As the 70-foot Sunseeker drifted down on us in the dark, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I lurched forward on deck in my bathrobe, screaming and clapping, trying to get their attention before they hit us. My mate was prone on the bow of the bucking ketch, easing the snubber for the third time, trying to find a less chafed part of the line.
“I looked back and saw a giant bird with flailing white wings, rushing the bow, shouting inaudibly into the wind, and gesturing wildly,” he laughed later at the bar. “You looked like Karen demanding to talk to the manager.”
The night turned to chaos when an early season, un-forecast Santa Ana wind hit Catalina Island and put over 100 boats on a lee shore at Isthmus Cove. The moorings here are fore and aft, with the larger boats farther back from shore and therefore the first hit by that night’s 45-plus-knot wind and 4-foot chop. Here, the mooring lines are polypropylene, and after two hours they started to melt and break from the friction on the cleats, sending boats off to fend for themselves. Everyone immediately engaged their engines, wrapping the tangle of floating lines in their props, rendering themselves helpless, as they bounced around the mooring field in a horrifying domino scene. Four harbor patrol boats swirled around, lassoing boats when they could and towing them out to open water.
We were bringing Indigo, a 50-foot ketch, down the West Coast, tucking into the cove for the weekend. The radio said the weather was clear, which is strange because we normally get plenty of warning about the hot dry winds that blow down from the high desert and wreak havoc at the coast. Santa Anas typically build throughout the day, but this one was a cold nighttime cousin that started at 2:00 a.m.
I woke up in the V-berth hearing seagulls screaming simultaneously from every direction. It was chilly, so I grabbed my fluffy white bathrobe and leapt into the cockpit. The boat, all 18 tons of her, was bobbing like a cork in the waves. We had anchored behind the mooring field in 70 feet of water, the shallowest spot you’ll find here. The 60-pound Rocna and all 320 feet of chain were out, but I couldn’t be sure if we were dragging down onto the last line of moored boats, now behind us since we had turned 180 degrees. I woke Ike up, started the engine and put it in gear. We didn’t move forward into the howling wind, but we did take the strain off the anchor.
We couldn’t just drop and run because we had a pair of Forespar flopper stoppers out, one off the main boom and one off the mizzen. We were like a spider trapped in its own web. The first order of business was the snubber that was chafing through. In all the bouncing, the hook kept dropping the chain, so that took 40 minutes to reset.
Then we hauled up one stopper, and as soon as it broke the waterline it became 8 feet of thin sharp metal flying around looking for someone to decapitate. It took two hours to subdue both of those and get all lines secured on deck. By then, the boats all around were breaking loose of their moorings, including a giant Sunseeker now upwind of us on the other side of the cove.
They had just been towed out by the harbor patrol, who were shouting at them to go around to the West End and hide in the lee of the island. All eyes on the Sunseeker were facing forward and away from us as they strained to hear the directions. That’s when one turned around and saw the crazy white bird (me) about to levitate off the deck and land in his cockpit. His eyes widened and he jammed the boat in gear down to full throttle. The engines dug in and about stood the big boat up on its transom as they took off across the cove.
By midmorning, the wind had settled down enough for us to launch the dinghy and go ashore to check out the carnage. The dinghy docks were torn away, stranded on the beach, wrestling for space on the sand with a half dozen boats on their sides. Some dinghies were still tied onto pillars, floating upside down with the lower units of their outboards sticking up into the air in surrender.
People wandered about bewildered, clutching cups of coffee and surveying the damage. We opted for something stronger and ordered Buffalo Milk at the bar—a concoction of five liquors that goes down like a milkshake but will knock you off a dock if you have more than two. We had four each.
Our discussion that afternoon was around what happened, how we managed it, and how we could have been prepared for it. In the end, we neither sustained nor caused damage, and that was all we could have hoped for because the unexpected is exactly that.