I was walking into work the other day when a fellow I know saw me, observed the stiff afternoon breeze that was howling, and said, “I bet you wish you were sailing today huh, Pat?” I looked at his beard that was pointing due west, smiled and said, “I think I’ll stick around here today.”
I’ve gotten that many times before; a non-boater feels a hard wind and assumes it’d work well for a nice sail in the bay. Lots of wind equals good sailing – easy deduction. But the truth is, wind for a sailor is kind of like fire – most often it’s a God-sent sustaining force, but too much can make for a hellish nightmare. This is particularly true of the Santa Ana and heavy offshore winter winds that boaters are especially mindful of around this time of year.
The effects of Santa Anas are well documented and publicized when it comes to the catastrophic effect they can have on spreading wildfires in mountainous regions, but they can also be a California sailor’s worst enemy on the expanse of the coastal Pacific. Many a sailor in the Southern California area has been surprised by winds coming out of the northeast that have been processed by the unique topography and temperature changes generating from the inland’s desert and mountains. Often these winds are subdued by the time they reach the coast but there are instances where they arrive packing a serious punch.
“If there is anything greater than a mild Santa Ana forecast, take my advice,” said local Marina del Rey charter Capt. Richard Schaefer. “Go bowling.”
Schaefer has been traversing the Santa Monica Bay and beyond since his childhood and has seen weather offshore that will never be associated with the well-known Beach Boys, Coppertone tan, Southern Californian ad campaign. While summer on the Santa Monica Bay is pretty benign and closer to the aforementioned stereotype, winter winds can be a challenge even for the most experienced boater.
“I have been caught in cold, offshore winds, with multiple water spouts – three times that I can recall,” Schaefer recollected. “Water spouts really make it interesting…”
In my years writing the Nautical News, I have covered a number of very sad and unfortunate accidents where respected, competent sailors have lost their lives in these winter conditions. Santa Ana events in particular can come up fast and violent. They are characteristically quick-shifting and can make for a confusing and disconcerting time.
“My worst was 2006 after being held in Turtle [Bay] for seven days after a Cabo race,” explained local boat delivery skipper Jeffry Matzdorff of an experience he had near the border of California and Mexico. “After crossing the bay of Ensenada I saw black water along the shore abeam of Salsipuedes and Punta Mesquite near the big arroyos. We headed for the beach to reduce the fetch and wham! Forty knots of sustained winds, bugs, flies, grasshoppers, birds, dirt and more bugs of all species came flying at us. What a mess. This lasted until five miles before Point Loma when it simply shut down.”
Whether it’s a bona-fide Santa Ana wind or a robust offshore blow, Schaefer looks to the wisdom of Catalina Island residents who typically get hammered when these winds arrive.
“For Catalina islanders, the real heavy offshore winds come in winter during or just after a front rolls through,” he said. “The islanders refer to these offshore winds as Santa Anas as well – and normally are the dangerous ones for Catalina and local boaters. Islanders say that when you see snow on the mainland-mountains after a storm and the sun is shining at the island and the wind is out of the east – watch out.”
There are many sailors who will speak of wonderful experiences they’ve had in winter breezes including Santa Anas, and it’s true that this time of year can make for some incredible boating. However, what’s also true during this point in the season is the need for a more detailed inspection of the weather characteristics before passing the harbor’s breakwall.
With that said, consult the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) website, make sure the boat is in solid shape and enjoy the Santa Monica Bay before the crowds return. Currently, it’s possible to see gray whales as they make their slow but steady commute past our area towards Baja Mexico to give birth and hang out in the warm waters of Magdalena Bay.