Velella's Drift

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

Archive for November, 2009

And I do come by it honestly

When my sister and I were little, my mom was always making us memorize little sayings. One of the most oft-spoken was this:

“Our doubts are traitors, and make us loose the good we oft might win by failing to attempt.”

(Another similarly-themed one was “I’m the one who writes my own story; I’ll decide the person I’ll be. What goes into the plot and what does not is very much up to me.”)

We learned these when we were too young to really know what they meant, and would repeat them singsongily and in unison. But as I grew up, I have found myself repeating them silently at times when a leap was required or a scary opportunity presented itself.

My mom furnished us with the mantras, but my dad has been the constant support for all of my adventurous life plans–even before they panned out well. Moving across the country to Washington for a very expensive education when UMD would have been the much more sensible choice for numerous reasons was one of them. Quitting my hard-built career, buying a depreciating sailboat instead of an appreciating house, and sailing the dangerous Pacific Coast, obviously, has been another major example.

Of course, we all know that Peter Cleary, who taught me how to hold a tiller, hoist a halyard, flake sails, whip lines, and love boats, may have a bit of an ulterior motive for supporting my seagoing lifestyle. But I can’t imagine any parent being truly excited for their child to make such rash decisions, especially when their safety is in the balance. Despite his knowing much better than I did what I would encounter at sea, he told me that if it’s what I wanted to do, I should do it and that he had confidence in me. Every time he visits he brings a little caring gift: new batteries for the smoke detectors, an inverter for charging our phones to keep in touch, and leaves a note when he leaves: “I have confidence in you.”

Getting the boat ready for this trip was a massive undertaking, and he flew out to Seattle many times without even being able to go out sailing. So when we finally crossed under the Golden Gate Bridge–an epic moment in any sailor’s resume, he bought a ticket to San Francisco. I think he needed to see and hold me and make sure I really was all right. And of course he wanted to sail the Golden Gate with his daughter.

The wind was stiff that day, and the fog that had obscured the bridge when we first passed under it was gone. We sailed back and forth underneath the bridge and I enjoyed being the passenger in Papa’s ride, like I always have when we sail. It was one of the most rewarding days of this entire trip for me.

When the maritime Fleet Week broke up and the Blue Angels retired over the hills, throngs of boats started scuttling across the bay on their way home. Drunken boaters were everywhere, and it was like the Rules of the Road had gone right out the window. As I watched my dad get nervous in the congestion, it was like watching a mirror. When he said he wanted to fire up the “iron genny”–a safety blanket of maneuverability–I agreed. For the first time ever, instead of saying with arrogant adolescence “just calm down!,” I understood his tenseness–it was fear–and realized that I am the apple and he is my tree.

Prescott may be the one to help me through night watches and into tight shallow anchorages. But my courage to get here in the first place had to come from somewhere. The whispers of my parents saying “Our doubts are traitors” and “I have confidence in you” embolden and enable me. And when people say “oh, you’re living the dream!,” I feel wrong taking the credit with so much support.

So. I do come by it–all of this–honestly. And for that I am truly thankful.

Chicken of the Sea

I am officially scared of sailing. I didn’t realize this until I was halfway down the Pacific Coast. I think somewhere outside of Monterey I actually admitted it to Prescott, and I was really surprised when he wasn’t surprised at all.

Yes, sailing down the Pacific Coast is objectively scarier than daysailing on calm blue Minnesota lakes. But the fears are largely the same, and they’ve been around since I was young.

I think fear of one’s own ignorance might be the single greatest cause of the swearing-sailor character you find on every dock. The ones who, pulling into the slip, are cursing at their wives (or husbands), yelling “HOLD HOLD HOLD IT CLEAT IT NO THE OTHER ONE GOD DAMN IT THE FENDER THE FENDER WATCH THAT ROPE IN THE WATER THE BOWSPRIT CLEAT IT!” It’s not just that they’re uptight assholes. (Well, they might be that too.) But they fear, greatly, the boat kissing the dock because they don’t know how to fix a scratch in the gelcoat themselves. Because a problem like that would require paying someone $90/hour to do it, the boatowner’s angst increases. Blood pressure is directly related to the monetary cost of potential problems.

On the other hand, those salty sailors who fix everything themselves are rarely the ones throwing cusses around the docks. Because everything becomes much less of a big deal when you know how to fix your own mistakes. And every sticky situation becomes a whole lot simpler and safer the second and third time around.

I am naturally the swearing-sailor type. (I’m sure my dad would be quick to say I come by it honestly.) We’re both perfectionists and emotionally in love with the clean lines, sharp style, and ingenious inventions of the sailor’s world. But we also are both fearful of what we don’t know how to fix.  The accidental jibe could be so hard on the rig that it cracks the mast, and then what. You’re not capsized, but the potential just got a whole lot greater and what do you do about it? Scraping the keel on the mud bottom could be a non-event, but it could, at worst, require a haul-out and major reconstructive surgery to the hull. With people who fear, the danger in our minds is always the worst one.

Prescott, through questioning my every source of stress on the boat, has gently pointed out my fears to me over the course of this trip. It seems he never gets scared of anything. I started out by thinking that was because he knew so little about sailing and the dangers therein, but at this point I know that’s not true. He and I have exactly the same amount of blue-water experience, and he’s 98% of the time cool as a cucumber. (Me, more like 50%.) The other two percent of the time there is an indisputable and immediate danger at hand, so I always hop-to.

It was deeply kind of him not to point out directly what a coward I can be. I realize now that he has just continually asked me to swallow each fear in a mature way. I think he knows that if I sit through enough night watches I will become accustomed to the “ghost ships” that used to scare the crap out of me. I will not need to call him to help me tack the sails or identify what’s on the radar. I will dock or anchor (dreaded land is always the most stressful place to be) without acting like we’re having a problem. He knows I will gain confidence in myself the more I am forced to sit through my fears without having a breakdown in the meantime. So I can see that he does what he can to pad every situation and make it super-comfortable so that I can get through it positively and stress-free. Who knew this kid who didn’t know how to sail at all could make a respectable sailor out of me.

I had no idea when I asked him to come on this trip that he would be the person who could help me tie reefs in my fears as they sprung up full force. I am learning, slowly, anchorage by anchorage, to grow confident in our skills. I am learning, too, to slow down and listen to Prescott’s annoyingly level-headed assessments before ruining our day with my worries. I’m enjoying this trip more and more the longer we’re on it (and I’ve no doubt that Prescott is too).

Of course, I still have those moments of fear that turns itself into stress, and I probably always will. During those times, Prescott has taken to affectionately calling me “chicken of the sea.” Which I have to admit is totally appropriate.

PS. In my defense, don’t forget, I bring the organization skills to the table. : )

Sizzling bacon, 24/7

I’m sure everyone who moves onto a boat or embarks on a cruise goes through this. When you first move on, there are all these sounds. You have no idea where they’re coming from, but you know that one is the halyard slapping on the mast. So you go up on deck in the middle of the night in your bathrobe and tighten it. Then there’s another one: a random LOUD grinding noise. After poking your head around all the nooks and crannies fore to aft, you realize it’s the bilge pump doing its job. Check. Then you try to sleep again and you hear a low humming noise that shuts off intermittently. Days later you find that it’s the refrigeration system. The process of systematically ridding your house of unnecessary noises and explaining away the other ones takes weeks. And when you’re cruising, moving through different waters and climate zones, it can take months.

The first time we dropped the anchor, the new noises were terrifying. We have an all-chain rode (nice and strong, sets well!), which scrapes against rocks on the bottom as the boat swings, transfers the sound up the chain, and sounds like timpani drums right in the V-berth where we sleep. But of course I freaked out about us “dragging anchor” for a long time before I was satisfied to hook a rope snubber onto the chain to dampen the noise and ignore it. Being at anchor introduces a host of other noises, too, as the boat rolls around in the gentle swells. After the sails and sheets are tucked away, the memory of the loud engine fades, the cooking is finished and dishes are cleaned, and you settle in to bed to read, you start noticing them. First it’s this TAP.  TAP.  TAP. noise coming from somewhere behind you. I always get up and dig around the cupboards for anything loose, and then realize it’s the handle to the toilet, left at just slightly the wrong angle so it TAPs the wall as we rock side to side. Crawling back into bed I notice something rolling—damn it. I ALWAYS stuff rags into the dishracks to inhibit noise, so what was it this time? A loose pen on the shelf, which can deprive one of hours of sleep.

Well, we’ve done a pretty good job of slowly eliminating our home of potentially noise-making arrangements. But when we got to southern California, something new (there’s always something new) started keeping both of us up. It sounds like bacon, like POUNDS of bacon being sizzled up in our kitchen at any hour of the day or night. And it just sort of keeps going until you notice it’s not anymore. We can tell it’s coming from outside the hull, which makes me nervous because I can’t see or do anything about it, and the first time we heard it on the hook, I decided it was the big hunk of kelp that was hanging on to our anchor chain and slapping the sides of the boat. Yes, that must be it. (But then why did we hear it aft in the engine room too? Never mind, it’s the kelp, let’s go to bed.)

I’m difficult to convince of anything I can’t prove, and when the sound came back with no kelp in sight, I was at a loss. We had overturned everything, gone through every possible explanation. Prescott saw a ton of large fish in the area and decided that it must be fish bumping in to the hull as they eat the little crumbs that come out of the sink drain. I wanted to believe him, really I did. But the sound was like popcorn, and I couldn’t believe that there were that many fish bombarding our boat at night!

When we got to Marina del Rey in the middle of LA, the sound came back with a vengance. I oscillated between being curious and being worried about it, and I finally started to stay worried about it. Thankfully, we were within internet range again, and I elatedly Google searched the very vague: “crackling noise under boat.” Sure enough, up came multiple descriptions of exactly what we were hearing. And it was not our boat at all. It was shrimp.

No kidding! I couldn’t believe it, and had to look up a YouTube video to verify that shrimp actually made the noise we were hearing. I didn’t know they were even capable of making noises, but apparently they do, a very loud sizzling bacon sound to be precise, in order to attract mates. (Crabs do this too by snapping their claws.) And of course we hear it crystal clear through the noise-conducting hull.

But, now I can sleep easily (with ear plugs) knowing that all that’s going on below us is a little mating ritual—not so different than living in an urban apartment with noisy neighbors, right? Anyhow, on a sailboat, you learn something new every day, but never believe a sailor who says he’s “heard it all.”

The Island of the Apocalypse and Lala land

San Luis Obispo bay anchorage

I first have to thank my family. We stayed in San Luis Obispo for three days, and my aunt Janice made herself completely available during our preparations for the next leg. She offered to let us stay at her house but, fearing that our boat might do something rash in our absence, we declined. We did however take her up on her offer to do laundry, take us shopping, treat us to dinner and act as our personal tour guides to the missionary history of San Luis Obispo. What amazed me most (aside from her generosity), was how relaxed I felt.
When we tell people about this trip they respond that it sounds like a wonderful vacation. Most of the time, it is. But rarely is it relaxing. Aside from the stresses of living in such close quarters, the boat itself is a constant source of anxiety. It is the burden of owning a used car, with thirty year old engine that needs constant attention. The sinks, electrical system, toilet, and wood require all the work of a homeowner. Last but certainly not least, we have to worry about the boat floating onto shore.
Leaving it when it’s anchored is stressful, because a wind or a large swell could rip the boat off anchor and toss it onto shore. Even sleeping on the boat is difficult. A particularly large wave crashing on shore is sufficient to wake us from sleep, and we bolt up and rush to a window to check our proximity to land. So as difficult as it was to leave, it was nice to be away from the boat for a couple hours. We were finally able to relinquish the reins of responsibility and just go with the flow while Aunt Janice and Butch showed us around.
Our luck held for the next leg of the journey. Perhaps it’s the California sun, or maybe the living here really is just easier. But as soon as we dipped around Point Conception just south of San Luis Obispo, the ocean calmed. Because the land cuts drastically to the east, it acts as a barrier that protects boats from northerly winds and swells. It’s also home to the Channel Islands, the most amazing land we’ve seen since we left Washington.

Ridge on Santa Cruz
It’s hard to believe that, were the Channel Islands connected to the mainland, they would be only an hour drive from Los Angeles. They are so beautiful, and so remote that they feel as if they are from a different time. I would love to live on them. If the apocalypse occurs in my lifetime, I’m resolved to head for the Channel Islands.
There are a total of eight islands scattered off the sixty miles of coastline that makeup greater LA. We anchored off of Santa Cruz Island, in a protected bay called Smuggler’s Cove. The complete lack of civilization was surprising and at first a little unnerving. We rowed the dinghy through some large surf to explore the beautiful and vacant beach. A mile of the sand bordered by steep, rocky cliffs, the beach seemed the sole access point onto the island. Indeed the entire twenty mile circumference of the island is cliff face, except for the protection at Smuggler’s Cove.
The mountainous landscape is arid; predominantly cactus and grass with a few groves of wind-whipped trees. Our beach is at the base of a small vale which, in the wet months, hosts a tiny creek. The result is a tiny riparian zone, one of the few green spots on the island. The rich vegetation creates a little grove, and the shade of several large eucalyptus trees immediately blots out the sunlight. Dozens of huge ravens, three times the size of a crow, rustle around in the undergrowth. They eye us curiously but seem unperturbed by our presence.
Not two hundred yards into the valley is Smuggler’s Ranch. The ranch consists of little more than a windmill, a broken fence and two stone buildings which, according to the engraving above their doors, were built in 1889. The buildings are in good shape. The grass around them is green, and a flowering vine twines around the remnants of the fence. Either the ranch has withstood the hundred plus since its foundation, or else park rangers have a hand in its upkeep. I suspect the later, especially when I see tire treads on the ranch’s dirt road. Still, with no other trace of the 20th century, it’s easy to pretend that we have stumbled across a 19th century bandit hideout.
The island has an interesting history. Two Years Before the Mast, the book Butch gave us in San Luis Obispo, gives us an overview of the area. We know that Smuggler’s Cove was named for otter hunters that took shelter there two centuries ago. Apparently there was a tax on otter pelts, and some ships would avoid the tax by never coming in to port. The sailors would live their entire lives at sea, and only stop every so often in Smugglers’ Cove for shelter, returning all the way to Hawaii to overhaul the ships.

Velella in Smugglers' Cove
In addition to European usage, the island has significant Native American history. Each spring, the natives rowed across the channel from the mainland as a rite of passage, and there was a seasonal village on the west end of the island. Like the Galapagos, the island boasts a host of unique species that are present nowhere else in the world, including the island fox and the island jay.
We don’t see any wildlife on our hike across the island, but nor do we see any people. The old road took us up a surprising elevation gain and then we were up in a sparse high desert, winding up and over several hills. I thought more than once of the westerns of Sergio Leone. He shot his movies (including The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) in Italy to imitate the harsh landscapes of the 1800’s American west. As we passed through a small plantation of olive trees that were gnarled in their decades of abandonment, I felt we could have as easily been in Europe as California.
Though the length of the island is 15 miles long, it is only 3.5 miles north to south. We descend from the hills into the northeast end of Santa Cruz, which offers stark contrast to the desolate beauty of our hike. Here are the National Park campgrounds. Each Friday, a powerboat deposits hundreds of beer-chugging mainlanders on Santa Cruz for a two-day “camping” excursion. According to some bird watchers we met, the noise pollution from imported ipods and speakers is enough to rival frat parties from the mainland. Luckily, the lecherous crowds rarely attempt the steep climb to the south side of the island and our deserted beach. Never was I happier travelling by sail.
After a three day anchor at Santa Cruz (in which I attempted snorkeling in the not-quite-warm-enough waters), we headed back for the mainland. We both were feeling anxious over what we might find when we arrived. I relived some terrible Los Angeles memories from when I lived here for two years, and Meghan was balking at the idea of endless blacktop, high heels and yippy lap dogs. It was dark before we finally arrived, but the light pollution of the city provided more visibility than a full moon.
We spent four nights anchored at the Redondo Beach Marina. The marina was very nice, but the harbormaster made it very clear that we weren’t going to be staying for any length of time. He came out in his boat to “escort” us to our anchorage. I asked him if there were public bathrooms in the marina and he responded that there were no public facilities (which we soon discovered was a blatant lie) and informed us that it was illegal for us to discharge any waste into the marina. We quickly learned that the city of Redondo isn’t interested in housing transient boaters. The 3-day “anchoring permit” they issued us and their less-than-courteous harbormaster were effective messengers. Despite the fun neighborhood and beautiful beaches, we were treated like gypsies and we had no desire to stay.
So here we are in Marina Del Rey. It’s an adjustment, to be sure. The Marina is huge, bigger than the town I grew up in. But our slip is at the bottom of a very nice park and the weather is gorgeous. The biggest adjustment is going to be the lack of forward momentum. After two and a half months of inching south each day, it will be taxing to remain stationary for any length of time. But Los Angeles is not as bad as I remember and the unfamiliarity of beach life reminds me that this is all part of the adventure.

Iron Genny

Sailing to anchor on Santa Rosa Island

When we reunited with Prescott’s aunt Janice and family in San Luis Obispo for a couple days, Janice’s friend Butch gave us a book which I’ve since been devouring: Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast. It’s an old sailing book published in 1840–of the same ilk as Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World and other such original sailing adventures from an entirely different time. While upon previous attempts I’ve become bored with these antiquated stories, this one is about the very coast we are navigating right now. Chapters titled “Monterey,” “Santa Barbara,” “A South-Easter,” etc. detail very different towns and peoples of over 100 years ago, but the geographical and climatological features are identical. Not surprising, but still fascinating—in the same way that standing in centuries-old ruins does, it lights the historical imagination.  The very same winds that howled around Point Conception on Dana’s journeys are what we looked out for on our passage; we saw the same verdant Monterey hills turned scrubby and dry by Point Arguello, just like he observed. And I have to admit his descriptions of roaring southeasters made me think hard about when and where we anchored along this portion of the California coast. It’s almost like reading a cruising guide to the area (though it was written almost two centuries ago).

Just as the brig Pilgrim was witnessing an enormous pod of whales, Prescott made me pick my head up out of the book to help get ready to anchor Velella at Santa Rosa Island. We had spent the morning motoring through fog from Point Conception’s Cojo anchorage, but in the afternoon we broke out into some of the most beautiful sailing we’ve had yet—with our first good look at the Channel Islands. Santa Rosa’s rugged mountains rose into windswept clouds before us, while the midafternoon sun warmed our boat and swept silver across surface of the ocean. Small breaking whitecaps made the only noise a constant shhhh behind our stern as we floated towards the large and dramatic bight that was to be our resting spot for the night.

Unlike the Pilgrim, which (commendably!) anchored by sail routinely, Velella of course has the good ole “iron genny”—the engine—to make navigation in small spaces like anchorages much simpler. While good seamen all know how to anchor by sail in case of engine failure, it’s not something folks routinely choose to do because it requires a lot of skill, a lot of patience, reliance on a potentially finicky wind, and a bit more danger to the boat. With the engine on, it’s simple: We fire her up, drop all sails, and putt-putt-putt to the perfect depth, then drop the hook and reverse back on it nice and strong so we know we’re well set on the bottom. Without an engine, anchoring is more like Dana describes it: You let go the hooks and back the sails, hoping to reverse yourself hard enough to make the hook catch well. If it doesn’t, you better be ready to sail straight out of there or you’re in peril of drifting onto the rocks.

This evening, we turned the key in Velella and were given a definitive tttthhhunk. The engine wouldn’t even crank, and we knew we weren’t going to be able to fix it out there. The wind was picking up, the sun was setting, and it was a lovely evening for sailing, but we were forced to start thinking of contingency plans. Option 1: Call for a tow—but given how expensive a commercial tow is, we pretty much ruled that out. Option 2: Try to anchor here under sail—but the exposure of this open bay and the winds were curling around the point, made us think we might do well to look for a more protected area, or maybe a mooring buoy or pier to tie to. Option 3: Just keep sailing overnight and all the way to Channel Islands Harbor, a distance of about 60 nautical miles. But first, we thought to radio the Coast Guard for more information and seek local knowledge of the area, because we really weren’t prepared to do a night watch.

Right after realizing the engine quit

Just as I was getting off the radio with the Coast Guard, who confirmed the locations of a couple of piers on the island, a Fish & Game Warden vessel came up to us and hailed, asking if we needed any assistance. We chatted about the best anchorages to tuck in to, and decided to sail (with no need for assistance obviously) to the southern edge of the island, Johnson’s Lee. Velella did beautifully in the light evening winds, but as to be expected, as we were coasting up to the anchorage, we lost the air completely, and were drifting only about a mile offshore when the sun dipped below the hills. Too close for comfort. Prescott valiantly tried towing us the rest of the way with the dinghy… which was working, but not faster than the current was. I called Swordfish, the warden’s boat, and he graciously said he’d be there in just a minute to give us a tow in to the protected area. They tied us to the large Coast Guard mooring buoy in Johnson’s Lee, and anchored nearby, saying they’d come back and try jumpstarting our engine in the morning.

Moored in the lee of Santa Rosa Island

Bottlenoses in the bow wake!

Our efforts to jump the engine were fruitless, so we hoisted sails and slowly drifted off the mooring and back out into the windy alley south of the islands. It was another perfect day, with gentle steady winds, and we made a comfortable 2-3 knots eastward. We knew we were in for a long night, and indeed we didn’t arrive to shore until the next morning at about 9am. However, as the miles slowly passed beneath us that calm and starry night, we witnessed what felt like a secret side of the Channel Islands’ natural beauty. Bottlenose dolphins followed along either side of us for most of the night; we could see them in the full moon that was as bright as a flashlight. I saw numerous shooting stars, some orange, some green, some pink, as the rugged shadow of Anacapa Island passed slowly off to our port.

The wind was forecasted to be “light and variable,” and indeed it was. The gentle night breezes, coming first from the West, then Southeast, then East, then more strongly from the Northwest, kept our sail-bellies full and keel even. On my late evening watch, Prescott made chili and toast and we enjoyed a civilized dinner in the cockpit (a rare and romantic occasion), before we changed watch and I went below, curled up on the couch with the fireplace going, and read my book before falling asleep.

We each took two three-hour watches over the course of the night, and I’ve never been so contented at the helm. Not only was the night sparkling and soothingly beautiful, but the continual wind shifts made for engaging sailing. It was so dark at times I couldn’t even see the sails, so I began to feel my way, noticing the wind lifting us by Velella’s slight heel, easing the sheets in response, tacking through as it swung to the South, and gibing the genoa to go full wing-on-wing as it came from dead astern. Never have I had to think so hard to keep us on our course. It grew from feeling like I was groping clumsily in the dark to feeling like a bewitching, strategic, blindfolded dance.
I couldn’t help thinking as the dolphins jumped around us in the silent night that Velella was determined to make us good sailors. Very few skippers these days are as skilled as the sailors of Dana’s time because we have so many ingenious crutches—the chartplotters, GPS, radios and weather broadcasts, and of course the “iron genny.” But I believe that even today’s fancy boats will make true sailors out of you if you keep at it long enough. Because eventually your engine will quit, and then it’s between you and the wind.

Moonrise over Velella, Channel Islands

Velella in print!

Latitude 38, the West coast’s leading sailing rag based in San Francisco, published our “Nude in the Middle of the City” article in its current November issue. (Look for hard copies anywhere boaters hang out!)