Above, the West Coast of Vancouver Island at sunrise.
Whew. It’s been a long time since I posted here. We’ve been on the move and not really had internet access until now. Where shall I start? How about back down in the San Francisco Bay?
We left the Sugar Dock Monday morning, March 24th, after lingering in the Bay awaiting Mahdee’s new radar and chart parts and most important—the correct C-Map chart chips. Of course, while waiting on project parts, David and I continued on with starting yet more new projects. By the time all the electronics were installed, we each had half a dozen “must do” other projects underway. It took a good four days to finish up all the loose ends and tidy up the boat for departure. Every time I’d try to stash-and-lash, David would haul out another “new” project he just had to get done before the trip. Similarly, every time I started work on varnish, paint, or sewing projects, David’s mess was already in the works. Sigh. Luckily for us, a very promising weather window appeared and forced us into the frantic “finish projects” mode! Else we’d still be doing projects and enjoying a variety of wonderful conversations with Bill Bodle, owner of the Sugar Dock, and really an iconic “schooner man.” While at the Sugar Dock, we felt like we were in schooner heaven. Between Bill’s knowledgeable discussions, Grace’s hospitality, and the other boats that were berthed there, we’ll just say it was a good atmosphere. When leaving in the morning, we even got to see the schooner Freida B as she came for a haulout at a boatyard across the channel.
Goodbye San Francisco Bay
Once underway on March 24th, we found the weather chilly but sunny skies and plentiful wildlife created a nice diversion from the fact that the 5 to 15 knot winds were right on the nose. As we rounded Point Reyes, we manged to whack an unsuspecting crab buoy in an unseemly manner. Luckily for us, we didn’t foul the prop. The full keel and keel hung rudder seem to be very protective of the relatively small prop in its relatively small aperture. After rounding the point, within a few hours we were beyond good crabbing depths and didn’t see more floats. We did have an amazingly close call with a strobe-lit fishing net just at sunset though. Great thing-has a radar reflector and strobe on a pole. I think we should make a man overboard pole that looks like those fishing floats! Much more likely to be helpful to the man overboard than the standard ones sold for MOB use.
We have a friend, Sharon, who came along for the first leg of our travels northward with plans of getting off the boat in Neah Bay or south of there depending on our progress. Having another person aboard is really unusual for David and I. Before this trip, we’ve only done an “overnight with guest” one single time with another soul aboard besides the cat. In general, David and I live a simple life when underway and we really just don’t like the idea of putting someone through what may be too-spartan living and we don’t wish to be dealing with an unhappy crew member. Sharon joined us to fulfill her personal goal of ocean voyaging aboard a small sailing yacht. She is a retired USCG warrant officer with loads of time at sea on various ships including an ice breaker. She was a supply officer, though, and none of her experience included actual ship operation nor sailing, but she loves the ocean and being underway. We figured she could handle our conditions while underway and she figured the same. Our little trip up to the PNW is “minor” in the book of Sharon’s adventures, I think. Just looking at her recent FB cover photo  which shows her most recent trip to Africa….wow.
David and I still planned on doing our watches as always, Sharon was along as an extra set of eyes and ears though. She spent a day with us helping prepare the boat to get underway and we were really glad for her help doing so. She’s an avid birdwatcher and photographer with amazing ability to pick out tiny specks on the horizon that end up being birds or ships. Between David’s Navy pilot eyesight and Sharon’s birder’s eyes, I just felt like the luckiest myopic sailor-woman around.
After all three of us enjoyed the morning and mid-day, in the evening, David and I started our watch schedule. We’re on a 5-4-3 hr watch schedule. During the daytime, long watch periods, during the night we do short ones. So it runs midnight-3 am; 3 am-6 am; 6 am-10 am; 10 am-3 pm, 3pm-8pm, 8pm-midnight and so on. As with all trips longer than a couple days, things tend to blend together after the first day.
Starting the trip, the most difficult part of Monday night was getting back into a watch schedule. The winds were higher at night and we reminded ourselves Tuesday morning that we really should take in the jib at night and put up the staysailinstead. Though it was cold, Tuesday, like Monday, was a beautiful day. We had sunshine and rain squalls off and on all day. We also saw whales, porpoise, and started learning, from Sharon, that we were seeing more than a single kind of albatross. Who knew. Certainly not David nor I.
Sailing with foresail and jib alone, we were leaving the little staysail and huge mainsail tied to their booms, at the ready for heavy winds (the former) or light airs (the latter). Our trip was really pretty uneventful up to several hours after we’d passed Cape Mendocino. A rain squall here-and-there but we saw winds mostly in the teens and we motorsailed until we were passing this important headland. We had a ground swell from the west of ranging between 10 to 14 feet with a period ranging from 10 seconds to 14 seconds. For much of the trip, during the daytime the waves were longer period and winds were mild between 10 and 20 kts but at night the winds would rise into gale force (35 to 40 kts with gusts as high as 60 kts—yeah, those are storm force winds actually) and periodically the wave energy increased so the ground swell waves were square e.g. 12ft/12 seconds. In addition, there were wind waves initially from the WSW and then clocking around to come from the south later in the trip.
Beryl, as usual, really enjoyed the trip and spent most of her time climbing over, under, around the people or complaining until you’d pick her up and hold her so she could “help” navigate, cook, or do whatever the nearby human was doing.
Happy Beryl with David navigating and watch standing together
Our winds were coming from the WSW and then later from the south. The wind waves were directly proportional to the winds so they ranged from 3 ft to maybe 12 ft. It was difficult to gauge the height of the wind waves at night. We’ll just go with “sometimes big and sometimes small.” We stayed between 20 and 30 nautical miles offshore for the southern portion of our trip and then headed off further to gain sea room as we passed by Cape Blanco. At that time, the NOAA weather radio was calling out “extremely” hazardous seas near Cape Blanco and we can attest to that being right on. When turning to the west to gain another 30 miles of sea room, it was a good test of Mahdee’s ability to sail to windward without the mainsail up. She did great. We had been broad reaching at 8 kts on a north heading and when we turned to a close reach on a WWNW heading, our speed dropped to a little over 6 kts but we kept punching through the steep wave set approx 12/12 and the only problem was the wind waves were washing the deck as well.
That night, Tuesday, we had mostly reasonable-to-handle-winds in the 20 to 35 kt range with just excursions for a couple hours up into the 40 to 50 kt range but the square ground swell and conflicting wind waves made the boat quite uncomfortable especially during the 5 or so hours we were close reaching. Lots of bang, bang, bang as the wind waves hit us.
The gaff vang was getting a real workout as it prevented the sail from twisting off to leeward. Likewise, said gaff vang continued to saw away at anything it was near. Chafe sounds like a passive process but I could see with my flashlight that this was an active sort of destruction. Earlier in the day, I’d cut a big piece of chrome-tanned leather to wrap around a shroud preventing the gaff vang from sawing through a breastline we’d rigged to that shroud. At the rate it was sawing through, we’d have perhaps another 3 hours before there’d be holes through the leather. I was thinking this and making a mental count-down to daylight. Yes, we’d have time, so I let it be and then David re-rigged the vang to a different spot in the morning. That spot allowed the vang to saw through the hardwood pin rack. Destructive little bugger. The only real calamities of Tuesday night were that it was so rough that our spare 5 gallon water dispenser (which is kept tied into the head) flipped over and we experienced a wash of freshwater across the head sole as well as the aft section of the main saloon. And, we had some water ingress via an improperly secured butterfly hatch.
Going into Tuesday night, we considered taking down the jib and putting up the staysail but we didn’t. Perhaps it was lack of caffeine that brought us to this poor decision but we should have taken in the jib before nightfall since shortly thereafter the winds rose into a gale with winds steadily above 35 kts, often steady at 40 knots and gusting as high as 60 kts.
About caffeine deprivation? We had a major coffee shortage on the early part of the trip. Here’s how it all goes: If I must light the galley stove to do it, I make coffee for David as often as every day but only every other day if things are rough and it is difficult to use the stove. I fill a large 1.4 quart (44 oz) thermos with coffee and it is up to David to manage to keep enough coffee around for his use in the next 24 hours. David usually only drinks 12 to 16 oz of coffee in a day so this works out even in rough weather. On Monday I had filled both our thermos bottles—the 35 oz (1.1 qt) and the 44 oz (1.4 qt) one. I don’t drink coffee since it really doesn’t give me the kind of wide-awake usefulness that it does for many people.
I didn’t think about the fact that David would be groggy without coffee on his watches because I’m so used to him just miserly managing his own coffee thermos to last for at least a day if not two depending on the weather. Unspoken between us—rough weather means no stove and he should really conserve coffee. That was a big “oops” in management of extra people aboard. Sharon didn’t have a clue about this whole coffee management thing because I hadn’t really alerted her to it. Sure, I’d told her we wouldn’t have fresh coffee if it was rough, but she didn’t have a good frame of reference on what was rough. After the coffee ran out way too early (on Monday), the seas were rough enough that it was beyond me to light the stove for making coffee anyway. On Tuesday morning, with things getting rougher, I lit the Newport main saloon diesel heater instead since we can make coffee there by rigging our camp coffee pot over it. But, it was not meant to be—the shifting blustery winds pushed a downdraft of black diesel smoke down into the main saloon and blew out the flame. Twice. Cough, cough. So, we went onwards with no coffee for David and Sharon and no heat for the boat. Late in the day on Tuesday, the swell had increased in period and winds had died down into the mid teens so I thought I’d try some cooking and coffee making. Again, it was not to be—a series of activities on the boat had me dousing the pre-start alcohol fire twice so I was free to go help David with the sailing; then when I had things ready to go, it was even rougher. No coffee making. No cooking. We ate sandwiches, crackers, nuts.
Wednesday was yet another beautiful day with winds in the mid-to-high teens, sunshine and clouds and lots of rolling around with wind waves behind us and being hit broadside by the groundswell. It seemed a bit less rough so I decided to try lighting the stove and making coffee again. I noticed the oven burner was overflowing with kero and onto the floor. Huh? So, dousing the pre- heat on the stovetop burner yet again, I cleaned out the oven burner and the mess of kero under the stove. Finally—I thought—I’d be able to make coffee. Nope. The stove was out of kerosene. Really. Amazing. To get the jug out and fill it would be another major balancing act taking at least ½ hour. By this time I’d spent over an hour and a half of my off-watch time just trying to start the stove to make coffee that I wasn’t even going to be drinking. I got frustrated. No coffee was made. I went to bed to catch my rest. We keep chocolate covered expresso beans aboard simply to be able to get a quick caffeine intake even if things are rough. I told David he’d have to make due with dark chocolate or chocolate covered Espresso beans for his caffeine hit on watch. Poor Sharon was having headaches from caffeine withdrawal—seriously—and though I mentioned the expresso beans, she wasn’t interested in trying them out.
Wednesday during the day was bumpy as all get-out but not too windy. This lulled us into a sort of “it’s all good” state of mind and we almost didn’t take in the jib and put up the staysail. That was quickly dissipated Wednesday evening when gale force winds blew fiercely upon us and we were glad we’d been prudent and taken in the jib putting up the staysail instead. The winds rose to a steady 35 knots and sometimes a steady 40 knots with gusts up higher. We were running before the southerly wind and wind waves while being slammed by the westerly steep groundswell.
During the late Wednesday night/ early Thursday morning hours the gale blew on. During my watches I was so thankful that we could stand most of our watches out of the biting wind and sitting in the shelter of the chart house with a good view of everything around. Edith the autopilot did a great job of tending the helm and holding the course throughout but we were actively using the compass steer and rudder dial on the autopilot during the heavy weather. It was sort of like playing a video game with real stakes. At one point, I was feeling like Sandra Bullock in the movie “Speed” where she couldn’t slow down nor stop driving that bus. David and I had to do a hot-seat switch when one of us had to use the head because the watch stander had to actively use the compass steer and rudder dial to keep a proper heading to the wind or go outside and steer from the helm.
To give the autopilot motor a break, daily we hand steered for several hours during the daytime as we enjoyed sunshine out in the cockpit. During the gale force winds, we were doing all we could to just keep our velocity down and manage to control the boat through the mix of beam-on and following seas. The stormy clouds unleashed short 15 minute downpours and longer spatters of rain in between.
Mahdee performs beautifully in heavy weather and the three nights of gales as we climbed the west coast were no exception. The only real glitch of the first gale night that could have been a bigger deal was that we had neglected to tie small lines onto our butterfly hatches so the foresail lines couldn’t be trapped under the hatch edge and raise it up. We also had not properly secured the main saloon butterfly hatch by tying a line around the locking bronze arm. At one point the inevitable happened and the sheet caught the hatch, opening it briefly and allowing a big splash of water to rain down into the boat. I was sleeping below the hatch on a main saloon seat cushion that I’d put on the sole. Wet, wet, wet. Burrrr. We did a 2 am Chinese fire drill to secure that hatch and make sure the others were also secured. David went onto the deck mid-ships to tie on the lines needed to protect the hatch from the foresail sheet. Sharon wiped up the saltwater on the floor. One of the funny things about having Sharon aboard during the trip was that her frame of reference for being at sea was aboard US Coast Guard boats. Big boats. She’d seen some pretty nasty seas on various trips during her USCG career. While the normal person might have been literally terrified by the greenwater washing over Mahdee’s deck and smashing into her charthouse or even just the waves crashing against the hull and knocking us around a bit, Sharon was cool as a cucumber and just observing the conditions with interest. Once it was the water ingress, once it was the preventer breaking, and so forth…each night during each gale we had a moment of “general quarters” with everyone up and ready to do something for a half hour or longer and Sharon was blessedly good about putting on her life vest and sitting at the ready just in case her help was needed. Someone needs to teach that woman to sail since she’d be a spot-on awesome ocean crew for a serious expedition. At one point, while we were executing a gibe, David was on deck mid-ships changing out preventers and I was turning the helm for the gibe. Of course I overshot and headed too far upwind and we were then screaming on a beam reach and I was trying to bring Mahdee back to a broad reach/almost run without accidently gibing back to the other tack. My mantra was “come on baby, come on Mahdee, you can do it..come on baby, come on Mahdee…” mixed with an “Oh My God, no” every 10 seconds. I’m sure Sharon thought I was nuts, but she didn’t say a thing.
On the US West Coast, our daylight hours were filled with bright sunshine mixed with stormy showers. More birds to learn about and more chances to see whales and porpoise, too. The swell period lengthened, and late in the day Wednesday David helped me refill the kero tank for the stove and I made the two thermos of coffee (this time explaining to our guest that one thermos was hers the other was David’s to manage as they each saw fit). Both Wednesday and Thursday nights were repeats of Tuesday night with gale force winds rising up from the SSW after dark and pushing us up the coast. Our nights were filled with green water washing over the decks and it was pretty tense at times, but it was a wonderful and fast trip to the north. Since the winds were down to the mid-teens in the daytime, during daylight we were able to go out and repair the previous night’s damage—usually chafe starting somewhere or a piston hank deciding to come unhooked from the staysail. I was glad that we had the chance to fix things daily and I wondered what it would be like to be stuck fixing these things during the high winds rather than after.
Back on Tuesday night while sailing past Cape Blanco, we’d tried to start our engine and the starter motor rebelled. So, we’d adjusted course to get more sea room and just sailed up from just beyond Cape Mendocino to just before Neah Bay without the engine. We’d run the genset from time to time to top up the house bank for the autopilot, radar, and other electronics. A couple days of sailing later, we really didn’t want to sail without motor into Neah Bay—we wanted our engine running. Having heard that you can sometimes tap/pound on the starter to get it working, we worked together with David pounding the starter to lay the beat and me pushing the engine start button at the same time. Only 20 seconds into our song, the starter did it’s thing and the engine came to life. I was very relieved not to enter the harbor and dock under sail alone. Mahdee is just too big for that to be comfortable and safe.
In Neah Bay, Sharon took her leave and we ordered a new starter motor from NAPA auto parts. It took a little over a week to get it delivered to us there in remote Neah Bay. While were were there, we enjoyed ourselves. The local grocery-hardware-deli-store had pretty much everything a sailor might want in the way of provisions for a short trip. Clearly, they were set up to feed all the fishermen who come in and out of Neah Bay. And it must have been set up for fishermen with a penchant for sweets. It was just an amazingly well stocked store— included everything from fishing gear, hallmark cards, to knackerbrod! Six different brands of gummy bears and every kind of ice cream, frozen yogurt, and sorbet imaginable. Good daily specials on fresh chicken and meats. OK prices on veggies but mostly “storage” veggies like onions, squash, tomatoes, cabbage rather than a variety of greens. I love gummy bears so I bought four bags of the normally hard-to-find gummy sours. Nice. The other hard-to-find thing they stocked was, amazingly, my favorite brand of crisp bread, Finncrisp by Siljans! I’ve been “making due” with Ikea’s in house knackebrod for years when Ikea stopped carrying Siljans. I bought four packages of Siljans and rejoiced that we’d have yummy crispbread for a couple months!
Other highlights of our week stay in Neah Bay included meeting some great professional mariners who are stationed there to keep emergency assist tug and environmental cleanup boats running. We ended up hanging out for a while with a nice bunch of guys from the FOSS tug boat tied up just across the dock from Mahdee. We had a huge family of sea lions who hung out on the end tie near Mahdee. They yapped all night long sometimes but they were fun to watch. There was also an abundance of birds to watch. One eagle was a lot of fun. I worried that he could pick up Beryl and fly off with her. Luckily, she had no interest in being outside because the sea lions were a little close for comfort. The marina had clean showers which operated on quarters. We didn’t want to anchor with an iffy starter motor though we could have just anchored off and rowed in for supplies and showers; so instead, we luxuriated in being on the dock and not rowing in the constant rains.
The cook of the FOSS tugboat hard at work making lunch in his galley.
On Saturday, April 5th, we left Neah Bay. Leaving Neah Bay, we crossed the Juan De Fuca Strait. Though forecast for SW or S winds they were actually W or NW for the first couple days of the trip through Canadian waters. Currents and winds as well as our desire to only use the motor lightly rather than burn through our fuel quickly, conspired to bring our progress down to 2 kts for many miles as we sailed upwind past Barkley Sound. It was depressing to have it take 24 hours to finally pass that Sound. A gale that we’d not been too concerned about and been watching the forecasts on suddenly was forecast as becoming a heavy-duty storm within 48 hours. It would lash us with 50+kt winds and at our slow rate we’d not be clear of Vancouver Island before it hit. Sea room wasn’t looking like a viable option since we were making very poor progress away from Vancouver Island and while we were seeing 3 or 4 meter seas about 15 miles off the island, the seas just twenty more miles to the west of the island were already 5 meters and forecast for 6 meters or more during the storm.
We decided we should find shelter rather than deal with it at sea. I was getting a pretty bad cold so the idea of sitting out a storm toasty and dry at anchor rather than soaking wet and cold tossed around at sea sounded pretty good to me.
David quickly scanned the cruising guides and saw several potential hidy-holes including a few on Sydney Inlet about midway up the west coast of Vancouver Island. We continued onwards towards the goal of reaching one of the hidy-holes he’d identified. On watch and off watch, with my cold I felt like a robot with a single focus of pointing as high as possible while keeping the sails full of wind. Because the temperature hovered in the mid-40’s and it was raining, conditions were bitter outside. We continued to compass steer with the autopilot from within the chart house. This is basically like hand steering but using the autopilot to do the “work” of turning the wheel. You set a course and then turn a dial right or left as you wish to vary the heading a bit. It’s easy to tell if the boat is on a good sailing course if you’re outside on deck; not so easy from the confines of the chart house. Especially since we were motorsailing we had the engine noise to occlude the smaller sounds the sails make when fluttering just a bit. David had rigged telltales all over the place: little yellow ribbons high and low that were telling the story of where the wind was coming from. Except for when it was raining hard and they all simply stuck to the rigging. Depending on where I stood in the charthouse, I could see the set of the foresail or that of the staysail. But not both. Such is the life of “comfort” sailing from inside the charthouse.
Back to the cold I was catching: my brain was so befuddled, I couldn’t even do the simple mathematics to figure out if we were going to reach the Sydney Inlet and its protected anchorages during daylight hours. As the sun came up, my worry went from “will we arrive in the dark, too early?” to “will we arrive in the dark, too late?” Finally assured that we were indeed going to enter the cove mid-day with plenty of time to reach an anchorage, I was relieved. Ah, you’d think there would be nothing more to worry about for a bit. Nope, I guess I’m a natural worrier. So my mind went to the “gee, this is a big west swell, I wonder if it will break at the entrance to our inlet? The swell was reminding me of the reef entrance to Half Moon Bay at Pillar Point…during Mavericks surfing competition that is. So, another couple hours of chewing my lip and wondering how it would turn out. Luckily the rains stopped before sunrise so that David, bless his heart, could more comfortably hand steer in the cockpit the last hour as we approached the inlet entrance. Once inside Sydney Inlet, we felt like we’d discovered a glorious place. Sunshine. No swell, no waves, great views, and loads of room to easily take down the sails. It had been so long since we’d taken down sails in light winds and no waves, both David and I marveled at how easy it was to do so. Ah. It’s the little things in life that are so nice.
Even with a bad cold, taking down sails in calm Sydney Inlet was so nice.
We anchored in Bottleneck Cove on April 6th, a tight little land-locked spot of water that was supposed to be pretty bomb-proof in all winds. Once anchored, I gave myself the luxury of taking cold meds and slept, slept, slept for 42 wonderful hours just waking every 6 hours for another hit of cold meds. David says he read books and enjoyed the views of the calm waters and the rain while I slept. He also listened on the VHF radio to the weather stations and heard nearby buoy reports of winds as high as 50 knots and 6 meter seas just outside the inlet. So glad we were tucked into an anchorage out of the weather during that storm.
Beryl at at anchor.
We had a number of little glitches during our trip. The starter motor not starting was sort of a harbinger of electrical things to come. During the passage from San Francisco up to Neah Bay we were perplexed by the fact that the main battery bank and starter battery had drawn down (together) so that at one point we had to get out the gas Honda EU2000 generator to charge them. There wasn’t sufficient juice to start the engine nor the diesel genset at that time. I, simplistically, just thought the electric autopilot had been working very, very hard and chalked it up to that. As we left Bottleneck Cove, though, all 12V circuits died (including engine) as we were raising the anchor. In such a calm little cove, this wasn’t dangerous but did require some quick troubleshooting by David to figure out that one of the 400 AH 6V batteries in our 12V house bank was shot. It read full charge (almost 13V) but any little load (even a radio on standby) would take it down to 0 volts. Shorted out? This new electrical problem would preclude our use of the 12V 400AH house battery bank for the remainder of the trip. Instead, we had to use the little 100 AH starter battery as the house bank.
Our starter battery had already been abused by us in the past (we’d let it’s charge state drop to…nothing…for a period of time in neglect) so this was not a comforting thing. Mahdee has 100 AH at 36 V for her windlass and 36V bilge pumps. Her 12V autopilot required the house bank. As long as we used the starter battery as the house bank had been used, we would be able to continue on. However, if we wanted to use the autopilot, we’d be forced to run the engine or genset for charging. Normally we take a battery out of one of our cars and keep it in the boat during travels as a spare battery. This trip we’d not done that because the person who was storing our car might need to move the car from time to time. And now we could have used that spare battery.
We left Bottlneck Cove at 0715 in the morning of April 8th and while it was misty and raining, we still had an easy time of putting up sails and getting underway. The next 24 hours were somewhat of a blur for me because of the cold. On and off watch, I was in a daze. We passed the Brooks Peninsula at midnight. We pass all major points and capes in the middle of the night, it seems. We did finally get our southwest winds but still found ourselves pointing very high (to the west) to make way northwest towards our destination. The mantra was still point as high as we can without luffing the sails. The faster point of sail would have been more of a beam reach, but the waves pushing us sideways and the associated rolling back and forth really isn’t all that comfortable for hours or days on end. I consoled myself with the notion that there was less fatigue on the rig without all that rolling. Who knows if that’s true, but it sounds good at 2 am when sailing in less than favorable conditions.
Leaving the misty Bottleneck Cove in the calm post-storm.
There are other things that sound good when sailing at 2 am—music. Our little Raspberry Pi did double or perhaps treble duty this trip. It was reading the NMEA data from the Airmar weather station and displaying it nicely on a small HDMI monitor. The Pi was also providing us with music from our .mp3 collection. Albeit, the speakers are tinny little USB ones, but something is better than nothing. The player was set to provide a random selection—if there’s one thing that will keep you awake and somewhat alert is listening to Bach one minute and then being slammed by Guns and Roses. One night, David was napping in the charthouse while I stood the watch and some calming nature music came on. It is the sound of running water and loons calling. Really quite nice—for 10 minutes—and then it starts getting to you. David cracked an eye open and said “that stuff goes on for HOURS.” It turns out the entire album is recorded as one song.
My memory of the leg between Bottleneck Cove and Haida Gwaii is really iffy. Sailing in challenging seas when you’re totally zoned out makes for a blurry picture of things. David caught my cold and was becoming about as zoned out as I already was. We had finally passed the Scott Islands at the northern end of Vancouver Island so we could turn up into the Hecate Strait to progress north towards the Dixon Entrance. More doom and gloom weather forecasts on the radio gave us pause: should we continue up the Strait that was known to develop nasty steep seas especially in heavy weather; should we go around outside the Queen Charlottes where the seas were bigger but might be more manageable; or should we divert to an anchorage in the Queen Charlottes?
This part of the trip was interesting because I’ve never liked the idea of surfing a boat. I always thought of surfing a sailboat as sort of the downwind thing where you’re surfing along with the waves. We spent a lot of time when coming up the coast to Neah Bay just avoiding that sort of surfing—pushing ourselves into the sweet, slow spot between a broad reach and a run—where the barn door style of using the sails starts and where their shape isn’t doing a whole lot of good for you. So, this part of the trip, we had these big swells coming from the west and some of the sets were steeper than others and breaking. We were reaching. And we were surfing. With the mainsail down, the foresail and staysail naturally push Mahdee’s head downwind (to lee) so if we started to round up on a wave we’d always end up eventually back on our reach but with a lot of speedy surfing in the middle. It was an interesting experience, a wave would steepen up and Mahdee was like a competition surfer, she’d cut into the wave with her keel, I could feel a little shudder with the cut and she’d be picking up speed immediately. If left to completion without my interference, she’d eventually turn up the face of the wave a bit and then when atop the breaking wave she’d settle back down to a broad reach and start the whole surfer-Mahdee trick again. Generally, no water came aboard on these surf runs but every 10th surfer wave or so was big enough to break big-time right on Mahdee’s deck and that was just not ok with me. So, I didn’t let her surf—at the first little “shudder” that indicated she’d stuck her forekeel in for a wave-run, I’d quickly turn the rudder dial towards the east forcing Mahdee to continue down the wave rather than cutting up into it. The wave would pass us rather than Mahdee taking flight on the passing waves. David was thoroughly enjoying the surfing speed and he and I had a little talk about not carving up the waves but instead being more cautious. It was a rolly ride belowdecks when off-watch if David was surfing the boat rather than trying to stay slow.
For the 48 hours since leaving Bottleneck Cove, we had no heat because the diesel Newport bulkhead heater’s barometric damper wasn’t up to the job of dealing with the winds. The fire was being extinguished by the heavy downdrafts and then I then had to clean the soot from the stove before it could be restarted. It would stay lit a couple hours at most and was putting out pitifully little heat. I suspected the cold wind blowing across the uninsulated stovepipe was contributing to the problem as well. As we sailed on, we were just totally out of energy and ideas. When, the morning of April 10th, the WX radio gave us yet another forecast of overnight gale and near-storm force winds as well as nasty steep seas, it didn’t take long to make the decision to divert to anchor somewhere in the Queen Charlotte Islands. We ran through the cruising guides and selected an anchorage that was within our reach during daylight and that was supposed to be calm and protected from all wind directions.
David, with his new cold ramping up, was getting very excited about having heat at anchor. The boat’s interior was hovering in the low 50’s in the charthouse and in the low to mid 40’s below. I began to imagine all the nice things I could cook once settled into an anchorage as well.
We made our way towards the Juan Perez Sound and saw a fishing boat on the AIS as we were taking down sails inside the Sound. We weren’t sure of the room which would be available for getting the sails secured once we were in what appeared, on the charts, to be fairly narrow channels leading to our anchorage so we took down sails a good 8 miles away from our anchorage. Way too early but cautious. As we motored in to the wider than expected channels we laughed a bit at our caution. We hailed the fishing boat and they encouraged us to skip the anchorages and to head for a particular free dock that we could tie up to overnight and get fresh water. Off season, with no recreational boats around, the dock was sure to be available to us. Unfortunately, the location was just too far for us to make it there before darkness fell. We continued on towards the expected peaceful anchorage.
The winds had blown at 20 kts at the point that we took down the sails. As we wound further into the channels towards our anchorage each turn netted a steady increase in wind speed and always on the nose. Before we knew it, the winds were steady at 40 kts. The winds were following the channels and turned with each turn we made—to remain on the nose. We knew we had anchored before in 40 kt winds but only in a very big roadstead anchorage. Our planned anchorage was a tight little postage stamp with a narrow entrance including a tricky shoal to get into its protection. We motored on with sinking spirits—knowing that we were likely to have to bypass the much needed rest and head back out into gale conditions in Hecate Strait that night. Finally, the straw that broke the camel’s back—or the winds that made us turn tail and run—were raised as we turned another corner, 45 knots steady with numerous gusts much higher. David was at the helm and couldn’t see the wind instrument but he called out to me “was that 50 kts?” to which my answer was “and then some.” Our display meter pegs at 50 kts and we have to look at the raw data file to see how much higher it went than 50 kts The showers of rain were pelting us with stinging blows and we were defeated.
Seeing the deteriorating conditions, a few moments earlier, I’d picked what looked like a quiet “sidecar” spot out of the winds, on the chart, in case we needed to regroup before going back out to sea. It was supposed to be water at least 30 meters but as much as 100 meters deep adjacent a tall cliff that dropped from a couple hundred feet down into the water. David turned the helm towards the spot and as we drew closer we could see waves breaking over uncharted rocks in the area. I didn’t think my spirits could sink any lower. Nix that plan for a moment’s respite. We continued onwards, I was near to tears because of the frustration and my cold and knowing that David was just coming down with the same miserable cold.
Our plans were now to raise the sails at the same place we’d dropped them. Hours wasted, we both were wetter and colder, and no anchorage could be taken. The entire exercise wasted four hours of our time, plus, we had diverted a good 5 hours and it would take 5 hours to bring us back to our original course. We were both so tired that we agreed we’d simply set the staysail and run with the winds and seas. The staysail represents less than 20% of Mahdee’s sail area. The tiny sail was all either one of us felt we had the energy to deal with if problems arose. Since our big house bank of batteries was no longer available, we were forced to either hand steer in the cold, wet cockpit or have the motor running to use the autopilot. It would run along happily at zero float using the start battery and the alternator charging. So, the plan became that we’d motorsail at low RPM with the staysail alone.
David was shivering and asking me to find a way to heat the boat. Having stood the helm for two hours in rain at 44F, and wearing inadequate clothing, I wondered if he would end up with pneumonia rather than simply my cold. Our diesel heater wasn’t working in these conditions and it was too rough to use the Aladdin kerosene lanterns for heat. I never run the Taylors kerosene galley stove without babysitting it so that wasn’t really an option. Similarly, it was too rough to consider setting up the stovepipe for the solid fuel stove in the galley. The stovepipe, when installed in
the thru-deck fitting, is within two feet of the covering board midships and exactly where we have been getting smacked and boarded by waves on this trip. So, no solid fuel stove. We have a couple small electric heaters and I asked David if he’d like to run the generator to keep the autopilot happy instead of the engine. This would enable us to use the electric heaters. We weren’t sure if, in the roll of the short period steep seas of Hecate Strait, our little staysail would be adequate to keep us pointed downwind if we didn’t put up another sail (jib or foresail). Though the engine was only idling along it was helping us keep our path. We put the engine in neutral and observed the results. Nope, the seas were just confused enough that they were smacking Mahdee from a variety of angles and she’d yaw upwind from our run to almost beam-on winds and seas before working her way back downwind. It wasn’t comfortable at all though we’d do it if we had to. She just didn’t have enough momentum and downwind pull without another sail up or the engine running. So, no running the generator instead of the engine. We considered running both but thought that was a wasteful thing to do with our limited diesel fuel.
David didn’t feel like hovering over a candle (the last option I offered up), so he was ultimately forced to pull out his extra-warm thermal base layers and use them under many layers of warm dry clothing. He stopped shivering and that’s good. About good warm clothes: there’s nothing like ’em. I have two pairs of extra heavy (and fuzzy) Patagonia base layer tights. They are both so warm that when I wear them I typically don’t wear a shell over them or I’d be sweating. I also have all kinds of wool socks and fuzzy warm shirts as well as a merino wool sweater that I practically live in while we’re underway. Both David and I have several rain jackets but until this trip I’d never brought out my heavy orange slicker of the type fishermen in the North Sea might wear. Ah, so heavy and impractical in San Francisco but so perfect for northern waters. Once David donned the really warm clothing, he was in much better spirits.
We sailed onwards through the night and into the following day, Friday April 11th. Under-canvased and barely above idle on the motor, we puttered along in a lazy restful state doing 5 or 6 kts which allowed us some peace. The winds and seas then turned from following us (southerly) to northwest winds and funky steep seas from the west that were confused by the tides and shallows of Hecate Strait. A few hours later, as the winds came up and the seas steepened into rolling breakers around us, we were also rolling side-to-side and our deck was awash. The little staysail doesn’t do a whole lot to dampen a roll so the clear choice was to raise the foresail to dampen the rolling but we’d still be awash with the breaking waves on the beam. It was 39F outside and really cold. Graham Island abeam to the west we were still blocked from the full Dixon Entrance swell for a few more miles.
At the time, David and I were both nowhere close to the top of our games and I worried that we’d end up with calamity soon if we did not have opportunity for a real rest. It became clear to me that we would end up crossing the Dixon Entrance in truly nasty conditions for no reason other than the desire to keep going rather than to anchor. To reach a reasonable anchorage before dark became my goal. We debated the options and decided to be prudent and turn downwind away from the Dixon Entrance to broad reach to the east and duck behind a group of islands including Porcher. We sailed along slowly at 6 knots the remainder of the day, arriving at our selected anchorage of Totem Inlet on the east side of Dolphin Island.
I set numerous waypoints on the charts in case we’d need to divert to another anchorage or continue sailing. The winds were 20 kts until just yards from the anchorage entrance and then they fell to a peaceful 10 kts or less. The twisting narrow entrance was really a running rapids, fortunately we were on an ebb tide, so we had steerage; it only 40 ft wide for several hundred feet. This narrows with steep cliff walls helped to block the winds from the anchorage. The inlet was about 1/3 mile long and 1000 feet wide in the middle. The depth where we anchored was between 3 and 10 fathoms at low tide. We anchored, letting out 250 ft of chain in 5 fathoms in Totem the night of Friday April 11th and slept.
Next…crossing the Dixon Entrance and into Alaska.