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‘Finistere’ Battles Raging Seas from Santa Barbara to San Francisco

We’re glad we have pictures or nobody would believe us. Heading north up the West Coast is known as one of the most difficult legs of any sailor’s voyaging. It’s not uncommon for circumnavigators to tell us they sailed all the way around the world only to find the worst weather of the whole trip in the last 300 miles north to San Francisco.

After purchasing a 1989 Sabre 38 MkII we’re renaming Finistere (after the cape in Brittany, France) in Long Beach last fall, we’d been waiting for a moment to bring her north. We had hoped to spend more time exploring Southern California, but severe COVID warnings kept us from feeling free enough to do much visiting. The logistical challenges of managing a remote boat in a pandemic finally convinced us it was better to just get her close to home so we could have more time to enjoy her and learn more about her.

When the timing looked right at the end of March, we reached out to our friend Michael Rossi and connected with fellow Corinthian Yacht Club members Randall von Wedel and Jon Kahn, who all said, “Let’s go!” With a crew ready, we started scanning Windy for an appropriate weather window. One magically appeared just as we were sending the April issue off to the printer.

Suddenly, it was time to get into high gear with boat prep though, honestly, the boat was in great shape for an ocean passage. Prior owner Matt Humphries had done the 2017 Transpac with Paul Kamen aboard as navigator. Put food, fuel, water and jerry jugs aboard; fix a finicky Simrad autopilot, check the oil, set up jacklines, and switch out the big SoCal #1 for the NorCal #3. We’re always told, “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” Fortunately, besides food, most of the prep was unnecessary. We experienced one of the smoothest, clearest, calmest rides north we’ve heard of.

Leaving Santa Barbara
The northbound treachery started as we left Santa Barbara. Clear and calm. John Arndt and Michael Rossi prepare for the worst.
© 2021 Jon Kahn
Point Conception
The misery continued as Randall von Wedel and Michael Rossi rounded Point Conception. To add drama we tilted the camera for a little heel.
© 2021 Latitude 38 Media LLC / John
Big Sur
Surely this ordeal had to let up by Big Sur?
© 2021 Latitude 38 Media LLC / John

The only breeze we saw was from Mile Rocks almost to Belvedere Point against a fierce ebb. It was a classic, fog-lifting finish after the long gray stretch from Monterey Bay to San Francisco Bay. Approaching Mile Rocks we had our first hints of breeze with a greater-than-zero apparent wind angle. We hoisted the main and unfurled the jib so we could at least sail under the Golden Gate Bridge.

The breeze built as we approached the Marin shoreline to avoid the ebb, and the fog was just backing off the bridge. We soon had too much sail up for the rollicking ebb. Foiling kiteboarders and wing sailors mocked our growing alarm. We grabbed a piece of flat water for a chicken jibe and headed toward Richardson Bay to ease our 20 minutes of sailing strain. As quickly as they’d appeared, the wind and waves settled. The air became warm, our foulies came off, and we sailed calmly into Belvedere Cove to squeeze our beamy boat into her narrow slip — she just fits.

Finistere comes in the Gate
Jon Kahn, Randall von Wedel, Michael Rossi and I were happy to be home.
© 2021 Latitude 38 Media LLC / John

Occasionally we have heard of people hoisting a spinnaker when they find a rare southerly as they come north, but, overall, we feel very fortunate. Before leaving Santa Barbara we spoke to Dennis Longaberger, owner of Sunset Kidd Yacht Sales in Santa Barbara, who’s done dozens of deliveries north. He had some great tips such as hideouts like Pfeiffer Cove to the south of Point Sur — though we noted Wreck Beach is not far to the south. We always appreciate great advice that we can avoid using. As always, it has us thinking… What was your best or worst northbound experience? Where have you hidden out or found protection on your way north? (Please comment below or email us.)

The Channel Islands are always beckoning, but it’s the northbound reckoning that causes people to hesitate. We’re looking forward to returning south in a pandemic-eased world and when we’re more familiar with our boat. But could we be lucky twice? (Apologies for the misleading headline.)

Look for more on our trip north in the May issue of Latitude 38.

9 Comments

  1. michael kehir 3 months ago

    2 more :
    behind the kelp beds at:
    1) San Simeon, off beach in 20 ft
    2) Anna Nuevo Eleph Seal house…stay to Starboard of red can and go straight towards beach and hwy 1, go 90 deg to port and drop hook in 20 ft..Great rathole in NW sea state..kelp blocks 90% of swell

  2. Paul Moench 3 months ago

    So we dropped the hook at Pt Lopez once, to avoid big wind coming north, in 60 ft. Launched the dinghy, and had harbor seals jump in! We were there 3 nights.

  3. milly Biller 3 months ago

    I once took a shower while northbound on the beautiful 80’Schooner Shearwater. The next trip north on her the following year was a different story. We ducked into Morro Bay after taking a licking, which was interesting in a boat that big, but Morro Bay YC was more than welcoming to us. Off the GG bridge we caught a salmon, but had to lower a crewman over the side to hand catch it as we had no net.

  4. Kevin 3 months ago

    Only sailors of great courage could have made that passage.

  5. Ken Kotsur 3 months ago

    We bought a sailboat in January of 2020 in Ventura CA. By the time repairs and prep were completed Covid hit. It wasn’t until Sept that we finally could move her north to her new home in Brisbane Marina. We had similar conditions rounding Point Conception ( calm and smooth seas) and actually towed a distressed sailboat with engine failure into San Luis Obispo CA. The roughest part of the trip was the overnight passage from SLO to Monterey Bay where we had to duck in for a few days to avoid Gail force winds moving down the coast. Smokey and dead calm rounding Miles rock into the bay.

  6. LOU ROPER 3 months ago

    I have helped my dad bring Harrier Noth from long Beach to SF for the single-handed transpac. We like COHO, a little cove just south of Pt Conception. You have to dodge a lot of kelp though.

  7. Carlos Valencia 2 months ago

    We’ve made at least a dozen trips from SB to SF on our 30 Bristol, Felicia. Our strategy: don’t rush or try to unnecessarily use blast mode (motoring under reefed main only) when pulling into anchorages or places like Morro and San Simeon Bays are possible for rest and fun. Here’s how we do it: Leave SB in the early evening for a passage to San Luis by early afternoon the next day. Hang out for at least a day to relax. Then on to Morro Bay for a day or two of relaxation and fun. Then a half day passage to San Simeon for rest and then leaving in the early evening for a overnighter rounding Pt Sur by early morning and arriving at Monterey by early afternoon. Hang out for a day or two enjoying the scenery, hiking, and the great cuisine. Then half day to Santa Cruz for a day or more, and last the final blast to the SF, leaving before sunrise. Radar is essential for the entire trip, mostly because of likely fog in and out during the entire passage from SB to SF. If you’re on a tight schedule because of crew commitments you likely to suffer unfortunately. All the above applies only to our summer and fall passages.

  8. Marlaina Pipal 2 months ago

    Glad you had those uncommon conditions. And, it warms my heart to see 3 familiar faces in the cockpit. Hi guys!

  9. Craig Russell 2 months ago

    In 2018, we were “stuck” in Santa Barbara for 4 days due to a wind storm. We took off at 0300 to round Conception in the early morning. The wind was about 5 knots as we hit the Point 10 miles off. We continued to Monterey but those were tough miles in 30 knot winds and 15′ seas. We made it to Monterey safely and then harbor hopped up the coast to Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay. Got a little misty as we made it under the GG Bridge after 7 months on the water. We had departed Ztown 6 weeks prior and completed our 4000 mile voyage which started in SF.

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