Friday, September 14, 2007

Windward Passage

The trouble with sailing to Australia is that there’s so much damn sailing to be done on the way.

I’m writing this on the 4th of September, at 50°32.08’N, 129°56.94’W, about 65 miles west of Vancouver Island. It’s our fifth day at sea since leaving Egg Harbor, and it’s been a tough passage.

We left even though gusts were williwawing around the anchorage, and once we got outside we found 25 knot headwinds. I made sail and we began gamely bashing into the steep seas, our rail buried and water constantly flowing out of the deck scupper. Alisa stayed below to take care of Eli. She got seasick and discovered extensive deck leaks that left both the forward bunk and starboard settee soaked. We’ve had some minor deck leaks in the past, but nothing like these – we figure they must somehow spring from the new cap rail that we had installed just before leaving Kodiak. The leaks, the hard angle of heel and the wild motion from the six or seven foot waves made things pretty miserable down below. When Alisa took brief breaks from Eli care and made appearances in the cockpit she was green with seasickness – not figure-of-speech green, but actual, pistachio ice cream green. Most of the time I was left to myself at the wheel, where I was treated to a series of line squalls that passed over us, each one making the ocean absolutely smoke with the volume of rain that was pelting down from above. The Hazy Islands, a group of sea stacks and rocks east of Coronation Island where we had been anchored, kept appearing and disappearing as the weather cells moved through. I tacked the barky back and forth, trying to weather the Hazys and worrying about how much leeway we were making. Twice after I had tacked and saw how little ground we had made, and how quickly we could be back in Egg Harbor if we turned around and put wind and wave behind us, I thought about just heading back and trying again the next day.

But we kept going, and by the next morning the bad weather was past. I came on watch at five and was treated to one of my favorite recurring moments, sunrise at sea. There is nothing like watching the pre-dawn light spreading over a calm sea out of sight of land to simultaneously convince you that you might be watching the first sunrise ever, and to remind you how ancient these oceans are, and what a great selling point it is for the earth that two-thirds of the planet is covered by these vast pools of water. The wind had died completely and I started motoring south while Alisa and Eli were still asleep. The ocean was covered with little floating jellyfish with vertical inflated sails, like miniature Portuguese men of war three inches across but without the tentacles. There were hundreds of them, somehow all clumped together in that one patch of ocean, and the morning light lit them up like a field of diamonds.

That day and the day that followed devolved into a pattern of headwinds interspersed by calms. So we’ve been living on our ear, struggling around the boat from handhold to handhold with Eli in one hand, constantly raising, adjusting and lowering sails and making poor time. It’s hard to convey how uncomfortable sailing to windward for days can be. Alisa never got over her seasickness, and gallons of water came in through the deck leaks, making half the boat unusable to us. Eli required constant attention, and had learned a new sound to convey his displeasure, a high-pitched squeal worthy of a tortured kitten, and completely inappropriate in the confines of a 37’ sailboat. We were exhausted from standing watch around the clock and also caring for him. Our autopilot is still down, so we hand steer when motoring, which makes the night watches even more grueling. Each night I peel off my stinking raingear to climb into my bunk at midnight or one in the morning. Eli’s bunk forward is soaked, so he curls up next to me, the leecloth holding us both on the narrow bunk as the boat tips and sways. At five or so he wakes up screaming “mama” and making the milk sign. Alisa comes down from the cockpit and I arise with eyes burning and head musty, and put the stinking raingear back on again.

Two days ago we realized that we were sailing into a gale west of the Queen Charlotte Islands, so we hove to for the night and caught up on our sleep, the masthead light warning the empty ocean of our presence and the ten foot waves sweeping under us one by one. The next day the worst of the weather was past, and we finally had light tailwinds, but with three-foot wind waves out of the north opposed to the eight-foot southerly swell it was a miserable ride, and the wind soon came around in our faces in the bargain. Taking care of a baby through all this was tough, and second thoughts about the whole trip were first silently entertained, then forcefully expressed.

But today dawned sunny, and we’ve finally had a day of continuous downwind sailing, with the windvane doing all the steering, the waves gently nudging us on our way, and an impressive number of miles sliding by. We’ve agreed that this passage has been particularly hard because of the windward sailing and deck leaks, and that we will get better at this sort of sailing. We’re making plans for the boat jobs we want to knock off in Port Townsend before the big jump down to San Diego, and console ourselves that after that trip we’ll have no more long passages until March or April. And we remember some of the highlights of the wet and uncomfortable days – the sailing jellyfish that kept appearing, the two sharks (spiny dogfish?) that we saw swimming at the surface, dorsal fins exposed, the Cassin’s auklets and new species of petrel we haven’t identified and our old friends the black-footed albatross, and the northern right whale dolphin, Lissodelphis borealis, black, slender animals with no dorsal fins that almost look like snakes as they come charging up from behind us, bursting out of the waves and exposing their thin backs, and that occasionally erupt in exuberant acrobatics, throwing themselves completely clear of the water again and again, showing us their white bellies. Now if only Elias would stop that squealing.


  1. Wow. Thats a completely inadequate comment, but no less inadequate than any other words I could leave.


  2. Well that sounds about like my experience of sailing the GOA--except we were kidless!! You guys are hard core!

    You should have seen the buck I nailed last week--had to go up and get him by myself and I was struggling under a 90 lb pack! Only a 2 X 3 but a full 18" wide.


  3. Mike and Alisa and Eli,
    Just wanted to send you some encouraging thoughts and prayers from Kodiak!!!
    You all are undertaking an amazing journay...where-ever it may take you (Australia, WA, Hawaii)...
    Mike and Patrick and 3 other men are on Afognak elk hunting. So far no luck but I'm praying for them. For if that don't get one, they'll be unbearable to be around when they return.
    Cecelia is busier than ever...crawling, standing, walking along the sofa. Keeps me busy but also deliriously happy. But wow, its hard to imagine mysef staying sane if I had Cecelia 24-7 on a boat! Ugggg. You are both much stronger than I and I amire you both.
    Have you heard about Sven Haakanson (forgive the spelling)? Awarded $500,000. Check out the Kodiak Daily News. What a great blessing.
    Wishing you sweet smells and relief from Eli's cries,
    Safe travels,
    Roxann and Cecelia