Weathering Catalina's Year-End Storm on a Mooring

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Night of Madness — Part 1:

An intrepid yachtsman decides to stay aboard during a horrific, freak storm and learns several important lessons.

Catalina's Year-End Storm

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.

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This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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