Tuesday, September 17, 2013

True North September 7 to 15: The Northern Channel Islands

The Channel Islands were a trip in themselves.  Regarded by many as challenging cruising due to frequent high winds and marginal anchorages, they were a very beautiful and scenic part of our trip.

Friday-Saturday, September 6 and 7 – Overnighter, Port San Luis to San Miguel Island

Finally, the weather forecast seemed reasonable for San Miguel Island (10-20 kts wind), so when Friday came we left the now familiar Port San Luis at 1915, near sunset. It would take 13 hours to reach Cuyler Harbor on the NE side of San Miguel Island. We planned to arrive early in daylight in case the winds made anchoring there too difficult and we might need to find another harbor or even retreat to Santa Barbara, several more hours east. The Port San Luis harbor was calm as we passed the San Luis Obispo Sailing charter boat on the way out.
Leaving Port San Luis at sunset
With only a light wind from astern, we motored out. Several hours into our passage the wind picked up considerably, gusting to 30 kts with rollers – six to eight foot seas make keeping the wind in your sails challenging! So we motored. The sky was clear during the first part of the evening, becoming foggier as the morning approached. We didn't see any wildlife on this leg until at last birds indicated we were close to land. As we entered the small harbor the winds picked up to 25 kts, and a thick fog prevented seeing any land at first.
Gregg while setting the anchor in Cuyler Harbor
Despite these conditions, the anchor set quite easily and firmly in sand. As the fog began to clear we could see the spectacular setting we were in: light sandy beach with giant dunes, hilly and large rocky land forms. A tourist catamaran was at the beach with a group of passengers hiking down the hillside as others walked along the beach. We wanted to go there, too, but it was too windy to safely launch the dinghy. Awhile later a sailboat arrived and stayed overnight. It was S/V Kemira as we learned when Ken and Michelle contacted us by radio the following morning to see how we “liked” the night in Cuyler Harbor! This was their 29th trip to the Channel Island from Santa Cruz, and they told us Cuyler Harbor is notorious for high winds (although usually protected from large waves). The wind hits the NW side of the island, lifts up over the hills, and then slams down into the harbor - right where we were anchored!
Cuyler Harbor after the fog lifted
All afternoon the wind had increased steadily, 20 kts, 30 kts, gusts of 40 kts. Stay or leave? Our 45 lb Rocna anchor was at the end of about 200' of chain in 25' of water, and it seemed to be very secure in the sand.  But we decided to take turns keeping an anchor watch through the night with the anchor drag alarm set as well. Wind was howling in the 40 kt range for a couple of hours after 2100 with a peak at 47.7 kts. Definitely a record high wind for us at anchor! Our Rocna anchor held fast. And this is the harbor “protected” from NW winds! It held our attention and when the wind finally subsided to the 30 kt range, we felt secure enough to let the anchor drag alarm do its job and both slept soundly through what was left of the night. We thought later that if we had been farther out in the harbor where Kemira was, we wouldn't have had such a direct hit of wind from the hills.

Sunday through Tuesday, September 8-10 – Santa Rosa Island

The following day, all was calm and sunny for a beautiful sail to Santa Rosa Island. We anchored on the south side at Johnson's Lee. The island looks very barren except for the scores of elephant seals along the rocks near the water. To find an anchorage, one must carefully make way through the kelp beds to find a clearing. S/V Kemira was also nearby. The water was warm enough at 68 degrees for Gregg to swim.
Gregg "trapped" in kelp
Finally, a really hot, relaxing day in the islands! We pulled out the salmon, fresh from Half Moon Bay, to enjoy a warm calm evening with a rising moon and Venus just above the hills.
Grilling salmon at Johnson's Lee anchorage
We stayed two nights at this anchorage before leaving to check out the next one Ken and Michelle recommended to us - Coches Prietas on the south side of Santa Cruz Island, with a wide sandy beach and dramatic rock formations. A favorite book for these star-filled, clear nights is, The Stars, by H.A. Rey. Check it out!

Wednesday through Friday, September 11-13 – Santa Cruz Island
Soon there were six sailboats in the anchorage. We've noticed that hardly any power boats have been in the area; all sailors. In the morning we tackled our first dinghy ride onto a beach over surf. This can be exciting if your timing is off! The recommened way to do it is to “ride in on the back of a wave, then go like hell. As soon as it's shallow enough for you and your crew to hop out, kill the engine, jump out, and charge to shore.” Speed is the key to success. We did it! Once ashore, we hiked to the top of a bluff for panoramic views of the anchorage below. Thinking of the rising tide with True Dink tied down at the beach, we sort of reversed the above procedure to get out over the surf, timing our exit with the outgoing waves.
Coches Prietas anchorage
Next stop: Little Scorpion anchorage, Santa Cruz Island. We spotted some unusual wildlife along the way, a pod of seals diving through the water just like dolphins!
Little Scorpion anchorage
This little anchorage is surrounded by rocky cave-like walls which gradually lead to bluffs and grassy hills above. Despite the seemingly barren bluffs above, the area below the water is teeming with life: blue sheepshead fish, gold garibaldi, anemones, sea urchins and abalone as we discovered on a dinghy ride close to the rocky shore in the clearest, blue water. We stayed three nights at this anchorage. One half of the island is managed by the Nature Conservancy, the other half is National Park with a visitors center, kayak rentals and lots of well-groomed hiking trails among the bluffs overlooking crystal clear coves and anchorages far below. We hiked to Potato Cove, one such overlook, and spotted an island fox along the way.
Island Fox pup, unique to Santa Cruz Island
Back at the boat, we went for a swim (wetsuit, thank you), with lots of others in the area kayaking, snorkeling, swimming, and generally having fun on the water. We had several very enjoyable visits with Kemira neighbors Ken and Michelle, to learn that Ken is extremely knowledgable about all aspects of outfitting sailboats for offshore sailing as this is one of his businesses, and was extremely helpful with good suggestions for us from in-mast/boom mainsails to BIG ground tackle. Kemira is a 49' Hylas, beautifully built and planned with double strength “everything” - "The Beast", as Ken calls it, but ready for anything a Santa Ana can dish out.
Ken and Michelle raise "The Beast's" anchor
Many of the anchorages in the Channel Islands require use of a stern anchor in order to accommodate multiple boats in small anchorages with potentially strong winds and rolly seas. (Unlike stern ties to trees and rocks in B.C. - no shoreline trees here.) The routine we worked out was to set the bow anchor, then bring the stern anchor in the dinghy an appropriate distance and drop it along with 30' of chain, let out the rest of the nylon rode as needed, return to the boat and set the bow snubber. Another 100' of bow chain with a different nylon rode attached will make this easier by eliminating the dinghy job. Instead, we will be able to reverse enough to drop the stern anchor from the boat, then take in the extra bow rode.
Gregg preparing the stern anchor
After a full week in the Channel Islands, we spent a last rolly night at Pelican Bay – it wasn't supposed to be rolly here.
Pelican Bay
It was an active place with four sailboats and one power boater, all quite friendly, and two sailboats proceeding to Mexico for the winter. Contact info was exchanged! Truly a warm day with swimming (no wetsuit!), snorkeling (Gregg saw a “ray”), kayaking...the usual activities. Next stop, Santa Barbara and shore amenities!

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