Honolulu to Seattle: First Ocean Passage

Honolulu to Seattle: My first long voyage, 1993

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Written by Kaci Cronkhite  March 2012  All rights reserved.

"So you serious about doing an ocean passage," asked my buddy Bruce as he walked up to C Dock in Ala Wai where the boat I was varnishing was moored.

"You bet," I said. "But I know how to cook, Bruce. Sort of. You wouldn't want me for a cook. Would you teach me how to navigate, use the weather fax, sail in the ocean?"

"Sure," he said with the impish grin I'd come to love in this Kamaina guy who'd been one of my first friends in Hawaii. "I need crew that will work!"

A few weeks later, we were headed out of the channel and west into the cooling sun in a 40 foot Gulf Star whose almost unpronouncable name meant sweetheart. In an hour the sun would set and we'd still be in the lee of Oahu. This part of the journey I'd sailed a couple of times already. Twice at night the year before and a half dozen times as crew for the man who owned one of the boats in my care. I knew this part was a pretty easy cruise in the lee of the island. No big waves. No big wind. As we passed close to Ko Olina, wisely tucked in the last of our shelter, the two guys who'd signed on as crew drunk their last beers for awhile (or so I thought) making grand claims about the surf, the women or the fish they'd caught along these shores. 

"Hang on boys (I'll call them #1 and #2)," I whispered. The channel in the islands could be rough and we were just entering the zone. That beer was likely going to reappear if the channel was anything like my other trips. Bruce just smiled at them and listened.

The Waianae coast reached her red desert hills gently towards us from the Pali as the sun dropped over the horizon. The city lights of Makaha just ahead would be our last for weeks and I could hardly wait.  Through binoculars I scanned the horizon for Keana Point light, the place souls left the island and the point we would, too.

As the stars began to appear, breaking, uneven channel waves began to roll in, bouncing the bow off course with increasing frequency. With one last vroom, the electronic steering overcorrected, then abruptly stopped. With what seemed only a second's hesitation, Bruce unclipped it from the wheel pedestal and started hand steering while #1 puked and #2 went up to untie the staysail. With no one speaking. I moved in place to handle sheets, watching Bruce. 

Hard on the wind and bouncing, he kept his eyes on the compass and the radar. We were still close to shore. #2 called back that he was ready to drop the staysail. Bruce gave him a thumb's up. Down it came and quick as a calf-roper at a rodeo, he secured it to the lifelines and came back to roll out the jib. Quickly cleating both staysail sheets, I freed the windward jib sheet and put the leeward sheet once around the winch.

"It's windy, so be sure you've got a good grip," said Bruce with a knowing hint of wisdom. I nodded and #2 reached over to grab the sheet for a quick yank to get the roller started. Surprised, I took my eye off the jib and in seconds the big jib was pumping and cracking and my single turn overrode the second.

"Dangit. I'll do that," said #2 as he muscled into my place to free it and then quickly pulled it in, double wrapping the winch in the right order as he did. Embarassed, I felt the boat stand up a little and then realized Bruce had actually headed up into the wind at the same time. As he steered back on course, #2 let out some of what he'd yanked in and both of us realized Bruce had steered the boat to make it easier for me. A common courtesy of helmsmen. If #2 had a seconds more patience and if I had a bit more experience, that wouldn't have happened. But no one said a word.

"The worst is behind us," said Bruce. "Kaci, steer a course of 330. I'll go make us something to eat."

#2 and I sat in the cockpit. The boat made slow, but steady progress passed the lights of Oahu. #1 stayed quiet below.

"Fall off," piped Bruce, seconds later.

#2 and I looked at each other. Was Bruce telepathic?  I looked down at the compass now on 10 degrees. When did the wind shift? I'd been steering to keep the sails full and hadn't noticed. It hadn't been more than a minute since my last look.

Knowing more about sailing than I did, #2 took charge. First he eased the main and then he adjusted the jib.  Looking down at the red glow of compass, I could comfortably steer 330. 

Twenty minutes later, Bruce handed up plates of sphagetti. It was almost 9 o'clock, or rather, 2100.

"After dinner you should both get some sleep," he said between bites. "#2, you're on at 0100.  Kaci, you're back on at 4. I'll do the dishes and be back shortly." 

Loving the night air and unsure where we'd all end up sleeping for the next three or four weeks on this bucking bronco, I sat with Bruce for the first part of his watch. We'd missed the first weather fax was due back in the channel, so he told me how he'd copied it from NOAA radio at 11 past the hour. With decades of deliveries under his keel, he rattled off numbers and seemed pleased. I needed a picture, but that would have to wait for morning.

By the time I stepped below#2 had gotten settled. I liked him. He was a confident, good humored guy. Very strong. An ex-marine who owned his own boat. I could see his feet sticking out toward me from the aft cabin. By the looks of it, his pal #1, was in there too. 

Being the newby and the only woman, I wasn't going to be picky. They'd taken the most comfortable, seakindly beds, for sure. Thankfully, my inner ear enjoyed sailing and I happily rolled onto a mid cabin settee knowing that every hour of distance from land, the winds would cool, steady and the waves would flatten. By my watch, the boat wouldn't feel so stuffy.

In what would become an almost month long habit, Bruce the Magic Sailor taught me not only important skills of ocean sailing, he was the first Captain I watched in the humble, competent, resourceful, team-inspiring leadership that marks the very best Captains.

Rocking in the trade winds and heading north, I thanked my lucky stars.