Thursday, October 15, 2015

(Em)Bed-Well Harbour: Too Much of a Good Thing

Gin and Tonics at our anchorage in Bedwell Harbour
I have entered Canadian waters at Bedwell Harbour twice, and I have nothing but nice things to say about Canadian Customs.  Polite, considerate, and effective service, and if you arrive after hours, you can get clearance over the phone (as is true for all marine Canadian points of entry as far as I know).  We got in about 1800 hours, and I did the phone check-in.

On a previous occasion, I'd stayed at the marina there, which is quite nice, and affords access to showers and even a swimming pool.  But we wanted to leave early, and the guide books say that the holding in Bedwell is very good (sticky mud), so we dropped the hook, had gin and tonics, made dinner, and went to bed after a 55 mile day.

This was my first use of my shiny new Rocna 9 kg Vulcan anchor.  I elucidated my motivation for buying this anchor in a previous post, and everything I said about it there, I still believe.  It is a great anchor. It is such a good anchor that in the morning we could not get it out of the mud.  I was enjoying having my Marine aboard, eager and willing as he was to do deck work, so he was on the bow, hauling in the rode as we prepared to leave the harbor.

When the nose of the bow was pretty much directly above the anchor, Mathias could not get it to budge from the mud.  No problem, I said... I'll motor it out! I went up to 2500 RPM (cruising RPM), and the bow... well... bowed.  We became a tethered pond toy, spinning in a circle around the axis of the anchor rode, the bowsprit now pointing down as the bow was pulled down sharply.  We did manage to get the anchor up, but it was a struggle.

I had too much anchor for the boat.  That was the first and only time I've used that anchor, and in fact I decided to sell it when I returned.  I've since reconsidered this, and the Vulcan is now a designated storm anchor, to be used in situations where one just isn't enough... and if you lost it, you might be grateful to have saved your boat for such a modest expenditure.  Day three, crisis three.  Not a big one, but it did make me think about how I would have managed alone, and reminded me that reading, researching, and reasoning isn't the same as practical experience.  I had gone to considerable effort and expense to equip my boat with what I believed safe and effective ground tackle.  And had gone too far.

I returned my 7.5 kg Bruce anchor to its rightful place as primary anchor and lashed the Rocna to port-side anchor shiv. Sometime later, I rigged the Vulcan with a rode so it was ready to deploy, so as to be able to set both in a real blow.  I never had to do it, though one night I considered it pretty seriously.

Lessons (re)learned:
  • As Marshall Rose, the father of modern e-mail systems famously wrote: The difference between theory and practice is greater in practice, than in theory.  Reasoning is great, but try things out.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Provenance and Providence

The single part of Ripple that failed in the entire 88 day trip
Mathias and I got away from Port Townsend early in the morning, the ambitious target of Bedwell Harbour in our heads.  It is a stretch for a slow boat (55 nM), but we were motivated.  The tides were favorable for slipping between San Juan Island and Lopez Island (a pretty fast tidal gate) and by doing this interior route, we had a pretty clear shot north in protected waters towards Friday Harbor, and on up to Bedwell Harbour, our most convenient place to clear customs into Canada.  We decided to stop at Friday Harbor for something or other from a drug store, and I thought I might as well top off the fuel tanks while there. At a liter an hour, we had used less than half of our usable fuel.  But never pass up a bathroom (or fuel stop)... thats what my mom says.

I topped off the tank, switched the key on, and hit the starter button. Nothing.  OK, OK... its a loose panel connection... a problem I'd had before.  Take it off, wiggle everything, check every connection. Click. Nothing. Now I'm starting to sweat -- fuel docks are unsympathetic to malingerers.  I quickly pulled the engine box panels apart and did the only thing I knew to do: wiggle everything on the engine. Which is often exactly the right approach, as it was in this case.  The ground cable to the alternator terminates in an electrical fixture that is crimped onto the ground wire (about the size of a finger... not a small conductor).  This 20-some-year-old connector had failed from metal fatigue, interrupting the backbone of my smallish electrical system.

OK, at least I know what the problem is.  The fuel attendant told me that if I could get the boat to an adjacent dock, no one would bother me while I did the repair.  It was easy, but I needed the right size connector, and the means of crimping it.  But first things first.  That thirteenth of May, visitors to the harbor were treated to a comical vision of me in my tiny, nearly weightless dinghy, trying to tow my 8,000 lb sailboat the 30 yards or so to the next dock.  I thought immediately of the episode in  The Curve of Time where the author tows her disabled motorboat with her tender...  all I can say is that must have been a light boat.  If you haven't read that book, by the way, it is wonderful.

There was a Puget Sound Express whale watching boat from Port Townsend on the public dock, and . they had been watching my hapless antics.  The helped us to get Ripple over to the dock and I sang my sad song as I got ready to scour Friday Harbor for the requisite part. One of the fellows on the excursion boat graciously offered to see if they had a suitable spare, and they did, and I set about doing the fix. We were chatting, and he remarked that my boat looked a lot like his boss's old boat.  I told him thats because it IS his old boat!  I had met Peter, the owner of PSE, at a previous Wooden Boat Festival.  I thanked them for their help and told them our plans, and hoped that they would not hear about us again!  And to please remember us to Peter, who must have smiled knowing that his folks had helped us out.

Here, on day 2, was the first of many acts of kindness of strangers that kept us moving.  We were underway again in plenty of time to get to Bedwell Harbour that night.  Another crisis surmounted. As it turns out, that fatigued connector was the only boat failure that took place the entire trip.

Lessons Learned:
  • The spare parts you have are not enough, and probably never will be.  It is really hard to anticipate all your problems and have fixes at hand.  But try.  Try harder than I did.
  • That idealism thing... people are eager to help when they can: be open to it.
  • Towing my boat with my dinghy is a non starter. Fugeddaboutit.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Don't leave home without a Marine

Mathias at the helm in the Straits of San Juan de Fuca on Day 2: A lot of chop, and wind on the nose all day.
When I started planning The Trip, I hoped that Mathias would join me for some segment of the voyage.  He is on a walk-about year after a long stint in the Marine Corps as a helicopter pilot, and I had it in mind to reserve the trip home from Sitka for him. Weather patterns and prevailing winds suggest it would probably be the best segment of the trip, and with the most sailing.  His other plans mitigated in favor of his joining me for the start of the trip instead.  This turned out to be a fateful adjustment in plans that probably made the whole thing work.

Ripple's regular home is on Lake Union, which means that the Fremont Bridge and the locks stand between us and Puget Sound.  The bridge is less than a half mile from my marina, and is the only bridge in the area that I need a lift to get under.  The night before departure, I took care of that by staging the boat on the Sound-side of the bridge so we wouldn't have to worry about the morning bridge traffic embargo (7 to 9 AM).  We got away early, and through the locks without mishap and motored north to Port Townsend.
Mathias tending lock lines on the way out to the Sound
More experienced cruisers than I will probably recognize that early days in a voyage often have some rough edges.  We had our share -- some minor, some rather more challenging.  Indeed, we had a crisis-a-day for the first week or so, and that week tested my resolve and my confidence.

But that first day, our optimism was unsullied by reality.  We had an easy trip to Port Townsend, and (because of Facebook postings) arrived with an invitation to a dinner get-together -- a feast of duck, and steak, and salmon tacos hosted by a PT Wooden Boat Festival friend, Emily Caryl.  We met some friendly folks there who all wished us well for the trip, and sent us to our berths well-fed and eager to head north.

Arriving back at Point Hudson Marina that night, the first crisis weaseled its way onto my list of concerns.  Checking the oil, I discovered a fuel leak. I had replaced the fuel filter canister on the engine block the week before, the bleed screw threads having been stripped during a recent overhaul. Short of time and discipline, I had reused the copper compression washers on the banjo fittings.  Bad idea.  The leak was enough to leave a tablespoon or so of fuel absorbed by diaper lining the engine compartment sole (for the non-mariners... diapers for marine applications are sheets of fuel/oil absorbent material that prefer petrochemicals to water... they are useful for absorbing small spills, and are used beneath engines as leak tell-tales). Compression washers are the simplest of engine parts, and size is critical. Suitable instances simply were not available. Enter Rescue Tape.

As every Rescue Tape sales person will tell you, there are myriad uses for this stuff, and I have to say, I am a believer. Improvised fan belts, electrical cable repairs, wrapping a fractured arm or a leaking water hose, taping yourself to the mast in a storm (think Moby Dick).  Also good for stemming the leak of a (low pressure) fuel line.  With the caveat that you have to redo it every few days, because diesel fuel weakens the stick-to-itselfness of the tape. A second layer of masking tape on top of the rescue tape increases the service life of this fix, but the best I got from it was about a week at a time.

Lessons learned:
  • Do not re-use compression washers.  I knew this, but sometimes you just need a dope-slap.
  • Your mechanic may screw up, but BOTH of you have to fail for it to become a problem.  It is the skipper's responsibility to assure that work done is work done correctly. 
  • Rescue Tape lives up to its billing.  It will always have an honored place in my tool kit.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Recruiting the Crew

My friend and colleague, Bruce Washburn, painted this watercolor as thanks for having 'taken him along' via Facebook posts.  Knowing that many friends were following the trip on Facebook became a great source of support as the trip progressed.  Thank you all! 
All of my notable achievements as a parent revolve around expeditions to wild places. A ski cabin in the Gross Vente mountains, the canyons of Zion National Park and Canyonlands, the Escalante Wilderness, the Grand Canyon: anywhere challenging enough to keep casual hikers off the trails.  My children learned of their father's passions and fondness for Scotch around campfires, on desert trails, and in twisty slot canyons. These trips were shared with other close friends as well. Decades later, phrases and punchlines from those early trips elicit cascades of smiles and memories among the participants.

As I planned this latest venture into the wild,  I hoped that some of those same people would sign on for a part of my voyage, though I fully expected to do significant chunks of the trip solo. I invited both my sons (Mathias and Brendan), as well as Wes, Pete, and Sam, each of whom I have known for 30 years or so, and each of whom had participated in memorable past excursions.  Unlike these other trips, however, only one person could participate at a time.  Ripple is a compact boat, small in volume even for her size (26 feet on deck). Two is tight, and three unimaginable.

I sent out my call for crew in the early weeks of the year, and after many discussions, a schedule emerged.  To my astonishment,  everyone subscribed!  In fact, as things worked out, I was not alone for a single day of the trip.  At planning time, I had a tinge of regret for this.  I've mostly sailed Ripple alone, and I feel pretty confident about single-handing her.  There is a special pleasure in being alone on your vessel, without need to consult or plan for anyone's whims or needs but your own. Looking back after the fact, there are occasions too-numerous-for-fingers that I am grateful not to have had to manage alone.

Scheduling crew on a long voyage is complicated.  Everyone has lives, of course, and rendezvous points can be remote and expensive to reach. The uncertainties of weather and travel on a 4.5 knot boat add additional layers of difficulty: missing a mark means not only loss of opportunity, but lost expenditures for airfare, gear, and time.  The weight of responsibility for managing all this impressed upon me the seriousness of what I was doing... and how fragile a schedule can be. Another of my brother's nautical aphorisms: nothing so dangerous as a sailor with a plane ticket.  He's wrong, though... a skipper with 5 crew with plane tickets is worse.

All these folks had agreed to venture forth in waters unknown to me, in a small boat unknown to them, and mostly without prior sailing experience.  Providing coherent guidance about what to bring and what to expect became an important part of my planning, and towards this end, two documents emerged:

I'm not sure how helpful they were for my crew, but writing them certainly helped me to organize my own gear and to think about the array of basic knowledge that my compatriots should have in order to travel comfortably and safely aboard Ripple.  

In retrospect, there are only a few things I might change.  One area that needs special attention is the role of checklists.  I started out with none, and it became evident that several were appropriate (and they evolved over the trip). I have my eldest son to thank for this.  Mathias was a helicopter pilot in the Marines, and is by nature methodical and process-oriented.  We encountered a number of circumstances early in the trip that would have gone more smoothly had there been shared checklists (laminated, that live with the log book) to keep us focused. This is particularly true when there are crew aboard new to the boat... new to sailing, for all that!  I am loathe to admit that, even after the trip, I don't have my checklists refined and laminated, but this deficiency I hope to remedy before next season rolls around.

When I blithely issued invitations, I had little sense of how distinct each segment of the trip would be, nor did I think in any strategic sense about the order of battle.  These things turned out to be crucial, as I hope will be evident as this narrative unfolds.  Suffice it for now to say that I had five trips to look forward to, not one.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Shackleton's Watchwords

Trail marker at Shoal Bay, on Thurlow Island.
A great stop-over place between the tidal rapids that separate Desolation Sound from Johnstone Strait 
My son, Brendan, gave me a book that provided the meme for the trip on the Inside Passage. The book is a photographic essay and commentary on the Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1954. There is a quote in the book attributed to Ernest Shackleton, whose entrapment in Antarctic ice in the early 1900s and subsequent escape pretty much define intrepid self reliance. When asked what the most important character traits for an explorer were,  he replied:
   Optimism, patience, idealism, and courage... in that order
As I prepared Ripple and myself for this journey, I returned again and again to Shackleton's words.  I am no explorer, and nothing about my trip was first-worthy or courageous.   In fact, I am inclined to replace the word courage in Shackleton's formula with confidence, but the front half of the quote is the important part: optimism and patience.  The demands of the trip required lavish quantities of each. Optimism is difficult to sustain in our cynical, post-factual world, and patience has never been my strongest virtue.  But that is partly why we go to wild places.

As your world contracts to boat and horizon, the scope of life is distilled to an elemental purity. All effort devolves to weaving temperature, tide, wind, waves, and light around the boat and crew, a fabric of surprise and delight and wonder.  Of course, sometimes the surprises are rather less pleasant, and one's optimism and patience are tested.

I came to appreciate that the grand places I traveled, ostensibly the reason for being there, were but a backdrop for the real show... the one happening in the part of the brain where optimism and patience reside. The script is written in the vocabulary of preparedness, or lack of it, of expertise, or its failure, of fatigue, and fear, and awe, and more.

Enter idealism.  I  can only guess what Shackleton was thinking here, but if one accepts idealism as the priority of principles, values, and goals over concrete realities, it fits comfortably within the notion that we travel in wild and challenging places to better understand ourselves.  Places ungoverned by the assumptions and conventions of human intellect challenge our ideals and our ability to reconcile them with the reality of the natural world.

I have always found comfort in the transformation that is part of every wilderness experience: the realization that a wilderness is utterly indifferent to one's success, or even to survival. Why is this comforting?  Because it inevitably strengthens one's focus, enforces personal responsibility, and promotes better judgment. It is a test of how one's idealism aligns with the designs of nature. There is no Bullshit Road through Mother Nature. You will complete your journey based on preparedness, competence, judgment, and some good luck along the way.  That, and your mind's ability to compensate for shortfalls in any of these.

Thence lies the road to confidence.

Go With the Boat You Have

Every sailor in the Pacific Northwest thinks about the Inside Passage.  It isn't circumnavigation, it isn't even blue-water sailing, and you're never really out of sight of land.  Oh... and there is not really even that much sailing to be done!  The local joke is that there are two kinds of boats on the IP... motorboats and motorboats with sticks.  But the Inside Passage IS the Pacific Northwest.  It is the ancestral home to nations of native Americans whose cultural histories rank among the richest of any indigenous culture.  The terrain is majestic and the wildlife plentiful, and a time traveler would find little changed in a millenium, or ten. Well... less ice now.

The Vancouver expeditions gave us the names of many passages, points, and islands, from Desolation sound in BC to Traitor's Cove on the Behm Canal.  The stories of the Russian presence in Alaska, from the Bering Expedition through The Russia Company, and the fateful sale of Seward's Folly to a recalcitrant congress are obscure to most, and fascinating to read.  The Inside Passage was the throughway to the gold rush, a thousand miles of watery wilderness between Seattle and Skagway. Jonathan Raban's  Passage to Juneau, a book The Guardian listed among the 100 best works of non-fiction in the English language, illuminates its rich past and paints a present tinged with poverty, majesty, and surpassing natural beauty. There is no dearth of allure.

Coastal cruising in these waters has plenty of challenges. Summer weather is generally good, but serious storms sweep off the Gulf of Alaska. The tides are large, and the intricacies of the coastal archipelago makes predicting currents a confounding challenge (a small example: two parallel passages in the Broughtons, separated by a narrow island, flow in opposite directions in the same tide). Tidal gates require careful planning with resources that are not always accessible online. There are treacherous capes to round, delta outflows to cross, deep anchorages to plumb. Convergence zones where waterways intersect are often characterized by confused seas that are unpredictable and dangerous for boats much larger than Ripple.  And always, the sense of isolation. You're a long way from home. Or even help.

The isolation of the Inside Passage is evident in waterways that serve as the only access other than air travel. North of Lund, on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, no roads reach the core of the Inside Passage until you reach Prince Rupert, some 350 nmiles north (as the crow flies... more like 500 as the boat plies). Above Prince Rupert, there is no mainland road access at all.

I had been to Desolation Sound and to the Broughton Islands sailing with my friend Terry Noreault on his boat. It seemed like the end of maritime civilization to me then, nearly at the top of Vancouver Island where the Gulf of Alaska funnels into Queen Charlotte Strait. Terry is a geek's geek, and his technical, methodical approach to trip planning provided a high standard for my own aspirations.  I learned tidal gate planning from him, and the rudiments of anchoring, and both of us ate exceedingly well on our trips, owing to Alane's (Terry's wife) penchant for fool-proof provisioning.

Still, I hadn't been far from home in Ripple until the Summer of 2014.  After sixteen days and 500 miles, I was ready to go out again the next day.  Whatever doubts I harbored about long sojourns on Ripple were resolved. That is when I started thinking in earnest of going north. Really north.

I began collecting guidebooks and charts, and thinking hard about the upgrades Ripple would need to be safe and comfortable.  A dodger, a chart plotter, better storage options, paper charts and the means to manage them, new flares and fire extinguishers, an AIS receiver, a better anchor and ground tackle, and an auto-tiller.  I needed to improve the engine's reliability, as I had had some mysterious issues with my one cylinder Yanmar 1GM10 diesel.

In late Autumn, the Center for Wooden Boats featured Tor and Jessica Bjorklund at their third-Friday colloquium.   This intrepid couple sailed their 30-some foot steel gaffer (s/v Yare) from Seattle to Juneau and back... with twin one-year-olds!  I think that was the moment that I knew I would go.  Tor's words: "go with the boat you have... but go".

Each hour pouring over Google Earth, guidebooks, and charts increased my understanding of the scope of the trip.  Learning the names of the waterways and the islands along the way made me want to travel them, visit them, be there. See there.  No more excuses.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

88 Days

The Summer just past witnessed my most ambitious cruising experience: Seattle to the northern reaches of the Inside Passage (and back!). I had hoped to blog my trip, day by day, but that didn't work, for a variety of reasons,  though I was able to post pictures on Facebook.

The trip was an epic journey, and I shall try to capture some of the lessons and stories after the fact. The upshot is that I travelled 3,050 nMiles in 88 days with 5 crew members (one at a time). Cruising for such a distance aboard a 26 foot boat in the company of each of my sons and three life-long friends stands among the great passages of my life.

The people met (and re-met), the places visited, the wildlife, the waters, the difficulties (mostly self-inflicted), and challenges of weather and sea have taught me great lessons and made me a better mariner than I was.  And whetted my appetite for more.

My beloved Ripple failed me on a single occasion: a 20 year old electrical connection failed due to metal fatigue (a heavy ground wire to the most vibration-prone point in the electrical system, the alternator).  She is the smallest boat I encountered on the trip (though I heard of a couple of others), and almost certainly the slowest at 4.5 knots. But this wonderful vessel (lovely, sound, slow, and yes, cramped as she was) met every challenge and kept her crew safe.

This is not to say the trip was trouble-free -- just that pretty much all of them were due to imprudent behavior on the part of the skipper. Inexperience, lack of diligence, complacency, and errors of judgment rippled through the trip. Each crisis taught its own lesson, and assigned reward in proportion to its nature.  After a while, I even started to make some good decisions!

Anticipating that the voyage might lead to some "interesting" experiences, I submitted a presentation proposal to the organizers of the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival: Imprudent Behavior: the preparation of a 26 foot wooden boat and an inexperienced skipper for the Inside Passage. I had plenty of fodder for the talk, and it was well attended -- who doesn't love to hear stories of the other guy's screw-ups?