Sailing with the Tsunami

“So foul and fair a day I have not seen.”

Macbeth (Act 1, Scene 3)

Shakespeare’s doomed, regicidal Macbeth was a soldier, not a sailor, but had the bloody Thane of Cawdor been racing a sailboat in the Santa Barbara Channel on Saturday February 27, 2010 – he could not have described the dichotomous conditions better: fair and foul. And one of the major factors that contributed to this strange day on the water was put in play in a faraway South American country more than 12 hours before the race began.

At 10:34 PST on the night before our second sailboat race of the 2010 season, there was a magnitude 8.8 earthquake in Chile — one of the largest temblors ever recorded.

The head of the University of Chile’s Seismology Institute said the quake was “50 times bigger than the one in Haiti.” That might be true, but luckily, compared to Haiti, Chile was well prepared for such a huge shaker. Only 300 people died according to early accounts – but a seismically triggered tsunami was sent racing halfway around the world.

And some 4,900 nautical miles northward toward Ventura, California.

About nine and a half hours after the Chilean quake, Brad Hall and Darroch Greer arrived at my house at 8:00 AM to carpool out to Ventura Harbor for our race. The network weather witches had been heralding a series of storms sweeping down from the north, and indeed, we drove west on the 101 Freeway in and out of patches of rain. We discussed the quake in Chile – but we had no idea it would affect us that day.

We were more concerned about another factor that would make it an odd race. Our supremely capable and experienced lead bowman, Claude Dubreuil, would not be among our crew that day. That meant that leadership of the foredeck would devolve to me. As I’m a relative nautical neophyte — happier to follow orders than give them.

Captain Tom Webber. (Photo by Brad Ball)

I had apprehensions that had nothing to do with the weather. Getting the headsail up and down, rigging, flying, and dousing the spinnaker, these were the maneuvers that occupied my mind. I knew we’d get wet. That was a given. I was hoping there would be enough wind – but not too much. I was hoping I could do my job, not screw up royally – and manage to stay in the boat.

When we arrived at Ventura Harbor, I noticed that the water in the harbor was as muddy and murky as the Mississippi River. Usually, as you walk down the ramp onto H Dock, you can see the harbor bottom. I figured the murk must’ve been churned up by the storms that were already passing through.

Captain George & Michael on our way out of Ventura Harbor. Smooth sailing so far. (Photo by Brad)

Brad's set to haul the jib halyard.

The weather lifted as we pulled out of our slip and sailed out of Ventura Harbor toward the starting line at Mandalay Buoy. There was a heavy swell that promised a wet afternoon — but on our way to the line, we did a pretty good job of getting the headsail up and deploying and jibing the spinnaker, etc, without Claude’s veteran leadership.  Despite the choppy conditions, I managed to stay in the bow and roughly approximate what Master Claude would have done. The few mistakes that I and the foredeck crew made were soon remedied – and we were all feeling pretty good as we approached the starting line

The strangeness began at the start of the race. We were among the first boats to cross the starting line in a crowded, chaotic start. I expected to hear the crunch of fiberglass. Shouts and curses were heard – but miraculously, there were no collisions.

We were among the leaders as we raced toward the first mark, Platform Gail, sailing in and out of a soaking rain.

A cold, soggy Darroch and The Matey on the rail. (Photo by Brad)

The promised storms had arrived on cue, drenching the crew most miserably – but also helping to drive our boat, Sprit Decision, at an average speed of about 8 knots to windward. We were sailing on a direct line to Platform Gail – and aside from the rain – it was a great day so far.

It was a good omen when a pod of playful dolphins starting racing alongside us, darting back and forth across our bow.

Alas, our good fortune would not last.

When we got within a quarter mile of Platform Gail – which we would need to sail around before returning to the finish line at Ventura Harbor – we were suddenly becalmed.  The wind and water both became eerily still. What we didn’t know was that, about this time, 12:24 PM (PST) – a 3-foot tsunami surge from the Chilean quake was arriving in Ventura. It had taken these waves generated by the 8.8-magnitude quake 14 hours to travel from the temblor’s epicenter to our patch of the Pacific. And somehow, the effect was to leave us slack-sailed and drifting in the lazy swell.

Captains Tom & George consider what to do to get our becalmed boat moving again. (Photo by Brad)

Eventually, we got enough of a puff to push us around the oil platform and fill our spinnaker for a downwind run home to Ventura Harbor. As we approached the harbor, our cell phones began to ring with calls from our wives concerned about a tsunami warning. What tsunami warning? We didn’t feel any tsunami…

Then, as we got within a few hundred yards of the harbor mouth, a Coast Guard ship ran out to intercept us. A Coast Guard officer on a bullhorn advised us that we could not enter the harbor because of a surge that was coming out of the harbor.  In my three years of sailing in Ventura and Channel Islands, I’ve never heard of a surge coming out of the harbor – the surf and the tide is usually pushing toward the shore – not out to sea. But the tsunami surge from Chile was hitting the coast and bouncing back out, back and forth — and the two currents were smacking into each other just inside the harbor’s breakwater. It looked like the confluence of two mighty rivers. Strange conditions, indeed. In fact, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department reported minor damage at the harbor from several buoys getting washing away.

After about 10 minutes of waiting outside the breakwater, the Coast Guard (timing the surge interval) gave us the okay to proceed into the harbor. It was weird to sail into the harbor against such a strong current. And it was yet another lesson in how small – and interconnected — the world is.

As we pulled into our slip, the rain had stopped and the sun was coming back out. Foul was fair again. It was as odd a day on the water as I’d ever experienced.

And I loved every moment of the adventure.

What follows are more photos that Brad Hall, our loblolly boy, took on our voyage.

The Matey (that's me) as we sail out of the harbor. So far, so good.

Foredeck mate Darroch is clearly not wet and miserable yet. Is he thinking about his sandwich?

Captain Tom is also all smiles in the early going. Doubtless, he's thinking about a sandwich!

Tom doesn't look so smiley now, does he?

All's well that ends well.

10 Comments

Filed under Adventure

10 responses to “Sailing with the Tsunami

  1. Stewart Figa

    Your tale framed by the quote from MACBETH inspired me to take a look at PERICLES which has memorable nautical scenes. That play is fresh in my mind; I saw a superb Aussie production of it at the Sydney Opera House last summer…

    Pericles: “Thou god of this great vast, rebuke these surges, which wash both heaven and hell; and
    thou, that hast upon the winds command, bind them in brass, having call’d them from the deep!”

    • Stewart!

      So, you saw my “Macbeth” and raised me a “Pericles”?

      Great play. I fold.

      Your deal.

      • Vic

        Deal me in. I’ll see your Pericles and raise you a Tempest. Act I, scene i:

        Boatswain:
        Down with the topmast! yare! lower, lower! Bring her to try with main-course.
        A plague upon this howling! they are louder than the weather or our office.
        ….
        A pox o’ your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog!

  2. Mo

    Wow! What an adventure!!

  3. Brad

    A tale well told, and I should know, I was on the foredeck following your orders, Matey! It was so weird out there — cold, warm, squall, becalmed. Even the dolphins knew something was up. Yet, can’t wait to do it all again. Vincent Van Gogh, when painting some fishermen observed, “The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.”
    Yep, nor surfers nor sailors neither!

    • Great Van Gogh quote, B! If you swap out “fishermen” for Captain George, it’s even more dramatic…

      “Captain George knows that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but he’s never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.”

  4. Very cool. You were much better off in deep water when the wave came by. Ever see a seiche in Lake Michigan? They call ’em the Great Lakes tsunamis. Weird weather inversion that starts the water rocking parabolically in the lake one end to the other. I’ve seen the harbor go up & down 4 feet in less than 5 minutes. Freaky.

  5. Chris

    Here’s my version of the story a-la Channel Islands Harbor.

    http://www.sailtimechannelislands.com/california-sailing/493/

    Had friends in the race who reported being pushed backwards as they tried to reach the finish line for nearly 10 minutes!

    • I’ll check it out, Chris. Believe me, the way that surge was knocking all the buoys down — I don’t doubt it was tough to make way.

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