Days 9-10: Why do y’all hate whales so much?


Growing up on and around boats, I have seen and felt the ocean’s power. I know the stories of the sailors that drifted at sea for weeks, even months, before rescue. I know the stories of the sailors that did not return. They are plentiful. The sea is not selective, it does not take only the novice, inexperienced, or underprepared. I have always had a healthy respect for the ocean, but I have never feared it. Until now.

On May 9 we loaded the boat up with fuel and headed out of the marina in Monterey. Favorable winds allowed us to raise the main and headsail as we tacked our way through the bay. Almost immediately we came upon crab pots and spent most of the next two days trying to avoid running over their buoys and lines, which was no easy feat. We also saw a couple of sharks in the bay. By far, though, our biggest challenge was with whales.

There was an abundance of whales during whale migration this year. All along the Pacific Coast, bays reported more whales than in recent memory and more rare whale sightings than ever before. We had seen a couple of them on our way into Monterey, but it was nothing like what we saw when leaving. They were everywhere. In the days around our departure there were sightings of hundreds of humpback whales, gray whales, blue whales, fin whales, killer whales, and thousands of dolphins within Monterey Bay. There were whales in every direction. It was a spectacular sight, and then in an instant it was terrifying.

We were nearing the edge of the bay and had seen a few whales at a considerable distance on both sides of the boat that we had passed by, and so we thought we were nearing the edge of where they were feeding. I just happened to glance ahead to the bow of the boat when I saw a whale surfaced, right on the bow of the boat. “WHALE! BOW! What do we do? …Turn to starboard…” KA-THUD!

The boat lurched.

There is no mistaking the sound that a boat makes when it hits something. It is loud, like in your soul loud, it is unmistakable, and it is something that no boat owner ever wants to hear. I ran forward but could not identify any damage to the boat. Dad checked the bilge and there was no water entering the boat. We all sat in shock and disbelief.

We believe it was a fin whale, the second largest animal on Earth, and endangered.

Dolphins play alongside boats all the time, but they are small and fast and seem knowledgeable about the movement of a boat and their proximity to it. I had not anticipated that a whale would venture near the boat. Certainly none of us expected a whale to surface on our bow.

This story is one we’ve debated whether or not to tell, and whether or not to be more vague in the details (we hit “something” rather than we hit a whale). It’s not because we necessarily feel that we did anything wrong. We’ve discussed what other actions we could have taken. Turning the boat sometime before this incident occurred would have put us on course with other whales in either direction. I was the only person who could have seen the whale surface because of where I was located and it was pure coincidence that I even saw the whale at all. We had no reaction time between when I first spotted the whale and we hit it. We could have slowed or stopped the boat, but likely not in time to have changed the outcome, and we weren’t going that fast either. So why the debate over whether or not to tell it? Perhaps it is pride or someone else having a different opinion than we had in the moment or that we do with hindsight. Who wants to admit they hit a whale?

We have chosen to tell the story as it was because it is what happened. Sometimes in the world of boating we gloss over the nitty gritty, the tough and rough and impossible, the terrifying and embarrassing (e.g., rail rot). We paint the picture of glassy seas and cocktails in bikinis. Sometimes we hyperbolize – 50 foot seas and 75 knots of wind! Ultimately this is life on the sea, as it is.

We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening painstakingly watching the ocean for more whales. As they would surface we would track them, how far out and where are they going? “WHALE, starboard bow,” we’d point at it, follow its unpredictable movements, slow down, wait. Every blowhole and breach, every strange looking wave was scrutinized. I waited for retaliation. I waited for our Essex moment. Thankfully that did not happen. But it was a very long, anxiety-filled night. More crab pots, more whales, more ships, and rolling seas.

Our bobstay stem, now needing replacement for the second time.

For weeks we would Google “whale, Monterey Bay,” to ensure that we had not killed the whale. So far as we can tell, we hadn’t. Two weeks after our encounter, a fishing boat sank in Monterey Bay and the man aboard drowned, there has been speculation that he hit a whale. We would see whales nearly every day for the next two weeks. Each time we’d track their movements and do everything we could to avoid them, sometimes going miles out of the way.

When we arrived in Half Moon Bay, our scheduled stop, we found the damage that the whale did to the boat. The bobstay we had just replaced in San Diego before leaving on our trip was bent. It will need to be replaced…again. We were faced with a decision: Stop for repairs and risk having to truck the boat home because of time, or keep going and risk damage to the boat? We kept going.

Days 5-8: When the Weather Hits

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On May 5 we were heading out again. As we left Channel Islands we were greeted by what appeared to be a large flock of birds, half of which it turned out were actually dolphins – it seemed like there were hundreds of them. We raised our mainsail and unfurled our high cut yankee in the light winds, keeping the motor running. Eventually we lowered the sails when we lost the angle on the wind after a tack. We were treated to a beautiful sunset. Our biggest concern of this next leg was Point Conception, a famously difficult area to navigate by water that requires excellent timing. Thankfully our timing was spot on and the weather was great, our only real challenge here was with all the cargo ships.

All in all the first night of this leg went well, but the wind and waves steadily began to rise during the second day. That afternoon we decided to put up some sails in order to minimize the motion of the boat and increase our speed. We made some long tacks to keep from beating into the wind. We flew the main on the first reef and raised the staysail for the first time (finally found the hole in it that we couldn’t find before). We received our first hail on the radio – a NOAA research vessel we failed to see off our port bow. The captain was gracious and let us know the course he intended to take around us, even when we offered to give him right of way. Before dark we decided to drop the staysail and unfurled the high cut yankee again, only to have to furl it back up again because of our angle on the wind.

The second night of this leg was the real challenge. The wind and seas picked up, not particularly high or scary, but the seas were tossing us about like a washing machine. We would pitch and roll, pitch and roll all night. I tried to sleep, rather unsuccessfully. Below deck it felt like we would roll and roll and roll right over, though we weren’t anywhere near doing that. Everything that was not tied down (and some things that were) flew across the cabin, all of the doors banged open and shut despite being latched. Surprisingly we only lost one wine glass.

All of our cabinetry in the galley was wet again, this time rather than the portlight we think it was because the sail track was not properly bedded before. If I were paid every time we swore at one of the previous owners of the boat for poor choices and horrible workmanship… Many of our projects have involved redoing things the right way because they weren’t done right initially. Don’t get me wrong, it is a beautiful boat, we absolutely love it. Granted, it is a boat, there will be projects. It is also an older boat, 30 years old to be precise, so there will certainly always be things to replace or repair or refinish. However, each new project we find gets worse: more scary, confusing, expensive, annoying, painstaking, time consuming, expensive.

I digress. At some point in the middle of the night Beau and dad lowered the mainsail. At some point in the early morning I was called up to help watch for ships. Shortly thereafter I was thrown across the cockpit – my shoulder was sore, but otherwise okay.

The number of bruises was amazing – my arms and legs and derrière were covered in black and green and purple spots. My leg muscles burned from constantly balancing against the motion of the boat. My bum was raw from sitting on the cold, wet rails. I was sure my fingernails would never be clean again. Calluses formed on my hands from the wet ropes. Everything in the boat was damp. If you envisioned this trip as us drinking cocktails and drenched in sun on the bow of the boat – try again! This is what you should be envisioning:

I’m sure I make sailing sound so appealing. It’s not for everyone, but it’s something I’ve been waiting the last 20 years to get back to again. It has its low points, its “WHAT am I doing out here?” moments. But it is very rewarding, and for me it is life fulfilling. The beautiful sunsets, the star filled skies, the marine life, balancing the sails, the camaraderie of the community.

As the sun came up on our third day, the seas calmed – dad said they were the worst he’s ever been in just because of how much they were throwing us about (spoiler alert: I’m pretty sure he’d say this about another day later in the trip!). We decided to go into Monterey, get some rest, and of course work on more projects. As we neared the bay we encountered another large pod of dolphins, a few whales, and sea lions. We could hear the sea lions barking and encountered an otter just a couple of slips down from us.

The land sickness we experienced when arriving was intense and it took a good while to get everything to stop swaying. I worked on making a better seal on the portlights – the rubber is old and cracking and on many there is a sizable gap in the rubber. I also worked on bedding some of the screws in the sail track, anything to minimize water coming into the boat. Beau and dad worked on the engine blower and the bilge pump (oh yea, turns out the bilge pumps we had didn’t work). We stayed two nights in Monterey, choosing to take our time rather than push ourselves and the boat. We decided to leave for Half Moon Bay on May 8, stay the night and wait for a front off of northern California to dissipate. The weather forecasts after Tuesday look promising, knock on wood we’ll have more favorable wind and seas.

Days 1-4: San Diego to Channel Islands

Sunset near Channel Islands

On April 29 Beau and I flew down to San Diego, dad was already there. We worked on many of the projects still left undone over the next two days, including mounting the life raft and fire extinguishers, placing our name and hailing port stickers (a whole other story!), testing and ultimately buying and installing a new EPIRB (locating device in case of an emergency out on the water), provisioning, trying (unsuccessfully) to locate a tear in our staysail, cleaning and organizing, and so on. A neighboring boat, who had helped keep an eye on things for us while we were away, brought us over some delicious fresh food and herbs. I love this community.

On the evening of May 2 we untied the lines and set sail…sort of. Mostly we motored. On our way out of San Diego Channel we performed a renaming ceremony, officially changing her name to Emmylou.

We had hoped to be able to sail beyond the islands, heading offshore, and run as far north as we could, weather and fuel permitting, away from shipping lanes and land hazards and hopeful to find good winds. We didn’t. Instead we motored into the wind for nearly 30 hours. Around this time we decided to switch fuel tanks and in the process stalled the engine and could not get it to restart. We changed the fuel filter, let it cool for a bit, gave it a few love taps, shorted a wire, and it started again.

Eventually we decided to change course so that we could raise the sails. Unfortunately that did not go as planned either, we ripped a hole in the mainsail at the first reef point and one of the battens fell out (thankfully landing in the boat). We took the main down to the second reef point and flew her there for a long while. My dad and Beau started to feel seasick and we decided that heading back toward land was probably in our best interest. We had a hitchhiker along the way, though it didn’t stay too long.

We spent much of that night trying to avoid islands and rock formations, then crossed the shipping lanes and headed to Channel Islands Harbor. Dolphins swam alongside the boat for much of the night, they look a little like dementors (a la Harry Potter) with trails of bioluminescence and the way they dart around in the wake of the bow. We all took turns on watch and napping in the cockpit. You sleep when and where you can on a boat.

We stayed in Channel Islands for two nights. We showered, napped, took the mainsail to be repaired. Our sailmaker confirmed that we will likely need to replace this sail before too long, but he repaired the rip and the batten pockets. We replaced the steaming light that could not previously be repaired. We scrubbed down the decks, and Beau recovered from seasickness. We tied down the anchors and fixed it so that they would not rub against our new bobstay. We caulked the anchor post where water had leaked in to our v-berth on our previous leg, tightened all the portlights that leaked on our previous leg, and caulked where the hydraulic hose for the boom vang enters our mast and had come loose. We topped off with fuel and water and pumped our holding tank for the first time. We learned some of the challenges of putting our boat in reverse, with an audience and thankfully without any damage to ourselves, Emmylou, or others. We put a hole in the boat, intentionally and very briefly, to remove and clean the transducer that measures our speed and the depth of the water below our keel. You would not believe how much water can come through a small hole in a very short amount of time. We’ll post the video sometime, you’ll see.


Sailing with Mt. Rainier in the background

We bought our boat, s/v Emmylou, in San Diego (more on that process in a later post), and needed to get it home to Seattle. We could have had the boat hauled out of the water, the mast and rigging removed, put it on a truck, and paid for someone to drive it to Seattle. Or we could bring it home ourselves on the water. Most any salty sailor with knowledge of sailing the Pacific coast of the US avoids taking this route north. They’ll either truck the boat north, or they’ll sail out to Hawaii and then to wherever they are going. When you ask one of these people their thoughts on going north, they’ll usually respond with, “Don’t.” However, we decided that the experience of bringing the boat home ourselves, rather than on a truck, was too valuable of an experience to pass up. On a trip like that you learn a lot about sailing and a lot about your boat, both of which we needed. Either that or we’re gluttons for punishment.

The Pacific coast can be a real bear, which is putting it mildly. Not only because predominant winds are coming from the north, causing one to beat into the wind the whole way, but also because there is a steady current of 2+ knots from the north that is pushing against you. There is no ICW like on the Atlantic coast. Spring is usually the best time to do it, if you’re lucky you can ride the tail of a high pressure system in order to get winds going in your direction. We had hoped to leave in March, but some delays in the purchase and repairs on the boat caused us to have to wait until May.

Almost every project begat other projects and took far longer than we hoped, as everything on a boat does. Thankfully Beau and my dad were able to take some time to work on the boat before we left, spending the equivalent of 3 weeks on board getting everything ready to go.

Some of the major work that needed to be done between when we purchased the boat and when we set sail included: replace corroded bobstay, replace fuel hose and forward vent, rerun propane lines, fix steaming light and corroded running lights, inspect rigging, install new electronics, and repair of the sink that would not drain (and only now does so intermittently). We also had the engine inspected and he installed a system that would allow us to polish our own fuel. And these are just the big projects that had to be done before this trip. We have done many other small projects, and our list of short-term and long-term projects after this trip continues to grow. Some of the projects and work that has been done we knew about when we accepted the boat. Others have come as a surprise. There is a saying, a boat is a hole in the ocean you throw money into. For this boat, though, we feel it’s worth it.


Caryn and I will be writing here about our upcoming sail from San Diego to Seattle.