Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Wind, Waves and Adapting to Change on the Pacific Ocean

One of the things I have always admired about my species is our ability to adapt to a variety of conditions and environments. Not content to slide into extinction, like so much of nature is wont to do when a change in climate or fodder mitigates against a favored form of existence, we humans have a knack for muddling through and sticking things out. From the slums of Calcutta to the wilderness of the Australian outback, from the frozen Arctic to the tropical rain forests, you will find people who are surviving nicely - thank you -and maybe even enjoying themselves in the process. As a culture, we believe that any experience which we can survive makes us stronger. It builds character, as the English are fond of saying.

The sea environment I am currently attempting to adapt to is changing faster than I can keep up with it. I believe I will survive this experience - so many others have before me. I am trying very hard to imagine how I could possibly be a better person for it - unless the improvement in my character manifests itself as the determination never to find myself in such a situation again. My personal form of adaptation has taken the form of one of those West Marine folding cushions. I am wedged into the leeward side of the cockpit, so that when the boat rolls to port I am more or less horizonta in a sitting position, and when the boat rolls to starboard, I am almost standing up. I have clipped my safety harness to the rail, so that the port rolls do not eject me from my reclined position into the ocean. On the starboard rolls, I use the inertia to sit forward and check the sailing instruments, which tell me more or less the same thing every time I look. It is night and the moon and stars, shining here and there between the clouds, provide enough light to appreciate that the sea is rough, but not enough light to reveal the degree to which I should be frightened. I have adapted to this, more or less, and even doze off a bit from roll to roll as I am rocked back and forth.

I'd like to say we were in a horrendous gale the likes of which no man has seen and survived, but I am afraid that these conditions were anything but. The wind speed varied from the high teens to the high twenties and, while I couldn't see how big the waves were, we had yet to take any water in the cockpit. Even the deepest rolls barely buried the leeward rail. I had a portion of the yankee out on its own, having brought down the mainsail while it was still light in deference to the building seas and wind. Ka'sala was surging along at six knots or more. This was good, I kept telling myself, this was good.

The dawn revealed a bit more of our circumstances and things seemed a bit less good. The wind was staying more in the high twenty end of the spectrum and the seas, now plainly visible, were much less benign. The sky had clouded completely over and the low grey ceiling touched the horizon in every direction. I'd love to be able to say with authority that the waves were twenty feet high, but the truth is I have no yardstick for wave height. I am aware that, to an inexperienced eye like my own, the sea always appears higher and more threatening than it really is. What I can say is this: when we wallowed in the deeper troughs, the wave approaching from behind appeared to tower over us like a boiling mountain. When we rose up,up, up, as the crest swept under our stern, I had to raise myself, fully standing, and lean over Ka'sala's stern to peer into the oily grey trough which we seemed ready to tumble into. The seas was uniformly rough and threatening as far as I could see. Here and there, in the distance, individual waves stood out high above the others as they peaked and spilled foam down their advancing faces. If I had seen such a scene in a film I would have appreciated just how powerful and beautiful the ocean was. I had no such feelings for the current play I had been cast in.

It seemed like an excellent time to further reduce sail. With Lyneita up now, following her rest period and watching from the cockpit, I went forward on the pitching deck. I set the staysail halyard and hoisted it into position. Back in the safety of the cockpit again I sheeted the sail home, rolled away what was left of the yankee and we settled once again into an easy broad reach in the rolling waters. The sail was probably less than what we would have wanted, but it would be more manageable if the conditions worsened - which they seemed inclined to do.

Taking advantage of the stable conditions, we hastily convened an extraordinary meeting of the cruise strategy and planning committee. The agenda item was: should we continue into possibly worsening conditions or, should we head inshore (again) and wait this system out? What to do? What to do? Some factors were: we were already experiencing stronger winds and higher seas than the existing forecast had predicted - so there was no reason to believe that the rest of the forecast - which did predict deterioration – could be relied on. We were twelve hours away from Eureka and eighteen or so from Fort Bragg, both of which would provide a safe haven if we reached them early. However, they would be difficult to impossible to enter if we delayed too long and attempted to seek shelter in heavy seas and higher winds. It boiled down to: seek shelter now or stay out and deal with the consequences. The decision was easy and the committee voted unanimously with no abstentions. We set a new course for Fort Bragg with an option to go into Eureka. Eight hours later, with a new forecast in hand, we cut our trip short even further and made for Eureka.

The most exciting, and frightening, experience of the whole episode came when we jibed the staysail in the process of heading back into shore. I put the helm over on the crest of a smaller wave and sheeted the sail over to the starboard side but stupidly allowed the boat to come up too high on the new tack. We basically stopped in the water on the advancing face of the next wave and lost steerage. With the helm dead in my hands and the boat lying beam on to the approaching wave, I watched soberly as we became a ten ton surf board rolling further and further over our beam ends as the wave caught us. The rail went under, the stern went down as the bow came up and we performed an ungainly semi-pirouette as the crest of the wave passed us by. By this time the sail had found the wind on the new tack and I had control back again. Good sailboat, nice sailboat... bad skipper!

There is a sad footnote to this story. Unknown to us at the time, about forty miles south of where we made our decision to cut our trip short and head for Eureka, another Canadian, John Innes on Amica, the Catalina 27 from Vancouver we had seen in Neah Bay, was fighting his own battle against the sea. Unfortunately, he lost his fight and his boat. He was rescued from the ocean by the U.S. Coast Guard.

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