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Southward Bound: One Couple's Experience

Kevin and Carla Nash

Gargoyle
Beneteau Oceanis 50
November 30th, 2019

It’s the first of September and after a summer spent cruising Alaska, Haida Gwaii and the west coast of Vancouver Island, it’s time to head south while the winds are favorable. We’re anchored in Bamfield, a great little anchorage near the enchanting cruising waters of Barkley Sound, where we’ve spent the last week exploring the Broken Islands Group. Following a final provisioning run into Bamfield, we’re heading south tomorrow as the perfect high-pressure system is promising us great winds and favorable weather. That said, now comes the tough part. How far offshore should we go? What’s the optimum route to take? How do we manage weather downloads to calculate a safe route? How does a couple manage a non-stop trip to San Francisco? How will our trusty Devon Rexes manage an extended offshore voyage?

That last evening in Bamfield, the most immediate unknown for us was whether we would be required to enter a port in Washington State to clear customs. Both of us are NEXUS holders and already had our US Cruising permit, obtained in Ketchikan earlier in the summer. That said, we’ve found that there are no clear-cut guidelines on when you must physically detour for a customs check, so our first leg would be left to the Border Services to decide.

We arose early after sunrise and after waiting out a bit of fog in the harbor to lessen the stress of dodging the very active sport fishing fleet, we headed out at 0700h. We were immediately greeted with a calm sea and light winds, so we proceeded to sail slowly around the point and headed out to cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Once we reached US waters, a quick call to Customs gave us the surprising but welcome news that we were clear to enter the US and no port visit was required. This freed us up to head south!

As we continued across the entrance to the Strait, we passed through the busy ship lanes. It was at this point that we received a surprise hale on the VHF from a fellow sailor asking for a wind report, as they were becalmed further east in the Strait. It turns out that we had the pleasure of chatting on the VHF with Jeanne Socrates aboard Nereida, as she prepared to complete her record-setting solo circumnavigation, arriving in Victoria. With a wish for “fair winds” from one of the greatest sailors to grace our BC shores, we set off on our own journey.  After several hours of light breeze, the winds finally picked up, building to 20 knots plus out of the northwest. Pushed along by these winds, we set our sails for a broad reach and headed off for real.

As our first afternoon passed, we downloaded the first of many offshore forecasts, using PredictWind Offshore and our Iridium Go. We then loaded the downloaded GRIBs to run a variety of optimized weather routes in Expedition and compared these with the simpler PredictWind routes.

While adding more cost and complexity to our onboard systems, we prefer to use Expedition and PredictWind to provide us flexibility as well as a backup solution. In addition, we run C-Map charts on the Expedition laptop, giving us redundancy for our Navionics charting solution that we utilize on the main Raymarine instrument suite. Both solutions suggested better winds 50 to 100 nautical miles offshore and we set our first evening’s course accordingly.

As the sun set, we enjoyed one of our pre-cooked meal of pasta in the cockpit and then started our first of several attempts at a watch schedule. As a couple we realize it’s critical that we remain well rested and sharp over the course of a longer voyage. To this end we’ve settled upon one of two tactics. Our primary schedule is 3 hours on and 3 hours off. This tends to work well with both our sleep patterns. In some cases, though, if one of us is wired/awake, we then extend that person’s watch and allow the other to sleep. In all cases though, a quick shout below gets the other on deck as needed for any changes requiring someone to go on deck. We also utilize jack lines and tethers on deck and when the seas run rough, in the cockpit as well. Safety first.

Beautiful sunsets at sea.

Offshore, below decks quickly becomes the domain of our two Devon Rexes, Sam and Dean. Raised since birth as sailing cats, these two have mastered the sailors lean, and take well to offshore voyages, though for safety they’re confined below when sailing. That’s perfectly fine with them, as they run the boat and only when the seas are at their roughest do they hunker down. At this point, they spend their time on the large stern bed, safely surrounded by the blankets. They only leave their bunk to eat and for quick litter box runs. Then it’s back to bed where they wait for the off watch member of their human crew to come snuggle them for a three hour nap. We can’t say enough about how nice it is to have a snuggle during a snarky sail. When we’ve reached our anchorage, they’re up with free run of the boat and their own boarding ladder configuration for those occasional swims they take.

As our first night passed, we found ourselves dodging the first of hundreds if not thousands of fishing boats. Small boats closer to shore followed by large floating light shows farther offshore. Many of the larger fishing boats have incredibly bright lights on deck for their crew and one must wonder if they can see anything at all beyond the lights. As virtually none of these have AIS, if you do need to hail them regarding a course issue, good luck. Not knowing their name you resort to hailing “the fishing vessel off our port bow at xx.xxN and xx.xxW”, which is usually a waste of time as we received no responses. Our strategy quickly evolved into getting farther offshore to avoid these floating fish processing plants and at the 30-mile mark we left them glowing on the eastern horizon. By dawn we reached what we felt should be our maximum offshore range of 100 miles and tacked back in toward land as the winds continued to push us southward.

Ranging between 30 and 75 miles, we tacked and gybed our way down the west coast of Washington, Oregon and Northern California. Averaging 125 nautical miles a day, we sailed with a mindset of 80%, meaning that while we always want to sail well, we’re not in a hurry and if we can attain 80% of our boat’s performance, we’re happy. This meant often sailing at the most comfortable point of sail while one of us was sleeping, rather than at the fastest. It also meant we reefed the main before dark and tended to leave the whisker pole stowed at night. Anything to keep on-deck visits to a minimum in the dark.

The next five days passed quickly, as we enjoyed amazing sunsets and always welcome sunrises. We also found that temperatures rose quickly as we headed south and for the time in months, we felt warm while in the cockpit. During this time, we sailed virtually alone with only a few visual sightings of other cruisers, though on the innermost points we would see others nearer to shore on AIS. We would be remiss though, not to mention an odd nighttime encounter with a large northbound freighter 30 miles off the Oregon coast. While this 800 ft ship was fully visible on AIS and radar, they were running virtually blacked out and even though we passed them within 2 nautical miles on a clear night, they were almost invisible in the dark, with virtually no lighting.  If not for AIS and radar, I doubt we would have seen them!

Docked in Bodega Bay, Sonoma.

Finally, our destination of Bodega Bay came into focus just a hundred miles ahead and we angled in for landfall. At this time, we started to cross paths with several other cruisers and the VHF helped us all sort out our intersecting paths, as our last night came to a close. As the sun rose, we made our entrance into Bodega Bay. This scenic yet sleepy town in Sonoma county allowed us to take on fuel, reprovision and sample a few of Sonoma’s finest. This lovely spot is one of the last quiet and well protected harbours to be found on the southbound journey and it allowed us to catch our breath and celebrate a safe passage before making our final sail under the Golden Gate and into the frenetic pace of San Francisco Bay.

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