Thursday, September 29, 2011

Whales, dolphins and… fly catchers?

By Nicole

On passages, sightings of sea critters like whales and dolphins are fairly common.  But sometimes we’re treated to shows that are straight out of Sea World.

While en route to Drakes Bay, just north of San Francisco, we heard the blow of a whale maybe 150’ off to starboard.  We both watched, transfixed, as the whale slowly surfaced and then descended out of sight, only to blast from the water in a breach that exposed nearly 2/3 of its body.  The *smack* of the whale hitting the water was incredible, and it sent out a series of giant ripples toward us.  Amazing!  And a little scary seeing something the size of a school bus leap out of the water so close to our little boat.

Dolphins are known for being playful and love dodging in and out of boat’s bow wakes.  It’s always fun watching them zip around – Aaron managed to capture a pair on video:

Two playful dolphins swimming in our bow wake

Seabirds like storm petrels, murres and gulls are a regular sight on the ocean, but on our sail across Monterey Bay, a tame little bird landed on the boat and stayed with us for a few hours (we named him Charles).

He hopped here and there, checking out virtually every square inch of the deck.  He hopped over my legs, sat on my fingers and didn’t mind when I had to pick him up after he decided to investigate the cabin. 

Bits of crackers, pretzels and nuts were of no interest to him, but when a fly buzzed the cockpit, he swooped up and caught it.  Ahh, he likes flies… Well, it’s a good thing that Aaron went on a fly-killing rampage not a few hours before – our cockpit was littered with tiny fly carcasses, which Charles happily dispatched for us.

Charlie the fly catcher during his indoor adventure

Once we were out of the fog and close to shore, he flew off, belly bulging, to his next adventure.  His visit reminded me of the old John Denver song “Tools,” which I had firmly lodged in my head for the remainder of the day.  Sing it with me now… Tools was a baby rabbit.  He was a friend of mine.  Momma and papa, brothers and sisters left him all behind.  He came into our house, to brighten up a couple of days.  Tools you made me smile a lot, and I wish you could have stayed. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


By Nicole

Eureka was entertaining and San Francisco was a treat, but it wasn’t until Monterey that we really felt like we’d arrived in California.  And, ahhhh… what a great feeling.

We spent time wandering around town, admiring the beautiful old buildings and gardens, sampling beers at the local brewery, browsing the farmers market and gorging on a ginormous chocolate malt. 

Look!  A cactus!  And I’m not wearing fleece!

Handsome hubby in one of Old Monterey’s garden

Monterey has a rich history – this building sits just behind California’s first theater (from the 1840s). 

Back in the early- to mid-1900s, sardine canneries were prolific in the area, until overfishing caused the industry to collapse in the 195os.  A walk through today’s Cannery Row is nothing like the version Steinbeck wrote about, but never fear, it’s now a hot-bed of touristy shops and restaurants – like Ghirardelli.

Mmmm… a Ghirardelli chocolate malt for two. 

An amazing assortment of food booths at the farmers market made the street smell heavenly as we checked out perfectly ripe strawberries, plump bunches of grapes and oodles of hot peppers.  California certainly knows how to do a farmers market!

Perusing the peppers

Gorgeous Japanese eggplants

One of Aaron’s former coworkers now lives in the area, and we spent a great morning hanging out with her and her adorable boys, “Captain” Sage and River.  Thanks for coming down, guys!

It wasn’t all fun and games, though… we spent the better part of a day was washing and waxing the boat.  I’m always amazed at just how dirty something that sits in the water all day can get!

Bella Star on the dock in Monterey with Fisherman’s Wharf in the background (and more sea lions!)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

In Or Off

By Aaron

Alert: no pretty pictures for this post and likely not interesting to non sailors, but the choice between sailing straight to San Francisco or harbor hopping down the coast is a tough one, so I thought I’d share our thoughts in response to a question from SV Aria:

Chuck and Jackie on Aria said...

Congrats on on a major milestone. More than 1 circumnavigator has told me that the scariest part of the trip was the initial Seattle to SF passage. They saw higher winds and bigger waves but not as short coupled and/or as generally cold and miserable. So for us that will follow in your wake, and want a positive fun/suck ratio would you recommend the the multiple stop in shore route or the faster no stop trip? From the blogs listed by Livia, I would say you had one of the highest f/s ratios in the list.

Taking the offshore or inshore route is a difficult decision and anybody who’s made the trip (and plenty of people that haven’t) will give you an opinion on the best way to get to San Francisco.  Yes, it can be a scary patch of ocean.  We’ve met up with several boats that had heavy weather during their passage.  SV Cool Breez’n had gale conditions for several days with boarding seas.  SV Eagle had huge seas in severe gale conditions and had to tow warps to slow down.  SV Gypsy Soul was taking boarding seas and, fearing for their lives, were rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter off Cape Mendocino.  And these are just a few that we’ve personally talked to that made the trip in the last month or so.  Others we know, like Estrellita, had a pretty good run down.  And we’ve heard plenty more positive experiences from people that have taken the offshore route in previous years.  I think a lot of it is simply going to depend on what kind of weather pattern is set in on the date you’d like to leave.  If you can wait, great.  It was nice for us not to have a schedule influencing our departure decisions. 

When we were getting ready to head to San Francisco we were always planning on doing it in one leg, approximately a 5-7 day passage.  After waiting a few days in Neah Bay the weather off northern California was still looking crappy.  There were NOAA forecasters stating that the lows they were seeing would be impressive for January, let alone August.  So (feeling ready to leave Neah Bay) we changed our plans and made a two day passage to Newport, OR.  We figured this would shave two days off the passage to San Fran and allow us to use a shorter term forecast for getting into northern California waters.  The weather continued to be unsettled so we opted for shorter overnight and day-long hops from there whenever a weather window presented itself.  The route was Neah Bay > Newport > Crescent City > Eureka > Drakes Bay > San Francisco.

From Neah Bay to San Francisco we were in fog while offshore pretty much the whole way.  Fog so thick that everything was soaked and dripping wet.  It really sucked.  Radar is a must, and we’re huge fans of AIS. 

Personally I would not take the offshore route without an SSB and Pactor modem (or satellite phone).  We have access to  GRIB files, NOAA forecasts, buoy reports, and much of the other weather information we use when we have an internet connection – it’s certainly going to give you an advantage if you want to avoid heavy weather.  What was forecasted 5 days out tended to be quite different than what actually happened.  The 48 hour forecast was pretty good in our experience so if you take the offshore route that gives you a good amount of time to head in if you need to.

You’ll hear a lot of people lamenting that there’s nowhere to pull in on the west coast, or they don’t want to deal with crossing bars and timing bar crossings.  We found this to be a non issue.  If you’re harbor hopping you’ll be able to time your departures and speed to easily cross the bar during a flood tide.  The only bars we didn’t like on our run down the coast were the ones that didn’t have happy hour specials.  You’ll also hear people complain that there’s not as much wind on the inshore route, and I’d agree since that was our experience.

So as to my recommendation, well, it depends on what you’re looking for.  I can certainly say we don’t regret harbor hopping and we’ve had a lot of fun.  We’ve enjoyed 4 brew pubs, stood in front of 17 of the world’s 100 tallest trees, visited interesting towns we’ve never been to, and met lots of great people.  If we’d done the offshore route we would have gotten to San Francisco much sooner, and probably spent a lot more time there than just 3 days.  I bet that would have been fun too!  Regardless of which route you take, hopefully you’ll get better weather than we did.  If you make the trip on Aria, you’ll sure be loving your pilothouse!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Half Moon Bay

By Nicole

After a few fun-filled days in the San Francisco Bay area, we cast off and headed about 25 miles south to Half Moon Bay.  It’s a great anchorage, well protected from ocean swell and wind.  And with the help of a friendly couple who rowed over to share the ins and outs of the area, we found a produce stand with the most delicious corn-on-the-cob we’ve ever tasted (and we’re big fans of the corn).

One of the highlights of this stop was finally meeting the crew of s/v Eagle, who left the Seattle area around the same time we did this spring.  Their arrival was a fun surprise, and we had a great time sharing down-the-coast stories with them over pasta and wine.

Eagle and Bella Star
Say “Three Sheets Northwest!” (Thanks, Tom & Jeanne!)

We probably would’ve spent more than two nights in Half Moon Bay, but the blare from an overzealous fog horn (sounding once every 8 seconds, all day every day, even under clear skies) was more than we could stand… Onward!

Sunset over the Pillar Point Air Force station’s anti-nuke radar domes, a key landmark in Half Moon Bay.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Angel Island

By Nicole

After a few boisterous, noisy nights at Pier 39 (a combination of 20+ knots of wind, crazy current and those cantankerous sea lions), we were looking forward to spending a little quiet time on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay.

We had a lovely sail over to Ayala Cove and picked up two mooring buoys, as is the custom here (one off the bow and the other off the stern – this allows more boats to pack in and keeps boats under control in the swift current).  All the practice we got stern tying in Canada really came in handy!  

After getting situated, we laced up our hiking boots for the first time since British Columbia and hit the trails, intent on seeing the panoramic views from the top of Mount Livermore.  Along the way, I noticed how the woods smell different here – an unknown combination that smelled to me like eucalyptus, oregano, spice and sunshine.  I loved it. 

Hiking the trails on Angel Island – in the sun!

Ayala Cove mooring field and marina (Bella Star is on the back right).
Amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge and a sailboat race from the top of Mount Livermore.

Looking out toward Alcatraz and San Francisco

We finished up the day by lounging on the foredeck in the evening sun, enjoying a couple cold beers and just taking it all in… it’s a good life.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Let sleeping sea lions lie (or not)

By Nicole

Bark!  Bark!  Bark!

Pier 39 on the downtown San Francisco waterfront is an ideal location for exploring the city and being right in the mix of tourist activity….  and right in the mix of sea lion activity. 

In the late 1980s, huge numbers of sea lions decided that Pier 39 was the place to be and began hauling out all over the docks.  To give the sea lions a little place of their own, the marina built special floats just for them.  I wouldn’t say that the two nights we spent here were particularly peaceful with all the sea lion ruckus going on, but it was fun being so close to these cute critters.

But what happens when a few sea lions migrate from their floats to your pier and end up napping on your dock lines (just when you’re ready to leave)?

Aaron tries to evict a few dozing sea lions

Friday, September 16, 2011

Under the Golden Gate Bridge

The blast of fog horns on the iconic Golden Gate Bridge gave us a mighty welcome to San Francisco.  The city by the bay was shrouded in fog for our arrival, but it was still a thrill sailing under the bridge (okay, motor-sailing) and seeing San Francisco, Alcatraz and the Bay unfold before us.


But the return of Pumpkin Spice Lattes at Starbucks can only mean one thing… fall is near.  So we’ll only spend a few days enjoying this fantastic city before resuming our chase of the summer sun. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Redwoods and sunshine

By Nicole


Humboldt County in Northern California is known for supporting certain types of, um, plant life.  Arguably the most famous (and the most legal), though, is the majestic coast redwood – the tallest tree in the world.


We’d planned to travel north, back toward Crescent City, to tour the redwood forest, but a chat with a local at the Lost Coast Brewery bar had us pointing our rental car south down Highway 101 in search of two things: redwoods and sunshine.

We found both.  Oh boy, did we ever.

Driving the scenic and aptly named “Avenue of the Giants,” a 31-mile spur of Highway 101 that winds through the largest remaining stand of virgin coast redwoods, was a remarkable experience. The sense of awe and tranquility we felt walking through the old-growth forest, smelling the warm, woodsy aromas and witnessing first hand the impressive size and stature of these ancient trees – some over 2,000 years old, 350’ tall and 22’ in diameter – was in a word,  incredible. 

The “Avenue of the Giants”

On one short trail, only 2/3 of a mile long, we saw 17 of the world’s 100 tallest trees. 

Nicole: 5’2”; Coast redwood: ~350’

Looking up the skirt of a downed redwood.


Further on along the highway, through some small towns and down about 95 switchbacks, we came to the tiny seaside community of Shelter Cove.  The guidebook says you can anchor here, and we wanted to see it for ourselves.

The anchorage at Shelter Cove, CA

We also found this stubby little lighthouse perched on the cliff.

Built in the late 1880s to weather storms, earthquakes and landslides.  Cute.

So I mentioned that we found sunshine along with the redwoods. Who knew that we only had to drive a few miles southeast to go from a foggy, chilly 56° to a hot, sultry 97°? And why didn’t we do it sooner?! Ohmygosh, it was heavenly.

Finding a spot where it’s 80° in the shade used to be our driving goal. But after yesterday’s delicious taste of temperatures in the upper 90s, we may just have to set our sights a little higher. It was absolutely blissful to be enveloped by warmth, and I can’t wait until it’s the norm.  Soon, soon…

As you can probably tell, we had a very good day.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Offshore to Californ-i-a

The docks at the Newport Marina were getting a little crowded, what with everyone waiting out the strong winds and heavy seas pounding the southern Oregon/northern California coast.  The high winds finally subsided though, as they do, and the bevy of eager boaters made a break for points south.

After a minor setback with our autopilot, which forced us to make a U-turn a mile outside the Yaquina Bay entrance and head back to Newport (a wiring issue, Aaron discovered, that couldn’t be fixed while we were rolling around in the washing machine-like seas), we were on our way again the following morning.

For the first 15 hours or so, we traveled in light winds, rolly seas and dense fog.  But in return for such soggy, drab conditions, we were fortunate enough to see dozens of gray whales.  Some would spout and dive off in the distance, and some ventured close to the boat, perhaps to check out this similarly sized creature plowing through the waves.  It was such a fantastic experience to see these huge, graceful whales up close.  At one point, we passed right through a pod of maybe 6 or 8 traveling in the opposite direction.  Amazing!  By the time I realized I should go get the video camera, it was a little too late (and my excitement coupled with the bouncy waves made for a less-than stellar video).  But here’s what we managed to capture:

A very crappy video of some very cool gray whales

I was on watch in the wee hours of the morning as we approached Cape Blanco, Oregon.  No light from the stars or the moon penetrated the thick fog – the only illumination came from the soft glow of our instruments and our stern light, shining off into the distance behind us.  Winds around Cape Blanco were predicted to be in the 10–15 knot range overnight, but quickly rose from 5 knots to a sustained 26 knots with gusts nearing 35.  Seas that were moderate in the evening steepened dramatically to perhaps 10 feet high. When Aaron climbed up the companionway steps to relieve me, I saw his eyes widen as he took in the wall of water towering behind us.  It’s nothing Bella Star with her sturdy canoe stern couldn’t take, and we felt safe despite the wind and seas.  By the next morning, the winds had died out again and the seas calmed considerably.  Although the fog stuck around… sigh.

Day two was an exciting one, as we entered California waters for the first time!  Although it looked exactly like Oregon in all that fog, it was still a great feeling.  Relying on our trusty radar and chartplotter, we navigated through the rocks and around the curved breakwater of Crescent City to anchor for the night.  The marina suffered significant damage in last spring’s tsunami (following Japan’s devastating earthquake), so anchoring out is the only option now.  I wish the fog had lifted even a little bit to give us a glimpse of the city, but it wasn’t meant to be.  No matter, we were still in California!

Crescent City, CA in the fog

Yesterday, escorted by beautiful brown pelicans and under our first glimpse of blue skies in days, we navigated across the Humboldt River bar and into the town of Eureka, California.  Greeting us on the dock were friends we’d met in Newport, Carolyn and Kathy on the lovely s/v Shannon.  And we saw s/v Anna sitting snuggly on the dock just down from us.  Tonight the six of us are hitting the local Irish pub for dinner and live music.  All I can say is, eureka!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Newport part 2

By Aaron

We’ve been having a great time in Newport.  And if you’re ever sailing down the coast (or driving for that matter) we’d really recommend a visit.  The marina is very inexpensive and well run.  Power and WiFi are included.  And they also give you free bus passes so you can get around town.  The guest dock is a tad shallow, and we were sitting in the mud on a minus tide but no big deal.

IMG_7097Going aground… It’s always that last .2 feet of keel that gets you in trouble.

And it’s a small world – we’re tied up right next to SV Deep Playa and SV Anna, former neighbors from our marina in Seattle.


It can also be a bit noisy with the incessant barking of sea lions across the river.

IMG_2170These guys get extremely pissed when another sea lion tries to snag some dock space next to them for a nap.

We took a nice walk out to the beach the other day.


DSC_0563Well don’t just stand there… do a cartwheel or something!

DSC_0574Difficulty: 3                         Execution: 9.7                        Form: 9.2

On the way back from the beach we stopped by Nessie.

DSC_0587While Loch Ness is her home, she apparently spends summers  in Newport.

We already told you about the Rogue Brewery, but they also have a Rogue distillery tucked away in another building by the marina.  So we joined the crew of SV Deep Playa for a few drinks at Rogue Spirits.  They make them right there.  As in the still is right behind the bar.

IMG_2200Nope, it’s not a time machine or a submarine.  It just makes your drinks.

I started out with a “Hop Frog” which is kind of like a mojito but they mottle hops in it instead of mint. 


The ladies got their lady drinks…


I sampled some of the rums.  Patrick had one of everything.

IMG_2199There’s a reason the expression “Drinks like a sailor” came to be.

There are a couple of lighthouses here - the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse and the Yaquina Head Lighthouse.  We checked out the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse first.


DSC_0596I’ve noticed that lighthouses tend to have nice views of the ocean.

We tried to go all the way to the top.  But you can’t actually go the very top due to some “safety” BS.  Lame.  At least it was only about two flights of stairs.


With our lighthouse ascension urges not fully satiated, we took the bus up the coast a bit and checked out the Yaquina Head Lighthouse. 

Before making it to the lighthouse we stopped by the surprisingly expansive and well appointed interpretive center. 


When you’re out cruising you’re probably going to, like, learn stuff.  Along with very well done flora and fauna exhibits for species in the area there were some interesting exhibits about the Fresnel lens used in the lighthouse.  One explained how it’s able to project the light from a 4 inch flame 20 miles out to sea.

Pew! Pew!

The lighthouse itself was beautiful.



And we got to go to the top!!!

DSC_0648The climb to the top made me wish they had built a 20ft tall version.

We climbed the many, many steps to the top of the lighthouse.  And like the lighthouse keepers of ages past would surely agree, the view was totally worth it.

DSC_0639Out to sea

At the top of the lighthouse the original Fresnel lens is still in place, but of course the oil light has been replaced by one a them newfangled electric bulbs.  And the government doesn’t have to pay a dude to keep an eye on it 24/7.

DSC_0635New light, old lens

DSC_0642Looking up from inside the lens

DSC_0636The lighthouse is also equipped with an Eye of Sauron

DSC_0664Where we head’n from here, Sweetie???

SV Gypsy Soul

By Aaron


When we arrived in Newport we met Chuck, Tas, and their puppy Sadie from the SV Gypsy Soul - moored two slips down from us. They’re super nice people and accomplished sailors. They had us aboard for dinner and told us about their impending sail to Hawaii.

We wished them well on their voyage and waved goodbye as they pulled out of the slip the next day.

IMG_7094_thumb2Chuck, Tas, and the pup Sadie visiting aboard Bella Star

We learned yesterday that the Gypsy Soul was lost off the coast of California. She was taking on water in 20-30 foot breaking seas and they had to call in a mayday. Fortunately all three were rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter off Cape Mendocino.

110902-G-AW789-007 Air Station Astoria rescues boaters

We’re so glad that they made it out okay. Amongst all the rewards we’ve enjoyed from cruising so far it was a chilling reminder that there are also risks.