The Emotion of the Ocean

I promised to write a post about the emotional side of this first passage and today, a few days later, I realize that an offshore passage on the northern Pacific is similar to childbirth. Yes, that’s right. You know that amnesia that sets in the minute that warm little body is placed in your arms? All the pain, all the work, all the laboring, all the names you called your husband during transition,  is quickly forgotten in the glow of wonder that is your new baby. At least that’s how it worked for me. And that’s how this experience is working, too. I’m starting to forget the emotional downsides of the passage and bask in the glow of being in a new place and having gotten here under our own volition. So I figured I better get to it before amnesia took over.

We enjoyed watching these Brown Pelicans dive for fish outside the Golden Gate.

The 6 days and 5 nights we spent at sea were filled with labor and focus that never ceased, even during sleeping times. There was always the movement of the boat, the droning of the engine when it was on, the sound of the waves rumbling under us; in short, it was an ‘active’ passage that took constant attention. There was really no downtime. Even when off watch, our bodies tensed to accept the crashing of the bow, or the feeling of dropping into space as we surfed down a wave front, or the heeling of the hull, or the corkscrewing as a wave took us just right. We timed our actions if we wanted to climb up the companionway ladder, or even cross the salon.  On one particular day I literally crawled across the floor to reach a cabinet under the settee as it was a safer way to travel than trying to stand up. Imagine, if you will, that your house is constantly moving this way and that; that there is never any stillness to be had. I think the lack of stillness, ever, was the hardest part for me.

It’s a lot of work for your body to accommodate this amount of motion and noise 24 hours a day for days on end. This constant stimulation can  and did cause irritability and a tendency to snap. If you are the kind of person who avoids crowds and other noisy things because energetically they are overwhelming, blue water sailing may, counter intuitively, not be for you without proper preparation.  Noise fatigue is a real thing. It causes overall tiredness and is implicated in poor decision making. If you are going offshore, you need to be aware of noise fatigue and how it’s going to impact you after several days. Get some really good earplugs like these. They are worth the money.

Pt. Bonita and our first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge.

With the motion of travel in the constant background, there was also the continual focus on equipment and how it was doing. Part of this is probably because it was our first multi-day passage on board Galapagos, but part is just because you can’t get complacent about systems. Mike, in particular, was acutely attuned to every noise the boat made. Was the propeller making a different noise than usual? What’s that small ‘ping’ noise? Is everything OK? Better go down and check the engine one more time. Why did the bilge pump just come on? Where is the water coming from?  Are we getting exhaust water out the back like we should? Even in sleep, our bodies were tuned in to the noises of the boat, not unlike new parents who have one ear always listening to the gentle breathing of their child. This was worse for Mike than it was for me. He knows that if something goes amiss, he’s likely to be the one that will fix it.

Most sailors are familiar with all these activities and these feelings. In fact, for some of us the boat motion during a ripping good sail is part of the fun. I actually love the feeling of sailing down a wave. But the intensity of them, the unceasing movement, the knowledge that there will be days of this and no quiet anchorage to drop the hook at the end of the day; that’s much different on the open ocean than coastal cruising. It’s not the existence of these things that wears on the psyche. It’s their magnitude and their constant companionship. There is no ‘off’ button on the sea. Knowing this academically is much different than knowing it with your body.

We prepared for years to do this trip and once we were away from Neah Bay I breathed a sigh of relief. All of the goodbyes had been said. All the preparations that were going to be made had been made. Our boat was not perfect, but it was safe. Now we were just going to do it. I didn’t feel excitement, I just felt acceptance. “Here it is.”, I thought. “Now we do this thing. Whatever happens we’ll deal with it.”  I never had any fear about this passage. I never had any anxiety about it. And everyone knows I have anxiety so that’s weird. But I think I came to some kind of fatalistic view where I just let go of worry and stepped off the cliff. So fear was something I did not have.

Approaching the bridge in the usual fog.

What I did have was 35 years of marriage to a man I know well and who I trust with my life. Let me tell you this: if you don’t trust the person you are on your boat with, don’t leave the shore. The ocean is big, and it’s lonely out there. You have to know you can count on your partner to have your back, to understand how you act when you get tired or afraid, and to be able to communicate with you.  These things are as important as knowing how to sail the boat. Work these systems out before you leave the dock.

What I also had was a boat I trusted. This is key. There have been a number of times before we left that I’ve worried we bought the wrong boat. Galapagos is very big and heavy. I hate the way she handles in a close space with her full keel.  I still get anxiety about going into marinas, although that’s way better now than it was. But we trusted Ted Brewer to know what he was doing when he designed her. And let me tell you this: she is excellent in every way on the sea. We totally have the right boat. I never even one time had a fear that she couldn’t handle way more than we could. And when the sails were set and she was used as a sailing vessel, the ride was comfortable if not always smooth.  I shudder to think how this trip would have been had we kept our beloved Cal 34, Moonrise, and sailed her down to Mexico. If I had survived this trip in that boat, I would have kissed the ground in California and taken the first plane home. Feeling safe in your boat is number one. Feeling safe with your partner on board is number two.

So as we motored into foggy conditions, as usual, out of Neah Bay, I was accepting of whatever the trip was going to hold and confident we would make it to California. I had confidence in our boat and in my partner. Those things were key.

Approaching the Golden Gate Bridge, Mike and I both felt elated that we had accomplished this.

Then we began to sail. It was like all the greatest sails in all the sailing books you’ve read. The wind was 10-15 knots, the seas were gentle and an incredible shade of Prussian Blue. We saw humpback whales. We put out the headsail and the main and we flew along for miles and miles and miles just blissing out to finally being out on the sea, sailing this boat like she was meant to be sailed. We were having such a great time sailing that we completely paid no attention to how far offshore we were going. Turns out, we ended up 100 miles offshore before we decided we better tack back in. It was kind of a shame. We had such a good groove going. I think that was really the highlight of the trip, before the fatigue set in. After the second night watch, things began to be more difficult.

Note from my logbook:

As the sun goes down I suddenly need a break from the cockpit. I am hand steering down waves trying to keep the boat from wallowing. We had taken the main down as we are traveling almost dead downwind to make any way south. The rolling is ridiculously tiring as the boat swings wildly from side to side. The vane can’t keep up with it and Mike is concerned about the autopilot. I suggested taking the main down (the wind was almost dead behind us and it was blanketing the jib) and it was quite a job, fraught with peril. I am glad for harnesses. Some slugs came out of the track, which didn’t surprise me at all and only made me irritated we didn’t prioritize a new track and get those slugs replaced. Now the main is out of commission until we have quiet water to get it sorted, not that quiet water is bloody likely out here. It’s not even stowed properly, just secured so it won’t blow around. Mike could barely hang on what with the waves and the rolling and I was trying to keep the jib flying and also help stow the aft part of the sail and reef lines. Ridiculous and dangerous and absolutely will not happen again. After hand steering and wallowing for 30 minutes and after that experience I needed a break. I had been in the cockpit for several hours. Below was a mess. I could barely walk from being flung around. Even in the midship cabin the motion was intense. Finally Mike turned the engine on and we began making way. (I slept.)

Now at 10:30 PM on watch and we are traveling 6.5-8 knots with the headsail and engine on a good track south and east. It’s a beautiful night with bright moon and waves just breaking at the top. Galapagos is racing the swells and they rumble under us with a great roar on occasion. I wish I could see them better but it’s magnificent.”

An emotional high point was when we were surrounded on all sides by hundreds of Pacific Whiteside Dolphins (we think?)  hunting together. It was fantastic!

What a difference sleep makes in attitude and in resilience!

And that leads me to this: the single most important thing that impacts the emotional state during a passage at sea is fatigue; both noise fatigue and sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation leads to emotional fragility. Know this and be aware of your own emotional patterns. Had I not been overly tired, I would have handled the mainsail fiasco much better and not almost had a meltdown, leaving Mike to take over my watch. I would have been aggravated by the mainsail issue, and determined not to see us put in that position again, but I wouldn’t have felt close to breaking down. It was truly a low point for me and I had to speak sternly to myself to snap out of it.

During this passage we did three hour watches, but I believe next time we will try 4 hour watches at night. We chose 3 hours because on our other overnight trips that’s what worked for us. But the difference is that those were only over 1 night, not several. You need enough sleep to get REM sleep and deep sleep. With a 3 hour watch, you just can’t get enough of either. Having an extra crew member, if it’s the right person, would also be a great way to share the load. We continue to be on the fence about this one.

Sunshine and warm weather greeted us as we emerged from the foggy world on the other side of the bridge. How do they do that? It’s like magic.

When we finally arrived by Bonita Point and approached the Golden Gate Bridge, I was surprised at the emotion that swept through me. We had come from a world of fog and shades of white and grey. As we passed underneath the bridge, it was like opening a door into a technicolor world of magic, like the Kingdom of Oz appeared to Dorothy. Suddenly, there was blue sky and hundreds of sailboats and bright sun and sparkling water. Had we paid attention, we probably could have heard the Angels sing. We shared a long hug and a kiss, and some tears that we had made it, we had done this thing we set out to do. We felt elated. We had given birth to a dream, then a plan. We had put the plan into action and so far, it had worked out.  We knew if we had made that passage all in one stretch, we could do another. And another. The world was now open to us in ways it was not before.

















39 thoughts on “The Emotion of the Ocean

  1. Great stuff, Melissa!.

    Can you believe that my first offshore passage was 40 days – directly from Bamfield to the Marquesas. Now talk about jumping in at the deep end. For the first 10 days I wondered what I had gotten myself into! But once we hit warm air and warm water I was hooked!!

    It seems to me that you have figured it all out in just 6 days! Good on you! There are other joys you will encounter (both good and bad) when you do longer passages. What I really disliked was that after awhile everything was salty which, of course, meant that nothing would completely dry and everything felt sticky.

    But again, as you said – amnesia soon sets in once you arrive at another amazing destination… and that is a good thing for sure!!

    Enjoy San Francisco!


    • When I saw your comment on the previous post about Bamfield to the Marquesas I was thinking ‘Good Lord that’s a long way for a first passage!’. But then you did get to experience the warm air and warm water that we have yet to experience. I think passages in nearer the equator must be different than our north Pacific waters. I hope they are different! I agree already about how everything gets salty, and that’s in spite of my being almost a freak about making sure we wipe ourselves off and not track salt water into the saloon. It’s in the very air! What I would give for a washer/dryer to have sheets that feel crisp and dry. But there it is. This is the life we chose, so I guess we stick with it. We’re looking forward to going ashore in San Fransisco tomorrow.

      • Oh YAY! I love the first step ashore after a passage, although most times after a long one I would almost fall over! 😉 You have so many amazing experiences ahead of you. Nothing can replace the “first time”for anything and you are doing it now! You mentioned feeling so proud of getting to SF under your own steam, as it were, and as you go along that feeling will only strengthen. Nothing is as good as sailing into a new port. You experience the place differently than if you drove or flew in.

        I am envious… we have another couple of years before we head over the horizon again.

        P.S. Our watches often changed anywhere from 3-5 hours depending on how each of us were feeling. You get to sense how your co-skipper is doing and adjust your watch time accordingly. At least that’s how we ended up doing it.

        • Mike has done a couple of longer watches for me when I was just exhausted. But I have mixed feelings about that because then he gets overly tired. We’ll find our groove. Thank you for your support and encouragement! I can tell how excited you are to go again.

  2. Great post! I read with both anticipation and trepidation…as how I will feel and how husband will feel is very much on my mind. We’re silly about sleep and I wonder if that will help us. Night shift nurses…used to being awake, sleep deprivation, awakening quickly and taking “cat naps”. Just not sure but hope that will help. It will be awhile before we find out…as this year we will probably just stay around Bay of Banderas. Lots of unexpected stuff this year and yet to get the tally for that wench Irma, who did a number on my roof. Deductible on any named storm is really high. 🙁 Glad you made it to SF, looking forward to drinks in Mexico!

    • I’m sure sad to hear you had damage from Irma, Hilary. That’s too bad. Life does seem to constantly throw up unexpected things. But yes, I think that you two being shift work nurses will hold you in good stead. Looking forward to drinks in Mexico, yes!

  3. I could just follow and feel all your emotions while reading, some rollercoaster ride 🙂 Well done and congratulations on starting your voyage properly!

  4. This post is spot on Melissa. The noise and constant movement absolutely do wear you out. Thanks for sharing this accurate account of a long offshore passage. (And yes, like childbirth, amnesia sets in quickly after you make landfall.)

  5. Really great descriptive writing. I don’t think I’ve ever read anyone writing about what a first long passage actually feels like on the body.

    We’re in our second year coastal cruising and for a number of reasons (including a dog on board who refuses to “go” on board, I don’t see us crossing an ocean. But my husband (who was actually the trailing spouse in our little adventure) insisted we buy a boat that kept ocean going on the table.

    So I could really relate with your trust in your boat. We have also had good feelings about Bill Crealock and know that our boat will take good care of us no matter what. In truth, there have been many moments where I trusted Crealock more than my husband. 🙂

    • I’m hearing you on! I think it’s wise to consider getting a boat by a known designer (she said, from her Ted Brewer saloon). I have to say, I miss my animals very very much aboard. But having one on a passage? I don’t think so. I wouldn’t want to do that, especially a dog. With a Crealock boat, you will definitely be taken care of by your boat. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  6. Great post! Although I’m not sure I can relate to the childbirth comparison 🙂

    You are so right about being in new places. We feel the same way once we have landed in a new port. Once we get off the boat, we quickly forget the journey headaches as we take in all the new sites.

    I’m a little envious as I have always wanted to sail under the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a really long way for us to get there…. maybe one day.

    So happy you are “on your way”. It’s so good to see people have a dream follow it.


    • It’s really an iconic representation of having made a journey, that bridge. Thanks for being a supportive reader. You guys get to see some very cool places we probably will never see, too. The Caribbean is not on our list at this point.

  7. Congratulations!! After all these years of watching your prep I’m so happy to see this post. Sending a long distance high five!!

    I do disagree with you on one small point though- for me, trust in your partner is number one, trust in the boat is number two. If you trust your partner, then the two of you can deal with anything that rears its ugly head.

    Again, congrats!

    SV Kintala

    • That was a hard one, actually. I think I put the boat first because if you have a boat that isn’t sea worthy, it might not matter how great your partner is. But yes, I do understand that one can be a toss up. Thanks for being a reader for so long!

  8. Beautifully written. Thank you for your insight. I am about to become a first time live-aboard and we are planning on taking the next 3-5 years to travel and see how far we can get. I really appreciate your candor and wish you all the best!

    • Fair winds on your new venture! Hope you poke around the blog a bit. We moved aboard last December. You might find some posts about living aboard that will give you some helpful info.

  9. Welcome to San Francisco! Congratulations on your successful passage!

    Looking at your positions, it looks like you anchored on the North side of Angel Island. We did this in 2013: horrible anchoage, with huge ferry wakes hitting us constantly (knocking over drinks etc). Your experience?

    How long do you plan to stay in the bay area?

    • We anchored there for one night to escape the severe westerlies coming in through the gate. It was passable. We could tolerate the ferry rolling much more at that point than tolerate the wind. I was completely finished with Sausalito’s anchorage and we wanted to explore Angel Island, which we did. We had reservations for the Aquatic Park. We are not sure how long we will be here. Frankly, I hope not too long as this is mid september. I don’t know how soon we need to get south to get below fall weather systems. I feel like I want to get going. But we’ll be here at least until Sunday. We have some things that need doing while we are here.

      • PS If you are early in San Diego and want to get to Mexico early, Ensenada is a great place (Cruiseport Marina is an excellent marina). We tired of San Diego (I lived there in the 80s) and would have left earlier had we known Ensenada was such fun.

        Hurricanes season further south (Turtle Bay south) extends 1-2 weeks into November but it is not an issue in Ensenada.

        • Also in Ensenada if you go to Baja Naval boatuard boat docks and spend the night they will help you with your paperwork for entering Mexico. Also fill up with fuel there Turtle Bay is $8+ per gallon for diesel. At least that’s what we paid for it in July coming up.

          • Mike says he has read of a warning about getting fuel in Turtle Bay. I think we’ll just make sure we have our 300 gallon tanks filled before we leave the U.S. 300 gallons takes us a lONG way on our boat. Thanks for those tips! You have a lot of useful information.

          • That might be a good idea, to get someone to help. Even if it means spending a night or two in a marina. Our boat has an old Temporary Import Permit still in place and I get mixed information about getting that resolved before we get there. I think it’s a common enough problem that there is probably some kind of policy in place to handle it by now. But still, it’s irritating that he didn’t bother to cancel the TIP when he checked out.

            • I wouldn’t be too hard on former owner about cancelling TIP. When we checked in/out of Mexico, there was ZERO info concerning any need to cancel TIP. Besides, it expired in 10 years. So we expected that was all there was to it. Then, in 2016, back home in Canada, we learned about the problems. So, in 2017, I contacted agent in La Paz (who arranged checkout for freighter) and arranged (for a fee, of course) to cancel our 2013 TIP. No plans to sell, but someday down the road, who knows. I’d expect Ensenada customs AND the Ensenada marinas to be the most familiar with this.

              Ensenada checkin is the most seamless in Mexico. All in one building. ALL the marinas in Ensenada will help you with checkin. Cruiseport was superb with checkin. Cruiseport Marina location is better than Marina Coral. Baja Naval is a great place to haul out and get work done, but its docks are open to boat wakes.

              No anchoring in Ensenada. Easy bus transport to San Diego from (indeed, Cruiseport had a regular van shuttle to Downwind Marine in SD, at a cost.) Ensenada has excellent provisioning (including a Costco). Fuel can be topped up on way out of Ensenada Bay at Marina Coral.

              300 gallons should easily be enough for Baja. Turtle Bay fuel not fun (terrible dock) , and yes, we were “shorted” by Enrique Jr (happily, we were only “filling” a 5 gallon can). Recommend bypassing Cabo SL marina/fuel (you can get a nights sleep anchored in CSL bay, then move on) and going direct to Puertos Los Cabos (easy to visit CSL by bus from SJC).

              One last thing: don’t worry about timing your arrival in Ensenada to make it to customs same day (ie there is NO need to do overnight from SD). We arrived early early Thursday morning (after a stupid night motor which was not entirely uneventful) and didn’t checkin til Monday (told customs really busy). Didn’t tell customs though. Didn’t make any difference.

        • That’s really helpful! Thank you. We will consider that for sure. I enjoy a big city for a day or two, but spending much time in one tires me, and my wallet, really fast.

  10. great post.
    the first part of October is a good time to leave San Francisco if you’re in no hurry, there is still hurricanes down south right now.
    you might want to keep an eye on for the winds looks like Wednesday is going to be pretty heavy wins. the weather can be pretty nasty around Point conception, the first time I went down in 85 we had 30 foot seas and like 20 boats went down.
    also if you’re in no hurry check this out they leave San Diego October 31st.

    • Thank you, Charlie. It looks like the winds will die down a bit around Sept.22 or so. The only hurry we have is wanting to get to San Diego to wait for hurricane season to be over. We definitely keep our eye on weather! I know some of the Coho HOHo boats are just leaving Washington State to join the Ha Ha.

  11. also if you need fuel go to Oyster Point it’s cheaper, and it gives you a chance to check the bay out. and there is a great boat repair place at the end of the dock. Drake Marine.

    • That’s very helpful information. We do have an issue with our furling unit and need to find a quiet place where Mike can climb up and fix it without too much wind. That area may have less wind than right here at the ‘gate’. We may need someone from Drake Marine. Good to know these local things! Many thanks!

  12. Congrats on making it to San Francisco! What a huge accomplishment of which you two should be so proud.

    This is a wonderful post. It should probably be required reading for all new cruisers to know what to really expect – both the good and the bad.

    • Thanks, Ellen. I really wish we had been more prepared in terms of how the noise and motion just wears you down after awhile. I knew, of course, about the sleep deprivation, and that was a concern of mine before we left. But once you’re out 100 miles, you just deal with stuff. It’s not like you can toss the anchor over, right? I think people like us who have done coastal cruising for many years do not really ‘get it’ that we may have a lot of experience, but it’s not ‘passage’ experience. There is such a huge difference. Knowing that academically is not the same as knowing it in your body. We’ll be more prepared in several ways next time. I’ll probably do a post about that.

  13. Great post! Thanks for sharing, and hitting all of the salient points about passage making! We also changed from 3-hr. to 4-hr. watch schedule for the same reason, and find it works very well. We’re pretty meticulous about our watches making sure no one gets overly tired, but if Capt. Kirk has to fix something on his off-watch, then we’ll swap around or trade hours to ensure we both get adequate sleep. SO important. We left Seattle in August 2015 and are currently in Puerto Vallarta area, looking forward to meeting you this winter! Save travels! And check out our blog for “Tips for New Cruisers: Things We Wish We’d Known Before Going Cruising…” some items you might want to pick up in US or Ensenada. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.