Anticipating a long day sail from Smugglers Cove to “Cat” Harbor on Santa Catalina Island, we got moving early. By 4 am, our French press was percolating, and we were underway. The sky was clear and full of stars, lighting our path out of the cove. There was just enough breeze to fill our sails, and the sound of our engine was traded for the echo of Dacron cloth ruffling in the sky. A 10- to 15-knot northerly breeze was predicted for the day, meaning that we expected to ride a comfortable beam reach to the southern side of Santa Catalina, some 60 miles away…or so we thought.
By 8 am, winds had hastened dramatically, and the forecast had changed radically. We were dealing with choppy seas and a stern easterly wind, with gusts to nearly 30 knots! Nice to me you, Santa Ana, you fiery whore! When we departed Smugglers Cove, there were five other boats in the anchorage. By 9 am, two of the remaining boats had hailed the US Coast Guard requesting emergency assistance. We listened with empathy for the distress of the boats who were in trouble. As rough as the conditions had become in the outer waters, we had clearly left Smugglers Cove before things got nasty on a lee shore.
Given our naiveté about the notorious Santa Ana winds, we continued to sail hard, holding out hope that the forecast would realign with predictions from the NOAA. After all, reports were still asserting that northerly winds were to come. Some five hours later, we had sailed far off course, and Santa Ana was deemed the winner of our little sailing standoff. We turned over the engine to avoid continuing on a course to Antarctica and turned our heading back toward Santa Catalina Island! Our detour took us near San Nicolas and Santa Barbara Islands, whose barren, craggy contours made us homesick for the evergreen seashores of the San Juan Islands back home. When the Santa Anas finally relaxed, the wind died altogether, and we were left with glassy seas. By the end of the day, s/v The Red Thread was home to two tired, crabby sailors.We pulled into Cat Harbor well after night had fallen. I stood watch at the bow with a walkie-talkie and used our high-power spotlight to direct Neil through the ordeal of mooring balls for which Santa Catalina is well-known. At last, we found a safe spot to anchor. As we were settling in, we heard the rumble of an outboard. A kind gentlemen from the harbormaster’s office had come to let us know that we had anchored in the middle of the fairway. Oops, no wonder we’d finally found a spot free of mooring balls! Lucky for us, he reassured us we could stay put until daylight but then we would need to move.
Despite our long and frustrating day, the only casualties were a few unexpected gallons of diesel burned and one of our walkie-talkies, which was donated to King Neptune as we secured our anchor snubber. Sigh…they can’t all be lovely days.
Point of departure: Smugglers Cove, Santa Cruz Island, CA – 11/16/14
Point of arrival: “Cat” Harbor, Santa Catalina Island, CA – 11/16/14
Distance traveled: 85 nautical miles
Total time: 15 hours
Engine roaring: 10 hours
Sails soaring: 5 hours
Average speed: 5.7 knots
Max speed: 7.1 knots
Jessie’s musings: The Santa Ana winds picked up so abruptly and unexpectedly that we hardly had time to reef the sails. As a result, our reefing wasn’t pretty, and it took us a couple of tries to get the in-boom furling system to cooperate. Fortunately, since this passage, we’ve practiced other techniques for reefing, and things have been going smoother. The other memory that stands out to me was the way that Cat Harbor looked the night we arrived. Black cliffs lurked under a starry sky, guarding the entrance to the bay in a way that looked very much like something out of a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie. Aarrrrrghhh!!!
Neil’s reflections: The day started off with all sorts of promise for a smooth sail. The sea was very calm, the stars were out, and the wind was wonderful…when it was at 10 knots. Then things turned to hell. Had we stayed on the inside of Anacapa Island, we likely would’ve had a bumpy but much smoother passage. Instead, because we decided to make a beeline, we got to experience the full fury of Santa Ana. The scariest thing for me was hearing the USCG have to rescue boat after boat throughout the day and hearing of a helicopter rescue for a capsized vessel.