Sipping wine on the foredeck as an afternoon sun settles into the mists of the San Francisco skyline. Commuters bound home from work to scatter about in the East Bay and further. Bill Evans playing with his trio, recording from 1959 connects long ago to a less frantic present day.
List of chores is short. I’d had to do some cleaning of my battery terminals; electrics aboard keep a sailor busy. Then a walk along the shoreline. The walk is for our health, the shoreline views for a place to cast our imagination. I’ve been upping my game trying to walk 5 miles a day. Breaking it into two helpings.
Some days I’m gassed, other days there is not enough time. Then there are those other days where not a lick of ambition can be summonsed. Fixing the little things today, nothing too challenging please. Deck and topsides are ready to be washed. Next sunny day a coat of varnish over my teak rails, there is not much brightwork and with a few new coats next week I’ll be good until late summer.
I’m crewing south aboard a friend’s sailboat— it is a Hylas 46’ we depart as weather allows at the end of March. We’ll run off the coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The only must stop while sailing south is Santa Barbara. Not stopping would be an injustice to self-indulgence. True we remain stuck in the tricky terrain that the pandemic has wrought. That bit of misfortune may well be in a lull by then, perhaps all of us might be able to venture out, maybe the worst will be behind us. It’s not just harbor hopping but then there is the lost art of the pub crawl, a slice of pizza and liar’s dice.
We received much needed rain and snow last month. A few inconsequential days of drizzle since. Water managers can only hope it keeps raining. So far since, that has been all hope. Sailing in winter is spotty. San Francisco can be clear and calm, the dead of winter, not a breath, not even a wisp, sailing is futile. We’ll motor over to Clipper Cove to anchor out overnight. On anchor is where we do our best sleeping. A sailboat rocking with its hook set sure will induce the deepest sleep. Other times it can be a burden, the wind kicks up and you’ve got to get out of your bunk to be sure the anchor is holding. San Francisco Bay is mostly mud and anchors dig in easily, but there is eel grass in some spots and cutting through and getting the anchor to bite then hold can take more than a few tries.
Once untied from the dock the boat is your responsibility to sail, anchor, to get from one harbor to another, one island to the next, up the coast to the next port, down the coast where you might drop the hook in a shallow protected anchorage. The reason sailors keep such a close eye on the weather is to avoid being punished by cold rain or gale force winds. The rain is just miserable a full gale can become existential. Dodging squalls and other nautical hazards requires less due-diligence in this the modern era of satellite weather imagery. Then, up and down the coast the telemetry comes in from the US Coast Guards weather buoys strategically placed off the coast. Forecasting is something apart from current conditions, but there are plenty of marine weather forecasters to choose from, and as ever be careful, choose wisely.
The sail south in the Hylas I expect will go off without a hitch. I know the boat, know what maintenance the boat has been given, what parts replaced, what safety equipment she comes fit out with. I know the skipper, he’s an experienced ocean sailor, by training an engineer, his passion for sailing means that he gives a lot of time to the sport. His navigational skills are first rate, his understanding of his own sailboat is comprehensive, and the skipper needs to be on top of his boats many systems, a Hylas 46’ is a much more complicated machine than my 36’ Jeanneau sloop. Gratitude is a cruising sailboat, she’s outfitted with a big headsail, then a staysail and a roller furling main. If it gets nasty nobody need risk working up forward on the deck. With little effort sails can be furled from the safety of the cockpit.
Off the coast we’ll steer a course south that keeps us well off the shoreline by 10 miles or more. In reduced visibility of night or fog we’ll run radar and the Automatic Identification System (AIS). Both show up on the chartplotter display. If we feel it prudent the AIS gives us the name of the vessel we are approaching and if need be we can hail them on the marine band radio to confirm our course and that they can see us too.
If you get too far off the coast, you’ll end up in the shipping lanes where the big craft are transiting north and south along the coast. Best to steer clear of the commercial traffic as the craft move much faster and there is risk of collision. Having a 500-ton container ship closing on you and not knowing if they see you or not is one of sailings least pleasant vulnerabilities.
All four crew will be responsible for standing watch. The boat will steer itself with the autopilot, but then there is confirming the boat is remaining on course and that there are no vessels nearby. Sometimes the wind kicks up and a sail change is necessary. That usually involves getting the skipper on deck as it is his decision how the boat’s sails are set.
Once off watch there is food to make, reading to be done, and sleep to be had. The sound of water parting at the bow and then the wake rolling off through the swells. I like the sense of harmony that is provoked, how the boat works and strains against the swell and wind, how the simple task of moving a boat from one harbor to the next satisfies some kind of sailor hunger for netting breeze into a sail, departures can be mundane where almost always the arrival portends some measure of contentment.
Anchoring alone off the Channel Islands is always evocative of arriving at some place time has been kind to, something far from ordinary, something simple yet rare, so distant from the mainland it has been left unmolested, it is raw and less altered, this wildness is a distinct pleasure of a kind.
Planning is underway to bring a sailboat from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to San Francisco, California. I have been following along as the sail plans are drawn up. There is some piracy off Vietnam, that’s one hazard. Typhoon season isn’t a concern. Still, to cross the Pacific a sailboat would sail north 3000 miles to Japan and then go further north and west nearer to Alaska than Hawaii for another 5100 ocean miles to San Francisco.
A Seawind 1260 is a 41’ performance catamaran, the speed is calculated to average about 8 knots. Portion of this sail are upwind; this is harder adding time and distance to the passage. Crunching the numbers, it looks to be at minimum 40 plus days and more likely at least 50. I’m enjoying viewing the planning of this trip while far more likely to be tied to a mooring ball in Avalon off Santa Catalina Island waiting for the catamaran’s arrival in San Francisco.
Sailing the North Pacific Ocean in summer is the right time, but low pressure systems are common up at these higher latitudes, then there are gale winds and tall seas that make for an arduous time at sea. Usually, smaller craft either deploy sea anchors, a device something like a horizontal parachute, or a device called a drogue that is dragged from the stern to slow a speeding boat being pushed too fast by a strong blow. All of this is ordinary blue water sailing. A skilled crew would have its work cut out, at sea for 50 days plus your odds are good that you will be overtaken by squalls and gales, seas in the North Pacific would be mountainous at times, you would definitely know you had been to sea and lucky to have made it through.
Sailing off the coast of California means you might be underway for 2 to 4 days, sailing closer to shore if weather deteriorates you can run for shelter at the nearest harbor where you can wait out the heavy weather. Full on ocean passages are another level higher in difficulty. Then there is the reality of being out to sea for nearly two months and that is for most sailors of small craft a very lengthy period of time. I know I’m more than qualified to sail to Avalon, and I do make a pretty good martini, shaken not stirred, prefer it up not over, use more vermouth than the average slinger. I could go, but it might be the wiser thing to let the wilder younger rascals have at this. I’ll make a martini now and give this halfway around the world passage further consideration. I’m not unaccustomed to dropping everything, packing my suitcase, grabbing my sleeping bag and signing up for a year on the road with a circus, and that was a whole year, this would be done start to finish within two months, give or take a brush with death or in fact actually being killed by unforeseen circumstances─ now, where did I put that jar of olives─