The Channel Islands – Part 2. Catalina

September 15th-23rd, 2010

See: Part 1. The Trip Down

A Dolphin Playing in Our Bow WaveYou really appreciate the little things when you’re on a sailboat; like sleeping in and having omelets for breakfast. I like being at sea, but I like it in the same way I like twenty mile hikes through the Texan desert: You get lots of time to introspect, it’s peaceful and often trance like, and when you finally reach your destination you feel an immense sense of accomplishment, not to mention your next hot cooked meal never tasted so good.

After breakfast at Cojo we weighed anchor and headed southeast towards the gap between Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz islands. We had decided to head straight to Santa Catalina to the south where we would spend some time in civilization at Avalon harbor before touring the local anchorages.

This leg of the trip was one of the most pleasant sailing portions. It was notably warmer than it had been. We were able to sail a good part of the time. We had numerous dolphin and porpoise sightings including large numbers of them riding our bow wave. The night was clear, and with the lights of the coast behind us the view of the stars and moon was stunning.

On the evening of the second day we reached Avalon, got tied to our mooring, and went to bed. The town of Avalon is an interesting little place. It is definitely a small town with a population of just over 3,000 people. It directly faces southern Los Angeles, and thanks to the ferry it is a popular day trip destination. That and the large number of boaters that visit the harbor make it a bit touristy, but getting off the beaten track isn’t too hard and the locals are quite amiable. The first thing we did when we arrived on shore was go get showers. There was a pay shower on the waterfront, and they were nice enough, although the attendant looked like he needed to avail himself of his own service. After that we had lunch, grocery shopped, visited the local coffee shop, and headed back to the boat for dinner.

The Old Casino at Avalon

The next day we motored up the coast to do some fishing. We had little success with the hook and line. When fishing for Rockfish, which are some of the more edible fish in the area, the strategy is to bounce a baited hook near rocky outcroppings where the fish hang out in small crevasses. Unfortunately we caught more rocks than rockfish. Spearfishing, on the other hand, was incredible. As you dive down below the canopy of broad kelp leaves, schools of small silvery fish part before you, their scales glinting in the beams of sunlight that filter through the fronds above.

Kelp Forest
1Some Rights Reserved

As you approach the stalks of the kelp forest, looking for an opening, everything goes dark all around you. It’s not until you’ve plunged in, unable to see more than a few feet ahead, that your eyes finally adjust and you see a new world of life. Larger fish glide warily around rocks covered in urchins, starfish, and sea grass. You must move slowly, spear extended, careful not to contact the rocks or kelp which would stir up sediment and alert the fish. And there you wait, ten feet down or more, for a fish to pass. Twitch even a little, or wait to long, and your prey will flee faster than you can hope to react or follow. Finally the moment is right and you relax your tight grip on the tensioned spear. It whooshes forward and lands home with a dull thud, the three prongs of the paralyzer tip disabling the fish and minimizing its thrashing. But now you must remain calm, to swim straight up in excitement would mean becoming hopelessly ensnared in the kelp, so you reverse your course, returning to the brilliant yellow green world outside the kelp.

My first catch was a medium sized Opaleye, which would turn out to be the easiest fish to catch, being almost as dumb and slow as the protected Garibaldi (state fish of California). It was large enough to fillet, and was decently tasty, but the more attractive Perch and the elusive Kelp Bass would become my prey later on as my skills improved. But then, to dull my pride, after we had boated my first catch, I dropped the spear in 70 feet of water before passing it to Jen.

A Dolphin Off South Western CatalinaThat night we anchored nearby at Buttonshell beach and headed back to Avalon the next morning. Bill and Monica took the ferry over to the mainland. Bill needed a boat part, and Monica was taking the train home (she had classes to get back for). Jen and I took a long walk through some of the less traveled parts of Avalon, and saw some great views of the town. We also replaced the spear I had lost with two new ones.

The next day we rounded the southern tip of the island and made another attempt at fishing along the rugged western coast. The western side of the island was exposed to quite a bit more swell and wind, which made the motion of the boat pretty uncomfortable,especially when we were drifting in an attempt to fish. Bill did catch a medium Scorpion Fish (a relative of the Rock Fish), but for Jen and I it was a bust again. That night we went to a place called little harbor. It was reputed to have a surf spot near by, but we didn’t see anything surfable.

Jen Overlooking Little Harbor After the first night in Little Harbor we did some more spear fishing, with limited success. The water there was colder and murkier, and there seemed to be less sea life. We did, however, see some Bat Rays slide gracefully by along the sandy bottom. Although they’re generally harmless they made an intimidating spectacle. In the afternoon we went ashore in the dinghy, hiked around a bit, and generally enjoyed being on solid ground for a little while.

The following day, after two nights in Little Harbor we set out again to return to the east side of the island, where we spent another night at Buttonshell, and did some more fishing. From there it was on to Santa Cruz island…

Little Harbor Panorama

Coming Soon:

  • Part 3. Santa Cruz Island
  • Part 4. The Trip Home

The image “Kelp Forest” by David Ciani reused with modification under the Creative Commons Noncommercial-Attribution-Share Alike License

The Channel Islands – Part 1. The Trip Down

September 10th-15th, 2010

Before we found and bought Serenity we had made plans with our friend and OCSC instructor, Bill Kinney, to spend a month sailing to the Channel Islands in southern California. Initially the plan had been to sail to Hawaii and back, but as we were unable to get enough people committed to make it cost effective we went with the Channel Islands instead.

Californian Channel Islands Map The Channel Islands are a chain of eight islands off the California coast stretching from Point Conception to 75 miles west of San Diego. The northern islands, San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa, as wells as Santa Barbara (the northern most of the southern islands) are part of the Channel Islands National Park. A permit is required for landing, and anchoring, except for Santa Cruz, where one can go ashore in the eastern half and anchor anywhere. The other southern islands are Santa Catalina, San Clemente, and San Nicholas. Clemente and Nicholas are both used and controlled by the U.S. Navy. Catalina, on the other hand is the only really populated island. It is the most frequent destination in the island chain, with a ferry to and from the mainland, and several favorable harbors including the famous Avalon (not to mention infamously expensive).

After a whirlwind week of making an offer on Serenity, attending the wedding of our friends Nathan and Nicole, brewing beer, and provisioning for the trip, we were finally ready to depart. The morning of our departure we awoke to a cool, calm morning at the Marina Bay Harbor in Richmond. We motored out as the pink glow of dawn reflected on the water and slowly warmed to the golden light of morning. The early morning view of the city was crystal clear and beautiful. As we approached the Golden Gate however, the stereotypical San Francisco fog was rolling in swallowing the bridge and passing tanker ships as we approached. It was a stunning beginning to our trip.

Swallowed by the Fog

For the first few days we mainly motored and, occasionally sailed in light wind, down the coast. The surface of the water, undisturbed by the absent wind, was eerily smooth and black like a sea of oil. The high bluffs of the California coast formed a jagged horizon to port until the fog enveloped everything and reduced our world to a great gray dome over a gently undulating sea. The crew consisted of myself, Jen, Bill and Monica, another friend of Bill’s. WhalesWe quickly fell into the rhythm of offshore passages: cold night watches interrupting sleep cycles, regular but fitful naps throughout the day, cooking simple meals in turns, reading, writing and lounging on deck. We were all somewhat frustrated by the lack of wind, but we were excited by the anticipation of reaching our destination and enjoying some R&R. The monotony was occasionally broken by beautiful views of stars, watching bioluminescence in our wake, spotting whales and dolphins (or porpoises), or the humorous VHF traffic:

Lost vessel: We don’t know where we are
Coast Guard: Can you describe your vessel?
LV: Cruiser

CG: What happened?
LV: Our GPS and our fish finder took a dump.
CG: …..uh.. Roger that…

CG: What is your depth?
CG: Can you see anything?
LV: We can see the shore.
CG: How far away are you?
LV: About 1 to 1.5 miles.

CG: So this morning did you go north or south?
LV: South
CG: What was the last thing you saw?
LV: We were near Martins Beach by the lighthouse
CG: Martins beach has no lighthouse…

On September 14th, after three days at sea, we approached Point Conception. We were finally able to sail with all sails drawing well. The labors and reduced pace of sailing are infinitely preferable to the clamor, rattling, and fumes of motoring. It was especially unpleasant when the exhaust system failed and filled the cabin with diesel fumes. Jen and I had been napping below when it happened, and I’ll spare you the description of the gunk coming out of our sinus passages for the next few hours. Luckily Bill was able to jerry rig a fix once the engine cooled down.

Rounding Point ConceptionAs we rounded the point, slipping past hulking oil rigs, we discussed our course. At first we were trying to decide between visiting one of the northern islands for some period, or heading straight to Catalina and hitting the northern islands on the way back. We were all tired and even the closest anchorage was over a days sail away, so none of the options really stood out in our eyes. But then Bill had an epiphany: Cojo Point. An anchorage just east of Point Conception, it was most commonly used by ships waiting for calm weather before heading north. After checking the details in the cruising guide it was unanimously declared a winner. As we approached we were undeterred by the ominous visage of two small sailboats that had be blown up on shore some time ago. We reassured ourselves that they had probably foolishly anchored on 3:1 scope in a southwester, and we had nothing but fair weather ahead. We arrived just before sunset, and as we positioned to anchor I couldn’t help but notice the small but well formed shoulder of the waves wrapping Cojo Point. As soon as the hook was secure I was changing into my wetsuit, shrugging off “you’re crazy” looks from Jen, and jumping off the boat. The session was awesome. The rides were short, but the conditions were very clean. There was a thick kelp bed outside the break smoothing things out, and combined with the offshore winds, the set waves turned into perfectly sculpted waste high right-handers. I think I was smiling ear to ear when I paddled back to the boat, to enjoy a delicious dinner prepared by Jen and a rum nightcap.

Surf Break at Cojo Point

Coming Soon:

Finding Serenity

Serenity, On The Hard

Meet Serenity, our new (to us) sailboat. She’s a 1984 Hans Christian 38 Traditional Cutter. While she’s 38 feet on deck she’s actually 46 feet overall thanks to the bowsprit and “pushpit” (a small platform at the stern surrounded by a rail). The fact that she’s a cutter means she has two headsails, an inner staysail and an outer jib. Finding her was an adventure in itself, and a bit less serene than one might hope.

First there was the figuring out what we wanted. Age, size, price range, amenities, displacement (weight), type of keel, sea kindliness vs. performance, etc. I read several sailboat cruising guide books for insight; I read numerous websites; and finally we looked at what seemed like a hundred sailboats in the bay area. Our boat viewings ranged from obvious head-smack waste of time, to excitement and near disastrous bad decision. But unequivocally time after time, there was something wrong, that made the boat not right for us. Some were too big, some too small. Some were missing key features, like a decent shower setup, or respectable fuel tank size. One was a old but beautiful wooden boat with rot lurking beneath the surface.

Pretty much every boat we looked at, with the exception, ironically, of the first one, had some major blemishes making it unattractive. Many hadn’t had basic upkeep maintenance, such as bottom paint, interior or exterior varnish, or updated running rigging. Few were what you would call clean, and some were so bad that lockers and refrigerators were downright filthy. Several had half finished installations, which the brokers often billed “it has a brand new XXX,” failing to mention that you’d have to install the new component yourself. There were almost always several obviously broken things, be they cabinet doors, navigation equipment, port lights, or settee seats; and I’m willing to bet that a thorough sea trial and survey would have outted a number of other non-working systems. We never ceased to be amazed at how careless people can be with their boats, or how brazen they can be in trying to sell them in such a decrepit state.

The Morgan Classic that jen really liked The wooden Brewer Pacific 43 that turned out to have potential rot issues
The Nordic that we passed up because of leaky deck fittings & general upkeep issues The LaFitte Sloop we would have bought if the previous owners hadn't been non-sailors
Some of the boats we almost bought.

Gradually our vision of the right boat came in to focus. It would be smaller than we originally thought. It would be slightly more expensive, in the hopes that a little more money would get us a boat in better condition. It would definitely not be wooden, although it would almost certainly have a substantial amount of teak exterior, if not teak decks (I like the classic look). It would have moderate to heavy displacement, favoring sea kindliness over performance. It would have an enclosed aft cabin and v-birth, and sleep 6 including the settees. It would have minimum tank capacity for 80 gallons of water and 60 gallons of fuel. It would have a windlass for raising anchor (manual or electric). It would either have a dodger or be capable of fitting one.

We were on the brink of giving up on the Bay Area, when I decided to go take a look at this Hans Christian over in Sausalito. It hadn’t been on my radar initially because of the slightly out of our range price. And even after we started looking higher I thought the cockpit setup was a bit odd. But aside from that it actually seemed, on paper at least, to meet all of our requirements. I had learned long ago that reality rarely reflects things on paper.

The Cockpit In the end, we fell in love with the boat pretty quickly, and for once, there was no heart dropping discovery that made the boat untenable. She’s the most spacious 38 foot boat we’ve been on. She has an unexpectedly nice interior arrangement, from the galley to the head, to the cabins. She’s exceedingly pretty. She’s decked out in terms of navigational equipment. She’s got new sails, and more than half of the things on board work. Things aren’t all wine and roses of course. I have a to-do list as long as my arm. It includes some major numbers, such as replacing the standing rigging and painting the mast. And there are some systems not working, namely the fresh water pump for the taps. But generally speaking she’s a very solid boat with a lot of years adventure left in her.

I tell you what. You buy this ship, treat her proper; she’ll be with you for the rest of your life.

-Salesman, Firefly, “Out of Gas”

Another thing we noticed along the way was the diversity of attitudes of the brokers. They ranged from used car salesman pushy, to ambivalently unhelpful, to sincerely helpful and honest. I will say that all the brokers seemed to be under attentive to the boats they were selling. I’m not sure if it’s the owner or the broker who’s responsible for this, but if one or the other would spend one day a month tidying up the boat, making sure various onboard systems were in working order, and scheduling routine maintenance on the boat, it would go a long way toward getting the boat sold. Several of the boats we looked at we might well have fallen for if the owner had spend a few thousand dollars fixing things up.

In the end we wound up buying a boat from my least favorite broker, Marotta Yachts of Sausalito. Luckily I had one of the most helpful brokers we interacted with, Bearmark Yachts, representing us as the buyer. Without John Saul of Bearmark Yachts, the deal definitely wouldn’t have gone as smoothly if it had happened at all. Marotta was the most hands off, un-personable establishment we dealt with. Their procedure for showing boats is to leave it open and give you the slip number. While I do appreciate having some time alone to poke around the boat, it’s also nice to have some one to talk to, ask questions of, and get advice from (Passage Yachts and Pacific Imports also scored high in this regard). So when John offered to set up the viewing and come along with us, I really appreciated it.

It was only after that that I discovered the buyer’s broker system, where by, if the buyer has their own broker, the two brokers simply split the commission at no extra cost to the buyer. This worked out perfectly, and John came through again on the sea trial, where the sales person Marotta sent out professed to “not know the first thing about sailboats.” And finally the entire Bearmark Yachts team, from the owner on down, did a great job getting the deal done even with me on a sailing trip to the Channel Islands with very limited connectivity. I think the moral of this is 1) if you want to sell your sailboat, choose your broker carefully, and 2) as a buyer, pick your favorite broker, and have them represent you with whomever you end up buying from.

Stay tuned for our next post where you’ll get to know Serenity a lot better…