Race to Alaska: Midnight in Fitz Hugh Channel
I’ve pulled a plum shift: cooking at seven, on watch from eight to midnight, then six hours of rest lined up with the actual night.
It’s raining, but not too bad, and I’m dressed for it: full Odlo thermals, full Mustang outer gear, Xtratuf boots. Good gear costs a mint, but in bad conditions it’s the difference between tolerable and miserable. On a night like this, I’m warm and dry, free to enjoy the falling night.
Night comes quickly. We’ve had the rare treat of sunshine every day, but tonight there’s fog and drizzle. Instead of a sunset in one direction, there’s a brief pink glow everywhere through the clouds, and then a slow gray fade.
You don’t usually see whales before you hear them, on an open boat like this. You hear, or think you hear, that deep phhhhhhhhhhhowwwwwwhh, then look for the cloud of spume before it dissipates.
I hear them, somewhere in the channel, then catch the humped back off of port: gliding, sinking. Two whales, I think.
We’ve been heading north, downwind, but the wind is dissipating. Our GPS reads 2.4 knots, 1.8, 1.2. It wavers slowly downward while I apply the wait-five-minutes rule we’ve devised to help us smooth out our responses to the ever-shifting wind. We’re slow, but we’re tracking with the whales. They’re in no hurry.
I suggest to Graham that we lower the jib; he goes wordlessly to the foredeck: he will flake the sail to the deck while I lower the halyard, then we’ll work together to put up a pedal station. I’ll pedal while he minds the tiller. We’ve built patterns, rapport. What only days ago was new has become easy second nature.
It’s been a good day for wildlife. Rounding Cape Caution, Ert and I saw clusters of sea otters hiding in kelp patches, then eagles: one on Paddle Rock, then two, five, thirteen, dozens of bald eagles circling over the water like gulls, feeding on little fish and taking their catches to shore.
The whales are still with us as I start to pedal. We can’t see them anymore in the darkness, but they’re closer, breathing loud. I half expect to feel their spray, but I never do.
I sing into the night: Deathcab for Cutie, Postal Service. It mixes with the whale breath. The darker it gets, the brighter the luminescent wake of my steady pedaling, propellor glowing with a sparkling green aura and trail that’s like the Milky Way on a very dark night.
I’m sleepy, but pleasantly so. My shift is over soon, and the cabin is warm and mostly dry. The flywheel on my pedal station throws little drops of water out and away from me, making ghostly glowing ripples on the smooth water. When the rain starts again, its drops glow too.