50 Shades of Gray

San Francisco is one of our favorite cities. Julianne and I have visited the city on numerous occasions and know our way around pretty well. We needed to do laundry, and get some provisions. We decided to splurge and get a hotel so we could have a hot bath and sleep in a full sized bed. We ended up staying in Japan town, which was an area of town that we had never been in. The neighborhood is yet another reason to love San Francisco. As I said, we know our way around a little bit; we have been to a lot of the trendy restaurants and hip cocktail bars as well as the stalwart areas; Fisherman’s, Unions Square, South Beach, China Town……… Listen very closely to this advice; the next time that you find yourself in the city by the bay, proceed as rapidly as possible to Yuet Lee Chinese restaurant. It is just across Broadway on the edge of Chinatown.

You are going to hesitate going inside………… because it looks like a shit hole. Persevere and keep moving forward, ignore the hand written specials in Chinese and broken English that are taped to the walls on the backs of paper plates. You wont need a menu either. Yourder the whole fried garlic prawns, and a beer. There is a reason that Yuet’s has been in business for 40 years and featured on multiple television food shows. The whole thing will cost you twenty dollars……you can thank me later.

We left San Francisco Marina at mid day on September 24th. It was our wedding anniversary and we were both excited to be heading out. It was time to get further south! We waited all morning for the fog to break and finally, around 11AM, the spires of the Golden Gate Bridge became visible above the fog. We motored out into the bay and turned toward the channel. As we passed beneath the bridge, the fog returned and the bridge all but disappeared. We were navigating in one of the biggest shipping channels in the world with only our chart plotter and radar to depend on. We made sure to stay well clear of the traffic lanes, but we did manage a couple of close calls, one with a fishing boat and again with another sailboat. There was not a drop of wind. We spent the whole of the day just three miles off shore, but we never saw land. There was only gray upon gray. You could not differentiate between the sky, the land and the water………the fog was so thick, it made everything wet and it blurred our vision.

GoldenGate fog
Fog Bank departing  SF

Six hours later, we pulled into Half Moon Bay and motored into the harbor. As we dropped our anchor outside of the marina, the sun dropped beneath the marine layer and the heat dissipated the fog in an instant. We were in clear afternoon skies and we celebrated our anniversary with a huge T-Bone on the grill, a delicious Chianti and an amazing sunset.

The anchorage at Half Moon bay, harbored a couple of other salty looking boats; Second Chance and Southern Cross. You can spot a cruising boat from a mile away!  We spent the next day lazily, at anchor, reading and writing and relaxing. The fog had come back and visibility was not more than a half mile. We could barely make out the other sail boats anchored right next to us!

At 7:30am on the 26th, we pulled anchor and turned south. The fog was as thick as ever. We were really disappointed, because we had read so much about the beauty of Big Sur and its rugged coastline. But it was completely obscured, there was only shades of gray. Adding insult to injury, there was no wind. Once again we were destined for a motor boat ride with only instruments to guide us. Around 10 am, we picked up a contact on our radar, he was coming right toward us! We altered course to gain some clearance but he was coming fast. We strained our eyesight into the fog, searching him out. All of a sudden there he was! A 35 foot power boat, running at 20 knots in the fog…..and on auto pilot. There was no one at the helm! I doubt that he ever even knew that we were there, or how close we had come. And so went the day, south down Big Sur with only the roar of the engine, and our chart plotter…..ugggh! 

Fog! Yay!

One bright spot, that kept us entertained for several hours; we had a stow away! “Ano” (Ahn-yo) as we named him, was a yellow winged warbler, who decided to join our crew. He got used to us and we spent the day talking to him and trying to get him to eat from our hand. He fluttered around the boat, like it was his own personal jungle gym; out to the bow, onto the sheets, walk down the lines, drop to the deck, up the mast, onto the halyard, drop back to the deck, repeat! Every once in a while, he would dart out to sea and we would watch as he disappeared in the distance, but he always circled back to the boat, where he would start his jungle gym routine all over again. He was with us for four or five hours and then he was gone. He was great company and we were sad to see him go.


Around 2:00PM we were off the northern entrance into Monterey bay, just west of  the city of Santa Cruz, our intended destination. All of a sudden, the fog began to lift a bit and 10 knots of northwest wind appeared on our starboard quarter! We decided to skip Santa Cruz and head across to the south coast and the city of Monterey! We had just enough time to make it before dark. We left the motor on, but unfurled the Genoa. Soon we were flying across the bay at 7 knots.

Monterey Bay is a huge body of water and very deep. Monterey canyon is one of the largest underwater canyons on the planet. It is also, a marine sanctuary and home to abundant and diverse marine life. In the middle of the crossing, we are well off shore; Santa Cruz, 20 miles behind us, Monterey 20 miles ahead and the eastern shore of the bay 25 miles to the east.

We saw every manner of marine life; birds, sardines, jumping fish, dolphins and seals and sea lions. And…….humpback whales. All around us, their backs break the surface, arch, nose down and a bifurcated tail lifts in the air and sinks beneath the sea. It was amazing!

All of a sudden a great commotion out in front of us! In the distance I saw what I assumed were a bunch of dolphins coming toward us. There were hundreds of them, jumping out of the water as they came forward; looking every bit like a school of Dolphins. As they got closer, we realized that they were seals! A river of seals! Were the seals imitating dolphins? We had never seen them in a pack jumping like this….why would they behave this way? And then all became obvious, as a big black dorsal fin broke the surface, and a huge humpback erupted from the depths with his jaws wide open. The whales were herding and hunting the seals! All around us now you could see panicked seals leaping this way and that, as time after time the humpbacks broke the surface, mouths agape. It was amazing to watch, Julianne felt bad for the seals, but there did not seem to be any shortage of them and the whales have to eat too!

Finally we made it across the bay. We had Monterey insight and right in front of us. It was just after 5:30 in the afternoon; we had made good time. We could see the beach, Cannery Row, some boats and a big white hotel. Only five miles to go! It was definitely time for a Coors light! We opened the cooler and soon we were toasting the success of another successful passage. ………..will we ever learn?

Me: “isn’t this Coors light delicious?’ 

Julianne: “Yes! This Coors Light is delicious!”

Me: “aren’t we awesome?”

Julianne:”yes! We are awesome!”

Me: “we did it again huh?”

Julianne: “yes, we did do it aga, ummmm……..is that hotel moving?”

Rubt Princess
Ruby Princess after she turned out of our way!

The big white hotel Is a Disney Cruise liner and it is a monster. As it picks up speed it turns directly toward us. It is dusk now and there is no way that they are going to spot us. I turn as far as I can, to get out of their path and Julianne jumps on the VHF; “Ruby Princess, Ruby Princess! This is sailing vessel Epiphany, we are directly in your path over!”  Finally they answer. They see us now and turn to give us space to pass! An hour later we motor into the harbor at Monterey.

Have you seen the movie Water World? It is essentially the same move as Mad Max…..but Kevin Costner instead of Mel Gibson and boats and oceans instead of cars and deserts. Monterey Harbor looks like the set of Water World! There are boats of every shape and size and in every state of repair. Moored, anchored, abandoned. Sails in tatters, paint peeling off, holes in the decking. Former owners have long since relinquished possession to the otters and pelicans. The sea lions occupy the jetty by the hundreds; this is their turf. A message that they share loudly with the world, as they alternate barking at the top of their lungs all through the day and night. Their smell is rank to say the least. The coast guard maintains a cutter here and there is an active boat yard.

Monterrey was the capital of Alta California under both Spanish and Mexican rule. It was the port of entry and all taxable goods had to pass through the customs building that still stands today. This same customs building is where the US flag was raised in 1848, ending the Mexican American war, and making California part of the United States. The Marina is delightful, as is the city itself. The boardwalk passes right in front of our berth and all day long tourist walk by marveling at the crabs and starfish in the waters. The weather is beautiful and we decide to stay for a few days as we plan our strategy for rounding Point Conception!

Customs Buildinf Monterrey
Customs Building. The US flag was raised here at the end of the Mexican American way. 1848.

Point Conception is arguably the most infamous headland in the northern hemisphere. It is certainly the most treacherous in north America. And there is good reason that early western explorers dubbed it “ the Cape Horn of the Pacific”. It is a massive outcropping separating north-south running northern and central California, from  the east-west running southern part of the state. The Santa Barbara channel empties into the Pacific here. The seas are in constant agitation, as currents collide from all directions and the wind is more likely to be vicious than moderate. Steep large wind waves colliding with ocean swell is the order of the day. The Chumash people of the region, believed that Pt Conception was a gateway through which the dead could pass from the heavens back into the mortal world. It is the site of the largest peacetime naval disaster in US history, as a fleet of destroyers ended up on the rocks and twenty three sailors lost their lives. So influential is Conception’s impact, that by sheer force of will, she holds two separate climate regions apart from one another. To round her point in either direction, is to leave one world an enter another.

We left Monterey at 8:30 in the morning on October the 1st. Our plan was still up in the air. We were going to be sailing through the night, which would have us off of the point at day break. If the weather took a turn or we decided to wait; we had Morrow Bay and San Louis Obispo as last minute alternatives. As we motored out into the familiar, relentless fog, we were treated to one last whale show. Again, they were on the hunt for seal. Julianne didn’t feel as bad for the seals this time. 

Through the day and into the night…… No wind…. Fog…… And the engine roars and we stare at our instruments. At three am and we pass Morrow Bay, the weather holds and we motor on. Two hours later we are west of Port San Louis, this is our last chance……we keep heading south. At dawn, the fog lifts and Julianne is treated to a miraculous sunrise and a thousand playful dolphins. They perform a private marine ballet for her. She has it all to herself. She tells me later that she felt that they came just to lift her spirits and let her know that she was welcome….and safe. I wake up just in time to catch the encore and then they are gone. We have arrived! Arguello, on the northern side of Conception is visible 10 miles in front of us! The fog returns and we motor forward, without even the satisfaction of being able to look upon this fabled landscape.

Julianne's Sunrise
Julianne’s sunrise.

In the end we round the cape as we transited the entirety of the central coast; from San Francisco south. In a bathtub of calm seas, and cloaked in  endless shades of gray.  It was as if the sea gods had granted us this mild passage, but denied us any peek at the miles of spectacular coastline that we passed along the way. Maybe we hadn’t paid the correct price of admission.

Finally, mid morning, the fog lifts completely and southern California erupts around us. 10 miles behind, we were wearing bibs, coats, beanies and boots. In a moment, we are stripped to shorts and a tee shirt. Point Conception and its magnificent light house are just two miles to port as we pass by. It is complete calm. We round the point and drop our hook at Coho anchorage. It is a remote spot with no access by car. There is a small beautiful beach with a train trestle crossing at it’s head. Four industrious surfers, have made their way to the beach in a small skiff. They have the swell and the beach to themselves. The sun beats down as we consider a swim and marvel that we made it. We didn’t know it yet, but the day was not through with us yet, and neither was Point Conception. But right now, all was glorious. We relaxed and rejoiced in our surroundings. It was definitely time for a beer!

Pt Coneption
Pt. Conception lighthouse.


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