Velella's Drift

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

Archive for Leg 1

Honorary Members of the Makah Tribe

Neah Bay reeks of rotten fish and the carbon afterburn of diesel engines. But it’s not the smell that’s driving me insane. Neither is the problem the size of the town. It’s a single street on a dry reservation, and its activities consist of walking between the terrible diner and the mediocre pizza place. But having grown up in Lyle (a town of comparable size) the ambling tempo and the persistent local cheer are familiar. While the constant drizzle contributes, it’s not the root of the problem. The dark wet is a Pacific Northwest staple and only serves as a reminder that I’m still in Washington State, my home. Nor is it the constant murmur of sail-speak. As more and more sailboats arrive in Neah Bay to outwait the weather, the marina is abuzz with the exchange of Sailing Lessons. The twenty or so small-craft captains take refuge from the rain in each other’s bimini-shaded cockpits, talking sail trim, dangerous ports and proper engine maintenance. Though they’re unavoidable when walking up the dock, Velella’s watertight hatches protect us from their self-aggrandizing yarns.

It’s the teetering that’s the problem. Here we are, poised at the edge of world, looking down at the churning froth of our great adventure. But we are trapped, unable to move. We’ve lined ourselves up at the top of a rapid, only to become stuck on a rock. The unexpected immobility removes the tension. Suddenly, we have been extracted from the experience, staring at our fate not as a participant but as an observer. The longer we sit, the greater our chance for reflection. Disconnected from the thrill of tumbling whitewater yet left staring into its impartial jaws, a startling normalcy returns. Thoughts of home surge; of unattended errands, of untended momentum, of a future laid out in fractured tributaries. The notion of adventure seems silly, even futile.

Then time becomes unstuck and the ride springs into motion. Yet, perplexingly, the delight is gone. Objective study begets tedious familiarity. Out of context the rapid is no joyride, but a jolting drop. With the sudden halt the wild ride has vanished, becoming something frightening and incomprehensible. Normalcy is not easily shaken, and even the water’s ecstatically unpredictable flow may not erase it.

That is the worst of Neah Bay. For a week it has held us from the adventure we imagined. Enough time for cabin fever and doubts to set in. We begin to view the trip’s future as an extension of its past: Hemmed into our messy cabin, staving off the rain and boredom, and counting down the hours until we can rationalize an early bedtime. The bad weather is a continual presence, cold fronts barraging our escape into open sea. I know that the rest of the trip will be unthinkably different from Neah Bay, yet I can only imagine more of the same.

Amazingly, we’ve adapted well to the small space we share. The V-birth has become the entertainment center, where movies play off of the home theater of our laptops. The ‘dates’ Meghan and I go on consist of little more than a coin-operated shower and then an episode of ‘Freaks and Geeks’. Like the knocking of a thousand tiny fists, the persistent rain on the window above us threatens to overpower our laptop speakers. But it also reminds us of the safety Velella affords. Trivial as it seems, this small realization feels more romantic and satisfying than the fanciest Seattle restaurant.

We are banking on the fact that the weather will clear, and we’ll be able to continue our adventure tomorrow. The terrifying thrill of the open ocean is our savior, because here our cyclical daily routine whitewashes our enthusiasm. If we were forced to stay here another week, the trip would disintegrate.

I await the horizon behind the clouds. May it be blue and gold and clear. May it drive us perpetually onward. May it appear soon.

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This post is for Josh Barstow

Six miles past Neah Bay, at the literal edge of the Western world, where evergreen-blanketed Washington crumbles in steep rock cliffs to the frothy Pacific Ocean, there is a whole lot going on. Throngs of fat, furry, boisterous sea lions clamor over each other seeking patches of sun on a large rock island. Slinky little otters play in enormous sea caves as the surprisingly blue-green sea swirls in and out, carrying yellow and red autumn leaves over mossy rocks. Congregations of Cormorants speckle the border between land and water, and stately Red Cedar trees crowd right up to the last possible footholds. The wind, having swept the sea all the way from Japan, sounds and smells like distance.

Cape Flattery view

Cape Flattery view

Tatoosh Island- the very edge

Tatoosh Island- the very edge

This magnificent, teeming land is home to the Makah Nation of Native Americans. A couple days ago, we dropped Snorri (our dinghy), rowed in to town, and walked down to the Makah Cultural Research Museum for a hushed tour of ancient artifacts from this place we knew nothing about. The Makah traditionally lived a maritime existence as whalers, seal-hunters, and tide-flat gatherers. Their tools were made primarily from the plentiful Western Red Cedar tree, and woven strips from this tree formed watertight canoe mats, carrying baskets, and clothing. A mudslide 500 years ago impeccably preserved an entire village in Ozette, which added a plethroa of archeological evidence to the oral history passed down by their people. (Like the 1/2-inch ropes they would tie whales’ mouths shut with so the huge animals didn’t sink when they died!) We were allowed to run our fingers over the enormous single-log whaling and sealing canoes polished and burned on the outside to a silky black skin. We entered the shadowy replica of a longhouse and imagined what it would have been like to sleep on skins with rain tapping on the cedar roof. I watched a woman demonstrate the intricate cedar-weaving patterns of the Makah. And then she offered to go for a hike with us the next day out to Cape Flattery.

I’m continuously surprised at the openness of people from small towns. Theresa, the weaver, said if we wanted to hike out there, her sons could give us a ride out the 9 miles to the Cape–and if not, maybe she’d want to take a walk out there with us. Turns out her sons weren’t around and she had to go in to Port Angeles in the morning (the opposite direction), but she called me first and offered to drive us out there if we could hitch or bus back. Having been cooped up on the boat at anchor, we didn’t care if we had to walk all the way back, we were definitely going.

She pushed aside the soaking baskets of Cedar strips and ornate woven hats that filled her backseat to make room for the three of us. As we wound out the road to Cape Flattery, the thick bunch of woven items she had hanging from her rearview mirror–a visor, a lighter case on a cord, coin purses, and necklaces–swung past her braceleted arm as she gestured to us about her family. All of them were weavers, she said; her grandmothers on both sides taught her the art, and she made sure her kids knew how to do it too. And being a weaver means acquiring your own materials.

There are only two to three weeks in the springtime that the Cedar trees are just right for gathering weaving materials. As the sap starts to run, the Makah weavers go out in the woods to strip all the Cedar they’ll use to weave throughout the year, stopping only to sleep and eat. While it’s true that you can strip up to a third of the tree and it will still regenerate, Theresa held up her hand with thumb and pinky out, saying her grandmother said only that much is respectful and safe.

Coming from the rather slow and dingy little “Rez” town of Neah Bay, it was both rejuvenating and somehow sad to see the natural grandeur on the Cape Flattery trail. Having just been at the Makah Museum, my imagination was alight with thoughts of the strong and adept whalers and seal-hunters traversing this enormous coast, and weavers dressed in cedar capes and skirts padding through the quiet trees in search of their materials. Though many of the Makah’s traditional maritime practices have largely been erased by modern regulations and technologies, and traditional weavers are now few in number, the tribe still rightfully sits on the beautiful tip of the Western world. And sure enough, if you look closely along the Cape Flattery trail, there are 8-inch-wide strips pulled from the bark of certain Cedar trees.

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Wine on the hook

In order to save some money on moorage (since it looks from the weather forcasts that we’ll be here for a number of days), we decided to move out to the anchorage and swing around for free. And make use of the new solar array Prescott so proudly installed. After rowing ashore for hot showers and hot pizza from “the best wood-fired pizza place in the world,” according to the game warden, we are now back and enjoying the first of many fantastic bottles of fine wine the Cedar House girls gave us as parting gifts. Tonight’s pick–and we took our time over the deliberation since all of them look so delicious–is a blue-and-white labeled bottle that reads “Domaine des Lauribert. Vin de Pays de Vaucluse. Mis en bouteille au Domaine.” Any Harveys out there able to translate? There’s not a word of English on this bottle and it tastes like it. We are all going to bed early and wine-warm tonight, perhaps after a cozy game of Tigris and Euphrates. I’m worried about the rest of our trip because I don’t see how it could get better than this.

Sleeping in Neah Bay

Sleeping in Neah Bay

The Edge of the World

Neah Bay is exactly how I imagined the edge of the world. It reminds a bit of Lyle, in that it’s small, rural and teeming with salt of the earth characters. It’s on a Native American Reservation, and the outlands surrounding this tiny marina are as a green, rich and teeming with wildlife that it could easily be mistaken for Alaska. Of the hundred or so boats in the harbor, ours is the only sailboat. The others are salty fishing vessels, rusty and hardy, and in some cases remarkable in that they are still afloat. Velella sits at the end of the marina, the little princess in a rough and tumble crowd.

Huge, boisterous seal lions breach the water outside our boat and bark angry cries at the boats, begging for whatever Salmon scraps the fishermen have brought back from Alaska. Far from shy, they accompanied our boat into the marina, demanding we give them another easy meal. Bald Eagles and hawks patrol the tree tops, looking west toward the wind and the open ocean. It’s no surprise that this rugged village is the last patch of roughhewn civility before land disappears into thousands of miles of undulating deep-blue emptiness. In town there’s a huge map of the mouth of the straits: The green of Washington and Canada comes to an abrupt stop and then there’s nothing but blue and a compass arrow. The Southern arrow points towards “La La land” and the Northern arrow points to “Fish and Bears”. Watching the fishermen and their sea-hardened boats, I wish we were following the upper arrow. But we will instead go to “La la land”.

Getting here was an exhausting experience. Oceanic waves travel a hundred miles to the Eastern entrance of the Juan De Fuca straits and in that time they butt up on the land, becoming confused and choppy. If the waves of the open ocean are like a rocking cradle, sailing the straits is more akin to mechanical bull. Their sophmoric nickname, “The Straights of Juan De Puke-a”, is well-deserved.

The most excitement we’ve had so far came at 3 am. Night watches are particularly exhausting: Not only are you awakened from your sleep in the middle of the night to stand in the cold and the rain, but straining your eyes into the night to spot approaching ships is taxing. Your mind can start to play tricks on you.

I was startled awake around 3:30 in the morning. There was a high pitched alarm emanating through the boat, and Meghan and Andrew were yelling my name. I stumbled out of bed wearing only my long underwear. Meghan yelled down to me “The engine light is on! What do we do!” I told her she had to turn the engine off. Andrew piped in “We can’t do that!”. I dashed up top for my debriefing.

We had spotted the telltale red/green lights of a cargo ship headed in our direction. We had gunned the engine in an attempt to get out of its path. When it continued to bear down on us, we frantically radioed Seattle shipping traffic to ask for their assistance. Meanwhile, not being used to being run at full-speed for twenty minutes straight, the engine overheated. Once the three of us were up top, we assessed that the lights chasing us were in fact not a cargo ship, but were from a building on shore. We all relaxed, shut the engine off and topped it off with oil. It is an easy mistake to make at night when one is diligent in their search for ships, but an unsettling one. I did not fall back to sleep until the following afternoon.

On the lucky side, my extended watch that morning gave me one of the coolest experiences I’ve had thus far. As we neared the Western edge of the straits, the water mellowed out. The waves turned from erratic chop, to a long, slow rise and fall. A fog settled in around 4 am, and visibility constricted down to about 100 feet. Sailing through the foggy waves at the first light of dawn was incredible. The world outside of the boat ceased to exist. Occasionally I’d hear the long, mournful cry of a foghorn somewhere out in the strait, and maybe catch a glimpse of one of the huge cargo ships on our radar, but otherwise there was nothing to see. Several times I’d spot a tideline drifting closer, glance at my compass, and realized that I had become disoriented and was sailing the wrong direction. Once, a mile away, I could barely make the dark outline of a freighter, motionless in the water. The huge ship would sound its ominous horn every minute, a warning for vessels like Velella to stay out of its way.

To my surprise, this misty etherworld was not devoid of life. At around 5 am, hundred of birds awoke in a flurry of activity. Seagulls swooped by, and various ducks that I did not recognize bobbed and played in the waves. At one point, a negligent Grebe (I believe that’s what it was) was nearly run over by our boat. It was looking forward as the quiet Velella crept towards it, and only at the last minute did it turn to see us bearing down. It frantically paddled out of the way, turning back to look at me with it’s black eyes and give me the most bloodcurdling scream I’d ever heard from a bird. “Rearrgggghhhhhhhhhh!!!!” it screamed over and over, sounding eerily human-like. In fact, were I to fall overboard, it is exactly the noise I intend to make. I shushed at the bird to quiet it down, fearing that Meghan and Andrew would awake and run to my rescue. But the bird would not be appeased, and its anger echoed in the fog.

We will wait out a passing cold front on the World’s Edge. This weekend the weather clears and we’ll begin our descent, away from the wild beauty of Washington and towards the Californian sun.

Jumping off point

After a couple of tense days in the washing-machine waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, we arrived at noon to Neah Bay, a sheltered cove about 6nm inside Cape Flattery (where we hang a BIG left). Neah Bay is a salty fishing town on the Makah Indian Reservation, so salty you can’t even buy chicken at the grocery store. There are enormous whiskered sea lions playing loudly right in the middle of the harbor with the gulls–all of them scavenging for fish scraps from the incoming trawlers.

Neah Bay fishing boats

Neah Bay fishing boats

We had our first showers in days, a hot dinner of curry and veggies on rice, and Andrew’s special “deep-fried chocolate mussel ice cream” dessert. Our weather router advised that we shouldn’t try to make the run to Newport due to two cold fronts coming in on Thursday and Friday, so it looks like we’ll be here in Neah Bay for a few days. We’re looking forward to hiking, painting, writing, and sleeping a lot.

Velella at Neah Bay

Velella at Neah Bay

Fighting the Strait of Juan de Fuca

Sequim Bay anchorage

Sequim Bay anchorage

We woke up in the morning after our first night on the hook at Sequim Bay, and the fog was so thick we could barely see the bow of our own boat. It didn’t take much to persuade us to scrap the 5am wake up call and sleep in until 8:30 or so. By that time the fog had lifted somewhat (see the picture above), so we hauled up the anchor and motored over to the marina to top off. The water here was noticeably clearer than the Shilshole gunk we’re used to, and the sun broke through just in time to illuminate the difficult entrance Prescott and Andrew had navigated the night before.

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John Wayne Marina in Sequim

John Wayne Marina in Sequim

We headed out to the Strait to what looked like a perfect day–full sun, excellent visibility, and brisk breezes. Turns out brisk breezes right on the nose don’t work so well… We spent the better part of the day screwing around with different sail wardrobes and trims to find the most power with least heel (which was yah-hoo! for all of about 10 minutes). In the end, we basically made no way at all, and chose to pull in to Port Angeles, which is only about 25 miles west of Sequim, for some real sleep (the not moving kind). When we finally stopped spinning around in that horribly confused body of water, we slept hard; it was the first chance we’d had in hours to unclench our muscles.

Strait of Juan de Fuca

Strait of Juan de Fuca

Prescott woke at 1am with me to push out of Port Angeles, and because I’d been the most seasick the previous day and was feeling better, I opted to take the graveyard shift from 1-3am. Let’s just suffice it to say that in retrospect, I apparently wasn’t well enough still, having not been able to hold down food or water for 2 days. In addition to some crazy schools of sliver jumping fish (quite likely a figment of my exhausted imagination), I also saw noted a number of tankers coming our way, and even went so far as to coordinate with Seattle Vessel Traffic Control on the radio to frantically hail them, until I woke up Andrew for his shift in the middle of a complete meltdown with the throttle full boar. He informed me that I’d been “running away from lights on shore.” So. Rule number 23: No more seasick night watch.

Prescott and Andrew put me to bed without indicating how crazy I was, and took over for the rest of the night. In the morning we were in soft rolling seas at the West Entrance, and only about 3 hours out from Neah Bay.

sunrise in the West Strait

sunrise in the West Strait

3-2-1

We slipped out of Shilshole Bay Marina this morning at 7:30am in the quiet fog. Strangely, there was about 8-9 knots of wind, which is rare in fog, but it meant we were able to sail through it. Quickly the visibility diminished to where we could only see boats within about a quater-mile; a ghoulishly freaky experience when a huge ship appears out of nowhere right in front of you. We started sounding our fog signals, one prolonged two shorts, every two minutes, as did everyone around us. What a strange feeling to be blindly feeling your way by sail and sound. We’re outside of Everett now and will soon call Traffic Control to make sure it’s okay to cross the lanes over to the Port Townsend side.

I am happy to report that it’s incredibly homey inside little Velella. We had hot oatmeal with bananas and tea for breakfast, and now I’m curled up on the couch. Not looking forward to the battering we’re sure to take in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but we might get lucky with a relatively smooth ride if we time everything right. After all, we did pour a libation to Neptune this morning as we left the dock.

Prescott in his brilliant hammock-helm chair

Prescott in his brilliant hammock-helm chair