Suddenly Sailing: When the Smoke Came

Suddenly Sailing: When the Smoke Came
Several boats at anchor with a red, hazy sunrise in the background.

After a full week of hazardous air quality, I was finally able to open up the windows again last Saturday. The middle of September was probably the most wretched experience I've had since we started living aboard. I noticed the smoke a few days before it became serious: itchy, irritated throat, an occasional cough. I thought I was coming down sick—exactly what you want during a pandemic. It's weird to say, but my life's experience has taught me that my body is actually more sensitive than most people's. When the air quality began to plummet, I saw that my sore throat had been brought on by the AQI hitting 50. Now it was rocketing past 150.

We practically live outside. The hatch over the bed is always cracked and a decent amount of air flows through the cracks in the companionway. The closest we come to sealing the boat up is during the winters when we light a fire, but even then we have to provide some ventilation. So, we put on masks we normally use for maintenance projects. We rowed in to go to the hardware store and bought the best air filter for AC systems we could find. Then, I went to the store and bought a three day supply of food that wouldn't require cooking and a few treats to hopefully lift our spirits while we were in lockdown. We went back to the boat and tried making filters to put over the windows. Some further research revealed that our filter material was only rated merv 10, and merv 13 or higher is necessary to filter the smaller, more dangerous particulate from wildfire smoke.

It was not a comfortable night. First thing the next morning I went back in and raided the hepa vacuum bag filters. I came back with a porthole-sized circular filter and a box with two hepa bags for upright vacuums. The circular filter went on our one open window after I plugged the center with a bottlecap and glued a foam gasket to it, and I rigged up the bag to go in front of one of our fans where it could act as an air scrubber. It wasn't ideal: it's hard to force air through a dense hepa filter, but it worked well enough to make a difference. We don't have the power aboard to run a box fan, so we had to work with what we had. Things slowly became more comfortable aboard again.

A sunrise with a very dark, saturated orange-purple horizon reflected on the water.
The eerie sunrise as I returned to find filter material.
A flaring sun over the hazy water along the shore.
A fan blowing air into a filter that looks like a windsock.
A porthole with a round filter tied to it.

Then Saturday hit. The smoke and fog were so thick that the temperature dropped 10 degrees. We could not even tell where the sun was in the sky. At midday, when we would normally be putting 4 or more amps into our batteries even while running fans, we were losing 1 amp. Our indoor lockdown turned into low power lockdown. Cold food, cold boat, minimal computer usage to do work, and nothing but gloom all around us. What would have been beautiful, calm weather, the perfect time to go for walks and enjoy the end of the season, turned into a dreary, toxic hellscape.

Some boats visible. The sky and water are gray. The shore is barely visible.
The sun and Port Townsend are in this picture, behind the smoke and fog.
A yellow-tinted hazy sky over a bluff and a distant factory.
Midday, looking toward the paper mill out the porthole.

The original forecast had things clearing up by Monday, but the wind didn't change and our break didn't come. Saturday was the worst, but things recovered at a crawl. We're still barely getting any sun thanks to the combination of fog and cloud cover. A few days ago, our humidity was so high and the batteries were so low that we put our masks back on, ventilated the whole boat, cooked food, lit a fire to dry out the air, ran the engine to charge things up, and then rescrubbed all the air inside by blowing it through the vacuum bag.

A view of the bluff. The sky is hazy gray, and the sun is a tiny red circle.
Approaching sunset.

Before the smoke, I'd expected a lull in activities where I could be productive, but that turned into a truly demoralizing test of our ability to adapt. I'm not sure how well the filtration system actually worked. In the future, we'll be approaching fire season with greater caution and at least have a clue of what we could be in for.

It's been a genuinely rough season out here. We were incredibly fortunate to be so far away from the actual fires and to have had enough warning to prepare ourselves.

An unnaturally orange hazy sunset.