Velella's Drift

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

Archive for May, 2011

Oh, I thought you said LABOR Day

We’ve lived aboard for almost two years now, and during that time have fixed almost every single thing on this boat. In the beginning, it was daunting when things would stop working—we invariably would call a professional to come fix it, but after being shocked once or twice by $90/hour invoices, we started the long laborious process of teaching ourselves how to repair just about anything on our sailboat. Bilge pump broken? We can replace and rewire that. Barnacles slowing you down? We can replace zincs while we’re down there scraping off the bottom. Masthead light out? No problem. Ripped sails, busted oven thermocouplers, clogged injectors, corroded wires, I feel like we’ve done it all. But the one thing I swore up and down I’d always, always cough up the cash for someone else to deal with was… dun dun dun… the head.

There’s nothing pretty about a marine toilet, and, jammed as it is in a 2-foot-square, poorly ventilated room, doing work on the head is the most distasteful job I can imagine. The people that do that for a living really do deserve my $90/hour. Luckily, the head on Velella is a top-of-the-line Groco manual one (a veritable “throne”), so we don’t have many problems with it. That said, I’m pretty sure it was the original head, and this boat was built in 1982, so… It’s as old as I am. When the flushing handle seized up completely this weekend, I called the manufacturer to see if he could help me identify the problem, and he basically told me it was time for a rebuild.

Hm. A rebuild. Like, take it all apart, wash the pieces, replace some gaskets and seals, and put it back together? I asked the manufacturer if maybe I could just spray some WD40 on the external parts…? No. I’m all for self-sufficiency, but this was too much. I just. Couldn’t. Go there.

So, I called “The Head Guy” in Seattle, who told me he’d charge $200 to come take it out and put it back in, but that he’d simply take it to the Marine Sanitation store for a rebuild. I could just take it out myself and bring it down there and save myself $200 bucks. You just have to unscrew the whole thing from the floor and disconnect the hoses, he said, it’s quite simple.

Well, it was like the last hurdle of boat maintenance that we hadn’t yet tackled, and for some sick reason, I felt challenged. I asked Prescott if he was up for this. He wasn’t really, but he also wasn’t up for spending $200 for something that “simple.” So, I put on my grody old jeans and a T-shirt and started prepping the “workspace.” We agreed that I would scour everything superclean and disconnect everything, and he would carry it out onto the dock.

First, I doused a ton of white vinegar through the lines and closed off all thru-hull valves so water wouldn’t gush in when we disconnected. I scrubbed the whole area clean and laid down disposable towels and rags. I unscrewed the hose clamps holding the saltwater intake and discharge hoses onto the toilet. Then, Prescott came in and muscled the hoses off, I was ready with buckets to catch the gunky mess that fell out of the open lines, and he carried the whole toilet out to the dock. I immediately plugged the hoses, scoured the entire bathroom again, washed my hands about 7 times, then took a very, very long shower. We wrapped the head in a big tarp and drove it over to the shop, then came home and showered again.

I’m not gonna lie, it was a thoroughly disgusting job to have to do. It stifled conversation between us for hours afterward. But you know what, I felt pretty dang proud of us for just biting the bullet and getting it done. And it was awesome how sympathetic sailors on the docks practically applauded when we emerged from the boat and loaded the toilet into a dock cart.

So, our head is currently getting rebuilt (by someone else, thankfully), and sanded and repainted bright white, so when we get it back it’ll be like new! In the meantime, we’re headed down to Hood River, Oregon, to get married, but when we come back, we’ll have a shiny new head waiting for us. What an unusual wedding gift to ourselves. Instead of carrying me across the threshold, Prescott will be carrying… that toilet.

Hm.

But with crappy plumbing projects in our rear view, play time ahead is that much more beautiful. We get to honeymoon aboard Velella while sailing the San Juans and Gulf Islands in July—you can’t beat that. And, thanks to this weekend’s DIY project, we have a little extra cash to enjoy!

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Sweetwater, Sweetland

In many other countries, fresh water is referred to as “sweetwater.” In Europe, as in “sweet, not carbonated.” In Mexico, as in, “sweet, we can drink this!” It’s taken us quite a few weeks of being stateside to get used to the fact that we have unlimited fresh water available now, though we are trying not to grow so accustomed that we take it for granted. But it’s nice to not have to keep one ear tuned to the water pump in case the tank runs dry.

Velella is currently enjoying some R&R tucked away in her slip in Seattle, being bathed daily by sweetwater falling from the sky. Meanwhile, Prescott and I have been staying at his parents’ house in the Columbia Gorge, preparing for our upcoming wedding. When I wake up these days, I see 20 acres of rolling golden hillside, and the huge hulking snowy peak of Mount Adams out our window. Despite all the water flowing out the big windy Columbia River nearby, the sea feels very far away from “The Land.”

But the folks who live out here on The Land exhibit a level of conservation awareness that reminds me a lot of what we found in the cruising community. And in some ways, the cruising community could learn a lot from them. We walked over to the neighbor’s house to borrow something yesterday, and since I’d never been given the tour, I got to have a look around.

The main house was all of 500 square feet, but the design took advantage of that space so well that you’d swear it was twice the square footage. The concrete floors were luxuriously warm under my bare feet, heated by pipes that siphoned hot water directly from the woodburning stove that heated the room. The outdoor living space was three times the size of the indoor space, with beautiful grey-water-fed gardens downhill of the house, an enormous porch roofed with leafy vines, and an awesome cedarplank freshwater hottub. Oh, and an outdoor brick oven in case you want some perfect woodfire pizzas. The lap of luxury, to be sure, but also quite possibly the greenest living space I’ve ever seen.

Behind the house an enormous 16-panel solar array pumped out three times the energy the owner needed. He simply feeds the excess energy he produces back into the grid (and gets paid for it by the watt by the state of Washington!). Next to the solar panels is a set of black glass tubes that essentially use the sun’s heat to passively heat the house’s hot water (to 140 degrees!). The bathroom is a small separate building, a glorified outhouse, and uses a fully compost-based toilet. (Note: It smelled nothing like an outhouse and way better than many normal bathrooms and certainly any ship’s head. Can you imagine how much cleaner the earth might be if we all composted our sewage?!) All the waste water from the house (such as kitchen sink runoff) was fed directly into the garden, where they grow all edible plants and vegetables.

W. O. W.

I mean, wow.

I smiled to learn that the owner of this home spent years of his life aboard a cruising sailboat–sailing from South Africa through the Caribbean and up the Eastern seaboard with his family. He took all the best of cruising conservation know-how and applied it to land living in an almost seamless way. Small house, big yard? Solar panel power? Passive water heating? Sounds familiar. I hope very much that someday we too will make such an elegant transition from sea-green to grass-green living.

Sailing Backwards. No Joke.

When we picked up Velella in Victoria after 6 months of cruising in Mexico, we quickly remembered how to deal with cooler-weather sailing. We pulled out our heavy wool blankets, a tray to catch water from our wet rainboots, full-fingered sailing gloves and high-collared foulies, tea and oatmeal. We also just as quickly were re-introduced to the challenges of sailing in waters with strong currents—and in the Puget Sound, San Juan Islands, and Strait of Juan de Fuca, they can be STRONG.

So strong in fact, that if you don’t time your passage right, the current might be faster than your boat speed, and push you backwards. I’ve seen this happen to a little sailboat struggling to get under the Golden Gate Bridge. Luckily, we had a favorable current with us as we crossed the Strait of Juan de Fuca headed towards Port Townsend. We were making a whopping 7+ knots most of the day, meaning we had at least 2-3 knots of current working for us, and we arrived in Port Townsend much earlier than we’d expected.

Our plan was to spend the night at anchor off Port Townsend, then ride the next day’s current down into Seattle. We didn’t have the 2011 current tables onboard, but we did have the tide tables. Though tides and currents do not always correlate as closely as you might think, we figured we’d bet on the fact that when the big tide started rolling into the Puget Sound at 9am, we’d be able to coast it down to Seattle starting shortly thereafter. So, we decided to get underway at 10am.

In order to head to Seattle from Port Townsend, you first have to round Morrowstone Point and then turn south. As we poked our bow out around the point, we could see the turbulence in the water and figured perhaps we were still a bit early and that the end of the tide might still be flowing out. We pulled out into the channel anyway, and our speed immediately dropped from 5 knots to 2 knots. Then 1.8 knots…. Then we realized that according to the chart plotter we were moving 1.8 knots—in the opposite direction of where we were headed! We were pointed “upriver,” but the current was so strong it was pushing us backwards, farther and farther from the point we were trying to get around. Good thing there was no one around the witness this embarrassing situation : )

Rather than fighting the opposing current and wasting gas, we pulled back into the calm eddy behind the point and cut the engine. We decided to wait another hour to see if the tide would start working in our favor. To kill time, we sailed south toward the point, turned into the current, sailed backwards (northwards), then pointed out of the current, and sailed south in the eddy again. The boat was facing south the whole time and we were sailing in circles!

Finally, the current released its grip and we were able to make way in a southerly direction, slowly at first, and then picking up speed as the tide filled in behind us. No harm done, and we got to sail backwards at 2 knots an hour, so. I’ll check that off the list.

Local Waters

I love living like a snail, carrying our house on our backs. No matter how far we travel, we still get to come home at the end of the day. After parting with Velella for over a week while she was shipped home via Yachtpath carrier, it was awesome to welcome our little home back to her home waters in the Pacific Northwest.

Luckily for us, the weather was spectacular for the first of May—light breeze, clear skies, spring snow blanketing the mountain peaks in all directions. I was anxious to see that Velella had survived the trip okay, and felt like a proud mom when I spotted her little mast amongst the clutter of boats on the ship’s deck. We waited on shore for the water taxi to deliver us to the ship’s side, and all of a sudden we were home. I imagined warm Baja air trapped inside the cabin, but that was wishful thinking.

We were soon underway with the Canadian flag flying, headed back into US waters in the San Juan Islands. A cold front was forcasted for the following day, and we wanted to be in a protected anchorage that also had a small town so we could restock our galley. At 3:30pm, we set off for Friday Harbor, some 18 nautical miles distant. We planned squeeze in just after dark.

The notorious Strait of Juan de Fuca currents were, thankfully, flowing with us, so we made 6 knots under power along the glassy calm channel. Given my past experiences with the Strait of Juan de Fuca (sailors have dubbed it “Puke-a”), we felt very lucky indeed to have a favorable current and very little wind. Compared to the stark, barren beauty of Baja, the Pacific Northwest is extremely luscious. Enormous snowcapped volcanoes stand dark and handsome along the shorelines and mossy green islands punctuated by red-and-white lighthouses jut out into the passage. As the sun fell low behind our stern, it washed the mountaintops with color, so that each glacier and snow-crested ridge stood up rose-pink out of the purple shadows. It was like a homecoming gift from the sky, the kind of evening you wish time would hang still–but we gave Velella a little more gas, knowing we had a slim shot at arriving before all light was gone.

Around sunset at 8:30, we turned north into San Juan channel, and the grey curtain of twilight reached across the glowing sky, turning islands into indefinite black shapes to port and starboard. Thankfully, our US charts are quite reliable, as is our depth sounder and radar, so we felt rather confident in our course despite the decreasing visibility. We had the phone number to the US customs office in Friday Harbor, so I called ahead to let them know we were about an hour out.

When I was in Mexico, apprehensive about coming home to the cold, I had no inkling that the chill would come not in the form of spring rain but rather as the ice-cold attitude  of US Customs.

Officer Barnes was clearly annoyed that I was calling after-hours. “UH. You don’t know what time we close, do you?”

“Well, I figure you might close the office at 5pm, so we’re happy to wait to clear in until the morning when you open.”

“Yeah, right, and you’ll get a fine for $5,000 if you do that.”

“Are you serious?”

“UM, are YOU serious, lady? If you so much as touch your anchor to the bottom anywhere in US territory, or get off your boat at any point before getting cleared in officially by a US customs officer, you will be paying us $5,000.”

Swearing under my breath, I started kissing up to him a bit because there was no way I was going to be paying five grand for I’m not sure what, and there was also no way we were sailing back to Canadian waters. “Sir, we’re a US flagged and documented vessel, and, having a 50-ton Captain’s license, I’m aware that we need to clear in before coming ashore. We were just discharged in Victoria from a Yachtpath carrier ship, and we wanted to come to the US before restocking our galley so as not to waste a bunch of fresh food when checking back in to the US” (you never know what they’re going to take from you when you clear in from Canada—oranges, blueberries, tomatoes, meats, etc.). “Besides, Friday Harbor appears to be the safest place to wait out the cold front that will be sweeping across the area tomorrow.”

He took down my numbers and begrudgingly said he would take care of us when we arrived. It was fully dark when we eased up alongside the customs dock in Friday Harbor, but the night was still lovely calm. Prescott expertly placed Velella within an inch of the dock, and I stepped off and tied her up. When the customs officer came aboard, he treated us like first-graders. Of course, he didn’t ask what our experience was before giving us a lecture about sailing in the dark. Because we’d gotten ourselves “into quite a situation”, he said, we could stay on the customs dock for the night, because he didn’t want us “moving that boat again in the dark.” Sweet, I thought, free night of moorage. I looked at him with wide eyes and agreed he was right about everything, and he exited our boat acting like he’d saved our lives. Well, I guess he did save us $30.

Now we’re enjoying the sound of a waterfall pouring down the head of our cove at Friday Harbor. The quiet shore is lined with clumps of pink blossoming trees and tall evergreens. Spotted harbor seals poke their heads up occasionally. Our big brass lantern and propane stove make the cabin remarkably cozy, and we’re  enjoying fresh Dungeness crab that we bought right on the dock from local fishermen. Despite the many hoops we’ve had to jump to get Velella back up here, I keep thinking it’s already worth it.