Sunday, September 28, 2008

weather report

Tavish and the spinnaker

Marine forecasts aren’t like other weather reports. We listen to the weather at home to decide, should we plan a picnic, take a raincoat, pack our sunglasses? Marine weather is not concerned with such trivial things. No, there is only one thing marine forecasts care about. Wind. How much of it and from what direction, whether it is building or dropping off. And its effects: wave swell and height. Whether it is going to be rainy or sunny is not even mentioned.
As we are still close to shore (20—70 miles) we can get weather reports on the VHF radio—a monotonous drone updated four times a day, by a faceless employee, I imagine sitting in a regulation grey room with fluorescent lights at a coast guard station. What does he think about between the endless repetitions of wind speeds and wave heights at scores of coastal stations and offshore ocean buoys? Is he tempted to read it in a seductive voice or with a Russian accent?
The ultimate weather report is something called GRIB (still trying to find out what the letters stand for). Almost everyone, except the determined luddite, makes sure they can get these files (usually through a single side band radio)—pictures of the ocean scored with little feathered arrows (the feathers corresponding to wind strength). You can scroll through the short and long term forecast to see a virtual picture of the wind moving over the surface of the sea in time. GRIB files help you to find the winds you want, and avoid the ones you don’t want.
Our single side band isn’t up yet but we get a verbal summary of them from a sailing friend Tavish calls each day to report our position. And we always download GRIB in port.
You may recall our last stop was just north of Cape Mendocino, where very high winds were promised. We ducked into Eureka to watch and wait. The GRIB files showed the winds downgraded to moderate—a little energetic in places, but dropping off.
Tired of days of motoring we set off looking forward to a free ride down the coast on northwesterlies, which would push us along from behind. One of the amazing things about sailing downwind is that, though the wind may be blowing 20 knots, the boat is also going forward and the winds magically cancel each other out. So, if you’re sailing at 10 knots, you’ll only feel a gentle 10 knots on your back. If you turned around and tried to sail upwind, you might go 8 knots, and would face an unnerving 28 knots on your face.
By dinner the wind was blowing 25, gusting to 30; by dark, 30 gusting to 35. Circadia was flying only a handkerchief of mainsail, moving at 10 knots. The only good thing about night falling was that I could no longer see the sea, which seemed to be moving in all directions at once. All I could watch was the water lit up by our stern light—waves the size of box cars racing towards us, lifting us up then tearing on past as we surfed down their faces (clocked one at 17.1 knots before we fully reefed). It was a long night, with all the crew taking short turns steering, which required constant concentration to keep the boat on course while it was being spun on the wave tops: readjusting the wheel moment to moment, sometimes having to throw your whole weight into it, with legs braced wide.
Down below the sound of the water rushing past the hull was deafening. “It’s like sleeping in a waterfall” shouted Angus as he tried to catch a quick nap.
By early morning the wind was down to 25 again and dropping. The crew spent most of the day taking turns sleeping. I can’t imagine better sailing companions than Tavish and Angus—dependable, unshakeable, and cheerful even in the tough moments.
In the end it was good to have experienced the storm (actually, technically a “near gale”). We found out what the boat could do and what we could do (or didn’t do, ie., in my case, curl up in the fetal position below, something I wasn’t absolutely sure of before).
The next few days brought the dreamed of perfect winds, 15-20 knots. We hoisted the big blue spinnaker and didn’t take it down for almost two days. The nights were full of stars and dolphins shooting by in sleeves of light. My favourite sight: a flying fish, shooting out of the face of wave, lit up, silver in the morning sun. It flew and flew and flew, just like a bird, then slipped back into the water and was gone.
Arrived in San Diego at 4 am Saturday morning.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Eureka, California

detail from the wall of a fish and chips store

"The Pink Lady" 1889

Rusty Hull

The crew: Angus Ellis, Alison Watt, Kim Waterman, Tavish Campbell

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Working the Night Shift

According to the publishers of the Concise English Oxford Dictionary, time is the most commonly used noun in the English language. I imagine them trolling the popular media for entries like “…most people don’t have the time to walk to work” or “…it’s time to think about your Christmas shopping list.”
On Circadia (whose name refers to a day’s measure of time) the day is split into two 6 hour day watches and three 4 hour night watches.
On night shifts, two of us “work” 8 pm-midnight, sleep, then 4 am-8 am, while the other pair does midnight to 4 am. (I haven’t lived by this schedule since I had babies. At the time, I felt like ordinary life was over, my days fractured into small units revolving around eating and sleeping).
We wake from a dead sleep and roll out of our lee berths. These are usually settees, but for a long passage, lee cloths are fastened on the open side, forming a little cradle that you can roll around in if the seas are rough or the boat is heeled.
We pull on our layers: fleece underwear, a wool sweater, a pile coat, heavy sailing overalls and coat, a fleece hat, a life jacket and a tether. The tether is our umbilical cord. It clips into lines of webbing which run the length of the boat. The seas have been calm for us so far, but the tether, like a car seat belt, is never optional.
The nights are chilly and four hours can seem very long, but there are rewards. Last night Kim and I watched our wake turn glow-stick-green with bioluminescence. Caught in the foam, silver flickers, clumps of plankton or small jellies; deeper, globes the size of crystal balls, turned on and off slowly, in response to the boat hull pushing them aside. They were probably more of the big jellies we passed earlier in the day—great fields of red bells with frilled tentacles trailing back in the current, like laundry blowing in a breeze.
Around 10 pm the waning moon rose and climbed up the notches of Orion’s belt. There were a couple of big planets and up there somewhere the satellites our new phone talks to. I decided to buy the Iridium Sat phone just before leaving. Too tempting—the possibility of carrying something that you could call home from anywhere on the planet. Turns out it’s not cheap to talk to satellites, but why should it be? We’ve hoisted new pieces of sky. I thought of the Kwakiutl’s notion of the heavens, the stars, holes in the roof of the world, through which they could see the light of the “overworld.” They were, I understand, in constant communication with the ancestors who lived there.
Of course it’s the things you can’t see that you think about most at night. Worry about. Watch for. But there are instruments for those as well. One of the clever things we have along (at least theoretically, as it has been malfunctioning) is something called AIS. This constantly scans the sea around us, looking for boats which have AIS transmissions, mostly commercial shipping.
There is something about freighters, their speed, their rootless-ness, that is malevolent. Or maybe it’s the stories of their autopilots set without watches, small boats mowed down while everyone on the freighter slept, or worse, carried on, knowing they had hit someone. It is reassuring to be able to see the shipping around you on the electronic chart. If you click on the AIS ship icon, you find it has a name, a length, a speed, and a bearing.
And then there is radar. The trick is to cast a fine-meshed electronic net, then pull it in, opening the mesh, to find the big fish that are lurking among the clutter, like the freighter I caught last night, heading north hugging the coast.
The rest of the boats we sighted were lit up and moving slowly, tuna fishing boats out of Coos Bay.
So far, our passage has been mostly windless and we have had to motor much of the time. That means we are travelling at an average speed of about 6 knots. It’s sort of like jogging down the coast. The boat never sleeps, however it too needs to be fed, and we must stop again to fuel up.
The weather report promises wind soon—lots of wind—in fact, too much. We are just about to round the notorious Cape Mendocino. Here the coast of North America takes one of its major turns and intersects with a great air outflow corridor from the continent. The winds for which it’s famous are forecast to come in in a couple of days—fierce northwesterlies which can blow 30-35 knots for days.
Tonight our night passage will take us to Eureka, where we’ll contemplate our next move.
Most common noun in this posting: night

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sailing this week, bracing myself in the galley, over the soup pot, which was tilting wildly as the stove swung level on its hinges, I found myself thinking about how we take unchanging horizons for granted.
We left our house on Protection Island last Thursday morning first thing, dragging our gear down to the beach to load into a borrowed skiff (thanks Graeme and Jane). It was a perfect morning and no one else was on the beach except my friend Denise, who came to see us off. (We had said multiple good-byes to other friends, including Protection Islanders who threw us a great party). As we pushed off the beach I took one look back over my shoulder at the house, gazing stolidly to the east, ready to shoulder the winter storms. Though I complain about the dark rainy winters I know there will be days this year when I long to be sitting in front of the fire, listening to the wind lashing the windows with rain. Days when I wish I was snuggled in bed watching the sun rise over Gabriola Island.
So far we have had a gentle introduction to our sailing life. We left Victoria Inner Harbour (last Sunday afternoon) and found ourselves motoring out the Strait of Juan de Fuca on smooth windless seas. By dusk a full moon came up. We motored all night and the next day until afternoon when a northwest wind finally filled our big blue spinnaker and we sped off at 9-10 knots, taking a route of about 20-40 miles offshore.
One of the advantages of sailing on the continental shelf is the incredible life which feeds here. We've seen pelicans, albatross, fulmars, and shearwaters. One morning a big gang of Pacific White-sided dolphins noticed us sailing by and charged over to play on our bow. I never get tired of watching them, they always seem eager to rush away from the dull tasks of life to play. Mixed in with this group were some dolphins I'd never seen before--which turned out, on checking a field guide here, to be Northern Right Whale Dolphins. It was fascinating as well to watch schools of Albacore Tuna, leaping like tiny dolphins.
We decided to stop in Newport Oregon for a couple of nights, as the winds have been so light we have had to motor quite a bit and need to top up fuel. There is a thin, cold grey fog blowing in from the sea which makes the town seem drearier than it probably is. Today we explored the waterfront, a mix of tourist shops hawking fishing trips and T-shirts, and docks crowded with crab pots, tuna boats and fish plants. On our way to the chandlery the sidewalk was embedded with dozens and dozens of plaques: the names of fishermen lost off this coast.
The weather forecast is for light winds for the next couple of days. Tomorrow we'll head out into tilting horizons again. I think about the boat stove. One could do worse than emulate it, lead a gimballed life, finding the level no matter how off balance life gets.
Thanks so much again to those who have provisioned us with poems, songs, good wishes and special treats we carry along with us. Talk to you soon...

Sunday, September 7, 2008

more thoughts about leaving

Just home from a run on Newcastle Island with Trudy, Denise and Liz. A big high pressure system has settled over the coast, lulling us back into summer. The grasses on Newcastle are golden and the trails smell of dry, crushed arbutus leaves. Soon the maple leaves will join them, big yellow handkerchiefs which turn to something like soggy cornflakes as the fall rains set in. I will miss the Newcastle year, all the seasonal markers we always notice on these runs. And I will miss very much my running buddies and other island friends like Frances and Carol. As well as town friends like Darcy, Judith and Mary Jo and Victoria friends Jane and Hazell. Looking back, a year has passed so quickly; looking forward it seems to stretch slowly into something longer than it's measure. Is that part of the theory of relativity?
I'll also miss my students, some of whom I have been painting with almost every year for more than ten years. For my part, I'm going to try to work on the art of the quick watercolour sketch and will try to post some of these on this blog. Meanwhile I wish all you painters an artful year. And remember PAINT AS IF NEITHER YOUR TIME NOR YOUR MATERIALS ARE VALUABLE.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

first post

hello everyone
welcome to my new blog. Though I am not adrift yet, except metaphorically. Kim and I are busy battoning down the hatches on several fronts. Our house must be prepared for the house-sitter, which has meant hours of sorting through STUFF, setting aside what we'll take with us, what we'll store in our attic, what will go to the recycling, the Sally Ann, the dump. I always try to keep the flood of goods equal to the ebb--here on Protection island, it is deadly to ignore that philosophy, or soon you will find yourself buried under cargo, and you will have to organize an almost military campaign to ship it off. But, slowly, insidiously, the STUFF has been accumulating. And it turns out that what we are taking off the island is almost precisely balanced by the boxes which have arrived from Kim's office. They include: an EMG machine, office supplies, printer, swivel stool, foot stool, and several unbelievably heavy boxes of medical texts (hopefully he has all that information stuffed in his comparably easily transportable cranium). Speaking of which, the last item is a plexiglass box which holds a handsome skull, the top of which opens like a boiled egg with silver hinges. Kim found this fellow abandoned on a dusty hospital shelf long ago and he has grinned (with a spectacular set of perfect teeth) from his perch in Kim's office since.
Finally, of course, there is the boat to prepare. At the moment Circadia is in the boat yard in Sidney, having the self-steering mechanism installed. We had almost given up on it arriving (it was ordered from England in May). It's arrival last week (in five separate boxes) seemed like a minor miracle.
We are hoping that the installation will go well and we will be in Victoria Inner Harbour by next week, to begin provisioning. Sadly Kim's father passed away last week, so we will be attending his funeral in White Rock on Friday.
Hoping that we will be able to begin the first leg of our journey (the sail to San Diego) on the weekend.
stay tuned!