San Francisco to Santa Barbara: Our Mini-Cruising Adventure at Sea
Updated: Feb 13, 2021
Living aboard a 34 year old sailboat while prepping to go cruising sometimes means putting our sailing desires aside and getting down and dirty in boat projects. Obviously, some projects are necessary to address. When it comes to safety and mechanical repairs - there’s no waiting until later. Others, like giving our weathered gelcoat a good buffing, are not so necessary but are so rewarding to complete that they often sneak their way to the top of the list. We had owned and lived-aboard Gemini for 3 years and spent most of that time working tirelessly to repair her systems and trick her out with upgrades for future cruising adventures. It finally felt like our hard work was paying off and we felt she was ready for our first coastal cruising adventure. Of course, setting a deadline for such a trip meant our floating home had to be safe and fully functional. Just the thought of this was overwhelming, especially when it felt that our list seemed to only get longer leading up to our departure date.
Heres a snapshot of our master list to complete before embarking on our voyage South to Santa Barbara.
Setting a deadline was simultaneously the best and worst thing we could’ve done for ourselves. On one hand, it was motivation to push, push, push until the day we were “officially on vacation” but it also meant we were on such a time crunch that it felt we would never get it all done. Beyond running our own marine business throughout peak summer season, we also managed to squeeze in what feels like a million boat projects in before pushing off for 2 1/2 weeks of adventures down the coast. We hauled Gemini out for a week of boatyard projects which included: installing our B&G instrument transducer, painting her bottom, applying Propspeed to her prop & shaft, and doing a general below-the-waterline check (rudder post, shaft, thru-hulls, cutlass bearing, etc) before we headed offshore. Jack tightened up our synthetic standing rigging, tuning the mast and making sure our rig was ready for the ocean passage ahead. We were also halfway through re-caulking our leaking teak decks which obviously needed to be completed before we could leave the dock.
Our tired original mainsail had finally given up on us back in July and our budget did not allow for us to purchase a new one. Our monetary constraints combined with our determination to DIY everything onboard brought us to an exciting alternative: we would build our own mainsail. I used to work at family-run Hogin Sails in Alameda and they were kind enough to share their loft space with us, as well as help with designing & cutting out the material. I worked at the loft for just shy of two years and had assisted in the sail-building process, but never had I completed one start to finish. This was one of the biggest projects we have ever tackled, especially considering neither of us had much experience designing and sewing a sail.
We completed the sail project just days before our departure date while still doing our best to button up the remaining boat projects, business clients to tend to and provisioning to completed. Somehow, when our goal departure date (October 15th) rolled around, Gemini was stocked up and dialed in - ready to start our sailing vacation down the coast.
Our original goal was to sail down to the Channel Islands just across the Santa Barbara Channel. Our friends Annie & Tom planned on joining us on the sail from San Francisco to the islands, exploring with us for a few days before hopping on the train back home. Once our friends headed home, my parents hoped to meet up with us for a couple of days of island cruising with us, an experience we were excited to share with them. Of course, plans always have a way of changing when you least expect it.
LEAVING SAN FRANCISCO BAY
On the morning of October 14th, the day before our departure from San Francisco Bay, Jack and I laid in our v-berth enjoying the quiet of the early morning and looking at the weather. Unfortunately, the weather had changed for the worse and there were high winds expected offshore 48hrs after leaving. We were bummed and disenchanted, especially after working our butts off for months to make this trip happen. Just minutes later, our friends Annie and Tom call and explain that they will not be able to make it on the trip down the coast. Just like that, all of our plans were changed and we had to completely re-think our strategy for getting down the coast safely. In the past three years of owning Gemini, we have had many big projects to tackle (some very unexpected and time-consuming, read more here) so we really have not sailed her as much as we would like to. We felt apprehensive about sailing non-stop just the two of us. Once we weighed our options, we decided we were happy hopping down the coast, stopping whenever needed for weather to roll through.
Our first stop was Santa Cruz, which was as far as we had sailed South onboard Gemini. The last time we sailed down was for Thanksgiving and we got a guest slip in the bustling harbor for 3 nights. This time, we avoided paying for a marina and anchored out on the North side of the pier which juts out at the North end of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. When we arrived after a 12hr passage from our slip in Emeryville, there was a handful of boats anchored, most of which looked to be long-term residents. We snuck in past the anchored boats and tucked in to avoid the ocean swell, staying away from the constant hooting & hollering from the sea lions who have made the understructure of the pier their home.
It was a safe, comfortable anchorage. We had good holding on the sandy bottom and the sunset was breathtaking, not to mention we feasted on Red Rock Crab we caught with hoop nets right off the side of our boat!
From the anchorage, its a short 10 minute dinghy ride to the fuel dock in Santa Cruz Harbor, where you can park your dinghy, check out the town or grab some seafood by the water. We did not need too many provisions but we did walk to the closest store - turns out its a glorified liquor store with very little fresh food, mainly non-perishables and booze. Locals told us the next option was a Safeway at the other end of town, but it was a little far to walk to so we decided the small market would be sufficient for this trip.
If you ever find yourself anchoring here on your own boat, here are our suggestions:
Anchor somewhere between 18-30ft. We found that closer to 30ft there was less swell but you were more exposed to any wakes and wind, but that was also a better depth for catching rock crab right off the boat. Don’t go too close to the pier unless you like the smell of sea lion poop as well as the midnight serenade of their loud sea lion orchestra. If you decide to get a slip, you pay about $1/ft plus about 35$ for a harbor key which is yours for life unless you prefer the deposit money back.
PEBBLE BEACH - STILLWATER COVE
Just around the South corner of the tip of Monterey Bay is a tiny cove surrounded by bird-covered rocks and kelp beds. On land, the exclusive Pebble Beach Golf Club is spread along the entirety of the cove, their clubhouse right along the waterfront has a long, tall pier and a handful of mooring balls scattered through the kelp. I had moored here once before on a charter boat trip and thought it would be a sweet spot to come with Gemini. I remembered how calm and peaceful it was waking up here, but when we turned into the cove this time to anchor, we were met with a very different sea-state.
It was blowing 20-25kts with a rolling 7ft ocean swell as we rounded the entrance and the cove was over grown with thick kelp almost instantly after passing the large bird inhabited rock to port of the entrance. Between the rollers sneaking into the tiny cove and the intimidating kelp field, anchoring seemed out of the question, so we tried to grab a mooring ball (with no mooring line to grab) which turned out to be a fight against the weight of the mooring buoy, gusts of wind pushing us around and the loss of our boat hook, which bent under the weight and eventually fell overboard. RIP boat hook, you will be missed!
After all this commotion, we decided to play it safe. We left the anchorage and headed North (against the wind & swell) to hide out in Monterey Harbor for the night, waiting for the high winds to subside. We later heard from Monterey locals that the kelp doesn’t bother them, they just motor right through towards the small beach on the starboard side of the cove and anchor right in the middle of it. He did give us one anchoring tip (which we cannot vouch for since we have not tried it ourselves) when anchoring in kelp, you do not set the anchor as hard as you normally would, so you don’t just break through the kelp. He was confident with his advice, but we were still skeptical and preferred not to wake up on the jagged rocks just downwind of the anchorage.
MONTEREY HARBOR - BREAKWATER COVE
We stayed two nights in a slip at Breakwater Cove Marina. Our intentions were to avoid getting a slip during our trip, but in the high winds coming back from our attempted anchoring in Stillwater Cove, we managed to break a couple of the slugs on our mainsail, so we came into a marina to source parts and fix the things that had broken. It’s good that it happened close to Monterey, where we had access to a small West Marine and a boatyard chandlery, as well as a safe address to get parts overnighted that we needed to continue our way South. Our next anchorage was San Simeon or Morro Bay, where we definitely would not have been able to source the parts we needed.
Slips were $1/ft per night, the restaurant adjacent to the boatyard will hold a marina key for you if you check in after hours and they had laundry which I took advantage of to wash a couple things.
SAN SIMEON ANCHORAGE
This was a new anchorage for us and we were excited to check it out after reading great things about it from SV Prism’s blog post. We had also read in our guidebook it was a good stopping off point before rounding Point Conception, the other popular stopping point being Morro Bay. By stopping in San Simeon instead of Morro Bay, we shaved off the extra miles getting into the long narrow entrance to Morro Bay, not to mention we tend to gravitate towards the more desolate and off-the-beaten-path type anchorages.
The anchorage itself was quiet as we motored in, only one other boat anchored close to the pier on the Starboard side. The Northern rocky point of the anchorage is surrounded by a think kelp bed, so we gave it plenty of space when entering the bay. Once past the rocky point, we had read that tucking in to the port side, nice & close along the shore was best as the tall trees onshore provide good protection from prevailing winds. Most guidebooks mentioned that this anchorage is no place to be in any Southerly wind or swell as it offers no protection, leaving you with a lee shore to worry about.
From our spot in the bay we could see Hearst Castle off in the distance, sitting atop the highest mountain straight uphill from the anchorage. We didn’t go to shore here (Hearst Castle will have to wait) but we did float around in the dinghy, hoping to catch some crab or rockfish for dinner but came back to Gemini empty handed. The next morning, sea otters waved to us as we left the anchorage, continuing the trek South towards the great Pt Conception rounding and then on to Santa Barbara.
Sailing on the West Coast, everyone “oohs & aaahs” when they talk about the conditions at Point Conception. Luckily, our experience this time was pretty uneventful. Of course we checked the weather to make sure the conditions were right, but we also planned our passage to pass Point Conception in the early morning hours, around 3am. We have yet to round the treacherous point during daylight hours and this strategy has worked for us so far. Then again, we are no experts and will leave it up to guidebooks & old salts to give strategies for the rounding of the “Cape Horn of the West Coast”.
We approached Santa Barbara anchorage at night, which proved to be very difficult, as there were tons of un-lit boats scattered throughout. With only the lights of the Stearns Wharf to our port, we decided that dropping the hook on the outskirts of the mass of boats was our safest bet. In the morning, with the sun peaking over the horizon, we realized just how big the anchorage really was. We had anchored right outside of the harbor entrance which was more exposed to wake and swell. We scoped out another spot further in, raised the anchor and went for it. We snagged a snug spot close to shore, remaining away from wakes from boats transiting the harbor channel just beside the general anchorage. This turned out to be a much better spot not to mention the fact we could see Gemini from the beach onshore.
For the first couple days, we were comfortable at anchor here - there was minimal swell and a hard sandy bottom which our anchor faired well with (45lb CQR). Most of the anchorages we frequent in San Francisco Bay are very protected from rolling ocean swell, so this trip down the coast was our first encounter with rolly anchorages and just how uncomfortable they can be. The first two days anchored in Santa Barbara were a dream - calm nights and clear days accompanied by the perfect amount of breeze to keep you cool but not reaching for a sweater either.
By the afternoon of day three on the hook, the ocean swell had picked up and our boat felt like an eternal ride on a 42’ mechanical bull. Port to Starboard, bow to stern - Gemini and her 26,000+lbs was rocking and rolling like crazy. We stuck it out for the afternoon, taking refuge from the rolling by swimming in the water and going for a spin in the dinghy. Returning from our dinghy ride and seeing our home bouncing around like a tiny floating cork, we decided it was best to head in to the marina for the night. After all, this was our vacation which we wanted to enjoy, not just endure. We had been staying mainly at anchor thus far, so splurging for a slip felt earned. Going from the bounciest anchorage we’ve even been in to the guest slip in Santa Barbara Harbor was like night and day. That evening, we slept cozy, comfy and worry free in the amazingly quiet harbor.
Getting a good night’s rest was essential as the next day we planned to depart for our return trip North and more importantly, the passage past Point Conception. If you have done any boating on the California coast, then you know that Point Conception is notorious for unpredictable and extreme weather conditions, breaking waves and confused seas. After a good night’s rest, we left Santa Barbara at around 1pm Gemini felt organized, cleaned up and ready for the passage North. Knowing we would most likely be motoring the whole way, Jack checked our engine fluids, belt tensions and did a general check of our systems to make sure we were in tip-top shape for the approximately 20hr passage to our next destination, Morro Bay.
While Jack got Gemini buttoned up for our next passage, I headed to provision with my aunt who lives just blocks away from Santa Barbara Harbor. She had just finished having breakfast with my grandfather, so she brought him by to check out our boat. It was super special to have him come aboard and see what our life is like. Jack and I spent a couple months living with my grandpa in between selling our first boat and purchasing Gemini, so now he could fully understand what our lifestyle is all about. He managed to get himself down below where he got very comfortable in our nav station, checking out our charts for the trip and our guidebooks we had been reading along the way. His face lit up as he told us about a week long sailing trip he experienced with friends down in Baja way back in the day, and how he would've loved to have lived aboard just like us.
Leaving Santa Barbara felt like saying goodbye to a friend who lives far away, not knowing the next time you will meet again but hoping it will be soon. The warm weather, laid back pace and bustling marina life made the Santa Barbara anchorage a perfect spot to hang out, recharge and finally get to enjoy our boat and the warm water she floated upon. Life on the hook is not bad when you are a short dinghy or paddle board ride away from tasty shoreside restaurants, markets within walking distance and a highly transited bike path to take you along the waterfront and beyond to downtown. Everyone here rides classic, colorful beach cruisers. people commuting to work but still riding like they have all the time in the world and no place to be.
Leaving the guest slip by noon check-out, we fueled up in the harbor (diesel fuel was cheaper than SF, by about a dollar per gallon), topped up our cooler with a fresh block of ice (at the Harbor Market), headed out the marina and turned right. We timed our Pt. Conception rounding to be in the evening, once the winds had died down and we were pleased to have a very uneventful passage. In fact, the rounding was comfortable enough that Jack cooked a trip-tip, broccolini and rice for us to feast on as we headed up the coast. The entire passage was uneventful, the only drama being the feeling of the air temperature drop as we inched our way up to Morro Bay. Once we rounded Pt. Conception, the Southern California warm breeze disappeared and we remembered what our home sailing conditions are like once again.
Unfortunately, one of the things we cannot control, plan or completely understand are the weather conditions around us. We had planned to stay a couple more days down south, but there was a big front coming by the end of the week that we needed to beat in order to make it home in time for my work schedule. Darn schedules and commitments! We figured getting to Morro Bay was a good jump and a safe place to hide-out while the nasty weather blew through.
We arrived to the Morro Bay entrance just as the sun rose - which was carefully planned, since we’ve heard the entrance can be tricky at night and is know to have treacherous breakers in certain conditions. It was breathtaking to see the massive Morro Rock grow in size as we approached the entrance to the harbor. The immensity of the rock guarding this sleepy town was astonishing, but we could not let it distract us from entering the harbor safely. It was definitely the most spectacular entrance we had ever experienced. We followed the carefully placed markers to guide us through the strong current and narrow passage to the anchorage/mooring area.
Our guidebook mentioned that Morro Bay has strong currents flowing through and that anchoring can be tricky. Upon arrival, we saw two boats anchored taking up most of the open anchorage area. We contacted Harbor Patrol, who told us they had a mooring ball for a mere $13/night. For that price, we felt comfortable spending the next couple of days riding out the weather on the oversized, hefty mooring - we would sleep better at night knowing we were secure. We spent 2 nights here, waiting out the offshore winds, working on boat projects and taking the dinghy to shore to explore. The town is quaint and small, an old grungy fishing town turned tourism hotspot. We enjoyed roaming the main waterfront street lined with gift shops and seafood restaurants, people-watching, snapping photos of Gemini with Morro Rock towering behind and marveling at the cute families of Sea Otters floating by. Morro Bay was one of our favorite pit-stops in our little 2 week adventure.
BACK TO SAN FRANCISCO BAY
From Morro Bay we continued North to Santa Cruz, stopping one more night to rest and see if we might have good luck again catching crab in the anchorage. Unfortunately we pulled up our hoops only to find a couple sand dollars feasting on our bait, so no crab dinner for us. From Santa Cruz, we timed our departure to hopefully ride a southerly wind that was predicted, pushing us back towards San Francisco Bay. We ate a hearty breakfast and picked up anchor, excited for the sail we had anticipated. We raised the sails and felt a tiny breeze fill in as inched up the coast. Unfortunately, the sailing was short lived as only 30 min later the wind died completely leaving us bobbing on the flat, calm Pacific “bathtub”. No idea where the Southerly wind went that had been forecasted, but it most definitely was not here! Once again, we fired up Stinky Pete (our engine) and motored the rest of the way to the Golden Gate.
Every mile going North we dreaded going back to the chilly, traffic-ridden Bay Area. This two week trip had been a tiny snapshot of what cruising life is really about and now we wanted more. Life aboard felt no different even when we arrived to new anchorages we had never been to before. We still spent our time cleaning, fixing things, tinkering with little upgrades and projects and generally going about the same things we do when stuck in our long-term slip in Emeryville. Simple, menial tasks turn into tiny little adventures: grocery runs are way more fun when you have to pile everything up in a dinghy and laundry is not-so-dreaded when it involves washing clothes in a bucket and hanging them on our lifelines to dry. Gemini did amazing throughout this experience, proving to us once again that if we keep her happily maintained, she will take cake care of us on these grand adventures keeping us safe and forever in search of adventure.