Vol 1 Iss 3: The Good. The Bad. The Uncertainty.
September 20, 2021 | Miami, FL | 25º48’59” N 80º22’38” W | Winds: 5 kts ESE | Weather: Thunderstorms and 90º
We are day 3 into our journey from Neah Bay, WA to San Francisco, CA and the past day has been nasty. Our GPS tells us we've sailed down most of the Oregon coast now, but the fog has been so thick, we haven't seen it at all. I’m still chilled to the bone from last night’s 1 am - 4 am watch outside in the wet cockpit. The fog must have bullied the wind into leaving, hence the 12 hours we’ve put on our engine just now.
But there’s a glimmer of hope and what feels like a good omen as we approach Coos Bay, OR: forecasts predict enough wind to sail a couple hours with our spinnaker (our light wind sail) and we spot a whale 100 yds off our starboard side.
We eat our first truly fresh meal of the passage (Mille’s One-Pot Chicken Lo Mein) and hurry to get the spinnaker ready to raise. Even if it’s still foggy, it’ll be nice to trade the noise of the engine for the soft flaps of the sail.
Andrés Jacobo is at the bow, hoisting the spinnaker, while I am at the tiller back in the cockpit, pointing the boat 130º downwind to blanket the spinnaker with the mainsail. The spinnaker is hoisted and sheeted into position when I hear the first whale spout close to me. Must be within 50 yards, but we can’t see anything in the fog.
“Did you hear that? It sounds super close.” I shout to the bow.
“Yeah…and did you hear the one up here? Not just spouting…there are 2 and I think they’re singing to each other.”
As we pick up speed under spinnaker and Andrés Jacobo returns to the cockpit, the fog starts to clear and we see them:
2 whales to our port side …no 3 whales…no there’s 3 more on our starboard side…ohmygosh there’s 4 right over there…and 3 more spouting up ahead a hundred yards!
The more the fog lifts, the more we see…everywhere. We were surrounded by whales in every direction. We could see their blows for miles, like a field of Old Faithfuls. They swim close, these creatures twice the size of our boat, just 20 yards away. We know we’re supposed to stay away from them, but with whales on every side, the best we can do is continue to sail quietly south through the pod migrating north and enjoy the sight.
For an hour, we find ourselves in the middle of a spectacular ballet performed by more than a hundred whales: the whales dancing gracefully sometimes alone, sometimes as a couple, sometimes a trio. A great spout, the broad back gliding up through the surface of the water, the flukes elegantly raised straight into the air before sliding steeply into the deeper waters.
The whales lolly gagging at the end of the migrating pod were a bit more playful, swimming closer and closer to Ana María. Near the end of the hour, I am still watching while Andrés Jacobo is down below in the cabin. Not 20 ft away from our port side I see 2 spouts and feel the panic rise.
“They’re coming closer!” I yell downstairs. “There’s nothing we can do - we’re trespassing in their territory. Just make sure you’re wearing your life jacket.”
I hold my breath as I watch the 2 sets of flukes disappear under water, visions of the whales using our Ana María as a volleyball floating in my head. Sure enough, they pass right underneath our keel and I too let out a breath as they blow water 20 ft on our starboard side, stick their tails up, and swim away.
It is a terrifying and awe-inspiring experience: when we understand we are but tiny guests of the ocean environment, lucky enough to get a small taste of the expansive and larger-than-life activities of this ecosystem.
We have rounded Cape Mendocino, now only 60 miles from Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco. All 4 of our weather forecast models agree we will have 15-25 kt winds, 6 ft waves every 9 seconds as we sail along the south side of the infamous cape. Conditions Ana María can handle easily with her current sailplan. “In less than 24 hours we will be safe in a marina, celebrating our arrival in California!” I try to focus on this rather than the worsening sea state as I watch the wind speeds climb higher and higher on the wind anemometer.
“Do you think we should take the mainsail down and sail only under the staysail?” Andrés Jacobo asks as we make dinner and prepare to start the watch schedule for the last night of the sail.
We are now seeing sustained 40 kts of wind and 8 ft waves are coming less than 6 seconds apart, with some waves coming from a different direction than the main swell. Ana María is overpowered even with a second reef in the mainsail. Right now she is surfing down these waves, but she is by no means a comfortable ride as the force of each wave shoves her forcefully this way and that. The waves are so steep that, during many of the rides down the waves, her boom is touching the water which we know poses a serious risk to the structural integrity of the rigging.
“Yeah…let’s take down the main,” I say, thinking if something goes wrong in the middle of the night, Ana María will be much more manageable with only the staysail up.
We put on our foul weather gear as we talk through the challenging procedure of the sail change. We double check each other’s tethers - ensuring they’re connected to both rings on our life jackets and connected to the boat, thinking of the haunting words for the famous sailors Lin & Larry Pardey, “You fall over, you die.”
We encounter problems just dousing the Genoa, the winds making a mess of all the sheets and furling lines. Anxiety starts to build as does the intensity. This is not going well.
Yet we are able to turn down to a beam reach just long enough to douse part of the mainsail, turning back up into the wind fast enough to avoid catching a wave broadside to our beam. Andrés Jacobo roughly flakes the sail and gathers it into sail ties which involves a bit of gymnastics while tethered to the webbing stretched across the boat.
All we have left to do is attach the running backstay to keep the mast from pumping under the pressure of the staysail and then reset the monitor wind wave to self-steer for us.
Andrés Jacobo is clipping the running backstay into the u-bolt on the deck next to the cockpit. I have both hands on the tiller, trying to steer steady across the onslaught of waves, when I turn my head to look over my shoulder.
It’s like a freeze-frame in a movie. A slow motion set of images I hope won’t haunt me my entire life.
Behind my right shoulder is a wall of water coming towards us faster than I can comprehend. Instinctively I turn my back against the wave, just as I learned to do while swimming as a child in the waves in the Gulf of Mexico. When I next open my eyes, I see Andrés Jacobo, horizontal and up in the air, supported only by the lifelines on the boat, seemingly floating in water. Then black.
The first sensation is the burning feel of salt water filling all my sinuses. I open my eyes again and find myself slammed against the other side of the boat, Andrés Jacobo crawling back onto the side deck.
We recover as quickly as we can. The wave that has filled our cockpit must have caught something in the draining scupper hoses so we’ve already started to bail the foot of water we’re standing in. Luckily we are able to unplug the hoses and the water gushes down into the sea. We set the wind wave to steer for us so we can take stock of the damage. Tons of water everywhere (including some inside the boat). The deck is a mess.
But the tethers holding us to the boat did their jobs. We are still attached to the boat, we are still alive.
As we tidy the boat and the adrenaline begins to wear off, a glaring problem starts to make itself known: My left knee is throbbing and looks to be about three times its normal size. The wave must have slammed my knee against the cockpit’s sidewall.
Andrés Jacobo continues to put the boat back into order, monitoring the Monitor Windwave’s performance against the assault of the waves, while I head down below to fish out of our offshore first aid kit an ice pack and heavy duty ibuprofen. He stays out there as long as he can, but aggrieved by the shock of the incident, the mild hypothermia setting in, and the stress of waves crashing again and again over the stern, he comes in to sleep inside a thermal survival blanket for 30 minutes at a time.
Ana María, our wonderful sailboat, and Paulita, our self-steering monitor wind vane, sail us safely and mostly independently throughout the night. As daybreak approaches, we have some decisions to make. Even worse weather is forecasted to build this afternoon so we need to haul butt to land. Do we sail or try to turn on the engine? Our engine is covered in salt water and we know the control panel was submerged in water when the wave filled the cockpit.
After quick desperate prayers, wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, the engine control panel turns on and our diesel engine starts to crank. We listen carefully for it to stall, indicating the fuel lines are full of salt water, but instead she runs well for several minutes.
It’s decided: our best chance at beating the approaching gale is to motor to the next harbor in Northern California. Since Andrés Jacobo has been up most of the night and will be the one to steer us into the harbor, it’s decided I will steer with my broken leg propped in the cockpit for 4 hours while he sleeps.
I steer in the morning light, eagerly looking for the coastline and remembering all the stories in our cruising guides about couples calling the Coast Guard for help. Right now, Ana María is stable, sailing reliably. Her crew, though a bit worse for the wear, are not in immediate danger as we can tell. But, still, maybe they can get a hold of the marina for us? Let them know to hold a spot for us so we can dock and get to a hospital right away..
So, with the great fortune of having 3 bars of GoogleFi service, I call into the local Coast Guard station. They ask all the questions we have been trained they will ask so I am ready with the answers. “This is Sailing Vessel Ana Maria. We are at 38º39N and 123º33W. We caught a wave in the cockpit off the coast of Cape Mendocino and we suspect one of our crew has a broken leg. We need assistance coordinating with a marina for our arrival and possibly help docking. There are 2 adult crewmembers on board, both wearing life jackets. Our estimated arrival time is 16:00.”
To our relief, the Coast Guard responded with professionalism and care. They made arrangements for us at the marina. They patched me through to the Flight Surgeon who confirmed we were triaging the knee correctly. When we politely turned down their offer for rescue at sea, they tracked our progress and asked each hour “Are you still comfortable navigating in the current conditions?” We were mighty glad and surprised to see the Coast Guard ship at the harbor entrance buoy waiting to escort us into the marina. We docked with the help of 2 Coasties and they kindly carried me off the boat and into a taxi.
Instead of a night drinking champagne, we celebrated our arrival in California at the Emergency Room with a cocktail of painkillers and x-ray in hand showing a broken kneecap and questionable quad tendon.
We are now in Miami with my in-laws waiting on the results of an MRI of my left knee.
We are uncertain if the quad tendon has torn completely and if the kneecap is still in place.
Yet we are certainly thankful for a seaworthy boat and self-steering that got us into safe harbor.
We are uncertain if my leg will require surgery.
Yet we are certainly thankful for the care and support we received from the Coast Guard.
We are uncertain when the knee will be recovered enough to continue to sail.
Yet we are certainly thankful for the outstanding medical care I received - zero waiting in the emergency room, top-notch doctors who reviewed my case late on a Sunday night and fit me in for tests first thing Monday morning.
We are uncertain when we will be able to return to Ana Maria.
Yet we are certainly thankful for the mind-blowing hospitality shown to us by my mother-in-law’s best friend who happened to live 15 minutes from the hospital and hosted us with great food to fuel my recovery, in a house and bed designed to accommodate limited mobility, and with access to a car for Andrés Jacobo to go back and forth to fix the boat.
We are uncertain if we will have a weather window after recuperation to continue to sail down the coast of California.
Yet we are certainly thankful for a tether system that worked exactly as Andrés Jacobo designed it, keeping us attached to the boat, keeping us alive and together.
We are uncertain if we will be able to work through the trauma of the wave to ever sail confidently again.
Yet we are certainly thankful for Andrés and Jackie’s home where we can recover and recuperate in peace and comfort.
We are uncertain if this event represents for our dreams a delay, a redirection or an unfortunate end.
Yet we are certainly thankful that we are making arrangements for flights and MRIs and physical therapy this week instead of much more painful and permanent arrangements.
We are uncertain what’s ahead of us and Ana María.
Yet we are certainly thankful for a faith unshakeable even by the force of mighty waves.
Indeed, we are uncertain, sad, and discouraged, yet we are certainly thankful it is not as bad as it easily could have been, certainly grateful for all the ways we have been cared for already.
Fair winds & following seas,