Although we have already technically entered into the fall season, here in Southern California we are guaranteed a few extra weeks of the warm summer sun. We decided to make the most of our fleeting opportunities to sail to the islands by inviting my family on a weekend trip to Santa Cruz Island – which would also be their very first time staying while at anchor. Going into this, Chris and I definitely had some concerns regarding my family staying aboard and did our best to rationalize what we could and could not control. Comfort-wise, I created a very well put together welcome basket that included candy, reading materials, a menu, and itinerary for the weekend as well as some Dramamine which was much appreciated by my mom. We had been watching the forecast closely and cross-checked all of our sources which led us to the conclusion that Saturday would be the windiest of our days on Santa Cruz in contrast to the two gorgeous days forecasted during our trip. Personally, we had no concerns regarding the wind; Afterall, we completely trust our boat and Rocna anchor. After a “rules and safety chat,” we were ready to cast off for a very memorable weekend.
At the early hours of 5:30 a.m., we were greeted with 15-knots of wind, allowing us to raise our sails and cut the engine as we cleared the breakwater. It was Friday morning, and my sleepy eyes hid behind my glasses while I continued to layer in warm clothes before crawling into the cockpit. Chris handed me a spotlight that I gripped with cold hands as I took my position on deck looking for crab pots as we cleared the Ventura Harbor Breakwater. We had stayed the night prior in Ventura since it was a direct course to Prisoners’ Harbor, which was the first destination of our weekend adventure. The twinkling lights of downtown Ventura glistened in the distance, reaching up until they met the stars at the horizon line.
“Avocet, Avocet, Avocet, this is ValHowell, do you copy?” Around sun up, we were greeted by our dear friends Alan and Elizabeth Howell sailing alongside us in their beautiful, dark hulled 2018 Beneteau Sense 51, named “ValHowell,” a very clever play on words.ValHowell is a stunning vessel inside and out. We often make the joke that there is a button for everything – but all jokes aside, we aren’t kidding. For example: with a press of a button, the dinette transforms into a home theater, complete with a 30 inch flat-screen TV. This just so happens to be our favorite feature aboard, secondly to the luxurious cockpit with a sliding bimini top. “Valhowell, this is Avocet, go ahead”. My dad, Mike, and brother, Christian, joined Chris and me in the cockpit as we chat back and forth with ValHowell on the VHF while we continued to buddy boat to the island. My mom, Pam, managed to stay peacefully sleeping below deck in the quarter berth until we passed Anacapa. Cleo took advantage of my mom sleeping so soundly and positioned herself as close as she could get, essentially becoming the little spoon.
We set anchor at 9:00 am alongside ValHowell, the only other boat in the whole anchorage. After mimosas and a light breakfast, we dinghied over to the pier which was constructed in 1869 to load cattle and wool onto ships for transport. Now, the pier is used primarily to offload Island Packer groups (similar to the ones in Scorpion) for day trips. On our way to the dinghy dock, we were flagged down by another boater who had just come in to anchor. He asked if we had a gallon of water to spare, and once we told him we did (if he provided the container) he specified that he only wanted a gallon of bottled water, which we did not have so on our way we went. Jokes on him though, our dual filtered water system is probably cleaner than most bottled water.
It was the first time my parents had set foot on the land that we had told so many stories about, and it definitely did not disappoint. The weather was perfect for hiking so without hesitation I lead the way to the Pelican Bay trail, a 4-mile trail that starts on the Nature Conservancy land and leads to Pelican Bay. To legally access this part of the island, a landing permit is needed. Fortunately, we and the Howells came prepared and had both purchased our permits at the beginning of the year allowing us to march on.
Prisoners’ Anchorage has a very interesting history leading to its rightful name. In February 1830, the U.S. brig Maria Ester dropped anchor off Santa Barbara. Its captain, John Christian Holmes, requested permission to discharge his cargo which was a literal boatload of 40-or-so convicted criminals. His request being denied led to Holmes transporting the convicts to Prisoners Harbor with provisions supplied by the padres at the Old Mission. The fate of the prisoners remains unclear. Those on Santa Cruz initially fared somewhat well, constructing makeshift shelters against the elements. Unfortunately, that was not the last time that Santa Cruz was considered as a possible prison. “In the 1880s, the U.S. Army suggested exiling especially troublesome members of the Apache tribe to the island. Nothing came of the idea, and today only the name, Prisoners Harbor, reminds us of the rather bizarre events of over 180 years ago” (Redmond, Michael).
The diversity of flora on Santa Cruz Island never ceases to amaze me. I have been trying my best to study and identify the various plants on the island, specifically the 15+ endemic ones. Purple flowers (possibly vervain?) lined the sides of the trail. The natural rock steps pushed into the side of the mountain made a narrow passageway through the tall oak trees adorned with ripe acorns. Island Fox scat was dropped along the trail, suggesting we may get a glimpse of the endemic creature. The view of our boats anchored in the bay improved with every step we took. Soon we found ourselves at the highest point along the trail admiring our floating homes positioned oh-so picturesquely below us. Near us, was a small lookout that I was dying to get inside. The door was shut, which I respected, so we continued on our way despite my inner thoughts urging me to go examine the inside of the lookout.
The narrow trail twisted and turned until we were facing down a rocky, overgrown decline. After some consulting, our group decided to turn around and head back- but not before my dad got some drone footage! Chris and Elizabeth scouted out what appeared to be a fox trail, hoping to find an Island Fox amongst the scenery. Upon their return from their failed mission, we continued our descent to our starting point. Once again we stopped at the lookout to admire our boats below us. I had mentioned that I would love to go inside the lookout, and wished the door wasn’t closed. Upon further examination, Chris noticed the “door” was not nailed shut, but being held together by a nail bent over another… so with one dainty push (more like a tap) the door creaked open and revealed the visitors center inside. The 4 walls were adorned with informational plaques regarding the area, including what the building used to be.
As I had previously figured, the building was a lookout in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Using a telescope, the island watchman could look for ships in the channel. If needed, a passing vessel could be signaled to come to the harbor and retrieve mail, supplies, or passengers. Today the observation post is known as Harveys Lookout, in Memorium of Harvey D. Carlson (1955-1994), who was a member of the Nature Conservancy dedicated to preserving California’s unique natural area for generations. When we were done reading everyone vacated the observatory, me being the last to leave trying to imagine what life was like for that watchman on the island.
We had lunch on one of the many picnic tables along the shoreline, appreciating our view and discussing anything and everything that came to mind. My dad had many questions for Alan regarding his career as a pilot in the navy. It’s funny, despite absolutely despising air travel my dad is enthralled with the details and has a vast collection of RC Airplanes that reside in the “hanger”… aka my childhood bedroom in my family’s home. Sometime during lunch, I had gotten up and began to wander, thinking here we are once again exploring the first anchorage that we had sailed Avocet to as her new crew back in 2018 with Jon, Shannon, and Mama Neely. It is amazing to reflect on how far we had come and how far we will go. I scoured the shoreline for bones, shells, and trash, only pocketing the trash to dispose of. Chris waved at me from the pier signaling me to come back. Our group loaded up the dinghies and we cast off and headed to our respective “floating homes”. It took about 5 minutes for my brother to drop one of his 3 lines in the water, and another 5 for a fish to bite.
My brother Christian is a huge fisherman. He has always been a natural angler and has a passion not only for fishing but also for sustainable fishing practices to protect the habitats of the fish he catches, which I applaud him for. Although I have never liked eating fish (yes, I have tried that one, and no I still do not like it) my brother is the total opposite and could eat fish for every meal. One bite after another, he was pulling fish aboard to snap a photo then release. The reel excitement (haha get it, “reel”?) happened when he hooked his first white seabass, a beautiful fish but unfortunately just shy of the legal limit. He tossed it back and cleaned up for dinner. That night he told us “you know, this was cool and all but catching that fish really made this trip worth it”… I think it was a compliment, so I will chalk that up as a win. One down, two to go: Avocet just had to win over mom and dad Hushaw for a complete victory.
“Sleeping in” is a relative term on a sailboat. Although our clock read 6:30 am, we had still slept more hours than the night before, which we concluded was sleeping in. The wind had already picked up by 7:00, a stampede of white caps danced on the horizon. We hailed ValHowell and pulled our hooks, preparing to sail around to the other side of the island where the anchorages would be more protected. The 3 and a half foot swell helped push us along while the 20 knots of wind filled our sails. We played “leapfrog” with ValHowell; stealing their wind and passing them, then they would reciprocate. Chris pulled out his Nikon to snap some shots of their boat with Anacapa in the background, while Elizabeth so kindly captured photos of us under sail on her phone. Buddy boating is great.
Here is where the real fun begins: We set anchor in Yellowbanks, an anchorage just past Smugglers cove, at around 9:30 am. I had gone below deck and begun preparing a breakfast feast of vegetarian biscuits and gravy, a fruit spread, and scrambled eggs. The Howells joined us aboard and mid-mimosa sip we noticed a huge catamaran drop anchor very close to ours. The catamaran, named Tunnel Vision (TV), must have been a personal defining trait of the crew since their presence came with a strong smell of marijuana and they were not shy about drinking loudly. Being a good, informative neighbor, Chris dinghied over to let them know we had let out 200 ft of chain anticipating the 35 knots of wind that were predicted to last until midnight. They seemed less than amused that Chris was there and asked how he knew that we have dispersed exactly 200 ft of chain. Chris explained to them that we use zip ties to mark every 20 ft of chain. To our surprise, TV responded with “I’ve never heard of anyone marking their chain before” which left Chris astounded with a lack of words. He said his goodbyes and returned to the mothership to fill us in. “Well, one of their crew is surfing over there,” he said, pointing to the perfectly sculpted 4 ft. wave breaking less than a football field from our bow, “maybe they will leave when he is done?” We remained hopeful and continued on with our day.
My mom grabbed her “steamy novel” as my brother often calls her reading material (to be honest, it didn’t look that “steamy”) and got comfortable in the hammock Chris had set up on deck. Somehow I convinced my dad to go snorkeling with us and luckily the Howell’s were kind enough to let us use ValHowell’s swim step to dive from. The water visibility was not great, but I had just bought a new dive mask that I was determined to break in. My dad lasted all of 2 minutes in the water before jumping out and talking with Alan on the stern of ValHowell. Chris dove on the boat admiring their paint and checking for kelp in the prop. “All clear,” he said after tossing a small piece of kelp to the side. We returned to Avocet and showered off so I could prepare for dinner.
We dinghied over to ValHowell for dinner. I had prepared flatbread pizza using my focaccia recipe as a base and was very excited to eat after the long day we had. About one sip of wine in, Chris’s eyes grew wide and said: “we gotta go.” Through the Galley portlight of ValHowell, he saw what he thought was Avocet’s anchor skipping. Alan had suggested we take their inflatable dinghy that had a motor, to which we didn’t decline and zoomed back to the boat that was trying to escape us. Once onboard, Chris turned on the engine and we rushed to the bow to figure out what was happening. Luckily, it was not our anchor skipping. Unfortunately, our half-inch three-strand bridle had snapped clean off in the heavy winds (gusts into 40 knots) allowing the chain to load up with tension on the gypsy to the point where it would jump out of the teeth giving the illusion that our anchor was skipping when in reality we were rapidly losing our chain. While we were scrambling to save our home from kiting away, our lovely catamaran neighbor came to the bow of his pontoon to yell (upwind, might I add) “try using another zip tie!” … thanks, man. will do.
We had no spare bridle aboard. The gears in Chris’s head were turning trying to think of what we had aboard to save us when a lightbulb went off. 4 days prior, Chris had been practicing splicing and had made a new davit harness for our dinghy out of Dyneema. With the spare rope, he crafted two bracelets; one for me and one for him both featuring his newfound splicing expertise. Now, for those of you that don’t know: Dyneema is a 12 strand rope made of plastic (basically) but is stronger than steel. So 5/16” Dyneema has a breaking strength of 13,600 pounds when 5/16 stainless steel wire will break at 8,825 lbs. Pretty amazing stuff! When Chris gifted me the matching bracelet I told him that “our love is stronger than dynema” which was cute, but at the time I had no idea our new fashion accessories would be saving our home. Fast forward to us standing on the bow with 45-knot gusts howling in our faces: “give me your bracelet!” Chris yelled, so I could hear him. I unscrewed the shackle and handed my bracelet to him. Using his 5/16” bracelet as the primary bridle he put one end through one of the links in the chain and then put a shackle through the two end splices of Dyneema. He then replaced the 1/2” 3 strand bridle that broke minutes earlier with a heavy-duty 5/8” 3 strand rope and secured to the port side bow cleat.
Dyneema is amazing stuff but it does have one weakness: chaffing. The reason we use stainless chain hooks instead of Dyneema soft shackles is for chaffing reasons alone. Instead of letting the bridle be as long as possible and reduce the noise and strain on our cleats and bow rollers, Chris kept the bridle 2 feet past the bow roller so he could keep an eye on the Dyneema all night, specifically looking for chaffing. He used my smaller bracelet as a secondary safety chain lock, just in case his chaffed through.
When we returned to the rest of our party, everyone met us on the swim step. I had stepped off the dinghy, followed by Chris who thought I/Elizabeth had the painter. That was not the case, and as soon as Chris dismounted the wind caught the dinghy and it began to drift away at an increasing rate. Without any thought, Chris took his hat and shirt off then dove into the water. “glasses” I semi-yelled as he tossed them into our dinghy and began to swim after the run-away. “Is he a strong swimmer?” Alan asked as we all watched Chris swim for the tender. My dad reassured the Howells that this is not the first time Chris has saved the day, referring back to when he was 15 and dove on our ski boat with a knife in his mouth to cut our prop free from a line we backed over. Chris made it back to ValHowell, safe, sound, and cold. As soon as he dried off both of ValHowell’s bridles snapped. Chris lent our dinghy harness to them as a makeshift bridle. He was both amused and terrified by the fact that his splices were holding a brand new yacht all night! After all the action we tried to eat but had no appetite. We left as soon as we finished our glasses of wine, but not before I had the opportunity to ask Alan if there was a button to turn off the wind. Unfortunately, the answer was no.
Back aboard Avocet, we could see the worry in my mom’s face. We tried to explain to her that everything was alright and this is just a part of cruising, which didn’t seem to help at all. When in doubt, we turn to Captain Ron for help. We set up the projector and using my dad’s Goal Zero battery bank we turned on good ol’ Captain Ron to lighten the mood. Although the wind was screaming outside and the sound of our chain loading up was not comforting, we managed to get a few laughs out of my family by watching the movie. Chris and I were not afraid of the situation at all; I trust our anchor, I trust our boat, and I trust Chris’s solutions to whatever problems come our way. While routinely checking the anchor, the crew from our catamaran neighbor once again made an appearance on the bow of their boat. “Do you have any cheesecake?” a most likely stoned neighbor yelled upwind to us. Chris was shocked by the random request, calling back to confirm. When he confirmed that it was in fact cheesecake he desired, a fired-up Chris responded with “are you really asking me for fu*#ing cheesecake right now??” That conversation ended with our neighbor from TV flipping us the international sign of “peace” and going back below.
As we were turning in for the night, my mom noticed a fishing boat circling Avocet. We had initially thought that they were picking up their lobster pots that were scattered about, but when they got closer we got concerned. Chris once again jumped on deck and called out to them, asking that they monitor channel 65. “Persistence, this is Avocet. Are you guys alright?” they then told us that they had lost their anchor to the winds, and had no spares. It was 10:00 pm, and the wind was still gusting strong- no place for a small fishing vessel without an anchor. “Persistance, we can set you up with our stern anchor with 300 feet of road and 25 feet of chain. Wait until I signal you then come to our port side.” So there we were, handing off our stern hook to complete strangers, hoping that they make it through the night. The crew of Persistence were more than appreciative of our assistance, but honestly, if we were in their boat I can only hope that someone would do the same for us.
That’s enough chaos for one day, right? Chris set our anchor alarm on the chart plotter and kept an eye on our navionics chart as well to watch our boat kite and make sure we were still holding. He was exhausted, almost as soon as his head hit the pillow he was asleep. I knew that we had to keep an eye/ear on our anchor so I stayed up for a bit allowing Chris to enjoy his much-deserved break. Around 2:00 am (when the wind was predicted to stop) Chris checked our anchor and his snubber fix in 30-knot winds. Avocet was still holding, and ValHowell was as well. Our fishing friends aboard Persistence were also still holding in the distance, while Tunnel Vision had dragged further away from us. After his routine check, Chris crawled back into bed and stayed there until 7:00 am.
“ValHowell, ValHowell, ValHowell, this is Avocet. Let’s get out of here.” at 7:00 am we still had 30 knots of north-west winds. We pulled our anchor following ValHowell out of Yellowbanks. We checked on Persistence and made arrangements to retrieve our anchor once we were all back on the mainland. ValHowell kindly kept Persistence informed of the conditions out on the sea to help ensure safer travels. With two reefs in our main and a partial headsail, we were pushing along at a hull speed of 7 knots. My dad was happy to join us in the cockpit, coffee in hand, to enjoy the sail home. My brother remained asleep in the cabin with Cleo curled up at his feet, and my mom sat in the quarter berth despite our pleads to get her outside to avoid seasickness. Our boat handled like a champ in the 10-foot seas, making Chris and me only nervous when our dinghy would get seemingly close to dipping on the davits. Usually, we travel with our dinghy on deck to prevent it from flooding in case of a large wave pooping the stern- something we are no stranger to when sailing Mama Neely’s Mason 43 in San Fransisco bay. We tried keeping in contact with ValHowel, but our VHF wouldn’t reach them as they were on course for Ventura, and us Oxnard.
We arrived back in our slip at 10:30 am. My parents had packed their bags and said goodbye to Avocet as we crawled into Chris’s truck to go get some lunch at Toppers Pizza before parting ways. Over pizza, we discussed the events of the weekend. My dad and brother expressed how much fun they had while my mom remained quite. Winning over 2/3 isn’t bad I guess, maybe next time they visit we can go to Santa Barbara- a much mellower adventure. We hugged and said our goodbyes, then Chris and I returned to Avocet to clean up from the weekend.
The following days to come my dad texted, called, and posted on Facebook telling us how much fun he had aboard Avocet, and how he can’t wait to come back. My brother texted me saying “thank you” and how he wants to come to stay with us over spring break and go fishing again. Finally, when I thought we were out of victories my mom called Chris and told him how the news in Santa Cruz had forecasted 20 knots of wind and 4-foot swell for the week. She laughed, saying that was “no problem” and that she could handle much worse now. I definitely took that as a win! 3/3, my family had enjoyed the trip even despite all the twists and turns, which reminded me that no matter what it’s not about where you are, but who you are with.
Marissa, Chris, and Cleo
Redmond, Michael. “Prisoners Harbor.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/chis/learn/historyculture/prisoners.htm.
To learn more about the history and preservation efforts on Santa Cruz Island, please visit: http://www.scifoundation.org/home.aspx
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