Friday, July 11, 2014

Coming Home

Our last day out in the wide sea, we tossed flowers overboard in an impromptu ritual of gratitude for our year on the ocean.

We've been home two weeks now and, though it still feels like we're in the honeymoon of the transition-seeing old friends, celebrating with family, hardly any actual unpacking.
I'm not going to ignore the many stories I haven't shared yet but for today, I'm picking up in Astoria.

Have you met our mascot yet? Meet Stinky Monkey. He likes to ride in new places around the boat and sometime takes a flying leap just for thrills.
After a quick overnight in Astoria, we spent a couple of delightful days working our way up the Columbia to St. Helens, our final destination. Our autopilot doesn't like to steer in flat water so we all took turns at the helm and the girls got a few experiences they'd missed on the trip. Meira discovered the joys of steering with one's feet and Hannah steered the boat into and out of the city dock at Rainier, where we spent our last night of the journey.

Our first day out of Astoria, we had some heavy mist that threatened to turn nasty, so I closed up the boat and took pictures through the companionway. But the weather cleared and we all enjoyed our time navigating these familiar waters.

We planned our return for late afternoon so our family could meet us easily. On our last little hop from Rainier to St. Helens, we blasted some dance party favorites and dodged river traffic. This tug and double barge got way too close for comfort because...

...this big guy needed the deepest part of the channel.

There was a tug coming the other way too around this time but we made it through smiling.

After 2 days of travel up the river, we pulled into St. Helens the last Friday in June during the only rain squall we traveled in our entire trip.

Bryan hung our flags (though at the last minute, we couldn't find Mexico!) and LiLo came in with all colors flying.

Our entire time in the ocean was dry. We had rain in port a few days, but not a single day at sea. I'm an Oregonian, so I'm going to just say that again. We sailed for 10 months without rain pouring down on our heads. I can almost not believe it.

But of course, our last 2 days in the Columbia, we had mist and drizzle and then, as we pulled into the city dock in St. Helens, an honest-to-goodness downpour.

Our families were waiting for us with umbrellas and wet smiles and our nephew jumped aboard and squelched below, saying "Welcome back to the heart of the Pacific Northwest!"

Moving the little boat for the last time!

We went up to a local friend's house for warm coffee and drip-drying and rainbows and then drove back down to the waterfront, where we had dinner with a whole bunch of sailing friends from the delightful St. Helens Sailing Club.

It was surreal and delightful to see them all in person. We enjoyed answering questions from the knowledgeable group of sailors who understood us when we sprinkled our answers with sailing lingo. Bryan's brother showed up a little late. He'd driven all the way down from the Seattle area to welcome us...and then he turned right around and drove all the way back that night. This was the triumphant return we'd dreamt about so many times.
The next morning, we shifted the boat over to our new slip at the St. Helens Marina and moved home.

It really was almost as simple as I make it sound. We packed up a bunch of necessities--clothes, toiletries, electronics, chargers, food--and shut up the boat. As Bryan and I walked away with the last load, unexpected tears escaped. He stopped for a moment to thank LiLo, a personal ritual. He pressed his hand to her cabin and murmured, "You're a good boat, LiLo. Thank you for keeping us safe."
I walked ahead of him to the end of the dock and looked back to see him stopped, staring back at our slip, at this hunk of wood, glass, glue, and metal that carried us faithfully there and back again. It's hard to believe that boats don't have a personality.

The drive home was fun, surreal, exciting.

In the afternoon, we pulled into our driveway for the first time in about a year. Bryan told us all we were going to dock stern-to and the girls teased about needing to hop out for lines and fenders. We backed in without nearly the usual trouble that causes and left everything in the car in our rush to get inside and look around. Our renters had left a few days before, but my sister-in-law had stopped by and, with some help from my niece and nephew, had decorated a welcome-home banner and left us notes on all the mirrors, food in the fridge, and treats on the counter.

With a fresh burst of energy, we unloaded the car, brought in and set up the beds, and started the long process of dealing with our boxes.

Stinky Monkey has work to do here at home too

The next few days we were busy with church, family visits, and the 4th of July. We had several get-togethers at various houses and even hosted a couple of people overnight in our barely-serviceable home. We did loads of laundry without quarters or a hike, took long, free showers, and caught up on sleep.

Surprisingly, the house doesn't feel enormous. I think during the 10 years we spent living there, we developed an unshakeable muscle memory about how long it takes to walk across the dining room, where the dishes are in the kitchen, how far one needs to bend over the bathroom sink.
I caught up with my sisters-in-law from Bryan's family with pedicures, lunch out, and an afternoon of sangria and laughter.

And we spent the 4th of July with both of our families, parade-watching, barbecue-eating, wood-working, and fireworks-admiring.

My dad is helping the girls with the redwood we picked up in Crescent City 
I missed this cute car at the car show but here it is on my mother-in-law's road, complete with watermelon! 

We haven't stopped enjoying the wildlife we see.

And we took a break from unpacking to walk to the nearby Mexican grocery store for taco fixings. Can you call them "street tacos" if you eat them in your woodsy backyard?

I've noticed all sorts of odd things. The smells here are so strong after a year of sea air. The freeway smells like metal and oil, the valley smells like green and brown, fertility and new growth.
I expected all sorts of emotions and events during this transition. But here's one I didn't see coming. My skin is falling off. At the pedicurists, of course, but also in the car, the shower; even at my writers' group, I looked down and noticed the dry skin from my forearm leaving tiny flakes on my black pants. I don't know if it's the climate, the water, or what. Maybe it's as if my body wants to shed this year as quickly as possible. Or maybe just a visible reminder that, here or there, at sea or at home, I am becoming a new person every day.

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.