May 31, 2010

Ocean Sailing Is Hard


This has not been much of a holiday weekend for me.

We're mainly staying home and doing various chores.

Between other things, I've been keeping an eye on Valis' progress through the late stages of the Spinnaker Cup on Friday night and today, Sunday, as they've started the long uphill slog back to San Francisco.

Thanks to the AIS transponder on Valis and some web 2.0 magic, it's possible to watch their position, speed, heading, and track online here (apparently only while they're actually underway, though).

I'm sure Edward will be blogging about his adventures when he gets back (and I really don't know if he's aboard for the return trip), but I've been fascinated by what can be learned just from studying their track today.

The main lesson is that ocean sailing is hard, especially when you're trying to get to where the wind is coming from.

Here's the plot of Valis' progress for about eight hours, late Sunday.

Keep in mind that Valis is an extremely capable, heavily built, 44-foot bluewater cruising boat, designed to click off 200-mile days at sea, conditions permitting. That usually means downhill, or on a reach.

But look how things change when you're clawing your way up a coast famous for its difficult conditions.

Sometimes, the Pacific coast can be as calm as a pond. I helped someone do a delivery from LA to SF many years ago, and we motored the entire way on mirror-flat water - even around the sometimes fearsome Point Conception.

But most of the time, especially at this time of year, winds are strong and steady from the northwest. Swells and waves can build after weeks of this into little mountains that just say, "No."

The long starboard tack in the photo is about 27 miles long. The next port tack is about 23 miles. That's fifty miles of sailing that took 6.5 hours - a very nice average speed through the water of nearly eight knots. But in that time, they made only about 25 miles of progress towards their destination.

The nice ninety degree tacks that sailing textbooks tell us we can make have been substantially reduced by leeway and the relentless attack of swells and waves. Conditions are usually worst off points like the one that protects Santa Cruz. A kind of venturi forms that funnels the winds through such spots.

Notice how much closer to ninety degress was the tack made in close to Santa Cruz, which is much more sheltered from the prevailing winds and swells.

Famous for such conditions is the notorious 'Baja Bash' - the long uphill battle to get back from the west coast's best known cruising rally - the Baja Ha-Ha, sponsored every year by Latitude 38.

Many people who do the Ha-Ha sell their boats once they get to Mexico rather than sail back. Others hire professional delivery skippers to do the hard, sometimes dangerous trip.

Still others, of course, succumb to the seductive charms of cheap tequila, warm water, and the almost endless summer that Jimmy Buffett named Margaritaville. They end up spending years or even the rest of their lives cruising Baja, partially for the reasons Jimmy sang about, but in part out of fear or reluctance to face the conditions that Valis is now into.

Ocean sailing is hard.

Update, Monday 9:05 am:

Welcome home, Valis !



  1. Yes.... I have the ideal craft for the Newport to Ensenada Race. But despite entreaties to do it, I know I will never undertake it unless I am confident in my crew to return it to its berth in Central California without me. Whenever I am under power, I prefer it to be on freeways or airways.

  2. Oh come on! For superbBblogGgers, looking Mr. Neptune in the eye without flinching is the most fun you can have with your pink foulies on.

  3. If you break something on the Laser, it's usually not that big a deal.

    If you're responsible for a $100 000 boat, or the lives and safety of your crew, or if you race hours or days from assistance, that's another matter.

    If you're responsible for the enjoyment and safety of dozens or hundreds of competitors and have to negotiate with government entities for the continued "privilege" of being allowed to run races, it's a bloody big deal.

  4. You know, it takes a real man to wear pink foulies.

  5. Well said, Pat. Ocean sailing is hard...and it can be boring...sometimes.

  6. For a look at the conditions Valis was facing, here's a quick video clip. Quality's not too great, but I'd be lucky to hold onto my cellphone in that kind of slop. The Valis blog, BTW, says it was 'blowing like stink' out there, and these are guys who are out on the bay all of the time, basking in our gentle, 25-knot breezes.

    This may explain why Edward was wearing pink foulies. I think one of his sponsors is Pepto-Bismol. No word from Edward yet. I've been trying to reach his publicist, Mal DeMer, all weekend.

  7. Pat, if I ever spent $100,000 on a boat (which I never will) I would expect it to be built well enough to sail upwind in 40 knots without stuff breaking. Or am I asking too much?

  8. Everything breaks, if pressed hard enough.

    Boats like Valis are usually tougher than the crew.

    The swells here eventually get steep enough that no reasonable progress can be made against them. Pressing on just wears out the crew and needlessly pounds a boat.

    When we were returning from Monterey two years ago, the harbor master in Santa Cruz was recommending to all boats headed north that they wait it out another day before going on.

    We did, and it turned out to be good advice.

    The swells are often 12-15 feet and can get higher. The wind waves are kind of icing on top of that cake.

    Joe has a nice word to describe these conditions:


  9. Didn't Drake sail north along this coast in 1579?

  10. Yes, but he was so scared out of his wits that he kept his eyes closed the whole time and completely missed san Francisco.

  11. Drake sailed in ships made from wood, not fiberglass. He sailed right past the Gate. It would be another 200 years for Europeans to discover the bay....and that was by a guy on horseback.

  12. So are you saying that modern boats are harder to sail north up the California coast than the Golden Hind was?

  13. Drake was just playing the ratings game - he thought with an old bucket like that he could correct out ahead.

    But navigator, shmavigator, you're not going to do well in local races if you can't find the gate.

  14. Thankfully I wasn't on board, it sounded like a crappy ride back home...deep reefed main and staysail the whole way.

    That video explains why dodgers are a good thing.

  15. Remember the old book title, "Gentlemen never sail to weather"?

    Most world cruisers try to maximize offwind headings.

    Now, I'm trying to imagine a boat that doesn't have things that break. * Especially * a $100,000 boat. I think that, generally, the more you pay for a boat, the more breakable things come with it!

  16. Good point Pat. My little Laser is pretty tough. I hardly ever break anything on it. And apparently Valis did break something on the sail to Monterey. The teapot! Oh, the humanity!

  17. I think you're right, Pat. The original owners of my boat must have paid a fortune for it.

  18. Went through five lasers in the 1980's, Trophy Wife & I (& son). Plenty of scars in the gelcoat decks but nothing broke!

  19. Hey, thanks for following VALIS and the great comments!

    A bit about VALIS and out trip back home after the race: VALIS is definitely a heavy cruiser. She has a 5.5ft shoal-draft keel, a rollerfurling 120% genoa, and a boom-furling main. None of these things help her upwind performance. In the right conditions she can make 200 mile days, but in three Hawaii/San Francisco round-trips that's only happened once. Plenty of 180+ mile days, though.

    VALIS is heavy (and expensive, much more than $100k), and can take a beating, but stuff still breaks occasionally. During the Spin Cup the teakettle was the only casualty, much to our surprise. On the return, the below-deck autopilot hydraulic RAM crapped out, but this appears to be cumulative wear and corrosion. We broke the spin pole and tore some spinnakers in the '08 Pac Cup. I do try to replace and maintain the gear to keep ahead of the wear and tear.

    During the post-race return from Monterey, we were motorsailing 100% of the way. Our tacking angle would have probably been even worse otherwise, but maybe not much. Here is our track from our 2009 attempt to sail up the coast to Washington (we turned around before Cape Mendocino). You will see that with the motor off, and in similar conditions, we were making similar progress -- about 120 degree tacking angles -- sailing two miles for one mile made good:

    Oh well, once we make it out to the Farallones, for the rest of the Pac Cup the wind should be on or aft of the beam!

  20. Valis, thanks for the update and damage report.

    You have given me a humiliating case of keel envy. Your 'shoal-draft' keel is three inches longer than the bluewater keel on my Catalina 30.

    I wish you'd been less honest about your motorsailing. You've completely shattered the case I so arduously built for you being manly men.

    And I still want to know why you were using a teapot to make coffee.

  21. Motorsailing? Drake is turning in his grave.