Monday, October 18, 2010

To California

Sea Fever

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

John Masefield (1878-1967)
(English Poet Laureate, 1930-1967)

    The Witch of Endor at Bandon, Oregon

My name is Mark Mason. Karen, my girlfriend, and I are lazing about at Bodega Bay, California, on our sailboat, the Witch of Endor. We are waiting on the replacement of an essential piece of equipment that broke the first time we used it on the last leg of our journey, after replacing the previous one that broke on the leg before that. It’s sunny, warm and beautiful here, so it’s not so bad waiting around. We’ve been busy the last few days, persuading the supplier of this equipment to replace it, but that’s in the bag, now, so I have some time to start writing this long-promised blog.


                   At the "Tropic" of Bandon
We started our vogage at the beginning of summer, sailing from Winchester Bay to Bandon via Charlston, in two days of gorgeous sailing in perfect winds and gentle seas, but dodging lots of crab pots. We spent the summer at the “Tropic of Bandon,” our name for the very occasional warm days down there.

On the way to Bandon

We finally sailed out of Bandon for Brookings on September 22, and had very little wind. It took us 46 hrs to get the 85 nautical miles (about 100 miles), and Karen was sick all the way, but we did see a large pod of humpback wales, broaching and waving their tails at us. Karen managed to pull herself out of the cabin to see the whales. When you think of being becalmed out on the ocean, you might recall Coleridge’s words: “As idle as a painted ship, upon a painted ocean.” But Coleridge never went to sea himself, and it’s not actually like that. The waves slosh the boat around, tossing it from side to side, and the rigging clangs and the sails slap about noisily, all the while going nowhere. It’s much nicer and more comfortable when a little breeze is blowing. Having an electric auxiliary motor, with limited range, we couldn’t just motor all the way. Still, we did use the electric motor quite a bit, and fired up the little generator we have to keep it going a little longer. There was only one six-hour period during the two days when we had a good wind to push us south. The two gallons of gas we had for the generator finally ran out just three miles from Brookings, and there was not a breath of wind to help us in. So close and yet so far! We were gradually drifting toward the rocks, so I called the Coast Guard to ask if they would come and tow us in, and dropped anchor to wait for them. Being towed in was a somewhat ignominious way to arrive at Brookings, but we finally got there, and things immediately began to improve. Karen got well again, and a couple Karen had previously met lent us a car for the five days we were there – a little Mitsubishi Eclipse sports car. Thank you Chuck and Sue! We hauled the boat out of the water there to put new bottom paint on her, so having the car was very useful. The local yacht club invited us to use their showers, a great improvement over the coin-op ones that ran somewhere between lukewarm and cold. The people we met at the yacht club were very friendly, and one member, Jim, who is the chef at one of the best restaurants in town, cooked us a superb dinner of locally caught ling cod and zucchinis, fried up in his inimitable, mouth-watering sauce. We ended up joining the yacht club, which will give us reciprocal privileges at many other yacht clubs along the way.

The car we were lent in Brookings

Going through St George's Channel

Our welcoming committee in Crescent City

Sailing "wing and wing"

On Sept 29 we sailed out of Brookings for Crescent City in California. It took us just five hours to sail the 23.5 nautical miles (NM). We sailed through St George’s Channel, which is about a mile wide, and has spectacular rocks on either side the sea breaks on. That was exciting. Crescent City itself was nice, and we enjoyed a meal at a Vietnamese Thai restaurant, biking along a path next to the ocean with our folding bikes, and a good natural food store where we replenished our supplies. The boat harbor and marina, though, were shabby and not very friendly. The showers were cold and they wouldn’t give us a third night there for free to compensate for the cold showers, so we “shook the dust off our feet” and left at 4:50 pm to sail overnight to Humboldt Bay. We arrived at 8:30 the next morning after spending a magical night in a phosphorescent sea. Our wake was like a huge glowing, twisting snake behind us, and where our bow wave washed past the side of the boat it was like brilliant stars in a constantly swirling milky way. I put my fingers down into the water at one point, and streaks of light shot out behind them. This phenomenon is, I’ve heard, due to light-emitting algae in the sea called dinoflagelites.

Eureka, at Humboldt Bay, is a very hip town, with lots of amazing wooden colonial buildings. We were there during the two weekly Saturday Art Walk, when everyone seemed to be out frolicking on the town. The marina there was clean, and the showers hot, and the town had an excellent coop natural foods store.

Karen on her folding bike at Eureka, Humboldt Bay

One of the many spectacular wooden buildings in Eureka

Eureka to Fort Bragg was a 100 NM overnighter. We left at 4:50 again, and after a slow start, a norwesterly wind settled in nicely behind us during the night. By daylight we were well past Cape Mendocino, a supposedly treacherous area, and had had no problems there, but the wind was beginning to kick in, a day ahead of when it was forecast to. I went forward at first light to double reef the mainsail (to make it about half the full size) and we furled the jib (front sail). As the morning progressed, the wind strengthened to a full gale, and we were surfing down large waves at a great speed. This is when our autopilot stopped working, and I had to steer the boat myself for over two hours into Fort Bragg. The waves just got bigger and bigger, and steeper and steeper until they were 20 foot monsters. One wave was so big and steep that it knocked the boat way over. Karen, who was resting in the cabin was thrown out of her bunk onto the floor, and I was hit on the head and stunned by the mainsheet (rope controlling the sail) as the mainsail crashed across to the other side. After a minute or so of “seeing stars,” I was, fortunately, able to take the helm again and steer on to Fort Bragg. Taking the boat about at the sea buoy there, to sail toward the harbor entrance, was a major undertaking, due to the furious winds I had to sail up into to do it, but on the second attempt she came about, and we tore off down huge waves toward the very narrow harbor entrance. We surfed down waves, unavoidably curving off toward the rocks on one side, then between waves I steered the witch back on to course. As we closed in on the bar with two rock jetties only about 200 ft apart, the waves subsided a little, and I was able to steer past a giant clump of kelp that was occupying the middle of the channel. Then under  the tall bridge Highway 1 goes over, and into the wonderful calm of the harbor. Never have I appreciated a harbor so much, nor, for a long time, felt so thankful for being alive. Winding up the river we passed the Coast Guard cutter that was coming out to stand by, in case we were wrecked on the rocks and had to be rescued. We waved to them, and they waved back, glad, no doubt, they didn’t have risk their lives rescuing us. Karen was on the radio with the Coast Guard on the way in, and they told her they had us on video. The next day, when we went to the Coast Guard station to personally thank them for standing by as we came in, Karen asked if she could get a copy of the video! Admittedly it would have been spectacular footage! The CG officer apologetically told her that they couldn’t release it.

Our welcoming committee in Eureka bids us farewell 

The harbor entrance at Fort Bragg, the day after the gale
when all was quiet again

In Fort Bragg there was no Sprint cell service, and both our cell phones and our air card internet service are with Sprint. Our only way to communicate with the world was to get on our folding bikes and peddle half a mile up the river over a steep hill to Dolphin Point Marina to use their wireless hot spot. Doing this, we ordered a new autopilot which we paid extra to be delivered by two night air, and found a place where we could buy the little rubber drive belt needed to repair the autopilot that had broken. We also met another cruising sailor there, also using the internet and riding a folding bike. Her name is Jan, and we quickly became friends with her, visited her boat, and shared a meal with her on our boat. We had heard of her at the boat yard in Brookings, where she had hauled her boat before ours. She has a very sweet 36 ft steel sailboat which she single hands with her 18 year old dog. She is now over 50, but she has been cruising since she was 19, when she and her husband sailed to Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia. She had arrived in Fort Bragg the day before in somewhat strong winds, though not the gale we caught in, and had broken her finger on her tiller on the way in over the bar. It made me realize how lucky we were to not be injured beyond the slightly stiff neck I had for a couple of days. The weather was perfect at Fort Bragg, and Karen knows people there, as she used to live there during the 80’s, so we had a good time there, despite communications being a problem. They also had an excellent natural food market, with organic produce, goat milk and the like. They had huge delicious organic mangos for only 99c, small delicious organic avocados for 99c, and freshly barbecued wild salmon meals with all the trimmings for $8.99. We would like to have taken that Harvest Market with us!
Noyo River, Fort Bragg

With our new autopilot in hand and the remote control for it installed, so we could operate it from inside the cabin, we sailed at noon from Fort Bragg for Bodega Bay. There was a fair wind from the north, gentle seas and beautiful sunshine to start with – perfect sailing weather. But then fog closed in around us, and night fell. At about this time the brand new autopilot started beeping and losing its course every few minutes, and had to be reset. At first I thought it was because of the “local magnetic disturbances” the chart warned about in this area. It felt weird, like being in some sort of vortex like the Bermuda Triangle. We had to be constantly vigilant to maintain our course. Then the breeze blew up to about 20 knots, contrary to what was forecast, surging us along at a great speed, making the boat veering off course rather scary. The mainsail was held out on one side by a preventer on the boom, and the jib on the other by a whiskerpole. Then the autopilot cut out and wouldn’t start up again! The boat quickly veered way off course, and the wind caught in the wrong side of the sails. The fiberglass whiskerpole on the jib bent like a bow, and I thought it was going to break. I let all the sheets fly to release the pressure on the sails, and managed to retrieve the whiskerpole before it broke, and furled the jib to get it out of the way. It was clear now that it was not magnetic disturbances affecting the autopilot. Rather it was that the new autopilot, just purchased to replace the one that had broken down, was itself defective! It appeared to have a loose connection inside causing it to power down momentarily, or sometimes for quite a few seconds, then power up again on standby, and have to be reset to a course. I found I could just tap its case to make it do this! Fortunately, I still had a 30-year-old, rather underpowered, autopilot that came with the boat when I bought it, which I was able to press into service. It in fact steered the boat perfectly, making smaller, apparently better calculated, adjustments to the helm than the new one had. They just don’t make things like they used to! By now though, there was another problem. The wind had kicked in even stronger, and the waves reared up higher, and I had to go forward to reef the mainsail. To do this the boat had to be brought side on to the wind and seas so the sail would flap loosely, while I, with my safety harness tied to the mast so I wouldn’t be knocked overboard, pulled the sail down halfway, and hauled in the reefing lines to secure the folds of sail to the boom. All this in the middle of a moonless night, with the boat rocking around wildly, and the wind whistling through my hair. Finally it was done! And the boat was much more in control with the sail area cut in half, though she was still surging along at her maximum speed of about 6.5 to 7 knots (about 8 mph). All this drama had left me feeling worn out, but still hyped with adrenalin. I went below while Karen kept watch, but couldn’t really sleep. The wind was coming from directly behind us, the most uncomfortable angle of sailing, because there is no sideways pressure on the mast to keep the boat steady. So the boat just relentlessly rocked from side to side, more and more as the night wore on, in the building seas. Well into fall, as we are, the nights are considerably longer than the days, and out at sea such nights seem to last forever. At about 4:00 am there seemed to be some light in the east, but it was only the faint glow of the Bay Area in the far distance. When the dawn broke through the fog at about 7:30, just before we reached Bodega Bay, it was a blessed relief. At least we’d got the timing right! And the wind dropped, too, making it easier and safer to approach and cross the bar. It is actually a very safe bar to cross, but the fog was thick, and I couldn’t see much more than about another boat length in front of the boat. I motored in slowly, using the GPS and radar to make sure I was between the rock jetties, and didn’t run into them. Then the south jetty appeared out of the fog about a boat length off the port bow. I made a rapid course adjustment to stay clear of it. It continued on like this past all the wooden poles with red and green plates on top of them marking the two mile long narrow channel that led up to the marina. We were almost on top of each set of posts before we could see them, but could see their blips on the radar a few seconds earlier. The navigation rule in the USA is “Red Right Returning” (though it’s the opposite in most countries), so I had to keep the red markers to my right, and the green to the left. The tide was dead low, just beginning to rise, and every now and then I could see the bare mud flats off to either side of the channel, waiting to trap us until the tide rose if I veered even the slightest amount off course. But we made it through, with our fog horn sounding every minute, and soon we were tied up at the 90 foot dock at Porto Bodega Marina. It sure felt good to arrive, and for the next two days we spent much of our time sleeping.

Just after we first took our folding bikes out to go look around, the wind, which had come up again, blew one of them over and it fell into the water beside the boat. With horror I saw it sink into the water with alarming speed. I threw myself at it, and just managed to grab the back wheel as it was disappearing into the abyss! I hauled it out and we hosed it off thoroughly with fresh water to get rid of the salt which would have soon rusted it. We came really close to losing one of our bikes, and after that were much more mindful about where we left them. Then after dark on the first evening here, we heard a ruckus on the outside of the boat, and I popped my head up through the companionway hatch to see what was going on. A couple of teenagers from the nearby RV park were trying to steal one of the bikes from off the front of the boat, where we’d put them for safe keeping! They ran off, leaving the bike hanging over the safety rail – the same bike that had almost gone to the bottom earlier in the day! That bike! It sure has a charmed life. Now we fold the handle bars down, take the seats out, and lock the bikes to the rail, though I don’t think those kids will be back in a hurry. The marina (and RV park) manager said she was sure she knew who they were, and that she’d go chew them out.

Again, here, there isn’t Sprint service, just some intermittent wireless internet hot spots. It took some persistence and persuasion to get the supplier of that faulty autopilot to agree to send us another new one to replace it, but they finally did. They are sending it to Eugene, and we are doing a one-way car rental to go back there for about a week. The good thing is that the marina management here are very nice, and agreed to let us stay until Nov 1 for just their low monthly rate of $125.00 rather than the (still cheap) daily rate of $15.00. This will work out to about $6.50 a day. Meanwhile, we’ve been biking around the area, and having a great time. Karen’s mother and brother both live in Santa Rosa, about half an hour away, and one day her brother drove out and brought us into town. Karen’s mother cooked all sorts of wonderful food for us, and packed it away into containers for us to take back to the boat, and we were able to shop at Trader Joe's to get other provisions we needed.

We ran into Jan again here. She left Fort Bragg a few days after us, to give her broken finger a chance to heal. Now she’s off to San Francisco ahead of us, but we had another visit with her, and swapped some yarns. Since she has been cruising most of her adult life, she is quite an inspiration to us. We hope to see her again in San Francisco.

On arriving at Bogega Bay through the fog

The witch at her dock at Bogeda Bay

Writing in my log book

So, everything’s going pretty well. It’s very comfortable aboard the witch when she’s tied up at dock, since she has a roomy, home-like cabin, with lots of beautiful teak and other hardwoods, and an oil-filled electric heater that keeps her toasty warm. We can put a laptop computer on the chart table at the foot of our bunk, connect it up to the stereo, and watch a movie in bed. She’s totally different in port from what she is at sea, where she is like a beautiful wild animal, a dolphin dancing in the waves. I’m sure we’ll learn to love that dance, too, especially when we get into the tropics, but in the cold unpredictable weather, long nights, and wild seas along the Oregon and Northern Californian coast, it can get a little terrifying.

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