OBSTACLES and CHALLENGES - PUGET SOUND to SAN DIEGO

It is about 1250 nautical miles from Tacoma Washington, in the center of Puget Sound, to Pt Loma at the entrance to San Diego Bay.  Most cruisers, power or sail, make the trip during the mid-June to late September time period.   November thru March in the NE Pacific Ocean is a period of very strong storms with gale force winds and 10' to 25' seas coming from the southwest to northwest.   April, May, and October can be unsettled and pretty rough in the NE Pacific.  The Columbus Day storm (mid-October) in 1964 had sustained winds of over 100 miles per hour along the Washington and Oregon Coast.  

The typical cruiser will leave Puget Sound sometime between mid-July and Mid-September and try to be south of Pt. Conception by early October.   My plan for 2010 was to leave Tacoma sometime during the first week of September and travel as quickly and directly as the weather would allow.

I have made the trip four times and I know those 1250 miles to Pt Loma include several different challenges for any cruiser sized sailboat:

1)  Straits of Juan de Fuca
Pt Loma is 1000 miles SSE of Tacoma but the only exit from Puget Sound to the Pacific Ocean is 145 miles NW of Tacoma.   It is necessary to head 60 miles NW in Puget Sound and Admiralty Inlet and then West out the Straits of Juan de Fuca which separates the Olympic Penninsula (Washington state) from Vancouver Island (British Columbia). The Straits are 82 NM long extending from Pt Wilson, the northern tip of Port Townsend Washington, to Cape Flattery which is the northwesterly most point in the continental United States.

Heading west in the Straits usually means sailing directly into 20 to 35 knots of west and NW wind.    Almost every summer day the Washington State landmass to the east of the Straits heats up with the hot air rising to create surface low pressure.  The cool dense Pacific ocean air rushes in thru the Straits to fill that surface low and consistently produces 20 - 30 knots of West wind in the afternoon and evening.  The winds die off by midnight and then begin building around noon. 

The 2nd problem with the Straits is the 2 to 3 knot tidal current that flows in and out every day.  At the East end of the Straits the current often exceeds five knots and when out (westward) flowing against the evening winds can produce some nasty waves and tidal overfalls.  At the West end of the straits the outbound tide colliding with the West wind and 10' ocean rollers can produce almost impossible waves and currents that can be hazardous to small craft. 

The 3rd problem is the constant ocean swell coming in from the Gulf of Alaska.  Those eight to 12' rollers can make for a difficult passage, especially when the incoming tide is flowing at 2 knots.  A sailboat diesel has trouble making any way in those conditions.

The bottom line with the Straits is that small craft, i.e. Mirador, have to time their 14 hour transit of the Straits to maximize the benefit of the outgoing tide while avoiding the hazards of the prevailing 20 knot west winds. 

I have sailed across the Straits and west and east in Straits many times and do have a healthy concern about every transit.  In April of 2000 my brother and I were caught crossing the Straits in his Tartan 42.  The US weather service had posted small craft advisories but we saw 50 knot gusts, steady 35 knot winds, and 12' breaking seas for three hours. 

During a 1999 eastbound trip from western Vancouver Island we flew Mirador's spinnaker four hours in 25 knots gusting to 35 - eventually we ran out of searoom near Clallam Bay and had to drop the chute.  The wind had steadily built from 18 knots at 1 PM to 25 knots at 5 PM. 

In 1996 Mirador and Mystique, a Columbia 38 that is now in Turkey, left Port Angles westbound in the Straits at 6 AM in beautiful dead calm sunshine (Sunrise is before 5:30 AM in early July).   By 10 AM we were pounding into six foot breaking waves and 20 knots of wind directly on the nose.  We turned back to Port Angles and tried again the next day when we encountered the same conditions.  Eventually we decided to head north to Victoria and not try to head out the straits.

About 12 years ago, we left Neah Bay (Cape Flattery) headed WNW 40 miles for Banfield on the SW coast of Vancouver Island.  We had been stuck in Neah Bay for three days waiting for the NW gales and 25' seas to subside.   After about 90 minutes of motoring we realized that Mirador was having to climb up and over 15' to 18' swells about every 15 seconds.  The swells were smooth with no white water but Mirador would slow from 6.5 knots to about 4 knots as she approached the crest.   Once on the crest it was obvious the swells continued forever in a WNW direction.   The only challenge was how to turn Mirador around on an 18' swell. 

One last note about the Straits- during the period 1985 - 1995 I used to board sail at Klein Spit (Dungeness Lighthouse in the central Straits) several afternoons a week.  At that time I didn't bother rigging the board until there were at least 22 knots of wind - and we could count on it about four days a week. 

The last problem with the Straits is that dozens of very large ocean going ships, crude oil tankers, container ships, and auto transporters, cruise east and west at 24 knots every day.  Those ships are headed for the ports of Vancouver BC, Seattle, and Tacoma.  Additionally, the US Navy homeports an aircraft carrier at Everett, nuclear submarines at Bangor, and has an enormous Naval Shipyard at Bremerton.  The path from Pt. Wilson to Cape Flattery crosses the designated shipping lanes in three places - thus requiring constant attention to radar and a visual lookout. 

At a closing speed of 30 knots (Mirador making 6 and the inbound ship making 24) the ship goes from over the horizon to in your face in about 15 minutes so there is no napping in the Straits. 

2) Too Many NW Swells and Not Enough Wind
The NE Pacific is dominated by nearly constant swells from the WNW to NNW.  They are usually long period and vary in height from five to nine feet.  In and of themselves, the swells are of little concern.   The problem is the 470 NM course from Cape Flattery to Cape St George, at the Oregon/California border, is 170 degrees.  When the swell is coming from 315 degrees (NW) - the boat is being constantly rolled by a swell at 35 degree to port of the stern - for almost four days if we go non-stop.    The boat motion is very tiring because of the 10 to 20 degree roll every five to eight seconds.  It is almost impossible to stand below without holding on and even sleeping is difficult because of the rolling from side to side.

The wind is almost always 10 to 16 knots true from the NW or about 6 to 12 knots apparent.  If there were no swell we could keep the Code 0 (Show me Mirador's Code 0 sail) or the Asymmetrical spinnaker full on a pole with the main boomed out in a wing-and-wind configuration (see the Code 0 page for a picture of the wing and wing).    However the constant swell rolls Mirador 20 degrees to port causing the mainsail  to backwind and the headsail to deflate.  When Mirador rolls back to starboard the main refills with a BANG that shakes the whole boat.   The headsail also refills with a pop but does not shake the boat as badly.  The rolling and banging make it impossible to sleep. 

Once the STEADY true wind exceeds NW 18 knots the drive from the sails keeps both sails full and Mirador can sail happily at six to seven knots with an apparent wind speed of 12 to 16 knots.  As long as the true wind stays below 30 knots Mirador is very happy and comfortable sailing almost dead down wind with the head sail poled out and a main, reefed at 14 knots apparent, in a wing-and-wing configuration.

Once the apparent wind exceeds 16 knots from astern we drop the reefed main and sail with only a head sail, usually on a reaching pole.

Our answer to not enough wind and too much swell is to motor sail with just the head sail poled out. In 13 knots true, for example, with the engine running at 1700 RPM and ONLY the genoa up, and poled out, we can keep Mirador moving at seven knots with almost no sail deflating, backfilling, and banging.  That saves about 500 RPM of engine speed and about a quart of fuel an hour.  We motorsail in this configuration much of the time. 

The other advantage of motorsailing is that the Ardic 091DM heater uses the engine heat to keep the cabin at 72 degrees despite the fairly constant 56 to 64 degree outside air and 53 degree water temperature.   

3) Safe Harbors are behind Bars
Every harbor entrance between Cape Flattery and San Francisco, about 750 NM, requires a bar crossing which can be difficult, dangerous, or fairly often impossible in some weather and sea conditions.   The "bars" are created by the outflow of rivers into the Pacific Ocean.  That outflow carries sand, silt, dirt, and debris from inland and deposits it at the river mouth, thus creating a sudden shallow spot where ocean waves and swells can pile up and even break.   For example, at Coos Bay Oregon the water depth goes from 1500 feet to 300 feet in less than 10 miles and then the water depth comes up to 40 feet in less than two miles. 

Most US continental rivers that empty into the Pacific are tidal and the current can often exceed three knots. An ebb tide flowing westward and meeting six foot ocean swells can create horrendous waves and tidal overfalls which are very hazardous for small craft. 

The safest crossing of a river bar is at slack water after high tide - a condition that lasts only 15 minutes or so on most bars.   An additional consideration is that a night time bar crossing should only be attempted with prior experience crossing the bar. 

The only port north of San Francisco without a bar entrance is Crescent City which is on the Oregon/California border.  Additionally, Port Orford in southern Oregon does not have a bar to cross but is only a an acceptable shelter in NW - N - East winds.   Even with a NW 8' swell we suffered uncomfortable rolling and very gusty winds the one night we anchored in Port Orford - there are no docks or slips in Port Orford. 

Further south, Moro Bay - about 170 NM south of the Golden Gate, has one of the most treacherous bars on the Pacific coast.   There is a famous picture of a 65' trawler being rolled on the Moro Bay bar by a "sneaker" wave that appeared in an otherwise benign sea.   We crossed it inbound on my brother's Tartan 42.  Conditions five miles offshore were flat calm with very little swell.  Once on the bar we saw 6' waves that moved the boat around despite hand steering and full throttle. 

I have crossed almost every bar on the US West coast during the last ten years and have been stuck in several harbors when the US Coast Guard closed the bar due to hazardous conditions. During September 2000 we sat in Coos Bay for three days waiting for the USCG to reopen the bar.  We crossed, inbound, the Grays Harbor Bar in 15' breaking swells with a USCG escort , and then were not allowed to leave during the next four days.   We were denied entrance at Umqua River because the bar had been closed earlier in the day. 

All that means that a boat at sea is not always guaranteed a safe harbor to duck into in case of impending bad weather.  It is not uncommon for the swells and wave train of an approaching storm to arrive at the harbor mouth/bar crossing 30 hours before the storm.   So a prudent small craft operator who is 50 miles, eight hours, off the US West Coast must be planning at least 36 hours ahead if there is weather brewing anywhere in the NE Pacific. 

In August 2000 we were headed south from Cape Flattery planning to go non-stop to Newport, Oregon- 40 hours distant.  We were about 40 miles offshore at 3 AM when the VHF weather forecast started talking about S 20 knots and SW 10' swells to arrive within 24 hours.  There  would also be the always present NW 6' swells to make for a unpleasant "confused sea."   Those conditions were to last 60 hours.  We decided to duck into Grays Harbor which was about six hours to our SE. 

By the time we got to the sea buoy off Grays Harbor the USCG had closed the entrance to boats under 18' and were predicting it would close to all boats before sunset.   We talked to the USCG and told them we had considerable bar crossing experience and did not need an escort but they sent out a 44' motor lifeboat anyway.   By the time we entered the harbor the breaking waves on the bar were large enough that the 65' commercial trawler that was 100 yards behind us would disappear for several seconds as each of us went into a wave trough.

Three sailboats entered the harbor during the next 24 hours and each reported further worsening of the conditions outside.  The USCG can close the bar but it is still OK, albeit dangerous, for a vessel seeking shelter to enter the harbor at their own risk. 

SO - heading south means careful tracking of offshore weather and planning for safe harbors - to be entered at particular times of the day and in only some wind/sea conditions.   And... accepting the fact we might be stuck in harbor for several days.   The navigator / weather watcher needs to stay fully informed on no less than a four hour planning cycle. 

4) Gale Alley
The 300 nautical miles from Cape Blanco in southern Oregon border to a little south of the Golden Gate has the most consistent gales and big waves of any area on the US West Coast.   The very hazardous seas and winds are caused by the interaction of the persistent North Pacific High that sits just west of the Washington coast and the thermal low pressures that build up over the inland valleys of Northern and Central California and Southern Oregon.   A boat Mirador's size will usually need 48 to 60 hours to transit the "Gale Alley."

The winds around the High rotate clockwise and those around the Low rotate counter clockwise.   The two airflows reinforce each other when the H is far enough west and the thermal  low is near the coast. That reinforced flow can create 35 to 50 knot N to NE winds that blow for days at a time along the US West Coast from Southern Oregon to Central California. 

The winds built quickly and create very steep breaking waves for the first 12 - 18 hours they blow.  I have experienced 12' breaking waves with a period of less than five seconds, i.e. really close together, when the wind went from NW 12 to N 35 in just a couple of hours in the area south of Cape Mendocino.  

Two sailboats were lost in these conditions this year and there is usually one or two lost each year.  Eric Stephens was sailing Indara, a Norseman 447, south thru this area in late August when the reinforced winds started howling.  Indara made 9 knots downwind under barepoles for 8 hours in 15' breaking seas until she sailed out of the worst of the sea conditions.   Just 30 miles to the east; a 27' sailboat was lost when it's rudder tore loose in the turbulent seas.   A USCG helicopter saved the lone crewman. 

The December 2008 issue of Practical Sailor contains a detailed description of the cause of these gales and the story of a 27' ocean racer that was sunk in gale alley after 62 hours of 45+ knots and 20'+ waves.  The single handing skipper, who had 100,000 blue water miles in this boat, was returning from Hawaii where he had won overall honors in the 2008 Single Handed TransPac race .   You can also read about this incident at The Loss of SV Wildflower and read some of owners answers to what happened. 

The only good  news is that these conditions are well understood and the National Weather Service can usually provide 60 - 72 hours warning BEFORE the gales will occur.

However, there are very localized and short term gales that blow in the area due to costal heating and cooling and those gales are not usually forecast.  In late September 2000 Mirador encountered six hours of 35 knots gusting to 50 knots in the vicinity of Pt Arena to Bodega Bay.  It was late in the evening and the winds built from 14 knots at 4 PM to 35 knots at 9 PM.  The odd thing was that the Pt Arena buoy - just 20 miles to the  north never reported more than 10 knots and the Bodega Bay buoy was reporting calm to 5 knots the entire time. 

Local fisherman I have talked to say that the highly localized winds blow into and out of canyons and arroyos from late afternoon thru mid-night and seldom extend more than  15 miles offshore. 

5) Points Arguello and Conception
Point Conception is the point at which the course to San Diego changes from SE to almost due E and it is also the point at which the crew sheds their jackets and levis and puts on shorts and tee shirts.   The problem is that the NW wind does not want to make that change in direction.   Long term wind measurements show that the wind in the 30 mile area from Point Arguello to Point Conception blows 20 - 35 knots almost every day of the summer and frequently gusts into the 40 knot range.  The afternoon and evening seas are typically short period six to 12' footers. 

During the July - September time period, 1999 - 2004, I found no period of longer than  31 hours at Pt Conception where the wind was below 25 knots.  I also found many 48 to 60 hour periods where the wind never dropped below 25 knots and seas never dropped below nine feet. It is for that reason that the Coast Pilot, published by NOAA, refers to Point Conception as the "Cape Horn of the Pacific" and warns of the heavy NW wind gusts and the steep short period seas.

The standard recommendation is to pass Point Arguello and Point Conception during the early AM, after 3 AM and before daybreak.   I know that we had 30 knots and very confused seas as we passed Point Arguello, heading west, at 9 PM and when we passed Point Conception at 3 AM headed ESE the wind was calm and the seas had diminished to less than  three feet. 

6) Fishing Boats & Fishing Gear
Central and Southern Oregon and  Northern California coastal waters are a busy commercial fishing area.  Longliners drag miles of line behind them, trawlers pull nets that extend 1/2 mile back, and purse seiners mill about setting large circular nets.  All these fishing activities occur 24 hours a day up to 60 miles offshore. 

During the day it is fairly easy to figure out what the boats are doing and to avoid them but at night when there are a dozen or so boats fishing it can be a real challenge to stay out of their way and out of their gear.  Purse seiners are especially problematic because they use 20' tenders  to drag large nets out behind the big boat which then makes a large circle to set the net. 

When there are four of them ahead and they are all going different directions in the dark - a small boat skipper can have a hard time figuring out what to do and where to go. 

There are also hundreds, or maybe thousands, of crab pots near shore.  Offshore, in water up to 250 fathoms, there are strings of large floats and buoys that are connected by heavy polypropylene line hanging a few feet below the surface.  Large heavy fish traps are suspended from the polypro lines and hang down hundreds of feet into the water.  The floats and lines are seldom illuminated at night and are a real hazard. 

7) Fog, Mist, and Cold
Reduced visibility is probably the single biggest hazard between Cape Flattery and Point Arguello, California.  Fog is very common and heavy low mist or clouds are almost as common.  I have often spent up to 60 hours traveling along the US West Coast with visibility never exceeding one mile.  Therefore, radar and the skill to use it and plot intercepts and CPAs is essential for safe travel. 

The Pacific Ocean water temperature seldom gets above 54 degrees anywhere within 40 miles of the US West Coast north of Pt Conception and varies little from winter to summer  That means the daytime air temperatures in the cockpit will usually stay in the low to mid-60s and the night time temperatures will quickly drop into the mid-50s. 

With a prevailing wind from astern, blowing thru the cockpit at an apparent 5 - 10 knots, it is a real challenge to stay warm and comfortable until the boat is south of Pt Conception.