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Local Cruising Destinations: Moss Landing Harbor

Local cruising looks hot this summer, with Latitude 38’s Delta Doo Dah already hitting entries of 80 boats. But some folks prefer the cool of Monterey Bay to the Delta heat. If you like wildlife (rowdy sea otters, majestic humpback whales or aggressive sea lions) instead of the other kind of wild life (parties, water toys, raft-ups or a poker run), then consider a cruise to Moss Landing, in the heart of Monterey Bay.

Sunrise in Moss Landing Yacht Harbor
Sunrise in Moss Landing Yacht Harbor. The large power plant rarely operates these days.
© 2020 Susan Burden

An Easy Run from San Francisco Bay

Sailing outside the Golden Gate involves open-ocean risks on a stretch of coastline prone to frequent gales, fog and lots of traffic by large commercial vessels. You need a well-prepared boat and the experience to handle the expected conditions. With those caveats, and depending on weather, the cruise to Moss Landing is an easy day’s run.

We’ve made the trip from Richmond a number of times in 8 to 10 hours. We look for an early ebb to launch our old Cal 40 under the Golden Gate Bridge, watching our AIS for approaching ships. Typical summer prevailing conditions, if you depart San Francisco Bay early, feature light morning breezes, with the well-known ‘Montara Hole’ as you pass Pacifica. By the time we put Pillar Point Harbor and Half Moon Bay astern, the wind machine has fired up, and we hoist sail and shut down the diesel. Passing Año Nuevo Lighthouse and Waddell Beach, we encounter kiteboarders, windsurfers and 18-23 knots of the usual Monterey Bay pressure. Santa Cruz Harbor is a convenient detour or refuge, about two hours from our Moss Landing Harbor destination.

Sailing in to Moss Landing on SV Shaman
Sailing into Moss Landing. The entrance to Moss Landing Harbor is a straight shot, with a well-dredged channel.
© 2020 Susan Burden

Giant Underwater Canyon

Moss Landing occupies the intersection between Elkhorn Slough, one of the largest wetlands in California, and the huge submarine Monterey Canyon. Imagine the Grand Canyon drowned in the Pacific, a monster chasm dropping precipitously to 10,000 feet deep and more. This vast expanse is what drives the vibrant ecosystem of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. A boater entering Moss Landing is greeted by a cacophony of sound from an incredible profusion of birds, sea lions and sea otters. The overpowering smell of guano from vast flocks of gulls and pelicans greets you at the channel’s end as you turn right for Moss Landing Harbor, or steer left into the narrow line of buoys leading to the Elkhorn Yacht Club.

In pre-pandemic times, Moss Landing supported several commercial whale-watching tour boats, two or three kayak rental businesses, an aquatic pontoon water bike rental, and Whisper Charters, a sedate electric excursion boat. All of these outfits let you see breaching humpbacks, pods of orcas, even a few blue whales that occasionally visit Monterey Bay.

Moss Landing Yacht Harbor hosts the Monterey Bay Aquarium research laboratory vessels
Marine research vessels like the Rachel Carson and commercial fishing boats are plentiful in this working harbor.
© 2020 Tom Burden

A Funky and Unique Marina

Moss Landing Harbor is home to more than 600 boats, including 350 fishing boats, 200 pleasure craft and 30 research vessels. Be warned that the facilities are a bit grungy and minimal. You can expect creaky wood docks, which may be occupied by large, bellowing sea lions. The restrooms and showers are best left to the imagination. This is definitely not the St. Francis Yacht Club.

When you scrape off the rough edges, however, the locals are friendly and the adventures await. You’ll find local cruisers like our friends Vince and Maryann, who bought a Freedom 40/40 sailboat, spent a year preparing their new steed in Moss Landing, then headed south for Baja California. There’s a liveaboard community too, populated by an oddball collection of folks like our friend Benny, the Vietnamese fisherman.

Excellent eating establishments are within walking distance. We love the Whole Enchilada for California-style Mexican food, or the Thai food at Lemon Grass. The Moss Landing Cafe is our breakfast favorite, and everyone has heard about Phil’s Fish Market.

Sea lions bask on the old wooden docks
Sea lions bask on the old wooden docks.
© 2020 Tom Burden

No Moss Landing cruise is complete without a foray into Elkhorn Slough. We have explored it both by kayak and by El Toro dinghy (which requires pulling out your mast to float under the highway bridge). You can ride the crest of a flood tide all the way to Kirby Park, about four miles away at the far end of the Slough. You can also visit interesting hiking trails and a museum at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve, which requires access to a car.

Crab fishing is a mainstay of Moss Landing activity
Crab fishing is a mainstay of Moss Landing activity.
© 2020 Tom Burden

We would highly recommend adding Moss Landing to your Monterey Bay summer cruising plans. Since it’s about equidistant from both Monterey and Santa Cruz harbors, we could easily fill a two-week family vacation visiting all three harbors. We’ll shine our Latitude spotlight on those destinations in a future story.

6 Comments

  1. Lewis Keizer 1 year ago

    Yes, but getting back is a two-day trip with a lot of motorsailing.

  2. skip 1 year ago

    Using Moss Landing Harbor seawater in your ship’s plumbing would be questionable at best..

  3. Tom Burden 1 year ago

    Lewis Keizer you are spot on. We usually stop in Pillar Point Harbor on our way back to SF Bay. We never sail but rely on Mr. Yanmar and set up our soft dodger. We make 6.5 knots at cruising speed under power. The autopilot does the driving while we watch for crab pot floats. This usually is eight to ten hours under power.

    The Pillar Point harbor has a convoluted entrance and was unlit as of 2019. A fishing port, not a yacht harbor. Ketch Joanne is a great breakfast spot walking distance from your slip.

    The next day takes us about five hours motor sailing to Richmond, tide and breeze willing. Nothing beats the view looking up at the GG Bridge under sail.

  4. milly Biller 1 year ago

    Moss Landing is great and so is the Elkhorn YC !

  5. Doug Tiffany 1 year ago

    Can one reserve a slip ?

  6. Robin Cabak 1 year ago

    Thanks for the article; we are in the Santa Cruz Harbor and want to make a round trip this fall from SC to Moss and then onto Monterey. Make a week trip out of the loop.

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