We gave each other an exuberant "high-five" as the Golden Gate came into view. We had completed our longest passage to date; 822 nautical miles in 100 hours, just the two of us. Our goal was to see if we could successfully manage multiple overnights maintaining constant watch without additional crew. Once again, weather became a factor. Compounding that, I made a critical mistake resulting in parlous suspense at a very bad time. As much as I swore never to let it happen to me, it did. In the event telling the story will help someone else avoid the same error, I'll debrief later with a blow-by-blow account. Also, I made a short 1.5 minute video which I've placed at the end. Here's the story from the beginning...Trip Planning
The West Coast is a treacherously unpredictable place for mariners. It takes the full brunt of everything the Pacific has incoming. The coast is rugged so when conditions turn bad unexpectedly, reentry to safe harbor can be dangerous especially when lacking local knowledge. Good weather, when you can get it, is golden.
We thought about breaking the trip into two legs with a stop in Astoria, Oregon. It's a nice place to visit and we thought it would give us much needed rest. However, we wanted to be flexible if conditions appeared favorable to do the entire trip.
We're finding there is no better way to get miles behind us than nonstop, around the clock. The opportunity can develop quickly leaving us little time to assemble crew. So being able to transit 800 miles off shore on short notice with just the two of us is an important arrow in our quiver.
I gave Bob at Ocean Marine a call to get his take on the forecast. High pressure centers repeated across the North Pacific pushing low troughs in between. They were coming rapid fire with sporadic areas of pressure gradient in the pattern making it difficult to forecast wind. Oh, but there was an apparent break that could give us 3 to 4 days of steadier conditions. Swells out of the WNW 6 - 8 feet and northerly winds under 20 knots. We made the decision to plan a nonstop and set the departure time pending one final weather check before pushing off.
I further decided on a bluewater route further off shore to take advantage of its simplicity and reduce the coastal affect on currents. Also, crab pots, fishing boats and kelp are not our friends at night. More offshore is better.Day 1
Departure time was based on two factors. First knowing we would go through a full tide cycle before reaching sea, we decide to go into the flood to start, and then ride the ebb the rest of the way out. That put us by Neah Bay at about midnight, which would give us the first night at sea with the least wind.
Second, we wanted to arrive San Francisco with a flooding current. Prevailing winds are nearly always from seaward so we would get a double push and better ride going in.
So after returning the rental car, we were able to cast off at 10 AM Saturday morning. We decided to alternate three hour watches during the day using the free time to nap. We agreed to divide nights in half with me taking from 6 to 1, then Debbie from 1 to 6. I did engine room checks and switched fuel tanks every 6 hours at 6 and 12.
Passing Orcas in Puget Sound. Amazingly synchronous swimmers.
Our departure route
Saying goodbye to the now familiar company of the cruise ships.Day 2
Our watch schedule worked well at first, probably because we started well rested. The second day became more difficult and was probably the most difficult part of the trip. Sea conditions were good, but I found it difficult to sleep when I was supposed to. Debbie was sleeping better than me, but still not as much as normal.
Both of us pushed through fatigue determined to get a pattern down. We decided cardinal rule number one was not to have both of us on watch at the same time which we like to do, but nobody gets rest then. Second is to be more vigilant when on watch, managing by walking around, staying occupied and alert as possible. Third to be more purposeful about getting rest when not on watch. It was easy to stay busy if we weren't feeling like going to bed. We agreed not to set the alarm. Better stated, never awaken one who is managing to sleep soundly ... let them sleep if they can.
As day two was nearing nightfall we were passing our intended stop, Astoria. Almost like someone turned a switch, the weather changed radically. I couldn't believe what was happening. Swells were coming in at 6 to 9 feet, wind was about 25 knots and current was running about 2 knots. None of which would normally be a problem. Then I realized the swells were arriving from the northwest, the current going from northeast to southwest and the wind had shifted to the south. I knew then we were in for a ride! I took a couple of video clips (included below) before it got dark as this condition was beginning to form.
We started calling this the "Sleep Chamber" where you go for 'mandatory' sleep. Blackout shades and the steady drone of the engine help. It also helps to get really tired first!
Nothin' but us birds out here. This hearty species seemed to be prevalent most of the way. I haven't had a chance to look him up, but I'm sure someone will help me fill in the blank.Day 3
The uneasy sea state seemed to hit us from every direction the rest of the night. On top of that, we met with a huge fishing fleet on our route which was exactly what I was trying to avoid. Amazingly, we got a great night's sleep so day three felt much better. Debbie prepared oatmeal for breakfast, had a big pot of soup on, plus we had ham sandwiches. We double downed on water to stay hydrated.
As the day went on, the wind switched back around to the North confirming a good decision to stay the course. We started a larger generator to make water in the afternoon and air condition the pilot house. Otherwise, we didn't need any air conditioning or heating the entire trip.
By nightfall though, it was apparent we were in for another round. The ocean swell began to grow to an average of 12 to 15 feet with greater frequency. Nothing like forecast. They hit us on the starboard quarter making the steering and stabilizers work hard. Regardless, it wasn't uncomfortable so we pressed on.
I'm hungry. I'm tired and thirsty. Haven't seen land in days. Got somethin' for a guy down in his luck? This poor fella showed up and flitted outside the window like he wanted to be let in. Must have been tame. He had a yellowish breast and a yellow patch on the underside of his tail. Anyone know this one?Day 4 and "The Mistake"
I used to love reading the Pilot Error' column in flying magazines and can remember shaking my head at the dumb things people do. Sadly, this is one of those stories.
The day of arrival finally came. Almost like an alarm clock, I woke up at 6, jumped out of bed ready to start the day. Debbie was getting along perfectly despite a still rough sea. We were nearing our final approach right on schedule. It was my turn for watch only this time I would take it the rest of the way in for an approximate 2 PM arrival. I hurried downstairs to do the normal engine room check and tank change.
Once back at the helm, I checked radar for traffic. There were several freighters and a tanker in the system. I thought it prudent to join San Francisco VTS (Vessel Traffic Service) operated by the Coast Guard who coordinate arrivals and departures.
We set our course for the "SF" sea buoy which marks the beginning of the final channel into San Francisco. This is a precautionary zone where vessels coming from different directions converge and space themselves in or out. There was a pilot boat cruising that area, but otherwise it appeared we would fortunately have the zone to ourselves. I called VTS and requested transiting the zone north of the buoy to cut off a couple miles, although it placed us in the path of any oncoming traffic for about 10 minutes. No oncoming traffic was imminent and permission was granted.
We entered the precautionary zone normally and took a heading direct to the inbound lane. The current was coming on our stern just as planned and everything seemed perfect. The pilot boat came out to parallel us as we transited the outbound traffic lane.
Then suddenly, without warning, our main engine quit. It became very quiet. My mind raced as I watched the RPM's drop to zero. What happened? What do we do now? In an unexpected moment, Eliana was directly exposed as she had lost all propulsion, steering and stabilization. Debbie rushed up to lend assistance. I had rehearsed this situation a hundred times in my mind, but we had never actually done an engine out drill. No time to think, though, we've got to do it NOW.
I glanced at the on-line generator and it was running normally so we had electricity. I started the wing engine, engaged the wing propeller and hydraulic pump. Now we had propulsion and hydraulic pressure, but still no steering or stabilizers. Steering trumps, so I started the 32 KW generator which provides emergency steering power. Bingo, we had steering. Finally, after powering down and restarting the stabilizers, they began to work again. We were wounded, but safe for the moment.
After a quick call to VTS to explain our erratic behavior, we set our course northbound out of the control area. Then Debbie took the helm while I went to the engine room to figure out how to get the engine restarted. It's got to be fuel, it's got to be fuel I kept thinking. But how in the world. The wing engine is running yes, it has its own tank. The generators are running but they pull from the same tank as the main so there MUST be fuel there. I threw open the engine room door, wheeled around to see, to my horror, the fuel supply tank sight gauge was completely empty. How? Both main tanks had at least 900 gallons each. Then it occurred to me that if the supply tank is indeed empty, the generators won't be running for long and we would be in a heap of trouble. I rechecked the fuel valves which were set to pull fuel from the port engine room tank, so I opened the starboard and closed the port. Instantly, fuel began filling the supply tank. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Back upstairs, Debbie did a great job of guiding Eliana generally toward safer water. With fuel back in the supply tank, I made several attempts to restart the main, but to no avail. There is no air bleed provision on the engine, but I knew there must be a way to do it. I called Garrett Severen at Nordhavn who got the answer from Joe Ascona in about 2 minutes. He instructed me to loosen the JIC fitting just past the fuel filter, then crank. I did that until fuel seeped out, then tightened the fitting and cranked again and voila, she started. Five minutes later we had everything completely back to normal and recovered our approach into San Francisco.
The Golden Gate
Closer UpPost Mortem
Even as we tied up in Richmond Bay Marina, I still didn't know how we ran out of fuel. But after reenacting the final hours, I figured it out. In haste that morning, I opened the wrong valve to the supply tank. There are TWO valves located under the floorboard of the engine room out of sight. I've opened and closed the correct one hundreds of times with no issue. Admittedly, I used to stick my head under there to read the label as I turned the valve, but eventually got to where I did it by feel. This time, I mistakenly grabbed the valve to a forward tank that was empty.
To assure this never happens again, I will be removing the handle entirely from the forward tank valve and tying it off to the side. The other procedure change is to go back to a 4 hour tank switch instead of 6 hour since the supply tank doesn't hold quite 6 hours. Any misalignment would be caught that way before running out of fuel.
The two valves in question. Both are under the floorboard. The upper one is the correct one. Before Signing Off
I've attached a brief 1.5 minute video which has three short clips. First, departing Puget Sound alongside the cruise ship at sunset. Second, the sea state at nightfall when the sea was starting to kick up. And finally, the entry under the Golden Gate as the fog horns were going. Click Here
We're thoroughly enjoying the Bay area. We'll rest here for a good month and a half before moving further south. As always, comments and questions are welcome. Just use the link below to go directly to our web site. All the best to you and yours.
Lying: Richmond Bay Marina
Mileage: 8,203 Nautical Miles