Just north of Santa Barbara, along the California coast, lies Point Conception. A point of land that juts out where the north end of the Santa Barbara channel meets the open Pacific. It’s a natural division between southern and central California – as if someone had placed it there for our convenience. It’s also a place where strong-willed currents strive to dominate one another in a furiously confusing convergence that makes sailing conditions difficult at best for large vessels and almost impossible for small ones, especially if they misjudge it.
The west coast of California is rich in history, and its lore is full of maritime disasters. A great many of them can be attributed to conditions encountered near or at Point Conception. One of the worst documented cases occurred on a Saturday night, September 8, 1923. It was foggy and difficult to see. Fourteen ships of Destroyer Squadron 11 were running south from San Francisco to San Diego at 20 knots with just a few minutes sea time between them. By most accounts, they were too close to each other for weather conditions.
The lead ship, the destroyer U.S.S. Delphy, mistook the light at Point Arguello to be the light at Point Conception which was twelve miles further to the south. As a consequence of this navigational error, the Delphy’s captain, thinking he was entering the channel, turned inland much too soon. The other destroyers followed him. Rocky outcrops awaited them. When they realized the error, it was much too late. Men had been thrown from the decks and tossed into the sea as the ships’ hulls tore open. Twenty-two lost their lives.
Seven destroyers ran aground on the jagged rock outcroppings close to shore and were lost. Two ships were damaged. Only five were able to avoid the rocks. It was the largest peacetime loss of U.S. Navy ships in our history.
Over the last twelve years, I have sailed by the point on ten different occasions while delivering the Papagallo for haul out in Ventura. On my first crossing, we entered a protective cove just south of the point called Co-Ho. I was preparing dinner for the crew. The ocean was like glass. There was no hint of any previous disasters. Eerily, it was almost too calm. After a satisfying meal we capped the evening by sipping whiskey, swapping stories and smoking cigars. A fine night. Mellow. Given to introspection and speculation.
So I waited for a lull in the conversation before I asked the captain about all the yarns I had heard over the years regarding horrible sea conditions, shipwrecks and near sinking’s that had taken place in these waters. Taking a deep draw on his pipe, his reply was more of a warning than an explanation. As he removed the pipe and looked me squarely in the eye, his gaze never wavering, he said, “Count your blessings, Mate, as your insurance account with King Neptune is paid up and you best keep it that way.”
I later learned that a healthy respect for sea superstitions is valuable. It helps keep your vessel ship shape because you tend never to shortcut a repair or ignore necessary maintenance to keep it that way. And by taking these actions, you add precious currency to your King Neptune account. This allows you to experience smooth sailing and it protects you and your vessel from confused seas and angry squalls no matter where you sail, but especially rounding Point Conception. It is considered to be a sacred site (the Western Gate) by Chumash Indians, a place where the souls of their departed begin their celestial journey onward to paradise. You don’t want to join them before you’re ready.
But please be sure to join me on next week’s blog where, on our seventh trip (not a lucky seven for us) heading north to Morro Bay, we emptied out King Neptune’s insurance account sailing through eleven-foot seas in gale force winds. You don’t want to miss this one – SCARRY STUFF!