Tacoma and Eagle Island

Our South Sound sailing trip was just getting started, with stops in Tacoma and at Eagle Island. Tacoma and the Gig Harbor area is where I grew up, so it felt very familiar. Eagle Island is a place I will always visit whenever in the South Sound.
Steve Mitchell 9 min read
Tacoma and Eagle Island

Our South Sound trip was just getting started, with our first stop being in Tacoma at the Breakwater Marina, near Point Defiance. Day two would see us at Eagle Island, one of our favorite stops the whole trip.

The first day was not perfect weather, but pretty close. Around 65 degrees with scattered showers running around, and a 15-20 knot wind.

Blake Island astern of us as we make our turn down Colvos

We chose to use Colvos Pass to go from Seattle to Tacoma as it is usually more protected, and has a counter-current close inshore, which we needed due to tides and timing. We also were headed to the Breakwater Marina, which is much further out along the point, and almost right at the end of Colvos.

Our route from Seattle to Tacoma

I used the DeLorme InReach Explorer for all of our trip, and I have to say it was amazingly useful to let my contacts on-shore know when I was starting to move for the day, and when I had ended my journey. I filled out a detailed float plan at the beginning of the trip and sent it to them ahead of time, but the DeLorme was perfect for them to follow along with on a daily basis.

Seattle to Tacoma (Breakwater Marina) – 20.95 NM, 4 hours 50 minutes, average speed 4.33 knots, max speed 6 knots.

Colvos Pass with grey skies

The wind continued to be on our nose most of the way down Colvos, but the good news was that the clouds were breaking up and things were getting warmer.

Houses in Colvos Pass

I love Colvos because of all of the little coves and houses. Even after sailing around here most of my adult life, and growing up a large portion of my childhood on Vashon Island, I still find new things to look at going up and down the pass.

Tacoma in the distance

One thing that I found very difficult is finding space at a marina in the Gig Harbor / Tacoma area. I’ve stayed at Arabella’s Landing in Gig Harbor before, but they were completely full with a yacht club. The other marina in Gig Harbor, Gig Harbor Marina, required you to sign a full agreement just to stay one night – this included over 10 pages of contract, providing your insurance details, and signing things that frankly made me very suspect of their facilities. I would caution anyone looking at staying there to read the fine print – they essentially absolve themselves of any damage to your boat for any reason, which I have never seen in even a normal permanent moorage agreement.

Tacoma was no better – Dock Street Marina was full (more on them later as it became a daily discussion), Foss Harbor had us reserved, but then a week before cancelled it with little help. All of the other spots were either full or couldn’t figure out what to do.

Becky at Breakwater Marina saved us and found two spots for the one night we needed to be in the Tacoma area. We were trying to coordinate our big father/mother’s day dinner with my parents, who had to drive to meet us, and needed ADA accessible restaurants. Breakwater is right at the Pt. Defiance ferry terminal, with an Anthony’s restaurant nearby. The dinner company and gifts were great, but the food was so-so, and the ambiance the usual too-noisy-to-be-heard Anthony’s style.

Tacoma to Eagle Island....sort of...

Day two had a very early start at 6:30AM, which for a vacation, was not super popular with the crews. We had to be at the Narrows for slack at 8:30, and folks wanted showers, breakfast, etc. beforehand. I of course completely forgot to start the DeLorme tracker until we rounded Pt. Defiance and saw the bridges in the distance.  Oops…

The weather was overcast with no wind, about 65 degrees.

Narrows Bridges in the distance with Noel leading the way

Josh’s dad Dick led the way in Noel, having done this probably hundreds of times in his 60+ years of sailing. Noel is a beautiful Newport 30 that he has owned for over 25 years and is completely setup for long term coastal cruising.

Noel motoring along

Dick knows these waters better than anyone else I’ve sailed with, and took advantage of currents and routes that I never would have seen. I used the Dock-to-Dock auto routing features of Navionics / Raymarine a bunch of times this trip, and was disappointed how inefficient they were. If I had followed their routes, I suspect I would have been several miles behind Dick at the end of each day.

Passing under Narrows Bridges

Passing under the bridges and through the Narrows was uneventful – we definitely timed it right. I did like using the Navionics iPad app the entire trip to plan tides, transits, distance, and routes. Dick also got to play around with it a bit and seemed to like it vs. the old traditional paper mess.

Wurlitzer Manor

After you transit the Narrows heading south, on the starboard side you’ll see a huge house with lots of windows – that’s the Wurlitzer Manor. Long ago when my dad was still practicing as a civil engineer, he helped design this house and fixes to it. It houses a massive Wurlitzer Organ in it which is pretty rare, and has guest accommodations available for overnight stays. There are also concerts and other activities that they host throughout the year.

Cliff climbing

I grew up in Gig Harbor, so this whole area was very familiar to me, although I hadn’t sailed in it for at least 15 years. I saw many landmarks and special spots from previous trips, including one from middle school or early high school where a friend and myself climbed the cliff above, and got into poison ivy. We didn’t know until a day later, and my brother got it after borrowing my jacket that I wore the day of the trip. The cliff still looks steep, but now there are houses everywhere above it, which I don’t remember.

McNeil Island prison

One of the big discussion topics on our trip was McNeil island, which used to be a Federal Penitentiary. I was surprised to learn that in 2010 it shut down due to budget, and has been used for violent sex offenders only, and only a portion of the facility. It looked like they had a ton of vehicles, buildings, three Argosy-style boats to go back and forth, and a ton of houses and other things spread around the island.

We were all curious what the State intends to do with the island, as everything we saw other than the main compound was boarded up and abandoned. I personally think it should be given back to the people since it’s been in state or federal ownership since the mid 1800’s. There’s a ton of great space on the island, and I would love to see it developed as another stop on a marine or other park, rather than sold to the highest bidder for waterfront homes.

Eagle Island nearby

Eagle Island is one of my favorite places in the south sound, and we were lucky enough to snag the mooring buoy on the far side facing towards Longbranch. I was surprised not to see the two buoys on either side of the island that the chart indicated – perhaps the parks system has removed a couple?

Grace and Noel at Eagle Island

We used our Grab-n-go mooring hook to catch the buoy on arrival, which I highly recommend to anyone who uses buoys frequently. It makes it super easy to catch the ring and then add a more permanent line after things have settled down. I added that second line before Noel came up to raft, leaving the grab-n-go slack as a secondary backup.

Internet speeds while at Eagle Island

I was pleased to see very respectable internet speeds from the Pepwave system on board. I recently added an amplifier and antenna combo that I had been tuning and playing with to help with overall connectivity while underway and in remote spaces.

This particular test was from my iPhone while the Pepwave was connected to Verizon’s LTE network. Later on in the trip, we’d switch to AT&T for several locations, and back to Verizon in others. At no point along the entire trip were we disconnected for more than a few minutes while the Pepwave switched SIM cards to find the best signal.

The crew even started watching Hulu and Netflix, much to my surprise, at various different locations without any problems. Even Jo on Noel used our WiFi network while we were close together to surf and post things.

Josh relaxing in our sky chair

Relaxing while not underway is one of our top priorities. Jo and Dick clued us in on a chair that they have used a couple of years ago called the Sky Chair. Josh and his best friend Heather have long had battles over who would get the chair on Noel when they were growing up, so it only seemed right for us to have one on Grace. They look a little intimidating to setup, but I’ve found it far better than the traditional hammock because you can control them better, get in and out without feeling like you’re going to fall to your death, and move around more to see the sights.

Josh and Jake on Eagle Island

Using our dinghy and new outboard, we headed into the island for a bit of exploring. We tried searching for the pay station at all of the state park signs, but were never able to find it. Perhaps it was removed with the buoys as well?

Eagle Island trails

The trails seemed pretty well used, although we came to a dead end on the northern most tip of the island and had to do some backtracking.

Eggs on Eagle Island

In one of the clearings where there was a picnic table and state park sign, we came across a nest on the ground that included some fairly sizable eggs. They were about the size of an average adult fist, and had brown splotches on them. They looked recently laid, and not broken open, so we moved through as quickly as possible. We weren’t able to identify their owner, but assume perhaps a blue heron or other bird of that size?

Shoal near Eagle Island

Late on Saturday was a super low tide, and we were treated with a fun spectacle. Just a short distance from our mooring was a shoal and marker, part of which surfaced at low tide.

Seals on the shoal

Eagle is apparently a big spot for seals both in the water and on land – lots of warnings on the island posted about staying away from them and their young. The shoal also appeared to be a favorite spot for them – at one point we counted over 20 hanging out and sunning themselves. It also appeared that it might be mating season, as many were chasing what we assumed to be the females.

Later that night we heard them on the beach and in the water late into the night. The water was also full of phosphorescence, something our friend Jake had never seen. It was absolutely magical – bright stars, seals calling, and the phosphorescence flowing by the mooring buoy.

Sunset at Eagle Island

Eagle has always been one of my favorite places, and this visit reinforced that. We will definitely be back again to this gem in the South Sound.

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