July 24th, 1985. Kaneohe Hawaii. We’re off, heading north aboard Valhalla, a Bristol 40, a 15 ton full keel center cockpit ketch. A boatload of friends followed along for a while, out through Kaneohe Bay, firing off rocket flares.
We spent a leisurely month in Gerry’s condo readying the boat and provisioning. Doc and Linda who live across the Makani Kai marina lagoon make up the other half of the crew. They brought a bean bag chair aboard to Gerry’s consternation. “Well maybe we can use it for something.”
Last night some locals held a luau in honor of our departure. Gerry was repeatedly praised by local Hawaiians for his efforts on behalf of the community, especially in the creation of jobs through several smart investments. One old friend of Gerry’s recited Ogden Nash at length to lots of laughter.
Almost immediately we began to encounter 25 knot winds and eight foot waves from the northeast, the direction we want to head. Valhalla’s high flush deck and bow quarters hit these waves with a tremendous bang and she shudders from bow to stern, rising, falling and rolling and crashing. In the main cabin, hams and cabbages swing in mesh bags from side to side. Trying to move around the galley, one is continually knocked off balance, bruising everything from the waist down. It’s much easier to remain in bed.
July 26th. And so it goes, day and night. Winds dropped a little to 20 knots. Each person does two hour wheel watches so it’s two hours on and six hours off around the clock. Since Valhalla’s wind vane works flawlessly, a wheel watch generally consists of lounging in the bean bag chair watching the Pacific Ocean go by. The beanbag chair forms to fit a person’s body so he or she can relax. It’s continually occupied.
We continue sailing due north. The North Pacific High, lying northeast of Hawaii, is a big clockwise rotating system. Sailing east from Hawaii would be sailing into prevailing winds and currents. It’s easier to sail north first toward the Aleutians and then turn east toward North America. We’re still 400 miles southwest of the center beating into winds of 15 to 20 knots and seas of about four feet.
Beat beat beat. Not much else to say. Winds 15-20, sometime 25. Seas moderate. Boat pitches, rolls and pounds. I’m experiencing some nausea in the mornings, gone by the evening. Gerry’s a little worse. Doc is taking pills of some kind. We’re all crawling around nibbling at crackers and sipping tea. Except Linda, whose been making sandwiches and sneaking off to the forward cabin to eat so as not to embarrass the men. Gradually the nausea seems to be subsiding and appetites are returning.
Linda and I both vied for chief cook and decided to share the job, alternating daily. Doc has no interest in any aspect of food other the consuming it. He’s a giant of a man, not long retired from the navy. Doc was a medic in Vietnam – the guy in the movies who swims out into the Mekong River holding a bowie knife in his teeth to save a wounded buddy.
Doc can be heard wandering the deck during his nighttime wheel watches. Sometimes he dangles himself overboard from the shrouds to take a leak. Gerry has asked him to show more caution but he doesn’t seem to care. It’s like the man has no fear.
July 27th. There was talk on the radio today of storms and dense fog to the north, the direction we’re heading. We spent the day making palm frond hats.
There is a portable shortwave radio in the cockpit that’s always turned on. Usually it sits silently awaiting word from the outside world. Sometimes we’ll tune in Radio Moscow or Radio Free Europe. Sometimes we hear a ham operator or another boat. Gerry listens for ham operators on the mainland. If he hears one he’ll turn on the ham radio in the main cabin and see if he can pick up the broadcast. If so, he responds.
The mainmast backstay, strung between glass insulators, doubles as the antenna for the ham radio. When broadcasting a lot of power goes to the backstay “lighting it up” as Gerry jokes. Broadcasting drains the batteries unless the engine is running. So that’s the order. First start the engine, then attempt to contact the ham operator on-shore. If that person responds, Gerry gives his call sign and asks them place a phone call.
“Do you want to take a haul or do you want to go downtown?” the voice responds.
“I’ll take a haul” Gerry responds. This means the ham on shore makes a collect call and patches Gerry through to friends and family back home.
July 30th. Last night while on the evening wheel watch, I noticed a dim red light off the port stern. We called on the VHF radio, channel sixteen. “Vessel to the west, this is the sailboat Valhalla, over?”
After a few seconds a suave French accent responded “Sailing vessel Valhalla, this is the freighter Francois LD, over.” There was a further exchange of positions and other basics and the French gentleman asked “Are you eating well?”
“Very well thank you”
“Excellent. Have a pleasant evening and a good watch.” Are we are “eating well”? French priorities I guess.
August 5th. Sunday. Twelve days out. The sea state has definitely changed. We’re sailing on a glorious broad reach in 15 knot winds. Three foot waves gently roll Valhalla as she glides along through the sea reaching speeds of six knots. Gerry claims that he’s “had her up to nine point three knots in the South Pacific” and “Dinner’s on me for anyone who can beat it.” That’s funny given that Gerry always insists on paying.
We’ve been sailing through mile after mile of Velella velella, a small jelly fish with a membrane like sail on their back. They cover the ocean. Every square meter of sea surface is occupied by at least one, as far as the eye can see.
Occasionally we see a booby. Boobies resemble albatrosses. Enormous birds with long wings. They’re graceful fliers, soaring effortlessly, riding small updrafts along the tops of waves. But whereas albatrosses typically pick up food from the surface, boobies dive and fly underwater like a penguin.
During the 2 AM change of wheel watch, Gerry and I were sitting in the cockpit admiring the evening when a flash of light darted underneath the boat. Having never seen anything quite like that we were both alarmed.
Then three lights streaked under the hull, turned 180 degrees and charged again from the opposite direction, streaming phosphorescent tracers.
We jumped to our feet. “Porpoises! Yell. Sing. Dance.” Gerry broke into song “Ooooklahoma where the wind comes sweeping down the plain.” I joined in. The porpoises swam under the boat slower and surfaced several times close to our beam, checking us out. Then they were gone. They thought we were a killer whale or a big shark or something and they were going to ram us.
Waves can hide things. If the boat is down in a trough you only see what’s in the trough with you. If the boat is on top of a wave and a nearby object is down in a trough, you won’t see it. Both the object and the boat need to be on the tops of waves for the object to be seen. If someone falls overboard they may be hard to find even if you immediately turn and search for them.
Yesterday I spotted a round object a few hundred yards away and immediately turned toward it. We didn’t see it again until we nearly hit it, a large glass float from a fishing net covered with marine growth. We pulled it aboard as a souvenir.
This afternoon we sailed up next to a booby. No-one even saw it before it was practically in the boat with us. “Look at that big duck” Doc announced. It did look like a duck, though five times the size of a duck. The big bird watched as we humans passed, curiously looking at each of us in turn. It then took to flight and flew back and forth across our stern examining the plastic squid that we towed. The great bird stretched its wide sailplane wings, gliding gracefully along the top of a wave, riding a moving updraft. The booby would flap its wings slowly a couple of times to gain altitude, then glide. Fortunately it didn’t go for the bait.
The prevailing wind direction has changed over the past week, first coming from the West, then from the East.
August 10th, The sub tropical high, that great clockwise rotation in the Northeastern Pacific, doesn’t stay in one place. It moves daily over hundreds of miles, divides in two and does all kinds of gyrations that we’ve been tracking on the chart from short wave weather reports. Around mid-day Gerry came on deck from the navigation station and called to Linda who was at the wheel “Change course to 90 degrees. Due east.”
Everyone gave a cheer. This means that we’ll now have wind and seas at our back. It also means we are over a thousand miles from land in any direction, as far from land as one can be and still be on planet earth.
The motion of the boat improved and I made pizza. We had a party and drank some wine. I went to bed early and got up at midnight when my watch began. That’s when everyone else went to bed. As soon as I was in the beanbag I felt the wind pick up. It seemed to build quickly over the next twenty minutes and I called out “Hey Gerry, I think we need to shorten sail.” There was no response. “Hey Linda. Hey Doc.” Nothing. The wind built to about 25 knots and Valhalla was still flying a jenny and un-reefed main.
Waves don’t break in the middle of the ocean like they do near shore. Ground swells may form, the result of some distant storm, but they don’t topple like surf does on a beach. Ground swells can be big gentle rollers. Often smaller wind waves form on ground swells, little waves on big waves as it were. Somewhere far to the west a storm had generated big waves that after crossing a thousand miles of open ocean had evolved into big gentile rolling mountains of water, taller than Valhalla’s mast.
Amid this raging beauty, the steering vane quit working, having sheered a pin. I took the wheel, steering Valhalla on a broad reach down the face of a huge swell. She surfed the wave beautifully. I didn’t dare let go of the wheel and I could raise no-one to help. But the big tub of a boat was doing OK. Up on a big wave, swoosh down the face, white water boiling off both sides abeam.
This was the best. Sailing doesn’t get any better. It was like a dream. It was glorious. I decided to let them all sleep.
Leaning hard into the wheel I sang. “I get pushed out of shape and it’s hard to steer, when I get rubber in all four gears, she’s my little deuce coup, you don’t know what I got.” And so it went, all night long.
At dawn the wind subsided slightly and Gerry poked his head out of the hatch.
“What the heck time is it?”
“Looks like about six maybe.”
“How long you been on?”
“All night long” I said. “Hey Gerry. 9.8 knots. You owe me a dinner.”
August 11th. Yesterday the seas leveled out and we caught a small skipjack tuna. Linda filleted it and made poisson cru, raw fish with coconut.
Today beautiful weather prevailed. High pop-corn clouds dot the sky in every direction to and over the horizon. A person can see about 27 miles on the surface of the earth. A person can see farther from above the surface on, say, the top of a mast. A person can likewise see something in the sky that’s farther away. Clouds that are thousands of feet in the sky can be seen hundreds of miles distant. And on this day, these clouds plainly bent over the edge of the Earth. Sailors have known forever that the earth is round. It’s as plain as can be.
Linda made tuna cakes with hollandaise. There was some leftover hollandaise so the following morning I made English muffins for some Eggs Benedict. Doc joked that I’d make a good wife. I didn’t really consider that an insult but I did wonder what he meant and noticed a glance from Gerry.
Later when we were alone Gerry mentioned something about Doc’s declining restraint. I replied that I think Doc’s just feeling put out because I didn’t wake him up the other night when we turned east and all got drunk. Gerry said something about he and I experiencing some seasickness at the start and as we adjusted it went away whereas Doc’s been taking meds all along and has never made the adjustment. Without the meds, he gets seasick.
Gerry says that he got a look at the bottle and it says to discontinue use if the user develops what they refer to as “psychotic symptoms”. Doc is not psychotic and may be the nicest guy in the world but the bottle also says don’t mix with alcohol. Although Doc never drinks to excess who’s to say a beer or two wouldn’t act as a catalyst.
Gerry thinks the trip has been like running a marathon. One step at a time. The beginning was painful. The middle was like a dream. And now with the end in sight we’re full of euphoric anticipation.
Perhaps but my feet don’t hurt. In a footrace you want to give it your all and arrive spent. Nothing left in the tank. In sailing, you never know when you’re going to want that full tank. You want to arrive rested and ready to go again if need be.
August 14th. Good weather continues though the wind comes from all around the compass. We ate clam spaghetti. Vancouver Island has been visible through the mist off our port side. We’re running to the southeast roughly paralleling the shore. The sea has changed from deep blue to a greenish hue.
I’d expect to be wanting to set foot on land but that just isn’t the case at all. I’d just as soon provision in Neah Bay and head back to Hawaii. It’s a bit of a surprise. Perhaps this is where I belong.
August 15th. 22 days out of Kaneohe. Last night we spotted the red and white rotating light on Tatoosh Island and soon were anchored in Neah Bay.
In the morning, we pulled anchor and headed toward the fuel dock but were cut off by a small gillnetter. Neah Bay is home to the Makah Tribe of Indians. One after another the tribal fishing boats cut Valhalla off trying to get to the fuel dock. At one point we were along side one of the boats and Gerry called out “Got any fish to sell?”
“Chinook salmon, caught yesterday.” We bought a fresh, freshly cleaned salmon, fueled up and headed east up the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I poached the salmon in white wine with plenty of garlic. Usually people lose weight on an offshore voyage. On this trip everyone put weight on.
We arrived in Victoria in the early evening. It was still light and we found a spot at the commercial dock, away from the crowds. We were quite an oddity with our palm frond hats and coconut running lights.
A fellow in a cowboy hat caught our lines. “You folks look like you’ve been at sea for a while.”
I stepped ashore and introduced myself. The dock seemed to move under my feet which is always the case after a while at sea. Got to get your land legs back. I asked if the dock was moving. The cowboy just laughed and introduced himself as “Randy, Randy Daffy” as if I might recognize the name.
We talked a little more and decided to get a beer. Walking along Randy told his story. “I’m a rodeo cowboy. I ride bulls. World champion last year. This year I wrecked.”
“Hit the wall. I was unconscious for a week. I woke up a month ago and I’m still trying to find my footing.”
We arrived at an establishment that looked inviting. It was on the lower floor of a large building, at the bottom of a long, heavily carpeted stairway. Randy and I tumbled down the length of the stairs landing at the bottom in front of the gatekeeper who pointed back up the stairs and said “Same way out you came in guys”.
“But I haven’t had a single drink yet” Randy protested to no avail. “Man. I guess I don’t need it anyway.” We parted company after a while and Randy went back to his hotel to get ready to catch a plane out to Campbell River to go fishing.
That day I took a ferry to Port Angeles where my mother and sister picked me up. Gerry’s family came to Port Townsend to sail down to Tacoma with him.
Doc and Linda were going to stay on the mainland for a while but didn’t like it and immediately caught a plane back to Kaneohe. Some time later they signed on to deliver another boat from the Marquesas to Hawaii. Doc went overboard on his night watch and though they retraced their path, they were unable to find him. I bet that big guy swam for days.