are taking out. In our case, part of our YachtLease program was devoted to training. This involved boat handling as well as the basics of navigation and marine safety.

The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary as well as private enterprises offer regular boating courses that will teach you much the same information. Check with charter operators to see about training on the type of vessel you want to charter. But rest assured, charter companies will require some proof that you know how to operate your boat safely.

With our YachtLease we had the ability to reserve our days in advance and were quick to do so early for days in those prime summer months. With charters you may need to book many months in advance to get the late summer season.

When we entered the YachtLease program, we decided what boat we would be using on a regular basis. We immediately dismissed the idea of a sailboat — its way too much work for us — and determined that a 36-foot powerboat made the most sense for us. The cabin layout gave us two bedrooms, two heads (toilets), and a middle salon that could be converted to a bedroom. For all intents and purposes it was like a recreational vehicle.

Nothing is quite like the feeling you get heading out of the marina on a sunny day at the controls of your own motor yacht. That's what all the training and monthly lease payments are for and, in our case, full value was received.

Based in Tacoma, we took two leisurely days to make the 90-mile journey to the San Juan Islands. We would drop anchor in coves along the way, enjoying the sea life and ambience of moving as quickly or slowly as we chose.

Stopping overnight at Everett's impressive Marina Village — which, incidentally, has some fine shops and restaurants -- we motored northward between Whidbey and Camano Islands and through the Swinomish Channel past La Conner. Scenery grows more interesting each hour through this part of the trip, especially near La Conner, a quaint, historic place to visit, whether by car or by boat.

Once into the bay near Anacortes, we were just minutes from the San Juans — in fact, the island on which Anacortes is located is one of the San Juans. A few miles away is Cypress, mostly state-owned and open for public exploration. Then across the strait to James Island, Thatcher Pass and the entire wonderland we call the San Juans.

We had been houseboating several times on lakes in Central Washington and B.C. but this was our first extended experience with Puget Sound: its tides, currents, winds and other potential hazards. To "ease into" what you might call serious boating, we had reserved moorage for a couple of nights at two resorts: the Lopez Islander and Rosario. Then we planned to proceed outward from there, carefully choosing moorages where we would feel completely safe.

As it turned out, weather cooperated 100 percent, and potential concerns about anchorages seemed to evaporate. Blue skies, 85 degrees and light breezes were just what the doctor ordered.

Our week was spent exploring and truly relaxing. With visits to places like Stuart Island (with its trails and picturesque cove) and Sucia Island (wildlife, trails and vistas of Mt. Baker), we became acquainted with Washington's marine state parks. Even in the busiest season of the year, these parks were far less crowded than their mainland cousins.

With our boat, we could come and go at will. We'd motor a few hours, then drop anchor or dock. Explore the shoreline for an hour or two, then motor a little more. Sometimes we'd just cut the engine and drift. We'd fish during the day, drop crab pots at night. We'd suntan, read, play games, laugh and even sing.

Feeling like we had just scratched the surface of the San Juans — after all, there are 170 islands altogether — we pulled into Cap Sante Marina our last day reluctant to call an end to this memorable boating vacation.

But it was the end. A fellow YachtLease member had driven our car to Anacortes and he was more that willing to trade our car for his boat for the next full week of San Juan exploration.

YachtLease or boat charter are great ways to experience boating before you decide to take the plunge into private boat ownership, and an excellent way to learn about boating safety and responsibility, where you can simply walk away and let someone else take care of maintenance, insurance, moorage, etc.

Leasing programs have evolved since we participated in the program and different boats are now available for lease. For more information about the "YachtLease" program, contact Elliott Bay Yachting Center at 206-285-9499 or visit their website at . For more information on boat charters, contact ABC Yacht Charters at 360-293-9533 or visit their website at

Photos, from top: A trawler similar to one we were able to share with other boaters; Friday Harbor at sunrise; Lime Kiln State Park

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other Northwest travel ideas, be sure to check out other Northwest Travel Advisor articles onSalish Lodge, Skitchine Lodge, Lake Chelan and the Rocky Mountaineer.

Here is a list of San Juan Attractions based on user reviews from across the web

Here is a  great list of Tacoma, WA hotels to stay in  before embarking on a sailing journey around the San Juan Islands.

Click here for more great Northwest travel ideas!

Click here for great deals on California vacations

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