September 24, 2009

Not a Beginner’s Coastline

"It's not a beginner's coastline." This is what our dock neighbour said to us, shortly after we watched a Seattle boat get towed into Coos Bay by the Coast Guard.

Ollie left Neah Bay a day or so after us and decided to go with convention and headed way offshore. This was an especially safe choice for a single hander. Those who go down the coast closer to shore have to thread their way through fish boats by the fleet and dodge fast moving freighters. There’s no time for catnapping when you’re on a boat that often doesn’t show up on radar.

But the problem with the offshore route is that storms can come up quickly and unexpectedly. And after a couple of days of sailing south, Ollie was hit by storm and then a rudder-breaking wave. It took him almost three days to navigate his way closer to shore – and he only made it by using a bit of awe-inspiring seamanship and ingenuity (he steered using a windvane). Close to shore he radioed the Coast Guard, who cheerfully went out to fetch him and bring him across the bar. Then he called his mum, to let her know he was safe.

In every port we hear these stories and I start to wonder if too many of us are out here with not enough skills? Or, if it really is that hard…

We had an easy enough passage from Coos Bay to Crescent City, but easy enough didn’t make it fun. As folks we met on another boat (who were escorted by the Coast Guard over yet another bar) said – the fun to sucks scale doesn’t start to tip until after San Francisco.

 the Eureka Bar on a bad day

We set off across the Coos Bay bar in an easy swell. This coast doesn’t have many traditional harbours, instead, where the ocean and a river meet there is a dredged channel leading into a harbour. So, as the ocean water gets shallow, the waves steepen and pile up closer together (think waves breaking on a beach). Then when you hit the section of the channel where river silt is deposited (the bar) they can get really quite steep. You need to cross the bar when the tide is flooding, otherwise the whole thing is a big lumpy chaotic mess. But this means bar crossings can only happen at specific times and those times are often not when you’d like them to be.

But anyway, we crossed when we were supposed to and set off on the 125-mile overnight passage to Crescent City. The wind was still light, but it was light and in our face, which made conditions lumpy, which made Charlie the Cat throw-up.

Then the fog set in. A thick, dense fog that at times obscured our bows.

This isn’t a beginner’s coast – but we’ve learned how to read radar well enough. I can pick up just about any boat in the big swell, even if it just flashes for a second here and a second there.
You call on the radio when that happens – to ask who’s out there, what direction they’re heading and if you’re in danger of colliding. I always want to ask what the hell they’re thinking, motoring around in the fog, at night, but then I’d have to answer the same question. 
And despite the fact we can't see the stars or lights on the distant coast, we know where we're going by following our GPS track. We trust it implicitly when it says to steer 180 degrees and then program the auto pilot to make that course.
Then we plow on blindly through the dank night, trusting our electronics, cosy inside the cacoon of our dark saloon.

The fog stayed with us to Crescent City. We missed seeing the classic St. Georges Reef Lighthouse in the darkness. We saw the rock strewn entry and the bouys marking a safe path in on radar - long before we saw them with our eyes. We heard the fog horns and just caught the glow of the light from the Battery Point Lighthouse as we motored into the flat calm of a harbour of refuge.

Battery Point Lighthouse
As we dropped our anchor, I thought of the ships that plied this coast for the 150-years before radar, GPS and radio.
I imagined their foolish bravery.
I’m humbled.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Wow. Even I feel sorry for the cat.