After being on the hard in Ventura for over a month for repairs, we were homesick and more than ready to return to Morro Bay. At a cost of $50,000, this by far was our most expensive haul out since buying the Papagallo. With the repairs complete and Coast Guard approval, all we needed was a good weather window to cruise home.
Weather is always a critical factor on any cruise. It must be considered, especially when going around Point Conception. If there is anyone who needs to know what the weather prediction is, it is certainly the mariner. Out at sea, changes in weather cause differences not just in temperature but in sea conditions, wind strength, direction, and wave swell. The sailor who does not pay attention to these changes is a gambler whose luck may run out. Ultimately he could find himself in a dangerous situation. Or worse, put others in one.
After checking NOAA for sea conditions, we brought the crew onboard and cast off at 9:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. The captain set a heading northwest placing us four miles off shore in the Santa Barbara channel. The weather report gave us a fifteen-hour window to get home ahead of a low front that was coming in. Seas were four to five feet at twelve seconds with winds fifteen to twenty knots out of the northwest. These conditions would be no problem for the vessel or crew and would allow us to cruise at ten knots and get to Morro Bay safely ahead of the front.
In all there were four souls onboard settled in on the helm. The first few hours of our journey were fine. We told the usual sea stories, exaggerated past adventures, and embellished on the truth as we wanted to remember it, all normal activities for us, enhanced by the aroma of fresh brewed coffee and the haze of pipe and cigar smoke.
After the financial shock of this haul out, I was beginning to relax. Soon we would be home, ready for business again.
As we made our way north, the weather and sea conditions began to change. The wind gusts and wave swells increased. Occasional swells out of the south began hitting our port beam. This was not in the forecast. We still had many protected hours ahead. What was happening?
The seas were beginning to pound us relentlessly. Ten knots seemed like twenty to me. But the captain insisted on holding our speed. “We have to get ahead of the predicted cold front,” he said. It was very obvious to me that our fifteen-hour weather window for smooth sailing was about to slam shut. Some weather man’s miscalculation, I thought. So much for accuracy.
Heavy ocean spray began pelting the helm windows. Green water blasted up through the anchor hawspipe, poured out on the foredeck, and then ran down the scuppers both port and starboard.
The rougher it got, the more the old salt captain seemed to enjoy the ride. I, for one, did not share his enthusiasm! There is no joy in hearing the considerable crashing, banging, and clanging taking place aft and below decks, especially when you can’t see what is actually happening. I wanted to reduce speed, not only to lessen the pounding we were getting, but also to prevent damage to the vessel. However, the captain would have no part of that and pressed on.
When we arrived off the point, we experienced confused seas at the height of their confusion – swells cresting in different directions at 11 to 14 feet one after the other at close intervals, wind gusting to 45 knots, and skies darkening all around us. The bright sunshine we were promised when leaving Ventura had vanished. Along with it, much of my enthusiasm.
With no warning, seemingly from out of nowhere, a series of large swells descended on us. As the Papagallo rose to the top of the first angry wave, the captain shouted out, “Hold on!” Completely at the wave’s mercy, we plunged down deep into the trough, burying the bow under the green water of the next oncoming wave. The entire boat shuddered. Our forward progress halted briefly before we smashed through the next wave.
“SHIT!!” I barked out. “Cut the damn speed.” Even now, it’s hard for me to describe the horrific sound of 78 tons of boat hitting a solid wall of water at 10 knots! You have to be onboard when it happens to experience the absolute terror of knowing that everything around you is about to break apart.
Before we had recovered from the previous wave we were hit on the beam by another one. The impact tossed Jim half way across the salon into the decorative fireplace. He laid there in a heap, groaning in pain, for a few minutes before we could scoop him up and place him safely on the bench on the helm. We found out later he had suffered three broken ribs because of the fall. At this point Jeff said that he thought “something might have broken loose on the boat deck above.” But conditions were so rough that none of us was eager to venture up there to check it out right then.
Once our speed was reduced, conditions onboard improved to the point where the crew and I could check for damage. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to know, but I decided that not knowing was worse.
So, I entered the galley. I discovered that the impact had sprung the refrigerator door along with all the cabinet doors. Broken glass, food stuffs and cooking pans littered the deck. The worst of this was my fifteen-year-old Balsamic Vinegar and a half gallon of Virgin Olive Oil oozing onto the deck from their containers. Add a few heads of Romaine and some parmesan and we could have a salad prepared right there! . . . What a mess!
Aft of the galley, the furnishings in the salon were tossed in a pile resembling the aftermath of an earthquake. The enclosed aft deck also took a major hit with the aft windows swinging wildly having broken free from their restraint fasteners. The volume of seawater was so great it overflowed the scuppers and flooded the deck. There were at least three inches of seawater sloshing about the deck, deep enough for life rings that had dislodged from their racks to be floating.
We secured the aft windows, about all we could do before heading back to the helm. Cleaning the galley and salon would have to wait until we got to port.
A personal note here concerning captains: The captain is the authority onboard any vessel. He has the rank and experience to give orders. But first and foremost, his responsibility is to keep the crew, passengers, and vessel safe. On this day, I believe he acted in a wreckless manner by not reducing speed soon enough in heavy seas. I was not sure of his motive or what, if anything, he was trying to prove. I do know that owners think and act differently than hired captains. Having just spent $50K on repairs, I did not want to expose the boat to unnecessary damage. When it’s all said and done, he gets to go home and I’m the poor bastard who has to clean up and repair damages.
Upon inspection at the dock, the crashing sound Jeff had heard topside was that of the dink being ripped from its’ cradle. Secured to the boat only by its davit cables, it could not withstand the blunt wave force. It had given way, almost like myself and my crew. This cruise ended after fifteen crushing hours at sea . . . a trip that normally takes twelve.
This is a longer than normal post for me, but it’s difficult to round Point Conception in 500 words or less. As a result of this cruise I was soon back on the job replenishing precious points to King Neptune’s insurance account for the Papagallo!