Boating On The West Coast

Readers quotes and photos paint a picture of what it's like to go boating on the West Coast.

First, a confession: All of the Seaworthy editors have either lived or spent a considerable amount of time on the West Coast. We already knew, for example, that boating in Southern California was far different than Puget Sound or even Northern California. We also knew that the weather on the West Coast was typically pleasant, even in the drizzly Northwest. Finally, we knew that Daniel Webster's quote about the West Coast having 3,000 miles of "cheerless and uninviting coast with not a harbor on it" was liable to compel Seaworthy readers on the West Coast to write and set the record straight. And write they did. Seaworthy received almost 100 e-mails and letters.

Golden Gate Bridge Photo: Salim Virji

David McNeely, a member in Oak Harbor, Washington, noted that any area has its own unique attractions and challenges. In the April 2006 article in Seaworthy, "Venturing Onto The Great Lakes," one of the surprises, at least to those of us who live elsewhere, was the ongoing problem of receiving accurate marine weather forecasts in the area. According to a meteorologist who was quoted in the article, the Great Lakes are at the intersection of large air masses that make accurate predictions difficult and also "create some of the meanest weather in the country."

On the other hand, West Coast readers praised the weather as being remarkably consistent. No problems there. But what is a concern, at least in some parts of the West Coast, are waves, which tend to be significantly larger than waves on the Atlantic, Gulf Coast, or Great Lakes. James Baumgartner, a member in Everett, Washington, notes that the Strait of Juan de Fuca is some 80 miles from the ocean but can still get large swells, especially on an outgoing tide when wind is being funneled between the mountains. (His advice was to plan ahead.) Other members mentioned the Farallon Islands tragedy this past April, where a 38-foot racing sailboat was trapped by a series of large, breaking waves and driven onto a rocky island. Five of the crew died.

Below are some of the quotes from members that paint a picture of boating on the West Coast. We've also included an account from George Phillips, a member in California, about an experience he had anchoring in a harbor he thought was protected. Instead, large waves began wrapping around the point. It's a good story.

Two other West Coast accounts are published at our website, The first is a terrific description of boating in the Pacific Northwest by Missy Watts, who moved to the area from Georgia. The second is a harrowing (and humorous) account by Ralph Ahseln of a near-fatal encounter with waves at the Columbia River bar. In the coming weeks, all the stories will be put on the site.

Stillwater Cove Stillwater Cove (Photo: George Phillips)


Southern California

"Wind and waves conspire to give Point Conception its reputation as 'The Cape Horn of the Pacific.'"

"We nearly always have good-sized swells. This, combined with the [wind-generated] waves, means that calm seas are a rarity. The swells come from the vicinity of New Zealand in the summer and Alaska in the winter. Often it is a combination of swell direction, which makes for a bumpy ride. These lumpy conditions are not for everyone."

"Crossing the bar at the entrance to Ventura can be exciting and quite dangerous. I recall a time when a big swell was running and some friends failed to follow me out of the harbor. Later they explained that they saw the bottom of my boat's keel as I was going over a wave and they decided to stay in the harbor. They were right; I made it home that day, but it was damn scary."

"As soon as I was on deck, a nice young man on a surfboard identified himself as a lifeguard and informed me that I had drifted very close to shore. I looked toward shore and was greeted with the sight of four-foot breakers forming less than 20 feet from my bow. I quickly thanked him and moved over a mile offshore. I later realized that what I had failed to notice was that after I had rounded Point Dume, the cross-shore breeze had become an onshore breeze. By the way, there are fewer lifeguards now because of budget constraints."

Northern California

"What a rude awakening when I began to plan for coastal trips out of [San Francisco Bay]. Every harbor was a day's motor away with no guarantee of being able to access it once I arrived. Sea conditions and shoaling could easily prevent entry."

"The Golden Gate can be a very dangerous place for small boats due to the strong tides and large swells. Once you're inside, though, it's one of the best sailing places in the world."

Pacific Northwest

"I figured that if we had wandered into Clatsop Spit [at the Columbia River bar], we'd just die. A kind of calm came over me, even though I was really scared. I sat in the cockpit hanging on, watching breaking waves that towered over our boat, which pitched up and down like a teeter-totter, at times going almost vertical."

"He got the boat turned around as I was reeling in the lines. I told the two ladies in the boat to sit down on the bottom and put on their life jackets. Bruce and I put on our life jackets and then I helped spot as we headed back in. The waves were higher than a house! They were standing waves like you'd find on a white-water river, only the river was the mighty Columbia. (If you think "mighty" is an overused term, you've never been over the bar during an ebb tide.) The Coast Guard came out to keep watch on us as we struggled in."

San Francisco DeltaSan Francisco Delta (Photo: Bob Klawuhn)


Southern California

"Most of the West Coast is also 'deep water,' which relieves some of the navigational anxiety that can be experienced on the East Coast. I have never run aground here."

"Three characteristics of the L.A. area are: Watch carefully for merchant ships; wind comes up at 1 p.m. and goes down at 6 p.m.; moorings can be scarce at the few harbors."

"When Southern California sailors talk about 'long voyages,' the two most frequent destinations are Catalina and Mexico. There are two annual cruises from Southern California to Mexico: the Baja Ha-Ha and the Newport-to-Ensenada Race. Many boats race down, party, and then slug their way back."

Northern California

"We have had our boat for 35 years and have only missed a few years when we did not take our vacation into the Delta. When we get there, our routine is to break out the water toys: kayaks, dinghy, water mattresses, and tubes. We usually stay there for a week or more. It is very relaxing."

Pacific Northwest

"We've boat-camped on the Columbia and Snake Rivers at marina campgrounds along their 400-mile expanse from Portland, Oregon, to Lewiston, Idaho. We worked our way through locks at eight dams with lifts of more than 80 feet and had great adventures with a wonderful variety of country along the way. And when we moved into saltwater, there were even more boating opportunities."

"One thing about the Northwest is the lack of crowds. If there are more than four boats in an anchorage, I feel encroached upon. When we visit an island or inlet, we find Indian folklore, hieroglyphics, old miner's cabins, waterfalls, and quaint villages. Another wonderful thing about the Northwest is, you can't see it all. That means there are always places to go that you have never seen before."

"Transiting the coast is only feasible for recreational boaters who have seaworthy vessels with enough range to travel between our few ports. I would recommend at least a 200-mile range with fuel left over for emergencies. Summer winds are almost always northerly and blow at 15 to 20 most afternoons. Winter winds are mostly southerly, and don't even think about traveling by water."

Columbia RiverColumbia River. (Photo: Dave Shively)


Southern California

"I consider myself a solid 'B'-grade fisherman with a good amount of experience. I've never seen fish so finicky about the quality and presentation of bait as we have here. HOWEVER, the weather is predictable and there are no mosquitoes."

"San Diego wins the weather debate, hands down."

"Let me share these two thoughts: 1. Our weather allows for lots of good boating days. 2. Hurricane season? Never heard of it."

Northern California

"We can sail 12 months a year here; we don't have ice. We prefer our ice in our drinks, not in the water. Also, there is no humidity. We prefer our water in the water, not in the air."

Pacific Northwest

"The rain is light and not heavy as it often is in Florida. I have rain gear onboard but I can't think of when I last put it on. All one needs is a jacket and some sort of hat."

"I was spending the night on my boat in the marina the other night when a thunderstorm blew through. My fellow boaters at the marina were hooting and hollering and celebrating with each lightning flash and clap of thunder like it was the Fourth of July. I have never in my life seen people so enjoy a storm. And why not? Here in the southern reaches of Puget Sound, we hardly ever experience thunder and lightning."


Southern California

"Marina del Rey is broken into numerous marinas, guest docks, slips, and anchorages. Depth is good, services are available and there are no less than eight yacht clubs. Celebrity sightings are common."

"On the foredeck was a woman waving her arms in my direction. Assuming they were in trouble, I cranked up the motor to see if they needed help. When I got within hailing distance, she shouted, 'Have you got any taco sauce?'"

"Advantages: no spiders to clean off the boat; Catalina Island; 12 months of boating; celebrity sightings at the dock and on the water; and sea lion sightings everywhere."

Channel IslandsChannel Islands. (Photo: Gareth Jones)

Northern California

"A transition from the Bay, the Delta offers miles and miles of laid-back boating — fishing, swimming, and berry picking, and a place for raft-ups and barbecues."

"The Delta is far from cheerless and uninviting. The temperatures are perfect, there is wildlife everywhere, the water is warm, and the people are great. And San Francisco Bay is one of the best [bodies of water] in the world. The nicest thing about the Bay is that whatever kind of wind you want, it's someplace on the Bay. The strongest is usually in the central bay, near San Francisco. North and south of that, the winds are usually lighter. If you want to just drift around, duck behind one of the islands or headlands."

Pacific Northwest

"The air that drifts off the islands smells sweetly of warm pine and cedar. The aspect that greets your eye is almost exactly the same, in most cases, as it was hundreds of years ago, when Native Americans plied these waters in dugout canoes."

Puget SoundPuget Sound. (Photo: David Stevens)

"The town of Port Townsend lies along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the entryway into Puget Sound and the city of Seattle; we stay there overnight while fishing for halibut and salmon. If you ever stay in the marina, beware of river otters! They are smart, agile, and not afraid to steal your catch of the day. They will climb onboard, open your cooler, and swim away with your prized salmon while you are standing there scratching your head, wondering what the blur was."

"The trees are towering, the ferns are the size of my car, the crabs are the size of my head, the shrimp are prawns — the whole of the coast is reminiscent of the megafauna of the Pleistocene period even today. It's my home now, but my breath still catches at the scenery some days."

"[The sea otter] was lying on his back, clutching to his chest a fair-sized crab, and trying to take bites out of it. But he was surrounded by half a dozen large seagulls, all floating on the surface, jostling each other, pecking voraciously at his crab and trying to wrestle it away from him. Time after time, he would submerge with his meal to get rid of the gulls, but he couldn't stay under for long; as soon as he reappeared, the birds would fly over with great squawks of indignation and continue the assault with their strong, sharp beaks."

"If you write about the Northwest, please warn people not to cruise here: The orcas are a monstrous size and eat fiberglass and aluminum; the weather is awful — no sunshine ever; and you can walk from California to Vancouver on the floating logs. That's my advice." 

— Published: October 2012

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