Sailing in the Ocean 05/03/2020

Offshore wind forecasted at 15 to 20 kn with gusts up to 25 kn. The principal swell was from the northwest with heights estimated 6 to 8 feet at a period of 11 seconds. Wind waves were estimated at 3 feet. There was a second swell, more southerly, estimated at 2 to 3 feet. Skies were blue. It seemed a go.

At the last minute, I contacted a couple of sailors that I spend a lot of time with to inquire as to whether they had any exposure to or symptoms of COVID-19. I asked the same questions that we are interrogated with prior to going to work at the hospital. They passed the screening questions so we planned our journey.

We met at the boat at 9:30 AM. I completed all of the preparations in advance. We were soon on our way. We departed so that we would be headed out the gate at a slack tide. Though we encountered 15 kn wind in the gate I wasn’t so sure what we would experience out in the ocean so decided to motor rather than pull out the sails. Further, I knew, from experience, that if the sails were up we would have to tack back-and-forth across the gate channel in a headwind and that would delay our passage through the gate Which is not really concerning except slack tide was to be followed by an ebb tide going against the wind. That particular situation can result in “rapids” in the gate that can be fairly challenging.

It was a nice enough morning, and I wasn’t too interested in steering all that much, so, I engaged the auto pilot in the bay and then dialed in the heading necessary as we progressed. Our passage through the gate was uneventful.

Ruby…..the autopilot interface.

Once we cleared Point Bonita, it was a different story. The sea was a bit confused. The swell was more significant than it was in the gate. Some of the larger waves were cresting. It’s almost as if the mighty Pacific what is whispering “You wanted to come to me. This is what I am all about.” I felt more comfortable being at the helm and doing the steering myself so I turned off the auto pilot and put my skill sets to work. We motored into an area of hundreds of seabirds. I called the watch for whales. Within about 30 seconds we saw two of them. Pretty awesome! The birds congregate where the whales are feeding because they force fish to the surface and the birds get the leftovers.

Point Bonita.

We continued forward progress following a compass direction that I have long memorized that would take us to the shipping lane. By the time we got to R8 and G7 the sea was raging! It was a tempest. The swells were huge. They were only about 9 to 10 seconds apart. The swells were somewhat predictable but the wind waves were everywhere. I did my best to steer the waves as well as supposed to but there were occasional surprises as the more southerly swell combined with the northwesterly swell. We were motoring and under bare poles and also experiencing leeway. I must say that I have never seen so much water come over the bow and onto the deck of this boat….or any boat for that matter. I’ve seen higher swells and sailed in them. But these were difficult because the period between swells was short also the confused sea. Spray was everywhere. We were soaked. Fortunately, we have the appropriate clothing for such occasions. I did, however, have to give up the helm because I couldn’t keep my eyes open due to the salt water having found its way around my sunglasses and into my eyes. Paul steered to the open ocean end of the shipping lane. Then, we decided to turn back at a point eight miles past the Golden Gate Bridge.

I decided it’s unwise to hoist the sails in the ocean today. I felt that it would be too much stress on the rigging with the confused seas. There’s no point in risking tearing things apart unless you have no other choice.

Paul McGraw
Dan Siciliano
Water over the bow halfway along the shipping lane. I was clearing my eyes while Paul steered. Couldn’t resist capturing this on video through the cockpit dodger window. With much gratitude to those who designed the dodger. It is a saving grace.

Our passage downwind with a following sea was much more comfortable due to the decreased apparent wind but was potentially much more treacherous. With cresting waves the risk of a knockdown is higher. There is a little room to make mistakes at the helm. The swell was now greater. We estimated some swells at 10 feet. The period was eight to nine seconds. The wind waves added confusion. Snaking through the swells with a lot of cresting waves was accomplished with precision with only a few exceptions. It requires almost constant wheel work due to the swell period. Finish one. Start the next. We also had to fight against our leeway in order to ensure an arrival at a reasonable position to enter the gate channel. Inattentiveness would have led to us finding ourselves too far south and possibly on the rocks. Our maximum speed, surfing down a wave, was 11.2 kn per hour. That is above the hull speed. Most of the time, however, we were under the hull speed. At no time during the journey did we feel that the boat was out of control, not controllable, or at risk. In fact, every time I go to the ocean I am impressed with the stability of this vessel.

As we were returning, at a point near the last set of buoys for the shipping lane, we encountered a sailing vessel in mild distress. It appeared the headsail was flogging. We could see a halyard and some other line flying in the wind. There was a crewmemeber on the widely pitching deck lowering and flaking the mainsail. I felt that we made the right choice to have not raised the sails. It may have been us in a similar situation had we done so. I was grateful that my vessel has in-mast furling. I never liked working with mainsails that are lowered to be tied to the boom. I certainly would not wish upon anyone the need to be securing a sail on a deck that was pitching in a confused sea. Though it appeared they were not making forward progress, when compared to our forward speed, at least they were in a downwind direction which would decrease the apparent wind and put less stress on the rigging. It was, however, a lot of wind blowing the head sail forward and probably leading to much stress on the rigging with the top of the mast being pulled forward by the unopposed action of the headsail. I wondered if they had an adjustable backstay and if they would have used it if they were fortunate to have such. I kept my eye on them for a while and saw that they made some progress over time.

Magically, the swell diminished as we came abeam of Point Bonita. This seas were less confused and we had a bit of a break in the action so to speak. About halfway through the gate channel we noted the “rapids“ that I had mentioned above as a consequence of the ebb tide current against the opposing wind. We were able to calculate that the current was about 2.5 kn opposite our direction of travel. I’ve seen it at 4 kn. I will write about this phenomenon during a separate blog post in the future. It wasn’t difficult to sail the rapids as we were a bit on the southernmost side of the faster water. The current is always stronger in the middle of the channel.

We sailed into the bay, had our picnic lunch on the boat while underway, raised the sails, and spent the remainder of the afternoon crisscrossing the San Francisco Bay to our delight. We encountered a few dolphins, a sea lion with a large fish in its mouth being tailed by seagulls hoping for bits and pieces, and a really nice redheaded seal as we were preparing to dock the boat. It’s coat was the color of an Irish setter. Haven’t seen that before.

The boat was covered in a salty grime like I’ve never seen before. I spent extra time after securing the vessel washing everything off and wiping down the electronic displays.

As I walked home, a half mile trek on foot, I contemplated our sail. I felt fortunate to have two great friends with whom I could spend the day on the water.

As I write this, I’m pretty tired. It’s remarkable how exhausting sitting on a sailboat all day can be. Reflection leads to an understanding that one is moving around a lot, pulling lines, maintaining balance, etc. our journey was nearly 7 hours sailing. No wonder it’s tiring!

P.S. As I laid in bed last nite I felt the movement of being on the boat. It was as if the bed was moving. Pilots call that “vertigo.” And…no…..it wasn’t an earthquake!

Skiron just after her shower.

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