On Sunday, September 16th, my wife and I took a quick day trip to a whole new world: from our suburban home in Woodland Hills to the island of Santa Cruz – the largest of the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California. Santa Cruz lies in the Santa Barbara Channel a mere 67 miles from our home in the western end of the San Fernando Valley.
The 42-mile drive to the harbor in Ventura took us less than an hour. We arrived at the Island Packers dock where our boat was waiting to carry us to Santa Cruz.
Victoria took a seat on the upper deck of the Island Packers boat, gazing out at the collection of vessels in Ventura Harbor.
We headed out of the harbor shortly after 2:00 PM. I’ve sailed out of Ventura Harbor many times, but not often aboard a boat of this size.
The pilothouse on the upper deck of the boat with the captain at the controls.
As we raced across the Santa Barbara Channel, a thick marine layer cast a hazy shroud over the islands in the distance. Santa Cruz is 25 miles off the California coast, and we covered that distance across a flat, grey ocean in less than an hour. (See map above.)
As we neared Santa Cruz, the foggy marine layer was burning off…
…and the island was finally revealed in brilliant sunshine.
The closer we got to the island, the more the colors came out. The water became more blue and the island more golden and inviting as we approached the cliffs near the Scorpion anchorage on the eastern end of the island. (See map above.)
The Island Packers crew prepares to dock at the Scorpion anchorage.
The approached the dock at the Scorpion anchorage, where a pair of metal ladders stood ready for us to disembark.
A short dirt path leads from the anchorage to the former sheep ranch buildings that now serve as the visitor’s center and headquarters for this unit of the National Park Service. (Yep, the 5 westernmost Channel Islands are a National Park!)
A couple hundred yards from the anchorage, the building of the former sheep ranch came into view.
Old rusted farm equipment provides mute testimony to the brief agricultural history of the island. For about 150 years from the 1830’s through the 1980’s, sheep ranching was the dominant industry on the island.
Victoria stands next to the old farm building that is now the National Park visitor center.
Victoria and I pause along the trail that rises above the visitor center. We only had about 40 minutes to explore before the boat was scheduled to return to Ventura. (We could have taken a much earlier voyage out of Ventura, but inspiration hit us too late in the morning.)
The trail rose quickly and the view was stunning. You can see our boat waiting at anchor below the cliff.
Victoria marches up the trail. Behind Vic, the mountains give a sense of low large the island is: 22 miles long and from 2 to 6 miles wide.
Victoria pauses at a particularly picturesque overlook to – what else? – take a picture.
Here’s another view from Victoria’s perch looking east above the Scorpion anchorage.
Heading back to the boat, Victoria spotted an island fox: a species that is native to six of the eight Channel Islands. (Vic earned her merit badge for the day.) I managed to shoot some footage of this cute, red-hued predator as it made its way through the chaparral.
We lined up on the dock to board the boat for our return trip – along with dozens of campers and day-trippers. It would be a far more crowded ride back to Ventura.
As I waited on the dock for everyone to climb down the two ladders onto the boat, I had plenty of time to study the gorgeous coastline.
Take a moment to enjoy the gentle lapping of the waves on the pebbled beach.
Now, take another moment to enjoy the hypnotic swaying of the kelp and other ocean vegetation along the coast.
With the boat’s cabin crowded with returning campers, hikers, snorkelers and kayakers – Victoria takes windy refuge on the bow of the boat.
It was a great trip to Santa Cruz Island: a brief excursion to a whole ‘nother world that’s not too far away.
When you see a sailboat racing through the waves, heeled over in a stiff breeze with a line of guys hanging over the high, windward side of the boat – those seemingly sedentary sailormen are what is known as “rail meat”.
And that’s what I was on August 20, 2011 aboard the good ship Misfit as we contended against the elements and our adversaries in the Tri-Point Ocean Race, the last contest in PierPont Bay Yacht Club’s 12th annual Island Series, staged in the waters of the glorious Santa Barbara Channel.
The crew of Misfit (who would appropriately be referred to as “Misfits” in the Royal Navy), and her resolute, seamanlike captains, George Moll and Eric Schlageter, were in an anticipatory mood. We left the dock at Channel Islands Harbor that morning knowing that a good finish in the day’s race could secure the overall Island Series trophy in the Spinnaker A class.
With the Island Series title within grasp, our Captains made a critical decision: put the young guns to work – and put the “old guys” on the rail.
Thus, the talented, enthusiastic and very salty youngsters, Shaun, Geno, Cody and Reed were tasked with switching out headsails, hauling the spinnaker in and out, trimming the mainsail, and many other critical duties that us “old guys” had performed in the past. The “old guys”, Claude, Tom and The Matey (that’s me) were relegated to the role of human ballast.
To appreciate “rail meat” one must understand “ballast”, which is, according to Merriam-Webster, “A heavy substance placed in such a way as to improve stability and control (as of the draft of a ship or the buoyancy of a balloon or submarine).” I, and my ancient mariner brethren Tom and Claude, were that “heavy substance.” (After devouring his signature sandwich, Tom may have been the heaviest substance.)
Youngster Cody (L) is employed at something technical. "Old Guy" Tom (R) adds his weight to the rail. As Lord Nelson himself once said, "They also serve who sit and hike!"
The Tri-Point, like many races in the Santa Barbara Channel starts at the Mandalay Buoy off Ventura Harbor. While we jockeyed for position among the cluster of boats in our Spinnaker A class just seconds before the start of the race, our Temporary Co-Captain Todd (who may be the most entertaining, crude and colorful yachtsman in the entire Santa Barbara Channel) was at the tiller. As the seconds ticked down to the starting gun, Todd sailed us toward the starting line.
On approach, it appeared that we would either get off the line first — or sail across scant seconds too soon…
As Misfit was about to cross the starting line, one of our competitors, Rival, was sailing down the line on our starboard side: parallel to and just below the starting line — perpendicular to our line of sail. In simple terms, they were headed right for us and would likely strike us amidships!
Under the arcane rules of the sea (which I cannot always claim to understand), Misfit evidently had the right of way – but with Rival bearing down on us, seconds from the start, with scant room to maneuver, a collision was imminent!
Youngster Reed and I were on the starboard rail, stationed on either side of the shrouds, closest to the increasingly obvious point of contact: the fateful juncture at which Rival’s bow would smash into us. Seeing what was coming, I scuttled over to the port side — just as the sickening crunch of fiberglass and the shouting of manly curses could be heard. We sheared off to port and sailed tightly back around the starting buoy, hurling epithets at the malefactors aboard Rival as we crossed the starting line again and began our race in earnest.
Luckily, the damage to Misfit was minimal — a small gouge in the deck too damn close to where I had been sitting. Our chief adversary, a larger boat named Radio Flyer, had just a slight lead on us. Rival trailed us. The race was on.
The three points of the Tri-Point racecourse are the oil platform “Gina” and the two ends of Anacapa Island, finishing in Ventura Harbor — a distance of 34 nautical miles. We raced toward Gina, rounded to starboard, and made for the south end of Anacapa with its picturesque arch and sheer cliffs caked white with eons of seabird guano.
I’ve had many experiences sailing the backside of Anacapa — a long, thin land mass broken into three sections with plunging, narrow gaps that nothing but a kayak dare pass through.
Because of its tall cliffs and sudden gaps, the winds along Anacapa’s backside can vary widely – and quickly. A sailboat racing across the backside of Anacapa must quickly adjust to these shifting conditions. So, therefore, must her contingent of rail meat.
As I described earlier, sailors serving as rail meat are only “seemingly sedentary” — and on this day, the “old guys” wound up doing a lot more work than you might expect. Because on a sailboat as nimble in light winds as Misfit, there’s a constant need to shift the ballast in order to maintain an even keel and sail the boat at its greatest level of efficiency. And since the winds were not always light or consistent this race day – especially on the fickle backside of Anacapa — the rail meat had to scramble from side to side, back and forth from port to starboard – often on the same tack.
With the deck shifting dramatically and the boom swinging side to side, all that scrambling can be hazardous — and, indeed, Claude got clocked by the boom, leaving a substantial knot in his forehead. (Of all the knots a sailor must learn, the knot in the forehead requires the least amount of skill.)
While the “old guys” manned the rail throughout the race, nearly all Misfit hands would serve as rail meat at some point. Depending upon the wind conditions, especially along Anacapa’s backside, there were times when all available crewmen were hanging over the rails – “hiking out” — to keep our keel in the ocean.
“Hike out, boys! Hike hard!” was the constant, emphatic command. The more the wind heeled Misfit over, pushing the leeward side of the boat dangerously close to the water (and a potential “knock down”), the more weight must be brought to the windward side to balance the ship. The further that weight can be extended out over the windward edge – the better. So rail meat must “hike out” – hanging as far over the lifelines — and over the side of the boat — as flexibility, courage and intelligence will allow.
Tom & Capt. George hike out. When needed, even the Captain must serve as rail meat.
“Hiking out” can be the whole ballgame when you’re racing a sailboat in a stiff wind. How fast can you go and still keep your keel in the water? That’s the critical calculation: because if the keel ever comes out of the drink — it’s game over.
And call vessel assist!
Here’s what the keel looks like from the POV of us rail meat. As you can clearly see, the keel is still underwater. If it wasn’t, I couldn’t have taken this picture. I would’ve been thrashing around in the ocean, hoping my life vest would inflate as advertised.
“Hike out, boys! Hike hard!”
In little more than an hour, Misfit circumnavigated Anacapa Island — and headed for the red whistle buoy at Ventura Harbor. The crew ate their sandwiches, raced toward Ventura, and tried to calculate handicap times based on the relative ratings of the boats in our class. (Who had to give time? To whom did we have to give time? We knew that Radio Flyer had to give us plenty of time — but how far ahead of us did she cross the finish line?)
After the race, Captain George savors our Island Series victory.
As it turned out, we finished second in the Tri Point Ocean Race – just seven minutes off the lead. (We probably lost at least two minutes due to our starting line kerfuffle – and a few more when the youngsters had a bit of bad luck flying the kite (spinnaker) after we rounded Anacapa and made for Ventura. Us “old guys” had been there before, done that many times. (Hey, Claude, remember that red “devil rag”?)
But in this case, second place meant first place.
Because, combined with our second place finish in The Hardway, and our third place showing in the Milt Ingram, our runner-up placement in the Tri-Point clinched the Island Series Spinnaker A title for Misfit.
Congratulations to Misfit and all who sail in her.
From the time that man first fashioned craft to ply the deep waters, hardy folk have braved the dangers of the sea for sustenance – risking the roiling waves for the bounty the oceans provide.
Others have taken to the sea for exploration and conquest, striking out for unknown shores to discover new lands and plant their flags upon them.
Others go down to the sea in ships for sport, to test themselves against the fickle and ferocious elements of wind and water, to ride the exhilarating edge of speed and danger in a fast boat, sails full of howling wind, the taut rigging straining, cracking on, bow waves drenching the gunnels as they race through the swell.
Master Eric and his father Joe the Ancient Mariner in Santa Barbara Harbor.
The men of Misfit number themselves among the latter category of sailors. And that is why Captain George Moll, Master Eric Schlageter and a crew of six intrepid adventurers gathered on the dock at the harbor in Santa Barbara, California on the morning of Saturday, May 14, 2011: to take part in The 31st Annual Hardway Race, sponsored by the Pierpont Bay Yacht Club.
The Hardway Race is the first installment of the 12th annual Island Series, a set of three races that feature voyages to the nearby Channel Islands.
To go “The Hardway” means to race from Santa Barbara to Ventura Harbor by going around Santa Cruz Island – a journey of 67 nautical miles.
Master foc'sl'man Claude enjoys a celebratory cigar before we shove off.
I’ve been living in the Los Angeles area for two decades, and I’ve raced with Captain George in the Santa Barbara Channel for several years now – but I’d never sailed around the backside of Santa Cruz – so I was excited to be in this race. It’s wonderful to be able to explore exotic, unseen lands so close to home. I’ve sailed around Santa Cruz’s nearest island neighbor, Anacapa, many times. Anacapa is always a stunning sensory treat with its jagged shoreline, steep, rugged cliffs and zillions of seabirds. But going around Santa Cruz was going to be something special. Somewhere I’d never been before.
We motored toward the starting line, where the other boats in our class were jockeying for position prior to our 11:00 am start time. At 35-feet long, Misfit was among the smallest of the boats contending in the spinnaker class that had chosen to go “The Hardway” around Santa Cruz. Indications were that the wind would be up, so the Captain ordered us into our foul weather gear from the jump. When you see Eric’s dad, Joe the Ancient Mariner, donning his foulies, you’d best follow his veteran example. If Joe thinks we’re gonna get wet – we’re in for soaking.
Master Eric steered us to a great start and we got off the line, neck and neck with “Dr. Laura” Schlessinger’s magnificent racing vessel, Katana. With her much longer waterline, Katana soon began to pull ahead, as did another larger racing yacht, Prevail. But we could tell by the pace we kept with those longer boats that we had a chance to win this race if the wind – and our luck – held. (Wind and luck being the two biggest critical variables in sailboat racing.)
Within two hours sailing, we neared the western point of Santa Cruz Island at a speed of 8-10 knots. Luckily, a huge container ship crossed our bow about a half-mile ahead of us. At least one of the leading boats was not as lucky — and had to diminish speed to steer around the container ship.
We had a similar experience with an oceangoing barge approaching Anacapa on my first Hardway Race two years ago, so I was glad to see that container ship pass safely in the distance.
As we made the Santa Cruz headland, I was greeted with a sight I had not expected: there were two more islands in the distance beyond Santa Cruz: Santa Rose and San Miguel. I’d never seen either of these westernmost Channel Islands before, and it was a thrilling discovery.
I had not realized that the western end of Santa Cruz’s backside was actually a channel between two islands, and the choppy and confused currents that bounced and swelled between the two islands is known to local sailors and fishermen as “The Potato Patch.”
Once out of The Potato Patch, the northerly winds died a little as we passed under the lee of the imposing cliffs and mountains of Santa Cruz.
Between jibes, as we sought the shifting winds, I got a good look at the magnificence of Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz was once the largest privately owned island in the nation, but now its jointly owned by the National Park service (which owns 24%) and the Nature Conservancy (which owns 76%). 22 miles long and from 2 to 6 miles wide, it’s the largest of the eight islands in the Channel Islands chain.
Steep, sea-battered cliffs, surf-filled caves, and a few sandy beaches make the coastline of Santa Cruz well worth the voyage.
Rising above it all is the high ground known as Devils Peak, the highest prominence on the island at 2,450 feet.
Geno in the cockpit with the sea cliffs of Santa Cruz rising behind him.
Archaeologists tells us that humans have been visiting (and living on) Santa Cruz Island for at least 9,000 years – most notably the ChumashIndian tribe, who lived on the island and traded with the mainland Chumash population.
The Chumash had it to themselves until Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo showed up in the Channel Islands in 1542, planted the Spanish flag, lost his leg, and died. Cabrillo and his crew did not come ashore on Santa Cruz, though he named the island San Lucas.
Sebastián Vizcaíno led the last Spanish expedition to check out the Channel Islands in 1602. Vizcaino’s map named Santa Cruz the Isla de Gente Barbuda (“island of the bearded people”), and in 1822, the last of those “bearded people”, the Chumash, left Santa Cruz Island for the Catholic missions on the mainland.
We were just about to leave the vicinity of Santa Cruz ourselves at about 4:00 pm, flying a spinnaker and ripping along at 12 knots with the Eastern headland of Santa Cruz in sight – when nautical hubris got the best of us, and we were overpowered, rounded up – and knocked down!
For those who are not salty enough to appreciate what it means to be “knocked down” — here’s a simple illustration.
This is the normal profile of a sailboat, heeled over in the wind, at a slight tilt relative to the waterline. This is what you want to achieve when you’re racing a sailboat.
This is the profile of a sailboat that has been “knocked down”. If it gets any worse than this, the keel will come out of the water and the boat will capsize.
Here’s approximately where we were on the backside of Santa Cruz when we were knocked down.
What was I doing in the moments before we got knocked down? I was trying my best to capture the thrills and glory of our 12-knot surge through the swells with my iPhone. Here’s the footage I took in the moments before the knockdown.
Seconds after I stopped filming, we were overpowered and knocked down. The dramatic moment was captured on Captain George’s GoPro camera affixed to the end of the starboard stern rail. (You’ll note The Matey in the foreground – at the stern of Misfit – filming with my iPhone just before the critical moment. You can also see that, despite the calamity unfolding around me, I take great care to get that iPhone back in the pocket of my foulies.) The craziest thing was that when the starboard rail first disappeared into the sea, and the bottom of the boat suddenly became a wall rising on my left, as I clung to the stern lifelines, I was still trying to get a good shot of the ultimate dramatic moment. Damn my clumsy hands and the iPhone’s tiny controls…
Moments later, at Tom’s authoritative urging, I tucked away my iPhone and clambered over him to get hold of a portside stanchion. The fact that I was lying on top of Tom for a period of time before Misfit was righted led to the sort of off-color jokes that one comes to expect in the company of sailormen. I’ll say no more.
Here’s what Captain George’s GoPro saw…
Once the boat was righted – and kudos to Eric, Geno and Reed for their seamanlike reflexes in a crisis – we made for Ventura Harbor on the last leg of the race. As dangerous as the knockdown was, it was also an undeniable thrill. An adrenaline junkie’s fix, for sure. Our spirits were aroused and our senses engaged, as we sank Santa Cruz behind us and raced the setting sun into Ventura Harbor.
Hours before we rounded the Eastern end of Santa Cruz, our master of the fordeck, Claude, had expertly gauged the wind and waves and predicted that we’d finish just as the sun set at 7:45 pm. As we splashed our way toward Ventura, Claude’s assessment would prove to be dead on.
His assessment of the cetaceans that cavorted in our path along the way was not as correct. Seeing a pod of dorsal fin-less dolphins frolicking alongside our boat, Claude declared them to be porpoises. Just hours after the race, ever the conscientious oceanic naturalist, Claude would correctly identify them as northern rightwhale dolphins.
Despite the screaming winds, Captain George and Master Eric desired more boat speed as we flew toward Ventura, and they called for us to fly the larger Code Zero headsail. But while Claude and Geno and I did our best to fly the Code Zero, conditions got the better of us, and precious time was lost. Still, we hurtled through the channel, pointed toward the red whistle buoy that marks the entrance to Ventura Harbor.
The last hour of the race saw a constant drenching of the rail meat, as the geometry of boat speed and the direction of the swells added up to lots and lots of salt spray showering the benumbed human ballast — as Misfit tore through the waves like a trail horse smelling the feed bag.
We crossed the line moments after 8:00 pm, completing our voyage from Santa Barbara to Ventura by way of the backside of Santa Cruz in a little more than nine hours. The sun was down as we eased into an open slip, tied off at the dock, and got our nautical thoroughbred Misfit squared away for the night.
Finally, Captain George and his crew gathered at the PBYC clubhouse for a beverage and the last of the lasagna.
There we learned that Misfit had finished a mere 4 minutes out of first place — and just 20 seconds out of second place. Clearly, the knockdown off Santa Cruz and our struggle with the Code Zero on the homeward-bound leg may have cost us the race.
But, all in all, it felt like victory.
The boat performed gloriously. The Misfit crew did, too.
The Island Series is within our grasp.
Next up: The Milt Ingram Trophy Race, July 16, 2011.
Get your foulies on, mates — and unfurl as much canvass as we can!
On Wednesday July 23, 1896, The New York Times reported…
Nearly 114 years later, on the other end of the continent, another sailboat race fell victim to fluky winds, fog and calm…
As the crew of Sprit Decision gathered on H Dock in Ventura Harbor to prepare our boat for the third race of the Pierpont Bay Yacht Club’s Spring Series, there was only the slightest suggestion of a breeze. As we rigged our sails and made ready to get underway, we all knew what that anemic zephyr meant.
Sprit Decision, a 32’ 9” Beneteau First 10R, is a relatively heavy boat among the contenders in the Spinnaker A class — and she’s not her best in light air. Her advantages of size and design come into play with about 10 knots of wind, and she truly enjoys filling her sails with 15-20 knots, so unless there was going to be a dramatic and unforeseen shift in the weather, Sprit Decision and her crew would be hard pressed to succeed.
As the boats met at Mandalay buoy for the start of the race, the sea was flat and the wind barely a breath. You know there’s very little wind when, from across the water, you can hear people talking in conversational tones on the other boats. If anyone had been listening to the conversation aboard Sprit Decision as we moved sluggishly through the glassy water, they would’ve heard Captain George suggest that it might be a “Brophy’s Day” – by which he meant that if there wasn’t going to be any wind for this race, we might as well motor back to the harbor and enjoy a drink or two at Brophy Bros seafood restaurant. None of us took him too seriously. Captain George is always the last man to quit a race.
The start of the race was postponed as race officials chose a new, shorter course for the race. On this day, there would be no grand sail out across the Santa Barbara Channel and around one of the oil platforms. Instead, we’d race a less ambitious course, from buoy to buoy, closer to the coast.
As we jockeyed for position in the light wind, waiting for the five-minutes-to-start warning to sound, our veteran bowman, Claude, looked to the south and saw a line of fog approaching some distance from the south. “That’s not good,” he told me, but he didn’t explain why. That I would learn later in the race.
Bowman Claude sees the fog to the south.
After being surprised with only a one-minute warning prior to the start, we managed to get across the line slightly behind the leaders, and proceeded to the first mark, a buoy to the north of us called “Fish Sticks”. We were making 4.5 knots of boat speed with just 5 knots of wind in our sails. That’s pretty efficient sailing for Sprit Decision.
We rounded Fish Sticks in the back half of the pack – our smaller, less-heavy foes having the advantage in lighter air, but after deploying our spinnaker in a most seamanlike manner, we were soon running back to Mandalay buoy, plowing through the gently rolling seas at 6 knots in 6 knots of wind. We chased down one of the smaller Olson 30’s that had gotten ahead of us, and were hoping to overtake a couple more boats as the wind picked up and our boat speed increased.
As we got to within 200 yards of Mandalay bouy, we could see the fog rolling up toward the buoy from the south. By the time we got to within 50 yards of the mark, it was already getting hard to see the leading boats rounding the buoy in the fog. Soon, we were inside the fog ourselves, and as the fog moving north met the weak air current moving south – they cancelled each other out, the wind stalled, and Sprit Decision rounded Mandalay Buoy at a crawl.
For more info on the how and why of wind & fog, click here.
At that moment in struck me how drastically conditions can change in the Santa Barbara Channel. One moment, you sailing along on a sunny day in light wind on a gentle following current – and the next, you’re becalmed in dense fog on a flat ocean. And you’re watching the sudden, dangerous circus as boats try not to collide with each other while approaching, rounding, and leaving the mark – with little wind to give them power or control.
If you’re a sailor, you may find it interesting to know that we jibed the spinnaker as we rounded the mark and were still flying our kite as we ran northeast back to Ventura Harbor. (I’m still a bit confused as to how these things happen.) What I do know is that within ten minutes, the fog cleared, the wind picked up, and we got across the finish line in Ventura Harbor just as the wind was dying again.
Captain George called me that evening to say we’d finished 5th out of 10 boats in the race. And while we weren’t going to take home any trophies for our effort that day, it had been the best day of light air sailing we’d ever enjoyed racing Sprit Decision.
Our next sailing adventure is the Newport to Ensenada race on April 23rd. I’m hoping that the words “light wind” and “fog” will have no place in the account of that race.
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!
Captain George Moll wanted his crew on the H dock in Ventura Harbor at 8:00 am on Saturday morning, February 13. It was a good thing that the race was being run the day before Valentine’s Day. Like golfing, sailing is a sport that takes men out of the house for long stretches of time on the weekend. But sailboat racing is worse than golf because it’s never certain when you’ll be done. 18 holes of golf always take about the same amount of time to complete. The duration of a sailboat race depends upon the vagaries of the wind and conditions on the water. The race was set to start at 11:00 am, and if the gods Aeolus and Poseidon were with us, we could easily be back on the dock by 4:00, as I’d promised my wife, Victoria. Or we could be home much, much later.
Captain George wanted us at the dock good and early because our boat, a 32-foot Beneteau First 10R named Sprit Decision hadn’t been in a race since early December. The crew was glad to be racing again. We were all veterans of earlier campaigns, though every one of my crewmates is a far more experienced sailorman than I am. Captain George and Captain Tom Weber own Sprit Decision. George and Tom are a pair of old salts who keep everyone entertained with their crusty maritime Oscar and Felix act. Affable, gentlemanly Michael Froelich skippers his own boat, and is a key member of our crew as a helmsman and sail trimmer. Claude Dubreuil, an expert diver and sailor, is our fearless leader on the foredeck. (I assist Claude on the foc’s’le.) And my longtime buddy, Darroch Greer, may be the new guy on the foredeck crew, but as a diver, sailor and surfer, he’s also much saltier than me.
And me? Well, they call me “The Matey”, but my virtues as a sailor extend little beyond blind loyalty to my captain, the strength to haul lines and pump halyards, a knack for cursing like a tar in Nelson’s navy — and a good bit of weight on the rail. All in all, the six of us were a fine crew with which to start the 2010 racing season.
The February 13th race was the first of the Spring Series sponsored by the Pierpont Bay Yacht Club out of Ventura Harbor. Sprit Decision was among the twenty or so boats competing in the spinnaker class. The racecourse began at the Mandalay buoy, across the Santa Barbara Channel, around oil platform Gilda, then back into Ventura Harbor.
The Santa Barbara Channel is a glorious stretch of blue Pacific Ocean that separates mainland California from the northernmost Channel Islands. It runs between Point Conception and Oxnard on the coast and the islands of Anacapa and San Miguel. It’s as gorgeous a body of water as you’ll find on the planet, and whether you win or lose the race, it’s a pleasure to spend time on these waters.
As we sailed out of Ventura Harbor, we saw hard-working souls in two large out-rigger canoes paddling their way back inside the breakwater. It was a reminder that human beings have been navigating the Santa Barbara Channel for centuries – maybe even millennia. For many centuries before they first encountered Europeans in 1542, when Juan Cabrillo and his cohorts arrived from Mexico to “discover” the channel, the Native American Chumash tribe went back and forth across the channel in large, primitive dugout canoes, connecting the islands with their mainland villages and establishing trade between them.
We crossed the starting line just a few seconds after 11:00 am, and were sailing among the leaders, headed for the offshore oil platform called “Gail”. (All the oil platforms in the channel are named after women. It does get lonely on those platforms.) Platform Gail is about 10 miles from Ventura Harbor – and with a steady 10-15 knots of wind, we were showing 7-8 knots of boat speed. At that rate, we’d round Gail within a couple hours. Sprit Decision, her bottom newly-cleaned and treated, was knifing through the large, wide, rolling swells, as we made our way toward Gail.
Gail and her sister platforms are sitting in the Santa Barbara Channel because of the many oil fields below its sea floor. The channel has been mined for over 100 years – and was the site of the very first offshore oil well in 1896.
The channel was also fouled by one of the worst oil spills in history in 1969, when the black stuff came oozing out of fissures around a recently drilled offshore well a few miles south of Santa Barbara, blackening hundreds of square miles of water, killing aquatic wildlife, and mucking up the beaches from Goleta to Ventura. That disaster helped to galvanize the nascent environmental movement in the United States.
I must admit, I wasn’t thinking much about that history as we rounded platform Gail because there would soon be important work to do. Once we got around Gail and were headed back to Ventura Harbor, the wind would generally be on our stern – which meant a spinnaker run to the finish line. Flying the spinnaker is one of the main responsibilities of the foredeck crew, and it’s one of those critical shipboard evolutions that can either kick the boat into a higher gear – or trigger a disaster.
Before the race, we’d practiced deploying the spinnaker – with mixed results. (Among other snafus, I managed to nearly get myself knocked off the boat helping to jibe the spinnaker.) But, rounding Gail, we got our spinnaker flying with very little drama, and were soon making between 10 and 11 knots on our run back to Ventura Harbor.
Claude looks back to admire the swell.
Since the start of the race, the long, rolling swells pushing toward the shore had continued to build – and were now quite large: eight to ten feet from crest to trough. As it was a following sea, Sprit Decision was literally surfing the swells that came in under her stern. The sea, the ship, and the crew were in a great rhythm less than a mile to the finish – but it wouldn’t last.
Suddenly, as we neared the shore and shallower water, the perverse geometry of the sea came into play, and the swell began to fall off more precipitously. The wind was gusting as we were riding down one particularly large swell, and as Sprit Decision’s bow dipped dramatically – a gust of wind drove the spinnaker down toward the trough of the swell. The boat’s bow was pushed parallel to the rolling swell and the boat was listing heavily to starboard, its rail nearly in the water. In an instant, we were on the verge of getting knocked down and broached by the onrushing swell.
Michael, trimming the spinnaker, came close to a bath when we were nearly knocked down.
Quick work by all hands kept the ship from heeling over disastrously, but it was critical to de-power the spinnaker. (In other words, get the wind out of it, so it wouldn’t be driven into the water, taking us with it.) Alas, one of the spinnaker’s working sheets got hung up on deck cleat! You may not know what all that means – but the bottom line is that we were nearly knocked down a second time before we were able to free that spinnaker line, right the ship, and haul down the spinnaker. Of course, there are no photos of these wild and wooly moments. At times like that, it’s all hands on deck!
Twenty minutes later, we were across the finish line. It had been an exciting and satisfying first race of the season. I’m not sure where we finished – probably somewhere in the middle of the fleet – but it was a pure joy to survive the experience with Captains Moll and Weber and the gallant men of Sprit Decision.
And, best of all, with the wind as consistently stiff as it was – we finished at 2:00 pm. That’s two hours earlier than I told Victoria I’d be done! So, I got home earlier than expected.
A good start to the new sailing season, indeed.
What follows is a photo album from the race. All photos were taken on my iPhone — which, luckily, avoided going in the drink.
Captain George at the helm.
Claude, master of the foredeck.
Captain Tom consults the race rules. "Now, which platform is the mark? Gail or Gilda?"
Michael on the rail.
Darroch at the ready on the foredeck.
"So, George! Do you want us to fly the spinnaker now, or what?"