After Hoonah and Sitka, worsening problems with Aurora’s 29-year-old transmission made it unwise for us to return to the lower 48 through the Inside Passage. Without a reliable engine how could we anchor at night and cross the numerous rapids along that route? But since Aurora is a tried-and-tested offshore vessel, we figured it was time for us to try blue-water sailing. And maybe the sooner, the better, since we might not like it at all.
So we engaged a young licensed captain from Port Townsend named Peter Frost. After walking us through the preparations, he met us in Alaska on July 6th along with his partner, Kelsey Boesch. Here is the account of our voyage on the Outside, a hundred miles off the Alaska and British Columbia coasts.
In struggling find the words to describe this extraordinary voyage, I feel a bit like a space traveler who knows she’s done something few others have had the opportunity to do. But it should be clear that we loved the trip. In fact, it promises to alter the course, reorder our priorities and reshape our dreams.
Day 1 Wednesday, July 7, 2010 Seasick!
The familiar fauna soon yield to albatross, ponderous in size, dark in color, and nearly horizontal in flight. (According to Wikipedia,”Albatross have high glide ratios, around 22:1 to 23:1, meaning that for every metre they drop, they can travel forward 22 metres.”) I am tempted to see them as creepy but suppose it’s just a figment of fragment of Coleridge haunting my imagination. But then Peter dispels any doubts by recounting an incident during a voyage back from Hawaii, when an albatross flew into the mylar sail of a racing vessel and ripped it in half with its beak!
Day 2 Thursday, July 8 Routine
Nice as it would be to see everything, it’s more important for us to go below, cook some hot food, and get some sleep. We are very small beings in the middle of vast seas and our bodies seem to know what they need. Sleep comes easily; the best we can be is ready for the next watch as well as anything for which extra hands are required.
Day 3 Friday, July 9 Weather
Coordinates at noon: 53º18’N 134º21′
At reports of worsening weather, we make a detour, motoring several hours to get out its path. Now southerly winds mix with rain and push us on. Opposite the Queen Charlotte Strait, the weather turns nasty. Peter and Kelsey take over at the helm and Jack and I go below.
Although we’ve cleared the deck of most everything, the preventer – a line that restrains the boom to prevent an accidental jibe – gets caught on on the aluminum swim ladder, bending it and forcing Peter to go forward to unhook it. Now that we’re rid of the old hard shell skiff that covered the place where the ladder is bolted to the deck we’ll have to do something about it. At the same time, the absence of skiff has vastly improved visibility. In fact, now we can sit on port or starboard and maintain our course by lining up numbers on the compass with stationary guides positioned 45º degrees to either side of the desired heading.
Day 4 Saturday, July 10 Musings
Jack and I pull daybreak and afternoon watches. The gleam of morning sneaks over the horizon covering the enormous swells with a skim of crinkled, pink foil. Minutes later the sea is billows golden chiffon. The hues are so vivid that we are tempted to wake up Peter and Kelsey but we regale them with stories and photos when they come on watch. After all we missed the aurora borealis; in 24/7 passage making you just can’t experience everything happening around you, although this comes pretty close.
Our six-hour afternoon watch follows a long satisfying nap and a good meal. Winds are from the northwest, seas are high, sun is full. In sweater sleeves – it’s warm – Jack and I alternate 30 minutes at the helm. We’re headed southeast – 135º magnetic – with ten knot winds moving Aurora along at five and a half knots. The lightness of the winds make it all the more difficult to keep the compass needle between 130ºM and 140ºM.
Captain Peter emerges briefly from the companion way to demonstrate the micro movements the helmsman must master. I keep my hands steady on the wheel, note the approximate orb and make it part of my rhythm. There no need to twirl the wheel or make big adjustments, if one stays attentive. And without headlands, mountains or stars to head for, all my focus is on the compass in front of me.
The nearness of the horizon inspires reverence and respect. Our planet is small: it drops off quickly. When we gaze out on successive ranges of mountains, as you might do heading inland from the Oregon Coast, or looking northwest from Islamabad or Boulder, the world seems much bigger than it really is. The seas don’t lie. If we stand up on the spinnaker box on the deck against the mast, we might see a seven or eight miles radius to the horizon, from the top of the mast perhaps 25. A very compact area. Almost cozy. Nothing like I’d imagined. No wonder the ancient mariners knew the earth was a sphere, something it took centuries for their land-lubbing cousins to grasp.
Day 5 Sunday, July 11 Encounters!
The winds are stiffening now, but I am getting the hang of the helm. The helm is usually Jack’s task so this is great experience for me. To keep the ship on our heading of 135º magnetic, I need to keep that compass needle somewhere between 1-3-0 and 1-4-0 on the dial. Despite the good wind, the seas are rolling us a bit. My attention needs to be sharp and complete but my shoulders and hands relaxed as I turn the wheel. Toward the end of my watch, I enter yogic space between ease and effort and feel my practice is finally bringing results.
For four days we’ve had our bit of ocean to ourselves, but on the evening watch Jack and I spot a southbound ship on the horizon and then another and another. Their massiveness is half hidden by the horizon and the huge swells make them disappear all together. At a distance of a couple of miles they are as benign as the three ships of the Christmas Carol sailing toward [landlocked] Bethlehem. But we know we are near an open ocean shipping lane and we intersperse visual checks of the horizon every five minutes with checks of the radar, which is bouncing with all the noise the waves are throwing up.
Day 6 Monday, July 12 Speed
The adrenaline is flowing, keeping Peter’s judgement sharp and energy unflagging. He’s been at the helm most of the day and is totally in his element. He and Kelsey have double tethered and opted to stay on deck through our watch. Jack and I hand up Clif bars and exchange words from the companionway.
But today the winds are forty knots and gusting well above that. We thought that the Brooks Peninsula, which sticks out from the top of the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, might break up the swells a bit, but it is not to be. Kelsey has put the drop boards in the companionway hatch but occasionally will take the top one off and shout down “Fourteen and a half knots!” Anybody who knows anything about hull speed knows a forty foot boat can’t move this fast. But under these extraordinary conditions of high winds, broadly spaced swells and following seas, Aurora is surfing, riding half out the water, surfing.
Day 7 Monday, July 13 Stars
At last able to cook and safely cut up our remaining fresh fruit, we sit down to a huge breakfast. Some of us check voicemail and messages, others are just not ready. After a singular grasse matinee we lift anchor, tie up at the village dock, top off with fresh water and head to shore for AA batteries. Neah Bay is by no means affluent, but the waterfront seems forward looking with finishing touches being put on a new casino. Interestingly, Neah Bay is a dry town, like British Columbia’s Hartley Bay. Unlike the latter, however, there are stores. The big hardware store sports a bulletin board with up to date notices. Out front a girl at a card table is signing up people for an event. When pay for our batteries, we admire Makah baskets, drums and shell jewelry newly crafted by Neah Bay residents.
The glow of lights that is Port Angeles passes on starboard and on port those of Victoria in the distance, on the more familiar shore. A westbound ship briefly breaks through the darkness and the silence and is gone. There is nobody else around. The Milky Way arches above us, framing the sails perfectly parallel to our beam. Engulfed in the theatrical resplendence of it all.
Day 8 Tuesday, July 14 Home
I have just fallen into my deepest dreamiest sleep, when Kelsey wakes me. Deep fog has closed in, the currents are rushing together confused, and we’re nearing the point where the traffic lanes from Vancouver, Seattle, Bellingham and the Far East converge. It’s time to unhook the whisker pole that holds out the genoa and take down the sails. The fog shoves the horizon in near the boat. With the engine now, we won’t hear the behemoths that ply these waters so attention to both radar and our circle of horizon is all important. Even though we can see nothing, this is familiar territory. Juan de Fuca filled with fog and the crazy currents you endure rounding Point Wilson are the price you pay to get to Port Townsend. And today we are facing the height of the ebb with Puget Sound and Rosario Strait rushing into one another as they empty into the Pacific. Getting home seems to take forever.
The canoes are long and short, with anywhere from six to twenty paddlers. Some are dressed in full regalia, others are bare chested. Some paddle confidently, others are flagging. There are vessels with high, elegantly carved bows. Others are covered with the distinctive stylized designs in the traditional red, turquoise, black and white. Many sport large flags. We watch the first canoes beach just west of the Marine Science Center and their tired crews disembark. As we round Point Hudson we see the long line of canoes emerging from Puget Sound. We later learn that this year’s Celebration will take the paddlers, and their accomplices in power boats laden with supplies, all the way to Neah Bay as it is the Makah Nation that is hosting the crowning event. Having just come from there, we have an idea of what they will be up against, and applaud their determination.