Sailing with Puget Sound’s tides and currents

Here’s a question for you: How do you get a sailboat with a hull speed (maximum speed) of 6.5 knots to sail 35 miles in about four hours?

This isn’t a hypothetical question. Just the other day, we sailed our 39-foot sailboat, Polaris, to Port Townsend from Seattle in about four hours.

The answer is in the stars. Specifically, the sun and the moon, how close Earth is to either, and to a certain extent, the weather. These all have an impact on how deep the water is, how fast it is moving and in which direction it is heading. In short, tides and currents.

Puget Sound and Salish Sea have amazing tides and currents that have the power to affect how quickly you can get to a destination—or if you can get to that destination at all. That’s why it’s important to understand how tides and currents work in this area, and to always incorporate them into your trip planning.

What goes up must go down

It’s always important to keep an eye on the tidal cycle when exploring beaches along the Salish Sea.

The Salish Sea, of which Puget Sound is a part, gets its water from the Pacific Ocean thanks to the watery highway that connects the two: the Strait of Juan de Fuca. When the water rises for the Pacific, it brings gallons and gallons of seawater down the Strait and into the Salish. We call this the flood tide because that is when the water level increases in Puget Sound and around the San Juan Islands, so much so that it can completely cover things you don’t want to sail into, like big rocks.

When the water level drops in the Pacific, those millions of gallons of seawater go shooting back out the Strait. The water level drops for the Salish as well. We call this the ebb tide. The shore line can get a whole lot wider, often leaving places that were completely under water completely dry and visible, like those rocks you were trying to avoid.

In many places around the world the difference between the flood and the ebb is large. The Bay of Fundy in Canada has the biggest tide, with an average difference of 38 feet. In Puget Sound, the tide ranges from about 8 feet to 14 feet, depending on where you are, what time of day and when in the year. The Salish Sea has what are called mixed diurnal tides. That means that in a typical 24-hour period, there will be two low tides, with one much lower water than the other, and two high tides, with one much higher water than the other.

We also have what are called neap and spring tides. The University of Washington has a great explainer about Puget Sounds tides and what causes them, but for our purposes here, I will summarize: Spring tides have larger tidal ranges, neap tides have smaller tidal ranges.

Currents: Friend or foe?

A NOAA map of the maximum current during the ebb tide in North Puget Sound.

During the flood, water coming down the Strait pushes south into Puget Sound and north into the San Juan Islands. When the tide begins to drop, the current runs north out of Puget Sound and south out of the San Juan Islands. These tidal exchanges create currents of varying speeds and directions.

The local topography also contributes to the speed of these currents. Water flowing through narrow passages functions just like water coming out of a hose that was been partially blocked at the end: it flows faster.

I took this video of the current in Kilsut Harbor from the northern beach of Marrowstone Island. We estimated the current was running about 2 knots. Just 2 knots, but it almost took me and the kids out to the Strait of Juan de Fuca when we were trying to row our dinghy back to the boat.

In general, it’s best to ride the current when it is going the same direction you are going. Going with the current speeds you up; going against it slows you down. However, in some places the current speed can get so fast it would be dangerous for your average sailboat to go during the max current, regardless of which direction it is going.

Examples of places in our local waters where the flow gets “squeezed” into going faster include the Tacoma Narrows and Deception Pass, where the current often gets above 6 knots going either direction. British Columbia has some incredibly fast currents that require careful planning. The current going through Seymour Narrows, for example, can reach speeds of over 15 knots.

In those cases, it’s best to wait for a time when the water level is neither falling nor raising, creating little current at all. This is called slack.

Using tides and currents to plan your journey

The key to navigating around these variables is to always check tide and current predictions, and time your voyage accordingly.

In the example I gave at the beginning of this article, we chose to time our departure around 11:30 a.m. so that we would ride the ebb (drop in water) north out of Seattle to Port Townsend. With the current flowing north and the wind coming out of the south, we enjoyed a speedy, relatively smooth downwind sail to Port Townsend. At times, our speed over ground reached 10 knots, which is why we were able to get our destination more quickly than our hull speed would indicate.

For another trip north, we opted to leave during the tail-end of the flood. Why? Because the current in the central part of Puget Sound is relatively weak and wouldn’t affect our boat speed much. Plus, we were aiming to get to Mystery Bay before low tide. The charted depths near the entrance to Kilsut Harbor get quite shallow, barely over a fathom (6 feet) in spots. We draw 6.5 feet and didn’t want to risk running aground.

The charted depths are recorded in fathoms. As you can see, there are some pretty shallow spots during low tide. Luckily, the entrance is well-marked and for that very reason.

You can find tide and current predictions on NOAA Tides & Currents or DeepZoom with a quick search on your phone, but we still keep a current copy of the printed Ports and Passes on our boat. The beauty of a paper resource is we never need a cell signal to read it. The book also kindly explains how to read the predictions, how best to use them and includes local knowledge about particularly tricky or turbulent passes in the Salish Sea.

I’ve read about the PNW Current Atlas app, but have not used it. If you have, let us know what you think of it.

Tide predictions give the vertical height of the tide above or below the charted depth of a particular area. For example, if the predicted high water is 13 feet, the total predicted depth of a given area would be the charted depth plus 13 feet. Similarly, if the predicted low water is 1.3 feet, it would be the charted depth plus 1.3 feet. (And yes, in the case of a minus tide, such as -1.3 feet, you would subtract that from the charted depth.)

Current predictions give the max speed of the current during flood or ebb (represented as +/-) as well as when to expect slack.

It’s important to consider which direction you want to go and which direction the water is flowing when evaluating these current predictions. Here’s our local example: In Puget Sound, you generally want ride to the flood south and the ebb north. On the other side of the Strait, in the San Juans, you generally want to ride the ebb south and the flood north.

In addition to minding tides and currents, note where the wind is coming from and where there are known tide rips along your journey. Wind against current can result in large, short and steep waves that aren’t much fun to sail through.

This recently happened when we departed Port Townsend in time to ride the flood south to Seattle and were greeted with 25+ knots of southerly wind right on the nose. With wind opposing current, we slogged our way through confused seas and at times saw our speed over ground drop to 3.5 knots. Our trip was slower than we were expecting and rather uncomfortable.

That’s the thing about sailing, though; you can’t control everything. But timing your voyage with tides and currents in mind certainly helps.

How to stay warm when sailing in the cold

I still remember our first sail trip up to Port Townsend. It was during the kids’ spring break in 2015. We set out in our first boat, the Aequus Aer, at about 5 a.m. in the morning to ride the tide 35 nautical miles north. 

I was at the helm with a warm hat and gloves on, a blanket wrapped around me and both my kids snuggled up nearby. By the time we got to PT, I was shivering and couldn’t fully warm up until I got into the marina showers that night.

I am one of those people who runs cold all the time. Plus, I have Raynaud’s syndrome. You might think I’d be inclined to take a break from cruising the Pacific Northwest between the months of October and April, but instead I’ve become all the more determined to make sailing a year-round activity for my family and me. 

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Great sailboat anchorages close to Seattle

Life in a marina can be fun and certainly convenient. But if you ask me, there’s no better feeling than being on anchor. I love being surrounded on all sides by water. There we get the chance to see more marine life from the comfort of our cockpit, and the feeling of being gently rocked to sleep in a well-protected anchorage just can’t be beat.

Puget Sound and the greater Salish Sea is home to dozens of great anchorages. We have big harbors with plenty of swing room for boats and small, tucked-in little nooks that provide an amazing amount of solitude for being surrounded by 4.2 million people.

Since getting s/v Polaris, we’ve anchored all over the Sound in all kinds of weather. The cool thing about Puget Sound is a boater doesn’t have to travel very far to find a great anchorage. In this post, I’m going to list a few of our favorite anchorages that are less than a half-day away from Seattle if sailing at a cruising speed of 5 knots or less. This is by no means a comprehensive list and I will be adding to it as we check out more nearby places to drop the hook.

Anchorages featured here are:

Port Blakely Harbor, Bainbridge Island

There are remnants of the old sawmill and shipyard still visible today, including an abandoned building that was updated to honor the death of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The details

  • Distance from Elliot Bay in Seattle: About 5 nautical miles
  • Anchoring conditions: Good holding, in mud, about 35-50 feet
  • Good place for: Hiking, kayaking/canoeing/paddleboarding, swimming (in summer, if thick-skinned or in a wetsuit), tidepooling at nearby Blakely Rock

Port Blakely is an easy choice, but that doesn’t make it any less of a good one. It’s about an hour away from the Elliot Bay, relatively roomy and well-protected from southerly or northerly winds. Given its proximity to Seattle, it does fill up during the summer months, particularly around holidays. But it’s so close to Seattle, you can easily make the trip there after work if there’s daylight.

We have noticed that the cellular reception isn’t great, which could be a problem if you are trying to work or do anything else online. Port Blakely also is not within close walking distance to grocery stores or shops, so be sure to provision up before heading here.

In addition to its close proximity, we love hiking along the shoreline and into the woods on the Blakely Harbor Trail ashore on the western end of the harbor. We beach our dinghy on the north side of the shore near a rack of kayaks stored for residents and then find the trail.

Kayaking here is lovely, though there isn’t much to see in the shallows unless you head out toward the rocky entrance on the north side of the harbor. There we have seen crabs, plumose anemone and the occasional starfish.

During a minus tide, though, we took our dinghy from the anchorage over to Blakely Rock, which sits just outside the harbor and is the only visible part of a shoal that you most definitely want to avoid with your sailboat. The rock, however, is home to all kinds of marine invertebrates. Our kids had a field day searching for critters like blood stars, crabs, anemones and sea snails.

Eagle Harbor, Bainbridge Island

Anchoring in Eagle Harbor isn’t tranquil, but it is fun to watch the ferries come and go.

The details

  • Distance from Elliot Bay in Seattle: About 5 nautical miles
  • Anchoring conditions: OK holding, in mud, about 30-45 feet
  • Good place for: Sight-seeing, hiking, kayaking, shopping, museums, culture

Perhaps just as close as Port Blakely to Elliott Bay is Eagle Harbor. This long harbor is near the community of Winslow on Bainbridge Island.

Similar to Blakely Harbor, Eagle Harbor has an industrial history. It has been the site of shipbuilding and a wood mill. The result is the seabed in much of the harbor was contaminated with creosote. In the 1980s, it became an EPA Superfund site. The EPA has since “capped” much of the contaminated seafloor by burying it under clean sand. Anchoring here could pull up that clean sand and bring the dirty seafloor back up.

Because of this, anchoring is limited to a small area not far from the the Washington State Ferries maintenance dock. This makes the area where you can anchor pretty cramped, but in the fall and winter time, we had no problem finding a spot. We have yet to anchor here in terrible weather. For the most part, its a calm anchorage.

We don’t necessarily come here for the solitude, but that’s fine. We love exploring Winslow’s shops and restaurants, where you can provision, pick up gifts and dine on fantastic food that rivals what you can find in Seattle. There is a trail that winds around part of the harbor and includes signs that explain the community’s history as a sawmill (and the environmental impact the past has had on the present).

Transient boaters may be pleased to know that the city of Bainbridge Island manages a small dock with power, water and pump-out. This makes it a great stop if you need to charge batteries, top off your water tank or pump-out before heading to another anchorage. First come, first served.

Here are the fees and other info:

  • Power is $5 a day
  • Docking, 3 hours or less: 10 cents per foot
  • Docking, 24 hours, 50 cents per foot.
  • For now, showers are closed.
  • Boaters normally should prepare to raft up during the busy months, but for now, no rafting up is required.

Winslow also is home to the Bainbridge Museum of Art, which has free admission, a weekly farmer’s market from April through December, and a children’s museum that for the sake of families of young kids, I hope can survive the pandemic.

We just recently discovered the Bainbridge Island Japanese-American Exclusion Memorial, a park that is still under construction located near the south shore of Eagle Harbor. We accessed the memorial by taking our dinghy to a tie-up near the Bainbridge Island Marina. Once out of the marina, you’ll see an entrance to the memorial on your left.

The memorial honors the 200+ residents who were forced from their homes during World War II after the Empire of Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. Walk through the guided path to learn about the families who were forced from their homes and taken to internment camps. You’ll read about the many who lost the farms and businesses they had before the war, and how children were removed from school and missed graduations and ball games. And yet, many of the remaining Bainbridge Island residents worked together to preserve their neighbors’ properties while they were interned.

We enjoyed learning about this too-often ignored part of our country’s history and incorporated some of the lessons from the memorial’s message into our homeschool.

Port Madison, Bainbridge Island

We checked out Port Madison recently on a lovely, cold week in November.

The details

  • Distance from Elliot Bay in Seattle: About 9 nautical miles
  • Anchoring conditions: Good holding, in mud, about 15-25 feet
  • Good place for: Hiking, kayaking/canoeing/paddleboarding

Port Madison is on the northern tip of Bainbridge Island, and would be a great place to tuck into while on the way to Port Townsend or other points north. We only recently ventured into the deep, winding bay near the community. There are a few private docks, a Seattle Yacht Club outstation and several private moorings. Nevertheless, we found a spot to drop the hook about midway into the bay.

We took the dinghy to the public dock on the bay’s south side to get on land and stretch our legs a bit. There is a short lovely trail that takes you up a hill into the woods and to some painted rocks well-known by locals. After that, most of the walking we did was on residential streets. Thankfully, Port Madison doesn’t get a lot of traffic.

A frog and ladybug rock; you either love this or hate this.

Like the other anchorages near Bainbridge Island, Port Madison was a mill town at one point, and like most of Bainbridge Island, was once home to the Suquamish Indian tribe. These days, its a picturesque bay with a mostly high-end residential community surrounding it. Port Madison definitely feels like a calm, secluded anchorage, even though there is housing and boats all around.

There’s not much to do here in terms of sight-seeing, but plenty of space for calm, protected kayaking. We enjoyed exploring the length of the bay and rounding a tiny islet called Treasure Island.

Liberty Bay, Poulsbo

Come to Poulsbo for its huge anchorage, stay for the Scandinavian pastries.

The details

  • Distance from Elliot Bay in Seattle: About 16 nautical miles
  • Anchoring conditions: Good holding, in mud, anywhere from 12-40 feet
  • Good place for: Hiking, kayaking/canoeing/paddleboarding, shopping, sight-seeing

West of Bainbridge Island and tucked deep into the Kitsap Peninsula is the long, wide anchorage of Liberty Bay and the lovely town of Poulsbo. It takes us about a half-day to sail or motor to Poulsbo from our slip at the Elliott Bay Marina. It’s short enough to do without too much planning and long enough to feel like you are getting away from the city. Just check the tides and currents when going through Agate Pass. The currents can reach up to 6.5 kts so try to time your arrival around slack tide.

Liberty Bay is a wonderful anchorage in great weather and can be a good refuge in poor weather. We’ve anchored here in the summer when there have been dozens of boats, and we rode out a storm here while cruising in the fall. (You can read more about where we anchored in Liberty Bay during a gale.)

During the late summer and early fall we spotted tons of harbor seals cruising the bay and lounging on the breakwater near one of the town’s marinas. We didn’t get to do much beach-combing here, but really enjoyed kayaking the long, wide anchorage and checking out other boats.

And then there’s Poulsbo. The historic downtown is immediately accessible from the dinghy tie-up. You’ll find some cute clothing and gift shops, a market with some pricey, but unique foods and drinks, a marine supply store and, of course, pastries!

Our favorite is Sluy’s, located downtown. We usually grab a sampling of their wares; a few cookies, a danish, some bread and a fritter or two. Then, we take a walk along the Bay on a path that winds through a waterfront park.

If you need to do a full provisioning run, you can walk a mile or so to the local Safeway.

Illahee State Marine Park

During the summer months, the dock and pier at Illahee State Marine Park can get quite busy with families fishing and crabbing.

The details

  • Distance from Elliot Bay in Seattle: About 11 nautical miles
  • Anchoring conditions: OK holding, about 10-25 feet
  • Good place for: Hiking, kayaking/canoeing/paddleboarding, swimming (in summer, if thick-skinned or in a wetsuit), tidepooling

Illahee sits along Port Orchard Bay just south of Bremerton on the Kitsap Peninsula. Like many marine state parks, it has a few mooring balls (five) and a small dock if you’d rather tie up. We have not anchored here, opting to use our annual moorage permit, but I have seen boats anchor near here. It can get quite shallow if you get as close as the mooring balls (we recently tied up here and at low tide our depth sounder read about 10-11 feet), and the seafloor drops off pretty quickly if a little farther out. So be careful where you anchor.

The fastest way to Illahee from Elliott Bay is via Rich Passage on the south side of Bainbridge Island. You’ll have to share the relatively narrow passage with the Bremerton Ferry and, if you are lucky, a Navy ship. But in general, it’s an easy voyage.

In the summer time, the pier and the dock is crowded with families fishing, clamming, crabbing and oyster harvesting. Just above the beach starts a lovely, short but steep, half-mile hiking trail up the hillside. A sign informed us that an Eagle Scout project is to thank for the hillside stairs that made the journey a little easier.

We are avid kayakers and enjoyed paddling near the beach during low tide to look for crabs, starfish and other critters.

While there are no grocery stores close to the park, there is a Fred Meyer about 2.5 miles away. We opted to go the long way by walking through residential streets and taking a side trip through the Illahee Preserve. Given the distance and the roundabout way to the store, I wouldn’t recommend Illahee as a spot if you need to provision. But for those looking to get their steps in, it is possible.

Other anchorages

We have yet to check out all the anchorages near Seattle, but plan to visit the following this winter and spring:

  • Manzanita Bay
  • Dyes Inlet

Let us know about your favorite nearby anchorages!

Celebrating holidays on a sailboat

It’s been six months since we moved out of our house in Portland and onto our boat.

I rarely miss living in a house. Not even when washing the dishes by hand, not even when lugging our laundry to a laundromat and not even when trying to cram my jacket in a hanging locker filled with spare line and two toolboxes.

Now is the time—the holidays—I miss living in a house. Christmas has always been a big deal in my family, and I carried on that tradition when I had kids. We always had cookies (so many), gifts (too much) and gobs of decor.

This is the first year we are spending Christmas on our sailboat. Living in such a small space that rocks and rolls with the waves means we need to forgo some of those longtime traditions and create some new ones.

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Making kids part of the sail crew

We’ve been sailing as a family for three years, but until this last year, my son showed very little interest in being anything more than a passenger.

During passages (in our case, a day or two of sailing in Puget Sound to get from one gunkhole to the next), we had to demand he leave the cabin and come topside. We gave him “jobs,” like searching the water for sea life, or rules, like any eating had to happen in the cockpit while we were underway. He complied, but usually would cry boredom at some point and beg to go back into the cabin with a book.

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What learning looks like on our sailboat

Like many families in the U.S., our school year looks a lot different than it has in years past.

Gone are the days of getting up at 6:30 a.m. and rushing to eat, get dressed and in the car in time for school.

Instead, the kids get up when they get up. After breakfast, they usually head outside for some vitamin D and fresh air.

Once back inside, they don’t head to desks or any sort of designated learning space. Instead, we compare their schedules with my husband’s calls for work and figure out who needs to use the one table we have first. Some days, the kids don’t even crack the computer and we spend most of our time outside.

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How we rode out a storm on anchor

Wouldn’t it be great if anchoring always was serene as it looks in the pictures?

Alas, anyone sailboat cruising for awhile eventually will find themselves anchored in a storm. Wicked weather is part of the cruising life; some storms are predicted well in advance, allowing sailors to change their voyaging plans or seek shelter in a well-protected marina. Other times, storms are a surprise.

That’s what happened to us recently. We first got word that weather was coming from a sweet couple paddling by our boat after we had dropped our anchor in Liberty Bay outside of Poulsbo, Wa.

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We’ve got the stuck-on-a-boat blues

I have to admit, we’ve had it better than most since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

While most people were cooped up in their houses under shelter-in-place orders, we were stuck on a sailboat. Which is a shelter that by design moves.

Our summer looked like this: Cruising to remote islands, hiking in beautiful state parks, snorkeling in chilly, but crystal clear waters, kayaking in protected coves, beachcombing for critters … you get the drift.

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Divorced and sailboat cruising with kids

Cruise the web for cruising families. You’ll see some differences: large families of four kids or more, sailing on a large catamaran; small families with a single kid, voyaging the world on a boat not much bigger than a daysailer.

They cruise in Fiji, Australia, Mexico, the Med, northern Europe and along both coasts of the United States.

In most cases, cruising families are made up of two married or committed parents and the children they have had together. And it makes sense. Balancing a weather-dependent cruising schedule with parenting plans, custody arrangements and divorce decrees requiring travel notifications is a formidable challenge indeed.

Our family has to manage all of those factors. My kids are from my first marriage. My husband is their step-father. Our boat is in Puget Sound and my kids’ dad, J, is in Portland. We have a 50-50 parenting plan.

And we are making it work so far. Here’s how:

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How family emergencies prepared me for cruising

As I write this, I am sitting on the back porch of my childhood home in Hutchinson, Kansas. I am supposed to be on Polaris with my husband and kids, cruising South Puget Sound.

But I got a text from my mom a little more than a month ago that she had been feeling short of breath and unable to even take a quick walk around the neighborhood. She was going to the doctor to see what was causing it.

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Sucia Island: A land of fossils and rocky dreams

The flood brought us to Sucia Island, pushing our speed over ground to 9 kts for most of our trip north.

Our goal was to grab a mooring buoy in Fox Cove. It’s a smaller and slightly more exposed anchorage near Sucia Island, but the forecast for the next few days was sunny and very light wind.

At high tide, Little Sucia—the tiny rocky island just a few hundred feet away from Sucia—works with its sister island to create a south entrance to Fox Cove. It’s a deceptive welcome that hides the abundance of rocks lurking just under the surface. We opted to round Little Sucia instead and entered from the west side of the cove.

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