If you’re looking for a lively harbor to visit, with lots going on and non-stop stimulation, we think Santa Barbara Harbor is the place to go.
Here in the harbor, you’ll find a fascinating mix of opportunities to be wined, dined, entertained, enlightened, challenged and delighted.
If you want to learn something new, you might like to take a tour, enjoy a whale-watching excursion, visit the maritime museum, or simply talk to the interesting people you’ll meet along the way. You’re likely to meet sailors, powerboaters, commercial fishermen, sportfishing enthusiasts, marine biologists, divers, athletes, college students, and tourists from all over the world.
If you’re hungry, you can grab a burger, some fish and chips, or just about any kind of seafood you might like to eat. There are places to shop, and plenty of interesting things to see.
The harbor is also a great place to kayak, row, or board a boat and head out on a fishing adventure.
In our experience, Santa Barbara Harbor is not a quiet place to visit, nor is it necessarily a relaxing one. There’s usually something going on in the Harbor, and often it’s something noisy — for example, if you were to spend the night aboard a boat in the marina, you might awaken early most mornings to hear shouts of “Ho! Ho!” emanating from rowers during sunrise outrigger practice. All day long, you might hear sea lions bellowing and seagulls screeching. On sunny afternoons, you’d be likely to find college kids chugging beer from beer bongs aboard their parents’ mega-yachts. Even in the middle of the night, and in the wee hours of the morning, you’re probably going to hear noisy night herons squawking and sounds of human activity.
Sightseeing in the Harbor
If you don’t have a boat in the harbor (or a contact with a boat in the harbor,) you won’t have access to the marina, but there are plenty of places you can go to enjoy the waterfront. However, if you want to see the harbor from aboard a boat in the actual water, that’s easy enough to arrange. You can either charter a boat or take a tour. A couple that come to mind: a waterfront tour aboard the Li’l Toot water taxi, or a Land and Sea tour that includes a jaunt around the harbor in a boat that turns into a tour bus with wheels.
There are interesting sights to see all over the harbor. The harbor is “home port” for more than 1,000 vessels. Some of them are owned by “ordinary joes,” and some of them are owned by celebrities. One noteworthy boat in the harbor is Warren Buffet’s 85 foot, 107 ton luxury sailing catamaran, “The Channel Cat.” The Channel Cat is available for charter, and can carry up to 149 passengers as well as 4 crew members.
The Santa Barbara Waterfront Center
The waterfront center has an interesting history. It was built by the United States Navy in 1943 during World War II. Thankfully, it is no longer needed for its original military purposes. It’s now a tourist attraction, as it is home to the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, as well as some great places to enjoy a meal on the waterfront.
Grabbing a Bite to Eat — Restaurants Located in the Santa Barbara Harbor
If you’re hungry, you’ll find plenty of places to enjoy a delicious meal on the waterfront.
The Breakwater Restaurant is a kid-friendly, pet-friendly restaurant that’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You’ll find the usual breakfast fare in the morning and early afternoon, and seafood — New England clam chowder, fish and chips and other choices — for lunch and dinner. There’s a kid’s menu available too.
Brophy Brothers is a seafood restaurant where adults of legal drinking age can grab a cocktail, some seafood, a steak or a burger (among other things.) While I didn’t specifically notice a kid’s menu available, their website proclaims that “Everyone is welcome at Brophy Brothers.”
Info for Boaters and Cruisers Visiting Santa Barbara Harbor
Slips in Santa Barbara Harbor are among the most-coveted spaces to dock a boat in California. On a permanent basis, they aren’t easy to come by, and they also don’t come cheap. On a temporary basis, visiting boaters can get a guest slip pretty easily except at certain peak times. It also gets really crowded prior to and during stormy weather, although we’ve never had them turn us away when a storm is imminent.
There’s no way to make a reservation ahead of time. If you want a guest slip, just talk to Harbor Patrol on your way into the harbor. They monitor VHF Channels 16 and 12, and you’ll always find a harbor patrol officer on duty. You can’t miss ‘em; they look like this:
If you don’t get a hold of someone right away, you can pull up and dock at the Harbor Patrol Accommodation Dock at the west end of the harbor. This is absolutely the only acceptable place in the harbor to tie up your boat without having talked to harbor patrol first — even if you enter the harbor in the middle of the night. There’s always a harbor patrol officer on duty in this harbor, so there’s no need to panic if you can’t get a hold of someone right away. If for some reason you don’t connect by radio, you can just head up to the harbor patrol office, which is upstairs. Hopefully when you arrive someone will be there to take care of you, but if not just hang out there until you can get a hold of an officer and get checked in.
Here’s a picture of what the harbor office administration building looks like:
In our experience, Californians, particularly marina staff, are uptight about collecting payments upfront. They insist on it. If you’re not from around here, and especially if you’ve cruised Europe and are used to the marinas there, this can come as a bit of a shock. Please heed our well-intentioned warning: be sure to bring funds (in US dollars) with you, and be sure to pre-pay for the time you plan to stay in the harbor. Also, be pro-active about keeping on top of your payments if you decide to extend your stay beyond what you originally planned for.
There’s an area outside of Santa Barbara Harbor where you’ll find bunches of boats anchored. This spot is known as “Fool’s Anchorage,” and it’s called that with excellent reason.
On the one hand, one of our friends, an experienced seaman who has been sailing since his childhood 50-some odd years ago, adamantly declared to us that “No self-respecting captain would anchor a boat in Fool’s Anchorage.”
On the other hand, we have another good friend who lived in Fool’s Anchorage for close to a year. His firsthand experience did even more to convince us that this really is not the place you would want to anchor your boat. It isn’t for the faint-of-heart.
For one thing, at various times during the year, turbulent seas make it necessary to have heavy-duty ground tackle if you would even consider doing such a thing. Our friend had about 200 feet of 3/4 inch chain and a good-sized anchor for his 34 foot sailboat. Anything less, and your boat could possibly wash up on the beach — an occurance that happens with alarming frequency.
In the wintertime, we used to occasionally call him and ask him how he was doing. He would reply, “I’m rocking and rolling with the best of ‘em.”
The weather is enough of a worry to make anyone sane think twice about staying in Fool’s Anchorage, but the real deal-breaker is the anchorage’s other occupants. We heard rumors of rampant substance abuse. We heard rumors of guys fighting, maliciously cutting each others’ lines, vandalizing each others’ boats, and stealing anything that wasn’t nailed down.
You might think of boat owners as being upper-class people with excessive expendable income, but it isn’t always the case. For the past few years, boats have been available in southern California at incredibly cheap prices, and there are even people giving boats away — literally. Also, some of the boats in Fools Anchorage are derelict boats, meaning that they aren’t seaworthy and couldn’t actually be moved if they needed to be.
There are few free or even cheap places in southern / central California to “park” a boat and live aboard. Fool’s Anchorage isn’t comfortable, but it is free.
The result is that Fool’s Anchorage is one of those places where down-and-outers tend to congregate. Not everyone in the anchorage is a down-and-outer or a criminal; there are people there whose only crime is being broke, or maybe even just being too cheap to pay for a guest slip in the harbor. At the same time, our opinion is that Fool’s Anchorage is a dangerous place to be, and a good place to avoid.
The information in this article was written from personal experience, but we did use some additional resources too:
Santa Barbara Guest Slips — Posted at the City of Santa Barbara website
We got our facts about the Channel Cat from the Channel Cat website.
Book Title: Scuttlebutt: Tales and Experiences of a Life at Sea
Author: Robert B. Kieding