Alameda to Seattle aboard the Stevens 47 TOTEM
As the wheels of our Alaska Airlines jet touched the tarmac at Oakland International airport, I looked out the window to see overcast skies, a gray contrast to the sunny weather we had been experiencing in Seattle. Jamie Gifford, Curtis Edwards and I were travelling to Alameda to deliver Jamie and Behan Gifford’s Stevens 47 Totem to her new home on Bainbridge Island. As we walked up the ramp from the plane, déjà vu set in. Haven’t we been here before?
Seven weeks earlier, a crew of six, including Jamie, Curtis, and myself had spent the week in Alameda waiting out the finicky weather off the coast. It was boat projects galore as we fixed a propane leak, replaced numerous pumps, rebuilt the aft head and inspected the rig. But it wasn’t all work, and we enjoyed dinner at the Oakland Yacht Club and Sunday morning “Gin Fizzes” with legendary Bay Area cruisers Jim and Diana Jessie. It was a great pleasure to meet Jim and Diana and to spend time with them on their 53’ Grand Banks Alaskan, Nalu. The couple logged over 120,000 miles of both racing and cruising on the previous Nalu, a cold molded Bill Lapworth sloop and have some great stories to tell.
After five days at the dock in Alameda, we spied a weather window and headed for the Golden Gate. Only a few hours out, we were into forty knot winds and steep, sloppy seas that made going slow and uncomfortable. Seasickness struck a few crew members, although Doug “iron stomach” Miller was still snacking away on Jamie’s cheese quesadillas and reading Offshore Fishing for Cruisers as we made our way across the infamous Potato Patch shoal. A quick call on the satellite phone to weatherman Brad Baker back at the Swiftsure Yachts headquarters in Seattle revealed that our weather window had quickly slammed shut and we were looking at long week of strong northwesterlies ahead. With jobs and families to attend to, we flew home to Seattle — defeated by the weather for the time being.
Back in Alameda for the second time, Jamie, Curtis and I quickly set about getting the boat ready for our second attempt. We replaced a broken staysail halyard and made a stop to purchase some fresh provisions. Thankfully, Jamie’s wife Behan had made the trip down with us in April to help stock the boat with meals for the trip, so our job was an easy one. Some fresh fruit, eggs, chips and beer. Hey, at least we weren’t having salted pork and grog! After returning and looking at the tides, we scratched our plans of leaving that afternoon and sat down in the cockpit to relax with a Dark and Stormy.
Six o’clock comes early. While there is always the anticipation of the trip, there is the knowledge of a week’s worth of sketchy sleep ahead as well. But the tides don’t wait, and we were off to catch the end of the flood in hopes of making the Potato Patch before the ebb churned things up too much. The skies were overcast as we headed out of the estuary and onto San Francisco Bay. Rounding the corner and turning north toward Point Reyes, we heard a distress call on the VHF. It was Saturday morning and the local sportfishing fleet was descending upon the Pacific. No problem, a Coast Guard vessel in the area had it covered. We spotted both porpoises and gray whales. With the boat steaming north under engine power, I headed below to get a bit of sleep. When I woke in late afternoon, we were sailing close hauled in 15 knots of breeze. While Curtis prepared an excellent dinner of pasta and red sauce with parmesan, the breeze continued to build. Before long, we were bending a reef into the main, then furling the genoa and peeling to the staysail on the inner furler. And snap! The staysail halyard broke at the mast and we were all on the foredeck pulling it down and getting it flaked. So much for staying dry! We fired up the engine and began motor sailing as the breeze continued to build into the thirties with puffs to forty knots. Totem handled it beautifully as Jamie hand steered through the waves trying to make as much VMG as possible. Things only got more interesting. Around 3am the engine abruptly stopped. An attempt to start it again failed and led us to believe we might have a clogged fuel filter. With the boat slopping around in a messy seaway we pulled off the old filter and replaced it with a fresh one. It’s a diesel, so you need to bleed off the air in the line. OK, got that done, lets fire it up. Nothing. Hmmm, lets think about this for a second. A quick check of the main fuel tank on centerline revealed it bone dry. Wait, the valves need to be OPEN to let the fuel drain from the auxiliary tanks! Bleed the system again and we were back in business.
By morning, things had settled a bit and we were motoring again through a thin layer of fog. On the radar was a Coast Guard cutter paralleling our course about four miles off. The coasties eventually worked across our bow and continued to parallel us to the east, blipping on and off our radar for the next few days. It’s a comforting feeling knowing they are close by, but also another reminder that to the west of us is the largest expanse of open ocean in the world. As the seas had calmed a bit, we were itching to get our fishing line out while we were still in warmer water. We selected a green and yellow plug and tied leader, swivels and a five pound ball to the end of our line. Shock cord completed the system and was made fast to a cleat on the transom. Who needs a downrigger and rod? We were in business. About twenty minutes later Jamie and I were standing on the transom when the shock cord snapped tight. “Fish on!”. Unfortunately, upon reeling in our setup we found that our dinner had bit the plug at the perfect angle, completely missing the hook. Next time I’m bringing treble hooks!
The sun poked out mid afternoon and we seized the chance to dry out some of our wet gear from the night before. One of the things about a boat – especially offshore – is that once wet, things never really dry out. Totem is a great boat though, and I kept thinking to myself how civilized this delivery really was. When you’re used to the bare accommodations on racing boats, things like your own bunk and a galley table… and roller furling and a dodger really make all the difference. Oh, and the autopilot! The sun and calm conditions also gave us the perfect chance to make a few repairs to our friend the cockpit dodger who had suffered some wounds the night before. Curtis spearheaded the effort and I helped out, although things really didn’t get rolling until Jamie poked his head out of the companionway to tell us how a real sailmaker would do it. The weather only got better, and by late afternoon we were all on deck in the warm sun.
The evening was uneventful as we passed by the infamous Cape Mendocino. The directions from Brad back in Seattle had been to pass the Cape before early Monday morning to avoid some nasty headwinds. We met this goal, and by Monday morning we were nearing the Oregon border. Running low on fuel, we decided to pull into the harbor at Crescent City to top off our tanks. Without a detailed chart of the harbor entrance on board, we called in to the fuel dock on the VHF to request directions for navigating the entrance. The reply came back “turn right at the blue shed”. A bit thrown off by the response, we asked for their phone number and called in to speak with someone who had actually entered the harbor and could give us some more detailed instructions. After a few minute wait, the gal in the office tracked down somebody on the docks to speak with us. A half hour later we were safe inside the sleepy harbor. With no one in sight on the pier, Jamie pulled Totem alongside the small gas float and we walked up the dock looking for the attendant. Another half hour passed before we pulled the boat around to the other side of the pier and the attendant passed the hose down on a line. We certainly felt like the odd ones out as the gentleman asked us where we were going and what we were doing. Apparently not many cruising yachts stop through Crescent City.
With full fuel and water tanks we left the harbor and turned north. The breeze had built and shifted west, so we hoisted the main, rolled out the genoa and enjoyed a nice afternoon sailing in 12 to 15 knots of breeze. The miles were still rolling under the keel as the sun set and we settled into our evening watches. Jamie had chosen not to have set watches in favor of a flexible schedule that allowed us to have two on deck at a time if needed. It worked well, as everyone was more or less up and awake for most of the daylight hours.
By Tuesday morning, the Totem crew was settling into rhythm. We were motoring again with clear skies and a few knots of wind on our beam. As we neared the Columbia River, we began to see more and more commercial traffic on the radar. Many commercial fishing boats and the familiar lines of crab pot bouys. As the day wore on, the temperature warmed up. Curtis cooked up a great lunch of enchiladas that, combined with a cold Pacifico, made us wish we were headed towards Mexico instead of Seattle. We assured Jamie that Totem would be heading there soon enough, and that we had already gone too far turn around. Besides, by late afternoon the breeze had filled in again from the west and we were making nice time under sail. About an hour before sunset we came upon a number of huge bait balls rolling on the surface. A while later we saw two whales on the horizon and we were soon joined by a stampede of porpoises who were feeding a ways off and must have been curious enough to take a break. They stayed with Totem for the next half hour, swimming in our bow wake, then diving in front of the keel and popping up on the other side. Once the sun set, Jamie described seeing the phosphorescent glow of a giant bait ball moving towards, then under the boat; each fish a glowing chartreuse silhouette. These are the experiences that make sleeping in four hour shifts and standing cold midnight watches completely worthwhile.
Wednesday morning came quickly and Totem was making great time up the Washington coast. Our estimates put us at Bainbridge Island mid-day Thursday with a stop to take on more diesel somewhere along the way. As we neared the northwest tip of Washington late in the afternoon, we watched the transition between the flat geographic features of southwest Washington to the rugged coastline and mountains of the Olympic Peninsula. It feels good to be back in familiar territory again. After sunset, our check of fuel levels showed less than we would have hoped, so we decide to cut the engine and sail the rest of the distance around Cape Flattery to more fuel at Neah Bay. A few hours later we were sailing on port tack in a dying breeze only a few miles offshore. It’s an eerie feeling to be off the coast like this, hand steering in a flat calm. We rounded the Cape and made for the fuel dock at Neah Bay where we tied up and promptly passed out.
Voices on deck. Curtis was up first and was talking to the attendant when I roused myself enough to crawl from my warm bunk. We had slept in a bit. Apparently someone else had been down to the boat earlier in the morning and had concluded after knocking for a while that there was no one aboard! I guess we needed our beauty sleep. After taking on some fuel we made breakfast and slipped our docklines. Next stop: Eagle Harbor, Bainbridge Island. The breeze built throughout the day and we enjoyed a nice sail down the straits. By the time we reached Point Wilson, the sun was setting and breeze was dying so we turned on the engine and struck the sails. The bright lights of homes along Puget Sound take some getting used to – and make you realize how much easier it is to spot a ship at night when you are off shore. We all stayed more or less awake for the run down Admiralty Inlet, on diligent freighter watch. We reached Eagle Harbor a bit late for “last call” at the Harbor Pub at the head of the dock, but enjoyed a Dark and Stormy in the cockpit before calling it a night. A toast to a great crew and a successful delivery.