The Oregon/Washington Coast has been described as the ‘graveyard of the Pacific.’ That’s a terribly intimidating epithet and, really for our situation, not very accurate. A long time ago, before chart plotters and GPS and radar and satellite aided weather forecasting, so basically any time before the 1990s, the rocky coastline presented a large challenge to mariners. Most of the time, the wind is blowing from a westerly direction, either NW or SW. The SW winds are usually part of large winter storms that can see wind speeds in excess of 70kn. The weather being predominantly from the west means that anybody sailing in this area is going be on a lee shore, meaning that the weather is constantly trying to push you onto the rocks. This is compounded by the fact that there are very few anchorages in which to take refuge, as all of the bays and inlets are formed by rivers. The rivers carry down sediment that form bars, which during high wind/wave activity become treacherous to cross. So the only time you really need to get into a harbor, you can’t. That’s not to say that sailing down the coast isn’t challenging today, it is, but the risks can be mitigated.
We hired a weather router to aid us in planning a trip down the coast. We gave him our criteria: maximum wind speed 20kn, maximum wave height 2m. He has been doing this job for a while and was recommended to us by a few friends who used his services in the past, so he took our criteria with the grain of salt it deserved. He routed due south from Ucluelet, which would take us over 80 miles offshore as the coastline falls away to the east. Then after a couple of days we were to start angling toward the coast again. The whole trip should take us a little over 6 days. We were ready, and excited and nervous.
The first couple of days were smooth sailing. The wind was light on our nose for the first day and then clocked around to the WNW. We motor-sailed for the first day and night and as the wind shifted and picked up speed we put out our headsail and set the self-steering windvane. The first night had been tiring as we don’t have an autopilot and were hand steering the whole time. The second night was far more restful as the windvane could easily handle the boat. The motion was rocky and we resolved to do a better job of stowing things away as the clinking and clanging of loose items, especially mason jars full of metal bits, was very disturbing to sleep down below.
At one point as I was at the wheel and Fiona was sleeping below, a torpedo exploded out of the water about 200m of our starboard bow. It was unlike any fish I had ever seen, very long, about 6-8 feet and very thin, with a large head. It jumped out of the water twice more, in leaps that would have cleared right over our boat. It was heading in our direction and I wondered if it knew we were there. I ducked down a little just in case, but it never surfaced again. After some searching online at our next port I determined it was a lancet fish, which normally lives at great depths, but sometimes comes up to the surface to feed. Its behavior suggested that it was not at that time the predator and was in fact being chased by something much larger and faster.
The wind picked up on the third day to a consistent 20-25kn. The seas were building to over 3 meters. We were beyond our criteria as set at the outset of the trip, but were feeling reasonable comfortable. Dall’s porpoises came to play beside the boat in the bigger waves. We tried to take their presence as comforting; they weren’t concerned, in fact they were having fun. We should try the same. It’s always intimidating to experience new conditions, but it is part of pushing the limits. Then the next time you experience them it won’t seem as scary. So we continued on, not really having any choice.
On the third night we entered an area about 40 miles offshore of Coos Bay. The weather update we received had listed this area as a hazardous sea condition until 6pm that day. We entered at around 9pm hoping that the seas had calmed down but we were not in luck. The three meter swell we rode in on was now influenced by a large cross sea. The result was two wave trains coming together making the ocean confused with breaking waves all over. Due to the conditions a fishing fleet had coalesced for safety with engines on to keep their bows into the wind, but otherwise not moving. We could count ten boats on the AIS, but knew that likely there was more than that. We were headed straight for them and decided to gybe to avoid any possible collisions. The new gybe put us on a course that was more at odds to the sea condition, but we couldn’t help it.
The windvane was no longer quick enough, or strong enough to fully control the boat. There was no moon and beyond the boat it was pitch black. Large waves off our port quarter were preceded by the sound of rushing white water and were lifting and turning the boat at a 90 degree angle. The change in angle caused the wind to push sideways on our sail causing the boat to heel dramatically. At one point we heeled over so much that the cockpit flooded with water. Fiona was sitting down at the time and water poured in over her head soaking the back of her survival suit. We both stayed in the cockpit all night to be support for each other. We traded off steering and tried to rest as much as we could, but neither of us really slept. We learned to listen for the coming waves and steer accordingly. Eventually the cloak of night lifted and we were enrobed in another cloak, this time of thick fog, which lasted for the next two days. Our toilet also started leaking.
After our long night we were never able to regain our energy. The cortisol in our systems didn’t allow us to sleep very well during the day and the next night was another long one, though not as trying as the previous night. We decided to put into Eureka, California, which is 250 miles north of San Francisco to regain our energy and composure. We entered early Saturday morning, still beset by thick fog. The customs agent, the only one for the 300 mile stretch from Ft. Bragg to Crescent City, doesn’t work weekends so we were compelled to stay on our boat in the harbor until Monday afternoon when he could clear us. All we wanted was a hot shower.