Update#12 – Seattle to San Diego: Going to the Fubar!

As I’ve mentioned before, my boat is an escort boat for the Fleet Underway to BAja Rally (Fubar). The rally is scheduled to start on Nov 7th in San Diego and finish Nov 19th in La Paz Mexico.

Even though the start of the rally is only about three weeks away, until yesterday my boat was still here in Seattle. I had planned to put it on a freighter headed south to San Diego but then had the bright idea of using a delivery crew instead. My thinking was that after the rally Roberta and I would be running the boat south to Costa Rica, and if anything is to break, we’d rather it break in the US than international waters. It’s a new boat, and the west coast is a perfect way to scout out any potential problems.

One thing that gave me the confidence to do this is that I have access to a great delivery crew. I use a Seattle-based company, Pacific Yacht Management (PYC), to manage my boat. In addition to managing all of the maintenance of my boat, they can move it when needed, and even “babysit it” when I need to leave it in some foreign port and fly home.

The delivery crew was scheduled to start the 1,400 mile journey south to San Diego yesterday. Late last week, as I was walking them through all the systems on the boat, I suddenly heard myself saying “Perhaps I should just ride along for the first 12 hours, and show you through all the systems.” Nothing on my boat is particularly complex or unusual, but there is certainly a broader-than-usual selection of equipment. Because the boat is set up for circumnavigating, I have several different ways to accomplish the same thing, sometimes for redundancy, but other times for use in different circumstances. For instance, there are three different nav software packages (Maxsea, Navnet and Nobletec). There are five different ways to get internet. There are three different banks of satellite tv receivers (US, Latin America, Europe) plus the DVD jukebox (Kaleidescape), and sat radio. There are three different sat phone systems (Iridium, Fleet 77 and Mini M). We have several different options for getting weather data and even multiple ways to get the wind. Even the electrical system is a bit confusing with its 14kw of inverters, international power system and multiple generators.

With or without the necessity to be aboard, I was looking forward to being on the boat for the first part of the ride south. We decided I’d ride along for the 80 miles from Seattle to Port Angeles, as shown in the image below (the red line). In Port Angeles they’d sit me on the dock, I’d find a flight to get me home, and they’d keep going south to San Diego.

The crew Jeff (from PYC) assembled for the delivery was impressive. They had three people, Tyson, who is a young jock-ish type, who has done a lot of commercial fishing in Alaska, Mark, who has an unlimited Captain’s license and normally runs large freighters, and Jeff, with his 1,600 ton license, our captain.

This is a picture one of Jeff’s guys took of our departure with his cell phone. Note how low we are sitting in the water. 3,300 gallons of fuel on board!

We left port yesterday at 7:30am. We knew it was going to be a bit windy, but didn’t expect it to be as windy as what we actually saw. As we were working our way north, we had several hours of winds on our tail that stayed above 35 knots! For a while the wind was at 45 knots with gusts to 50. The hot tub lid and cover, which survived just fine on our trip north was ripped off by the wind. To make things a little more interesting, the current was running at nearly 3 knots from the north. This meant that instead of burning 15 gallons per hour of fuel to run at 10 knots, we were burning 25 gallons per hour, and making only 6.5 knots. Amazingly though, as we were looking around at seas that were being whipped into a frenzy by the opposing current and wind, we were comfortably relaxing in the pilot house. We had lap tops out on the pilot house settee, and none ever moved an inch. Nordhavn is partially to thank, but it’s also true that on inland waterways the winds can’t build up the same size waves that they can in open ocean. We had roughly the same wind-speed on the trip north last month, off and it was much more of an “adventure.”

I probably shouldn’t show this picture, but with four seasoned pilots standing watch, we did think it was safe to occasionally sneak a peak at the football game. We shouldn’t have. Seattle was having a bad day. Don’t worry, the game was only there for a few moments

I do believe that my being on the boat was of use. Jeff and I spent most of the time experimenting with the various electronics, the monitoring system, heating, water systems, etc. We also practiced my calling the sat phone on the boat, and Jeff calling me. I don’t expect any issues once I am off the boat, but I’d rather be prepared for anything, and have nothing happen, than the other way around.

As I mentioned earlier, we knew that the weather down the coast was dicey, but decided to go anyhow. Given the time of the year, a nice six day non-stop run to San Diego is very unlikely. The trip will be broken into segments based on the weather. Throughout the day we were constantly receiving weather briefings from a wide variety of sources; vhf radio, multiple internet sites, via the phone and from other boaters.

Following is just one of the many forecasts we were looking at. This graph is split into a 24, 48 and a 96 hour forecast of wind and waves. For those not used to reading these, the little arrows show the direction of the wind, and the numbers in the boxes the wave height. The number and size of the “feathers” on the arrows give the wind speed. A short feather represents 5 knots of wind, and a longer feather 10 knots. In the Monday chart below you see a 5 knot south wind along the Washington and Oregon coast, with 12 foot waves. Smaller waves would be ok, but, overall this is a very good outlook.


The Tuesday outlook is a little more grim. Here you can see 35 to 45 knot winds coming from the south. The waves in this chart are in meters, and show at roughly 24 feet. Some of the weather forecasters were referring to Tuesday as having “hurricane force” winds.


Here we see the 96 hour forecast (the Thursday forecast). As you can see, the winds have calmed to 25 knots, and the waves are back in the realm of reasonable. Heading straight into 25 knots of wind isn’t fun, but it is certainly manageable.


Reading this, one would assume that Jeff and the guys could start heading south, and then pop into the nearest marina on Tuesday to let the weather pass. Unfortunately, as with all things boat-related, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

The coasts of Washington and Oregon are largely without marinas, and where there are marinas they are situated such that you have to cross a “bar” to get in. For those of you not familiar with bars, these are a phenomenon that occurs when you have a river dumping into the ocean. As the tide goes out, the out flowing water (headed west) is met by the ocean swell which is generally heading east to the shore. Where the waters meet you find tricky passages, which can be treacherous in the best of times. Personally, I’ve always been lucky, and have successfully avoided having to cross one.

On the other hand, I’ve been getting a primer on the bars lately through reading Buddy Bethea’s website, http://www.alwaysfriday55.com/, an except from which is below. Buddy has been picking his way south, and had to cross nine bars over the past few weeks:

A call to the Grays Harbor Coast Guard station both last night and again this morning confirmed that the bar was now open to vessels over 30 feet long. The current tables dictated that we leave about 7 AM in order to avoid the dreaded ebb tides at the bar. When the receding (ebbing) tides meet the incoming ocean swells, confused and violent seas of more than 40 feet can develop in minutes during storms. Even when conditions appear favorable, such tidal conditions can spawn seas in excess of ten feet, although surrounded by calm seas both in front of and behind the violence at the bar! All good reasons to carefully time your exit from these NW ports. In 1933, a sudden storm on the Grays Harbor bar sunk 15 fishing vessels, and killed 18 crewmen! The memorials are there to read at the docks…and there is room for still more names! Once you clear the bar on the outbound leg, your challenges have just begun. You must compute your time/distance equation in order to arrive at the Columbia River bar at a point when passage is associated with a high probability of survival! This bar is considered the most dangerous one in North America, having swallowed up over 2,000 ships and drowned over 700 seamen since those records were first kept! If that were not enough to get your attention, the turning point there is near Cape Disappointment! If that sounds familiar, it may be because the Coast Guard school for rough weather boat handling is there! They routinely and intentionally roll their 45 foot rescue boats 360 degrees while training in these deadly waters! As we approached Cape Disappointment, I called the Astoria Coast Guard station on the VHF for a bar report, and heard that the bar was open until 4 PM with waves of “only” 6-8 feet at present (building quickly to about 10 feet at 4 PM when the ebb tide built to near maximum flow)! It gets your attention when the Coast Guard suggests that you wear life jackets when crossing the bar! We hit the entrance buoy just right, and lined up the visual range to insure the correct course into the Columbia! Because the seas would be rolling in from behind us, we had closed the storm locks on the rear salon door and lazarette door, and fired up the wing engine to insure its availability should we either lose the main engine or need more power in the currents. Neither of these precautions had ever crossed my mind in Alaska, and you are more likely to be struck by lightning than for the John Deere engine to quit, but this Columbia River bar is in a class by itself, and certainly more challenging than any entry that I had ever attempted. As we entered the bar… 

Once Sans Souci exits the Strait of Juan de Fuca and makes the left turn to head south, there is approx. 600 miles of coast line to traverse, and potentially no place to hide. The bars (entries to the ports) close in extreme weather, and even in the good times, you need to plan ahead to enter at just the right time. Sans Souci averages only about 225 miles a day. Unlike the weather forecasts above that are neatly labeled as being 24, 48 and 96 hour forecasts, actual weather does not always happen exactly when or as they predict. Once you head south, if the weather turns really nasty, you can not count on getting into port. Last December a sailing catamaran discovered this the tragic way, as they headed north from San Francisco, after sailing all the way from South Africa. They capsized at sea off the Oregon coast with a loss of all on board.

Sans Souci is an extremely seaworthy boat. When we were pushing our way north yesterday in high winds and an opposing current, we saw no other small boats. Generally speaking, she can take about anything the weather gods wish to send our way. That said, why take chances? If the wind and waves look severe enough that the bars could be closed along the coast, the right answer is to wait until the forecast is less gloomy. This time of year, the weather is moving too fast. A clean three day forecast is not likely to happen. However, we would like to have one that doesn’t have the words “hurricane force” anywhere in it.

For Jeff and crew, the final “Go” or “No go” decision came down to the last minutes of our approach at Port Angeles. As we were nearing the docks we received a call on the VHF radio from a passing freighter. I usually am somewhat intimidated by the freighters, and couldn’t imagine why one would be calling us by name. However, this was a friendly voice, who just wanted to chat about our AIS system (a transmitter that alerts other boats to our position, and us to theirs). “I’ve been noticing a lot of little boats with AIS lately” said the voice on the radio. “So, what does a system like that cost?” it continued. This triggered some huddling at our end. I had no idea, but Jeff guessed at $2,500, and we went with his number. “Is that everything, or do you also need a bunch more equipment?” came the response. After a bit more huddling we responded that we thought more equipment was probably required. Back came the response “Hmmm. Pretty cool, I guess.” This made it our turn for a question. We asked “Did you just come in from the Pacific?” to which he responded affirmatively. “How was it out there?” we asked. “Not great,” came the response. This opened the door for our final question: “So, do you think we should give it a shot at running south?” I can’t type what he said, or how strongly he said it, but it was something like “No way in HAY-UHLLLLL!”

Thus, the decision was made to wait for a few days in Port Angeles. The marina office was closed, being 4pm on a Sunday. Jeff said “let’s find space on the dock, and we’ll figure it out tomorrow.” Luckily, there was indeed some space, but not so luckily – no shore power. Between the lack of any one to talk to, and the lack of shore power, it was clear someone would have to stay with the boat. Over the next few days, the weather will be monitored closely. On Wednesday or Thursday, the guys will probably move the boat another step closer to the mouth of the Strait (Neah Bay), to be ready to go at the first sign the weather window is opening.

Meanwhile, I am now safely back home in Seattle, feeling a bit guilty leaving everyone else alone on the boat. I just spoke with Jeff who mentioned that he has spoken to several other boats from the Fubar rally, who are also sitting in port, waiting for a weather window to head south.

Sans Souci sitting at the dock in Port Angeles. Taken from the plane as I was flying home to Seattle

That’s it for now!

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Thank you,
Ken Williams Sans Souci www.kensblog.com

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