Late Santa Ana winds — signal climate change.
Really, we don’t know … for sure. But all of us local sailors know that Santa Ana winds can be expected November through April. That would mean the ones we went through a few weeks ago should have been the last until Thanksgiving. But anyone looking at the forecast here in mid-May knows that there are more a-comin’
A few quick lessons on film
We set out for some advanced coastal cruising training the last week of April. The students wanted to do some night sailing and wanted to be trained in heavy weather tactics. As usual, we learned some lessons alongside our students.
A rude awakening in Forneys Cove
Getting into Forneys was far more challenging than usual. We had winds out of the west at 30+ which kicked the seas up to 10 feet or so. Fagan says stay out of Forneys in these conditions, but our alternative was a ride back to Smugglers, where we’d started the day. It was a four-day trip and this was day two. Forneys made some sense. So, we headed south from Fraser point, which protects Forneys from west wind and swell, trying to get around the Potato Patch. In retrospect, we should have gone a mile or so farther south. As it was, we turned downwind/downsea in some waves that were shoaling up in vicinity of 15′. Close interval, snarly as hell. Just ugly. Already reefed down, we’d decided to get the sails out of the way entirely to avoid a probable gybe on the turn into the cove. And under power, we were able to control our speed and avoid surfing. Nevertheless, we made a fairly spectacular entry into the cove. Expecting snotty conditions based on Fagan, we were surprised to be spit out into flat water – not glassy, but not particularly ruffled – and winds of 10 knots. Had we caught the old sea pirate in an error? It was a new moon and we arrived at low tide. When the tide rose six feet or so around midnight, the swell came breaking over the reef. It wasn’t dangerous, but the rolling was fairly violent and sleep was hard to find.
Santa Ana pays a call
We’d spent quite a bit of time briefing the crew during the day on local weather phenomena, describing the early symptoms of Santa Ana: low humidity (dry decks), unusually high temperature, crystal-clear visibility, building chop. Maybe a hint of offshore wind. I was lying awake just after dawn when the crew made his weather report, ending with “The wind is light but shifting, and It feels like a hair dryer out there.” Everyone jumped to their stations and we were underway in about 10 minutes, which is a good trick with an anchor snubber rigged. The wind was pushing past 20 as we cleared the lee shore. It didn’t feel like an emergency, but if we’d waited another 10 or 20 minutes, it would have been. Somewhere around 40 knots of wind and Sancerre becomes reluctant to stay into the wind. Anchor retrieval becomes questionable. If it gets to around 50 knots, and we simply must get out, we’d tie a float to bitter end of the anchor rode and jettison the whole thing for later retrieval. If we get caught in Alberts, Willows or another place that we’re likely to have both bow and stern hooks in place, the decision to leave one behind happens a lot quicker as you’re only 50 meters from the cliff face from the get-go.
Fagan reports that he almost lost his boat in Santa Ana winds in Forneys when the wind whipped up to 45 knots. Another dock mate of ours reported that two urchin fishermen did lose their boats, scared their dogs and had to be rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter. Dogs included.
Night sail to Smugglers … almost
The night sail was uneventful. Actually, it was beautiful. A Carl Sagan kind of night. In the interests of training, we scheduled two hour watches so that everyone could have the thrill of going to bed tired, waking up a tad more tired, standing watch and again and then staying up all day. The lesson, of course, is to manage sleep as closely as you manage your batteries, fuel and water. We sailed the coast in variable winds. Team B had 20 knots – give or take – and two lovely romps on a broad reach, while my Team A saw nothing but light and variable. Coming around Sandstone Point at the southeastern end of Santa Cruz, the wind picked up and warmed up. The visibility was unrestricted, the decks were dry …. and Smugglers became a very unattractive place to anchor. We headed east, hoping to get to Oxnard before the looming Santa Ana showed up. We didn’t make it. We shot by Cat Rock, supposedly a Santa Ana refuge, and headed to Potato Harbor in almost 50 knots of following wind. We were making 9 knots on a piece of main smaller than my Speedos. The wind was so strong that it created a venturi-like force that lifted the water in a powerful spray, creating an occasional rainbow. Potato was better than being in the open, but the wind was coming over the north cliff and pounding down into the harbor. There’s not a lot of room to swing in there, and we elected to try China Bay.
China Bay has been cited as an eastwind refuge for more than 100 years, and we’ve never been disappointed when we hunkered down there. We were comfortably anchored, had enough food, water and fuel to hole up for several days, and that’s just want the forecast said we were likely to do. Not wanting to hear a Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan with our name following, we called Coast Guard Sector LA to head off an overdue report from our families. They called our homes, told them we were likely to be late, maybe a couple of days late, but that we were safe. As it turned out, the wind died at dusk, shifted to the west and we had another pleasant sail under an incredibly starry sky and arrived home only a few hours after our original schedule.