We were screaming downwind at 25 knots with following seas. The jib alone was giving us six knots of boat speed and we were surfing down eight foot swells with two fingers. The sun was out, we were flying and the boat was bouncing along with all the joy of a Labrador chasing a tennis ball. “This is amazing!” I cried. “Can you believe our most glorious day of sailing so far is around Point Conception?”
If I were writing fiction, this is where I would insert the distant rumble of thunder.
The western edge of California runs along a fairly straight line from top to bottom until it sticks a big rocky thumb into the ocean at Point Conception. If you’ve ever watched a river current eddy around a boulder, you can imagine how throwing a thousand foot cliff in the middle of the prevailing swells could mess with the sea state. And if you also imagine the wind being suddenly squeezed around the point with the same physics principals that allow a 747 to take flight, you may understand why that specific spot has often been called the “Cape Horn of the Pacific.”
Blissfully unaware of what was about to come, a couple miles from our planned anchorage at Cojo, we agreed we’d given the point a wide enough berth. We turned on the beam and made a beeline for the cove. That’s when Point Conception lived up to her name.
Suddenly waves were leaping over the dodger. The winds jumped to 30 knots. The boat was now bouncing like a lassoed bronco. It was exhilarating — a bit more than we’d bargained for but nothing we couldn’t handle. We may have even laughed nervously at how kind it was for Point Conception to make our rounding so memorable. Ha ha ha. We went to start the motor to bring us past the screaming waves and winds into the protected anchorage.
Not a gurgle, not a click, not a peep. Our trusty diesel, who hadn’t so much as whined once since we bought the boat, refused to even turn over. We shared a brief wide-eyed WTF! stare before downshifting into troubleshooting mode. The motor hadn’t turned over, so it wasn’t a fuel problem. Starter battery dead? Nope — fully charged. Loose wire? Could be. We tried to imagine how we could possibly pull the engine hatch cover off in this sea state, much less find a tiny wire that had come loose. We saved that idea for later and toyed with the gear lever. It turned out we’d accidentally nudged the gear shift a hair into forward, which was automatically stopping the engine from engaging. We made a one millimeter adjustment and our Yanmar roared to life.
Taking the Diesel 101 class at List Marine quickly leapt near the top of the smartest-things-we’d-ever-done list.
So now we had an engine. Time to get out of this mess. Ahead of the whitecaps, we could see the cove and the train culvert on shore that marked where the anchorage was supposed to be. To the left were breaking waves. Between us and flat water were vast floating fields of engine-wrapping, anchor-fouling kelp. As we tucked in behind the point, it was still blowing twenty knots. The only other boat for miles was a decaying hull on shore that must have been placed there by central casting to frighten off novice sailors. How the heck were we going to anchor in this?
I went to the bow to guide us through the kelp beds, while Colin steered expertly with a careful eye on the depth sounder. We had a heap of challenging conditions, one short paragraph of advice from a cruising book and a sunken ship to stare at just in case we’d forgotten what breaking waves do to a boat. The hand signals we’d practiced as a nice-to-have suddenly became a must-have, and worked perfectly. We navigated through the kelp, dropped the hook, paid out the chain as we blew back, then took our time backing down on the anchor while taking bearings on every tree and cliff around. We’d nailed it. We felt like Lewis and Clark, exploring the unknown. We set the snubber and pulled off our life vests, the adrenaline buzz still making our hearts flutter. We took a lot of deep breaths.
Our confidence as cruisers had grown by leaps and bounds in that one short hour.
But we still set an anchor watch.
With the winds still screaming all night and only snatches of sleep, we picked up and headed out for Santa Barbara the next morning, pulling into the harbor in late afternoon. The slip they gave us turned out to be spitting distance from the yacht club where I’d waited tables as a student, serving a class of humans I never in a million years thought I’d belong to: Sailors. It was unexpectedly meaningful to come so full circle in life, and to feel the limits I thought I had in my twenties disappear by my forties.
We scrubbed the boat inside and out, then scrubbed ourselves and headed to a nice seafood restaurant overlooking our boat for a celebratory meal.
Have you ever been so busy trying to go on vacation — What to pack? Is it clean? Ok, what is clean? Why won’t the suitcase zip? Are the fancy shoes necessary? Hurry up! Where did the boarding passes go? Shoes off! Why is the flight delayed? — that you don’t feel the relaxation wash over you until they close the airplane doors? And then you think “Hey! Guess what? I’m on vacation!”
After all the work to get out of the house, prep the boat, plan our passages, make smart weather choices and sail through the challenging swells of Northern California, Colin and I sat on the deck of the restaurant, toasted our accomplishments and finally, finally, got that Guess what? We’re on vacation! feeling.
We spent two days soaking up the sunshine, sleeping off the fatigue and having wonderful meals with great friends who have bottomless hearts. We needed the break.
For this California Coast shakedown, we’re now on the home stretch. We’ve ticked off 320 of 400 nautical miles. We’ve traded 15 foot swells for 3 and foul weather gear for cutoffs. We took our required hammering along the Big Sur coast and I seem to have fully found my sea legs. I no longer drink ginger tea before a passage or worry about sea sickness.
Oh yeah, and we passed Point Conception.
For this next 80 miles, Mother Nature can always throw us curve balls, but we’re much more likely to be becalmed than to be gale-dodging.
Oops. Maybe I should rephrase that confident prediction. Otherwise, I might have to add in the distant rumble of thunder.
Fair winds and following seas.