Misadventures in the Strait

November 18, 2013

My first attempt at the 400 nm offshore cruise that will qualify me for the 2014 SHTP ended early when I turned back to avoid getting caught in a gale.

I knew mid-November weather would be dicey, but I had the time available and thought I saw a weather window I could sneak through.  Our Summer had been pretty busy, and I figured this would probably be my last chance to get the qualifier done before next Spring.  Turns out the most stable feature of offshore weather in November is its instability.  Here’s some video of the long beat toward Cape Flattery before the Weather turned:

Commercial Traffic!

Here’s a real question for anyone out there who can help:  why does it always seem like there’s so much more ship traffic at night than during the day?  I do a lot of night sailing, and keep good watches, and I’m convinced that there’s more activity at night than there is during daylight.  I’d like to understand why.  I’d been tacking into a NW wind since about 6:00 am trying to get out to Cape Flattery.  When I wasn’t on deck I’d pop up every 15 minutes to scan for traffic.  There wasn’t much to speak of.  Here’s my math:  if a commercial vessel averages 18-20 knots they go roughly 5 nm in 15 minutes.  Since that’s about what I judged my visibility to be, that’s how I timed my horizon checks when I was below.  It works fine for me when I’m in, near, or crossing the shipping lanes.  If anyone has a better plan I’d really like to hear it.

So, I was surprised when, for the second time in a month, I was nearly run down by a container ship.  At 7:00 pm–about 13 hours into the trip–I checked for traffic, and, finding none, tacked onto port, trimmed the sails and went below to call Julie.  That call lasted four minutes.  I knew I was in the shipping lane, so I went right back out to have a look.  What I saw were the letters CMA CGM, about twenty feet high, and maybe 150 feet dead astern.  Those letters were amidships on the port side of the biggest container ship I’ve ever seen, and I still can’t figure out why I’m not dead today.  Really, I’m a methodical, careful guy.  I know how to read nav lights, and I’m freaky about safety.  How did I miss this ship?  I know it’s my own fault, but I still can’t figure out what I did wrong, other than being near the shipping lanes at night, which I thought I was being careful about.  Please weigh in if you have an opinion.

My GPS track.  The near-collision occurred shortly after the last tack onto port before I turned back (left end of image).

My GPS track. The near-collision occurred shortly after the last tack onto port before I turned back (left end of image).

At that point I’d decided to get close to Vancouver Island and tack up the Canadian side of the strait, out of the main traffic areas.  I’d been on port about 45 minutes, in increasing wind and waves, when the VHF woke up and I heard, “Sailing vessel in the vicinity of 48.12 N, 123.38 W, sailing vessel in the vicinity of 48.12 N, 123.38 W, this is the US Coast guard, do you copy?”  I paused, and then looked at my GPS.  Were they looking for me?  Then, a second time, “Sailing vessel in the vicinity of 48.12 N, 123.38 W, sailing vessel in the vicinity of 48.12 N, 123.38 W, this is the US Coast guard, do you copy?”  By now I’d figured out that the ship that nearly hit me had called me in.  I picked up the mic and with a knot in my stomach replied, “US Coast Guard, US Coast Guard, this is sailing vessel Backbeat, at that approximate position, over.”  “Sailing vessel Backbeat, please move to channel 22 Alpha and stand by for further instructions, over.”  “22 Alpha, copy that.”

I switched my VHF to channel 22A, where the communication was a little less formal, but still terse.  It was the ship that had called me in.  The watch crew didn’t see my running lights until they were right on top of me, and I hadn’t come up on their radar.  I told the Coast Guard woman that my running lights were on, but she requested that I go see if they were obstructed.  I told her I would do that.  She asked me for my destination.  I told her I was going offshore for a few days. There was a brief, but really heavy, pause.  She asked me whether I’d received the NOAA gale warning.  I told her I’d heard it, and there was another brief, but really heavy, pause.  She asked me for my position, which I gave her, told me to check my running lights, and then said, “We’ll be standing by if you require assistance, over.”  That’s the part that really freaked me out.

GRIBS for 11/16.  Red arrows, purple arrows, and lines close together are bad for a guy alone in a little boat.

GRIBS for Friday. Red arrows, purple arrows, and lines close together are bad for a guy alone in a little boat.

I sat there for a minute before going out to check my lights.  They looked fine to me, but I could see that the jib I’d secured on deck when I put up the storm jib was likely covering up the starboard light.  I clipped in and went forward to re-tie it, away from the lights.  By this time the wind had risen to the low and mid twenties.  I’d put the storm jib up before dark because I expected heavier winds later in the evening and through the night, and I didn’t want to be dealing with that on a heaving deck in the middle of the night.  Well, here I was, on the heaving deck in the dark anyway.  With the ebb current, I was making 7+ knots over the ground under reefed main and storm jib.  With the wind from the NW blowing against the current, the waves had built to the point that, with the swell, they were about 12-15 feet high and close together.  This is just a guess, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating.  Here’s my thinking:  at the crests of the waves, the troughs seemed about as far down as the sidewalk in front of my house when I’m shoveling snow off the roof.  In the troughs, the crests seemed about as high as my spreaders.  On the deck it didn’t make a difference.  I was getting tossed around like a rag doll.  I took me about fifteen minutes to get the jib re-tied so the running lights were unobstructed, and when I went below to collect my wits I felt like I’d gone a few rounds with the foredeck.

This is the gale warning the USCG told me about on the VHF.  Note the 35 knot winds and 21 foot seas.

This is the gale warning the USCG told me about on the VHF. Note the 35 knot winds and 21 foot seas.

I can’t say I ever collected them, because going to windward in those conditions, in a 3,000 pound boat, is a pretty rough ride.  Down below I felt like the ball in a pinball machine, getting tossed around and bouncing off everything in sight.  Funny, very little on a boat is plumb or square, and there are lots of lovely curves, yet it still seemed my arms, ribs and shins were finding sharp corners everywhere.  I was sick, tired, frustrated, and pretty banged up, and I started looking for reasons to quit.  I didn’t have to look far.  The gale I was sailing into promised 35 knot winds and 21 foot seas.  Getting caught in that mess is one thing; sailing into on purpose seemed stupid.  I do own a masthead tri-color and a radar reflector–either of which would help others see me better–but I hadn’t had time to install them before I left.  I have a sea anchor, but the only rode I have is the 150 feet for my ground tackle.  The recommended rode is 10-15 feet per foot of boat length, which for me is 250-300 feet.  I have a drogue, but I’d left it the shop.  I could have used some lee cloths, as well as some baffles to keep gear in the v-berth from flying around.  I need a padeye in the center of the cockpit floor to clip into; the four feet from the companionway to the jackline seems pretty far when the deck is dancing around.  I have a DSC VHF, but I haven’t wired in the GPS yet or programmed in my MMSI. The list goes on, but in the end I had to admit to myself that I’d tried to rush this trip because I thought I could get out and back in the window I thought I had, and because it was my last chance to get it done before Spring.

See all those nuts above my head?  Well, I did too but it didn't stop me from whacking my head on them again and again.  Ouch!

See all those nuts above my head? Well, I did too but it didn’t stop me from whacking my head on them again and again. I’m laying sideways across the boat because I don’t have lee cloths, and wedging myself in was the best way to avoid getting bounced around.

I turned back at 8:00 pm.  Going downwind is usually pretty comfortable, but in these steep waves the autopilot kept over-correcting.  The course was fine, but the boat was yawing like crazy and rolling down the faces of those waves.  I went out to hand steer, which was a little better, but it was pretty miserable as the tops of the waves broke into the cockpit.  My boat doesn’t have a lot of freeboard.  When those waves break, it’s not really like the breaking waves you see in the surf.  It’s more like your stern rises to the crests, and the wind blows the tops over and into your cockpit.  The wind was at about 180, so I tried coming up a bit to stabilize the boat.  All that seemed to do was make the rolling worse, so I went back to autopilot, put the hatch boards in, and braced myself in the companionway with the hatch slightly open, where I stood for another six hours until I made the Dungeness lighthouse.  About that time the wind swung around to the South and the waves smoothed out, and it was a nice reach past Protection Island, where the wind eventually died and I motored the rest of the way in.

I’d left at 5:45 am Thursday and covered 76 miles trying to tack out of the strait.  I made it about halfway before turning back about 8:00 pm.  The run back to Port Townsend was 46 miles, for a total trip of 122 nm.  I was tied up and put away by about 5:30 Friday a.m.  My average speed was about 5.5 knots with reefed main and either the working jib or the storm jib, which is about what I’d expected.

Looking at the weather Saturday morning I saw that the system hadn’t moved much in 12 hours, and I was glad I wasn’t stuck offshore in it.

Twelve hours later it was still bad.

Twelve hours later it was still bad.

After a couple hours of sleep I get up and spent most of Friday with my granddaughter, Rowan.  Sitting in a cozy house, watching the storm pass through with a fire in the stove and a busy baby learning to walk, I reflected on the decisions I’d made.  If this had been an easy trip in July, and there had been no serious challenges, I’d probably have made it out to my turn point and back with no drama.  I’d probably have thought pretty highly of my skills. I knew now, though, that I’d pushed my luck trying to fit this trip into a time convenient to me, with a few key details unattended.  Every time I do something like this I learn a little more.  This time, I re-learned the lessons that you can’t cut corners and hope for the best just because you have a schedule to keep, and that the weather doesn’t give a rip about your schedule.

I’m not big on signs and omens, but sometimes all the little things add up and make you wonder.  The trip was delayed a couple of days, mainly because I had to take our old cat to be euthanized.  I never have trouble getting in or out of my slip, but Thursday morning I got out of sorts trying to leave and almost hit the gangway.  I did hit the boat in front of me, and got my forestay stuck on his boom (it’s a classic wood boat with a very long boom).

I've never had this much trouble getting underway!

I’ve never had this much trouble getting underway!

When I got out of the harbor I raised the main head-to in a stiff wind and bore off on a port tack.  When I raised the jib it flogged wildly and the port sheet (I hadn’t put in stopper knots, d’oh) ran through its car and wrapped itself around the starboard sheet.  The sails were up and set, so I set the autopilot and went forward to untangle the mess.  It took about 15 minutes, and I was already getting discombobulated.  Fast forward about an hour, and I’m approaching the yellow buoy that marks the precautionary area off Point Wilson.  That’s kind of like an intersection of the different shipping lanes.  I’m not going to give details here, but I will admit I hit the buoy, glancing off it just slightly, even though I could see it coming for miles.

By this time I was getting sick and had a headache.  I get a little seasick once in a while, but the conditions I was in at the time wouldn’t have caused it alone.  I knew when I left that morning that a gale might develop, and my plan if that happened was to pull into Neah Bay, wait it out, and re-start my trip.  The qualifier has to be 400 nm, non-stop, though, so re-starting from Neah Bay would have meant using my alternate waypoint, which was 200+ miles offshore.  Thinking all this through, along with the prospect of an extra 200 miles of weather exposure offshore, was rattling my nerves.  I took some Dramamine, had a sip of ginger ale, and tried to relax.

It never left my mind that maybe the cat wasn’t ready to go.  We got along fine, but she was really old and had some health problems, and it just seemed like time.  Nevertheless, all I could think about was Poe’s Black Cat, and the psychology of guilt.  Our cat was sweet, but you never know . . .

Kitty, the cat.  1997 to 11/11/13.

Kitty, the cat. 1997 to 11/11/13.

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