Category Archives: philosophy

Cruising the Pacific Northwest by Wind Power

[This article was published in the June 2017 issue of 48 North magazine. But it’s never been published online, and some readers here may not have seen it. Plus it’s a good reminder to us of our priorities as we sail north!]

Newcomers to sailing might think that sailors spend the majority of their time covering ground under sail, solely moving by the power of the wind. Experienced coastal cruisers – those who travel from port to port – know this is usually far from reality. The Pacific Northwest is notorious for light, fickle winds in the summer months.

In between major marinas, it’s often more common to see a sailboat motoring than sailing. The time of year is coming where I’ll see sailboats motoring upwind into a perfect sailing breeze of 10 knots or so, and even sailboats motoring downwind with a light following wind. Essentially, a lot of cruisers are traveling to a schedule. Plus, for many cruisers, sailing in the PNW is a Goldilocks problem – the wind is always too low or too high, never just right.

Certainly there’s nothing wrong with motoring if that’s your choice, but if you’re determined to cruise the PNW by sail power, there can be great rewards to it:

  • Earth-friendly. Sailing uses no fossil fuels while you’re traveling on wind power alone.
  • Cheap. Sailing is pocket book friendly too – diesel costs money, and sailing costs very little (the wear and tear on the sails, per mile, is minuscule – especially if you run your cruising sails to their last legs).
  • More wildlife. Sea life doesn’t come around a boat running a noisy diesel engine with a spinning prop that could cut them to tiny bits. By sailing more, you have more occasions where porpoises play in your bow wake, seals approach closer, and bears on shore don’t run away when you’re hundreds of feet away.
  • Being less reliant on your engine. After our transmission died a slow death on our first cruise, I’ve never felt comfortable being completely reliant on having auxiliary power. Sailing more pushes us to increase our sailing skills and occasionally do things like sail onto and off of anchor.

Last summer we sailed our C&C Landfall 38 over 1300 nautical miles in 3 months time using an average of only 5 gallons of diesel per week. We sailed from Seattle, through the San Juans and Gulf Islands, the Sunshine Coast, Desolation Sound, the Broughtons, and Queen Charlotte Strait, then back to the South Sound and Seattle. About 75% of the mileage was covered under sail.

In 3 months time, many people choose to go to Alaska, and cover more mileage with a whole lot more motoring. But their sail-to-motor ratio reverses, to as high as 90%, 95% or more in motoring. On the other hand, traveling a high percentage of your miles by sail usually means accepting less audacious distance goals. But we were very happy with our decision to prioritize slow paced sail-based cruising over always pushing to further destinations.

There were numerous tips and tricks we learned along the way to make it easier. For starters, a healthy disregard for conventional wisdom helped. We were told people don’t sail the Inside Passage, that the wind would always be on our nose, and the idea of sailing up narrow straits like Johnstone Strait was considered laughable. All those things weren’t true, and we sailed both upwind and downwind in Johnstone Strait and many other straits. About 50% of our sailing mileage was downwind.

To be a sailing cruiser, a few prerequisites make it more likely to work out:

  • Time plus an enormous amount of patience. Modern society doesn’t cultivate this – we get impatient if our YouTube video doesn’t buffer within a couple seconds, or if we have to wait more than a few minutes at a stoplight. Sailing in light and fluky winds for hours at a time requires tremendous patience, and this is a skill that gets stronger through practice.
  • Both of you (if you’re a cruising couple, or otherwise everyone onboard) must be motivated to sail rather than motor. If only one person is into it, the other person will get frustrated and vote for motoring.
  • Have a boat with good sailing performance, both upwind and downwind. You can do it with a slow, heavy boat, but this is going to make it much harder. 60% of our sailing time last summer was in light wind (4-10 knots).
    The boats best suited for sailing full-time in the PNW are performance oriented and sail upwind like they were born for it. You should be able to move over 2 knots in 5 knots true wind on a close haul to beam reach.
  • It’s more than just the type of boat though – it must be set up for easy sailing. It took us over a year before our boat was a well oiled sailing machine. Make sure you have a reefing system that is easy and quick, smooth low friction blocks so raising sails is low effort, and know sail configurations for every level of wind.

Over the last two years we’ve developed a strategy for maximizing sailing:

1) Plan short passages. Preferably no more than 20 nautical miles between anchorages. If you have great wind and are making good time you can shoot for further – plan B. But planning on long days (ex, over 40 miles) is the biggest thing likely to require you motor.

2) Routing based on the wind. A big part of our strategy was heavily integrating the wind into our routing. On a daily and weekly basis we planned our route and destinations to improve our chances of finding good wind. If southerlies were coming, which are fairly rare in the PNW summer, we’d go north as far as we could to use that following wind.

3) The 15 minute rule. We have a 15 minute rule – if the wind has died and we’re moving less than 2 knots for 15 minutes, we can turn on the engine. We don’t always do so, but the 15 minute rule allows either of us to declare a starting point when we’re getting tired of slowly drifting, and helps ensure we don’t give up too quickly. Sometimes the wind comes back up after only 5 minutes, but 5 minutes can feel like a really long time when you’re drifting at 1.4 knots with the sails eager to luff.

4) If there’s wind up, we *GO*.  If you wake up to 10 knots in your anchorage or marina in the morning, you go as soon as possible. The wind dictates your schedule, not your social plans or normal routine.

5) Flexible schedules and timing. If the wind wants you to reverse direction or stay put, why not revisit a place you’ve already been, or spend a day at anchor? Having plans to meet up with friends or crew can make this one tricky. That’s why cruisers have the expression “you can pick the time or place, but not both.”

6) Stay close to sailable corridors. Sailable corridors are the areas of the PNW that have wind. This one requires more experience with local waters, but if you can, don’t sail (or motor) yourself into a corner. We try to avoid going up long narrow inlets (like Jervis Inlet to Princess Louisa) unless we’re really sure the destination is worth it.
The Strait of Georgia and northern Puget Sound are good examples of a sailable corridor. The ideal anchorage along a sailable corridor is often an outside anchorage – for example, Cabbage Island on the outside of the Gulf Islands allows you to quickly get out to the Strait of Georgia on a light wind day, or duck into the Gulf Islands on a high wind day.

This year we’re heading out to the west coast of Vancouver Island, and hope to do something we’ve never done – sail, at least part of the way, out the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

[That was last year (2017). In 2018 we’re already underway in early April and hope to maximize our use of southerlies to get north as far as Haida Gwaii before turning around in late June]

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On the Difficulty of Casting Off the Lines

Several years ago, a couple friends and I were hiking Mt Rainier’s Wonderland Trail when we came upon an elderly gentleman stopped to admire the view. He was in his 70s or 80s, and spoke to us with a deep gravelly voice. As we stood on a lookout over a ravine cut into the glacier, deep reds and browns showing in the dirt, he said: It’s always over too soon, isn’t it?

At the time I didn’t really recognize the wisdom in that one sentence. I thought, it’s not going to be over that soon – I have a heavy pack on, three more days of 18 mile days, and my feet hurt.

Later I realized his comment had life wisdom beyond what I was capable of seeing at the time. He may have been talking about the hike, or maybe he was talking about life. The good stuff is always over before you wish. That’s why it’s so important to savor it and live in the moment.

That’s what we find when we go sailing. Yet, getting to the part we know we’ll love is sometimes more difficult than it seems.

Untying the Lines

In sailing lingo “untying the lines” means casting off dock and setting off to fulfill whatever your dream cruise is. There’s even a YouTube video blogger with a series called “Untie the Lines”.

Over time I’ve noticed many people have difficulty getting off the dock. Life gets in the way. Even though we live aboard our boat we sometimes still have difficulty getting off dock. And getting away for that “big” cruise – whether it be a month, a year, or even an multi-year sail around the world – is super difficult. There are a lot of competing interests keeping you tied in one place.

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Oops, We Bought a Project Boat!

It’s winter, and for us that means it’s project season. Nearing 3 years of too many projects to count (but also a lot of sailing), I’ve been asking myself – did we actually end up with a project boat? While shopping for a boat, the one thing I was sure of was we didn’t want a project boat!

I had heard of people buying project boats and spending years working on them without sailing. I have a lot of admiration for people who do that, but for us sailing and cruising was always the number 1 goal. If a project boat meant we couldn’t cruise, we’d be better off continuing to charter and sail in clubs.

I’ve written before that eventually I realized all boats are project boats (“What Exactly is a Project Boat Anyway?“). And even though living aboard has made it easier to work on projects, the project list hasn’t gotten any shorter. For every project finished, we discover one or two new ones.

[Note: I’ve added a Projects page to the site, listing most of the major and minor projects completed]

Haul-out in June 2015

Another reason I didn’t want a project boat was I understood that boats are expensive but not in the initial purchase cost – an old boat is only as much as two new cars, which many middle-class families have (and if you told them two cars are a luxury rather than a necessity, they would probably disagree). The real budget killer is in the carrying costs – yearly moorage and maintenance.

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Ghost Boats: The Surprising Truth of Most Boats in Marinas

When you spend a lot of time around boats, you get to noticing some peculiar things about marinas. They’re like parking lots for boats – but imagine if the cars in the parking lot never moved!

Since I got my start in boating from the Seattle Sailing Club (SSC), I figured most boats get used every week – after all, all the SSC boats did (for the most part). Or if not weekly, at least monthly right?  No? Hmm. The surprising truth I eventually discovered is that most boats get used not at all, in the 8 months between September and June. And even in the 2-4 months of summer (the definition of summer depends on who you talk to), most get used weekly or monthly, but a few still don’t get used at all.

Sunset at Fisherman's Terminal.

So for a while now I’ve struggled to make sense of this. We’re so fortunate to live in an area where it’s possible to cruise year-round – we don’t have to haul out and winterize our boats like people do on the northern east coast and Great Lakes.

Weather

There are two big reasons people don’t sail much in the PNW winter:

  • Rain, cold, and challenging wind storms.
  • Short daylight hours. At its worst, it gets dark at about 4pm (before true sunset, due to the dark, heavy cloud cover we have much of the winter). This rules out weekday sails for people who work during the day.
weathernoaa

A NOAA marine forecast in December

These are big reasons, and I totally understand why it deters many people. Some years we have powerful weather systems moving through as frequently as every two days, and some of them you really don’t want to risk being out in – 40+ knot winds with short steep waves and cold sideways rain.

Last winter we had a 40 day period without a single rain-free day. Typical weather forecasts show a chance of rain every day of the next 10 days, every week. Yet, it usually doesn’t rain all day, and there are often short windows of nice weather in between each front.

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Casting Off The Lines

Today we cast off our dock lines and leave Seattle for three months. This day is something we’ve looked forward to for a long time. The trip will be a true adventure. Maybe more adventure than we’d like. Last year we found the adventure we dreamed of was not the adventure we seek.

We don’t know yet what we’ll find. But if we knew every challenge we’d face, it wouldn’t be an adventure.

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It would be far easier not to go. It would be more comfortable and less scary to sit on our couch drinking beer and watching Game of Thrones on Sunday night. Our jobs pay the bills, and it’s difficult to give that up, if only temporarily. It would be far more comfortable sitting in an air conditioned office each workday rather than grinding winches, battling wave spray sailing upwind, and repairing a diesel engine. But that isn’t the life we want to live all the time.

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1-Year Retrospective: What We Would Do Differently

Now at the 1-year mark of taking delivery of our boat, I’ve been thinking about all the projects done, all the cruises we did, what went wrong and what I would’ve done differently.

A year of perspective changes things a lot for first-time boat owners, and some things I worried about I realize I shouldn’t have, and some things I didn’t worry about I should have.

What I would have done differently:

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For Black Friday, We’re Going Sailing

The holiday season is always a bit tough for me. Not because of all the food, or visits with inlaws (I actually like them!), or the dreary weather. It’s consumerism gone rampant that really gets to me.

As a budding minimalist, the consumer spending habits most people are addicted to really irk the heck out of me. What is the point of all this buying of stuff?  Does it make you happier? The thing with habits is that people have complicated defense mechanisms built up around them – they’ll agree the holidays are too consumeristic while at the same time having detailed justifications for their over-the-top participation in it.

I’m not trying to be a grinch – I’ll be buying presents for those closest to me. But when it gets to secret santa circles with all your relatives I think it’s getting a little carried away. Exchanging presents with people you don’t live with ends up becoming just a matter of buying things off each other’s Amazon wishlist – you buy $50 off my wishlist and I buy $50 off your’s – why not just exchange $50 (aka, net zero) and call it a day?

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