Velella's Drift

An account of Velella's voyage from Seattle to New York via Panama, 2009-2011

Way above sea level

San Simeon beach

For the record, that harrowing night wasn’t actually a storm. The forecast was for heavy winds and big seas–but also warm sun and a moonlit starry night. There is a large high pressure system sitting 700 miles offshore, and another strong one inshore over the Four Corners. Apparently this has caused a sort of wind funnel between the pressure ridges; so along the coast here we have sunny Californian weather but with incredibly powerful steady winds and seas.

We pulled in out of the mess that Prescott described at about 0430, exhausted beyond belief and almost blind in the pitch-black night in San Simeon Bay. We anchored by radar and chart plotter, since there were no lights onshore except those illuminating Hearst Castle high atop a distant hill. Weird as it sounds, we also navigated our way in partly by smell: the shore was lined with pungent eucalyptus trees that smelled almost smoky in contrast to the briny sharp sea water.

True, it is sketchy bad practice to pull in to an unknown anchorage at night. But I fear it’s becoming one of my favorite bad habits because there is nothing like waking to a sunrise that drenches the entirely new place around you. I always wake up early on these days, partly to make sure we’re not dragging anchor, but also to catch the first dawn-yellowed glimpses of the shoreline—our new home for the next day or two.

San Simeon was the most beautiful reward for our hard night. The empty turquoise lagoon crashes its white surf on a long stretch of beach, hemmed on either end by rocky arms that form a protective bight around the anchorage. Sable-colored hills rise away from the shore on all sides, and the magnificent Mediterranean Hearst Castle is nestled in a green grove atop the highest peak. Other than the castle and a couple red-roofed buildings tucked amongst the eucalyptus trees on shore, the entire coastline is wild and quiet.

The first day we were there we both felt severely “hungover.” (Too bad that night watch was no party.) Anyway, we dragged ourselves in to the beach for some motionless time, and then rowed back home and fell asleep early, deciding to give ourselves one more day to not worry about taking off again.

The second day in San Simeon, the weather was equally gorgeous, and we were feeling much better having slept twelve hours and had our refreshing sun showers. We rowed the dinghy over to explore some sea caves on our leisurely way in to meet Prescott’s aunt Janice and her family. Our delightful hosts brought us a picnic lunch, then treated us to 1. a car ride—a rare and joyous event these days, 2. an incredible tour of Hearst Castle, and 3. a stroll along one of the most hilarious beaches I’ve ever seen. But more on that later.

Hearst Castle is inexplicably incredible and impossible to describe. Almost every square inch of the enormous estate is covered in antique art from all centuries: the ceilings, the marble, the cornices, the rugs, the furniture, the lampshades—all of it. We went on a 2-hour tour that covered maybe a quarter of the entire estate. After coming from our floating home (remember, 35 feet!), it was an incredible treat for the imagination to tour something so grand and expansive.

White marble Neptune pool

Hearst's private Gothic library

Ceiling of the celestial suite

Carved teak cornices

But the best part about it may have been the thrill of being over 1,000 feet above sea level. Out of the high turret window of William Randolph Hearst’s bedroom, I could see Velella bobbing in San Simeon Bay. I could see far out past the coast we had fought our way down at night, and around the lighthouse that had guided us in. After living at sea level for two months, getting to view the same world from these heights was a wonderfully unexpected and intangible gift.


San Simeon Bay from Hearst Castle

THEN we drove up the coast to a elephant seal rookery. Literally hundreds of juveniles beach themselves here to rest, roll around, fight, and make very loud burping noises. They were hilarious creatures, like gargantuan rodents without legs or like huge slugs with snouts. Apparently they were endangered a couple decades ago, with only a couple dozen left… well, they’ve made such a comeback that they’re becoming a problem (there are road signs warning you not to hit elephant seals that might be crossing the highway!) Oh, and in the parking lot, Janice made friends with this ole hound:


Janice and "Jowls"


Fighting slug-rodent-seals

At the end of the day, Harmony and Emma sent us home with a bunch of fresh lemons and a Halloween pumpkin. Though they aren’t technically my family, I couldn’t have felt more at home and amongst friends. How nice to know we’ll see them all again just around the corner in San Luis Obispo Bay!

Janice, Emma, Prescott, and Harmony



  kathy cleary wrote @

nice use of the word weird meg..and did you ever poop? prescott..nice white shirt..wherever did you get it?!

  Prescott wrote @

It was an incredibly nice gift from Meghan’s thoughtful mother. I receive compliments on it every day (from Meghan).

  Papa wrote @

appears to be a set-up… but it does give you a rather ‘tropical’ look… the sunshine, the suntan, the sun glasses, the white ‘UV-proof’ shirt… all you need is a floppy hat and a parrot on your shoulder… do you mind if I just start calling you call you ‘Jimmy’ ?

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