From the horse’s mouth, via the SSS Forum…
I left Brickyard Cove on a Friday night around 7:30 knowing I was going to be sailing through a gale. Getting a boat ready for the SHTP is difficult, but trying to get ready for the SHTP 1200 miles from the ocean makes it a logistical challenge. I should have left Thursday morning to avoid the worst of it, but the week before I was busy working on boat projects that had to be finished. Logistically I needed the boat to be ready to go to Hawaii at the start of my qualifying cruise. I have spent the past 4 years refitting and upgrading the boat, optimizing it for single handing (more about that in the future), but the week before I left on my qualifying cruise kept me working on the boat 16 hours a day installing things like the primary autopilot and solar panels, finishing a long list of small projects and gathering all the off shore equipment I needed from all over the bay area. If I wasn’t able to complete the boat projects and my qualifying cruise within the two weeks of time off that I had, the race wasn’t going to happen, so I was determined to go.
I have been watching the weather patterns for months leading up to my cruise trying to get a feel for patterns and watching for windows. The week before I left a perfect window opened up for the following week, so I knew I had to work hard to leave as soon as I could. The window was Wednesday through Saturday night. So by the time Wednesday rolled around I had an appointment with Paul Cunningham to adjust my compass and get a deviation card. After that we ate lunch and looked closely at routing and a strategy for the cruise. I still had to finish mounting the primary autopilot and install the solar panels, so as of Wednesday it was looking like I wasn’t leaving till Friday. With that in mind we charted a route that took me as far north as I was able to go using the light low pressure system that was sitting just off the coast. When the winds were predicted to pick up and shift north, I would reach out to sea to get off shore by at least 100 miles and then reach back to SF. Seemed like a good plan on paper, and fully expecting it to be challenging. As my favorite quote states “ A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor”, I have spent years preparing for it and now was the time to test both the boat and myself.
Finally 7:30 Friday night it was time to go, it was time to do it, everything was ready. I was exhausted, hungry and tired, but I needed to leave to get a day and a half in before the winds picked up. I sailed from the docks at Brickyard Cove, past all the houses and Richmond Yacht Club to where I entered the Richmond Channel. I get past the breakwater and sure enough, a 500’ container ship was making its way out of the channel . That left me with very little room on the North side of the channel to tack my way west. The ship and the three tug boats pretty much blocked me from crossing the channel so I just headed north west (the wrong way) just to stay clear of that traffic, thinking to myself that’s not a good way to start. After the traffic cleared I tacked and headed the right way towards Raccoon Straight and out the Gate. As I got closer to Raccoon Straight the wind became lighter and my boat speed was slowing. This was a blessing in disguise because as I was coasting along Bluff Point just at dusk, a whale surfaced 20’ from the boat and the blow made me jump, thinking to myself “Holy S#!%, don’t come any closer”! Then another blow a little further away on the other side of the boat. Then about a minute later…. Bam! The boat lifted up as a whale was trying to surface under the boat just in front of the keel. Immediately the whale submerged. I was pretty worried about the whales tail causing major damage if it decided to dive, but the whale just submerged and the tail wasn’t seen. I checked for damage and the hull was ok and my transducer and speed sensor worked. I wasn’t too worried because the boat hits harder jumping off a wave than what the whale did.
By that time the wind was pretty light and the flood was on…just as I entered Raccoon Straight. Boat speed was 4 knots, speed over ground was less than 1. That took hours to get past Angel Island and to get out the gate. I worked my way cautiously through the shipping lanes in the dark and avoiding the bars. Once past the lightship, I started heading north and could finally relax a bit. Wind was from the West at about 10 knots and the seas were pretty flat. Made a pretty comfortable night at sea.
Saturday morning brought blue skies, light wind and lots of traffic, both shipping and whale traffic. I could see the Farallon Islands in the distance with whales scattered around the Gulf of the Farallons. Since I had a late night filled with lots of action, I took this opportunity to turn on the Bluetooth speaker and relax taking some naps along the way. As the wind filled a little, I set a course North that took me past Point Reyes and up along the coast. I was glad to see the solar panels charging properly at 14 amps, since I had just installed the panels. I wasn’t sure if they were going to work properly, so as a backup I brought along a small generator and a gallon of gas that I set in the cockpit next to the outboard motor gas can.
Saturday afternoon the wind slowly increased and was shifting more northerly, so I decided to beat into it as close as I could since the waves were still pretty small. It was a fairly comfortable ride. Just before dusk, the seas were building to 6’ swells maybe 15 seconds and the wind was just above 20 knots. Around that time a rain squall was approaching, so knowing the winds were going to steadily increase overnight to 30 knots I was going to change the headsail in front of the squall to a #4 and make a little more distance north. I went up on the fore-deck and took the #3 down. As I was tying it up, the motion from the increasing swell instantly made me sick. From my trip north of Hawaii 2 summers ago ( a story for another time) I knew how incapacitating sea sickness can be and I needed to function during the gale I was going to have to fight over the next 2 days. So I decided to not put the #4 up and just go under a double reefed main so the boat would stay flatter. I also decided to stop beating into the waves and decided it was time to make my run out to sea. I wasn’t as far north as I wanted to be, but it’s what I needed to do to keep the sea sickness under control.
After I changed course and got set up for the next couple days I headed down below to rest a bit and to try to get better. Sometime after dark I woke up and checked the chart plotter to find a big AIS triangle almost right on top of my position. I jumped out of the bunk and looked outside to find a huge ship about a mile and a half away. I could see a red light, a green light and a white light in the middle telling me I was directly off their bow and they were bearing down on me. I hailed them on the radio… PCH Endeavor, PCH Endeavor…. I talked to the ship informed them that I was under sail and of my course and asked them to divert around me. The captain was very cooperative and gave me a wide birth and wished me luck on journey.
The wind was up to 25 knots sustained on Sunday and still out of the Northwest, I was on a close reach still trying to stay north while keeping the motion down so I wouldn’t get sick anymore. I was hoping they were going to shift more north sooner, which would put me at a better angle coming back, but they didn’t shift until Sunday night. I had the autopilot running the entire day on Sunday testing it out to see how much it could handle. I knew as soon as the autopilot hit its limits I would be hand steering back through the gale if I wanted to make it back to SF. If I wasn’t able to hold my course for whatever reason, back to SF, plan B was to turn and run down to Monterrey. Staying in the cockpit hand steering through a gale in an Olson 30 definitely has a time limit on it. I would only be able to handle being cold and wet for so long before it became a real problem, so Sunday I stayed down below hoping the autopilot would keep up and the battery bank would last. To my surprise, the solar panels had the batteries fully recharged by noon on Sunday and I had free energy the rest of the day. The autopilot also performed flawlessly. There were a few times when the alarm sounded for a rudder angle greater than 25 degrees, but the auto pilot has up to 35 degrees on both sides and it never hit its limit on Sunday.
Finally Sunday night I calculated my turnaround point and set a way point that would give me 400 miles back to the bay. I noticed that the log in my chart plotter was different from the InReach tracker. As I looked closer there were stretches that the tracker didn’t pick up for whatever reason so I went by the log in the chart plotter. The last few hours before I made my turn back east, the wind shifted and made it very comfortable. I made the gybe about midnight Sunday night, pretty easy gybe as I took my time and was able to do it while standing in the companionway. I had to figure out the chart plotter a little more to set my course back, but after a little bit was back on course and headed back in.
Monday brought clear skies and a lot of difficulty. I was feeling better and over being sea sick by Monday morning, which was great because the seas were really picking up and the wind was steadily increasing. By mid-morning the wind was 30 knots sustained and even though the autopilot was working overtime it was still able to hold course and didn’t hit it’s limits yet. Knowing that if it got any worse, the autopilot would hit either the rudder angle limit or maximum thrust on the helm, so I started to get ready to go in the cockpit for the rest of the trip. That’s when the first breaking wave hit the boat. It’s an experience I will never forget. All of a sudden the boat went horizontal and a wall of water came over the top. I could see underwater through the lower cabin windows. Everything on the high side flew down to the lower side in a hurry. Luckily the boat popped back up and kept going on course. So I was rushing now to get everything secure and ready to be in the cockpit. The wind was now sustaining 35 knots and gusting to 40 knots. 40 knots is where the autopilot quit on a reach with a double reefed main. As soon as it quit due to max thrust, the boat rounded up and was in irons. I jumped into the cockpit and secured myself with a short tether to the high side and took ahold of the helm. I swear someone replaced my rudder with a barn door, because it took a lot of strength to work the boat through the waves.
The seas were about 15’ with a very short period, so they were steep. My course was 030 so I used the compass to steer the course back. I would work my way up a couple waves (020) then have to turn and put my aft quarter (050) on the next breaking wave and surf it down. Every once in a while a breaking wave would sneak up and catch me. I had one hand on the tiller and the other hand hanging on the stantion. It only happened 3-4 times, but when the wave would hit, I would practically be hanging with one hand from the station, the boat would round up, I would take a deep breath and get going again. I was close to going to plan B, heading to Monterrey, but I wanted to see if the boat and I could get through it and learn a lot form the challenge. The winds peaked that day around 40 knots and with the seas being 15’, there were a couple wave trains that came through that doubled that. I know my mast is 40’, and those wave trains didn’t quite get it, so I figured they were 30’ waves.
I made the western approach to the shipping lanes about dark. The breaking waves were starting to subside but still were prevalent. I was very nervous about crossing the shipping lanes in the dark and in those conditions because I had very little maneuverability, and not to mention the possibility of ships not seeing me. I worked my way up the outside of the shipping lane then entered the Lightship circle. Thankfully there weren’t any AIS targets in the shipping lanes at that time and I was able to sail across the Lightship and enter the main shipping channel into SF. At the Lightship the winds reduced to 25 knots, then at the channel, 20 knots, and kept reducing the closer I got to the gate. It was about midnight at this time and I took a huge sigh of relief. I made it! I didn’t think I could have gotten through something like that, but I did. It was a huge confidence booster knowing that I have a very seaworthy boat and that I was able to get through those tough conditions.
As the wind got lighter closer to land, I checked the tides and was going to be able to make it into the gate before the ebb started so I wouldn’t have to fight that. I was soaked, cold, fingers barely worked, the cabin was a disaster and lost both my fuel cans and bucket from the cockpit from the first breaking wave. Brian and Jackie knew what I was going through as I kept in contact with them, and were going to meet me just inside the gate and get things situated. This was a huge relief knowing they were there to help because I was tired, cold and hadn’t eaten anything in 2 days.
I made it all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge when the wind completely died. There I was a mile from the finish and couldn’t go anywhere. I had my motor, but lost my gas can so I couldn’t use that. So I sat there for a while and drifted to the middle of the shipping lane. A ship suddenly appeared by Angel Island and there wasn’t any way I could get out of the way, so thankfully the ship just went around me on the edge of the lane. Now it was about 1 AM and the ebb was going to start and I was going to get washed back out to sea. No way to anchor in 400’ and there was no way in hell I was going back out there, so I had no choice to call for a tow. By that time I had logged 405 miles, so I was ready to be done. I let Brian and Jackie know and Tow Boat US showed up just in time to take me back to Richmond.
I came back to the boat the next day and it was in total chaos. I had things everywhere; It looked like an episode of Hoarders. I carefully cleaned up the boat and put everything in order looking for any kind of damage along the way. The only thing I found damaged was Ophelia my figurehead that I mounted on a bow roller. During one of the times a breaking wave threw me down the wave, the water bent a ¼” piece of plate stainless steel. I put all of my weight on it to try to bend it back, but I couldn’t do it, I still can’t comprehend the amount of force that took. The solar panels didn’t move, rigging and hatches and windows were ok, everything made the qualifier except for Ophelia, I guess she can’t go to Hawaii.
Since I have gotten back, it has taken me 19 days to fully physically recover from the cruise. I have spent the past 6 months running 25 miles a week at a 7:30min/mile pace and lifting weights 5 days a week. Finally as of yesterday I am back to my pace with the energy I had. After some sailors amnesia, I decided to enter and look forward to the 2018 SHTP. I have worked on my boat towards this goal for 5 years now, and with more confidence gained from my qualifier, I feel like I am ready for another adventure.