5. A Wall of Whale – Monterey to San Miguel Island

October 20th – October 23rd, 2019

Thick fog filled the Monterey Marina on October 20th. We decided to let the fog break a bit and made a big breakfast before heading out on an overnight passage to San Miguel Island. The fog cleared as we motored out of the marina but quickly filled back in again as we headed out around Point Pinos. The wind wasn’t predicted to pick up until the afternoon so we motored into the fog and swell watching for targets on the radar. As the morning went on the fog cleared and we let nutmeg drive in the light wind conditions. After lunch Austin went down below for a nap and Elise stayed on watch as the wind started to build.  

Elise yelled down to Austin that the winds were around 12 knots, Austin wanted to keep sleeping and said let’s wait an hour. Fifteen minutes later the winds were consistently around 20 knots and Elise couldn’t wait any longer. We are crazy not to be sailing in this, time to get the sails up! Austin, still a bit groggy from his nap, came up on deck to disengaged the autopilot. Elise began hand steering the boat in preparation for hoisting the sails. In that same moment, Elise shouted “WHALE!!!” All we could see on the starboard side of the boat was a light grey and white speckled mass coming up out of the next wave. Elise dropped the throttle and started turning to port as quickly as she could. The only thing in front of us was whale, whale, whale! Austin yelled “keep turning, I think there’s another one.” The boat was now 90 degrees from where we first saw the whale and we could still see at least 40 feet directly in front of us. The boat raised up with the swell and down the other side. BOOM! the boat shuttered, boom! We hit keel first and then the rudder. It felt hard…ish, the boat didn’t stop it seemed like we came down on top and glanced off the side of the whale. Austin dropped the autopilot on deck yelling “Keep turning, keep turning”. It felt as if we had done a complete 360-degree circle, the boat now directly into the wind and bashing into the swell. We were both shaking and disoriented. “Oh my god we just hit a WHALE!” Elise said, white knuckles gripping the wheel. Austin jumped down below to check if there was any damage or if we were taking on water, nothing seemed out of place or broken so he returned to the cockpit. The whale surfaced again a few hundred feet from the boat as if to say, what was that all about?!

We couldn’t get the image of a wall of whale out of our minds.  Austin said, “Okay, let’s not forget where we are going and what we are doing, let’s get sailing in the right direction.” We needed to jump into action because by now the winds were blowing 25 knots. Taking a deep breath, we brought the boat back on course, unfurled 2/3 of the genoa and set Ginger to medium. Turning off the engine, Elise plopped down on the cockpit seat, still shaking and eyes on the sea. We both kept seeing ghost whales in every wave.

As the afternoon turned into evening the wind increased to a steady 35 knots with gusts in the 40s and swell 20 feet plus. The genoa was now reefed to only 1/3 out and we were still rocketing downwind at 8 knots. We were officially in gale territory, keeping the boat from rounding up after surfing down waves at 10+ knots was a real task. Every so often Ginger couldn’t keep up with the gusts or a big wave so Austin would steer in conjunction to help keep the boat on track. Before this trip we were very proud of our high-speed record of 9.9 knots, that night we were above 12 knots quite often. Atica’s new speed record is 12.9 knots! We had resigned ourselves to the fact that neither of us were going to get any real sleep that night. The motion and noise of the boat making it hard to relax especially with whales on the mind. It was a long night trying to catch naps in the cockpit while spray from the tops of the waves was covering everything. Even the stove in the galley had saltwater spray on it. We were reduced to “survival mode” where all you do is eat, drink water, try to sleep and sail your heart out.

The brain takes you to strange places when sleep deprived and primed with adrenaline. Even the theory of relativity takes on a new meaning. When in the middle of the night the wind drops from 30 to 20 knots, you start to relax a little and think, I should put more sail out. In reality when the boat is going fast, you need to slow down. Quick decisions made by sleep deprived minds rarely work out well. It would be day break before we exposed any more sail area. That night the bioluminescence was very strong. Twice we saw huge glowing blobs in the water and we thought, “oh god not another whale!”, and then dolphins shoot through the blob as bait fish jumped from the surface.

In the early morning as we got closer to land and Point Conception, we saw several odd shapes on the horizon. Were they ships? There were AIS targets in the area but it was hard to identify their strange light patterns in the pre-dawn light. As we got closer it became evident that they were the oil platforms we had been warned about. Just as quickly as the wind had come up the day before, the wind died back to nothing and we motored past Point Conception and on to San Miguel Island. We were thankful that after a long night we rounded Point Conception in day light and calm seas. Point Conception is known by locals as the Cape Horn of California. Throughout the day we saw multiple pods of dolphins, it seemed like they were being called into the boat from all directions. They would take turns swimming around the boat, play in the bow wake and then zoom off. It was a peaceful day of motoring and napping. The sun was just starting to set as we approached the desolate island of San Miguel. Elise was down below and Austin said, “You’re never going to believe this, I just saw a whale spout in the bay right where we are going to anchor.” Still traumatized we slowed the boat to bare steerage and slowly crept into the anchorage to drop the hook.

It was a peaceful night on anchor. After dinner and a boat drink, we both quickly fell asleep. We awoke the next morning, to the sound of the islands’ elephant seal colony playing, fighting and rolling around on the sand beach. We had the bay completely to ourselves apart from the grey whale we saw the night before who came up every 15 minutes or so for a breath. San Miguel has a long history, before it was turned over to the Channel Islands National Park it was a military target range. This means you are only allowed to leave the beach and explore the island with a Park Ranger, since there is still the possibility of unexploded ordinance. That wasn’t a problem for us though, we stayed on the boat the full two days we were anchored. It felt so nice just to rest and relax on the boat and soak in the scenery. We had not been anchored in a quiet bay since leaving the San Juan Islands in September. We had a good laugh when some other cruisers were paddle boarding back from the beach and were sprayed by the gray whales’ spout. Austin jumped in the water with a snorkel to see if the whale incident had caused any damage on the outside of the hull. Luckily it looks like we had made it through unscathed. We spent a few hours laying in the sun in the cockpit recounting the details of our meeting with the whale. Comparing stories and drawing diagrams of what we each saw during different moments of the encounter. Our conclusion is, that it was one BIG Blue Whale. It was easily double the length of the boat and most likely sleeping, just below the surface of the water. Surely, we scared it just as much as it scared us. Later that week while in Santa Barbara we stopped by the Natural History Museum and got to see a juvenile Blue Whale skeleton up-close. We both had PTSD seeing the 75-foot skeleton and got chills just thinking about how much damage this huge and powerful animal could have caused. We are so thankful that we were in control of the boat and managed to side swipe instead of T bone the whale. The sign at the museum said a blue whales’ tongue can weigh as much as an elephant and they average about 100 feet in length full grown. On our second night at San Miguel the wind picked up and the bay filled with a fleet of small commercial fishing boats. It’s a good sign of a safe anchorage when the locals come rolling in to take refuge!

The winds were forecasted to switch to the notorious Santa Ana winds from the NE. This would make San Miguel and most of the Channel Islands not a safe place to be for the next several days. The best spot to head next looked to be Santa Barbara. We had planned on being in Santa Barbara for Thanksgiving, but now we were a month early. It was a calm and sunny motor across the Santa Barbara Channel. Elise set up the yoga swing hanging in the companion way for a whale lookout station. We saw a few whales during the day but we kept our distance. A few miles from Santa Barbara we went through an oil slick and sticky brown oil lapped onto Atica’s topsides. This was likely a natural oil seepage but still pretty disgusting. The South Coast and Santa Barbara has a long history with oil production and the oil rigs used to be right on the beaches. We entered the harbor at Santa Barbara in the early afternoon on October the 23rd, wondering to ourselves. What are we going to do until Thanksgiving?

3 thoughts on “5. A Wall of Whale – Monterey to San Miguel Island”

  1. Hey Guys: Great storytelling – keep it up and use the notes for your novel. The good thing about experiencing some rough weather is that it builds confidence in yourselves and the boat. Remember – the boat can handle a lot more than you can! Keep the adventures coming!

    Cheers, Lothar

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  2. Wow – what a ‘whale’ of an adventure. Sorry – couldn’t resist that. Glad you and Atica survived the encounter. We’re really enjoying the blog and sharing your progress with the ‘village’. Keep the stories and pictures coming! xox

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