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Friday, September 27, 1996

September 28, 1996-Leaving Monterey

I still find that the Pacific Ocean has the power to make me afraid.

When it’s getting late and the wind is up, or building, and we are thundering towards darkness…I really have some anxiety. At those times I just want the wind to get light and things to be easy, but that doesn’t always happen.

This passage started off badly and got worse. I wrote the following passage in the log:

“For a while tonight I thought it was going to be another dirty night. At 21:00 it was getting dark, the wind was 27 and building, the waves were big, and it was as cold as the Pacific always is on this coast. No moon, no stars, not a fun prospect.
But the wind dropped a little. Now it’s only 22, and I’ve seen less than 20 a time or two the last half hour. Still dark and cold, but if it stays like this I’ll get some sleep when my shift is over. If it gets too wild neither of us can rest, we just lie in our bunks listening to the noise and worry too much. Now we are under a full main and no jib and the boat likes this. The monitor is happy and we’re going in the sixes and sevens. Hit eight when the wind was up. It’s fairly quiet out, no roaring surfs. Fine with me.”

Slow start.

Sailing from Monterey at noon under a low marine layer, we tried to beat to windward out of the bay while we cleaned up and made ready for sea. A few of other sailboats were also out and we crossed them tack on tack. WINGS wasn’t sailing well and I was feeling frustrated and cranky. One other sloop, a white boat of about 40 feet, was being well sailed was making moves on us. I snapped at Judy. It didn't help.

Eventually we found a groove and began to put some distance on the white boat. Then the sun came out and we tacked on a lay line for the bouy at Pt. Pinos, where we could crack off and clear into the open Pacific. One by one the other boats fell astern and turned back to the bay. They were only day sailors, not heading to sea like us. This turned out to be the best part of the day.

The Mess Below

I still had some navigation to do, charts to find and waypoints to enter into the GPS for the coming passage to Morro Bay, 100 miles down the California Coast, so I went below while Judy sailed. There I found a strong smell of raw diesel fuel. Obviously, since filling the tanks in Monterey just before sailing we had developed a bad leak.

I started to tear off panels and upholstery and it took only a few seconds to find that the one of the inspection plate bolts on the port tank was leaking. The whole top of the fuel tank was wet with fuel and looking with a flashlight I saw pink diesel in the bottom of the locker. Since I had filled the tank to the deck I knew that there was a lot more fuel to leak out before the level got below the leak. Lots of fuel would leak into the bilge unless I could stop the leak. But how? I had to take off the whole inspection plate, or at least take out the one bolt, to seal it and with the head of fuel in the stand pipe it would all gush out once the hole was opened to do this.

The starboard tank was not quite so full, a look into its fill pipe revealed, so by pumping a little fuel from port to starboard I managed to transfer enough fuel to lower the level in the port tank slightly below the leak. The fuel stopped seeping out the top of the port tank. I had a little room to work now and I removed the offending bolt and sealed it with liquid sealant goop. The leak subsided. Good!

Next I pumped out the bilge below the tank and then cleaned it with buckets of salt water and dish soap. I used salt water to conserve our fresh water. During all this the seas had come up and WINGS was rolling. The motion and diesel fuel smell made working below unpleasant. Carrying buckets of soapy saltwater around without spilling them was hard. This became a true test of my ability to withstand motion sickness. I barely passed the test.

Then one malevolent roll sent my tool box with all the sockets upside down in the forepeak. Fifty sockets lost in the tangle of sails, ropes, and other junk on the floor of the forepeak as well as down in the shower bilge. So, after dealing with the leak and the spilled fuel I had to clear everything out of the forepeak and find all the sockets. Sitting on the floor got the seat of my pants wet. I asked myself, “Are we having fun yet?” At least I’d thoroughly cleaned that bilge earlier in the morning so there was no soapy shower scum to deal with. I took a small tablet of paper and a pencil and recorded the size of each socket to know when I’d found them all. It took a while but finally I had the inside of WINGS shipshape again.

However I still had my original task of finding charts and selecting waypoints to enter into the GPS. I didn’t even know exactly where we were, so far all I had been able to squeeze in was an occasional look at a chart to see that the vicinity was clear of hazards. Judy called me topsides a couple of times to look at some point or rocks, and once to help trim the sails while she steered. I spoke sharply at her again telling her that she had a windvane, an autopilot, and a bungie cord on the tiller, any of which she could use to steer while she trimmed her own damn sails and would she mind leaving me alone to deal with the mess below? She didn’t answer, but soon I heard her setting the electric autopilot. It’s a wonder she still loves me.

We had a chance, but missed it.

After about two hours I finally was finished, and I came up topsides to see what was up. The wind was. It was up to 15 kts. We were sailing downwind using the genoa and a full mainsail. With two of us now on deck we poled out the genoa and the speed increased. Now we were having a good fast sail. The shore was off to the left about two miles and although the fog had returned overhead, the shore was still bathed in sunlight. There were high golden hills and steep sandy cliffs down to the water’s edge. White breakers hit the beach and shot up in the air. A highway could be seen curving along the hills above the beach. We saw a beautiful curved and arched bridge that we recognized from pictures of the California coast highway.

The wind built to over 15 knots. We didn’t shorten sail. Maybe we should have. Sailing with the wind at 15 knots is one thing; taking sails down when the wind gets higher is another. The way things were going it could get tough to shorten sail later, but we were going good. I left it.

Judy went down for a nap. She had sailed all afternoon on my watch while I worked below. Now her watch had started but she really needed a break. Our watch schedule was all messed up.

I put on the wind vane and turned off the autopilot. It started to get dusk and the wind continued to build. First it was 17, then 18. And with it the seas also go higher. But I wanted to keep speed on so I still didn’t suggest taking down the genoa. Besides, the forecast was for 10 knots of wind and it should be going back down. It was supposed to go back down. I hoped it would go back down, but something inside told me that this wind would continue to increase. It just felt like one of those days I’ve experienced up north when it builds and continues until after midnight. In the years ahead I might learn to pay attention to those inner voices, but today I wasn’t listening.

The night turns frightening.

With the returning fog there were no stars or moon, and no lights on the shore now that the highway had turned inland, so it was black. Speed and wind and waves like this are fine on a clear day, or a moon lit night, but in the fog and darkness it is not so fun. What I began to feel was dread and anxiety. I wished I could get a good night’s sleep, which I knew was out of the question if the night turned dirty like it seemed destined to do. And our watch schedule was so fouled up so neither of us was rested going into the night. At eight o’clock when Judy came back up to finish her turn I told her to let me know if she saw wind consistently over 20, so we could change down. I went to bed for an hour before my watch, which was going to be from 9 to midnight.

A little before nine I got up and looked out. It was blowing 24. I guessed that Judy had decided to let me sleep. But when she saw me moving around she asked, “When do you want to think about taking down the genoa?”

“Well I told you to let me know if you saw 20’s.” I replied.

She’d never heard me say that.

I finished getting dressed and put on my lifejacket and harness and went onto the foredeck. After clipping on I began to work on the task at hand. First we dropped the pole and snugged it down. Then Judy eased the halyard and I fought the genoa sail to the deck and tied it down. If that big sail got into the water with the speed we were going it would be a nice piece of work indeed to get it back onboard at all and damage to the sail or the boat would be likely. But it is also dicey to keep it on board because you have to be all the way foreword to pull it down but then the wind coming from aft blows the back of the sail over the side of the boat towards the water. When you move back to pull that part in and tie it down the wind then causes the front part which was still up to flap and flog which quickly damages the sail. It is a lot easier when you are going upwind because then the wind keeps the sail on the foredeck. But anyhow, after a few minutes the job was done.

Afterwards we talked about a new policy where we would change down at 15 kts if the wind is building.

By now the wind was 25. I had brought the smaller jib on deck intending to put it up, but decided not to set it and instead I tied it to the other lifeline on the port side of the bow. Judy was off watch and she went below.

After dark, the wind build some more, to 30 or so, and we were surfing often. The windvane had to work to keep us pointed down the waves. Whenever a big wave caught up with us when we were pointed down it properly we’d surge ahead and there was a roaring sound from the water around us as WINGS charged down the wave’s front side. But if a previous wave had rolled us a little the strong wind would twist us off course. Then the next wave would catch us before the wind vane responded to our turn and corrected for it and we’d be both rolled further by the new wave and also sent surfing off at an angle instead of straight down the wave. Judy or I could hand steer through this pretty smoothly, but the wind vane has to work at it, is often a little behind, and has to turn hard to catch up, causing all the violent swerving and rolling. A jib and a reefed main would have made a better combination and reduce the swerving some. We could have even just reefed the main at this point to reduce sail further and slow the boat but I’d have to wake Judy, it is a lot of work when the wind has the sail pressed against the mast and rig and besides, by midnight the wind should start to drop, then we’d need to put it back up again. So I didn’t do it. But in the meanwhile the wind did not drop.

Then I got worried about the bagged jib sitting on the port side of the foredeck. On the other side the genoa seemed OK. It was tied along several railing posts and it was also secured at the bow to the tack fitting, but the jib was just sitting there with two little bungies holding it. I could just imagine a big wave rolling our rail under and the water tearing that sail right off the deck.

Also there was the concern that we’d be blown onto the shore through a wind shift or navigation error, or we could even hit something floating. We couldn’t see anything ahead in the dark. I imagined what it would sound like if we suddenly slammed into the rocks. I could just hear it in my head: the hollow sound of the hull on rocks. Then I couldn’t get that sound out of my head. I expected to hear it any second for real. This is how your mind plays tricks on you.

To add to my anxiety, I hadn’t gotten Judy to double check my waypoints, they could be wrong.

I needed to get a handle on all this.

I considered jibing out to get further away but I’d plotted our position on the chart several times and they showed us about five miles off by now, plus the lack of soundings tended to confirm this. Five miles seemed like enough. Plus, a little further south the shoreline turned off to the east and we’d need to turn that way to follow it towards our destination. So logic dictated that we carry on rather than turn right but fear and anxiety don’t listen to logic.

The wind was up even more and now the rig was straining in the violent rolls and making all kinds of creaking sounds. Those sounds are pretty normal on this boat, the mast just needs a little shimming and some grease, but I still don’t like these sounds.

So I was having no fun at all, it was going to be a long night.

Time to take action

Instead of sitting there in the dark feeling sorry for myself I got to work.

First I set the depth alarm to go off at 80 feet, the highest setting. The chart showed shallow water inshore and 450 fathoms a couple miles off the beach. We were not reading the bottom at all so I knew we were out in the deep water. I watched the depth sounder, which would probably pick up soundings at 200 feet, so that maybe I’d get some warning even ahead of the sound of the alarm if we got close to the unseen shore. And at worst case the alarm would go off at 80 feet. This settled my mind a little.

I clipped on and went forward to bring the jib back. The bow hatch was secured so I couldn’t easily throw the sail down, but if I was worried about it on the foredeck I was even more worried as I slid it along the side deck to the cockpit. Back along the sides there are no nets to keep it from sliding right under the lifeline if it got away from me. I kept it as close to the centerline as I could, kept my footing secure so I wouldn’t slip and have to let go of it, and I held onto the ship tightly with one hand while I kept the sail firmly in the other. Soon it was into the cockpit and down the main hatch and one more worry was out of the way.

I then adjusted the wind vane a little and turned the boat slightly away from the shore. We were now sailing a little by the lee but it actually seemed to help the motion. The surfs were more consistently straight, and the slewing was less. I guess the waves hit us more squarely and the main, and by virtue of our new heading the wind was more squarely over the center of the hull’s resistance.

These changes helped my nerves. And soon another event helped even more. The wind started to drop. By 11:30 it was down in the 20 to 25 knot range and life was good again. The boat stopped creaking, the surfs were straight, the rolling and swerving was far reduced. The full main was just the right amount of sail.

Finally the moon rose and through the fog it lighted up the sea a little. I could see the shore if we got close, which we didn’t. Now we were clicking off the miles and it was easy.

When Judy came up at midnight I knew I could go below and sleep.

Fred & Judy, S/V WINGS, California

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