A Whale’s Tale: SLO Sailing on the Central Coast
Waves and whales (lots of whales) converge on a SLO Sailing trip out of Avila Bay, Central Coast, California
As we step out of the small power boat and board the Spirit, Captain Mark Kocina with Central Coast Sailing Charters helps us find our seats circling the teak table in the middle of the 44-ft. sailboat.
The rimmed edge of the table gracefully and safely holds the two teak boxes he brings up from the galley below. Filled with grapes, apples, oranges, nuts, crackers, and chocolates, it’s the first thoughtful touch of many we’ll experience on today’s adventure.
The next is our choice of beverage: Central Coast red or white wine, 805 beer, Coors Light, or bottled water.
“So, here’s a question,” says Captain Mark, as he makes his way to the steering wheel. “My fishermen friends have seen Humpback whales today. Normally, we’d first spend some time in the bay with the sea otters and exploring the harbor sea life, but if anyone’s interested, we can head straight to sea and see if we can find any whales.”
The Flavor Team is enjoying this afternoon sail with a family of four, whose daughter is a student at Cal Poly. Our group’s response? A quick and unanimous yes!
Captain Mark starts the auxiliary engine and we head toward the open sea.
The Adventure Begins: Departing the Harbor
The Flavor Team has been out before with Captain Mark on the Spirit. Today is my third sailing trip and Andrew’s second. My previous trip last fall was a gift from the sea. Gray whales breaching all around us, almost too many to count, almost close enough to touch. I will remember that experience all of my days, and the feeling of sheer gratitude to be sharing a moment in time with these magnificent beings.
We pull away from the anchorage, leaving the small powerboat tied at Spirit’s mooring, and Captain Mark asks if anyone wants to help steer the boat. With a few instructions about keeping the arrow on the mast pointed straight ahead, one of the daughters in the family does a great job taking us out to sea.
On the way, we pass Whale Rock, the big flat-top rock near the breakwater of Point San Luis Lighthouse. “This rock was once its own country,” he shares, “which meant anyone doing business on the rock did not have to pay import fees for bringing the whales ashore.”
He passes around a picture of the rock from 1894. “At one time, three families built houses and lived on Smith Rock, as it was called then, where they processed and sold the blubber from the whales they caught. And without the import fees they had the best-priced whale oil on the coast.”
With a little downtime before he needs to concentrate on sailing, we ask him what it is about sailing that captivates him.
“I love sailing for many reasons,” he shared. “One of the biggest is that it’s such an ecological and efficient way to get around on the ocean. While sailboats the size of Spirit and larger have auxiliary engines, primarily they harness the power of the wind and use that to travel across oceans. It’s remarkable, really.”
A true storyteller, Captain Mark weaves in the history of the area and the ecology of the sea along with the basics of sailing. Beyond the calm of the bay, the wind rises and he raises the mainsail. We’re under way.
For the next two and a half hours, our group is greeted by the shimmering dark hellos of Humpback whales. Often swimming in pairs, they surface, blow, and descend again.
“They’re feeding on anchovies,” says Captain Mark, “and some of the schools are so dense the depth finder warning
buzzer goes off, thinking they’re shallow water instead of a school of fish.”
Off the port side, the water seems to boil as dozens – maybe close to 100 – of sea lions arc through the water. Further ahead, flocks of cormorants and pelicans circle.
“The whales bring the fish closer to the surface, and the whales also work in groups to circle the fish with a ring of bubbles to concentrate a lot of fish in one place. The sea lions and birds know that, so they head to the same place and reap the benefits.” Symbiotic relationships exemplified.
At Home on the Sea
Captain Mark has come a long way from his childhood in Monterey, where his first job at age nine was sailing boats back to harbor for $1 a day, but he’s never the left the ocean.
Instead, the ocean currents have led him around the world.
Early on, his love of the water also meant surfing, boogie boarding, ocean kayaking, and swimming.
When he wasn’t on the open water, he was guiding white-water raft trips. His first trips at age 17 were on the American and Kern Rivers, which led to his international rafting guide license and leading trips in Alaska, Canada, Costa Rica, Chile, Africa, Fiji and New Zealand. This, in turn, opened the door to be the off-camera rower for Meryl Streep’s character in “The River Wild.” Captain Mark still leads raft trips, most recently down the Zambezi river in late 2016.
I am not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship. — Louisa May Alcott
He earned a place on the US Whitewater Team and they won a silver medal at the 1996 World Championships.
When he was 30 years old, he qualified for his Captain’s license, and added Delivery Captain — ferrying large sailboats to new locations — to his resume. He taught himself celestial navigation, a vital skill as he and his friends sailed a 30-foot sailboat to Central America.
Later he met his future wife while sailing and surfing in Mexico, and they eventually made their way to the US Virgin Islands. There, she taught about marine natural products and chemistry at the University of the Virgin Islands.
For six years, they lived on the boat and called the Virgin Islands home. From there, trips took them to many spots in Central America and beyond. But when their new daughter was born and his wife got a job teaching at Cal Poly, it was time to head back to California. They set sail for a six-month trip back to the Central Coast.
Shark Tagging: Not for the Faint of Heart
Soon after they arrived back in California, Captain Mark got a dream job as Captain for the Science Under Sail program at Monterey Bay Aquarium. For three years, he took groups out on a 65-ft sailboat, the floating classroom for teaching and exploratory learning of the ocean environment. The aquarium also hired him to do research work: tagging Great White Sharks, monitoring sea otter activity, mapping the sea floor, and more.
While the job itself was great, working far away in Monterey became a challenge. So, six years ago, they bought the Spirit and launched Central Coast Sailing Charters out of Harford Pier in Avila Bay.
His experience with Science Under Sail provided him the blueprint for what he envisioned for his SLOSailing.com
business: guiding sailboat trips while sharing the fascinating ocean ecosystem and insights into the lives of sea creatures that most of us will otherwise never know.
Now as Captain and business owner, he gets to share both his talent as a sailboat captain and his passion for the
The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever. — Jacques Cousteau
On every trip, there is the opportunity to see some sort of wildlife, from the otters who call Avila Bay home, to Gray and Humpback whales as they migrate up and down the Central Coast, and the large variety of sea birds.
But like the ocean, which reveals a whole new world just beneath the surface, Captain Mark is more than just a first-rate seafarer.
He’s also a continual student, seeking to grow and learn both about operating a successful business and bringing more depth to life.
Personally, he’s exploring the spiritual side of yoga as a practice to bring calmness and kindness to every situation. Business-wise, he’s accomplished his first goal – sharing his love of the ocean through creating his sailboat charter business.
“Every trip, I’m thrilled to see people experience the water and gain some firsthand understanding of its ecosystem,” he said. “My goal is to have a few people a day come away from their sailing trip with a realization that what we do does matter, that we can make a difference in the health of the ocean, and to care and to help spread that awareness.”
His next goal is to share this experience with more people.
“I’m thankful that, for the past several years, all our sailing tours are completely filled,” he said, “so I knew that adding another boat was the next step.”
He recently added a power boat to his fleet and another Captain to his team. Captain Mikael Brink, who has been providing whale-watching and coastal tours in Morro Bay, will be providing the same tours out of Avila Bay on his 21-ft. search-and-rescue style adventure tour boat, the Peregrine.
“Mikael brings a wealth of knowledge with him about our local whales and sea life here on the Central Coast.”
In addition to whale-watching, Captain Mikael will offer coastal tours of the bay around Port San Luis and the nearby sea caves of Fossil Point through the sister-company website, www.slotours.com.
So far, 1.5-hour morning whale watching tours and 1-hour bay and sea cave tours are offered on the Peregrine.
“Having two boats means we can offer more tours, perhaps some shorter whale-watching tours, and help more people experience the magic of the ocean,” he said.
… And my life changed suddenly: as I became part of its pure movement. — Pablo Neruda, “The Sea”
The big plan for the future? “Our next big step is to sell Spirit and get a bigger sailboat that holds 10-12 people, which is double Spirit’s capacity of six.”
An added benefit of a bigger boat is the opportunity to offer longer trips. “I’m thinking of leading five-day trips to the Channel Islands, dive trips to Monterey Bay and Catalina Island, and more,” he said.
It’s No Fluke. We Find the Whales!
To capture better video and have the opportunity to have a closer look at the whales, Andrew and I move to the front of the boat and sit on the hull.
The show continues. In front and on both sides of the Spirit, the Humpbacks surface, their black dorsal fins slowly slicing through the water.
Some blow water spouts and descend again. Others arc high enough for us to see their tail, which Captain Mark says is about 12 feet wide.
It’s magical. To be in the presence of these great creatures, who are choosing to swim near us when they could easily and quickly leave, fills us both with appreciation.
The Magic of the Wind
Our 2-1/2 hours on the ocean goes by in a flash. Too soon, Captain Mark turns Spirit around and begins taking us back to Avila Bay.
Andrew takes a turn steering the boat. Later he shared how calming it was – how time slows down and it becomes just you, the wind, the sailboat, and the sea.
As I sip the rest of my Pinot Grigio and gaze at the ever-moving inky sea, I think about the day. When we pulled away from the dock, of course I hoped we’d see Humpback whales. I’m thrilled we have – and so many of them.
Then I smile. Seeing whales was a joy, no doubt about. But if we hadn’t seen any today, it still would have been a great trip. Sailing is a good for the soul, and time spent with the waves and with people who appreciate savoring these priceless moments is time well spent.
Being on the ocean carried along in a sailboat is an incredible experience. The Flavor Team encourages everyone to take a sailing trip at least once in your life to experience the magic. As Captain Mark describes it, “There’s magic in being pulled along by the wind.”
The Flavor Team sincerely thanks Captain Mark and Central Coast Sailing Charters for sharing his time, his passion, and his knowledge with all of us — what a great-flavored day.
For More Information
Spirit and Captain Mark
Currently, three different sails are designed to meet the interests of various groups. Check the SLO Sailing website for the most up-to-date information.
The Morning Sail is geared toward families with young children or those desiring a little quieter experience exploring the creatures who call Avila Bay home before heading out to the calmer morning sea.
The Afternoon Adventure Sail typically explores the sea caves and sealife closer to shore and then heads out to sea for some bigger waves – and whales whenever possible —and a taste of the sailing experience.
The Evening Sail, offered from mid-March through late September, attracts mainly adults (although any age is welcome). Depending on the day and the time of year, the water can be calmer than the afternoon and the end of the sail may coincide perfectly with the sunset.
Tours are reasonably priced, and Captain Mark also offers private tours and ash-scattering remembrance ceremonies, as well as sailing instruction.
Peregrine and Captain Mikael
Currently, the following tours are offered:
Morning: 1.5-hour whale-watching tours
Afternoon: 1-hour coastal bay and sea cave tours