Velella's Drift

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

The Sailing Philosophy

Let me begin by saying that conditions are improving. Crew disposition improves with our weather. As we head south and the skies grow sunnier, so does our morale. Even with the morning fog, our current harbor in Eureka, CA is picturesque. Across the small marina where we are moored the waterway is lined with beautiful Victorian houses. Our boat sits next to a wildlife preserve, and we are but a small walk from verdant flora, deer and marsh waterfowl. The fiber of our trip improves with each line of latitude we cross.

We’ve also become more adept as a crew. In the beginning, our roles were fuzzy, leading to many overlaps and subsequent squabbles. Too many cooks in the kitchen rendered every decision, be it the choice of our next port to the proper tie of a knot, into excruciatingly long courtroom testimonials, with lengthy pleas before the jury, backed by evidence from our sailing literature, and plentiful time for rebuttals. Now we’ve accepted each other’s proficiencies. Tired of argument and growing ever more trusting, we’ve unofficially divided up the labor on the boat. Andrew, who races sailboats, is deferred to on matters of sail trim and knots. Meghan, inherently meticulous and, as a Captain, more knowledgeable of the seas than Andrew or myself is our navigator. She carefully plots our course, checking and re-checking the conditions ahead of us. Since I have spent the year trying to stay ahead of the upkeep on our Yanmar diesel engine (“Yannie”, as we affectionately refer to her as), I have become the resident mechanic, responsible for Yannie’s well-being and handling Velella whenever Yannie is run during precarious conditions (such as crossing a bar or docking).

Just as we have learned one another’s abilities, so have we learned what sailing is NOT. It is easy to imagine Velella on the ocean horizon, backed by the setting sun, sails stiff in the breeze. She cruises over the ocean swells at a solid six knots, her helmsman smiling as another philosophic truth is revealed (such conditions revealing eternal truths at the rate of approximately four per hour). This was my vision when I planned our trip. Learned truths, it turns out, are often more practical.

TRUTH #1: WATCH THE WEATHER. Perhaps this seems obvious. Of course a sailing vessel, being dependent on the wind, would need to pay attention to the location and availability of the wind. But in the beginning, it was not yet given its proper consideration. When we left Seattle, we looked at our course, and then determined how the weather might serve us. If we were trying to make it to Port Townsend, and there was wind on our beam, great! We could sail and the trip would be all the more comfortable. If there was no wind, we would motor and still make the same time. Weather was a supplemental consideration.

Now, weather is not just our method of transportation. It is the whole of our existence. It is our safety and our comfort. It affects our mood, our interactions with each other, even our outlook on life. It is the first thing we look at when we wake up and we check it every hour we are out at sea. More than any other topic, it sparks crew discussion and we each take our turn interpreting what the current prediction means for us, and whether it’s worth continuing onward. We don’t even consider going out if the wind is against our bow. If the forecast turns while we’re in port, it means an extended vacation wherever we are. If we’re at sea, it means we head for port as quick as possible.

This was learned the hard way, after getting stuck in two separate gales. A gale is defined by its 30 to 40 knot winds and, in our case, 10-12 foot seas. Without basis for comparison this will mean nothing to you, as it did for us initially. The difference between 6 foot swells and 10 foot swells might only be the difference of four feet, until you’ve been out in both. The night we powered through our first gale was the first time on this trip I was scared. We were making between 1 to 2 knots of headway, motoring over waves with a double reefed mainsail for stability. It was completely black, no moon, and steering in the cockpit meant being slammed from all sides by the power of the ocean. Every fifteen minutes Velella would hit a particularly large wave. My only forewarning would come immediately before we were hit, in the form of six foot high bioluminescent froth. It afforded just enough time to mutter one cursory swear word before thrusting me off my seat at the wheel. The boat, lifted up and pointed directly up into the night sky, would just as quickly rocket down, submerging our bow in the foot of the next wave. Underwater, our navigation lights lit the frothing ocean like a hotel Jacuzzi.

I was concerned for Meghan and Andrew, who I imagined bouncing around the cabin to the point of unconsciousness. But I the force of the boat would not allow me to leave the wheel, nor could I shout down to them over the wind. Though exhausted, Meghan was otherwise fine. In the morning she would relate to me the feeling of awakening from sleep in a state of weightlessness, levitating above the V-birth as the waves tossed the front of the boat into the air.

TRUTH #2: THE SAILING PHILOSOPHY. Our agreed-upon approach, as we began in Seattle, was to use the diesel engine as little as possible. Our sails being our primary and most comfortable method of power, this made sense. Plus the month which we gave ourselves to make it down the coast allowed time for a leisurely sailing pace of 3 to 4 knots. Who cares about speed, it’s the experience we were after!

Tied directly to the influence our weather has had over the trip, it the importance of speed. Though we must move quickly to San Francisco so Andrew can make his flight home on the 27th, our boat’s speed also determines our safety. Every port on the coast is only accessible at certain times. The tides, nightfall, ocean swell: Any of these conditions can limit our access to safe harbor. To make the distance from one port to the next, or to outrun an approaching front, motoring is necessary. Though preferable, sailing in low winds costs us 2-3 knots of speed. In an automobile this would mean nothing: But in a boat with an average speed of 4.5 knots, covering an average of 90 miles per stretch, it can mean the difference of days. Sailing has unfortunately become a luxury, supplementing Yannie’s admirable performance. Hopefully when we’re less crunched for time, and have the luxury of California breezes as opposed to Pacific Northwest storms, we’ll be able to go carbon-less and rely solely on our sails. Yet thus far we have yet to quit our addiction to fossil fuels.

TRUTH #3: MANAGING EXPECTATIONS. The trip improves as our expectations change. Not only is the weather becoming more “sailable” as we go south, but so are our ideas about the trip. We are better able to read the weather forecast, which plays a critical role in the experience. We don’t expect to sail every day, and it becomes a treat to shut the engine off and spend ten hours doing 8 knots on a following wind. We jumped into this trip on one of the hardest, most unforgiving coasts. The trip has been rough, but even the stormiest of oceans will eventually calm. We emerge into the warm Californian waters with experience under our belt and ready for smoother seas.

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7 Comments»

  kathy cleary wrote @

prescott..thank you for the vivid word picture..enjoy the ride..kathy

  janice reid wrote @

Prescott, An amazing journey, well-told.
love, aunt janice

  Lin wrote @

wow…i’m glad your crewmates weren’t actually bounced into unconsciousness! i hope you had your safety harness on at this point.

happy californian seas ahead!

  Siri wrote @

I miss you guys! Thanks for sharing your journey – your boat is full of sailors, as well as authors and artists. I hope you’re enjoying the change of pace and appreciating it for all of us toiling on land thru the ins and outs of 9-5 life. Wish I were there…

  Loren wrote @

Best entry yet! Glad to hear you three are alive and kicking… and learning!

  Sara wrote @

Prescott,
Jeff took us out in his fishing boat in Hawaii and the swells were between 4 and 8 ft with the very occasional 9 or possibly 10 foot swell and I was just shy of petrified! I was up in the passenger seat clenching onto my arm chairs with Jeff (or Matt the other captain) and would watch in horror as the waves crested right over the front, burying the nose. If not diving through, we were careening over the edge to slam down to a jarring reality at the bottom. You have brought back my nightmare with crystal clear clarity. Its ok to be scarred says I. I found that trying to convince yourself that you are having fun and “oh boy what an experience” didn’t save me. The good news, that even though your passage made my heart beat faster, I am already starting to think that I would do it all again. Almost . . .
Sara

  sailorpj wrote @

we’ll make sure to get past the 9-10 foot swells before you and Josh come visit ; )


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