Sailing Away from Santa Barbara Harbor in a Pandemic

Sailing Offers a Socially Distanced Option for Summer Recreation

The author (above) escapes pandemic life by sailing the Santa Barbara coast. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

When it comes to socializing in a small group of three to five people, few outdoor activities can compare to sailing. Santa Barbara has one of the world’s greatest playgrounds for this activity just outside its beautiful harbor, and even a small sloop such as the popular Catalina Capri provides ample room for safe and secure interaction with or without masks. A group of three people seated several feet apart can count on the breeze not only to power their journey but also to sweep the air around them clear of most of the airborne droplets released by normal conversation. It’s an ideal way to embrace again the sense of freedom that comes with unimpeded natural movement.

Mask up for the trip from the harbor parking lot to your point of embarkation, and bring some disinfectant wipes if the boat you plan to use is one that’s available to other sailors. Keep a sharp lookout as you navigate the channels that lead from the inner harbor to its mouth between Sandspit and Stearns Wharf, as the traffic, especially on weekends, can be significant. Kayaks and paddleboards share the lanes with all manner of craft, from glamorous cruising yachts to venerable fishing boats, sleek racing dinghies, and even Little Toot, the harbor’s bright yellow water taxi. Red and green channel buoys flank the deepest part of the harbor where it’s safe to maneuver without risking an inadvertent scrape on the bottom.


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Emerging from the harbor most often means encountering a freshening breeze out of the north northwest. Head up to close-hauled when you see the familiar red and white harbor buoy and begin tacking back and forth to windward. This course offers the day sailor his or her safest bet for a carefree experience. While crewmembers gawk, wave, and whistle at the sea lions lounging on the base of the buoy, you’ll be feeling the confidence that comes with recognizing and using the region’s aids to navigation. Awareness of approximately where you are, how fast you are traveling, and what will be involved in returning to the harbor at any moment are the fundamentals of a satisfying sail, and a good skipper, no matter how close the shore may appear or how much fun everyone on board is having, will never lose these crucial threads.

The coast curves outward into the channel as you pass Leadbetter Beach, and you will begin to notice that your time on port tack grows shorter before you reach the shallows and head back out into open water. Don’t be surprised by how quickly you find yourself quite far offshore on the return trip. Thanks to the angle of the coastline, a straight shot downwind will not take you back to the breakwater. In fact, the downwind return trip often requires a little more patience than the upwind journey out, as finding the right series of broad reaches to lay the harbor efficiently can be a challenge to even the experienced helmsman. But don’t forget to enjoy it too! As you head home, the day will open out before you like a giant jewel, the blue of the sea merging with the sky into a single cerulean celebration of your decision to sail away.


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