Crossing the Pacific high

After two months of extended cruising in the Hawaiian Islands we departed Nawiliwili, Kaua’i, aboard Anna, our Tayana 37 cutter. On board were my wife Cat and myself. We planned to sail for southeast Alaska, basing our route on data from the North Pacific pilot charts for the months of July and August. The pilot charts present in graphic format, averages obtained from data — meteorological and oceanographic — gathered over many years.

Normally, one would steer a course just to the west of the immense North Pacific high pressure system, sailing north by northwest from Kaua’i before turning northeast at about latitude 40° N, and on past Kodiak Island with a landfall, perhaps in Sitka, Alaska. But, this time was different: you would have to sail halfway to Japan to get up and over the high before turning to the north and east, because the typically stable high had become unstable, and weakened. As a result, it was shaped long and thin like a cigar and its general location in the North Pacific was significantly altered. This would radically alter the sailing dynamics — the low pressure systems that marched across the North Pacific would now dominate the weather patterns, bringing unseasonably more intense weather to the mix.

After carefully considering the recent unusual trend in weather patterns for the North Pacific and after worrying that the high simply wasn’t going to set up as it usually did, we decided, not without some reservations, to weigh anchor on the second day in July. We chose early July, as it was typically a very good time to begin a passage to the Pacific Northwest. Our plan was to head due north, up and across the Hawaiian northeast trade winds that were forecast to moderate for a few days — a break from their otherwise relentlessly strong westerly flow.

We would sail directly through the surprisingly weak high that now stretched halfway to Japan, from the island of Kaua’i. Now, Ucluelet, British Columbia, located at the southwest end of Vancouver Island, would be our logical, designated landfall, and international customs-clearance port.

Sailing through the center
Since the high was weak, there was an opportunity to sail through the center of its narrow band, shaving about a week, and roughly 1,000 nm off of what is arguably one of the longer passages for a 37-foot sailboat. The trade-off of being able to sail through the middle of a weakened high, as opposed to around it, was the potential for dealing with dominant, stacked-up, low pressure frontal system turbulence: rough seas, increasingly intense squalls, and higher wind and wave components all along the way, after exiting the boundary of the high.

However, we considered the trade-offs to be reasonable, since departing for the Pacific Northwest at an earlier, or later date, historically, increased the percentage of potential gale force days according to the Pilot Charts of the North Pacific Ocean. Moreover, we felt that it would now be possible to sail the entire distance, without the need for firing up our Perkins 4-108 engine, and burning nearly $4 per gallon diesel fuel.

We could sail quickly, through the center of this narrow band of weak high pressure that would provide Anna with a nice, moderate breeze. This meant that we probably wouldn’t have to spend much time drifting, or worse, powering for days on end through the extensive, dead-calm parking lot otherwise known to sailors as the North Pacific high. We were going to take our chances with the lows, for better, or for worse, as it became apparent that the high wasn’t setting up as we had hoped.

We slipped out of Nawiliwili, Kaua’i, in strong, reinforced northeast trades, and beat our way upwind throughout the first day. Anna goes to weather well, however, and the ride was surprisingly comfortable as her bowsprit ripped through the waves. The weather was perfect when we left and would stay warm, sunny, and balmy for the week to come. By the second day, the waves had settled down to a gentle roll. The sailing was smooth, consistent, and relaxing.

We had full sail set for a close reach with a perfect 15-knot breeze for days. These were ideal upwind, open ocean conditions for Anna. By the end of week one, we told ourselves that if the rest of the passage were rough, the full first week would compensate. And sure enough, things were about to change.

We left the northeast trades behind, and shortly thereafter, the narrow band of weak high pressure; and just like that, the weather turned south — we had crossed the boundary into the low. The winds backed to the southwest, and the skies grew overcast. The clear, warm, sunny, balmy days, and spectacular sunrises and sunsets were replaced by progressively cooler, squally, and gray, unstable air. It became increasingly damp and misty. Nights brought fog. Away went the bathing suits, shorts, tee shirts, sunglasses and zinc oxide. Out came the fleece, and wool hats, Carhartts and foul-weather gear. Now we were dressed for winter — in the height of summer. It was chilly out there, 1,200 nm from anywhere, in any direction, in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, during the month of July nonetheless; but we liked the contrast, and it made the long ride more interesting and diverse.

Changing colors
Progressing north, the color of the sea changed from aquamarine-turquoise, to sapphire-blue and on to steely-gray. Visible wildlife thinned out considerably. Lime, red and blue-footed boobies that hitched rides with us gave way to flying fish, and then, all that was left were endless seas, and endless skies, and Anna, our little world, way out there, and surprisingly happy to be alone in the relentless lows.

As we thread our way through the weather alleys, i.e., the contours, or isobars of high and low pressure systems, we hope to control, to a modest extent, our wind direction and speed, and by extension, wave direction, height and period. To lighten up the ride, we move closer toward the direction of the center of the high. We watch the barometer to identify the boundaries of the highs and lows. To pick up the pace, we move away from the center of the high, and a bit closer to the direction of the eye of the low. Sometimes, weather systems move slowly, or stall, and sometimes they move very quickly. Changing your relative position within the alleys of highs and lows is limited by boat speed. At times, an unfavorable weather system covering hundreds of miles approaches faster than you can change your position to a favorable location. When that happens you just have to be prepared to handle what you’re dealt.

By the second and third weeks, the lows were stacked up across the North Pacific, like planes on a busy runway, and they would overtake us with a constant regularity. Our track from Kaua’i to Vancouver Island started to resemble a sine wave. We would try to weave around the weather systems to our advantage, but a fast moving frontal system, associated with a deep low, can nip you. We ran into a very large, unseasonably intense 996-millibar low, approximately 350 nm off the Washington-Oregon coast just before our initial approach to Ucluelet. We were 20 days and 2,000 nm out of Kaua’i. We were sailing through light air at the time and knew that we had no way to avoid direct contact.

Downloading weather
To get a handle on what type of weather is coming our way while at sea, we download weather data to our laptop, via HF-SSB radio and pactor-modem. This includes NOAA-interpreted weatherfax transmissions, as well as grib (gridded binary) files that are basically raw computer-generated weather models presented in a relatively low bandwidth, graphical format. With a grib, the interpretation of the data is the responsibility of the user — although, in the near future, forecasters at NOAA will evaluate the grib weather models prior to their release, which should make guidance more accurate.

We compare these weather models, and then try to find out, via high seas radio contact with other vessels that may be crossing the ocean in our general region, i.e., within a few hundred miles of our coordinates, what their real-world experience has been over the past 12 hours or so. We ask about true wind speed and direction; boat speed and direction; wave height, wave direction, wave period; and barometric pressure. We compare this data to determine how closely the weather models match up to reality, and that determines our confidence level in the models. We then form an opinion on what strategy to take and go for it. We do this every day while we are at sea and it helps to reduce the element of surprise. If we get a heads up before a nasty system rolls through, it sometimes gives us an opportunity to change course to avoid bad weather. At the least, it typically gives us time enough to prepare the boat, e.g., make a sail change or sail reduction to compensate for deteriorating conditions that may be unavoidable.

We had our heads-up that bad weather was coming our way, and it became a case of wait and see. Our day started out with a moderate breeze and rippled seas at 0800. By 1200, we were getting ham radio reports from vessels up to 300 nm away that were getting slammed. At 1300 we knew we were beginning to enter the eye of the low, as our barometer dropped from 1008 mb to an alarming 996 mb within a couple of short hours. Our moderate breeze got lighter, and lighter, and then just stopped, dead calm, while the seas fell eerily quiet and glassy. We headed below to the nav station to check the latest grib files and try to confirm that what we were seeing was what the weather models were predicting. At 1400, in just a split second, we got our answer, the conditions turned from dead calm to gale force — the reality of our new environment confirmed the grib model, which in turn gave us an estimate of how long we could expect the worsening conditions to last.

Burying the rail
Anna heeled over at a 35° angle, just about burying the rail, while the winds piped up to a steady 35 to 40 knots with screaming, higher gusts. The seas gradually built from a modest three-foot glassy swell to combined seas of 15 feet. The wind-waves had breaking crests; gusts sprayed light foam off the tops off the waves, marbling the surface of the sea. The wave periods went from 12 seconds to six seconds ensuring a lumpy ride.

White spray blew across the wave sets and over the bowsprit. Hissing, white wave crests began to flood across the decks. We spent an hour or two on watch, strapped into the cockpit, monitoring the sea state and its effect on Anna’s stability. We also monitored our Monitor windvane self-steerer. We noticed that its control lines were starting to chafe and that concerned us because we didn’t want to be forced to hand steer Anna as conditions deteriorated over the next few hours. We were gambling that the control lines would hold up long enough to ride out the gale before we would have to make the necessary adjustments that would relieve the stress.

We made our decision and we were satisfied that Anna was well under control, and that our self-steering device could handle the seas for the time being. So we moved below to the relative comfort of dry, warm sea berths — secured by nylon lee cloths, to keep us from getting launched across the cabin as the waves slammed us every so often from athwartships. We rode out the worst of the gale in this way, popping our heads out of the companionway hatch every 20 minutes or so to re-assess the conditions and Anna’s equipment status. We knew all the while that she is a very forgiving vessel, which sometimes makes up for our lack of better judgment.

Powerful seas hit the hull hard. The sound was chaotic and amplified down below, with only a relatively thin barrier separating us from the world outside. We had passed through the trailing edge of the eye, and were now deep into those closely spaced isobars we sometimes notice on NOAA weather charts. We had storm trysail and storm staysail set and rode the low for the next eight hours with a comfortable average boat speed of six knots, and occasionally eight to nine knots while surfing down some of the higher wave sets, now grown to about 20 feet from trough to peak and breaking in a stunning iceberg-blue just under the surface of the crest. In our small world, conditions were intense for the next few hours.

The system passed
But just like that, almost as fast as the frontal system came on, it passed. The system’s trailing edge was now well in front of us. The seas slowly lay down, the breakers turned into large, gentle rollers with a longer wave period, and the breeze began to mellow out. It was now 2200 and the weather express steamed on, leaving us with a clear night sky. We could see stars, and the moon, for the first time in two weeks. The next day proved sunny and warmer, and conditions were once again perfect as the barometer migrated upwards. This was a good opportunity to hand steer while we repositioned one of the self-steering, control line turning blocks for a better fairlead angle. It was now relatively easy to remove and replace the heavily frayed control lines.

The next evening, we picked up the Pacific seafarer’s net (14.300 USB), on the HF radio, to check in for the daily roll call and to see how the others had fared the gale. It was interesting to note that of the seven boats en route, three rode out heavy weather, two had light air but confused seas, and two had calm air and glassy seas. All seven boats were within 100 to 400 nautical miles of each other as the gale plowed though. While Anna experienced moderately heavy conditions, the boat in closest proximity to her decided to revert to their engine to make some progress through what they described as, “very light air, with nauseating, confused seas.” Apparently, the intensity of the weather was quite localized, while the area covered by the low was extensive.

Challenging and rewarding
In retrospect, the lack of a stable North Pacific Ocean high was just fine — okay, it got lumpy at times, and there was a lot of adrenaline flowing, but it was interesting, challenging and highly rewarding. You come to truly appreciate the wild contrasts and you can’t help but love that. We dubbed the boats that were in our little HF radio net the “Pacific High Net.” We should have been dubbed the “Pacific Low-Riders Net,” as one of the vessels in our net suggested, after getting relentlessly slammed.

Our final few days before landfall  were spectacular, the kind of days that keep you voyaging against all better judgment. The more typical summertime high filled in just off the west coast of Vancouver Island. We were rewarded with clear, crisp, sunny skies, and a fresh northwest breeze for our final downwind approach to the protected waters of Barkley Sound; fair-weather cumulus clouds as far as one could see over a sparkling, rolling ocean with the coastal mountain range now in sight. We entered Ucluelet, escorted by two full-breaching humpbacks just off the rocky entrance reef — a sweet reception committee.

After we dropped and set the hook, we just went below and slept a full night’s sleep, sans lee cloths, for the first time in about three weeks. We dreamed about our next passage, due north to southeast Alaska. It was a sign that we were now off the open ocean, where only the present exists, and where past and future are for the most part, temporarily suspended. 

Richard Ian-Frese is a former research engineer and his wife Cat is a schoolteacher.

By Ocean Navigator