(At least that was the plan.)
We had now come to the part of the trip that caused us the greatest anxiety, the part that would take us around Point Conception.
Point Conception, and to a slightly lesser extent, Point Arguello, are characterized by the sailors of the area as the Cape Hope of the Pacific an area of extreme weather to include high winds, waves, fog, and generally unfavorable boating conditions. At every chance, we had queried sailors on the ways of passage through this area. Our answers were as varied as the assortment of yachters, fishermen, day sailors, etc that we asked about Point Conception. The general answer seemed to be that it'll either be rough or calm, and that luck will be the determining factor in making the passage. We learned that winds were the largest factor influencing the area, owing largely to the shape of the peninsula and its venturi effects on the prevailing winds. It was suggested to us that we listen closely to the wind reports on the NOAA weather broadcasts and base any decision on passage on what we heard.
Thursday evening, in a chat with a sailor moored next to us in Santa Barbara, a man who said he's sailed the area many times, we were told that if we were going to go, that Friday would be the best time to do so as the weather was going to move in for the next couple of days, making passage difficult as best.
Early on the morning of June 9, 2000, about 6:00 AM, we departed our slip at the Santa Barbara Marina with the intent of making it to Morro Bay (some 80+ nautical miles) by night fall. NOAA radio reported that winds and waves in the vicinity of Point Conception and Point Arguello were forecast to increase to 15-25 knots and 9-12 feet, respectively, by the late afternoon, and our early departure was to get us past those two points before that happened. At a projected speed of 8 knots, we expected to make Pt. Conception (40nm) by 11:00 AM, and Pt. Arguello (12nm) by 12:30 PM. After making it past these two notorious points, we could expect 15 knot winds and 6 foot waves to accompany us the rest of the way to Morro Bay, well within the range of weather we had already experienced.
The weather leaving Santa Barbara was absolutely beautiful calm winds, smooth seas, and a clear warming air to accompany us on our journey. While this had a general salving effect on our anxiety, it didn't dispel it all together Point Conception loomed on the horizon and NOAA radio was reporting 7 foot waves already. We moved to a location that generally had us 2-3 miles off shore, going just outside of the Hondo oil rig and just inside Heritage as we proceeded to the Point following a GPS course.
As we approached and passed Hondo (about 9:30 - 10:00 AM), the wind and waves began to build from what had been an otherwise calm and uneventful trip. As we drew closer to the Point, they continued to build. The weather was not as bad as that which we experienced going into Ventura, but we hadn't reached the Point yet, and our concerns about the coming passage caused us greater anxiety about what we could expect if we did continue the trip. We had devised a backup plan in the event Conception became too difficult that would have us anchoring at the Cojo Anchorage on the east side of Pt. Conception. (Cojo is a protected anchorage (protected from waves, not wind) that many boaters use to wait out bad weather prior to passage around the point.) With the waves building to uncomfortable heights, we elected to excercise the backup option and changed course to Cojo.
Pulling into the Cojo Anchorage the waves dimished as expected, though it
still remained quite windy (also as expected). Following the advise in our Charlie's
Chart Guide, we sought out an anchorage close to the culvert in about 30 feet of
water. For the first time since owning the boat, and really one of the few times
I've ever done so, I dropped the anchor off the bow. The anchor rode on O'Baby!!
consists of approximately 65' of 5/16
chain, and 490' of 3/4 nylon line. I
played out all the chain and about 100-150' of line in an attempt to get a scope of about
8:1. Unfortunately, the anchor didn't set on the first attempt and all that rode had
to be hauled in by hand (it's easier than using the manual windlass I found, though that's
not much consolation). After getting the ground tackle back on the boat, we motored
in to about 25' of water (still some ways from the shore), dropped the anchor, played out
the rode, and got a good set on the anchor this time. We then settled in for the
night, keeping an achor watch going, doing minor repairs (to the forward bilge pump) and
generally readying the boat for an anticipated passage in the morning (weather
The winds finally settled down at around 12:30 AM and it was an absolutely beautiful, star filled night. (I love looking at the sky in those conditions.) The brightly lit oil rigs glowed on the horizon, two rig tenders joined us in the anchorage, tied up to their mooring bouys, and we all settled down for a very peaceful night. This was just too cool!
The sky began to lighten on what promised to be another beautiful day at
around 4:30 AM. We looked out and saw that the seas looked flat and that our two
companions (the oil rig tenders) were still tied up at their moorings. Debbie and I got up
and began to prepare to weigh anchor and cross the Rubicon that are Points Conception and
Arguello. From our perspective it looked like it would be an easy crossing, though NOAA
radio reported that swells were in the 7-8' size already. The weather radio reported
we could expect conditions to get windier and wavier as the afternoon progressed, so we
figured the best time to go was now and beat the
With all our preparations made, we weighed anchor and began to make our way out to the open seas for our crossing of Point Conception, and thence Point Arguello. Our course took us almost directly west so as to clear all the land obstacles associated with Conception. As we made our way out into open ocean, the seas began to build. At first they weren't any worse than we had experienced in earlier legs of the trips, big choppy waves that bounced the boat around a bit. But soon the waves built to heights and a choppiness that we had not experienced yet. The canvas framework on the flybridge came apart in a couple of areas with missing or loose set-screws, the instrument cluster and compass were bouncing in their mounts (not screwed down), and Debbie and I were holding on with each crash of the boat as it crested a wave. While it was a rough ride, the boat seemed to be handling it pretty well, so we motored on, knowing that things would clear up in about 12 miles after rounding Point Arguello.
At a position about half way through our trip between the two points, we became aware that our bow pulpit was bouncing up and down with the waves. We watched it for a bit until we saw the anchor come loose from one of its clamps. This was a potentially bad thing, as the anchor now was swinging on the bow and if the other clamp were to let loose, the anchor would drop. I donned my life-jacket and prepared to go down and forward to secure the anchor as Debbie kept us on course. As I passed through the cabin toward the bow, I glanced in the V-berth and saw that we had approximately four feet of water in there.
This was an interesting thing to see, like looking at a built in swimming
pool. It took a moment for the severity of the issue to strike (I looked at it with
amazement, not really registering the danger at first), but when it did I rushed to the
flybridge and yelled for Debbie to get her life-jacket on (
We've got four feet of
water in the V-berth!
). Debbie gave me the helm, and moved aft to get her
life-jacket. Right at that moment the boat pitched with the seas and Debbie was
tossed across the deck, sliding into a helm chair. (We found out later that Debbie broke
her left hand in this incident.)
At this point we weighed our options and decided that we'd better head for
shore (we were about five miles off at this time) and picked up the radio and called the
MAYDAY, MAYDAY,MAYDAY! This is the motor vessel O'Baby, five miles off shore
between Point Conception and Point Arguello. We're taking on water! (audio below)
The Coast Guard responded right away with questions gauging our position and the severity of the
moment. We gave them what information we could, informed them that we were heading
toward shore and shallower water. The Coast Guard called on the oil rig tender that we had
shared an anchorage with the previous night (Mr. Clean III), the closest vessel to our
position and sent him to keep an eye on us (and undoubtedly, to pluck us out of the water
if it came to that).
Debbie took the helm and kept us on a course toward shore while I went below to ascertain what could be done about the situation. The water was deep in the forward (V-berth) and center rooms, but largely OK in the engine room. None of the three bilge pumps on board appeared to be working, though it was hard to tell in the pitching seas. The water appeared to be coming in through the chain locker, which drained into the V-berth. It was getting into the chain locker via the bow pulpit. Each time a wave lifted the bow pulpit, the water cascaded into the chain locker, and thence to the rest of the boat. After identifying the source of the water, we made some speed changes in a largely successful attempt to keep more water from coming in.
Heading toward shore put us in a position of being perpendicular to the building winds. With the large surface area of the boat, the waves coming at us from the side, and the water in the bilge, we developed quite a list to port - so much so that I began to worry about us capsizing. Debbie and I didn't express our worries to each other, though, we were too involved with trying to save the boat. I'd come up on the flybridge during this time to see that Debbie had strapped her purse across her chest, as well as the handheld radio. I recognized it for what it was - she wanted to have some means of survival if we did go into the water and make it to land. Good idea I quitely thought, and grabbed my cash and wallet next time I went through the cabin.
While Debbie motored us toward shore, I grabbed a five gallon bucket and bagan bailing the front of the boat out. I did this for the half hour, or so, of time it took us to get close to shore.Mr. Clean III came into view as we approached shore. We contacted them by radio, let them know that our intentions were to get into calmer waters and anchor, whereas we would then bail the boat out. Mr. Clean III suggested some areas to anchor, based on the quality of the sea bottom, and we headed to one of those areas.
In about 30-35' of water, we made the first attempt to drop anchor. The winds were very intense by this time, 20-25 knots, but fortunately the waves were only about 4-5 feet. The anchor was dropped, the line played out, and DAMN!, it wouldn't set. More line was played out trying to get a better scope, but nothing worked. In the time spent trying to set the anchor we had drifted almost a mile, on a course that took us closer to shore. So we hauled the anchor up (a herculean task, for sure) and motored to a spot being occupied by Mr. Clean III and reported as having a good sandy bottom, plus an off-shore flow that would keep us from drifting toward the beach. We put the boat in about 25' of water, played out a scope of about 15:1 and got a good set on the anchor. Phew!!
The next hour was spent ensuring that we were set, ascertaining the condition of the boat and the likelyhood she would remain afloat, and communicating with Mr. Clean III and the Coast Guard on our intentions (to bail her out). The worst of the crisis was over and Mr. Clean III departed back to the safety of his anchorage.
Debbie and I spent the next 10 hours bailing the boat out, one five gallon bucket at a time (she was very brave about this, with her broken hand and all). We finally got the water level below the floorboards and relaxed a bit. Not a lot mind you - during this time period the winds had picked up to gale force, and we were suddenly in the middle of a raging storm. (On the Force 1 to Force 12 Beaufort Scale, Debbie and I both guessed we were in Force 8 conditions.) We both kept an eye on our position, via shoreline reference and GPS anchor alarm to ensure we weren't drifting too much (about 300-400 feet throughout the storm). In the interim, I went to work on the bilge pumps, managing to get two of the three working and dropping the water level a bit lower. Before the night was over though, one of the two quit and we were left with only one bilge pump, but by now the crisis was over.
We were in our achorage by about 10:00 AM, bailed till about 5 or 6:00 PM, and weathered the storm till it petered out around 2:30-3:00 AM. Needless to say, there wasn't much sleep had that night.
In the morning, with calm looking conditions, we made the reluctant decision to continue north, as our next stop, Morro Bay, was closer than going back to Santa Barbara. We hugged the coastline going around Point Arguello and almost immediately got into heavy seas again. Mutually deciding we didn't want to go through this again, we turned around headed back to the relative calm of our previous anchorage. Still, we couldn't stay out here, so we decided to follow the coastline back around Point Conception and take the boat back to Santa Barbara.
The boat seemed to take the following seas a bit better than it did hitting the waves head on, so our trip back around Conception, while in big seas, wasn't nearly as tramatic. We passed around Point Conception, watching the waves break off the rocks off shore for what appeared to be 100' high. But we were doing fine, wallowing around in the following seas, but heading in the right direction. We didn't have to get far past Point Conception before the seas totally calmed down and the rest of our trip back to Santa Barbara was warm and pleasant. Five or six hours later, we were in a berth in Santa Barbara and our sea journey for the week was over. All that was left to do was the cleanup (this took almost two days) and the preparations to leave the boat for a couple of weeks till we could attempt the Points again.
Stay tuned, we'll make it yet.