Blue Anarchy >> The Non-Cruiser's Guide To Central And Southern California


This is a sort of 'Cruising Guide' to free anchorages along the California coast -- specifically for those of us who do not identify as cruisers. Most cruising guides are not written for us, and instead include information on where to find comfortable slips at harbor or good shopping malls on shore. This is a collection of information for those of us who refuse to pay $16 a night for a slip; for those of us who'd rather ride at anchor and then sing a shanty as we haul up the rode on our way out. Our boats are the ones that stare down the manicured yachts which strongly resemble a West Marine catalog, even as we wave with calloused hands.

Anchoring is always a little nerve-wracking, but it's also rewarding. Instead of blindly sailing up a dredged channel provided by a marina, riding at anchor requires that we use the lead-line to learn the depth, that we check the bottom-type, and that we're acutely aware of the tides, current, surge, and swell. And so the art of anchoring is reminiscent of sailing in general in its capacity to make us aware of our surroundings.

Included is some information on spots to anchor along the California coast from the Bay Area to San Diego. Conspicuously, all of the Channel Islands are omitted, mostly because there are too many anchorages there to write about. Consider those islands One Big Anchorage, and find a cove that looks interesting.

Half Moon Bay (Pillar Point Harbor)

Half Moon Bay, also known as Pillar Point Harbor, is about a five hour downwind sail from the Golden Gate bridge. The harbor is broken up by two seawalls, an outer wall that encloses a fairly large area, and an inner wall that partitions off the marina proper. The area within the outer wall is well protected, and there is plenty of room to anchor for free. As far as I can tell, there are no restrictions concerning length of stay. There are also a number of pay-per-night mooring buoys that don't seem to be monitored very well.

I really like this harbor, since it is the place where my outboard engine broke and I was forcibly indoctrinated into the good life of engine-less sailing once and for all. It's also where I once witnessed someone trying to catch crab off the sea-wall using a dish sponge.

The approach to this harbor can be tricky. There are several shallow reefs which require careful navigation, and can also generate some rough swell. The reefs are all marked, but I've found a night approach from the south to be nearly impossible. Distinguishing all the flashing buoys from the lights on shore becomes very confusing.

Santa Cruz

There is a free anchorage in Santa Cruz along either side of the pier. The protection is not spectacular, so it can get a little rolly at times. It seems that the closer to the beach you get, the better the conditions. Beware of the demarcated swimming areas very close in.

Shore access is easy, since there are a number of public landings along the pier that you can tie a dingy off to. There are no restrictions about length of stay, but apparently there is an "off season" during the winter, during which time the public landings are made to be inaccessible. I've managed to anchor here in the off season and negotiate with some pier businesses that have their own private landings, though.

This is the only place that I've ever lost my boat. Apparently, the plastic cleats that I tied the anchor rode off to couldn't handle the job, and the boat (sans anchor) drifted over to the pier, where it wedged up against some pilings. It seems that a number of tourists got a kick out of touching the top of the mast from the side of the pier, and eventually called the harbor patrol (who subsequently towed it away). Amazingly, there was absolutely no damage. I have since replaced those cleats.

Sea lions also hang out under the pier, and they seem to have a predilection for climbing into people's unattended dingies. I once happened by a fellow sailor who couldn't make it past the top of the public landing, because every time he walked away from his dingy the same sea lion would jump in and flood it with water. I'm not sure who gave up first.

If you're staying here, check the marine weather forecast daily. The bay is totally unprotected against south winds, and remaining at anchor in those conditions can be very dangerous. I've seen boats up on the beach, and I once made a narrow escape that gave all new meaning to the words "fighting your way off a lee shore."

San Simeon

San Simeon is best for north-bound sailors, since it is the last substantial anchorage before the long stretch of inhospitable coast that reaches all the way to Monterey. Sail outside the approach buoy and anchor towards the NW corner of the bay in about 20 ft of hard sand. Protection from NW winds is good, although it can be a bit rolly. Like Santa Cruz, this place is totally unprotected and near-suicidal in south winds.

The cove is "Hearst Beach," under the eye of the Hearst Castle. It's essentially a rest-stop on Highway 1. Most old fishing piers like the one in this bay have long ladders that reach down into the water. These are ideal for sailors, because shore access is then a simple matter of tying a dingy off and climbing up the ladder. This is not the case for San Simeon.

The first time I discovered that there was no shore access at the pier, I was in a four person zodiac dingy with my three buccaneer crew-members on a seemingly-impossible trip up the coast. "Oh," we shrugged, "we'll just make a beach landing." When we paddled closer, the waves that we'd seen breaking on the shore seemed a little larger than before, but still manageable in our hardcore zodiac inflatable. At most, we might get splashed a little. We got in a little further, a big wave came, and completely flipped us.

I saw Joel emerge from underwater, wearing his camouflage rain gear, with a face of utter shock and bewilderment. Looking around, he saw our trash bags floating by. "Let's..." he stammered, "Let's get this stuff out of here!" Heather, who had just read about "capsizing" in her book on sailing, was saying "Capsized!" over and over again. Jennifer had managed to hold onto the dingy. I made a direct line for the shore. And, once again, waded up soaking wet.

We were all wearing our warm clothes, had our backpacks with us, etc. Instead of hanging out on the beach, we spent a fair amount of time shivering, trying to dry our clothes, and waiting for the swell to calm down so that we could actually make it back out. Eventually we ended up making a mad dash back out through the swell from a somewhat calmer area of the beach, and managed to return to the boat without another capsize. We discovered that the NW corner of the beach is where the swell has its smallest impact, but you should still anticipate getting wet if you go to shore here.

Morro Bay

Morro Bay is the only port town along the Central California coast that has not gotten completely out of control. It's still a pretty small working harbor, and is a hospitable free anchorage.

Stay to the port side of all the mooring buoys on the way in, as there's a submerged sandbar to the starboard. It's possible to anchor across from the yacht club, and the "back bay" is absolute free game. The only difficulty is the tidal current, which is very prominent in this harbor. If you have two anchors, it's best to set them in opposite directions and attach them both to your bow (Bermudian style). If you only have one, just hope that it doesn't foul when it resets itself on the current change.

Normally, the "harbor patrol" in any town is worse than the city police. Their fiefdom is smaller, so they're more insane about maintaining control and enforcing their rules with a para-military aesthetic. The Morro Bay harbor patrol are the exception to this rule, and are the most relaxed, helpful, friendly bunch of city employees that I've ever met.

Once I was anchored in Morro Bay, and woke up to find that a storm was about to come through. I really didn't want to spend all day stranded on my boat, so I decided to try and get ashore before the rain really started coming down. At the time, I didn't have a proper dingy, and the windwave in the harbor was already too much for my pool raft. I looked around helplessly until I saw someone crawl out from under the tarp of their dismasted boat, and start to get into a fiberglass dingy with an outboard motor.

"Hey!" I shouted through the wind, "could you give me a lift to shore!?" "Sure man, if we make it! Are you ready now?!" "I'm ready!" He pulled the starter cord a few times, and then the dingy jolted forward. "You're going to have to jump in as I pass by, the transmission is broken in this old motor!" I climbed over the lifelines and readied myself for the jump. He got closer, and just as I was starting to step off the side of my boat, a wave hit his dingy and it veered off. I was already well past the point of committing to the jump, and my foot was now headed straight for the icy water. I had no choice but to push off hard with my leg that was still in contact with my boat, roll around in the air, and lob myself into the dingy. I landed hard on my side, but didn't fall in. "Are you alright!?" "I'm OK!" "Let's see if we can make it across!"

We made it to the dock just as the rain started to come down in force. Of course, we rammed the dock (no transmission). Before we could get everything tied off, my ride shouted "You make a run for it man, I'll take care of all this!"

And that just about sums up Morro Bay.

Coho Anchorage

Useful mostly for timing a northbound trip around Point Conception, this spot provides excellent protection in NW winds until you're ready to chance the passage. Point Conception is supposedly the Cape Horn of California, and I've heard plenty of stories about out-of-nowhere 40knot winds and 25ft seas, but I've personally never seen it go off. During the summer months, you'll probably find a few other northbound sailors here, waiting for just the right moment. All the boaters seem to be eyeing each-other, and any conversation will inevitably entail the big question: "What time are you Going For It?"

Additionally, there's a big oil spill recovery boat that hangs out here most of the time, just waiting to go to work. The Union Pacific coastal train runs by here as well.

I've heard a lot of debate about when the best time of night to round Point Conception is, and so I spent a whole night at the Coho Anchorage waking up every hour to check the buoy reports and gauge the wind/swell. From that experiment, I concluded that the weather there is similar to the weather throughout the rest of California, and basically any time after midnight would be calm enough to make the trip. Your experience may vary.

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara has an excellent free anchorage, full of derelict vessels exuding open contempt for the swanky marina that acts as a beacon for this High Society. There are persistent grumblings about the existence of the anchorage, but there are a lot of people at anchor to contend with, and a lot of them are armed. The Harbor Patrol here are clearly under the impression that it is their (very important) job to defend the security of the area, and we are a Threat To Security.

From the north, sail past the harbor entrance and anchor on the other side of the pier. Since a lot of boats lay at anchor here, it is very common to drop both a bow and stern anchor so that nobody knocks into anyone else. Shore access is easily obtained by tying off your dingy at one of the ladders on the pier and climbing up.

One night when Tanya and I were ashore, we came back to discover that our dingy was gone. I maintain that it was stolen, Tanya believes that my knot tying skills failed me (once again). One way or another, I went and got (essentially) a pool raft to replace it. I walked back to the pier with my inflatable raft box, and stopped where the ladder is. That area is actually the porch of a restaurant, so there were about 20 people sitting there eating their lunch when I started blowing up an inflatable pool raft in the middle of the table area. I assume that most of them had no idea that the ladder is there.

When I walked up, everyone was talking, and as I started unpacking the box I noticed that it was getting quieter. By the time I started pumping, it was absolute dead silence. I felt pretty strange pumping up a dingy in the middle of their dining area, and they all thought this was clearly insane -- but nobody said anything to me, and nobody said anything to each-other.

It took about five minutes to pump the thing up, and it was absolute dead silence the whole time. I paused and glanced around -- everyone had stopped eating and was watching me pump up the inflatable.

I untied the grab rail rope and re-attached it to the bow as a pantier line. Then I lowered it over the side of the pier and tied it to the bottom of the ladder. I came back up, got my stuff, and went back down into the raft.

In the raft I assembled the oars and started to row towards Vigor. I glanced up and noticed that at least 14 people had gotten up from their tables and were silently watching me from the rail of the pier. It was as if they thought I was starting the long row to Hawaii in my pool raft.

Later I rowed back, and was walking down the pier towards town. Some guy putting on rollerblades with his girlfriend stopped me and said "Hey, where did you go with that raft anyway?" I laughed and told him I went to my boat. "Ohhh! You have a boat out there!" "Heh, yeah I do. That whole experience was kind of surreal" I said. He said "Yeah I know, the whole thing was really strange -- but we couldn't figure out what you were doing. At the time I felt like it was the equivalent of watching someone about to commit suicide."

Santa Monica

The place that you do not want to anchor in Santa Monica is off the Santa Monica pier. I tried once (as this is customary in most port towns), and was not met with a friendly welcome. Instead, I was accosted by the Santa Monica police (guns in hands), and after an attempted beach landing that resulted in the capsizing of my pool raft, I was threatened with arrest for "approaching the pier." Finally, I watched (still dripping wet) from the beach as my boat was impounded by the Department Of Homeland Security.

When I broke into Marina Del Rey and sprung my boat from the impound dock, I stumbled across an anchorage that does not seem to be affected by whatever the "terror alert level" might be.

Just outside of the Marina Del Rey entrance channel, it's possible to anchor in the lee of the breakwater on the south side. The swell is still too big to do a beach landing, and it's a very long row down a very crowded entrance channel to make it into the marina. There is, however, a pretty nice spot for accessing the shore via the storm channel. If you row up the storm channel, on the right just past the bridge is an old boat ramp with steps cut into the center of it. It's easy to step out of a dingy here and pull it up on shore. Then walk over the bridge, and follow the bike path along the other side of the storm channel in order to access Santa Monica.

It's not the easiest shore access in the world, but I eventually grew to like the trip. Especially the row in or out on a warm, calm, moon-lit night.

Long Beach

I've only sailed into Long Beach once, and it was the only time that I've needed to use a chart inside a harbor. The breakwater is several miles long, and it can take a few hours just to sail across it. Much of that time is usually spent dodging exceptionally large boats as they loom through the fog. The only good spot to anchor is in the lee of the man-made Island White, in the north east corner of the harbor. Shore access can only be obtained by sailing up to the courtesy dock at Downtown Marina or by pirating a slip there.

Newport Beach

It is strange that possibly the most affluent port town in California (and we're talking about a competition that includes a place like Santa Barbara) is also the home of the cheapest source for marine supplies on the entire west coast. If you have to buy stuff for your boat (sails, hardware, lines, anything) -- Minnies is the place. It should be relatively easy to ask for directions or hitch a ride from another boater.

Be careful on a night approach, because the harbor is completely packed with boats on fore-and-aft-moorings -- so there's not a lot of room to navigate. It is possible to drop an anchor just about anywhere (especially if you can anchor fore and aft), but there's also a good anchorage up near Lido Island that's conveniently close to the public library. Supposedly there's a rule that you can not leave your boat at anchor unless there's someone on it, but that doesn't seem to be very well enforced. One way or another, you probably don't want to hang out here too long anyway.

Dana Point

For some reason, I really like this spot. The anchorage at the back of the harbor provides excellent protection, and there are a few tall ships that are always moored there as part of a maritime museum program; which usually includes a full crew of actors dressed up in period costumes, pretending to be working a ship with a bunch of grade-school kids who come to spend the night. The bottom is full of junk, though, so don't be surprised if you pull a shopping cart up with your anchor. Shore access is easily obtained by rowing up to the landing next to the pier.

There is a 72 hour limit on how long you can stay at anchor here, and the Dana Point harbor patrol is of the paramilitary type, so they're intent on enforcing that with rigor. When I was on my way out one morning, I saw the harbor patrol board someone else's boat, handcuff him, and haul him off for being at anchor too long. He had been frantically trying to leave, but couldn't get his engine started and was trying to fix it when they arrived.

San Diego

It seems like there's been a long-standing conflict between authority and boaters over the right to anchor in San Diego bay. It also seems that, recently, the boaters have been losing. It's hard to say where you can anchor here these days, but it seems like the best unregulated spot might be in America's Cup Harbor, on the north side of Shelter Island and across the land-bridge from Shelter Island Harbor. There are a number of other boats scattered across moorings here to watch out for.

This place is essentially one large naval base. Sailing in and out requires dodging the destroyers and aircraft carriers that are constantly ferrying around, along with the swarms of smaller Military Police boats that patrol those unwieldy monsters. The Harbor Patrol here is the worst of the worst, and when my boat was sitting at the custom's dock on one visit I was almost arrested for carrying an unopened bottle of wine back from a friend's boat (complete with handcuffs, a pat-down, and warrant check). Later that same night I watched the same cops storm down the gangplank of my dock with shotguns in their hands, screaming wildly at a US Navy diver who was in the water to train attack dolphins (no joke). They were very disappointed when they learned that he was not actually a Real Live Terrorist. So tread lightly here.

If you walk SW on Shelter Island, the last hotel on the right has a computer on the landing just above the public lobby with free internet access.

And Beyond

Anchoring for free only gets easier south of the United States. It's possible to drop an anchor in most major harbors, and it's easier to find a protected point or cove that hasn't been developed into a commercial hub...