We’re safely in port, having arrived on Friday, August 29 to a rousing group of friends, family and well wishers. A surprising, and unexpected arrival party to say the least. But I’m getting ahead of myself …
The last four days of our journey contained the highest of highs and lowest of lows so far. It tested and challenged ourselves, made us question our motivations and verified our place in the natural world.
Three days out found us approximately 250 miles of the California coast in a favorable position for a beam reach to the Gate. We were looking forward to finishing the trip and having a cold one with family and friends. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the expected 30-knot winds were going to be difficult, but we knew we’d get through them fairly quickly. Well, little did we know the full extent of our weather. Yes, the winds were 30 + knots (actually, they topped out at 35 sustained with gusts to 37) but it was the combined swell and wind waves that made for the roughest water for the whole trip by far. The swell was coming from large low-pressure systems off the Oregon coast. These “rollers” were conservatively 30 feet from crest to trough (later in the bar I overheard the number had grown to 40 feet). Throw another 5 feet of wind wave on top of the swell and you have the makings of a maelstrom that I hope to not repeat soon. The sail configuration at this point had been reduced to a triple reef in the main and zero jib. That is less than 20% of our full sail area. Later, I learned that it was the worst seas the skipper had experienced in his 40 years … Needless to say, for two days life on board was difficult. The boat was being tossed around like a cork. The incessant howl in the rigging foretold more long hours of this torment. Cooking was masochistic due to the motion. Pam braved it all and delivered wonderful meals to some equally beat-up sailors. Around this point you might have seen a deviation in our track away from the Gate, like towards Monterey. This change was an effort to “run off” from the gale to achieve a safer, more comfortable ride and get into an area of lower winds to the south. Around the latitude of Half Moon Bay things settled down with winds in the teens and diminishing waves. By early Friday morning the seas were flat and we were ghosting along in 8 knots of breeze.
Being the rookie, the watch system was designed to sandwich me between the two experienced hands. That way an overlap of sorts wouldn’t be too much of a burden for the skipper or first mate. Hence, my 0200 to 0500 watch slot was pretty well established and something I loathed but accepted. For those that know me, I’m not a late night person. Early morning, say 0500 or later is just fine. Well, for once I was thankful for that 0200 slot, as that early Friday morning was simply magic. To set the scene, we had a sky that was absolutely filled with more stars than you can imagine. The Milky Way was so bright that it created its own reflection on the water, like a full moon would. Of course, the moon was nowhere to be seen. Add to this the bioluminescence in the water that created its own “milky way” trailing behind the boat. This phenomenon is a result of millions of tiny marine organisms that emit light when excited by movement. While I was perfectly content to ponder the meaning of life in this environment, the arrival of a pod of dolphin simply bordered on surreal. They were like torpedoes, trailing bioluminescence through the water, diving under the boat, riding the bow wave and occasionally breaking the surface with their exhalations. They were gregarious, with their squealing dolphin sounds and their seeming invitation to come out and play in the neighborhood. Pam and I watched them for hours, feeling a connection to the sea unlike anything we have experienced the whole trip.
By the time the sun rose on the horizon before us, the Farallon Islands were in view and we were motoring with zero wind. We still had approximately 35 miles to the gate, so with the fog closing in around us, it was all hands on deck to keep watch for other vessels. Soon the foghorns of the headlands north of the Golden Gate Bridge led us into the bay with Pam having the honor of driving the boat under the famous span. The fog lifted enough to provide a postcard view of the City and enough wind to carry us through the bay without the motor. Closing in on Vallejo, we were faced with one last trick from Murphy. While the cell phones were getting warm from all the non-stop activity, the wind diminished to near nothing. We needed to motor the last few miles. No problem, just fire up the motor like we did countless times. Unless it’s the last time. Turn the key, hit the switch. Nothing. Silence. No time for a beer and cigar, even if we had them! After some discussion about a solution (which included a tow from a yacht club boat) I relied on the old hotwire method by shunting the starter solenoid with a screwdriver. It worked! We motored in to Vallejo Yacht Club to a surprisingly large reception. Those first few steps on the dock were a bit difficult, as there seemed to be a permanent motion going on, although nobody else seemed to notice it. I’m also convinced someone secretly placed gimbals on the house foundation while we were gone as it too seems to have a permanent motion that only Pam and I notice. Hmmm.
In closing, I came up with three things I learned from this trip:
1. Hawaii is a really long way from San Francisco.
2. You hear people say all the time what a small world it is. I’m convinced these same people are not offshore sailors.
3. As much as you may feel alone out there, the cruising community is a surprisingly tight-knit group. One of Pam’s responsibilities was helping the skipper with the evening “roll call” of returning boats. Her 12:00 midnight shift consolidated the position and condition information for a handful of boats. This information was then sent via e-mail to the Pacific Cup organization for posting on their website.
Pam and Roger
ps: There were many, many more wonderful and interesting experiences that do not appear on these pages. If you want to learn more you’ll have to buy us a drink.