August 11, 2022 and we are back in our “home harbor”, Port Angeles Washington, after 3.5 months sailing in Canada and Alaska – just a little loop of 2317 nautical miles. During the coming week we will be getting Capri, ready for real ocean sailing.
Since we more than 2 years ago made the decision to leave Polynesia and sail to Alaska, I’ve dreaded the 8-900nm trip down the west coast of USA to San Francisco. This stretch is infamous amongst sailors because the weather is very unstable, frequent gales and storms and enormous choppy waves. Add to this the fact that few of the harbors on the coast can be entered during inclement weather, so no bail-out – well you can see what I mean.
Most of the harbors along the coast can only be entered at high tide. The entrances have high sandbars built up by the incoming swells. During inclement weather, the coast guard will simply close the harbor for entrance, because the water isn’t deep enough over the sandbar when you are in the trough of a wave. Over the years, many boats, including fishing boats have floundered on the bars when they tried to seek refuge from heavy storms. There is only harbor that can be entered no matter what the weather (even though the entrance is certain to be hair-raising if tried in a storm), and that is Crescent City, approximately 450nm down the coast from Port Angeles.
I have read several descriptions of this route and met a number of sailors who have made the passage and none of them tells of pleasant cruising. It is always a difficult passage with gales and frequently very high swells. There is an eternal discussion of the best route, sail out several hundred miles from the coast beyond the continental shelf and get out of the chop. Trouble with that is the swells are even bigger out there and you are now faced with a two-day sail to get back in to the coast. Many that have tried this noted that they made their way back in towards the coast after a couple of days that far out. We have our doubts as to the best route. There are three options:
- Stay close to the coast at the 300 meter depth curve. There is an agreement with the fishermen along the coast that they leave a two nm wide belt clear of nets etc. all the way down the coast. The advantage to this route is that you can harbor hop all the way down. You are close enough to the coast that you can make into the harbors before the weather acts up and the harbor closes. The disadvantage is that this coast is usually enclosed in close fog this time of year (fogust).
- Ocean sailing more than 100 miles from the coast. The advantage is the out there, there is no fog and no fishing nets or the like. There is though a good possibility that you run into the big ships and as noted above, it is at least a full day’s sail to come back into the coast if you run into trouble.
- Ocean sailing 30-40nm from the coast. Here, you are close enough to run for shelter if a storm suddenly shows up and it is far enough out that you can avoid most of the fog and the fishing nets. We’ll let you know later if that is true.
We written in earlier blogs about the unusual weather we are experiencing this year – due to La Niña. La Niña causes the waters along the American west coast to remain colder than normal. This means that the large stationary high pressure that forms off the coast in May has been severely delayed. The high pressure didn’t manifest itself until July and even then, it was unstable and not able to prevent the low-pressure storms coming from the west from reaching the coast.
We can’t expect to get a weather window that will be stable a full week, which is a necessity if we are going to plan to sail the entire 800nm to San Francisco in one haul. Our sail plan follows option 3 (above) and we will stay 30-40 nm from the coast and plan to stop at Crescent City, 450nm down the coast. There we can wait for a new weather window, which will allow us to navigate the fearsome Cape Mendocino, 80 miles further south. The Cape is renowned for ferocious acceleration winds and extreme swells. The passage from Crescent City to San Francisco is 300nm. Sailboats, of course, rarely sail the rhumbline, we have to take the winds and the swells into consideration. All told, we are expecting to sail over 900nm from Port Angeles to SF.
Several other cruiser look worried when they hear we are double-handing. The weather, they say, can be severe and the cold will exhaust the crew (both of us). But enough of all the issues, let’s tell you how it went:
Port Angeles to Crescent City
It is August (Fogust) 18 (our wedding anniversary) when we take in our lines and leave Port Angeles. First, we have to sail the 60 or so nm from Port Angeles down the Juan de Fuca Straits to the Pacific Ocean. We left at midmorning so we could take advantage of the 6 hours of a following current to help us make the trip in a hurry. We’ve picked a good day – no wind unfortunately, but better yet, no fog.
The trip down the straits is uneventful. The sun is shining and Carsten and I enjoy sailing, even though we are on the engine, the entire afternoon. No wind means that there certainly will be advection fog starting this evening and lasting through the night into tomorrow morning. When we exit the strait, we “cut” the corner and head southwest instead of just west. We want to sail about 35nm from the coast, but we also want to get a bit south and avoid the fog if we can. The weather forecast says there should be some wind a bit further south and that would be great. The fog decides to remain absent, for which we are thankful. No fog means we are better able to maneuver around the fishing boats that we meet along the way.
Fishing boats are dangerous in the dark and fog. Their powerful work lights means that it is impossible to see their navigation lights (which in turn means we have no idea if they are coming or going). Most of them turn off their AIS; even though the law requires them to have it turned on, (they don’t want their competitors to know where they are catching fish). When they are sailing out to their fishing area, they set the boat on autopilot and the entire crew is busy getting their nets and other gear ready to fish. When they are out there, they are too busy fishing to bother looking for other boats and on the way back to the harbor; everyone is busy sorting the catch. In other words, they don’t spend any time keeping watch. They can’t hear the VHF because they have a stereo system going full blast.
We’re finally 35 nm out after sailing slalom around diverse fishing boats. At midnight we see dark, darker, darkest (read: black) clouds approaching us from the south. The forecast has said nothing about this. The meteorologists are forecasting winds from the northwest at 15-20 knots, gusting up to 25 knots. That is wonderful sailing weather. Unfortunately, that is not what we get.
Vinni and I say the old sailor’s prayer: “Lord may we be truly blessed for what we are about to receive”.
Carsten has the first watch and can tell me when I come to relieve him, that we’re lucky. The lightning is far out at sea. So far, that he can’t hear any thunder. As usual, when I come on deck, things go south. Over the next couple of hours, the storm draws near. It begins to rain and I seek shelter under the sprayhood. Every 10 minutes I check the radar and AIS and search the invisible horizon for signs of ships.
Shit and double shit. I hate thunder and lightning – and this I get on my birthday. What a shitty present the weather gods have sent me to celebrate. The lightning continues to draw closer and finally the mother of all thunderclaps resounds right over our heads while the night is rent and turned to day by the mother of all lightning strikes. I’m not touching any metal so I didn’t get hurt. I check the mast, which looks OK. Our instruments are apparently working. Meanwhile, Carsten has jumped out of bed and is now in the cockpit, au natural, asking, “What the hell – have we been hit?” I tell him that, so far, we’ve been lucky and avoided the lightning. The bolts begin to recede in the distance and an hour later the pressure front has passed us. That lightning strike was so scary that it almost became brown shorts time. It is still overcast, but no wind.
Day’s sail – 146nm
The gribfiles are still forecasting no wind. You can never trust the weather forecasts you get before departure. Oh well, nothing to be done about it, we sail onwards in the gray and drizzle on the engine.
Where in the world are the following currents everyone talks about? We are experiencing 0.5 knots against us when it is supposed to be 0.5 with us. I guess you have to go further out to catch the current. We must be caught in some sort of eddy this close to shore.
That evening, we get a little wind. 9-10 knots from the Northwest. We set sail and enjoy it for a few hours before it dies, then we are back on the engine.
No fog yet, thank goodness.
Day’s sail – 146nm
The weather clears a bit and we get some sunshine. Still no wind. Early evening the wind finally comes, 10-14 knots, but from the NNE not NW as forecast. We set the sails, but with the current running against us, we still have to run the engine to make over five knots. It is no good lying ahull out here waiting for wind. This is a coast that you want to pass as fast as possible.
Our luck finally runs out – that morning the fog rolls in.
Day’s sail 131nm
The fog closes in and gets denser and denser as the day continues. That night we are sailing in pea soup. The night is as black as the Earl of Hell’s waistcoat. We can see nothing and have to rely on our radar and our AIS to tell us if there is anything out here, we have to avoid. It is Saturday and thankfully, the fishermen seem to be taking the day off. The fog is as cold as any I’ve ever felt. The chill runs clear into the bones and Carsten and I are reduced to taking 1-hour watches because of the cold. After an hour in the cockpit, we need to get below and lie under the down duvet to warm up. Sleep is beyond both of us – we lie there and shiver.
The last couple of hours, we slow down. We don’t want to try to enter Crescent City in the dark and fog. Did anyone say “California sun and fun?”
As we close in on Crescent City, we spot another sailboat on the AIS, Wildflower, a catamaran that left San Juan de Fuca at the same time we did. We spotted them a couple of times on the way down, they went into Newport to bunker diesel. They will later tell us that they found wind in close to the coast.
How wonderful to be in a harbor. We both need a shower, hot breakfast and several hours of sleep. The weather forecast says that there is a window to pass Cape Mendocino day after tomorrow.
Day’s sail (16 hours) – 91nm
Total sailed so far – 514nm
Crescent City to San Francisco
We arise the next morning, not quite fully rested yet. The forecast says that the window it previously has forecast for tomorrow is today. Our choices are simple: leave now or wait another week. The forecast says that if we don’t leave now, there will be a gale blowing for at least a week. We get Capri ready for the next leg. Wildflower says they will wait for a week. Even though the harbor is enveloped in heavy fog, we take in our lines and depart. We’re hoping the fog will lift further out to sea.
No wind, so we are feeling our way through the fog. Along the way, we see several buoys anchoring fishnets. Finally, 5 miles out, the fog lifts and the fishnets are gone.
A few hours later, the wind arrives and we can turn off our engine and continue onwards wing-on-wing (with our mainsail out to one side and our genua poled out to the other side). The rest of the day the sailing is wonderful.
That evening, as we approach the critical point of rounding Cape Mendocino, the wind freshens; blowing 20-25 knots and the swells rise to 2-3 meters. It is still comfortable sailing, our mainsail is in the second reef. Capri blasts along making 7-8 knots.
We got 2/3’s of the way round the Cape before the acceleration winds began to pick up. It is now gale force (30+ knots) and the swells have risen to 3-4 meters (12-14 feet). Worse, we have to gybe. Carsten hates to gybe at night. It is difficult for him to orient himself out on the foredeck in the dark when he has to take the poled out genua in from the one side and pole it out to the other. Adding in that the deck is rolling and pitching in the high waves, the wind is shrieking, and he is, as he says, “not a happy camper”. But there is no way around it, we have to gybe to get closer to shore and out of the swells that are growing larger by the minute.
Despite Carsten cursing up on deck, the gybe is uneventful. Carsten takes over the watch and I go below for some well-deserved sleep and a chance to get warm again.
I wake when I hear a huge crash above my head and the Capri jerks around like a top. We’ve had a crash gybe. A big wave came from the side, throwing Capri around. Carsten could do nothing and the wind got behind the mainsail. Carsten says, “Shit, you need to come up right away”, as he shines a flashlight up on the sail to see how bad things are.
“We have a major problem”, he adds.
We have a boombrake mounted to prevent a crash gybe. Unintentional gybes can easily happen when you are sailing at 150-160 to the wind and the waves are running 4 meters. Our boombrake is supposed to either act as a preventer stopping the gybe or at least act as a brake, slowing the entire process down so everything happens in slow motion and there is no damage. Other boats have lost their entire rig in a crash gybe.
So how did it happen if the boombrake is supposed to prevent it? The line from the boombrake goes through a clutch that keeps the line taut. With the line taut, the boombrake allows no movement of the boom. When we look, we see that the outer covering of the line has been peeled back like a banana peel. Once this happened, the clutch can’t hold on to the inner core, which is not a large in diameter as the line with the outer covering. The line then simply slipped through the clutch and the boom gybed.
So why didn’t we also have a preventer mounted? A preventer is another line that is stretched from the back of the boom to a point far forward on the deck, making it impossible for the boom to move. First, because the boombrake should function as well as a preventer. In fact, the boombrake DID function. The reason the outer covering of the line stripped off was that the boombrake was holding the boom (and sail) against the tremendous forces applied by the wind. Secondly, Carsten feels we have so many lines running up on the deck that he is in danger of tripping (and potentially falling off the boat) if we have many more.
What could we do? Not only had the boombrake line stripped (that was a minor problem to fix), worse, the shackle on our traveler was broken in half. This was a serious problem. Without the traveler, there is no place to hook the boom to.
To put it mildly, we were in deep shit.
The boom was slammed tight up against the shrouds and held, plastered there, by the wind. Our first order of priority was to somehow get it back to the middle so we could drop the sail or figure something else out. Until we did that, we could not control the boat. Worse, if a wave threw Capri in the wrong direction, the wind would get behind the sail and we would have another crash gybe, just in the other direction. This time there would be no brake at all. The first gybe, the line covering stripping and the shackle breaking on the traveler must have lessened the speed and force of the gybe.
Carsten acts quickly, diving into the cockpit locker and coming up with a long line with a carabiner hook in the middle. He dons a lifeline and crawls out on the deck as the waves crash over him. I’m desperately trying to hold Capri on a course so we don’t get another crash gybe in the other direction. If Carsten gets hit by the boom, he’ll die. Carsten manages to get the carabiner hooked into the block on the mainsail sheet and then he runs them back to a winch on either side. Now he can crank in the sail to the middle and control it.
Carsten then ties the mainsail block to the remnants of the traveler car with a length of Dynema. Dynema is ultra-strong rope. It will hold anything, almost no matter what the load. Meanwhile I’ve tried to lay Capri with her stern directly up in the wind to lessen the forces against the mainsail. The reader has to understand here that in these high waves, it is simply not possible to turn Capri into the wind. If we try that, we risk broaching, or worse, a knockdown.
Now I’m unlucky. A freak wave crashes in from the side, throwing Capri around and we have a new crash gybe. The soft shackle of Dynema Carsten has rigged, parts with a pistol shot as the line is cut by a sharp edge. Carsten curses up a storm, some of it aimed at me (fair enough). Not only did the crash scare the hell out of him, he almost lost a finger as the lines tightened. Fortunately, it was only “mashed”. Carsten dons his lifeline once again and crawls out on deck to retrieve the boom that is now plastered up against the rigging. Same procedure as before.
We’ve got the boom centered again. Carsten mounts a new and heavier soft shackle in a different way so there is no way it can be cut. We agree that we need to drop the mainsail and continue on the poled out genua. The mainsail, of course, doesn’t drop by itself in this heavy of a wind. Someone has to go on deck and haul it down by hand. Once more Carsten grabs his lifeline and crawls up through the waves running over the deck. This time he ties himself to the mast so he can use both hands to haul the sail down. We’ve agreed that we can run only a reefed genua. We roll the genua halfway out and we’re making 6-7 knots. The waves are still enormous.
Dawn begins breaking and we realize that the past chaotic hours have taken place in darkness and heavy fog. We were preoccupied so we didn’t notice. Despite the preoccupation, I kept a wary eye on the radar so we didn’t run into anyone. Christ – what a night. This is the first time we have had a major accident like this since we left Denmark. I’m truly happy that Carsten was so fast thinking, found and implemented a solution. A heroic deed in a hard gale and 4-meter waves in darkness and fog – well done skipper!
Day’s sail – 167nm
We continue with only a 1/3 genua set. The gale is still blowing, gusting up to 40 knots and the swells are still 4 meters, but the period (time between the swells) has shrunk to less than 6 seconds, now that we are near the coast. The sea is riotous. Carsten pulls down a new weather forecast and says that we need to close to less than 10nm from shore, before the winds will begin to lessen.
The forecast holds true but later that night the gale returns and we are forced even closer to the shore. When we reach 5 miles from shore, the wind finally lets up and we get a quieter ride. The swells seem also to have calmed in here. The fog has not left us and we can see nothing.
It is still so cold and the air is filled with moisture that we are again only able to take 1-hour watches. After 2 days and nights of sailing in a gale and being chilled to the bone, we are exhausted. Neither one has slept much and the crash gybe has drained us of energy. At 4 am, Carsten wakes me and askes me to take over the watch. He is freezing and falling asleep at the helm. The crash gybe and following strenuous crawling around on the deck has worn him out. I take over and decide that we will not enter San Francisco Bay this evening. Instead we will anchor in Drakes Bay, 25nm north of San Francisco, get a warm meal and sleep. San Francisco can wait until tomorrow.
The last two hours I slow Capri down so we reach the anchorage at dawn and don’t have to try to anchor in the dark. The fog is still with us. After a big hot breakfast and 3 hours hard sleep, we both feel better.
Sailed in all 270nm
As I’ve noted before, passagemaking is not about the distance sailed, but the conditions you sail in. It doesn’t matter if you have to spend 25 or 30 days on the water. They can be relaxing and easy to take. A few days like the ones we’ve just had are rough. The sailing itself would have been tiring, add in the huge expenditure of energy involved with the crash gybe and it comes close to a nightmare.
The next morning we’re up early, 5 am to be exact, so we can catch the morning tide into the bay. We run into some heavy eddy current against us the first 10-15 miles but then we get a following current and we reach the bridge at noon, just as we planned. Today, slack water is right at noon and we hit it right on the nose.
The sail in is a “walk in the park”. The shipping lanes fill the entire width of the bridge. Before getting to the bridge you have to make sure you have negotiated the giant sandbar lying outside. They do dredge it, but only in the shipping lanes for the big ships. Pleasure boats such as us are not allowed to use the shipping lanes.
There is a narrow channel we can use to approach the bridge, but it is renowned for choppy seas, eddy currents and strong currents. Just to make things more exciting, the channel runs right next to the shore.
We have the current at our backs as we near the bridge. Carsten has radioed Vessel Traffic Control to get permission to sail at the edge of the shipping lane. Normally not a problem, but we want to sail in the opposite direction of the big ship traffic. VTS says OK and thank you for calling, most locals don’t bother.
Sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge is, well, it is. Difficult to describe our emotions. We both have moist eyes, as we near the bridge pylons. This is the same emotional experience as sailing into New York City and seeing the skyline and the Statue of Liberty. To think, we have sailed all the way from Copenhagen and are now entering San Francisco. We are amongst the very few sailors that can say they have sailed into both NYC and SF on the same boat. Not many, even Americans, can make that boast.
We’ve seen the Golden gate any number of times and driven across the bridge many times, but to sail under it – WOW! This has been one of Carsten great dreams – congratulations skipper!
Carsten is a Moderator on the social media known as Cruisers Forum. He has had contact with a fellow named Bob for several years who has said that if we ever come to San Francisco, he will help us find a berth in a marina – perhaps his own marina. So, here we are and he has outdone himself. We have a berth in San Francisco Yacht Club, the most exclusive Yacht Club in San Francisco and also the oldest club in the city. We are allowed in because we are his guests. You have to be a guest of a member to be allowed in. We back into a slot next to the guest dock, right in front of the restaurant.
Now what? Carsten looks at his telephone and there is a message to call the Coast Guard. Apparently, Bob lost our AIS signal late yesterday and worried. He knew we had a crash gybe and were limping in only on a genua. He called the Coast Guard and asked them to be on the lookout for us. Carsten calls the Coast Guard and assures them that we have arrived safely, thereafter he calls Bob and assures him we are tied up at the guest dock and getting ready to have a drink. Bob arrives a few minutes later to wish us welcome and see if there is anything he can do to help us.
We simply can’t thank Bob enough for all his help. The next day we got to meet his lovely wife Torill and they treated us to dinner at the club restaurant (a good restaurant by the way).
The next morning a boat pulled in right behind us named Danmark -. well this guy just has to be Danish. He isn’t but his father was and he is proud of his heritage.
Carsten managed to find a rigger to come look at our damage. He says he thinks our traveler is not heavy duty enough. Capri was born with this traveler, but it was mounted in the middle of the cockpit. You had to step over it every time you moved around in the cockpit and that means it was a “legbreaker”. After consulting Jeanneau, we moved it from the cockpit to the coachroof. Jeanneau told us to buy a bigger boom, which we did, but they didn’t tell us to invest in a bigger traveler.
Bad advice, but noting to be done about it now. Some of our readers will remember that we reinforced the traveler when we were in Ireland, before crossing the Bay of Biscay. The frig held for over 6 years so I guess it was good work we did back then.
The rigger recommends a heavier traveler and that means we have to dig deep into our pockets. Fortunately, he can mount the next traveler on Tuesday.
So we’ll spend the next few days relaxing and visiting with family and friends.