From the Graveyard of the Pacific to the Golden Gate Bridge
Sept 10 - 16,2015
“...with only fear and good judgement holding them back, they head out on the Northern Sea...” Trooper
Sept 10, 2015 0952h
Engine is on and Bjarne is at the bow securing the anchor. We motor past the Coast Guard station in Bamfield, BC, appreciating not only the aesthetics of the red-roofed buildings in the morning light but the organization itself. They have their work cut out for them in the Graveyard of the Pacific. We motor in the light winds and sunshine, keeping clear of the many small fishing vessels. We are on our way!
Entering a large fog bank, wrapping a cool invisibility cloak around us while the sun shines overhead. My stomach tightens. The dangerous Cape Beale is obscured. Definitely not a case of what you don't see won't hurt you. I remind myself to trust the instruments (compass, depth sounder, GPS) and we listen carefully for other vessels. The haunting low hoot of a whistle bouy is actually comforting – nice to have reliable navigation aids around (thanks again, Coast Guard).
1122h: Ah, some breeze! Sails up – yippee!
We were in and out of the fog for the next few hours. Gradually, the wind increased and moved further aft (that's a good thing, for you non-sailors). We were moving along at a good clip but had different comfort levels about how fast was OK. Bjarne writes in the log, “1555h - main reefed, jib furled a tiny bit, grudgingly on Barb's part.” Admittedly, the boat handling did improve (less weather helm) with those adjustments.
1825h: Eating dinner in the cockpit - Bjarne sees a humpback whale breach. I just see the huge splash.
We felt unsettled throughout the night, not yet used to the motion of the boat, and nervous about the various lights in the distance. Although some might think it comforting to know there are other ships out there, it is unnerviing to see a light getting closer and not be sure just how close they will come. The AIS should give us that information but not all of the ships are registering – they are either not commercial vessels or we need a better antenna. By the end of the passage, Bjarne adds better AIS antenna to the to-do list.
Sept 11, 2015
The seas are gradually getting bigger. We decrease our sail area further. It's a grey, overcast day. Both of us are off our feed a bit – no one is interested in a big spaghetti dinner - but we are starting to settle in.
1753h log states: “Heck breaks loose”
Sitting in the cockpit, keeping warmish under the dodger – suddenly the boat takes a dramatic turn up into the wind. The noise level rises rapidly as the sails express their displeasure. I leap up and grab the steering wheel – what the heck!?! Hellena has just gone on strike!
Bjarne inspects – discovers that one of her control lines have chafed through. Hmm, I guess we should stick our heads over the back of the boat now and again to check for things like that. He replaces the line and, much to our surprise, we are back in business in only 20 minutes. A little shot of adrenaline to keep things interesting. ...admittedly, we should have changed this line out a few thousand miles ago. Happily, it didn't part during the night, which is when inconvenient truths usually manifest.
By night wind is gusting over 20kts – more of the sail is furled around the forestay but we don't like how it is bouncing about. We tightened the forestay as much as we could before leaving but have our doubts it was enough. A smaller sail would help (so there is less that is wrapped up around the stay) but in the dark and with increasing winds we don't want to mess with it. Furling is great in many ways but to change the sail you have to let out all that you have wrapped up before pulling it down. In other words, to reduce sail area, you have to first increase it.
We change sail next morning when there is a bit of a lull as the winds are forecast to continue increasing. The storm sail is now on deck too, just in case. The forestay oscillates less and the boat handles more easily. However, the forestay will continue to concern us.
Here's a short video showing what 60 seconds at sea is like. This was about three days into the passage, with great sailing conditions.
Over the next few days the winds and seas continue to build. We change to a smaller headsail. It's loud and bouncy down below but we gradually get better at sleeping by learning which noises are 'normal' and can be ignored. We also track down a few loose provisions and gear that are clanking about. A few more waves splooch into the cockpit, but the weather cloths help reduce the amount of water getting aboard. The lurching and jarring become more challenging. Three times my wide-based mug is sent flying, staining our old gelcoat with tannins, and depriving me of my nice hot cuppa. I devise a better approach, thus maintaining a reasonable level of civilization on board.
The surge of speed as we surf down the waves is great fun, but the waves have to hit us at just the right time and angle for that. When they hit at just the wrong time, that's a different story. When a large breaking wave hits at the aft quarter and pushes the boat up into the wind, the sails luff loudly and the boat loses its speed. It becoms a sitting duck for the following wave (seems the big ones come in twos or threes) that breaks right against the side of the boat and then knocks us on our side. One night I could hear the roar of a big one. I ducked under the dodger to avoid the expected rush of water. It was pretty fierce but it was that second wave that got me I think I was hanging on but when it hit I was knocked flying. The next thing I know, the top of my head is shoved against the downwind weather cloth, the rest of me is mostly above my head, and I can feel the surface of the water rushing by under the cloth. (The cloth is normally vertical – we were knocked over pretty far.) I'm gripping the life lines, thinking, “I hope my safety harness holds”. Fortunately, we are like a giant Weeble. The boat rights itself but is now sitting broadside to the waves with the sails luffing out of control. I get the boat back under control and yell down to Bjarne that I'm OK. He was surprised when I said we were knocked over – he only woke up from the noise of the sails.
My body was shaky for at least 10 minutes after that, while the adrenaline cleared itself out I suppose, but mentally I was shaky for quite a while as I played over scenarios of what could have happened if the weather cloth hadn't stopped my head from submerging. A few hours later, settling into bed, I reflexively curled up and pulled the covers over my head as I heard the load roar of another big one heading for Hoku Pa'a.
Sept 13 was a misty, drizzly day and night. The damp creeps through the clothing and the boat. However, we are fortunate in that by the 14th the sun returns and we can start to dry out – at least between spray and waves that splurch on board.
We have quite a few times of clear night sky with no moon. We enjoy watching the stars progress across the sky, and the lights of ships stand out from many miles away. You can see the two red lights in a vertical line on this vessel, indicating that this ship is not under command and we are obliged to avoid it.
Unfortunately, our masthead navigation light (which has three colours to show others what direction we are going) is working only intermittently but at least there isn't much traffic. We just use the white anchor light – if someone can't figure out that we aren't actually anchored in 3000 - 5000m deep waters or so then we really have a problem. Just when you think you can't stay awake any longer in the dark wee hours, the sky very gradually brightens. Dawn brings some relief, but as Bjarne points out, also allows us to see the immensity of the ocean , the endless whitecaps, and just how big the waves have gotten.
Sept 14, 1800h. Albatross spotted. About 208 miles to go.
It wasn't until the wind started to moderate on our second last night at sea, that we finally received visitors - or perhaps we just couldn't see them before in the large seas. The call must have gone out from the advance scouts playing in the bow-wake because soon we saw a dozen or more sleek Pacific White-sided dolphins leaping across the tops of the waves, heading right for us. The next day, when we were motoring in calm seas, they came by several times. It is always wonderful to watch them zip through the water, and play in the waves. We also saw some whales but they never came as close as our friends the dolphins.
Sept 15, 0715h. Winds have lightened and seas are now down to about 1m in height. While changing back to the larger foresail we discover that the sail track on the forestay has a break in it (about 35 feet above us). With some effort we get the sail up but are not sure we can count on doing it again. Good thing we are getting closer. It doesn't seem like it should be too hard to fix, she says hopefully. Once ashore we notice some chafing of the sails where the break was. Add that to the to-do list as well.
[Later in San Francisco we consult a rigger – after some initial optimism re spare parts, when he gets a clearer picture of the problem he says, “oh..., well then you're screwed.” Sigh.]
0957h We calculate our distance to go (about 120 miles) and the time we need to arrive. Timing is very important regarding the current as we cross what one guide book tells us is “the second most dangerous bar crossing on the west coast”. If we don't make it by tomorrow morning we may have to spend an additional night at sea, waiting around for a favourable tide. An unappealing prospect - so we turn the engine on. We appreciate the flatter sea and even start to tidy up the boat.
Concerned that our fresh provisions will be not permitted into the USA I cook up a stew made with almost everything left that was perishable – among other ingredients, there were beets, carrots, salami, green tomatoes, garlic and a potato. It was tasty, but unnecessary as during check-in we weren't asked anything about what food we had on board.
Routing and Weather
We had planned to follow the recommendation of Jimmy Cornell to head about 100 miles off-shore but in fact decided to head even further off to avoid higher winds. It's a bit of a trade off – add more distance for a more comfortable sail. Here's a photo of our chart with our actual track plotted. Overall, this was a successful approach and the wind forecasting we used (GRIBs) was surprisingly accurate. We were glad to miss the worst of the winds. What we got was plenty enough for us; Bjarne speculates we could have gone even further off-shore. [like, to Hawai'i :]
Here's our automatically recorded wind, pressure and temperature during the passage (note that the windspeeds are relative - to approximate the true wind, add about 5 knots since we were generally sailing within 20 degrees of dead downwind).
Different charts are used when offshore than when nearing land – the latter are larger scale with a lot more details. One of our activities as we neared land was to dig out the charts showing San Francisco Bay, and we also needed to locate some information we collected before leaving: details like which marinas were likely to have room for us and how to contact US Customs.
Approaching San Francisco
The last day or so of a passage always presents a mental shift – it's an intrusion of the outside human world and an imposing of artificial schedules and regulations into what has been a straightforward life till then: sail, eat, sleep. This transition is often marked by the deep blue of the open ocean giving way to the greens and murkier browns of coastal water, and it signals the need to pay attention to new tasks.Barb already mentioned the need to time one's arrival for daylight and good sea conditions. We also usually encounter more vessels as we near a large port, so we end up making many trips up and down the companionway steps, comparing what our eyes and binoculars see with what the AIS display and VHF radio say. Helping us avoid close encounters were the fine folks at San Francisco Vessel Traffic Services. Starting about 40 miles out from the port, one can contact VTS on the VHF radio and enroll in their monitoring programme. They will broadcast your position, as well as that of all other enrolled vessels, twice an hour so you have a better picture of what freighters and other boats around you are doing. In addition, the approaches to the port are divided into 'lanes' for vessels all travelling the same direction – like roadways without paint stripes. We, for example, were following the Northern Approach Inbound lane from about midnight until just past dawn, when we entered the Precautionary Zone around the San Francisco “SF” buoy 10 miles out from the Golden Gate bridge. While transiting the PZ (kind of like a large traffic circle), we decided to wait for two freighters coming from the west to pass us into the Main Shipping Channel inbound lane. The local pilot aboard the first freighter must have had a bad encounter earlier with a sailboat as he made a snarky comment about sailboats “playing around” in the traffic lanes. It wasn't us, as we had been in the offshore approach lane all night, outside the area the pilots are employed.
To show proper courtesy to the foreign country, we hoisted the USA flag on our starboard spreader. Below it, we hoisted the yellow signal flag 'Q', to indicate that we had not yet cleared customs. We spent a quarter hour looking for the USA flag, fearing that we had left it behind. Fortunately, Barb located the small sandwich bag that it was folded up inside of.
As dawn broke and we could see the land
that we were heading for, our cameras came out for the obligatory
tourist photos. In between the serious work of piloting the boat, we
excitedly ogled the new scenery and wondered at the cliffs we could
see through the mist. Though frequently fog-shrouded, today was a
good day for visibility once the sun rose several hours into the sky.
Overall, it was a good passage: we covered 787 nautical miles in 6 days, 20 minutes with a best 24-hour run of 136 miles. The weather and sea deities were cooperating for this shake-down cruise.
Here's our first berth, at Pier 39. [We've since moved around a bit. More pics to follow...]