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Sailing the American Riviera

2021 April 1

A backyard charter off Santa Barbara, California, is the perfect ‘coastal distancing’ cruise

Calafia is one of a half dozen Catalina yachts at SBSC, ranging from 27 to 50 feet. Previously we had chartered the big 50-footer for an exhilarating cruise through the Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary. The Catalinas are spacious, comfortable, well-maintained and worthy of these hardy conditions. In addition SBSC has several smaller daysailers, plus kayaks and paddleboards for exploring the harbor.

Playful common dolphins dance in the bow wave.
Sharon Green photo

The unpretentious port of Santa Barbara is a colorful blend of sailboats, luxury yachts, fishing, dive charters and massive rusty trawlers, as a robust commercial fishing fleet operates here. Adjacent the Maritime Museum, a “must visit” on your list, is the City Pier, where you’ll often find fisherman unloading sacks of urchin, crab, rockfish and other fruits of the sea. The Santa Barbara Yacht Club holds court at the edge of the beach. Although it’s the second oldest yacht club on the west coast, it is marvelously unstuffy; a warm and friendly meeting place with a strong racing and Junior program.

At the opposite end of the harbor is the 150-year-old wooden Stearns Wharf, where recreational anglers try their hand at catching dinner. But I suggest Saturday morning’s Fisherman’s Market at the City Pier, for a more certain meal.

We enjoyed several daysails in the sunny breeze, looking for whales. But it was the dolphins who found us: clustering on the bow in joyful leaps. We basked in the California sun and the stunning scenery, and watched local Wednesday night beer can races. Each evening we retired to the dock and on to the Funk Zone for wine tasting, or State Street for another fabulous meal. 

About two decades ago, Skip Abed purchased the Santa Barbara Sailing Center, where he had been working several years. The area was reminiscent of family vacations cruising the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf and Red Sea. Purchasing the SBSC in 2000 fulfilled his dream of turning a passion into a career. It has translated into a Euro-style charter company with concierge service. In the era of Covid-19, his staff has perfected the concept of  “coastal distancing.”

For our final sail we headed west, sneaking along the shore just out of the blustery breeze toward Goleta; passing rafts of sea lions warming themselves in the sun, with squadrons of brown pelicans soaring overhead.

Just nine nautical miles up the coast we reached the somewhat rolling but solitary anchorage and tucked in between the fishing pier and Goleta Point (check the chart for the underwater pipe you want to avoid, off the wharf). In calm weather it’s a solid place to drop your hook in 25-feet of water, with good holding on the sandy bottom. Sprawling above the Point is the massive University of Santa Barbara complex: the birthplace of the modern environmental movement after the historic massive oil spill along the coast here 50-some years ago.

Each August SBYC holds their Goleta Beach Race which brings the whole fleet here for the night, with a return the next day. In years past we’ve swum ashore for the usual post-race revelry, but the swim seemed too daunting and energetic today. After a quiet lunch and nap, we weighed anchor. It was time for a gentle run back to the docks, and our return to domesticity. 

SBSC is located in Santa Barbara Harbor, less than one mile from the Amtrak Station and offers both sailing instruction and bareboat charters, with captained charters to the nearby Channel Islands. www.sbsail.com Santa Barbara Maritime Museum www.sbmm.org

The crew heads to sea armed with water toys.
Sharon Green photo


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