Velella's Drift

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

Iron Genny

Sailing to anchor on Santa Rosa Island

When we reunited with Prescott’s aunt Janice and family in San Luis Obispo for a couple days, Janice’s friend Butch gave us a book which I’ve since been devouring: Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast. It’s an old sailing book published in 1840–of the same ilk as Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World and other such original sailing adventures from an entirely different time. While upon previous attempts I’ve become bored with these antiquated stories, this one is about the very coast we are navigating right now. Chapters titled “Monterey,” “Santa Barbara,” “A South-Easter,” etc. detail very different towns and peoples of over 100 years ago, but the geographical and climatological features are identical. Not surprising, but still fascinating—in the same way that standing in centuries-old ruins does, it lights the historical imagination.  The very same winds that howled around Point Conception on Dana’s journeys are what we looked out for on our passage; we saw the same verdant Monterey hills turned scrubby and dry by Point Arguello, just like he observed. And I have to admit his descriptions of roaring southeasters made me think hard about when and where we anchored along this portion of the California coast. It’s almost like reading a cruising guide to the area (though it was written almost two centuries ago).

Just as the brig Pilgrim was witnessing an enormous pod of whales, Prescott made me pick my head up out of the book to help get ready to anchor Velella at Santa Rosa Island. We had spent the morning motoring through fog from Point Conception’s Cojo anchorage, but in the afternoon we broke out into some of the most beautiful sailing we’ve had yet—with our first good look at the Channel Islands. Santa Rosa’s rugged mountains rose into windswept clouds before us, while the midafternoon sun warmed our boat and swept silver across surface of the ocean. Small breaking whitecaps made the only noise a constant shhhh behind our stern as we floated towards the large and dramatic bight that was to be our resting spot for the night.

Unlike the Pilgrim, which (commendably!) anchored by sail routinely, Velella of course has the good ole “iron genny”—the engine—to make navigation in small spaces like anchorages much simpler. While good seamen all know how to anchor by sail in case of engine failure, it’s not something folks routinely choose to do because it requires a lot of skill, a lot of patience, reliance on a potentially finicky wind, and a bit more danger to the boat. With the engine on, it’s simple: We fire her up, drop all sails, and putt-putt-putt to the perfect depth, then drop the hook and reverse back on it nice and strong so we know we’re well set on the bottom. Without an engine, anchoring is more like Dana describes it: You let go the hooks and back the sails, hoping to reverse yourself hard enough to make the hook catch well. If it doesn’t, you better be ready to sail straight out of there or you’re in peril of drifting onto the rocks.

This evening, we turned the key in Velella and were given a definitive tttthhhunk. The engine wouldn’t even crank, and we knew we weren’t going to be able to fix it out there. The wind was picking up, the sun was setting, and it was a lovely evening for sailing, but we were forced to start thinking of contingency plans. Option 1: Call for a tow—but given how expensive a commercial tow is, we pretty much ruled that out. Option 2: Try to anchor here under sail—but the exposure of this open bay and the winds were curling around the point, made us think we might do well to look for a more protected area, or maybe a mooring buoy or pier to tie to. Option 3: Just keep sailing overnight and all the way to Channel Islands Harbor, a distance of about 60 nautical miles. But first, we thought to radio the Coast Guard for more information and seek local knowledge of the area, because we really weren’t prepared to do a night watch.

Right after realizing the engine quit

Just as I was getting off the radio with the Coast Guard, who confirmed the locations of a couple of piers on the island, a Fish & Game Warden vessel came up to us and hailed, asking if we needed any assistance. We chatted about the best anchorages to tuck in to, and decided to sail (with no need for assistance obviously) to the southern edge of the island, Johnson’s Lee. Velella did beautifully in the light evening winds, but as to be expected, as we were coasting up to the anchorage, we lost the air completely, and were drifting only about a mile offshore when the sun dipped below the hills. Too close for comfort. Prescott valiantly tried towing us the rest of the way with the dinghy… which was working, but not faster than the current was. I called Swordfish, the warden’s boat, and he graciously said he’d be there in just a minute to give us a tow in to the protected area. They tied us to the large Coast Guard mooring buoy in Johnson’s Lee, and anchored nearby, saying they’d come back and try jumpstarting our engine in the morning.

Moored in the lee of Santa Rosa Island

Bottlenoses in the bow wake!

Our efforts to jump the engine were fruitless, so we hoisted sails and slowly drifted off the mooring and back out into the windy alley south of the islands. It was another perfect day, with gentle steady winds, and we made a comfortable 2-3 knots eastward. We knew we were in for a long night, and indeed we didn’t arrive to shore until the next morning at about 9am. However, as the miles slowly passed beneath us that calm and starry night, we witnessed what felt like a secret side of the Channel Islands’ natural beauty. Bottlenose dolphins followed along either side of us for most of the night; we could see them in the full moon that was as bright as a flashlight. I saw numerous shooting stars, some orange, some green, some pink, as the rugged shadow of Anacapa Island passed slowly off to our port.

The wind was forecasted to be “light and variable,” and indeed it was. The gentle night breezes, coming first from the West, then Southeast, then East, then more strongly from the Northwest, kept our sail-bellies full and keel even. On my late evening watch, Prescott made chili and toast and we enjoyed a civilized dinner in the cockpit (a rare and romantic occasion), before we changed watch and I went below, curled up on the couch with the fireplace going, and read my book before falling asleep.

We each took two three-hour watches over the course of the night, and I’ve never been so contented at the helm. Not only was the night sparkling and soothingly beautiful, but the continual wind shifts made for engaging sailing. It was so dark at times I couldn’t even see the sails, so I began to feel my way, noticing the wind lifting us by Velella’s slight heel, easing the sheets in response, tacking through as it swung to the South, and gibing the genoa to go full wing-on-wing as it came from dead astern. Never have I had to think so hard to keep us on our course. It grew from feeling like I was groping clumsily in the dark to feeling like a bewitching, strategic, blindfolded dance.
I couldn’t help thinking as the dolphins jumped around us in the silent night that Velella was determined to make us good sailors. Very few skippers these days are as skilled as the sailors of Dana’s time because we have so many ingenious crutches—the chartplotters, GPS, radios and weather broadcasts, and of course the “iron genny.” But I believe that even today’s fancy boats will make true sailors out of you if you keep at it long enough. Because eventually your engine will quit, and then it’s between you and the wind.

Moonrise over Velella, Channel Islands



  Papa wrote @

Well done, crew of Velella. Way to find the silver lining in that (ship-handling) cloud!

I trust you’ll practice anchoring, sans-engine, whenever you get the chance, in preparation for the next time. And you know there’ll be a ‘next time’.

Beautiful juxtaposition with Dana’s “Two Years Before the Mast”.

Fair Winds.


  webecomeus wrote @

Prescott tried towing you with the dinghy??? Talk about a knight in shining armor! That’s impressive. (And I like how you say it “was working, but not faster than the current was”… way to spare his manly feelings.)

This is a beautiful post. I love it. I’ve read it three times now.

  Brook wrote @

It certainly does make me smile and feel proud to have my son described as a knight in shining armor. Thanks.
His mom (Brook)

  janice reid wrote @

I agree: beautiful post. I know Butch will be delighted that you are enjoying Two Years Before the Mast. It is one of his favorite books. I know that he was delighted to find the perfect couple to share it.

  Brook wrote @

Meghan, your writing is as smooth, sparkling and engaging as the sailing journey you described here. Thank you for allowing us to have such colorful and complete glimpses into your adventure.

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