Over the 30 years, we have been cruising in the Pacific Northwest, many of our special memories come from our winter cruises. They include waking up in Port Madison with a dusting of snow covering the boat, watching the mist roll out of Port Ludlow, and the most incredible sunset while docked at Deer Harbor. We have also had some of the very best parties on board during our winter cruises. One year, we organized a “Canadian” Thanksgiving weekend cruise to Poulsbo with a half dozen other boats. Another year, we enjoyed a great impromptu New Year’s Eve potluck with old and new friends in Roche Harbor.

Eight Tips for a Fun Winter Cruise

Winter cruising means you can enjoy familiar anchorages and harbors without the crowds. It is not that unusual to be the only transient boat in the anchorage or harbor. The folks who go out cruising during the winter are hardy, relaxed and often very friendly.  We have also found that the probability of a spontaneous party with new, “just met them on the dock” friends are very likely.  In our experience, the worse the weather, the higher the likelihood of a little impromptu social gathering!

Here are eight tips for a great winter cruise:


A winter trip is like any other trip. You will want to make sure that you and the boat are well prepared and that all of the vessel’s equipment is in working order.


Boating in the winter requires a little more experience. If you are new to boating, make sure that you spend some time reviewing charts, potential challenges to navigation, harbor information and operation of the various electronics including proper use of your radio.


We make sure the furnace is working perfectly. We assume that the weather will be wet and cold.  Regardless of the type of heating you have aboard, make sure that it is working before you leave the dock.  There is nothing as wonderful as a toasty boat on a cold day!


When there is cold air outside of the boat and more humidity inside the boat, we make sure that the bunks don’t get wet. Humidity can condense and be absorbed into the bedding or mattress.  We make sure that we have good air circulation and/or dry bunk material under each of the mattresses. For a few hours each day, we run a small air drying fan in the cabinet under each bunk. The cabinet space below the bunk has ventilating holes so that the air can circulate up to the mattress. It really helps keep the bunks dry. If this isn’t an option for your bunks, consider propping up the mattress each morning when you climb out of bed. Just adding a few inches of space under the mattress for air circulation will be a benefit.


Take very good wet weather gear.  In all the years we cruised our various sailboats, having multiple layers of dry clothes was critical to enjoying the cruise. Bring good gloves to work outside. Your dock lines might be wet or frozen. Purchase a plastic snow shovel at one of the commercial fishing stores. You can clear snow if need be and not mar the deck.


Weather is a special consideration. Pay close attention to the weather forecasts on the VHF weather stations and be prepared to adapt your plans to conditions.  In Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and the Gulf Islands, the weather can occasionally have a very big impact on cruising plans. During our late December cruise, we got a very unusual weather pattern with bright, sunny, cold days and a lot of wind. In Roche Harbor, our anemometer measured wind speed in excess of 40 knots. Fog and heavy rain can also be significant considerations.  When the weather gets bad you need to be able and willing to change your plans and find a good place to hunker down.


Flexibility is key. Many of us cruise on a schedule. I consider schedules to be the worst gear that we have on Salish Lady.  However, as long as we need to make a living, it is a necessary evil.  We always have Plan A and Plan B when we winter cruise. Plan B includes several good spots to ride out a storm and our cruise will include extra lay days that we use to accommodate the unexpected weather. If we get great weather for the whole trip then we just stay a few extra days in places that we love. Last year, we spent our extra days riding out a storm in Roche Harbor and ended up having a New Years Eve Party on Salish Lady. In case the weather turns, we keep our water tanks full. Some marinas need to shut off water to the dock to avoid burst pipes if the temperature drops below freezing.


Weather may also be disruptive near the end of your cruise and you should be prepared to head back home a day or two early to avoid bad weather if it is forecast for the latter days of your cruise.  If you wish, pretend you’re still on a cruising holiday while living on your boat at your home marina for the last few days.

Be prepared to meet new friends. We always take some extra food to make appetizers for happy hour. With early sunsets, it is common to want to head inside in the late afternoon, but you might still want to spend another hour or so trading stories with other hardy boaters. You just never know when a spontaneous party will break out!

With a little planning, a well-found boat and flexibility, a winter cruise can be a wonderful way to get more use from your boat!

~ Shawn and Corinne Severn

Shawn and Corrine Severn cruise the Northwest and the Inside Passage in their American Tug 485 Salish LadyThe photos showing the beauty of winter cruising in Desolation Sound were taken by Brian Pemberton of NW Explorations.