Things generally don’t go as planned around here. Which is more often a good thing than a bad thing.
We left Ilwaco on an overcast Sunday morning with a week’s provisions and an adventurous crewmember. The bar crossing was so passive, with light winds and a slack tide, that I was frying eggs down below as we transited the notorious Graveyard of the Pacific. We motored for a few hours waiting for the wind to fill in then hoisted the Whomper as the breeze built to 15 knots. Our course took us at about a 45-degree angle away from land, partially because of the wind direction and partially to put some distance between us and the shore.
The coast of Oregon and northern California is a rugged place. The continental shelf off of Oregon is a shallow shelf of land extending 16-40’ westward that is notorious for sharp steep waves, dense sea fog and hosting thousands of fishing vessels. The ocean swell, uninterrupted since forming somewhere near Japan, suddenly slams into what amounts to a brick wall where the depths change drastically from 9,000 feet deep to 600 feet deep at the shelf’s edge then quickly to 150 feet deep on the top of the shelf. I’ll let you visualize what happens to the peaceful rolling swells as they discovery this brick wall. And so there was a lot of westerly in our heading as we pursued deeper and therefore calmer water.
The sunset was stunning. The entire western sky exploded in reds and pinks. As the sun dipped below the horizon, we doused the spinnaker, unfurled the jib and tucked a reef in the main. (Translation for non-sailors: we pulled down the huge unwieldy sail that demands a lot of attention, put up an easy sail that can be handled by one person, and made our primary sail smaller so we would already be prepared if the winds got bigger in the night. Which they did.) The winds blew 15-20 that night, but the seas were comfortable and my night shifts passed quickly watching the stars, navigating among fishing vessels and listening to podcasts.
Monday dawned, the wind persisted and the seas built. John had just climbed in bed after his morning shift and Geoff had taken the wheel when one of the fishing reels whirred to life. “Fish on! Fish on!” John leapt from bed in one rapid and clumsy movement and was on deck in seconds fighting a tuna in his underwear. I followed close behind and readied the gaff hook. Soon we had the albacore on deck, humanely killed and bled. John had just picked up the fillet knife to clean it when the second fishing reel took off. The second albacore hit the deck no more than 7 minutes after the first.
Our cockpit looked like a crime scene from a low budget horror flick. It took us all of the morning and into the afternoon to prepare the fish and clean up the scene of the murder. In the meantime, the wind continued to build and the seas shortened, making the motion much less pleasant. Between the uncomfortable conditions and scrubbing blood from the cockpit, I started to feel a bit woozy.
Sometime that day, our propane system went on the fritz. We have a “sniffer” that lives under the stove designed to set off an alarm and cut off the system if it smells propane. Every time we turned the stove on, the sniffer promptly screeched and shut us down. This happened even if we turned the propane off at the source, leading us to deduce that we did not actually have a propane leak but that the sniffer had perhaps sniffed a bit too much of something.
To cook dinner that night, I braced myself in the galley with my finger poised on the propane switch. I had a pot of rice and a teakettle of water I was attempting to heat. John was at the grill with tuna and broccolini. Each time the sniffer screamed in my ear, about once every 20 seconds, I would quickly hit the “acknowledge” button then turn the switch back on. If I was quick enough, the stove and grill would stay lit. If I wasn’t, it was usually about the time I got the stove relit that the sniffer would scream again.
We did, eventually, get dinner cooked. But after the blood scrubbing, the screaming sniffer and standing awkwardly down below in rough seas trying to boil rice, my stomach rebelled at the thought of food and I managed only a few bites of rice. I let the boys clean my plate. After dinner, we gybed, now nearly 80 miles offshore (translation: we turned the boat for a course that took us closer to land….eventually). That night was a rough one. The windvane continued to steer the boat but with the sharp waves, the boat’s motion was jerky and unpredictable. I spent part of my shift with my head hung over the lifelines, never a pleasant way to spend time.
The wind really started to build the next morning. When I came on shift at 11am, we put the second reef in the main sail (making our primary sail even smaller) and furled in most of the jib (making the front sail extra small). That helped with the motion, but by 11:30 the wind had increased to 30-35 knots. The forecast claimed it was currently blowing 20-25 with an anticipated 30 knots without reprieve for 36 hours. Since it was already gusting over 35 knots, I pulled out the guidebook to see where we could duck in that didn’t have a bar crossing to contend with.
Call it chance, call it providence, call it fate. Whatever you call it, I was elated to see Crescent City 45 miles directly ahead of us, a well-protected basin without a river bar. I counted down the minutes until we were behind the shelter of land. By the time we could see the breakwater, the wind was sustained 35-37 gusting 44 knots. Under about a third of the jib alone, we averaged 8 knots and regularly saw 10-12 knots surfing down waves. (translation: that’s fast.)
Halcyon handled it like a pro, keeping us relatively dry and comfortable. But we broke a lot of stuff and learned some valuable lessons. The broken shackle on the jib halyard was holding the jib up by tension alone, the bolt holding the vang to the mast was rolling around on deck, the arrow on the masthead wind unit jumped ship, the jib sheet block lost a bolt, the paddleboard rack snapped, the paddles went overboard, a plate launched itself to its demise, and everything not tied down on the starboard side of the boat deposited itself on the port side before returning to starboard haphazardly with all its port companions – over and over. All said, the damage was insignificant and the lessons considerable.
We were wiped out by the time we pulled in to Crescent City, greeted by fellow cruisers we could hardly respond to. We gorged on Mexican food, took steaming hot showers, and went straight to bed for a glorious 12 nights of sleep. The next day, when we once again felt like human beings, we properly met the fellow cruisers that had welcomed us in the night before. Four other boats were in the cove, all headed the same direction, all like-minded with stories to tell and wisdom to share. We have been cruising with them ever since, sometimes anchored 30 feet apart, sometimes hundreds of miles separate us as we hop down the coast on our own schedules. But it is a wonderful thing to have friends out there watching out for us that understand this crazy thing we’re doing. Perhaps we never would have come across these new friends if the wind hadn’t blown us right into Crescent City.