Who: Terry Bingham
Port: Eagle Harbor, WA USA
28 May 2008
20 March 2005
16 April 2002
15 March 2002
25 January 2002
24 November 2001
08 October 2001
09 March 2001
04 January 2001
30 November 2000
12 October 2000
29 September 2000
11 August 2000
10 August 2000
06 July 2000
28 May 2000
04 May 2000

Hawaii to San Fransisco

10 August 2000
Terry Bingham

I missed it! Like a red stoplight on the boulevard in an unknown town - I failed to see it. A missed wink from the lady in the red dress across a crowded room. No -- it was more like a plodding freight train approaching the grade crossing while I casually stared at a field of flowers in the opposite direction as I proceeded across. What price would this failed observance extract? The next several days would bring the answer.

For the past week and a half we'd been playing tag with the "North Pacific High", a usually large high pressure system that dominates offshore the west coast from southern BC to central California during the summer. In winter, he runs more South and provides the nice weather from northern California into Baja Mexico.

When I visited the Hawaii Yacht Club on Oahu eight weeks ago, I met the venerable Robbie Buck, an icon among voyagers on the eastern Pacific - Robbie has made in excess of 50 crossings between Hawaii and the mainland and carries an encyclopedia of knowledge regarding that vast expanse of bluewater. Prior to my departure for Kauai, Robbie bought me a drink and said, "Listen up! This is how you do it. Head north from Kauai, right up the 160 until you can clear the top of the 'High' and turn right."

Then, gazing out across the hundreds of boats in the Ala Wai Marina, he quietly said, "But whatever you do, don't go north of 41, maybe 42. If you can't clear the high by then, turn right and go through it. You'll have to motor a ways -- maybe a week, but you don't want to go north of 42."

I told him that had pretty much been my plan and I appreciated the advice. He held his drink aloft and seemed to look right through me, "Over 50 crossings," he said. When the time came to depart Hanalei Bay on the north shore of Kauai, the trades were blowing briskly, 20 to 25 knots, right out of the Northeast.

As I settled into the first few hours of this unknown passage, I spent some time adjusting the self-steering wind vane for the optimum course I could maintain in this wind. Optimum for me doesn't necessarily mean "shortest" or "fastest", but instead, a decent level of comfort which today meant setting a course that would take us slightly west of due north, but keep us from beating directly into the prevailing wind and seas. We would run for a while on a close reach, starboard tack, taking the seas somewhat off the starboard bow and see if that wasn't fairly comfortable.

In addition to the physical clues that derive from the wind and waves, we're equipped to receive WeatherFax, so that first afternoon began a daily schedule downloading to the laptop multiple charts and satellite photos showing the broad expanse of weather across the northeastern Pacific Ocean.

I couldn't have been more pleased with the next seven days. The wind stayed fair, giving us daily mileage in the 140's, and the comfort level was OK - a little too much pounding and heeling to port, but with the good speeds, don't complain. The WeFax came in clearly twice a day and gave a good picture of the Pacific High. While earlier in the month it had been resident well above lat 40N, it had moved substantially southward and it looked like we could clear the top before reaching 40N.

In the middle of the night, as I went topside to look around and check conditions, I noted a fairly good wind shift had occurred with a veering to the South and West, naturally turning the boat to a more easterly course.

"Well, Robbie," I thought, "this is the way it works, isn't it? The wind will continue around and we'll soon have westerlies to take us all the way to San Francisco".

As I said earlier, we'd been playing tag with the high for over a week since that night when we were docilely shepherded around to our eastern course. Then, within a day the high had moved several hundred miles north and west turning the good westerly winds into not so good northeasterlies -- once again we were close reaching into four to six foot seas. At least we were now on the opposite tack, variety being the spice . . . .

For the next several days the high moved, then split, then dissipated or was absorbed by a new one and all the time I would scan the twice-daily weather charts looking for the return of the prevailing westerlies. There was a succession of lows marching eastward just ten degrees to the North.

Robbie was certainly right - that wouldn't be any fun up there. But here we had the NE, then it was from the South and now there was barely a breath and I considered firing up the engine, but gave it a couple of hours and enough wind filled in from the Southwest to satisfy.

After 19 days at sea we were within 600 miles of San Francisco and the wind died again. Without hesitation I started the engine and we motored for three and a half hours till a nice Northwesterly showed up and I thought, "Right on! This will build and we'll ride it on into the Golden Gate".

All that day the sailing was beautiful -- a leftover westerly swell long in period and short in stature was running directly on the stern, quietly lifting us three or four feet every ten or twelve seconds as we moved along at five knots on a comfortable broad reach and the wind not yet building any noticeable chop. The sun was warm and the only clouds resided on the far horizon. It was "the best". During this time Hurricane "Daniel" had been menacing the Hawaii area and out of interest I was following his progress closely on the WeFax.

Late that afternoon the newest charts arrived and as I glanced over them my eyes were drawn not to the hurricane, but to the bold black box drawn only a degree to the east of our current position and right on our course. Inside the box was written: "DVLPG GALE". Then I looked to the west coast mainland and saw the multiple low pressure centers that were lined up along the central California valleys.

These lows are caused by rapidly rising air when a heat wave settles into the area and are called "Thermal Lows" or a "Thermal Trough." Combine these lows with the "Pacific High" and you'll typically see heavy weather all along the offshore coast as the high squeezes up against the land and winds from the two contrasting pressure centers meet, contributing to each other. The winds in the high rotate clockwise and in the low anti-clockwise. Viewed from above, as on a weather chart, it always reminds me of my mother's old "MixMaster" as she would whip up a chocolate cake and the batter would impressively accelerate where it was drawn between the two counter-rotating beaters.
Along this coastline, gales develop not infrequently due to this thermal condition.

How had I missed the signs? However, that question was quickly replaced by "so what next?" and the fact that we were entering the much colder water of the California Current which typically causes dense fog when combined with the heat coming off the valley.

As we sailed into the night the wind began to veer more north and build intensity. By midnight we were on a tight reach under double-reefed mainsail and staysail, beginning to feel the effects of the three to four foot seas, and at 0700, after a moonless night with increasing winds it was evident we needed the third reef in the main and the storm staysail to counter the effects of the now thirty knot winds and seas of eight plus feet. An hour later and under control with the storm sails set, I sat at the top of the companionway with a first cup of coffee and looked out over the "Pacific" ocean.
(Webster's: "Pacific" -- appeasing; peaceful; conciliatory.)

The morning sky was leaden, the water a blend of cobalt and gunmetal. I watched as the wind strafed the wave tops and rippled their faces. I became evermore impressed as "Secret O' Life" rose up and over each swell, albeit with a goodly roll, at times approaching forty-five degrees. Like the proverbial duck bobbing on the water, all twenty - two thousand pounds moved fairly gracefully as the laws of buoyancy took effect and she would rise and fall through a height of ten or twelve feet in a second or two.

Struggling to make a breakfast, I felt safe with hash browns and scrambled eggs. The gimballing of the stove aboard is far past a blessing - I can set a pot of coffee, handle a frying pan and boil water with the confidence that after the next roll, all will still be in place and intact on the stove top.

Returning with the meal to my perch at the main hatch, a place I can wedge against and be stable in most any conditions, I scanned the horizon and wondered if there be any other fools nearby today, still over 350 miles from the Golden Gate.

On through the day the wind vane held the course within a degree or two, a job I wouldn't begin to attempt, and the wind continued to howl through the rigging, continued to heap the seas until, mid-afternoon, I could pick out skiable terrain -- hills and valleys with sufficient height that one could make a series of turns from top to bottom. Still the boat plowed on, making a steady four knots as she visibly slowed on the rise up each swell, hesitated at the top and then rolled to one side or the other dependent on the mass and consistency of the water beneath her. I went below to have a nap.

At dusk the wind and sea conspired to present a truly evil presence in the dying light -- and again there was no moon. Wind speed exceeded 35 knots with gusts above 40 and the seas continued to grow, some above fifteen feet. The only problem these would present is the rare coincidental collision of the boat with a crest that has just started to break, as this will then tumble across the deck or the aft quarter and drive spray across the dodger and the cockpit. The wind vane continued to track a straight and true course, keeping me out of the wet cockpit.

With the last light fading, I slid in the washboards, closed the hatch and went below to heat a can of chili and see what I could find on the short-wave for entertainment. Unfortunately, we were now too close to San Francisco to receive decent WeFax, so would rely on verbal broadcasts. Hopefully, improving weather would be a topic soon.
Vessel Make/Model: Union 36 Cutter
Hailing Port: Eagle Harbor, WA USA
Crew: Terry Bingham
About: Tammy Woodmansee spends as much time as she can on the boat, but returns to the states from time to time for work to pad the travel kitty. Terry single-hands when she's not aboard.
Extra: CURRENT LOCATION: January, 2007 - cruising the west coast of Costa Rica.
Home Page:


Who: Terry Bingham
Port: Eagle Harbor, WA USA