Humble Pie

Coffman Cove to Lake Bay
5 nM, 2nM as the crow flies
June 4, 2015

The education of a skipper is a long process that proceeds in increments of imprudent behavior. String enough of them together, survive, and eventually you achieve some semblance of competence. I should live so long.

This day was one of those days, among the most memorable of the trip, and indeed, of all my days aboard Ripple. I made three important mistakes, born of complacency and inexperience.

Mistake number (1) was to not take the weather forecast seriously enough.  We had listened several times on the day before, and there were reports of gale winds coming in off the Gulf of Alaska. Listening to the weather channels on VHF is tricky business. If you don't know the landmarks in the report (some we did, others not), then it is hard to form a picture of what is happening, and if you don't know the waters, and how they fit together it is harder still. Inexplicably, that morning we didn't listen to the weather report at all, in spite of having heard about impending gale force winds on the previous day! The root of our problem was our ambition and complacency.

Our entire trip from Seattle to Ketchikan -- fully one quarter of the trip -- had been marred by a single rain shower of a half hour's duration.  We had not been stopped by weather or seas on a single occasion.  We felt a bit cocky mapping out our ambitious 450 mile route for Mathias's Alaskan cruise.  We were determined and confident and eager.

Mistake number (2) was towing the dinghy. Stuart's Little is an Iain Oughtred design, Auklet: I had selected the design based on being light enough for me to wrastle onto the foredeck myself and it being short enough to fit there.  At 7'8" and 45 lbs or so, she fits the bill. But in two seasons of towing her (probably 40 days), I had never been in seas large enough that I was uncomfortable with her on the end of a 30 foot line. I figured I just wouldn't go out in seas large enough to make it a problem. Uh huh.

Mistake number (3) was all about ego.  As we left the calm, placid waters of Coffman cove at 0730 that morning there was a short period of time when it would have been possible to turn back.  My sense of time that morning was quickly warped by anxiety, but my guess is that window lasted for about a minute.  I went to the foredeck to raise the stays'l,  and I could see the angry whitecaps, and knew immediately that we were in for a wild ride.  I can recall asking myself the question... should we be doing this?  But we had a plan, a goal, and I didn't want to say to my son, the Marine, that I didn't think we should do this.

As we turned northward out of Coffman, it quickly became evident that there was no turning back. The seas were 5 to 6 feet, and looked bigger still through the lens of fear. I couldn't imagine executing a safe 180 degree turn in those seas.  But as the minutes marched along, it felt like it was going to be fine.  We didn't seem to be in danger of being pooped... having a following wave crash down on us. The periods of the waves were long enough that we rose on the faces of the overtaking crests and surfed a little and settled back into the troughs.  Nothing bad was happening.  In fact it was exhilarating. I felt like I had stepped up a notch on the ladder of seamanship.

About that time Stuart's Little, as if to say "enough!", tried to surf into the cockpit.  I could nearly have grabbed her breasthook and dragged her onto the sternsheets. That was it.  All focus now turned to getting out of harm's way.

By the grace* of good fortune, Coffman Cove is on the north east shoulder of Prince of Wales Island, and all we had to do was to work our way around that shoulder, and we would be in the lee of the island, in calmer seas.  This we did, and found a quiet little anchorage, Lake Bay, that we settled into for the day.  I suspect that we could have availed ourselves of the lee shoulder of Prince of Wales and gone a good deal further that day, but I was shaken by the experience and thought it prudent to do an after-action analysis. So, after a mere 5 nMiles, we dropped anchor about 2 nMiles from where we had started the day.

At anchorage in Lake Bay after a full meal of humble pie

We had all day to stew in the juices of imprudence and talk about the mistakes we had made. At some point in the afternoon Mathias said "Dad, just because we're not being paid for this doesn't mean we have to act like rank amateurs!" This we had certainly done, and as skipper, the responsibility rested squarely on my shoulders. My own view is somewhat nuanced, however. You don't learn much from good weather and optimized safety. Competence in boat handling, as in any complicated domain of life, is built on a foundation of preparation, challenged by bad luck, or imprudent actions, or both. Sometimes you know the right thing to do, but don't do it: you need nature's dope-slap born of an indifferent reality. I didn't make these particular mistakes again.

*grace in the ecclesiastical sense of the word... undeserved favor bestowed by the godhead


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