With fall firmly upon us and winter peeking around the corner, two things are bound to happen in the coming months in the Salish Sea: low pressure systems will sweep in off the Pacific Ocean bringing strong southerlies, and brisk northerlies will push down from the Fraser River Valley.

Don’t let that deter you from getting out on the water for a weekend, or even just a single night, spent at anchor, though. With the proper heating setup (diesel or propane) keeping your boat cozy, there is a certain magic that comes with being out during the change in seasons. The key is paying close attention to the weather, and finding the right spots to be for the conditions.

While cruising Puget Sound and the San Juan and Gulf Islands throughout the shorter, cooler days of the year aboard our Grand Soleil 39, Yahtzee, we always kept a handful of trusty anchorages in mind to escape and hide in the event of a big blow or to simply enjoy a quiet night swinging on the hook. Here are a handful of our favorites from Puget Sound.
Mat Mats Bay

Heading for Port Townsend in the early winter, we left Shilshole Bay Marina with our sights set on the San Juan Islands a few days later. Sailing downwind, Yahtzee chewed up the miles in a building southerly and we found the narrow entrance to Mats Mats Bay right after sunset. Having been in Mats Mats Bay before, we were comfortable entering in the fading daylight, and lined up on the lighted range markers before working our way through the dogleg channel and into the main part of the bay.

We dropped the hook in 12-feet of water in the middle of the bay and settled in for a late dinner and good sleep. Throughout the night the wind topped out in the low 30s, yet we hardly knew it sitting comfortably in this nearly landlocked bay. The following morning, we were up early and caught an ebbing tide towards the Port Townsend Canal bridge.
Besides the narrow and shallow entrance that demands respect, visiting boaters should note that the majority of the land surrounding the bay is private and, as such, local mooring buoys should also be accounted for. There is, however, a public float and boat launch in the southeastern end of the bay where you can go ashore.

Manzanita Bay

Eagle Harbor, Port Madison, and Blakely Harbor are favorite Bainbridge Island anchorages that are great in nearly any weather. But Manzanita Bay has a special charm for us, and is quite good in a strong southerly. While this spot is certainly no secret (are there any?), each time we’ve stopped here, Yahtzee has been the lone boat anchored out.

Located on the northwestern side of Bainbridge just south of Agate Pass, we like to use Manzanita if it’s blowing from the south and we need to wait for a favorable current to transit the pass, to head over to Poulsbo, or to move south down the west side of the island. Though the bay itself is relatively narrow, it is lined with some beautiful properties and is a wonderful anchorage.

Our preferred spot to drop the hook is in the lower portion of the bay in about 20 feet. Like many anchorages in this area, the bottom composition is a sticky mix of mud and sand that provides good holding. There is plenty of swing room here; and even if the wind is up in the 30s, which it has been for us, the chop is minimal. Beyond being a comfortable anchorage, we’ve been told that you can go ashore at a spot in the northern corner of the bay and that, at high tide, you can take your dinghy or kayak up the creek that feeds into the southern portion.

Blakely Harbor

This east-west running pocket on the eastern side of Bainbridge Island needs almost no introduction to Puget Sound boaters for its stunning view of the Seattle skyline and secure holding. It has certainly been a favorite spot for us over the years, especially on fall and winter nights when we’ve had it all to ourselves. Tucking all the way into the head of the bay largely keeps you out of effects from strong northerly and southerly winds. We’ve been caught in an unexpected southerly in the late fall and, though we could see the white caps whipping the Sound into a frenzy, it was relatively calm where we were swinging.

The soft light of winter sunrises and sunsets is a perk of offseason cruising, as seen here from Blakely Harbor.

Aside from Blakely Rock, which guards the entrance to the harbor, another notable hazard here is anchoring too far in or towards the south shore. Though dropping your hook as far south as possible is tempting, it shallows quickly. We woke up one morning to a very low tide and a 50-foot trawler sitting precariously aground nearby. It should also be noted that, like Mats Mats Bay and Manzanita, the majority of the land surrounding Blakely Harbor is private, but you can land a dinghy at the head of the bay near the mill pond for a stroll ashore.

Keys to a great winter anchorage obviously include protection and good-holding bottom. However, one of the other most important attributes is proximity. Winter cruisers should keep a handful of potential nearby hidey-holes in mind any time they go sailing.

Quartermaster Harbor

Vashon and Maury islands have a decidedly laid back appeal that never seems to diminish with time. When transiting to or from the South Sound, Gig Harbor or nearby Tacoma, we’ve spent many nights anchored throughout this bay in various times of the year. In the winter months, wind direction has dictated whether we anchor in the southeastern portion of the harbor at Dockton, or in the northern reaches at Burton.
In a strong southerly, we firmly set our anchor in 15 to 20 feet off the Dockton County Park dock and the tall bluff on Maury Island to the south provides exceptional protection. The last we heard, the park dock is closed to overnight stays due to winter damage, but can still be used for dinghies.

If a northerly is blowing and it gets a bit choppy down at Dockton, we’ve found the small basin to the north at Burton to be a secure alternative. Low tide reveals shoals off of the surrounding shoreline here, so it’s important to stay in the middle on approach and when anchoring. Ashore you’ll find Burton Acres County Park with a beach, restrooms and hiking trails, and the town of Burton is a mile walk down the road.

Mystery Bay

Yet another anchorage we’ve visited on numerous occasions, our first visit to Mystery Bay was a particularly cold New Year’s Eve that we spent anchored here in a stiff southerly. Choosing to forgo a mooring ball or be bashed against the south-facing dock at Mystery Bay State Park, we set Yahtzee’s anchor in a little over 20 feet, while still making sure to give room to moored vessels. Protection and holding were superb and on New Year’s Day we had a fun outing exploring ashore.

Similar to the charm of Vashon Island, Marrowstone Island is worth experiencing. We tied up the dinghy in the southeast corner of the bay at Nordland General Store where we found hot coffee and cocoa, and the toasty warmth of a burning wood stove. We also walked across the island to the long beach on the east side that overlooks Puget Sound. It turned into one of those unexpectedly memorable winter stops that we’ve come to enjoy over the years.