November 30, 2009

The Good, The Bad, The Stormy (aka those damn bananas!)

We’re in Southern California – the home of light breezes and gentle swell. It seemed like the perfect place to connect with Mark and Val so we could take them and Mark’s mother for an idyllic sail to Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands for the Thanksgiving weekend (which also happened to be my birthday).

The day we left, the forecast was calling for 15-25 with seven to nine foot seas – all of which was to settle down over night. When we set out from Santa Barbara it was lumpy but there was only a whisper of wind. We motor sailed for the first hour then started to see choppy water in the distance. None of us knew these waters and we speculated – current? wind?

It was lots of wind - which filled in almost suddenly – we could see it before we could feel it. The crests of the waves were foaming up, then blowing off. Our sails snapped full and we shut the motor off. Ceilydh surged forward.

When we sail, the boat is loud – it makes living sounds that startle me still; clattering bangs, groaning creaks, and sharp thumps. The wind and waves were on our beam and the waves would crash over us, shoving us rudely. It was the first, (or maybe the second) solid wave smack (which sent things flying that had never moved before) that changed the mood aboard. Rather than going for a pleasant sail, I was holding on, knuckles white, calculating every 3-4 minutes just how many more hours more we had to travel.

As the weather worsened my sea sickness kicked in and my anxiety built. I’m tired of drama – and getting booted around by weather we didn’t sign up for pretty much pushed me past my limit. Sick (and relieved we had extra helping hands aboard), I curled up in our bunk with Maia and Charlie and tried to pretend I was in Paris. I felt the boat rattle and shake in the gusts then watched as our hatch would submerge under each breaking wave. Feeling detached, I watched as a trickle of water steadily streamed in. Occasionally I wondered if I should get a bucket or a towel to catch the water that was soaking the bed. But then I would think about the sounds – how loud and violent sounding it all was, and would forget I should be managing the leak.

Eventually we reached the lee of Santa Cruz. The wind was now a steady 40 knots, with gusts that blew our voices away, but we could see boats clustered in close, hunkered down as they waited out the gale. It was time to start the diesel so we could motor upwind and set our anchor and celebrate our arrival.

When our motor didn’t start one morning in Morro Bay Evan looked it over and discovered the starting motor was beyond repair. With our sailing weekend planned and a one-day weather window to get around Point Conception a few days away we ordered a replacement starter from an online company. The cheap piece of crap worked a charm – for 5 starts. Now, on the 6th start, when it really mattered, the engine wouldn’t turn over.

We sail fast in 40 knots of wind and the southern end of Santa Cruz is really short. At speed we’d be out the other side and into unprotected seas in a matter of minutes. Val depowered the already reefed sail, while Evan got our auxiliary outboard running. But we began to drift downwind and off the island, while our outboard’s thrust (which can normally push us at 4 knots) was no match for the wind.

Tacking into 40+ knots, in a cat, really doesn’t work that well. But Mark did his best and steered us in as close to shore as he could. Before we could blow away Ev let out all of our anchor rode and we all held our breath as the anchor caught, then dragged in a gust, then, as the sun set in a warm orange glow, seemed to catch again.

Gale force winds roared through our ringing. In the higher gusts the boat would thrum and the mast would vibrate. The spray reached our boom and hurt Evan’s face as he readied our hurricane anchor, to be dropped, should we start to drag. All of us stared out the window trying to judge if we were dragging or holding while eating our Thanksgiving turkey silently. My mouth was so dry I couldn’t swallow.

All night long we took turns sitting up, watching the radar and GPS and the lights from the boats around us, trying to judge as we rocked in the 3' wind waves and surged in the gusts if our anchor had slipped and we were about to find ourselves hurtling downwind in the now 20’ seas.

We had one gallon of gas for the outboard. We only use the engine for manoeuvring in tight quarters. We burn one gallon of gas an hour. Under optimal conditions we had gas to get us four miles. This was the problem we were confronted with in the morning when the promise for a weekend of good weather turned into a endlessly announced statement that an unstable and unexpected weather system meant we could expect continued gale force winds from the NW to be quickly followed by 35 knots of wind from the NE – a direction we had no protection from and that changed our uncomfortable predicament to a dangerous one.

We’re getting really sick of stuff breaking. And I’m getting paranoid and superstitious. It’s rubbed off on Maia. And when she found the banana Mark’s mum had packed as a snack, she snatched it away and hurled it over the side – chastising our guest for bringing such a dangerous item aboard.

Banana-free we began to formulate a plan, several plans. We called around the anchorage for gas and found a boat called Windward that not only had five gallons to spare, but who offered to deliver it. They arrived soaked but as they filled our tank they reminded me of all the best parts of being on the sea. They had been up all night too – on the radio, talking a boat in distress through the stormy night, as a coast guard helicopter lit the way with a search light.

When they realized we didn’t know the waters or what our plan should be they gave us additional options – and when the wind lay down enough from the NW, before it was scheduled to rise from the NE they led us (and another boat) back across the channel into Ventura. Where, in the dark, with an engine that’s made for calm harbours and that had submerged when we attempted to use it in the steep seas, the harbour patrol met us and led us to the safety of a dock.

We ate a late dinner that night and were giddy, high and grateful in that rare, I-survived kind of way. And today, two days later, we’re planning our next hop down the coast.
Bananas are banned.

November 26, 2009


We get asked a lot of questions; Where next? For how long? How do you afford it? But we’re rarely asked, Why?

But when I was recently asked Why sail? – I fumbled the answer.
“Because it’s something I’ve dreamed of, ever since I was six, and saw a black sailboat with Hawaii as a hailing port,” really doesn’t answer the why for me anymore. Even the why of twenty years ago, when Evan and I were planning our first trip (a search for adventure), or the why of ten years ago, when we decided to switch to a catamaran for (more speed, more space, more comfort) don’t quite fit.

I guess because I’ve held this dream for so long I don’t really think about the why of it. But it seems that journeys need a reason. Especially when the journey makes you uproot your family, walk away from a life you love and pack all your hopes and dreams into a two-hulled fibreglass tub, which tends to leak.

The thing is, for the past while, I think I’ve been avoiding the why. We’ve had such a long series of stuff go wrong (including a starting motor that failed to start the other morning) that I think if I asked myself why I wouldn’t come up with much of an answer…

Journeys need a reason.
I recently read that Morro Bay rock is the one of the Nine Sisters – a chain of extinct volcanoes that lead inland to San Luis Obispo. And I decided it would be nice to see all nine volcanoes. So we hopped on a bus and traveled the half hour, past old ranches, prisons and schools into SLO. Along the way I tried to count the rocky volcanoes – obvious by their steep shapes that give way to granite peaks above the grass lands. On the way there I got to seven, and on the way back I got to 12 (which evens out at something close to nine, so I was happy.)

While I counted I thought about how my quest to see the volcanoes made the journey to another town make sense. We had no need to go to SLO – Morro Bay has everything we need in easy walking distance of the water (I even got a decent haircut…). And we’re definitely not bored with MB – in fact we’ll leave in a few days wishing we had spent more time looking for sea otters in the estuary, climbing the sand dunes and exploring the little town.

But when I set a goal to collect experiences (I’ve set off to ride wooden roller coasters, pose with giant fibreglass vegetables and visit every province and state) it makes something that’s sort of frivolous seem more meaningful. I realized at the eleventh volcano this was what made the current question, why sail? so hard. This trip isn’t a quest, or a search for deeper meaning to life, it’s just the follow through of a whole lot of years of hard work.

Somewhere along the way I lost track of why I was doing this crazy thing and just did it. But the thing is you can’t sustain the energy for difficult, eccentric stuff for long without knowing why. I’m discovering this – the hard way.

But this morning, as I watched the sun rise over a calm sea, and hundreds of dolphins helped me greet the day, I felt a glimmer of something bigger, which reminded me why I’m here. Why the breakdowns and storms are worth it. Why it’s ok to be afraid and angry sometimes. Why we’ve set sail

I want to experience all that is silly and lush about life. I want to go places where I can count extinct volcanoes on a bus ride and see the ocean from as many different angles as possible. I want to test myself and push myself and then I want to spend lazy days recounting the stories.

I want to see dolphins leaping in the sunrise.

November 16, 2009

Damn Bananas!

Maia asked me not to buy them.

“When exactly are we leaving?” She asked as she eyed the bunch in my hand. I assured her we would finish the bananas before pulling up anchor. After all, everyone knows that bananas are bad luck on a boat.

We’d been waiting for the right weather window. And when it came on Friday the 13th, we stayed put. We’re not superstitious people, but why invite trouble?

So we headed out at first light on Saturday morning; out through the sloppy swell that seems to live at the mouth of every harbour. The cat was sick, I was green, Maia stared intently at the horizon and Evan looked grim – it was a typical start to a passage.

The sail south was exuberant. The sky was clear and bright, the wind was in the 15-25 range and seas were hitting 10 ft. We were occasionally clocking 12 knots as we leapt from wave to wave. Even though queasy I still had the urge to cheer, which I did, silently, in my head, while slumped at the settee. Evan and Maia looked like they might have been silently cheering too. I’m not sure where the cat had crawled, but he was probably not cheering.

We kept on like this. For hour after hour the wind would propel us up a wave then the swell would catch us with a bang and hurl us down the breaking crest. It was loud, rough, unsettling and exciting. The sort of thing you try to convince yourself you’re enjoying because you’re sure you should be, but it’s all a bit too dramatic.

Slowly the wind eased. Not all at once – but with a rise and a fall. In the dark night the wave crash and the surfing sensation became less predictable and our motion felt less like hurtling forward and more like wallowing side to side. The speed on the GPS dropped to 3 knots and at midnight we decided to motor.

At 3am I was off watch and asleep. I woke when something hit my hull, just under my shoulder. I jumped out of bed when something went bang at the stern. I joined Evan in the cockpit and we stared at our rudder.

Our rudders are designed to kick-up when we hit something. A concept that is great in theory, but often annoying in practice. Once the rudder is clear of debris you carefully lower it back into position and tension it with a rope. But this time the rope had snapped. The rudder was swinging freely behind us, and because the rudders are linked together, it was impossible to steer.

I think I’ve mentioned that things always go wrong at 3am, on moonless nights, in sloppy conditions. Our rudder would have been simple to fix in a calm harbour. Ev would have tied a new rope in place and tensioned it. But when waves are lifting your stern, hurling it aside and burying it in cold foam, crouching on the lowest step, reaching into a tiny crevice that is often submerged in deep swell, while a heavy rudder tries to crush your arm, as you attempt to tie a one-handed knot – well, it’s hard.

I felt sick and helpless as I watched Evan get battered and buried by the phosphorescent waves, under a silky starlit night, where Orion glowed more brilliantly than I’d even seen. As I tried to help, and tried not to throw-up, I wished we were somewhere else, anywhere else. But I also knew life on the ocean is like that: moments of unbearable beauty and utter shittyness all mixed up in a way that you can’t divide them apart.

I felt oddly calm – knowing we weren’t in danger - that if this fix didn’t work another would.
We had options.

Evan worked his way through options 1-4 as methodically as you can when you’re clinging to the back of a boat that’s trying to hurtle you into a cold black ocean. After an hour, the rudder was secure enough that we could steer. We crawled back inside. Evan changed into dry clothes and we both sat silently on the settee for a while - uncertain what to feel.

That fix lasted until 8am, when the temporary rope broke and Evan got to do it all again, in daylight.
 Maia noticed the bananas as we arrived at Morro Bay. She looked at me accusingly as she pointed at them. I wanted to tell her we can’t be superstitious, but I couldn’t. I also didn’t throw them away.
They’ll make good banana bread.

November 13, 2009

Stepping Out

  Considering we’re travelling quite a distance, the part of the world that we actually end up seeing is really rather small.
For the most part, once we’ve set our anchor in a harbour we only see the places we can reach by foot.
We rely on our legs to carry us for both errands and for entertainment.

 During our extended stay in Half Moon Bay we’ve been walking everyday. When Maia has done her schoolwork, I’ve finished writing and we’ve all completed our chores, we dingy into the dock and set off. Sometimes we’ll have a destination in mind: a rugged bluff above the ocean, the surf break or a long curving beach. Most of the time though we just choose a direction and see what we find.

 The funny thing, to me, is how many of our walks simply show us the ocean from different angles. You’d think that as people who live on and travel across the sea we would be eager to go inland and get away from the water. But we don’t. We tend to meander down beaches or along coastal trails watching the light shift over waves that are always changing.

 Yesterday we found these houses, four doors apart from each other, on a road that was once a coastal highway:

 We talked to one of the owners and learned his home was built in 1919 and that his yard once stretched all the way to the surf break. Then he told us about Michael Powers, an aging hippy/artist/adventure traveller – who built this house by hand over many decades:

 It sits in between lacklustre modern houses on a coastal road that is falling into the sea at a rate of a foot or more a year. The harbour, where our boat sits protected by the stone breakwater, has changed the currents so much that the shore further along is eroding.

 We all turned to the sea as he told us how it was changing his patch of land. And he told us he wouldn’t live anywhere else, that being in a place where he could see, hear, smell and feel the ocean is fundamental to his happiness.

We understood.

November 10, 2009

Going Nowhere, again

We’re in Half Moon Bay still. We arrived just ahead of the big swell that makes Mavericks surf break so famous. For 3 days massive swell rolled in across the Pacific and churned up a huge wave. The day we walked out to the point there were a half-dozen surfers out in the 20' swell. They use jetskis to get them in position.

The quiet protected anchorage at Half Moon Bay is a nice change from the noise and excitement of San Francisco. We’ve been getting projects done, visiting with friends and doing a bit of exploring. But we’re ready to go now. Our laundry is done, provisions bought and our next destination is picked out.

Mark and Val's new ridgetop property - lots of potential and lots of work

Unfortunately Mother Nature has her own ideas about these things – and the nice weather window we were planning to head out on (NW 10-20 knots 6-8 ft seas) is due to close before we can make it to Morro Bay – which is the sort of place you don’t want to be entering when the wind is hitting 30kts.

So we’re sticking around. I always find the moment when our plans evaporate, and throw us back into uncertainty the hardest. Guess I’ll learn to embrace it eventually – but I was kind of looking forward to Southern California…

November 6, 2009

We're Leaking

 If I had listened to my mum while I was growing up I would have known that bragging about our awesome weather would not only earn me ill feelings from others – but it might even cause one of them to put a cold and rain hex on us. Actually, she never said the hex part, but I’m pretty certain she told me that gloating isn’t very nice.

So I’m sorry. My last post was mean.
Can you make it stop raining now?

 I normally don’t mind the rain too much. When I lived in a leak-free home that had ample heat, and easy an easy way to dry clothes (and the kid) it was actually kind of nice to go outside and stomp through puddles.
But we don’t live in a leak-free home.
We live on a leaky boat.
A cold and damp leaky boat with indoor puddles.

 We discovered the leaks during our last rain storm. We had six of them (leaks, not storms). Six leaks is a lot and they included two leaking windows, one leaking hatch, one leaking heater, one leaking fitting and a mystery leak. Our mattress got soaked. And we had to use all our buckets and pots to catch the drips and then when it was time to make dinner we had nothing to cook in.
I though it might be a good excuse to go out.
But it was really wet out and the seats of the dinghy were soaked so we stayed home and went hungry. (See jinx person? This rain is really tough on us.)

 Fixing leaks on a boat is something almost every boat owner is familiar with. It’s such a popular topic that I’ve written quite a few variations of this article. So you’d think that we would be able to make our boat, a dry boat.

I thought I had a really good solution – avoid rain for a year, maybe two. My mistake was in gloating about it – so again, I’m sorry.
When you think about the fact we went from six leaks to two, we’ve really improved and are clearly quite good at fixing leaks (at least that’s what I tell Ev, so he doesn’t get too demoralized). As soon as the rain stops though it will be time to rebed and recaulk the leaking fittings (and quietly sneak south to places that are warm and where rain doesn’t fall.)

Heading south is actually a few more days off in our future. There must be a heck of a system brewing out there; our 5-7 foot swell is scheduled to grow to 15-17 feet tonight…

November 3, 2009

Chasing Summer

 Maia spoke with a friend from home last night who told her she was wearing her winter jacket to school. She told her that they have had indoor lunches the weather has been so bad. Maia went boogy boarding at the beach in Half Moon Bay after she finished her work today.

 We used to like the way autumn would blow into our lives, full of coolness and colour.

But this year the leaves aren't changing for us and the wind continues to blow soft and warm.

 Our winter clothes are still tucked away - almost like a memory.

It's almost as though we've been chasing summer from one port to the next.

Just saying...

November 1, 2009

Sailing, we are sailing...

When you spend years re-building a boat, you stop sailing, you stop hanging out together and, if you’re not careful, you stop dreaming. Every weekend, and often weeknights, Evan would head to Ceilydh. Sometimes I would tag along with Maia and we’d all install hatches, lay-up fibreglass and remove old fittings. But mostly Evan worked alone. The project, while often fulfilling, also wore us down - it taxed our marriage, diminished our bank account and pulled us away from family and friends. If ever there were a time I longed to just go sailing - this was it. But instead, the tasks stretched on.

Then you hit the point when you're done, or done enough. And nothing can compare to that moment when the wind fills your sails and you're free. When you sail to the next harbour, with a warm breeze on your face and a dream in your mind, it's almost possible to forget what it felt like to miss yet another event because you had fibreglass to sand.

Ceilydh hasn't sailed since Oregon. We've put plenty of hours on the motor, but it's sailing that first brought Evan and I together and sailing has been what's propelled us through our years.

Evan likes to beat the pants off of the other boats. I like to gather friends and family and combine all the elements I love best. Both are good ways to sail.

Steve and Irma (before there was a Maia, Ellie or Clara) shared in our dream about someday owning a boat and sailing away. Later they sailed with us on little Ceilydh once we reached the east coast. They came with us today to test our repaired rig and see us off as we start south again.

Our day was perfect. The sailing was perfect.