We planned for our first night sail to be in waters with which we were familiar, not during the Baja Ha Ha in foreign waters on a 2 day passage. I didn't want to double down on our (my) already heightened anxiety of leaving our home permanently, coupled with the exhaustion of overnight sailing.
Motoring out of Mission Bay at about 5:30pm we immediately found ourselves bashing for an hour directly against the incoming west waves. At full throttle we could only achieve about 3-4 knots against the 4-6ft waves. Now, 4-6ft doesn't sound too high, but couple that with 4-6 seconds apart and it becomes a really uncomfortable bash. Once we got out far enough past the ever-present kelp beds, we put up the jib and turned north"ish" on a heading to Oceanside in about 8 knots of wind, now quartering the waves instead of meeting them head on. Indigo rides this well and cuts through as if the waves don't exist.
We rode a bit more comfortably and the wind gradually increased. 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, we were blasting at 7knots which is our boat max hull speed. Weatherunderground.com had forecast 10-15kts with gusts to 20. At 14 we reefed the main and still only lost a 1/2 knot. At 17 we rolled in the staysail and reefed the jib… still flying at 6-7 knots.
Fade to black...
Meantime, the sun lowered itself into the sea and a crescent moon rose (think Dreamwork’s movie logo). Thankfully, I had gotten used to the wave pattern while it was still daytime. But as the light faded, it was a different story. The moon disappeared behind thick clouds and soon it was pitch black to the west where the waves originated. I could no longer see them coming at us and had to steer into them by feel. The string of lights to the east onshore 3 miles away was our reference guide. We could see and recognize cities based on our knowledge of the area: La Jolla, then the black cliffs of Torrey Pines State Park, the valley indentation of Del Mar racetrack, the bright beacon-like lights of the Chart House off Cardiff, the Carlsbad power plant light, and finally the string of halogens denoting Oceanside pier. These guiding lights were a comforting sight, verifying the accuracy of our GPS.
Thank goodness Brian just finished installing the wind indicator at the top of the mast last week. It was nice to know exactly where the wind was coming from to be able to steer by it. I was constantly glaring at the wind indicator, back down to the red illuminated compass, and back up to the chart plotter to make sure I was heading in the right direction. It was mentally and physically draining. We did not use the autopilot, we didn’t trust it in those conditions. In fact, I pretty much steered the entire way because it kept my mind off the suffocating feeling of being surrounded by the darkness. Plus, as soon as I let Brian drive I started to feel seasick.
Sailing at night is sort of like driving at night with no headlights. Think partial sensory deprivation. Sounds were everywhere, none of which are comforting when you can't tell from where or what they originate. The sea creates an amazing variety of noise against the hull: from a soft and delicate "lap, lap" or "swhoosh", to a loud and discomforting "SCHWACK". Our visual field was basically relegated to inside the cockpit. To our left (port), we could barely distinguish undulating dark shapes (waves coming at us). To our right (starboard), we could see about 10 feet out, just enough to watch the trailing wave we just cut through. We had zero visibility in front and about 10 feet to our rear lit by the stern light. The sparkling lights on shore in the distance blinked on and off as we rose and fell and the waves blocked our view.
Once we neared Carlsbad, still a couple hours from port, the wind continued to blow to about 17 knots. We reefed the jib and rolled out the staysail (reefed for heavy winds). Even still, we were sailing at a good 5 knot clip but it was much more comfortable. I even let Brian drive. We saw a white bird land in the water next to our boat. He flitted away and came back a couple times… just saying “hi” or more likely curious as to what crazy people look like. I finally was able to look upon the surreal scene with a sense of peace and awe, for about 5 minutes.
Cut to... Coast guard squawking on VHF: "Alert… small craft advisory with gale warning in effect for coast of Southern California. Winds up to 40 knots have been experienced. All boats should seek shelter to the nearest harbor." Ok then. Nearest harbor is home. Let's unreef the jib and GO! Comfort schmumfort, we need to move faster.
We started flying again but before long, as we neared the Oceanside pier, the wind died. To zero. Nada. Not good. Where’s my gale? Sailing actually stabilizes the boat in these beam-on short steep seas, so motoring with the mainsail up and no wind we were suddenly being slammed by the waves. As Indigo rolled to a 30 degree angle side-to-side the boom smacked each time causing the entire rig to shudder. This can be dangerous so we lowered the main entirely and turned the boat head on into the waves...away from harbor.
Why did we go out farther to get back in? Motoring into the waves directly was safer than continuing on the same course and lolling about in beam-on waves. Oceanside harbor entrance is not perpendicular to the standard wave angle, so motoring out an additional 1/2 mile and an extra 45 minutes gave us a better angle to turn and make a run for the harbor entrance with the waves pushing directly at our stern. Sometimes you have to backtrack before you move forward.
Green alien lights...
As we motored toward the harbor we witnessed a confusing array of lights. We kept looking for the entrance buoy light which we recognized on radar but didn't see it until we were practically on top of it. Then the "red right returning" light was on the left and the green light on the right before we realized we were looking at it from an angle too far to the left. As we rode the waves in to the entrance the red went to the proper right side and we focused on the green (left) light marking the left jetty. It was about 1:30am. Then the aliens came.
Brian said "There's boats at the entrance!" At this point I was already wound like a kite. “Whaaat?! What idiots are out here at 2 in the morning?” (I should talk.) As my eyes focused I saw what looked like hundreds of green lights floating on and above the water. Holy s##. Kayaks and small runabouts milled about in the harbor entrance and rows of green lit buoys indicating lobster pots lined the inner sea wall. Lobster pot buoys are dangerous to boats as they are hard to see even in daylight and can kill an engine real quick (and do considerable damage to the drive train) if you inadvertently run them down and wrap the line around your prop. In this sea, with no wind, it would be a downright emergency. I dodged them not knowing whether we would snag a fishing or trap line or run over a kayak. Even as I was tired and irritated from this end-of-the-day surprise encounter, I recognized that it would probably be a beautiful sight... had I been on land.
Despite our sporting night sail, the harbor itself was calm and after we picked our way past the fisherman, we motored picture-perfectly (yeah, I was driving) into to our slip with no incident, took a shower, ate our dinner that we never felt like eating and crashed at 2:30 am. Retelling this story to my lobster-fishing friend, he laughed at my shock. Who goes fishing at 2am???...Apparently everybody.
Side note: We of course were strapped into safety harnesses the entire time. But MVP has to go to the granny bars at the mast for the numerous times Brian had to get up on deck to reef. Hands down they were the best piece of safety gear we could have added to the boat.