Away from the Coast, Sailing Gets Real

The Challenges and Joys of Crossing the Santa Barbara Channel

Fellow student Jordan Hardy, author Charles Donelan, and ASA 104 instructor Ken Miller review how to read a nautical chart. | Credit: Wade Graham Photos

At 2 a.m. in Fry’s Harbor, on the north coast of Santa Cruz Island, you might expect things to be quiet, but they are not. Alone on the deck of the Jenny Lane, a 50-foot Catalina sloop owned and operated by the Santa Barbara Sailing Center, it’s my turn at the watch. After I make my entries in the log book, I could go back to sleep, but instead I linger to marvel at the activity swirling around me. Bright-red tuna crabs from Mexico speckle the water on all sides. The near shore of the cove is littered with their carcasses, refuse left by birds and fish. In the middle distance, sea lions bark, and hungry gulls and rare guillemots feed around me, their prey submerged under the surface of the water.

Our yacht is surrounded — and protected — by high cliffs that were once quarried for the stones that built the Santa Barbara breakwater. Otherwise, Fry’s cove shows no signs of human habitation. Perhaps this is why mosquitoes from the nearby creek are so bold, and so hungry. Like the tender crabs below, I have a role to play in this ecosystem; I’m someone else’s dinner.

Of course that’s not my reason for being anchored off Santa Cruz. In 2018, I wrote about taking the American Sailing Association’s (ASA) 101 class at the Sailing Center. Although I grew up sailing in regattas in and around Narragansett Bay, I wanted to pursue something new to me — the world of cruising, as in multiday excursions on sailboats equipped to travel long distances and support living on board.

So far, Santa Cruz Island is as far as I have gotten. In order to complete the next two levels, ASA 103: Coastal Cruising and ASA 104: Bareboat Cruising, I took two more three-day courses. Each course incorporated both a comprehensive written examination and a series of real-life, on-the-water skill tests, and I am happy to say that I made it through. The sequence is an impressive one. The material is intelligently organized, the assessments are reliable and valid, and the instruction is of the highest quality.

Notwithstanding an extremely positive experience renewing my acquaintance with the tiller in ASA 101, nothing prepared me for the radically different nature of the demands imposed by cruising. The 103 class set the challenge, and 104, which amounted to a continuous weekend-long skills and knowledge examination, laid down the standards. They were tough!

Imagine if in order to get a license, you had to be able to service and repair your car. And yet that’s only a small portion of what’s involved in this intermediate stage course. Our instructor, Spencer MacRae, was ideal in that he has both a lot of patience and an unflagging interest in the systems that keep the boat afloat and habitable and in what constitutes acceptable conduct in the harbor.

Docking turned out to be the most daunting aspect of ASA 103. It could not be more high stakes, and it requires a new paradigm for how to put a large vehicle safely into a relatively small space. Gravity and traction, those old friends that allow you to park a car? Forget about them! This is a new skill set. MacRae got us through this most stressful of public displays (did I mention that this happens in full view of everyone on the dock?) and even imbued us with the confidence to rev a reversed prop in a counterintuitive direction in order to achieve prop wash … or was it prop walk?

The author at the helm.

Bareboat Cruising — don’t let the title fool you. This is where the real challenge of the ASA program begins, and 104, billed as a fun overnight adventure to the Channel Islands, exists to weed out those inexperienced sailors who would require rescue if they were to attempt to skipper a bareboat charter without engaging a professional captain. Our instructor, Ken Miller, a veteran of hundreds of these Channel Island passages, exemplified the authority required of a skipper. I’m sure no one in our cohort, which included Wade Graham, Paul Castleberg, and Jordan Hardy, will ever forget him.

The responsibilities of taking a yacht offshore overnight are complex and unavoidable. From navigation to seasickness and from weighing anchor to taking the helm, there are obstacles everywhere you look. Sailing at the cruising level teaches awareness and persistence in a way that few activities outside of perhaps flying an airplane can match. Larger yachts are loaded with do-or-die connections, like seacocks, anchor rodes, and halyards, all of which must be set by hand and checked by a responsible person in real time.

After three hours of review on how to read a nautical chart on Friday night, navigation underway should have been a relatively simple next step, but it was not. Taking a fix—the practice of using a handheld compass, a few tools, and a paper chart to pinpoint the current location of the boat—requires accuracy, reasonably good eyesight, and, above all, determination. Rudimentary mathematics, such as remembering when and how to convert minutes to decimals of an hour, came up over and over again as we took our turns figuring not only where we were but where we would be and how long it might take to get there.

Even when we weren’t jamming our feet into the cabin furniture to stabilize ourselves so that we could mark the chart accurately, there were plenty of other important skill drills to get through. Reefing the sails in the event of a sudden change of weather is something every sailor needs to be able to do quickly and without hesitation, and that goes double for the man overboard drill, which is a staple of every level of ASA certification. Lingering fog on Saturday’s voyage meant that each of these processes had to be conducted with confidence despite variable visibility.

When the fog cleared, we did see some memorable sights. A large dolphin pod surrounded us on Saturday, and a group of humpback whales joined us on Sunday, flashing tails as they breached not 20 yards from the boat. The journey to and from Santa Cruz revealed a world of activity outside the range of a normal day sail.

Upon arrival at the island, and after anchoring the ship both fore and aft, we settled in for a two-hour written exam, one spiked with enough hard questions to leave us famished by the time we were done. Supper has rarely tasted as good as it did that night, shared with your crew after a passage. Conversations under the stars eventually gave way to sleep, broken at hourly intervals as each of us took our turns alone on deck. Making the leap from day sailing to cruising was hard, but the rewards were great. Simple sailing is bliss, but cruising is more like life — a serious journey punctuated with moments of rare beauty and joy.

4•1•1 | For more information about the whole range of activities that are available at the Santa Barbara Sailing Center, from stand-up paddleboarding to coastal cruising, visit or call (805) 962-2826.


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