Sailing Whidbey Island

Ah, to sail away, or at least to sail around – anything, anywhere, anyhow. It’s autumn. The start of the Puget Sound’s boating season is in the middle of spring. Why mention sailing now? Boats are being brought onto shore and into storage for the winter. It will be months before folks return to lounging on the deck under sail, or motoring along. Everything is relative. In colder climates, ice and snow lock lakes and harbors. The waters around Whidbey Island can seem inviting (especially when there’s so little to do on land during a pandemic.)

Nods to Ms. No One, aka @truthfinderrr who asked the inspirational question on Twitter.

(Caveat: Written by someone who has been so busy that anything like boating hasn’t happened in years. Things change. When in doubt, check with local authorities, and maybe local yacht clubs: Oak Harbor Yacht Club, South Whidbey Yacht Club)

Sailing. In a place with as much fresh and salt water as Western Washington, the Puget Sound, the Salish Sea, and of course, Whidbey Island, sailing includes powerboats, sailboats, and boats that move about with paddles or oars. From kayaks to cruise ships, with naval vessels, commercial shipping, as well as wind-surfers, kite-surfers, and swimmers, the waters can get busy – and stay that way. There’s always someone who thinks today is the day to go sailing.

A catch-phrase for many in the area is, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, merely the wrong equipment.” Say Aargh! and set sail! Or not. Even in summer, the local waters are hypothermic. Some swim naked, year-round. At the other end are those in dry-suits. Take your pick and be safe.

Let’s narrow the discussion though. Where will you put your boat? Let’s start with the marinas. For a such a long island, it can be surprising how few marinas are available, and the fact that fewer provide all the features that some marinas provide.

Start with the biggest, the easiest to find, and possibly the one with the most amenities: Oak Harbor. Over 400 slips makes room for a small flotilla. It’s public, located close to downtown, and basically has it all. If you want to see a sea of masts as well as a wide variety of craft, here it is.

At the other end of the island is the Langley Marina, officially the Port of South Whidbey Harbor at Langley. Langley Marina is easier to remember. Most of the amenities are available on-dock or on-shore, except fuel (but check because things change.) There’s space for a few dozen boats. One measure of its appeal is a wait list for long term moorage that’s be cut off at just under 300 boats. The walk to the stores is a bit of an uphill climb, but it puts you right by restaurants and groceries.

Between the two is the Coupeville Marina, both geographically and in terms of amenities. It is smaller, but even closer to stores, and includes access to fuel. Long term moorage isn’t as available, however. It does, however, have a great setting.

If you want to be close to Deception Pass and have quicker access to the Pacific, as well as the San Juans, and La Conner, there’s Cornet Bay Marina which is actually in the Park.

Residents don’t rely on just the public marinas. A few neighborhoods have their own: Sandy Hook in Clinton, Lagoon Point in Greenbank, and Deception Pass Marina (which is possibly the largest.)

Can’t find room in a marina? Check around. Sometimes private marinas rent slips, or people with private docks have waterfront houses but no boat (astonishing), or an unused mooring buoy.

Except for Lagoon Point, all of them are on the east side of the island, the sheltered side, which is also the side with the best harbors. Useless Bay on the west side is a good example of one of the issues sailors must deal with around Whidbey Island. Useless Bay isn’t joking about the usefulness of the bay. Useless Bay, Cultus Bay, Mutiny Bay, are all bays that look tempting at high tide, but frequently strand boats at low tide. The distance from the high tide line to the low tide line can be a mile. With a twelve foot tide range, knowing where to sail or anchor requires studying the charts. Thanks to the glaciers, Holmes Harbor, Penn Cove, and the eastern shoreline of Oak Harbor provide deeper harbors; but even there, be careful of shallows. Dredging happens, and sometimes not frequently enough.

Ironically, just beyond those harbors, the depths can drop from scraping sand to canyons hundreds of feet deep. Depth-finders can simply give up and take a break.

For more portable craft, there is a variety of public and private boat launches. Definitely double check their status before trying them. Winter storms have wrecked some docks. Sand bars several feet deep have created beaches on top of concrete. Driftwood here can be full-sized cedars and firs, not something that can be casually moved aside.

The most portable options like kayaks, paddle boards, and kite surfboards benefit from sandy beaches which are less sensitive to nature’s moods.

And yet, even in summer, with the marinas full and the tourist crowds in force, it is easy to look out across square miles of water and see nothing afloat. Whidbey Island isn’t surrounded by a lake, even though the water can be so calm that visitors can think that. The waters are broad enough to carry carriers, cruise ships, container ships, whales, seals, and giant octopus.

Don’t be surprised if you hear a weather report about strong winds, stormy seas, and learning that rather than head indoors, someone is grabbing their heavy weather gear and heading out the door to play. (And don’t be surprised to find that the wind died and they had to motor back to the dock. In that case, it’s best not to say anything, not even about the weather.)


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