So we headed to Santa Barbara this past Saturday for an afternoon sail on a J24. The forecast promised winds of 10-15 knots and a small craft advisory was in effect for the afternoon. I was stoked. After my last visit which was a major downer due to winds so light that motor sailing wasn’t even an option, I was pumped.
We’d opted to charter the boat with a captain as I wasn’t entirely sure if the J boats had an outboard and given how tiny the marina is, I wasn’t wholly confident in my, and my crew’s, ability to sail into the dock. I’m glad we chose not to go it alone.
While the winds didn’t get to the levels promised in the forecast, except for some powerful, but short-lived, gusts that were definitely around 15 kts if not more, they were the most bizarre wind conditions I’d ever experienced.
As we’d only booked a four-hour sail, we didn’t plan on going too far offshore, though we’d have loved to sail to the oil rigs on the horizon. Our captain thought it best we stay closer inland in case the wind died. Our outboard was all of 2 horsepower. I think I could have paddled faster. I’m glad we didn’t have to use it for more than two minutes.
Anyway… At around 3 p.m., the time of the promised small craft advisory going into effect, the winds did pick up from their comfortable 5-7 kt range. But they weren’t consistent. So we’d be going at a good clip and all of a sudden the wind would die out and we’d have to re-trim our sails.
At a certain point things got so odd that it was impossible to find the wind for more than 30 seconds. We’d be head into wind, and the next moment we’d almost be in a run and the next we’d have no wind. We had a rather unfortunate accidental tack and jibe all within a matter of seconds when our wind completely tanked as our boat speed was in excess of 5 kts, and came at us from another direction. I was completely surprised and was mortified to think that the captain would see me as a novice helmsperson, when I had no idea what the heck was going on. (He later assured me this was not normal wind.)
About a half hour later almost the same thing happened, except that I noticed the rapid change in temperature and was able to grab the mainsheet before the boat stalled out. We had a cool wind that immediately changed to a warm, humid, light breeze, which told me that something was going to happen. Fast. And as we sat there in this cone of warmth, our wind indicator spinning in 360 degree circles, we noticed that just a few feet ahead the wind was blowing. Clearly we were having some interesting low pressure/high pressure fronts meeting, causing these bizarre conditions.
We opted to sail back to the marina and the captain thought it would be great to go in under sail to the dock. But as we were heading back to the marina (still encountering odd pockets of wind-free zones), the wind started gusting. One minute we’d be sailing comfortably, the next minute our rails were in the water, the next we’d be upright. Having to trim as often as we were to relieve weather helm and then to trim in to optimize sailing, we should probably have opted to go on motor as we made that final turn.
But our captain decided to chance it. And after six rather quick tacks, which were getting shorter and shorter, and bringing us closer and closer to potentially running aground in the shallow area that was in need of dredging, he quickly released the jib, pulled it in, turned on the motor, and dropped the main while I managed to do a final tack to get us to some slightly deeper waters in the center of the channel. What. A. Rush.
Like I said, thankfully I wasn’t the captain, as I probably would have freaked out myself and my crew. Of course if I was the captain, I would have opted to go in under motor.
Docking did not go entirely smoothly due to miscommunication about where we were docking, and then a change in the wind that caused us to blow away from the dock versus onto the dock which was its direction when we started our approach. So we opted for a new side tie on a dock that was downwind and while the captain made a rather large leap from boat to dock, it wasn’t necessary as we would have been blown in with the next gust.
I guess you could say all’s well that ends well. But after two rather odd sailing experiences in Santa Barbara (the first involved light wind, rolling swells and a passenger who immediately lost his breakfast on the thankfully light wind windward side of the boat), and much navigating away from the umpteen lobster pots peppered in the waters outside the marina/harbor, I am not counting it as one of my favorite places to sail. But I’m not counting it out just yet.
Hopefully in the near-ish future I’ll charter a boat and head to one of the nearby islands – Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Anacapa, or San Miguel – and stay over for the night. But day sailing there has yet to wow me as much as day sailing in Santa Monica Bay.
Pluses: Gorgeous views, entertaining captain, awesome boat – those J boats sail nice and have fantastic rudder control – proximity to nearby Channel Islands, Brophy Bros.
Minuses: Lobster pots, small and tightly-packed marina, unpredictable wind.
And yes, that post-sail picture of the marina with those innocuous clouds and seemingly non-existent breeze, makes it seem like it was a perfect day on the water. Fun, yes. Quirky, definitely. Perfect, not even close.