The Graveyard of the Pacific.

August 31st – September 10th

As we turned south past Cape Flattery, having escaped at last from our home coastal waters, we were confronted with the reality that we would soon be spending the night, or several nights at sea. We were still elated with a sense of accomplishment as we prepared dinner. We spent that afternoon and evening together in the cockpit, flying all three sails in a nice breeze, and marveling at the ocean as we watched the enormous cape grow smaller and smaller off of our port quarter. Until at last, the sun began to sink in electric splendor beneath the horizon. It lingered there at the edge, longer than seemed natural, as if reluctant to leave the world…..today’s sun, gone now forever, only to be replaced by stars beyond measure. Time was up! That realization that we had earlier, about our nights to come was here. We had both been awake since 3:30am, as we had prepared to depart Port Angeles. We would need to sleep. So we reefed the sails and readied the boat for night.

We had decided to adopt a “four on, four off” watch schedule. I would take midnight to 4am, Julie four to eight, me eight to noon and so on. It was now 8:30 pm, I was going to have to take over on watch in less than four hours, but I did not want leave Julianne alone. So I gathered up some wool blankets, made a bed in the cockpit and settled in to try and sleep. The stars, the rocking boat and the thought of our first night at sea, conspired to keep me awake. But eventually , I did begin to relax and had just began to doze when Julie exclaimed “shit! Baby, I think that I am going to need you to wake up. The wind has completely died!”

The wind HAD completely died. Not rhetoric, not bombast, or exaggeration. The night was as still as could be and the ocean stretched flat, without a ripple in every direction. A glass mirror that reflected the stars in the sky, so that it was difficult to determine up from down. 

Julianne’s watch was come to an end. She was exhausted! So down she went into the salon to try and get some rest. It was midnight and I was determined to keep us moving in the right direction at least. I tried every sail combination possible to no avail. We were 26 miles from shore and DIW……dead in the water.  Caught in a never ending square dance on the ocean, always moving, but never going anywhere.

I resigned myself to keeping watch, trying to stay warm and waiting out the long night. It was an amazing night though. The ocean continued to be a mirror; the stars over ran the night sky, an invading army assaulting the world and too numerous to articulate. There were shooting stars and satellites. And……. I had company! Flocks of cormorants would take flight as we drifted into their sleeping area. Their feet slapping against the water as they ran across the surface in order to gain speed and take flight. They would circle in perfect sychronicity,  and land again a couple of hundred yards away. There were sea lions, who would surface seemingly with the sole purpose to yell at the night’s sky. Barking for minutes at a time before disappearing back into the ocean. And there was a gray whale.

We had seen the whales the previous afternoon, when we were sailing. Shooting there spouts into the air, their backs rolling above the surface and a flash of the tail as they dove. There had been five or six of them hanging around. This one was back. And he wasn’t going anywhere! Up one side of the boat and down the other, all night long. Spouting, singing his whale song, slapping his tail, loudly on the surface. Just feet away. Sometimes he startled me, and I began to talk to him. I decided in the end that he was lonely and that this was a courtship. He had taken an interest in Epiphany! And who could blame him? With her pronounced bow, eleven foot beam and rounded stern! She is beautiful….a catch for any whale! I will confess that I was a bit delirious at this point.

Finally 4am came and Julianne returned up on deck. We had travelled 0.0 miles on my watch. The fog was rolling in and everything was wet. And we were cold. We started the motor and determined to go very slowly south until dawn brought us some visibility. Dawn came, and the fog abated, but no wind came with it. We had been adrift, save for the two hours of motoring, for eight hours. We were wet, cold and very tired. We decided that we needed to regroup. Grays Harbor, on the Washington coast, was 70 miles away. At an average of 5 knots that would take us 14 hours. If we were very lucky, we might make it there before dark. We started the motor, ramped up to 2600 RPMs and turned SE. Julianne drove for most of the morning, letting me get some sleep. I was still bedded down in the cockpit, but this time I slept soundly. 

At lunch time we were joined by dolphins. A pod of dolphins usually consist of about a dozen individuals. This is their social group, or family. When there is an abundance of food in an area, pods may join together for an extended period, forming a super pod. These super pods can number in the thousands. We did not count them, but we had 100s of dolphins around us. Jumping in unison, three and four abreast on each side of the boat. Using the wake of our bow as a spring board to launch themselves and diving under the boat again and again. Little silver misles flashing by, just beneath the surface. And they were hunting. We watched as they herded the fish, working together to drive them. Leaping out of the water and stabbing their bills forward to stun the fish. It was such an amazing experience and we were grateful and amazed to be present for it.

Finally in the afternoon, the winds came and brought the swells with them. As we got closer to land and in shallower water,  the seas got more confused. We were motor sailing and the waves had grown large. The wind and the swells were from behind us and it was difficult not to jibe. The sails kept whipping back and forth as the wind filled in from the opposite side. Eventually we tied the boom down, so at least that did not swing about. The good news was, with the following seas pushing us, some wind in our sails and our 50 HP diesel working hard, we were making 6 and a half knots steady and over 7 as we surfed down some of the bigger waves. Grays Harbor was within reach! 

We crossed the bar and into the harbor in angry water. The tide was starting out as the wind and swells were coming in. The exact scenario for a bad bar crossing. The seas were really big and confused, hitting us from multiple directions just moments apart. So that we were being pushed both up and down, back and forth, left and right all at the same time. It is like being in a washing machine. But we had good visibility and other boats making the crossing with us. And we had just motered for 12 hours to get here. If it was possible, we were going in!

 

fishing boats westport
Westport Fishing Fleet

 

The harbor was inundated with commercial fishing boats. There were hundreds of them in all shapes and sizes. The smell of fish permeated the air. As we entered the harbor we passed a pier that was over run with sea lions. Dozens of 1000 pound lions all barking in unison, a cacophony of bass notes. There weight was so ,that the whole pier listed to one side. The marina has had to forfeit that pier. It belongs to the sea lions now and I do not see how they could ever reclaim it.…..I guess they write it off to the price of doing business. We found a slip, tied up our boat, drank a glass of wine and slept for 14 hours.

We woke up on Sunday morning to a beautiful day. We were still out of sorts, but we were recuperating fast. Although we didn’t know it, we had pulled in on labor day weekend. The harbor was alive with tourist and sport fishermen. We were pleasantly surprised by how nice the little town of Westport was. The board walk that lines the harbor is full of little shops and restaurants. People filled the streets to shop and eat. Children ran along carrying huge scooped ice cream and strands of salt water taffy. We spent the afternoon in a little tavern off of the main drag. They had internet. So we ate fish and chips and drank ice cold draft beer as we caught up on some work. I need to say that we have a good friend who lives in Westport and she will be disappointed that we did not call. But we were exhausted and needed to figure out our next strategy.

westport
Westport

We decided to stay inside, within 10 miles of land….. at least for a night. The coast from Vancouver island in the north to central Oregon around Tillamok Head in the south, is no joke. The area is known as the graveyard of the pacific, and has claimed more than 2000 shipwrecks. The Columbia river bar is a huge contributor to the area’s notorious reputation (if you want to see for yourself, go to youtube and google Columbia River Bar crossing; pay special attention to the Coast Guard cutters!). Still, the bar is crossed, and by small pleasure boats to boot. If you pay attention, do your research and apply common sense, there is no reason that you cannot cross safely. 

The best time to make a bar crossing is on the slack. Choosing between the ebb slack and the flood slack is where opinions start to differ. but it is not cut and dry either way. Our strategy is to choose the best combination of slack, with least amount of height change from the previous tide, and in the brightest daylight.

There was a high tide at 6:30 pm the next day with only a three foot differential from the preceding low. We left Westport in plenty of time to make the 45 mile journey. The day was off to a great start, we had wind and it was from the west! We raised our sails and set out on a beam reach heading due south. We made great time all through the morning, sailing at 6 knots in a steady 12 knot breeze. By mid afternoon the wind lightened and changed to NW. We couldn’t point the way we needed to go and to tack back and forth would eat to much daylight. So we motored in the last three hours and were sitting off the Columbia River mouth, green buoy #3, right on time! We crossed the bar without even realizing it was there. Motoring at 2200 RPMs, the last remnants of the incoming tide providing a little push. We arrived at a narrow, winding channel just inside the mouth. Turning into it, we followed into the marina at Ilwaco, WA. We tied up behind a salty looking sailboat and toasted our success. Planning and research had paid off in spades! Julianne put on a pot roast, while I hooked up shore power and put our topside ship shape.

cape disappointment
Cape Disappointment. North side of Columbia river entrance.

The salty looking sailboat was the Magic Tern and soon enough her skipper, Chuck, showed up to say hi. Chuck is an experienced sailor, who was just returning from a trip up north, on the outside of Vancouver island. He lives in Eastern Washington with his wife and daughter. Chuck had dropped his crew off that morning and now would have to motor single handed up the river to get home. He was a hell of a nice guy. We invited him to a glass of wine but he ended up staying through diner and then some, as we chatted into the night. We asked his advice on many things. Especially about strategy/comfort of sailing through the night. In the end, one thing that he said which stuck, was less about technique or strategy, it was simply pragmatic. “If you are going to go cruising, you are going to have to sail through the nights. You want to sail through the nights. If you don’t, you will never get anywhere.”

Screen Shot 2018-09-21 at 10.12.59 AM
Chuck and Magic Tern.

Chuck broke out the tides charts and helped us formulate a course to arrive in Newport. There was a favorable tide for crossing the Columbia Bar again in the morning and the winds were projected NW. Our plan was to spend the day to run off shore SW, jibe and run SE right into Newport. “reach out and reach in”. As I said, Chuck is really nice guy; It was a good plan and we took his advice.

By 9am the next morning, we had three sails up in 20 knots of wind! We were heeled over well to port and the Columbia river was fading from view dead astern as we headed SW. Best yet, Wilson was driving! Wilson is our wind vane. He is a mechanical, self steering device and we love him! The seas were 5 to 6 feet and they remained confused through the first half of the day; as the Columbia continued to exert it’s influence over the currents, miles out to sea.

It was bumpy and the wind kept intensifying; 20 knots apparent with higher gust and not letting up. We continued to heel hard and were growing uncomfortable. We had water draining from the scuppers as the rails dipped into the sea. The swells had grown to eight feet out of the west. On its own that would have been fine, but the NW wind blowing 20 knots all day, was producing three to four foot wind waves that ran almost perpendicular to the swell. We were back in that washing machine that we had seen in Grays Harbor! We decided to reef. First we put away the staysil and one reef in the main. But it was still too much power. The seas were building rapidly and it was starting to get dark. We would have to change course or change our sails. We decided to change our sails. We stowed the Genoa completely, went to the third reef on the main and rolled the staysil back out.  It still was not comfortable. The wind remained at 20 knots and the big seas were hard on our beam. Big rolling mountains of water coming right toward our side. But Epiphany does what Epiphany does, rising right up and over. Disdaining to even acknowledge their presence; a lady among ruffians!

Finally as night fell, we jibed, turning SE and filling our sails from the opposite side. We quickly plotted our course and heading and to our amazement…..we had timed it perfectly! We were 25 miles off shore and 40 miles north, but we were pointed directly at Newport! 

The change in direction had put the swells behind us and they were big now. Sitting in the cockpit and looking back at a wave that is six or eight feet over your head and rushing toward you at high speed is disconcerting at first. But once again…..Epiphany just does her thing. As the wave approaches, her canoe stern gets up on top and rises up and over until we start surfing down the backside. The worst part of the direction change was those wind waves shoving us around. Or worse yet breaking against the side, sending sea spray into the cockpit.

I checked with Julianne to see if she needed anything. She was bundled in all of her foul weather gear: coat, bibs, stocking hat, boots and lots of wool underneath. She had it under control, so I went down to get some sleep before my mid watch. It was really bumpy and it was loud!  You could barely keep your footing inside the salon. Even when holding on with both hands! I laid down but, for four hours I never really slept. It was way too rough. Around 11:30 I got up to check and see if Julianne needed anything. She still had everything under control so I laid back down. I must have fallen asleep. When I woke up 20 minutes later, the wind had calmed down to 12 knots and the swells and wind waves were dying too. Lincloln City lay clearly visible to port and Newport was only a few miles ahead!

Julianne had gotten her ass kicked for four solid hours and brought us all the way to the doorstep of our destination! All while suffering the churning of the boat, the freezing cold, and ocean spray of those damned wind waves!  I was proud of her and amazed as I always am….and I felt a little bad. Now the world was tranquil! She was exhausted and went immediately below to sleep.

A few hours later, at 6am on the 5th of September, we motored between the jettys and into the channel at Newport. We passed beneath the Yaquina Bay bridge, 246 feet over head, and into the harbor just as the sun rose in the east. It was a great feeling to tie the boat up and put her away safely into another port! We texted Chuck that we had made it exactly according to plan. We were tired, and proud, but mostly feeling a great sense of relief. There is a proverb that states “good weather, doesn’t produce good sailors.” We had put some distance behind us……..maybe we were starting to get the hang of this.

newport
Approaching Newport, just before sun up.

We were going to be in Newport for a few days. Julianne’s Mom and step dad live right down the road in Lincoln city. We were looking forward to a bath and a bed! But now, in this moment, we were quiet……and still. It was 7:30 am, we were safely in harbor and the morning sun warming us through. We smiled at each other and hugged. Then we cracked open two Coors lights and toasted our success. Hey……it was 5 o’clock somewhere, right?

Newport, with the Yaquina bridge behind us. Moments before opening a coors light!IMG_1937

2 thoughts on “The Graveyard of the Pacific.

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