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.