Passage to Morro Bay

Following our first week cruising with a stopover in Monterey it was time to press on toward Southern California. Since this is a “Work From Boat” type of cruise we need to maximize our use of the weekends to move and be sure to be in a place with good LTE coverage for the work week. This is a challenge for weather windows as our time constraints and optimal coastal weather seem to rarely align.

Such was the case for our passage to Morro Bay. Leaving Monterey past Big Sur there are no viable overnight anchorages for nearly 100 miles. The first possible stop is San Simeon which is a small undeveloped cove, exposed to the south, below the famous Hearst Castle. Dinghy trips ashore are challenging with the potential for beach surf and it can be a bit tricky finding a kelp-free spot to drop the anchor.

The plan was to leave Monterey early in the morning to arrive in San Simeon just before sunset, then continue on for the short leg to Morro Bay. We enlisted the assistance of WRI for departure recommendations as rounding Big Sur can be unforgiving at times. They recommended we wait until Sunday to depart for San Simeon and arrive in Morro Bay on Monday. Based on my own weather sources it appeared that Saturday would have been rough seas, but decent wind while Sunday was calmer seas and no wind. We opted to play it safe and wait until Sunday even though it would mean more motoring than sailing.

red sunrise over monterey

We departed Monterey at 6:30 AM on Sunday and was treated to a gorgeous sunrise over Monterey Bay. As predicted the seas were a bit lumpy but manageable, but there was no wind for sailing. We raised the reefed mainsail anyway as the sail helps steady the boat from rocking in the waves.

Greg at the helm with sunrise in the background

As we left the harbor, Kristin went below and made some much-needed coffee for the skipper and crew.

Kristin with her coffee on deck

For the entire morning we enjoyed a rather uneventful motorsail past the Big Sur coastline toward the next point on the coastline – Piedras Blancas.

Kristin and I took turns keeping watch while the other napped as the iPad fed our course data to the autopilot and kept Sonrisa motoring on through the day.

At one point while we were approximately 9 miles offshore off of Lopez Point a small bird hitched a ride with us for a while. The tiny bird flew in from who knows where and ducked in under our dodger and seemed quite content in the warmth of the sun shining in through the windscreen. I had heard of shorebirds catching a rest on a sailboat under way but this would be the first avian guest we had on board personally.

tiny bird resting on winch handle under cover of dodger

As we neared Piedras Blancas a layer of thick fog settled in over the entire coastline. This was something we had not accounted for and even with monitoring the radar and AIS for boat traffic and as a reality check for our position in relation to the coastline, we felt it prudent to slow down a bit and keep a sharp watch for other hazards such as large kelp islands and crab pot buoys. The last thing we wanted was for the engine to be disabled by a crab pot line tangled in the propeller on a windless day with uncomfortable swells in poor visibility.

I had also hoped that perhaps the fog would not be as thick as we approached the shore closer to our destination at San Simeon. Remembering our experience in fog coming into Monterey it was completely clear within 1/2 mile of the coast and we were hoping for the same today.

The closer we got to our destination the thicker the fog became. What made matters worse was that because we had slowed down it looked like we’d barely make it to the anchorage before dark. On the positive side, on AIS we could see another boat we later learned also appears to be heading south for the Nada – Amazing Grace III. We watched as they skirted the coast into San Simeon as we were still 2-3 miles offshore. This gave me hope that there was visibility close to shore.

Unfortunately it was not to be.

Arriving at San Simeon the fog was thicker than ever and visibility was down to less than 300 feet. Plus it was getting dark and we were tired from the long, damp, wet day in the fog. With the radar zoomed all of the way in Sonrisa inched her way into the anchorage. The electronic charts for San Simeon aren’t especially detailed, so using the pier which clearly showed on radar we inched closer, watching the depth gauge and looking on the radar for other vessels we knew were there but could not see. Unfortunately Amazing Grace III had turned off her AIS so all we had were radar reflections to guess at what was an anchored boat and what was the shore or the end of the pier.

Finally as it seemed like we were surrounded by blobs on the radar display and the depth showed 28 feet. We could not see any other boats but occasionally saw the faint glimmer of a light which might have been from shore or might have been an anchor light. Kristin proclaimed “Let’s just drop the anchor here.” She was right. We were positioned as well as we could be, could not see shore or any other boat visually but we could see that nothing was too close to us on radar, and the depth seemed fine. We could also see on the chartplotter we were inside the cove. I scrambled to the bow and within a moment the anchor was on the bottom. I was glad that I had rigged a simple way to deploy the anchor relatively quickly.

After getting the anchor down and settled in the fog lifted just enough to reveal the other boats anchored near us, confirming that we had enough room around us.

View from the bow of Sonrisa showing nothing but water and fog.

The next morning we slept in as we had a short day to Morro Bay and we hoped that the fog may lift as the morning progressed. We watched as the world around us slowly revealed itself to us. To this point the only indication we had where we were anchored was based on our chartplotter and radar. As the fog lifted we could finally see the pier which served as our beacon in the fog the night before.

We left San Simeon at 11:00 without ever seeing the hillside beyond the pier let alone the castle at the top. Fortunately the fog lifted enough to have at least 1 mile visibility for our 5 hour motor to Morro Bay.

Morro Bay is one of my favorite stops on the Northern California coast. It is a cute little port town with a well-protected harbor which seems to have escaped the typical California tourist-destination vibe so many other coastal towns seem to have inherited. Morro Bay feels genuine and authentic in a way most other towns have lost.

Our favorite place to stay in Morro Bay is at the Morro Bay Yacht Club. This club has a small length of dock which is available for visiting yachts for a very reasonable price per night. The thing is though, the dock is first-come, first-served and yacht club members have priority, so it’s quite a lucky day when you can get in.

Fortunately the club has a live web-cam and you can see if there’s space at the dock in advance. When we left San Simeon Kristin checked the webcam.

“Looks like the dock is full.”

“Well, it’s Monday and other transiting yachts might have the same idea we do and are waiting for the fog to lift to continue on,” I reasoned.

“You think?”

As we motored on Kristin checked the webcam again.

“Looks like someone moved, there’s space!”

An hour later…

“Darn, someone else pulled in. It’s full again. They’re probably there to stay since they just showed up.”

As we approached Morro Rock we could see just how low the fog was hanging. Like a waterline on the side of the rock we finally had something to get a visual reference of the height of the fog layer. It doesn’t take much for a day navigating to go from decent to dismal when it comes to fog.

Morro Rock mostly covered in fog

“Why don’t you check the webcam one more time” I said as we approached the entrance to Morro Bay.

“Oh my gosh! They left! There’s space!” Kristin reported.

As we pulled in the skipper from the neighboring boats gave us a hand getting tied up and the usual friendly cruiser arrival banter started.

“Where are you coming from?”

“How was it out there?”

“Where are you heading next?”

As we were adjusting the last spring line the Port Captain, Lynn called down, “Hey Sonrisa! Come on up and I’ll get you checked in!”

I met Lynn outside the clubhouse door. She had a keycard ready for us.

“Been here before?”

“Yes, couple of years ago.” I replied.

“Good, then you know the routine. Sign in to the book here, payment in the drop slot there, and when you leave drop the key in the box over there. Oh, and there’s a bunch of cucumbers fresh from the garden today in a bag outside. Help yourself.”

Got to love Morro Bay.

Sonrisa at the Morro Bay Yacht Club