Monday, July 13, 2009

A Sailing Adventure

Less than 2 weeks after the completion of my Columbia river expedition i hopped on a plane headed to West Palm Beach Florida. I was to help deliver a 39 foot little harbor sailboat with my mom, Captain Donna Lange, and my girlfriend Virginia Hickey. 8 days and 1100 nautical miles (1320 miles) after setting sail we arrived in Hyannis Massachusetts. It was a perfect continuation of an epic spring... Here is a short video taken with a point and shoot camera...

I ran into this story about my encounter with a friend Scott on the Columbia river just downstream of Mcnary dam check out the May 31 post on his archives as well as the wealth of amazing images and creative and provocative writing

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Sailing Adventure

May 9Th, 12 days after finishing the Columbia trip. My mom, Ginny and myself enjoy the afternoon sunshine in the cockpit of the 39 foot little harbor, a few miles offshore of West Palm Beach Florida, bound for Hyannis, Massachusetts . The wind is mild at 9 to 15 knots, just enough to sail and not motor. The sea is about as docile as the wind. Though I've only been on 1 true offshore sailboat delivery, I feel like Ive done this a thousand times before. The rolling of the ocean beneath my feet feels so familiar. The smell of the ocean still fresh in my mind from Astoria.

The trip started as usual, airplane rides with little sleep, babies crying, and Bible thumpers one upping each other with quotes from the scriptures in the seat in front of me. The gentleman siting next to me glances over with a here we go again look. I concured. This would be a long flight, as another baby started up in chorus. I put in my earplugs drowning out all but the sermon going on in front of me. I could see the woman's face get redder through the crack in the seats, as she faced off with the slicked-back haired gentleman besides her who coaxed her into a full on frenzy. I wondered if God wanted her to get that stressed out while she contemplated the meaning of his words. I just wished they could keep it down to baby screaming volumes so I could get a few more hours of sleep.

The few days I spent in West Palm Beach solidified that people are strange in what they value, as I drive by massive mansions with million dollar yachts being worked on by the Cuban migrant workforce. I have little envy for either situation. Both trapped in there own purgatory. One in expectation, overhead and greed, the other by moderate poverty, racism, and a lack of a green card. The whole situation makes me realize how lucky I am to sit on this rich man's boat, feel the sea roll beneath me, the wind cools me as I experience bliss in the setting sun. I am lucky and feel as rich as any man could be.
It is an odd thing to go from kayaking to sailing, human powered to wind. It is so nice to sit and watch the miles float by with nary a stroke taken. A far cry from the endless suffering of thousands of paddle strokes. But it is not without its own hardships. Sailboats never stop, like a baby they must be constantly monitored. It is a test of mental endurance, an endless day with no pause button, stopping only when the boat is safe on its mooring now still days away. At points I envy the daily rituals of the Columbia trip, where I could stop and sleep a deep sleep as long as the coyotes or trains didn't come to close in the night.

It is Day 6 of this adventure, We have a 5 foot swell and mild wind out of the SE. Though comfortable, it is slow and we are already running a day late from our original itinerary. 100 miles from Beaufort, NC we did a fuel use estimate, concluding that we would need to refuel to keep the engine running for the rest of the trip. The batteries on the boat were old and not able to hold a charge, forcing us to run the engines more than expected to run the auto pilot. With the forecast looking like slow sailing from here on out, we would have to motor the rest of the trip to try to stay on schedule.
The stop in Beaufort was uneventful but I was happy to get some sugar cookies which I forgot to get in Florida. It is the small things that bring so much joy, and cookies are a personal favorite
of mine.
The wind was cranking from the NE as we left the dock, we knew it would make things a little interesting but with peak gusts in the 35 knots range we would just reef the sails and deal with it. The boat is more than capable and we were eager to get back on the water. About 5 miles out of the harbor we put up half the main and half the jib in 25 knots of wind. It was nice to be sailing again and the boat was flying beautifully. The wind was picking up but with the sails furled we were a little under powered just in case a gust came up. The furler on the jib was new to both my mom and I and we accidentally let the whole sail out once. It made for some excitement but we got it under control right away. As soon as we put the sail out the second time the furler failed letting the whole sail out before we had the sheet lines anchored. Due to our forward angle to the wind they went under the boat and got stuck in the prop. We were immediately in a bit of a pickle. No engine and 1 crippled sail in less than 5 seconds. We shut down the engine and headed down wind trying to ease the pressure on the overloaded jib. The wind was picking up to around 30 knots and even after heading downwind the right rail was still way in the water. To make maters worse the jib was back loading and fighting the forces of the main. We were officially getting screwed. With few options we came to a quick decision to cut the sheet lines freeing the boat from the crippled sail. I ran up the deck, kitchen knife in hand and touched the rope with the knife. It was under so much tension that it exploded apart. The boat jumped to life now free from the back filled sail but now the sail was trying to disintegrate itself whipping back and forth snapping like a wet towel in the wind. Shit was hitting the fan and staying up on deck with the flogging sail would be dangerous to say the least. The end of it had 2 big knots on it from the sheet lines turning it into a club that threatened to beat anyone who dared tame it. Without a second thought, Captain Lange handed me the helm and headed up the deck. With steerage returned, I cranked the wheel pointing us downwind again so the sail would flap over the ocean and not the deck. The captain got a hold of the sail and began piling it up on the bow pulpit, standing on top of the pile to keep it from catching the wind and flying out again. She got it under control and lashed it down to the anchor cleats.

With the immediate problem solved we set out a little more mainsail and began limping back to port. The sheet lines wrapped up in the prop so using the engine was out of the question. If the lines jammed we could bend the drive shaft or break the transmission, crippling the boat and costing thousands. We could try to sail into the harbor and anchor but with only a main sail it would be difficult in the best conditions. In the dark with no motor and a anchor that was buried under a defunct jib sail axed that option. Option number three was to call sea tow and get towed in, our best option but not a cheap one. I didn't really see a 4th option but Captain Lange did. Her plan was to "hove the boat to" a survival technique that points the boat straight into the wind at the slowest possible speed, that way she could jump overboard and cut the lines free from the prop. It was a crazy idea, we were 6 miles offshore in 6 foot choppy seas with 30 knots of wind. You couldn't have paid me enough to swim in that ocean. None-the-less, a few minutes later a calm and confident if not a little bit pissed Captain Lange slipped overboard with a rope tied around her waist as a tether, and a big kitchen knife in hand. I would head to wind where we went from 1 1/2 to 3 knots. Every time the boat began to slow I would call out our speed and she would dive down cutting a few more wraps of friction melted rope off the drive shaft. After 10 or so tries, she had all the rope removed and hung from the rail to tired to pull herself back up. With a last burst of energy she walked hand over hand down the rail to a break in the life line, where I could haul her aboard. I was so scared for her she felt like a fly as I pulled her in, bearhugging her to make sure she didn't fall back in while she caught her breath.

With the prop free, I started up the engine, threw it in drive and cranked up the r's. It would be a piece of cake to get back to the dock now. I had the way points in the GPS from earlier and knew just what dock I'd be pulling up to once we got to the port.

We spent the next morning threading the jib up the furling track and fitting new sheet lines into the blocking. We left around noon with 10 to 15 knots of wind out of the NE, not exactly ideal but it would work. The forecast was for more of the same for 24 hours, and as we rounded the bend of Cape Lookout we began a slow battle into choppy seas, straight into the wind.

It took a little over a day to pass Cape Hatteras the wind changed to the south east where it is now 2 and a half days from leaving Beaufort. The sunrise at Hatteras was amazing as the sun burned a hole through the storm clouds that formed over the gulf stream 50 miles to the east. That afternoon a pod of dolphins danced and played around the boat in the setting sun. It seemed to be a sign that the worst was over. They put a smile on my face, a reminder that nothing good is free, but the good is always worth the fee.
With only 2 and a half days left and plenty of fuel on board we motored straight towards Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket sound, a place renowned for JFK and fog. And fog we got, lots of it. I woke for my morning shift to pea soup conditions and the sound of the captain sending out a broadcast of our position. With no radar and a very small radar reflector we would send out our position every half hour for the next 2 days to make sure other boats were aware of our position and heading. "securite, securite, securite, this is sailing vessel Robin broadcasting our position N 40 deg 29 min, W 71 deg 22 min with a course over ground at 34 deg at 5.5 knots". It made for some spooky watches, no wind and nothing to see, just the sound of the engine running and the waves splashing up against the boat, hoping that people are listing to there radios.

Entering the sound early on our 8th morning, the sun came out and slowly burned off the fog revealing the low lying islands of Martha's vineyard and Nantucket. It always nice to see dry land but there's the bittersweet feeling that an amazing journey is over. By noon I was standing on the docks getting land sick by the minute, wishing there was more ocean to sail across, more time to sit and not think, to let time pass unaware of time...