When I was invited to join in on the next Advanced Coastal Cruising adventure – I mean class – I was filled with both apprehension and excitement. I envisioned bouts of sea sickness due to heinous conditions and home sickness due to being away for three nights but also the thrill of being on the water for 72+ hours.
I was also slightly worried that my bad sinuses would result in snoring which would rouse even the deepest of sleepers and make me the crew member everyone wanted to shove overboard.
While the wind and seas were relatively calm for most of the trip – both a relief and a bummer – there were plenty of other challenges to keep me on my toes. The four hour on/off watch shifts to start with, given the fact that I could not manage to sleep more than one-and-a-half hours when I was off and was put to work logging and navigating by virtue of the fact that I spent my off-watch time hanging out in the cockpit.
If the sleep deprivation wasn’t enough to make things tricky, the fact that we ran into what felt like the world’s largest bed of kelp while taking a bearing on a distant light on land, causing us to have major drag on our keel and which resulted in a dive under the boat to clear the keel and rudder once we were on anchor the following evening, added to the list.
While it was refreshing – a.k.a. freezing – to dive into November waters in the Pacific, and exciting and disorienting to swim under a boat to check the rudder and keel while fully clothed, climbing into a dinghy was a whole other matter entirely. Apparently it is just as challenging as I’d feared. And my oh-so-graceful first step resulted in a bounce and roll that landed me in the icy cold Pacific. Fun!
It was even more fun to realize that I’d have to hang my clothes out to dry off the back of the boat for the six remaining hours we’d be on anchor. Yes, stealthily trying to tie one of my undergarments on the stern pulpit did not work out as planned. And when we were preparing to leave anchor, it decided – with some help from one of the crew – to jump ship.
Let’s just say that the rescue attempt was unsuccessful.
Which leads me to our next challenge. Our first attempt at a night crew overboard recovery was a breeze. We threw the life ring overboard with the strobe, and were able to do a quick-stop method of recovery under motor. It was a well-lit night, with no waves or swell to speak of, so visibility was good.
The next recovery attempt, in which our “man” – we later called Wilson – was thrown overboard upside down so the strobe would be underwater, to show us how it glowed underwater, sadly was unsuccessful. Firstly, the strobe didn’t end up underwater, so the “glow” never happened. Secondly, the quick-stop turn went the opposite way which caused the spotter – me – to lose sight of the man overboard for a split second. That was all it took to lose him. Thirdly, the moonlight was so bright on the water it rendered the strobe irrelevant as the sparkles were actually brighter than the strobe. Fourthly, the strobe died moments later, so even when the victim would have been clear of the moon’s brightness, there was nothing but reflective tape for the spotlights to catch. Fifthly, we didn’t click the MOB button (which also required a second step to activate) until a minute or two later.
After an hour-and-a-half of fruitless searching that resulted in a lost hat by one of the crew, we gave up. Even when sunlight allowed for miles of visibility in all directions. Wilson was lost. It was a hard lesson that left me in near tears due to the reality that someone can fall overboard and get lost at night in a way they wouldn’t during daylight.
Yes, I went out and bought a much stronger strobe after the class. And yes, I plan on buying multiple personal GPS beacons for passengers should I ever plan on night sailing in future.
On our return we were headed for a wall of fog. Fortunately it did not last long enough for us to have to alter our course away from the shipping lane crossing we had planned. And fortunately it wasn’t the most dense of fog so we had some visibility, were we to encounter other smaller vessels we could have avoided collisions. The horns, which we were required to use to signal every two minutes, were another story altogether. Our already frayed nerves were jolted with each and every blast.
Challenges aside – or perhaps because of them – it was an amazing trip. Sailing at night, when the winds aren’t overpowering and the ocean is flat is an experience I will never forget. The stars are so bright, the sky is so vast, and being away from the land to experience it, is something else.
We spent all of nine hours of the 74+ hour trip tethered to the land. I would have loved to have been in open ocean for the entire trip. (Yes, I may want to take the Offshore Passagemaking class some day.)
Our first stop was at Cat Harbor in Catalina, the morning after we set sail. Due to a night of light winds that required quite a bit of motoring, we didn’t make the harbor entrance until dawn. We stayed on mooring for two hours, which was enough time to have a quick meal, for me to get the only shower – yes there are privileges to being the only female onboard – set up a schedule for the watch system, and alter our plans to skip Santa Barbara Island and head straight for Santa Cruz Island.
Most of the time we were under motor, or motor sailing, though the winds finally came up enough at some point during that long leg of our trip for us to get some sailing in. (As it was around 36 hours, without referencing the ship’s log for details, the timing is a bit fuzzy.) And of course they got a bit heavier when I was attempting to sleep, resulting in my wish for a tether to keep me from being tossed out of bed when we were on a port tack.
We did end up losing the wind again at one point during the night, requiring us to go back under motor. It also seems that while off watch we had attempted to follow what remained of the wind and backtracked just a bit, crossing back into longitude 118 when we’d previously been in 119. This new change of location led us to aim for a waypoint we’d only previously passed at a distance… once or twice before. Yes, we became fast friends with this yellow buoy. No, I did not get a picture.
I think we were all relieved when we reached our destination of Santa Cruz Island and decided to anchor at Smuggler’s Cove. Navigating through umpteen lobster traps was fun. The prospect of navigating through them at one in the morning when we planned to depart was even more exciting. (Ha!)
We somewhat successfully dropped anchor, though we weren’t sure it actually caught. The amount of chain on the ocean floor might have been enough to keep us in place given the light wind conditions. It didn’t, however, keep us from swinging in circles for the five hours we set up for the anchor watch.
Opting to sleep in the cockpit was fun, though I’m sure it wasn’t as fun for those on watch while I was asleep. But I wanted to sleep under the stars for at least one “night.” Of course one of the crew – the school’s owner – opted to do a two-hour watch instead of just his one and wake the instructor for his watch. The instructor chose to wake the crew member on the schedule, which resulted in everyone letting me sleep.
Fortunately I woke up at the start of the final watch and shared the watch with the last crew member. I was glad not to have missed an anchor watch – the longer you stare at the nearby boats, the closer they seem to moving toward you, even when they’re not – but I was also glad that I was able to sleep for a total of three-and-a-half hours, two of which I’d slept solidly straight through.
The trip back (aside from the lost “crew” and the fog) was fairly uneventful. We set our course, we happily utilized the autopilot and the nav equipment, we checked our bearing against the boats in the shipping lane, we practiced towing the dinghy, we practiced with the drogue, we did some wing-on-wing sailing downwind and I flipped the bird at my nemesis, a.k.a., Point Dume, when heading back into Santa Monica Bay.
No, I haven’t yet taken the written exam. Yes, it took me quite some time to recover from the trip, though it only took me second of jumping up and down to get my land legs back and not have to suffer with that feeling like I was still on the water. Yes I am ready to head back to sea, to face even more challenges and have even more adventures.
Do I recommend this class? Absolutely. For me, were there any minuses? Maybe just the one – being a guy on a boat is much easier than being a girl when it comes to head usage.
What to expect: Be prepared to be tired. Be prepared to be amazed. Be prepared to work – this is not a pleasure cruise. Be prepared to feel like a dog in a dog run when on the tether at night. Be prepared to navigate – so if you do get a little funky when looking at charts take remedies early.
Be prepared to spot ships on the horizon when they look only like this…
Yes, that little dot was a ginormous and WELL-LIT ship with all sorts of deck lights on a night with a Gibbous Moon and great visibility. The other two were a lot less visible. At least until the one was close enough we could see into the bridge.
Be prepared to have an experience you’ll never forget.
It wasn’t all work, this class. Granted, things probably seemed a lot more silly due to the sleep deprivation I mentioned earlier.
For example, I found it absolutely hilarious when the owner/crew decided at around 4:30 in the morning while I was sleeping in the forward berth, to start up the macerator, which just happened to be located on the floor right where I was sleeping. Yes, the sound of the floorboard being removed woke me an hour-and-a-half before I was to be on watch again. Yes, I decided that I’d had enough sleep and went above to hang out.
And no, I am not being sarcastic. The idea that the middle of the night was the perfect time to dump the holding tank still cracks me up.
My lost undergarment and its attempted and failed retrieval was both hysterical and mortifying. A dinghy was launched to try and recover it. But sadly it had a burial at sea. Though as it was in the cove, I’m guessing it washed ashore at some point that day.
My failed attempt to step into a dinghy for the very first time still makes me chuckle. I knew it would be comedic. I knew I would be graceless. I knew I’d end up in the water. And boy did I spectacularly wipe out.
My irritation at other boats on anchor amused me and another of the crew. Attempting to sleep in the cockpit when at anchor wasn’t easy. The crew on watch was up and about, taking care of the boat, keeping busy. When they finally settled down, I was almost asleep when the sound of a nearby boat’s music woke me. I began to curse them for their inconsiderate ways, though their music was only at a moderate volume. I wondered how they could be so rude until I came to the realization that it was only 20:30 on a Friday night no less. (How rude of those boaters!) And yes, I questioned just how old I really was.
Our seemingly repeated passing of the yellow buoy had us all chuckling. Clearly the brain stops functioning as well as it should when deprived of sleep. Our decision to use it as a waypoint after we’d already passed it – albeit at a distance – and passed it again, was probably not our best decision. Though it did make me want to plant a flag, claiming it is ours.
And finally, Channel 16. Ah, Channel 16. Yes, it’s supposed to be the emergency channel. But in the night not everyone uses it as such. We were regaled with an international shipping vessel’s constant blabbing – which clearly was not an emergency – and hailing of another vessel. It drove us to near madness when every time our instructor tried to speak they’d launch into a new conversation. And no, our attempts to shut them up did not work – I’d rather not reveal just what we did. After hours of this back-and-forth it went from annoying to insanely funny.
As the title to this post says, it was the best class ever. I cannot recommend it enough to anyone and everyone who is even slightly interested in taking their sailing education just a bit further. While I did not get those heavy winds and waves I had expected, it was no less a challenging, exciting, epic adventure. And I have come to learn to love the autopilot function, something I’ve never used before, even when I’ve been at the helm for nine plus hours straight.