“The Kamikaze Crowd” or “the ultimate knight’s charge of Breskell cavalry”
To set up the tone for our last leg home, I picked up this advice in Michener famous book: “Alaska”.
The “Orient Express” syndrome.
We are not fighting anymore growlers or ice-fields down there. We are confronting the “Orient Express syndrome”. An analogy borrowed from the Japanese mountaineers climbing our North American Everest: the Denali. So entranced by their achievements, like us with our North West Passage, those Japanese forgot that a summit is only half the way to a successful expedition. You need to return home safely. The “Orient Express syndrome” was the disease that killed many of those Japanese climbers. It makes them roar out of sight and disappear forever in crevices and precipices. They forgot the unforgiveness of nature up there during their hasty victorious return trip. I perfectly remember the last punch delivered by a lost growler drifting stealthy in the Arctic!
A safety warning. I don’t want for any of my crew the nickname local American mountaineers stuck on those poor Japanese climbers: “The Kamikaze Crowd”. Not for me the epitaph: the “ultimate knight’s charge of Breskell cavalry”.
Whatever the weather, our comfort, our fatigue or our personal timetable, we need at all time to keep a sharp look-out and a perfect seamanship attitude. An essential survival skill to finish alive and together our long odyssey to Port Townsend.
A quick look back at our odyssey
September the 15th. The wind is much quieter this morning when we wake up. Our final leg starts now after a good morning coffee. I am eager to sail home after four intense months « challenging the ice » up north. Three years of exceptional discoveries in an outstanding country. We had our hardships, we had our rewards.
The first year, it was a steep learning curve during the earliest encounters of my wooden boat meeting the ice. I taught my galloping horse to slow down and to learn “walking the ice”. The second year, the North West gates closed in front of “Breskell”.
A disappointing failure. You never win against nature in the Arctic with a sailboat. You simply adapt. We retreated back to Newfoundland and licked our wounds. It’s the Arctic way of teaching humility to any impatient sailor. This year, we rose again to the challenge. In a timely manner, we got our tiny 10% chances well-deserved after our long and careful preparation. On the long run, every North West Passage-maker, without the tyranny of a strict calendar and keeping an open mind, deserves access to the “other side”.
A “mighty task” had written Josh before tackling it. True. You can avoid many mistakes by studying what works or fails up there and by taking your time. Sure, you risk your life. Attempting the North West Passage, many died before us. Others will die after. That’s part of our daily life, up north or south in our cities. In the Arctic, if you cannot avoid it, it’s worth it, so spectacular is the country. Not like loosing your life in a stupid car crash speeding down a road down south or worse in the middle of some foolish cross-fire for some ludicrous territorial control. Not to mention the senseless death in wars based on grotesque political lies. Here, no medal, no money, only at the end your deserved “15 minutes of fame”.
A really poor substitute for a lifetime memories of magnificent landscapes inhabited by outstanding peoples. Absolutely worth it! The unbelievable harsh conditions they live in, give them an exceptional human resilience.
We still have 1553 nautical miles to sail in the North Pacific at the beginning of its autumn notorious gales. I know we are not done yet with the North West Passage. Still the end seems so close now. I am a very happy sailor. I almost forget my back pain. Unfortunately, my back pain doesn’t forget me!
To “False Pass” with a false start.
9:50 am, my faithful Perkins engine warms up. On “Inook” they are fussing around on deck, ready to leave soon. On “Altego”, they sleep peacefully. Together yesterday; on our own trail today. God, how much I like this sailing life! My crew is ready. Let’s go!
I will not be surprised to get another storm soon. This morning, we were unable to get any weather report. Later today may be?
Anyway the weather pattern this time of the year calls for a storm inside a two days period. No need to worry much.
For me, there is the “good” blow where my horse/dragoon runs like a champ and enjoys the wild and noisy ride. And there are the few others, the “bad” storms. Here, I need to control the fieriness of my powerful boat. To quiet her down, I just park “Breskell” and heave to. It’s a traditional well know sailing trick where the boat, like a cork, drifts slowly in a delicate equilibrium between her reduce head and main sails. Normally, I go to sleep if there is enough water and no ship around!
For now, we motor back into the narrow passage of “False Pass” toward the North Pacific Ocean. An unusual feeling appears when I play with my beautiful wheel. Too much slack may be? I cannot exactly explain why but the need to check my wheel cable comes to my mind. Damn it: this driving cable is almost totally destroyed! No safe way to process farther. It’s a false start in a “False Pass”!
I call for all hands on deck and stop the boat. We heave to. A perfect timing finally. Close to land, the sea is quiet, the wind light. « Inook » overpasses us now. They don’t worry much. No call to inquire about our situation on their VHF. They keep going. They understand perfectly that, being in danger, we would have called. I know also that, calling for help, they would have rush to assist at any cost. An immemorial law between mariners at sea.
Less than an hour and after changing the cable, we are back on track again. With no wind, we keep motoring. I want to get out of the strong current running on the pass as soon as possible. “Ikatan point” marks our final exit from “False Pass”.
“At home now baby…”
In front of us two roads open. With time on hands, one of the most spectacular and protected water on earth starts close by.
The Alaska/Canada inside passage. I promise myself to do it with my wife when I get older and much more reasonable! I spent three fabulous summers dreaming of the mythical North West Passage and sailing in paradise in an incredible Arctic landscape.
During all that time, my « shadow crew » and beloved gypsy wife ran our family business in Port Townsend. She fully supported my dream and me. Now, I receive her message loud and clear: “at home and at home now baby. My turn to relax!” No need to argue. She is right. I set the course: straight to Port Townsend a thousand miles away. Not a big deal without all those ice cubes around.
The afternoon wind picks up to 10 to 15 knots. All sails out. We sail under main, gib and stay sail. “Breskell” flies and seems happy to return to the stable. With the night, the wind increases. We reef. At this point, the gib sheet was left too slack. Swinging suddenly, it tears off the entire starboard side of my dodger. Another patch! And not a single stitch to resuscitate the remains of what was left of outside protection.
All emergency kit of experimented sailors contains “duck tape”. A jack of all trades sticky product. Some tears in the captain’ s trouser? Duck tape. A temporary missing part of a sail? Duck tape. Even some temporary displaced articulations can be settled in place with duck tape. In most case, just for the time required to find a better solution. It worked perfectly for my dodger. I know about our artists aesthetic appreciation of my patch : “ugly” of course… but functional! This dodger protects us pretty well against wind or splashes from the ocean. This dodger was old and sun burned anyway. Later, I plan to built on “Breskell” the “RollRoyce” of all dodgers: a hard top. I could have waited another year for sailing a perfect boat… And get stuck on the other side by a pandemic or another unexpected ice cover. For now, with the help of lot of this sticky tape, my shredded dodger will all get us well protected to Port Townsend.
Another spectacular nature free show.
Second day at sea and already an enlightened encounter with a beautiful humpback whale playing at around 150 feet (45.72 m) of “Breskell”. Impressive.
Normally, in a steady wind condition, the Aries wind-vane steers the boat pretty well. So close to the high Aleutians mountains, the wind is tricky. In the matter of just a few minutes it can shift direction and blow from 10 to 35 knots. Difficult to maintain a steady track in those conditions without constant adjustments of the wind-vane .
September 16th. If this fluctuating wind was not enough, a residual sea makes us rock and roll like crazy inside “Breskell”.
Our life becomes laborious. Luckily, our two new greenhorns passengers got their sea legs quickly and are just doing fine.
Anyway, for them, it’s too late to jump ship. To survive they have to adapt. No choice. Outside, the show goes on. After the whales, the albatross, an archetypal pelagic bird flying around the cold high seas enters our North Pacific stage. Another free exhibition. Without moving much of their majestic wings, they follow the hidden map drawn specially for them by undetectable air flows. Up and down and flying over us, these beautiful birds play effortlessly around the pacific waves. Gorgeous, effortless and noiseless, we never tired of watching these born artists. A quiet inspiration for some of their human counterparts who measure the success of their performance by the decibels they throw up.
Now, new actors enter the north pacific stage: two orcas. Just a glance to “Breskell”, not much noise either except for the blowing sound of their respiration. They follow their own path and don’t lose time with this unexpected and uninteresting floating neighbor. Nothing to lunch on there. We go south, they went north. Safe trip to both of you, elegant passengers of our shared earth vessel.
Pacific « bricolage »
A sailor DIY gib pole
In the middle of the afternoon, we set up the sail “wing on wing”.
One sail on each side of the boat. With the following winds we encounter on the last leg, this set up could be part of a more permanent rig set up until Port Townsend.
To extend our sail out, we have only one pole. Another one is needed. “Bricolage” is required. Joshua, our perfect seamanship gentlemen, is surprised by our ancestral French sailing creativity. With what is at hand around and adding again some good “duck tape” we can do almost anything. We need another jib pole? One oar stays useless in the dinghy. Ropes lay in the locker. A computer engineer brain is at hand to improve the design. Eric body strength is also needed as my back is stiff and painful and I cannot move much. Working again together, we build another jib pole.
A piece of wood linked with rope and tape to the oar is shaped like an “Y”. We connected it to the headsail. On the other side, a nail jammed across the paddle, ties it to the rigging. All moving parts are now linked together “et voilà”! Amazingly, this improved set up works as expected. We will sail home under this unorthodox design. Even Josh, our more traditional seamanship master, is impressed by our high sea “bricolage”.
A restored auto pilot…
Guess why the captain looks so happy today?
I have again the opportunity to resolve another little problem: fixing my autopilot.
I mix carefully my beloved epoxy. As indispensable for a wooden boat that the duck tape for the captain. DIY at its best.
“Breskell” autopilot broke midway from home. Easier to fix than my back! I still suffer a lot from my fall, days ago, in the Arctic.
At nightfall , Eric and Josh set up two reefs in the main sail. When the moon emerges around a partly cloudy sky, the wind starts to pick up. Our electric autopilot works fine and steers the boat pretty well.. Let’s bring in the stay sail and pull out the gib. In the middle of the night, we roll in part of the gib, keeping only 60% of it. Away from the mountain’s drafts, the wind gusts stabilize. Next morning, we awake with a haze and a visibility reduced to less than 3 miles (5 km). In the afternoon, another reduction of the genoa. Storms in this part of the North Pacific develop about every 30 hours. I feel the weather change coming. It’s part of the sailing challenge this north. Heavy gray clouds start loading the sky. Wind, this wonderful free renewable sailboat fuel will follow soon. Our sailor excitement builds up with this next confrontation with nature. I am confident in my crew and my boat. We are ready. Send us the next one!
A predicted blow.
september 17th, at 4:00 pm. We reef the third and last reef. A handkerchief of a gib is out. With no more than 30% of her headsail “Breskell” flies like a crazy horse. I lay in my bunk, trying to manage my residual back pain. I know my boat; every single noise whispers to me. Together, they tell me their interesting sea story. Waves are breaking on deck. I have now a bad feeling. “Breskell” is out of breath and complaining.
“ Is it Ok Eric?”
My beloved associated captain replies that he doesn’t know how to tame our wild horse. I understand perfectly. “Breskell” is a modern, light, capricious and powerful boat. In storms, you need to anticipate some of her foolishness. Before getting out of control and throwing us overboard, she requires to be quieted down. I have simply to speak to her. I find enough energy to crawl out off my bunk and climb on deck.
Oh my goodness! Huge waves surround us, most of them breaking on deck. White foam all around and water everywhere. Like any other horses, to jump over an obstacle, Breskell” needs to foresee it. My horse simply calls for direction. Easy now girl. I order everyone on deck and decide to heave to. In any race, it’s simply the equivalent to return to the padlock and to take a break. I unlock the overpowered autopilot, take the wheel and shift the boat into the wind. The main is taken down. “Breskell” immediately calms down. Across the waves, she initiates some sort of easy and gently slow dancing, corking up and down the crests. Each boat has her own “heave to” ritual and responds to different sail adjustments. I know perfectly “Breskell” preferred sail dancing partners.
Here, halfway between Japan and America, with so much water around, we are perfectly safe. No rocks, no growlers and not even any boat. It’s a lonely place. May be just one or two sleeping whales drifting in the storm with us. The best cushioned landing you can dream of in this circumstances.
Inside, everyone feels much better. Others, myself included, enjoy outside another free demonstration of nature Herculean powers.
In its actual state of mind, don’t challenge Mother Nature. She will reduce you to matches. Bow your head, enjoy the sound and light water show and let her calms down. She always returns to her sense even if she doesn’t care much about our human comfort. A really estranged and uncaring mother in fact. At sea, she tries regularly to kill her children’s. Better to listen carefully to her whims. Better to drift and flight than to fight.
Once in a while, a wave breaks over deck. Remember my patched dodger? It protects us perfectly inside the cockpit. Ugly? Yes, damn artists, but damn functional too. I return to sleep leaving my quieted horse to the bridle of those on duty.
Home at the end of a fantastic journey.
A few hours later, the wind calms down. From 55 to 50 knots, it decreases to a more manageable 25 to 30 knots. “Breskell”, pawing impatiently, is eager to run again.
It’s a matter of opening the barn door by unrolling the gib and showing her the home direction. Easy, it’s mostly south. And the farther south we go, the better the weather. Wing on wing, steadily, we close on land.
September 25, during the afternoon, far away, the mountains of Vancouver island are sighed. I don’t remember who saw it first. My guess is Bob. I could be wrong… He was always looking anxiously around with binoculars in case we missed America!
A first land mark appears.
A NOAA weather buoy planted in the middle of nowhere. An highly valued hot spot crowded by seals sunning on it like gregarious tourists in some upscale private resorts on the French Riviera. And jealous of their little private kingdom.
We get closer. They got angry at this yellow alien beast silently challenging their local supremacy. Ready to fight, the big fat guys started yelling at us to show their unhappiness. The little ones, prudently, jumped into the water, not sure of what was coming next.
We decide to show them who was running the show and the real sea boss here. We stopped the boat. Like naughty kids disturbing voluntarily a solemn family meeting, we freely enjoyed our self. Funny and beautiful sea creatures! Twenty minutes later, after we left, this close knitted and hierarchical colony exhaled a sigh of relief. They all climbed back onto their observatory, gossiping loudly among them self about this disturbing and inappropriate human behavior.
Before dark, we enter the Juan de Fuca Strait. With our return to civilization, a careful watch was again reestablished.
We are not fighting anymore growlers here but slaloming against the rapidly moving steel icebergs in this busy channel used by most of the world biggest shipping companies. Days and nights, they take this strait to reach the main cities along the west coast like Seattle or Vancouver. Along this highway, international navigational rules apply. They don’t tolerate human distractions. At sharp look, here again, is an essential survival skill.
And until the boat is safely docked, be ready for anything at sea.
Today, a little argument arises between the furled headsail and some uncooperative halyard. A last chance for an eagle view of the world around. Eric climbs a last time to the top of the mast 62 (19 m) feet from the surface.
And then a boat comes to meet us…