September 4, 2011

Oregon's siren lure

EVERY YEAR a number of cruising sailboats succumb to the siren lure of the Oregon coast. They don’t mean to go there, but they end up there anyhow.

Usually, their plan is to sail from Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca directly to San Francisco or San Diego, on the first leg of an ambitious cruise. Usually, the crew is just a man and a woman. And usually they’ve been planning this passage for years.

But when they get out to sea they find they’re not prepared for the violent motion of the boat. They discover that an electric autopilot can’t cope with really fierce following seas. They have neglected to fit wind-vane steering that can handle those seas, so they have to steer by hand, and fatigue soon sets in, often compounded by seasickness.

Anxiety builds up, and during the dark storminess of night it becomes impossible to make rational decisions about how best to handle the boat. They haven’t ever practiced heaving to or lying ahull, or running under a small jib only, with or without warps or a drogue astern.

Finally, the skipper, suffering from an overdose of insecurity and responsibility, does what he swore he’d never do. He knows he will lose what little faith his crew has left in him but he can’t help it. He calls the Coast Guard. “Where is the nearest port of refuge?” he wants to know. “Where can we get some rest?”

The Coast Guard people are very polite. They don’t say you should know your position and be able to see from your chart where the nearest port is. They don’t ask why you can’t read your GPS or keep simple dead reckoning. They know this is not an emergency and of course they realize you are not a seaman. But they don’t say so. They tell you to go to Oregon.

Now Oregon is not exactly overflowing with harbors that are safe to approach in bad weather, but you don’t care. In your present state Oregon sounds like heaven and it doesn’t matter if you have to run the risk of broaching-to on a sandbank straddling a harbor mouth. You just want to be close to land, really close to land. You can swim the last bit if you have to. So you turn on the engine and head toward shore.

Most of these cruisers do in fact manage to reach port safely, often because the storm has subsided by the time they get there. And then, after a long, healing sleep and a good meal, they try to work out what the problem was, and wonder if they’ll ever want to go to sea again. They wonder if their life’s ambition to cross oceans under sail has just come to a sticky end.

I can tell them what the problem is. Their major enemies are seasickness, sleeplessness, and lack of heavy-weather boat-handling experience.

Each of these enemies needs to be taken on seriously and extensively before you commit yourself to blue water on a small sailboat. All can be defeated, given determination and common sense, and all must be defeated if you plan to sail directly from Puget Sound to California.

Today’s Thought
Experience is the best of schoolmasters, only the school-fees are heavy.
— Carlyle, Miscellaneous Essays

A guy walks into a bar, pulls out a miniature piano and sets it down on the counter. Then he produces a man about a foot high, who starts to play the piano.

“Hey, that’s fantastic,” says a fellow drinker. “Where did you get them?”

“Oh, there’s an oriental guy just outside the door. He’s granting everybody a wish.”

The second guy rushes outside and comes back a minute later surrounded by hundreds of ducks.

“Hey,” he says, “that damned oriental guy is deaf. I asked for a thousand bucks, not a thousand ducks.”

“Tell me about it,” says the first guy. “You don’t really think I asked for a 12-inch pianist, do you?”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Anonymous said...

Yes, we have a few of those stop by Brookings once in a while. Last year a nice double ender pulled in and has never left. He said his wife would not get back on the boat again.

Drew said...

Sadly, I'm writing you from our boat, anchored in Coos Bay, Oregon. We ran in from 30nm out - under motor, shamefully - after a mere four days at sea from Neah Bay. In our defence, the weather reports were calling for 40kn gusting to 55kn, and we really don't have much of a schedule that we need to keep.

Later this week we'll be heading out again, down to San Francisco. We definitely need more open ocean experience still, but we both loved it...

John Vigor said...

Drew, there's no shame in seeking shelter when heavy weather is threatened. It's the correct and seamanlike thing to do when your experience is limited, especially when you're tired from lack of sleep, and therefore not likely to be able to make good decisions. Experience will come, and so will the ability to sleep better at sea. Enjoy Coos Bay--and good luck with your future passagemaking.

John V.

Livia said...

Interesting post.

Although I'm sure there is someone out there somewhere who has done so, I can't imagine that people are calling the Coast Guard because they don't know where they are/can't read their GPS but rather asking them for conditions of the bars where they want to run in, which seems wise, n'est-ce pas?