We’re in Southern California – the home of light breezes and gentle swell. It seemed like the perfect place to connect with Mark and Val so we could take them and Mark’s mother for an idyllic sail to Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands for the Thanksgiving weekend (which also happened to be my birthday).
The day we left, the forecast was calling for 15-25 with seven to nine foot seas – all of which was to settle down over night. When we set out from Santa Barbara it was lumpy but there was only a whisper of wind. We motor sailed for the first hour then started to see choppy water in the distance. None of us knew these waters and we speculated – current? wind?
It was lots of wind - which filled in almost suddenly – we could see it before we could feel it. The crests of the waves were foaming up, then blowing off. Our sails snapped full and we shut the motor off. Ceilydh surged forward.
When we sail, the boat is loud – it makes living sounds that startle me still; clattering bangs, groaning creaks, and sharp thumps. The wind and waves were on our beam and the waves would crash over us, shoving us rudely. It was the first, (or maybe the second) solid wave smack (which sent things flying that had never moved before) that changed the mood aboard. Rather than going for a pleasant sail, I was holding on, knuckles white, calculating every 3-4 minutes just how many more hours more we had to travel.
As the weather worsened my sea sickness kicked in and my anxiety built. I’m tired of drama – and getting booted around by weather we didn’t sign up for pretty much pushed me past my limit. Sick (and relieved we had extra helping hands aboard), I curled up in our bunk with Maia and Charlie and tried to pretend I was in Paris. I felt the boat rattle and shake in the gusts then watched as our hatch would submerge under each breaking wave. Feeling detached, I watched as a trickle of water steadily streamed in. Occasionally I wondered if I should get a bucket or a towel to catch the water that was soaking the bed. But then I would think about the sounds – how loud and violent sounding it all was, and would forget I should be managing the leak.
Eventually we reached the lee of Santa Cruz. The wind was now a steady 40 knots, with gusts that blew our voices away, but we could see boats clustered in close, hunkered down as they waited out the gale. It was time to start the diesel so we could motor upwind and set our anchor and celebrate our arrival.
When our motor didn’t start one morning in Morro Bay Evan looked it over and discovered the starting motor was beyond repair. With our sailing weekend planned and a one-day weather window to get around Point Conception a few days away we ordered a replacement starter from an online company. The cheap piece of crap worked a charm – for 5 starts. Now, on the 6th start, when it really mattered, the engine wouldn’t turn over.
We sail fast in 40 knots of wind and the southern end of Santa Cruz is really short. At speed we’d be out the other side and into unprotected seas in a matter of minutes. Val depowered the already reefed sail, while Evan got our auxiliary outboard running. But we began to drift downwind and off the island, while our outboard’s thrust (which can normally push us at 4 knots) was no match for the wind.
Tacking into 40+ knots, in a cat, really doesn’t work that well. But Mark did his best and steered us in as close to shore as he could. Before we could blow away Ev let out all of our anchor rode and we all held our breath as the anchor caught, then dragged in a gust, then, as the sun set in a warm orange glow, seemed to catch again.
Gale force winds roared through our ringing. In the higher gusts the boat would thrum and the mast would vibrate. The spray reached our boom and hurt Evan’s face as he readied our hurricane anchor, to be dropped, should we start to drag. All of us stared out the window trying to judge if we were dragging or holding while eating our Thanksgiving turkey silently. My mouth was so dry I couldn’t swallow.
All night long we took turns sitting up, watching the radar and GPS and the lights from the boats around us, trying to judge as we rocked in the 3' wind waves and surged in the gusts if our anchor had slipped and we were about to find ourselves hurtling downwind in the now 20’ seas.
We had one gallon of gas for the outboard. We only use the engine for manoeuvring in tight quarters. We burn one gallon of gas an hour. Under optimal conditions we had gas to get us four miles. This was the problem we were confronted with in the morning when the promise for a weekend of good weather turned into a endlessly announced statement that an unstable and unexpected weather system
meant we could expect continued gale force winds from the NW to be quickly followed by 35 knots of wind from the NE – a direction we had no protection from and that changed our uncomfortable predicament to a dangerous one.
We’re getting really sick of stuff breaking. And I’m getting paranoid and superstitious. It’s rubbed off on Maia. And when she found the banana Mark’s mum had packed as a snack, she snatched it away and hurled it over the side – chastising our guest for bringing such a dangerous item aboard.
Banana-free we began to formulate a plan, several plans. We called around the anchorage for gas and found a boat called Windward that not only had five gallons to spare, but who offered to deliver it. They arrived soaked but as they filled our tank they reminded me of all the best parts of being on the sea. They had been up all night too – on the radio, talking a boat in distress through the stormy night, as a coast guard helicopter lit the way with a search light.
When they realized we didn’t know the waters or what our plan should be they gave us additional options – and when the wind lay down enough from the NW, before it was scheduled to rise from the NE they led us (and another boat) back across the channel into Ventura. Where, in the dark, with an engine that’s made for calm harbours and that had submerged when we attempted to use it in the steep seas, the harbour patrol met us and led us to the safety of a dock.
We ate a late dinner that night and were giddy, high and grateful in that rare, I-survived kind of way. And today, two days later, we’re planning our next hop down the coast.
Bananas are banned.