The Hawaii/Victoria Voyage – Part I


August 2003 brought an opportunity to crew on a sailboat returning to Victoria, British Columbia from Honolulu, Hawaii. Hugh, a retired doctor who had been sailing around the South Pacific for about five years was completing his adventure and as he put it, “moving through the ranks from being a dreamer to a doer to a doner.” When he reached Victoria he planned to “swallow the anchor” and settle down with his wife “on the hard” (land).

Hugh’s wife, Joyce, had had enough of sailing and chose to fly home so Hugh reached out for crew members to help him sail north. That’s where I came in. Hugh submitted a crew request with Offshore Passage Opportunities (a crew networking service) and, being recently released from corporate prison, I called Hugh and “hired” on as first mate. My pay was simply the opportunity to sail—more than fair in my mind.

Hugh & Joyce met me at the Honolulu airport and we immediately hit it off. They reminded me of close family friends I’d known for years. A couple other crew members joined us later that day. Michael aboard to handle the galley and Dane aboard as additional help rounded out the crew. Well, sort of…

Dane (spelled D A N E, as he introduced himself to me) was a wannabe sailor who, as it turned out, struggled to keep the boat on a consistent heading. His intentions were good… Michael was a nice guy and good cook, although his lightness about the boat in his boxer shorts grew old the first day. Nevertheless, I truly appreciated his contribution in keeping us fed and fueled with coffee & hot chocolate during the late night and early morning watches.

Hugh quickly proved that he knew his boat as well as he knew himself. Well, sort of…

Hugh’s skills on the water were impressive! He could trim the sails and balance the boat with the precision that only comes with a true sailor’s intuition and oneness with his vessel. I knew I’d learn a lot from Hugh on this trip. His attention to things mechanical, however, was less pronounced. Hugh would learn a few things from me, as well.


Joyce had already provisioned the boat for our trip and we spent another couple days making final preparations for the estimated four week trip across the North Pacific.

We departed the north shore of Oahu and rode the strong easterly trade winds on a north-northwest heading. During the summer months the Pacific High pressure system parks itself between Hawaii and the northwest coast of the U.S. The winds of this system circulate clockwise and can be fairly strong on its perimeter but frustratingly non-existent at its core. Thus, sailboats and the centers of high pressure systems don’t work well together. Our plan (and the predominate wisdom of most sailors) was to skirt the system by sailing northwest—yes, away from our destination—until we were far enough north to pick up the Pacific High’s westerly winds and ride them home. We’d be sailing north and slightly west for at least two weeks (probably longer) before we made the right turn to head east.

Hugh called the Pacific Seafarers Net by SSB radio and got us included in their daily boat reports. This is a great service offered by amateur HAM radio operators that allows mariners to share weather, voyage progress, and other vital information. The service would become very helpful in a few days…

For the first few days we were booking along at the boat’s hull speed of about 9 knots, thanks to the consistency of the 25 knot trade winds. We were reefed and double-reefed and loving every minute of such easy sailing—not having to work very hard at trimming sails or adjusting rudder position. Well, Hugh & I were loving it… Michael & Dane were acclimating to the rhythm and roll of the sea and its swells; they kept calling for someone named Ralph…


The trades died and the bottom-side, easterly winds of the Pacific High were still north of us, and we came to a screeching stop without the wind fuel we needed. We were reluctant to fire up the D-sail just yet, as we had a limited amount of diesel aboard and needed to conserve it throughout the trip.

So we unpacked the spinnaker and after three hours of untangling it, hoisted the huge sheet to capture the light breezes. Sailing a spinnaker requires a fine touch and sense of feel for the boat and its interaction with fickle winds. You really need to anticipate the effects of swells, breeze fluctuations and currents, especially when sailing on a broad reach or downwind. If you read ‘em wrong the sail can easily drop on you, putting the boat at risk. We doused the spinnaker that night to avoid any trouble and made little headway… But I slept better knowing that someone else at the helm wouldn’t capsize the boat (probably). We’d just have to do something about the lack of wind…

The Hawaii/Victoria Voyage – Part II


I hate it when things don’t work right. And any sailboat offers plenty of opportunities to exercise one’s mechanical aptitude (and stress one’s attitude!). I went to work on a couple things on Hugh’s boat that glared at me.

The seawater pump in the galley didn’t work. Hugh was convinced the problem was tied to an inoperative watermaker (a device that changes sea water into fresh water through reverse osmosis). An hour or so of tracing the plumbing under the sink, across the galley sole, and into the bilge revealed that a through-hull fitting was in the closed position. I opened the valve and the pump worked. Hugh had been without the pump for more than a year…

The radio microphone was literally falling apart. Transmissions were ineffective because whenever you moved the cord, the transmission was cut off. I convinced Hugh that we could repair the broken mic cord if he had a soldering iron on-board. With some reluctance, Hugh admitted that he did have two irons on-board and we tackled the task of soldering very small pins with a broad soldering tip on a constantly moving platform. About 49 attempts later, we succeeded—aided by a bit of “sport cussing” and resulting in a significantly shorter mic cord.

But things were coming together; I felt good about our progress.

Weather Planning

Hugh & I shared at least one common trait: complete lack of patience for not moving fast enough! Our meager 2 to 4 knots of headway was frustrating both of us and causing Hugh considerable consternation as another crew member struggled to keep the sails full and the boom from slapping from side to side in the light winds.

An assessment of the weather forecast received via WeatherFax showed a low pressure system moving eastward from the western Pacific. Hugh & I agreed that the wind from that system should provide some fuel to help move us along. We also knew that the counterclockwise winds of the low pressure system would eventually run up against clockwise winds of the Pacific High and combined would create a strong wind tunnel. We figured we’d sail just far enough west to ride the “fringe” of that effect.

A day later, that fringe kicked our butts.

The wind did, in fact, pick up and then weather conditions deteriorated slowly (at first). Our latest WeatherFax arrived right on schedule—as a blur of scratches down the page, virtually illegible. It lacked enough clarity for us to plan any sailing maneuvers and worse, failed to illustrate just how tightly stacked the system was or how many tails the wind feathers had. We were sailing blind to the weather, other than to look beyond the safety of the boat rails and observe the darkening skies and heightening seas. I made sure my safety vest and harness were close at hand…

On that afternoon’s radio call to the Pacific Seafarers Net I encouraged Hugh to request a high priority clearance so we could avoid waiting for all other boats to check in and thereby gain a valuable hour or so in making whatever preparations we could for the weather that was really beginning to make itself known to us. Long story short, the report back from those who had legible weather reports was that, based on our longitude and latitude, we’d be in for about 24 hours of tough going and could expect gale force winds and heavy seas. I put my vest and harness on…

It was a dark and stormy night…

As the sun set, the winds increased. We reduced sail to not much more than a postage stamp of a jib, to give us some steerage and balance, and got ready for a difficult night. We’d been running four-hour watches, which meant that the three of us (excluding Michael) would be on four, then off eight hours. It quickly became clear that we’d be unable to maintain four-hour shifts, as demanding as the helm was.

Hugh took the first night watch, beginning at 8pm. He lasted two hours. I took over at 10pm, with winds well over 35 knots and seas at least 20 feet high. In those conditions, the best tactic is to ride the storm, rather than try to maintain a desired course against the winds and (more important) the breaking seas. Just holding on to the wheel was hard work. The occasional wave would roar down from behind and crash on-deck. Wet was the operative word of the night.

About 1 ½ hours into my watch everything went black. I lost all sense of sight, lost all navigation instruments, lost my orientation. The only external sense I really had was a feel of the seas and the noise they made, so I just tried to keep the boat headed down-seas and with the wind.

Hugh and Dane went to work to troubleshoot what had caused our power to go out while I screamed at them to take a methodical approach to the problem. Once they’d found their flashlights and gained access to the battery power supply they learned (after about 45 minutes of searching) that a battery main cable had worked itself loose in the constant pounding of the boat. After another 10 or 15 minutes they finally restored power. But the return of my nav instruments only heightened my anxiety, as the winds were now constantly over 45 knots and gusting upward from there. I guesstimated the seas to be 25 feet or more…

As Hugh closed up the battery compartment I suggested that he or I be available on-deck at all times until the storm past. He agreed. Hugh relieved me and I went below and crashed onto my buck. With the lee cloth cradling me I slept like a baby, despite the storm. Hugh woke me an hour later, desperate for helm relief. We alternated every hour throughout the night; maintaining the watch for any longer was just too hard and simply not safe.

By mid-morning, the worst of the wind and seas had calmed and we were able to settle into a more moderate routine (although we still had 25-30 knot winds and 15-20 foot seas). By the evening, the ocean was kind again and we were making good headway toward the north. We’d been driven about 70 miles further west than we’d wanted to go, but had also gained significant headway toward the north, gaining at least two (and probably three) days on the overall schedule.

We set our sights on the lat/long position that would be the pivot point for our right-turn onto the final leg eastward toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca, still at least a week away…

The Hawaii/Victoria Voyage – Part III

Calm & Light

A day later we settled into the storm’s wake: the calm. Winds petered out to about 12 to 15 knots, just enough to move the boat along at about five or six knots. We made our right turn toward the east and jibed from a broad reach onto a slow run, with the meager winds essentially on our stern.

The good part of the trip was over. Waters had turned from blue to gray and temperatures dropped from the 70s/80s to the 50s/60s. But daylight lengthened and the night barely showed itself, and on my watches (4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and again 4 a.m. to 8 a.m.) I enjoyed the lingering twilight as I went off watch at night and the fullness of the moon and dawn as I returned for my morning session. Being at the helm is so much more enjoyable when you can see potential dangers on the sea…

One evening I noticed a growing glow on the horizon—really bright lights on the sea. I checked the charts for weather stations (this was way too much light for a ship) but found none. Confused and wary, I kept my eye out for any change. Very slowly, the lighted horizon crept by on my starboard side throughout my watch. When Hugh relived me, we discussed possibilities and agreed there was a floating fish processing plant several miles (15 or more) over the horizon. They must’ve had their work lights on full power because they really lit up the sky!

Each morning and evening, we were greeted by our albatross friend who Hugh had nicknamed “Old Man.” Old Man had joined us before the storm and seemed to hang with us each morning and evening, bringing us legendary luck on the seas. It was cool to watch him circle our boat several times before landing on the water to rest or taking off to hunt. There’s an enormous amount of wildlife at sea, and we watched porpoises play in the wake of the boat, darting under the bow, catching some air, just generally having fun. Nobody will ever convince me that God’s creatures are nothing more than evolved cells—they often convey the Creator’s character.

Traffic Jam

As we neared land—but still a couple hundred miles off—we began to encounter signs of civilization: flotsam in the form of small timber, grasses, and the like. Within another couple of days we started picking up a few fishing boats from time to time. It was necessary to be even more diligent during those nighttime watches, now that the moon was waning and night was dark once more. As we approached the northwest coast of Washington, boat traffic really increased and we had to make a few course adjustments as we sailed past temporary fishing communities.

Our final approach took us down the Straight of Juan de Fuca, with the State of Washington on our south and British Columbia, Canada on the north. We entered the Straight just as it was getting dark and foggy. Because this is a major shipping lane with lots of ship traffic, we cruised the last night under power with the radar constantly scanning for other vessels.

Celebrate Me Home

By morning we were finally in sight of Victoria Harbour. We rounded a cluster of islands in stiff breezes and sailed onward for another hour. As we neared the mouth of the inlet, we pulled down the sails for our final approach and motored up to the customs dock at about 7 a.m. Hugh’s wife, Joyce, and several family members and friends met us there with champagne and bagels. Since the customs office didn’t open until 9 a.m., we shared the celebration between the locked gate, feeling somewhat like outcasts in our own land (well, Hugh’s own land!). After an hour of “removed re-acquaintances” we decided to forego the formalities of customs at their dock and hoped they would agree to meet us at Hugh’s yacht club. So we hoisted the sails once again and sailed around the point another eight or ten miles to the yacht club where we finally doused the sails for the last time.

I’d had a great time the past 22 days—a full week shorter than expected—but it was great to be on dry land! First order of business: a 20 minute shower in the club’s locker room. Second order of business: a beer (or two!) in the club’s lounge. Third order of business: a bed in a good hotel room.

The Rest of the Story

The next morning my cell phone rang from its location on the armoire across the hotel room. I got up out of bed to answer it and fell flat on my ass. The room seemed to be swaying and spinning and my sea legs simply weren’t ready for solid ground! Over the next couple of days I adjusted and at least looked relatively sober to passersby.

Hugh & Joyce invited me to their home for a “Welcome Home” party the next day and we had a great time recounting our trip and Hugh’s other travels throughout the South Pacific. I had made some good friends, had a great time sailing, improved my nautical skills, learned to respect weather, reveled in the expanse of creation, and renewed my spirit. But I was ready to go home. Yet just as quick, I was ready to weigh anchor again…