Night of Madness — Part 1:
An intrepid yachtsman decides to stay aboard during a horrific, freak storm and learns several important lessons.
It’s a Sipes family tradition to take our 34-foot Meridian Tamara from Mission Bay Yacht Club in San Diego to Avalon Harbor, on Catalina Island, after Christmas and stay through New Year’s Day. New Year’s Eve on Catalina is popular thanks to many social events, including a black-tie affair at the Catalina Casino. Of course, we’re not the only ones who enjoy this tradition. The number of boats in Avalon Harbor swells into the hundreds at this time of year.
On December 30, 2014, the weather forecast called for cool northeasterly winds, between 5 and 15 knots. A weather forecast for northeasterlies always raises concerns at Avalon because it may presage a Santa Ana, a kind of storm that typically occurs when onshore winds switch to warmer, more powerful offshore winds and the protected anchorages of the islands become exposed to them, sometimes with hurricane force. I have been through such storms while boating at Catalina and in the northern Channel Islands. Twice they have been so severe that the harbormaster called for everyone able to leave the anchorage to return to the mainland or seek alternative shelter. Once I rode out a Santa Ana in Santa Monica Bay. It was an exciting night for sure, with strong, warm winds and steep seas but my Cal 25 sloop handled it well. However, this time around, the weather forecast called for cool, mild winds, not warm, and there was nothing about seeking alternative shelter.
Avalon harbor has several hundred mooring buoys. Moorings for larger boats are amply spaced and on the outer edges of the mooring field. Moorings for smaller boats like ours are more densely packed and located toward the back of the mooring field. Some moorings are more exposed to Santa Anas than others. When we got the weather report we were on buoy 103, which would have been very exposed to the wind and waves, so I requested that we be allowed to move to a spot that was closer to the inside of the harbor. I was told that, while there were no “good” moorings still available, buoy 62 was open. This buoy was only marginally more protected and was in shallower water and closer to the seawall—not good if the seas were large and breaking. Still, I elected to move to buoy 62 because of its potential to be slightly more sheltered from the predicted wind direction. Because the forecast was for mild winds, I told myself, we were really only talking about comfort, not survival.
We decided that it would be best for my wife Tamara and the kids to move to a hotel ashore so they could get a good night’s rest. We took our dinghy dockside in calm weather at about 5 o’clock that afternoon, had dinner at Antonio’s Pizzeria & Cabaret, and then checked into the Glenmore Plaza Hotel. I spent some time with the family, said good night, and left for the dinghy dock at about 8 o’clock. While walking back I noticed a cold wind was up, well beyond the 5 to 15 knots that had been predicted, and the seas were already rough.
Four Dollars Is Fine
The ramps to the dinghy docks had been hoisted when I arrived and the docks themselves—with my dinghy attached—were already being towed away from what we call the “Green Pier” to a safer place in the harbor. I recognized the guy leading the operation, Brian Bray, who I’ve known as the harbormaster for many years.
“Hello,” I said.
He turned to me, looking frantic, and replied, “This wind just came up in the last 20 minutes!”
From his expression I inferred that he was surprised by the intensity of the wind. The worker riding on the now-free-floating dinghy dock yelled at the tow-vessel operator, “Go, go, go!”
I told Brian I had just dropped my family off at a hotel and needed to get back to my boat. He pointed to the yellow vessel coming in to drop off a woman and suggested, “Try the shoreboat.” I went down to the dock and immediately hopped aboard. The shoreboat operator just stared blankly at me as I told him about needing to get back to Tamara. “Well,” he said finally, “That was gonna be my last run. It’s too dangerous. But I’ll do one more. Exact change only—four dollars and fifty cents.” I told him I had four singles or a twenty. “Tonight,” he replied, “four dollars is fine.” He brought me to my boat and wished me good luck.
The wind was now blowing maybe 20 knots and the seas in the harbor were increasing—I figured they were 4 to 5 feet high and very steep, arriving every 5 seconds or so. I tuned my VHF radio to the working channel for the harbor patrol. From the traffic I heard, I determined that Baywatch Avalon had one or two boats in the harbor on standby in case the situation worsened, although one of them had a mooring line wrapped around a propeller and was therefore temporarily out of service. The Baywatch guys were trying to free it.
Boaters were also on the radio asking to be taken off their boats, although the shoreboat had stopped running. The harbor patrol uniformly responded that they were trying to secure the harbor but would get to the evacuation requests as soon as possible. Catallac, a 50-foot catamaran-type party boat, asked for assistance with doubling her mooring lines. She was in the outer harbor, and it was a very good idea to do this. The harbor patrol helped them. So now Catallac had two lines securing her bow and two securing her stern.
The ride was rough in the harbor. On my boat, items were falling from the shelves. I was tidying up and securing things when I heard a loud bang on the bow. I looked through the saloon window to see our standup paddleboard, which I had secured earlier, hanging over the side and held in place by little more than a Velcro ankle strap around a stanchion. I got a line and went forward to hoist the thing back aboard and tie it down more securely. Then I went back into Tamara’scabin.
The Madness Begins
It was dark, but I could still make out the other boats in the anchorage. I noticed an 8-foot Zodiac inflatable with a small outboard literally flying from the stern of a sailboat and wondered how much wind might be necessary for such a thing to occur. Thirty knots? 40? Then I heard, “Avalon harbor patrol, I am off my mooring! I need help!”
Avalon harbor patrol responded, “We are on our way but still towing the dinghy dock. We will get to you as soon as we can.”
Baywatch chimed in, “Our prop is still wrapped—we have a diver in the water.”
I went up to the bridge and saw the free-floating boat in the distance, banging into other boats. Not long after, the harbor patrol arrived, put a line on the bow, and towed her to a calmer part of the bay.
I was becoming concerned, though—the seawall was only about 75 feet behind my boat. If the forward mooring line parted I would likely be in the breakers and smashed against the wall before the harbor patrol could arrive. I climbed down from the bridge and went up to the bow to check the line’s attachment to one of the cleats. It looked okay. Earlier in the day, I had run a second line from another cleat to the eye of the mooring line and it looked okay too. By doubling up in this way, I figured if one cleat pulled out, the other might still hold.
But there was a problem nevertheless. The mooring itself was loose—its stern and bow lines, from the anchors below, were so close together that there was too much slack. This allowed my boat to get too close to the boats on either side and, worse still, it kept her from constantly facing directly into the oncoming seas. Instead, she would go somewhat sideways now and then, thus increasing the stress on the mooring lines when waves hit. My neighbor to starboard, onboard a 37-footer, placed his Achilles inflatable dinghy between our two boats and I also placed fenders forward.
I started my generator to top off my batteries and also cranked the engines. Then I felt a particularly large wave hit the boat—the bow snatched up all the way to the ends of the mooring lines. I heard a loud bang as the slack ran out and wondered if a line or lines had parted—I quickly took bearings and determined my boat was still fully secured.
King Neptune’s on the Loose
Radio traffic intensified:
“Harbor patrol, we are free! We need assistance.”
“Harbor patrol, we are free, too.”
“Harbor patrol, we have sick people on board and need to be evacuated.”
“Harbor patrol, we have elderly on board and need to get to shore.”
“Harbor patrol, the captain is not on board, what do we do?”
“Harbor patrol, we have a person having an anxiety attack with shortness of breath. We need to be taken ashore.”
“Harbor patrol, this is Catallac. We are down to one mooring line now and need assistance.”
“This is the harbor patrol,” the radio crackled, time and again. “We are trying to control loose boats right now. Others will have to wait.”
At length, an unfamiliar voice on the radio blurted, “King Neptune is loose!”
I knew the massive King Neptune well, having performed a personal-best free dive (at the time) to 101 feet from her decks many years before. It was particularly concerning that she was adrift because she had been moored in the outer harbor and was a very large vessel—65 feet. She would do a lot of damage to the vessels in the inner harbor if she were pushed ashore by the rising wind and waves.
I watched from the bridge. King Neptune was moving through the harbor striking boats. These were glancing blows—causing damage but not threatening destruction. She was now essentially moving broadside to the waves and wind.
Then it appeared the midsection of King Neptune was going to hit a 40-some-foot trawler. I thought to myself that if she hit she would either break the trawler off the mooring and push her to the beach or actually push the vessel underwater and destroy her. Seconds later, she hit the trawler. I watched the pulpit collapse and King Neptune just seemed to hang up for a bit. Then a woman from within the trawler screamed into the radio, “Help! We are breaking up! Our boat can’t take this! It’s coming apart! Help us!”
By this time three harbor patrol boats were maneuvering around King Neptune. They put personnel onboard, secured a line at the bow, and towed the big boat off the trawler (which remained afloat miraculously) and headed for calmer, more protected water. But the towline parted. So they secured another line and started to tow but that line snapped as well. King Neptune once again was drifting through the anchorage and again hit the same trawler, this time a glancing blow. The harbor patrol repeatedly tried to take the immense vessel in tow but the lines would just break. Finally, someone who had somehow boarded King Neptune said on the VHF, “I’m trying to start the engines.”
The voice belonged to 39-year-old harbor patrol officer Timothy Mitchell—a New Zealander who had moved to Catalina in 2000 and had worked on this very boat as a SCUBA instructor. Before joining the harbor patrol, he’d also been a volunteer fireman. Getting the engines going was the only hope for the boat, of course, but it was too late. King Neptune hit the seawall about 100 feet behind my boat, but more toward the Green Pier. The waves pounded and rocked her violently. A crowd gathered on land—now only feet from King Neptune. The stern of the big boat was very close to the steps that are used by swimmers in calmer times.
I heard over the radio, “Tim fell off the Neptune and is in the water!” I immediately hoped, as I’m sure everyone else did, that the young man could get clear and not be pulled under the boat by the tremendous suction that develops under such conditions. Many in the crowd ashore screamed and some gasped. Many turned away, but some leaned in further. I knew what had happened.