With Gedney Island abeam, my brother, Aaron, and I quietly doused the main and furled the jib to watch a lone gray whale feed in the shallows. The whale shattered the glassy water when it emerged to clear its blowhole. The accompanying mist, as it sprinkled the surface of the water, lent texture to the otherwise placid leeward shadow of the mostly private island. Eventually, the whale dove a last time, its flukes visible for only a second before it continued on its northward migratory journey.
It is not uncommon for marine wildlife to congregate in this industrialized area of Puget Sound, where nutrient-rich water flows in from the Snohomish River Delta. We had seen a bald eagle earlier that day, as well as a handful of porpoises patrolling Possession Sound. This combination of scenery, wildlife and a fresh breeze made for a memorable weekend sail in Washington’s coastal waters.
Everett, where our journey began, is an industrial town 30 miles north of Seattle and home to the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. My brother and his wife, Nancy, and I were cruising along Gedney Island and up Saratoga Passage to Penn Cove. Even though the area is generally private land and more developed than better-known locations in the nearby San Juan Islands, the sailing and sightseeing was bracing, with a northwest wind on the nose, great blue herons in the tidal flats and majestic Mount Baker towering to the east. The cruise also included two of our favorite port towns.
Langley came first, where the only entrance to the unique ladle-shaped breakwater is from the south. Low clouds
blanketed the evergreens on shore as we rounded the breakwater and eased into a snug slip behind the creosote-covered palisade. We then walked the short distance into Langley, where we visited Lowry-James Rare Prints & Books—with its fine collection of Audubon prints—and dined at the homey Village Pizzeria. Langley teeters on bluffs overlooking Saratoga Passage, and signs on the main street advise people to be on the lookout for orca, which frequent these inland waters.
The next morning we caught a favorable flood tide, which is never particularly strong in Saratoga, and traveled north up the passage toward Coupeville in Penn Cove, which cuts a distinctive divot out of Whidbey Island. Along the way, the west wind that typically builds through Juan de Fuca Strait and then hurdles over Whidbey, picking up momentum as it blows through the cove, made for an exhilarating beat to Coupeville. North of Coupeville’s wharf, the scattered mussel pens served as advertisements for the rich delicacies in the nearby restaurants. We spent the evening at down-to-earth Toby’s Tavern, which was within easy stumbling distance from the wharf.
With the continuing north wind, we had following seas for our long run home. These passages carry dozens of boats in peak season, but in the offseason you will often be on your own. Although we’d shared Langley’s harbor with some friendly company, we were the only boat moored at Coupeville’s wharf—making it the perfect place to reflect on the whale we’d met as a light rain swept the deck, and we fired up the heater that evening. Life doesn’t get much better.