Sitka, AK to Port Townsend WA Ocean Voyage

By Carol McCreary, Pacific NW Expeditions client, 2010

After Hoonah and Sitka, worsening problems with Aurora’s 29-year-old transmission made it unwise for us to return to the lower 48 through the Inside Passage.  Without a reliable engine how could we anchor at night and cross the numerous rapids along that route? But since Aurora is a tried-and-tested offshore vessel, we figured it was time for us to try blue-water sailing.  And maybe the sooner, the better, since we might not like it at all.

[PIC: Captain Peter Frost and Kelsey Boesch]

So we engaged a young licensed captain from Port Townsend named Peter Frost.  After walking us through the preparations, he met us in Alaska on July 6th along with his partner, Kelsey Boesch.  Here is the account of our voyage on the Outside, a hundred miles off the Alaska and British Columbia coasts.

In struggling find the words to describe this extraordinary voyage, I feel a bit like a space traveler who knows she’s done something few others have had the opportunity to do.  But it should be clear that we loved the trip.  In fact, it promises to alter the course, reorder our priorities and reshape our dreams.

Day 1   Wednesday, July 7, 2010    Seasick!

Coordinates at noon:  56º45′N 135º46′W

We cast off from Sitka at 7 am and motor straight out through a couple of remaining piles of rocks” until we we’re in the open ocean.  A curious sea otter, his breakfast on his stomach, watches us go by.  Looking up, we notice instrument failure number one.  The wind vane at the top of the mast has lost its tail and is bobbing around uselessly.  The damage is recent, certainly done by a large bald eagle, undeterred by the bird proofing mechanism.  Seagulls abound in other fishing harbors, but in Sitka there are none to be seen. Eagles rule the roost, hovering over vessels as they unload, darting after what they can get or just standing watch on masts.

The fog is thick so I volunteer for bow watch, and a shot at real concentration because the queasiness I’d feared is taking hold.  When I start vomiting it’s the best place to be so I just stay up tethered in front and tough it out.

Finally my stomach settles a bit and I head back along the jack-line to the cockpit.  On my way, I stoop down to move the jib sheet car back along its track.  With that simple gesture my right thumb joint gets stuck in flexed position.  I can straighten it manually but it doesn’t stay.  As I climb into the cockpit puzzling over this, the other four fingers of my left hand spasm out and become useless.  Within a minute my left calf lumps up with a painful cramp and immediately after that a whole complex of muscles in my right thigh contract violently.  Imagine my confused terror as four limbs fail at once!

Peter calmly reassures me that this is a common symptom of seasickness.  My body is making a bunch of micro adjustments as it gets used to the motion of the waves and swell.  And he’s dead right.  Within a couple of minutes the paralyzing cramps and spasms subside.  I continue my watch, feeling a strange kind of gratitude that my body knows what it’s doing.  Soon enough my nausea has waned and the physical self-confidence I had been so carefully nurturing with daily yoga has returned.

[PIC: Offshore seascape]

The familiar fauna soon yield to albatross, ponderous in size, dark in color, and nearly horizontal in flight.  (According to Wikipedia, Albatross have high glide ratios, around 22:1 to 23:1, meaning that for every meter they drop, they can travel forward 22 meters.”)  I am tempted to see them as creepy but suppose it’s just a figment or fragment of Coleridge haunting my imagination.  But then Peter dispels any doubts by recounting an incident during a voyage back from Hawaii, when an albatross flew into the Mylar sail of their racing vessel and ripped it in half with its beak!

When we are well offshore – about 40 miles out – we adjust our course toward the south.  Aurora’s engine works fine since we have no reason to idle nor reverse and the transmission is regularly nurtured with small doses of fluid.  So we continue to motor through weak and uncertain weather.  Peter has carefully thought out our route so that we’ll be in a position to catch the northwesterly winds when they begin.  At noon he pencils in our coordinates on the chart and consults his GPS to verify our course and strategy.  Soon we discover instrument failure number two: the cigarette lighter-style DC power outlet in the companionway does not work.  So we must use AA batteries, of which we have barely enough.  Throughout the trip, Peter will combine his years of experience in navigation with judicious use of his GPS.   Since a compass fix is needed in the open ocean, he determines the course and we stay on it using the compass on the binnacle.

We’re still far north and the days are long.  Toward the end of our 2000 to midnight watch, Jack and I can no longer read the compass.  But we have no idea how to turn on the red night light in the compass, and neither does Peter.  In fact, since we’ve never navigated at night, we had neglected to include the compass when verifying the instrument lights according to the checklist Peter had sent about a week earlier.  With calm aplomb the captain moves us beyond equipment failure number three by duct taping the little red flashlight Jack bought to the perimeter of the dome on the binnacle.

Day 2 Thursday, July 8     Routine

Coordinates at noon:  54º46′N 134º55′W

Segmenting this account into days is misleading since we never stop. Every day includes night and the period of darkness lengthens as we cross parallels going southward.

We’re setting into our watch schedule, which combines two daytime watches of six hours each with three evening-night-early ones of only four hours.   Today’s looks like this:

0800-1400 Peter & Kelsey

1400-2000 Jack & Carol

2000-0000 Peter & Kelsey

0000-0400 Jack & Carol

0400-0800 Peter & Kelsey

This rotation is a flip of yesterdays’. In the last 24-hour period Jack and I had 14 hours on duty at the helm; in this one we have only 10 but it includes the midnight to 4 am watch.  The new team comes up from below on ten to fifteen minutes before the previous watch ends to be briefed and get the feel for the point of sail, the height and intervals of the waves, and the (steady or gusty) quality of the winds.

When Jack and I go above for our 4 am watch, Peter and Kelsey brief us on the graveyard shift saying they’d enjoyed the Northern Lights.

[PIC: Off watch sleeping through a long port tack]

Nice as it would be to see everything, it’s more important for us to go below, cook some hot food, and get some sleep.  We are very small beings in the middle of vast seas and our bodies seem to know what they need.  Sleep comes easily; the best we can be is ready for the next watch as well as anything for which extra hands are required.

Peter has been doing 24-hour watches since he was a child and now as a licensed captain sleeping in snatches while being alert to ship and crew seems to be instinctive.  Not only does he come up the companionway to check on us, he uses whatever issue Jack and I are musing about as an opportunity for hands-on instruction.

Unlike Steve Plantz, Peter was not one of those kids raised at sea.  Thanks to a fortuitous set of circumstances, however, every summer he was able to step out of an otherwise normal American childhood.  Starting at the age of nine he spent summers crewing on a sailing vessel which plied the Great Lakes 24 hours a day.  Peter credits the Canadian youth program that seems almost a throwback to British naval training in 18th century with providing a solid foundation.  He returned to the Brigantine every summer until he was fourteen, when they were shipwrecked.  As only of three of a crew of 33 neither injured nor a victim of seasickness, Peter recounts the details of this unwelcome opportunity to perform under stress.  Jack and I listen in grateful amazement that this seafarer, not yet thirty years old, has nearly twenty years offshore experience.

We are under sail about 100 miles out.  Our southeast course takes us past Prince of Wales Island in the morning and past Dixon Entrance in the afternoon.

Day 3   Friday, July 9     Weather

Coordinates at noon: 53º18′N 134º21′

At reports of worsening weather, we make a detour, motoring several hours to get out its path.  Now southerly winds mix with rain and push us on.  Opposite the Queen Charlotte Strait, the weather turns nasty.  Peter and Kelsey take over at the helm and Jack and I go below.

[PIC: Deck with troublesome swim ladder]

Although we’ve cleared the deck of most everything, the preventer – a line that restrains the boom to prevent an accidental jibe – gets caught on the aluminum swim ladder, bending it and forcing Peter to go forward to unhook it.  Now that we’re rid of the old hard-shell skiff that covered the place where the ladder is bolted to the deck, we’ll have to do something about it.  At the same time, the absence of skiff has vastly improved visibility.  In fact, now we can sit on port or starboard and maintain our course by lining up numbers on the compass with stationary guides positioned 45º degrees to either side of the desired heading.

Sitting at the helm and using the compass works less well in coastal cruising.  Along a coast you have one eye on the chart, the other usually on the point of land to which you’re headed.  Water depths constantly change thanks to irregular bottoms and the high tides of the North Pacific.  The shape of the land affects the velocity and direction of the winds and accounts for crazy currents and roiling rips.  And you need to pay attention to other boats, and hope they are paying attention to you.  After thinking about it a bit, Jack and I realize that offshore sailing under the tutorage of a skilled instructor and navigator can work for fledglings learning to sail.

At the same time we’re thankful the skills in coastal navigation we’ve acquired and the different sort of concentration sailing in more sheltered water takes.  We rarely do more than ten or twelve hours at a stretch between anchorages but long days are exhausting and often leave the First Mate pleading for extra hands on deck.  But unless they’ve got specific assignments and really want to be there, having friends on board can be distracting.  So we ponder ways to manage more challenging voyages and the practicality and prudence of well-thought-out watches.

Watches also make a small boat feel much bigger. Except for a pre-departure dinner, we have not shared a meal with Peter and Kelsey.  We’re hot berthing, sleeping in the same places close to the mast.  That leaves accessible space for personal effects fore and aft.  Finding things in a hurry is important.  My undocumented stashing of foodstuffs in fridge, lockers and bilge has had us rifling a bit but (almost) never for important things like headlamps, gloves, wrenches, extra line, binoculars, duct tape and the like.

Day 4    Saturday, July 10      Musings

Coordinates at noon: 51º48′N 131º58′W

[PIC: Brilliant hues of sunrise]

The view constantly changing

Jack and I pull daybreak and afternoon watches.  The gleam of morning sneaks over the horizon covering the enormous swells with a skim of crinkled, pink foil.  Minutes later the sea is billows golden chiffon.  The hues are so vivid that we are tempted to wake up Peter and Kelsey but we regale them with stories and photos when they come on watch.  After all we missed the aurora borealis; in 24/7 passage making you just can’t experience everything happening around you, although this comes pretty close.

Our six-hour afternoon watch follows a long satisfying nap and a good meal.  Winds are from the northwest, seas are high, sun is full.  In sweater sleeves – it’s warm – Jack and I alternate 30 minutes at the helm.  We’re headed southeast – 135º magnetic – with ten-knot winds moving Aurora along at five and a half knots.  The lightness of the winds make it all the more difficult to keep the compass needle between 130ºM and 140ºM.

Captain Peter emerges briefly from the companionway to demonstrate the micro movements the helmsman must master.  I keep my hands steady on the wheel, note the approximate orb and make it part of my rhythm.  There is no need to twirl the wheel or make big adjustments, if one stays attentive.  And without headlands, mountains or stars to head for, all my focus is on the compass in front of me.

The sky is cloudless and the line of the horizon distinct.  From where we are sitting in the cockpit, the horizon is a mere three and a half miles away.  This is our own tiny patch of the Pacific.  No wonder we’ve seen no other boats since that troller in the fog less than an hour out of Sitka.

[PIC: Getting the hand of the helm]

The nearness of the horizon inspires reverence and respect.  Our planet is small: it drops off quickly.  When we gaze out on successive ranges of mountains, as you might do heading inland from the Oregon Coast, or looking northwest from Islamabad or Boulder, the world seems much bigger than it really is.  The seas don’t lie.  If we stand up on the spinnaker box on the deck against the mast, we might see a seven or eight miles radius to the horizon, from the top of the mast perhaps 25.  A very compact area.  Almost cozy.  Nothing like I’d imagined.  No wonder the ancient mariners knew the earth was a sphere, something it took centuries for their land-lubbing cousins to grasp.

I get better at keeping the yellow needle of the compass on target.  I watch intensely as the black disk, all 360 degrees calibrated in white, bobs and spins in its ocean of oil under the glass dome of the compass.  The compass is about 7 inches across, the radius to its horizon three-and-a-half inches, which echoes the three-and-a-half miles of ours.  Our great dome of the sky is now evenly light grey, like milky glass, the slate purple grey of the sea gently rocking and bobbing Aurora exactly in its center.  I imagine a miniature sailing ship in a glass bottle, although this time it is a tiny Aurora floating at the center of the compass enclosed in the hemispherical glass dome atop the binnacle.

Day 5    Sunday, July 11    Encounters!

Coordinates at noon: 49º55′N 130º00′W

At about 50º10′N 130º30′W, when I am at the helm facing heavy seas, something smacks low against the keel.  Look at that Sunfish!” Peter exclaims.  I manage to stay focused and not turn around but Jack says it looks something like a huge barn door.  A barn door that must really hurt.” [Wikipedia on Sunfish: “unique fish whose bodies come to an end just behind the dorsal and anal fins, giving them a “half-a-fish” appearance…the largest of the ray-finned bony fishes, recorded at up to 3.3 meters in length and 2 tons in weight.]

[PIC: When the wind kicks up, we reef the main]

The winds are stiffening now, but I am getting the hang of the helm.  The helm is usually Jack’s task so this is great experience for me.  To keep the ship on our heading of 135º magnetic, I need to keep that compass needle somewhere between 1-3-0 and 1-4-0 on the dial.  Despite the good wind, the seas are rolling us a bit.  My attention needs to be sharp and complete but my shoulders and hands relaxed as I turn the wheel.  Toward the end of my watch, I enter yogic space between ease and effort and feel my practice is finally bringing results.

Then suddenly, the boom whirls across the cockpit in an accidental jibe.  Worse, the force pulls the preventer, a block and line designed to prevent the wind from getting on the wrong side of the sail, right out of the boom.  I am devastated.

Peter rushes up to deck and gets Aurora back on the proper heading.   With a spare line about sixty feet in length we rig a makeshift preventer, tying one end to the boom and the other to a cleat in the bow, dipping and rising between great following waves.  When Peter finishes, he asks me gently if I’m ready to get back on the horse.”  It’s noon, so I take the helm briefly while he goes below to check our position and progress of the past 24 hours and pencil them on the chart.  When he emerges from the companionway, he says with a broad smile, You’ll be interested to know that we’ve just crossed an area of magnetic disturbance.”  Ah, ha!  It was the compass that got mixed up!

[PIC: Jack takes helm as swells rise behind him]

For four days we’ve had our bit of ocean to ourselves, but on the evening watch Jack and I spot a southbound ship on the horizon and then another and another.  Their massiveness is half hidden by the horizon and the huge swells make them disappear all together.  At a distance of a couple of miles they are as benign as the three ships of the Christmas Carol sailing toward (landlocked) Bethlehem.  But we know we are near an open-ocean shipping lane and we intersperse visual checks of the horizon every five minutes with checks of the radar, which is bouncing with all the noise the waves are throwing up.

At midnight Kelsey and Peter take over at the helm and shortly afterwards (49º30′N 128º20′W) Kelsey calls me back on deck.  There’s a ship bearing at 2 o’clock and the disposition of its lights suggests it’s headed toward us and they are not responding to radio calls.  Peter has turned into the wind in an attempt to speed past it, moving from his 090° heading to 060°.  Kelsey and I each take one of the high-powered emergency lamps we’re carrying.  I flood the sails with strong light while she flashes her light at the ship.

But the distance is closing and soon we see red and green: when both the port and starboard navigation lights are visible it indicates a collision course.  I take the VHF and just keep hailing the northbound freighter off the west coast of Vancouver Island”.  No response, nothing, silence.  Then miraculously, a weighty, Slavic accented voice responds.  It’s a miracle.

The Zim Djibouti asks our heading.  Okay,” says the captain, I’m changing my heading.”  Slowly the red light disappears and the white masthead lights creep apart to tell us we have their starboard safely abreast of ours.  To come that close in such a huge ocean!  The guy on the Zim Djibouti is clearly surprised but as relieved as we are.  He is very nice.  Explains that he couldn’t see us on his radar.  Advises us to get a new reflector but our radar reflector is a good one and designed for offshore.  It’s interesting how nearly everyone seems to have suggestions on stuff you can buy for your boat, even the captain of a passing freighter.  [Later I check the Internet and learn that M/V Zim Djibouti is “one of the largest container ships operating in the world” and travels at 25.8 knots.]

As the night lengthens, my gratitude for the escape from danger multiplies and Nature co-conspires to regale us with a sublimely glorious encounter.  Aurora’s wake is now a broad phosphorescent path behind the stern and the waves breaking around the cockpit are full of light.  It’s the phenomenon of bioluminescence, tiny marine organisms that emit light when surrounding waters are disturbed.  It’s the sprinkles of sparkles seen when paddling at night, or in the splashes of a bucket drawn from the sea, or whirling around in the bowl of the head when it is flushed.  But tonight we have a full-blown show.  All around us – even at some distance – are light-capped waves.  Billions and billions of creatures are performing for us!  And then suddenly there are ribbons of light streaming alongside the boat, forward and aft, port and starboard.  Dolphins!  They dart to and fro, playing in our bow waves, enjoying their strength.  In the tubes of light in which they swim we see their large white spots.  Like firework-spouting tug boats escorting a great ocean liner into port, a pod of Pacific-white sided dolphins are our escort through this patch of wilderness night.

Beyond the continental shelf along Vancouver Island, the ocean floor slopes down to minus 10,000 feet or more to what is known as the Abyssmal Plain.  But from these depths rise seamounts, knolls and ridges, giant underwater mountains.  A few rise to just 1500 to 2000 feet below sea level, bringing rich habitat and dolphin feeding grounds just beneath our keel.  This time the short intense blackness of our night has coincided with a wondrous display.

Day 6     Monday, July 12    Speed

Coordinates at noon: 48º52′N 126º30′

[PIC: Peter keeps us on course in heavy seas]

The adrenaline is flowing, keeping Peter’s judgment sharp and energy unflagging.  He’s been at the helm most of the day and is totally in his element.  He and Kelsey have double-tethered and opted to stay on deck through our watch.  Jack and I hand up Clif bars and exchange words from the companionway.

It’s too rough for Jack to go up to the cockpit; we both struggle to move around safely below as it is.  Whereas we’ve been using one salon berth and the floor below it – port or starboard as appropriate – now we are both bedded down on the sole. Were the boat to get tossed Jack would too and land on top of me.  We feel the speed through the length of our spines as Aurora creaks and groans.

Peter has been sailing the Gulf of Alaska for years. In fact, this his second trip this summer, the first taking him from Juneau to Seward following a coastal cruise up the Inside Passage.  Back when he started college in Olympia, he bought an old 27-foot O’Day to have a place to live.  Soon enough he had it fixed up and seems to have sailed up the coast at every possible opportunity.  So when the Environment Canada announces 25 to 35-knot winds he knows that not only is that fine, it’s also probably an exaggeration.  Indeed, Jack and I have rarely experienced winds as strong as official Canadian predictions.

[PIC: Kelsey in a trough between huge swells]

But today the winds are forty knots and gusting well above that. We thought that the Brooks Peninsula, which sticks out from the top of the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, might break up the swells a bit, but it is not to be.  Kelsey has put the drop boards in the companionway hatch but occasionally will take the top one off and shout down Fourteen-and-a-half knots!”  Anybody who knows anything about hull speed knows a forty foot boat can’t move this fast.  But under these extraordinary conditions of high winds, broadly spaced swells and following seas, Aurora is surfing, riding half out the water, surfing.

A blend of intense concentration, physical strength, quiet confidence and sheer joy can be seen on Peter’s face every time we look up the companionway.  He’s been at the helm fourteen hours straight and is going strong.  There is nothing quite as efficient as forty feet of Valiant with Carol Hasse sails and free air.

The distant shore of Vancouver Island finally begins to recede as we round the southern tip.  Once we have been soundly shaken by the confused winds and currents of the approach to the West Entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, we got up on deck in the waning sun. This is our first time here but years of marine weather reports have established its reputation for being pretty terrible most of the time.

Dusk brings weariness. Justifiable for Peter and Kelsey, it becomes contagious.  The shore of Washington state is in the distance: in a way we have arrived.  As we cross the great shipping lanes of the Strait, we radio ship traffic on channel 14 to let them know we are here.  But, curiously, they fail to respond.  We’re down to our last set of fresh AA batteries for the GPS unit, though we can recycle the old ones and ones stolen from ordinary radios and flashlights.  Remaining on the lookout in all directions, we cross the lane for the local westbound traffic, then the one for ships bound for the Pacific, then the mile-wide separation lane, and the eastbound, for vessels headed to Vancouver and Seattle, finally landing in the lane for local eastbound boats.  Jack is consulting the Navionics charts on his iPhone, but the information he’s getting doesn’t gel with what Peter’s has.  As black night closes tightly in, a ship passes in a place it clearly shouldn’t be.  The currents are troubled and although I’ll confess it to no one, I suddenly feel my first discouragement all trip.

Peter reviews our options.  We are opposite the reservation of the Makah Nation at the tip of the Olympic Peninsula, where the lights of Neah Bay twinkle seductively.  The promise of sleep brings the alertness we need to guide our ship and anchor in its tiny harbor.

Day  7      Monday, July 13    Stars

Coordinates at noon:  48º21′N 124º36′W

The sun streaming through the plexiglass of the aft cabin hatch finally wakes me from long uninterrupted sleep.  The others are up.  Kelsey and Peter smile broadly, as if on a drug-induced high, but thoroughly revived after going without sleep for more than twenty-four hours.  Peter pencils the noon coordinates on the paper chart and discovers that we have covered 150 miles a day for three days in row.  This is unheard of.  Who gets back from Alaska that fast?  Peter recounts how at one moment he clocked a speed of 17.5 knots, the fastest he’s ever gone in any sailboat.  It happened when a gust of 60 or 70 knots shoved a double-decker cresting swell from behind causing Aurora to soar and surf.  On either side, walls of water shot past, enclosing the cockpit.

[PIC: Setting sun on Juan de Fuca floods cockpit]

At last able to cook and safely cut up our remaining fresh fruit, we sit down to a huge breakfast.  Some of us check voicemail and messages, others are just not ready.  After a singular grasse matinee we lift anchor, tie up at the village dock, top off with fresh water and head to shore for AA batteries.  Neah Bay is by no means affluent, but the waterfront seems forward looking with finishing touches being put on a new casino.  Interestingly, Neah Bay is a dry town, like British Columbia’s Hartley Bay.  Unlike the latter, however, there are stores.  The big hardware store sports a bulletin board with up-to-date notices.  Out front a girl at a card table is signing up people for an event.  When I pay for our batteries, we admire Makah baskets, drums and shell jewelry newly crafted by Neah Bay residents.

It’s already early afternoon when we head back out into the Strait.   It’s blowing with gentle steadiness from the West.  Soon our broad reach turns into wing-and-wing and eventually we pole out the jib on starboard.  It’s a beautiful day, but there are hardly any other boats.  We stay a mile or two off the Washington shore, passing Clallam Bay, Crescent Bay and Freshwater Bay, relishing the growing heights of the snowy Olympic peaks.  Warm sun floods the cockpit.  We thaw out a huge hunk of the king that Mike gave us back early June and feast on salmon, vegetables and rice and the dregs of plastic bag of Franzia merlot we find hiding behind the water bottles.

The mainsail on one side and the genoa on the other signal our forward progress as the fiery orb sinks behind a luminous horizon.  Then the stars appear, more and more and more of them.  They come right down to the blackness of the land, to the jagged line where the Olympics fall to the sea.  The firmament is a star-speckled blanket with a great cream stripe of Milky Way in the middle.  We are still wing-and-wing with Peter at the helm.  Unwilling to miss any part of it, he recommends three hour watches.  I get to stay on deck while Jack and Kelsey go below.

[PIC: Running wing-and-wing under the stars]

The glow of lights that is Port Angeles passes on starboard and on port those of Victoria in the distance, on the more familiar shore.  A westbound ship briefly breaks through the darkness and the silence and is gone.  There is nobody else around. The Milky Way arches above us, framing the sails perfectly parallel to our beam.   Engulfed in the theatrical resplendence of it all.

Suddenly Peter asks me to go below and bring up the high-powered lamps.  He has eyes in the back of his head and has seen or heard something I missed.  Indeed, when I return I notice the green and red lights of a ship headed toward our port side aft.  I throw a bright beam on our sails while he aims the second straight on the approaching vessel.  Soon enough they hail us on the radio.  It’s the Coast Guard and it’s their practice to board recreational boats, which after some discussion on their end, they decide they will do as soon as we can get a boarding party together.”  They ask if we have any arms; we reply no.

For the next two hours the peaceful silence of our run under sail is broken first by the Coast Guard cutter out of Port Angeles, which follows us throughout, and eventually by a noisy inflatable that draws up alongside.  Weird as it is to have armed men enter your home in the middle of the night, we are ready.  Back in Sitka, Jack has checked all the safety equipment according the checklist provided by Pacific NW Expeditions and Aurora’s documents are all in a plastic envelope in the nav station.  Since my name’s on them as co-owner, I can handle it; Jack opts to stay holed up in our diminutive aft cabin.”

Neither boarding a boat under sail nor being boarded is easy, much less in the black of night.  But Peter’s cool at the helm and we figure we’re providing an excellent training opportunity to young Coast Guard recruits.  The first man to stumble on says he needs to check to see if it’s safe for others in the boarding party.  He goes down the companionway and checks all the bilges before giving the all clear.  The inflatable pulls alongside again and dumps out two more guys.  They are polite as they go through the checklist:  Everybody’s got life jackets.  Fire extinguishers recently checked and tagged.  Emergency flares up to date.  VHF works.  No Oil Dumping” decal posted (fortunately they have no authority to cite us for a dirty bilge.)  Navigation rulebook on the shelf.  Correct illumination of navigation lights (this catches them up since few ever board boats under sail at night.)  Documentation in order.  The team leader sits in the cockpit, working on a little backlit PDA.  I wonder why I need to sign on the screen before he prints out the little receipt but when I do everything checks out.  He assures me that the receipt should protect us from routine boardings for three years.  But, gee, two hours time with twenty men burning fuel idly in a 72-foot cutter and an 18-foot tender.  Doesn’t the Coast Guard have more important things to do?  Couldn’t we do this at dock?  Just like we take our cars to garages for DEQ emissions checks?

We are still running gently wing-and-wing when Kelsey comes on watch to enjoy the quiet stars before the dawn dims them.

Day 8    Tuesday,  July 14  Home

Coordinates: 48º6′N 122º46′W

[PIC: Triple-masted schooner rounds Point Wilson]

I have just fallen into my deepest dreamiest sleep, when Kelsey wakes me.  Deep fog has closed in, the currents are rushing together confused, and we’re nearing the point where the traffic lanes from Vancouver, Seattle, Bellingham and the Far East converge.  It’s time to unhook the whisker pole that holds out the genoa and take down the sails.  The fog shoves the horizon in near the boat.  With the engine now, we won’t hear the behemoths that ply these waters so attention to both radar and our circle of horizon is all-important.  Even though we can see nothing, this is familiar territory.  Juan de Fuca filled with fog and the crazy currents you endure rounding Point Wilson are the price you pay to get to Port Townsend.  And today we are facing the height of the ebb with Puget Sound and Rosario Strait rushing into one another as they empty into the Pacific.  Getting home seems to take forever.

But there is a silver lining in our slow, at times non-existent progress against the current.  Shortly after we have heard the last blow of Point Wilson’s fog horn, the sun breaks and its lovely red and white lighthouse comes into view.  As we round the headland, we see the first of more than a hundred Native canoes.  The annual canoe journey of the coastal tribes has come to Port Townsend this year!   In two months in Alaska we saw Tlingit canoes every day: the ceremonial canoes of Hoonah are kept in front of the school, under a wooden canopy guarded by great totems, while Sitka’s great painted canoe is displayed on the waterfront park next to the library.  But this is the first time we see one underway.

[PIC: Native canoe with Mt. Baker in the background]

The canoes are long and short, with anywhere from six to twenty paddlers.  Some are dressed in full regalia, others are bare-chested.  Some paddle confidently, others are flagging.  There are vessels with high, elegantly carved bows.  Others are covered with the distinctive stylized designs in the traditional red, turquoise, black and white.  Many sport large flags.  We watch the first canoes beach just west of the Marine Science Center and their tired crews disembark.  As we round Point Hudson we see the long line of canoes emerging from Puget Sound.  We later learn that this year’s Celebration will take the paddlers, and their accomplices in powerboats laden with supplies, all the way to Neah Bay as it is the Makah Nation that is hosting the crowning event.  Having just come from there, we have an idea of what they will be up against, and applaud their determination.

As wonderful as is Sitka, there is no town more beautiful and welcoming to mariners than Port Townsend.  Still, when we tie up at the dock, I feel that familiar pang of regret.  This voyage is over.