The rolling and tossing, the snap-rolls and sudden lurches had continued for five or six days. Life was a sequence of interminable cold watches on deck, glued to the wheel, and miserable attempts to sleep below while the boat groaned and tossed. Everything was wet. Food was mere fuel. A handful of nuts or a boiled egg would be enough for a four hour watch, appetite gone. Rarely was our speed more than 3 knots, and that usually to southwest which only gave us 1.5 knots in the needed direction. The lack of wind and overwhelming waves were a distinctly malevolent combination. The distance to California seemed infinite given the negligent progress we made each watch. Then our stalwart dog got sea-sick and cleaning up dog vomit each watch or two added to the exhaustion and discomfort. At midnight, with no discernible wind and frantic waves from two directions we finally threw in the towel. We rolled in the genny, dropped the main, tied the wheel and tossed slowly downwind. Below the motion was perhaps slightly easier and we both dropped into bed for six or eight hours of inaction and some rest. We checked the AIS for ships whenever we woke, but saw none that night. At 125 miles off shore there were few ships.
But that’s not the whole truth because before falling asleep that night I melted down. I railed at Jon, at the boat, at the conditions, at the sequence of events that put us in the north Pacific in November. I wondered why I had reassured people that we “just had to find a weather window” rather than seriously considering whether to cancel the trip until spring. I wasn’t exactly afraid we were in danger of our lives, but I was aware that the constant exhaustion we were under would lead to poor judgement and possibly fatal errors or breakages. I wanted off. Now. A day or two later Jon also melted down, perhaps not quite so completely as I did.
Video of a relatively calm watch in the North Pacific.
However there really didn’t seem to be a choice. We had to keep going, we were making progress, however slowly. The night’s rest helped, once I stopped worrying about “running off downwind under bare poles”, a strategy that can be dangerous in high winds but in our situation was no tougher on the boat than sailing had been. We started to see some wind occasionally, and the wind came more west allowing us to make some easting – psychologically perhaps more important than the easting accomplished. We tried to be a little nicer to each other, realizing the other was just as stressed. I made a corn chowder and later a lentil dal and we ate some actual meals. We watched our progress slowly grow and finally we crossed Cape Mendocino. Wind increased and waves decreased; we were going to make it. Finally, 10.5 days after leaving Neah Bay we pulled into Bodega Bay. Not our planned destination, but with dwindling supplies of fuel and no self-steering, the batteries no longer charging from the engine it was as far as we could go before losing navigation lights and the navigation computer. That night at the fuel dock was wonderfully restful, no five-star hotel has been more eagerly enjoyed than the anticipation of a full night’s sleep in a damp boat that wasn’t moving and nothing could hit. Bliss.
Strangely the decision about whether to continue was no decision at all. We waited several days before even discussing it. Is it like childbirth? It’s true I can’t remember the actual experience of birthing my son, just the scenes unfolding below me as if I were clinging to the ceiling. Likewise I remember the facts of the trip, I remember my melt-down as if outside my body. Do we block it out? Is our body unable to remember? But whether biology or psychology hides the emotions from us after these experiences doesn’t really matter. The fact is you pick up, you go on, you assemble data to assure yourself it will get better. You even look back with some pride or sense of accomplishment.
John Guzzwell, when asked about how he handled heavy weather, demurred. He said that since he had been dismasted when rounding Cape Horn the wrong way with the Smeetons he really hadn’t seen heavy weather. His bar had been reset, he had adjusted. Nothing seemed as bad since then.
Maybe in a small way that’s what we all do. I will probably never round Cape Horn, I hope never to be dismasted, but in a small way this trip adjusted us. We will be more respectful of being in the wrong ocean at the wrong time of year, but we will also know that the boat handled it, that giving ourselves a break was more useful than the time we lost, that trips, even bad ones, end, and we start over.
We are starting over. After Thanksgiving we will pick up our lines and head a bit further south at whatever pace the weather allows.