Velella's Drift

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

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.

First Class Tickets

I was extremely tired from traveling as I walked into a Wal-Mart to pick up some cat food yesterday. I barely noticed the huge display of familiar Mexican food items in front of me: masa harina, pan tostadas, cane sugar bottled Cokes, Penginos, and other typical corner store stock. It slowly dawned on me that literally everyone around me was speaking Spanish too—and I almost asked “donde es la comida para gatos?”—when I realized with a start that what the heck was Mexico doing following me to Hood River Oregon?!?

We’ve come to Prescott’s parents home hear Hood River to “decompress” for a week while we wait for Velella to arrive by Yachtpath ship. We figured it would be good to come to this quiet country place first to alleviate the culture shock of returning to the US. But (despite the local Mexican population here that tricks my tired mind into feeling like we’re still in Baja), it’s still shocking to be home in the states.

Last week at this time we were in limbo in La Paz, waiting for our Yachtpath ship to arrive. By the middle of April the heat had become aggressive—not stiflingly humid, but a dry baking heat like being in a kiln. By the time the ship arrived I felt like I was going to melt to my grave, and was glad to leave Mexico for the temperate and beautiful Pacific Northwest summer. Of course as we approached the carrier ship at sunset, all the emotions of change came flooding over me. Pride for all the miles passed beneath our keel, futile longing to rewind the tape and play it again, fear for Velella as we left her in the care of other hands to make the long transit home.

The loading operations went smoothly, and before we knew it we were being zipped to shore by a panga as Velella was being hosted by crane onto the ship called the BBC Rhine.

As we headed to the airport and waited for our flights, I realized with some sadness that I hadn’t bought home a single “souvenir” from our time in Mexico. I’d been too busy living the whole adventure to even consider that someday we’d be looking back on it. I browsed the jewelry shops, thinking perhaps I’d take a keepsake to remind me of this time, but I knew that no token could capture it all. As our flight soared above the Sea of Cortez, we pointed out the islands we’d called home for the past couple of months, I realized that what we brought home were priceless memories and thousands of photographs and a changed way of being.

There’s nothing quite like the first time for anything, and it’s been bittersweet to close the book on this tropical sailing adventure. But we’ve no doubt that we’ll point our bow south again someday, and meanwhile we will be exploring the Pacific Northwest by sail.

The very day we arrived in Oregon the tulips blossomed, all lipstick red and lemon yellow in the mossy woods. We are taking hot baths and sitting by the woodstove and waiting for Velella—because where ever she is, we’re home.

Going Home

We are anchored amongst a thicket of sailboats in the La Paz anchorage. The sunsets here are look like a forest of masts on fire, trailing red smoking clouds across the evening sky. We’ve returned to the flock.

As daunting as it is in some ways to re-enter “society” after weeks in island isolation in the Sea of Cortez, I’ve always loved being in the company of other boats. We row to shore during the morning and appraise each one, walk along the yard fence and comment on the shape of that one’s underbelly and this one’s prow. As usual with any gathering of boats, the range of personality is huge—from the cruiser who has every current convenience and spotless canvas coverings for it all, to the floating piece of (steel? wood?) that has lawn chairs strapped into the cockpit, propane tanks rolling around the foredeck, and hanked-on Kleenexes for sails. And of course we note their names, Wandering Puffin, Murre, Arctic Tern, Rocinante, Gypsy. . alongside Neener Neener Neener or You Got A B Kiddin Me. Almost every single day I turn around as we’re rowing away and pridefully tell Velella that I think she’s the prettiest girl at the dance.

People love cruising for different reasons, I know that. Some are fueled almost completely by the desire to travel, so they are content to navigate in anything that stays afloat. That’s cool. Others are racers are heart, and above all else yearn to make mile upon mile under wind power alone, teasing every inch of speed out of their well-tuned rigs. Good for them. We fall into a third category: We just love living on our boat. Regardless of where or how far the boat ever travels, the liveaboard lifestyle alone is a strong enough pull to the water.

Living aboard is like owning your own island. We get to row out to our home, surrounded by a moat of privacy. On our island we bake fresh bread. We crank whatever music we want to without disturbing the neighbors. We shower in the sundrenched cockpit. We have only our own creative projects to keep us busy, and only the weather reports to tune into on time. The physical distance from the rest of the world makes you feel like you can control your own life, at exactly the pace you want it to be. It’s like inhabiting a small cabin on a cliff, overlooking a city stretched out in tiny silent frenzy beneath you.

It’s unbelievable real estate, no matter where you are. I’m convinced that we’ve stumbled upon the most brilliant, best kept secret on the market.

I woke up from a dream last night and the air was unusually calm in the bay. I pulled on my bathrobe and peeked out into the cockpit to see that all was well. As I inhaled the salty still air and scanned the horizon, I caught my breath on a surreal vision. The rising moon had etched the black silhouette of a sleeping schooner into its enormous glowing belly, like a huge gold coin stamped with a proud sailing ship. That is the picture of this lifestyle’s currency, I thought, as I crawled back into bed with a skylight view of swaying stars.

Next week our overhead view will be much the same, but we’ll have traded our sunshowers for flannel sheets and Pacificos for hot cider. After soul-searching for a long time, we realized that two major ocean crossings this summer in order to get the boat home to the Northwest via Hawaii was simply not our idea of an enjoyable honeymoon. So we’re headed home with Velella the expedient way (via Yachtpath carrier ship) to take advantage of the stunning Pacific Northwest sailing season in the San Juan Islands. Although we’ll have to leave behind the tropical heat in Mexico, the things we love most about our little private island know no season.

In the Northwest, coffee in the morning will be all the more welcome, our well-sealed decks more appreciated, our propane fireplace and glowing oil lamp beacons of creative coziness. And the pale spring Northwest moon ascends through night air crisp with cherry blossoms. When we exchange our gold moonrises for silver ones, we will still be just as rich living aboard.

Sea Monster

(A kitten collection, at the request of ASA fans!)

I blame Robin Graham for this. And Tania Abei too. Their descriptions of kitten-companions aboard their circumnavigating sailboats tore at my heart until I became obsessed with the idea of having a boat kitten too.

“But it doesn’t seem like the right environment for a cat.”

“How are you going to make sure she doesn’t fall in?”

“You know, cats HATE water.”

Given the severe overpopulation of homeless cats and kittens in the Los Angeles area, I was shocked that I couldn’t just go to a shelter and rescue one. Everyone seemed to disapprove. Each location made us fill out a huge interview describing the living arrangements, etc (as though whatever home it might go to could possibly be worse than a flea-ridden shelter cage). More often than not, people determined that a boat was an unfit home for a cat. (I mean, they hate water.) I felt ridiculous and exasperated explaining that the cat would not be living IN water. Our floating home is cozy and full of nooks and crannies and fresh fish! We were denied again and again. It was astonishing how people who knew so very little about boats and what it meant to live on one were so quick to condemn the unknown.

Ultimately, a non-profit called Kitten Rescue decided that we were fit parents for a little calico that I’d fallen in love with. The director visited the boat personally and decided to give us the kitten for free (with all shots and spaying paid for!) because she thought our boat was a wonderful home for her. So we named the little calico Nessie, after the  sea monster.

Now Nessie has been sailing with us for a year, and has thousands of sea miles under her whiskers. She has a fabulously glamorous life. She enjoys sashimi frequently, loves sleeping under the sunny warm dodger, tears around the boat chasing flies away for exercise, and meditatively watches the sunrise every morning. She even plays chess and has been known to help hoist sails.

So to all those of you who would eschew having a cat onboard, don’t be so quick to judge! If a kitten starts sailing young, she’ll be an old salt in no time. Who knows, she might even start swimming.

The World a Spare Room

He’s driving me completely nuts.

We’ve had a lovely “early honeymoon” this week, sinking into the solitude with each other (after a month of guests aboard) and exploring some of the most remote anchorages we’ve yet seen. As the sole boat in an enormous reef-fringed anchorage on an uninhabited island, you can hike up the cliff in the nude if you feel like it!-there’s nobody for miles but the scuttling crabs and soaring hawks. Yesterday I laid in bed for almost the entire day reading a book, which is a rare treat even when you’re on perma-vacation like we are now. We cook food, read to each other, play chess and cribbage, swim, sleep, you get the picture. It’s been beautiful, and all the more savory because we’ll be leaving Mexico in less than two weeks.

As our wedding date approaches and our sailing trip comes to a (temporary) end, we’ve been congratulating ourselves on the wisdom of heading “off the grid” during our engagement. We spent the last six months working really hard together, overcoming fears, facing a huge range of problems, and enjoying equally many spectacularly gratifying moments as well. Lots of “quality time.” Our guests (fellow cruisers and landlubbers alike) often remark that if you can get along with each other on a 35′ boat for this long, you’re well equipped for marriage.

If marriage is eternal tolerance, then yes, I would think we’re well equipped. I mean, I can’t imagine a point in my life where I will ever be MORE annoyed with this man on a daily basis. I’m so sick of hearing “can I squeeze past you?” (about 12 times per day), that I’ve started to just say, No more squeezing past! If I’m occupying our 1-foot-square galley, you can’t “squeeze in” too! There’s no room in our bedroom for both of us to get dressed at the same time! Now that I sat down to write you need something out of the quarter berth beneath me?! I’m sure he’s just as annoyed with me because, after all, we only have 35 feet, and that’s mighty little for two to share. But for the most part, we suppress these annoyances because, well, we chose to live in a tiny house.

Compounding the small space arrangements is the fact that absolutely everything we do is a decision to be made, which amounts to about 65 decisions we make TOGETHER per day: do we tack upwind to get to the cooler anchorage North of us or head around the corner to the South for a more comfortable sail? Should we reef the main now? Should we fly the staysail with that? How about trimming in, easing off, closing that thru-hull valve, anchoring in three fathoms or five, and oh I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the things we decide on together. Naturally, both being well-educated and stubborn, we have a few differences of opinion on our forced and frequent collaborations. Just a few.

Having such confined space to cohabitate (and make so VERY many decisions within) is a struggle-I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t. We all need space to live. But while everybody else may have larger homes than ours, and rooms they can retreat to for peace and quiet and space from one another, nobody has the kind of backyard we have. It’s full of dolphins.

We have the whole navigable world to stretch out in-and it’s always a million-dollar view. You are all cordially invited to visit as guests to our expansive, skylight-lit spare room.

There’s This One Place

This particular spot is not a place many people get to visit. More often than not, the weather makes it an unsuitable anchorage, and when the weather does behave, there’s room for only one boat, maybe two. This week, we happened to be in the right place at the right time.

A V-shaped notch opens at a sharp slant to the Northeast on the very northern edge of Isla Carmen, about midway up the Sea of Cortez. As we approached the corner of the bay, I crossed my fingers that we’d have the place to ourselves. We rounded the point and saw with satisfaction that the long cove was completely empty, as were all the other coves we’d passed on the entire North side of the island. The wind, usually clipping down from the North in the afternoons, blew instead from the Southeast, making the secluded little notch a perfectly protected anchoring spot for the night.

The practice of anchoring in the Sea of Cortez’s crystal clear water is delightfully simple: I could see the anchor drop with a puff of sand four fathoms deep, and the snaking chain payed out along the rippled bottom and set the hook solidly. While several dopey-looking puffer fish cruised up to nose at the anchor chain, I jumped in the inviting water for a quick and chilly swim. It was only after I’d toweled off and the memory of the engine noise and jangling chain had faded from my brain that I started to notice the shoreline.
White cliffs dove into the water on both sides of us and converged at a steep sand dune at the head of the cove. Numerous gaping caves lined the anchorage, cool invitations to hide from the relentless sun. We launched an evening expedition in the dinghy, dragging our faces along in the glassy water to view the aquarium passing beneath us. Deep purple, marigold, and white angelfish; spotted brown rockfish; perfect aubergine spines of urchins; and flashing silver schools flitted below in the prismatic evening underwater light. Towering above us rose the unusual white rock of the cliffs, like an enormous brick of salt, carved craggy by the persistent wind.

At the outer lip of the bay, there were three yawning caves, large enough to row a dozen dinghys into. The long light fell across the opening of the first cave like a curtain-bright white entrance on one side, the pitch black interior beyond. As we floated towards the opening, the shadow of the rock fell over us like a cool shawl, and with it the damp scent of air deprived of sunlight. The water, even in the shadow of the cave, was as clear as a mountain stream, and as cold. Perfectly raked white sand and smooth stones covered the bottom like a peaceful Zen garden. The only movement was from a lone Bullseye Stingray, which twitched, sending a ripple along the length of its crepe-thin body and scattering a flurry of flourlike sand. The sound of individual drips falling randomly around us resonated in the quiet cavern, and occasionally the unearthly groaning of a wave surged and sucked out of the cave’s deeper pockets like a monster living in the depths.

 

 

Blinking in the sunlight again, we decided to come back first thing in the morning.

The next day’s mission was even more stunning than the first, punctuated as it was by an enormous convoy of hyperactive dolphins. I rowed the dinghy while our visiting friends jumped in and swam with the dolphin horde in no more than 10 feet of water. The beautiful creatures shot through the tropical aquarium outside the caves, circled around rock islands, jumped and dove in pairs, slapped the water with their tails, and did a much better job of catching fish than we did. We reluctantly departed V-Cove midday, but with dozens of dolphins following us out of the anchorage.

It was a place I felt so privileged to have experienced, and a place that we most likely will not be able to return to again. The secret treasures like these, shared with friends and a throng of happy dolphins, are what make exploring by sail so entirely wonderful.