Sailing South Puget Sound

It’s quiet, teeming with marine life and has epic mountain views. It’s home to about a dozen state-managed marine parks that make it easy to bop around from place to place and explore by kayak or on foot. And it gets little to none of the commercial shipping traffic seen between Tacoma and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

After spending two lovely, quiet, very socially distanced weeks in South Puget Sound recently, the only question we could ask ourselves was: How soon can we head back?

We managed to hit up five state marine parks during our two-week trip to South Puget Sound:

While anchoring is possible at most, we took advantage of our annual moorage permit and tied up at mooring buoys instead. (Be sure to check if mooring buoys are open. They were open early in Washington’s coronavirus response, but are now closed to overnight moorage.)

Because our cruise took place while Washington state parks were closed, we didn’t do as much hiking as we would have liked, but did plenty of kayaking and sight-seeing from the cockpit.

Getting through Tacoma Narrows

Time your trips right when sailing under the Tacoma Narrows bridge or risk fighting a current of almost 6 knots.

After spending a few nights in our Seattle-based marina at the end of March, we quickly realized that it would be a lot easier to avoid catching or passing on coronavirus if we went somewhere with fewer boats and a lot fewer people.

With the San Juans essentially closed to transient boaters, but state marine park mooring buoys still open, we started looking south past Tacoma.

The South Sound is home to several state marine parks within a few nautical miles of each other. Many have very minimal services, so plan accordingly.

We wanted to isolate ourselves as much as possible, so we filled the water tanks, pumped out the holding tank, stocked up on food and then enjoyed a lovely downwind sail 20 nautical miles to Gig Harbor for the night.

Our plan was to anchor and then leave early the next morning to time our trip through the Narrows during slack tide. Otherwise, we would face strong eddies, a current of up to 6 knots and nasty rips, especially during the ebbing tide.

The next morning, we motored out of Gig Harbor as planned and made it the south side of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge by 8 a.m. Even at slack tide, we could see eddies and swirls in the water, but the trip was quite calm.

After that, our first stop was Penrose Point.

Penrose Point State Park

Wildflowers were in bloom when we went ashore Penrose Point State Park.

The book-cover worthy view of Mount Rainer is reason alone to make a trip to Penrose Point State Park. That’s where we got the photo at the top of this blog.

Penrose Point also has tons to do, too. After tying up at one of the mooring buoys on the south side of the point, we hopped in the kayak to check for critters in the shallows near the point. At low tide, we saw tons of dungeness crabs scuttling across the bottom and buried clams spitting from the beach.

After going around the point, we landed the kayak and stretched our legs on the beach. Penrose Point has a 230-acre park with 2.5 miles of hiking and biking trails; we’ll definitely head back here to explore more now that most of Washington’s state parks have reopened.

During the summer months, the park has a marina with a pumpout, but is limited to boats under 30 feet. There are picnic tables and campgrounds, too, and it’s clearly a great place for crabbing and harvesting oysters once more recreational fishing reopens.

We spent two nights here before moving to our next stop, just a quick motor away, at Joemma Beach State Park.

Joemma Beach State Park

We were the only boat at Joemma Beach State Park during our visit in mid-April.

It took us a few hours to motor over and tie up to a mooring buoy at nearby Joemma Beach State Park.

Also a prime spot for crabbing, clamming and oysters, Joemma Beach is nestled in Whiteman Cove. It has a lovely, long beach that would be great for sunbathing or evening walks, a short 1-mile hiking trail in the 100-acre park behind the shoreline, a large pier and four mooring buoys.

During the summer, it has a boat ramp and a dock.

We were the only boat during our two-day stay here. We saw eagles, hooted back and forth with an owl and watched sea lions and harbor porpoises swim past in nearby Case Inlet. We kayaked around the cove a few times and went close to shore briefly our last evening to see black sand dollars covering the beach during low tide.

The next morning we headed for McMicken Island.

McMicken Island Marine State Park

One of the many marine mammals we saw hunting for fish near McMicken Island.

McMicken Island is tiny, and from a certain angle, it easily blends in with the shoreline of Harstine Island behind it.

It’s a 200-acre, heavily wooded island with a 1-mile hiking trail, a picnic bench and two vault toilets. There is no camping on the island and no services at all. A small portion of the island’s southside is still privately owned. Low tide reveals a tombolo that extends between McMicken and Harstine, allowing people to walk between the islands.

While relatively primitive, it’s quite popular with local boaters, our guidebook warned. We left early in hopes of snagging a well-placed mooring buoy, but found all of them on the more protected north side were taken and there were several more boats on anchor.

So we turned around and headed for the south side, giving McMicken a wide berth to avoid running aground on shoals that extend from the northeast.

Imagine my shock, then, as we watched our depth sounder jump from 30 feet to just 3!!! Our boat draws 6.5 feet. Clearly, something was not right, because we did not run aground. I approached an open mooring buoy even slower than typical, still watching the depth sounder randomly jump to crazy-scary single digits.

After we tied up to the buoy, we settled into the cockpit only to hear a large splash off our stern. Sea lions! And near them, several harbor seals and seagulls.

That’s when we looked into the water beside the boat and saw a massive school of herring. We were surrounded on both sides and it seemed to extend at least 100 yards off our stern if the sea lions’ activity was any indication.

We figured that was what our depth sounder was hitting when we saw those freaky readings.

In addition to the amazing marine life show, we enjoyed several kayaks around the island to check out the shallows and wave at other boaters from afar. After two nights, though, we were ready to move on to Jarrell Cove.

Jarrell Cove State Park

Sunset in the protected waters of Jarrell Cove.

It took only a short motor from McMicken Island around the north side of Harstine Island to get to the very protected Jarrell Cove.

This lovely spot, nestled between woods and some homes, has a marina on one side, and the state marine park on the other side. The state park website noted that pumpout was available, but it was not operational while we were there.

We opted for a buoy close to the entrance as it gets quite shallow the further you go in the cove.

Kayaking here is great. The cove is so protected, the water was flat and clear. There are several little nooks and crannies around the cove to explore and because it gets so shallow, we could see the bottom easily in many places. I could definitely see how the water would be warm enough for swimming in the summer.

We didn’t see nearly as many marine invertebrates here as in the other parks, but Jarrell Cove makes up for it with great kayaking conditions and the nearby camping park. It has an amphitheater, horseshoe pits and an area to play badminton (you will need to bring your own gear to play).

After two nights, we need to start heading back toward Seattle. But not before hitting up one more place: Eagle Island.

Eagle Island Marine State Park

Eagle Island is a tiny island located in Balch Passage, between Anderson and McNeil Islands. Our guide book—”Gunkholing in South Puget Sound”— gave a lukewarm review but noted that cruisers Jennifer and James Hamilton were enthusiastic fans of Eagle Island. (The Hamiltons authored a great book about cruising the Inside Passage in British Columbia called “Cruising the Secret Coast.”)

We were intrigued enough and enjoyed a very calm motor over to Eagle Island.

Seeing a catamaran on the west side buoy, we decided to head over to the east side. It was low tide and the beach was covered with what I first thought were large gray boulders.

Then I saw some of the boulders move. They were harbor seals, dozens of them, covering the entire beach.

Apologies for the cruddy pictures, but this was as close as we could get to the seals. Next time, we’re bringing our DSLR!

As soon as we pulled up to the mooring buoy all of them plopped into the water, making a series of loud splashes that sounded like, well, boulders being tossed into the sea.

That wasn’t the end of it though. While the seals stayed off the beach as the tide rose, they started hauling out as it receded again. As evening approached, we sat in the cockpit and heard a few of the seals growling at each other, which I had never heard before. A cursory search on the Internet revealed that perhaps these growls are common during pupping season.

The growling picked up at night. They sounded like zombies! The clip below doesn’t begin to capture how loud they sounded from our boat.

Sadly, we were only able to spend a single night near Eagle Island before heading back to Seattle.

We’re eager to head back to the South Sound when we start our three-month cruise of the Salish Sea this summer. We want to take advantage of the re-opening of state parks and do more hiking and exploring at some of the places we visited this spring.

We also want to hit up some of the places we didn’t get a chance to visit before, like Olympia, Cutts Island and Hope Island.

Let us know what you think of the South Sound by commenting below!

Published by Tamara

Sailor, mother, wife, writer, and not necessarily in that order.

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