Lessons from living on a sailboat for a year

Many people understandably would like to forget the past year. For our family, however, the pandemic provided an opportunity that my husband and I never want to forget.

I’m glad that coronavirus cases seem to be on a downward trend, that businesses are opening up, people are getting vaccinated, and friends and family can see each other again. I am saddened by how many lives were lost because of coronavirus, and how many people lost work because of stay-at-home orders.

Our family has been incredibly lucky to not experience such losses. Instead, we were able to do something we never thought would be possible: spend 12 months exploring Puget Sound on our sailboat with our kids.

In an ordinary year, our kids would only be on the boat during the summer and longer school breaks. That’s because my kids are from my first marriage, their father lives in Portland, and Oregon is the custodial state. For two years, my husband and I have been part-time liveaboards, splitting our time during the school year between Portland (when the kids were with us), and our sailboat in Seattle (when the kids were with their dad).

That’s exactly what we planned to do after finishing our epic Summer 2020 cruise. Coronavirus changed those plans when Oregon schools moved to online learning for most of the year. The kids weren’t thriving with distance learning, so their father and I decided to homeschool for the 2020-21 school year instead.

And well, the kids didn’t need to be in Portland all the time to homeschool.

That’s how we went from part-time to full-time liveaboards this year.

Thrilled to be living aboard!

Since June 2020, my husband and I have been living full-time on Polaris and instead, the kids have been going back and forth between Seattle and Portland about every two weeks.

It has been hard sometimes, for all of us. Most divorced parents will tell you that transitions between households are difficult for a lot of kids. Add in going between two cities, and it gets a little harder. I also put a lot of miles on our car shuttling kiddos between Seattle and Portland while Amtrak was off-limits.

But it was worth it because of all we got to see and do together.

I’ve been reflecting on the past 12 months a lot lately, especially now that things are getting back to “normal.” Our life will, too.

The kids will return to Portland full-time in the fall to attend in-person school. C and I are looking for a home in Oregon. Starting in September, he and I will resume splitting our time between Portland and Seattle, between living on land and living on water.

We’ll go back to being part-time liveaboards. The kids will still have school breaks and summers to continue exploring Puget Sound on Polaris with us. Our sailing adventures aren’t stopping, but they will be less frequent.

As wonderful as it is to have the world opening up again, our family has grown a lot over the past year. So, I don’t want to go back to the way things were, at least not completely.

I want to live more simply

This is what we have left waiting for us in our storage unit in Portland.

Seeing how much “stuff” we had accumulated while living in our last house was eye-opening. When you have plenty of room to store things, it is easy to buy an item you’ll only use once or twice, or hold on to two of the same thing because, you know, it’s good to have extras.

Living on 39-foot sailboat requires us to be thoughtful about the items we bring on board. The only redundancies we have are parts for the boat’s various mechanisms and lots and lots of line. I’ve whittled my wardrobe mainly down to active wear and a few more socially appropriate items that I call “land wear”. The kids have one to two stuffed animals, tops, and most of our books are loaded onto Kindles to save space.

For the most part, I love living with less. Our boat can go from messy to picked up pretty quickly. The kids don’t whine about tidying up their berths because it takes so much less time. We can focus more on doing and being instead of cleaning.

There are things I have missed about land life, like all the specialty kitchen items that we don’t have room for: a box grater, a food processor, cocktail glasses that are only used for cocktails and wine glasses only used for wine. I can’t roast a turkey in the galley oven. The pandemic made it easy to go without special occasion clothes, but as things open up, that will change. Thankfully, I think I still have a few dresses in our storage unit in Portland.

I’ve made a commitment to be just as intentional about what we move into our next part-time land-based home. I know now I really don’t need 10 pairs of jeans. And I’m going to try to resist the urge to buy every new book I want to read and just be patient enough to wait until it’s available at the library.

Now let’s see if we can convince our son to limit his Lego collection, even if he has more space. (Fat chance. )

Living in close quarters has pluses (and minuses)

We have three cabins on our boat, which affords each of us more privacy than most sailboating families get. Still, when you have 4 people sharing 39 feet of living space, it’s easy to overhear conversations and hard to find space.

Moving around the boat sometimes requires everyone to shuffle and there never is enough room on the table for everyone to tackle work and school at the same time.

Over the past year we have stepped on each other’s toes from time to time, literally and figuratively. I’m sure most anyone who followed a stay-at-home order can relate to this.

The upside is I never had to run all over the house to find the kid who forgot to take out the trash. And we’ve each sharpened our conflict resolution skills, learned to be generous with forgiveness and became more mindful of our impact on others.

I am looking forward to a little more privacy, though. It will be nice to watch an R-rated movie without worrying that my 10-year-old is overhearing it.

Bottomline, though, our family feels closer

I truly enjoyed having my kids around a lot more. I have been a full-time working mom for most their life and I have no regrets about that. But having the opportunity to spend more time with them this past year was truly a joy. I loved watching my kids discover something new or master a skill.

There was more time to be present. We could let conversations unfold more naturally. That sure beats drilling the kids with questions they don’t want to answer during the 15-minute ride to martial arts class or sail team.

Homeschooling was really fun. It was most enjoyable when I learned alongside the kids. Over the past year, I have deepened my understanding of math concepts I thought I already knew well (and became better acquainted with many I didn’t). Helping my daughter with her French vocabulary reignited my interest in the language, and if it hadn’t been for my son I wouldn’t know half of the facts I now know about octopuses.

We weren’t able to hit up museums and other exhibits as much as I would have liked (again, coronavirus), but we did a tremendous amount of exploring outside. We hiked in several state parks around the Sound, including Sucia Island and Fort Flagler state parks. We kayaked together and even did some (very cold!) snorkeling. Along the way, we all deepened our understanding of the amazing amount of life that lives in and around the Salish Sea.

I think the experiences this past year have made a mark on the kids, too. All that time outside has turned our son into a real bird watcher. I see a membership to the National Audubon Society in his future. My daughter got into cloud watching, an interest I share. Both kids learned a lot about living, sailing and caring for a boat. They can read a chart, know to look for navigation markers and made progress in their sailing skills.

Mainly, though, we just got more time together. Living on a boat leads to less time on screens and more opportunity for conversation and laughter.

My husband and I joke that we even get along better now that we have spent almost every waking minute around each other for months.

That’s why I don’t want things to go back to normal. At least not exactly …
Enjoying the otters in Port Townsend, Wa.

I recall how busy our lives were before. Monday through Friday our mornings were a mad rush to get out the door, usually accompanied with some yelling and prodding to get to school on time. Then work in an office all day just to hop in a car, grab kids from school and shuttle them to one activity or another. Evenings were a quick dinner, then clean up, then homework. Then bed. By the time the weekend came, the house had fallen apart, so it was laundry and picking up and grocery shopping and then maybe, just maybe, try to have a little fun together?

Having things to do is nice, but I don’t want it to get in the way of quality time with my family anymore. We’re working on a plan to make our lives easier and less hectic once school picks back up in the fall. It’s not fully formed but it looks a little like better organization, living closer to schools, more time outside, working from home as much as we can and using the Instapot more. I dunno. We’ll have to figure it out because I will be going between Seattle and Portland every two weeks for at least 9 months of the year.

At least Amtrak is up and running again.

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!