A cruis­ing cou­ple sails down the foggy West Coast in search of warm weather and sun­shine


The win­ter of 2016-17 was one of the cold­est on record in south­ern Bri­tish Columbia. In June 2016 we had sailed across from Hawaii to Sitka in south­east Alaska aboard Dis­tant Drum­mer, our Lib­erty 458. After en­joy­ing a sum­mer of leisurely cruis­ing through the In­side Pas­sage in Alaska and Bri­tish Columbia, we reached Ca­noe Cove on Van­cou­ver Is­land where we had de­cided to haul out for the win­ter. We lived aboard all through that win­ter, and as we shov­elled snow off the decks and slith­ered across the ice to the wash­rooms, it was dreams of hot sunny Cal­i­for­nia days that kept us go­ing. We were wait­ing for a big fat high to set­tle in the north­east Pa­cific to give us a steady northerly wind for the pas­sage south. Our plan was to spend the sum­mer fol­low­ing the sun south­wards down the Cal­i­for­nia coast.


Fog is a sum­mer­time haz­ard in the Pa­cific North­west. We en­coun­tered it in Alaska and Bri­tish Columbia, and it would con­tinue to plague us all the way down through north­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

After spend­ing a glo­ri­ous spring cruis­ing in the Puget Sound and the Strait of Ge­or­gia, we re-en­tered the United States at Port Angeles on the Olympic Penin­sula. It was a crisp, bright morn­ing when we left Ca­noe Cove in Bri­tish Columbia, but we ar­rived at Port Angeles in fog so thick we could not see the light­house at the end of the sand­spit al­though we passed it only 300ft away. The low-fre­quency foghorn blasts of the ships in the Strait of Juan de Fuca sounded bovine and mourn­ful as we passed them in the murk.

Our last stop be­fore leav­ing the Strait of Juan de Fuca was Neah Bay, part of the Makah Amer­i­can In­dian Reser­va­tion. It is the site of the Ozette Vil­lage, which was buried by a mud­slide in 1560. Noth­ing was known of the vil­lage un­til a storm in 1970 ex­posed some of its re­mains and ar­chae­ol­o­gists have since un­cov­ered six long houses. The story and nu­mer­ous arte­facts are dis­played in the Makah Mu­seum in the vil­lage.

Boats head­ing south tend to gather here to re­fuel, dis­cuss weather and route plan­ning, and to wait for the right weather to leave. There are two strate­gies for head­ing south: the in­shore route is prone to coastal haz­ards such as crab pots, fog and heavy ship­ping, but gives you the op­por­tu­nity to visit ports in Wash­ing­ton and Ore­gon along the way. The off­shore route, stay­ing 60 to 100 miles off the coast, is the faster pas­sage; it has stronger winds and higher seas but adds ex­tra miles to the voy­age.

Many har­bors on the Wash­ing­ton coast have bar en­trances that are treach­er­ous when a big Pa­cific swell rolls in from the west. We were in­ter­ested in vis­it­ing some of th­ese ports, but they are of­ten closed dur­ing bad weather and it’s not un­com­mon to be locked in for sev­eral days. We were keen to see some of that Cal­i­for­nia sun­shine, so we rounded Cape Flat­tery and headed off­shore.

For the first cou­ple of days of the pas­sage we had per­fect sail­ing con­di­tions; we were 60 miles out, en­joy­ing glo­ri­ous sun­shine and a 15 to 20-knot northerly breeze, and mak­ing good time. It was not to last; soon a small low brought head­winds, then calm, then more fog. Four days into the pas­sage we were ap­proach­ing Cape Men­do­cino, which has a very bad rep­u­ta­tion, and gales were fore­cast. We de­cided to sit out the bad weather in Cres­cent City, a town ly­ing just south of the Ore­gon bor­der. It was our first land­fall in Cal­i­for­nia. We an­chored in­side the break­wa­ter off the river mouth. There was not much swell in the an­chor­age, but we were still buf­feted by the northerly winds.

Cres­cent City was es­tab­lished in the 1850s dur­ing the Cal­i­for­nia gold rush and must have been a won­der­fully deca­dent and de­bauched place back then. In 1964 it was dev­as­tated by a tsunami, and it seems to have been in de­cline ever since. Vis­it­ing the Bat­tery Point light­house was a trip back in time, and from the top we had a stun­ning view of the rocky shore­line north­wards up the coast. Just a short bus ride in­land lie the north­ern­most forests of Cal­i­for­nia Red­woods. Th­ese mag­nif­i­cent trees grow over 200ft tall and more than 20ft in di­am­e­ter. Wan­der­ing among them with the sun­light pierc­ing through the canopy was quite a spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ence.

After wait­ing a week for a break in the strong to gale-force norther­lies, we fi­nally opted to mo­tor­sail around Cape Men­do­cino in light southerly head­winds but with the favourable south-set­ting Cal­i­for­nia Cur­rent. We en­joyed the com­pany of pods of dol­phins and watched hump­back whales breach­ing as we passed un­der the Golden Gate bridge. Un­for­tu­nately it was foggy, so we were un­able to ap­pre­ci­ate the spec­tac­u­lar en­trance into San Fran­cisco Bay it­self. Still, we were glad to drop the an­chor in Richard­son Bay off the Sausal­ito wa­ter­front and spend a few days un­wind­ing.


The weather in the cen­ter of the bay—an area known lo­cally as the Slot—is de­ter­mined by the in­land low-pres­sure sys­tems crated by the very high tem­per­a­tures in the Cen­tral Val­ley. In the morn­ing as the land heats up fog is sucked through the Slot, bil­low­ing in un­der the Gate and rolling over the Sausal­ito hills. In the after­noons as tem­per­a­tures in­land soar the pre­vail­ing off­shore winds are drawn into the Bay giv­ing a strong, chilly west­erly breeze.

Al­though Richard­son Bay is huge, its av­er­age depth is only about 5ft mak­ing it in­ac­ces­si­ble to most cruis­ing sail­boats. Vis­it­ing cruis­ers usu­ally drop the pick close to the en­trance where they are ex­posed to swell from across the Bay, boat traf­fic from Belvedere and the af­ter­noon sea

breeze, all of which con­trib­ute to make it a fairly rolly an­chor­age. As com­pen­sa­tion, the view is quite in­cred­i­ble; Sausal­ito, Al­ca­traz Is­land and the Golden Gate Bridge are close by, with the San Fran­cisco wa­ter­front, the Bay Bridge and Trea­sure Is­land in the back­ground.

After a week of sight-see­ing in San Fran­cisco we were sa­ti­ated and in need of a rest. One of the best ways to get away from it all in the Bay Area is a cruise up “the Delta,” where the Sacra­mento and San Joachim rivers drain into the north­ern end of San Fran­cisco Bay form­ing a nest of flat windswept is­lands and shal­low muddy chan­nels. With shift­ing sand bars and strong winds and tides, it helps to have some lo­cal knowl­edge. We set off for a long week­end ex­plor­ing the Delta, buddy-boat­ing with seasoned Bay sailors Sylvia and Barry on Iolani, a Hughes 48 yawl.

We an­chored for the first night at China Camp, a cove on the south­west side of San Pablo Bay that was set­tled by Chi­nese shrimp­fish­er­men in the 1880s. Fol­low­ing the 1906 earth­quake the pop­u­la­tion swelled as res­i­dents from Chi­na­town fled the devastation, but now the set­tle­ment is un­in­hab­ited and is a na­tional park. The an­chor­age is shel­tered from the strong tidal cur­rents that sweep much of the Bay area, but is ex­posed to the wind. Dur­ing the night the breeze swung round to the north, and in one par­tic­u­larly strong gust we dragged over 600ft be­fore the an­chor de­cided to re­set. We were glad it was a wide shelf with few other boats around!

Find­ing a balance be­tween the wind and the tides for a pas­sage up the Sacra­mento River makes the dif­fer­ence be­tween having a fan­tas­tic sail or a slow bumpy ride. With a flood tide and a 15 knot west­erly wind we had a fab­u­lous sail through the Car­quinez Strait and past the mouth of the Napa River. We held our breath as we passed un­der the rail­way bridge at Beni­cia (charted at 70ft ver­ti­cal clear­ance at HHW) and then en­tered Suisun Bay where we sailed amongst the “moth­ball fleet,” a col­lec­tion of WWII warships that forms part of the Na­tional Defence Re­serve Fleet.

About eight of the ves­sels re­main at Suisun. It was fas­ci­nat­ing to sail among th­ese old relics of former glory.

After pass­ing by Pitts­burgh, we an­chored in a me­an­der of the river be­hind Delta Is­land. The en­trance to the an­chor­age is very shal­low, so much so that we touched the muddy bot­tom sev­eral times. How­ever, the chan­nel deepened again as we got fur­ther in, and we fi­nally set the pick in 18ft. The next day we mo­tored through Three Mile Slough, a sin­u­ous, nar­row wa­ter­way that con­nects the Sacra­mento River to the San Joachim River, then hoisted the sails in the main chan­nel and had a leisurely trip up to Potato Slough against the ebbing tide.

Potato Slough is made up of a num­ber of chan­nel loops known as “the dor­mi­to­ries,” and we en­joyed pad­dling our in­flat­able kayak around the is­lands and chan­nels, pok­ing in amongst the reeds and watch­ing the cor­morants roost­ing in the trees. The wa­ter was warm enough to swim and fresh enough to serve as a shower too—was this sum­mer at last? We dinghied around to the Pi­rates Lair, a small ma­rina and pub that is a pop­u­lar haunt for sailors; it was a treat to prop up the bar and have a chat to some of the lo­cals.

We left the delta early in the morn­ing, motoring against a flood tide in or­der to pass through the Car­quinez Strait on the early ebb tide but be­fore the west­erly winds kicked mak­ing the wa­ter in the strait very choppy. After that we mo­tor­sailed across San Pablo Bay into the af­ter­noon sea breeze and spent the last night of our delta ex­pe­di­tion at an­chor in Paradise Bay be­fore re­turn­ing to Sausal­ito the next day.


Mark Twain once said, “The cold­est win­ter I ever spent was a sum­mer in San Fran­cisco.” It was mid-sum­mer, but we still had not reached the warm wa­ter and sun-drenched beaches we had been dream­ing about— we needed to keep mov­ing south. San Fran­cisco to Half Moon Bay is an easy day sail and a con­ve­nient place to overnight on the way down the coast. We tucked in be­hind the break­wa­ter at Pil­lar Point and took a walk along the clifftop, en­joy­ing great views of the har­bor, the ocean and Mav­er­icks, the world-fa­mous big wave surf break.

Leav­ing Half Moon Bay we dodged the crab pots that are a con­stant haz­ard in the coastal waters of Cal­i­for­nia, and which we al­ways kept a care­ful look­out for out un­til we reach a depth of about 300ft. A light north­west­erly breeze filled in dur­ing the af­ter­noon and we had a pleas­ant sail to Santa Cruz, ar­riv­ing just be­fore sun­set.

It’s pos­si­ble to an­chor on ei­ther side of the pier, and the bay is calm and well pro­tected, but the noisy bark­ing and grunt­ing from the sea lion colony un­der the pier does tend to dis­turb the peace. Santa Cruz is a won­der­fully, shame­lessly tacky place full of fair­ground kitsch. The pier and the amuse­ment park on the board­walk are a huge tourist

draw, but most of the crowds were on the beach en­joy­ing a warm sum-mer day. The only down­side to an­chor­ing at Santa Cruz was the diffi-culty of get­ting ashore. The pub­lic land­ing on the pier is the only place to tie up a dinghy but it is not very se­cure, is sub­ject to some swell and is of­ten clut­tered with sea lions.

Next day we crossed the bay to Monterey and dropped the pick in the har­bor to the east of Fish­er­man's Wharf.The an­chor­age is ex­posed to winds from the north, but luck­ily it was light and from the west-south-west so we en­joyed a calm night. Monterey was a cen­ter for sar­dine-pack­ing un­til the in­dus­try col­lapsed in the 1950s due to over-fish­ing.

We strolled past the old can­ning fac­to­ries on Can­nery Row, now con­verted into trendy shops and restaurants, but de­cided not to pay the breathtaking price for a ticket into the aquar­ium, as we prob­a­bly see most of the ex­hibits from our back deck. The den­sity and di­ver­sity of sea mam-mals off the coast of Cal­i­for­nia is re­mark­able. Hump­back whales, dol­phins and por­poises are of­ten around when we are sail­ing off­shore. In the har-- bors, seals, sea lions and sea ot­ters are a con­stant source of entertainment.

The overnight pas­sage from Monterey to Morro Bay around Point Sur was a rip-roar­ing sail, with a 6ft swell and winds gust­ing over 40 knots on the star­board beam. We rolled in the head­sail and put three reefs in the main but were still rac­ing along at 7-8 knots—that’s fast for us! As dawn broke we saw that we had split a seam close to the top of the main­sail, which had to be hand-sewn once we reached Morro Bay. To­ward noon we rounded Morro Rock, the su­gar­loaf moun­tain that marks the en­trance to the bay, and dropped an­chor be­hind the sand spit in beau­ti­fully calm wa­ter.

A colony of sea ot­ters lives in Morro Bay at the foot of the Rock close to the an­chor­age. Through­out the 19th cen­tury sea ot­ters were hunted almost to ex­tinc­tion in the Pa­cific North­west, but a small colony of 30 sur­vived at San Luis Obispo, and the group in Morro Bay are their de­scen­dants. It was great fun to watch them go­ing about their busi­ness in the still wa­ter of the bay, their bod­ies sleek and sin­u­ous as they dive then sur­face clutch­ing a clam and a rock. Their furry, whiskered faces seem to con­cen­trate as they hit the clam with the rock to open it, then eat it and do it all over again.


Point Con­cep­tion is the head­land that marks the bound­ary be­tween the mostly north­west-south­east trend­ing coast in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia and the east-west trend­ing coast of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. It is an­other cape with a bad rep­u­ta­tion for strong winds and rough seas, but we had a beau­ti­ful sail with a 15-20 knot breeze in smooth seas. We rounded the Point and an­chored for the night at Cojo An­chor­age, a small cove just be­hind Point Con­cep­tion with a fan­tas­tic view of the light­house.

From Cojo it was a day-sail to Santa Bar­bara, where we dropped an­chor east of Stearn’s Wharf in 15-30ft of wa­ter. Santa Bar­bara is known as the “Amer­i­can Riviera;” the Span­ish-style build­ings, the long sandy beach and the warm sunny cli­mate do give the city a Mediter­ranean feel. Sun­shine and blue sea, palm trees and beach volley ball—it was just like a Cal­i­for­nian post­card. We had fi­nally made it to the sun. s

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