One Night at Coches or Anchoring Can Be Everything
I know I have much more to learn about anchoring. However, I have found I know more about the subject than some on the water. Here’s my story and witness that reinforces for me some basic tenets about anchoring.
It was a June weekend, in 1993 maybe ’94, with Frank and Cathy and JR. The plan was to sail to my lately discovered hideaway, Coches Prietoes Cove. This perfect cove is about 1/3 of the way from the east end of the southern coast of Santa Cruz Island. Santa Cruz is the largest of the Southern California Channel Islands and it starts about 18 miles off the Ventura County coast.
A week before, I had badly sprained my right ankle playing volleyball. Needless to say I was not a complete crew for this single-handed cruise. Most of the swelling was gone but I still had the dark purple shiner. I say single handed cruise only because, aside from my hobbling about, hoisting the sails and tacking, I was the only one to steer, lest we stall or round up due to an inattentive helmsman; good friends all but not boat-wise, in the least and really could care less about the details of this transport.
We were heading out just for that Saturday night. We had chicken for the barbecue and beer for before and after and in between. The crossing was a spectacular sail, highlighted with sunny wind, flying fish and an escort, much of the way by a troop of porpoise on the bow. Two long close-hauled tacks brought us to just outside Smugglers Cove, the closest and best known anchorage on the Island. We made the crossing in less than 4 hours.
We avoided the kelp beds off “Yellow Banks” and in the lee of the island, droned on with the iron genny for another hour, west along the south coast. We passed Valley Anchorage and after another 30 minutes arrived at the giant rock precipice of Albert’s Cove, then steered around that limestone buttress, to one of the sweetest little coves of the Channel Islands Chain: Coches Prietoes.
There was only one boat in the cove. Coaches can handle 20+ boats if they all cooperate. I’ve never seen more than 4. That boat, was a newish looking 38’ racing cruiser (I never found out the make). It had chosen to peg down its sugar scoop stern 3 feet off the beach and it dropped the bow anchor beyond a rocky shoal in about 10 feet of water. I remember how slick and sporty their technique looked, but it also seemed to me a bit daring.
What do I know and what do I care; I basically have the whole cove to swing in, so bam we drop our CQR smack dead in the middle of the cove in 18 feet of delightful white sand bottom, with no tide issues to speak of. We’re now swinging free with 50 feet of chain and a scope of 6:1 and it’s Miller time.
We all had a wonderful afternoon, which carried into the evening. I was beaming from the feeling you get when you introduce your friends to an entertaining and charming acquaintance: that being this remarkable cove. We had our usual banter of fun as we watched the seals fishing like oyster divers under the rocky cliffs along the east end. JR managed to burn up most the chicken on the grill and it was more funny than wasteful. The night sky, as any sailor has witnessed, was glorious and dressed up in black and Tiffany. The crescent moon reflected brightly off the water, before it sank behind the western cliff.
The crescent of the cove seemed to amplify the sound of the small waves on the beach. First came the deep pound of the breaker, boom… soon followed by the wash sound as the wave-flood rushed up the beach and back again. It is one of nature’s classic compositions. It went: boom and wash and then again, boom and wash, over and over, as it had throughout the eons. The calling gulls and exhalations of diving seals provided the melody. The sun had been down for a couple of hours; it was time to turn in for the night.
Around 11:30 pm I climbed out of my quarter berth and up for a last, look see, at the night and the water and our bite. No new boats. Our boat had swung again 180 degrees from an hour before; it was the 3rd or 4th time it had clocked like that, since we first set anchor. I think it happens when the island canyons cool at different rates, something like that. I was glade for the extra sea room in the cove. The southern swell now rolled in more pronounced than earlier.
The other sailboat, near the beach was maybe 200 feet from us and I could see it bobbing on the shore-break. I have a habit of looking up into the night sky. The Constellation Orion was high at that time. Orion is the namesake for “Frigate”, my boat’s model (PS Orion 27’ cutter). A bright shooting star slashed straight above almost nicking Capella in its streak west. I am sure I was the only person to see it. I’m pretty dense when it comes to heeding nature’s more cryptic messages. Maybe an angel just got his wings, I don’t know. All looked as good as it could possibly be. With a grin, I returned below to my bunk for the night. I figured I’d probably crawl out one more time that night.
Frank and Cathy were a couple and had the double birth that was made out of the U salon seatee. JR was snoring wildly up in the v-birth. They were friends from work and they trusted me with their lives out in this wilderness. I had such a serene feeling that we were all safe and snug in my little rocking boat. The last sounds I heard, before I drifted off, were the hushed giggling and mumble between Frank and Cathy and the ripples licking Frigate’s hull and the ceaseless boom and wash on the shore.
I might have had a dream, though who could have remembered after such a horrible awakening. A noise both deafening and terrifying surrounded the boat and me. I woke from a sound sleep my eyes wide open, in my confined coffin quarter birth. I could see bright lights outside the ports, searching yet blinding. It was a train barreling down on me. Am I awake? Is this happening? Hey, where am I? I’m in the boat Frigate; I’m on the water. What is that noise? My God, what time is it? Have we dragged anchor out to sea? That must be a freighter bearing down on us.
I tore my way out of the bunk and up the companionway, thinking I would see… what? I didn’t know. It was so loud and when I emerged from the cabin I saw the most incredible sight. It was the Alien Queen coming down at us 20 feet above the masthead, a giant wasp, screaming with its turbines, blasting the whole cove in a torrent of air and spray. It scoured the water with flickering cones of sunlight and deep dark shadows of arms and legs. It was perfect chaos, the eye of the vortex and we were about to die.
It seemed to hover overhead just to frighten us before it ate the boat. But now my head is clearing, adrenaline is pumping and the cobwebs disappear. The noise is slowly becoming more and more man-made and the arms and legs are now just booms and apparatus. It’s the Coast Guard! And they’re flying one of their new turbine rescue choppers. And they’re not hear to kill us, they’re looking for something on the beach. Oh Sh%#! It’s that other boat; they’re lying on their side in the breakers.
My God what time is it? When did that happen? Did we sleep through the grounding and the mayhem and the mayday? Had they cried out for help? It was just before 4am and within 10 minutes the Coast Guard had landed on the beach, 100 feet west of the wreck and collected the crew and then were off, noisier than before. It was difficult to tell how many were evacuated. The beach was lit like noontime and you could see a handful of people moving around confused. I think some were children. Nothing could be heard through the unbearable whine of the turbines and whap of the blades. Then it was: all aboard and up, up and away. They banked out over the ocean and disappeared east. The noise trailed away quickly into the night. They left us dazed and in total and complete silence and darkness. We waited for our eyes to adjust, mesmerized by what we had just seen. The poor boat appeared curled up and dead on the shore. Its shadowy figure shifted uneasily at each wave brazen enough to poke at it.
They chaffed through their ground tackle. Their rode passed over the rocky shoal, and when the swell picked up, in the night, at the same time the tide went out...? What a wakeup call that must have been for them. Bang, splash, crunch, on your side, what a shock!
The disaster was some time in the making, but once the last strand of rope snapped, the boat was condemned very quickly. We sat there in our cockpit comparing notes and first impressions for almost an hour. The funny thing was, in the first instant, we all thought we were facing some land disaster; a nightmare faced by each of us, in his own bed at home, where it’s familiar. Cathy’s initial thought was her house was burning. At first, the event was so disorienting, none of us new where we were.
Frank said I almost killed him. Apparently, when I clawed my way up on deck, I accidently pulled a 12 lb. fire extinguisher out of its bracket and it landed inches from his head. That would have been an awkward call to make to the Coast Guard: “Say guys, since you’re out here anyway, do you have room for one more casualty? “
The next morning it was confirmed. It really happened. It wasn’t some mass hysteria that we suffered. The poor stranded boat was still there. It was laying on its port side half wet and half sandy. Its bow must have swung around because it faced the island, which was opposite to its anchored direction. That must have been quite a struggle for the crew. I wonder when they first realized that they were in trouble: when the keel fin dug in and the boat wheeled around onto its side? They were surely asleep like we were. Was the distress call placed early on, or were they already on their side when the skipper made the call? That morning I forgot all about my sore ankle, this had been a real catastrophe. Some poor captain wondered what condition his boat was in.
It didn’t really seem like a life and death situation, at the time. I don’t know, maybe someone got hurt during the lay-down. Maybe they called in a “Panvalet” not a “Mayday” and the Coast Guard saw it for a training opportunity. Even if we had left them stranded in the morning, which we wouldn’t have, it’s not more than a day hike to the ranger station at Smugglers, assuming they knew one existed. It’s easy to second guess the skippers actions after losing the boat in that way. Man I sure hope I never have to make that call. One thing I never figured out: how did a line of sight VHF reach outside of that cove considering the antennae was practically lying on the beach? How did they reach the CG?
I’ll admit it now, we didn’t have our anchor light on. I never really trusted my batteries on that boat, even with the isolation switch. I had faced too many situations without my engine starter. I’m sure I’ll catch Hell for that admission. All I have to say is the Coast Guard doesn’t leave anything to chance. When they come riding into a dark harbor they light it up like Yankee Stadium. Obviously no CG pilot wants a mast up the kazoo.
We weighed anchor then motored a couple of close passes along the shore to survey the damage done. The mast seemed ok and, in general, so did the rest of the rig. The running rigging was a mess, strung about in clumps and knots and there was other boating debris scattered about, cushions, canvas and such. From about 30 feet away it appeared that the hull was still intact. The beach at Coches is not particularly rocky, being a blend of gravel and sand and the waves at that time were mere 9” lappers. It looked as if this boat could be saved, but it better happen soon.
Finally, we motored out of the lee of the island and had another marvelous sail, port broad reach most of the way home. We sailed wing and wing for an hour before we got back on the rhumbline. There were more porpoise and more flying fish. We also passed around the sunscreen.
Two weeks later I saw that boat on the hard, not far from Andria’s Fish Market in Ventura Harbor. It looked like the jack stands were trying to hold the guts in from a huge belly wound. The hull had cracked open athwartships, right at the beam. It was split from the rail to the base of the fin. The opening was jagged and fibrous; you could see the stuff piled up inside and sleeping bags and bedding were poking out in places. The hull was a total loss; it was obviously here for parts salvage. The loss was at least $100k.
I couldn’t imagine how they brought this boat back without it sinking. What had happened? It wasn’t the superficial damage I thought I saw, back at the scene. It was a real eye opener to see what damage the ocean can accomplish with her patience and even her most insignificant waves; that relentless boom and wash, boom and wash, may eventually wash away that big island of Santa Cruz.
Lessons learned, and relearned. Basically, more chain is better than less and more scope is also better then less, in almost all anchoring situations. Also never cross a shoal with a fiber anchor rode, unless your boat can stand a beaching. It hurt to see that boat doomed in such a way. And yes… very important… you really have to hand it to the Coasties, they sure are “Johnny on the Spot”, loud, lit up and efficient.
Last edited by Winderlust; 05-21-2009 at 07:09 AM.