Leg 1: Whales, Big Waves and Missiles
I was very excited when I was offered the opportunity to help Adrien sail his new boat from Los Angeles to San Francisco. I know he has been taking sailing lessons for a couple of years now and I have been out with him before and I found him to be a very capable and responsible captain.
I understood that sailing up the coast was rather difficult due to the prevailing Northwest winds that would cause us to travel a very indirect route. We were also prepared for what we thought was every eventuality as far as food, cold weather, and navigational electronics.
I flew into LAX and caught a taxi to Marina Del Ray and tried to call Adrien's friend Miguel who was also going on the trip in order for him to unlock the dock gate. His cell phone was not recognized by the LA cellular system and I stood out there for about 45 minutes before someone let me in. The phone was on, but not answering calls like it should (bad omen #1).
Miguel was busy working on the ignition system of the boat. I turned out that the owner had lost the start key and Adrien and Miguel had bought a new ignition switch that he was about to install. The problem was the original was a 4-wire switch and the replacement was a 3-wire. Miguel spent a good amount of time tracing the wires and rewiring a new solution. Just as we were almost finished the previous owners wife came to the boat with the key they had found earlier in the morning, but didnt think important enough to call about. That was well and good except we had to destroy the original lock in order to figure out how it worked. Doooh!!!! (Omen #2)
Paula showed up at 8:30pm and we all went shopping to provision the boat for the expected 4 day journey. We bought quite a bit of food and supplies and stored them all in the various compartments. We also topped off both water tanks and some final housekeeping details.
Now our crew were ready: Adrien, Paula, Miguel and myself, but it turns out we had a stowaway and his name was Mr. Murphy.
The next morning we got underway at 9:30am and were immediately impressed by handheld GPS system that Adrien had connected to his PC which had a very detailed moving map display that showed exactly where the boat was and which direction it was heading. Very impressive, this was going to be easy! (right!)
The trip started well as we began a northerly tack as the prevailing winds were from the west. We approached Malibu and then turned to the south for a very pleasant sail as the sun began burning through the marine layer. The boat was handling well and everything was working fine. As we saw Catalina island in the distance we tacked to the northwest still pointing into westerly wind. Mr. Murphy still hadnt announced his presence.
Sailboats are inherently stealthy craft. This is due to their low profile and the rounded mast which reflects very little radar energy. Boats usually carry a radar reflector in order to increase the electronic energy that will be reflected back to a search radar in order to make the boat more visible to radar. This is very important if you are traveling in or near shipping lanes with large freighters and container ships which have a nasty habit (and history) of running over sailboats without ever noticing them.
Our reflector was a triple prism encased in 2 pieces of plastic so the entire package was a white cylinder about 1.5 feet long that was hoisted up the backstay to a height of around 20 feet or so. As I was on the backdeck around 3 or 4pm of day 1 I heard something drop on the deck and noticed the bottom piece of plastic from our reflector floating behind the boat. The Prism was now exposed, but still up in the air where it could still do its job. No big deal, only a cosmetic problem for the moment.
The first evening started well and I had volunteered to make dinner so I started on some pasta. It was very difficult to cook as the boat moved throughout the waves, but I was very happy when it came time to eat. It turns out that I was the only on who felt like eating as seasickness had been slowly creeping up on our crew without my knowledge. Well, that was the last good meal I would get.
Miguel and I slept on deck and monitored the Radar, PC map and autopilot every ½ hour or so. The wind began dying around 11pm and we turned on the engine and began to motor into the wind along the Santa Cruz island coastline with the intention of turning north and passing to the north between Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Island. Adrien came on deck around 3:30am and I went downstairs to sleep in my cabin. I awoke at 6am as the boat had just passed north of the islands and the wind was picking up substantially.
The excitement started as we began as we tacked towards San Miguel Island. We noticed a large number of birds feeding on the surface and then someone shouted "whales" and sure enough we could see the telltale signs of the whales breathing on the surface. Things got very exciting as the got closer and closer and then two of the largest whales I have ever seen (and I have seen quite a few) turned towards the boat heading right across the path of our boat. The came within one boat length of the boat and then gracefully descended into the depths. While most of you thing this was a beautiful and wonderful experience (which it was) let me remind the reader that in the top ten list of what sinks sailboats, whales are in the top three along with hitting cargo containers and being hit by the ships that carry those cargo containers. It was a terrifying experience as they approached the boat and a wonderful experience as they passed. Consensus from the witnesses was that the whales were at least the size of the boat if not bigger. Beautiful animals.
Not soon after we began to see dolphins in a very large school. They played in our bow wave and put on quite a show all around the boat. It was quite fun to watch. Along the way we also saw a few seals and sea lions. San Miguel Island is a magical place.
We began to get a little to close to Wilsons rock which is north of San Miguel and elected to turn on the motor in order to clear the rock and begin sailing on our Westerly tack. I got a chance to take a 1 hour combat nap around noon. When I awoke the boat was being tossed around quite a bit. I carefully climbed on deck to see everyone in their fowl weather gear clustered under the dodger to keep the wind and water away. This was because the boat was healed over so the rails were in the water and the wind meter was reading 25 knots gusting to the low 30s. The waves were also in the 10 to 15 foot range and the angle we were hitting them was causing our 55-foot heavy displacement vessel to be tossed around like a toy. My first impression as I poked my head through the stairway was this looked like a scene from a movie when a boat got caught in a storm although this was normal weather for this region.
This was all very intimidating to experience. Mainly because most of the sailing I had done up to this point was where you went from island to island where you might hit some heavy weather on the way, but you knew it would end you would be anchoring in a nice sheltered cove sometime in the near future. Not this time, this weather would continue for the next 3 days. Sleeping and eating were going to be very difficult when you could not even sit on a chair without holding on for dear life.
This was when things began to get fun. Someone noticed that now the entire radar reflector was gone, doom on us. We would now pay religious attention to the radar to keep an eye on those pesky freighters. At around 2pm the PC froze up and then refused to boot. The pounding deck took its toll. So much for the nice moving map display. Time to take out the paper charts again. We also noticed that the door to the front cabin had been thrown from its hinges from the pounding of the waves. There were also many leaks in the cabin hatches that made Miguels and my berths very wet and unpleasant places to be.
We had some bigger problems with the main salon hatches which are set inside bookcases and look outside the boat. At the current lean of the boat these windows were underwater and leaking. So much for the CD player and CDs that were in the bookcase.
There was no lunch and dinner to speak of and the seasickness was getting bad for Paula and Miguel. I had some soup and a couple of crackers. I was not sick, but it was very difficult to get anything out of the galley without being thrown around.
That night I was taking a combat nap in Adriens back (and only dry) cabin, not on the bed, but on the floor in between the wall and the bed. It was about 2.5 feet wide so you could wedge yourself in and not be thrown around due to the motion of the boat. One hour into my nap I was awakened by Adrien who told me to get my fowlies on, the Mainsail had ripped. Damn you Murphy, this was starting to really suck.
We went out onto the deck to pull in enough mainsail to cover the rip. We were using harnesses and strapping in because the waves were still 15 feet and many of them were crashing over the top of the boat. Not a fun time to be on deck in the middle of the night.
We were now left with about ¼ of the mainsail so we were forced to reduce the jib in order to balance the boat. Somewhere around 4am we decided it was time to tack back to the coast, but we had a hard time bringing the boat into the wind and we elected to use the motor to get us around. The motor didnt start. Batteries were too low. Fuck, Fuck, Fuck! Adrien and I turned things off, switched battery banks and did about everything we could think of to start the engine, no luck.
Now things really sucked. No engine meant we had to sail and we would not have the option to motor home. It also meant we would need help pulling into whatever port we arrived at. Worse off, it also meant that we didnt have enough power (and could not recharge the batteries) to run the radar, navigation lights and the autopilot. We knew we were in trouble.
We turned the boat towards the coast and decided we would head as north as possible and land in the nearest port that could help make some repairs and help us get the batteries charged again. Bad new was that someone would have to steer the boat all the time, which was very difficult with our unbalanced sails and very high seas. It also meant that someone else would also have to be watching for other boats (due to no radar, no reflector and no lights).
Moral was not very high. Paula had not been on deck for over 12 hours and had not been eating or drinking and getting very dehydrated. Miguel had not been eating and would get sick every time he went below deck. All of us were very tired and hungry, but we now had no chance to get any real sleep at all as it would take 24 hours to sail back to the coast.
Miguel was amazing as he took the wheel at 7am (approx.) and manned the helm for four hours. This may not sound impressive, but remember that the person driving was exposed to the wind (30 knots) and the water constantly being splashed in his face from the 15 foot waves. He was cold as hell.
Adrien took the helm at around 11am and shortly thereafter he and I were in the cockpit and we heard a loud snap. Shit, the jib sheet snapped. This is not supposed to happen. Now you have a sail that is flapping violently in the wind and we had to chase down the ropes that were whipping around with a force that could easily knock you overboard. We were very lucky and moved the good sheet over to replace the bad one, but noticed that the new one was worn in the same spot where the other sheet snapped. Luckily, Miguel knew a special knot that isolated the bad part of the sheet and used another knot to re-connect the broken section. Bad news was we were not as comfortable with putting the same force on the repaired sheets so the angle we were currently sailing at was no longer possible. This meant we would be landing somewhere more south than we expected.
Adrien and Miguel traded turns at the wheel and there was not very much casual conversation. We were all very tired and very cold and had not showered and changed cloths for a 3 days. We had also turned off all power so as to use the remaining batteries to keep the mast light on as we crossed the shipping lanes. We would also need to use the VHF radio to get some help when we got to shore although we did have a hand-held radio as a backup.
As evening of Day 3 approached we realized that we were still about 50 miles short of the coast and were going to have to sail all night. I think we were all hoping to be in port before dark. We had also decided to head to San Luis Obispo as they had the port services that we would require.
As dusk settled in around 8:30pm Miguel was at the helm and I was searching the horizon for freighters. It was a very clear night and noticed a strange light on the horizon. I said to Miguel "it looks like we have a helicopter on the way." As it approached I noticed some flames from the objects rear and said, "Cool, a fighter on afterburner." I then remembered that our current location was in an area on the map called the "Pacific Missile Range." The military has many such areas that they reserve the right to use for testing, but that only happens maybe 5 or 6 days in a year. Well my friends, as we saw the 2nd stage eject and the 3rd stage ignite, it was clear it was one of those days. It was amazing to watch until we realized that the booster separation happened right over the top of the boat. That meant that there were now engine fragments falling to earth somewhere in the 10 miles between the us and the missile. We were hoping that Murphy was somewhere below sleeping because Adriens' boat insurance did not cover being sunk by falling ICBM debris. (We found out once we landed that we witnessed a Minuteman Ballistic Missile test whose dummy warhead landed somewhere in the South Pacific)
We all stayed pretty much awake for the last night of sailing and the seas calmed down a bit and the winds stabilized around 22 25 knots or so. We didnt have much sail out so we were making around 5.5 knots of headway according the hand held GPS. We began to see buoys around 3am and looking at the charts to see where we were. I was at the helm around 4:30am when I noticed boat lights behind us on a collision course. I was having thoughts of a fishing boat returning from a tiring trip driving on autopilot. Remember that we didnt have any lights at this point.
I yelled to Adrien to get on deck with a flashlight to wave off this boat. He came up and turned on the man overboard strobe light. This got their attention and they immediately turned to their left and assumed a parallel course about 400 feet to port.
Now gentle reader, think about how we appeared to the other boat. Here was a 55-foot sailboat sailing without any lights or radar reflector sailing up from the south Get the picture.
Now Adrien, who is sloppy tired, gets on the radio and calls to "the boat approaching the strobe." A couple of seconds late they responded "This is the US Coast Guard." We gave them a quick status and I think Adriens' strange radio behavior (like forgetting the name of his own boat) convinced them that we were truly in trouble and not smuggling drugs or people. They were very helpful and called the Harbormaster and alerted them to our condition and arranged for a towboat to meet us at the mouth the harbor at 6:30am, our ETA. They then returned to their port after we convinced them we could make it to port under sail.
I sent Adrien below to sleep. He was wiped and we would need his help to get the boat ready for towing. Miguel and I tacked the boat to the north in order to get the right angle to sail into port. The fog rolled in as the sun started to rise and we must have overshot our mark. When I turned on the GPS it showed we were 2 or 3 miles north of where we needed to be and the wind had just died. We were about 2 mile south of the Nuclear power plant and 3 miles off the rocks with no power and now wind and it was 6:15am and no where near the tow boat. I picked up the handheld VHF to call the harbormaster to tell them our plight when the battery died on our last remaining radio. Mr. Fucking Murphy had woken up early this day!
Adrien came on deck and spoke the magic words "Matt, dont you have a cell phone?" Yes I did! I called the coast guard in Murro Bay and got the Harbormasters phone number and got the off hour paging service. We left a detailed message and told them it was rather urgent. They called back in about 3 minutes and we told them our location and condition. The tow boat was there about 20 minutes later. They towed us into port and could not have been more helpful. They also told us that it was very common for boats to get very beat up around Pt. Conception and limp into St. Luis Port. We were lucky; most get taken out on trailers.
So, that is where Adrien is right now having the boat looked at and making whatever repairs are necessary. We all went and had the best breakfast ever and I am glad to say Paula snapped back really well. We were a little worried about her.
The boat is solid as hell. We would have made it to Monterey if we didnt have all of the equipment failures. I suspect that the previous owner had only sailed the boat close to the coast and never really stressed the systems. They had grown soft over the years and when we took the boat into real weather it couldnt handle it. The good news is I think we identified most of the weak points and the boat will be much more seaworthy for the effort.
How would I sum up the trip???
That which does not kill me makes me stronger.