Orange County harbor anchorages are packed as boats offer socially distant safe harbors

The fuel barge at Dana Point Harbor has been so busy that boaters in past weeks have had to schedule appointments to tank up and avoid traffic jams.

“A lot of boaters have been coming into Dana Point,” said Jake Feiner, who oversees the barge. “Many are from this harbor, but there have been a lot coming from other harbors and from other counties. With Catalina anchorages opening back up, we’re expecting to see a lot more traffic.”

During this coronavirus shutdown, harbors along Orange County’s coastline have been seeing a dramatic increase in the number of boaters – not only on weekends – that are on the water.

Boat traffic in and out of Dana, Newport and Huntington harbors is brisk with many people using boats as the perfect way to social distance and quarantine while still enjoying the outdoors and the ocean.

Boat brokers have also seen a surge in boat showings and purchases.

Dana and Newport harbors are “destination harbors,” regularly drawing yacht clubs and cruisers from around Southern California. The recent increase in boaters has packed anchorages in both harbors.

Anchorages are spots where boaters can pull up and hang out for the day or overnight. There is no charge, and the locations provide a safe haven even during inclement weather.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s Harbor Patrol deputies have had to step up enforcement with the influx of boats. Plenty of boaters have journeyed up the coast from San Diego County where marinas have been closed down.

“In the last two weekends, boating traffic has at least doubled,” Harbor Patrol Lt. Chris Corn said. “The anchorage in Newport has been so packed, to the point that my guys and the city Harbor Department have had to have people pull up anchor and move because they were outside the anchorage and were blocking the navigation channel.”

The anchorage – with space for about 40 boats – has four buoys that designate its perimeter. When boaters set anchors outside those buoys, it causes hazards in the navigation channel. The anchorage is already close to Newport Harbor Yacht Club moorings, so stacked up boats there can make passage tight.

The city’s Harbor Department now manages Newport’s anchorage. But, when safety issues are involved, it falls to Harbor Patrol deputies to manage. One recent weekend, a 50-foot power boat’s anchor slipped, and the boat drifted into the channel, causing a hazard.

“Our guys have definitely made more boat contacts, including speeding violations and boating under the influence,” Corn said. “It’s all hands on deck now.”

Boat owners are required to stay on their boats when at the anchorage. In that recent case of the drifting boat, the owner was off the boat so Harbor Patrol impounded the vessel.

“Most of the time, this is due to inexperience,” Corn said.

With an increase in boats, more people are in the harbors and on the water. Many use smaller crafts such as dinghies, kayaks, and paddleboards to get around. Docks and other general areas in the harbor – especially in Dana Point – are also busier.

“There is a lot of activity in the harbor,” said Kelly Rinderknecht, who oversees Dana Point Harbor’s Embarcadero marine and Dana Wharf. “We’re being cautious with giving weekly updates to the boaters on being safe. There are signs about social distancing on all the docks, and we have a staff dedicated to breaking groups up on docks.”

Similarly, the Dana Point Boaters Association proactively cautioned its members to stay on top of the state and local guidelines on social distancing, to avoid being hit with closures and to maximize chances of returning to normal as soon as possible.

“With so much time on our hands these days, and cabin fever setting in, many of our boaters are tossing their dock lines and heading out to the ocean,” said James Lenthall, a boat owner who heads up the Dana Point group. “The local waters are as active as I’ve witnessed for this time of year in a very long time. There are few more effective ways to distance ourselves from others than enjoying the open ocean on our boats.”

Leo and Liz Drew are among those who have sought refuge from quarantine on their 47-foot sailboat. The San Clemente couple has had their boat in Dana Point Harbor for three years.

In the past weeks, they’ve taken their boat out to anchorages in Dana Point and Newport harbors. While there, they’re able to socialize with other boat owners, but it’s all done at a distance, whether they are on their boat, in a dinghy cruising the harbor or walking a nearby beach with Augustus, their Yorkshire terrier.

“As people travel along the coast, it gives us an opportunity to visit,” Leo Drew said. “We’ll get within 15- to 20-feet via dinghy and we’ll be able to chat with people from there. This makes social distancing so much more tolerable, it gives us a tremendous distraction.”

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Author: Erika I. Ritchie

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