Velella's Drift

An account of Velella's voyage from Seattle to New York via Panama, 2009-2011

The Edge of the World

Neah Bay is exactly how I imagined the edge of the world. It reminds a bit of Lyle, in that it’s small, rural and teeming with salt of the earth characters. It’s on a Native American Reservation, and the outlands surrounding this tiny marina are as a green, rich and teeming with wildlife that it could easily be mistaken for Alaska. Of the hundred or so boats in the harbor, ours is the only sailboat. The others are salty fishing vessels, rusty and hardy, and in some cases remarkable in that they are still afloat. Velella sits at the end of the marina, the little princess in a rough and tumble crowd.

Huge, boisterous seal lions breach the water outside our boat and bark angry cries at the boats, begging for whatever Salmon scraps the fishermen have brought back from Alaska. Far from shy, they accompanied our boat into the marina, demanding we give them another easy meal. Bald Eagles and hawks patrol the tree tops, looking west toward the wind and the open ocean. It’s no surprise that this rugged village is the last patch of roughhewn civility before land disappears into thousands of miles of undulating deep-blue emptiness. In town there’s a huge map of the mouth of the straits: The green of Washington and Canada comes to an abrupt stop and then there’s nothing but blue and a compass arrow. The Southern arrow points towards “La La land” and the Northern arrow points to “Fish and Bears”. Watching the fishermen and their sea-hardened boats, I wish we were following the upper arrow. But we will instead go to “La la land”.

Getting here was an exhausting experience. Oceanic waves travel a hundred miles to the Eastern entrance of the Juan De Fuca straits and in that time they butt up on the land, becoming confused and choppy. If the waves of the open ocean are like a rocking cradle, sailing the straits is more akin to mechanical bull. Their sophmoric nickname, “The Straights of Juan De Puke-a”, is well-deserved.

The most excitement we’ve had so far came at 3 am. Night watches are particularly exhausting: Not only are you awakened from your sleep in the middle of the night to stand in the cold and the rain, but straining your eyes into the night to spot approaching ships is taxing. Your mind can start to play tricks on you.

I was startled awake around 3:30 in the morning. There was a high pitched alarm emanating through the boat, and Meghan and Andrew were yelling my name. I stumbled out of bed wearing only my long underwear. Meghan yelled down to me “The engine light is on! What do we do!” I told her she had to turn the engine off. Andrew piped in “We can’t do that!”. I dashed up top for my debriefing.

We had spotted the telltale red/green lights of a cargo ship headed in our direction. We had gunned the engine in an attempt to get out of its path. When it continued to bear down on us, we frantically radioed Seattle shipping traffic to ask for their assistance. Meanwhile, not being used to being run at full-speed for twenty minutes straight, the engine overheated. Once the three of us were up top, we assessed that the lights chasing us were in fact not a cargo ship, but were from a building on shore. We all relaxed, shut the engine off and topped it off with oil. It is an easy mistake to make at night when one is diligent in their search for ships, but an unsettling one. I did not fall back to sleep until the following afternoon.

On the lucky side, my extended watch that morning gave me one of the coolest experiences I’ve had thus far. As we neared the Western edge of the straits, the water mellowed out. The waves turned from erratic chop, to a long, slow rise and fall. A fog settled in around 4 am, and visibility constricted down to about 100 feet. Sailing through the foggy waves at the first light of dawn was incredible. The world outside of the boat ceased to exist. Occasionally I’d hear the long, mournful cry of a foghorn somewhere out in the strait, and maybe catch a glimpse of one of the huge cargo ships on our radar, but otherwise there was nothing to see. Several times I’d spot a tideline drifting closer, glance at my compass, and realized that I had become disoriented and was sailing the wrong direction. Once, a mile away, I could barely make the dark outline of a freighter, motionless in the water. The huge ship would sound its ominous horn every minute, a warning for vessels like Velella to stay out of its way.

To my surprise, this misty etherworld was not devoid of life. At around 5 am, hundred of birds awoke in a flurry of activity. Seagulls swooped by, and various ducks that I did not recognize bobbed and played in the waves. At one point, a negligent Grebe (I believe that’s what it was) was nearly run over by our boat. It was looking forward as the quiet Velella crept towards it, and only at the last minute did it turn to see us bearing down. It frantically paddled out of the way, turning back to look at me with it’s black eyes and give me the most bloodcurdling scream I’d ever heard from a bird. “Rearrgggghhhhhhhhhh!!!!” it screamed over and over, sounding eerily human-like. In fact, were I to fall overboard, it is exactly the noise I intend to make. I shushed at the bird to quiet it down, fearing that Meghan and Andrew would awake and run to my rescue. But the bird would not be appeased, and its anger echoed in the fog.

We will wait out a passing cold front on the World’s Edge. This weekend the weather clears and we’ll begin our descent, away from the wild beauty of Washington and towards the Californian sun.

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4 Comments»

  Lin wrote @

No wonder you wrote a book. This is beautiful. Absolutely wonderful. I feel like I’m there!

My favorite part is the description of the grebe. I’m glad you thought out the noise you would make if you fell overboard (crossing my fingers that you don’t!), and I’m sorry that neither of your shipmates came to your rescue when it could easily have been you screaming…better luck next time.

My image of your harbor at Neah Bay is somewhat akin to ‘Deadliest Catch’…which I love. Keep up the good work, great sailing, gorgeous writing…and maybe add in some crab catching?

  Lin wrote @

Ps. you guys should sign these entries!

  Kevin Hunter wrote @

If you hit Newport before Sunday I’m sure one of us camping lot could bring you some BBQ, if not we will wave at you as you pass Florence.

  janice wrote @

Hi,
I surely am enjoying your blog. So glad that you continue to make it through some scary situations safely. Thank you so much for sharing.
love, aunt janice


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