Santa Cruz Cruise. Feb 2014
The forecast was for night winds from the NE 10 to 15 knots. Amazing as the California prevailing winds are from the West so traveling NW up the coast, or going from LA’s Marina del Rey to the SantaCruz islands, 60 miles from the Marina and 30 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, normally means long, slow tacking to windward or motoring.
Free Spirit, our 36ft classic thirty eight year old Magellan ketch does not go fast to windward, especially in winds under 10 knots, so while planning my weeks solo cruise out to the islands I had anticipated ten hours of motoring to get there. The forecast was great news as it meant a fast sail on a beam reach all the way to Santa Cruz.
I left the dock under power at 3:30am. Traveling though the Marina at that time in the morning was eerie. No one around, few lights on, the water absolutely still, flocks of birds sleeping in the center channel, the odd seal exploring and the soft light provided by a half moon.
On clearing the breakwater at 3:55, and heading out into the dark following the compass course, I eagerly looked for the wind. I kept looking all the way to the Islands. The forecast was correct about the direction, NE, but the strength was 2 to 3 knots and eventually nothing.
Even so the trip was enjoyable. The auto pilot kept the course, the diesel smoothly pushed Free Spirit forward at 6 knots, and all I had to do was to keep watch, make coffee, breakfast and later lunch, listen to music, occasionally check the engine temperature, enjoy a great sunrise over the land behind. There was not one boat to be seen all morning. I was towing the tender, a small classic rowing boat, behind.
By 9:00am Anacapa Island was in sight. It is actually two small thin islands 3 miles long with sharp spikey rocks that at their highest point stand 930ft out of the sea. The chart, which draws it from above, makes it look like a mystical sea serpent.
In fact it proved its self to be mystical and reminded me of the Mists of Avalon for as I arrived of the Southern tip at 11am, the Island, without warning, suddenly disappeared.
From out of nowhere I was in dense fog. Previously visibility has been 10 miles so I knew there were no boats in the immediate vicinity and had a compass course directly to the anchorage, Smuggler’s Bay, at Santa Cruz Island 6 miles ahead. Also the GPS was working. Unfortunately the GPS is a little temperamental, (it came with the boat and is a little old) so though I could keep track of the position I kept a careful ‘dead reckoning’ as well. The International rules require that one blow the fog horn not less than once every two of minutes. Perhaps I will get a compressed air version for my next trip! One also listens for answering calls, which happily were none.
At 1:00pm I “felt” my way very slowly into Smugglers Bay, a great anchorage at the south corner of Santa Cruz Island that provides protection from winds and waves from the NE to SW but is not safe in E through S. Rocks appeared 100 yards ahead, quick turn to port, and anchored in 40ft of water estimated some 200yds from the beach. I could hear the waves breaking on the beach but not see them. I had attached an anchor buoy on 50ft of line to the head of the anchor. This not only helps one orientate, especially in fog and at night, know the position of the anchor, it also advises other boats in case they want to anchor close by and, if the anchor gets stuck in mud, kelp etc., it allows you to pull it out backwards.
People ask why one cares about anchoring in kelp. It is amazingly strong kelp is. It can stop you lifting the anchor and if you do break the kelp free it becomes very heavy to lit it and the anchor up.
Smugglers Bay has rocks on either end, a sandy beach and a valley heading back inland with an olive grove that was planted by the original ranchers many years ago. The Island is 20 miles long and is now National Park and landing is restricted. The shoreline has spectacular cliffs and numerous coves and bays which in calm weather are great for anchoring, diving and even exploring via dinghy and canoe.
The fog persisted all evening, lifting a couple of times so I could see the beach and confirm I had anchored far enough away. I always put out a long anchor rode and, when I first drop it in, use the reverse engine to snug the anchor and dig it deep into the mud or sand. Even so it is both soothing and unnerving to hear the waves breaking but not being able to see them and not really being able to confirm the anchor is not slipping. The result is a sleep interrupted by lots of trips on deck to check.
Late in the evening I heard another boat anchoring and in the morning saw she was a Catalina 42 .
The next morning the fog had lifted to about 250 to the occasional 500 yards visibility. This allowed me to safely work my way down the south side of the island, see most of the spectacular shore line and then up through the channel between Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands to a small anchorage, Forney’s Cove, just south of Fraser Point, the extreme N W corner. This cove is protected by the Island from the W though N and from the NW though W by a natural rock breakwater. It is not safe from the SW though SE. There is a lot of kelp growing in the cove so the safe anchorage space is limited. If multiple boats go in you have to lay out bow and stern anchors to limit the swing but as I was alone I used just the bow anchor in 20ft, again with a anchor buoy. As the afternoon came the fog lifted and I was able to see Santa Rosa.
Late evening two small fishing boats came into the cove, anchored close to the shore and put into the water large baskets, like crab pots, which I presume contained their day’s work of live catch.
At the N end of Santa Cruz is the 80ft high “painted” sea cave. I had marked this as one of my trip objectives but it is only possible in very calm water and I woke to strong NW swells. It would have been impossible to anchor close to the cave and dangerous to try and row inside.
Another objective was San Miguel Island. It is famous for strong winds and is a great area to practice heavy weather sailing. The only good anchorage, Cuyler Harbor, is not good in N winds. The forecast was for a low to move down from the N with gales in a couple of days.
I had hoped to stay out at the Islands for a week but single handed sailing requires one to be more weather careful than when fully crewed, so I headed to Santa Barbara Harbor.
Still no wind so once again the diesel chugged along smoothly giving 6 knots. There is a race (confused seas caused by currents) at the tip of Santa Cruz but once through that the sea had a steady 2 to 3 foot swell. About an hour out a black whale emerged no more than 100 yards to my right, seemed to take a look, sunk below the water, came up again with a high stream of water from the blow hole, tilted down so the great fluked tail was up in the air, and then slid underwater not to be seen again.
A little later Free Spirit was surrounded by an enormous school of leaping dolphins, literately hundreds, rushing north up the Santa Barbara Channel. Some of them left pack and played leaping and diving at the bow. I was able to stand on the bowsprit for about 10 minutes watching them until suddenly they pealed away to join the main group.
A little later I passed an area with a lot of confused water and birds and realized that there were about 10 dolphins swimming in a circle, presumable herding and eating fish.
The sun came out but still no wind. There was a fleet of racing yachts outside Santa Barbara Harbor waiting for the delayed start to their Sunday afternoon race. No sooner was I in the harbor, and checking in with the Harbor Master for a berth, than the wind came up.
Santa Barbara Harbor is busy and seems to have a greater percentage of the boat owners actually on and using the boats than Marina Del Rey has. It also has a small but active fishing fleet and a fresh fish market in the harbor where they make, while you wait, great fresh ceviche and crab salad and where I also purchased really fresh shrimp.
It was in Santa Barbara I found the head (toilet) was jammed. The dismantled pump showed that the flapper valve had disintegrated, probable when I tried to force the jammed head. West Marine had spares at the central depot and said they could get one to me at any of their West Coast shops on Tuesday. I chose Ventura the next port.
The forecast predicted a small storm on Tuesday and a big one on Friday. The Friday forecast was for 35 mph winds from the south and 8 to 10 waves and big swells making the harbor entrances dangerous. I planned to sail to Ventura Monday, stay in port Tuesday, head to Channel Island Harbor Wednesday and head back to Marina Del Rey Thursday.
The trip to Ventura started with good beam winds, sailing at last. In fact as in Santa Barbara I was moored head to wind on an outside dock I was able to sail off the dock and out of the harbor. The wind lasted most of the way. Ventura Yacht Club has a visitor’s pontoon and hosts members of visiting clubs.
The harbor has been designed as a tourist center with lots of bars and restaurants but it also has a busy shipyard servicing the commercial fleet of oilrig service boats, fishing boats and yachts. The yard is open to the harbor-side walk path. I opened up a conversation with a man, Michael, coming of a 100ft trawler that was on the hard being serviced. He turned out to be the owner/captain of the boat, he owned a second one as well, and the two of them were part of 60 boats licensed to fish for California squid. There is a control on how much they can catch and he said that typically in 60 days they get their maximum. They use “purse” nets which, as he explained it are very long (I think he said 2 miles) and drawn into a circle around the squid, then they draw the bottom of the net together trapping the squid, put a huge pump into the water and pump the squid on board. While the squid is fresh they rush to harbor where the squid are pumped into trucks and rushed to a freezing plant that also freezes California vegetable. The frozen squid is then sold to China. Because of the increase in China demand the price has gone up so once his 60 fishing days are done he no longer has to go north to Canada/ Alaska for the salmon season.
West Marina in Ventura is a $20 taxi ride from the harbor, which made the $18 flapper expensive. Once the flapper was installed the system was still stuck and the solution, which I will not describe in detail, involved getting into the smallest space and dismantling and cleaning the two-way valve which directs the flow to either the holding tank or overboard when one is more than 3 miles off shore.
As forecasted, it rained most of the day so it was a good day to stay in harbor.
The Channel Island Harbor is only six miles from Ventura so I waited for the predicted afternoon southerly winds and had a pleasant 3 hour beat to windward to get there. When time is not important averaging 2 miles an hour to windward is OK but it reminds one why they say “gentlemen do not beat to windward”.
The Channel Island Corinthian Yacht Club is really great at offering visitors the use of the pontoon and their strong hot showers. Brenda, the manager, is very welcoming and she gives you a key to have access to the toilets and showers day and night. I wish our club SCCYC in Marina Del Rey could offer the same.
The forecast was now really warning small craft to get to safety before Friday. They said Thursday would be SW winds 5 to 10 mph but except for a short period it was less so I motored back to the Marina Del Rey to arrive Thursday afternoon.
Sometimes it is hard to believe the forecasts when even in the winter you are in the idyllic California sun. However this proved to be correct for on the Friday night the rains and winds started and three sailing boats were wrecked on the Santa Barbara beach.
It is amazing how many interesting bays, anchorages there are close to Marina Del Rey in the Channel Islands: Catalina; Santa Barbara; Santa Cruz; Santa Rosa and San Miguel, and how many harbors there are along the coast from Santa Barbara to Newport. All it takes is a few days and allowing one day to get to, and then return from, the first destination.