Our Story: The History of Sail the San Juans
by Jette Baker
~ click images for enlarged view ~
Boy meets girl:
Who knew my life was about to change the day I met Jon on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene. It was January of 1983 just after he graduated college and was looking for a job as a Salmon Fisheries Biologist. He was 21, and I was 19 and studying Elementary Education. Jon asked me out and took me sailing on his 16’ Hobie Catamaran. As we glided over Woahink Lake (near Florence, Oregon) I began to understand his love for the wind and water. He had recently read an article in “Sail” magazine about a couple running crewed sailing charters on Chesapeake Bay, Maryland. He believed the San Juans offered a perfect setting for charters, due to the variety of forested islands, amazing wildlife and sheltered waters. The spark had been lit for our business and our relationship, but it was going to be a long, rough road from a dream to success.
Jon had some familiarity on boats as he taught himself to sail at around age 8, and grew up operating small power boats. However, running a charter vessel required more sea time and much more experience, especially on larger boats. Jon soon left for Florida and enrolled at the Chapman School of Seamanship to learn navigation and other aspects of commercial boat operations. When he returned, I withdrew from school and Jon paid off my student loans by selling his beloved Hobie Cat. We set out for California to be crew on offshore sailboats in order to gain our needed sea time. We started off working on a boat going to the Marquesas, then joined the crew of a 54 footer heading to Hawaii. Once we had our time logged we were back in Oregon, flat broke, but soon employed and working for a publishing business.
In 1985 we married and Jon passed his Coast Guard license exam, thus earning his merchant marine officers license. We were almost ready to buy our first charter boat when our CPA took us aside and suggested that buying a boat was a really bad investment. We ignored his advice, and in 1986, after selling everything of value, we procured a loan and with great excitement purchased our first charter boat which we named: Ovation. She was a beautiful twin cabin 40 foot Hunter and we were thrilled to finally be living the dream. It was much harder work than we first imagined with 14 hour days pretty common, but people loved our sailing trips, so it was worth the effort. After the first year we came to realize that as hard as we tried, financially the business was struggling. After two seasons we decided the best course was to sell Ovation, shut down the business, and work “normal jobs” again. Selling Ovation and deciding to leave charters was a painful time for both of us, as the dream had seemingly come to an end. In 1988, we both found jobs back in Oregon, though Jon found it difficult admitting defeat and terribly missed working on the water. More importantly, he knew we could make this business a success.
We saved our money over the next four years, lived frugally, and unlike many people our age we did not have children or attempt to buy a house as it just didn’t fit into our “charter plan” or budget. We wrote a formal business plan, took accounting classes, studied financing, marketing, and honed our culinary skills. In late 1991 we found a new boat located in Alaska and purchased the first Northwind, she was a 3 cabin Catalina 42. Finally with everything in place we moved from Eugene to Bellingham, Washington. Learning from our past mistakes, we implemented new strategies and in 1992 things started taking off.
Every year the business grew as word about our trips spread across the USA and other countries. People were coming from as far away as France and Australia to sail with us in the San Juan islands. In 1999, I earned my Coast Guard captains license, and due to our success we sold our 42 and purchased a Catalina 50 (the 2nd Northwind ) in order to carry two more guests. This larger vessel really helped earn our reputation for offering the finest sailing charter service in the islands. Before we realized it, time had sailed by and the Catalina was 20 years old. In 2014 we sold the Catalina 50 and bought our new 55’ Jeanneau, the 3rd Northwind. In 2015 we celebrated the 2000th person to charter with us, which may not sound like much, but when you only take six guests each week it marks a milestone. There are so many more stories to tell of people who sailed with us and adventures we have had on the water, but we will save those (stories) for a book in the works.
We look back today over what we accomplished and ask, “was the journey worth it?” Was that CPA right about the money? Let’s just say that time on the water cannot be measured by mere dollars and cents and we are tremendously proud of our success and our reputation in the San Juans. What other job offers the opportunity to meet so many wonderful people over the years and gives us the chance to share our love of the islands, sailing, and the beautiful Pacific Northwest? Perhaps the best feeling is having these new friends come back to sail with us again and again.
So almost 30 years later, it seems to us we made the best investment possible, and we have had a remarkable time getting here.