General Santa Ana was an unpredictable, shape-shifting politician and dubious military leader who helped Mexico gain independence from Spain, then lost more than half her territory to the U.S.. There are various origin stories for the wind phenomenon that shares his name, but there is no doubt that the infamous Santa Anas mirror many of the General’s more erratic and disastrous characteristics.
In the winter months, a buildup of high pressure over the deserts of Utah and Nevada can lead to as much as a 2.5 millibar pressure difference from the coast, pulling northeasterlies down over the mountains. So far nothing very unusual, but when winds are funneled through narrow mountain passes, they get pressure cooked by compression (called adiabatic heating), creating gusts that can exceed 40-60 knots. On land, this means an unfortunately good chance the evening news will lead with devastating wildfires. At sea, the Santa Anas have wreaked havoc on mariners for centuries: In 1836, even Richard Henry Dana had to weigh anchor in San Pedro Harbor and seek shelter on the lee side of Catalina from the ‘violent northeaster.’
This became directly important to us the other day when the first Santa Ana of the season was forecast to arrive early in the morning, working its way up to a blustery but reasonable 25 knots. We were sitting safe and happy in a slip at the Coast Guard dock in Newport in front of a pretty little beach. It had seemed as good a place to ride out the blow as any until a lifeguard reminded us of a consequence of strong winds we hadn’t considered: “Prepare to be sandblasted,” he said.
That was the end of that good night’s sleep. We imagined sand in every block and winch, sand scraping off layers and layers of gel coat and varnish. We decided not to stick around and find out all the ways we could suddenly hate sand.
We tried to get a couple hours of shut eye first but were up at 2am, 3am and 4am making sure the winds hadn’t kicked up yet. By 5am we saw 5 knots and decided it was time to leave. Within a half hour the winds had risen so quickly that as we cast off the dock lines, we were literally blown out of the slip by 17 knots on the nose, just as the Coast Guard was raising the small craft advisories flag. Note to selves: next time, don’t laugh at this ironic scenario.
At the time, though, we weren’t especially concerned, as we’re pretty used to higher winds from San Francisco Bay and Pristine is as stout a boat as they come. We’d decided to follow in Richard Henry Dana’s footsteps and return to our Cat Harbor stomping grounds, on the back side of Catalina where it would be mostly protected from the General.
As we rolled out the jib for some boisterous downwind sailing, it was already gusting to 25 and it occurred to us that we should have rigged the smaller staysail instead. By that point, though, we decided that even tethered, we’d rather not go forward in the dark to pull it out of the bag, so we reefed the jib way down to what we called a ‘giblet’ and had great fun rocketing downwind, surfing down the following seas as fast as 8.5 knots for brief stretches.
Soon the sun was up and we were enjoying ourselves enough to wander around the boat taking pictures and thinking about what we’d fix for lunch when we got around to the lee of the island. Meanwhile, as we listened to channel 16, it sounded like an especially busy day for the coast guard. A Catalina 30 was disabled. Someone else was dismasted. A 50-footer off Cat Harbor was reduced in its ability to maneuver (probably a lost rudder). Then, as the winds kept building to a steady 25-30, we were really starting to be glad we’d be in the lee soon because the pressure on the jib had grown higher than we would have liked. Of course Pristine, as always, sailed on solid as a rock.
When we did finally come around the other side of the island and turned from a run to a reach, instead of finding a wind break, we discovered that the 400 foot cliffs at the east end of the island created their own katabatic effect that increased the winds to sustained 35, gusts to 42. This was definitely too much for the jib, but by this point, the pressure was too strong to furl it. We had a few moments of — ahem — discussion — as we figured out our next move. Meanwhile, the gusts were soaking us in spray and while I’ve buried a lot of J24 rails on windy days, I never thought I’d see Pristine’s cap rail dip into the sea.
This is where our poor choice of sails came back to bite us. If we’d hoisted a double-reefed main and stays’l, we could easily have hove to and kept listening to the problems of other people while we calmly fixed lunch. Or if we’d chosen the hanked on stays’l instead of furling genoa, we could have dropped it with gravity. Or if we’d had the main with the jib, we could have at least used the big sail to blanket the smaller one to make furling easy. But with the jib alone, we had none of those options. As we were set up, in order to stow the jib we first needed to turn it into a raging flag, risking ripping or even shredding the sail. Yet to do nothing was to risk damaging the rig, so flog and furl was our best option.
We headed further from the funneling effects of land and turned Pristine downwind so our apparent wind (true wind minus our own forward momentum) brought the tempest below 20 knots — low enough pressure that we could finally furl the headsail with a good deal of effort. Thanks to the quality sail and rigging choices of Pristine’s previous owner, when all was said and done, she came out of the experience no worse for the wear.
The entirety of the adrenaline-inducing time period was maybe fifteen minutes before we solved the immediate problem, but it’s not a fifteen minutes we’d like to repeat anytime soon. With the sail down, we used our charts to find a refuge anchorage and were able to motor back toward shore, through the craziest winds to find a semi wind break between the rocks, about 100 feet off the cliffs. We dropped the anchor to wait out the blow with a couple other sailboats, and finally had lunch and a welcome swim break. Within a few hours — as per the forecast — the winds were so dead we had to motor the rest of the way to Cat Harbor.
Our friend Bob is fond of saying wisdom is the result of experience and experience is the result of lacking wisdom. Essentially, you only learn the important lessons by screwing up. I’m sure it’s for that reason that every cruising book will tell you to go find a light gale and practice your storm skills. The east end of Catalina was as good a place as any to get some gale force wind practice (as well as getting slapped upside the head for our overconfidence for not only leaving a safe slip in a Santa Ana but doing it with the wrong sails up). The good news is the winds wanted to blow us safely out to sea, not onto a rocky shore, and the coast guard and tow boat fleet were only a VHF call away. But it was a lot of pressure to put on the rig to avoid a little sand, and neither of us wanted to add the words ‘dismasted’ to our log book before we even crossed into Mexico. Not our best choice ever.
That said, if I can be reasonably objective, I’d give us a pretty good overall cruiser report card. We share the most interesting stories with you guys, but we’ve got a lot of boring ones too about how we’re doing things right. We’ve gotten pretty darned solid at anchoring, caring for the boat and her systems, weather forecasting, planning passages and troubleshooting issues. We’ll continue to get better at all those things, but we’ll only do that by being humble enough to admit that we’ve still got plenty to learn.
As for Pristine, she will always be a better sailor than the both of us put together. I feel like she’s just sighing gently through her rigging and saying to herself in a wise old grandmother voice: Ah, here we go again. I have to train up the new owners and help them figure out how to sail me right. But she is a patient teacher and we are pretty darned determined students, so little by little we’re learning.
We’ve since spent a pretty darned fabulous week in Cat Harbor, with cloudless days, star-filled nights and a lot of chilling on the foredeck in the sunshine, reading up on Mexico. We were also treated to a fabulous dinner by Steve of SV Sara’s Perch and were lucky enough to meet and hang out with fellow Crealock 37 owners & Mexico-bound cruisers Phil and Julianne of SV Epiphany. We can’t wait to run into those guys again down south.
As for our next steps, your guess is as good as ours. Hurricane Willa and Tropical Storm Vicente are getting ready to pound Mainland Mexico — well south of Baja, but still nothing we want to mess with. Apparently, this has been the most active Pacific Hurricane season on record, but luckily, we’re in no rush, and one thing we do know well, is that Mother Nature is always in charge.
Fair winds and following seas, dear friends.
In memory of Tom Arthur: devoted husband and father, positive role model and irrepressible spirit. He will be deeply missed.