The San Francisco Bay is well-known in the sailing community for its sporty conditions and salty atmosphere which helps mold successful and skillful sailors. Chris grew up sailing in the Bay aboard his family’s boat, Sea Castle, a 1979 Mason 43. This beautiful high displacement cruiser has been in the family for 30 years, being the source of lifelong memories and the inspiration for the two Neely sons to one day buy their own boats.
Sea Castle has called Berkeley her hailing port for the last 28 years, which has been a treasure trove of memories and good times. However, in recent years, Berkeley Marina has grown to be a safe haven for the homeless population, leading to large encampments popping up along the main drive to the marina. This has not only produced an excess of pollution, but also an increase of illegal activities in the parking lots. Besides the negative human influence around Berkeley Marina, the Bay Area, in general, is rough on boats. The high levels of moisture in the air allows mold to flourish, the high winds put a lot of stress on the rigging, and the algae growth is aggressive in the bay, often blanketing anything it can attach to. All of these factors are what lead to a family discussion with Mama Neely encouraging her to move Sea Castle to warmer waters, more specifically, our home port where Chris and I can take care of her more often than not. Of course, it was a tough decision to come to, since the bay hosted so many wonderful family memories for three generations of Neelys, a multi-generational affair. Keeping everyone in mind, we decided moving was the best option, so the planning began.
Prior to casting off, there was work to be done; it is a boat of course. Sea Castle is well-loved and Mama Neely spares no expense in keeping her teak varnished and her decks sparkling clean. Despite the showroom exterior, the inner mechanics of Sea Castle were a work in progress- started by Van (Chris’s father), continued by Jon, and finished by Chris. The electrical needed to be addressed; Van seemed to have a love for quick fixes using electrical tape and there were loose ends here and there. The engine’s cooling system needed to be run through and cleaned, the autopilot had to be installed, quadrant cleaned and tuned, rewiring the DC, installing spreader lights and running lights, replacing all of the batteries aboard, and the aft stateroom needed to be finished since Jon had removed the sink with the intention of building another locker for mom before leaving for his own boat, Prism. Unfortunately, time slipped away, as it always does and Jon didn’t have the chance to finish the job, leaving a massive hole in the stateroom’s wall. With all of the projects listed, Chris packed up a majority of his tools and headed north from Ventura to Berkeley where he got to work preparing Sea Castle for her move – pausing our own projects on Avocet, once again.
For the passage, we welcomed aboard our friends Mitch and Quincey who own and operate Q+M Travel charters from their floating home, Esprit, a beautiful KP 46. Mitch is a certified captain with over 15,000 ocean miles under his keel while Quincey is a brilliant and observant first mate who is not afraid to take charge. She doubles as a galley chef, serving organic and nutritious foods from their galley. With our crew of 5, we felt very comfortable and confident in the passage ahead, so when the day came we were ready.
Saying goodbye to Berkeley was bittersweet for the 3 Neely’s aboard. Obviously, Mama Neely was emotional about it all since she had sailed the boat to Berkeley with Van and raised their 3 kids aboard, sailing every chance they had. For Chris, he remembers “fishing” on the dock with his dad using a homemade fishing pole as well as going on dock walks to admire the different boats, and of course, all the bay sailing in between. Visiting Sea Castle was one of the first real “trips” I had taken with the Neely family when I was just 16 and had no knowledge of sailing at all. I remember sailing to Treasure Island Island with Jon and Shannon aboard, thinking how cool it was to be anchored out somewhere and new and feel the ocean rocking you to sleep. On that same trip, we hadn’t paid attention to the tide chart and our keel got stuck in the mud which created a pretty funny photo opportunity and an absolute mess inside from the fast rocking beam to beam which hurled items from shelves and cabinets to the cabin floor. I am amazed at how far I have come in the past 6 years, taking on a completely new lifestyle and passion for sailing. Without Sea Castle, I don’t think I would have been able to wrap my head around living on a sailboat.
Berkeley to Sausalito
Chris had driven down to Ventura from Berkeley to pick me up on Sunday after I clocked out from work. We packed up his truck, kissed Cleo-cat goodbye and drove to Santa Cruz where we stopped for a few hours of rest. Despite it being 12:30 in the morning, my mom stayed awake to make sure we arrived safely. After driving for 14 hours, Chris was exhausted and I was looking forward to cuddles since he had been away for a week. As soon as I was ready to slide into bed, my dog Stormy snuck her way into Chris’s arms, cementing her place in my bed and subsequently stealing my cuddles.
“This is so sad,” I said as we drove past the crowded homeless camps. We had been on the road since 6:30 a.m. and had just driven into Berkeley where the stench hits you before the city does. Seeing the number of homeless camps surrounding the area is absolutely heartbreaking considering the wealth that flows through the Bay Area. We unloaded the truck and began preparing Sea Castle for departure. Mitch and Quincey joined us around 2:00 p.m. and before I knew it we were waving goodbye to Berkeley Marina, with Mama Neely at the helm, as it should be. The wind was howling out of the marina causing the ship’s bell to ring loudly behind us; a proper send-off as we set our course for Sausalito, the first stop on our passage. We chose to anchor in Sausalito instead of Horse Shoe Cove because there the wind was mild and the sun was shining. Once anchored and enjoyed the last hours of sunlight while I made myself comfortable in the tiny galley, heating up Mushroom Stroganoff for our hungry crew. While Chris was in the bay the week prior, I had started to prepare for the trip by assembling dinners on Avocet where I could absolutely destroy my galley with no remorse. I meal prepped 3 hearty meals that would be easy to reheat on Sea Castle. After dinner in the enclosed cockpit, we retired down below where we talked about sailing stories and eventually made our way to bed for one of our last nights of solid sleep.
Sausalito to Morro Bay
“Anchors up!” Chris called to Mitch from the bow. It was 7:00 a.m. and we were sailing out of Sausalito, making our way to the Golden Gate Bridge. It was another typical day in the bay; foggy, wet, and windy. It didn’t take long for us all to layer up as we sat seeking refuge in the cockpit. We rounded the stretch of fog-draped land exposing the Golden Gate Bridge, looking magnificent as ever. I had only visited the Golden Gate by car, so sailing beneath it was a completely different perspective. I felt so small as I looked up the nearly 17- meter mast, which was still many meters away from the bottom of the bridge. Chris had the camera out to capture the moment as we started the first real leg of our passage.
Just like Chris and I, Mitch and Quincey had to be home by Sunday, so we let the engine assist our sails as we shot down the coastline at a comfortable 5 knots. We all sat in the cockpit, completely layered in foulies to protect against the frigid weather. It was odd to be sailing upwind while heading south, as we expected a nice leisurely downwind passage. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the wind we had and continued on our course, letting autopilot eventually take over. With our eyes on the horizon and the gentle hum of the engine, Mitch was the first to ask if he could take a nap down below. Soon after was Chris’s turn, then Quincey’s, then Mama Neely’s. I wish I had the ability to nap during the day, but my brain won’t allow me. I suppose it is something I will have to adapt to when Chris and I go cruising on Avocet and have to trade watches between the two of us.
8 hours, 6 snacks, and a few cups of hot tea later we were just about to round Point Año Nuevo, a place I had visited as a kid to watch the Elephant Seals and their new pups roll on the fenced-off beach. It was a long day of motor sailing down the coast, with a grey sky as our backdrop. A few pods of whales breached alongside the boat and traveled south with us for a while before breaking off and disappearing into the horizon. The sun made an appearance for a short while, warming our clothing layered bodies. Chris and Mitch topped off the diesel tank with the Jerry Jugs we had, being extremely careful not to spill. I had been filming off and on throughout the day on the camera as well as posting updates to Instagram, and even sat down to write this blog. I tried to imagine what our passage to Hawaii will be like; 14+ days of sailing with no land in sight… if this trip so far has been any indication of what that passage will be like, I can assure you we will be eating a lot to fill the time.
The phosphorescence danced on the water’s surface as we cut through the ocean like a hot knife in butter. It was 12:12 a.m. and Chris and I were almost finished with our 3-hour watch. It was dark, with no stars due to the overcast sky and the temperature was still cold, but tolerable, unlike the wet, bone-chilling cold in the Bay Area. Dolphins joined us in our motor south, gliding through our glowing wake. Chris scanned the horizon for boats and any other obstacles before going below deck to check the radar. I sat by the companionway, watching the dolphins when I looked below and got a glimpse of one of the many reasons I married Chris. Noticing that his mother was fast asleep on the settee he made sure she was tucked in and that the lee cloth that helps turn the sitting area into a bunk (so you don’t roll out) was rigged correctly. His caring eyes assessed the sleeping arrangement and made sure his mother was comfortable before returning to the cockpit where I gave him a big hug, thankful to be sharing my life with such an incredibly loving person. At 1:00 a.m., we were happy to hand the helm over to Mitch and Quincey, so we could try to get some real sleep before our next watch.
Falling asleep the second time around was much easier than the first. I counted in my head down from 100, making it only to 96 before I was transported to a dreamland full of whales jumping and flipping in the distance. Almost as soon as we were asleep we were awake again to relieve M and Q who looked ready for bed, and cold in the cockpit. The fog had settled thick over the sea and reduced our visibility to maybe less than 1 mile (1.06 km). At one point Chris thought he could finally see the horizon line off our starboard side, but alas it was just an illusion created by the lifelines. Chris and I were much more somber our second watch, I constantly found myself fighting to stay awake as the hum of the engine and gentle rocking of the swell kept pulling me deeper and deeper into a state of enervation. By the morning, the fog had lifted some but the sun itself did not shine through. Instead of a beautiful sunrise, the sky turned a lighter shade of grey, making it easier to see the horizon.
“Buenos Dias!” Quincey popped her head out of the companionway with a warm smile and an even warmer sweater. We sat chatting about the night while Chris brewed coffee on the galley stove. The smell of coffee wafted through the cabin, waking up Mama Neely who soon joined us, making it a cockpit party of 4. With well-rested people present, Chris and I decided it was best if we retired down below for one last crack at getting some sleep before the day really started. “Whales!” So much for sleep, we were woken up by the excitement coming from the cockpit and I could see Quincey pointing off our starboard side from the hatch window in the aft berth. We both rolled out of bed, layered up once more, and joined the crew in the cockpit. Mitch was still fast asleep in the V-berth, and I was quite frankly jealous of his ability to sleep so soundly. The pod of whales put on a grand show for us, breaching and lifting their fins out of the water as if they were waving to their audience. We were just passing Salmon Head, approximately 43 nautical miles from Morro Bay where we would be stopping to refuel. The sun broke through and the fog disappeared almost as quickly as my layers did. Within minutes I was laying across the deck in my sports bra and shorts, enjoying the fact we were back in Southern California waters. Mitch and Quincey snuck below deck for a nap while I dozed off in front of the companionway, soaking up the sun.
We arrived at the Morro Bay fuel dock at 4:00 to top off our tanks. Chris docked the boat beautifully with the help of our deck crew who cast off fenders and tied our lines around the pylons. Chris ran through Sea Castles systems while we enjoyed watching the sea otters splash around with their babies on their bellies. $80 of diesel later we were ready to complete the most difficult part of our journey yet: rounding Point Conception.
Morro Bay to Santa Barbara
Enchiladas were baking in the oven as we admired the sunset. Chris had just set our autopilot (named One-Eyed Willie) back on our course and reached for his camera to film. Whales breached around us, painting the sky with mist as the sun sparkled through. Point Conception was in our sights as we prepared our sails for the challenge ahead.
“I don’t like that,” Chris said as he pointed to the dark ominous cloud blanketing the horizon. We were 8 hours from Point Conception and I could feel Chris’s stress levels radiate off his body. Mitch and Quincey retired to their bunk and left the cockpit to us Neely’s. We chatted about our respective plans for the future (pending COVID of course) and enjoyed conversation in a beautiful setting.
Towards the end of our watch, I couldn’t stop yawning, I was so sleepy and ready for bed – so I thought. Unintentionally, I had neglected my body and became dehydrated to the point where my stomach was upset and my bladder was borderline infected. I tossed and turned trying to silence the internal pain, causing Chris to wake up completely discombobulated. With only 3 hours to sleep until our next watch, I was desperately trying to find peace. Eventually, I gave into the pain and took ibuprofen as well as drank a full Nalgene water bottle before layering up on my foulies to relieve Mitch and Quincey from their watch.
A warm mug of raspberry tea made its way into my cold hands, courtesy of Chris. We were a few hours from rounding Point Conception and the drugs had finally kicked in. Although the pain subsided, my exhaustion did not and I found myself dozing off in my husband’s lap while he manned the helm. Around 2:00 a.m. we were finally able to put sails up and reach a hull speed of sustained 7 knots. Back in the cockpit, Chris held me close and brushed his fingers through my tangled hair while we watched for crab pots and passing vessels in the night.
After trading watch, Chris and I slept through the rest of the Point Conception crossing, which is good since it meant it was an uneventful and successful milestone. Point Conception has been dubbed the Cape Horn of North America, known for its strong winds created by its land and sea breeze difference, and also where cold Northern California water meets warm Southern California waters adding to the washing machine effect. To say the least, we were prepared for the worst and were met with mercy.
We dropped anchor in “Fools anchorage,” Santa Barbara, at 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, July 23rd. Our friends aboard ValHowell and Pangea sailed up from Ventura to welcome Sea Castle to Southern California. It didn’t take Chris long to strip down and jump overboard into the crystal clear water, which had enticed Mitch and Quincey to follow as well. “Do a flip!” I yelled jokingly, not expecting Mitch to execute a perfect front flip. Feeling more relaxed, we launched our dinghy, Little Wing, and headed to shore.
One reason I love sailing is because it seems that you can find friends wherever you go. In Ventura, Chris and I had befriended another young couple named Charlie and Sarah who were preparing to cruise their Formosa 45’, Blossom, to Hawaii. Time was not on our side, as we had spent only one night together aboard Blossom talking about plans and sailing the world- they would have been incredible neighbors long term. We sent them on their way with warm boat-made cookies from my galley, a well-received token of friendship. Blossom never did make it to Hawaii, instead, they spent a few weeks at Santa Cruz Island then made port in Santa Barbara. We were thrilled to see Blossoms seafoam green hull upon motoring into the harbor. We tied up the dinghy and Sarah popped up from below deck, “Charlie is on a bike ride, but you are welcome aboard!”
Ironically, Charlie and Sarah had already met Mitch and Quincey in the Bay Area, similar to how they met us before leaving for their next port. It was great to see them again, hear about their new travel plans and share more stories all around. Since our initial meeting, we had learned about Sarah’s business Danu Organic and I had fallen in love with the comfortable and organic garments listed on her website, I am looking forward to getting myself a pair of Pinion Pocket Pants!
The Sea Castle crew enjoyed an early dinner overlooking the harbor at Brophy Bro’s. It felt great to stretch our legs and be recharged by the sun, watching boats motor in and out of the marina. Our bellies full and eyes heavy, we returned to Little Wing and said goodbye to our friends aboard Blossom, who sent us on our way with cookies, a token of friendship returned.
Back on the water we had more friends to say hello to. A bottle of wine in hand, we motored over to ValHowell where we had the pleasure of introducing Mitch and Quincey to Alan, Elizabeth, Mike and Kris… our second family. We sat socially distanced in ValHowells massive cockpit, sipping wine, the sun setting on the horizon and Sea Castle’s red spreader lights looking sharp on the water. As always, the conversation was engaging and exciting discussing boats, projects, and Sea Castle’s new future in Ventura.
By 11:00 p.m. we were fast asleep, the first sleep in 2 days without the rumbling engine. We rocked and rolled gently until the wind stopped, pushing us to take waves to beam making our sleepless tranquil. Chris finally gave in and climbed on deck to deploy our old flip stopper that we gifted to Sea Castle. I asked if he needed my assistance and was happy to hear he did not, pulling his bed covers my way, keeping an ear out for a *splash* in case he fell overboard.
Santa Barbara to Ventura
The anchor was up at 11:00 and our sails were set for Ventura, the final destination. The sun was bright and welcoming as we sailed through the large oil derricks, looking like a scene out of Water World. Well rested and thrilled to make port, our crew sat in the cockpit smiling and enjoying the quintessential Southern California Sailing. As we talked about our weeks ahead, I was saddened by the thought of being desk-bound once more. In 4 days at sea,I became more confident in my ability to travel at night, making me more inspired than ever for our Hawaii voyage on Avocet. Being back on open water was just the shot of adrenaline I needed to remind me why we have been working so damn hard on our own boat. It’s been almost 7 months since Avocet has truly sailed, and unknowingly I had begun to slip into an uncomfortable mindset of static living, taking the adventure out of life afloat.
The sail to Ventura was much quicker than I had anticipated, and was surprised to see our breakwater, could this trip really be over so soon? Chris pulled Sea Castle into her new slip with no problems as we tied off her lines, securing her to her new home. It had been 28 years since Sea Castle had a dock finger on both sides of her hull, a very welcomed change. Once we were all settled I ran home to Avocet, which is conveniently one dock away. Cleo was thrilled to see humans again, nuzzling each one of us and being very vocal with her “meows” which I can only hope I mean “I love you” and “I missed you”.
Chris and I were thrilled to play tour guide while we showed our friends the place we have called “home” for the past 2 years. The Harbor Village is a short walk away from our boat, offering a wide variety of entertainment and eating options. To celebrate a successful trip we sat down for drinks and appetizers at one of our favorite places, the Boatyard Pub – get the crab dip, you won’t regret it! Over some dangerously delicious cocktails, Chris and I drove a hard bargain trying to convince M&Q to move Esprit to the neighborhood. We ended the night with a round of Dominoes hosted on Avocet since our table is huge and superior for games. The following day we continued to share the beauty of Ventura and drove to Main Street where we checked out how they closed off the street to cars to allow businesses to create outdoor space for tables to help enforce social distancing. After lunch at our friends’ Mom and Pops, we stopped at Palmero for affogato then visited my favorite store Spicetopia where you can buy spices, teas, and oils in bulk and bring your own jars! Back in the harbor, The Howells (who had returned just after us) were kind enough to let us borrow their Fatty Knees 8′, Reggie, so we could sail around with our friends. It was fun to fill our sails once more before returning to the rat race of our lives. After a few hours of absolute wholesome fun we de-rigged and hosted dinner aboard Avocet that was prepared by Chris- yes, you read that correctly… my man can cook!
On Sunday Mitch and Quincey returned home to the bay where their cat, Panda, was waiting for them and Mama Neely returned home to the mountains where her cat, Leia, was waiting for her, likely with a stockpile of dead animals at the door- the most endearing way a cat can express their love… or judgment of your poor hunting skills. Once again we were a crew of 2 aboard our own home, more determined than ever to finish our projects and get sailing again. Chris and I are still finishing our exterior refit and working on part 3 of our haul out series which will be uploaded soon, then we will be back to sailing the channel islands in preparation for our big sail into the sunset. Chris and I now pass Sea Castle on a daily basis, and can not wait to sail both boats as a family… now if only we could get Prism back on the West Coast!
As always, thank you for reading and following our journey. Stay safe out there, and fair winds!
– Marissa, Chris and Cleo