We left Channel Islands Harbor and our friends at H Dock Tuesday morning, Adam with a week off of work, the both of us looking forward to several days of exploring new coves and hiking the islands. Adam had listened to the weather report all week and we were expecting steady winds for the day and then light winds and calm weather through Thursday. Our goal was to get to the south side of Santa Cruz Island and anchor for the night, then head to the notoriously rugged and remote San Miguel Island when the winds died down.
As we exited the harbor, there were huge waves crashing over the breakwater and a forceful swell coming head on.
Motoring along, passing the line of oil wells, we were expecting to get to Santa Cruz Island in three hours. We could see the island so clearly I felt like I could throw a rock and hit it. So close yet so far – sailboat travel can be such a tease that way.
But instead of three hours, it took us five. Within an hour of leaving the harbor the wind tripled in strength, howling through the air and whistling through the rigging. The wind pounded our faces in the cockpit and sent sheets of water onto the deck. Grand Slam has yet to be outfitted with a dodger (a plastic and canvass barrier at the forward end of the cockpit that protects against wind and spray) and so we were getting slammed with water at regular intervals from swells breaking over the bow and wind carrying the spray the entire length of the boat. Returning to the harbor was not really an option: we were sure that the island would eventually shelter us from the swell, but we’d also heard horror stories of entering the harbor in the sort of wind and swell conditions we now found ourselves in.
Adam was at the helm, soaked through two jackets with a death grip on the wheel, trying to maintain a 45 degree angle to the oncoming swells to keep the boat as steady as possible. I clumsily ducked below and gathered towels in a futile attempt to soak up the saltwater coming through the entry way, the leaking hatches and open vents. Being below during huge swells is always easier said than done. I felt like a rag doll in a dryer, tossed from side to side, knees and shins and hips catching every exposed right angle on the boat. Every now and then the bow would lift completely out of the water and I would get that roller coaster sensation of losing your stomach – while bracing for the inevitable gravity causing the boat to smack down in the water again with a deafening BOOM.
While this trip was extremely uncomfortable, it was manageable compared to what was still ahead. Despite the elements, Adam had complete control of the boat – and Grand Slam handled herself beautifully. Seeing no point in joining Adam in the cockpit and soaking through yet another pair of clothes, I opted to curl up in the fetal position on the settee and wait until we got closer to Santa Cruz.
As we approached the Island, the swell died down, but the wind continued to wail. There were two boasts anchored in Smugglers Cove and it was comforting to see that one of the boasts belonged to the Coast Guard. We decided to drop anchor slightly further up the way at Yellowbanks, well within view of the big hulled, red striped government ship.
The miraculous thing about 20-30 knots of wind without swell at anchorage is that when you go below, it’s completely calm, despite the wind howling outside. We both breathed a giddy sigh of relief that it was over and agreed that we never want to go through that again.
Here’s a video we took to show you how windy it was sitting at anchor:
We deliberately anchored on the SE side of the island where we could get the most protection from swell. When we went to bed that night it was shockingly calm, and felt almost jarring after the day we’d had.
We were awoken abruptly at 6am as the boat rolled violently from side to side and the aft cabin pounded the surface of the water. The wind had reversed to the NE and the swell was starting to build from the same direction. Unbeknownst to me, but crystal clear to Adam was the fact that those weather conditions could only mean one thing: Santa Anas.
I will never again tease Adam for spending countless hours reading Channel Islands books and listening to NOAA, the national oceanic weather channel, because this foresight saved our asses. However, he didn’t have time to celebrate this news.
“We need to get the anchor up immediately,” was all he had to say, as the force of the swell was growing by the minute. Having reversed our position on the anchor, we were at risk of dragging it, the swell and wind sending us towards the beach. But we needed to hurry, the swell was building fast and having to haul up the anchor with the boat bouncing violently was only going to become more difficult as time went on.
This was about to be one of the most nerve-wracking days of my life.
Stay tuned for part two…