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Lessons Learned

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Aftermath of the Storm, by Daniel Sipes (continued)

Lessons Learned

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.

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