At this moment, we are nearly 40 miles off the coast of Washington, and I am standing my first night watch on the ocean. The glow of city lights has been replaced by the glimmer of stars. The Space Needle, a beloved Seattle icon for me, no longer lights the sky. Instead, a three-quarter moon feels like company tonight. Flecks of light from the moon dance on silky water like sequins on a slinky black gown. There is a sensual quality to the shape of the waves, as they curve rhythmically across the windless surface. I know that night watches will not always possess such seductive qualities, but this one does, and I am savoring every moment. Appropriate that Bruce Springsteen’s “Because the Night (belongs to lovers)” should be echoing into the darkness.
The big left turn
We departed Neah Bay just after dawn on Friday, October 3rd and rounded the towering cliffs of Cape Flattery at 9 am, sailing a route between Tattoosh Island and Duncan Rock. A bright autumn morning mirrored our high spirits. We had done it! We cut the dock lines and made the infamous big left turn. We happily made the most of easterly winds that gusted to 20 knots, a bit higher than forecasted, and wrung all we could from them until our engine was necessary to maintain forward progress. The hours of daylight passed, abuzz with a myriad of tasks that left us feeling productive but not nearly as hectic as Fridays of weeks, months, and years past. We prepared food, toyed with the single sideband radio, read books, and watched the mountains of our home state fade in our wake.
As a pastel sunset faded to darkness, the seas were calm and the only breeze was that made by our hull pressing toward the horizon. The growl of the engine grew grating, and I wished we had wind to hoist our sails. At the same time, I felt thankful that Neptune offered gentle seas for us to make the transition from the Puget Sound to the Pacific, especially so late in the season. The compromise for benign weather, we expected, might be motoring more between Neah Bay and San Francisco than we’d hoped.
Sails up, charts down
Fortunately, winds awaited us south of Gray’s Harbor, WA, and we found them mid-morning on Saturday. We sailed a deep broad reach over the course of the next 50 hours, our longest stretch of sailing ever. During that time, we also uncovered a navigational challenge. We had mistakenly understood that we had all of the electronic charts for our voyage loaded in our autopilot system. Wrong. While we still had our GPS coordinates, our electronic charts ended in southern Washington. For the remainder of our nearly 800-mile passage to San Francisco, we’d need to utilize paper charts exclusively. While many modern cruising boats rely on electronic charts alone, we carry paper charts…and thank goodness we do!
My fantasy to star in a west coast version of the cable television hit Wicked Tuna came to life when our “all bout that action, boss” Seahawks-colored fishing lure hooked a 25-pound blue fin tuna* on our hand line! Thus began our tuna-for-every-meal marathon. We crafted nigiri nibbles and simple sushi rolls of seaweed paper, rice, wasabi, and sprouts we grew aboard; grilled tuna steaks with salt, pepper, and lemon; and marinated tuna in a soy sauce-ginger-honey-garlic concoction that Neil thought up. Guiltily, we still had to return some of our catch to the sea several days later. If anyone has ideas for preserving fish aboard, we welcome them…
*UPDATE: OOPS, not a blue fin tuna…thanks to our handy new fish identification guide, we learned that this fish was actually an albacore tuna!Whale tales
As days two and three at sea dwindled, exhaustion began to replace adrenaline, and we did our best to establish a better napping routine during the daytime, something we’ll work harder at from the get-go during future passages. Nonetheless, we couldn’t resist sharing sunsets with each other. As the brilliance of day two gave way to muted shades of blue and gray, our sense of serenity was rattled by a series of sudden explosions! Like blasts from canons in the sea, at least half a dozen spouts shot forth well over 10-feet above the water. OH SHIT, we’re in the path of a pod of migrating gray whales! Appreciating their greater agility in the water, we maintained our tack, hoping that they would elect for a path around and not thru us! One surfaced less than a boat length away! I would have snapped a photo had I not been on the verge of hyperventilating. We humans are not sea creatures – we are small. Refreshing. Terrifying.
I continue to feel momentary twinges of fear but am far more relaxed than I had anticipated I would be. I refuse to let myself cling to any of the doomsday scenarios that spring to my mind here and there. I trust our boat. I trust our capacity to work as a team to overcome challenges. I trust our dream. We are exactly where we should be in this moment.
Dolphins for days
On the afternoon of day three, a flash mob pod of at least 50 dolphins and porpoises appeared out of nowhere as we cruised south along the coast of southern Oregon. A seemingly choreographed performance, exuberant dancers glided across the watery stage ahead of our boat, small groups diving in unison from all angles. Several dancers pirouetted dramatically high above the surface and still others raced and leapt along either side of The Red Thread. My delight and amazement could not be contained, and I found myself squealing with childlike delight. Neil and I were left feeling awestruck, having never experienced such a show, smiles stretched from ear to ear. In all of the vastness that is the Pacific Ocean, this unexpected performance took place with us at its center.
The last few days of our passage blurred together as we moved between watches and disrupted periods of sleep. Cold, damp nights in foul weather gear gave way to comfortable days in long trousers and sweaters. The Red Thread rode the swell with vigor, putting her shoulders into each wave and then surfing down the crests. We had kept our promise to the Maddox Family, and to ourselves, and had returned her to the big blue. Like the veteran ocean cruiser she is, we needed but to help her do what she does best. She was in her element. We, on the other hand, were the novice blue water sailors, striving to negotiate competing winds and sea swells, a steep learning curve given that the majority of our sailing had taken place in the Puget Sound.
Before we knew it, we’d crossed into California waters, rounded Cape Mendocino, and were approaching Point Reyes, the final stretch into San Francisco. We had cruised along comfortably in 16- to 18-knot winds for well over 24 hours and as much as we would have enjoyed pressing onward, we needed to stop for the night in order to wait for daylight and favorable tide conditions to sail under the Golden Gate Bridge. Described in our guide book as being a bay well-protected in a north or northwesterly wind, we were caught off guard when we found ourselves fighting 30-knot winds as we pressed our way into the Drake’s Bay anchorage at dusk. Perhaps we were spoiled in Washington, but battling a near-gale in a “protected” anchorage is unheard of in the Pacific Northwest! Nonetheless, we set our anchor on our first attempt and then settled in for a quick dinner and bed. Together. For the first time in nearly a week.
Gliding under the Golden Gate
Morning came quickly and eight hours of uninterrupted sleep was stretched a few extra minutes when we slept thru our alarm. We were underway by 6:45 am. Some twenty miles from the sandbar guarding the entrance to San Francisco Bay, we could feel the ocean swell building. The channel was shrouded in fog and, admittedly nervous, we watched as well over a dozen small fishing boats emerged from the haze. We were surprised at the shallow depths we encountered as we traversed Bonita Channel and Four Fathom Bank and took turns scanning our paper charts to ensure our approach would not run us aground. Years of anticipation in the making, we cheered as we popped champagne, sailed under one of the seven wonders of the modern world, and feasted our eyes upon San Francisco. Passage perks
Point of departure: Neah Bay, WA – 10/03/14
Point of arrival: San Francisco, CA – 10/09/14
Distance traveled: 773 nautical miles
Total time: 6 days, 5 hours (149 hours)
Engine roaring: 58 hours
Sails soaring: 91 hours
Average speed: 5.7 knots
Max speed: 8.2 knots
Jessie’s musings: In stark contrast with our overnight passage during our shakedown cruise to Roche Harbor earlier this summer, seasickness was not an obstacle I wrestled with during this passage. Armed with a stockpile of scopolamine patches, my queasiness peaked at a 2 on a scale of 0 (no nausea) to 10 (barfing over the side of the boat). Not feeling sick enabled me to savor ups and downs of our passage with a clear mind.
Neil’s reflections: I’m really happy that we chose to leave Neah Bay when we did. The last week there has been a gale blowing off the coasts of Washington and Oregon that would’ve closed our weather window south. The two moments that stand out to me most were the dolphins playing around the boat and crossing under the Golden Gate Bridge. Foggy as it was, that moment was a culmination of years of planning and preparation. It cannot be understated how incredible I felt the moment we accomplished a goal for which we’ve spent over two years planning and preparing.