Tsunami Watch

Originally published on Particular Harbor.

On September 16, 2015 we sailed into Channel Islands Harbor (Oxnard, California) with the SoCal Ta-Ta fleet.

That night, the Ta-Ta organizers and marina management threw a party on an empty dock. Burgers and hotdogs on a grill, potato salad, and a two-man pickup band playing classic rock covers. That sort of thing.

We were seated around the end of a long folding table, talking to some new friends. The music wound down and Richard Spindler, Latitude 38 honcho and SoCal Ta-Ta poobah, grabbed the microphone.

“Excuse me,” he said.

The chatter of 100-some people continued through the band’s break, as it often does when live music is the background, and not the center of attention.

“Hey everyone, listen up! This is important.”

Richard’s a mellow guy, so his tone caught our attention. The crowd became silent.

“So, believe it or not, there’s a tsunami warning for this part of the coast.”

Stunned silence, then uneven murmurs.

“There was a big earthquake in Chile… an eight point three… that’s really big. And they are saying the tsunami could reach California sometime tonight. I’ll read you the advisory here.”

Richard brought his phone close to his face and began to read from the NOAA website.

“Tsunami advisory in effect for… 45 miles southeast of LA to… 50 miles northwest of San Luis Obispo.” He broke out of his reading voice to add: “We’re right in the middle of that range.” He continued: “The tsunami may be hazardous to swimmers, boats, and coastal structures… recommended actions… Move off the beach and out of harbors and marinas.”

A wave of nervous laughter spread through the group. (We were in a marina.)

Then Richard continued onto the predicted tsunami heights. The group became silent again. This was the information that really mattered.

“Let’s see here… Los Angeles California… zero-point-five to one… foot. Santa Barbara California… zero-point-five to one foot. OK, here we go… Port San Luis California… that’s very close to here… zero-point-three to zero-point-five feet.”

A tsunami of less than one foot is not much of a tsunami at all. The worried looks left our friends’ faces, and tentative smiles began to appear. We felt relieved.

Still, we had never been in an tsunami before. We didn’t know what to expect.

Later that night, on the boat, I found a NOAA webpage where they published projected tsunami arrival times and heights for dozens of affected locations. As the tsunami arrived in each location, they added observed values to the webpage. It was like a bingo board of anxiety, hope, and destruction. I refreshed it every few minutes until bedtime.

Given our lack of experience — and my above-average worry level — I decided to set my alarm for 4:55am and wake up to witness the tsunami’s projected arrival at 5:04am.

At five to five, I woke up, dressed, and made my way on deck. I grabbed my phone and resumed checking the NOAA observations. The tsunami was arriving in California as predicted.

From my seat in the cockpit, I could see stars through the glow of the marina. I watched birds pass in the water and the air. Someone walked by on the dock. I heard a splash—then saw it was just a seal swimming by in the dark. It was a beautiful and calm night.

The projected time arrived, but the tsunami never did.

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