Rounding the Horn (of California)

Point Conception is known as the Horn of California. It’s the point where the north-south coastline of Northern California meets the northwest-southeast coastline of Southern California and gives California its distinctive angular shape.

The change in overall conditions at this point are remarkable. Going south the ocean as well as the winds become much warmer and gentler. Rocky shores give way to expansive beaches. Murky green water becomes startlingly blue and clear. Even the dolphins seem to be more active and playful in the warmer Southern California waters.

But this change sets up some pretty dynamic forces of nature at the point where these two climates meet. Seas can pile up from multiple directions and winds can collide and compress around the point, making for a difficult and potentially dangerous passage in the wrong conditions.

For this passage we used PredictWind forecasts which provides algorithm-based passage planning using your boat’s hypothetical speed in varying conditions to plot an efficient and manageable route for you. I was originally planning for one long passage from Morro Bay to Cojo Anchorage which is just on the east side of Point Conception. The route planning showed a much more comfortable (though possibly windless) passage around the point on Sunday, which would put us in Santa Barbara (or next work-stop) on Monday. By playing out several scenarios, I realized that we could shave several hours off Sunday’s passage by taking advantage of Saturday and sail around the corner from Morro Bay to San Luis Obispo (SLO). According to Active Captain (which is kind of like a Yelp for boaters) while there are no docks at SLO, there is a wide protected anchorage with plenty of room. It’s exposed to the south, but the prevailing wind and seas are from the northwest, so most of the time it’s a comfortable spot.

Saturday was a glorious day to set sail from Morro Bay. The weather was finally sunny and warm and we were treated to a parade of sea otters crunching on urchins and other shellfish as we left the bay.

Kristin coiling docklines on deck as Sonrisa departs Morro Bay with 3 smokestacks in background
Morro Rock with paddleboarders in foreground
Morro Rock
Sea otters in Morro Bay

Shortly after departing Morro Bay we were finally able to get the sails up and shut the engine off, enjoying several glorious hours of broad-reach sailing around Point Buchon toward San Luis Obispo. It was the kind of sailing we had been yearning for the entire trip so far and it was a glorious day for it. It was tempting to just keep heading south, but since we didn’t plan to keep going to Point Conception until the following day it was too late to make it to the point before dark. Plus the weather can often sucker you in thinking that the great conditions ‘here’ translate into great conditions several hours from now ‘there’ which is often not the case.

We arrived in San Luis Obispo to find a beautiful anchorage with a only a few other boats in the ‘open’ anchorage area. Portions of San Luis Obispo Bay are cordoned off for mooring fields, but there’s a big open section right in the middle between the two piers which is open for all.

view from San Luis Obispo anchorage
Looking south from San Luis Obispo Bay

After picking a spot and setting the anchor, we saw that our friends Bernard and Maeve from the Tayana 37 (also a Bob Perry designed boat) Honu were also anchored here. I texted Bernard to learn of their plans. He was supposed to have departed for San Miguel Island south of Point Conception, but was delayed by problems with his anchor windlass solenoid. We discussed our plans and they decided to follow us to Cojo the following day before continuing on to San Miguel.

chart showing route from San Luis Obispo to Point Conception and Cojo anchorage.

Sunday morning greeted us once again with little wind and considerable fog. Fortunately the visibility wasn’t too bad – maybe a mile or so – but it certainly made for damp spirits for what was probably going to be a long, wet, grey motor to Cojo. Sigh. Maybe we should have left Saturday after all.

We departed San Luis Obispo at 7 am as planned. I wasn’t sure if Honu was planning to leave at the same time, or follow sometime later. It turned out they left about an hour and a half after us and since our boats are very similar we traveled at about the same speed down the coast. We texted to Honu what conditions were like for us so that they knew what to expect within 90 minutes.

As we left the bay Kristin brightened the mood by toast for breakfast along with our prerequisite black coffee. Our ‘toaster’ is a simple camp-style metal box with an angled tray to catch (most of) the crumbs with holes to diffuse the heat from the stovetop flame. You have to manually flip the bread over to toast both sides and you have to pay attention as it goes from golden brown to black in an instant, but once you’ve sacrificed a few slices of bread it’s pretty easy to get perfectly toasted bread.

Sonrisa’s toaster

Just to be clear, we don’t do this out of some sense of purism or nostalgia (although it helps), it’s because electricity is at a premium on Sonrisa and an electric toaster (or microwave, or electric kettle, or hot pot, or heater) would require an electrical capacity and systems an order of magnitude greater than what we currently have. Our electricity is reserved for lighting (LED), refrigeration, and electronics. That means that our heating and cooking when away from shore power comes (unfortunately) from fossil fuels – propane and diesel. As battery technology advances I’m sure we’ll get to the point where we can revisit this but for now we cook on propane.

As we motored down the coast with a reefed mainsail up to steady the boat in the rolling swells the fog closed in at times, lifted at times, but never completely cleared. There was forecast to be some remnants of Saturday’s mixed swell where 6 to 9 foot northwest swell meets a 2 to 4 foot south swell and 1 to 2 foot wind waves resulting in erratic waves with the occasional 15 foot wave (when they all align). On Sunday there was still some mixed swell, but not nearly as bad as what was forecast for Saturday.

As we motorsailed our way through the fog, Honu and we kept each other updated via text message.

Fog at Pt Purisma, 5 knot westerly wind, starting to see some mixed swell. Not bad though, still around 1.5m

Just made the turn at Pt Arguello. Sea swell better down here than at Purisimo. Wind is lighter too. Still foggy, less than 1/4 mile visibility.

Just got anchored in Cojo. Fog never let up but it’s clear within 3/4 mile of the anchorage. 2 other boats here. Plenty of room. I’ll leave my AIS on so you’ll have a target for your final approach. Just find any spot in 30ft of depth away from the kelp.

motorsailing in the fog
Scenic Point Arguello
Cojo anchorage
Cojo anchorage
Honu arriving at Cojo anchorage
Honu arrives at Cojo anchorage
Greg setting anchor snubber lines
Setting the anchor snubber

Arriving in Cojo anchorage well before dark and without dense fog was a relief after so many foggy passages so far. Arriving in Cojo means that we are officially in Southern California waters and we should see a change in conditions, hopefully with less fog, in the coming days.

Cojo anchorage is really just a rest-stop mostly for boats heading north. It’s a stark and desolate anchorage, open to the south, with a couple of old wrecks on the beach as reminders not to let your guard down here. Kristin has an affinity for this place though and so we settled in for a short overnight rest before continuing on to Santa Barbara.

We set our primary 55 pound Rocna Vulcan in what appeared to be a kelp-free spot close enough to shore for protection but far enough from other boats. As we got our anchor down a call came in on the VHF radio.

“Sonrisa, Sonrisa, Sonrisa, this is Dream Catcher on 16.”

Kristin was at the helm as I had just finished dropping the anchor. As I returned to he cockpit she said, “Someone’s calling us on the radio.”

“Did you answer?” I replied, knowing she was too shy to get on the radio with another boat just yet. It’s a fairly rare occasion when we get hailed on the radio, so when it happens it sets off a momentary panic attack like the one you’d get when your name was called on the school-wide loudspeaker to report to the principal’s office.

“Uh no…”

I grabbed the handheld mic. “Dream Catcher this is Sonrisa on 16. Go ahead.”

We chatted with Dream Catcher which was one of the other boats in Cojo Anchorage. They saw us coming in from the north (probably on AIS) and wanted to know what conditions were like up there since they were heading that direction. We relayed the same report we gave Honu and signed off for the night.

As night fell, I set two anchor alarms with a very tight radius. Since this is an exposed anchorage and there is a good chance for overnight fog, I wanted to know immediately if the boat swings or drags anchor.

One of our alarms is on a small basic chartplotters at the nav station. I keep this one onboard because it is small, uses little electricity, shows AIS targets and has an anchor and depth alarm. The anchor alarm is a simple alarm that starts beeping like a digital alarm clock if the GPS shows that the boat has moved more than a certain distance (.02 nautical miles) since it was set. My second alarm is an Anchor Alarm app on the iPad. This shows a satellite image of your location with an icon for your current GPS position. To set the alarm you draw a circle around your position in any size or shape you want. If the iPad GPS detects that you have moved outside of the circle you drew it sounds a very loud alarm (much louder than the chartplotter alarm). Being on the iPad I can also take it to bed with me so all I have to do is look over at the shelf and see where we are at.

Having finally settled in we drifted off to sleep after a long tiring day.

[beep] [beep] [beep]

The chartplotter anchor alarm had gone off. Given that I had set it to .02 nautical miles (121 feet) and we had 190 feet of chain out, it wasn’t entirely surprising that it would go off. The iPad anchor alarm would show us our swing pattern and since I drew the circle around the anchor rather than around the boat, it was less likely to be tripped by swinging versus dragging. Checking the iPad I could see that we in fact had swung around since the winds had backed around to the southeast. We watch the orange line as Sonrisa swung around to face the new wind direction. Then another dot on the line, then another, then another. All in a straight line heading for the edge of the circle.

[honk] [honk] [honk] [honk] yelled the iPad.

“We’re moving.” I said urgently as I pulled on my fleece and scrambled into the cockpit with the iPad in hand, silencing the alarm and watching the growing orange line representing our drifting track.

On deck we saw that in fact the fog had settled back in. Visibility was down to a few hundred feet. We could only hear the waves on the beach on our port side (which was on our starboard side) but we could still make out the other boats anchored around us. I started the engine and seeing that while we were maybe 200 feet from where we started, we still had plenty of room around us, so I backed down on the anchor to see if it was set or was dragging. As the chain tightened the the anchor immediately reset. I increased the RPM to 1600 and left it there for several minutes, using the iPad anchor alarm track and chartplotter to confirm that we were not moving at all. Satisfied that the anchor successfully set we reset the anchor alarms and went back to sleep for the remainder of the night. Thankfully there were no more surprises that night.

The next morning we said farewell to Honu again as she was headed to San Miguel Island for the week and we were heading to Santa Barbara for the week.

Glad to finally be in Southern California.