5 Favorites | The joys of winter cruising

This is the fifth in our ongoing series called “5 Favorites” in which we’ll explore a range of topics including memorable anchorages, marina showers, cruise-in breweries, parks of the Gulf Islands, fun things to do, ports, meals to make aboard and much more. The aim is not to make a list of “bests” or to rank things, but rather to provide an entertaining and insightful look at what we’ve enjoyed while cruising the Pacific Northwest. And since every boater has their favorites, we invite you to share yours in the comments below. 

With the full onset of winter, we’re back to our winter cruising grounds of the San Juan and Gulf islands and are hopping from harbor to anchorage to marine park enjoying the splendor that comes with the season.

Cruising the PNW in the winter can be cool and wet, but having proper gear is a huge help.

Cruising the PNW in the winter can be cool and wet, but having proper gear is a huge help.

We love cruising this time of year in the Pacific Northwest and the reasons are many. While some may complain about the cold, the wind, the shorter days and the limited amount of services open to boaters, we embrace all of those challenges and more.

This is our third winter of full-time cruising in the Salish Sea aboard Yahtzee and though there are innumerable things that we love about being underway this time of year, here are five of our favorites.

Beach Fires

Jill and the boys geared up down below while I got firewood and the necessary accoutrements loaded in the dinghy. I set out for the beach on Patos Island and chopped kindling, set up the fire and got it going before they glided up on the kayak. Then, gathered around the warm glow of the crackling fire, the sun smoldered over the horizon and we laughed, played, made s’mores and chatted about where our adventures would take us next. It was winter cruising at its finest.

The view from our fire on Patos Island.

The view from our fire on Patos Island.

Winter is the perfect time to have beach fires around the San Juan and Gulf islands for the obvious reason that it’s colder, but due to the wetter conditions, fire bans have been lifted. Even though that’s the case, we never have fires outside of designated fire pits, or on rare occasions that there are no fire rings, above the high tide line.

The boys sitting fireside last winter on Blind Island.

The boys sitting fireside last winter on Blind Island.

The tools of the trade to have quick and easy beach fires include a hatchet/small axe/machete, canvas wood carrier, fire starter cubes or logs, and dry wood. We generally buy wood at grocery stores when we stop for provisions. It tends to be packaged nicely for the boat and is dry.

A Cozy Boat

The sweet smell of blueberry muffins wafted from the companionway when I slid the hatch open to come down below. Jill prepared dinner in the galley while Magnus drove trucks around and Porter worked on an art project. Our diesel fireplace pumped out the heat and I shed my foul weather gear to hang out in our cozy winter cocoon.

Without our diesel heater keeping the boat warm and dry while we're on anchor, winter cruising would be much harder.

Without our diesel heater keeping the boat warm and dry while we’re on anchor, winter cruising would be much harder.

The thing about winter in the islands is that it’s typically not that cold. The lowest average daytime high is 46 degrees, which isn’t bad, and when it’s in the 30s the boat doesn’t get terribly cold. Snow is a rarity and even freezing temperatures are hard to come by (although this winter has been fairly cold). That said, one of our favorite parts of cruising in the winter is staying warm and dry, enjoying each others company and nice hot meals that we don’t usually prepare in the warmer months. Fortunately, we have various heating options to keep the boat cozy (I’ll do a post on all of those later), because without proper heat, cruising in the winter would be near impossible.

Empty Anchorages

Jill, Magnus and Porter ready to go ashore for a hike at Rolf Cove.

Jill, Magnus and Porter ready to go ashore for a hike at Rolf Cove.

Approaching Rolf Cove on the northwest corner of Matia Island, not another boat bobbed on one of the two moorings and the park’s dock had long since been removed for the winter. Ashore, the island’s mile-long loop hiking trail was mostly quiet and tranquil — except for the distinct cries of bald eagles overhead. Little birds crisscrossed the trail in front of us during our hike over the island to the tiny cove on the south side to watch the sun set, and to have the island all to ourselves was a treat unto itself. Winter cruising doesn’t get much more peaceful.

Porter poses in a rock arch at sunset on Matia Island.

Porter poses in a rock arch at sunset on Matia Island.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re not recluse cruisers looking to live a solitary life and avoid other people. We actually enjoy the company of others and relish the opportunity to meet up with friends as we sail the Salish Sea. But being in Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and Gulf Islands in the offseason without the crowds of late spring, summer and early fall is something that we quickly embraced since our first winter of full-time wandering. Now in our third, we still love the magic of being alone at anchor in places that, in summer, would be packed with boats.

The sun softly ends another day in the islands.

The sun softly ends another day in the islands.

If you’ve got an inkling to get off the dock yourself this time of year, we say, “Do it!” Even if it’s just for one night a weekend, set sail, find a small cove near your home marina, drop the hook, get your boat warm and see what the unique flavor of winter cruising is all about. If you’ve got heat and the proper winter sailing gear, you won’t be disappointed.

There’s Wind!!

When the forecast called for a gale coming out of the south and we were looking to head north, there was only one decision — GO! With the sails up outside of Port Townsend, we rocketed towards the San Juan Islands and made the 35 plus mile trip to Roche Harbor in just a few hours. On the dock, our smiles stretched across our faces and Porter said, “Dad, can we do that again!” Yes, again and again.

Porter looks on while we race north across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Porter looks on while we race north across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Sailors grumbling about the wind  — either too much or a lack thereof — this time of year is utterly pointless. And while some grouse about the winter winds from the dock, we do two things — sail or hunker down in a calm cove or harbor to wait in patience for the favorable chance to move.

The calms of winter can be just as magical as the big winds.

One of the beautiful calms of winter.

Winter in the Salish Sea brings strong southerlies and northerlies, with calms in-between. Since we’re generally not in a hurry and don’t cruise to a rigid schedule, we’re able to use these breezes to our advantage. Consequently, we’ve had some of our favorite and most memorable days of sailing aboard Yahtzee in the winter. 

Yum … Hot Drinks

Bringing the hot mug to my face with both hands, I breathed in the sweet scent of lemon and rum. The warmth radiated into my fingers and, after taking a slow sip, down through my body. It was the perfect way to cap a cool day of sailing fast on a following winter breeze, and with the boat anchored and heater on, it was, once again, part of what makes winter cruising such a delight.

The boys warm up with a tea party during a hike on Portland Island.

The boys warm up with a tea party during a hike on Portland Island.

Whether it’s a hot toddy made with rum or bourbon at the end of a long day on the water, a steaming mug of coffee from our AeroPress on a cold morning (with or without some Irish cream), or a warm thermos of Chai or green tea on deck, it doesn’t get much better than having a plethora of hot drink options this time of year.

Do you have favorite hot drinks to warm up with while cruising in the winter? Share them in the comments below.

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