Buy Boats, Sell Boats, Review Boats

Posted by on Mar 18, 2011 in Environment, Safety and Seamanship, UK, US |

California, the Tsunami, and its 5000-mile Punch

The U.S. West Coast was fortunate, but even at a great distance from the Japanese earthquake’s epicenter, the effects of the resulting tsunami were dramatic. Santa Cruz Harbor was hit hardest.

The 8.9-magnitude earthquake that rocked Japan last week created a tsunami that inflicted at least $50 million in damages in California, even after traveling 5,000 miles across the Pacific. California harbors experienced varying levels of activity, with the majority of the effect felt in Northern California, specifically in Santa Cruz Harbor, where 60 boats sank. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicated that the tsunami surges would begin hitting at approximately 8:30 a.m. As it turned out, the first wave was an hour behind schedule.

This center-cockpit sloop ended up underneath a dock in Santa Cruz Harbor when the tsunami's surging waves subsided. Chuck Hawley photo

This center-cockpit sloop ended up underneath a dock in Santa Cruz Harbor when the tsunami's surging waves subsided. Chuck Hawley photo

“About every half hour, another cycle would start as the harbor would quickly fill up with water, then pause, and then empty back into Monterey Bay,” said Chuck Hawley, Vice President of Product Information at West Marine, who drove down to the harbor in Santa Cruz early in the morning.  “Some cycles were more dramatic than others, but just when you thought that you’d seen the last one, it would start up again.”

Sixty boats sank in Santa Cruz Harbor. The upper harbor, normally most tranquil, experienced strong currents and surging waves.

Sixty boats sank in Santa Cruz Harbor. The upper harbor, normally most tranquil, experienced strong currents and surging waves.

This tsunami was relentless, with extreme water movement for the rest of the day. In San Diego Bay, a surge at 4:25 p.m. ripped a harbor police boat from its dock and pushed it onto a rocky shore.  The current reversals eventually got the better of increasingly weak docks, pilings, and bait barges, some of which broke up in the currents. Navigation aids were jostled about and had to be reset in a number of harbors.  Redondo Beach’s King Harbor saw surges and water level changes in excess of five feet, which destroyed three docks and aggravated an existing situation: Just three days before, a massive fish die-off had left 140 tons of dead baitfish sloshing around the marina.

The Newport Beach AlertOC emergency notification system issued automated phone calls to residents and boat owners in the middle of the night, urging them to move to higher ground. As I rushed down to the harbor to check on my own boat, Indigo, I tried to take comfort in the fact that it was low tide, which meant plenty of slack in the lines securing Indigo to a front/back mooring. Newport was not hard-hit, with only a three-foot tidal change, but it was eerie to watch currents in the constricted parts of the harbor move up to eight knots and reverse direction every ten minutes or so.

Indigo, the author's cruiser, on her bow-and-stern moorings in Newport Harbor, California

Indigo, the author's cruiser, on her bow-and-stern moorings in Newport Harbor, California

The Port of Los Angeles in the Long Beach area weathered the activity well, although bunkering and hazardous material transfers were halted in the morning. Beaches and piers along the Southland coast were closed, and the harbors were roiled with muddy water.  Avalon Harbor on Santa Catalina Island saw minimal surge, but Cat Harbor on the windward side experienced strong currents that finally destroyed the dinghy dock. About 40 boaters from Ventura Harbor took their boats into deep water and stayed there for the better part of the day. Luckily, due to underwater topography in Southern California, deep water (over 100 feet) is only a short distance from the beach.

Chuck Hawley’s detailed blog post on the situation in Santa Cruz, plus a number of good photos and other video links can be found in his Chuck Hawley blog.

Zuzana Prochazka