Well, after years of planning and preparations, on May 19th at 7:00AM, we cast off the dock lines in Astoria to cross the Columbia River bar and turn north in our first ever ocean passage and first real step in becoming full-time cruisers.
Because neither Brenden or myself had ever really sailed out on the ocean before, we hired an experienced captain to guide our journey and accompany us north to the Puget Sound. Captain Stephen Frankland of Agwe Sailing, based in Portland Oregon, did a fabulous job of helping us to prepare ourselves and our vessel for a serious offshore passage off the coast of Washington on the Pacific Ocean. Also along for the ride was Brenden’s dad, Scott, and a friend invited along by Stephen, Brian.
Captain Stephen is not a delivery skipper and, though he has experience crossing the Columbia River bar in the past and has lots of offshore experience, he was the first to tell us that this is not something he normally does. He teaches sailing lessons at the local club at our Portland marina and we had taken several lessons with him aboard Mosaic over the past couple years. He also organizes and charters vacation sailing lessons in the Caribbean each winter and is preparing to open his own ASA sailing school. Captain Frankland grew up sailing on the Great Lakes and has years of Alaskan deep sea fishing experience.
We were very comfortable leaving ourselves and our boat in his capable hands and he openly encouraged questions and having extra eyes on every bit of his passage planning. He even contacted an old friend of his, David Wilkinson, for assistance with the weather routing. Mr. Wilkinson is a meteorologist and cruiser who provides weather planning assistance. It was extremely comforting to have not only Captain Stephen but also Mr. Wilkinson in on the weather routing for this passage.
A Beautiful Weather Window
We arrived in Astoria on Saturday, May 11th. We spent the following week making final preparations aboard Mosaic, knowing that we were going to be aiming for the passage window anytime from May 19th through June 2nd. We were really hoping to be able to go in the first week of that timeframe as this would allow Scott to join us.
From the time when we arrived in Astoria, we were in daily contact with Stephen watching our weather window developing. As each day passed and the weather predictions grew closer and, therefore, more reliable, we were very happy to see a nice window opening for us to leave on the first day of our plan. On Saturday the 18th, Brenden drove to Portland and back to pick up captain and crew, and my parents drove out to Astoria from their home near Vancouver WA to pick up the kids from the boat (huge thanks, again, to my mom and dad for watching them during this trip!).
We spent several hours Saturday evening making final preparations for our 7AM departure, went out for a late night meal as a group, and then grabbed what sleep we could manage before our 5:30 wake up.
Crossing the Columbia River Bar and Heading North
The weather was calm and the river flat as we motored out of the marina to head toward the bar. We left the dock at 7AM in order to have plenty of time to get downriver and wait for slack before flood tide at 9:40AM.
As our weather predictions had indicated, we saw 6-8 foot swell and 1-2 foot wind waves as we crossed the bar. Mosaic took it like an absolute champ and all of our intense planning and dedication to keeping on schedule paid off with a fun and exciting crossing of the bar. Once out, we turned to starboard and headed north.
Whales and Dolphins Abound!
We settled into our watch schedules of 4-on 4-off, staggered so that the watches would switch halfway through each watch, always with two people on watch together and Captain Stephen floating throughout.
Shortly after turning north, at probably 10:30AM or so, we were greeted by our first humpback whale sighting! He rose up for a breath just off our starboard beam, only about 50 feet from the boat! We were all in the cockpit and stunned gasps and exclamations arose from the group. It seemed to be a good omen for the trip.
Toward noon, we spotted 3-4 humpbacks on the horizon breaching nearly all the way out of the water. We saw multiple large breaches one right after the other. What a spectacular sight!
About this same time, we realized that our alternator didn’t appear to be functioning and our battery power was dropping fast. We’d been using our auto-pilot to keep us on course, and found that it was a huge draw and we wouldn’t be able to continue using it. Hand steering from then on!
We turned off all non-essential equipment to minimize our power consumption and made the decision to continue on even despite the alternator issues. We knew this meant that we wouldn’t be able to turn off the engine and try to get in an hour of peaceful sailing because we couldn’t risk that the battery wouldn’t have enough power to start the engine back up.
By the time my first watch was over, we were ‘rolling in the troughs’ pretty good and several of us were starting to feel pretty queasy to downright seasick. Thankfully, I was feeling really great, other than being tired from not much sleep the night before, so I did go down below and got a nap from about 12:30 to 3:00. At 3:10, I got up quickly to a pounding on the ceiling of my cabin (below the cockpit) and calls of DOLPHINS!!!
I headed up top to see that we had a humpback whale ahead that was repeatedly slapping his tail on the surface of the water and dozens of Pacific White-sided Dolphins swimming around the boat, jumping happily out of the water, and zooming up front to swim at the bow. Brenden, Scott, and I all headed up to the front and watched for a good 20 minutes as sometimes one, sometimes whole groups of dolphins swam joyfully in our bow wake. We’d slowed down a bit when we came into the group of animals, and I think the dolphins wanted us to go faster.
It was truly awe-inspiring to be mere feet from a dolphin as it swam below our bow, actually looking up at us on the boat. It was truly amazing and an experience I’ll never forget.
I had the go pro in hand and took a few nice videos. Once I can get them off the camera, I’ll try to get them loaded up on YouTube and will add a link here.
Settling in for the Voyage
After the excitement of the dolphins died down, I settled back in for the first two hours of my second shift, which had me on navigation duties. Scott was on the helm and we were dodging lots of crab pots. Everybody else was down below trying to get some sleep when suddenly I spotted a whale’s back directly in front of the boat, only about 3 feet away! And then another just in front of him! We immediately slowed down for a moment and had to play dodge-the-whales-and-crab-pots, but we were fine and Scott and I enjoyed the whales coming up several times as they slowly moved away from us.
The rest of that watch passed pretty uneventfully. Brenden came up to spare Scott and I took over the helm for my two-hour shift and we enjoyed a nice evening at sea. At 8pm, I headed below to get a few hours of sleep before what I knew would be probably the toughest watch rotation for me: midnight to 4am.
Sailing Through the Darkness
When I woke up at 11:15 to prepare for my midnight shift, I quickly realized that I had miscalculated how difficult it would be to get ready in the pitch black of night below decks. With our battery issues, we had all decided not to use our red lights in the cabin at all and, instead, to only use red light headlamps.
Well, we only had 2 red light headlamps aboard. One was ours but it was being used in the cockpit to light the compass. The other was Brian’s … and, obviously, I didn’t want to ask him if I could use it because he was, ha. So I essentially had to get dressed and get some food and a warm drink ready for my watch, all in the pitch black. I had gone to sleep directly at 8:00 after my last watch thinking I’d make soup when I got up. In the dark, there was no way that was going to happen so it was resort back to more of the snack foods, protein bars, and I thankfully was able to heat water and make a large cup of hot apple cider to bring on watch with me.
Boy, climbing up out of the companionway into the night for the first time was a pretty eerie feeling. We had a nearly full moon which was casting a lot of light on the water and I took a lot of comfort from that white glow. It was simply surreal to be moving through the water at 8 knots and barely able to see anything of what was around us.
Scott was on the helm and Captain Stephen was awake with him. I relieved Brian from his watch and he immediately headed below to sleep. We settled in and, after a bit, Stephen laid down in the cockpit to grab a nap. Scott and I motored on into the darkness.
Alarm, and Waking the Captain
At right about 2AM, Scott and I both spotted something off the starboard beam that we couldn’t identify. The dark played tricks on our minds and, after a few moments of both of us watching it without saying anything (lesson 1: speak up immediately if you think you see something out of place, especially at night), Scott asked me if I saw something off the starboard side of the boat. Ok, I thought, it’s not just me seeing things.
The binoculars weren’t much help but we both concluded that we thought something was there, and in the darkness, it even looked like it might have been moving along with us. We altered course to port about 20 degrees. Another moment of watching and discussion, and I made the call to wake up Captain Stephen. He popped up, alert, and immediately took action to start trying to figure out what it was.
A long tow, perhaps? We looked and looked and didn’t see any other boat or tug that could have been pulling a barge. A loose-floating shipping container? That thought sent serious chills through me as it did seem the thing was moving with the water. Another vessel running dark at night? You sure wouldn’t think so… right? We had a strong handheld spotlight on deck but shining it toward the object didn’t resolve any questions – it was too far away.
Zooming in and out on our chart plotter, we didn’t see anything that made sense for what we were seeing. By this time it was nearing 3AM and Brenden was awake in the cabin. He fired up the radar at the nav station (lesson 2: we should have done this right away but in the excitement, I can’t speak for the others, but I know that I’d forgotten about radar!) while Captain Stephen checked his iPad backup navigation software.
Both came to the conclusion at the same time that what we were seeing were two big rocks, about a mile and a half offshore, and we’d come within 2-3 miles of them before altering course to port.
4AM arrived and I considered staying up to see the sunrise, especially since I’d missed the sunset the night before. But I knew that would be at about 5:30 or 6:00 and right in the middle of my opportunity for sleep. So I headed below decks to catch some rest.
By this time, we had decided to skip Neah Bay entirely and push on straight to Port Townsend. We were making better time than expected and captain and crew were feeling pretty good to continue onward so we decided to just go for it.
In the interest of keeping this from becoming a 3,000-word blog post, I’ll end here and pick up the next chapter in another post all about our time from Cape Flattery to Port Townsend. Stay tuned and thanks for reading! ~Rachel