Delivery to Port Townsend

December 2, 2011

A slip opened up in Port Townsend, which is where I’d kept BackBeat before moving her to Swantown in Olympia.  The Port of Port Townsend had remodelled the section of the marina that included my slip there.  Most boats either hauled out or moved.  I went to Olympia.  I’d been on a waiting list to return, so when this berth came up I gave Swantown 30 days’ notice and started looking at my calendar.  The only time I had to move was the weekend after Thanksgiving, so I made some calls and started planning the 110 mile trip.

The weather outside was looking frightening.  Various lows were passing through, and NOAA predicted rain, 20-35 knot winds and five foot wind waves for the period we’d be in transit, a large part of which would be at night.  Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?  Well, my son Naaman and my friend Ty seemed to think so.  By Saturday at 1:30 we were on the boat and headed north out of Budd Inlet.  Our Port Townsend ETA was approximately 7:00 to 9:00 a.m. Sunday morning.

The Crew--Naaman (helm) and Ty (trimming)

We had good wind to start, but it was from the Northwest, not the Southeast as predicted.  The sailing was pleasant as we tacked out of the bay.  By the time we neared Dofflemeyer Point the wind had pretty much died though, so we started the outboard.  We were still motoring as we passed McNeil Island.  The sun was gone before we got to Fox Island, and the water was dead calm.  I called Julie, my wife, and told her it was like bobbing around in a bathtub, except that the water was only 48 degrees and peppered with floating logs.

Navigating at night wasn’t as scary as I’d thought it would be.  Actually, I had been kind of freaked out about it, but there was so much light from the cities bouncing off the low cloud cover that it was never completely dark.  We had good charts, several GPSs, and three crew members watching for traffic and deadheads.  The landmarks are all familiar to me, and all the nav aids were right where the charts said they’d be.  It was a little cold, but not rainy, and we had a propane stove keeping the cabin warm.

Everything was going fine, but around South Seattle I started to worry about fuel.  We hadn’t had a breath of wind since before we turned out of Budd inlet.  We’d begun the trip with 15 gallons, which wouldn’t be enough to motor all the way to Port Townsend with no wind.  We calculated that we could get to Edmonds with a couple of gallons in reserve.  Their fuel dock would be closed by the time we pulled in, which would be late, but I figured we could walk the couple of blocks to the gas station and refill our cans, then press on to Port Townsend.  It was a good plan.

Then the wind began to come up from the South.  We set the jib on a pole, pulled up the motor, and settled in for an easy run to Edmonds.  We got a few miles up the sound with that setup before the wind built to a steady 20-25 knots and clocked around to the West a bit.  We took the pole down and trimmed the jib for a broad reach.  The GPS showed our boat speed was from 6.5 to 7-ish.  With the jib alone the helm was remarkably balanced and we could trim the boat with our crew weight.  We enjoyed pleasant sailing with that rig all the way to Elliott Bay.

As soon as we had Magnolia Bluff on our starboard beam the wind and waves decided to get serious.  If the wind is blowing at 20 knots and you’re going downwind at 7, it really only feels like 13.  Conversely, if you’re making six knots going into a 20 knot wind, it will feel like 26.  This perception of relative wind strength and direction is called apparent wind.  My math may be a little fuzzy, but you get the point.  Going downwind in a breeze you’ll feel less wind than there actually is.  So when the wind speed indicator showed steady winds of 18 knots, with gusts to the mid twenties, I added our boatspeed and determined the actual wind speed to be from 25 to 30 knots plus.  And it had begun to rain lightly; light rain isn’t so bad until it seems like it’s coming at you sideways.  I was starting to get nervous.

The funny thing about wind is that the jump from a good breeze in the mid-teens to a stiff one in the low 20s doesn’t really seem like a big deal.  It’s pretty exciting.  You reef and trim your sails for the conditions, balance the boat, and off you go.  It’s not pleasant when you’re beating into it alone, but with a crew its pretty fun.  Downwind with a crew is really fun.  The jump into the high 20s and 30s, though, was a little scary.  The wind waves grew to about 5 feet, and they seemed to come from all directions.  Our boat is small, and the waves really tossed us around.  We were surfing on the big ones, and the autopilot was having trouble keeping us on course.  It kept over-correcting.  These wind waves weren’t like swells.  They were steep and close together, and by this time they were working against the tidal current.

Naaman hand steered from that point on as we hurtled through the night.  As we closed in on Edmonds, stopping for the night started seeming like a good idea.  At the rate we were going we’d have been in Admiralty Inlet right when the buoy there was reporting gusts above 40 knots.  And then our running lights went out.  Totally out.  Ty played with wires and fuses, but couldn’t get them on.  We were in a shipping lane, and getting close to the ferry route.  When some kind of tug came upon us from our port quarter, and we didn’t see it until it was less than half a mile away, our decision was made for us.  Questionable is questionable, but downright unsafe is just stupid.

It was 12:30 a.m. by the time we got to Edmonds, and much of the city light that had helped us spot waves and logs was gone.  The entrance to the Port of Edmonds harbor is a narrow opening in a long breakwater.  With no ambient light, we had to trust the chart and lights.  Naaman and Ty were a little unsure as I aimed us straight at the wall.  It was a little tough to pick out the entrance lights from the marina lights until we got pretty close.  We dropped sail and powered up the motor a few hundred yards from the entrance.  With a big South wind and those breaking wind waves, getting into port was like threading a needle while riding a horse.  Once we were inside the breakwater it was like walking into a warm house and closing the door on a storm behind you.  Whew!

We pulled up to the gas dock at about 1:00 a.m. and crashed for the night.  The next morning we gassed up and left for Port Townsend in a 25-30 knot Southwest wind.  Daylight seems to make everything easier, but by now it was really raining.  Naaman was hand-steering again, as the autopilot seemed to have a tough time in the confused seas.  Besides, hand steering makes it easier to surf on the waves, which is fun.  I know we can adjust the sensitivity of the autopilot to better handle confused, following seas.  I’m going to have to do some reading and figure that out.  It rained pretty hard, but no one seemed really to mind.  The wind was howling, and many of the wave peaks were above Naaman’s head.  I guess you know they’re big when you have to look up at them . . .

We had a deep reach for several miles past the Point No Point Lighthouse.  Then the wind began to die and get shifty.  We tacked around for a while, chasing the breeze, but in the end we fired up the motor.  It was a short, pleasant cruise under the Indian Island bridge, through the channel, and home to our new slip at the Port of Port Townsend Boat Haven.

We had gone 92 nautical miles (106 statute miles) in about 15 hours, for an average speed of a little over 6 knots for the trip.  Here are a few things I learned from this adventure:

  • Sailing at night is nothing to fear if you’re prepared.
  • Heavy weather isn’t too bad if you’re prepared and sail conservatively.
  • Safety is incredibly important.  We all had PFDs, tethers and strobes.  We had a strobe on the horseshoe buoy, and had worked out MOB procedures before we left.  We had contingency plans for a variety of weather scenarios, and had plotted possible emergency stops along the way.
  • I might like either a handheld VHF or a cockpit speaker for the one below.  When the wind pipes up you can’t hear a thing.  I wonder if that tug pilot was trying to hail us as he bore down on us.  We had no lights other than our red headlamps, which probably made us look like we had three port sides.
  • I’m going to buy some battery-powered emergency nav lights.  I never want to be on the water again at night with no lights.
  • The boat goes much faster sailing in good wind than it can motor, and having a motor going for miles and miles gets a little monotonous.

All things considered, I’m calling this trip a successful adventure.  We had fun, learned a lot, and finished the voyage with no injuries to people or equipment.  I’m writing this in Spokane, and can’t wait to get back out after the holidays for some more winter sailing.  There’s a race on January 7th.  Maybe I can scare up a crew!

More later . . .

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