Photography by Richard Bertram
Aftermath of the Storm — Part 2:
A Freak year-end storm pummeled Avalon Harbor on California’s Catalina Island. Intrepid yachtsman Daniel Sipes rode out the winds on a mooring aboard his 34-footer and shares several important lessons he learned.
Editor’s Note: In Part I of Daniel Sipes’ story about “riding out” a bad storm in Avalon Harbor in 2014 (Night of Madness, July), conditions got pretty extreme. In Part 2, which begins shortly after harbor patrol officer Timothy Mitchell has fallen into the water while trying to save the 65-foot King Neptune from destruction, things turn deadly. Read Part 1 here ▶
Every patrol and Baywatch boat in the harbor raced over to where Tim had gone under, but could do nothing due to breaking waves. The harbor patrolman’s body would be recovered later the next morning. And King Neptune would be reduced to debris in less than two hours. Her engines remained at the scene, however, while the rest of the boat and its contents were spread throughout the harbor, with many parts thrown by the waves onto the city streets.
The harbor now stank of diesel. Two other boats, both trawlers, had gone ashore at about the same time as King Neptune. They hit the beach, not the seawall, so fared somewhat better, although I later learned that both were declared total losses by the insurance companies involved. The harbor patrol went back to grabbing wayward boats and towing them to the more sheltered portion of the bay. Out of workable moorings now, they were tying some of them to other boats or floats
My Largest, Sharpest Knife
At about 11 o’clock, my neighbor onboard the 37-footer and I tried to speak to each other. I tried to tell him I’d done some diving off King Neptune a few years before and that she’d been a massive, good vessel, but he could not hear me. Although we were only 10 feet apart, the sound of the wind drowned out my voice. We did manage to communicate that we would keep an eye on each other, however, and help if we could. Both of us were the sole occupants of our vessels and sometimes you just need a bit of help from someone else.
I took stock of my situation. With the seawall directly behind my boat I was fully aware that if my forward mooring line were to part I would only have seconds before the boat would swing, the breaking seas would come over the transom, and she would either flood and sink or be smashed to pieces. So even though the engines were running, I would need to cut the stern line as quickly as possible.
I put my largest, sharpest knife by the saloon door. I was already wearing a PFD but took off my shoes (it’s much easier to swim without them) and put my swim fins by the saloon door as well. I took the boat registration and insurance papers, folded them up in a plastic bag, and placed them in my back pocket. I attached a water-activated strobe light to the shoulder of the PFD and put a waterproof flashlight in my jacket pocket.
The plan was simple. If one mooring line broke and there was time to cut the other, I’d first try to motor out. But even if I escaped the breakers and the seawall I would need to navigate through many rows of closely packed boats on moorings. I knew that with my boat’s ample windage, I would have poor control and might hit other boats or get a mooring line wrapped on a prop and become disabled. Alternatively, if my boat hit the seawall in just seconds, I would simply jump overboard and swim to the calmer part of the harbor where I could climb out or be picked up by a harbor patrol boat. Anything to avoid being onboard a vessel pinned against that seawall awaiting total destruction.
A Windlass Rips Out
The wind and seas calmed down a bit around midnight but then picked back up. Shortly after, I heard on the radio, “Epic is free!” Epic is a large, luxury sportfisherman, maybe 65 feet long. Her forward mooring line had been secured to a very strong attachment point—the windlass on the bow, designed to deploy or retrieve her anchor in all conditions. Nevertheless, the windlass had pulled out of the deck and set Epic adrift. I watched as the harbor patrol chased the vessel down, put a man aboard, and secured a towline. This time the procedure went as planned and Epic was towed over by the casino and secured to a dock.
But another boat came adrift—a 60-some-foot pilothouse motoryacht. She was moving quickly through the harbor, about to enter a densely packed area of smaller boats. Two harbor patrol vessels rushed in and were seemingly determining a course of action when an operator repeated a fateful announcement on the VHF, “I’m going to try to get the engines going.”
One of the harbor patrol boats pulled alongside and a patrolman attempted to board the 60-some-footer just as her owner put her in gear and revved the engines. The yacht lunged forward, the patrolman missed his mark, and ended up in the water, luckily avoiding the powerful propellers. The harbor patrol boat had to maneuver around several other boats before returning to the patrolman, but he was brought back aboard safely and the motoryacht eventually made its way to safety in the calmer end of the harbor.
“Seaview is free!”
Seaview is a glass-bottom watercraft, fairly large, heavy, and very wide. She bounced off a few boats before being secured and side-tied to one of them, still in the exposed area of the harbor. Given this scenario, I figured both boats would certainly sustain serious damage but fortunately, thanks to careful attention by the harbor patrol, each of them made it through the night.
Jump Off? Swim?
“Harbor patrol, this is Susie Q. We are free and in need of assistance.”
The family onboard Susie Q, a 40-some-foot Hunter sailboat, had been seated next to us at dinner only hours before. There were three generations—grandparents, parents, and children. From the bridge of my boat, I saw Susie Q spiral off her mooring and turn her stern to the wind and waves. But her engine was running and she seemed in good shape, at least at first. I figured she was going to pass beyond the stern of a 35-foot Tiara on mooring 105 and then head out to sea. But instead she turned sharp, attempting to pass in front of the Tiara.
The wind and seas were too much. Susie Q could not force her bow into the wind. She collided, at speed, with the bow of the Tiara. Then she backed off and tried again but to no avail. Her propellers were wrapped and her engines useless. Indeed, she now seemed stuck to the Tiara, with her stern to the waves.
The harbor patrol came to assist. A line was run from Susie Q’s bow to the stern of the Tiara, an arrangement that ultimately let the sailboat swing freely from the Tiara’s stern. The strain on the line was tremendous. After a wave swept under the Tiara it would hit the sailboat, causing the line to snap taut. Periodically, Susie Q’s bow would smash the stern of the Tiara, which eventually began to disintegrate. And the sailboat’s bow developed a huge V-shaped hole, putting her in danger of sinking. If the line between the two boats broke, it was unclear whether Susie Q would go aground on the beach or hit the seawall.
The skipper of Susie Q radioed the harbor patrol. “I’m not sure how long this line will hold,” he said, “What do I do if it breaks?”
The harbor patrol replied, “Float into shore.”
The skipper came back with, “But what do we do? Jump off? Swim?”
The harbor patrol responded, “We don’t have much to do with that. There will be people on shore to help. You might want to think about getting off right now.”
The harbor patrol sent a boat to Susie Q but her stern was pitching too much to transfer. So the patrol vessel pulled up alongside the mast, where the pitching was less, and the crew was able to abandon ship.
For a couple of hours afterwards, Susie Q battered the stern of the Tiara, which remained occupied and somehow afloat throughout the ordeal. The harbor patrol tried to free the sailboat but it seemed that she was somehow attached beneath the waterline. Some time after her occupants made it to shore, Susie Q sank.
Ambulances and Fire Engines
People continued to request rescues but the harbor patrol often could not accommodate due to more pressing emergencies. An unoccupied 42-foot Fountain lost its bow mooring and swung into a sailboat two boats in front of me. I could see the situation clearly from the bridge. The speedboat was still attached by its stern mooring and was banging into the side of the sailboat. I heard some particularly loud thuds coming from the two boats as they slammed together and then screams from a man onboard the sailboat. His wife soon came on the radio, “His finger is gone! He is hurt! We need help!”
Ordinarily I would have used my dinghy to render assistance, but the wind and waves were just too much. I felt helpless, seeing the man on the swim step—and no way to get to him. I shined my boat’s spotlight on the step to aid the harbor patrol in locating the guy, and also to keep tabs on him in case he passed out and fell into the water. The harbor patrol arrived very quickly and evacuated him and his wife. I saw an ambulance and fire engine race to meet them by the casino.
A large trawler, maybe a 55-footer, then came loose. The owner was trying to get the engines started—probably the only way to save her. Because the harbor patrol was otherwise occupied at the time, it was up to him to fire up and get the heck out of there. After a moment, I saw the trawler start to move under her own power. But it takes a tremendous amount of energy, and a considerable amount of time, to get a big boat like that to turn into the wind. The owner simply couldn’t pull it off. The boat hit the beach, slamming ashore. Quickly the seas tore open the side and flooded the interior. The trawler was soon destroyed although the occupants did get out safely.
Fido Made It
Throughout the night ambulances and fire engines, red lights flashing, would periodically arrive at the casino, stay a few minutes, and then head back into town. Sometimes a sort of rhythm to the wind and seas would develop and it seemed the worst was over. But then everyone in the anchorage would feel a particularly large wave come through (often noted on the VHF with, “That was a big one.”) followed by yet another boat breaking free. Now and again, dinghies literally blew through the anchorage to be demolished against the seawall.
As for my family ashore, around 4 o’clock that morning I texted my wife to let her and the kids know things seemed to be calming down and I was going to try to get some rest. It turned out my daughter was awake when the text came in, saw it, and woke my wife. Tamara immediately called and we chatted for several minutes. Then I put my feet up on the saloon couch and prepared to rest. I left the VHF on so I’d hear about any wayward boats that might be headed in my direction. I could not sleep, though, so I sent out some e-mails and texts instead.
At first light, the wind and seas were greatly diminished and the extent of the destruction was apparent. There were three trawlers on the beach. Few of the townspeople, and no media folks, ever saw the massive King Neptune against the seawall. Well before dawn she’d been reduced to debris, much of it either thrown ashore, left floating in the harbor, or bobbing just below the surface. Most of the wayward dinghies had been smashed to bits too. Almost all of their outboard engines could be seen near the seawall, a foot or two below the surface, lying on the bottom. The mast of the sunken sailboat arose from mooring 103, our previous spot. I guessed that 50 percent of the boats in the harbor had suffered damage.
Sadly, while searching for the harbor patrolman, rescuers found another body. He was 53-year-old Bruce Ryder, a well-known Avalon resident who’d lived on a boat in the harbor for some time. The wreckage of Ocean Ryder II was found not far from King Neptune. Bruce’s dog made it to shore and their usual hangout, the Marlin Club. But Bruce did not.
There is no way to overemphasize the bravery, professionalism, and competence of the harbor patrol and Baywatch staffs during this awful night. Without their efforts, many more lives and much more property would have been lost. My deepest condolences go out to the family and friends of Officer Timothy Mitchell. And I’m saddened by the death of Bruce Ryder as well. Still and all, there were a number of lessons I learned from my experiences onboard my Meridian that night which may benefit other recreational boaters. The most important ones are:
Weather forecasting is much less accurate than many people believe. In the future, at the first sign of a Santa Ana or a freak storm such as the one I’ve just described, even if the forecast is not especially serious, my family and I will evacuate. Prior to the storm, the northeast wind was predicted to be 5 to 15 knots. It topped out at 42 knots.
Big, heavy boats are more prone to breaking free from their moorings and, once adrift, more difficult for the professionals to control. These types of boats, especially if they are on the most exposed moorings, should be the first to evacuate.
Arguably, it was failed moorings, not failed deck fittings, that set most of the boats adrift. In fact, many wrecked boats still had their moorings attached. So a word to the wise—don’t think that just because you have sound deck fittings you are safe on a mooring. In addition to Epic, there was another vessel on the beach with its windlass ripped out. On some boats at least, the windlass may not be the best spot to secure a mooring line. But in any case, it is very important to attach a mooring line or lines to your boat very securely, add chafing gear, and check it frequently.
Don’t jump off a boat into breaking surf. Either evacuate before the boat hits the surf or ride it through. And remember—there is tremendous force between colliding vessels, even at seemingly slow speeds. Never, never, never put yourself between one boat and another or between a boat and a shoreside fixture or facility.
In mooring fields during storms, motoring out is not an especially good option—it is much better to leave beforehand. Simply turning a large boat into the wind and seas in the confinement of a mooring field can be a challenge. Once Susie Q’s propeller became fouled she was doomed.
And lastly, think carefully about deciding to stay aboard when things get dicey. I am incredibly thankful that my family was ashore during the storm. While I am a fairly strong swimmer and could possibly have made it through the surf and even across the harbor had I been compelled to abandon ship, my family members are another story. Of course, I could have requested that they be evacuated had we all stayed onboard. But in this particular emergency it’s likely that such a thing would not have been possible.
A great number of families requested evacuation during the night, but the harbor patrol simply could not get to them until well after daylight when things calmed down. I hope these families have not been scared off by the ordeal and will continue to return to Catalina. For my family and me, the island is a very special place. It’s where my wife and I were engaged. It’s where our kids have vacationed since they were very young. Certainly, we will never look at Avalon Harbor in the same way we did before December 30, 2014. But our appreciation for Catalina and her residents remains undiminished. We will keep coming back.
Daniel Sipes is a lifelong boater who enjoys sailing, powerboating, fishing, SCUBA, and freediving/spearfishing. After graduating from California State University, Sacramento and UC Davis, his career took him to San Diego where, in his leisure time, he restored an old Seafarer 31-foot sailboat and sailed it solo from Mission Bay Yacht Club to Hilo, Hawaii, through the Hawaiian islands, and then back across the Pacific to San Francisco, and up to the Delta. In order to more frequently visit Catalina, he and his wife purchased a 34-foot Meridian powerboat in 2004 and make the trip several times a year with their children. He currently works as a biologist specializing in laboratory automation with Novartis Pharmaceuticals in San Diego.