Three years and six months after purchasing Mazu, we cast off the dock lines to voyage to places further afield than our home province of British Columbia. Those years were spent shoring up many systems on our 2005 Tayana 37 in preparation for the offshore bashing she will endure. The learning curve to prepare us for offshore sailing has been significant. Still, we haven’t done this before. Sailing from Sidney, BC to San Francisco, CA is a test of our boat and us.
The Final Push
“What do you actually have to do to leave?” we are asked and we are at a loss for words. There are last minute boat checks and hiccups. On the one hand, new fuel injectors turn out to be faulty, putting us back two days in our final preparations. On the other hand, provisioning is a one-day affair, including cooking meals to freeze. Redirecting mail, informing BC Health Services of our departure from the country, setting up third-party travel health insurance, storing our vehicle and many other logistical items are slowly completed. Reserving affordable moorage in San Francisco unexpectedly hits the to-do list and eats up a few days in research and application forms. At the last minute, a flap is sewn from leftover Sunbrella to snap over the electrical panel to keep out unexpected water ingress down the companionway.
And then it gets to the day when all but the electrical cord and the dock lines that tie us to Sidney are stashed away. We’re completely exhausted, yet the thought of staying at the dock is even more exhausting. With near perfect conditions to get out of our marina, we cast off the dock lines at 0620 on Saturday, August 19. Our first stop will be Port Angeles, WA, where we’ll get our US cruising license and tie up for the night. Neah Bay, at the end of Juan de Fuca Strait with Cape Flattery a few miles further, will be our final anchorage before making the big turn left.
Seasickness Mitigation Strategy
Both of us can get seasick. We know this from participating in a Sail Canada Advanced Cruising course, that took us offshore 50 NM. At that time our seasickness experience was the classic three-day affair. For me (Stefa), it started with nausea when we hit the swell of the Pacific Ocean. This was quickly followed by repeatedly vomiting over the lifelines, until I thought my stomach was going to come out of my body with the next dry heave. Keeping any fluids down, let alone any food, was a challenge. “At first I thought I was going to die. Then, as time passed, I was afraid I wasn’t!”
After surviving this ordeal, we learned how we could have mitigated getting seasick. Avoiding alcohol, caffeinated drinks, chocolate, and tomatoes and increasing water consumption to two to three liters per day top the list of things to do. Being well rested and calm helps decrease seasickness too, yet we are not sure these can be implemented. For this voyage, we follow the consumption recommendations. (Strategy to Fight Seasickness by John Neal, published in Practical Sailor, July 2017 informed our approach to seasickness mitigation).
A little nausea sets in as we head up Juan de Fuca Strait and the first ocean swells start. It takes a bit more motion from the ocean for Jürgen to feel what he calls “oogey.” There is no desire to eat except mouse-sized amounts. Crackers and herbal lemon-ginger tea are soothing and help ease the nausea. We eat a little of our pre-made meals. With three-hour watches, getting lots of sleep is not going to happen; yet every little bit we add to our sleep banks helps with the nausea as well. Our liter-sized water bottles are steadily emptied. We attribute being well hydrated to feeling tired, yet not gross when waking up from our short sleeps.
We have both Meclizine and Stugeron on board for seasickness. Meclizine, available in British Columbia through compounding pharmacies, is the drug of choice among fishermen, yet rarely talked about in the sailing community. Stugeron, not available in Canada or the U.S. and purchased by us while in the Philippines, is much talked about in the sailing community, yet difficult to obtain. We plan to avoid using either unless our nausea interferes with how we are functioning. This is our plan.
First Offshore Night
“Stef! Stef! I need you! The wind’s picked up. We need to shorten sail.” Jürgen’s urgent call reaches me an hour into my first off-watch sleep. It is only 2130h, yet I had been battling the nausea of seasickness all day. Sleep had not come easily when I lay down at 2000h. My body automatically suits up to get back into the cockpit, yet my brain is slow to turn on. I will away my nausea.
It is our first night at sea after rounding Cape Flattery. In the cockpit, I find Jürgen in an agitated state. There is fog, fishing boats, building wind and seas bashing against the stern quarter. Jürgen is discovering that having everything going on at once – the fog, the boats, the wind, and the seas – is more stressful than he had anticipated.
We had set up for the night with only the Yankee. We had removed the main from the picture to simplify life for the person on watch. Yet even with only the Yankee, the boat feels overpowered. We disengage our self steering system, the Hydrovane, furl the Yankee and put out the staysail. I head below to try to catch a few more winks, yet sleep is impossible. On the VHF, Jürgen is hailing a fishing boat he sees on the AIS, inquiring whether the boat is dragging anything as we’re going to pass close to it’s stern. It is not. And I’m nervous about my impending first watch in total darkness in conditions that have unnerved my partner.
At 2300h, I’m back in the cockpit. We don’t have enough experience with the Hydrovane to adjust it in variable conditions, in the dark and the fog, so I am taking over from Jürgen, hand steering. We decide that an hour on, an hour off, is the only way to manage the hand steering until we get a handle on things. Jürgen doesn’t hesitate to sleep in the cockpit for my first shift at the helm, while I get my bearings. Except for their phosphorescent lit crests, the waves are not visible and they are not breaking into the boat. I am struck by the thought that what you can’t see can’t scare you! And we are on a broad reach which leaves the boat relatively flat despite the wind. In no time, the hand steering and bracing against the bashing waves happens instinctively and I ride the experience.
By daybreak, we have returned to our regular watches, the details of the long night a blur. Jürgen enters the cockpit at 0800h, just in time to witness me with one hand clutching the bucket we keep in the cockpit for seasickness, while using my other hand for steering. Despite our mitigation efforts, the choppy seas and an exhausting night have finally lead to throwing up. And it is a relief. Jürgen suggests I take a Meclizine and get some much-needed sleep. The wind has let up a bit and we have altered course, towards the coast, to get out of the confused seas. By the time I get up to start my next watch at 1100h, it feels like the night of bashing never happened.
Becalmed and Blasted
After the spicy start to our offshore adventure, we are overtaken by … nothing. The winds evade us. On our third day offshore, we are completely becalmed. Rather than being restful, the lack of wind is exhausting. There are no wind noises to block out the sound of the main flogging, or the fairleads on the rail from banging. Below it sounds like someone is stomping on the deck wearing heavy work boots, yet the person on watch is sitting quietly in the cockpit. Sleeping is difficult.
We are ghosting along and a long way from longitude 127°W where we can avoid heavy winds forecasted off Cape Mendocino. Jürgen wakes up from an early morning off-watch sleep to find me exasperated with the lack of progress. We turn on the engine and motor sail to what looks like a breath of wind ahead. With the engine running, we generate hot water to enjoy short glorious showers, our first since leaving Port Angeles four days ago.
Finally there is enough wind to set a few sails, get the Hydrovane connected, and enjoy a leisurely dinner of beef stew in the cockpit. It is the most robust meal we have eaten yet, now that nausea and nerves have calmed down. The dishes are cleared and in near perfect conditions, we enjoy a quiet moment. Still, we wonder about the dark clouds to the west. We’ve heard from a friend, through our satellite communication device, the inReach, that a cold front is approaching. A table summarizing conditions expected with a cold front is consulted, yet before we come to any conclusions the wind escalates from 10 to 25 knots. We quickly reduce sail and find ourselves hand steering again through gusts and building seas. The temperature has dropped, toques and warmer foul weather gear are donned and night settles around us. Seriously? Another night of high winds? With conditions gnarlier than that first night, we decide on an hour on and an hour off watch system, with the off watch person sleeping in the cockpit. Although taxing, this works for us offshore newbies, who find comfort in the companionship of our sleeping mate.
On this night there is no fog, yet the lights of distant fishing boats remain disconcerting. Many have turned off their AIS. It is difficult at times to judge our distance from these boats. And we’re sailing along at a solid clip, six to seven knots, keeping the wind on the starboard stern quarter. Not the time to be maneuvering to dodge boats.
Remarkably, the night passes quickly with equally remarkable moments at the helm filled with the exhilaration that comes when flying along under sail. The Hydrovane is re-engaged once the conditions are less variable, and we sail into a morning marked by a glorious sunrise.
CUT! Such a saccharine and dishonest ending to the story of this night! Prior to daybreak, I had let Jürgen sleep until he woke up naturally to take over the helm. Once I was asleep, however, I was woken up by Jürgen to see the sunrise. Beside myself with exhaustion, it quickly became clear to Jürgen that waking up his exhausted mate for a non-critical matter showed a momentary lapse in judgment. We agree that managing oneself is as much a part of the offshore experience as managing the boat and the weather.
The High Seas
Sleep eludes me. After being woken up for the sunrise I didn’t need to see, the adrenaline of the previous night keeps me wired and awake. And despite the clear sky and relatively warm conditions, toques not withstanding, I’ve got weather on my mind. As we were coping with the cold front, messages from friends were coming to the inReach.
“Wind should get stronger 43N-40N.” “Hi … saw gale warning by NOAA ~100NM south of your position Thursday 0800 – Saturday 0500.” “Are you reefed up? You have peak north winds 25-30kt and seas 6 to 9 ft from now to Monday … about the same in next NOAA zone 150-250NM offshore.”
It is Thursday. We’ve shortened sail to recover mentally from the night of the cold front and turn to getting marine forecasts with the inReach. Before departure, we examined GRIB files and the NOAA marine text forecasts for 60 to 150NM offshore (inner waters) and 150 to 250NM offshore (outer waters). Strong winds were forecasted off Cape Mendocino, starting Thursday, today. To avoid those winds, we planned to head out to 127° 40’W.
With the inReach, we get a seven day forecast for our planned offshore waypoint and multiple other points south and to the west of that waypoint. We stay the course, yet with a little uncertainty. Despite the information we have, we feel vulnerable without seeing the big picture. Downloading weather info from the SSB to the iPad was unsuccessful and that’s where we would have received big picture information. Fortunately we are well supported by friends following our track and to whom we put out the word that we are information hungry. They feed us enough that we decide to push our offshore waypoint out another 40 NM. We put ourselves closer to less wind than more wind.
We purposefully sail under-powered as we head into the night with steady winds and the Hydrovane steering. And we both have a magical night. We marvel how the night sky comes down to the horizon at sea! The Milky Way is prominent. With dawn, we head southeast, angling to keep the north wind on the stern quarter and keep the rocking of the boat to a minimum. With only the Yankee up, we fly along at a solid six knots throughout the day.
As another night approaches, the winds build to a steady 25 knots. Now, as we shorten sail, we keep the Hydrovane in place, finding we only need to do minor corrections of the helm with the occasional gust or wave slam. At dawn we are 180 NM offshore, racing at 7 knots under staysail alone. It is disconcerting. Technically we are not on the high seas, 200NM or greater from coastal waters, yet perched on top of five meter swells, the seas are plenty high. As I take over watch from Jürgen and look around, I wonder, “What have we done?” We are still far away from San Francisco and for the first time since we left Canada the open ocean seems very open, very big. As I hold these thoughts to myself, Jürgen looks at me worried and says, “What have we done?” Jürgen heads below and for the next three hours I sit with my thoughts, the experience of cutting across the swell, sailing hands free, and watching the sun sparkled water. When a rested Jürgen takes over three hours later, I am on a natural high and smiling. Later Jürgen tells me that smile transformed his concern to relief.
Steady winds, formidable seas and clear blue skies give way to calm and clammy cold fog. With only 200NM separating us from San Francisco, we no longer have the patience to float and wait. We motor sail for the next 24 hours. Again, we enjoy shower bliss and for the first time since rounding Cape Flattery, we catch solid two and a half hour blocks of sleep, over and over again. By mid-day Monday, our eighth day offshore, we feel rested, fed, clean and ready to sail.
The wind comes south of Point Arena, enough to convince us to sail wing on wing. We are still adjusting the sails to enjoy the downwind run, when the swell and wind start building. Getting the whisker pole down in high winds has previously proven challenging, so we decide to get rid of it before we’re caught out. It is my turn to go forward. At the mast, I loosen the whisker pole uphaul, reach for the cord that will open the choke attached to the Yankee sheet and tug, hard. Nothing happens. I try again to release the chock without success. To get more purchase behind the cord I try to lower the inboard end of the whisker pole; however, the forces on the sail send it slamming on its track to the deck. The whisker pole swings wildly now from its on-deck pivot point. I am tethered to the mast and hugging it with one arm as the boat rocks hard side to side. For the first time on this voyage, I am afraid. I am worried that the swinging whisker pole will damage the boat. I retreat to the cockpit, sobbing, “I can’t get it down!” Jürgen, having not seen me lose it yet, responds perfectly with “It’s OK. You did awesome. We’ll figure it out.” And we do. We turn upwind enough to get some pressure off the sail. Jürgen goes forward and is able to release the chock and we get the Yankee completely furled. We triple reef the mainsail and put out a reefed staysail. These increasing winds are not forecasted.
I am unnerved and drained from feeling overpowered and afraid. To me, we got too close to out of control, but there is no time to sit in these feelings. The wind has climbed to well over 30 knots and is still climbing. We are on a starboard broad reach and barely hanging on. Neither one of us can manage the helm longer than 20 minutes at a stretch. We carry on like this for less than two hours before concluding this is not sustainable. The chart is consulted and decide to aim for Bodega Bay for refuge, 35 NM due east. We need to be on a port tack to get to Bodega Bay so we do a chicken jibe, turning on the engine and doing a fast controlled tack. We aim as high as we can to the wind to stay above our destination and allow for bearing away. We estimate we’ll be in Bodega Bay at 2300h.
For the next six hours we continue our twenty-minute rotations. The boat tells us it does not want to be at 90° to the wind every time it shudders with a crashing wave or a gust. We steer seated at the helm. I keep my right leg on the seat, braced against the side of the cockpit to help me control the helm and not slide across the cockpit. Waves are regularly barreling over the rail on the leeward side of the boat, dousing my braced leg. Mazu is handling herself well. At times on her ear she never makes us think that she will give in to the forces we are battling.
When not at the helm, we go below where the noise of the wind is remarkably muffled. I sit on the settee, staring ahead, thinking nothing yet girding myself for another twenty minutes at the helm. Neither of us has eaten since noon, yet neither of us is hungry. I force myself to drink water and at some point we both scarf down a fruit bar.
Before dark, Jürgen calls the US Coast Guard based in Bodega Bay. “We are two exhausted sailors looking to take refuge in Bodega Bay. We’re battling a gale!” The USCG reports that it is blowing no more than 15 knots in Bodega Bay and assures us that the winds will die closer to land. Refuge is possible.
We clock a maximum wind speed of 46 knots and a maximum boat speed of 8.3 knots. The wind does not die down until we are only a couple of miles from Bodega Bay. Once in the bay and positioned to drop the anchor, we discover the rode is a tangled mess. It takes us an hour and a half to get the anchor set and the engine turned off. It is 0115h Tuesday morning. Below we strip off our foul weather gear and marvel at the quiet. I am shaking from the physical exertion, nerves and exhaustion. It is anti-climactic to be in Bodega Bay and not San Francisco, yet some sort of celebration seems in order. Despite our weariness we pour a couple of glasses of red wine, tear open a bag of salt and vinegar chips and open a tin of canned salmon. There are no fist pumps, just relief. We are fortunate to have been progressively challenged throughout this voyage, preparing us incrementally for what we experienced today.
Six hours of uninterrupted sleep! After eight days of three-hour watches it seems like the longest sleep ever. Although only one long day away from San Francisco, we’re not ready to head back out. The forecast is not favourable, neither of us wants to go back out to sea yet, and we’re fried. Instead we head to Bodega Harbour to tie up to a dock.
At first we’re excited to get off the boat and walk on land, eat the best crab nachos (ever!) and down an ice-cold beer. We walk a mile to the local grocery store to buy fresh food for dinner. And then, on the walk back, the fatigue hits. It is a desperate kind of fatigue when you feel sick with the desire to lie down. Without the need to keep going, from on-watch to off-watch to on-watch again, there be neither the psychological nor physical will to fend off the exhaustion. We nap for two hours. Later, we call it a night by 2100h. The next day is approached with similar enthusiasm; yet the fatigue washes over us forcing us back to the boat, back to bed.
The weather and our location in Bodega Harbour are perfect for hibernating. Early mornings are fog enshrouded, still and cool. As the wind picks up late morning, the fog lifts, exposing a sun that feeds us with an energy that sleeping cannot fulfill. The winds are formidable by late afternoon, making it easy to decide to stay put and continue recovering. The main docks are populated with fishing boats; their crews preparing for the opening of a new salmon season a few days away. Luckily we are on a lone finger dock away from the bustle.
Lighter winds appear in the forecast and the desire to “get ‘er done” gets us off the dock two days after tying up. We’re both wind shy now, neither of us wanting to sail. The wind accommodates us by remaining calm, then blowing moderately behind us as we head to Drakes Bay, near Point Reyes, where we stage our approach to San Francisco. The next day we time our passage through Bonita Channel and under the Golden Gate Bridge to favourable tide conditions.
Dogged by fatigue and nerves, the approach to the Golden Gate doesn’t feel as momentous as it’s built up to be. We’re more overwhelmed by the wall of heat that marches off the land, out of San Francisco Bay, to overtake us on the boat. Toques, sweaters and long pants are stripped off and our bodies relax into what we later learn are record breaking temperatures of 41°C.
The city skyline and both operational and derelict port facilities stream past us as we head to the City of Brisbane Marina, about 10 NM south of San Francisco. Once past the Oakland Bridge, the water in the bay is uncharacteristically calm. The heat and the calm feel surreal relative to the cold fog and brisk winds we were expecting. By 1300h, we are tied up to the dock, enjoying a bottle of Prosecco. The heat and the bubbly invite back the bone melting fatigue. Hello San Francisco! Hello V-berth!
“How was it?” “Was it fun?” These are the questions we’re asked once we’re on dry land and in contact with friends and family. Jürgen’s response has consistently been “It was psychologically challenging.” When pressed about what this means, he explains how this journey pushed him physically like he had never been pushed before. The inability to count on getting sleep was a surprise. The weather didn’t know we were on three-hour shifts! The need to manage emotions – nervousness, fear – was tough work. For me, Stef, the psychological challenges were similar, yet different. I knew that I would be nervous, yet it was what I was nervous about that surprised me. In addition to the conditions, the wind and the waves, it was the route planning relative to the weather information we had that kept me on edge. Always being on mentally and emotionally was draining. John Kretschmer captures what we learned about the journey within when he says, “There is nowhere to hide at sea and the image that reflects back at you from the face of a steel blue wave is brutally honest. To thrive at sea you must take stock of who you are, not who you want to be. There’s no pretending out there.”