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Click here for Merit McCrea – WHEELHOUSE SCOOP

Wednesday, May 10, 2017
May Mexico access mayhem
Tuesday, May 23, 2017
Which side is the front side?

Heavy weather strategies
This season the set-up is a lot different than in the last few. For one thing, the cold waters north and west of the Channel Islands start a lot shallower than in several years. This means, every passing onshore event amplifies into major westerly wind storm lasting days. And this, in turn, dredges even more cold water to the surface, sending the next windstorm into over-drive.

When it’s cool offshore and hot in the Inland Empire and east, air just draws like smoke up a stack, across the outer waters, toward the desert. The spin of the Earth gives the flow a twist to the right, down-coast. That pushes water along with it, and its flow is twisted right, too, pushing it offshore. Water below rises up from the depths, and it’s butt-cold down just a few feet in the northern sector. I saw 46 degrees hit surface two weeks ago. Last week 52 was the coldest, behind San Miguel, west Santa Rosa Islands, and up at Point Conception.

San Nicolas Island had a con-trail of cool water off to its southwest, warmer waters were pulled across the surface from the northeast. Yet, south and east of there the Southern Bight seems to have a thick, imper­vious layer of warmer than normal waters on top, holding on to mid-60s surface temps, as if nothing had happened, no wind, no problem.

If you drew a line across the Bight, from where Gaviota Pass cuts the Trans-Verse Ranges in Santa Barbara County, down through the middle of San Clemente Island, to Todos Santos, just off Ensenada, Mexico, inside of it was warm and winds were occasional but not constant.

However, venture west, and it was a whole new world of hurt, hardly a minute in the past week, with less than 20 knots, usually more, whistling by. Only the thin, glorious strip along the Gaviota Coast, and the similar lee found behind the Channel Islands was spared. I, for one, foresee alternating periods of wind and slack continuing deep into the summer months at least, out there.

Yet, in recent seasons, many have become quite used to the idea of charging far offshore in teens-length craft, even out past San Clemente Island.

Here’s the deal: 25 knots of wind can generate 9-foot breaking seas, even without the help of opposing currents. More afternoons than I can count, did we have a curler, cup the stern quarter as we headed quartering downhill toward home, slam the bulwarks, top the rail and spill green water on deck, floating trash cans, ice chests and sending tackle spilling across the deck.

Something like that would flood a 20 footer instantly, and if it didn’t shed that water in seconds, like a surf board or kayak, the next one would send the boat down — Slam, Bam, Bloop — bye-bye.

A small open boat, or worse yet, one with a drain-through deck, where water goes straight to the bilge, flooding vital systems, usually has no business being where that weather happens.

When winds blow west hard on the offshore waters, typically mornings start out nice inshore, then the fog and overcast melts, and then you get hammered hard.

I don’t believe in “Rogue Waves.” Waves just stack on top of one another, and it should come as no surprise when a 12-foot set comes rolling through in an ocean full of 8 footers. You can see that stuff coming on, too.

The first one will tip white, then it’s back will hollow out, and the one behind will jack up tall and roll hard a half wave-length past where the previous one tipped. The one following will do the same again, and the next one less so. Watch for that and steer clear of ground-zero. When it’s done, there will be this big flat oval of foam a hundred yards or more long.

If you’re ever out, and see the wind start to level the tops of the breakers, blowing the tops clear and sending spray between the crests, it’s time to find the best nearby lee and spend the night, even if the waves are just knee-high. Once out in open water, it will be flat dangerous.

At this point, you’ll need good ground tackle, and that means lots of heavy chain. The chain is more important than the hook when it comes to holding in heavy weather. These days, a quick scan of the 20- to 120-foot fishing and work boats in the harbor will show the strong dominance of a single anchor type. That’s the one you want. Don’t let some pitch-master sway you otherwise, toward some shiny, fold-up, double-jointed piece of junk.

Getting the anchor back

After swinging on the anchor hard for several hours, it’s pretty common for the chain to become snagged somehow. There’s a trick to getting it back, and it calls for keeping the anchor line taut and pointed straight forward as it’s pulled. If it goes slack, the bow falls off the wind sideways and trying to straighten it up sends the now-slack chain dragging sideways over whatever rock is down there, in full-snag orientation.

If it snags, first try alternating, dropping a little slack and pulling back. If that fails, then carefully pull all the slack out until it’s tight, and straight up and down. While being careful not to get your digits crushed as the bow raises on a swell, cleat it off, making a bunch of turns before locking it down. Then let the boat settle back, and wait, while keeping well clear of the bow. Let the swell bust it free.

There will be literally tons of pressure on the gear as the swell rolls though. The whole situation will be a little eerie as things crunch and groan under the strain. Eventually, you’ll feel the whole bow pop up as something gives — hopefully just the bailing wire trip on the top of the anchor.

* * *

Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California party boat captain, he also works as a marine research scientist with the Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He can be reached at:

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