It was Day 4 of our second trip from Vancouver to San Francisco, 150 miles offshore, somewhere NW of Cape Mendocino California. The GRIB file Jacquie had downloaded through the SSB showed a gale to the SE at the Cape. It looked to be intensifying from a fresh 25kt to a more ominous 35-40kt, with seas in the 4-5 meter and 10-15kt second range. With nowhere to go – can’t run for shore this far off – we agreed to steer a little to the SW and avoid the worst of the gale closer to shore. Eventually we would need to turn east for San Francisco, but that was a discussion for 2 days from now.
It was during my watch, midnight to 0300h, that I remembered our first trip around Cape Mendocino. It was nine years previously, September 2008, and we were running within 5 miles of the Coast. It was our first cruise to San Francisco and we were coast hopping. Some may claim this is the easier route. Looking at an approaching gale, I tended to agree.
Now that we have done the trip both ways, coastal and off-shore, I am not able to clearly state that one route is better than the other. Both have pluses and minuses with the pluses far outweighing the minuses.
Coastal Route, September/October 2008
Our first trip south started in late August 2008. We had sold everything off, Jacquie had retired, and I took a leave from work. The boat, and our home for 14 years, was a 34’ Coast named Angelique of Vancouver. We had done all the things to get ready for an off-shore cruise: boat upgrades, navigational courses, and I had even crewed on a race from Victoria to Maui. We were ready, or so we thought.
The original plan was to sail 100 miles SW out of Juan De Fuca Strait, turn left, and head south till the butter melted. All seemed fine as we sailed past Cape Flattery and started heading offshore. We had checked the weather, which claimed a NW wind around 15kt. As night fell, what we got was SE at 20kt. In hindsight, the weather we saw was a low, close in to shore and if we had continued farther offshore we would have picked up the forecast NW winds.
This was Jacquie’s first offshore passage, as well as her first night at sea. She was not having fun and, since she was the admiral (and me the only crew), we changed our plan and headed back inshore for Grays Harbor, Washington. Our coastal cruise to San Francisco had begun.
For a first cruise, in your own boat, shorthanded, a coastal route is a good plan. You see a lot of the coast, have time to explore the beautiful towns, and easily make it to San Francisco with no damage to the boat. You will also meet a lot of like-minded cruisers heading south. For us it was great cruising down the Coast in our make-shift community of these folks, sharing the highs and lows and boosting each other’s confidence.
If you decide on the coastal route you will need to get comfortable with crossing bars. A lot of them. They can all be a little hairy but the NOAA weather report, as well as the US Coast Guard, are great for providing current bar information.
Some of our crossings were calm, like Grays Harbor. We timed the tides just right – high water slack. Our only challenge was the thick fog. Radar for a coastal cruise of the Pacific Northwest is a must.
Some bar crossings can be stressful. For example, Newport, Oregon. We left Grays Harbor and had an interesting night passage, planning to stop in Newport the next day. The night was OK, but there was no moon and it was overcast, so we turned on the radar to chase the boogieman away. Our course was within 20 miles of the Coast, just along the Continental Shelf. This is where the crab fishermen like to string their pots. We did our best to avoid the floats, but I missed one just as it went under the bow. We are motor sailing and I quickly switched into Neutral. Bump, bump, bump and the floats popped up in our stern light, fading into the black. I waited for the trap line to go taut, tying us to the bottom. One minute, two minutes, we are free. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. At dawn, five miles off the Newport sea buoy in thick fog, the engine quit. Now what? Jacquie called the Coast Guard to get an updated bar report and assistance entering the bar; I dash below to fix the engine.
“Mike, the Coasties say the bar is closing to vessels less than 32’.” OK, it is getting rough, around 3 meters at 9 seconds. And there is no wind, just fog so thick Jacquie can’t see the end of the boat. I need to get this engine running fast!
“Hey Mike, I can hear a bell. I think we are close to the sea buoy. If you can get the engine started, we should run for Newport. It’s only 5 miles away. Are you OK?”
“I’m FINE sweetie,” I reply. Truth is, I was “Frustrated Insecure Neurotic and Exhausted. FINE”. I’m guessing that the rough seas have stirred up sediments and fouled the fuel filter. I somehow manage to move all of the fuel valves in the right way (have to remember to label these things) so the fuel feed is changed to the secondary filter and the engine started.
Just in time too, as the Coasties are close. We can hear their engine in the fog. Radar shows them to be really close. Looking aft I can see the bow of a US Coast Guard Cutter coming out of the fog about 5 meters back. Yikes! They will lead us in. The bar proves to be straight forward, with a 3 meter breaking surf running. “We can do this,” I tell Jacquie. She smiles and off we go.
Occasionally, bar crossings can be scary. For example, at Fort Bragg a week later, we misjudged the tide and came in at a low ebb in thick fog. We could see nothing but could hear the breaking waves on either side of the boat. We bumped the bar a few times in a breaking swell. Lucky for us it was sand where we crossed. Once we got in, the Coast Guard informed us that the bar was closed to vessels under 50’. Oops! The next day when the fog cleared we walked out to look at the bar. Very narrow. Without radar and lots of luck, the outcome could have been very different.
Fuel and Traffic
Plan on more motor sailing if you take the coastal route. Winds are more affected by the shore structures and the land temperature gradients. These can cause some unpredicted weather, with winds contrary or non-existent. We made a lot of PAS (power-assisted sailing) passages to ensure the day trips did not extend into multiple days. While all of the harbors will have fuel, not all of them have it on a floating dock. Sometimes you may need to tie alongside large pile docks. Be patient and use lots of fenders.
Commercial fishing will be all around you on the coastal route. This includes crabbers, seiners, trawlers, and nets. Fortunately, the gear in US waters will normally be marked with flags, buoys, and lights. Normally. Have a plan to deal with nets, pots and other fishing gear that may become entangled on your boat.
While AIS has made it easier to track commercial fishermen as well as freighters, not all vessels will have a working unit. A keen lookout is still required.
Don’t be in a hurry. We were stuck in Fort Bragg for 10 days as the bar was closed due to a gale. The commercial tuna fleet was losing a fortune, and their minds, waiting for the bar to open. A 36’ sailing vessel was in a hurry to get to L.A. and left before the bar opened. We heard later that the boat was lost.
Enjoy your port stays. All of them will have a distinct feel and the people are generally very friendly. Newport has the coolest brewery right on the water. While in Fort Bragg, we would watch the turtle races. One of our neighbors had 2 turtles, which would race up and down the dock every day. Jacquie and I started making bets.
Finally, enjoy the marine life. There will be whales, sun fish, sharks, dolphins, sea otters, and tons of birds. There is also a ton of sea lions. In Monterey, they formed a raft of over 100 at night, barking all night long and trying to dislodge their mates from the docks, buoys and rocks.
Along with the usual equipment, some things to have for a coastal passage are:
- Cell phones for weather, either through NOAA or Internet sites like Predict Wind, Windy, Sail Flow
- Accurate charts for all bar crossings, even those you don’t plan on crossing.
- AIS transponder for commercial traffic
Offshore Route, September 2017
Our second trip started like the first. We still lived full-time on Angelique, and we were leaving from Vancouver, B.C. This time we wanted crew. Jacquie asked our brother-in-law Terry, and the silly fool said yes. So off we went, leaving mid-August 2017.
Leaving Juan De Fuca in the summer, you have to contend with the prevailing westerlies, usually in the 20-25kt range, and tidal currents in the 2-3 knot range. Our window was at the tail end of a westerly gale.
We left Port Angeles around 0100h with horizontal rain and lumpy seas, a good first passage for Terry. It wasn’t all bad – at the entrance to Juan De Fuca, the sun came out and we sailed with a pod of hunting sperm whales. The first 3 days were as expected: winds from the NW at 15-20, seas from the same at 2 meters. The swell was a long period so not a bad ride. However, as we passed the Oregon/California border, a gale at Cape Mendocino intensified, with 35-40 kts inshore and extending on a front 100 miles offshore.
“We have a decision to make. Run SW, farther offshore, or stand on and take our lumps”. Discretion being the better part of valor, we headed SW to avoid the worst of it.
By Day 4 we were running under the staysail only, making a solid 6 kts and surfing in 4 meter swells. Jacquie had been launched over her galley strap and into the nav station, I had broken my nose on a stanchion, and Terry had twisted his back. Are we having fun yet? Jacquie popped up from below and smiled. “Sorry guys, it’s too rough to cook. Dinner is PB&J with hot tea or cup-a-soup.”
By Day 5, things had eased a bit. We rolled out the jib and caught a nice tuna. The seas were down to 2-3 meters and the galley was open. “Hot food, boys,” was the call from the galley. A cheer came from the crew. We were 2 days out of San Francisco, but the front had slid a little to the south. If we wanted to cross under the Golden Gate we would have to turn SE, into the gale. After sweating over the latest GRIB, we all agreed that the gale looked to be easing. We jibed and headed to San Francisco.
Day 6 and the winds had eased to a steady 20-25. While the seas were still 4-5 meters, at least they were from the NW. Angelique was surfing and so was a pod of dolphins on the port side. As we started surfing down the swell, they followed on the port quarter. As we slowed in the trough they swam under the keel and out the starboard bow. This was repeated for the next 90 minutes. Terry and I watched, mesmerized by the beauty and poetry. And no one got a camera or called Jacquie up from her off-watch.
Day 7 had us passing under the Golden Gate at 0400h in fog. Welcome to San Francisco.
For an offshore passage you should have all of the same things you need for a coastal run. You never know if you need to bail. In addition, you should also have:
- Crew: so there are at least three people on board who can stand a watch. This allows for longer off-watch time, so you can sleep/cook/read/study the horizon/chat.
- Charts: we plotted our position every watch on a small scale chart. This allows you to see your daily mileage and keeps you focused on your goal. For old-timers, it’s also fun to keep a celestial plot.
- Sea berths: ensure everyone has a comfortable sea berth. Someplace they can call their own, keep their stuff, and feel safe. Jacquie and I were never on the same watch, so we shared a berth. Not a lot of options on a 34’ boat.
- Weather data: we used our SSB radio and a PACTOR modem to get GRIB files and weather data. Others highly recommend the Predict Wind/Sat Phone package.
- Autopilot: we had a fourth crew on board, fondly call ‘Tilly’, a Hydrovane self-steering system. It steered better than I could in the big seas. Whatever type of autopilot you choose, ensure you take some time to learn how to use it, as well as balance the boat under sail, before heading offshore.
- Safety gear: Angelique had all of the safety gear listed for a coastal passage and, while you don’t have to have any of the following, Angelique also carried:
- 4 man life raft with offshore pack, and ditch bag with SOLAS flares, food, documentation, tools, lights, water
- EPIRB. Also, both the SSB and VHF radios had emergency signal buttons. These will send an emergency call complete with the ship’s MMSI and GPS location
- Jack lines and hard points in the cock pit. Crew were always clipped in, no exceptions.
Jacquie and I are very fortunate to have made both a coastal passage and an offshore passage to San Francisco. Both passages had their highs and lows. If this is your first long cruise I would recommend the coastal route. There are enough overnights to test yourself and your boat, boosting your confidence for future cruises. However, if you are planning to head farther afield, to the South Pacific or Caribbean, then there is no better way to shake out your boat and boost your confidence than an offshore passage. In the immortal words of Captain Ron, “If anything’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen out there”.
Go cruising now my brother, it’s later than we think.