Cruising your own adventure in the Pacific NW is a special experience, difficult to duplicate anywhere else on the planet. Geography contributes a great deal to the creation of our boater’s paradise. Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands are part of the larger “Salish Sea”; an inland ocean teeming with life, surrounded by stunning scenery, and protected from many of the worst storms routinely rampaging across the northern Pacific Ocean.
The Glacial Gift
About 10-15,000 years ago, much of the Pacific NW coast was covered by enormous glaciers. Some were nearly half a mile high, exerting tons of pressure per square inch on the earth below. The glaciers churned away the softest soils, carving broad trenches up to several hundred feet deep. As the earth warmed, the glaciers retreated and the sea filled the emerging cavities. The resulting waterways comprise the sounds, the straits, the narrows, and the passes that frame our Pacific NW boating environment. The forested islands that confer the unique character to Northwest cruising are the mountaintops left behind when the glaciers finally melted away.
On the Lee Side
Low pressure weather systems bring stormy weather, and in our latitudes they rotate counterclockwise. Our wildest, wettest weather ordinarily arrives from the SW, or WSW, and much of Puget Sound is protected by the Olympic Peninsula from the most vigorous storms. There can be stormy days on our inland ocean, but far fewer in number than in most coastal areas. Waters east of the Olympic Peninsula, Whidbey Island, the San Juans, and Vancouver Island are on the “lee side”. Sailors will usually find enough wind; most of the time there is not so much wind that boating generally becomes uncomfortable.
Boating is a year ‘round activity here, with tropical air introduced by low pressure winds in the wintertime making freezing temperatures near sea level a very rare event. Our saltwater harbors and even our larger freshwater lakes virtually never freeze.
High pressure systems bring dry weather, and in our latitudes they rotate clockwise. Wind from the north is usually associated with dry and relatively clear weather. Despite the allegation that “it rains every day in Seattle” (a rumor some claim was started in the interest of discouraging immigration), our summer months can be almost idyllic. Sometimes lightly filtered by high clouds, our sun is softer and gentler than in more severe climates. If the boat is hot and stuffy, opening a cabin door or window will introduce a natural, soothing, “air conditioned” breeze provided free of charge by Mother Nature. Our fair weather winds are most often gentle, clean air northerlies, fresh from icy realms where eagles soar.
Some Seamanship Still Required
Our leeward conditions make recreational boating safer and more comfortable than elsewhere, but even in the boating Eden of the Pacific NW there can be occasional serpents in the garden. Relatively open waters, such as the Straits of Georgia, Juan de Fuca, and Rosario can become unruly on the windiest days. NW cruisers usually enjoy fair weather, but prepare for foul. There is no substitute for a seaworthy boat and up-to-date forecast information.
On those rare days when our geography does not sufficiently protect our waters and it is better to remain in port; NW cruisers have a greater number of interesting ports from which to choose.