I'm Matt, a software engineer and boating enthusiast based in Washington State (but on the move). I started Hermit Cove Boats, offering cool skin and frame boat plans and kits. Check it out!
At Cape Mendocino, California takes a turn to the east. Also, just offshore very deep water suddenly turns shallow. It is a notorious place for sailors, where winds are funneled by the land and waves pushed up by the sea floor. Consider this sad story. So we stayed in Eureka to let a small craft advisory blow over, and then went out cautiously. Our goal was Shelter Cove, 60 miles distant. We left at the 9am slack, so it would be near sunset when we arrived.
We stayed in sight of the cape and until half way between the cape and Punta Gorda, it seemed that the fuss was all for nothing. Then the wind, forecast at 5-15, decided that it preferred 25 or more. Whitecaps were all around and we continued motoring to make time with the main reefed for stability. I am sure we could have gone just as fast under sail, but that would have meant going out on the foredeck, and the waves were becoming unruly. Spastic even. We were slapped from the side by a few overachievers who managed to wet the cockpit - something no other waves have managed to date. Regularly we’d rest back into a sea of foam as a wave broke under us. Our self-steering couldn’t keep up, so steering required both hands on the wheel at all times.
All the while it was gorgeous. The seas were a tropical turquoise. The sun shone brightly. The barren cape kept coming and going behind fog - never fully hidden. In the midst of the biggest set of waves a pack of dolphins came roaring up, no doubt riding the large waves just to pass the time. They lept clear of the sea and toyed with our boat before chasing after the large set of waves. Total surfer dudes.
As we fought the conditions we kept our eyes on the receding coastline of California. Any minute now we’d be in the lee of the cape, and hopefully conditions would calm down. They did, but it took a couple of hours.
There was a line in the ocean when it calmed down. Like crossing the doorway into another room. We went from high winds to barely enough to fill the main. The seas stayed big, but they all came from the same direction. What a relief. We made it into Shelter Cove at sunset.
Shelter Cove is a quiet place, but the bay’s bottom is rocky and the swell comes in with plenty of energy. It was our first time anchoring in such a place and it was stressful for two reasons.
First, we are used to calm anchorages where were drop the hook, then reverse slowly till the chain tightens, then give it full reverse to dig the anchor in well. That works fine; but what if, just when the chain comes tight, the boat rises on a wave? Well, the damn thing gets way too tight, starts to jump off the windlass like the recoil of a gun, pulls the anchor out of the bottom, and scares Matt, who is tired, and can’t figure any of this out just yet. That’s what. We put a snubber out, and pulled it just tight and then backed off. That would have to do. Surprisingly the chain just dropped straight down and we moved back and forth no more than 30 feet over the anchor all night. Though we rolled back and forth, the lack of current and wind meant that the anchor itself was never even tested.
The other problem was the rolling. When we faced the swell it was no big deal, but more often than not, we were beam to it and we rolled a lot. It was a long night, waking up to check the anchor, and other times just because the rolling changed enough to disturb our rest. In the morning we were glad to get sail up and head out. It was more stable out on the ocean.
The sea was still up from all of the wind off of Mendocino. As we came in to the Boat Basin at Fort Bragg, the bar presented us with a stupefying sight. First, big rollers crashed mightily all along the rocky coast, leaving a kind of fog in the air from their foaming. It hung around the cliffs and the Highway 1 bridge that ran over the bar. Second, the Coast Guard rescue boats were both heading out as we came in, crowding us around the red and green buoys. If they are going out it is to train, but if its good training should we be in it? I am sure they are a welcome sight to those in need, but in the midst of the bar they just reminded us that we could be in need. Finally, the red and green buoys put into sharp relief the fact that these were the largest waves we have ridden. 12 feet at least, the kind that hide everything when they go by. Don’t imagine 12 foot waves, because that is not the correct image. Imagine 25. For some reason waves look bigger than they are. I think it is because from the top of one you look down at an angle and imagine that you are in the trough, and the actual trough is just part of that really big next wave. 12 foot waves create a terrain populated with massive mountains of water, great open canyons and high vistas.
But by magic, a quarter mile later the waves were gone, and we were in the breakwater. Then we passed the narrow channel in the impossibly cute Noyo River fishing community. We are tied up in the boat basin and taking care of loose ends. Like finding the North Coast Brewery and making sure the beer is as good as we think it is there.