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Cruising the West Coast of the U.S.


The winter of 2016-17 was one of the coldest on record in southern British Columbia. In June 2016 we had sailed across from Hawaii to Sitka in southeast Alaska aboard Distant Drummer, our Liberty 458. After enjoying a summer of leisurely cruising through the Inside Passage in Alaska and British Columbia, we reached Canoe Cove on Vancouver Island where we had decided to haul out for the winter.

We lived aboard all through that winter, and as we shoveled snow off the decks and slithered across the ice to the washrooms, it was dreams of hot sunny California days that kept us going. We were waiting for a big fat high to settle in the northeast Pacific to give us a steady northerly wind for the passage south. Our plan was to spend the summer following the sun southwards down the California coast.


Fog, fog and… fog

Fog is a summertime hazard in the Pacific Northwest. We encountered it in Alaska and British Columbia, and it would continue to plague us all the way down through northern California.

After spending a glorious spring cruising in the Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia, we re-entered the United States at Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula. It was a crisp, bright morning when we left Canoe Cove in British Columbia, but we arrived at Port Angeles in fog so thick we could not see the lighthouse at the end of the sandspit although we passed it only 300ft away. The low-frequency foghorn blasts of the ships in the Strait of Juan de Fuca sounded bovine and mournful as we passed them in the murk.

Our last stop before leaving the Strait of Juan de Fuca was Neah Bay, part of the Makah American Indian Reservation. It is the site of the Ozette Village, which was buried by a mudslide in 1560. Nothing was known of the village until a storm in 1970 exposed some of its remains and archaeologists have since uncovered six long houses. The story and numerous artifacts are displayed in the Makah Museum in the village.

Boats heading south tend to gather here to refuel, discuss weather and route planning, and to wait for the right weather to leave. There are two strategies for heading south: the inshore route is prone to coastal hazards such as crab pots, fog and heavy shipping, but gives you the opportunity to visit ports in Washington and Oregon along the way. The offshore route, staying 60 to 100 miles off the coast, is the faster passage; it has stronger winds and higher seas but adds extra miles to the voyage.

Many harbors on the Washington coast have bar entrances that are treacherous when a big Pacific swell rolls in from the west. We were interested in visiting some of these ports, but they are often closed during bad weather and it’s not uncommon to be locked in for several days. We were keen to see some of that California sunshine, so we rounded Cape Flattery and headed offshore.

For the first couple of days of the passage we had perfect sailing conditions; we were 60 miles out, enjoying glorious sunshine and a 15 to 20-knot northerly breeze, and making good time. It was not to last; soon a small low brought headwinds, then calm, then more fog. Four days into the passage we were approaching Cape Mendocino, which has a very bad reputation, and gales were forecast. We decided to sit out the bad weather in Crescent City, a town lying just south of the Oregon border. It was our first landfall in California. We anchored inside the breakwater off the river mouth. There was not much swell in the anchorage, but we were still buffeted by the northerly winds.

Crescent City was established in the 1850s during the California gold rush and must have been a wonderfully decadent and debauched place back then. In 1964 it was devastated by a tsunami, and it seems to have been in decline ever since. Visiting the Battery Point lighthouse was a trip back in time, and from the top we had a stunning view of the rocky shoreline northwards up the coast. Just a short bus ride inland lie the northernmost forests of California Redwoods. These magnificent trees grow over 200ft tall and more than 20ft in diameter. Wandering among them with the sunlight piercing through the canopy was quite a spiritual experience.

After waiting a week for a break in the strong to gale-force northerlies, we finally opted to motorsail around Cape Mendocino in light southerly headwinds but with the favourable south-setting California Current. We enjoyed the company of pods of dolphins and watched humpback whales breaching as we passed under the Golden Gate bridge. Unfortunately, it was foggy, so we were unable to appreciate the spectacular entrance into San Francisco Bay itself. Still, we were glad to drop the anchor in Richardson Bay off the Sausalito waterfront and spend a few days unwinding.

San Francisco and the Delta provided some enjoyable cruising during a two-week stopover   

San Francisco and the Delta provided some enjoyable cruising during a two-week stopover   

Bay Tripping

The weather in the center of the bay—an area known locally as the Slot—is determined by the inland low-pressure systems created by the very high temperatures in the Central Valley. In the morning as the land heats up fog is sucked through the Slot, billowing in under the Gate and rolling over the Sausalito hills. In the afternoons as temperatures inland soar the prevailing offshore winds are drawn into the Bay giving a strong, chilly westerly breeze.

Although Richardson Bay is huge, its average depth is only about 5ft making it inaccessible to most cruising sailboats. Visiting cruisers usually drop the pick close to the entrance where they are exposed to swell from across the Bay, boat traffic from Belvedere and the afternoon sea breeze, all of which contribute to make it a fairly rolly anchorage. As compensation, the view is quite incredible; Sausalito, Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge are close by, with the San Francisco waterfront, the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island in the background.

After a week of sight-seeing in San Francisco, we were satiated and in need of a rest. One of the best ways to get away from it all in the Bay Area is a cruise up “the Delta,” where the Sacramento and San Joachim rivers drain into the northern end of San Francisco Bay forming a nest of flat windswept islands and shallow muddy channels. With shifting sandbars and strong winds and tides, it helps to have some local knowledge. We set off for a long weekend exploring the Delta, buddy-boating with seasoned Bay sailors Sylvia and Barry on Iolani, a Hughes 48 yawl.

We anchored for the first night at China Camp, a cove on the southwest side of San Pablo Bay that was settled by Chinese shrimp-fishermen in the 1880s. Following the 1906 earthquake the population swelled as residents from Chinatown fled the devastation, but now the settlement is uninhabited and is a national park. The anchorage is sheltered from the strong tidal currents that sweep much of the Bay area, but is exposed to the wind. During the night the breeze swung round to the north, and in one particularly strong gust, we dragged over 600ft before the anchor decided to reset. We were glad it was a wide shelf with few other boats around!

Finding a balance between the wind and the tides for a passage up the Sacramento River makes the difference between having a fantastic sail or a slow bumpy ride. With a flood tide and a 15-knot westerly wind we had a fabulous sail through the Carquinez Strait and past the mouth of the Napa River. We held our breath as we passed under the railway bridge at Benicia (charted at 70ft vertical clearance at HHW) and then entered Suisun Bay where we sailed amongst the “mothball fleet,” a collection of WWII warships that forms part of the National Defence Reserve Fleet. About eight of the vessels remain at Suisun. It was fascinating to sail among these old relics of former glory.

After passing by Pittsburgh, we anchored in a meander of the river behind Delta Island. The entrance to the anchorage is very shallow, so much so that we touched the muddy bottom several times. However, the channel deepened again as we got further in, and we finally set the pick in 18ft. The next day we motored through Three Mile Slough, a sinuous, narrow waterway that connects the Sacramento River to the San Joachim River, then hoisted the sails in the main channel and had a leisurely trip up to Potato Slough against the ebbing tide.

Potato Slough is made up of a number of channel loops known as “the dormitories,” and we enjoyed paddling our inflatable kayak around the islands and channels, poking in amongst the reeds and watching the cormorants roosting in the trees. The water was warm enough to swim and fresh enough to serve as a shower too—was this summer at last? We dinghied around to the Pirates Lair, a small marina and pub that is a popular haunt for sailors; it was a treat to prop up the bar and have a chat to some of the locals.

We left the delta early in the morning, motoring against a flood tide in order to pass through the Carquinez Strait on the early ebb tide but before the westerly winds kicked making the water in the strait very choppy. After that, we motorsailed across San Pablo Bay into the afternoon sea breeze and spent the last night of our delta expedition at anchor in Paradise Bay before returning to Sausalito the next day.

Coast Hopping

Mark Twain once said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” It was mid-summer, but we still had not reached the warm water and sun-drenched beaches we had been dreaming about—we needed to keep moving south. San Francisco to Half Moon Bay is an easy day sail and a convenient place to overnight on the way down the coast. We tucked in behind the breakwater at Pillar Point and took a walk along the clifftop, enjoying great views of the harbor, the ocean and Mavericks, the world-famous big wave surf break.

Leaving Half Moon Bay we dodged the crab pots that are a constant hazard in the coastal waters of California, and which we always kept a careful lookout for out until we reach a depth of about 300ft. A light northwesterly breeze filled in during the afternoon and we had a pleasant sail to Santa Cruz, arriving just before sunset.

It’s possible to anchor on either side of the pier, and the bay is calm and well protected, but the noisy barking and grunting from the sea lion colony under the pier does tend to disturb the peace. Santa Cruz is a wonderfully, shamelessly tacky place full of fairground kitsch. The pier and the amusement park on the boardwalk are a huge tourist draw, but most of the crowds were on the beach enjoying a warm summer day. The only downside to anchoring at Santa Cruz was the difficulty of getting ashore. The public landing on the pier is the only place to tie up a dinghy but it is not very secure, is subject to some swell and is often cluttered with sea lions.

Next day we crossed the bay to Monterey and dropped the pick in the harbor to the east of Fisherman’s Wharf. The anchorage is exposed to winds from the north, but luckily it was light and from the west-southwest so we enjoyed a calm night. Monterey was a center for sardine-packing until the industry collapsed in the 1950s due to over-fishing.

We strolled past the old canning factories on Cannery Row, now converted into trendy shops and restaurants, but decided not to pay the breathtaking price for a ticket into the aquarium, as we probably see most of the exhibits from our back deck. The density and diversity of sea mammals off the coast of California is remarkable. Humpback whales, dolphins and porpoises are often around when we are sailing offshore. In the harbors, seals, sea lions and sea otters are a constant source of entertainment.

The overnight passage from Monterey to Morro Bay around Point Sur was a rip-roaring sail, with a 6ft swell and winds gusting over 40 knots on the starboard beam. We rolled in the headsail and put three reefs in the main but were still racing along at 7-8 knots—that’s fast for us! As dawn broke we saw that we had split a seam close to the top of the mainsail, which had to be hand-sewn once we reached Morro Bay. Toward noon we rounded Morro Rock, the sugarloaf mountain that marks the entrance to the bay, and dropped anchor behind the sand spit in beautifully calm water.

A colony of sea otters lives in Morro Bay at the foot of the Rock close to the anchorage. Throughout the 19th-century sea otters were hunted almost to extinction in the Pacific Northwest, but a small colony of 30 survived at San Luis Obispo, and the group in Morro Bay are their descendants. It was great fun to watch them going about their business in the still water of the bay, their bodies sleek and sinuous as they dive then surface clutching a clam and a rock. Their furry, whiskered faces seem to concentrate as they hit the clam with the rock to open it, then eat it and do it all over again.

Sunshine at last!

Point Conception is the headland that marks the boundary between the mostly northwest-southeast trending coast in Northern California and the east-west trending coast of Southern California. It is another cape with a bad reputation for strong winds and rough seas, but we had a beautiful sail with a 15-20 knot breeze in smooth seas. We rounded the Point and anchored for the night at Cojo Anchorage, a small cove just behind Point Conception with a fantastic view of the lighthouse.

From Cojo it was a daysail to Santa Barbara, where we dropped anchor east of Stearn’s Wharf in 15-30ft of water. Santa Barbara is known as the “American Riviera;” the Spanish-style buildings, the long sandy beach and the warm sunny climate do give the city a Mediterranean feel. Sunshine and blue sea, palm trees and beach volleyball—it was just like a Californian postcard. We had finally made it to the sun. 

Suzy Carmody and husband Neil have lived and cruised aboard their Liberty 458 cutter for 11 years. They are currently cruising down the Central American coast. To follow their adventures, check out their blog at

July 2018



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