November 11, 2012
Next morning I wandered the steep bluffs of Point Reyes, blood exploding the disused veins of my atrophied sailor’s legs and my tiny sailor’s lungs pulling hard for air. Sea lions jousted on the beach. Sparrows scattered from the trail to hide in the dry grasses and in a pine, the call of a blue jay. Even at ridgetop winds were calm, the open sky letting down such warmth that I thought to remove my sweater, but did not.
The pressure off, having got below the northern winter, I could remain here a few days, I thought. It was tempting. But forecasts indicated southerlies would fill in overnight, making Drakes Bay untenable.
At eleven I moved to weighed anchor for the last time. It stuck hard in the mud. Murre shared my unwillingness.
Now wind was light from the southeast, then east. Then it faded. We motored slowly along this coast of long acquaintance, past Limantour spit and the Palo Marin hills, past Bolinas town and Stinson Beach. As Pigeon Point lighthouse came into view, so did the Golden Gate Bridge–just the tip of its north tower. Then the carnelian sky scraper that houses Bank of America. Then the bone-white Trans America Pyramid. Small boats scurried about dropping crab pots over dangerous Potato Patch Shoal that today shone like a lake.
Then the turn, the bridge dead ahead, rocky Alcatraz behind and the green hump of Angel Island beyond.
I understood there would be no one to greet me. My arrival could not be predicted, even by me, until I’d swung behind Point Reyes, and weeks ago my wife had booked her travel. As Murre and I approached the Gate, she snoozed in a window seat, the plane carrying her to a conference in San Antonio. It could not be helped, this solo return, and I had told myself it was most fitting. Still, I wondered if an approaching tug was a fire boat rushing to shower me with congratulations, or maybe that excursion boat on a parallel course was lined with my friends come to offer escort. Did I know the couple gazing down from the bridge?
The sun, low and golden, sank behind the Marin Headlands as we tucked into Richardson Bay. We motored the marked channel toward an arranged slip in a marina Murre knew well. I moved forward to ready fenders and dock lines. I stopped. Back at the wheel I pointed Murre’s head out into the bay. I dropped anchor off Cone Rock. I sat in the cockpit. As night came on the starlight of the city sparkled like diamonds.
Below are a few photographs recording the time Murre and I spent along the Oregon, Washington, and then California coasts, including waylays in Grays Harbor, Astoria, Newport; the Crescent City fly-by, and finally anchor down in Point Reyes’ Drakes Bay.
It may be interesting to note:
Grays Harbor: the wall chart on which the Coast Guard lays out the geography of the harbor bar (Middle Grounds, Slop Hole, Red Line, Green Line, etc.) in a way that is typical of all the harbors of the coast; the Lady Washington looking so small in the offing; the bar observation tower.
Astoria: the long, high bridge reminiscent of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge; the log ship–all along the coast ships like these were being loaded to the very brim with logs bound, I was told, for the pulp mills of China–two departed the Columbia while this one took on her wood.
Newport: the lovely, arching bridge and that great salvation known as the Rogue Brewer, whose winter ale, Mogul, did much to buoy my spirits. Here also met Kimber and Mike on FREEBIRD (behind Murre at the transient dock), heading south for Mexico and beyond–the only other cruisers I met after departing Sitka. So I was not the LAST boat to escape the North Pacific.
Crescent City: well, the pile driver, of course, and the hail shortly after departure, and that strange turquoise water.
Point Reyes: it starts with the snap of the chart, Murre’s course and her bee-line in…
CLICK TO ENLARGE.
At eleven that night I gave up. The pile driver and rock mover continued their work under artificial light bright as a welding torch. Boulders for the new jetty dropped from the maw of dozers with a seismic thud; the pile driver kathunked its piles–activities not heard so much as felt through the body as I lay in my bunk searching for sleep. At eleven I rose. I quit Crescent City Harbor, walked across the road and took a room at the Super 8 Motel. The sheets were surprisingly soft. I fell immediately away and through windows wide open heard nothing until the alarm at three.
All that day had been sunny with a crisp north wind but now the American flag above the harbor, big as Texas, flew straight out from the south and a light rain fell. Back aboard Murre, I listened again to the weather forecast, and again heard its call for northwesterlies all night and into the weekend. The rock mover was silent and the pile driver, though active, drove no piles. I crawled in my bag and slept until dawn.
Now the rain had stopped. Wind continued from the south but seemed to be easing. I started the engine; Murre and I were underway, passing Round Rock, the harbor sentinel, by eight. Here the ocean turned a milky turquoise, reminding at once of the bluey-green waters of Tahiti and the silted greens just below the Sawyer Glacier, pleasant memories both, but quickly tempered by the lead sky that, within the hour, covered the deck with pea-sized hail.
All day the sky squalled but less and less so as we pushed offshore. By afternoon the south wind had turned sharply west–almost but not quite sailable. It died with sun down and was not replaced. Cloud vanished entirely. The Milky Way shown, a broad avenue. At first Orion reclined upon the coastal ranges, but slowly he rose to stand, arms wide, as the night approached its zenith.
I slept in 20 minute intervals as Murre swept out and around Cape Mendocino. Large, round and knee-like, this cape is, in fact, the joint at which California’s coast makes its turn from south to southeast. Among cruisers it is known as a junction of a different sort–it is the barrier below which weather markedly improves. “You start pealing off sweaters and long underwear,” said one sailor I met at a party in Sitka.
True to form, next morning brought a sky of pinky, cottony cloud reminiscent of the tropics. As the day warmed I did peal off fleece (though made no such move at the long underwear). Advancing squalls could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and none advanced on Murre.
But we were not out of it–not yet–and by way of reminder, the swell. For hours I watched from under the cuddy as trains of great waves, the result of some northern storm, approached from the west to pass endlessly under Murre. These were “mature” waves, rolling hills and deep valleys, no longer wind-driven but moving under their own power, an inertia of such mass that once in motion their roving could only be halted by the rock wall of a continent. How to describe such feats of nature? As big as a three story houses. Long as city blocks. Their interiors were bunkers. From their crests I looked down as if peering over a cliff edge. Regal, magisterial, haughty, aloof. Mountainous. Alien.
Wave speed is a function of wave size–bigger is faster. Thusly, tsunamis travel the deep ocean at hundreds of miles per hour, only slowing and piling as they reach shore. But speed can be a matter of perception, too, and these waves, these jumbo jets of the sea, appeared equally ponderous and slow as they rose into the air, though to my reckoning they were making thirty miles per hour to Murre’s five. Steep enough that their tops would have crashed dangerously in a stiff breeze, but without such aid they were resigned to flinging their spray straight up.
All day radio announcements from the Noyo River Coast Guard unit warned of fifteen foot seas breaking over the bar at Fort Bragg and ended the message with “Mariners are requested to call this station before attempting entry.” But such heights seemed impossibly diminutive; staring up from the cockpit it looked like these summits rose above Murre’s main mast at 45 feet. Late in the afternoon I got the winning image: in shape and size like the great sand dunes of Saudi Arabia, but blue and heaving.
That night we approached Point Arena without having seen a boat or a ship since leaving Crescent City, so just after sun set I began sleeping in 30 minute intervals–purest luxury. When I rose to check course and position, I saw white lights occulting along the coast to the west, the headlamps of cars traveling Highway 1′s winding path. The predicted northwesterly wind began to fill in after midnight. I rigged the jib pole and opened the head sail, but greedy for speed, eager to make my destination, I throttled back on the engine only slightly. At Point Reyes I would meet my wife, but only if I was on time.
In the early morning an announcement on the radio from the Bodega Bay Coast Guard–an emergency beacon had been activated three miles due west of Bodega Head; mariners in the vicinity were requested to keep lookout and assist in search if possible. The announcement repeated every twenty minutes, “Pan Pan, Pan Pan; at 0230 local the Coast Guard has received an emergency distress signal at coordinates…etc.” Murre was the only vessel in the quadrant, much less the vicinity, but we were ten miles out and ten miles south. In such a sea and headwind it would take three hours to climb back to the position of the signal. And it was a moonless night. I delayed. Should I respond? Surely the Coast Guard was acting–it was their role–but the repeated radio calls made no such mention. I imagined Murre in similar straits. I was reaching for the radio when I saw the first helicopter astern, its red light flashing, its search beam moving over the waves. Murre and I continued on.
Dawn and Point Reyes a black hulk on the horizon. Then sun rise over the city as Murre rounded into Drakes Bay, dropping anchor off the long-shuttered Point St. Joseph fish pier at just after eight, 48 hours after departure.
Home. Two years and two months away, but home now.
The day grew big and blue. The crescent of bay and its sandy beaches folding familiarly around. Fawn colored hills cut by butter yellow cliffs. The high ridges a smoky green of Doug fir. In the far distance, Mount Saint Helena. Nearer in Mount Vision, Mount Wittenberg, Mount Tam. All places I had hiked year upon year. I have been a San Franciscan since 1989, but it’s in this countryside that I left my heart. More than the next day’s return under the Golden Gate, this was the coming home.
My wife arrived at noon. We walked the paths of the point as we have always walked them, single file, she in front. We talked casually as if today was any Saturday afternoon. Often I paused to look down at Murre, anchored below a shock of cypress, tugging gently at her chain. I had not anticipated such pleasure. It still surprises me.
After Grays Harbor, Murre and I were held in Astoria for four days, and then another twelve in Newport. All rain all the time and winds, strong or promising to be strong, from the south. In Newport, fourteen inches of rain fell in the final three weeks of October. Gale-warning flags flew straight out above the Coast Guard station morning after morning.
Our escape came last Monday at noon. Two days of sailing and motoring on a dry, almost cloudless, mostly light northwesterly, a wind we’d waited for a month, put us into Crescent City, California at midnight. The watchman called on the radio as we entered, directed Murre to a slip with his flashlight, talked my arm off until half past one.
While he talked, my mind wandered. Five hours out and twenty miles offshore wind had come on strong, bringing a low fog. Without moon or stars, visibility drew close and phosphorescence became the only source of light. Whitecaps burst like ghosts for 50 yards around with nothing to illuminate them but their own energy. When Murre crashed a wave, her spew flew out, a glowing veil. Water or sky or the difference between was but inky blackness. Or no, it could not be seen–except by its effect. Murre heaved and gyrated on a force invisible. Then suddenly, three straight lines of phosphorescence charging the boat, pale tubes like the trace of torpedoes. Reaching Murre, the tubes split, two charged the bow and one circled the stern. Dolphins, come to play in the boat’s wake. For minutes on end they raced eerie paths of arcs and spirals in the near water, now spouting, now charging again into the crest of wave. Never did I see the body of a dolphin, a fin or an eye, only the round and glowing wake left by their movement in the otherwise featureless, heaving water.
Crescent City was a mistake. The Japan tsunami of 2010 sent, some nine hours after its initial shock, a surge wave to this harbor that wiped out the marina. Docks disintegrated; boats sank. Only now, this week, is reconstruction getting underway in earnest. I came here for fuel and sleep. Only the former is accessible. Crews on pile drivers and drills and rock movers work round the clock near the hodgepodge of slips, reconstructed from the post-surge drift, that house the fishing fleet and Murre. I am typing this while wearing ear plugs and still I can hear the kuclump kuclump kuclump of the pile driver through the hull of the boat. What a thing it is to crave sleep, having missed it recently and knowing its near-future short supply.
We depart at 4AM for the 270 miles (two and a half days, more or less) to Point Reyes.
All the next day and into that night the storm blew from the south with a will. Then before dawn the rain stopped and the song in the rigging changed in tone but not intensity. From my bunk I could feel that the tug of Murre at her dock lines had shifted its rhythm, and I rose to a wind blowing strongly from the west. A sailable wind. My heart beat faster until the radio reported that the Grays Harbor bar continued to throw fourteen-foot seas and the Coast Guard had closed it to all but commercial traffic.
In port now, having arrived overnight from the up-bay town of Aberdeen, was the Lady Washington. She was a heavily built, 100 foot square rigger, a replica of the ship used by Captain Robert Gray, discoverer of this eponymous harbor in 1792, to explore the Pacific coast. Years ago in San Francisco I had spent an afternoon aboard the Lady while she maneuvered in mock battle with another replica, the Hawaiian Chieftain, and remembering her home port was part of what attracted me here. That she had been absent when Murre and I arrived failed to surprise (exhibition ships usually winter in warmer, dryer climes where they can continue to exhibit comfortably), but it had been disappointing, as it was now to learn that she was at the fuel dock this early morning, engine running, crew on deck, the captain in the master’s shack paying for his load of diesel.
“Departing so soon?” I asked as he passed, a bear of a man whose thick, red beard failed to hide his youth; when he smiled, he looked all of twenty-five.
“Got a weather window for San Francisco,” he said without stopping. His crew donned foulies and harnesses. The Captain moved quickly to the large tiller on the poop and began shouting orders. I hustled to the bar observation tower at the end of town to watch her pass. The sky had cleared but now a wave-born haze lay over the water. The Lady tracked directly out the bay’s center without incident, but at the outer jetty, where the open ocean meets the bar for the first time, she shook violently, appeared no more substantial than a box of matches. Twice she dove clear out of sight, falling over the back of a big growler as if toppling off the edge of the world, but always she rose again, appearing to have taken no water over the bow.
No water over the bow, I thought, waves are not breaking. Murre could depart today too.
That the Oregon and Washington coast carries danger to new heights is a truth universally recognized by those who cruise the east Pacific. During summer months, prevailing winds come strongly from the northwest and west and create, between Cape Flattery and Cape Mendocino, 700 miles of cliffy, boulder-strewn lee shore. In the winter, the flow is reversed but is equally as pressing. Sheltered bays with all-weather access are non existent, and the difficulty of its widely-separated river harbors serve to cloak this piece of water in a mystique approaching the evil. To those who have sailed it, surviving its violent seas was managed by the skin of teeth and the grace of god; those who have been spared the pleasure seem always to know someone who nearly bought the farm. One sailor I spoke with in Victoria said he’d made two passages between Seattle and San Francisco. “Both were stormy–unbelievable waves, everyone sick; never again!” Now he flies to the north in summers and charters from a company in Puget Sound.
Knowing its reputation I have been monitoring this coast since Hawaii. Day after day for months weather maps have shown winds sweeping down, colliding with large Cape Blanco and Cape Mendocino, larger still, causing regular accelerations in excess of thirty knots; seas to fifteen feet are usual. And since Alaska I have been asking cruisers I meet the same question: Should I head out or harbor hop for this final leg? Surprisingly responses split evenly between those who advocated pushing a couple hundred miles offshore–reaching for sea room beyond the clutter of crab pots, the fishing fleet and the coast’s extensive shipping–and those who argued for the slower, safer jaunts between ports. The former run is faster, though it risks capture in one of the area’s frequent gales, but the latter is not without its challenges.
Among cruisers who have harbor hopped, the conversation invariably turns to the negotiation of harbor bars. Rain shed by the near mountains flows westwards in rivers that often converge in lowlands before breaking into the sea. Thusly the delta of Grays Harbor is a confluence of the Chehalis and Wynoochee rivers, the Hoquiam, and the Elk, each feeding into and feeding the typical “D” shaped network of marshes and sloughs with their silt. But during winter deluges in particular, the delta is overmatched; it cannot absorb the gift, and much of its deposit is pushed outwards beyond the harbor mouth to settle in the nearby ocean, raising depths over the millennia from an in-shore average of 200 feet to 40 at the entrance. And it is on these bars of sand and mud that the long ocean swells pile heavy and white during stormy weather.
Stories of disaster are common-place. Here’s but one: on April 5, 1933 the Gray’s Harbor fishing fleet, trolling just off the coast, was caught by surprise when a calm, sunny afternoon turned to gale winds in the night. Some of the fifty boats chose to ride out the storm at sea, but others ran for shelter and were chewed up by the bar. By morning, trollers littered the beaches like driftwood. Thirteen boats foundered and the lives of 18 fishermen were lost.
My preference had always been to head offshore, to avoid the complications of a coast-wise run, but the change in weather had removed that option.
The afternoon the Lady departed I wandered over to the Coast Guard station to make my case for departure. I summarized my blue-water experience and argued that the seaworthiness of my vessel exceeded many of the fishing boats in the harbor (that, being commercial, could come and go at will); I noted the passing rarity of the sailable, westerly wind; I cited my hours on the observation tower and I traced on a chart that hung from their wall the course I intended. The officer, in plain Coast Guard blues, clean cut and smelling of after shave, smiled politely, seemed even to be engaged. “It is good to see you are planning this out,” he said. I left after an hour of pleasant conversation and the bar was still closed.
On the morning of our fifth day in Grays Harbor an engine fired up at dawn. Its thrumming rose through my pillow as I lay in my bunk. A peak out the window showed rain falling from a low sky, but otherwise the morning was still. Down the dock running lights shown from a large cabin cruiser whose high white sides, stacked like a wedding cake, gave the impression of a showy precariousness next to the collection of heavy-bottomed fishing boats. When I rose an hour later it had departed.
Coffee was just pouring when a Coast Guard cutter nosed into the slip one-over from Murre. She was followed closely by the same cabin cruiser, one of its tall antennas dangling to the side like a broken wing and its fenders, never retrieved, all ahoo.
“Had no business being out there,” said the stocky Coast Guardman in answer to my query. Stitched to his immersion suit was the name “Burns”. He called himself the “Boat Driver.”
“Bar’s closed, and the cruiser was wallowing dangerously near the south shoal when we got there. Swell is still 12 feet and very steep. Stupid to try in a boat like that…I mean, not prudent.”
Asked why the Lady Washington was allowed to leave, he said, “She’s a state-owned ship and beyond our jurisdiction. And she’s full-bellied, not a…” He looked toward the cruiser still attempting to make a windward landing in the now stiff breeze.
Asked if his crew had been involved in any emergencies during the storm, he said, “Yes, in the night and at the height of it we received a distress call from a large fish carrier on delivery to southern California. One of those eastern-style trawlers with the cabin aft. She was thirty miles north and thirty miles out to sea when she began to take on water. Her crew of two couldn’t find the source of the leak; pumps weren’t keeping up. We had two cutters out there including this one (he points to his boat) with water extractors and had another dropped from a helicopter, but the bilge had turned to a greasy sludge; even our extractors clogged. My men were aboard for two hours when she began listing. Nothing more we could do. We took the crew off and let her sink.”
Asked if he thought the bar would open for the likes of Murre any time soon, he shrugged. “It can go like this for days.”
“I’m beginning to think I might be stuck here the winter.”
“You just might,” he said, laughing.
Next day the Pacific Dove, a large steel-hulled shrimper, churned its way over the bar heading west out to sea. I watched from the observation tower until she was out of sight. On the day after that the entire, non-resident fishing fleet departed at high slack. Boats hailing from Seattle, from Astoria, Newport, Coos Bay, Crescent City, from Fort Bragg and even San Diego, pushed toward the green buoys in a staggered line before fanning north and south. Sun shown. Wind remained west, still brisk, still sailable, and the bar, closed to boats like Murre due to swell. This was our fifth day in Grays Harbor, and the last fair one for a week.
Heavy wind and rain such that even the gulls were grounded, squatting in rows along the docks and silent under a sky never brightening beyond dusk. The waterfront shops, an assortment of fishing charter offices, restaurants and candy stores, kept haphazard hours, sometimes opening late and other times failing to open at all. In the window of one restaurant hung a sign, “Closed for the winter–see you next March.” Intrepid tourists there were if few. On the wetter days they wore full rain gear and ate their ice cream under cascading parlor eaves. They carried away bags of saltwater taffy, tiny models of light houses, t-shirts reading “Got hooked in Westport” with the grim satisfaction of a people fulfilling duty and not much else.
Salmon fishing, I found, was the town’s major pastime. Every day of my stay men lined the marina berms and stood casting from its ramps. Even on the darkest of these they wore polarized sunglasses to see past the water’s surface glare to where the fish schooled below. The old men picked a spot and stuck to it while the younger ones, spying a passing fish, would chase it–running and casting, running and casting–from one end of the parking lot to the other.
“They’re all Pinks,” said a wiry, gray-haired fisherman. His sat aside watching, his rod put away–its lure clipped to one of the eyes. The rain had muddied the water, reducing visibility, and the high tide had brought in weed, which fouled hooks. The former couldn’t be helped, but an ebb would clear the latter: this man was waiting.
“We get the fry from a hatchery up the way,” he said, “and release them here once a year. They grow in this basin, leave for the ocean and then return here as spawn-age adults. Poor buggers–the marina’s too deep for egg laying. So they just swim round and round and we try to catch them. During the last storm surge waves crested the jetty and flowed in, and I saw salmon trying to jump the white water as if it were a stream. One made it! Put himself right back into the ocean! I laughed all afternoon.
“Irony is,” he continued, “with the restrictions we can’t catch them all before they belly up. By regulation I have to use a single, barbless hook and I can’t keep fin-caught fish–they must be mouth caught–so as to give the fish a ‘sporting chance’ says Fish and Game. But a sporting chance to do what, die of old age? Sea lions are protected too. They’ll strip a fish right off your line, but it’s illegal to throw rocks at them. I got two fish yesterday–sea lions got them both. The young kids throw rocks, and they catch more fish. But today we’ll only catch this weed until the tide turns.”
“Hey Frisco, you still here?”
Where once the entire fishing fleet had piled like scree at the transient dock, now only a tuna boat named Alliance remained. She was shut up and dark during the storm and the windy days that followed. Her crew of four young men, only in it for the summer, had moved to a motel in town to dry out, warm up, and unwind after weeks in cramped quarters. When weather moderated, they returned and got right to work. They took Alliance to the fuel dock and then the bait pens for her respective loads. Next day they filled with ice, hauled groceries, and then they cleaned. They scrubbed the decks, pressure washed the hull, and paper-toweled the windows of the bridge until they gleamed. Now Alliance had returned to her berth near Murre. She was ready to return to the grounds, had been ready for two days, and the crew, out of jobs and bored, lounged on the dock smoking and telling stories. This is where I met the man who called me Frisco.
He was brown skinned, round of belly and jocular; white teeth flashed when he laughed, which he did easily and often. He wore jeans, a white t-shirt and a crisp Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap, and he contrasted so sharply with his peers–northwest fishermen are invariably pale and thin, deliberate tending toward severe–that early I had mistaken him for a visitor, not crew.
“Still here, Jose,” I said.
“But man, the sky is nice. You gotta get a move on.”
We had met the previous day. As I passed he’d asked, “You with that little boat?”, and when I described my voyage in brief he’d exclaimed, “You did that–Frisco? That’s crazy stuff!”
My name, which I gave as usual, hadn’t impressed as much as my origin. But when I tried returning the compliment by calling him LA, I stood corrected.
“No, man, you can’t call me that. I am a beaner from the barrio, sure man, but this other guy is LA,” he said, indicating a mate. “He’s from San Bernardino. And this other guy is Lead because he’s so heavy–right Lead?”
“Least I ain’t fat,” said Lead, a tall man with serious face.
“And this other one is Ken. Just Ken. My name’s Jose, but they call me Paco. Man, it gets confusing.”
“When are you going fishing?” I asked.
“We don’t know. We’re just deck hands; they never tell us anything, but we think maybe the season is over. Maybe the weather outside is too bad for tuna, or maybe the water is colder and they’ve gone…see ya…outa here, you know? They like it warmer. But I hope not. Last two weeks we had tuna every day. Crazy-good fishing.”
I ask him how they fish. To the uneducated eye this area’s Tuna boats look like larger versions of the Alaska Salmon troller. They carry a set of tall outriggers and aft is the typical crewman’s well, bordered by bronze gurdies. But other kit is unfamiliar. Amidships is a large tank, for bait, I learn, and hung over the stern are standing cages and within reach of these, racks of poles the size of billiard cues whose ends carry a six foot length of line terminating in a large hook.
“We go for Albacore,” says Jose, “and in the first part of the season we jig (troll) using these hoochies.” He points to cigar sized lures made of squid-shaped translucent rubber. “But after a while the tuna don’t like hoochies; they won’t bite. Don’t know why–maybe they figure us out–maybe they get smart to us. So later in the season we switch. We throw in this live bait from the tank, these little anchovies, and that makes the tuna crazy. They school up to the surface and start hitting the anchovies, and then we stand in those cages on the rail, and with those short poles we whip the hooks into the water until a tuna takes it. No bait, just hooks and the anchovy as chum. When we get a tuna, we flip the pole up over our head; fish comes flying out of the water and into the hold, a little jerk releases the hook–really man, just a little pop and it comes out cause there ain’t no barb–and then back in the water for another fish. And we can make our load in two days.”
In the morning the captain returned and ALLIANCE departed at high slack, but even as they pulled away, Jose had no idea the destination.
Day ten in Grays Harbor. For the previous twenty four hours the bar had been open and unrestricted. Coastguardman Burns came down the dock to let me know.
“Thank you, but now the wind is 25 southwest and gusting 30,” I said.
He shrugged and smiled. We talked of other things.
Next day winds turned northwest and eased. At eleven in the morning the bar suddenly closed to all traffic due to an inexplicable increase in swell, but in the evening, the restriction was lowered, allowing vessels over forty feet to cross. I prepared to depart for the Columbia River in the morning, thinking a night of calms would lower it the more.
I departed just after dawn. Five minutes outside the breakwater a Coast Guard cutter powered alongside.
“The bar is closed to small craft,” yelled a man from the bow.
“But I checked,” I said.
The man shook his head. “I was just out there. Swell is rolling in 10 and very steep. Maybe tomorrow.”
I returned to the marina.
Next day the bar was, in fact, open, and the forecast called for some hours of calms in advance of another front. Murre and I departed under power in the late evening and motored overnight on a flat sea, crossing the Columbia River bar before daybreak at low slack and docking in Astoria at seven o’clock, a jump of 65 miles. I noted in the log, “WE HAVE ESCAPED Grays Harbor!” But to what end? By reputation the Columbia River bar was far worse.
Port Townsend, a day in Seattle, Port Angeles, and Grays Harbor. The change in weather is dramatically illustrated by the change in photo color palette.
From Friday Harbor to Aleck Bay to Port Townsend each day opened and filled with the coppery warmth of a fall sun; a light wind, indolent and indecisive, got up from the north if it bothered to get up at all; the sea lolled in an oily richness. My wife visited on the weekend. We hiked dry, fragrant Cougar Mountain in t-shirts and rode the ferry into Seattle. “Can you believe this weather?” grumbled the ferry’s car attendant. “This just ain’t right.” Blue sky rose above the city scape as if it belonged there. There wasn’t a cloud.
For days, even weeks, the forecast discussion had been as redundant and ignorable as if its subject were San Diego. Then on Monday things changed. Now gone was the “ridge over Vancouver Island” that had commanded the sun to shine and instead I read of “a rapid return to typical, wet, fall weather.” Sprinkled throughout the text were unfamiliar terms like “low” and “front” and “trough” and, most disconcerting, “gale.” It was time, if not well past time, for southing.
Murre and I departed next day for Port Angeles, a quick run of thirty miles. This was a Tuesday and the first storm system was to make landfall on Friday. At three the next morning I took in dock lines and we departed again. In the bay we passed ships at anchor; high and cliffy and gleaming in their own light, they seemed rock-solid, safe as houses. Into the strait Murre ran dark and small under the stars and was greeted by a chill wind flowing west down Juan de Fuca. She pounded at the chop until dawn when the wind died.
Several tankers had passed quickly when the sky was clear and I could still make out Orion, The Dipper, the North Star. They made their approaches for Puget Sound or ports to the north or were headed from these back out to sea. But as the day dawned gray suddenly they were gone, the strait empty save for Murre and the tug, Jack Brusco, miles behind, whose heavy load made his speed more a match for our own.
By noon Murre neared Neah Bay, our last safe haven before an entry into the openness of ocean. We let it go by, and two hours later we had rounded Cape Flattery’s Tatoosh Island and toothy Duncan Rock where we collided with a flotilla of kelp. The Perkins lugged; the shaft rattled in its socket as if it were chewing a bag of gravel. Kelp had wrapped the propeller. I stopped the boat, backed down hard and the kelp cleared.
As I made the turn south the Jack Brusco approached enough to show that its tow, a dinosaur craning its neck as seen through binoculars in the half light of morning was, indeed, a massive crane on a barge. My computer showed it bound for San Francisco, due five days hence, ahead of us, I thought, but maybe not by much. The ceiling lifted enough to reveal the endless mountain tops of the Olympic Range. In a flat calm Destruction Island came and went as did the day and still we motored.
Just before night was full, I noticed the silhouette of a bird across the bow, like an albatross but heavier and with a heavy head, and slowly I realized that this was our first Brown Pelican since Mexico. I gave the engine a cup of oil and heated a can of soup for myself. I poured a glass of wine and watched.
By midnight the Jack Brusco’s course had taken him farther out to sea than our coastwise run. Without stars the night was wooly black. Pale phosphorescence trailed the propeller in a stream as if shot from a hose. Diving birds, murres themselves escaping Murre, traced dim, florescent arcs near the hull. After a time I saw at the horizon the amber glow of a distant city, which gave me pause; the glow appeared out to sea where no city could be. I checked the chart and our course, just in case. An hour later there were five such glows in a line to starboard, the loom of ships below the horizon on approach to the cape.
Before dawn we hovered outside the bar to Grays Harbor awaiting day enough to cross, and by eight we are tied at the Westport town fuel dock, having made 170 miles in 30 hours under engine.
“Here because of weather?” asked the fuel dock attendant.
The green and red buoys of the harbor entrance form a funnel, a cattle run of several miles leading to a coral that is a marina packed with fishing boats and a large percentage of the world’s population of sea gulls, all at full song this morning. The place smells of fish parts and guano. Boats are moving between the docks and the fish plant. Sea lions bark. The sky is lead, low, and streaky and signs of the restaurants and cafes in town flash OPEN in garish blues and reds against the gray.
“I am. And am hoping I’m not stuck here the winter,” I say, laughing. I am joking.
“You just might,” says the man. He is laughing, but somehow it is clear he is not joking.
Fishing boats of all sizes arrive during the day and none leave, and that night the wind comes south and the rain begins. I wake frequently. In my bunk and from the warmth of my bag I feel the storm that is upon us. Murre tugs at her lines, lays over in the gusts; rain lashes the fore deck inches above my head. But the boat is safe; we are safe. Each waking is followed by the realization of safety followed by a sense of pleasure, then relaxation and sleep.
By morning the flags of the harbor and the rain fly straight out. The harbor is full; the transient dock is full. At the Blue Buoy Restaurant I order a breakfast of eggs, potatoes, bacon and a full stack of pancakes by way of defense against the soaking cold. “Welcome to Westport winter,” says the waitress as she takes my menu. The storm drains are beginning to choke and the street gushes. The owner approaches. He sets a nearby table and then pauses to watch the day. “Welcome to Westport winter,” he sighs. I order more coffee.