We spent four days tied to the Customs dock in Ucluelet, taking advantage of the nearby laundromat and grocery store. We did about $100 worth of laundry, washing nearly everything that was washable onboard, plus a few things that weren’t. We also started demobilizing and decontaminating the cabin, gradually transforming Khamseen from her salty offshore mode back into clean comfy condo mode. Ahh.
Then we headed out into beautiful Barkley Sound, winding our way into a tranquil bay at Dodd Island. K bought a fishing license and quickly brought home the bacon. In this case, several limits-worth of rockfish and a few lingcod (the ugly monster-looking thing is a ling cod). One of the ling cod was blue inside. We ate him anyway, he was delicious.
K shared some fish with Tom and Rob, who were cruising on Tom’s 1970 vintage Swan.
They in turn invited us over for a happy hour. Karsten on Dreamcatcher KM had spoken highly of these classic Swans so we were glad to be able to see one up close. We swapped sea stories over wine and cheese, and Tom and Rob brought us up to date on the state of the world we’d find when we got back to Seattle.
We also spent a few days anchored at Bamfield, which seemed not so much a town as a collection of fishing lodges. Then we headed back out to sea, turning left at Cape Beale and entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
After months of remote self reliance it was some relief to be back in the world of Coast Guard radio, aids to navigation, lighthouses, and buoy tenders.
We finally caught our first glimpse of the U.S.A. – Cape Flattery – through the fog across the Strait.
With the forecast calling for westerly gale-force winds in the eastern and central parts of the Strait, we called it a day after a leisurely 40 mile run and ducked in to Port San Juan to shelter at Thrasher Cove. Luckily Thrasher Cove didn’t live up to its name and we spent a peaceful night anchored off a beach full of backpackers. We also sampled a bit of K’s Ucluelet IPA.
We continued on the next morning, and by sticking close to shore we were able to hitch a fast ride on an eddy in the ebbing tide. We made fast time (7 kts) and in a few hours we were at Race Rocks off Victoria.
Then we made even faster time (10+ kts!) as we caught the flood tide current that gives the rocks their name and makes the homebound sailor smile.
By dinnertime we’d reached our destination: Oak Bay marina, and were feasting our eyes our favorite Sea Monkies. A and M were vacationing on their beautiful Halberg Rassy, Sea Monkey and we’d arranged to meet up in Oak Bay. They smoked us in the spinnaker race to Sidney Spit the next morning…
even though we flew our zippy bargain-bin Range Rover chute.
Sidney Spit, a national marine park, is a beautiful place with sandy beaches, grassy meadows and marshes, and forests of huge cedars.
It felt (and smelled) good to be back among cedars, and to touch again the smooth trunks of peely Madrona trees that lined the bluffs.
After hiking the island trails one morning, K had enough of dry land. The manfish in him couldn’t resist the call of the marginally clear waters and eelgrass meadows beneath the keel. He invited S to join him, but since she was chilly just standing there fully clothed, she declined.
We can’t print K’s actual response after he jumped in, but it was observed that his skin instantly turned bright pink and he didn’t stay in very long at all. In fact, it was his shortest swim ever. He seems to have forgotten where exactly he was and complained that there was cool stuff to see but he was too cold to breathe.
The transit form The Marshalls to British Columbia took us from the tropics where exhausted noddys sat on our fingers…
through the winter-like conditions of sub-Aleutian waters, where S wore 4 hats, 3 coats and 3 pants. She was like a little Russian doll.
Finally we reached the pleasant but damp weather of BC coastal waters where the rain kept K awake.
As usual the birds were the most dependable comrades. The noddy spent a day or tow on top of the bimini.
Varieties of boobies stopped by.
One blackfooted albatross was fascinated by the feel of our wake. He would land just behind the transom over and over for hours.
We also had a couple of mahi over for dinner.
We are pretty sure we had more than our fair share of squalls on this trip.
The view from inside a squall:
It was a very long trip and we noticed our age creeping up one us with a constant rotation of ice packs for the joints of the off watch.
Never have we been more pleased to be tied up to a commercial fishing dock in the fog.
Coral atolls suffer from a frustrating paucity of dirt for the gardener.
The traditionalist piles every scrap of organic material that the pigs won’t eat in a raised bed and plants a precious lime tree in the middle.
The Midwatians have a solution that dispenses with all the coconut husks in favor of a growth solution of soluble nutrients.
They did the math on air-freighting food to the island at charter flight cargo rates and found that $30k (farmer not included) will buy you a containerized hydroponics farm that is cheaper in the long run . The baby starts have a special nursery tray (with optional mouse trap).
Then they get transplanted into row after beautiful row of picture perfect chemical-free greens.
The trays are pH buffered for about a dozen types of lettuce, cabbage and herbs. Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and melons are on a drip system, pruned to an optimal leaf-to-fruit ratio.
John H set us up with a full cornucopia of veg before we left. S built a hydroponic hammock and we carried fresh growing greens and herbs all the way across the north Pacific. Delightful!
We left the Marshalls with the worst fresh provisioning ever but arrived in Canada with a couple of garden fresh tomatoes. Can’t plan this stuff.
It became critical that we find our way to a North Hawaii reef for a look before we left. In the end we played the Southern Hospitality card with “Midway” Miller.
Miller is from Florida so we were able to converse easily about such topics as the scary lightning in Florida Bay, the demographics of Lake Okeechobee, clear water diving in Florida springs and more. Miller loaded up some summer volunteers and took us across the lagoon for a look at this very unique reef .
The reef is unique for several reasons. It’s very far north at 28 degrees and the corals are fine carpets of white and purple rather than warm water towers and fans. Fifty percent of the fish are endemic only to these islands and we saw lots that were new to us. So the fish-naming gauntlet is down ( take that, Midway Pete and Kristen the Coral Girl), some of these guys ain’t in our book.
Like this speckled lippy spadefish.
We saw the infamously named Old Woman Wrasse, who tasted K as old women are wont to do.
The parrot fish here take the Pacific prize for size and good nature…
even when confronted by a scrappy territorial damsel fish.
There was a new flavor of toby.
A faded yellow-striped sea bass.
A crazy test-pattern tang.
A leopard blenny (half leopard, half blenny but the blenny half is dominant)
A prehistoric looking spikey-dorsal wrasse.
A small curious octopus.
And a peppermint rockfish (totally made up)
There were lots of baby birds on Midway when we were there. We arrived at the tail end of the albatross fledging season but there were other baby birds scattered around the island. Red tailed tropic birds were still rearing fluffy chicks in ground nests.
White tern chicks are somehow hatched and raised on bare tree limbs with no nests.
They only survive by hanging on to a perch from the minute they hatch until they can fly.
These mid-ocean islands are like maternity wards revolving with the seasons through the birthing or hatching of multiple birds species, Hawaiian monk seals, and turtles. Thanks to Pete, the chief biologist at the refuge, we gained a huge appreciation for the challenges life presents to these young creatures, particularly the albatrosses.
Midway Island is the largest rookery for Laysan albatrosses in the world. Blackfooted albatrosses also rear their chicks on the island, but in fewer numbers. By the time we got there most of this year’s crop of albatross chicks had already fledged and flown off to sea, but to our eyes the place was still covered with birds in various styles of plumage.
Albatrosses spend most of their lives at sea, only coming to land to meet other eligible albatrosses (courtship can take years), breed with their special someone (they meet up year after year), and raise their young. They lay only one egg per year that they breed, and the egg cannot be left unattended for more than 18 minutes or the chick inside will die, so the parents take turns – one incubating the egg while the other goes off to sea to feed. After it hatches, the parents take turns heading out to forage for food for their chick. When one parent returns, the other is quick to take off for another foraging run. These runs can be thousands of miles and as the chick ages the parents are gone for longer periods, leaving the chick alone. The chick must wait in the same spot for its next meal delivery, which may take weeks at a time. If they wander off the parent may not be able to find them, with dire consequences for the youngster.
While they wait with nothing to eat and only occasional rain to drink, the chicks sit, conserving their energy. A lucky few have shady nest spots, but most have to sit for days in the hot tropical sun. They ease back on their haunches with their backs to the sun and lift their feet up to try to keep them cool.
If they survive their time at sea, the parents return and are surrounded by bleating, pleading, famished youngsters.
But they know which chick is theirs.
Crouching low before its mom or dad, the youngster begs with shrill whistles and bats its bill at its parent’s mouth until they cough up the goods (see video on our YouTube channel here).
Unfortunately in its search for food adult albatrosses often pick up undigestible bits, including an alarming amount of plastic debris. It might be mistaken identity (a cigarette lighter might resemble a squid) or there may be edibles attached to the debris. The dutiful parent feeds it all to the chick. Bits of plastic brought back from the sea by albatrosses were scattered on the ground all over the island: bottle caps, cigarette lighters, bits of toys, and even toothbrushes. This debris had either been barfed up by the parents before they took off on another long flight, or were sadly left over from within the remains of dead birds. Many dead chicks are found with their stomachs literally stuffed with plastic.
If a chick is lucky enough to survive a few months, eventually the parents leave it to find its own way in the world. Driven by hunger the babies begin to figure out what their wings are for and how to use them. Gusts of wind are especially exciting. The chicks all spread their wings and hop up into the air to try to get some hang time.
Eventually they figure out the benefits of a running start. Many practice flights end in water landings. As long as they keep their wings dry the young birds have a pretty good chance of getting it all together and taking off for a life at sea.
Our Midway stop began with a big thunderstorm building at dusk.
Pilots flying near it later confirmed that it was a system of storm cells 100 miles in diameter, the size of which they’d never seen before. The top of the anvil head was at 50,000 ft and they became nervous when they saw a lightning bolt shoot straight up from the top towards outer space.
50,000 ft lower was a terrifying place to be. The squalls caught us at midnight after a day of sailing just out of reach. By 0300 lightening bolts were slamming into the water all around us. There was no reason for us not to take a strike and after 45 minutes of hiding out below with the autopilot steering towards the edge of the storm the bolt with our name on it found us. Half the electronics went black the other half locked up. The radar froze with a final image of the squall in it’s last sweep like a yellow death-grin. We were very thankful that the hull and rigging were fine and no one was hurt.
The morning gave us our best view – the monster we had just passed through well behind us, though we weren’t positive that it wasn’t going to come back after us for another round.
But before you could say “Zzzzzzt” we were tied up safely on the tugboat dock in the Midway turning basin. K had several days of electronic work-arounds to solve before we could put back to sea.
In a bit of a daze with our nerves still a little frazzled we went through a brief orientation to the do’s and don’ts of the wildlife refuge. Then it was dinnertime and we found ourselves chowing down on an incredible Thai buffet and salad bar, with a selection of desserts. This was the most surreal event in two years at sea. We felt like Dorothy waking up in Oz. Only twelve hours earlier we had not been at all sure that the voyage of Bint al Khamseen would have a happy ending as we cringed beneath a very, very angry Zeus who was dropping lightning bolts around us like dangerously close artillery, but here we were making new friends and taking a second trip to the ice cream machine like college freshmen. We were invited to the bowling alley.
After stuffing ours gullets at the buffet, we made our way back to the boat and went to sleep, thankful and more than a little disoriented. In the morning S commuted off on a pink girl-bike through fields of fledgeling albatrosses to do laundry and meet the residents while K field stripped our key electrical systems.
The albatross chicks displayed a variety of personality types. As we passed, most would regard us with what seemed like mild curiosity. Some would get alarmed by our passing and backpedal away as fast as they could while clapping their beaks at us. Others would just sit there and coolly look us up and down with their soulful eyes. A few took no notice.
The human residents were super helpful and we had constant offers to help with anything we needed. Joe and Perjim came down to check out our HF radio. Joe is a very serious ham (KH4/W5FJG) and we kept a daily schedule with him for about 2000 miles.
It didn’t take long to see that this was a wildlife refuge for good reason. Even far offshore we could tell that this is a very birdy island. Laysan albatrosses were sweeping across the waves along with frigate birds, boobies, terns and tropicbirds.
Every inch of the island had a nest or a roost of some kind…
and the air was full of wingbeats.
Huge protected green turtles left their naps on the beach…
to swim over and inspect our steering gear.
Curious white terns interrupted their lunches…
to hover over us and inspect our head gear.
Frigate birds were inspecting there wing pits.
Red tailed tropic birds were performing endless acrobatics.
Crazy emerald green invasive beetles were eating everything in sight.
And 400,000 young albatrosses filled the land.
We have been sailing in fog for many days now. Space is condensed and time is expanded within our little gray capsule and without our electrical wizardry we would have no way of knowing how long we’ve been here or how far we’ve come. The ocean in this part of the world is not content to share with the atmosphere and struggles to blur the interface between liquid and gas. Altitudes that we knew to be dry in other areas are really just thinner water in this place.
These whispy vapors rise in a tide above our heads, spilling into our cranial through-hulls and displacing our cool gray matter with a cool gray mist. The result leaves us quietly and contently observant and as imperturbable as big-eyed baby albatrosses that sit in the middle of busy roads. Fog is an anesthetic in large doses and we love to sleep. All other business; sailing, eating and hygiene, is automated and un-remarkable.
We’ve just wrapped up our fourth week on this crossing since leaving Ailuk, and we’re two weeks out from our unplanned stop at Midway Island. All is well onboard. We found ourselves quite gun-shy for the first week or so since resuming our journey, staring with saucer eyes at all clouds for signs of lightning, but thankfully there hasn’t been any. We continue to be graced with albatross sightings, though we’ve left the tropicbirds and fairy terns behind. Now we have acrobatic petrels doing laps around the boat, and the occasional shearwater loping over the waves.
Now that we’ve been scrutinizing it every day for the past month, we realize the summertime North Pacific High is not the stable monolithic beast we once thought it was. It was hopping around quite a bit, doing a do-see-do around us for several days. Other highs popped up nearby and merged with it. Some of the more intense Alaskan lows impinged upon it. Its antics drove us further and further north in our attempt to get on top of it, but we finally got onto its north side and have turned east, following a fast beeline track to Vancouver Island. We’ve also entered a world of fog and chill, and have been covering our tans, layer by layer, in fleece and foulies, transforming ourselves back into numb-fingered, runny nosed creatures of the Pacific Northwest.
We’re sailing northwest again after 5 days of unplanned time in the Midway National Wildlife Refuge. Our initial course would have taken us 125 nm east of the atoll, but strange changes in the local weather drove us closer and closer to the island. After 12 days and 1500 nm of sailing generally to the northeast we found ourselves maneuvering to avoid the atoll like a bug afraid of impaling itself on the haystack needle. And then there was a great wall of rain and lightning that swept over us and delivered some extra electricity to the mast with unclear results at 3 in the morning.
Our impression of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands National Marine Monument was already well formed by our disappointment with the visitor permit process and the preference of remote managers to hide behind sloppy policy. We knew that it is managed as a multi-agency partnership, a bureaucratic petrie dish that has cultured its own special reality and a strange relationship with the citizenry who feed the coffers. But the new things we learned during our stay filled our heads and hearts, stocking us with hours of quiet reflection as the waves and miles slip under the keel and into our moonlit wake.
Wildlife will be the subject of a several photo essays in the fullness of time. We’ll never forget the hundreds of thousands of baby albatrosses of Midway, one parked every 5 feet over about 12 square miles, waiting patiently for a parent to return from weeks-long foraging trips covering thousands of miles of open ocean to collect food and bits of floating plastic in equal parts. We also feel the burden of our species for the obvious role we play in drowning thousands of these beautiful birds that launch into the harbor underweight and underdeveloped, driven by hunger, only to become waterlogged paddlers who succumb slowly to the sea or quickly to nocturnal sharks.
Every beach we’ve seen on this trip has carried its load of plastic trash, but nowhere was the impact of this trash more profoundly displayed than at Midway. So we carry home a cargo of shame for our disposable society and the trash that is fed to young albatrosses.
We would not want to repeat the circumstances that brought us to Midway. Yet there is balance, as our experience brought many blessings. We caught our breath at the sight of a young fledged albatross 50 miles north of the atoll, skimming the complex sea surface without effort and our hearts are still warm with the goodwill and hospitality of the refuge staff and the community of contractors who quietly helped us in ways we did not even know we needed. Well-evolved animals and good people prevail!
As for ourselves, we feel some ownership of this island as a place of refuge and restoration now that we’ve taken our place in the ancient fraternity of birds, turtles, seals, dolphins, sailors, and fliers who have found this small speck on the chart at just the right time to rest, repair, and continue.