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Down the West Coast

Seals are a frequent sight in the cold waters along the beautiful coast of California.
The next leg of our cruising sabbatical on our Beneateau First 38 Bagheera took us down the Californian coast. What a difference from sailing the shores of Washington and Oregon with their typically strong winds and few storm-havens for deep-keeled vessels! From San Francisco to San Diego harbors are numerous, and although the prevailing wind is still from the northwest, calms are common, especially to the south. Passages can also be made at any time of the year, based on a good forecast, although sailors should always be cautious in rounding Point Conception—meanacingly referred to in the Pilot as the ‘Cape Horn of the Pacific.'

After a month at home in Vancouver, we returned to the boat and began to get our affairs in order. Andy had taken Bagheera down to Santa Cruz, and I met up with him there. A mammoth provision was necessary and as our practice is to eat out after a large stowing job, Andy suggested a seafood restaurant along the dock. While enjoying seared tuna steak, scallops, and Mexican-style shrimp, the owner came over to chat.

"You are going to sail to Panama and then up to Nova Scotia?" he asked incredulously after we told him our plans. "That deserves margaritas on the house to wish you a safe voyage." For us, it was a great welcome back to the cruising life.

The next morning calms prevailed, which meant motoring all the way to Monterey, famous for its Latino heritage and historic quarter. "Cold, foggy, and swelly!" Andy wrote in the log. We searched around for a place to anchor, but the dockman offered us a slip for the day while we were topping off our fuel tanks. 

We spent a pleasant morning walking into town through the attractive ocean-front park with the long-beaked pelicans keeping us entertained as they broke from their graceful flight and suddenly swooped down on unsuspecting prey with ungainly splashes. We miss these characterful birds at home in BC, apparently they used to come north in summer, before the pilchards disappeared on our coast.

Wood-planked Fisherman's Wharf was bustling with a number of sportfishing, whale-watching, and sightseeing boats. There was a great variety of fresh seafood for sale in the fish stalls ashore, with commercial boats bringing in anchovies, cod, halibut, squid, shark, swordfish, tuna, and salmon. The wharf was built in 1846 for trading vessels that brought goods around Cape Horn, and was home to whaling and sardine vessels until the Municipal Wharf was built, now home to the modern fishing fleet.

In the late fall, grey conditions signal the changing seasons and that it's time for many West Coast cruisers to head south.
In the old quarter, the picturesque 19th century buildings of Spanish-Mexican Monterey are still in good condition and many have fine displays of memorabilia. We learned that the Larkin House, built in 1834, is a mix of the New England and adobe architecture, which together heralded the Monterey colonial style. In the Stevenson House, Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have written his classic book Treasure Island. Close-by, the Spanish Customs House is the oldest government building on the west coast and all goods headed for Mexico and California had to be unloaded here. Some ancient parts of the building date back to 1827. In 1846 the American flag was officially hoisted on it for the first time.

Hundreds of sea lions played exuberantly on the harbor wall as we headed out. "Look how deep it is out here," said Andy as I studied the chart. "This area is known as the Monterey Gorge and it's like an underwater Grand Canyon. They're doing a lot of deep-sea research here, and have found some bizarre deep-sea communities in waters of 3,000 meters deep. The area is now the largest marine park in the US and second only in size to the Great Barrier Reef."

Part of the joy of crusing is noticing the changes in flower and fauna as you go along.  Pelicans like this one can hold up to three gallons of water in their pouch and fly at 35 mph.
Sailing south, the mountains faded into the eastern horizon, temperatures were on the rise, and the daily warming of the land generally induced a westerly seabreeze. The favourable, south-flowing current started to fade, and in the summer it may even reverse and flow north between Point Conception and the Mexican border. Although we experienced little fog, it is common in the summer; and winds ahead of fronts are still briefly from the south before clocking back to the northwest. We didn't get much of it, but the Santa Ana—a local weather phenomenon—is a hot wind that periodically blows out from the dry interior between Point Conception and Newport. It's most common during winter. With that wind in effect, a calm can change to a full gale within minutes, but fortunately local forecasts give warning when favorable conditions for the Santa Ana occur.

With a two-day deadline to be in Newport Beach for a cruisers' weekend, we were starting to need some wind ourselves. There was not a breath, but a bonus of the flat seas was that we sighted a pod of humpback whales leaping for joy off the starboard bow.

"At least it should be calm around Point Conception," I said optimistically.

Point Conception is an area of extremes—there can either be no wind or too much off this headland. Temperatures vary between the cool of the north and the heat of the south. The wind is likely to be calm in the early morning, but as the day progresses, it frequently builds, flowing south to accelerate around the abrupt change of the coast and blowing through the Santa Barbara Channel, formed by the Channel Islands. Strong winds and rough seas can make the passage an extremely uncomfortable ride, and, except in calms, this point should be given a wide berth.

Little time passed before the wind filled in for us. By evening it was gusting 30 knots, and conditions were extremely cold. The barometer dropped off sharply, portending a long night ahead. Off of Point Conception the wind was gusting west-northwest to 42 knots. Seas were extremely confused, coming from several directions, and they tossed the boat around so unpredictably sleeping was difficult down below. Off watch we wedged ourselves in the starboard aft cabin, with pillows on one side and a sailbag stuffed with dirty laundry (firmly zippered closed) on the other!

Our comments in the log bring back memories of an exceedingly unpleasant trip. ‘Black night, very noisy surf from the huge confused swells, shivering, ugh, wind howling again, three ships within four miles, one ship passed half a mile away we both altered course in the same direction as their lights were confusing'.

"Thank goodness for radar," I said to Andy as we changed watch. (See The Wonders of Radar)

South of Point Conception and all the way to San Diego there are innumerable harbors and marinas to explore, as well as the far more deserted Channel Islands, although these can become crowded during the summer months. I had wanted to stop in the Northern Channel Islands but there wasn't a convenient tenable anchorage in the weather. We also had hoped to visit a friend in Santa Barbara, but it was now way off our course with the current wind direction, so we continued. Then, suddenly, the wind dropped, the sky cleared, the sun came out. Soon we were motoring again!

A well-found boat is the preferred vehicle of choice for taking on the vagaries of promontories like Point Conception.
It was a last-minute decision to go to the cruising seminar weekend in Newport Beach that was organized by Walt Gleckler and the Orange Coast College, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable time. Both of us sat on interesting panels, sold many books, and met some great people, particularly other old-time cruisers and authors. For over 20 years Walt and his wife Anna have organized the Sailing Adventures Series and led more than a score of flotillas internationally. After our stop in there, we were both sad to hear that Walt had passed away and would like to commend both he and Anna for their huge contributions in enabling cruisers to live their dreams.

Friends from our Dragon racing days filled us in on the charms of Catalina Island, their main cruising destination, and we subsequently enjoyed small anchorages, as well as the town of Avalon. It was peaceful there in the fall, but judging from the hundreds of mooring buoys and ferries, we could imagine the crowds in summer. For us it was a great cruising stop with laundry, mail, and a grocery shop then a fine, inexpensive lobster dinner. We had intended to spend the night, but the mooring charge seemed high so at 8:00 pm, when our guest allowance on the buoy had expired, we prepared to set sail.

"But no one leaves at this time," the Harbor Master argued, amazed. He had come alongside to collect the night's fee just as we were casting off. "Crazy Canadians," was his final comment as we started to head out! "
"But no one leaves at this time," the Harbor Master argued, amazed. He had come alongside to collect the night's fee just as we were casting off. "Crazy Canadians," was his final comment as we started to head out!

Just ten miles north of the border, San Diego is the final US port for those heading to Mexico. October and November are busy times here as increasing numbers of yachts head south at the end of the hurricane season. (Over 1,000 boats were estimated to make the voyage south in 2000-01). There are facilities of every kind, whether one is looking for marine supplies, haulout facilities, canvas shops, sailmakers, book and chart suppliers, and bulk grocery stores. Most cruisers like to linger, and many of the hospitable yacht clubs offer visitors three days of courtesy moorage. And San Diego's waterfront presents a good opportunity to pick the brains of those who have previously been to Mexico.

Despite resolutions and a tight budget we, like most cruisers, went into a buying frenzy. Downwind Marine is especially accommodating, and they have an invaluable 50-page booklet of Mexican cruising information including a cruiser's checklist, radio nets and boaters' Spanish terms (found on their website Additionally, they arrange free transportation, sponsor seminars and have a cruising kick-off party in early November. Voyagers can also join the ‘Baja Ha-Ha' rally, organised by Baja Ha-Ha, Inc., with the support of Latitude 38, that leaves late October, and cruise in company to Cabo San Lucas.

Before heading south, Mexican visas and fishing licenses (US$179.65 per couple on a boat over 30 feet) must be obtained and reciprocal HAM licences purchased in Tijuana. (See Entering Foreign Waters) After Ensenada, 55 miles south of the border, there are few facilities down the 700-mile Baja coast until Cabo San Lucas, or better still, La Paz. As there are now few banks along this stretch, and those in Turtle Bay and San Carlos in Magdalena Bay do not have ATMs, it is wise to purchase some pesos, also carry enough fuel, as it can be only be acquired via jerry jugs, except on the dock in Turtle Bay.

One should also stock up on food for the trip, doubling the time of one's estimated schedule. In reality you will bulk buy considerably more, no doubt influenced by the many lists circulated regarding what is not available in Mexico. While we all have our favorites, it's still not a good idea to load the boat to the gunnels. Part of the adventure of cruising for us is visiting the markets and eating the local dishes. We find Mexican food both varied and delicious.

Other items worth purchasing are heavy plastic containers for storing dry goods in the hopes of avoiding the inevitable weevils. Ample supplies of Ziplock bags, cockroach hotels, cleaning materials, insect repellent, film, and sun block should also be on the list. Those on medications should carry a good supply, and besides first-aid items for the medical chest, two courses of general-purpose antibiotics and antihistamines are worth purchasing before you leave. Those who suffer from seasickness do not have to worry—Stugeron is sold in Mexico (the accepted medication by boaters around the world). Check your local travel health clinic for immunizations required for your proposed itinerary. 

Sunrise signals the dawn of a new day and the the next phase of the nautical adventure can continue.
On our last night in San Diego Bagheera was rafted alongside Rare Metal, owned by fellow Vancouverites. They wanted to leave the dock early to assure their next free mooring spot; it suited us well. There were lots of laughs and we hugged goodbye at 6:30 am, knowing we would not be seeing each other again on our travels this time around.

As we motored out of the harbor, muted pinks and grays of daybreak gave a soft backdrop to the masts and palm trees. We passed more buoys draped with sea lions, who this time observed the hush of dawn. We watched the sun come over the horizon, and quickly grow into a huge red ball. After a few deep breaths the frustrations of the previous weeks slipped right away. It was good to be at sea again and the next legs would take us to a myriad of different cultures and the tropics!

Suggested Reading:

Criteria for Successful Cruising by Liza Copeland

Keeping it Simple by Doreen Gounard

Overnight Passaging by Sue and Larry

Buying Guide:  Roller Furlers

Liza Copeland is offline  
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