Goose to San Francisco
For the last few weeks, I've been working on the central coast aboard the 66 foot S.V. Achiever a vessel operated by Rain Coast Conservation Foundation. We have been supporting a film crew documenting the beauty of the coast and its wildlife. In the isolation of islands, I try to focus on the task at hand. But my mind is clouded by my first big sail aboard Sunpiper, just a few days away.
Anticipation builds as the Achiever glides into Lama Passage and reaches cell reception... The crew rushes to get the boat into working order for its next trip, I run around a little faster in order to take my mind off from the everlasting list of notifications on my cell phone. Waiting for my flight in the Britco building of the Bella Bella airport, I start by checking in with the crew members of the upcoming trip. I am talking to the fourth and last crew member as the stewardess is waving at me from the plain across the tarmac. I rush out the doors of the waiting room. Suddenly, an airport security officer bounces in front of me and grabs my phone. “No phones on the tarmac”, she frustratingly shouts at me. I guess this phone call will have to wait. On my arrival on Quadra Island several hours later, I toss all of the contents of my duffle bag into the washing machine and go over the list of missing items, parts and paperwork. My stepfather Sylvain, has been running around gathering a list of parts while I was away which was crucial to the trips timely departure. After a good night’s rest, I rush to Sunpiper and start stowing gear in her clean compartments. As I step down the companionway I notice a mountain of supplies piled up on the galley table. Chocolate, treats of all sorts, wrapped presents, notes, and two brand new handheld VHF radios. Some of the most essential items that did not make the “purchase before leaving” list. This tower of presents was delivered by my partner Kate. She, unfortunately, will not make an appearance on this trip as she is still working with the Straight Watch Program, as well as Maple Leaf.
My heart now warmed up by a mountain of surprises that will make our trip memorable, I set off to the task at hand and stow gear into the boat.
Over the following 24 hours, the crew shows up, and we go over drills, training and packing of food. Our crew of five was compiled of myself, Sylvain my stepfather and retired teacher, Eve our hilarious and ever smiling artist, Haven our helmsman and carpenter and Ethan our soon to be “lucky charm” lifeguard. On land, we were also assisted by my mom, Martine, the encouraging and devoted moral support family leader. She gathered the food order from Campbell River so that we could stock up the boat with ease. The evening before our departure after saying my goodbyes to friends and family, my neighbour Rocky invited me over to his boat. He also had many valuable treats for me. He gave me many words of encouragement, two exposure suits but best of all a miniature Christmas tree. He warned me that in Mexico the trees would be scarce and that at Christmas this little tree would make me feel at home.
The engine running, at times the sails set, we made our way to Victoria. Raw water pump failures and minor setbacks we hid out in the port of Sooke, awaiting the headwind entering the straight to die off. My alarm got me up at 23:30 and by midnight we were out of protection and cruising our way towards the open ocean.
The sea was uncomfortable, variable wave directions and calm winds made the crew question what it was they had set off to do! Having read tales of Haida fisherman purging themselves before setting off to sea, I decided to do the same and with the help of a finger, sitting on the aft deck I purged my stomach of the little content it withheld. I soon felt great! Sails were up doing good speed, morale was slowly but surely going up.
The crew worked around the clock, two of the morning shifts of three hours long and the rest of the day on two-hour rotations. Myself I took the 10-noon shift, this allowed all other crew members to have ample time to sleep and the ability to help out on the crews shift if needed. Hand steering day and night this was a heavy task. But the crew had been hand-picked and could handle anything thrown at them.
We were now out of sight of land, on the horizon another two-masted vessel, this could only mean one thing; Sunpiper was officially racing! Perhaps our opponent had not taken us into consideration, but their mizzen was suddenly hoisted and they too started to pick up speed. Challenge accepted I thought. Both boats were now within earshot and I noticed a French Blue, White, Red flag. With excitement, I rushed to the VHF and hailed them. No response. I hailed them a second and a third time, with no avail. Out of boredom from our competitors' rejection, we opened one of the pre-packaged presents left by Kate. In the brown paper wrapping as if pre-planned we discovered, bubble makers. With outbursts of joy, we blew as many bubbles as we could in the direction of this French ghost ship.
We were some ways north of Cape Mendocino when the wind picked up. Throughout the day our “lucky charm” Ethan had brought us from becalmed to making comfortable headway. As shifts changed the sails were trimmed down. By 18:30 we sailed under a reefed main rolling down 2m-2.5m waves full of excitement after having been becalmed. The sun had not yet set, now came the time to make a decision. To Sail, or not so sail! If this weather was to keep on building, would we be able to handle it well, or should we heave-to, and drop a stern line to slow us down? Should anything be done while we still had control and daylight? I decided to sail.
dWhen a crew lives through a new experience, people’s perceptions can be different. For the sake of the story, here is what we have recorded in the logbook.
Haven to Ethan. Wind/Swells building. Max Speed 9.8 knots
N 42*41.232 W125*24.924
Saw a bunch of Kelp. (40 NM off shore)”
Forgot to write in the book when I passed off to Eve. Swells huge dry suit on waves crashed into the cockpit. It’s so terrifying but it’s so amazing 20-30 knots wind swell 3-4m”
Léo takes the helm from Sylvain. The two of them are laughing away up there in the midst of chaos. They are swapping every 30 minutes. Swell 4-5m winds 30-35knots.
N 42*12.821 W 125*18.899”
Almost midnight. Sylvain and Léo are rocking it. Woohoo
N 41*57.432 W 125*13.221”
Sylvain is in the cabin Haven and Léo out in the cockpit.”
“Sept 04, 2018
Léo and Haven still at it hard. Such champs!”
“Wind and swell decreased slightly.
17.3 knots new record for Sunpiper
N 41*22.900 W124* 55.201”
Sylvain on the helm, 30 min rotations
20 foot swells 10-15 knots winds
N 40*58.528 W125* 38.399”
Léo going to take a poop”
Haven to Ethan. 3-6 knots light wind
Ethan to Eve swell got bigger 1-2m Speed over ground 4-7 knots.
N 40*25.826 W 124*43.438”
Swell Deep Rolling, Clear Sky, Chabs Sick, Léo at Helm Haven and Ethan are galley angles and washed all the dishes, forecast for tonight wind 25 knots seas <10 feet.
N 40*15.803 W124*39.562”
This event did not fall on our laps by accident. When travelling on the American coastline you are in reach of VHF weather forecast distributed by NOAA and it is very informative. It was a wonderful experience that I wouldn’t change for anything. It was my first experience with big swell and strong winds. None of which you can hide from when sailing out in the big blue. I had some very trustworthy crew and it was a memorable experience for them as well. To stay away from the strongest part of the system we directed ourselves towards shore, unfortunately, this also meant being becalmed once on the south side of Cape Mendocino.
The crew grew a little delirious and well bonded after our big wind. The log speaks of Zombie sharks and my favourite of all Mike and Morris, the two dolphins that followed us in bioluminescence starlit night, glowing sunrises and golden sunsets.
Our arrival in San Francisco was emotional and a bit stressful. The Golden Gate bridge is one of tales and truly remarkable to navigate under. The border official on the other hand... not as pleasant.
Words Of The Crew - Ethan Milne
Yo, my name is Ethan Milne. And this is my story aboard Sunpiper. -Quadra Island to San Francisco. FEATURING: Eve, Haven, Sylvain, Leo and Sunpiper. I had graduated a month before I embarked on this trip, gotten into a relationship and was fresh into the world. I knew little of what I was getting into. The only person I had met before was Leo, and even at that he and I didn’t know each other very well. I also knew very little about sailing, or how rough the seas could be. So, with that in mind, I climbed aboard a boat with 4 other complete strangers. And I have to say, it worked. I learned a lot about myself on this trip. Now if you read on, here is my brief story, which I could talk about for pages. I showed on the 26th of August with my bag ready to go. But there were still preparations to be made. After loading all of the food onto the boat the next day we left Quadra and sailed to Nanaimo, where we hunkered down in a well-protected bay for the night. The first half of the journey I had cell service and was very happy because I could stay in contact with everybody, and for an 18-year-old teenager, that is very important. It took us 3 days to get down the length of Vancouver Island, which we had relatively smooth sailing for, actually, there was no wind so we motored. The 30th of August is when shit really picked up. Before we had proper nights of sleep with a boat that didn’t rock too much. As we pulled out of the Juan de Fuca strait the swell had started to increase and we saw lots of whales. As soon as we got out into the open ocean and hoped to sail, we had absolutely no wind. It sucked and was frustrating. A day went by like this where we didn't cover much ground. Only in the evening did it pick up and we got up to 6 knots of speed. I started to feel a bit homesick after this because I couldn't talk to anyone as we lost cell service. However, with the crews’ upbeat attitude, we started our tradition of reading to each other a story a night of Stuart McLean. Now it is September 1st and I was feeling really homesick but tried not to let it show. On the 1st we actually started sailing, we were doing a rotation of two-hour shifts throughout 24 hours. Cooking was becoming a challenge with the swell picking up to 2-3 feet and us constantly swaying. We saw dolphin pods almost every day. On the 2nd my analogy was that this trip is like a rollercoaster that you live on and have to drive. It was exhausting. On the 3rd of September, shit picked up. The morning started out fine but in the afternoon swells picked up to over 7 feet and it was scary. By midnight they were over 15 feet, Leo and Haven at the helm as the rest of the crew sat and waited for them to carry us safely thru the gale. But despite the terrifying night that was unfolding if I glanced into the cockpit I could hear Leo and Haven laughing away and having a grand old time. Seeing them so confident in the middle of a gale brought me confidence. And that was something I learnt about myself. No matter the situation, you get to choose your attitude towards the events in front of you. That was the worst night ever. But it was exhilarating. We landed in San Francisco on the 7th of September. Ran into a few bumps along the way but it was all worth it. To sail under that bridge was absolutely stunning. People ask me if I would do this trip again, even though it was so terrifying for me. And my response is yes. I would do it again in a heartbeat. That trip was everything to me. It was beautiful, it was ugly, it was happy, it was sad. There is no real way to put it into words. I am so grateful for the whole crew for making it an amazing experience.