Family cruisers from Down Under get to the West Coast and realize they aren't in Oz anymore.
James and Claire Ellingford and their daughters Abi and Bianca, now 17 and 14, bid g’day to their homeport of Sydney, Australia, back in 2015 and motored into the big, blue Pacific Ocean. Their plan was to circumnavigate the globe over the course of more than six years aboard their Nordhavn 62, Pendana, an d that’s still the plan, but the timeline has been extended, most notably by 10 extra months in Hawaii. They’ve been in U.S., Canadian and Mexican waters for more than three years, experiencing everything some of the world’s best cruising grounds have to offer.
We interacted with James via email as Pendana left Southern California and headed to Mexico. Here are his thoughts on Seattle, Prince William Sound, San Francisco, Vegemite and more.
Sea: You’ve been on the U.S. West Coast for a few years now. What has surprised you most, both pleasantly and not so pleasantly?
James Ellingford: We entered U.S. waters back in July 2015 when we arrived at the Big Island of Hawaii after a tough run north from Kiritimati. There is little doubt that we love cruising the U.S., from Hawaii to Alaska and all points in between. As for surprises, to start with your navigation markers are on the wrong side! Coming from Australia we follow the reverse, with ‘port left to last’ rather than ‘red right returning.’ Either way, with modern electronic charting software it was pretty simple to adjust.
From Kodiak, Alaska, down the Inside Passage to Seattle we were amazed at how well catered to the boating community is here in the U.S. It was a pleasure to be able to take the tender to places that actually had courtesy docks to use, unlike Australia where the idea of courtesy docks is a very foreign concept indeed.
On the downside, I guess there are lots of folks who forget to pull their fenders in while underway. This is apparent in spades in Marina del Rey where I truly believe leaving one’s fenders out is the norm.
What have been a couple of big differences between the Pacific Northwest and your home waters? Similarities?
As mentioned there is little doubt that the boating community is well catered to in the PNW, and that is in stark contrast with Australian waters. Sure, we have great marinas in Australia, but anyone who has ever tried to find a place to tie up a tender in Sydney Harbour will know the challenge one faces. These challenges are simply not present in the PNW.
The other major difference is the PNW has bears and extremely cold water. I was convinced we were going to be eaten by bears and was perplexed as to why I was always being asked to go out to look for bears. Not until recently did the why become apparent: the slowest runner will be the one attacked. That’s me! The idea of bears and freezing cold water was something we had to adjust to and educate ourselves about very quickly. Water temps in Australia are not so extreme and the only bears we have are Koala bears, which are more likely to cuddle you to death.
The sheer vastness of the PNW, in particular the areas between Kodiak and Prince William Sound, are without description, nor can they be compared to anything I have ever seen. Given glaciers almost the size of Sydney Harbour, it was difficult for us to comprehend the majesty of the area. A truly special place indeed! If God’s hand has touched any place, it has touched Prince William Sound.
Same question about California.
When traveling by motorboat, one gets to become very familiar with local weather, and I guess a real surprise for us was just how windy San Francisco is. I am not a huge fan of anything over 10 knots, and in this respect San Francisco delivered much more than reasonable. I was also surprised at how few available berths there were in San Francisco for boats our size. Honestly, we found it a real challenge to get in anywhere. There is little doubt that San Francisco misses a lot of visitors simply because of its lack of berth accommodations available to mariners. Maybe this is by design?
The Los Angeles and Marina del Rey area was in stark contrast to what we experienced in San Francisco. Massive marinas, lots of space, little wind — altogether a delight. In L.A. we stayed at Marina Harbor Anchorage, which was a very special place indeed. Stable power, heated swimming pool, mess room, laundry facilities, secure parking, great view, full gym, walking trails. All this a stone’s throw from Venice Beach. What more could one ask? Throw in a wonderful marina manager and staff, and it sure makes for a truly great marina.
One thing that is evident here in the U.S. is the number of marinas that provide gyms, swimming pools and barbecue facilities. This is not something one finds with Australian marinas, which is a real shame.
Was there anything you hadn’t seen or experienced before your travels around the Pacific Northwest and California?
Both my wife and I were acutely aware of the massive tidal range that exists in the PNW and the currents these tides generate. To say we were a little apprehensive would be appropriate. We often remarked, “If we can survive the PNW we can survive anything.”
One thing that is true when traveling the world’s oceans is that every marina is a new marina, every piece of water is new and local knowledge is something one finds lacking when traveling to new areas. As such, we have a few hard and fast rules. One, we never arrive anywhere unless during daylight hours and at slack tide, preferably high tide. We have on two occasions circled for a few hours waiting for daylight to break: at the outer reefs in Fiji and on arrival into L.A. and Marina del Rey. If these were homeports where we had entered and exited hundreds of times before, it wouldn’t be an issue, but as every port is a new port, we err on the side of caution and only arrive in daylight hours.
Our boat is a full-displacement trawler, a Nordhavn 62, so we are aware that currents, eddies and whirlpools are something we don’t have the power to fight. As such, we ensured that all passages were timed perfectly to reduce the effects of the massive tides. In comparison, in Sydney Harbour a large current is 1.5 knots. I guess we now have a totally new perspective on what a large tide/current flow is.
What are a few of your favorite locations since you left Sydney? Why are they so special?
At the top of our list as the most amazing place on the face of planet Earth would have to be Prince William Sound. I often tell people, “Don’t die until you have seen Prince William Sound.” And I mean it. The majesty and sheer scale of it cannot be put into words. It’s like experiencing the planet unspoiled, untouched, undeveloped — the way it was meant to be — and the vast amount of wildlife made us feel like we were in a David Attenborough documentary special. There is simply no comparison anywhere in the world.
Seattle. Yes, Seattle! Without the boat there is no way we would have ever holidayed in Seattle, as it simply would not have made any sense. As such, we would have missed a truly great city. For us, Seattle was everything a small city should be:
• Lots of boating due to Seattle being home to the Alaska fishing fleet.
• The wonderful old town of Ballard and its cobblestoned streets.
• A city that is easy to navigate, not overly congested, like so many.
• Of course, a city that is home to Amazon. Being on a boat and being able to have orders delivered to the dock was a real plus.
Gotta love Amazon!
Our time in Hawaii was also very special. While we originally planned to stay four weeks, we simply couldn’t leave and decided to stay 11 months. We were blessed with an end-tie at the Waikiki Yacht Club and enjoyed everything Oahu had to offer, in spades. The weather, the people and the atmosphere were all simply wonderful and something none of us will ever forget.
Finally, Kiritimati, or Christmas Island (part of the Line Islands). It lies just 140 miles north of the equator and is the most wonderful picture-postcard remote tropical island one could ever visit. It is truly the reality of everything one thinks of when thinking of a remote tropical island: friendly people who were by far the friendliest in the entire Pacific, wildlife in such abundance we felt like we were anchored in a fish tank, and an island so untouched and unspoiled that it takes one’s breath away. The word pristine is reserved exclusively for this little island in the middle of nowhere.
Every place we visit is special in some way, but the four above, for us, hold a very special place in our heart and will never be forgotten.
What tips do you have for boat owners about crossing an ocean or covering a long distance?
Just do it, as we are all a long time dead. That said, traveling the world by boat is not for the faint of heart and it’s certainly not for everyone. Oceans are enormous, and you can go days and weeks without seeing anything. Our trip from Hawaii to Kodiak was a lonely 11 days with nothing but us, our trusty Pendana and the ocean.
It’s not all gin and tonics on the rear deck but rather enormously hard work that requires a dedication to long-held principles about making safe passage so one actually arrives. Being on watch means precisely that, and I shake my head when I hear folks say they watch TV while on watch. In my view, that behaviour is a recipe for disaster. There have been countless times when we have had to alter course quickly to avoid a sleeping whale, discarded fishing nets or logs the size of cars. We avoided them not because we are overly clever or have superhuman abilities but rather because we abide by long-held principles and take the job of being on watch very seriously indeed.
If one is planning to go to sea, it is imperative he understands what he is getting into, as the ocean can snap a boat in two as easily as we can snap a matchstick. One must be resourceful and understand all systems on the boat in case of failure. I am not saying everyone has to be a superhuman mechanic or electrician — I fail terribly on both these fronts — but one must understand where his strengths and weaknesses lie, so that he can prepare the boat accordingly.
Finally, everyone should get as much rest as possible. On Pendana we call it banking sleep. Basically for the first few days at sea we all try to sleep as much as humanly possible. We have several reasons for this, but most importantly it passes the time and ensures that if there is an emergency we are well rested so the correct decisions can be made when we’re called to make them. I suppose it’s not as much of an issue with a larger crew, but since we have just my wife and I doing four hours on, four hours off, we need to be well rested and take advantage of being asleep when we can.
Pendana spent a fair amount of time in a Seattle boatyard. What was that experience like?
Overall our experience was a pleasant one. That said, we needed to get through our first ever set of locks, the Ballard Locks. While very picturesque, they unnerved us the first time we went through. During our mini refit, we stayed at Salmon Bay Marine Center, which was a world-class marina that provided 100MB Wi-Fi internet speeds, golf carts for getting around and a secure environment. Pacific Yacht Management did the main bulk of the work and I can’t speak highly enough of them and their staff. This is where we started to fall in love with Seattle and the surrounding area. If not for the freezing weather, we could absolutely live in Seattle.
What have you seen or done that was only possible because you were traveling by oceangoing yacht?
We have seen walls of water tower over the pilothouse, during which the only way to see the clouds above was to look up. We have seen killer whales communicate with one another in the shallows of Prince William Sound and seen glaciers the size of small cities. We have seen hundreds of rare frigate birds diving into the waters like fighter jets on a mission and countless sunrises and sunsets that rival any photo ever taken. We have seen and experienced rogue waves come from nowhere and roll Pendana awake, and we’ve seen the rare Dall’s porpoise of Alaska. From hundreds of hungry bald eagles to brown and black bears along the shoreline, there is little doubt that this trip is not only a feast for our eyes but also our other senses.
Is there anything you think West Coast boaters might take for granted that they should appreciate more?
Only how close you all are to the Pacific Northwest and, more importantly, Prince William Sound. I beg you, don’t stop and turn around at Glacier Bay; keep going and you will be rewarded with paradise on Earth.
If I told my Australian boating friends that American boaters complained about _______ , they would laugh.
The taste of Vegemite.
Five things life on board would be miserable without are ______ .
1. Diet Coke
2. Trac stabilizers
3 Air conditioning
4. Electric heat
5. Hot showers
Five things we brought along but could probably do without are ______ .
1. Flir infrared camera
2. Too many clothes
3. Too many shoes
4. DVD movies
5. Too much Vegemite. No, hang on a second. I retract that statement, as one can never have enough Vegemite!
I’m glad my daughters were able to experience _____ .
Life. They now have the ability to truly understand the differences that exist in this world culturally, and they now truly know who their parents are as people. If travel enriches the soul, then we have done our job as parents; if not, we have failed miserably!