Friday, June 27, 2014

Leg 10—San Francisco to Crescent City (and we're home!)

June 7-13
I'm writing this while sailing up the Columbia River. I've been waiting to say those words for so long, it doesn't seem possible that they're finally true. The water is beautifully flat and the wind a perfect beam-reach. Of course, it's also gray and drizzly and our auto pilot doesn't like to steer straight in flat water (what?!) so we're all taking turns on this, our last full day of the trip. We've done a lot since we left San Francisco, unsure if we could make it around Cape Mendocino, much less all the way home. We've stopped in several ports, met family, seen Redwoods, and made friends. Stuff went wrong, usually at the worst possible time. Our engine heater broke. Our last night at sea, the weather didn't live up to its billing, and some of our deck hardware still leaks so the floor is wet and squishy. But the trees are green and lush and the river is so peaceful. Our surroundings accurately reflect our mixed emotions about the end of this grand adventure.
I plan to keep posting with stories from the journey and would like to share a bit about our transition back as well. First, here's the regular update...
We spent our last day in Pittsburg finishing up the engine repairs (of course, one never knows at the time whether this fix will be the last one) and getting ready to make an attempt at heading north again. Dock neighbors invited us over to watch California Chrome's run at the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes and Meira and I took them up on their offer.
The forecast still predicted the possibility of a cape rounding late the next week. If we were going to make it there in time, we needed to leave right away. So we took off on the midnight ebb, hoping to run at least most of the way back to San Francisco Bay before the flood tide forced us to stop. The winds hadn't died down like they usually do at night so Bryan steered by hand in the bucking sea. He kept an eye on the chart and developed a rhythm of spotting the buoys—flash from the red, flash from the green, duck behind the dodger from the spray of a wave. Flash. Flash. Duck. Flash. Flash. Duck. Each buoy has its own light pattern, sometimes blinking every second, sometimes 2.5 or 4. In a tight channel, in a bouncy boat, 4 seconds feels like a long time between orienting flashes. The V-berth flew up and down and I did too, willing myself to relax and get some sleep. About 3 am, I heard the unmistakable sound of anchor chain running out over the anchor roller. I knew we were motoring in relatively shallow water and flung myself out of bed, expecting at any moment to feel the boat lurch as the anchor hit bottom and dug in. I threw on my foulweather jacket and called up into the cockpit, “I'm pretty sure we just lost our anchor!” I'd been sleeping in the sundress I'd worn all day but we didn't have time for me to put on warmer clothes. I tossed on my lifejacket and tethered in, steering the boat in the windy channel while Bryan worked his way forward to check out the situation. The anchor had come loose and, yes, had set itself in the river bottom. Bryan pulled hard and got it back on board. I breathed a sigh of relief as he walked back to the cockpit. But then. “Well, I got the anchor back up, but we have a problem. The bowline is down and wrapped around our prop shaft.” We're always really careful when we tie up our dock lines, for this very reason. Somehow, one of them had come loose anyway and fallen overboard. We think that it hooked the anchor as it went and when it pulled taut, popped the anchor free of its tie-downs. We'd heard the engine choke but it never quit, so the prop itself must have bit through the line and kept turning. We couldn't run out with a line around our shaft, though, so we prepped for an attempt to free it. I put on some pants and a warm hat, almost certain we would have to sail back to the dock in the dark and miss our weather window (did I mention it was 3 am? Everything is dire at 3 am.) I knew there was no way Bryan would risk diving on the prop in these conditions. But he was more determined than I and we spent a few minutes revving the engine in forward and reverse until the line finally broke free.
I took off my gear and crawled back into bed, trying to let go of the adrenaline. It took me a while to fall asleep but when I woke in the morning, we were through the Carquinez Strait, headed back toward SF Bay, and Bryan was grinning. 
“I thought we were going to stop when the tide turned,” I said. “We never slowed down too much, so I just kept going,” he answered. He'd already been up for 24 hours but we really needed to get north as fast as possible, so we decided to try to run all the way out through the Golden Gate instead of waiting for the afternoon ebb. 
Fog at the gate kept both of us on watch. 
Every 2 minutes, our new foghorn announced our existence to the other ships at sea. We stayed out of the shipping channels and watched the fog give way to a smooth ride. 
Bryan got a few hours of rest while the girls and I kept watch. Later in the afternoon, the winds and seas picked up again and after his night watch, he just stayed up for most of the next day to bring us safely into Fort Bragg. We'd intentionally skipped this small harbor on our way down; the bar was notoriously rough and narrow with a channel so shallow, big seas can knock your boat against the bottom. As soon as a scratchy bar report came in on our radio, we listened hard, trying to figure out if the entrance would be safe for us in the high swell. At first, we only heard the bad news: “8-10 foot rollers...” If we had to surf down 10 foot waves in the middle of an 80 ft wide channel with underwater rocks on both sides, well...nope. We'd just turn around a head back to Bodega Bay. But we really didn't want to lose all those hard-won miles. A couple hours before we reached the entrance, I called the Coast Guard for a personalized report. The boats they use for rescues and their other work have the same draft (require the same depth) as LiLo and they clarified the bar report a bit. Yes, there were 8-10 foot rollers in the channel but in near the jetty tips, the waves would only be 1-2 feet. We gritted our teeth through the last few rough miles and then navigated the tricky bar without a problem. 
Well-lit range markers helped us line up our entrance just right. If we got off to one side, the light would show red; to the other, green. I stood on the companionway steps and peered out through the dodger window calling, “White, white, white, red, red, RED, white, white, green, white...” while Bryan fought with the tiller to keep the boat straight to the swell. In only a few minutes, the seas began to calm down and then we were inside the jetties and motoring up the beautiful Noyo River.
We spent a day and a half in Fort Bragg. 
You know you're back in the northwest when...
There was pizza and grocery shopping and bumming a ride to the gas station. There were walks on the tree-lined lanes and a narrow escape from an angry baby skunk. There were reassuring conversations with the commercial fishermen who had been waiting 4 weeks to round the cape. There was a visit to the Coast Guard station to gather information and offer our thanks (These were the only Coast Guard personnel we met on this trip, thankfully. When one travels by sea, one hopes the Coast Guard remains a supportive, anonymous voice on the radio since it usually takes a crisis to meet them in person.) And then there were a few anxious moments reenacting the bar crossing in reverse. The Coast Guard boat had just returned from checking the bar and, as we drove by their station in the narrow river, one Coastie called over, "Where are you headed today?" It was more than just friendly conversation. They knew the conditions and wanted to know if they would need to come out after us for a rescue. When we hollered back that we were just heading up to Shelter Cove, not trying for a cape rounding just yet, he visibly relaxed before wishing us well. We motored past the flashing rough-bar warning lights and even though I knew the conditions were just rough, not dangerous, they still gave me a moment's pause. I stood on the steps again, looking backwards this time, keeping an eye on the range lights while Bryan stood at the tiller, facing the steep oncoming waves.
We spent the day running up to Shelter Cove, just south of Cape Mendocino, and anchored in the bay for the night. 
We pulled in one last weather report—yes, the cape conditions were still supposed to calm down soon—and set the alarm for 4 am. Whether it was the rolly anchorage or the worry about the cape, neither Bryan nor I got much sleep that night. We were up by 4, hauling up the anchor and heading for the cape. For several months, my parents had been tentatively planning a trip to the Redwoods to meet us. During our uncertain days in the Delta, they'd regularly been in touch to offer encouragement and support. We planned and rescheduled and gave up and planned again. They gave up hotel reservations and made new ones and kept clients and piano students on call. A lot was riding on this cape rounding!
We got to the cape around 9 am but even with the calmer winds, the seas were still some of the worst we've had. We'd timed the rounding to coincide with a favorable tide, so we had a bit of a push from the current. Still, we spent a few hours wondering if we were going to make it. The forecast had predicted lighter conditions on the northern portion of the cape so I kept checking our location on the chart and wondering if the seas were smoother or if my imagination had just gotten better. Soon there wasn't any doubt; by early afternoon we'd broken through into the smoothest conditions since southern California.
We'd told my parents we hoped to make it into Crescent City by 11am, maybe 9 if we were lucky. But we made fabulous time and even had to slow down outside the entrance to wait for dawn. By 5am, we could see the rocks guarding the bay (Yay for northern latitude sailing! Yay for the summer solstice!) and as Bryan steered us toward the outer buoy, I made an excited phone call to my early-bird father. “We'll be there in an hour!”
We still had almost 400 miles to go. We weren't even back in Oregon yet. But as we walked up the dock to meet the familiar white van it seemed the transition home had begun.

A friend recently asked me how I was going to handle returning to boring life on land. I know what she means and I wasn't at all offended by the question. But I think my life on land was, and will once again be, anything but boring. She would likely even say the same about her life, filled as it is with satisfying work, loving family, interesting travel, and an adorable grandson. Her life is not boring because she is not a boring person and refuses to be bored. (Being bored is for boring people.) My return may—hopefully will—bring a little more predictability. I'm ready for a little more predictability! But I am coming back to family I love, a summer of unpacking and camping and reading and using a dishwasher and showering whenever I feel like it. And then the new school year and new opportunities for work and creativity arise. There will still be wildlife sightings, even if chickadees are more common than humpbacks. I will still encounter people of (not-so) rare generosity and graciousness, find deep joy in spending time with my family, and be surprised by beauty in my daily world. I know this because this is the life I chose to live before I left, the attitude I took to sea with me, the intention I bring back home.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Intermission—Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta

We left San Francisco Bay on the tide, with the flood of our friends' encouragement behind us. The winds were perfect, as predicted, and we were able to sail away from Aquatic Park, past Alcatraz, behind Angel Island, and through San Pablo Bay into the Carquinez Strait, the entrance to the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta. My (limited) understanding is that the delta is a human-fortified natural feature. The skinny Carquinez Strait causes a build-up of silt and deposits from the rivers. Though there were naturally occurring islands in the Delta before then, in the mid-1800's, Chinese laborers and private land owners built a massive levee system to regulate the rivers and prevent flooding. The land is especially fertile and, though some of the levees have been allowed to disintegrate and certain tracts are flooded, many others are still part of this highly productive agricultural area. 

If you catch the flood tide just right, you can ride it a long ways up river as it runs. The ebb falls away as you try to head out the other direction, but we didn't need to think about that just yet. We spent a glorious day sailing downwind up the river and stopped before anyone even thought of getting tired. After all the long passages on our way north, it was simply lovely to remember how enjoyable a short day sail can be.
We passed under the Carquinez Bridge and sailed a few more miles on up the river to the little town of Martinez. Hannah and I didn't lounge around the whole way though.
 As we passed the C&H sugar refinery, Bryan called us all up on deck to breathe in the rich, sweet smells.
 We called a few marinas and found an open slip at the marina in Martinez. Only when we had already tied up and checked in did the harbormaster inform us of the shallow depths at the entrance. "You won't be able to leave with the tide in the morning, you know," he said. "We haven't dredged here in years and you'll have to wait for high tide to get back out through the entrance." We'd noticed the shoal on our way through, and the shallow depths at the dock, but it hadn't seemed that shallow. After we did the math, it seemed like we wouldn't have to wait all the way to high tide, which was a good thing, as we can't make much way against the ebbing tide.
Bryan and I took a walk through the nearby bird sanctuary. A pair of swans presided over noble geese and fuzzy goslings. As we settled in for the night, the boat settled into the mud and we all slept well in the stillness.

The next morning, we heard a knock on our hull. We expected it to be the harbormaster with a question, but when Bryan poked his head up, he found one of our friends from boat night in San Francisco, the woman who lives aboard her sailing scow. We hadn't ever talked about where she keeps her boat, but we managed to stumble into her marina! Our keel was resting on the bottom for the moment, so we couldn't leave anyway. She invited us down for a quick tour of her amazing home and antique Hicks engine and we exclaimed all the way back to our dock about the delightful serendipity.
See the sweet little sailing barge? That's Squarehead!
She encouraged us to explore the town a little and gave us directions to "...the bakery with the best croissants I've had since France." Well, that was all we needed to get us going. We walked into town and tried out the famous croissants ourselves. On the way, we overheard people making plans for some sort of town celebration in the afternoon and saw signs for a Farmer's Market as well. We walked back to the marina and paid to stay another night--just because we could.
Later in the day, we walked back up to see what the celebration was all about. 
We thought someone had said it was a Benjamin Moore celebration but that seemed strange—the paint company? Sure enough, Martinez had won some sort of contest and Benjamin Moore was going to repaint Martinez's Main Street. The bakery had brought free cake for everyone and there was balloon art and a photo booth. 
We felt a little silly joining in the festivities, but the energy was contagious. We balanced out all the cake with some fruit from the market at the other end of Main Street.

On our way back we stopped to watch this sweet little guy in the tree. We'd gotten used to seeing lizards in the trees of Mexico, it was fun to be back in the land of squirrels.
Later that evening, Bryan and I slipped up into town in search of live music. We'd heard there was a great little cafe well known for their music. As we approached the cafe, though, the music was so loud we couldn't bring ourselves to walk in. We were in the mood for a little quieter location and walked several blocks before finding a small restaurant with classy decor and a jazz trio. Even that was a little loud for conversation, so we found a couple of seats outside out of the wind and enjoyed the music through the windows as we talked. You'd think we'd have plenty of time to talk on the boat but, especially as the trip winds down, we have a lot of processing and planning to do. On long passages, we're hardly ever up at the same time and even when we are, it's hard to find the space to have a private conversation on a boat where the head is the only room with a door.

By the time the tide had risen the next day to let us out of the marina entrance, we didn't have much travel time left. But we didn't care. We didn't come up the Delta to rush. 
We made it another few miles upriver and pulled into a small inlet to anchor for the night. We made a fabulous dinner and Bryan even baked a cake.
 After the sun went down, we could see the red lights of the wind turbines across the water flashing like a herd of giant robots.

The next day brought more bridges, more beautiful sailing, more easy miles.

We pulled in about an hour before sunset to Potato Slough, a spot that had been recommended more than once by our friends in the area. We were surprised to see the designated anchorage taken over with semi-permanent boats, so we swung back around the corner to anchor in a shallow spot on the side of the slough. We dropped the anchor twice, but couldn't get it to set either time. We motored out a little more where we could anchor in a little deeper water but once again it dragged as we tried to back it down. We were getting a little nervous about finding a safe spot before dark in this unlit, unfamiliar area. And Bryan was getting weary of hauling the anchor and chain up again and again. We'd never had this much trouble getting it to set! Finally, we pulled back around to where our friend, Al, had said to anchor. It was beautiful, that's for sure, with what looked like a cormorant rookery in the giant tree on shore. But it seemed like a strange place; the depths shoaled from 50 feet to 10 in just a couple of boat lengths and there wasn't a whole lot of room to swing. We dropped our anchor and it set the first time, nice and secure. We laughed at ourselves for not listening to "local knowledge" and settled in for a peaceful night.

The next morning, we checked the weather again. We'd had Bryan's cell service and data plan reinstated just for this purpose. We didn't want to obsess over the weather while we were waiting for it to change. But if a window opened up, we didn't want to miss it because we were playing around in the Delta. With no window in sight to get around Cape Mendocino, we made plans to continue on our lazy Delta exploration. We pulled up the anchor and motored the 2 1/2 miles around the corner to a marina called Pirate's Lair. This lush, green oasis drew us in and calmed our worried spirits.
We stopped in at the little cafe for ice cream and french fries and Bryan and I walked down the road a few steps to the ice dispenser for a bag of ice for our icebox. I'd never seen a machine that dispensed ice before so as Bryan inserted quarters and pressed the button, I shamelessly took pictures.

While we were at Pirate's Lair, the evening weather check showed a possible 24-hour weather window opening up around the cape. We'd been keeping our eye on the winds around Cape Mendocino for several weeks now, watching for any weather patterns that might help us plan our trip north. As long as we'd been watching, there had been gale force winds and crazy high seas predicted in the area. We knew we might only get a few hours of calm weather to get around the nasty point and would need to be in position to take advantage of them. If the forecast held, we'd need to skedaddle in a hurry. We set aside our plans to head further up into the Delta and tried to settle our excited nerves. We wondered if we'd made a mistake by coming up at all if it meant we wouldn't be able to make the run up to the cape in time to take advantage of the brief good weather. The girls heard us worrying aloud and quickly made and hung 2 signs in prominent places on the boat. They read, "NO! You are NOT allowed to second guess yourself, EVER!" 
This is my best "NO!" face. There's a story but you'll have to ask me in person sometime.
We all agreed to shelve our worries for the night. In the morning, before the tide, Bryan and I went up to the cafe for a "weather conference." Someday, the girls will learn that weather conferences almost always include something delicious but at least for this morning, they stayed asleep while we ate pancakes and checked the latest forecast. 
Overnight, the predicted calm had disappeared off the extended forecast but we decided we'd rather start heading back anyway than get caught even further away from the Cape if something did open up. We did a little engine maintenance and Bryan took advantage of the warmth and the fresh water to dive on the prop and replace the zinc. 
On our way back downriver, we took a short cut up 3-mile slough to the Sacramento River. We'd come upriver in the San Joaquin, but we wanted to take the girls under a lift bridge and the closest route took us under the one in 3-mile slough. As we pulled into the entrance of the slough, we caught the edge of a shoal a little too close and ran aground. We'd been traveling downriver on a ebb tide, so we knew we just had a few minutes to try to get off the shoal before we'd be stuck for hours, until the tide ran all the way out and the flood came in high enough to lift us off again. We revved the engine to clear the area around the rudder and sallied ship for all we were worth, swinging our body weight in unison from one side of the ship to the other. Sometimes, all it takes to release a boat is that last little inch or two and if the crew can tip the tip of the boat just enough, the keel will swing the other way and lift off the bottom. After a couple of frantic minutes, it worked! We pointed the bow back toward deeper water and headed on down the river. 

A few minutes before we reached the bridge, we called the bridge tender on the radio. We'd checked the details about this bridge already to confirm that there would be a tender available when we got there. The tender responded cheerfully to our request and almost instantly, the bridge started rising. 
We waited until we were sure our mast would clear and motored slowly through.

In the peaceful afternoon breeze, I wedged myself in to a favorite spot and read aloud to Bryan at the tiller and the girls below. 
I took a little break to marvel at the wind surfers in the river and the enormous wind turbines rotating slowly above the wheat fields.
About the time the tide started turning against us, we turned up a little channel and pulled into the lovely marina at Pittsburg.

My whiny post from a week or so ago tells most of the stories from Pittsburg so I'll just add a few last pictures of Hannah doing some late-night prep before our midnight departure. We'd had these weathercloths made in Mexico to protect us at sea on the way back north. The wind and spray were never too bad and somehow we made it all the way to San Francisco before getting them installed. We're hoping that putting them on now doesn't give the weather gods permission to test them with bad conditions!