Sailing in the San Juan Islands

One of our favorite spots growing up was sailing around the various islands in the San Juans. The San Juan Islands, if you are not familiar, are a cluster of islands north of Seattle, near the city of Bellingham, WA, and almost to the border with Canada and Vancouver. Well known for all types of boat traffic, including sailing, ferries, and kayaking. It is a terrific area for wildlife and tours. It is just gorgeous and a bucket list spot if you are on the west coast.

If you are not familiar and want to get the lay of the lay before setting sail, check out the San Juan Visitors Bureau. They can recommend a good sailing option, routes, places to avoid, things to see, local etiquette, etc. But all of this legwork will be worth it just to see orcas and the natural beauty of this area.

The San Juans are probably not the best place if the type of sailing you prefer is wide open ocean. You are rarely that far from land, albeit small land, and there are plenty of other boats around. This can make it nervewracking on a novice. Up to you on where you like to sail and the type of day you are looking to have.

One of our favorite spots, is sailing around Lummi Island, which is one of the closest islands to the city of Bellingham. It is very passable at high tide for any sized vessel, but this is mainly a route for smaller craft. Be careful of the reefnet fishing from a local sustainable wild salmon fishery. They do amazing work, but they have reefnet stations out in the bay that you’ll need to navigate around. Look them up later for some great seafood options.

From there, we like to curl around Orcas Island and try to see some whales. I’d say we are successful maybe 20% of the time, but when you happen to catch them, it is an amazing experience. We once had them swim beside us for about two minutes. They are just incredible.

Sailing Terminology

So, you’ve decided what to bring on your sailing excursion, and you are now properly outfitted for a day on the water. What else do you need to know to be safe and helpful? Whether you’re going just to relax and want to be ‘deck fluff’, or you’d like to learn enough to eventually skipper a boat yourself, it starts with basic stuff. Sailors have their own terminology, and this is important to know to have a successful trip.

Certainly, the most important thing you will need to remember is how to address the Captain of the vessel….particularly if he or she is the owner. You will probably know his or her name, but better results can usually be obtained by using the title of captain as well. You might also try something cheeky like Your Highness, Your Lordship, Captain Wonderful, Master and Commander.

Following is a detailed list of common sailing terminology that is useful for novices to learn, or at least be somewhat familiar with, before their first trip. At the bottom of this page, you will find diagrams of the boat with this terminology outlined. You will also find a link for additional terms if interested in learning more.

Basic Terminology – Parts of the Boat

BOW – [as in ‘bow wow’].         The front part of the boat – (the pointy end).

STERN –         The rear part of the boat – (the Not pointy end).

PORT –         To the Left. – Could be the left side of the boat or a direction, (“turn to port”).

STARBOARD –         To the Right. – Could be the right side of the boat or a direction, (“turn to starboard”).

** Hint: To keep port and starboard straight, just remember that both ‘port’ and ‘left’ have 4 letters. Also, ‘left and port’ are shorter words than ‘right’ and ‘starboard’.

RUDDER –         To Steering Flap in the water that controls the direction of the boat.

TILLER –         The Stick, connected to the rudder, that the captain moves to cause the rudder and boat to turn.

WHEEL –         On Larger boats, the Wheel takes the place of the Tiller, to allow for better leverage.

MAST –         Tall, vertical stick in the center of the boat to which the mainsail is attached.

BOOM –         Horizontal stick attached to the Mast, and to which the foot (bottom) of the mainsail is attached.

MAINSHEET –         Line / Rope that controls the mainsail.

WINCH –         A metal drum turned by a handle, around which the rope is wound to tighten a line.

MAINSAIL –         The large primary sail sheet that captures the wind to speed the boat.

FORESAIL –         The sail sheet at the front of the boat.


We usually use a jib, but there are others. What you don’t want to hear is, “break out the storm sail!?!”

Proper Attire – How to Dress for a Sailing Adventure

Attire can vary by the type of trip and time of year. However, clean casual is always in order. Cover-up as necessary to protect yourself from the sun or to stay warm. For example, in the summer, you may spend the whole day in a bathing suit. BUT, you still want to be sure to have a jacket handy as, even on a way day, the temperature on the weather can get chilly quickly. You’ll also want to wear plenty of sunblock all year round. Long, flowing hair and loose garments should be avoided, as there is some equipment onboard that could cause you to lose part of your carefully coiffed ‘doo’.

On blue water (ocean) trips, everything is bigger (the boats, sails, wind, and costs), so sailing gloves are a good idea as they will allow you to handle the lines more comfortably. They’re seldom needed on local lakes, as the forces of sailing are generally mild compared to ocean sailing.


The most important part of your outfit is the shoes. They need to be comfortable so you can safely complete your ‘crew’ duties. They also MUST have soft, light colored, non-slip soles. Soft, so they will give you some traction on the deck to help prevent slipping. Light-colored (white, beige, or grey) so they won’t leave black scuff marks on the boat. Tennis shoes are often preferred because they are lightweight, cheap, and will dry quicker than most other types. An extra pair of shoes is also a good idea.

Personal Items & Provisions
For a list of recommended personal items and provisions, view our recommended list of things to bring. It is up to the Crew of each Boat to decide if they want to share the cost of food and drinks for their boat, or leave it to individual responsibility. This decision should be made before the trip.

Cabin Assignments
Skipper gets first pick of the cabins. Co-Skipper or 1st Mate gets second choice of cabins. Choice then goes in the order that crew paid for the trip, so get your money in early if you want a choice of cabin or bunkmate. Some of the boats have 2 or 3 cabins; therefore, you will be sharing a cabin with someone. On the other hand, for many paid tours and excursions, the best accommodations are reserved for the guests, so it really just depends on the context of the trip.

Recommended Packing List: What to Bring When Sailing

Following is the recommended list of items to bring on a sailing trip. Generally speaking, you should pack as light as possible as space is limited on the boats. With this in mind, do your best to determine what is essential and what is expendable for you.


Personal Items

  • Soft Sided Luggage – (storage space is limited)
  • Sleeping Bag & Pillow
  • Appropriate Sleeping Apparel – (you might be sharing a cabin with Someone New!!)
  • Washing Items: Towels / Washcloths, Shower Shoes, and a Bag to take Change of Clothes to the Washrooms
  • Toiletries: Shampoo, Lotion, Toothbrush, Deodorant, etc
  • Flashlight with batteries
  • Jacket – For Rain, Cool Or Cold Weather
  • Sweats and Shorts – (layer and be prepared for all weather)
  • Hat Or Sun Visor
  • Hat Keeper – (ie, string to hold hat from blowing off)
  • Bathing Suit and Towel
  • Sunscreen (year round), Lip Balm with SPF, & Something for Sun Burns
  • Sun Glasses and strap (to keep from falling off)
  • Sailing Gloves, to use when working on the Boat (bike gloves work well)
  • Boat Shoes – No Black Soles/Heels (scuffing)…Tennis Shoes OK if White Soles
  • Extra Shoes, in case one pair gets wet
  • Day & Evening Clothing appropriate to planned trip activities
  • Disposable, weather-proof camera
  • Back-Up Glasses / Contacts, with Eye Glass Strap for Safety
  • Ear Plugs – in case someone snores or the band is too loud
  • Breath Right Strips – for those who do the snoring
  • Motion Sickness medication
  • Wristbands, Patches, Antacids, Aspirin, Allergy Meds, etc.
  • ALL Medications you personally require, in sufficient supply


Provisions – Food & Drink

The Crew on each boat decides what they want to do regarding food and drinks for their boat. The crew can purchase soda and snacks as a group and split the cost, or it can all be done individually. This decision should be made before the trip so everyone can plan appropriately.

1)   On most trips, everyone buys food from the deli for breakfast and lunch, then all the boats get together for dinner Saturday night.

2)   Bottled Water – Be sure to purchase bottled drinking water for your boat. Water in the boat’s tanks is for washing and cooking only, and is usually not good enough to drink.

3)   Special dietary requirements are the responsibility of the individual person.

4)   BYOB – Beer, wine, and spirits are the responsibility of each person.


Figuring Out Your Budget

Every long-distance and long-term sailor has a budget—big or small. We all travel the world, witness beautiful sunsets, and spend time hanging out in stunning bays. The difference between budgets is chalked up, mostly, to lifestyle. Therefore, sailor budgets vary widely from person to person, allowing us to tailor finances to meet our specific needs. Before you set sail, however, you should have a rough idea of how much money you’ll spend each month. Here’s what you need to consider before casting off.


Mooring and Marina Fees—Staying in marinas affords a lot of convenience. You’ll have easy access to showers, laundry services, and restaurants. However, the most time you spend in marinas, the higher your bottom line will have to be. Marina fees vary widely based on the location and the size of your boat. You should anticipate spending anywhere from $20 to $350 each night. Look for prices in the areas you’re visiting before setting off.


Food—If you don’t spend a lot of time in marinas, food will be your biggest expense. The easiest way to cut down is to eat on board as much as possible. This will also help you budget—estimating grocery expenses is a lot easier than trying to predict restaurant bills.


Water—If you have a watermaker, this won’t apply to you. Water is generally available free of charge, but some marinas will charge you by the liter. The typical price will be around $0.30/liter, but be smart about it. Look for campsites and quays as much as possible.


Fuel—You’ll need to fuel your boat engine and outboard (if you have one), and how much you spend on these is ultimately up to you and personal preference. How quickly do you want to travel? Are you comfortable sailing for the majority of your adventure? Do you row or use the outboard when riding your dinghy? These factors will determine how much fuel you’ll need.


Phone Bills—Long-distance trips necessitate connection to the outside world. Often, the best and most affordable option will be a phone plan. Phone usage will vary by carrier and location, but aim for around $30-$45 per month.



4 Tips for Sailing the World on a Budget

More and more recreational sailors are turning to exploration. Whether you’re thinking about sailing down the coast or across an ocean, you’ll likely bump up against some budgetary constraints. However, if you choose your cruising grounds carefully and are willing to adapt, sailing around the world can be significantly cheaper than simply living on land. With careful planning, most people can do this type of adventuring long-term. In the meantime, here are a few tips for cutting costs.


Get a simple boat. Don’t fall for the luxuries of huge, modern sailboats. Instead, buy a simple little boat that is easy to maintain. The fewer things that can break, the easier and cheaper it will be to live aboard. Simple systems, such as manual foot pumps for water and a composting toilet, take much less effort and money to look after. Smaller vessels are also less expensive to store, paint, and heat.


Anchor as much as possible. Anchor out as much as you can. This will save you a lot of money on mooring costs, which are often relatively high in popular cruising areas. What’s the point of living on a boat if you have to pay $100 per night to moor? However, you’ll want to keep some extra mooring money on-hand in case of storms or high winds.


Research ahead of time. There’s nothing worse than unforeseen costs—especially when you’re out on the water. If you’re planning to visit certain areas, research the countries and ports you want to visit before dropping anchor. This will allow you to account for most expenses in advance. Make sure you check the cost of living in the area, too, because you’ll need to stock up on supplies.


Cook as much as possible. Eating on shore is a great way to blow through your savings within the first couple of weeks. Instead, eat on the boat as much as you can. Additionally, consider swapping expensive habits for cheaper alternatives—swap your wine for canned beer, or consume less meat. Save onshore dinners for special occasions.

How to Get Online from a Sailboat

If you spend extended periods of time on a sailboat, being able to get online is crucial. It’s important for navigation, passage planning, weather forecasting, looking for the nearest grocery store, and staying in touch with friends and family on land. The good news is: if you’re sailing relatively close to the coast, getting online shouldn’t be too difficult. Mobile networks often have a huge reach, so most long-term sailors will be able to get decent coverage. That said, here are some tips for getting online easily.


Use a SIM card and your phone as a hotspot. For long-term sails, use SIM cards with data plans. A mobile network can be fifteen times more powerful than public WiFi; it’s faster, and you’ll be able to save some money. Mobile data is often cheaper than spending time at an onshore bar or café, plus it’s a lot more convenient.


Google Project Fi. If you’re in the market for a new smartphone, see if you can get a Fi-ready Google phone. This project allows people to use one SIM card worldwide and change the data plan based on travel needs. Some people swear by it.


Apple SIM. While more expensive, the Apple SIM is usable in 180 countries. Users buy local data plans directly from the iPad. Unfortunately, this is not an option within most sailors’ budgets, but some people who live on their boats love it. It saves a lot of time and the effort of going to shore to purchase SIM cards in each country.


WiFi Boosters. Some budget-conscious sailors might choose to keep their mobile plan costs as low as possible. The best way to do this? WiFi boosters. These are small boxes that you can mount to your mast, backstays, or spreaders that catch shore WiFi directly from the boat. Before giving this option a shot, understand that it only works well in populated areas and that you’ll need to choose your anchoring spot based on the WiFi signal.

Navigating the Ocean in a Sailboat

Navigation is often one of the most feared aspects of sailing. If you are out in open water, understanding direction can be a dizzying process. Before gearing up for an adventure, you should learn basic navigation skills—reading a chart, plotting a course, and steering accurately by compass. Once you start sailing on your own, you should assemble a kit with essential navigation tools. This will be especially helpful if you are planning to rent boats—few rentals have navigation equipment (other than a potential built-in compass), so you should always bring your own. Below is our recommended list of tools and equipment to keep in your navigation kit.


  • A hand-bearing compass. This simple compass is fitted with a sight. To use, you point it at an object and read the direction to that object off the compass. Take bearings of two or more objects, plot them on your chart, and find your location by seeing where the lines cross. This is a great way to check your location if you do not have expensive technical equipment. However, this strategy does not work well for open water.


  • Parallel rules. This tool is two rulers hinged together so that they remain parallel with the distance between them is adjusted. Before your trip, use the rules to determine the latitude and longitude of key locations—where you’re sailing from, where you might want to go, and your destination. Write these on the chart and draw lines between key points.


  • A chart of the area you’ll be sailing. At this point, we’ve mentioned a chart two time. Purchase a waterproof chart in the largest scale you can find. This will cover a small geographical area with a lot of detail. If you have a marina membership, you may have access to this tool for free. If you plan to sail the same area multiple times, use a plastic or laminated copy and work with dry erase markers.


  • A handheld GPS. This tool will help determine where you are and how far away your destination will be. This should be your primary method of navigation. However, it is essential to have the other items in this kit in case your GPS fails or breaks during the trip.


  • A handheld marine VHF radio. VHF is the fastest way to get help in the case of an emergency. The Coast Guard, marine patrol, the harbormaster, and other authorities monitor VHF channel 16. This is also a great tool for receiving weather reports and forecasts. A basic waterproof model is relatively inexpensive but be sure to keep replacement batteries on board. Always replace your batteries before a long trip.

Sailing Code of Conduct

Though sailing might be considered an individual or partnered sport, the water is open to both professional and recreational boaters. Understanding the basics of the sport requires sailors to familiarize themselves with essential right-of-way sailing rules. It is necessary to remember that sailboats have different right-of-way and codes of conduct than powerboats. Below, we have reviewed the essential basic sailing rules based on the International Regulations for Avoiding Collisions at Sea.


  1. Maintain a proper lookout. Use sight and hearing to avoid colliding with other boats.


  1. Maintain a safe speed at all times. This will allow you to remain in control of your boat and prevent collisions if you are taken by surprise.


  1. Use common sense to assess the risk of collision. If other boats are near or around you, assess the situation to determine an appropriate speed and movement strategy.


  1. Port tack gives way to starboard tack. If two sailboats are approaching each other and the wind is on a different side of each boat, the sailboat who has wind on the port side must always give right of way to the other. For example, if wind is coming from the East and one boat is sailing North while another is sailing South, the boat sailing South must heed to the other.


  1. Windward gives way to leeward. If two sailboats are approaching each other and with wind is on the same side, the vessel to windward (the direction of the wind) must give way to the vessel which is leeward.


  1. If you are at risk of colliding with another vessel, whichever boat has the other boat on its starboard side must yield right of way.


  1. If your boat overtakes another vessel, you should keep out of the way of that vessel.


  1. Sailboats should always keep out of the way of any boat that is not under command, restricted by its ability to move and maneuver, and/or engaged in fishing.


  1. When passing through a narrow channel, keep as close to the outer edge as possible.


  1. Non-commercial powerboats must give way to sailboats unless the sailboat is overtaking the vessel. However, sailboats should try to stay out of the way of large vessels and ferryboats; these larger ships are more difficult to slow or change direction, especially in narrow channels.


How Sails Work and Move

Sailboats utilize sails to catch wind, allowing them to move forward. However, “catching the wind” is only possible when the boat is sailing downwind; the rest of the time, the sail works to conduct movement. Here are some basic explanations of how your sail will work in varying wind conditions.


  • A sail will “lift” or move toward the lower-pressure side of the boat, causing the hull to move. This happens because sails are curved like wings, which allow air traveling over the topside to travel faster than air traveling on the underside. The curvature of the sail is known as the “draft,” and it is built into the material by the sailmaker through the careful cutting and sewing of panels.


  • A sail’s leading edge, also known as the luff, will point into the wind when properly trimmed. This creates a higher pressure on the windward (facing the wind) side and lower pressure on the leeward (away from the wind) side.


  • Not all lift will move a boat forward. The direction of lift will likely be at right angles to the sail, so you may experience wind that pulls the boat sideways. However, the shape of your hull and keel, when combined with the rudder, will create enough resistance to drive the boat ahead.


  • The total amount of lift will work to pull the boat forward, but the amount of sideways movement depends on your “point of sail.” This is the angle between the boat and the wind. The closer you are to the wind, the more sideways the boat will pull—the sail is trimmed in closer to the centerline of the boat. See below for a point of sail diagram.


Most sailboats will move a bit sideways and ahead depending on the direction of the wind and point of sail. This is when tacking and jibing become important.