Sitting around a campfire recently, I got to talking about some of the strangest things I’ve seen at sea during my lengthy lifetime of roaming the Santa Barbara Channel.

Some are scary, such as navigational hazards; some are funny; some are worrisome; and some are difficult to explain.

Pretend you were around that campfire with me and enjoy these tales.

Coming back from San Miguel Island one afternoon, at about mid-channel, something bright red caught my eye, and I changed course to investigate.

It was a lifeguard’s rescue buoy, and the ankle strap hung straight down into the murky water. I wasn’t sure my crew and passengers wanted to see what might be at the other end of the ankle strap, but fortunately it was just empty.

On a high-speed run across to Santa Cruz Island many years ago, I saw an odd-looking corner of something just a few inches above the surface of the water. I approached with caution and whistled softly when I recognized it as a full-size shipping container that had fallen overboard from a container ship.

It wouldn’t take much speed for that big metal box to rip the bottom out of a boat or at the very least bust a propeller. I reported that hazard to the Coast Guard so they could put out a recurring Pan-Pan warning on the marine VHF radio to alert boaters in the area.

Another surprising hazard to navigation started out as a stick breaking the surface of the water by only about 12 inches, several miles off the mainland coast. I steered clear of it but close enough to look down into the water to see what it was.

I was so surprised that I throttled back, came around and took a closer look. The stick turned out to be the very top piece of a beautifully crafted ornate spiral stairway. How it got into the ocean and several miles offshore remains a mystery.

Perhaps the best laugh I’ve had related to things I’ve seen at sea was during a channel crossing to Santa Rosa Island one morning. It was a glassy-flat calm and glorious morning, and everyone aboard was quietly enjoying the scene as we cruised along comfortably at 25 knots.

Suddenly, one of the passengers began screaming and pointing astern. He was yelling, “Mermaid! I saw a Mermaid!”

Well, that’s enough to make any red-blooded sea captain slam on the brakes, so I made a tight turn to investigate. It turned out what the passenger spotted was a partially deflated and semi-submerged blow-up doll. Yes, THAT kind of  doll!

We hauled it out to dispose of it back at harbor instead of leaving it in the ocean to slowly degrade into micro plastics which would harm critters.

Once back at the dock, we all felt pretty silly pulling the blow-up doll out of the boat and stuffing it into a trash receptacle while people on the docks watched us with quizzical looks and more than a few smirks.

— Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need. Visit to learn more about the organization and how you can help. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.