A few years back, BoatUS Magazine ran an informative article about the many "mini-loop" options weekend boaters can enjoy — on the East Coast. Due to its combination of geology and climate, the relatively shallow, warm waters of the Atlantic Coast offer some spectacular venues and inland waterways unlike anything else in the county.
But we live on the West Coast. Despite our reputation for cold, deep water and a scarcity of ports, we have some amazing loops enjoyed by sailors and powercruisers alike. While preparing for a loop off the West Coast might involve more intense offshore planning (and maybe a little more courage) than eastern sailors are accustomed to, the beauty and power of the Pacific can be awe-inspiring, and you might even see a few whales along the way.
With that in mind, I reached out to three friends with lots of boating experience to get their takes on some of the West Coast loops I know they've done. We pulled together three loops that can be done in anywhere from four to seven days, depending on how much you want to relax. While there are other loops one could do out here on the left coast, here are three of our favorites (from north to south).
— Peter T. Masson
Seattle To The San Juan Islands
We moor our 40-foot 1978 Ocean Alexander on the highly industrial Duwamish Waterway in Seattle. This location near our house offers quick and convenient access to Puget Sound, allowing us to squeeze out some free moments from our busy lives between work, household responsibilities, and kid activities. Although we enjoy all of our outings on Bella Bella — from evening cruises on Elliott Bay to take in the picturesque Seattle skyline with friends, to long weekends at nearby Blake Island State Park — our favorite cruises are longer trips through the San Juan Islands and back.
The San Juan archipelago is made of some 170 islands peppered with beautiful anchorages, friendly towns, and great crabbing opportunities (in season, of course) roughly 60 miles north of Seattle. The San Juan Islands can seem remote and, for many, navigating the tidal currents, weather, and commercial traffic in Admiralty Inlet and across the Strait of Juan De Fuca to access them can be intimidating. A more protected route, with fewer and smaller commercial vessels to encounter, is available through Saratoga Passage and the Swinomish Channel.
We enjoy cruising both routes on the same trip as a loop that allows flexibility in weather exposure and diversity of stopovers and scenery. If the weather is settled on our departure from Seattle, we'll head north through Admiralty Inlet with the ebb tide, timing slack tide for once we pass Point Partridge on the west coast of Whidbey Island. From there, we pick up the help of the flood tide as we continue north to Haro Strait, Cattle Pass, or Rosario Strait. If higher winds and waves are predicted, we will run the loop in reverse or even make both runs through the protected waters of Saratoga Passage and Swinomish Channel.
Cruising the San Juans seems to offer endless options, and we have so many favorite anchorages that we tend to keep our itinerary open, factoring in wind predictions and our whims on length of stay. We prefer very quiet and settled anchorages away from large crowds and stays of at least two nights, and we rarely miss meeting those expectations with the multitude and diversity of choices available. We've done these cruises in as few as four days and as many as seven weeks, but usually try to plan for a round trip duration of at least a week.
One of our favorite one-week routes takes us up Admiralty Inlet, across the Strait of Juan De Fuca to Rosario Strait, through Lopez Pass, and into Lopez Sound. We love to anchor in Hunter Bay on Lopez Island, one of the most peaceful anchorages in all of the San Juans — even in the height of summer. The bay offers great holding over a consistent mud bottom at about 12 feet, with a shoreline that is almost entirely private (except for a county dock). The store at McKaye Harbor is only a 21/2-mile walk, and traffic is nearly nonexistent on this part of the island.
After a night in Hunter Bay we travel north out of Lopez Sound and west into Harney Channel about 15 nautical miles to either Deer Harbor or Jones Island through Pole Pass. Jones Island is a state park with three mooring buoys on the south side and a dock and several more buoys on the north side.
We watch the wind predictions closely. Both sides of the island are exposed to long fetches that can make for uncomfortable moorage. For solitude and beautiful sunsets, we like to stay on the farthest east mooring buoy on the south side of the island. It sits alone in the eastern cove, separated from the others by a large rock that's awash at lower tides. Beware, there's also a large rock between the buoy and the shoreline that can be a hazard while trying to pick up the buoy. Jones Island is very popular, and if the buoys and dock are full, there are few options for anchorage. In this case, we backtrack to Deer Harbor and either anchor in the bay or get a slip in the marina. Getting a slip in the marina offers the opportunity to take on more freshwater, use the pool, buy a few basics at the dock store, and grab a pizza at Island Pie. There's also a fuel dock and a pumpout station in the marina.
From here, we might head north through President Channel to the mesmerizing sandstone formation that is Sucia Island, most of which is another state park with miles of hiking trails to explore. Sucia offers several coves with mooring buoys and plenty of good anchoring opportunities. On the west side of the island, Shallow Bay has a narrow but well-marked entrance leading to several mooring buoys and some room for anchoring in little more than 6 feet.
Fox Cove is also on the west side with room for only four buoys and a few more boats. Fossil Bay and Echo Bay are the largest of the coves on the east side. Fossil Bay offers room to anchor among mooring buoys and a dock. Echo Bay is vast and offers room for what seems like hundreds of boats.
After Sucia Island, we start making our way to Swinomish Channel heading southeast about 14 nautical miles to Eagle Harbor on the northeast side of Cypress Island. Most of the northern portion of Cypress is public land. The hiking trails on Cypress, mostly old logging roads, are among our favorite for their forested beauty and the interpretive signs offering insight into the history of the islands. Eagle Harbor has several mooring buoys available for use free of charge. Anchoring opportunities among the buoys are limited and risk damage to the extensive eelgrass beds in the bay. Watch your depth if headed for a buoy deep into the bay as it shoals toward the head of the bay and drops off rapidly at the mouth.
The cruise from Eagle Harbor to Swinomish Channel is only about 9 nautical miles. The channel is well-marked through Padilla Bay, but mind the channel markers and depth sounder closely! Swinomish Channel is narrow and can be shallow in places, particularly on some of the lower tides. With a 4-foot draft, Bella Bella has never touched bottom, though we've seen several fishermen in modest sized boats grounded in the mud on either side of the marked channel.
The currents in the channel are moderate and difficult to predict, but manageable. The channel is a no-wake zone so slow your speed. Doing so protects the banks from wave erosion and vessels moored along the channel, and it keeps navigation through this constrained and sometimes congested area safer and more comfortable for all.
In about 11 nautical miles we're out of the channel and into Skagit Bay headed for Saratoga Passage. About three-quarters of the way through the channel, La Conner offers a fun stop. We enjoy this opportunity to pump out, take on freshwater, and eat at one of the local restaurants. La Conner's waterfront has several cute shops and fun restaurants, and it is only another day's cruise from here back to the bustle of Seattle and the drone of routine daily life.
— Bill Bumback
Heading Offshore: Under 'The Gate'
Many of the boats in San Francisco Bay never leave its confines. That is not in itself a bad thing, as sailing on the Bay can be some of the most challenging in the world. Often when I've rented boats in foreign climes, any fears they might have about my ability to captain the craft are put to rest when they find I sail on the Bay. But despite the abilities and experience of many a Bay sailor, they are nonetheless nervous about sailing out under "The Gate," which we local sailors call the Golden Gate Bridge, and heading out into the open Pacific.
To be honest, those fears are well-founded. The Pacific Ocean can be a challenging place even on a good day, and getting out under The Gate can be a test of your abilities to read the tide tables. On one occasion, when a friend and I got a late start heading to Half Moon Bay, we spent nearly two hours trying to make the mile from The Gate to Mile Rock. The currents can be that strong. But not to worry, because after that you have only cargo ships and the bar to navigate!
Actually, with a little planning, heading down to Half Moon Bay and Monterey is not that bad, but requires preparation. For those who contentedly cruise the Bay, consider teaming up with another boat to make the loop at least once because the experience of coming back under the bridge after a few days at sea is unlike any other.
Our Cetacea is a Hudson Force 50 ketch, so with her full keel and flexibility of sail, she's made for bluewater. But even this sturdy boat has had her nose bloodied a few times when burying her bow while cutting too close to the shoals south of the shipping channel. While some claim there is a way south closer to the coast across the bar, I've never wanted to risk it. Your best bet is always to make your way the 7 nautical miles out along the well-marked shipping channel, giving way to the cargo ships that will inevitably be passing through as well.
But once out of the last set of buoys, your journey south is likely to be pleasant with winds on the beam at about 15 knots. Many out-of-town sailors are surprised to find it's generally less windy outside the bay. Unfortunately, they must master the challenge of getting out the gate before discovering that!
From this point, the trip to Half Moon Bay is about 20 nautical miles. If I leave my dock in Alameda early, depending on tides, I can usually get there by cocktail hour. But be sure to arrive before sunset or when the fog rolls in (if possible), and go well south of Pillar Point, home of the legendary monster wave Mavericks Surf Competition. That alone tells you what the waves can be like too close to shore. But the channel into the harbor is well-marked, and the muddy bottom makes it easy to drop anchor and find good holding. Afterward, either enjoy a cocktail on your deck or take the dinghy into the marina and walk to any of the small bars and restaurants in El Granada at the north end of the bay.
Get up early the next day, and if the fog has cleared, start your 60-nautical-mile sail to Monterey Bay. You should have wind starting to build from your starboard quarter once you leave the bay, and as the land heats up, you'll probably have a solid sail with wind on the beam the whole way down. With the California Current on her stern, Cetacea has been known to hit 10 knots!
Once you arrive you may not want to leave, especially knowing you might have a hard night ahead of you on your way back. Monterey is a beautiful historic town, well known as the setting of John's Steinbeck's classic novel "Cannery Row." With its many shops and restaurants, you could spend days here. Don't pass up a visit to the Monterey Aquarium, which has some of the most amazing marine displays on the West Coast.
Heading back to San Francisco involves a choice between two routes: You can motor back up the coast to Half Moon Bay, spend the night, and from there back to The Gate. Unfortunately, with the fetch across the large, shallow bay, the chop that builds throughout the day will slow you down. For that route, either leave early or plan to spend an overnight trying to get back to Half Moon Bay with winds on your nose. Fuel up at the dock in Monterey before you leave.
On the other hand, if you're going to spend an overnight anyway, why not try some open ocean and head out around the Farallon Islands? These uninhabited islands lay about 26 nautical miles outside of the bay, and few recreational sailors ever round them. But if you turn your bow 45 degrees off the winds coming across Monterey Bay, you can make most of the 90 nautical miles there before the sun sets.
Overnight around the islands can be foggy, but often calm, and Cetacea has found herself motoring in the fog while listening to the engine noise of cargo ships, glad she has AIS installed. The Pacific on a calm, foggy night is a magical place, and when the wind starts to build around 0600, the ride back to the Bay can be a wild one! About 15 nautical miles out, you pass the flashing yellow buoys marking the shipping routes. About 5 nautical miles farther, you'll see the main navigational buoy flashing and on your AIS, along with the lights of ships waiting for pilot boats. Then, before you know it, you're back in the shipping channel (or just outside it if a boat is coming through) as the sun rises over San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, a sight you'll never forget.
— Peter T. Masson
The SoCal Loop
We cast off the dock lines from Bohemia, our Beneteau Oceanis 361, for some extended cruising down to Mexico and beyond, and are documenting our travels on YouTube in the Sea of Cortez. But before taking on the big adventure, we found it hugely valuable (and very enjoyable) to use mini loops as shakedown cruises. Over the years we've spent a total of four months cruising the Channel Islands, and the area remains one of our favorite destinations. The mini loop we suggest starts from any nearby harbor, including Santa Barbara, Ventura, Marina Del Rey, or Long Beach.
This loop takes in several rugged, remote national parks where you can sometimes go for weeks without seeing anyone, all while being only a stone's throw from the most heavily populated area on the West Coast. It is the perfect escape for those who want to get away from it all and enjoy life in the slow lane for a few weeks, starting out super remote, then gently easing your way back into civilization via Catalina Island.
The first leg from Marina Del Rey, Los Angeles, to the anchorage at Coches Prietos is 63 nautical miles. This leg can be done as a long daysail. Depending on your boat speed, you may need to leave Marina Del Rey at or just before dawn to allow plenty of time to settle in on anchor when you arrive. If time allows, you could split the journey with an overnight in Smugglers Cove on the eastern end of the Island.
Coches Prietos is a well-sheltered bay lying on the south side of Santa Cruz Island. We last visited in late fall and had the bay to ourselves for the whole week! The crescent bay with golden sandy beach makes the perfect warmup for Channel Island life!
The second leg takes us to San Miguel Island, only 36 nautical miles away. Featuring only a small ranger's hut and an emergency airstrip, the island is one of the United States' most remote national parks, with visitors ashore numbering in the low hundreds each year. Cuyler Harbor on the northeast side provides not only great shelter, but stunning views of the nearly 2 miles of white-sand beach that sweeps the bay. It's not unusual to have this entire beach to yourself! The rest of the island is off limits due to unexploded ordnance, but if a ranger is in, they can be radioed to arrange a hiking tour to soak in more of the island's natural beauty, including the largest elephant seal rookery on the West Coast.
Another 80 nautical miles for Leg 3 leads to Santa Barbara Island. This is the longest and most remote leg of the loop, and you should ensure a few days of good weather to make it. If sailing, this will almost certainly be an overnighter, but it may be worth making it an overnighter anyway when the prevailing northwesterly winds are usually calmer. If offshore sailing is not your favorite pastime, you will be glad to know it is downhill from here!
Santa Barbara island is remote, rugged, and feels a thousand miles from anywhere! Expect to be the only boat in the anchorage, possibly the only person on the island. Santa Barbara has spectacular wildflower blooms in early spring, but the remote isolation of the island is often what holds its largest appeal. Getting ashore in anything other than the calmest conditions is not for the faint of heart and involves kayaking or taking a small dinghy to the rocky landing platform, pulling your boat up behind you onto the rocks.
This short daysail to Catalina is only 30 nautical miles and marks your ramp-up back into civilization! You'll begin to see the pyramid-shaped southern tip of the island appear on the horizon. Of all the Channel Islands, Catalina feels the most tropical, with emerald-green waters and beautiful rocky coves. Two Harbors features a large, secure mooring field and a small-scale, palm-lined beachfront village. Catalina keeps the desert island feel while offering services like water taxis, Wi-Fi, a small laundromat, and a seasonal fuel and water dock. What better way to ease yourself back into civilization than with a Buffalo Milk, the official cocktail of Catalina Island?
The shortest leg of the trip, featuring fantastic views of Catalina and many small mooring fields, should you wish to stop and enjoy them, is only 13 nautical miles to Avalon on the southern half of Catalina Island. The southernmost city in Los Angeles County, Avalon is a charming small town and the center of activity on Catalina. The terra cotta tiled buildings and whitewashed houses give it a distinctive Mediterranean feel. Activities are many, but we highly recommend the fantastic snorkeling and scuba at the Casino Point Dive Park, followed by a celebratory burger at Original Jack's Country Kitchen to mark the near-completion of your loop!
The 38 nautical miles back to Marina Del Rey is a pleasant, usually light-air sail north, from which you can see the hills of Los Angeles slowly come into view. You'll see planes coming into LAX and maybe a half-bar of cellphone signal from 10 miles out.
This loop takes you to some remote and wonderful destinations, most of which are outside cellphone range, and some of which are outside of the VHF range to land. You'll need to provision enough fuel, food, and water to reach Two Harbors or Avalon before stocking up. Ensure you're comfortable and confident taking your boat offshore, including weather planning, navigation, anchoring, and basic repairs. The loop should not be undertaken lightly unless you are confident in your abilities, but countless variations can be made, removing the most isolated parts, and allowing you to build your skills and confidence over time.
Sailing the California coast is at its best in late summer and early fall when the sea is still warm, the fog has abated, and the winter storms have not yet arrived. This coincides with the Santa Ana wind season, where northeasterly winds can be strong and relatively sudden. Keep a careful watch on the weather and ensure you can change your plans accordingly. We recommend finding a copy of Brian Fagan's excellent guide "Cruising the California Coast" to take with you, which goes into great detail on each of the islands.
— Tom Watkins and Petr Hejno