Velella's Drift

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

Meg and Andrew don’t believe me

In the span of a single second, I experienced what I am certain will be my greatest miracle on this trip. It happened this morning, and I am writing it down as soon as possible, to preserve as best I can that fantastical instance.

The experience was all the more remarkable for the rough times that preceded it. Two days ago, our weather again turned sour. We had pulled into Shelter Cove to escape the stormy seas, but the swell followed us into the tiny inlet. After several attempts to set the anchor (making sure we wouldn’t drift into the shore during the night), we threw our exhausted bodies down for some rest. However the pounding of the waves against Velella’s hull, combined with an hourly wake-up call to check our anchor, meant the night was sleepless and we’d begin Tuesday even more exhausted than before.

We awoke with the morning fog. In our previous experience, fog had burnt off after a couple hours. But this was San Francisco fog. We were still 100 miles from the city but already the coastal waters were covered in a permanent blanket. No amount of sun could penetrate them, so we slunk through the mist straining to see in the grey half-light.

As the day wore on, the seas picked up, giving our most difficult night yet. During my three hour watch, I counted the duration between the waves. Three seconds. That meant that every three seconds, Velella was getting rolled from the side by 4 to 8 foot waves. The continual battering quickly wore us down. Not even a strong cup of coffee was enough to warm me from the winds and the chilly wet air.

Sailboats are balanced for sailing. This means that, even when motoring, the ride can often be made more comfortable if there’s a bit of sail up. Since the wind had picked up during the night, Andrew (when he awoke for his 4 a.m. watch) and I decided to make a reefed mainsail. I turned the boat into the wind and Andrew began the task of tying in the reef knots. But the winds and the waves would allow us no peace. Our boom became stuck, because the winds had whipped our topping lift around the backstay, tangling it. With a grip still on the steering wheel, I unhooked it from the boom in an attempt to free it from the rigging.

Fighting the topping lift with one hand, and steering with the other, I was vaguely aware that the boat was turning away from the wind. An accidental jibe (the wind grabs the boom and slams it across the boat at speeds up to 100 miles an hour) is one of any sailor’s biggest fears. Fear rose in my chest. I noticed our boat turning further downwind, and I hurriedly tried to reattach the topping lift so I could get the boat back on course. But I wasn’t fast enough.

The wind caught hold of the mainsail. Before I could even blink, the boom rocketed past my face, slamming hard into the rigging on the opposite side of the boat. It ripped the topping lift out of my hand, lacerating two of my fingers. The topping lift swung back and forth around the mast, like a lethal pendulum. Andrew caught it. Badly shaken, the two of us agreed there would be no sailing tonight.

We had another evil omen at first dawn. The fog still clung around our boat, thicker than ever. On our radio, the Coast Guard was franticly searching for a boat. An unknown vessel had called out a mayday (the highest distress call) and then gone silent. Meghan woke me up, upset by the possible fate of the other boat’s crew. Exhausted by our foul conditions and spooked by the fog, we were all on edge as we motored through the ghostly clouds into harbor.

I was at the helm, nervous. I couldn’t see more than half a mile and I knew from the charts that the area north of us was shallow and rocky. Off our port side I noticed a huge wave crest and break on what looked like a rocky shoal the size of a small island.

“How am I doing guys? I’m seeing rocks on our left!” I shouted into the cabin.

Meghan and Andrew checked our chart plotter and came up, puzzled, reporting that there shouldn’t be any visible rocks. We looked again for my rock, but saw no sign of it.

“Shoot, I swore I saw something. I’m also exhausted” I admitted.

Andrew and Meghan went below, and I resumed my vigilant inspection of the horizon. I was caught off-guard when, beside our boat, a whale burst from the water.

On this trip, we’ve seen a half-dozen whales. I’ve seen whales broaching, displaying the small of their backs as they turn back into the water. I’ve seen whales sounding, flipping their tales out of the water as they dive into the deep. I’ve seen the mouths of whale feeding on krill, and I’ve seen whales slap the water with their fins to steer schools of fish. We have footage (which we will post, shortly) of a mother humpback and her calf feeding on krill at sunset. But nothing could compare to this.

I have never before seen the whale in full. The broaching whale does not do them justice. I had no idea the true enormity of the animals. If I had known how big they truly are, I would never have thought it possible for them to jump almost entirely out of the water. But the whale showed his full self, the length of him extending beyond multiple waves. If you have read Dune, it reminded me of Frank Hurbert’s description of the sand worms, for it was like a single serpentine coil rising out of the ground. It was like a Romantic-era mural of a whale hunt, an image that I did not think existed except in the mind of the artist. I now understand the ancient mariner’s fear of the Leviathan. The creature was larger than our boat and it had exploded out of the ocean, only to disappear a fraction of a second later.

“Holy SHIT!”

I released the steering wheel and fell into the cockpit. Meghan and Andrew ran up to see what had happened. I could only point to the spot on the ocean where the whale had disappeared, a giant ring of white foam. The three of us stood in the cockpit for what seemed like forever, but the beast did not resurface.

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6 Comments»

  Papa wrote @

“Holy SHIT” … ? …

Mother Nature has a way of providing religious experience, eh Velella?

Hope your hand is healing, Prescott (Rx-suggestion… soak it in a bucket of Pacific Ocean water for a while… )

Thank you for posting the journal of your experieances so promptly.

Congratulations to you all… vessel and crew… on your success thus far!

May fair winds and currents carry you safely to the great Port of San Francisco!

  Lin wrote @

I can only repeat–Holy Shit.
(I believe you.)

  kathy cleary wrote @

a whale of a tale for sure..if meghan doesn’t get too nauseated..put a bit of bacitracin on the laceration..almost poetic, eh?

  Bonnie wrote @

Moby reincarnated? Take care with the boom. We’re thinking of you and wishing a safe harbor

  Sierra wrote @

That is AMAZING!! Wow. So cool….

  Brook Maurer wrote @

Enjoy San Fran. May the wind treat you kindly so that the adventure can continue gently.


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