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Last Stops before Mexico

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

At first light, just as the sky brightened beyond the now-familiar veil of morning mist, we bade farewell to the herd of sea lions who had been our constant companions at the Monterey Municipal Marina, and pointed Karma south, hopeful to find peace and warmth.  It was a long day trip to the anchorage in San Simeon, and we arrived under the cover of darkness. Just like the shadows in a sleepy child’s bedroom turn the ordinary into the terrifying, so it is when pulling into an unfamiliar anchorage at night.  Is that boat that I see 15 feet away from my bow, or it 150 feet away?  Is the shore near or is it far?  One really cannot tell in the darkness, and while we have technology that allows us to “see” in the dark, such as radar, AIS, night vision and electronic charts, it is, nevertheless, disorienting to creep into an anchorage in the dark and drop the hook.  Luckily, our friends on Kealani had arrived in the anchorage earlier in the day, so they turned on their deck lights and shined bright lights into the anchorage to help us find our way.  Good friends in the anchorage are always a welcome sight. 


Rochelle had been excited about anchoring in San Simeon, as it is just below Hearst Castle, the opulent estate built in the early 20th century by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.  She had toured the castle with her family in the 70’s, and fondly remembers swimming with her brother on the beach at San Simeon.  When we set sail in the morning, we were able to see that we had anchored a safe distance from that same beach where she had been socked by a wave, but disappointed that we could not see the spectacle of Hearst Castle on the hill due to the low hanging clouds.  We noticed that we had picked up a plague of kelp flies in the anchorage, and they would be along for the ride for days.  They were so pesky that we actually took to killing them with our bare hands, and there were so many that we actually got good at it.   


As we got closer to our next anchorage in San Luis Obispo, our surroundings began to look more like the California for which we had been searching.  We dropped the hook and enjoyed the view of sunshine on beautiful Avila Beach.  There was a festive atmosphere over there that we could hear from the anchorage.  If only we could GET to that festive beach.  We have our dinghy, L’il Karma, which serves like our car to get us from Karma to shore when we aren’t at a dock.  The surf was strong, though, and we didn’t know where we could safely leave L’il Karma while we went exploring.  Frustrated to be confined to the boat and missing the chance to take in the sun on our first proper California beach, on the second day we decided that we would take Karma to the fuel dock to top off our diesel tank, and then we would lay down the cash for a mooring ball, which would gives us water taxi privileges, meaning that a small boat called a panga would come out to Karma, pick us up, and drop us off at the dock, and then we could walk to the festive beach.   



We weighed anchor and headed for the fuel dock.  It was really windy, and there was ocean swell.  The fuel dock at San Luis Obispo is not designed for pleasure boaters like us; it was built with commercial fishing boats in mind.  Usually docks are about a 24-inch step DOWN from Karma’s deck.  The fuel dock at San Luis Obispo was about a 15-foot step UP.  That, my friend, is no step.  Of course, we had an unpleasant dance with a fishing boat to get near the dock, and were grateful for competent staff on the dock who helped us manage the lines to tie up, but it was a rollicking ride, with Rochelle running fore and aft to adjust fenders–repeatedly–to avoid Karma’s hull banging into the pilings in the wind and swell.  I’m sure that there are kind commercial fishermen out there–at least one–but we haven’t met her yet. Fuel dock attendants, though, are consistently helpful and kind.  We tip accordingly.


San Luis Obispo Fuel Dock:  pull up at the waterline and climb a metal ladder to the top, or just pass things to the fuel dock attendant


Next stop: the mooring field.  A mooring ball is a buoy connected to a chain that is anchored to the seabed.  At the top of the ball is a metal ring.  Safe in the cushy cockpit, the helmsman drives the boat alongside the mooring ball while the fearless first mate hangs over the bow pulpit with a boat hook (hook on a long metal pole) to snag the ring on top of that ball, way down at the waterline, then pulls up on the ring with her Herculean strength to bring the ring to deck level so that she can quickly run two dock lines through the ring to secure the boat.  Doing this in significant wind and swell is harrowing for the first mate, and to be sure, frustrating for the helmsman who is doing some masterful driving back there in the cockpit.  John’s dad gave us the gift of a wonderful invention known as the Happy Hooker, a fancy boat hook that will allow the first mate to run the dock line through the buoy ring when she snags it with the hook, avoiding the Herculean effort of pulling the ring up to the deck, but our first mate doesn’t have a lot of experience with happy hookers and needs more practice.  Enough said.  After a few failed attempts to snag the mooring ball had added to the rattling of nerves previously jangled by the fuel dock experience, we decided to head back to the anchorage, defeated and foregoing our chance at water taxi privileges.  We would have to continue to enjoy Avila Beach from a distance in the anchorage without being able to go ashore.  


After San Luis Obispo, our next stop would be Santa Barbara.  This would require rounding Point Conception, which is where the Pacific Ocean (north/south orientation) meets Santa Barbara Channel (east/west orientation.)  We had been told that this can be tricky with wind and water meeting in opposing directions, and timing the weather window is critical in order to avoid steep waves that could be dangerous.  We looked at the forecast and talked with our trusted coaches at Sailing Totem and decided that we should leave at midnight for optimal timing of our approach to the Cape.  If you think it is challenging to wake up in the middle of the night and head out to sea in darkness, you’re right, but this time, we were rewarded to find that the algae bloom that we had noticed in the anchorage the previous afternoon had resulted in fantastical bioluminescence as we headed out to sea.  The first time he saw it, way back on the first night of our big adventure, while still in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, John described it perfectly as “sparks in the wake.”  It is magical and mesmerizing, and was a sweet consolation for our frustrating stay in SLO. 



Soon the lights of the tiny organisms in the water were replaced by the enormous and powerful lights of Vandenberg Space Force Base, which were visible for 40 miles.  To put a finer point on it, we were able to see these lights on shore for 8 hours.  Apparently, they were preparing to launch more Starlink satellites the following week, which is important to us aboard Karma, as we rely on Starlink to stay connected when we’re away from cell service.  So, thanks Starlink!  


Rochelle was on watch when the sun rose that morning with the first proper sunrise we’d seen since leaving Port Townsend.  That is Point Conception that you see in her photo.  The seas were calm, the air felt warmer, and Rochelle rounded the point while John slept soundly below.  Just as everyone said, things felt different after this point.  Southern California truly does look different than Northern or even Central California.  The air felt different, and our spirits were light.  


Sunrise over Point Conception


We arrived at Santa Barbara that afternoon and pulled into our slip in the marina, which was easily a half mile walk from our slip to the gt off the dock.  I don’t know what the record is for the longest marina dock in the world, but Santa Barbara has to be a strong contender.  We were excited to be here because Rochelle had touted it as “California’s Most Beautiful City” and John soon discovered why.  Not only are the beaches lovely, but the city is relentless about requiring that all buildings in town be built in the Spanish style–white stucco with red tile roofs.  It is striking. We were joined by a buddy boat in Santa Barbara, Chinook Sunset, and had a good time reconnecting with them.  We walked through the city and up to the Santa Barbara Mission.  Built in 1786, it is known as the Queen of the Missions,” and while the history of conquering Alta California for Spain and converting the native people to Catholicism isn’t pretty, Rochelle has had a soft spot for the California missions since she studied them in fourth grade.  



After several days in the city, we headed to the Channel Islands, a group of eight islands off the coast of Santa Barbara.  We decided on Santa Cruz Island as our first stop, because the world’s largest sea cave is there–the Painted Cave.  Our buddy boat, Chinook Sunset, was headed there, too.  When we arrived at Fry’s Harbor and dropped the hook, we quickly realized that to head to the cave in L’il Karma would be foolish because she is a light inflatable boat with a small electric motor, and this was going to take a heavier boat with a beefier engine.  Chinook Sunset’s dinghy fit the bill, so we decided to leave Rochelle aboard Karma to be sure that she didn’t drift away in the swell while John hopped aboard Chinook Sunset’s dinghy.  It wasn't long before he returned, the crew having discovered that even their more powerful boat wasn't up to the challenge of entering the cave in the swell that day.  We moved on to another anchorage an hour away that would provide better shelter for the night.  


Chinook Sunset hailed us on the VHF radio the next day, and suggested that since the seas were calmer that morning than they had been the previous afternoon (as is usually the case), we would leave Karma at anchor, hop on Chinook Sunset, head back over to the sea cave (an hour away) and check out the sea cave from their dinghy.  We had a wonderful time visiting with our friends over there and back, and the sea cave was absolutely worth the extra trip.  We went in groups of three, with three staying behind.  John went in the first group, and captured it on video.  His group was able to go deep into the cave, rounding the corner into complete darkness, where the herd of sea lions barked at them to get out of their cave.  Rochelle was in the second group, and by the time they entered the cave, the seas were rollicking again.  It’s amazing what a difference a half hour can make.  The cave was thrilling, and definitely worth the effort.  Thanks, Chinook Sunset, for making it happen!  Thanks to Captain Mike for editing the following compilation of video from our voyages.


Turn on the sound for best viewing of video.


Next we anchored at Scorpion Anchorage, a destination location for kayakers who take ferries from Santa Barbara and other parts unknown for a day of kayaking in the beautiful waters, exploring the rocky coastline and sea caves of the island.  There is an old homestead there, left from the days that the island was a sheep ranch.  A descendant of the founder was at the property, and we struck up a conversation about the family’s history on the land.


Next we headed to the famous Santa Catalina Island.  We arrived at Twin Harbors early on Sunday morning.  There is no anchoring here–only mooring balls–and while they are relatively expensive when you consider that the only privilege you’re buying is being tethered to the seabed in that location, we were ready for some resort time and got a better price if we stayed for a week.  The mooring field was pretty full on a Sunday morning, and these are not the typical mooring balls I described above.  These mooring balls have a three foot long bamboo stick standing out of the top instead of a ring, so that the first mate can easily grab the stick as as the helmsman drives by.  To that stick is attached a rope with two loops.  The first mate is supposed to bring the stick aboard, grab the loop and put it around a bow deck cleat, and then grab the second loop and put it around a stern deck cleat.  We actually watched YouTubes about how to do this in Catalina in order to be prepared.  It’s supposed to be easy, but when the mooring field is crowded and the first mate is a concrete thinker, the easy can get complicated very quickly.  The helmsman had to leave the cushy cockpit to take matters into his own hands.  No boats, crew or marriages were harmed, but we were a spectacle that Sunday morning, and are not fans of this “easier” method of picking up a mooring ball.



When John went to pay the bill, he was told that Karma had been in that mooring field 27 times, and that she had a credit of $8 on file.  Her previous owner lived in Long Beach, and loved to take her to Catalina.  We decided it would be good karma to leave the $8 on the account.  Later that day, the boat on the next mooring ball told us that they had been aboard Karma in the past.  It’s a small world.  


We were flying our Baja Haha burgee and met boats that would be making the trip from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas with us later in the fall.  It was good to make those connections early.  


On Sunday evening, most of the boats left for home and things were more peaceful.  Twin Harbors has a great beach where you can rent a beach chair and umbrella for the day, and be served food and beverages beachside from the comfort of said chair.  This is just what we needed at this step of our journey.  We had a wonderful afternoon relaxing and soaking up the sun.  




Our friends on Kealani joined us for snorkeling off of the boat–our first of the trip.  We didn’t see a lot of fish, except for many garibaldi, the California State marine fish.  It’s exactly the same color as a California poppy.  John saw a skate!  We are looking forward to a lot more snorkeling in our future, and we really enjoyed going with Rich and Tracey from Kealani.  


Garibaldi, the state marine fish of California


We decided to get out of Twin Harbors before the weekend crowd returned, so we slipped over to Emerald Bay.  What is notable about this VERY rolly mooring that there are lots of huge sink-your-boat rocks that do not show when the tide is high.  It is only because our moms are faithful praying women that we did not hit one of these rocks when we came in here.  When the tide went out and we saw what we were lucky to have just missed, our blood ran cold.  


Looking for a less-rolly mooring, we went around the corner to Hen Rock.  There was a big dive boat here with many divers aboard and lots of bright lights.  When we rose early (3am!) the next day to take off for our next stop in Oceanside, their bright lights were still on.  You don’t want to drive through an anchorage where there might be divers in the water without knowing where they might be, and so we got on the VHF radio and attempted–repeatedly–to hail the dive boat, but they didn’t answer.  Eventually, we just had to leave and take it slowly.  Later, we found that this was likely the same operation that ran Conception, the dive boat that caught fire off Santa Cruz Island in 2019, killing 33 passengers and one crew while they slept.  The tragedy of Conception is the one of the reasons that John is relentless about making sure that we handle all lithium batteries carefully aboard Karma, including the way that they are charged and stored.  


When we called the marina in Oceanside to see if they could accommodate us, they told us that the only thing they had was right next to Sea Lion Island.  Are you kidding me?  After we survived a week with legions of sea lions in Monterey, the only place we could be in Oceanside was next to Sea Lion Island?  What choice did we have?  None, so we took it.  Sea Lion Island is a 20’ x 20’ dock that Oceanside has put in place in an effort to keep the sea lions from taking over the marina docks.  It works pretty well, but there are some sea lions who prefer the marina dock; specifically, they prefer the dock at which we were berthed.  These are massive animals, with the bulls reaching up to 850 pounds and if one is on your dock, you cannot get off your boat.  It is illegal to harass them, and besides that, there is a well-used malecon in Oceanside and the sea lions are the main attraction, so if you even considered harassing them, those watching would give you your comeuppance.  We did learn that it is okay to squirt them with a water hose, and so we kept a water hose positioned so that if they pinned us onto our boat, we could squirt them back into the water.  The Oceanside sea lions are a much smaller herd, with only about 30 animals on the dock at once, as opposed to the hundreds in Monterey, and they have the good manners to zip it at night so that people can sleep.  We enjoyed watching their antics during the day; they are an interesting community of characters.  



Another charming aspect of Oceanside is the marina’s next door neighbor:  Marine Corp Base Pendleton.  Every morning we were delighted to hear Reveille and in the evening, Taps.  There was a lot of interesting flight activity over the ocean while we were there–Marines doing what Marines do, I guess.  The town is safe and clean.  A security guard at the marina told us that the reason that Oceanside is such a nice town is that the base commander requires it to be.  I believe that. 

 

Before we left Port Townsend, our freezer stopped working properly.  We planned this stop in Oceanside because it is the closest marina to Escondido, the headquarters of CruiseRO, the manufacturer of our fridge/freezer operation.  CruiseRO had told us that if we would bring the compressor unit to their shop, they would get it running again.  While close, it was not possible to take public transportation to get there, so we had to rent a car.  CruiseRO is a small operation with amazing customer service.  We learned a lot about how our compressor works, how to recharge it in the future, and they got it running  better than new.  



We had not driven since we left Port Townsend and quickly found that having a car gave us freedom and convenience to “get stuff,” which can be challenging when you are on a boat relying on your feet or public transportation.  With a car, we quickly became consumers again and used the opportunity to buy things that we’d realized we “couldn’t live without” as well as replenishing our boat supplies.  


We were worried that we had been adopted by a rodent here.  We leave our shoes outside in the cockpit.  One morning, Rochelle found that her shoe had been nibbled upon, and there were droppings in the cockpit.  We cleaned it up, and found droppings every morning thereafter.  This is not a stowaway that we wanted.  Thankfully, since we left Oceanside, we have seen no evidence of our little intruder.  We think that he was coming aboard during the night and then leaving.  At least we hope that is the case.

After two weeks at the dock in Oceanside, it was time to head to San Diego.  On the way, we stopped in the Mission Bay anchorage for a couple of nights.  Not too long after we dropped the hook, we saw another Coho Hoho boat enter the anchorage:  Walden.  We hopped in the dinghy to hi, and hours later, we climbed out of their cockpit grateful to have made new friends.  The next day, we learned that one of John’s classmates from the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding was at a resort at Mission Bay for a wedding (what are the chances?) and so we enjoyed a beverage and some crazy-delicious nachos with him and his fiance.  



From Mission Bay, it was a short sail around the corner to San Diego, our last US port.  It was exciting to enter the impressive San Diego Harbor.  Tucked away in our berth at the public dock, we enjoyed the excitement of gathering with other boats going on the Baja Haha, and attending preparatory events.  We needed to rent a car again here, and were delighted when Enterprise upgraded our Kia Sol to a Maserati. Rochelle wanted John to drive around town just for the fun of riding in this smooth car.  She thinks the ideal next adventure, post-sailing, is a townhouse on the beach in Oceanside with a Maserati in the garage.  She’s a dreamer.



The highlight of our time in San Diego was making new friends and connecting with old ones.  Friends from Olympia were there for a visit on a camper trip, and we were delighted to visit with them–and their grown daughters–again.  And one of Rochelle’s high school friends who lives in Palm Springs and her wife came over for a weekend to spend time with us.  They showed us a great time and it was amazing to reconnect after all these years.  


Just as we were preparing to depart for Mexico, John came down with a terrible cold that laid him up for four days and prevented us from leaving with the rest of the Baja Haha fleet.  After four years of doing everything we could to be ready to leave the country, we were foiled by a bug, but we knew that in order to double hand the long passage from San Diego to Turtle Bay, Mexico, we both needed to be at our best, so getting a couple of extra days of sleep was the right thing to do.  We watched the Baja Haha fleet parade depart the harbor without us, and while it was thrilling to see all the boats in this jubilant display, we were disappointed that Karma wasn't among them.  



Two days later, John was feeling much better so we moved Karma to an anchorage outside of San Diego harbor, so that we would have an easy depart the following morning. Out in our new anchorage we were blessed with a beautiful sunset over Point Loma, What a wonderful farewell gift as we set sail (or motor) to MEXICO!



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