Whether you’re just starting out an end-of-summer cruise to the San Juans or Canada, or planning your return, chances are you may be sailing through Saratoga Passage, our own “inside passage” between Whidbey and Camano Islands. This might even extend your cruise as there are several intriguing stops along the way.
Jo Bailey and Carl Nyberg
Fall is in the air—school is underway, days are shorter, evenings are cooler—and cruising in the northwest is delightful.
Oak Harbor Marina and Penn Cove with historic Coupeville Wharf along Whidbey’s meandering east shore in the northern part of the island, and tiny Langley Boat Harbor in the southeast are popular overnight moorages. There are even a couple of reasonable, weather-dependent anchorages (gunkholes).
Oak Harbor Marina is a snug moorage in the island’s largest city, with plenty of protected moorage for guest boats: 58 guest slips at F Dock on the west side plus side-tie space at a long dock on the marina’s north side. Amenities are many including restrooms, showers, laundromat, pumpouts, propane, gas, diesel, kids’ playground, dog walking, 100’ wide boat launch ramp, one mile walk to Old Town. Moorage rates vary with boat size, from $11 to $52, includes shore power; harbormaster is Dave Williams: 360-679-2628; www.whidbey.net/ohmarina.
Racing sailors know the marina well as it is the site of one of the top yachting regattas in the country every July, Whidbey Island Race Week. This past regatta was the “best yet, outstanding, with nine races and excellent wind.”
Penn Cove is southwest of Oak Harbor, and therein lies charming Coupeville, county seat with more than 50 buildings on the National Historic Register. This “City of Sea Captains” was founded in 1852 and named for Capt. Thomas Coupe. The Island County Historical Museum features displays of fascinating island history.
Most important to cruisers is the well-known 415-foot long Coupeville Wharf, with some 350’ of moorage space along a float where depths are less than 5’ to 7’ at zero tide, with a poster showing actual depths. Moorage rates range from $7 to $25, depending on vessel size; there are four mooring buoys at $7 per night.
The red Coupeville Harbor Store on the wharf has a restaurant, gift and clothing shops. Showers and restrooms and the harbormaster’s office are on the wharf. Gas and diesel are at the fuel float on the north side of the wharf. Water, at 7 cents per gallon, is also available: 360-678-5020.
Coupeville is a quaint town with a plethora of art galleries, restaurants, antique and other shops within walking distance. A boat launch ramp is about 1/4 mile east from downtown in Captain Coupe Park.
Check with historic Captain Whidbey Inn at the west end of Penn Cove for private moorage. Ph. 800-366-4097; www.captainwhidbey.com
We’ve also anchored in Penn Cove several times and find it pretty well protected, although be aware of cable crossing areas. We encountered a problem during a storm with strong southerly winds as we were heading back to Seattle early November a couple of years ago. All across Saratoga Passage near Penn Cove we found ourselves surrounded by bobbing shrimp pot buoys diving beneath white capped waves. The waves were so large the buoys would disappear under water, only to reappear suddenly in front of us as we plunged on through the steep seas in growing darkness. We took turns standing buoy watch as the other steered. Seems like it went on for hours. The thought of those dacron buoy lines getting wrapped around the propeller was real and frightening; forget about how wet and cold we were. That was one of the times we headed west and anchored in Penn Cove. Which was okay, except we set the hook in a cable area (we realized later) and had a thunder, lightning and hail storm during the night. But the anchor held and we didn’t hook the cables. Just had to brush an inch or two of hail off the deck in the morning.
Heading south in Saratoga Passage are a couple of anchorages we’ve explored. About 10 miles southeast of Snatelum Point (at the southeast entrance to Penn Cove) is Elger Bay on Camano Island. The bay, with a mud bottom, is protected from northerlies, therefore exposed to southerlies. We’ve anchored there and it’s okay. Just northwest of the bay, around Lowell Point is Camano Island State Park, where there’s a launch ramp, restrooms and campsites, but no mooring buoys.
Holmes Harbor indents Whidbey starting about 8 miles south of Snatelum Point and west of Elger Bay. The five mile long deep bay is exposed to northerlies. Freeland is at the head of the bay where there’s a public launch ramp near Nichols Brothers large shipyard. Not a bad anchorage if there is no northerly.
We also anchored among the private buoys in quiet Honeymoon Bay, lovely name, on the west shore and again were happy there was no northerly.
Once back in Saratoga Pass, it’s about six miles farther southeast to Langley, the “charming village by the sea,” and the wonderful 33-boat marina inside the semi-circular vertical piling breakwater. But longtime Harbormaster Ben Reams doesn’t worry about numbers.
“We just set a record,” he claimed. “I got 67 boats in here in August. The last boat in was 50-feet long.” He said he never fails to shoehorn boats in (you need lots of fenders) and his answering machine message claims he “stacks em’ deep and sells ‘em cheap.” Transient moorage rates are 50 cents per foot plus $3 for power. No marine fuel is available at present. There are showers, restrooms and a high tide launch ramp:360-221-2611; email@example.com.
Ben said the Port of Langley and the city are working toward a planned expansion of the marina. “I’d like to see room for 100 boats, triple what we have now.” Despite “fitting everyone in,” boats do anchor off the east side of the marina. Permanent moorage is from end of September to May 1, with only transient moorage in summer.
It’s a short walk from the marina to the downtown core of Langley, a delightful mix of art galleries, antique stores, the Dog House historic tavern, a favorite hangout of sailors, and much more. Langley boasts the highest density of bed and breakfast inns in the state, so for those who want a night off the boat you’re in the right town.
Stairs lead down to lovely Seawall Park, where you can swim or beachcomb, with it’s Northwest Indian motif wall, picnic tables and large firepit.
A popular Langley landmark above the park is “Boy and Dog” by local artist Georgia Gerber. The bronze sculpture is of the boy leaning on a railing looking out at Saratoga Passage, with his dog lying at his feet—a genuine classic.
It’s another five miles south from Langley to Clinton, with the ferry lifeline to Mukilteo. There is a float at the Clinton ferry dock, but it’s closed for use at the present time, so no place to put in here. There are some restaurants and stores in Clinton, but it’s hard to get ashore. Some boats are anchored on the north side of the ferry pier. So it’s keep sailing from here on and you can continue south (or east) to Everett, Edmonds, Kingston or Seattle.
Charts and other useful information:
18423, Strip chart, Bellingham to Everett
18428, Oak and Crescent Harbors
18441, Puget Sound, Northern Part
18440, Puget Sound
Tidal Current Tables
Current Charts, Puget Sound, N. Part
By Canoe and Sailing Ship They Came,
A History of Whidbey’s Island, by Dorothy Neil and Lee Brainard, Spindrift Publishing Co., Inc, 1989. This is an excellent book about the fascinating history of this large island which we highly recommend for history buffs.
Jo & Carl are authors of Gunkholing in the San Juan Islands,
a Comprehensive Cruising Guide Encompassing Deception Pass
to the Canadian Boundary, and Gunkholing in South Puget Sound,
a Comprehensive Cruising Guide from Kingston/Edmonds
South to Olympia.
Saratoga Passage – Oak Harbor to Langley
written by Jo Bailey and Carl Nyberg
appeared in the Sepember 2003
issue of 48° North