Logo

Chapter One: You’re Crazy!

by Lyn Foley on January 7, 2009

July 2000 – September, 2000

 

“Life is a daring adventure or nothing.” — Helen Keller

 

Cautiously we motored our sailboat Sanctuary out toward the Pacific Ocean. I braced stiff legged on the cockpit combing, raised my binoculars, and searched anxiously for signs of the dangerous rocks I knew rimmed the dog- legged channel of the tiny harbor of Ugui Ko, Japan. Suddenly my husband Jim tugged at my sleeve, and said, “Don’t worry – I’m steering and watching for the rocks – Look back over your shoulder.” I turned, and began shouting “Sayonara”, and ringing the ships’ bell as loud as I could. In my anxiety I had almost missed seeing the small group of Japanese well wishers who stood on the quay, waving goodbye to us as we left to cross an ocean. The Harbormaster, some fishermen, a Japanese sailor, and other locals who had befriended us during our last days in Japan had gotten up at first light to acknowledge our departure. What an honor!

Brushing tears from our eyes, we gave a last wave, continued past the entrance quay and the rocks, then turned off the engine and set the sails to begin what turned out to be a thirty two day passage across the North Pacific from Japan to Alaska. We logged 2920 nautical miles, for our longest, and most demanding, crossing in ten years of ocean voyaging.

The route we chose led northeast to the Aleutian Islands, and into the Bering Sea. (The Aleutians are a chain of Alaskan islands sprinkled like a necklace of graduated beads which taper from Alaska toward Russia.) As we neared the end of our North Pacific crossing our forty foot sailboat slipped into Samalga Pass between The Islands of the Four Mountains to port and Umnak Island to starboard. The islands were totally obscured in fog, and visible only on our radar screen. As we nosed into the Bering Sea, heading east toward our landfall destination of Dutch Harbor (a fishing port tucked in on the north side of the island of Unalaska), the fog lifted, exposing something we had not seen for thirty days – land! I shouted: “There’s Umnak Island, – and there’s snow on the mountains!”

The last two days of our passage were fantastic. After days of bleak fog, the sun shone blindingly, brilliantly. Light winds blew perfectly for a slow broad reach, and Umnak Island slid quietly past on our starboard as if it was moving, and Sanctuary was still. Huge volcanic peaks of black basalt rose from startlingly green tundra punctuated by waterfalls standing out like bright undulating ribbons. The orange beaks and black and white coloring of flocks of puffins added an artistic counterpoint to the giant scenery. We spent our watches scanning the island with binoculars. It was a breathtaking sight, especially after a month of seeing only ocean and sky.

Dutch Harbor, our destination, drew slowly closer – only 100 nautical miles to go. I was on watch, Jim asleep below, when two fishing trawlers appeared on the horizon. Our VHF radio began to crackle, and I heard a call: Sailing Vessel, Sailing Vessel, this is the Arctic Dawn, Who are you? Where did you come from, and where are you going? How come you are out here in the Bering Sea?” Jim woke up as the trawlers drew closer, circling us. The captain of the “Aleutian I” chimed in, calling and repeating the questions.

We told them we had sailed thirty days from Japan, and were headed for landfall in Dutch Harbor. With that, the crews of ten hearty seamen on each boat came “All Hands on Deck” to see the spectacle of Sanctuary. They cheered, “Welcome to Alaska!” One fellow yelled several times, “You’re crazy.”

Called crazy by Alaska fishermen? The fishermen might really have called us fools had they known that my husband, Jim, had left San Francisco and sailed  around the world while dealing with symptoms of Parkinson disease (P.D.). Just eight months before we passed under the Golden Gate Bridge to begin our journey, he was diagnosed with “Early Onset” of P.D. – a progressive, degenerative neurological disorder, with no known cure. The three cardinal symptoms for P.D. are: rigidity or slowness of movement, tremor and postural instability or imbalance. In other words, Jim sometimes could barely move, sometimes went rigid or “froze” in place, sometimes shook uncontrollably, or sometimes fell over unexpectedly – all curses  Jim endured, and that made living aboard a forty- foot sailing vessel especially challenging , even dangerous, at times. Dealing with the nefarious symptoms of P.D. added an extra dimension of difficulty (and `craziness’ ?) to our accomplishments.

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Safe in Dutch Harbor’s small boat harbor, we sidled up to another visiting sail boat, and side-tied to her. The harbor was crowded, filled with Alaskan fishing vessels under fifty feet in length, and we tucked Sanctuary in tight. As soon as we tied up, I climbed over our neighboring boat, ran down the dock and up the ramp, knelt and kissed the ground, screaming “Ya Hoo! We made it – we’re back in America!” Fisherman standing around the dock chuckled and asked Jim, “Why is she doing that?”

We were home, back in the U.S.A. The goal Jim and I had created twenty six years earlier – to sail around the world together aboard our own boat – was almost complete. We had been voyaging for ten years, with only about 2000 nautical miles left before reaching British Columbia, and crossing our outgoing track, officially tying the knot on our `east about’ circle, a circumnavigation of the world. Crazy we might be, but we were living our lives fully and joyously, and continued to push our physical limitations. Our navigation and sailing skills had been tested time and time again, and our lives had also been in question several times during our ten year journey. Yet, we remained dedicated to our goal. Together we accommodated P.D. but refused to surrender to it. We had sailed to thirty nine countries and logged over 35,000 nautical miles. It was great to be back in the USA – even though Alaska felt like a country of its own.

~~~~~~~~~~

In a day or two, gale winds began to blow – carrying winds so strong they picked gravel  up from the parking lot and pelted the decks of Sanctuary and other boats in the harbor. Our lines creaked and our fenders were flattened almost to bursting as Sanctuary lurched like a wild stallion on her mooring lines. Glad enough to be in port and not still at sea in the ferocious winds, we hunkered below, listening to the winds howl. After eight hours the winds decreased. In a few days the accompanying pea soup fog lifted long enough for a short take- off and landing airplane to arrive, bringing with it more than a month’s worth of our mail and Jim’s Parkinson medications.

With the wind calmed and our packages aboard, we soon untied our dock lines, and left Dutch Harbor, making our way to Paul Island, an outer island off the Alaska Peninsula. After a calm and starry night at anchor in Kupreanof Harbor, we woke to a beautiful morning with a clear, crisp sky. Just a whisper of air ruffled the water. The weather forecast called for less than twenty- five knots of wind for the next twenty- four hours, so we plotted a course to a sheltering harbor fifty nautical miles away, anticipating a perfect day’s sail at  a speed of about about five knots.. We raised anchor, I tied it into its chock, and we headed Sanctuary cheerfully, and unknowingly, toward the worst weather we would experience in ten years of ocean voyaging.

That afternoon, as we sailed slowly toward our goal, the fine sunny weather and light winds changed for the worse. In spite of the forecast, a fast dropping barometer and a building ocean swell revealed the truth – a blow was on the way. The winds picked up sharply, the sky and sea turned gray, and the water began to churn. We shortened our sails as gale force winds overtook us.

After adjusting the sails, I went below to check the chart, hoping to find a safe anchorage closer than the one we had planned to make. I discovered Necessity Cove, which looked like a perfect spot to sit out the gale. The chart indicated `williwaws’, but I didn’t know what they were. Jim vaguely remembered fishermen in Dutch Harbor warning us to avoid bays and coves where williwaws were noted, so I pulled out the U.S. Sailing Directions for Alaska to look up the term. The Directions stated: These dangerous winds occur mainly along the Aleutian chain and Gulf of Alaska shores, and are influenced by local topography. They are most frequent in winter and are usually the result of air damming up on the windward slopes of mountains. This air spills over in a strong gust on the lee side: that lasts as long as the dammed-up cold air lasts, which frequently is only a matter of minutes. However, such winds are violent, often reaching hurricane force and their onset is sudden, often interrupting periods of near-calm conditions. Some locations sheltered from the normal winds of the area may be extremely vulnerable to williwaws.”

I read further, and found a little note on the directions for Necessity Cove: “Although subject to strong williwaws the cove affords good anchorage with winds from SW through W to N”. We discussed our choices: stay out in worsening weather, or risk a williwaw? We choose Necessity, and nosed into the cove. It was calm and pristine. We breathed sighs of relief as we anchored Sanctuary in the flat waters of the small bay. I scanned the shore with binoculars. Waterfalls cascaded down the sides of Ships Mountain, its peak at 2,450 feet! I spotted wild berries lining the base of the mountain – maybe we’d go pick some. However, as the sun light faded, and the evening’s weather forecast on the radio brought warnings for `gale force winds, and increasing’, we shelved the idea of a shore excursion, and settled down in the main salon for a quiet evening in our newly discovered, well protected cove.

Suddenly, without warning, a very strong shaft of wind blasted straight down upon Sanctuary, knocking her over on her ear, and jerking her up sharply on the anchor chain. We were both thrown off of the settees and tumbled to the floor, shocked and scared. Shouting to each other, “That was a williwaw, let’s get out of here!”, we picked ourselves up, flung on our foul- weather gear, and hurried up on deck. One warning shot was enough. We upped anchor as quickly as we could and furiously exited the cove. An infamous williwaw had blown us over with a gust we estimated at upward of fifty knots. Such winds could sink Sanctuary or dash her to bits on the beach. Not wanting to experience another flattening, or worse, we re-aimed for the next safe harbor – Chignik Lagoon.

As we labored in the pitch dark toward Chignik ,the barometer continued to drop. The falling numbers and a weather fax we received, indicated that we were smack- dab on the leading edge of a low pressure system, its full force heading straight for us. The system hadn’t even been on the weather chart twenty- four hours earlier. It had materialized out of nowhere – and we were trapped in its claws.

Our wind indicator hovered at fifty knots, its arrow jerking as gusts of fifty- five knots blasted us, screaming through our rigging. Twenty- six foot seas, confused and breaking, rolled and tossed Sanctuary as we tried to make Chignik, still fifteen miles away to windward. Rocks and dangerous shoals surrounded us, which prevented short tacking. We turned on the engine to give us a boost but were losing the battle as Sanctuary made way only one-half to one knot per hour. At that rate Chignik lay sixteen to thirty hours away – dangerous hours near treacherous shores in a steadily worsening storm. We remembered an old sailors warning: “When in doubt – stay out.” We gave up Chignik, and turned tail, heading Sanctuary south- east, away from the rocky shores, and out toward the safety of open water.

The winds and seas increased dramatically.  Sanctuary ran before thirty foot walls of breaking seas and undulating ocean swells powered by steady sixty or more knots of wind. A violent Force Eleven storm now held us in its clutches. As soon as we were well out to sea, we `hove to’ — positioning Sanctuary by using her main and storm sail to ride up and over the torrents of green water that crashed around us.

Exhausted by the night’s battle, we slumped in the cockpit watching Sanctuary a bit to see that she hove to properly. Heaving to created a `slick’ so that waves would not break on us and  lessened the motion of the sea and the screaming of the winds. Basically we jogged in one place, perhaps drifting downwind at less than one-half  knot. Satisfied with the set of our sails, we went below and fell asleep on the cabin sole (floor).

At first light Jim went  on deck to check our triple-reefed mainsail and noticed daylight coming through a seam. The wind had increased so much  the sail was blowing apart. The tops of the waves sheeted off in such high volume  the rising sunlight shining through them created rainbows. Jim opened the companionway, and yelled, “Its blowing rainbows out here – and the main sail is struggling”. I got up, climbed wearily into the cockpit and shuddered as I saw the size of the waves and  valleys between the swells. Sanctuary climbed up and over mountainous walls of water, then plunged down and through walls of breaking foam. We needed to lower the struggling sail and set the parachute sea anchor.

As Jim was not safe out of the cockpit because of his Parkinson imbalance, I was in charge of the foredeck work. I struggled back into my foul- weather gear and boots, clipped on my safety harness, and dragged the sea anchor out of its locker. The winds were too strong to stand up, so I crawled out on deck to lead the sea anchor rode (line) through a hawse hole on the bow. With fingers numb from the cold wind and salt spray, I slowly led the rode, talked my tired brain through the proper free and clear leads, and inched my way on my knees back to the cockpit with the swivel attachment for Jim to snug onto the sea anchor itself.

After throwing the parachute into the water and paying out approximately one wave length of rode, I crawled forward again to add chafe protection to the line where it went through the hawse pipe. I lay on the bow, hanging on with white knuckles, blinded by the sheets of stinging water, the wind screaming and deafening. Each time a wave rolled under us the load on Sanctuary and the parachute sea anchor line temporarily slacked. I used that short time to adjust a three foot length of old fire hose that we used as chafe protection. Once I tied it into proper position around the line, I was going back to the cockpit, and we could, relatively speaking, relax.

The parachute was our last line of defense in the storm. It would hold us about forty- five degrees off the wave train, and create a safety slick, just as heaving to had done. Suddenly, the line whipped by me, racing out of control, almost snagging my stiff cold fingers as I struggled with the gear at the hawse hole. What was going on? Why had Jim let the line fly free? I realized something was dreadfully wrong, but I couldn’t see Jim, couldn’t even see the stern, blinded as I was by stinging sheets of water. I clawed and fought my way back to the cockpit, my heart pounding from the scare and exertion, yelling, “What are you doing?”

I stopped short when I got to the stern and saw Jim and the cockpit. Both were spattered with blood. Jim was deathly pale, his fingers were bleeding, and his jacket had a dark black mark round the arm. I couldn’t tell what had happened, but with the exception of his bloody fingers, Jim seemed to be in one piece. He answered me slowly: “I thought that one wrap of the parachute rode wasn’t enough, so I tried to add another wrap on the winch. Just when I uncleated the line to add a wrap, Sanctuary lurched, and the parachute filled up with water and snapped up the line. Oh, Lord, that line pulled my right hand onto the drum before I knew it, trapped my hand between the line and the winch, and my fingers burst open with blood from the pressure. All of Sanctuary’s twelve tons was on that line. Then the boat lurched again, and threw me hard onto the drum, so my chest is all banged up too!! I snatched my hand out when I could, but the line kept flying by – I couldn’t stop it, I just couldn’t stop it. I was frozen. Then the boat rolled again and the whizzing line caught my left arm by the jacket sleeve. It pulled my left elbow to the winch, banging me again. It all happened so fast. My shoulder got pulled out of the socket.”

 

“Oh Lord”, I cried, “Jim are you okay? You look okay except for the blood.”

“Yeah, I think so. The line burned through my jacket sleeve, but I don’t think it burned my arm. When the boat rolled a third time the line slacked a bit and got tangled on that other winch, which stopped it long enough for me to snatch my left arm out. I had to shove my shoulder back into the socket.  I think – I, I – it feels numb, but I think it’s back okay.”  Jim hesitated, and quit talking. I touched him, asking, “What should I do – what can I do?” He whispered hoarsely, “I’m okay now . W can bandage my fingers and check my arm later.”

Jim played down the incident for my sake, but as his explanation sunk in, and I realized what had really happened, I burst into tears of upset, exhaustion and relief. The line tangling on the second winch had saved him. Otherwise the speeding rode would have burned through his jacket sleeve, wound his arm repetitively around the winch with unstoppable force, and twisted it off at the shoulder. He had narrowly missed losing his right hand – or even his left arm.

The storm raged on, but at least we were relatively safe and mostly undamaged. The next morning, after the storm force winds shifted and calmed to a thirty- five knot gale, I struggled to haul the sea anchor back on board alone. Jim could barely move his left arm. (For the following five or six days, Jim was unable to use his left arm, and the fingers of his right hand were sore. It took about two weeks to heal.) After a mighty battle, I finally wrestled the water soaked parachute onto the foredeck, packed it, and then stowed it in the sail locker. I hoisted the storm staysail, and we started running down wind to Lazy Bay – a well protected anchorage on the south western side of Kodiak Island – where we anchored in calm bay waters. Both of us rested for twenty four hours. The wind still howled in the rigging, but Lazy Bay lived up to its name.

Once rested, we got out on deck to hand stitch and repair the wind torn seam in our mainsail. A fellow from a small cannery ashore came out in a skiff to see if we were alright. He said: “I heard on the radio that a sailing vessel was dismasted in the storm.” Looking up at our complete, strong, one- piece mast, he continued: “I can see it’s not you – do you know who it was?” We did not. However, four weeks later while in the south- east coastal port of Yakutat, in the Gulf of Alaska, we learned the answer as we met and chatted with the five sailors aboard Siberia, a Russian sailing vessel. Siberia had been rolled 360 degrees, and lost both her masts in the same storm we had survived. After comparing logs, we discovered Siberia and her crew had been rescued by the Alaskan Coast Guard just forty miles from where Sanctuary safely hove to.

Meanwhile, the storm blew past Lazy Bay, and we continued around the south side of Kodiak Island, through a mountainous fiord-like pass, and into St. Paul’s Harbor. Together in a private bathroom room at St. Paul’s, we finally stripped off our layers of foul weather gear and thermal underwear for a nice, long hot shower. I cried again when I saw Jim’s black and blue arm and chest for the first time. Jim hugged me and said,  “Don’t cry – I’m healing. We both survived, and we’ve sailed around the entire world! The ocean just slapped us to remind us how far we’ve come.”

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: