Sailing Away -- A solo sailor learns the value of a thorough shakedown -- the hard way
By William Yates

(article now scheduled to appear in Sail Magazine, so it is removed from below 8-26-03)... congratulations Bill!

January 18, 1997 - 7 a.m. – Morro Bay, California

The aroma of the waterfront embraces me in a bear hug when I arrive, a fusion of fish and salt and diesel oil and creosote.  Obsession floats serenely at the Harbor Patrol dock.  Waiting.  Waiting to be set free of the lines that hold her snugly to the wharf.  She has been patient through nine months, enduring the indignity of being stripped naked with power tools, then a painful rebuild.  And now, mercifully, the morning to cast off and sail away to the South Pacific has come.

I sit in the driver’s seat inhaling the morning, reveling in the anticipation, admiring the readiness of Obsession.  My wife, Lindsay, our children, and my mother get out of the van and wait nearby.  A pale-blue sky, mammoth Morro Rock, and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Point Heyer serve as the boat’s backdrop.  A waterfront oil painting.  Obsession -- tucked at the base of the T-pier -- is surrounded by a flotilla of patrol boats, tug boats, other workboats, and all schemes of commercial fishing vessels, in all states of repair.  She looks like a new Buick in a lot full of farm tractors and pick-up trucks, and she looks like an ocean-going vessel, for sure.  Strong, seaworthy, clearly rigged for offshore sailing.

The weather conditions are close to perfect:  sunny, a gentle ten-knot, northwest wind, favorable outlook.  The news had already reached me an hour earlier, however, that a huge wave had broken over Morro Bay’s harbor entrance, completely knocking over and burying the enormous red entrance buoy.  Huge waves happen here.  I shrug it off, not accepting that anything will stand in the way of my departure.  The voyage has already been postponed once because a black, nasty, drenching storm stopped and walked in circles over the area the previous week.  It blew and rained hard and never got brighter than dusk at mid-day -- not great conditions to sail away on a voyage.  So I waited, and waited, and waited for the weather to clear and show promise.  That week moved excruciatingly slowly, like a slug climbing a redwood tree. But the morning to leave is here, finally, mercifully, and I find myself in a high state of anticipation.  It is an intense form of natural high.  It has been 35 years coming, and I want to be off.

I get out of the van, slam the door shut and gather with my family.  Nobody talks much.  Together, we walk down the gangplank to the floating dock below the T-pier.  A small crowd of friends -- maybe a dozen people -- is gathered on the narrow roadway above the dock.  They have come to see me off and somberly wish me well when I greet them with a smile.  The air reeks of solemnity;  family members and friends look through watery eyes that mirror the morning light.  A solo sailor sailing away from those close to him is not a celebration.

Few words are spoken the next ten minutes.  My family walks about Obsession’s cabin in a daze, examining the readiness of the vessel, glancing at their photographs taped to the bulkhead above the chart table, asking little last-minute questions in hushed tones.  Moments like these are alien, heart wrenching.  It’s difficult saying good-bye to your family, and it’s difficult for them to say good-bye to you.  It’s especially so with the air of extreme danger hanging in the air like a dark squall cloud.

It’s a perilous business undertaking a long-distance solo sailing voyage;  there’s no denying that.  But I have never worried about not making it. What’s the point in that?  I have always maintained an attitude that if I prepare properly and sail with intelligence, I will make it just fine.  I am well prepared and intend to sail intelligently, so I have never held anything other than a positive outlook.  Family is another matter.  It is an unknown to them.  Man -- husband, father, son, brother -- goes to sea in a small boat alone.  Everyone knows the sea is unforgiving;  everyone knows the stories of tragedy and death at sea.

People focus on the disasters;  that’s human nature.  The reality is the very high majority -- way over 99-percent -- complete their voyage without mishap.  When I had mentioned this petty fact to Lindsay a few months earlier, it had no impact.  None.  Zip.  So it is a sober send off. Paul Ward, the City of Morro Bay’s chaplain, arrives at the boat and recites a loving, moving prayer for my safe return while sailor, family, and chaplain hold hands in a circle.  The diesel engine purrs and spits exhaust water next to us.  The prayer’s over.  Sails are raised with the help of a few enthusiastic friends.  The air vibrates electrically.  The feeling is surreal.  My family stands on the dock teary eyed as I ready to cast off.  Saying our final good-byes, Ray Frye, Morro Bay’s Chief Harbor Patrol officer, approaches the boat and addresses me from the dock. “Bill,” he says with deep gravity.  I can tell he’s not here to wish me a safe voyage.  “I have to strongly advise you not to leave.  The entrance is dangerous.  An exceptionally big wave broke over the bar a little earlier and I consider conditions at this time dangerous.”  This is not what I want to hear.

The Harbor Patrol, or the Coast Guard for that matter, cannot stop a vessel from entering or leaving a harbor.  That decision is ultimately left to the captain.  But “strong advice” not to cross the bar from a man I respect tremendously, a man who knows the often-dangerous harbor entrance better than almost anyone, a man who has rescued countless mariners over the years -- and delivered too many dead bodies to the very dock I am leaving from -- is not a man to ignore.  But I am blind to get away.

My friend, Jack Hansen, a commercial fisherman and my weather advisor, suggests we jump in his truck and check out the entrance for ourselves.  So, leaving everyone behind, we climb the gangplank, hop into his pick-up, make the 60-second drive to the base of Morro Rock where there is a clear view of the harbor entrance, park, and stare silently at the ocean.  The harbor entrance is as flat as a farm pond. Not a breaker, and not even a whitecap on the ocean beyond.  It is a glorious day.  There are a few other folks out here, too, waiting for me to leave. Question marks define their eyes.  Jack and I sit silently for a few minutes watching a few tiny swells enter the harbor.  It is smooth;  it looks safe.  “If it was your boat, would you leave?”  I ask Jack.  “Yup, I would.” he says, nodding his head.  That’s all I need to hear and we drive back to the dock.

I don’t delay when I climb aboard.  Friends cast off the bow and stern lines.  I pull the lines aboard, bring in the fenders, put the engine in gear, flash a smile at my family and set off for the entrance.  It is a heady moment.  As I clear the T-pier, I sheet in the sails and the breeze accelerates the boat.  By now everyone has moved, or is on their way, to the base of Morro Rock to watch me sail out of the entrance.  As I pass them three minutes later, I give everyone a giant, two-armed wave and a whoop and, to the piercing accompaniment of several Morro Bay Police cars’ sirens wailing away in farewell, approach the entrance.

Harbor Patrolman Jerry Sausa is waiting at the entrance in a Harbor Patrol boat.  I check out the entrance;  it doesn’t show a threatening face.  Hell, it looks calm, friendly, inviting.  I look at Jerry and mouth, “I’m going for it.”  He smiles and nods positively and within a minute I scoot out of the harbor leaving Morro Bay behind.  I’d had a fresh breeze leaving.  The boat sailed out with her head high, her sails full, showing off her new main sail, rigging, paint, canvas.  But as I clear the sea buoy, not even a mile off the breakwater, the wind dies like a fan turned off.  The boat drifts in circles.  The speedometer displays the boat’s speed to the tenth of a knot;  it reads zero-point-zero.

That’s very slow.  I am utterly becalmed within 30 minutes of leaving and not even a mile from Morro Rock.  I’m disheartened.  Five hours later I have moved four miles.  The sea is oily.  I peer into it;  my face stares back with the clarity of a mirror.  A pod of south-moving whales surface nearby, and scores of seals swim by to check out the boat’s non-progress.  A puff of breeze from the west, followed by a puff of breeze from the south, followed by a puff of breeze from the east, and so on, hour after hour.  I tack and tack and tack some more, earning every inch of offing. It is frustrating, baffling, disconcerting, maddening.  I want to be on the open ocean and here I am so close to Morro Bay I could motor back to the dock in a half-hour.

Morro Bay is, obviously, a coastal town.  Its three principal features are the Rock -- a 582-foot Rock of Gibraltar that sits at the harbor entrance; the waterfront -- the heart, the soul of Morro Bay -- and the Pacific Ocean.  Gentle hills slope away from the ocean, awarding a few thousand tiny coastal lots developed with homes taking the very best advantage of the view.  So the entire town can see me;  they’re watching me. Family and friends call on the cell phone to ask what the hell I am doing sailing around in circles.  Seabirds fly by and giggle at me.  To the west, north- and south-bound ships cross the horizon with the seeming speed of jet airplanes.  The horn marking the end of Morro Bay’s breakwater blares annoyingly, mocking me.  My brand new Monitor wind vane -- my self-steering device, my sole crewman -- is useless because a wind vane, oddly enough, requires wind to operate. 
. . .
It’s now 4:30 p.m., seven hours after departure.  The Morro Bay sport fishing boat Admiral comes along following a day of fishing.  I call them on the radio for a chat.  The Harbor Patrol catches a piece of our conversation and calls the Admiral to ask if I’m okay.  “He’s doing fine,” says the Admiral’s skipper.  “He’s just getting nowhere in a hurry.”  It’s a cliché’, but I’m amused.  By 8:30 in the evening I have spoken with every family member and every close friend at least once on the cell phone.  It is slow going.  Morro Bay, the Rock, the PG&E and Diablo Canyon power plants are all clearly visible.  Too close.  I motor a couple of hours to put some space between boat and land.

But I’m settling in, getting cozy in my surroundings.  The radar detector -- the alarm that sounds when a ship gets near, my lookout -- remains useless because there is always a ship in sight.  There’s an amazing amount of coastal ship traffic off the coast of California.  It’s like a freeway out here.  So I stay awake most of the night, only catching catnaps, constantly adjusting the non-working wind vane and keeping an eye on the ships jetting north and south.
. . .
January 19.

At six a.m., with the coast receding but still clearly visible, the wind picks up to 15 knots, the boat heels and we take off doing five knots.  Sailing!  It feels like a caress.  It only lasts an hour, though, before it dies down to ten knots and the boat slows to three.  At least we’re moving.

Noon, 27 hours after leaving.  I am a whopping 38 miles from Morro Bay.  I am still in cell phone contact with my family and have wished everyone a good morning.  It isn’t much different than being in a motel room in Salinas, communication-wise.  Land remains in sight, right over there;  the boat is on course;  the wind vane is steering.  I keep busy whipping lines, filling lamps, tidying the cockpit, attending to the endless jobs that a boat -- even a just-departed boat -- breeds.  I call this particular work activity “puttering.”

Dusk now.  Land has disappeared, the cell phone has mercifully gone “Out of Service,” the marine radio is silent, and I feel “away.”  I reef the main for the night and retire below to the warmth of the cabin.  As evening passes into night, the wind increases and the boat begins to knock about.  The wind speed indicator reads 30 knots;  the intensity of the motion increases to extreme discomfort, so I decide to take a second reef in the main.  The seas have increased enough to make any deck work a soaking affair.  Waves crash over the boat like a pulsating waterfall; the sea spills off the cabin top and down the decks in rivers.  The boat’s motion is intense, violent.

I struggle into my foul weather suit -- a fire-engine-red-and-white advertisement for West Marine.  It is an effort getting the outfit on, especially with the boat moving like an amusement park ride.  It is eerie dressing in the galley in the glow of the red night-light, struggling to hang on as each new wave hits.  Standing there, preparing myself to go on deck to take the reef, an exceptionally large wave hits, violently knocking the boat over 45 degrees.

My body becomes airborne, makes a half turn, and crashes into the galley-port dog -- the stainless steel, diamond-shaped knob that secures the port window closed and waterproof.  It is not a piece of protruding hardware you want to crash into.  I take the hit square on my left kidney.  The blow produces a lightening bolt in my head, buckles my knees, and I crash to the galley sole.  Fire alarms clang in my ears.  Pain sears through my body like wild fire.  My wind is knocked out.  I can’t breathe.  I can’t move.  Oh my god.

The pain is intense, fierce, extreme.  I don’t know how badly I am injured, and I am immediately concerned.  I lay motionless, curled up in the “U” of the galley, writhing, trying to take in a breath.  The air finally comes in a gasp - like reaching the water’s surface when you’ve stayed under a little too long - and fills my lungs.  I know that I won’t be able to work at the mast; the pain is too fierce for any deck work.  So, after a few minutes recovery, I crawl out to the cockpit, on my knees, wincing in pain with every movement, my head now blaring sirens.  Taking control of the steering, I back-wind the jib, lock the helm to weather and heave-to.  This settles the boat some.  I find myself on a southeast course, a course parallel with the coast, doing a knot, so the boat is okay.  The pain persists, though.  I am in agony.  I lay athwartship in the cockpit under the dodger for twenty minutes hoping it will pass, or at least improve, but it doesn’t.  Finally, I force myself up and descend the companionway ladder.  The cabin sole is strewn with water, books, CDs, potatoes, clothing, pots, pans.  Carefully, gingerly, I shed the foul weather suit, several times crying out in intense anguish, and slither into my quarter berth.  The wind indicator now reads 40 knots; the boat crashes violently.  I find a position in the berth that is relatively comfortable.  If I try to roll over, however, or move at all, the pain shoots through my body like I’d been stabbed with a Bowie knife.  I could use some Tylenol, but it will hurt too much to get out of the berth.  So I remain here, unmoving, until three in the morning when the boat suddenly, oddly, feels out of rhythm with the sea.  As I take note of the unusual movement, the radar alarm goes off.  There’s no ignoring the radar alarm, so I struggle out of the berth and climb the ladder to the cockpit.

Water continues to pound over the boat.  The wind whistles menacingly through the rigging.  There is no ship in sight and the boat appears to be riding the gale as well as can be expected, so I return to the warmth and comfort of my berth and doze off.  The boat remains out of rhythm with the seas the remainder of the night and I adjust to the uncomfortable movement.  It is, in a word, rough.
. . .
January 20

The weather has moderated and so has the pain.  At nine a.m. I put the boat on a southwest course, set the wind vane, and got underway again.  I don’t have any appetite -- I am experiencing a mild form of seasickness -- but know I have to eat something to keep my strength.  I straighten up the cabin, make a pot of coffee, eat a bowl of cereal, run the engine to charge the batteries, blast some rock and roll from the stereo, write in my journal.  Things are looking up.  The wind is down to ten knots, the sea has calmed, the cabin is clean.  I am feeling better.

Mid-day I take a hot, freshwater shower and put on clean clothes.  I feel like a very civilized sailor.  I drop back onto my berth and fall into a deep sleep, waking at three p.m.  When I awake, the wind has shifted, putting me back on a southeast course.  I am 50 miles west-south-west of Point Conception, and if I remain on this course I might run into one of the Channel Islands.  It would be very embarrassing to run into an island, so I pinch the boat close to the wind heading south.  Where is the northwest wind?  Not where I am.

The winds remain light into the early evening, the sky clear, so I decide to shake out the reef in the mainsail.  On deck I notice the outhaul shackle has broken and the foot of the mainsail has inched forward on the boom.  I shake out the reef, leaving the main loose on the mast, make a line fast at the clew and run it through the reefing block and forward to the reefing winch on the forward end of the boom.  My plan is to pull the foot of the sail aft so I can re-secure it to the outhaul.  I take three wraps of line around the winch and give a turn on the handle.  The winch pulls out of the boom as if mounted in butter and falls to the cabin top with a hard metal thud.  This does not please me.  Leaning down to rescue the winch before it falls overboard, I see the sail track lifting away from the boom at the outer end.  The dominoes are falling. Before I can get the sail down, before I have time to think of the best action to take, the after end of the boom sail track -- six feet of it -- pulls away from the boom, popping screw after screw like little rockets as it lifts away.  Then it performs a miracle by cleverly tying itself into a bronze pretzel. This does not please me either.

I could remount the winch and tie the foot of the sail to the boom -- and that’s exactly what I would do if this had happened mid-ocean -- but I am only 80 miles from Santa Barbara, so I change course, to go in, to make repairs.  This really doesn’t please me, but it is the correct decision.
. . .
January 24

Up all night as the weather conditions deteriorate.  This morning, approaching the Channel Islands, I am in a gale.  Again.  The visibility is near zero as I enter the channel, a channel filled with oilrigs and shipping lanes.  I’m on a beat and motoring, carefully watching my position and listening for other vessels through rain that pours solid.  It is rough.  I call Lindsay on the cell phone and tell her I have damage and am making for Santa Barbara.  I can only speak for a minute because when I leave the helm unattended, the boat tends to charge in a circle.

I motor-sail into the wind, hand steering, all day.  The rain stings my face and it is bitter cold.  I am numb, wet, and exhausted.  Occasionally, I duck under the dodger for a brief intermission from the elements.  Other than one, lone, oilrig supply boat, there are no other vessels about.  No one would be crazy enough to be out on the water on a day like this.  No one but the supply boat and me.  It is slow going against the wind and waves.

At 5:30, I enter Santa Barbara’s harbor and berth in an assigned slip.  I am exhausted, a zombie.  My body aches with the intensity of a sonic boom.  I feel like I have fought ten rounds with Evander Holyfield.  Well, okay, one round.  The “voyage” has lasted all of four days, three nights.  I am a whopping 115 miles from my home via Highway 101 -- a two-hour drive from my house.  Not exactly the South Pacific.  Oh, well.  Such is life. 

I will start again.   (See more photos!)

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