Every mariner knows not to sail on a Friday, but in the long run it’s turned out for the best that we did. On the morning of Friday, June 27, our projects were finally complete, our fridge was stocked, and the water tanks were full. We didn’t relish sitting around waiting for Saturday to dawn considering how far behind schedule we already were after all the work on Celeste. That was likely the first (and last) time we’ve ignored our superstitions. . . .
(NB: This stuff about superstition was meant to be tongue-in-cheek! Everything that happened would almost certainly have happened had we left the following day. Blaming it (in a tongue-in-cheek way!) on leaving on a Friday was intended to inject humor – apologies if it didn’t work, as some readers took it at face value – sorry!)
Before weighing anchor, I tested our OCENS e-mail and weather services with our satellite phone. (We’d already looked at weather forecasts on land-based internet, so this wasn’t our first check of the weather!!) At first the phone told us its SIM card wasn’t valid, but a call to Iridium quickly cleared that up as they activated the plan MVS had provided us. Then I couldn’t get the phone to talk to the computer. OCENS’s technical support was fantastic, the best I’ve ever experienced! One of the technicians, Pedro, patiently and clearly talked me through all the steps needed to set it up properly and then I downloaded a few GRIB weather files and we exchanged test e-mails to make sure it worked. The weather data I downloaded looked favorable for us, confirming earlier forecasts: SE winds (fairly strong, granted) becoming calm and then shifting into the SW. A low pressure system was going to build out to sea in a few days’ time but then dissipate, and if we stayed on rhumb line for Kodiak or even Dutch Harbor we would be well out of it. I neglected to download a wave and swell forecast, which was a mistake: they would have showed me the cross-swell coming up from a hurricane off Hawaii.
We raised sail, relieved to have the sat comms working. At first we steered a little west of course in order to see a few more of the Olympic Peninsula’s sea stacks before turning the bow northwest. Our destination was certainly not unknown, but also not set in stone. The saying goes that boats and schedules don’t mix – that plans are drawn in the sand at low tide – and we definitely prefer to stay flexible and let weather conditions and other considerations dictate our plans: it always makes for much safer voyaging.
Exhaustion from overwork
Once clear of Cape Flattery, the ocean swell set in. There were actually two swells, a big long one from the west and a shorter period one from the south, combining to make pyramids that twisted the boat sickeningly. Then there was the SE chop from the wind. All told the biggest seas were probably 15 feet and the average was about 9-12 feet. We neither of us felt too good, and I stayed at the helm for a long while to keep the nausea at bay. Finally someone had to do something about food – in the bustle of departure we’d neglected to eat lunch so hadn’t eaten much of anything since breakfast early that morning. Neither of us felt up to the galley, though, so we kept putting it off, probably the worst thing we could have done. We didn’t feel much like eating, either, but as we’ve learned from many nauseated sea miles, keeping a full tummy is Seth’s and my best cure for seasickness.
Exhaustion was far and away the biggest contributor to our seasickness. Out there on the North Pacific combers we had time to sit and reflect, the first time we’d done that in six weeks, or really nearly a year. All the stress and rush of the long days in the boatyard, and all the stress of finishing up as much work as possible back home before leaving for the boat, had piled up and had had no outlet. Suddenly we felt completely drained. Seth eventually made a bowl of plain pasta—we couldn’t stomach anything else—and with my first forkful my exhaustion came out in uncontrollable tears. I had no idea why I was crying but I couldn’t stop.
Seth’s seasickness came to a head that night when he came as near to vomiting as he ever has. Amazingly, it cleared up after that moment passed and he was able to function almost normally, or at least as normally as someone with that degree of exhaustion could.
Mine came on the next morning and stayed with me as barely controlled nausea until lunch went over the side around midday. After that it was next to impossible to keep anything down—only one of my dad’s soups.
Problems with the self-steering gear
On top of this our wind vane self-steering gear would only turn us to port, so would steer us in circles! And the autopilot wasn’t working wonderfully either: we’d put the compass too close to the engine, which was causing magnetic interference.
Seth and I debated heading into port on Vancouver Island to recover and make repairs. At first we didn’t want to – it felt like throwing in the towel and neither of us have done that before, even during unpleasant situations like the famed gales of New Zealand and South Africa, or drifting for six days in a calm off Australia. On the other hand, we’d departed on this passage prepared to be flexible and make the prudent decision, whatever that turned out to be. Going to Vancouver Island would mean we’d forego the Arctic this year, but it’ll still be there in the future. And in retrospect it would have been a shame to miss all the incredible islands, fjords, glaciers, and wildlife of BC and Alaska.
The straw that broke the camel’s back
The straw that broke the camel’s back was our jib. It blew out just after dawn on June 29. The D-ring at the clew, to which the sheets are tied, tore right out of the sail and hit the deck, sheets still attached. The sail flogged hard in the wind with nothing to hold it down. We couldn’t roll it up because it no longer had sheets attached, or any point to which to tie them. So we had to take it down out of the roller furler and lash it on deck, all without getting lashed too hard ourselves.
That settled it and we changed course for NW Vancouver Island, for a village called Winter Harbor. It was the best decision we could have made. Beautiful forested mountains greeted us as we entered the inlet, the swell lay down, the wind quieted, and we could hear a whole chorus of birds, the most soothing welcome to a pristine harbor. A bald eagle swooped overhead and perched in a nearby tree and a sea otter, the first I’d ever seen in the wild, floated on his back and watched us pass.