Sunday, December 16, 2007

Leg Three

Last night we finally left the San Diego Yacht Club docks. We didn’t go far, just a few hundred meters to the weekends-only, by-permit-only anchorage inside Shelter Island. But it was enough. To cast off the lines, to leave behind the entirely foreign world of the SDYC (prep school, I explain to Alisa, ruined me forever for scenes like that) and to be our own little self-contained world on the hook for the night, was enough to kindle my love of traveling on Pelagic, enough to remind me that our long weeks of preparation are at an end. The whole idea of a yacht like Pelagic, after all, is to travel far and wide, to climb the endless series of swells between here and there beneath our suit of white sails. At the dock, with all the plumbing torn apart to reroute the watermaker, or in the chandlery, where the guy behind the register is once again ringing up a three-figure bill for a pile of goods that fits into my backpack with plenty of room left over for a Pekingese, it’s too easy to forget about the traveling, and the joy. At sea we get tired, and deal with plenty of difficulties, but at sea we’re happy. Town is where things get tough.

A couple days ago Alisa suggested that we skip over Ensenada, a town of 200,000 people just sixty miles south of San Diego and the most common place for southbound yachts to clear into Mexico. Instead we are planning on sailing the 330-odd miles to Isla Cedros, where there is also an official Port of Entry. We just don’t have the nerve to face another big town right now.

So that’s the plan. Alisa made us cheeseburgers and fries last night for our last dinner in U.S. waters. Forecast winds are very light, so it will likely be a slow passage. But the nights should be a little warmer that far south, and the village on Cedros should be a pretty peaceful place, and it should all be an adventure, both in the getting there and in the arriving. Now we just have to organize the piles of gear that are still lying around above decks and below, make a final stop at the police dock to drop off our last minute trash and our pile of already-read books, and go.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Leg Two

From Morro Bay our plan is to sail strait through to San Diego.

Here is the barky, at low tide, ready to go to sea.

A few hours out we come across whales. The first notice I have of them is a trumpet blow off to starboard, a distinct B-flat with a lot of lung behind it. I look up and see the column of mist that the whale has left, then another and another. The whales start to lobtail and breach. Far away, but the telephoto lets me get decent pictures as we sail away from them at five knots. I think they’re humpbacks, though I’m not sure that humpbacks have such falcate dorsal fins.

These are two separate series of pictures.

After they’re gone I go below and smell whale breath through the open portlight in the head. Whale breath is invariably reported as foul, but from this great distance it smells faintly, and not unpleasantly, of pickles.

An exhausting night follows. Sails up and down, wind all over the place. Dodging ships across the Santa Barbara channel, their huge close shapes making me feel physical fear. The wind comes up to the low twenties around Point Conception, where we charge back to the north for half an hour to stay out of a ship’s path. Sailing upwind towards three oil rigs, I smell them clearly in the dark – like a book of matches that has been lit all at once and then soaked in water.

Alisa wakes up at 0100, but ships and sails need attention, so I stay on watch. After we cross the shipping lanes and pass San Miguel Island I struggle with the spinnaker pole in the dark, then struggle to get the autopilot to steer the unbalanced boat. Bugger.

I finally go down to the bunk with a course set to take us south of the Channel Islands. We’ll cross the Pacific Missile Test Range, which is marked on the chart, but we haven’t heard any training activity announced on the VHF. The range is not closed to navigation, so I figure all is fine. The Navy group that announces training activities in the area is called “plead control”. God knows why, but the name certainly suggests a hierarchy in the relationship between us and them. Whatever the case, plead control comes on the air two hours after I go to sleep, announcing “live fire exercises”. Commencing immediately. And directly in our path.

The wind has dropped again, so that we’re barely making headway under poled-out jib, and we won’t reach the training area for hours. I sleep briefly, then wake at dawn. The VHF is broadcasting an advisory for Santa Anna winds ashore, so now we have both the missile range and these strong northerly winds to consider. Our cruising guide warns us of the danger of Santa Annas, but I can’t get the marine forecast to find out what might be coming. We’re on a flat sea, the sail flapping in almost no wind, with San Miguel Island to port, three different shades of brown, bare and sandy. I try to form a plan. Everything in my head is slow with too little sleep. I make a mental list of things to do. Get jib in. Get pole down. Plot position. Get marine weather. Consult Coast Pilot and cruising guide for a suitable anchorage. I repeat the list to myself, again and again. Then I slowly begin working on one item and another.

We motor north through the Channel Islands towards Santa Barbara and away from the missile range, since the islands offer no obvious southern anchorages where we can hide from the Santa Annas. Alisa and Elias wake up and our day at sea begins. We cross the shipping lanes of the Santa Barbara channel again. I finally get a marine forecast on the sat phone and nothing more than NE 15-25 is called for. With relief we point the barky south. Neither of us wanted to go to Santa Barbara.

We pass three more oil rigs in the Channel. Like elephants, breathing fire from the tips of their snouts. Night finds us in the eastern part of the Channel, with dolphins riding our bow. I go forward and shine a flashlight into the water. The dolphins glow a pearly grey in the flashlight’s beam, like the souls of dead things trapped beneath the black water.

We pass L.A. in the early hours. Fog lies low over the water, so we see little evidence of the sprawling city. Planes hang in approach patterns over the airport, making stately strings of light in the sky.

At dawn we cross the shipping lanes south of L.A. Here's a tanker passing us to port. It’s all easier in daylight.

These southern waters are strangely empty. We see exactly one other sailboat between Morro Bay and San Diego. We make the nighttime entrance to Mission Bay, just north of San Diego, picking our way through crab pot buoys in the dark. And the next morning we motor the five miles south to San Diego. A blanket of smog greets us at the entrance.

And then we have this view of the city.

When we set off from Kodiak we had the early parts of our trip broken into two legs; one east-west leg that would get us to Haines, at the top of Southeast Alaska, and a long north-south leg that would bring us the length of the U.S. and Canadian coastlines, from Haines all the way to San Diego. So that second leg is finished, and we’re on the cusp of leg three, which will take us the length of Baja and into the Sea of Cortez.

We’re tied to the transient dock at the Harbor Police building, visiting family and getting things ready for our year of sailing the barky from the U.S. to Oz. This final stop in the U.S. gives me a chance to reflect on how much living we’ve packed into the last six months. Everything north of San Francisco seems like it happened to someone else, and Alaska seems like a different world. Back home we’d be skiing, and enjoying the round of seasons, and saying how quickly the fall went. Here time expands, it slows, and our constant exposure to new situations and lack of a set routine keeps us from glossing over the world and letting time, and life, pass us by.


I wrote the above entry a week ago, and we've now been in San Diego for more than two weeks. Aside from some visiting with family and socializing with a few friends we've been working that whole time, working as fast as two people trying to keep a one year old out of trouble on a yacht can work. We've pulled the autopilot drive for service, taken the injectors out of the diesel and put them back in, installed a new GPS, got the watermaker replumbed and working, been up the mast to retrieve faulty wind instruments, figured out how to retrieve weather charts from the ham radio, bought a huge array of spares and supplies for every system on board, and figured out all the arrangements for international travel: visas, insurance, health precautions, etc., etc. We are both a bit fried from the frenzy of doing all this while caring for Eli in the confined space of the barky. It's impossible to convey how slow things get when you're living on board with a baby and trying to work on the boat. When we began to see the bottom of the job list a few days ago Alisa said, "After all this work we're putting into getting the boat right, you know we're going to want to sail for more than a year."

We're ready for some stone-kickin' it time, maybe even a few of those Transcendent Moments that cruising is supposed to be good for. We had planned on getting some welding done in Ensenada, but are now planning on putting it off for La Paz and just enjoying the west coast of Baja without (we trust) too much boat work.

We'll be leaving the country for an indeterminate length of time when we motor out of San Diego Bay. I remember how visiting Ethiopia and Yemen twelve years ago gave me a fresh appreciation for the U.S., and I wonder if this stint away will have the same effect. San Diego, and much of our tour of the West Coast, have confirmed the worst of my opinions about the current state of affairs in the Lower 48. Maybe the wonders of Rapa, one of the strangest islands in the South Pacific, will be my solace. Or maybe it will be those spells at anchor when we row Elias ashore to the beach every day, and those weeks at sea in the trade winds, when we feel the peace that comes to people who sail out of sight of land in small boats.