The Channel Islands – Part 3. Santa Cruz Island & The Trip Home

September 24th – October 4th, 2010

Fishing by Moonlight The passage to Santa Cruz began perfectly. We had strong wind, a beautiful sunset, and a full moon lighting our way as we went. Unfortunately it wasn’t long before the wind died and we were motoring again. Motoring isn’t terrible; the hum of the motor is close enough to white noise that it doesn’t inhibit sleep, and it’s easy enough to escape by going on deck. I hope that when Jen and I are making passages in the future we’re able to take our time so that we don’t have to run the motor so much, and instead just sail more slowly and take a few extra days to reach our destination. One thing I’ve learned on this trip, however, is that it is not only slower to sail under wind power alone, but when the wind is light enough and the sea is of any size at all, the motion of the boat tends to become very uncomfortable, and it becomes difficult to even steer the boat. So in many cases we may have no choice but to motor if the wind doesn’t cooperate.

Prisoner's HarborUpon making landfall at Santa Cruz island, we passed by several prospective anchorages, finding none of them to our liking, and finally settled on Prisoner’s Harbor. Prisoner’s harbor is the easternmost anchorage where you can go ashore without a permit. There is a pier and some structures used by the Park Service. We spear fished in the morning with much success including bagging one of the elusive Kelp Bass. The fishing on Santa Cruz island was generally quite good, despite the frigid and slightly murky water. I think the fish on Catalina have learned to be a bit more wary of divers. In the afternoon Jen and I pulled to shore and went for a hike. The only hiking trail we could find was a dirt road. There were good views of the coastline and some of the more rugged terrain the island had to offer, but it would have been nice to have found a more primitive trail. We tried some bushwhacking out to a point with a nice view, but the overgrown grasses were full of burrs that made it pretty unpleasant.

Jen Hiking on Santa Cruz

The next day we motored over to Painted Cave in the hope of being able to take the dinghy in, but the surge precluded it. We found good views all the same. We doubled back under sail to Fry’s Harbor. Fry’s was a gorgeous, small anchorage tucked far back in a bight in the coast. We had to set a stern anchor to limit how far we would swing because of our proximity to the rocky shore. As usual we did some more diving and fishing. In the evening we had a delicious meal of coconut curry and enjoyed our last night on the hook.

A Natural Arch Near Painted Cave

Monday the 27th we were headed back north. We sailed on passed Point Conception in calm conditions. The oil platforms created quite a spectacle as they lit up the sky burning off excess gasses. Unfortunately it wasn’t long before the wind abandoned us again and we were force to press on under power. We abandoned our plan to stop at Morro Bay because of the large swell running and reports of breakers in the harbor entrance. We pressed on to Monterrey.

Sunset on Glassy Water On our way north I spent a lot of time thinking about what lay ahead for Jen and I. We finally had our boat, but that meant we now had over 100 small to large projects to accomplish. We had more stuff to get rid of. We still had a lot to learn before we could go cruising on our own. I had work to complete, including a trip to Seattle. Combined with my worries over Jen’s feelings about our present trip and our future these things produced in me a state of anxious excitement. It was all a bit overwhelming, but there is no better place to meditate on ones future that in the solitude of the sea.

Jellyfish at the Entrance to Monterey Our stay in Monterey was quite a relief. We were able to get a full night’s sleep, and a long, free, hot shower. It was nice to stand under the streams of steaming hot water for minutes, letting the week’s worth of salt and sweat wash down the drain seemingly taking the stress and worries with them. Feeling like new we went into town, stocked up on groceries, took care of some boat paperwork at Kinko’s, and went out for lunch.

From Monterey we did a day sail over to Santa Cruz (the town, not the island). It was a great sailing day with a moderate NW wind allowing us to reach the whole way. We spend our time practicing manual navigation; using triangulation and running fixes of visual landmarks along with dead reckoning and depth changes to bring us within 100 yards of our target, a buoy off the Santa Cruz pier. We anchored there, within a few boat lengths of the pier and within sight of Steamer Lane, the famous Santa Cruz surf spot. I characteristically wasted no time donning my wetsuit and paddling the half mile over on the longboard. The wind had died for the evening and a moderate northwest swell was running. I got a couple of quality waves, although it was hard to spot and avoid the kelp. As dusk fell the land based crowd dwindled, opening the spot up for some of my best rides. By the time I made the long paddle back to the boat I could barely see the waves anymore, nor convince my arms to move much.

The next morning Jen and I made the slightly more sane paddle over to Cowell’s. We’re were one of the first people out, so despite the small size and infrequency of the sets we had a pretty good time. The last time we were out at Cowell’s the break had been so thick with newbies that every ride was a party wave, slaloming through packs of clueless beginners drifting inside, and almost ending with a gentle collision. I always try to be good natured and have a good time in such beginner breaks – after all we all had to start somewhere, but the empty break was a welcome change. When the morning surf classes hit the water and things started to get congested we headed back to the boat.

We got underway later that morning. As Bill got us going on his own the motor suddenly died after the anchor was up. He tried to deploy the Jib to sail us out of harms way, but with scant distance between us and the pier, he gave the order to drop the anchor and disappear below. We got the anchor down and the sail furled in short order. We could have hit the pier with a rock. Everybody’s heart was thumping. Luckily Bill resolved the issue quickly and got us moving again.

We sailed in light winds for the first day and a half. On the first day out Jen and Bill saw two large humpbacks breaching fully out of the water. I was napping at the time so I can only imagine what it must have been like to see their hulking bodies erupt from the surface only to fall back again with a splash. Later that afternoon while I was on deck I called out that I had spotted what looked like a shark. There was a grey dorsal fin moving slowly through the water ahead. As we approached, we realized it wasn’t a shark at all. Instead it was the strangest looking fish we had ever seen. It was large and triangular with pronounced dorsal and anal fins but no tail at all. It’s mouth was beaklike, similar to that of a parrot fish. It rolled about on the surface ahead of us, finally submerging and gliding away as we slid passed slowly in the light wind. As it turned out it was a Pacific Sunfish, a very odd, jellyfish eating fish ranging up to XXX lbs.

On the second day out the wind freshened and by the early morning hours of the third we were under reefed sail and taking watches in pairs because it was so rough. We would be entering San Francisco bay around sunrise. We raced in doing 7-8 knots, first close hauled and then downwind under the bridge. I must have been beat, because I slept through the whole thing, a feat Jen found rather impressive considering the conditions around the gate.

A few hours later we were back in Richmond, 23 days after we left. The trip had been a success in my mind. We had learned an incredible amount about large boat sailing, boat maintenance, anchoring, mooring, etc. Sailing for such an extended period with an OCSC instructor proved to be invaluable. I could only hope I hadn’t worn out my welcome peppering him with questions every chance I got. It certainly could have been better. It could have been warmer, we could have caught more fish, we could have sailed more, we could have been able to make a second stop at Avalon and a stop at Morro Bay; but overall I had a good time, and looked forward to making the trip again in my own boat. Jen, however, may have seen things differently, but that is a story for her to tell.

The Coastline of Santa Cruz Island

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: