Boaters often talk about the joys of cruising during the shoulder season. Less traffic, fewer tourists, and better availability at docks and other moorages are some of the most obvious of these joys. As we cruise into the off-season on our American Tug 362, a boat we’ve owned since March of this year, we are learning more about the pros and cons of continuing to venture out and around the Pacific Northwest aboard Touch of Gray.

What does “less boat traffic” and “better availability” really look like? What are other things that are considered “joys” of winter boating, and what might be considered challenges or just “not so fun?” This is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather some things to ponder.

I’ll start with what we consider to be really good about winter boating. Yes, fewer people, less boats, more moorage options, but there are other aspects we’ve noticed. We’ve noticed gorgeous unobstructed views due to fewer boats at the docks. On a recent trip to Friday Harbor, we realized we had never before been able to look out into the harbor and the channel from the guest dock. We experienced this again days later in Roche Harbor; how nice to see the surrounding water as well as land-based attractions without a lot of boats in the way! While walking our usual loop out of Roche, we took in both Wescott and Garrison Bays (zero boats!), with a whole new appreciation for the area’s wild landscape and dynamic beauty.

Out walking, gravel path with views of the Salish Sea

In addition to few vessels at docks and in popular anchorages, it is remarkable to see bodies of water while underway that are nearly traffic free – much easier navigating in those spots that often have hundreds of boats jockeying for position during the summer season. Tides in winter can be up to two feet higher on average, also making navigation in some areas a bit easier. Even during open crabbing, there just aren’t many people cruising the shoulder seasons. This means we can easily set traps in our favorite spots, and we don’t need to dodge buoys quite as much while underway.

With fewer boaters there are fewer to zero delays at fuel docks, pumpouts, and customs (not a problem lately!), not to mention at local restaurants and attractions like museums and theatres. The latter being things you may have more time to take advantage of if you are looking for indoor activities during inclement weather. (And yes, some of these businesses may be closed for the season.)

Wildlife populations and sightings also benefit from a lower number of boaters. In Roche Harbor, with few boats, very few people, and no kayakers/SUPs/dinghies around, we were delighted to see four seals, several cormorants, and a group of gulls fishing simultaneously in a small area just behind our boat.

Marina docks have less boat traffic in winter and reduced staff and services. Many also have lower rates, some reducing the cost by half. Jerisich Dock in Gig Harbor is a good example. The Memorial Day through Labor Day rate is $1.00 per foot, with a decrease to $.50 per foot the remainder of the year. In the shoulder seasons, marinas may have working internet, because fewer people and devices are using up bandwidth!

Empty slips at Roche Harbor docks

Weather is always at the forefront of boating and can be unpredictable and harsh in the winter; however, calm winter weather can produce some of the smoothest seas you’ll ever find, a result of reduced thermal activity. Days are short and often dreary; but when chilly-to-cold winter days are extra crisp and clear, the light is amazing, colors are striking, and visibility is stunning.

There are challenges to boating in cold, wet weather. Interior humidity, adequate heating, reduced services, and potential cabin fever may be on your list of obstacles to deal with. Reduced services might mean you have to walk a little farther to make a payment or drop your trash, but it also might mean there is no one to help you come into a dock on a blustery day.

We are still figuring out how to manage the condensation issues we face from night breathing, hot showers, cooking, and wet weather. So far, keeping heat on at night and slightly opening windows is doing the trick. We may get a dehumidifier and are researching options. I also make sure to squeegee water out of the shower immediately. Keeping the head area warm and dry is important for multiple reasons – a nice shower experience and dry towels! Having multiple heating options is crucial. We just talked with dock neighbors whose hydronic system failed – stuff happens. Everyone needs to assess their own needs, interests, and equipment in preparation for shoulder season cruising.

photo of empty slips at Friday Harbor

We try to be strategic about cooking – Nick boiled crab out on the dock with a hot plate and extension cord so we wouldn’t have boiling water in the boat for an extended period of time. (Not possible if the weather hadn’t been sunny and gorgeous!) Shorter days with less light, plus the wet and cold, are not ideal conditions for grilling. Nick will light up the Magma as often as possible, but I don’t think he’s willing to stand outside with an umbrella and flashlight anymore!

There is a saying that goes something like, “No bad weather, just bad gear.” That may be partially true but crappy weather is real and we make sure to have extra hats, gloves, boots, and layers of sweatshirts, jackets, and warm coats at hand. (And fleece leggings for me.) I am considering some lightweight rain pants for walking. All of these things take up much more space on a boat.

Less than ideal conditions also mean we are doing less dinghying and zero kayaking. (All the more reason for outdoor gear and appropriate shoes for more walking and hiking.) In winter weather, one of the greatest changes for us is our desire to anchor out. We choose to anchor out a lot – it’s kind of our go-to when conditions are good. We are much less inclined to spend time on the hook this time of year, preferring the ease of stepping out on the dock to access shore power. And who wants a cold and wet dinghy ride? There are times when we will anchor out in the colder season – the lighted boat parade in Gig Harbor, for one!

Lighted Boats at Gig Harbor

We recommend keeping a close eye on weather conditions and keeping your boat warm and dry. Add some ambient lighting features and have cold-weather clothing at the ready. Have an idea of how to keep yourselves busy on dark, rainy days (books/puzzles/hobbies), and get outside when you can!

I want to acknowledge that smaller numbers of people out boating is not a good thing for some. If being out on the water is a highly social activity for you and you value getting to know other people, the relationships, group excursions, dock happy hours, and parties aboard, then meeting fewer boaters may be a challenge. However, I read a post recently from someone who feels there may be more opportunities for impromptu meetings of new friends and dock-side gatherings in the shoulder season – folks cruising in the winter may be feeling isolated, cooped up, or otherwise a bit lonely and are more likely to engage with those that are also adventurous and braving the elements to take advantage of shoulder season cruising!

We know that many boaters tuck their vessels in for the winter for lots of reasons. Kids are in school, they are snow birding in warmer climates, or taking advantage of other kinds of travel opportunities etc. And sometimes it is just too wet, wild, and woolly out on the water to truly enjoy the activities that make boating such a wonderful pastime. There is always the option of staying on your boat in your own home berth – that might be just the winter getaway you need!

By Janine and Nick Mott
They have been cruising the Salish Sea since 2016 and are Waggoner Field Correspondents. See their blog for more adventures.