Getting To The Starting Line–The Gory Details

July 1, 2014

The trip to San Francisco was like nothing l had imagined.  Despite what I considered careful planning, I had either too much wind, too little wind, wind from a direction that hadn’t been forecast, seas that bore little relation to the forecast, equipment failures, and a minor existential crisis.  Still, I made it mostly alive.  Here’s the tale.

June 9th, Departure

Check this out.  I’ve got the boat loaded and ready to go, and she’s sitting on her boot stripe.  This is after I’d carefully considered everything on the boat and made several trips back to the car with things I decided I wouldn’t need.

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BackBeat, loaded and ready to go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I left Port Townsend early Monday, catching the last of the ebb.  The forecast for the Eastern entrance to the strait was 15-25 knots from the NW, so I had a reef in and a heavy weather jib up.  I expected the current to change soon, but when the wind comes straight in like this the waves tend to lie a little easier with the flood than the ebb.  My boat is light, and going to weather is tough when wind and waves conspire against your progress.  A botched tack can stall the boat and set you back a quarter of a mile before you get her pointing again.  I figured the worst that could happen if I left in these conditions was that I’d get a beating trying to make 3.5 knots motorsailing to weather.

Well, that’s exactly what happened.  Jak Mang, on Maitreya, had left Port Townsend four days earlier for the same race and had more settled weather.  I was reminded once again that a calendar and a deadline are two of the worst things you can have on a boat.

So I sailed.  I motored.  I motorsailed.  More than twelve hours into this leg I’d only managed to get about halfway between Crescent Bay and Port Angeles.  That’s not great.  The wind was blowing a solid 25 now, with higher gusts.  During one particularly gusty tack I lost control of a sheet, which flew around, snapping and cracking like a cowboy whip in a wild west show.  Trying to grab it was a mistake; when it hit my hand it sounded like a gunshot and felt like a hammer blow.  I eventually got the jib trimmed and looked at the knot meter.  The high wind alarm had gone off.  Check it out.

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34 Apparent is A LOT of wind!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With night falling in the shipping lanes, fifty some miles to go to Neah Bay, and a new respect for the wind gods, it was an easy decision to turn back and run off to Port Angeles.  I got the boat secured, had something to eat, and turned the heater up to try to dry everything out.  I noticed water in the bilge as I was cleaning up.  It came out easily with the pump and a sponge, but I was a little alarmed at the amount.  It stayed dry overnight, though, so I turned up the optimism and resolved to continue.  I really hoped this little weather snit would blow itself out by morning.

June 10th, Day Two

It didn’t, but what could I do?  It looked like the strait was in for several days of high NW winds.  I had places to be, so I set out once again, early, to try for Neah Bay.

More sailing, motoring, and motorsailing eventually got me to Neah Bay just before nightfall.  It was a bone-jarring ride.  Teeth rattling.  Generally unpleasant.  There was more water in the bilge, and I was a little concerned about my keel joint.  My spare battery had broken its moorings and was lying on its side in the bilge.  I was exhausted and a bit rattled.

It made me happy to see a pair of sea lions lounging on a dock, so that’s where I tied up.  I thought it would be cool, like parking next to a zoo exhibit.

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Neah Bay Zoo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That lasted about half an hour.  I don’t know whether these two were fighting or flirting, but good lord they were noisy.  I soon determined that I was on the commercial dock, where the only power available was 50 amp, so I moved the boat to a more habitable finger.

Here are some Neah Bay pics:

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My Neighbor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Fishing Fleet

 

 

 

 

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Makah Marina

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The (Ambitious) Little Fishing Boat That Could

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Jonathan Livingston Seagull Meets Jackson Pollock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday night in Neah Bay was pleasant.  I dried things out, bailed out the bilge water I’d accumulated, secured my wayward battery, and got some rest.  I checked all my safety gear and found that the CO2 cartridge in my favorite PFD was bad.  I didn’t have a spare on board, so I moved my knife, PLB and strobe to my harness and got one of the guest PFDs ready to use.  I also filled the outboard fuel tank and stocked up on candy bars at the gas station.  Looking back I figure I missed Peter on Scaramouche and Jak on Maitreya by just a few days.  Too bad.  We all got a beating going down the coast, and it would have been nice to have the advice of these more seasoned sailors.

The last thing I did Tuesday night was look at the next day’s coastal weather.  5-15 from the NW with a four-foot NW swell seemed pretty reasonable, and my plan was to get out to about 127 to avoid the compressed isobars further down the coast.

June 11th, Day three

Wednesday morning dawned calm.  No wind at all.  Not even a ripple in the bay.  That calm water in the pics above seemed to extend well into the strait and past Cape Flattery, so I motored around Tatoosh Island, put the sails up, set a SW course, and then sat there parked for several hours.  I finally fired up the outboard when the current started pushing me back toward the coastline.

My outboard gets about 18nm per gallon.  I had eight gallons aboard, so I figured I could motor about 120 miles and still have a good reserve.  That’s what I did.  Several boring hours passed quietly.  I don’t remember when the wind picked up, but I do remember getting the weather with my sat phone and seeing how much had changed since I left Neah Bay.  Now, instead of 5-15 from the NW the prediction was 15-25, with small craft advisories for high winds and hazardous seas.

The wind I got was pretty much from the NW, as predicted, but I was seeing high 20s on my wind indicator, and that’s with 8-12 knots of boat speed at about 150 degrees apparent.  And the seas, OMG.  NOAA had called the swell at eight feet with combined seas of at 12 feet.  I don’t know what they were smoking when they put that out.  First, the swell and waves did come predominantly from the NW, but there were other wave trains that collided with them, and the whole sea seemed like it was frothing and exploding.  I saw a bulk carrier pounding North at about 126W.  It did not look comfortable.  About every eighth wave its bow would bury in a spectacular explosion of white water.

By now I was running with the waves with just a double-reefed main and trying to steer through the mess without crash gybing.  I could have sworn some of those waves were more than 20 feet high and, as it turns out, the way NOAA defines significant wave height allows for the possibility of seas up to twice the predicted value.  Yup, they were big.

I got through most of Wednesday night with the autopilot, but by Thursday morning it had started making unfamiliar noises.

June 12th, Day Four

Wednesday night’s moon was pretty big, and I thought I could see pretty well, but Thursday morning was a shock.  If the seas seemed big at night, at least I could only see the wave directly behind me.  Even before the sun came up, in the grayish light before dawn, I could see pretty far back and it wasn’t pretty.  By now I was alternating hand steering with the autopilot.  My assumption was that the unfamiliar noise I’d been hearing could only be bad, and sure enough, later that morning, the autopilot motor just started spinning.  It appeared to respond to commands from the brain, but the actuator wouldn’t budge.  Shit.  I wanted to heave to so I could get below to get the spare but, frankly, the thought of trying to come about in that wind and those waves scared the crap out of me.

The rod was stuck at about the middle of its travel, so I pinned it to the tiller and dove below to get the spare autopilot.  I was surprised to get back to the helm to find that the boat had pretty much held its course.  I mounted the spare, and it was smooth sailing once again.

For a few hours.  My boat is kind of twitchy in following seas.  This makes the autopilot hunt for its course.  I had the manual in one hand while I tried out various rudder gain settings.  Both this one and the original had been set at a value of four, which I came to by following the instructions for commissioning the units in relatively calm waters.  It had worked fine in every condition I had encountered up to the huge seas and high winds, where I found that a gain setting of one gave me the best performance.  Still, the spare pilot failed within hours.  This one made no noise at all, but just stopped responding to commands.  I could tell that the motor had failed because the only sound it was making came from the off-course alarm.

Now what?  Well, first I got the boat under control and continued on my course hand steering through the waves.  That bought me time to think and look at my chart.  There was no way in the world I was going to hand steer the rest of the way to San Francisco.  Heading toward Astoria would have meant a long windward slog.  The nasty Columbia River bar was prominent in USCG sécurité broadcasts, so that was out anyway.  I settled on Newport, Oregon.  It was south of my position and looked like a place I might find someone to repair my autopilots.

The next sixteen hours or so are a blur.  I hand steered until it started to feel unsafe to be at the helm.  I was exhausted.  I’d heaved-to to rest several times, but I wanted to try a drogue.  My oldest son, a marine canvas guy, had made me a nice ladder out of seat belt webbing.  I use it to climb my mast solo and it works nicely.  I’d anticipated that I could also use it as a drogue if I needed to, and I had the parts aboard, so I rigged it up.  I made a bridle out of extra line and attached a 150 foot nylon anchor line.  After that came the ladder, and then an eight pound mushroom anchor on a twenty-foot cable at the end of it all.  I payed it out with the storm jib up, and was amazed how nicely the boat rode.  The advantage over heaving to was that I could use the bridle to get the boat to point in the general direction of Oregon without constant attention to the tiller.  Heaving-to seemed like a more temporary way to rest, and I when I did I just drifted kind of generally South with the wind and waves.  With the drogue out I was making from one to three knots, and felt like I could point the boat where I wanted it.  The motion was easy, and when I needed a quick break I tied the tiller off with the rudder centered.

June 13th (Friday), Day Five

Winds were still high and the seas were short and steep.  It was miserable.  I rode the drogue when I was tired, and pulled it in when I wanted to make some time under sail.  I’d guess I pulled the drogue in four or five times altogether, and I found that it was easy to get back on the boat if I waited until I was in a wave trough.  Then I’d pull in as much as I could, cleat it off, and wait for the next trough.  I worked my way toward Newport this way, but I felt more like I was surviving than sailing.

Friday Night

Sometime Friday night. Drogue is out. I’m wedged sideways in the boat with my head under the deck. I could feel hypothermia coming on, so I’m bundled up trying to get some energy back so I can go out and steer again. This totally sucked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was awful.  At one point I was curled up in the bottom of the boat thinking about firing my EPIRB just so someone would come and get me out of this.  I didn’t, but I thought about it for a long time before I got it together enough to go out out and sail the boat just one more time.  This is about the time I absolutely knew that if I made it to Newport alive, I was going to sell the boat and take up golf.  Or walking.  Hell, any sport where the ground is solid under your feet.

June 14th, Day Six

When the sun rose Saturday the wind and seas seemed to ease a bit.  I was still about sixty miles from Newport.  As I got closer to the coast the wind dropped until I was only making about four knots.  Yes, I could have put up the spinnaker and made hull speed toward Newport, but at about forty miles out I fired up the motor.  The closer I got, the less wind I had, and aside from another nine hours of hand steering, Saturday was actually sunny and pleasant.  I made it to Newport by early evening.

When I stepped onto the dock I was wobbly and weak.  I had a line ready, but the wind caught the boat and it drifted just out of my reach.  I thought for a minute about jumping for it, but I just stood there watching it float away.  I thought for another minute about jumping in and swimming to the boat, but still I just stood there.  To tell you the truth, if it had floated out the channel and I’d never seen it again, that would have been fine with me.  It was drifting across the marina to another finger, though, and my new neighbors, who had seen me come in and were watching this comedy, ran around and caught it for me.  The guy’s name was Andrew, and I don’t remember his wife’s name.  They were in Newport waiting for weather to get North to Seattle, and I really owe them.  Who knows how many boats mine might have bounced off of and damaged before it came to rest somewhere.  Andrew, if you’re reading this, I hope you made it to Seattle safely, and thanks again for all your help.

An hour later I had the boat put away and was crashed.  I hadn’t really eaten or slept since Tuesday night, and I was beat.

June 15th, Day Seven

Well, this was the day I’d originally hoped to be in San Francisco.  Ha ha ha.  Nature clearly had other plans for me.  Not much to do on a Sunday in Newport, Oregon, so I phoned a few of the numbers I’d gotten for possible autopilot repairs and did some serious housekeeping.  One guy called me back to tell me that there was no one in town who could repair an ST2000 tiller pilot on short notice.  Newport is a commercial boat town, and all the dealers cater to them.

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Drying things out in Newport.

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Yaquina Bay, Newport Oregon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hearing that news, along with general boredom and a little anxiety about getting to San Francisco on time, motivated me to open up the two dead autopilots.  It turns out they’re not as complicated as I’d thought, and I was able to piece together one functional unit from the two dead ones.

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Drive belt failed on the first and on the repaired autopilots.  Turns out this is a common failure, and Raymarine will not sell parts to end users.  Something to consider if you buy Raymarine.

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Rubber dust covers failed on both units.

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Poor alignment from the factory caused the second motor to burn out.  It was two to three millimeters off.  Bad QC I guess.

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This is not supposed to look like this. The loose piece is normally pressed in and seals the bearing race.

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This is the first unit that failed. I couldn’t reuse the cracked case so I moved all the remaining good parts into the back up unit and saved all the bad parts for the warranty claim.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other than that Sunday kind of sucked.  It was Father’s Day, and I was in a tough spot, far from home with none of my family around.  At least the Rogue Brewery was close at hand.  I stopped in for some over-priced fish and chips and a Dead Guy Ale.

June 16th, Day Eight

The first thing I did Monday morning was order another autopilot from Port Supply and arrange for it to be shipped overnight to the marina office.  The rest of the day I walked around Newport, watched movies, and chilled.  The only other noteworthy thing I did Monday was drop the mushroom anchor on my left big toe.  That left a mark that I can still feel as I write this.

June 17th, Day Nine

Hung around, picked up the new autopilot from the marina office, got ready to leave with the tide at 1700-ish.  Left with the tide at about 1800, motored out past the jetty, and set a Southerly course that would keep me within about fifty miles of the coast.  By now I was freaked out about the autopilot issues and kind of worried about the keel, so I wanted to stay close.  There was no wind, so I motored for several hours.  When the wind did come up it was flukey and light, so I basically motored or motorsailed most of the way to Coos Bay, where I pulled in for about an hour to refuel.  Nothing more to report.

June 18th and 19th, Days Ten & Eleven

I’d made Coos Bay late in the morning of the 18th and was gone, with full fuel tanks, by noon-ish.  I cleared the jetty and set a Southerly course again.  Between Coos Bay and Mendocino there was nothing unusual to report.  I had 15 to 18 knot winds varying from 150 to 180 apparent.  It was nice and I was making decent time.  The repaired autopilot was working nicely, and all was well with the world.  The worst thing that happened was that I popped up to look around once and saw that I was headed straight for a fishing boat about 300 yards away.  I changed course, but there were several other boats in the area, and not one of them was transmitting an AIS signal.  I spent the next several hours slaloming through this minefield of boats.

June 20th, Day Twelve

I was cruising along at a pretty good clip in about 15 knots apparent.  The autopilot was driving, and I was looking at weather I’d downloaded on the sat phone.  It said that Cape Mendocino was going to be ugly.  That was hard to believe because I wasn’t that far away, and I was in pretty nice conditions.  I didn’t see anything in the GRIBs that looked that bad.  I turned on the VHF weather and heard the same report though.  I decided to keep my spinnaker up as long as possible.  I don’t know why; it wasn’t a good move.

Right on cue, about 20 miles NW of Mendocino , the wind stared to build.  I don’t know what you call it when you know something bad’s about to happen, but you sit there and do nothing, hoping it won’t.  Inertia?  I don’t know.

7/1/14, 05:30.  Oops, have get on the road to go get the boat.  I’ll post part two when I get back.

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