After spending the summer working on her boat Nereida, world record holder Jeanne Socrates sails a classic American cruise, taking on a few challenges.

It felt great to be heading out to sea once more on a classic American cruise. The forecast was for an enjoyable sail to San Francisco over the next few days.

A thin line of clear blue sky ahead promised relief from the grey clouds overhead as I approached the Pacific Ocean beyond the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca which separates Canada’s Vancouver Island from Washington State in the USA.

Neah Bay, Washington. The marina with sunny weather.

Neah Bay, Washington. Photo: Yachting Monthly

I was looking forward to getting back into some sailing once more, having spent all spring and summer of 2022 in British Columbia, working solidly on what became a virtual refit of Nereida.

The work stemmed from damage sustained during my last non-stop circumnavigation, a lot of use in rough conditions (three complete trips around the world plus many other voyages) and the pandemic preventing me from getting back to her for over two years after a flight to Australia in 2020.

Preparing for this classic American cruise

I had raised the main just before dawn in readiness, but the day had begun chilly, dull and windless, so I was motoring in a slight swell, warming coffee to hand, carefully avoiding the rocks around Tatoosh Island.

I could see the lighthouse marking Cape Flattery just to its south, with the open ocean beyond. I downloaded a trail of Navionics charts after problems with my new chartplotters.

The lighthouse with a red dome and the sea in the background. The weather is sunny.

The seas off Cape Mendocino, with its historic lighthouse, can be fearsome. Photo: Yachting Monthly

I had sailed this offshore passage before but I wanted to have a good chart for the busy San Francisco Bay area which has extensive off-lying shallows and a rocky shore. I was due to moor up in Berkeley – a place I had only visited by land.

The busy shipping lanes turn south on leaving the Strait’s entrance, so I intended using the autopilot to enable quick course changes and to keep us on a straighter course than when wind-steering – helpful to the merchant vessels seeing our AIS signal.

Soon after rounding Cape Flattery to head southwest and get well away from land, the motion became very uncomfortable in big, close beam seas, despite almost no wind. The expected northwest wind arrived well before a glorious sunset and soon increased to over 20 knots.

A yacht sailing calm seas off Cape Mendocino

The seas off Cape Mendocino, with its historic lighthouse, can be fearsome. Photo: Yachting Monthly

The boat was sailing well, pressure was up, the sky was blue. If it had been warmer, I could have discarded some layers, but this was September 7 at 48° north and a warm hat and clothing were essential in the cold breeze.

Overnight, the near-full moon was brilliant in a clear, starry sky as I headed south-southwest keeping approximately 70 miles off the coast.

The next day brought no respite from the rough seas, but pressure was dropping slowly and by late afternoon, the wind had increased to 30 knots and the sea was boisterous, but the speed was good!

Soon after midnight, the wind was still almost 30 knots and the steep seas swung the boom over on a wave and then back to starboard violently. I hurriedly rigged a preventer to avoid a recurrence.

Later, in daylight, I realised all was not well with the mainsail. Most of it was flying free of the mast with its slides having come out of the mast track.

Distant photo of Tatoosh Island with sea around it. It's good weather.

Cape Flattery Lighthouse on Tatoosh Island on the very northwest corner of Washington State. Photo: Yachting Monthly

The second reef was already tied in and I tensioned the main halyard hard to avoid it tangling with the top spreader.

Clearly, the sail would no longer be very efficient but heading downwind was a blessing since the sail would be of some use on that point of sail with the lazyjacks and spreaders acting as supports.

An early alarm call

The wind died after midnight, so I turned on the engine but, less than half an hour later, the overheating alarm sounded loudly. The impeller needed changing, which I duly did after some sleep.

By 0530, we were under way again under a bright moon, in a west wind at four knots (forecast to go south) but with very welcome, far gentler seas of around one metre, with just the occasional bigger swell knocking us around.

We changed course to head southeast since there was no need to be so far offshore now, and unhelpful winds were also forecast.

Sure enough, by early afternoon, a few hours after crossing the latitude of Crescent City, just over the Oregon/California border, the wind backed further to head us.

Sunset from the boat with slightly choppy seas.

Sunset west of Cape Blanco, Oregon. Photo: Yachting Monthly

There’s nothing worse than bashing into wind and waves and it’s sure to give slow progress.

The damaged mainsail was all but useless upwind but, having stayed so well offshore, I now had the option of motor-sailing on a southeast course, off the wind a touch.

I calculated that we had plenty of fuel to motor the rest of the way. If we could keep up a reasonable speed of five knots over ground, our ETA looked like mid-afternoon on Monday.

My plan was to make for the marked channel skirting north of the ‘Potato Patch’ – a large shoal area outside San Francisco Bay.

My route would take me fairly close to Cape Mendocino, which I normally keep well away from, but the forecast was for lessening winds. Capes Blanco and Mendocino are renowned for nasty seas a good distance off in stronger winds.

New depths with oil mystery

The sun was shining hazily through overcast skies as I continued on, eventually passing Mendocino 60 miles off. At 0130, an alarm sounded – the engine oil light was showing red.

I was surprised since I’d changed the oil and filter less than a month ago and was even more surprised when I checked the oil dipstick, having stopped the engine, and found there was no oil showing on it. How could that be?

Smiling Jeanne on the boat with the sea in the background.

Jeanne in her element. Photo: Yachting Monthly

I added well over two litres of oil and started up the engine again – and saw the alarm light flickering on and off – but it seemed that there had to be plenty of oil in the engine so I wondered if the oil heat sensor was faulty. I continued on overnight.

At 0620, the autopilot played up for the second time with another ‘MOT stall’ message, meaning it had stopped working. Once more I reset it and it seemed to be working but the ‘low oil’ engine alarm was on continuously.

I was still just under 200 miles from my destination of Berkeley in San Francisco Bay and the dipstick again showed virtually no oil.

I was quite worried and about two hours later I decided to let the US Coast Guard know about my situation. ‘No, it’s not a distress call. or even a Pan-Pan. I’m just giving you a heads up,’ was my message to them.

They said they could see us on AIS and promised they’d check in with me every two hours on VHF Channel 16. The wind died completely as I continued onwards with the high-pitched ‘low oil’ alarm sounding.

The dipstick continued to be mostly clean but eventually it showed over-full. I told the Coast Guard not to call me anymore.

I was now convinced the oil alarm/sensor must be faulty since the engine was sounding sweet.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from the boat. There is cloudy and sunny weather.

The northwest end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo: Yachting Monthly

Just before sunset, my mobile phone suddenly got a brief signal – Queen Elizabeth II had just died. It really was the end of an era.

In the morning, as I headed on the flood tide toward the large peninsula of Point Reyes, I was checking the tides at the Golden Gate Bridge.

It’s a relatively narrow entrance to a very large bay and a lot of water flows in and out, so it becomes almost impossible to enter on a strong ebb.

It turned out that if I kept up a good speed, I would make the Golden Gate around slack water.

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Ending scenes

At 0915, I passed Point Reyes but, disappointingly, it had turned rather foggy onshore and the land was totally obscured. However, the timing was looking good at this point – high water was at 1327 at the Golden Gate Bridge.

I was carrying a good flood tide and making excellent speed at this point as I passed the scenic, often rocky, shore leading to Bonita Point where I changed course to head up towards the Bridge.

View of Point Bonita with slightly choppy sea.

Passing Point Bonita. Photo: Yachting Monthly

It’s always such a thrill to pass under such an iconic bridge. The timing was perfect, making slack water as I passed under and then headed towards the infamous and foreboding Alcatraz Island.

My problem now was getting the mainsail lowered while most of it was flying free – it was certainly not easy in a 10kt wind – before heading over to Berkeley Marine Center where Nereida would stay for several weeks while she had some much-needed repairs.

A cracked engine gasket and replacement boom were just some of a long list of fixes that Nereida needed to make her seaworthy again.

Lessons learnt- heavy weather and other challenges

Soon, I’ll be heading down to Mexico and I’m looking forward to reaching somewhere warm – the weather here, especially overnight, has been surprisingly cold during my stay, with not much warmth in the Californian sun, despite a lot of glorious blue skies.

I had a few handicaps on the way south, even before the mainsail was damaged. I was due to collect a new genoa in San Francisco and my intention was to raise the asymmetric instead.

In Neah Bay, I found it impossible to place the demountable bowsprit in position because the bow roller metal had moved slightly. So I had no big headsail to use on the way south, just the small staysail.

The damaged impeller on the yacht deck.

The damaged impeller after being removed from the seawater pump. Photo: Yachting Monthly

I should have rigged a preventer earlier but, with the boom sheeted well out and by making occasional course adjustments to keep the following wind to port, I thought all was fine.
I didn’t appreciate how rough the seas would become overnight.

The rough motion that caught the boom and swung it over and back was very unexpected. A slight crease in the boom meant a replacement was needed.

If using wind-steering, the need to make a slight adjustment to the autopilot’s heading after each wind shift (to keep the following wind off to port on a run) would have been unnecessary since wind-steering automatically follows the wind as it shifts.

Two people on the boat helping to remove the damaged sail.

Helpers assist in removing the damaged mainsail – note the dent in the boom. Photo: Yachting Monthly

The engine oil alarm had been a concern.

The Yanmar dealer later told me always to raise and lower the dipstick 2-3 times to release the pressure that builds up in the dipstick tube, allowing the engine oil to rise in the tube to its correct level and thus avoiding the misleading ‘clean dipstick scenario’ that confused me.

Replacing the oil sensor switch after landfall corrected the faulty alarm.

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