Sunday, August 24, 2014

Passage to San Francisco Bay

[Kyle]The weather forecast for this leg had been causing us some concern. For most of the week before and after winds were forecast to be howling out of the north at a bit above our comfort level. The wind and seas weren’t so much our primary concern as being able to get out into the ocean across the Noyo River bar. The Noyo is very well protected (inside) but the entrance is narrow and notorious for being particularly dangerous in big swell. Inside everything is calm and sunny, even when ocean conditions are miserable with big seas, the river, with its protective cliffs and big bend just by the entrance protects us from any of that. The big winds forecast meant the swell would be in at least the 8-10ft range. We were hoping most of this would be dampened by the coastline and the intervening kelp fields but we were still worried.

To make things worse, when we tried to check conditions at the bar, the first thing that comes up on a Google search is a YouTube video showing local fishing boat being capsized at the entrance (and that is WITH local knowledge). It turned out that the bar report was not available on-line and the web cam set to view conditions was not working (bar report was available via phone call to the coastguard directly). We decided to go and take a look with the boat and make a decision to turn around if we didn’t like it on the day. It didn’t much matter either way (aside from the hassle of getting the boat underway) as there was much more to enjoy in the Fort Bragg area that we’d love to have time for, but we really ought to be getting on south if we can so Maryanne can interview for jobs.

The bar turned out to be calm, and crossing easy. We encountered some steep chop at the entrance to the bay, but only for a few minutes. The wind near the coast was almost non-existent and we had to motor almost five miles off shore before we could shut down the engines and begin to sail.

One bit of entertainment on the way out was watching a group (raft) of sea lions jostling for position atop one of the buoys. One buoy in particular had six in a space that would only fit 4 or 5, with 20 more in the water barking away and awaiting their chance for a place. The really like resting atop buoys, which seems strange given all the beaches and rocks nearby. Knowing their place, seagulls and cormorants occupy the top deck of the buoys (beside the solar panel).

Leaving the Noyo River, sea lions in line for their turn on the buoy

Once out in the wind we sailed for the rest of the day in only about half the wind that was forecast. We kept thinking we should shake out the reefs and fly full sail, but were worried about the wind suddenly appearing (as it did when we rounded Cape Mendocino en route to Fort Bragg). The timing of the tides for crossing the Noyo and the San Francisco Bars (in daylight) were such that we only needed an average speed of about 2.5 knots, so we were in no hurry. We were also lucky because the weather was uncharacteristically clear and we could see the cliffs and mountains of the coast the entire day (we even got a second look at Mendocino).

When Maryanne woke me at midnight for my watch it sounded as though we’d slowed down further; she told me to expect to be frustrated by the wind that had just begun to die. Ten minutes after she went to bed, I gybed, and 20 minutes after that I pulled down all the sails completely and reluctantly started the engine. Ten minutes later, the wind returned, only from completely the opposite direction - headwinds. Our one feeble motor was only able to make three knots against the wind and currents as we headed south. We continued this way for most of the day. The wind finally died down by late afternoon, allowing us to speed up, countered by us backing off on the engine rpm.

At midnight again on the second night we had only 16nm to go before reaching the bar so I was able to reduce power even further. While I’d slept, Maryanne had rounded Point Reyes. That meant now on watch, above the silhouette of the Marin headlands, I could see the top of the San Francisco skyline - including the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. At about 6am, just before sunrise, a light wind came in from the west and I was able to finally shut down the engine and let Maryanne sleep properly. Shipping traffic started to appear as we approached the San Francisco Bay shipping lanes and vessel separation schemes (which we were careful to avoid entering); I saw about five vessels going each way in about a 4 hour period. An under utilized pilot vessel seemed to mess with us. It kept relocating to a position directly in our path and forcing us to move. We’ve no idea why it acted in this way; we were outside of any shipping lanes, and clearly sailing (i.e. we had right of way). It had no obvious need to be ahead of us, and made no attempt to contact us on the radio. I was trying to let Maryanne sleep so I didn’t bother confronting him myself via radio, but simply kept diverting around him. If we are being generous, maybe he was curious about our boat, but it seemed more likely he was entertaining himself, inappropriately and at our expense.

Maryanne woke up just around 8am as we were turning inland to parallel the inbound shipping traffic lane to the Golden Gate Bridge. An announcement came over the VHF radio from the coastguard saying that the Napa lift bridge would be closed until further notice pending earthquake inspection. We weren’t planning on going that way, but our ears pricked up at the word ‘earthquake’. Maryanne did a quick search on her smart phone and discovered a 6.0 magnitude earthquake had hit the area about 3:20am – yikes. There were still fires raging, gas mains leaking and burst water pipes hampering firefighting. At sea earlier I had noticed a strange wake and been unable to determine the source – in hindsight this could well have been from the earthquakes and its aftershocks (but maybe not… I could just be making an association that wasn’t there).

I had expected when making this last leg of the journey that our Golden Gate Bridge story would end up being one of finding our way in by radar in the fog. We were lucky, and although there was a high overcast layer, the visibility was good and we had long views of the coastline all the way in.

Arriving at the Golden Gate Bridge, and anchoring in Sausalito

I cannot begin to tell how much pleasure it gave me to sail into San Francisco; it surprised even me. From the helm of Begonia I could see the motel where I spent my first night living in San Francisco with a U-Haul truck parked outside. I could see the beaches that I’d walked so many times, Golden Gate Park, the cliffs where I learned to paraglide, and of course, the Golden Gate Bridge itself that I have crossed so many times on foot, bicycle, rollerblade and car.

We sailed by Baker Beach, and childhood memories came flooding back; this was my first ever view of the ocean as a young child. I’d never before seen a body of water where I couldn’t also see the opposite shore. My Dad knelt beside me in the sand, looked out across the water with me and explained to me for the first time how big this ocean was – 100s of times further than I could see – to Japan on the other side. I was enthralled and terrified at the same time; one of those moments when my little childhood world got much, much larger. Now here I was, a grown man sailing his own boat past that very beach, not out of San Francisco to see the world, but into San Francisco after having sailed a very long way go get here! It is unbelievable to me every day that my life could ever have turned out like this.

We sailed under the big red “Golden Gate” bridge and for the first time in my life I looked up at it from the water instead of the other way around. People waving down to our little boat from above probably had no idea how momentous and emotional it was for me. They might have just imagined we’d poked out into the ocean to dip our bow into the Pacific waters and turned around. Still, it felt like a long road that had brought me back here to the place I first saw the ocean as a child.

The current assisted our ride under the bridge and we were able to turn and face it whilst still being pushed into the bay. Suddenly the sun burst out and the bay was alive with all sorts of traffic: ferries, sailboats and kayaks on the water, and traffic on the bridges and roads. We sailed into Richardson Bay and dropped anchor off Sausalito with views of Alcatraz, Angel Island, and the San Francisco skyline to admire; I could not believe we were actually here. Sausalito is where Maryanne and I spent our honeymoon and I remember watching the boats bobbing about from our hotel room window. So many memories are associated with this place, it’s going to be a great feeling of home for the next year or so.

Bringing back memories form the past: Kyle and I start our first full day of married life from the balcony of our honeymoon suite in Sausolito

Friday, August 22, 2014


[Maryanne]Mendocino is a picturesque town set on yet more of the stunning north Californian coastline. It must have very strict laws in place as it appears as a postcard American village from a time at least 100 years ago. Some of you may recognise it as the "Cabot Cove" of "Murder She Wrote". I'd visited once before with Kyle, Carla and Carlos (before Kyle and I married) and was looking forward to seeing this beautiful place all over again. We soon learned that all the locals simply call the place "Mendo".

[Kyle]The worst part about Mendocino is having to look at all of that stunning scenery. Scenery, yuck!

Mendocino Headlands State Park

Mendocino just has to be the prettiest place along the whole northern California/Oregon coast. I’ve been several times and it never loses its charm. Somehow, I think of it as my mother’s pretty little seaside village because she must have called dibs the first time we saw it. I’m much better at “not it!”

We took the short bus ride from Ft. Bragg to the church at the northwestern corner of the town. From there, we walked along every inch of the impossibly beautiful shoreline to the beach at the southeastern corner of town. Along the way, we met a guy who lives here. Every morning, he goes out and takes a different picture of the coast with his coffee cup in the foreground. He then sends the picture to his friends on the east coast working hard at their office jobs! That’s gotta hurt.

Maryanne snacks on blackberries along the coastal park before we head to town for real sustinance

The last bit of the coast trail passes through more blackberry bushes than the town and all of the birds in the area can harvest. We grazed intermittently, calling it breakfast, but still arrived at the pub where we ate lunch with incriminating stains on our hands and scratches on our legs. Oh, yeah. We ate your berries and we’d do it again!

Once we had a real meal, we spent the rest of our time before the bus home browsing the shops and trying not to buy anything. We topped it off with a couple of Irish Coffees at the very posh Mendocino Hotel, just for the pleasure of sitting by a window and looking at the view of the cliffs outside.

Scenes from the town itself!

Mendocino Headlands State Park

Mendocino Headlands State Park

The Skunk Train

[Kyle]One of Maryanne’s little jokes that makes her chuckle to herself is her characterization of me as a train aficionado. She thinks she’s hilarious because the image she has in her mind is of me sitting at the edge of the tracks in a lawn chair under an umbrella dutifully writing down engine serial numbers and other impertinent minutiae on my little clipboard.

Hardee har har! I do not, and will never, do that.

That said. I do think trains are mildly cool. They are big, interesting pieces of machinery and I am interested in how most anything works. I also like that you can walk around on them when they are moving and that their tracks take up way less real estate than a big ugly road.

So, with that in mind, she booked us a couple of tickets on the Skunk Train, running from Fort Bragg to Northspur through the redwoods. {Maryanne: This was originally installed to bring lumber to the coast from the logging camps, it is quite the tourist highlight for the area, and with our timing there was only one option open to us which consisted of a return trip covering a full half of the track}

I tried to overcompensate by trying to be as ambivalent as a sullen teenager because I know she was watching me like a hawk for any signs of interest so she could start guffawing and making jokes about buying me train videos in the gift shop later. Then the train started moving and I may have let a crack of a smile cross my face. By the time we got to Northspur, I was singing along out loud with the guy playing train tunes on the guitar. Dammit!

While rushing through the redwoods we are entertained not only with the views, but with a dining car/bar, a running commentary on the scenery, and the talented on-board minstrel

At Northspur, we got off for forty-five minutes. I was keen to see the old growth redwoods nearby and was dragging her behind me like a kid at an amusement park. I was taking pictures of trees and hugging trees (Oh, I do that!). I turned around to find HER taking pictures of the engine being moved to the other end for the return trip. Hmmm…

Enjoying the trees and the train at Northspur logging camp

On the way back to Fort Bragg, she let me have my way and we got to ride in the open car the whole way. The weather was perfect and warm and it was great to stand out under the open sky and smell the big trees as we trundled by.

Afterward, we had a look at a model railroad they have in a disused train barn out back. Pretty cool. It reminds me of what my parents did to my room after I left to keep me from moving back, only bigger.

Entrance to the extensive model railroad was included in our ticket price

We found a restaurant attached to the local brewery across the street and had a sampler. This one was all twelve of their beers. Twelve sample portions still works out to a lot of beer for such a long walk home. I think we would have been okay, but our server forgot our food order and apologized by comping us a beer. Oof!

Relaxing with a sampler of local brewery offerings

Getting home wasn’t too bad. “Walking it off” had us feeling pretty human by the time we made it.

Fort Bragg

[Kyle]After sailing through the night and a brief nap to reset our internal clocks, we walked up the hill and over the bridge into Fort Bragg.

Actually, the main part of the town is about a mile further, so we walked there. It started a lot like Brookings, but picked up some charm as we went, although the first building we saw upon passing the sign that said “Welcome to Historic Downtown Fort Bragg” was a 1990s era bank with a drive-through. The sign was about three buildings too early.

Once we made it to the historic part of town, we decided to keep going to see the trestle over Pudding Creek. Well, we had to cross the trestle, which revealed a network of trails running along the cliff tops by the sea. A few “just to the next point” add-ons later, we finally had the sense to turn back home. We arrived sore and barely able to lift our poor feet. It was a really nice day, though.

After a hike through town we made it to the picturesque Pudding Creek and beyond for a cliff top exploration and more beautiful scenery!

Eureka to Fort Bragg

[Kyle]The tidal cycle had migrates about an hour forward a day. In the time we were in Eureka, it had gone far enough for the afternoon tide to be too late, meaning we had to switch to the previously too-early morning tide. This meant we had to go through the pain of getting up way earlier than we had become accustomed.

We left our grotty dock at the very first hint of morning twilight. The fog was fairly thick, so we felt our way out of the harbor squinting through the mist-covered plastic of our cockpit enclosure while relying heavily on our radar to do the real seeing.

Once we passed the end of the breakwater, the smooth water of Humboldt Bay gave way quickly to six-foot ocean swell. The swell was accompanied by no wind whatsoever. Since we were heading directly into the swell, which was really killing our speed, we kept an engine running to get through it.

After safely exiting Eureka, Kyle celebrated by eating a delicious cake (kindly provided at the tasting at 'Taste' from the night before

I was worried it wouldn’t materialize at all, but about a mile from making the big turn to the south to parallel the coast, the wind went from nuttin’ to sixteen knots. We shut down the engine and were able to easily make nine knots with even a couple of extra reefs in for good measure.

As we rounded Cape Mendocino, the wind gradually picked up into the low, and then the high twenties. The wind was almost dead astern, so we rolled up the jib to keep it from flapping around in the turbulent spot behind the mainsail. Damn, that’s annoying.

Maryanne went for a nap just as we approached the cape. We crossed Eel Canyon, then Mendocino and Mattole Canyons, each separated from the other by an underwater ridge. The ridges must have wreaked havoc with the underwater currents, forcing them upward to clash with the ones at the surface. The ocean was a fairly organized two-swell pattern in the deep water of the canyons, but a big washing machine full of pyramid-shaped waves coming seemingly from every direction at once over the ridges. My only consolation was that we were going nice and fast in the right direction.

The wind gradually picked up some more until it was regularly venturing into the low 30s. Since we were running away from it, we only saw 20s on board. Begonia was now spending most of her time above ten knots and was regularly surfing above fifteen. That was faster than the waves were moving, so I was getting the regular experience of watching the waves come from behind, pitch us forward, stop, and then go astern. A few of the crests were breaking, which caused us to slew around a lot and made the autopilot command the use of a lot of rudder. I’m afraid of that now, so I took the wheel and disconnected it.

The fastest I saw us get was 16.4 knots through the water, 18.8 over the seabed. We were probably above thirteen for a whole minute then. The bows both made huge, arcing waves that came through the trampoline and landed on the cabin top as we slowed down coasting up the back of the wave ahead.

Okay, this was too fast now. I wanted to get the mainsail down because I was worried about the slewing causing a crash jibe, but knew I wouldn’t be able to going downwind with it plastered against the mast. Rounding up would have made the wind over the sail jump to near forty and would require a turn across the steep seas. I knew this sort of thing happens around here and that it was probably a short-term local effect, so I just decided to ride it out sitting on the edge of my seat, watching the waves and trying to steer as straight a line as possible.

Maryanne had asked for coffee when she woke up. I had to get her in ten minutes, but I was afraid to leave the seat to wake her, much less make her some coffee. With five minutes to go, the wind fell into the teens and I cautiously engaged the autopilot so I could sprint down and wake her. When I got back, the wind was five. I put the kettle on and it was down to two from dead ahead by the time she came up the stairs. The big waves coming up from behind were now crumbling into breakers in their new headwind.

I was very wary of this. We were losing steerageway, but I wasn’t about to put up more sail only to have the wind go back up to thirty in ten minutes. I was hovering waiting for the hammer to fall. Maryanne told me to stop worrying and get some sleep. She would deal with it.

I must have been pretty tired, because I actually did fall asleep almost immediately. She waited an hour, then started putting up sail. An hour later, she took it all back down again. Not because the wind picked up again, but because the useless sails flapping in the still air were driving her crazy. A short while later, the vibra-bed started up as the engine below me was started. We had a couple of hours before we needed to resort to that, but since it was already going, I embraced it and the noise and vibration put me right back to sleep.

It turned out to be a good thing she started the engine when she did. A tropical storm by Mexico was sending big waves up the coast and causing a counter current near the shore that we ended up fighting. We spent most of the night struggling to maintain three and a half knots toward Fort Bragg. We barely made it to the entrance of the Noyo River at the tail end of the flood.

The entrance to the Noyo reveals itself as a tiny bay amongst the cliffs. At the back of the bay lies the very narrow slit covered by a high bridge. We rode the swell into the river, taking great care to stay on the very narrow beam of the tri-color entrance light. Once inside, we dodged the light, passed under the bridge and motored up a river that was perfectly flat and protected from the swell and weather outside. It was lined either side with fishing boats backed by all of the support structure for them: ice houses, wholesale buyers, processing plants, and restaurants. It suddenly felt like we were in a 1950s fishing village.

At the far end of the navigable part of the river lies Noyo Basin; the marina where we tied up behind one of the only other sailboats amongst a sea of commercial fishing boats.

Safely entering the Noyo River, Begonia finds a temporary home among the local fishing boats