A Swell Story

By George Phillips

Any surfer can tell you one way the West Coast is unique: Average swell heights are significantly higher than on the East Coast, the Gulf Coast, or in the Great Lakes. As this story from a reader proves, that swell can be deadly.

The six-foot comber slammed against the port bow, knocking my 34-foot trimaran sideways until it fetched up on the anchor chain with a jerk that nearly took me off my feet.

A scant quarter-mile behind me, enormous waves crashed against the rocks of Pebble Beach at the head of Stillwater Cove, shooting spray 40 feet into the air. I needed to leave-now-while I still could. But I was alone, and there was no way to manually crank up the 200 feet of chain that held me against the assault of the relentlessly growing waves. I had no choice. I released the windlass clutch. The remaining chain roared out until it fetched up against the rope tail that secured the bitter end. I tied an orange fender to the chain, then watched the incoming wave train, waiting for what I hoped would be the right moment. I saw my chance and touched my knife to the bar-taut line. It exploded in two, and I raced back to the helm.

Stillwater Cove chartWith a forecast for a northerly swell, I thought I would be completely protected in Stillwater Cove. I wasn't.

I slammed the throttle lever all the way forward and pointed the bow toward the next comber, praying the prop wouldn't foul on one of the thick patches of kelp surrounding me, nearly invisible in the foam and spray. Time slowed to a crawl. The growl of the breakers became strangely muffled. I hung on and held my breath as the bow rose skyward and the steering wheel rotated down into my gut. This was the critical moment. If I made it over the top and down the backside of this wave, I'd be out of the trap. If the boat broached or the prop fouled, I would toss out the anchor I had laid out on deck and pray it held. If not, I'd be hurled sideways into the maelstrom and the rocks behind me. Neither the boat nor I would survive the pounding.

How had I gotten myself into this situation? Through a series of prudent actions and good decisions — and three critical mistakes.

It had all started four days earlier as I was bashing my way up the rugged and desolate Big Sur Coast of California. NOAA weather radio was warning that a major Alaskan storm was generating swells that could reach 21 feet or more, which were expected to hit the California coast by the next day. No problem, I thought. I'll just find a well-sheltered anchorage that faces south, directly opposite the expected swells out of the north. I studied my charts and found what seemed like the perfect spot. Even the name was perfect: Stillwater Cove. It was a south-facing cove well inside west-facing Carmel Bay tucked under Pescadero Point. As a bonus, it was surrounded by some of the most beautiful and expensive real estate on the planet: Pebble Beach. I remembered being there before, and the water had been like glass. Yes, it was only 10 to 12 feet deep, but my trimaran drew four, so depth wouldn't be an issue.

That was mistake number one.

Because I knew that when waves break when they "trip" on the bottom, I anchored in the deepest spot in the cove "just in case." But I didn't really expect swells coming from the north to bend around 180 degrees and enter the cove.

That was mistake number two.

As the big swells began to arrive off the coast, an only slightly smaller swell wrapped around Pescadero Point and found its way into Stillwater Cove. Although conditions were getting rougher, I remained smugly self-congratulatory as four- to six-foot waves began to curl and break on either side of me, but not in the deeper spot I had selected.

That was mistake number three.

During the next couple of hours, the gap between the rows of waves breaking to port and starboard began to narrow. The breakers gradually closed in on me like the moving walls of some demonic medieval dungeon. By the time I had woken up to what was happening, I was in a very precarious situation.

Stillwater Cove The deceptively named "Stillwater Cove."

The swells had become so large that they had the effect of the tide rushing in and out every 30 seconds or so. Waves and breakers formed in all shoal areas, regardless of how sheltered they seemed or which way they opened to the sea. In normally very secure Santa Cruz Harbor, some 50 miles to my north, boats and even docks were being swept away by three-foot breakers plowing through the narrow main channel of the harbor like a tidal bore.

And so I was left with no choice but to prepare a second anchor and rode for quick deployment, cut my primary anchor rode, rush back to the helm, shove the throttle forward as far as it would go, hold my breath, and hang on while the bow rose toward the sky, praying we'd make it over the first wave.

After what seemed an eternity, the bow started settling back down toward the horizon. As the passing wave kicked up the stern, my breath burst from my lungs with relief. I'd made it. Well, so far, anyway. I still had to avoid the kelp waiting to ensnare my prop and make it to a safer shelter. But I'd made it!

So, where do you find safety in circumstances like these? It may seem counter-intuitive, but in the absence of strong winds, shelter from large swells lies in deep water, even offshore. Once I extricated myself from the dangerous breaking waves in the shallow cove, I simply re-anchored in 60 feet of water, ironically, in a more exposed part of Carmel Bay. Because there was little wind, the openness of the anchorage wasn't important. What was important was that the depth was nearly three times the height of the swell. And because I had already prepared the rode and anchor, all I had to do was drop it over the side when I got to a safe place. Well, at least I got one thing right.

Thirty minutes after I almost lost my boat — or worse — I was riding gently up and down with the big swells rolling into the bay. I was safely anchored less than half a mile from the scene of my recent narrow escape. In the three days I had to wait for conditions to allow me to return to recover my abandoned anchoring gear, I had plenty of time to contemplate the lessons learned from this terrifying experience.

Even though I consider myself an experienced and knowledgeable sailor, I still fell into the common psychological pitfall of associating safety with shelter near land. It's hard to resist the temptation to head for a cozy spot that snuggles up to the beach in the back of a cove. It looks sheltered, and it makes getting ashore easy and convenient. But if things get nasty, it's the worst place to be. Not only will the waves break first in the shallow water near shore, but you have almost no margin of safety if your anchor drags or you need to make a quick exit like I did. Now, unless I'm absolutely sure the weather will remain settled, I drop the hook in the deepest water that is still sheltered from the prevailing wind and waves.

I also underestimated the ability of big swells to wrap around land. I knew that waves refract, or bend, around islands and points of land, but I never thought that even large swells could do a 180-degree turn. As a result of this experience, I've learned that when swells are large enough, the effect is almost tidal, and shallow water is hazardous regardless of the relative direction of the offshore swell.

Finally, I should have seen the error in my choice of anchorage much sooner and left before it became a life-and-death situation. Much like deciding when to reef, the time to leave a potentially dangerous anchorage is the first time you think about it. Unfortunately, I let my pride cloud my perceptions and my judgment.

Still, I must have done some things right or I wouldn't have made it out safely. I did have the sense to monitor the weather daily and seek shelter based on NOAA warnings. I just picked the wrong spot. Because I had adequate spare anchors and rode onboard, I wasn't reluctant to abandon a set of gear in order to make a quick exit. Equally important, because I had rigged a length of rope to the bitter end of the anchor chain, I could cut it free in an instant. Before doing so, I had readied my large Northill anchor that I knew would set quickly even if it encountered some kelp. I had carefully flaked the rode on deck so that it would pay out with no chance of fouling and made sure that all I would need to do in case of emergency would be to toss the anchor over the bow. Because I had enough line, I could safely re-anchor in deep water. In fact, I needed more than 300 feet to achieve 5-to-1 scope in an average of 60 feet of water. Finally, when things calmed down, I was able to recover my costly anchoring gear because I had attached a large round, orange fender to the end of the chain before I cut it loose. So, thanks to good preparation and some luck, I had survived a close call.

A few days later, I decided to celebrate my narrow escape with a steak dinner at one of Santa Cruz's finest oceanfront eateries. Savoring a glass of fine California Cabernet while surveying the damage to the harbor through the window, I realized just how very lucky I was that my lesson hadn't cost me much, much more. 

— Published: October 2012

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