Memoir of My First Ocean Passage

“You know, this boat would be great to sail in the Pacific Cup” said Andy in his distinctive Swiss accent. It was a rare sunny day in February of ‘96 and we were out on San Francisco Bay on a “social sail” with him and his wife Cathy, who managed the Sausalito West Marine store. Since I had arrived from Fort Lauderdale with Moonshadow the month before, I had visited the store nearly every day. Cathy had been very helpful in tracking down hard to get parts, exchanging old worn out items that had a “lifetime guarantee” and giving me some “preferred customer” discounts. I owed her big time and a day on the Bay was just a small way of saying thanks. Andy had sailed in the Pacific Cup twice previously and kindly offered himself as crew if I decided to go.

After a few beers, it started to sound more and more like a good idea. I had sailed Moonhshadow more than six thousand miles but had never been out of sight of land for more than a couple of days-not exactly what I would call an “ocean passage.” I had been offshore for a few days at a time on celestial navigation and ocean passagemaking courses, but never as skipper and not on my own boat. For years I had been keen to do a transpacific race to Hawaii and it sounded like a good way to shakedown both the boat and the skipper before I headed off cruising. The hook was set!

I gave a thought to which of my sailing friends would be keen to do an ocean race and whom I felt I could spend a couple of weeks with cooped up on the boat. Andy Eggler was, of course already in. My good friend and crew from Florida to San Francisco, Wayne Goldman was on board the day we sailed on the bay. I knew he was dead keen. In fact, when I told him I’d made up my mind to go, he offered to do all the provisioning and cooking, stay on for a cruise of Hawaii after the race, and even do the dreaded “return trip” back to San Francisco. Jeff Erdmann, the “Deerfoot/Sundeer specialist” broker who sold Moonshadow to me, told me he had always wanted to do a passage on a Deerfoot, but never had the opportunity. I rang him and he was in. I talked to my old college buddy Mark Coleman who had introduced me to keelboat sailing on San Francisco Bay twenty years before. He was in. I called my good sailing buddy Cort DePeyster who I’d met in the Swan Rolex Cup Regatta in Sardinia in ’84 and got another thumbs up. At the time, I was working as a sailing instructor at Club Nautique, a sailing school and charter company. When I told my boss, Beth Bell about my plan, she offered to give me time off on the condition that I took her along too. Done!

Our start day was July 10, 1996 which gave me a little more than four months to prepare. I had a huge “to do” list that I had been steadily gnawing away at. Of course, we would also have to haul out and do a bottom job. My insurance didn’t cover the rig during races so I decided to pull out the mast and go through every piece of wire and hardware before we sailed-sort of my own form of rig insurance.

West Marine, who is the primary sponsor of the Pacific Cup, did an excellent job of preparing entrants for the race. They host a series of seminars on weather, boat and crew preparation, safety, race strategy, emergency procedures and health/first aid. I found this invaluable for us novices, and would imagine it’s a great refresher for the old salts as well.

The crew of Moonshadow held regular meetings and practice sails in preparation for the race. In addition to honing our sailing skills, we all bonded as a crew and had a lot of fun. As the crew became closer and more comfortable with each other, the practical jokes began. It all started with Andy, whom I assigned the position of navigator. Looking at the Nautical Almanac, he discovered that we would have little or no moon for most of the passage. Andy noted in his own inimitable way: “When you are sailing across the Pacific Ocean and there is no moon, it is very, very dark-dark like inside a cow.” What is supposedly a common Swiss expression was met with huge laughter and endless follow up jokes and jabs.

Fast forward to July 10, the day before our start. I’m frantically trying to finish last minute projects. All the crew are showing up with their gear and stowing it away. Wayne has been buying and stowing provisioning for days. We have enough food on board to feed seven people for 30 days, more than 600 meals, not to mention snacks. Moonshadow appears to be sitting an inch lower in the water. Our next door neighbor, Seeker is also going on the race. Norio Sugano, the owner, is a very successful venture capitalist from Silicon Valley. A week before the race, he threw a party for all race participants at his “villa” on 20 odd acres in the Portola Valley hills. He and his crew of eight will be eating pre-cooked and vacuum bagged French meals, and washing them down with fine French wine. The Pacific Cup is called the “fun race to Hawaii” and by golly, it looks like they are going to have fun.

I notice the big cooler that we keep in the cockpit is gone. I ask Wayne about it. “Don’t ask” he says. He’s on his knees in the galley, measuring the inside of the oven with a tape measure. I ask him what he’s doing. “Don’t ask” is the response once again. I’m too busy to press the issue so I get on to my tasks.

It’s finally July 10, race day. I’ve got a case of pre-passage jitters. I know in my heart that Moonshadow is completely prepared and seaworthy. The trip across the pond is benign this time of year-that’s why they call it “pacific,” isn’t it? But 2060 nautical miles of open ocean is still a bit intimidating to me. The weather report says were going to have a fresh breeze right on the nose for the first two days or so. Shit! I’m wondering how many of the crew will succumb to seasickness. Loads of friends come by the marina to wish us well. My head is spinning-there’s too much too much to think about and too much going on for me to handle it all. I’m wishing I had taken the boat out and anchored in Richardson Bay the night before. Wayne shows up with the cooler, taped shut with duct tape. I start to ask and am immediately interrupted with a firm “don’t ask!” I can’t wait to get out of the marina and start sailing.

We cast off the dock lines and motored gently out of Schoonmaker Point Marina about noon. I put Vince Guaraldi’s Cast Your Fate to the Wind on the stereo as we motor down the channel out of Sausalito. It’s my pre-passage good luck song. The Bay is flat and there isn’t much breeze. It’s partly cloudy and warm. I’m a bit freaked out to thing that the next place I’ll step on land will be on the island of Oahu in Hawaii and I won’t even have to buy an airline ticket to get there.

We are in “D” division and the next to the last group of boats to start, one ahead of the racing sleds. Five divisions of smaller boats and double handers have started one to two days before us. Because of our length to displacement ratio, we are classified as an “ultra light displacement” boat and competing in a division with stripped out race boats capable of surfing at more than 20 knots. The rating committee seemed to ignore the fact that we are bringing along a washer, dryer, dive compressor, TV, microwave oven, 2 aircons, and other cruising gear and that our sail plan is the same size as the ultra light 45 footers. Ah hell, all we can do is go out, have fun, and not expect a podium finish.

At 2 pm we are on the start line with nine other boats. The starting gun is fired from the tower of the St. Francis Yacht Club, and a hundred adrenaline-fueled sailors are on their way to Hawaii, sailing hard on the wind. Within a few minutes we cross a large shadow in the water. We are gliding underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. We can hear the cars rushing by overhead, drowning out the sounds of the gulls. Hundreds of motorists above us are clueless as to what is going on a few hundred feet below. As we begin to feel the ocean swell, the unique smells of the San Francisco Bay, the intermingling of diesel fumes, guano, salt air, kelp with a touch of fish thrown in, all start to fade into plain salt air. As we sail past Point Bonita, friends are there, perched on rocks, waving wildly at us and taking photographs. The overcast thickens and soon the California coast fades away behind us. The Pacific ocean is a cool looking blue gray.

A few hours later, we can barely make out the Farallon Islands as we sail past. The wind begins to ease, we slow down, and by the time its dark we are barely moving. At various times during the night I see goose eggs (all zeroes) on the knot log and the only wind we have is created by the boat rocking from side to side. The sails hang limp, shapeless, and flog as we roll. It’s a horrible sound and feeling, especially when you know you can’t just turn on the motor and go. We are at the mercy of the currents for the time being. I think to myself that this could be a very long race. At least nobody is seasick. All night long, we see the flashing light of the Farallones.

During roll call the next day we learn that the boats ahead of us got a clean getaway with steady breeze. The sleds starting a day after us started in breeze and will likely catch up to us and join us in our “parking lot” in a matter of hours. Late in the day we start to see patches of ripple on the water and the breeze finally starts to fill in. We are barely ghosting along. After nearly 24 hours of calm, we are making a steady two knots of boat speed and it feels like we are hauling ass. The bad news is that we can once again see a faint outline of the coast of California behind us.

The breeze steadily builds and backs to the south. We set the asymmetrical spinnaker and start moving nicely. We’re two days out and starting to settle into a routine of eating, sleeping and watch keeping. Wayne is cranking out some incredible meals. Between meals there are freshly baked cookies or brownies. Nobody is going to loose any weight on this trip. Great music is steadily blasting out of the stereo for at least twelve hours a day. Between Wayne’s and my CD collection, we shouldn’t have any repeats for at least 12 or 13 days. We’re moving along at a slow but steady 5-6 knots in light airs, chatting and telling jokes, steering and trimming and having a blast in the east sailing conditions. The only question is when we will pop out of the coastal marine cloud layer and see some sun.

Andy was right. With no moonlight, and because of the overcast, no starlight, it is dark as the inside of a cow. At night we have to use flashlights to check sail trim. On one of my midnight watches I hear dolphins surfacing, spouting and then taking in another breath. Looking in the direction of the noise, it’s too dark for me to actually see the animals, but I do see the bioluminescent trails where their dorsal fins break the surface. They criss-cross paths with each other and circle the boat. I have never seen anything quite like it before, and it it’s truly a magical moment.

It doesn’t appear from weather faxes that there is significantly more breeze to the south of us, so we decide to sail the shorter route close to the rhumb line. About the third or fourth afternoon out, we get a call on the radio from (we thought) another boat in the fleet called Fast Company. They had been ten miles south and a bit behind us at last roll call but were claiming to be in better breeze and now ahead of us. We scratch our heads. We start wondering if we were doing the right thing.

We’re all enjoying the race. Sailing conditions are nearly perfect. It was overcast but getting steadily warmer as we sail out of the cool Humboldt Current along the west coast. We’re now down to shorts and t-shirts. Most of the crew is enjoying their daily ration of two beers and a cigar. The food and music are great, the breeze is starting to pick up a bit and life is good. We get another call from Fast Company. They ask if we had pancakes for breakfast. We confirm that we did and ask how they knew. They say they could smell them. This is all beginning to get a bit strange.

We start to have a few dramas with the spinnaker pole as the breeze picked up. The parrot beak on the outboard end keeps popping open, which means that we have to douse the kite and reset it every time this happens. We thought the trip line might have been catching on something, but after about four spontaneous releases, and subsequent Chinese fire drills, we give up and turn the pole upside down. This means that we can still fly the kite, but can no longer trip the beak open to jibe normally, and will have to douse and reset the kite every time we changed jibes. This will cost us an hour or two overall as we typically jibe once or twice a day. We decide to set a heavy air kite at night so that we don’t risk shredding the ¾ ounce spinnaker if we hit a nasty squall, which are normal as one gets closer to Hawaii. In their daily call, Fast Company seems to know all about pole issues. Could they somehow be intercepting our emails, or do we have a mole on board?

About one thousand miles from both San Francisco and Hawaii, we find ourselves on a collision course with Tranquilo another Pacific Cup racing boat. We chat with Ben, the skipper on the VHF radio, and decide to hold our respective courses till the last minute, so we can take some photos of each other. Since we are on a port jibe, we eventually steer up a bit to let her pass by. It always amazes me how one can be so far from land, yet be on a course that would have you occupying the exact same spot on the surface of ocean as another vessel.

We’re half way to Hawaii and still no sun. Every time we see a small hole in the overcast, we think, yeah, we’re finally breaking out of the marine layer and can start to bag some rays. Then it closes up again. Never mind, the weather is nice enough, and we’d covered nearly a thousand miles in seven days, one of which we were becalmed. The breeze is up and we should now average more than 200 miles a day.

Its day seven and Wayne peels the duct tape off the cooler. Inside is a 22 pound turkey-the largest that would fit in our little oven. He’d been saving it for the “half way party.” And a party it will be. In the middle of the day, I hear some loud banging in the galley, followed by yodeling. When I peek down the companionway to investigate, I see Andy with a large heap of bread dough. I ask what’s going on and he exclaims “I am beating the bread, lovingly!” Beth collected little gifts from all the guy’s wives or girlfriends before we left and hid them away. They are brought out at sundown. There are candies, bottles of rum and port, photos of the kids, clothing items and even a cardboard pin up of a Hawaiian girl. Fast Company radios us late in the afternoon for a chat. They had heard rumors that there was yodeling on board Moonshadow. This is too weird. How the hell do they know all this stuff??

The wind picks up to twenty plus knots, with occasional gusts to thirty knots. There’s a gentle following sea of 15 to 20 feet. We have a few dramas with the spinnaker that delays our half way feast a few hours. We finally sit down for dinner around nine o’clock. While we are enjoying an amazing turkey dinner with all the trimmings including Swiss holiday bread, Moonshadow is heading towards the island of Oahu with a bone in her teeth. We toast to a fun race and feel sorry for the poor buggers on the Moore 24’s who are eating stale peanut butter sandwiches for dinner.

We’re averaging 12-13 knots and surfing up in the 16’s. I can’t figure out why the forward head is always wet. Why don’t the crew wipe down after their showers?? Then I realize that it’s salt water. When we are surfing, the pressure is so great that sea water shoots up though the sink drain. On the “to do” list I make a note to install a valve. Otherwise life is very good on board.

After dinner when we’re sipping a glass of port in the cockpit, Wayne appears from below wearing this ridiculous looking cow costume. His face with seven days beard growth is popping out of this little head piece with pink ears and big cow eyes. He’s giving Andy grief about how dark it is inside, and offering the floppy rubber teats to the crew. We all just about pee ourselves laughing.

At o-dark-hundred the next morning we are clobbered by a huge squall. The winds gust up to at least 40 knots, its dark as the inside of a cow and rain is coming down in buckets. Beth is on the helm and the rain renders her eyeglasses useless. She tries hard to steer in front of the shifty breeze, but we spin out in a gust. Moonshadow takes a 70-80 degree knockdown. I was asleep in the forward berth and didn’t have the lee cloth up. Stupid! I was thrown across the cabin into the starboard hull, spraining my right middle finger. It became very stiff. I later would jokingly remind Beth on a regular basis of her helming error by holding my middle finger up to her. Finally on the eighth day we break out from under the marine layer for good. It’s about time!

The wind continues to be very fresh. Two boats in the fleet reported broken rudders, and numerous others reported various gear failures and broken sails. Moonshadow logged her record run of 246 miles in a noon to noon run. At one point we have 20+ foot following seas. They are gentle rollers so we hardly notice much except the boat accelerating, vibrating a bit and then breaking loose and surfing. We put the Beach Boys on and listen to a few hours of surfing music as we glide down the big waves. We have a few more spinouts. I’ll never forget seeing Wayne, who was trimming the kite, sitting chest high in water as we rounded up. He almost dropped his cigar! Fast Company call and ask us about having farm animals on board. When we asked how they knew all this, all they would say is “strange things happen at sea.” This is really beginning to bug us.

Just after dinner, Cort notices a number of targets on the radar screen. Thinking that we have caught up some of the Pacific Cup fleet, he puts out a call on the radio to see who’s nearby. A very firm voice replies “This is Japanese warship Yamagiri. We are convoy of ten warships.” Yikes! We just hoped they weren’t out doing some target practice. They had us on radar and when they found out we were a sailboat racing, agreed to keep clear. Mark has brought Leilani, his cardboard Hawaiian girlfriend into the cockpit. He’s trying to make a video of him talking to her seated next to him. While he’s talking to her, the breeze keeps blowing her head into his lap.

Oahu is just over a hundred miles ahead of us. It is our last night at sea. The passage has been so much fun that it seems to have gone by in a flash. Its early evening and Fast Company call us on the radio. They ask to speak to the cook about all the great meals he’s been putting on. Wayne grabs the mike and has a chat. They ask about the cow costume. Wayne is mooing on the radio. They ask to speak to the yodeler. Andy comes on and gives them a couple of yodels. I’m thinking to myself that this is beginning to get just a little bit ridiculous. They as for the tactician. Beth gets on the radio and they grill her about her tactical choices. They ask to speak to the captain so I take the mike. The voice at the other end asks “what do you make of all this skipper?” I replied that I hadn’t a clue and that it was a bit weird. I happen to glance over at Jeff across the salon, who had his video camera trained on me. Hmmmm? Just then, Mark steps out of the aft head speaking into a hand held VHF. He says “Have you ever heard of Candid Camera?” I collapse on the floor with laughter. We all laugh so hard we have tears in our eyes.

Jeff and Mark had skillfully pulled off what I consider to be the best sailing practical jokes of all time. Jeff had gotten the idea from the previous owner of Moonshadow. The same joke was played on the crew when she sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in the first ARC Rally in 1986. And the great thing is the he got the whole thing on video.

We spot land at first light the next morning. All the crew is on deck wearing Hawaiian shirts. Over coffee we laugh about the radio joke, reflect on the great sailing and fun times. It’s all gone by seemingly in an instant. Someone suggests we sail across the finish line and then set a course south for Tahiti, because they don’t want it to end. We all feel the same way, and if it weren’t for jobs, family, etc. . . .

We crossed the finish line near Kaneohe Bay later that morning. Our elapsed time for the 2060 mile passage was 11 days, 21 hours and 15 minutes. We managed to average 7.22 knots on the course line even though we were parked for nearly 24 hours out by the Farallon Islands. We were the fifteenth boat to finish the race and corrected 48th out of 60.

As we motored through the narrow channel in the reef to the Kaneohe Yacht Club, we popped the cork on a couple bottles of champagne to celebrate our safe passage and great time. For most of us, it was our first real ocean passage, and a very satisfying one. I thought to myself that if this is what passaging is like, I can’t wait for more. But then again, I knew that it really couldn’t get much better than that.

The last thing I remember was tying up to the bulkhead at the yacht club. A photo was taken of the crew and we were greeted with leis and handed a tray of beers and tropical drinks. On the way to the bar, we all ended up in the club’s swimming pool, fully clothed. By the time we left the bar very late that night, we were completely dry-at least on the outside. As usual, we didn’t win the race, but surely didn’t lose the party.

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