Velella's Drift

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

Old, bold sailors

1200 – We are leaving Monterey Bay. The docks here are terrible. For the last three days, we’ve swayed and undulated with ocean current. It’s surprisingly strong despite the “protection” the jetty offers. Each boat has its own slip with dock on both sides, so pulling out is tighter than usual. As I reverse the boat and Meghan guides it from the dock, the swell grabs it and rocks it back and forth within its tiny slip, threatening to toss the bow into either of our two neighbors. Meg does her best to steady the boat by hand. In the parking lot across, onlookers watch what must seem a comical struggle, as they make no attempt to hide their grins. I want to give them the finger, but swallow my pride as we finally make it out and get underway. Our destination is San Simeon, some 90 miles south. Velella does an average of 5 miles an hour, so we should be there around 6 tomorrow morning.

1215 – The swell in the harbor is too much and the markings are very confusing. Meg and I decide not to stop at the fuel dock and fill up our tanks or put the dinghy up on our deck. We had more than enough fuel and could hoist the dinghy up out in the bay.

1245 – Moving the dinghy onto our deck is a safety precaution. For shorter trips, the dinghy hangs off davits on the back of the boat. Out in the ocean, however, there’s potential for a wave to crash into the dinghy, the weight of which would rip it off our boat. Out in the bay, the ocean swell noticeably increases. We take the dinghy off the rear davits and I, paddling it like a gondola, move it to the front of the boat. Using our halyards, we pull it onto the fore deck and strap it down.

1300 – As we near the edge of Monterey Bay, the western waves increase in size to around ten feet. The wind increases as well. Meghan gets the first symptoms of sea-sickness, and she has an anxiety attack. She’s not sure if she can handle what we’re about to do knowing that I would be largely on my own if she was incapacitated. She wants to turn around and go back to Monterey. I tell her it’ll be fine if she can support me.

1500 – The waves out here are tremendous, 10-12 foot rollers that rise out of the ocean like small mountains. It’s amazing to see them come at you. They stand twice as tall as the boat and they roll at you with frightening speed. For a moment a blue hill towers over your head, not five feet away. It seems as if they will run you right over but then, at the last minute, your boat lifts up and suddenly you can see for miles all around. They come from the northwest as does the 30 knot wind which officially makes it a gale. We heading southwest right now, and this puts us at an odd angle to the waves. They knock us around, as if angrily trying to herd us to go in their direction. Meghan is feeling very seasick now, curled in a ball on deck.

1800 – Meg apologizes profusely for being too sick to help with the tending of the boat. I think her seasickness is made worse by her sense of guilt. Despite her incapacitation, I make her go down and put on her lifejacket. I if either of us fell in now, our odds for survival are slim. She is able to take the helm for 15 minutes while I boil some spaghetti, grind some coffee and prepare for the night. Everything takes three times as long to do when combating the fierce motion of the boat, but I know I won’t be able to leave the helm once it gets dark. I take the helm back from Meg, eat my spaghetti and watch the sun set. Ten miles to our left are the mountains of Big Sur. I had hoped we’d be able to get a better look at them, but they’re too far off.

2000 – The wind has picked up since nightfall. Luckily we are running South with it, making our apparent wind less than what it would be if were driving the boat into it. We are making great time now, between 6-7 knots. The wind is moving us along very quickly, and the waves are giving us an extra push from behind. The force of the wind makes the top of the waves crest and break. Occasionally, when we’re doing 8 knots, the boat will catch on a cresting wave and we’ll surf down the front of it for an even greater boost of speed. But the waves make the boat difficult to control, pushing our stern off to the side. When that happens our sails, which naturally want to come up to the wind, catch. Like a dog that catches a scent and tries to break, the boat suddenly veers up to one side and into the wind. It’s all I can do to crank the wheel, and after several seconds the boat begrudgingly swings its bow downwind. It’s impossible to maintain a precise course, so I fight the rudder to keep us within 30 degrees of San Simeon. I’m pretty tired by this point. We’re making good time but we’re at least 8 hours away still. With Meghan’s iPod, I count down the hours with albums from my youth. I just finished Sublime’s self-titled album. Only 8 more albums.

2100 – I’ve postponed my cup of coffee for as long as I could. For the last two hours, it’s been my treat that I’ve been anticipating. After Sublime, the batteries ran down on the iPod. Now it’s all I can do to keep going. Meg pulls herself up from the side of the boat where she’s been throwing up and goes below to boil water for my coffee. The boat is running wing on wing, which is when the headsail and mainsail point 180 degrees from one another. Sailing downwind it allows the most wind to catch your sails but it’s also risky. A slight deviation from our southerly course could cause the wind to catch our sails from the wrong side and swing them to the opposite side of the boat. With the headsail this isn’t a problem, as its easy to pull back to its proper side. If the mainsail catches, however, its called an accidental jibe and its extremely dangerous, not to mention hard on the rig. At this point getting there quickly is the biggest safety consideration on my mind, so I’m risking it to make 8 knots. In addition to being sick, Meg laughs through her tears and says she has to poop. Our onboard toilet is finicky about such issues, and the thought of unflushed waste trouncing about the head was unappealing. Normally we would go over the side, but in these waves it would mean certain death. I told her she’d have to hold it another eight hours at least. Twice as she was barfing over the side, I thought she’d pooped in her pants. (Note from Meghan: She did NOT in fact poop her pants.)

2400 – I’m completely exhausted. I’m being kept alive by adrenaline, and there’s plenty of that. When changing course ten minutes ago, our headsail jammed. The wind wrapped the sail around itself, and locked it up like a cocoon. It’s completely useless, as pulling on the sail sheets won’t do anything. I’ve crawled up to the bow of the boat twice to try to untangle it, and Meghan’s crawled up once. We can’t think of what to do except to try to go as downwind as possible to block it with the mainsail.

0015 – Part of the headsail came unfurled. Now a quarter of the sail is open in the wind. Imagine a twenty foot kite sailing in a hurricane. That force is strapped to the front of our boat. The wind howls angrily and whips it in all directions. The forestay, a wire shroud that supports the mast, oscillates like a 60 foot guitar string. The vibration shudders through the entire boat and everything trembles. There’s no way to untangle it and we can’t bring it down. There’s nothing we can do but keep on going. Praying, we start up the motor. Thank god it starts. Now we motor with just the headsail, making only 5 knots. The forestay looks like it will shake off any moment, in which case the headsail will be a free-flying, 200 square foot kite, dragging in the water and assaulting the boat from all directions. Without support, the mast would be in danger of toppling. I realize that we are one step away from complete and utter catastrophe. In my head, I go over our limited options. We could call the coast guard, but what good would that do? They couldn’t fix our headsail or, if it broke, save our boat. We could preemptively abandon ship in our life raft, but trying to survive those waves in an inflatable raft seemed just as foolhardy. The only thing was to keep going and pray that nothing else happened. We still had four hours to go with our boat shuddering and trembling, the equivalent of a road trip from Seattle to Portland.

0100 – The wind dies down a bit. Meghan takes the helm. I lie down in the cockpit and my muscles gyrate as they release the tension of the past 12 hours. I shiver from the cold and my mind does circles on itself.

0200 – I relieve Meghan so she can continue puking. At this point we are nearing a spit of land that juts out west into the ocean. Our assumption is that, if we can get behind it, it will act as a giant eddy and protect us from the Northwest wind and waves. We follow the light house to shore, when a thick, impenetrable fog comes out of nowhere. We can’t see the lighthouse or anything else, so we turn the radar on. Of course on top of wind, waves, and a broken sail, now we have zero visibility. Of all the things to worry about, I am most worried about running into a sleeping grey whale. Supposedly they sleep on the surface of the ocean, and hitting one is the jarring equivalent of running aground. Although it’s unlikely, I am paranoid that it’s our destiny to hit a whale. I want to put Meghan on the lookout for whales, but she is too sick and there’s no point in the fog.

0400 – We made it behind the lighthouse. Now we have land to our north and, as we predicted, the waves and winds have died. Our headsail droops limply, like a dog punished after escaping its yard. Meg and I are both thoroughly exhausted. I don’t know how we made it. Our boat feels like its moving exceptionally slow. I check our speed and our progress every five minutes. It says five knots, but it feels like we’re moving much slower than that. Each moment drags on and on and on.

0430 – Finally we reach our anchorage, a little cove tucked into the land north of us. The water here is like glass. It’s hard to imagine that a storm is anywhere near. After we anchor, tend to the headsail so it won’t try to sail us off the hook while we sleep. The cabin is a disaster, so we sleep like sardines in the quarter berth.

1130 – I wake several hours later. It’s sunny out, and still calm. For some reason, I’m reminded of the first sailing class I ever took. This was last fall and my instructor, Ted, was in his mid-sixties. He was a very prudent teacher. Anytime the wind increased more than 15 knots, he would make us take the sails down and head for port. On the last day of class, I argued that we should stay out in the increasing weather. How else were we going to learn foul-weather sailing? He gave me one of his looks and replied.

“There are old sailors and there are bold sailors. But there are no old, bold sailors.”

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6 Comments»

  kathy cleary wrote @

ish..glad i slept through THAT experience..

  Papa wrote @

whiskers, Prescott. whiskers.

I trust you two have figured out the cause that provided the undesirabe effect of the fouled headsail, in order to prevent that problem from happening again. It’s a lot of ‘canvas’ to control even in the best of circumstances. Good job handling the situation as well as you did. Glad there was no injuries or damage.

Presumably the anchorage in Morro Bay is a just a bit more comfortable for the next few days. A well-deserved respite.

Your reference to your instructor a mere 1 year ago only highlights the distance you’ve covered since then – over 1200 salt water miles, by my estimation. You’ve come a long way, in many respects, young man… whiskers..

I’m glad you’re aboard – indeed an integral part of this fantastic journey of – the good ship Velella. I’m very proud of your accomplishments to-date.

Well done.

  webecomeus wrote @

thanks for taking care of meg like you said you would.

i’m glad you didn’t hit a whale–i really really hope that’s not your destiny.

  Brook wrote @

and yet again you amaze with your tenacity. please choose to be an old sailor

  Ethan wrote @

Prescott,

Great posts…glad you’re making it. Loren and I are having a game night at his place on Saturday, and Tony D. is brining some boating adventure game that he made up. I think your adventure has it beat a million times over. Keep up with the posts, they make great reads. And take care of yourselves!

  Josh wrote @

Holy moly Pj and Meghan! It sounds like you had your epic old man and the sea moment. Okay, now that you’ve checked it off the list, I’ll be hoping for friendly winds and smaller waves.


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