We motored out through Browning Passage at high tide on Thursday the tenth of August at 16:00 hours. We didn’t find wind until after 8:00 PM and then we raised the sails, sailing WNW with Yankee and Main, close-hauled on a port tack. That didn’t last long though and by shortly after 10:00 PM we had woken up Green Garth (the steamin’ seaman) and were motor-sailing in under ten knots of wind.
Meet Green Garth, he’s our engine – a Volvo MD17C. He’s “The Steamin’ Seaman” because he steams from the exhaust. He also burns way too much fuel but he’s a work horse and is very reliable. Essentially, he drinks too much and smells kind of bad, so he fits right in.
In the darkness of our first night out, I started to see odd little flashes all around the boat, especially at the stern and masthead. It turned out to be sea birds – Petrels, we think – that were attracted to the nav lights for some strange reason. One poor little guy must have hit one of the shrouds and crashed onto the deck. Wendi discovered him huddled by the traveller. I took his picture and then set him out on deck where, hopefully, he could recuperate and fly away.
We motor-sailed through the night and by the following afternoon we were just motoring again and I was beginning to think that this “sailing trip” was going to be a bust and maybe we should have bought a power boat! YIKES! Since we had left twelve hours early, we knew that our points of sail would be affected but didn’t expect to be motoring so much.
At 19:00 hours on Friday the eleventh, we raised the Yankee, the Stays’l and the Main and motor-sailed westward in just over ten knots of breeze. Twenty minutes later, with the wind picking up, we put Garth to sleep and we were finally sailing. It was everything we were expecting; calm seas with a gentle westerly swell on a close reach.
At 22:00 hours, with the wind up to fifteen knots and gusting to twenty, we put the first reef in the main and put away the stays’l, for safety. Wendi stretched out in the cockpit to pretend to sleep. I knew that she was too excited about her first offshore sailing trip to actually sleep – I sailed on into the night.
In the darkness, I sat at the helm listening to Otto chatter away to himself below decks in his buzzes and clicks language as he tirelessly worked the rudder in response to wind shifts and wave action. Above, Jenny whirred in harmony, singing a melody of pitches induced by the wind as she fed Otto his nightly caloric intake of electrons. My eyelids grew heavy and my head nodded as the two of them sung me to sleep. Every so often, wind gusts and waves would give me a proverbial tap on the shoulder to remind me that I was there to supervise Otto and mustn’t go to sleep. I decided that I would wake Wendi to take over at midnight.
At about ten minutes to midnight, my ever-loving, mind-reading, First Mate turned to me and spoke. Great timing! At midnight Wendi took the helm and I stretched myself out on the starboard side of the cockpit and closed my eyes. I slept pretty good, I was comfortable, Wendi was comfortable at the helm and the boat was comfortable – all was good.
Reports from the night-watch helms-person were pretty boring. Beyond the beauty of bioluminescence and smooth sailing in a slowly increasing following sea, she had nothing to tell.
It was 02:30 when I opened my eyes and without moving, stared out into the darkness. After a short while, it became apparent that sleep would not return so I got up and relieved Wendi at the helm. I enjoyed another peaceful hour and a half of smooth sailing, good coffee and clearing skies. One hundred and fourteen nautical miles off our stern lies Vancouver Island’s Cape Scott and to our starboard beam, 26 nautical miles away, lies Cape St. James on the southern tip of Haida Gwaii. Above, stars were appearing from their hiding places as the clouds vanished into thin air. A bright half moon shone through what was left of the cloud cover behind us. This was simply amazing!
At 04:00, while making the hourly entry into the running log, I decided it was time to put a second reef in the mains’l. The week we spent in Port McNeill was full of last minute preparations for this leg of the journey to The Outpost. Among the preparations we made was the re-rigging of the reefing system on Cosmic Debris and checking and readying the storm jib and tris’l. In all our sailing in the Salish Sea, we had never needed those sails and had not even had them out of the bag since we first bought the boat. As we pulled them from their bags this time, we were once again amazed and pleased with how brand-new they looked. I doubt either of them has ever seen the wind.
When we set the second reef that morning, it became apparent that the reef strops we made up back in Port McNeill were not quite long enough and should have been done with a thinner line. They worked but were very difficult to get done up. We got it done but were unhappy with how baggy the sail was. After daylight, we tightened it up as much as we could.
By daylight, the seas had really built up and the wind was still over twenty knots. I’d have been comfortable with only one reef at those wind speeds but with the seas that big and probably getting bigger, I thought it prudent to drop the Yankee sooner, rather than later and sail with the double reefed Mains’l alone.
As I looked at the seas around us and listened to the rain battering hard against the windows of the dodger, I remembered writing about the BIG seas in Johnstone Strait and I had to laugh at myself. These were big seas!
I was getting pretty adept at riding the crests and was feeling pretty good. It was the most exciting sailing I had done to date and was beginning to get even more exciting. In fact, it was starting to get serious.
Seas were coming up on our port quarter and turning into snow-capped mountains right beside us. I would see one coming and steer toward it, so as to let it gently lift the boat. Just then I would bear away to starboard and let the wave flow under and lift us up onto the crest. Sometimes, I was able to ride that crest long enough to have another come from the starboard side and we would be transferred from one to the other, all the while having a big view, being able to look all around from the highest point. Then it would be over and we would sink down into a big white and green wash at the bottom of the trough.
I could not get a good feel of just how big the seas were. Sometimes, when at the top, another wave would come up beside us that was even bigger than the one we were on and it appeared to be at about the height of our boom. That would be about eight feet from the normal water line, but I don’t know how far above the trough we already were. I would guess the seas were somewhere around twelve to fifteen feet.
As the morning wore on, the wind grew in strength and the seas built even more in height. I had not made an entry in the log book since 04:00. I am not sure at what time it was when we woke up Green Garth and dropped all canvas to run with bare pole, but the next entry in the log book was made by Wendi at 11:00 hours. I had not been able to take my hands off the wheel since four AM and it wasn’t looking like I would be able to for the foreseeable future.
Wendi was busy too, so the log entries, although started again, were sporadic. We had taken some pretty hard hits and some things were obviously not stowed securely enough. There was a mess building below decks that she was trying hard to keep up with but had also been busy with duties on deck. I failed to make a note of it in the log, but at some point on this day, “Cathy” (my computer’s voice) alerted me with “Hey hairless monkey, low battery!” My computer was plugged in to an extension cord that runs to our 1000W inverter. After going through all the connections, Wendi deduced that the inverter was not putting out any power. This was not a good turn of events.
She did some digging around and found a 120W inverter that plugs into a cigarette lighter. Then she asked me “how do I hook up the cigarette lighter at the saloon table?”. While she had been looking for the inverter, I had been thinking about what to do. I had mounted a cigarette lighter on the compression post, at the saloon table, but had not yet run power to it. In my head, I had to run through all the electrical changes I had made in the saloon to remember what the state of the system was, exactly. I had planned to take power from the circuit that runs to the head but that was far too complex a job for an emergency like this, especially in these conditions. Then it struck me! When I rewired the cabin lighting system and installed new LED lights, I had left a branch of the circuit exposed that would eventually be extended into the head. This branch was right handy at the top of the compression post.
I gave her step by step instructions and told her where to find everything that she would need. Then she got busy and it didn’t take much time at all. Crisis averted! Good job Wendi!
Finally, during the afternoon, things started to calm down a little. The sun started to make appearances – short but very sweet – and the wind abated, as did the seas – somewhat. It was then that I said, “You know, it looks like the wind and seas are just about right to sail under Yankee alone”. I could see how weary Wendi was though, so suggested that we just raise the Stays’l. “Besides”, I said, “it’ll slow us down so that we don’t get into Skidegate Channel in the dark of night. “Okay”, she said. “I can do that – that’s the easy one”. So out she went again.
Sure enough, as soon as we got that little sail up on the inner stay, she slowed down to about three knots and I pointed her right at Skidegate Channel. More great sailing!
Over the next couple of hours, the wind started to veer around from southeast to southwest and pick up again. The problem with that was that it was pushing us toward shore too fast. It was increasingly hard to stay on course for Skidegate Channel, as I was constantly being hit on my port side by the large seas. They were getting bigger, not just because the wind was getting stronger, but also because the water was getting shallower.
Just as I was about to ease the sheet to start reaching more westward, Wendi shouted, “Where the fuck did he come from?”. With my hands on the sheets, ready to swing to port, I paused while I wondered what the hell she was talking about. Wendi grabbed the radio to look at the AIS screen. “He isn’t even on here”, she shouted. Then, he appeared, the Princess Explorer, 1.1 nautical miles on our port quarter and travelling at over eighteen knots. My course change would have put us right in his path.
At 16:35, the radio came to life, “Sailing vessel to my starboard bow, this is the Princess Explorer, do you read? Over”.
“This is sailing vessel Cosmic Debris. Over”.
“Princess Explorer going to zero six. Over”.
I turn to channel six and listened. He called me on six for a little chit chat. I was caught at the point of a course change and then knocked off the wind by the seas, my foresail was flogging, then backwinded, I’ve got a God-damned floating city bearing down on us – from somewhere – but I can’t see him because I’m at the bottom of a trough and he wants to have a little chit chat! A bit of a chin wagger eh?
“I used to do a little sailing”, he says. “I see you have a storm jib out”.
I did not respond, I was still trying to get a visual on him.
“Well”, he says, “Be safe out here, I’m showing forty knots right now”.
“Roger that and thank-you”, I replied, “Over and out!”, and switched back to sixteen.
I turned my attention to Wendi, “Start the engine, we need to get that sail down”. She fired up Garth and donned her harness and lifejacket and amid these huge seas in a forty knot wind, she headed for the bow.
She seemed to be out there for a long time and I kept looking for her to make sure she was still with me. I could see nothing past the bow of the dinghy that was lashed to the pulpit at the mast. Finally, I spotted part of the green safety tether on the deck, behind the dinghy’s pontoon. I kept having to look away to look at the instruments to keep my bow into the wind. Into the wind meant also into the waves and every time the bow came crashing down the seas were right in her face. Once I saw the sail come down to the deck, I turned away from the waves and tried to make life a little more comfortable for her and at last I saw her get up and start making her way back to the cockpit.
With Wendi back in the safety of the cockpit, I refocussed to getting back on course and staying away from that long lea shore. Up until this point, I had been steering a course of 340° NNW and between swings to 360° to ease onto another mountain of water and the countering swing to 320° to cross the path of the seas, I was managing to maintain a reasonably straight line along my course. In the wake of the Princess Explorer, that was all but destroyed and it became obvious that I now had to make a more substantial course change. I turned the wheel through to a new course at 290° and was now taking the seas on the port bow. It was another hour before I would bring my course back to a more northerly direction – once I knew that we would make it past the entrance to Tasu Sound.
The entrance to Tasu Sound is only a quarter mile wide and is open to these south-west swells that were being driven by this south-west wind. From the West Moresby buoy, in only twenty-five miles, the seabed rises up from about three thousand metres to only twelve meters in the entrance. I could only imagine the turmoil that must have been happening there and there was no way in hell I wanted anything to do with it.
We went by Tasu Sound with only ten miles of ocean separating us from it and at 19:47 I shouted “Land Ho!”, with only fifteen miles to go to Englefield Bay, our new target.
The mountains in the distance seemed mystical. Steep, green mountain sides cut by vertical, brown ravines created by water plunging to the sea, and a veil of dense fog hiding, completely, the mountain tops and thinning out to nothing as it approached the sea.
Not realizing the time, I found new strength from this development. But alas, my joy was soon killed by a malfunctioning GPS receiver. With this little glitch, the GPS continues to track us just fine but either the latitude or the longitude will be skewed. I can verify my position by cross-checking with the GPS receiver that is built into our VHF radio. Add to that not-so-little inconvenience, but the GPS no longer gives a Course Over Ground. Thankfully, this was short-lived and did not happen again.
With daylight fading fast, Wendi started the radar. With every fibre in every muscle in my back and neck burning from tension, muscles in my legs aching from countering every movement the boat had made and bruises on my legs and tailbone from having myself wedged into the cockpit to keep from being thrown out during one of the many hits we’d taken, I drove on through the unrelenting seas. The wind had calmed from the height of forty knots but was still blowing in the twenties and the seas were every bit as violent due to the rising seabed.
Darkness settled in and I asked Wendi to give me regular reports of our speed, from the radio’s GPS readout and our distance from land, from the radar – if for no other reason than to give her something to focus on besides the danger facing us and to give me the reassurance of hearing her voice.
Garth screamed on at full throttle, I steered my course as best I could while being blasted without warning by waves I couldn’t see coming.
Squalls started to appear on the radar. When the first one hit, the sound of the rain battering the window beside me was like the biggest waves that sprayed across the dodger. The only difference was the duration. The squall lasted a only a few minutes but produced winds that screamed from every angle as if it were a raging animal trying to tear our little shelter apart and devour us. It made the big bad wolf look like Papa Smurf on valium. Amid the din, Wendi yelled numbers to me as we continued toward Englefield Bay.
I stared ahead into the darkness. In the windshield ahead, I could see the reflection of the MacIntosh Apple light, from my computer, and my red headlamp to the left of it. A wave would push us to starboard and I would see my red lamp travel to port, away from the apple, then return. It reminded me of a typewriter – I could almost here the “ding”. I would look from the compass to the chart, then the reflections and around I would go again, in a mesmerizing rhythm. Although I know it was impossible, sometimes I swore I could see the waves through the windshield, blowing across the bow.
At 23:30 we finally skirted Cape Henry, three miles to starboard, then we were on our way past the Denham Shoals and into Englefield Bay. Englefield Bay is wide open to the west and it was still four miles across before we could even hope to see calmer waters. Finally, after we passed between Lihou and Hibben Islands the waters began to settle. Once we entered Security Inlet, it was only three and a half miles to our anchorage. I eased up on the throttle and cruised up the narrow inlet in total darkness, navigating only by GPS and radar. We discussed the anchorage and made a plan.
As we approached the last bend in the inlet before we would drop the hook, I asked Wendi to take the helm so I could go out to the bow.
They say there are two kinds of sailors, those who have ran aground and those who lie. Before this night, I may have been called a liar – not anymore. In the transfer of the helm, we suffered a critical communication breakdown. I failed to inform Wendi that I had set the autopilot to steer while I vacated the cockpit. I had also made the error of not verifying that the new course was set properly and Otto did not take the heading I’d intended. The result was that at 01:41, while I was happily relieving myself off the port side, we hit something solid – it was a planet. We had run aground.
I jumped back to the helm and put it in reverse and gunned it. We did not move. As I was thinking ahead to all the nasty possibilities that could come to pass when we would eventually free ourselves – like backing off one reef and into another and destroying our rudder…, Wendi was looking in the tide table to see when that might actually happen. Luckily, the tide was rising. At 02:03 we began to drift away from the reef. I put it in reverse and steered to starboard, allowing the bow to fall away to port. I had to make sure that I didn’t back too far to starboard though, because we were very close to shore. The fear of hitting something with the rudder was powerful, so I put it back in forward and steered hard to port. We touched again. A quick repeat of the process and we were free and I was steering back out into the middle of the inlet. I put some coal to the fire and started to make some way when all of a sudden we hit again – this time much harder! Luckily, we weren’t stuck. One more try and we were free and around the reef, heading into the anchorage.
The wind was still blowing pretty hard in there, so a quick anchor set was needed. I motored up to where I wanted to drop the hook and while still moving I ran to the bow and lowered Rocky as fast as he would go. I ran out a hundred feet of chain in sixty feet of water and snubbed it off, setting the anchor. Then I let out the rest of the rode and gave her another good tug to set the hook good. That was at 02:14 on August 13th, twenty-four hours after having awoken from a two and a half hour sleep.
Once we were anchored and had cracked a beer, we began to talk through what happened at the reef. Wendi was quite distraught because she was the one at the helm when it happened. By going over the sequence of events and looking at the tracks and time stamps on the chart though, it showed that if anyone was to blame, it was me. Communication is key!
While sitting there in the cockpit having a couple, with the spreader lights still on, just outside the combing, I happened to see… our little friend the sea bird. He crawled out of wherever it was he had been hiding throughout that entire ordeal. This was fifty-two hours after we had found him on deck. It was with out a doubt the same bird. I once again, gently set him out on the deck so, hopefully, he could recuperate and fly away.. The next day he was gone. We hope he’s okay but we don’t really think it’s going to end well for him.
We woke up the next day after one o’clock in the afternoon. After coffee and breakfast, we went out on deck to clean up the mess. It looked like we’d been through a hurricane! Well, maybe not that bad but it was something to behold. The dinghy was still tied down but had obviously taken a beating from the waves. The crab trap and fishing gear were still bungied to the aft-cabin hatch but again, not the way there were when we started. The canvas cover for the propane tanks was completely off the tanks and amazingly, still laying on deck. The tanks themselves were hanging off their shelf by the chain that holds them there. Then there was Jenny; she was leaning over at about a sixty degree angle and it looked like it was a real stroke of luck that we even still had her. It turned out to be the weld on the stub that the pole sits on that had broken. We straightened it up and re-secured it and put some sealant around the base where the weld broke, to keep water from getting below deck.
It’s kind of funny that among our plans for this summer was a “shake down cruise” with the Blue Water Cruiser’s Association. It’s an annual event meant to get new cruisers out on an offshore experience with the support of the rest of the fleet along with them. We missed that cruise, due to a couple of Garth’s illnesses, so this was now our maiden offshore cruise. We’ve dubbed it the “shake up cruise”.
Total Mileage (Pt Alex – Security Cv): 355 Nautical Miles
Total Hrs: 58
Avg Spd: 6.12 Knots
Total Mileage from Richmond: 565.3 Nm
Total Hrs: 110.9
Avg Spd: 5.1 kn
We spent the next ten days at anchor in Security Cove, much of the time cleaning up, making repairs and taking steps to overcome some of the difficulties we had experienced since leaving Port Alexander.
Stay tuned for the final leg of the journey.
The Sailing Infidels
© Sailing Infidels 2017