Planning a Puget Sound Sailing Trip

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Dana Passage from Boston Harbor

Every year I get asked: how do you plan your sailing trips? When planning a trip, I ask myself some basic questions, and from there, consider conditions and amenities specific to that trip.

We sail a 19-foot West Wight Potter, manufactured by International Marine. Whisper is a trailerable sailboat with a classic heritage, constructed of modern materials. I usually describe voyaging in a small, trailerable sailboat as akin to camping in a hard tent. Many of the same clothes, gear, food, and cooking methods are the same as you would use for backpacking or tent camping.

Some of the information below may not directly apply if you sail a small open vessel, or a larger yacht.

Below I’ll cover some basics, tides and currents, charts and navigation, and food. This is not an exhaustive list of everything I do to plan a trip, but it covers the big items. I’m still working on a comprehensive checklist to use when planning every trip.

Basics

When will I go?

Weather is not constant. I prepare for daily high and low temperatures, and consider the likelihood of rain (or sleet or hail or snow). A wet, cold sailor is a miserable sailor, and is more likely to make errors in judgment.

For early spring, late fall, and winter sailing, I bring a small catalytic heater with me to help take the chill off in the morning and evening.

Sailing means I want wind, but some seasons are much more likely to generate life-threatening storms than others. Summer wind on Puget Sound is typically light. Spring, fall, and winter weather systems can have much more embedded energy that can test my courage and skill.

Where will I go?

Am I seeking solitude? Puget Sound has plenty to offer. South Puget Sound (which I define as south of the Tacoma Narrows) can be a lonely place, even during the summer. Similarly, Hood Canal sailing can provide a sense of wild beauty, of being close to wilderness.

Am I seeking access to urban amenities? Puget Sound offers that, too. Olympia, Tacoma, Seattle, and many other locations provide access to stores of all stripes within easy walking distance of transient moorage.

How long will my trip last?

I like to take a week-long solo trip every year. I find it takes a few days to break my normal daily clock and live instead by the sun and tides.

A weekend trip requires a different scale of preparation and thoughtfulness than does a week-long trip. The longer the trip, the more I need to be sure to consider basics like water, food, and toilet capacity.

Where can I stop for food and fuel?

Finding food is usually not a problem, except in the more remote parts of Puget Sound. Fuel availability is a bit more challenging, and requires some planning to be sure I don’t run out.

I plan my trips as if I will be motoring the whole way at the most economic setting for my outboard, and I like to always have half of my three-gallon tank in reserve.

For a long trip through, for example, the San Juan Islands, I’ll pack an extra container of fuel as that gives me more flexibility in my itinerary.

How much do I want to spend?

I can spend a lot or a little, depending on where I go and what I want to do at those destinations. A great experience is to sail to Bell Harbor Marina on the Seattle waterfront. From there, I can walk to Qwest Field, visit the nearby Seattle Aquarium, or venture up the hill to wander the Pike Place Market. But it will costs a bit, because moorage at Bell Harbor is among the most expensive on Puget Sound.

However, staying on my boat requires much less out-of-pocket money than staying in a hotel. Even though some marinas are more costly than others, sailing remains an economical choice for visiting many places bordering Puget Sound.

I usually purchase a seasonal moorage permit from Washington State Parks and Recreation. For about $65, I can stay at a Parks dock or mooring buoy almost as much as I like. With a moorage fee of $10 per night, I am saving money after about seven nights tied to a Parks dock or buoy.

Occasionally, I anchor out and enjoy the delightful ambience of Puget Sound under the stars. This option costs the least and provides a wonderful way to enjoy the trip.

Do I have required safety gear?

Last year, I put off replacing the dissolvable bobbin in my automatic life vest. It’s supposed to be replaced every year, and I had just not done it. I was surprised to climb into the boat to prepare it for an outing only to discover the life vest had deployed after some particularly humid weather.

While I was inside the boat, I pulled my flares to check their dates. They had expired the previous Christmas. I also couldn’t locate my extra whistles, and my electronic horn no longer worked.

It is critical to carry the correct safety equipment, and to make sure they are usable in case of emergency. A list of equipment required by the U.S. Coast Guard is available here.

I have an electric bilge pump and a manual bilge pump, but one of the most useful items I carry is a sturdy plastic bucket. I use it to bail, to wash, to sluice mud off the decks, and as a garbage pail.

I consider rain gear and fleece clothing to be required emergency gear, because cold and stupid are not acceptable options for solo sailing.

Visit the safety page published by the Northwest Potters for more information.

Tides, Currents, and Weather

After I’ve tentatively decided where and when and how long I want to go sailing, I turn to tide and current charts. I try to sail with the falling tide whenever possible.

A sailboat is a slow means of transportation. You would think that a small reduction in boat speed would not be significant, but it is. Let’s say your boat will go about four knots under moderate conditions, with the sails well trimmed. Sailing for eight hours will get you to your destination 32 nautical miles distant.

Now let’s say you are sailing against a one-knot current that reduces your over-the-bottom speed to three knots. Your eight-hour journey will now take nearly 11 hours. It’s important to plan for currents, because adverse currents change the timing of your meals, can lead to dehydration or exhaustion, and can mean you don’t get that dock slip or mooring buoy you were counting on.

An adverse current can also change the conditions you’ll encounter later in the day. There are some places in Puget Sound I will only sail through at slack tide. If I miscalculate, I’ll miss my window. I may then have to use more fuel to get through, or if I try to push through, I may face increased risk.

Tide and current resources

Please visit my Links page for several links to websites about Puget Sound tides, current, sand weather. For tides and currents, my “go to” resources are the predictions provided by MobileGeographics which I find to be very easy to use:

Using online tide and current predictions

Here’s an example. Let’s say I want to launch from Port Orchard on Saturday, June 13, 2009, and sail through Rich Passage to reach Blake Island, Eagle Harbor, or Seattle.

Bremerton tides

I’ll go to the MobileGeographics tide prediction page and scroll down to Bremerton (because there is no entry for Port Orchard). Note that there are two listings for Bremerton: one link returns tidal range in meters, and the other in feet. I choose the one in feet. When that page opens, I’ll go to the date selector, select June 13, and click Go.

From the chart, I can see that a Saturday morning launch at 8:30 am will put me at the highest morning tide of just over eight feet at Bremerton and Port Orchard. I’ve launched from Port Orchard before, so I know that’s plenty of water for launching.

The chart also shows me the tide will be falling rapidly after I launch. I want to go through Rich Passage, but how much current will I encouter, and will it be going with me, or against me? Since it’s a falling tide, and I’m going out with the tide, I know the current will be with me. I don’t know how much current I’ll encounter.

So next, I’ll go to the Mobile Geographics current prediction page. Notice there is no listing for Bremerton or Port Orchard. Something you need to know is place names along your planned route, because tidal stations and current predictions are often not named the same way.

I’m going to transit Rich Passage, so I search the web page for the word “rich” and find four entries for Rich Passage: East End, North of Blake Island, Off Pleasant Beach, and West End. The east end of Rich Passage is where I’ll exit the passage later in the day. The prediction for north of Blake Island is in a mixing zone where the current spreads out and swirls, and again, I won’t encounter that until later in the day.

Rich Passage current

The east end prediction is for the entrance to Rich Passage. The prediction for Pleasant Beach is partway through Rich Passage, and I choose that one as somewhat representative of what I may encounter. From about 10 am to around 1 pm, I’ll have an increasing outbound current, rising from about a knot to over two knots.

How is this information useful to me? I know if I have to motor because of no wind, I can throttle back and save fuel, because the current is going to flush me out of Rich Passage. All I have to do is maintain steerage and avoid hazards, and I’ll make it through the passage. If I’m in a hurry, I can crank up the throttle and achieve more than five knots net speed because of the extra push provided by the current.

On Sunday, I’m faced with a more difficult scenario: a falling tide from mid-morning to evening, and water too low at dinnertime to retrieve the boat. And of course, with a falling tide, I’ll have to transit Rich Passage against the current. If you’ve ever studied rivers, you know about backeddies, where the water flows upstream even though the main current is flowing downstream. One of the things I like about Rich Passage is there are backeddies, and even with a strong current, I can dart into those eddies to gain ground, even against the direction of the main current.

With the tide at close to zero at about 5 pm, I won’t be taking the boat out at that time. I might sail for a while, or I could visit Bremerton and have a quiet dinner ashore, and when the tide rises, take out late in the evening at Port Orchard.

Weather

My links page lists some of my favorite weather-related websites. I like to look not only at near-term weather reports, but also check Pacific Ocean weather maps and read weather-related blogs about long-term patterns. Doing these things makes me more aware that weather is changeable, so while I may start a sailing day expecting warmth and light winds, the weather may change to cold, windy, lumpy conditions, and I like to be prepared!

Charts and Navigation

The discussion about tides and charts demonstrates I need to know where I am, and the names of places along my route.

Charts

For navigation, there is nothing better than real charts, a good compass, and the skill to use these resources. I have a GPS system, and I use it whenever I sail, but I also carry charts and make sure they are at hand when I’m underway. I also use the printed charts for planning a day or two in advance so I can picture the route clearly in my mind. I do this no matter how familiar I am with the route. It is easy to take the same route over and over again and become complacent, but if you take a familiar route and your motor fails, or get moved off course by adverse winds or currents, you may not be familiar with certain hazards. In this the Boy Scott motto is a perfect reminder: be prepared. I prepare by poring over the charts before getting underway.

Whisper is a small boat, so I carry few full-size charts. Instead, I carry chart books from West Marine. In most cases, these provide sufficient detail to safely navigate. There are passages for which I carry more detailed charts, like Hammersley Inlet near Shelton. The detail available in the chart book is simply not sufficient for a safe passage through Hammersley, in my opinion.

The pages in the chart book are waterproof (important, because things always get wet on a sailboat) and the binding is spiral bound so the book will lay flat when open. It is just the right size to slide under a foam pad in the cabin, making it easy to reach but out of the way at the same time.

I also carry a Washington Atlas and Gazetteer. This helps me find place names, and also gives me insight into how wind might be channeled around surrounding hills and through valleys. I also use it to get an idea of how shaded a moorage or anchorage might be; I like having a bright sunrise greet me when I awaken on Whisper.

Compass and GPS

Built into Whisper is a bulkhead mounted compass. The GPS also has a compass. I also carry a backpacking-style compass with a sighting mirror, and use that compass for shooting angles between features like mountain tops or radio towers. The mirror comes in handy when I feel the need to shave.

Waterproof watch

I also carry a waterproof watch. Consider what happens if a fog bank rolls in while you’re underway, as happened to me on my Hood Canal trip in Appletree Cove. If you know where you are, and how fast you’re going, and your direction of travel, the last ingredient for dead reckoning is something to calculate elapsed time, as in: from this point, I am traveling 2 knots, heading due west, and calculate I have an hour of travel before encountering land. My first rule of thumb when boating: don’t hit things with the boat.

But don’t forget about currents! If the current is pushing you along your direction of travel, you’ll hit land before you expect if you don’t account for that extra speed. If the current is pushing you sideways, you may hit a point of land or island if you aren’t aware of the effect of the current.

Food and Drink

If I’m sailing from marina to marina, I won’t plan every meal, because I’ll be eating some meals in cafés and restaurants.

If, however, I will be anchoring out, or staying in rustic parks and marinas, I plan for sufficient calories to sustain me. Remember that sailing can be a physically demanding activity, so I plan to consume more calories than normal.

I can cook on board and carry some freeze-dried meals made for backpacking. I also look for pre-cooked main dishes that just need to be heated. Many microwaveable foods are already cooked and can be heated by immersing the plastic-sealed food in boiling water. I’ve also repackaged canned foods and home cooked foods in vacuum-sealed bags that can be heated in boiling water. Experiment first at home!

(About cooking on board: I don’t cook inside the cabin. I cook outside, and usually I remove the companionway steps and just stand inside the boat while the cookstove is outside. A side benefit is this is a great way to meet people as they walk by!)

I buy as much of my food as I can at a grocery store. Although I carry a few freeze-dried meals to make sure I have extra meals available, they often have very high sodium levels. When the weather is hot, salt replacement is important. Still, I save these freeze-dried meals for emergency use, because they just taste too salty for me. I’ll eat them if I have to. (In my teens, a friend carried dry dog food as his emergency rations, claiming he knew he wouldn’t eat it unless it really was an emergency. I prefer freeze-dried backpacking meals to dog food!)

Breakfast

For breakfast, I usually pack oatmeal with raisins and spices as individual portions, one portion to a sandwich bag. I write on the bag with a felt-tip pen how much water to boil to make my morning oatmeal. My alternative breakfast is granola with fruits and nuts, with soy milk. Again, each breakfast is pre-packed as individual portions.

Lunch

When I’m sailing, I usually graze my way through lunch, starting at mid-morning and ending at dinnertime. I have dried fruits, nuts, some whole grain foods like granola bars (or even just granola from a baggie), cheese, whole wheat or other whole grain crackers, fresh fruit, vegetables, beef jerky, smoked salmon, hard-boiled eggs, and many more choices.

Since I am more often than not sailing solo, I can’t take much time away from the actual sailing of the boat to gather food to eat. After breakfast, I usually position my snacking foods in a bin near the companionway, where I can simply reach in and get what I need. This works well for foods that do not require refrigeration. For foods like cheese or leftovers from the night before, I usually pack them in a baggie and lay them in the bilge where the cold water of Puget Sound will help keep these items cool. Items that have to be refrigerated go in the cooler, which I open as little as possible.

Dinner

Dinner is the daily meal that challenges me the most. I look forward to something warm, but after snacking all day, I don’t need a lot of calories. I usually aim for a high-protein meal that requires little preparation, because by evening, I’m tired. Stews and other one-pot meals are usually my first choice.

Drink

Staying hydrated while sailing is a challenge, because I’m busy sailing.

Water is my drink of choice. I budget for one-half gallon of drinking water a day per person, but usually don’t consume that much. This doesn’t include washing water which is also potable. I have one can of diet soda per day. I will often have a small glass of wine in the evening, after my cooking and cleaning chores are completed, and after I’ve checked my tie-up or ground tackle.

(This year, I may return to my Boy Scout youth and try using a bota bag. I find a can or a bottle is always in the way in the cockpit, getting knocked over or rolling around. A bota bag in the cockpit would snuggle into whatever corner I put it, and remain there until I need it.)

Written Plan

Finally, I make two written plans. One is my daily plan that I carry on the boat. The other is my planned itinerary and contact information, and I give a copy to a relative and to my employer.

Daily plan

My daily plan is simply a grid, with days across the top and categories along the side. It might look like this:

Category Friday Saturday Sunday
Launch/takeout Port Orchard Port Orchard
Overnight at Blake Island via Rich Passage Poulsbo via Agate Passage
Breakfast Oatmeal Granola
Lunch Snacks Snacks Deli sandwich
Dinner Stew Scrambled eggs and rice Burger

My actual plan is more detailed than that. I have found if I don’t write down my meals and at least try to stick to the plan, I’ll eat all the good stuff the first couple of days, and end up unhappy with my choices toward the end of the trip.

Itinerary

This is really a float plan, describing not only my daily itinerary, but also:

  • A description of Whisper
  • Boat registration number
  • Description of basic safety equipment on board
  • Communications systems on board, and appropriate contact numbers
  • Who to contact if I am overdue

More

This is really a basic overview of my initial planning. I spend a lot of time going over the boat, checking fittings, making sure the motor runs and has oil, making sure the water in the onboard tank is good, checking the trailer, etc. But for basic trip planning, this discussion should provide a good overview of how I get started.

Fair winds!

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18 thoughts on “Planning a Puget Sound Sailing Trip

  1. Meriel

    I'd like to plan a trip for 7 adults and two children six and eight. We all live in Seattle so I'd like a half day trip that felt like we were getting away from it all.
    Any suggestions?
    Regards,
    Meriel

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    1. Tom

      Hi Meriel. Would you be on your own boat, or are you thinking a car trip? An interesting one if you've never done it before is to take the cruise boat to Blake Island. See the Tillicum Village website for more information. You don't have to have the salmon dinner. Just take the boat across, wander around the island for a while, and be magically returned to Seattle.

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  2. Ross

    We are planning to sail down from Victoria to Seattle and sail through locks and lakes. Do you have any suggestions of books or where to get the best information.

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    1. Tom

      Hi Ross. General cruising information is well described in an easy, accessible manner in A Cruising Guide to Puget Sound: Olympia to Port Angeles, including the San Juan Islands.

      Information about the Ballard locks may be available in Gunkholing in South Puget Sound: A Comprehensive Cruising Guide from Kingston-Edmonds South to Olympia

      The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has information on how to lock through the Ballard Locks. Look in the left column at their page about the Ballard Locks.

      I hope this information is helpful. You should probably seek some online boating communities and ask those members for their advice!

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    1. tomsalzer

      Since my boat is trailerable, I usually launch from Bellingham and thus avoid the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Tides and shoals are still concerns, as is commercial traffic in Rosario Strait.

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  3. Pingback: 2011 in review « Tom's Log

  4. Nick Mohan

    Tom, I'm looking at starting sailing, but have basically no on-board experience. I research all I can, but there is nothing like hands on. Are there any groups or meet-ups in the Tacoma area with people that would be willing to hold the hand of a new sailor? -Nick

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    1. Tom

      Hi Nick. I'm sure there are groups who would help. One group in Olympia might be the South Sound Sailing Society. They are very active. There are also quite a few owners of West Wight Potters in the Puget Sound region, and the Northwest Potters group on Yahoo! would be a resource for help. Visit http://groups.yahoo.com/group/nwpotters/ and consider joining in (you don't have to own a Potter to participate!). If you're single, check out Seattle Singles Sailing at http://www.seattlesinglesyachtclub.com/. In the Tacoma area, there are several yacht clubs that might have programs for new sailors, but I don't know if any actually do. Hope that helps!

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  5. Bob Mcghghy

    Do you know of any US Yachts groups around the Puget Sound? I have a US 25 and a trailer and I would like to find a group of trailer boat owners to cruise from Lewiston ID. to the Pacific with.

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    1. Tom Post author

      Bob, I don't know that. Is there an owner's group for the US 25? Might be a place to start making inquiries.

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  6. Brad H.

    Hi Tom,

    Have multiple questions. We just moved to the KP, and have water front off of Henderson Bay near the Minterbrook Oyster Co.
    Question 1: Do you happen to know how feasible it would be to semi permanently moor your boat at that location. Our property extends out to roughly 100 feet from the high tidal mark. Understand if you have not idea, but you may be able to point me in the right direction. (Don't worry, I'll be asking nieghbors...) 🙂

    Question 2: What's a good sailing boat to have for 2 adults, three children 5, 9 and 17? Mostly going to the Seattle area.

    Question 3: How long would it take to get to Seattle from Henderson Bay, and is there a good "Navigate Puget Sound Software" that is available?

    Question 4: How feasible is it to travel that distance for a weekend trip?

    Thanks!
    Best Regards,

    Brad

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    1. Tom Post author

      First, congratulations on the move. You're going to see some spectacular weather and water 🙂

      I don't know about mooring your boat there. You'll see if your neighbors do. From what I recall of that part of Puget Sound, the bottom is cobbled with rock and the bottom is mid-deep (not shallow, not deep).

      If you're going to sail with just two adults, the 19-foot West Wight Potter is one of several choices. If you're going to have a party of five aboard...that's a lot for that little boat. For a day sail: uncomfortable. For an overnight? Almost impossible. You'll need something bigger.

      Without pulling out my maps, I'd guess in a long day of sailing you could make it to Seattle. Definitely let the tides push you, and remember that while Colvos Passage west of Vashon looks like a short cut, the current generally flows south. It's a good route southbound but often not northbound.

      For guides, I mainly use two: A Cruising Guide to Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands (http://www.amazon.com/Cruising-Guide-Puget-Sound-Islands/dp/0071420398) and Gunkholing in South Puget Sound (http://www.amazon.com/Gunkholing-South-Puget-Sound-Kingston-Edmonds/dp/094425702X). And of course, carry charts and be cognizant of tides and currents!

      For a weekend trip? In a power boat, no problem. In a sailboat? Marginal. If it was me, I'd try it as a three-day trip first with the first and last days devoted to travel and the middle day spent in port exploring Seattle's waterfront.

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  7. Mike

    Hey Tom, great information here. I am curious about when the best sailng season is out there. I am considering spending the summer on a small sailboat in the San Juan Islands. From when to when can I expect the best sailing conditions? Also, how are conditions during the rest of the year. I am also contemplating a permenant move to the area, and want to know how the sailing is all year round. Thanks alot, I enjoyed the article!

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  8. jim phelps

    Thanks Tom for a lovely, helpful, you can do it tone; and great advice from someone who clearly knows what he is talking about. I'm planning a summer trip across Rosario straight, biggest crossing yet in my newly acquired Montgomery 15. Lots of bay sailing in Oregon and a week on orcas last summer. But for this bigger leap it was great to read your accounts and planning guides. THANK YOU.
    Jim Phelps, Corvallis, OR on " Flo' "

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    1. Thomas Post author

      It's been a few years since I got back to my blog, and when I did, I found your comment. I hope you had a delightful trip. The Montgomery 15 is a great boat!

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