Frustrating Conditions in the Strait of Juan de Fuca

It seemed long ago, but only yesterday (July 1) we had been hoping for some more wind while crossing the Strait from Port Ludlow to Mackaye Harbor. Today, Sunday, we were bashing upwind towards Victoria, battling a small craft advisory that was soon to turn into a full-on gale. We were heeled over 20 degrees and pitching through big waves – going into the cabin to fetch lunch or use the head was an exercise in bracing ourselves nearly sideways against bulkheads and doorways.

Although the wind was “only” 15-18, 15 in the Strait of Juan de Fuca can feel like 25 in Puget Sound. The waves were the main challenge – 2-3 foot wind waves on top of swell (in some places) which had built up from the prior night of high winds, with tide rips thrown in for extra fun. To surmount these waves we had to stay powered up to crest over them and then slam down into the trough, our lee stern quarter slushing away what seemed like a mountain of water. We had a reef in the main and a reef in the genoa, closed hauled for 4 hours.

We got into Oak Bay marina about 3pm, fortunately before the gale really arrived, bringing 30-40 knot winds. Race Rocks registered 42. These summer inflow winds are throwing a hitch into our plans of getting out to the west coast, and are in stark contrast to the near windless conditions we saw in the Strait two years ago at this same time of year. It brings newfound respect for the Strait, where previously we’ve never seen more than 10 knots, in over a dozen times in the eastern Strait.

Sunday’s upwind bash through confused waves from the San Juans to Victoria.

Fortunately we weren’t at Race Rocks for this, but we worried a lot about running into it the next day.

But, while it’s disappointing to be making slightly slower progress, it fits with our deliberately slow pace of cruising, and delaying our Strait exit is actually the prudent move – Sunday night is the peak of the gale inflow, so we wouldn’t want to be anywhere near Race Rocks at that time.

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Setting Sail for the West Coast of Vancouver Island

Tonight we cast off the lines for our third annual summer cruise, following a similar route to the one we did two years ago up the west coast of Vancouver Island. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed with excitement, but we also know there are some challenging waters ahead of us. Our first big cruise two years ago was a bit of a reality check, making us aware that ocean waves can be much more difficult than we expected, and that some of our sailing skills weren’t quite as good as we thought (in particular, we had little high wind experience).

We’re hoping this time it will go a lot better. Besides having a great deal more experience, the boat is in better shape now – having 2 ½ years worth of projects done rather than just 6 months worth. Two problems that stressed us last time – engine troubles in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and a gradual transmission failure – shouldn’t happen again.

Things have been really busy the last month – after moving aboard (becoming full-time liveaboards) there was a flurry of projects and chores to complete, along with some great sailing to the San Juans and a couple local destinations. So I don’t really have much time to write more about our planned trip, and will just refer back to this post from two years ago for our approximate route. This time however, we’ll be going up the Canadian side – Victoria to Becher Bay to Port Renfrew to Bamfield.

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Harnessing the Sun: Solar Power on a Sailboat

Adding solar power to Violet Hour is something we’ve been meaning to do since returning from our cruise last summer and having trouble keeping our batteries charged because we weren’t motoring enough. Most sailboats in the PNW do a lot of motoring, which allows their engine’s alternator considerable time to charge up the batteries. We prefer to sail, and were sometimes getting less than 15 minutes of alternator time per day.  

Surprisingly, it’s common to hear sailors say they were “motoring to charge up the batteries.” This is apparently one explanation for SMDs (sailboat motoring downwind). This seems incredibly silly to me, and is something I’ve always vowed to never have to say. Burning diesel to convert it into electricity while pushing an 18,000 pound boat through the water is terribly inefficient. As a believer in Muscles Over Motors, motoring your sailboat around just to run your fridge seems downright sad.

Solar panels will allow us to sail more while still keeping the fridge cold enough to not need to buy bags of ice or allow premature spoilage.  It may also allow us to anchor out more since we’ll no longer have to visit a marina once a week to top up batteries (although we may still visit marinas to make groceries + laundry easier).

GoPower solar panels mid-installation

Cost

Solar has come down in cost a lot in the last 20 or so years. A 200 watt system is only about $1000 ($1400 minus the 30% solar tax credit*), if you can install it yourself.  In other words, enough energy to power a fridge for 5 years with zero pollution costs less than half what the average American spends on gasoline in one year. From this perspective, solar is a no-brainer.

*A quick note on the solar tax credit if you’re not familiar with it: It’s a tax credit to incentivize clean solar energy replacing dirty energy sources. It might start getting phased out in 2020-2022. It can be applied to your second home, which a boat counts as if it has a galley and head. Anyway, our boat is our first (and only) home currently. Also, a tax credit is not like a deduction – credits are for anyone who pays any federal tax at all. (note: I’m not a tax advisor – do your own due diligence of course).

The system may even pay for itself after about 5 years. The electricity cost savings are small, because Washington’s plentiful hydro-electric plants provide cheap energy rates, but all the little savings add up:

  • Reduced electrical consumption at dock while living aboard.
  • Abstaining from shore power hookups in BC marinas once or twice a month ($5-8 per night typically).
  • Skipping 1 or 2 marina visits per summer cruise ($50-60 per visit).

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A Shakedown Sail to the San Juans

The importance of a shakedown sail is, I think, often forgotten or underestimated. A shakedown sail before a longer one helps discover problems with boat work done over the long winter. And perhaps more importantly, it rebuilds sailing skills, especially physical and mental stamina that might have grown weak over the winter.

Not just any shakedown sail will do – the weekend cruises we did twice a month over the last 7-8 months don’t prepare us fully for the 1-month cruise we’ll be taking this July (to the west coast of Vancouver Island, much like the route we did two years ago). So last Thursday evening we took off from Shilshole for a 4 1/2 day trip to the San Juans (2 days in the islands before we needed to head back for work the day after Memorial Day).

Thursday: Shilshole to Port Ludlow

We took off about 5pm and sailed upwind to Port Ludlow, taking about 5 hours and arriving after dark. There was only 6-10 knots of wind, and sailing upwind makes the journey take quite a bit longer, but we sailed 100% of the way except for the last 1-2 miles into the harbor. Going past Point No Point we had 7.5 knots over ground with the 2 knot current push.

Currents were a recurring theme of the four days – there are large tides currently, due to 2-3 ft minus tides and a new moon. We encountered many whirlpools and tide rips in the San Juans and around the Point Wilson washing machine. This was probably the biggest benefit of our shakedown sail – it was a good refresher in using currents to our advantage, and we hit them all right, often getting 3-4 knot boosts.

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Sailing into the sunset towards Port Ludlow

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We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Pry Bar

The hardest kind of boat project, in my opinion, is any involving getting stuck things out of the thing they’re stuck in. Seized bolts, corroded screws, prop shaft couplers, etc. You may recall 3 months ago I started the project of rebedding our Navtec U-Bolts that connect the rig to the tie rods and chainplates.

Three months later I had completed 5 out of 6 but still had one stubborn one remaining – the first one I had started on, the last one to finish, and by far the hardest. For whatever reason, the starboard aft U-Bolt was more stuck than all the others. It wouldn’t pull free despite trying all the methods I had used on the others – a 2’ long pry bar, heat, PB Blaster, mineral spirits, BoatLife Release, hammering. I even sailed on it with the nuts slightly loose, and tensioned the shroud to 1500-2000 pounds (this didn’t do anything at all).

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Tensioning the U-Bolt with the main halyard while simultaneously prying with the pry bar

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Making the Leap to Liveaboards: Hopes and Fears

In about a month, we’re making the leap to become liveaboards at Shilshole. We haven’t decided for how long, but will re-evaluate at one year – it’ll come down to how well we survive the difficult winter months when it’s rainy, cold and dark every day.

There are some big reasons making it worth trying the liveaboard lifestyle, and an equal number of fears / worries we have about it. It’s not right for everyone, but everyone we talk to who has made the jump to being liveaboards loves it and recommends it.

To me “liveaboard” means living on a boat while being tethered to one home port most of the time – either because you have to work a job on land, or perhaps you’re retired but just don’t want to go anywhere. Although last summer we lived on the boat for 3 months, that was cruising – which is living aboard while traveling, an entirely different matter.

Moving aboard involves lots of full carloads – to both the boat and storage

The storage locker already getting pretty full – we need to start stacking higher

The benefits to liveaboard life are clear:

  • Waterfront real estate. Living in a marina, your home is in a beautiful waterfront location with views of the snow-capped Olympic mountains and wildlife (sea birds, seals) passing by your back porch (cockpit).
  • Money. Not many people discuss this, but I think the biggest advantage of living aboard is how much money you can save. With Seattle’s surging real estate market, a nice 1-bedroom apartment in the city can run about $1500-2000. Liveaboard moorage for a 38-foot boat runs about $680. That’s a savings of up to $15,000 per year, which can be put towards cruising, vacations, or paying off debt.
  • Living life in a more Minimalist way – less consumerism, less stuff, less distraction.
  • Efficiency. We’ll no longer need to commute between an apartment and the boat to do project work or go sailing. This saves time and may make certain types of projects easier. We’ll no more have a “boat pile” at home and a “home pile” at the boat.
  • Carbon Impact. Living on a boat is a very earth friendly way to live. On the boat, we use a fraction of the electricity we use at home, a tiny fraction of the amount of water, and produce less consumerist discards (trash/recycling) due to the forcing function of having to live in a minimalist way.

There are also a few fears we have about living aboard:

  • Will it make us end up sailing less? When your boat is your home, it’s more work to get it shipshape for sailing. Not only that, since it’s our only home, we can’t easily go sailing separately – if I want to go out sailing while Natalie is at work, a happy hour, or just doesn’t feel like sailing that day, she won’t have anywhere to return to after the event.
  • Storage – will having massively less space to store stuff be a considerable burden?
  • Will the wet, rainy weather we get for weeks on end (before the summer starts) be tiresome? Will heating be a problem?
  • Commute – my commute gets slightly better (biking between Ballard + Fremont rather than Capitol Hill + Fremont) but Natalie’s gets worse. Getting to downtown from Ballard isn’t easy. She can drive in 20-25 minutes on an early schedule, but then has to pay $30/day for parking. Public transit involves a 1 mile walk followed by 2 buses, totaling about a 1 hour commute. Biking is an option but also takes close to an hour. Any Ballard-Downtown commuters know of better options?
  • When we go cruising now, being on the boat in anchorages is truly special. Will that experience lose its magic when being on the boat is a more routine, everyday occurrence?

As with any change in life, there are some scary aspects, and some exciting aspects.

We’re currently working on massively downsizing – selling possessions on Craigslist and giving carloads full to Goodwill – much like we did last spring before renting our place for 3 months. But this time we’re also selling our condo, which means getting rid of all our furniture too. We have a small storage locker we’re using for keepsakes, winter clothes, ski gear, etc.

When you can’t agree on whether something that hasn’t been used in a long time is worth keeping, put a note on it marking a discard date – if you still haven’t used it in X amount of time, then clearly it wasn’t really needed

It’s strangely liberating to get rid of so much stuff. You don’t realize how much you have until you do it. Further, you don’t realize how much of a disposable purchasing society we live in. People buy so much stuff they don’t really need that it means possessions are not treasured, and Goodwill gets piles of barely used stuff every single day. Some things are impossible to sell on Craigslist because they’re not valued.

Despite a lot of work, we’re still getting out sailing about twice a month!

Fishing in Puerto Vallarta

“Fish on!” was called out across the boat. It was my turn in the fighting chair – 9th in a lineup of 9 on our charter in the Bay of Banderas. Everyone else had caught yellowfin tuna, so I was expecting that was what was on the line. But immediately it was clear this was something very different. The line on the spool started running – fast. The spool was at max tension, but it did nothing to slow this fish as it dove deeper and deeper. The two Mexican crew running the boat looked at each other and started speaking in Spanish, too fast for me to understand. El marlin negra – black marlin – is what they think was on the line.

Black marlin can grow to 10+ feet in length and hundreds of pounds – a whole different story than the 20-40 lb 3’ yellowfin tuna. The captain stopped the boat and they told me to go slow, a long fight was on my hands.

The fish kept running – 100 feet, 200 feet, maybe 300 feet of line spooled out. The line was going straight down, and was so tight you could play piano notes on it. As he kept running we started worrying the spool was going to run out of line. Finally he stopped and I worked hard to bring that line back in. It was a full body work-out pulling the rod up and then coming down, cranking the spool hard, repeated again and again.

Then the fish started running again, careening way off to the side, and the line started running out – losing 100-200 feet or so of my progress. At times I could only stop and rest, shaking my numbed arms to bring some life back into them. I was out of breath and drenched in sweat. This was more of a workout than I imagined fishing could possibly be.

Eventually I passed the torch to the next in the line-up – Natalie – and she fought the fish for a while. In the end, four different people took a turn, but as we were transferring to the 4th person, the marlin (we think) snapped the lead on the line, and we came up empty handed. It sure would’ve been great to see what it was. But, the experience was worth it in itself, and we had some delicious yellowfin tuna for dinner that night.

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