Warm offshore winds make it tough for firefighters, as we see repeatedly on television, but the winds also pack a potentially deadly punch to boaters at the Channel Islands. Here is the story of a night I’ll long remember.
Boats were resting gently at anchor, under an intense blanket of stars, in Smuggler’s Cove at the east end of Santa Cruz Island. Sailboats outnumbered the rest. Large roomy power yachts towered over small powerboats. A couple of commercial boats rounded out the comfy fleet. On this warm and sunny autumn weekend, boats of all types were enjoying an overnight adventure. The casual adventure was about to turn into a perilous exercise in foul-weather seamanship.
First, small wind waves from the east began to rock the boats easily. The effect was minimal, and only a few sensitive boaters poked their heads out of their cabins to check on conditions. Most crawled back into their bunks, assuming a boat had come by in the dark and created a wake. Then a puff of wind gently swung all boats around, bow to the east.
Within 10 minutes, a warm and strong easterly wind was blowing and gusting to 20 knots. Boaters came pouring out of their bunks to check their ground tackle. Some of the more experienced crew members quickly put out a second and even a third anchor. Mother Nature had given as much warning as she cared to, and suddenly unleashed the full gale force of her offshore desert winds.
Some folks call them Santana winds (devil winds), while others call them Santa Ana winds. The latter name seems to have come from the Los Angeles area, where these winds come from the general direction of the city of Santa Ana. The National Weather Service tends to refer to Santa Ana winds, so we seem stuck with that name, although Santana seems more appropriate.
Your intrepid captain and columnist was in that anchorage that night. I’ve seen those winds many times, and knew what was coming after the first gusts of warm winds. I had sounded the alarm for nearby boats, and then pulled my anchor to beat toward a safer anchorage. Under normal conditions, eastward-facing anchorages such as Smugglers and Pelicans are calm and protected from the prevailing westerly winds and waves. In Santa Ana conditions, however, they can become deadly traps. I heard later that one boat ended up on the beach that night, other boats were damaged and people were injured.
In my boat we were beating our way along the north shore of the island, heading for the relative protection of Chinese Harbor, as the fury of the desert winds whipped the sea to a froth. The seas quickly grew high and treacherous. Easterly wind waves powerfully opposed the prevailing westerly swell, and the result was something like the agitate cycle in your washing machine.
We made it to Chinese Harbor, drenched, tired and sore. It is not the best anchorage under these conditions, but it was fairly close, and many times safer because it faces the northwest. By midmorning, the winds subsided, the seas grew peaceful and we got some much-needed rest before heading back across the Channel to home port.
I encourage you to think about boaters, caught unaware and surprised by the fury of nature, the next time you feel the nighttime effects of Santa Ana winds while you are ashore and worried about the tail end of our fire season.