CREWING ABOARD S/V TORTUGA: HAWAII TO SAN FRANCISCO
So There We Were: Over two weeks out from Hawaii on our way to San Francisco, and we were enduring two and a half days of 35 knot winds and 12 foot seas. It was dark. The wind was howling in the rigging of the little 32 foot Westsail. We are huddled in the cabin, wondering how much longer this would go on. I dig in my pack for that little package of Bonine. If I even think about if I need one of those awful tasting pink pills (they Taste pink, y’know), I’d better take it NOW. It was awful. I was ready to call the attendant and get off the ride.
Leaving Hawaii was uneventful. We were on a starboard tack and my bunk was on the uphill side of the salon. The lee cloth kept me from falling onto the sole, but I never really trusted it. I put some luggage between me and the edge so I wouldn’t hang out over the empty space. Not real comfortable.
About the second night out a gull of some kind tried to land on one of the solar panels. He did a cute little dance for a while, hopelessly trying to find a footing on the slippery moving glass. He gave that up, flew up and circled the boat for a while, then landed on one of the lifelines and proceeded to settle in for the night. How he kept his balance and managed to get any rest is beyond me. But at dawn, he stretched one wing at a time, then his legs, and finally with a little leap took off and we never saw him again.
The only dolphins we saw were a few at the very beginning of the voyage. I think they were the designated dolphins for that day to give a sendoff for the yachts leaving Hanalei Bay on behalf of the Hawaii tourist bureau. “Have a nice trip. See ya” and they were off. We bashed against the wind and waves for many days until all of a sudden the wind died.
The ocean never seemed so large until we were dead in the water. No wind. Only 25 gallons of diesel left and over 1,000 nautical miles to go. Omygod. Will I ever see my kids again? What happens when we run out of food? How much water is left? We motored for about a day and a half until finally the wind picked up and we were off and running. But unfortunately the wind kept on picking up. A lot. Pretty soon we were down to the storm jib, reefed staysail and triple reefed main.
The storm was finally over and we set out on deck to change sails. Everything was going according to rehearsed plan. Dave K up on the bow, Eric at the ready by the mast. All of a sudden a halyard was swinging wildly in the breeze, slowly going higher and higher, wider and wider. Out of the mouth of Dave comes some four letter words I didn’t think he knew. Eric stares up in horror. Oh, F***. Oh, well, there’s nothing to do but go up the mast and get it – otherwise we’ll be nothing but a report on the back page of the Oregonian: “Three sailors lost at sea. No fuel on board. Died of apparent dehydration and starvation” We rig a makeshift harness, flip down the mast steps, and up Eric goes while Dave and I hoist him up. It took a while for him to negotiate around the radar midway up the mast. He grabs the errant halyard and slowly, carefully, retraces his steps down the mast. Success. We will live to see another day!
After that, the winds moderated and we set as straight a course as possible for San Francisco, since we were now down to about 8 gallons of diesel. As we sailed closer, the weather got colder to the point where we were putting on our thermies. Wait! This is supposed to be summer! The fog thickened. Yup, must be nearing San Francisco. I put away my camera, knowing I’d never get that picture of the Golden Gate Bridge that I’d anticipated from the very beginning of the trip. Never saw it. Just a couple of amber lights overhead as we passed under it. Darn. But finally we pulled into the marina right at Fisherman’s Wharf just as the sun came up and the fog began to lift. We had to laugh at each other as we stumbled along the dock like drunks, after being in a washing machine for 21 days. That shower was the best ever.
The takeaway message from the trip is that if you are spending time, money and energy getting your boat and your selves ready to go cruise the world, put down the books and magazine articles, put away your tools for a while, and get yourself out on the ocean for at least a few nights out of sight of land on a good boat with a competent captain. Ocean sailing is NOT ANYTHING LIKE river sailing. It’s uncomfortable and frightening most of the time, and you are always short on sleep.
To be fair, we didn’t get wet and usually sailed at 5.5 to 6 k. I saw the meter hit 9 at one point. Tortuga had been raced to Hawaii in the Singlehanded Transpac and the owner had to get back home to work, hence our job of delivering the boat back. Dave King was the skipper. He estimated the trip would take 21 days. He was off by just a few hours, and we had at least a gallon of diesel left when we arrived at Fisherman’s Wharf. What a guy.
It’s important to go with a captain and crewmembers who are experienced in ocean sailing. At one point I was at the helm at night, the wind was picking up, and the rail was digging in the water. I was scared to death we were going to heel all the way over and capsize. The other members just gave me a look that said “What?! This is what sailboats do – they heel over and go faster. Get a grip.“ If I’d been by myself I would have shortened sail and crawled along at a snail’s pace, thrashing about in the seas.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all bad; we had a few nice days where we could laze about on deck and watch the sun sink slowly in the west, we caught up on a lot of reading, and learned about sail trim, weather isobars, SSB radio, and I learned to use the sextant! It really works, and it’s not as hard as the books make it seem. The sense of accomplishment for a challenge undertaken is immeasurable. When everything on the boat works, it’s o.k. But if something breaks, you could be in a whole lot of trouble really fast and it’s a long, long way to shore. The danger is very real and very scary.
All this being said, would I do it again?
In a heartbeat.
David Mangan S/V Hawksbill