Sunday, October 13, 2013

Washington to California: A long blog post for a long week.

Ocean Passage-Washington to California:
Gales and Gray Whales, Winds and Fins

Our first offshore experience…

“He always thought of the sea as la mar, which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those whose love her say bad things of her, but they always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, … spoke of her as el mar, which is masculine… but the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favors, and if she did wild or wicked things, it was because she could not help them.”

Ernest Hemingway, Old Man and The Sea, p. 29-30

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Last night I woke up completely disoriented, anxious, in a panic. My cell phone was ringing repeatedly across the room. The repetitive nature of the calls worried me, so I went to check the phone. However, upon rising to get up out of bed, the very solid, sound living room that we slept in for the night was swaying from side to side! Huge sways flung me off my feet. I couldn’t decide if it was an infamous San Francisco earthquake or if I had woken up in a very dry boathouse. I attempted again to get up out of bed and was immediately sent to my knees. I crawled helplessly across this living room carpet, as if I was in an extreme swell. I had my first brief experience of “land-sickness.” My poor brain just couldn’t cope with the stillness.

It has been two days since we arrived in Bodega Bay, CA, after an 8-day passage beginning in Edmonds, WA. The passage that we have been nervous about since the beginning of our journey is over and behind us. The notorious Oregon coastline behind us; my pink fuzzy beanie behind us; our Misty Magna pink bike: about 50 miles off Cape Mendocino, 6,000 fathoms under the sea (or possibly still making its way down). We had some beautiful, awesome sailing days and several harrowing days, which is why I haven’t written until now. In fact, both our sailing log and my personal journal are empty from about Sunday, October 6th on.

Dave and Clif sit outside as swell began to increase.
We were blessed to have our friend Dave Leggitt with us for the entire trip, without him, we would have been in a very challenging situation out on the water. With his positive attitude and confidence in all of our sailing abilities, we made it through some pretty difficult waters relatively calm and collected.

Leaving Seattle…

The morning after Dave arrived in Seattle we took off from the Edmonds Marina, early in the morning, and sailed to Port Angeles, where we pumped our sewage tank, ate some good burgers and enjoyed some remarkably cheap PBRs. We decided that night to press onward, with the weather looking good our on the coast, and began our first full night of motoring from of Port Angles to Neah Bay. We arrived in Neah Bay early morning on Thursday, October 3rd, fueled up, got some ice, ate some oatmeal and took off for Cape Flattery (or, in other words, our turn out into the Pacific).

The following two days down to Newport Oregon couldn’t have been better. We only wished for slightly more wind to be able to sail with, since we ended up motoring almost all the way down to Newport, in a sunny 65 degrees (wearing our sunscreen, of course).

That was not only my first offshore experience in “blue water,” but also my first nights at watch for long hours in a wide-open sky. The following I wrote about my nighttime watch experiences during the first 48 hours of open water.

Excerpts from the Night Watch

Thursday Night.

I have the third night watch, 12-3am. I sit in the cockpit wrapped in my patchwork quilt, two sleeping boys as company and an entire sky of stars. Opening up the computer to write ruins my night vision, but I can still make out Orion to my port side, flying high above the Washington coast and the big dipper to my back. Clifton is curled up in his sleeping bag on the opposite side of the cockpit, waking up periodically to check on me, then drifting back to sleep on his makeshift pillow of floatation cushions. Dave is down in the cabin sleeping noiselessly, resting up for his shift in an hour.

Sailing on the open water gives the entire sky of stars a new and profound purpose. They help guide. They are a map: a map that moves. I have never stayed up long enough to watch the constellations rotate around the sky: the North Star holding fast to our stern. We are headed south… thank God! It was freezing today. As we left Port Angeles yesterday, we noticed a significant dusting of snow on the Olympic mountains, letting us know that we couldn’t loiter about anymore: winter is coming, and we needed head south soon. Like the birds and the large humpback whales, we headed out into the Pacific, rounding the corner of Cape Flattery into the wide-open blue.

Now, it is my first night on the open sea. The winds are light, slightly chilling, but the quilt wrapped around my shoulders helps with that. There is a small rise and fall as the ocean swell passes under our hull, reminding me of my surrounding, even though the water is almost invisible. It’s just the stars. They coat the sky, giving me markers to align with each part of the boat. I’m keeping the North Star perfectly aligned with our starboard-side fishing pole. (Note to self: I need to learn my constellations). I want to know the stories of the sky: have them told to me as I watch them move gracefully around our little boat. The faint lights off the coast are pale in comparison to the planet that just peaked out over the horizon line.  It’s belittling, yet extremely invigorating to stare at the night sky. If we traveled through the night all the way down to San Francisco, I would be completely content: full of peace, and comfort in my guiding lights. Taking deep breaths of fresh air to keep my mind moving.

Friday Night.

Another night watch blanketed in stars. Being out in the open ocean gives new tangible understanding of the phrase “blanket of stars.” There is no space of the black night sky that doesn’t have the faint spatter of stars, as if a light lace was laid over the top of the atmosphere. Actually, “lace” doesn’t really cut it as a descriptor. It’s too holey. Maybe close to a thin gauze.

There is a light wind behind us. The jib is out, trying to use any wind we have to keep our fuel consumption low [motor is still on at this point]. The white jib is now lit by our pale green starboard navigation light (Clif calls the nav. lights our “Christmas lights”). I go below for my rest time before my 12-3 shift. In the v-berth I can feel the boat slowing down as the motor eases. The boys are going to put up the mainsail. It’s only annoying to me now, as I try to sleep, because the decrease in motor speed, means an increase boat rocking and rolling: not the nice “rock-you-to-sleep” rocking, it’s the “churn-your-stomach” rocking, created by the sea swell.  But I can’t complain, the sails will be up for my shift, and I will have done none of the work. What a wonder to have an extra friend on board! Who knows, maybe the motor might even be off tonight if we get enough wind. Then it really will be just the stars and me during my shift: no engine rumble or rattling of dishes or the banging of the companionway steps.

There goes the mainsail, I hear Clif standing above me on the deck as I type.

A Newport Break…

One of the best decisions we made during our passage was to take a 24-hour break in Newport, OR.  We had a past-Juneau friend, Kelly, now living in Newport, meet up with us for beer tasting at Rogue Brewery, sea lion viewing on the waterfront, and a fun night of BBQing. We took some epically long hot showers. Thank you Kelly, for driving us around and letting us use all of your hot water. J

We left Newport the next day (Sunday) around 4:30pm and experience our first rough “bar crossing.” (**No, nothing like crossing the street from The Alaskan to The Rendezvous… although that can be an equally treacherous experience for many a young Juneauite). The ebb current of the river coming out to sea meeting up with the swell coming in from sea creates quite the tide rip, especially when you hit it on a max ebb (oops.) First thing to go in those rough waves: the rub rail. Of course! Damn the rub rail. Apologies…. You just have to understand, that rub rail made my hands hurt for days after putting it on, and now it’s off within our first hour out to sea. Clif and Dave used some extra line and tied the rub rail onto the bow ad shrouds, securing it for the rest of the trip.

Once we made it through the crazy tossing waves of the Newport bar, we were home free. Sails raised, some rolling swell, winds from the southwest, moving westward.

The Storm…

The next fours days are hard to write extensively about, because they were very challenging emotionally, mentally and physically (no one injured, just some bruises on me from one tumble in the cabin).

The only photo I took before it got really rough.
Clif and I actually just went through all of our Delorme GPS tracking points and messages to get our timeline right because it all blends together quite a bit. The weather forecasted for the Oregon coast was nothing like we experienced. The winds were definitely supposed to get high, but nothing that we hadn’t seen before. Gale force winds occurred off Cape Mendocino for 48 hours straight, along with large swell and breaking waves. We had already pushed ourselves far off the coast to avoid the swell getting even bigger, but made the mistake off not cutting into Eureka when we had the chance. Eureka was reporting a hazardous bar on the radio, and we assumed that the winds would die down sooner than they did, so we pushed on, hoping we could get around the cape and back behind it to hide from the north wind.

It’s a bit easier for myself to write it out in a timeline:

Saturday Night: Spent the night at Kelly’s in Newport, OR.

Sunday Night: Left Newport at 4:30pm, crossed the bar, winds began to switch from SW to W, and swell was building.

Monday: Winds switched to W, swell from SW, sailing nicely on a beam reach fast!

Monday Night: Jib alone. I slept outside all night in the cockpit, huddled in one of our warm sleeping bags. Wind made it around to the north, swell building from the west.

Tuesday: Sailing with just the storm jib until 5pm, Winds picked up to 25-30 knots form the north.

Tuesday Night: Leo (our wind vane) steered us downwind. We dragged anchor rode and chain from the stern to slow us down. Everyone slept inside the cabing, checking the wind vane and surrounding periodically. Moved between 1.5-2.5 knots above ground. Directly off Cape Mendecino. Started seeing breaking waves.

Wednesday: We’re still all ok— very rough all day. For several hours we saw 38-42 knots of wind, breaking swell. We lost power to our electronics for a couple hours because the solar panel change controller fried. Clif managed to fix it in minutes (once he had the chance). Power back on. Both boys taking turns steering through the waves. We realized that our boat could take the waves MUCH easier at 90 degrees, so we headed due east.

Wednesday Night: Leo (wind vane) drove due east, us inside but still keeping watches, beam to the waves. I had the watch from 1-4, and watched the storm subside rapidly at 3am.

Thursday: Wind dies to 15-25 knots. Sails go up, heading downwind on a deep broad reach. Still seeing some big swell from NW. We spotted a dolphin pod off of Point Arena, followed by a giant fin whale (what we have deduced from images, and videos) surfacing twice next to the boat.  Whale was 10 miles offshore due west from Point Arena.

Wind dies in late afternoon, sails down, motored into Bodega Bay, arrived at Spud Point Marina around midnight, in the fog.

The Fin Whale…

I have to admit; the last week has been incredibly emotionally exhausting for all of us. We were hammered by Mother Nature and taught many lessons through those fours days. But through it all, we stayed very calm and encouraged each other with positive, loving words. I prayed quite a bit, Dave smoked quite a bit, Clif ate chocolate quite a bit. We all coped somehow.

Google image of dolphins with a fin whale.
But, Thursday morning, sailing downwind in the north swell, we lost it. Clif, who was driving, called our “Shark!” thinking he had seen a shark on the surface of the water. It turned out to be the same white-sided beautiful dolphins we saw up in Seymour Narrows. Dave, Clif and I ooo-ed and aw-ed from the cockpit of the boat at the pod of dolphins approached and swam along the side of the boat. Then, out of the water, directly behind us rose an enormous grey, sleek body, two blowholes and a jaw line almost at the top of the head. Just the immense size of the part of the whale that we saw (not even thinking about the rest of the whale) was terrifying!! I screamed repeatedly Clif’s name and a whole load of nonsense. Many four lettered words were yelled out of the boys mouths in utter astonished and sheer panic. The whale was a stone’s throw away from the stern of our boat. We watched it disappear. Within minutes, the whale surfaced again, this time on the port side of the boat, again within maybe less than 10 yards. It looked as if one could launch themselves off of the boat and leap onto its giant smooth back! More screaming commenced. I was shaking profusely. Clif’s mouth stayed wide open, breathing heavily in shock but not saying a word.

We all felt a mix of a feeling of extreme danger, sheer panic, and overwhelming excitement. WE had just seen a VERY large whale… not just any whale, this whale had to have been 5-6 times larger than any humpback we had ever seen up in Alaska. It wasn’t a gray whale, as I had first thought. It was much too smooth and much too large.

After careful Google image collecting and Youtube viewing, we decided that we indeed had a fin whale come and visit us, very close in personal. “Too close,” said Clif, “WAY too close for any sort of comfort.”

Fin whales: May you be majestic, huge and thrive prosperously, but, please, for my sanity, NEVER ever get that near to our little boat again.

  ** Later, I also learned that dolphins frequently “Bow ride” fin whales…. Going to be more cautious next time we see a bunch off dolphins offshore.

Safe in Bodega…

Of course the first thing I did when I arrived at Clif’s parents’ home in Occidental, was to take a tremendously long shower. I finally was able to remove the matted dread lock of hair that had formed from throwing my salty hair up into a messy bun for the entire week. (** Messy buns on top of the head + salt + wearing hats = rats nest of Hizel hair.)

We unloaded the boat yesterday, completely gutting it off anything that could mold. Everything was wet inside, mostly from our wet foul weather gear being strewn about inside the cabin during the trip. We got all of our laundry out to be washed and pulled out even our molding carpet.

Now we are taking a nice long break in the Bay Area, hoping to regain some energy and clean up our boat for more adventures.



  1. Hello !! Jeff here in the Puget Sound I wanted to ask if you thought about sailing on the Sacramento River...

  2. Thanks for the comment. Sacramento River sounds pretty crazy, but definitely for another adventure. We're going to be resting until Nov. 1st, and then headed down to San Diego, and on into Mexico. However, we've got some work to do before that happens!

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