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The Long Commute

by Danielle "Digger" Dignan
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 1999.

In June 1997 I bought a 30-foot, cutter-rigged, sailboat. After 26 years of sailing on other people's boats (since age 1 with my wooden-boat building father), I wanted to be owner and skipper, the person responsible for planning passages, making repairs, and putting together a crew. In short, I wanted to be the person who made the decisions.

All summer I poured my soul, blood, sweat, and bank account into the boat. Looking back I see a blur of 14-hour days, refitting everything from standing rigging to seacocks, from wiring to sails. I never questioned why I was doing it. It was obvious I had caught that bug that flourishes in coastal towns, infecting vulnerable people with the driving desire to sail out into the open ocean. So, having been bitten, I gave in.

And I had a deadline: I needed to reach Mexico's Sea of Cortez by early December in order to get to work on time from our starting point in Washington state--and I had to do it traveling at a speed of 6 knots, a snail's pace compared to a car on land. I would be entering my third year as a NOLS sailing instructor out of the NOLS Mexico branch in Mulege, Baja California. I wanted Astraea there with me--anchored in Coyote Bay and ready to go cruising--in between courses.

On Sept. 12, 1998, I departed Port Townsend, Washington, on the newly christened Astraea, with a crew of four friends. Sue Bedient, NOLS instructor and avid sailor, was on board to expand her skills to ocean cruising. Carol Hasse, a sailmaker from Port Townsend, was taking a welcome break from the loft to make a passage--her favorite pastime. Tara Hubbard, a bright-worker from Seattle, wanted to test her newly-acquired sailing skills and knowledge. Melissa Crabtree, NOLS instructor and professional musician, was the only non-sailor among us. A whitewater and sea-kayaker, she was comfortable on the water--but would soon find out her true feelings for open-ocean sailing.

Friends and family stood on the dock to bid us farewell. This was a monumental day for Astraea, and for me. Astraea was ready to show off her touted--but never verified--offshore cruising abilities. I was ready to skipper her, with seaman-like style, 800 non-stop miles to San Francisco.

We rounded Point Hudson and joined the 3-knot current ebbing out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca--the 100-mile arm linking Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia with the Pacific Ocean. My father and friends escorted us for a while on his 44-foot ketch, cameras clicking, but turned around as soon as the rain started. We were on our way! The local forecast called for the typical NW 15 to 25 knot wind, four to six foot seas. Despite the fact that we were leaving late in the season, I had confidence that we would arrive in Neah Bay, at the northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula--the jumping off spot for all points south--and be able to leave the next day.

Yeah! San Francisco here we come!

Wrong.

Six days of 40-knot southerlies and five inches of rain later we were still tied to the Neah Bay Marina longdock, barometer dropping, forecast hopeless. Never listen to the chicanery of those optimistic little voices.

You can't go wrong with five women, two guitars, and three pounds of finely ground Colombian Supremo though! We nestled in and enjoyed the time together--without the busy schedule of our other lives. Impatient crews from other waiting boats kept stopping by, attracted by our laughter, wondering how we could possibly be having such a good time while waiting out a storm. We plotted waypoints, practiced raising storm-sails, and went over emergency procedures. To us it was all part of the journey, and at least we didn't have to stand watch.

At dawn on Sept. 18 we shoved off, taking advantage of a break in the weather. What a joy! What a high! How fun!

How nauseating.

Within minutes the whole crew lost their breakfasts. The heavy winds had left behind obnoxiously huge seas that even a biggest roller coaster fan would detest. Despite everything, though, we were happy just to be at sea. We fell into a watch system, we trimmed and changed sails, we recorded our journey in the log. And after a few days, the galley teemed with smells of delicious meals, despite Astraea's dramatic rolling motion down the seas.

We sailed south, down the West Coast, about 30 miles offshore. Several people had recommended that we favor the "inshore" route to San Francisco, over the more common "offshore" route 100 to 200 miles out. Never again will I stay this close to shore.

It was like driving on the wrong side of a six-lane highway, but the cars each weighed 200,000 pounds and they couldn't see you and didn't care. I slept only a few hours during the eight-day passage. Astraea's log reflects a non-stop barrage of ships, tugs, barges, and fishing vessels. We were smack in the middle of the ad hoc shipping lanes running up and down the North Pacific Coast. And the abundance of fish made the waters popular fishing grounds. One night I came up to relieve Tara of her watch and looked ahead at what appeared to be the blazing lights of a city directly in our path--yet according to the fix I had just taken we were 32 miles out. "Oh, it's just a fleet of about 150 trawlers," said Tara. The next several hours were spent weaving in and out of erratically moving vessels with blinding lights on their decks--all the while flying the spinnaker.

We polished our communication skills on the VHF: "Yes captain--anything you say!" and managed the traffic. The days ticked by in the log, and the weather was unseasonably beautiful. It was the middle of September and so warm we could even go sin ropas. The northwest wind pushed us along like a dream, and there was nowhere else in the world I wanted to be. With the constant motion of the seas, most of the crew gained their sea legs. Except for Melissa--longing for the coffee drinking days of Neah Bay--she threw up for six days straight. On the seventh day, emerging from the cabin with her guitar, she wrote a song called, "I Should Have Taken the Greyhound."

Though Astraea's gear is pretty basic--no roller furling, no autopilot, no hot water, no refrigeration, no watermaker, no weatherfax--she does boast a few toys that made life on board considerably easier for all of us: "Vanna" the self-steering windvane, GPS, and radar.

Three months earlier, in Hasse's loft, I had been handed a piece of paper--on it the outline of an asymmetrical spinnaker--and a box of crayons with instructions to color in my own design. Now here I was flying my big purple, green and white sail built in her loft. It was so big and luscious. Every chance there was we'd raise the snuffer and let the wind create the most glorious explosion of color, as it blossomed out with a thunderous snap.

The night we rounded the notorious Cape Mendocino conditions picked up--as expected. During a watch change Hasse and I decided to gybe the poled-out jib, as the wind had veered. Because of Astraea's awkward pole set-up I was unable to help Hasse when she needed to retie the jib sheet's bowline on the clew. After what seemed like helpless hours of holding the pole at the mast, just a few feet away from her, I finally heard a tiny voice emerge from under the hood of her storm suit. All it said, under the roar of the wind and the rolling black waves, was, "I can't get my bunny to go back down through the hole!"

Sue was the first to spot a black-footed albatross, with its eight-foot wingspan. The big brown bird followed us for days. Although we provided no free lunches, she stayed anyway--flying away for a few hours in search of some fish--then returning, as if checking up on us. Albatross spend months wandering great distances over the ocean, sleeping while floating on the water's surface, returning to land only for a "stylized courting ritual of elaborate bowing and posturing." (Not unlike cruisers and NOLS instructors!)

We neared the San Francisco area one evening and decided to heave-to until morning to approach the bay. With a double-reefed mainsail sheeted flat and the helm hard over, Astraea rested quietly. At first light we began down the Bonita Channel, the small passage to the north of the infamous "potato patch," that only small vessels use. After hearing on the radio that mariners were finding 20-foot breaking waves inside the supposedly safe, marked channel, we turned around and headed for the main shipping channel. I wasn't about to end this journey with my boat riding a wave onto the rocks, right under the honking, rush-hour traffic of the Golden Gate Bridge.

It was the highest moment of my life, crossing through that "Gate." I had previously sailed across the Pacific on other boats, but this day marked the successful completion of my first ocean passage as skipper of my own boat. My thoughts returned to the hard work I had done all summer to ready Astraea for offshore. I remembered the times when friends would stop by the boatyard to find me covered in epoxy or bottom paint or varnish; or the time my boyfriend, seeing only my lower half upside down sticking out of the engine well, tools scattered around me, thought I was the electrician; or the time the head exploded on a shakedown cruise and I spent four disgusting hours taking the toilet apart.

We left the big red bridge and the setting sun behind--the lights of the city to starboard, Sausalito to port, Alcatraz ahead. It was a glorious day, one not to forget. But this accomplishment was only part of a continuing journey, one that would culminate only with Astraea's arrival in Coyote Bay.

On the supposed day of departure from San Francisco, back out into the Pacific, Astraea's mast lay horizontal in the yard, while she bobbed like a cork in her slip. We were going nowhere fast, after discovering a damaged masthead, the spinnaker crane bent to a 90-degree angle. It is a true test of patience when you are ready to begin a passage, but your boat is not. The more urgent your deadline, the more important the repairs. The log marked no passing miles.

Finally, on Nov. 16, the aluminum masthead welded in place, the stick went vertical. Astraea was ready for a long journey, her bootstripe just below the water's surface. The icebox was filled to the brim with good food. The overflowing hammock flaunted a panoply of fruits and vegetables, as much as we could fit, knowing how welcome it would be to have fresh food at sea. My new crew and I suited up and got underway, anxious to put miles behind us and bid farewell to the states. I had 18 days to go 1,400 miles.

We sailed west, beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, and for several days we encountered every wind direction: sailing upwind, close-hauled one minute; downwind, on a run the next. There were only three of us now, so watches were longer--but there was more room on board. A NOLS instructor and expert sea-kayaker, Bruce "Paco" Smithhammer was on board to expand his deep love of the ocean to greater depths. Eric Youngren, a NOLS instructor and wooden-boat owner from Orcas Island, came along for a first offshore experience, and for the pure joy of sailing. In the evenings Eric played his mandolin on the foredeck, as Astraea carved a path south, through the beautiful blue water.

Some 350 miles into our passage, the northwesterlies began to blow. In a matter of several hours the wind went from 15 knots to 50 knots, and we went from full main and genoa to storm staysail only. The anemometer registered the increasing wind, as the seas responded with crests of white water. I wondered what had prompted the Portuguese navigator, Magellan, to name this ocean after the word peaceful. We ran with the gale for two days, exceeding hull speed, sliding down waves, feeling very small. Vanna steered better than any of us could, and we deemed her honorary first mate. The boat's brawny, double-ended hull handled the seas like a champ, never so much as contemplating a broach while careening down breaking waves. Astraea was a goddess--proving true to her name's mythic heritage.

On Nov. 27 we celebrated. It was Thanksgiving Day and Paco's 30th birthday. I dug out the cake mix I'd stowed under the V-berth. The sun was blazing the sky with fire as it set, a pod of dolphins had been swimming alongside us all day, and there was a fresh tuna on the barbecue. The heavy weather had abated, and the spinnaker was carrying us south. Does life get any better than this? I proudly finished icing the freshly baked chocolate cake and began the few steps up the companionway, to join the guys in the cockpit. Just as I reached the top step, Astraea lurched to port from a swell taken on the starboard quarter. I braced myself and held tight to the cake, determined not to lose it. But the hasty motion of the boat instigated the flight of the cake, adorned with the words "Happy Birthday Paco!," exclamation point and all. Destination: Paco's lap. He assured us that it was by far his best birthday, and proceeded to eat the icing right off his foulies.

As latitudes slipped away and the waters warmed, night watches became spectacular. Phosphorescence lit Astraea's knot path through the water, as shooting stars illuminated the sails. One night-watch, 150 miles off the west coast of Baja, I was having a particularly difficult time staying awake. So tired, I was nodding off while standing up. Solution: the suicidal squid patrol. The poor little creatures were flinging themselves to their death, attracted by the running lights-- only to be found in the morning, crusty bodies stuck to the decks and dodger--not able to prove themselves as the fastest swimming invertebrates in the ocean. Now, every time I started to nod off, I clipped my harness into the jack lines and went forward to rescue them, flinging their squirmy little naked bodies back into the sea. My crew thought I was crazy, but staying awake was much easier with a mission.

On Nov 29, we rounded Cabo San Lucas, the southern tip of Baja California, but didn't bother making landfall. I was beginning to worry about making it to Coyote Bay on time, and wanted to push on to La Paz to clear customs. There was always the option of leaving Astraea in a protected port along the way, but I wasn't ready to give up yet.

Five miles outside of La Paz harbor, on Dec. 1, the engine died. There was not a breath of wind. We were becalmed. I was going to have to leave my boat in a marina and bus up to the branch. My heart was heavy as I let go of my hopes to moor Astraea just off of Playa Coyote. It would be more than two months until I could come back for her.

But something just short of a miracle happened in La Paz. So much for Mexican red tape! We got a tow into Marina de La Paz, fixed the engine, cleared customs, and filed immigration papers all within a few hours. Not much time to rest--a quick trip to the store and we were out of the harbor, waving good-bye to the incredulous Port Captain. All he could do was exclaim to me, "La Capitana?!" And to my male crew, "Marineros?!"

A full-blown 30-knot "Norte" was plowing right down the sea, and we beat directly into it. We had more than 200 uphill miles to go in less than 72 hours. To windward we slogged--through the waters named, in 1539, for the Spanish conqueror Cortes--the Baja Peninsula to the west, mainland Mexico to the east.

During the passage I made a chilling navigational error that will haunt me forever. I plotted a course on the chart from La Paz to the Bay of Conception, and plugged it into the GPS. We followed the heading day and night. But what I forgot was that the chart, mapped in 1876, was six miles off. I awoke to voices. "Well, we're back up to 10 feet of water here," Paco was saying to Eric. Ten feet of water?! I bolted out of my bunk and flew into the cockpit. We had just passed between Punta Marcial and Marcial Rock, a shoal area, scattered with submerged, car-sized rocks, that the guidebook warns, "Pass only with extreme caution!" And we were in the pitch dark. It was the biggest mistake I had ever made, not checking more than one source of information. I had been sailing these waters for two years in longboats, and knew not to trust those charts. I had also always taught my students the importance of double checking navigation, in the same way a climber would double check her harness. This was a good reminder to heed my own tenets and never to be too confident. Unscathed, we trudged on. Remembering that night sends shivers down my spine.

As my deadline drew closer, I imagined that folks at the branch were wondering if I would make it in time for my contract, especially considering that I was the only instructor on that particular seminar. I pictured the last minute scramble to find an instructor. Maybe they would send Dave Kallgren, branch director, into the field; not a bad excuse to get out of the office!

Things were looking good, though. I was elated at the prospect of making it on time, even though I would have to turn right around and head into the field. At 0400 on Dec. 4 we rounded Punta Concepcion, and broadreached the 10 miles downwind to Coyote Bay in a perfect breeze. Pacific white-sided dolphins escorted us, cactus-dotted mountains stood watch on both sides, and magnificent frigate birds flew overhead. I breathed a sigh of relief. Not a bad commute.

Less than six months after buying Astraea, my dreams came to fruition. I had made it! My crews had been stellar. Through all the exhaustion and hard work, nobody had uttered so much as a peep of complaint or disappointment.

A total of 2,200 miles from Port Townsend, 18 days out of San Francisco, and 16 hours before my contract began, we dropped the hook in Coyote Bay. I achieved a very important personal goal, and I was able to share it with my friends. That was most important to me. A midnight-watch log entry by Hasse says it all: "Fog ensconced since daybreak. Astraea peacefully rolling down the waves at 5 to 6 knots. We carry this grey orb, pushing and dragging 100 yards of visibility to San Francisco. Everyone is sleeping, radar screen clear. Hearts full--of love for life, mother-ocean, the power within us for adventure and joy, for Astraea and each other."


Danielle "Digger" Dignan has been a NOLS instructor since 1995. Currently she is raising money to build two sailboats for the NOLS Pacific Northwest sailing program. She will be sailing Astraea back to Port Townsend this summer via the offshore "Clipper" route. A similar version of this article will appear in SAIL Magazine this fall.


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