On July 18 we dropped the mooring lines at Neah Bay around 0800 to take the left down the coast. I have to admit, each time I heave the anchor or throw off the lines, there’s always a healthy dose of excitement mixed with a pinch of adrenalyn. Sailing is always exciting, especially going to favorite stomping grounds and exploring new places. The pinch of adrenalyn, which seems to never diminish over the years, is similar to the anticipation of jumping off a cliff or tall bridge –you have a general idea of what is going to happen, but the excitement is in not knowing exactly what, how, or when it will happen...or more importantly, how you will respond.
Anything can and will go wrong on a boat. Being prepared for the inevitable is important—mechanical shit, hitting shit, forgetting shit, shit storms—you get the idea: you need to be prepared for shit. In the commercial shipping industry and on sailboats, the biggest factor in dealing with the shit is the crew. Regardless of what goes wrong, and wrong something will go, preparing the crew for the shit is paramount in my book for a safe and awesome passage. The response is key, as is being prepared to respond to whatever shit may happen.
So, you may ask, what does preparing the crew for the shit have to do with sailing from Neah Bay down the west coast of the US? Granted, preparing the boat is a given (if folks are interested, I can share some of the things I’ve done over the years to get Audeamus ready for this voyage), but if the crew isn’t ready, we are in trouble. Case in point on this voyage: my girlfriend, JoAnne, has only been sailing since June 6, 2018, roughly one month. Drew had some good training in sailing school, but had little time on the water and near coastal or blue water sailing. And furthermore, the boat had never been in a serious shakedown cruise.
Little experience, no problem. With any crew, I needed to know their sailing skills, know if they get seasick, figure out their comfort zone, and push the limits when limits needed to be pushed. I did this with JoAnne and my boat July 1st when we made a passage from Roach Harbor to Port Angeles. Other than the second day after I comissioned Audeamus back in October of 2013, I had never taken her out on a shakedown voyage...I had never pushed her limits or tested her in seriously gnarly conditions. Yeah, Puget Sound isn’t that rough and is pretty protected. We were planning to leave Roach Harbor June 30, but because it was drizzling, because we wanted to meet some friends for an awesome dinner, and because I wanted to catch the wind of an incoming high front—knowing the winds would be 30+ and knowing that the winds would be westerly and the tide would be ebbing to the west—I made the decision to do a shakedown cruise to test the boat and to see if JoAnne was really up to the task.
The morning of July 1st was spectacular: 10 knot winds, light seas, and an awesome view of San Juan Island, Vancouver Island, and the Olympic Pennusila. After about 30 minutes passing by Mosquito Pass on a close haul, we were healing over pretty good with 15-18 sustained knots of wind for a good hour, but when we rounded the southwest end of San Juan Island, the seas became a bit confused, which is what I was looking for—the wind was coming in from the west and the tide was ebbing from the east. With a two-foot chop and a four-foot swell, we were beating to wind beautifully under one reaf in the main and one in the gib. We were taking a bit of a pounding, but that is what I was looking for. The boat was handling the beating well so far and JoAnne was enjoying the ride.
About 45 minutes into beating I could see the whitecaps start shearing in the distance, which meant we were going to get between 18-23 knots of wind. We put another reef in the gib and hauled in the main because the seas were getting pretty rough—six-foot chop and a six- to eight-foot swell. When the winds kicked up to 23 sustained, even with two reefs in the gib and the main hauled in, we were still healing over to where were we consistently had the rail in the water, occasionally washed the windows, and were taking a good pounding. Just what the doctor ordered.
Around 1300 when we were off the tip of Victoria Island, I decided to cross the Straights of Juan de Fucha running with the wind to line us up for Port Angeles. I said “Get ready to enjoy the rollercoaster ride.” I made the gibe quickly on the back end of a 12-foot swell and began one of the most exciting sails on Audeamus. We ran with the wind and 8 to 12-foot swells predominately on our starboard quarter, but with a major mix of 4 to 6-foot chop on the bow and random chop hitting us from every other direction. It was definitely a confused sea.
We heald that course for nearly an hour and right in the middle of the Straights when the wind kicked up to 30 knots sustained with 35 knot gusts. We reefed the gib as a trisail, but the boat was still healing over to the point of possibly pitch-poling, so we decided to lower sail and motor the 7 miles left to Port Angeles.
Over the next hour the engine made around three knots into a three-knot tide which wasn’t too shabby. The seas were becoming even more confused as we got a bit closer to land and JoAnne asked me if we were going to get wet. My reply—no—and then to my chagrin, we got hit with a monster rogue wave where we both got drenched. Although it was July and the sun was out, that wave was a bit chilly. I had JoAnne go below to get some dry clothes on and I enjoyed my bucking bronco ride. I was having a blast and getting every penny of the shakedown cruise I wished for. So far the boat was awesomely doing her thing and JoAnne was getting to experience what a possible near gale would look like out at sea.
Then the shit hit the fan, or in this case, the engine. JoAnne stuck her head out the companion way and asked “Is the engine supposed to smoke?” to which I said “Yeah, a bit.” A bit before she asked that question, I noticed the engine was smoking a bit more than usual, but blew that off due to the strong wind blowing almost directly on the exhaust...a sure sign of sticking my head in the sand instead of investigating the abnormality. I thought a bit more about the situation over the next minute and decided to cut the engine when I saw smoke starting to billow from the aft lazerette. Yes, there was something definitley fucked up.
JoAnne also noticed that the bilge pump was running for a while, which brought back memoried from my second honeymoon sailing my first boat back from Sag Harbor when the same thing happened, but this time with JoAnne, the floorboards weren’t floating, a shark wasn’t circling the boat, and the engine smoke wasn’t black. This time the smoke was light blue, whales were breaching, and the bimini was almost ready to get blown away because I didn’t replace a stripped set-screw in a key area. I asked JoAnne to come above deck and lash the bimini down with the best knot she could muster, which she did. I then had her take the wheel breefly while I set a trisail and went below to make sure we weren’t on fire or that we weren’t sinking. We sailed into Port Angeles and briefly turned on the engine to motor to the dock.
Although this was a bit of a digression from our trip down the coast, I consider the problems we encountered on this shakedown cruise a smashing success. It’s much better to find out what is wrong on a boat close to shore, even a relatively new 2014 boat like Audeamus, instead of 200 miles out to sea. When we were safely on the dock, I tore apart the aft berth to find the boat builders cut short the raw-water intake hose going from the muffler to the engine and hose-clamped the hose to itself instead of to the plastic muffler gooseneck. The poundng the boat took on the shakedown resulted in the hose coming loose and consequently melting the gooseneck and a hole in the muffler. I ordered a new muffler and installed it in addition to coaxing an extra ½ inch of hose onto the new plastic gooseneck and didn’t need to worry about that again. Better finding out about this problem close to shore instead of 200 miles offshore!
And now back to the trip down the coast.
After leaving Neah Bay, we decided to hug the coast to Westport becasue of a strong high pressure system that was following the low that just passed through. We also noted some strong 40+ knot winds down by Eureka, California and Humboldt Bay from that stalled high pressure system. With SailGrib WR’s excellent forecast (trust the Grib...the Grib knows), it seemed like this high pressure system would stay there for a while and give us 18-25 knot sustained winds for the trip to Westport. The Grib proved correct once again.
We made good time down the coast with 20 knot sustained winds. During the night passage, I dodged a shit-load of fishing bouys and fishing boats without incident, and made it to Westport to sail across the Westport bar on the tail end of the high-high tide. We actually had to hang out in the swells for about six hours practicing heaving to and getting some good rest to begin the crossing about ¾ into the flood tide. We decided to spend a couple of days in Westport provsioning and waiting to see if the gale-force winds would dissipate.
Here’s the interesting situation—both JoAnne and Drew hadn’t sailed off shore in high winds. JoAnne proved her tenacity and newly-found respect for the sea on our shakedown cruise, but Drew, with his engineering mind, thoughtful perspicuity, and penchant for gathering multiple data points, was a bit more cautious. Then there is me, on the other hand. I have sailed in rough weather in Alaska, the Western Pacific, Sea of Japan, Atlantic Ocean, and the Indian Ocean. I would rather have too much wind than no wind, and with a following sea, 40+ knots of wind will definitely work. But, the crew’s confidence in the boat, the captain, and the crew’s ability is important to an enjoyable and a safe passage. Eventhough I am the captain, the crew has to be comfortable with the decisions we collectively make. We were basically gunkholing down the coast, which is what I planned to do five years back when I planned on sailing this trip solo. I'm sure glad I didn't go solo!
After a couple of uneventful days in Westport, and with that high-pressure system still stalled off Eureka, CA, we decided to go for it. We once again sailed over the Westport Bar around 0800 in just enough time to catch the ebb tide and made excellent time down the coast to Astoria to the notorious Columbia Bar--the Graveyard of the Pacific. It was a fast sail, around 70 knotical miles, and we sailed easily over the bar at high tide, made it to the marina around 2000, docked, and enjoyed a raucus crowd, bad fries, and worse poppers at the Portway Tavern--a most excellent dive bar.
The night went quickly, but we were up the next morning for some strong winds, 18-25 knots. We put a reef in the gib and one in the main and sailed over the bar once again—batting 1000 so far for sailing over bars. We sailed about 15 miles out to sea with a fickle autopilot, so hand steering it was. As I assumed the helm for my 1000 shift, we were 15 miles off shore, so I hung a left and started surfing down the waves, which were piling up to around 8 and 10 feet. As we were surfing down this nice roller, the boat came to a sudden stop, shuddering the entire hull and rigging. It wasn't a hard stop like we had hit a log or some sort of hard object, but a soft, almost fleshy stop like we hit a huge sea lion or a whale, which may have been the case. The boat stopped for a good five seconds before she started sailing again. I had JoAnne go below to check for leaks and I went to the bow to see if there was anything I could see. JoAnne saw no leaks and I didn't see anything unusual on the surface. Perhaps we could have hit a rogue wave, which I've done before, but to stop a boat for five seconds is definitely strange.
The six-day sail to San Francisco was awesome...except we noticed the coolant getting a bit lower each morning when we did our engine check and we finally noticed the water not spitting out of the exhaust system. Well shit, it seems like the raw-water intake wasn’t working...we basically had no engine! Nevertheless, the winds were consistently around 18-22 knots with a pretty consistent swell on the stern—who needs an engine when you have wind and sails. We are a sailboat, damit, not a stinkpot!
As we got closer to northern California the wind was still consistent, but the swell started to get a bit confused—primary swell on the stern, a secondary swell on the port quarter, and a third swell on the starboard quarter, which made for some interesting steering. (Did I mention: we were in hand steering all the way from Seattle due to some germlins in the autopilot.) The crew was in good shape, albeit a little ripe in the clean clothes department—we seemed to sleep in the same clothes we stood watch in, which is par for the course in some of these challenging passages.
Getting closer to the center of the high pressure system off the Eureka coast proved interesting. Drew relieved me at 1600 as usual. The seas were around 12-16 feet with 22 sustained winds. No problem. I had two reefs in the jib and two in the main. I told Drew that if the wind increased over 23 to haul in the main and reduce the jib to match the waves. I also told him to always keep the stern ass into the waves. Never put the beam to these waves or we would more than likely pitchpole and broach. Standing orders accepted and I was officially off watch.
I went below to get some rest, which was pretty difficult in the bow’s v-berth, when I noticed the wind and the hull speed increasing. Again, no problem because JoAnne had been in some serious weather before and Drew had a good engineering and sailing head on his shoulders. When the boat started turning into the waves, however, I put on my oilers and headed for the cockpit.
I was met by JoAnne saying we are in 42 knot winds and some high seas. I asked if Drew had control of the boat, which he said he had, and then the next step was to haul in the main and leave a storm jib or triangle sail to ride out the storm. I know when I was below, they tried to turn the boat into the wind to haul in the main sail, but they caught the mistake before things went south. The easiest solution, since Audemus had an in-mast furling system, was to winch in on the reef while simultaniously letting out the outhaul—on one winch. Yes, it can be done. Take clockwise turns around the drum on the reefing line and counterclockwise turns on the outhaul, keeping her on top of the reefing line to let out the sail. Two lines enter, one sail stowed. I then turned to Drew and JoAnne and asked them if they had this, which they, in their adrennalin-filled excitement said “yes” but were thinking “fuck yeah!” With that affirmation, I went below to look at our options.
Option 1: Duck into Humboldt Bay. We hugged the coast from Neah Bay because of the possibility of strong winds and storms like we were encountering, but when I read through the coastal pilot about Humboldt Bay, coupled with the now 14-18 foot confused swell coming directly on the stern, followed by the port quarter, and then immediately on the starboard quarter, along with the treacherous passage into the bay, that option was off the table quickly.
Option 2: Heave to. This option wasn’t really necessary because both the swell and wind were more or less at our stern and we were making excellent time with just a tri-sail up.
Option 3: Head on down to San Francisco, which is what was the obvious choice. Since our engine was not an option and we had enough wind, along with the swell, we had a most excellent time surfing down the coast making around 10 knots Speed Over Ground.
After presenting all options to the crew, we chose option 3. I went below to relax a bit before my watch and enjoyed listening to JoAnne and Drew working together—JoAnne gave Drew a heads up to swells, along with encouragement, which was really cool teamwork!
Needless to say, we made it to San Francisco in one piece, without needing the engine, and without anybody dying or getting injured...in my mind a successful trip. But, the most awesome part of this stage of our journey was experiencing a rare aspect of life on a small craft traveling down the entire United States west coast, roughly 2000 nautial miles. Granted, I have traveled across oceans on much larger ships between 300 feet to 1000 feet in length, but it is much different on a 37 foot sailboat propelled by the elements instead of a massive diesel engine or two.
The raw and relentless power of the sea is awesome and terrifying at the same time, but the compelling force that makes me gravitate to the sea and do these insanely incredible voyages is being in nature, working with nature, and sharing it with an awesome crew. Doesn’t that sort of nail what living is about? Whether the watch was six hours of keeping the stern into 16-18 confused swells with 35+ knot winds, or enjoying a calm 12 knot breeze in light seas, when your relief comes up on deck to get the heading, wind and sea conditions, the phrase“I got you” means more than just taking over the helm. “I got you” means my crew trusted me with their lives and now I am going to trust them with mine.
(Stay tuned for the last leg from San Francisco to San Diego.)