I’m a fair weather sailor who grew up sailing on mostly calm, warm and protected waters.
When I returned to boating here in Los Angeles, I remember being impressed and a hair short of overwhelmed at the sight of the ocean as I piloted my newly bought Hobie-16 catamaran past the breakwall. I think they call the feeling a “healthy respect,” but it could probably be accurately deemed “mild fright.”
Now that I’ve adopted the Santa Monica Bay as my sailing home I always still consider, what I see as, the reality of the ocean. Not unlike an animal in the wild – the ocean is minding its business and genuinely unconcerned with your safety and wellbeing. We react to it, and it is never the other way around.
Now with the Fourth of July holiday approaching (with no Marina del Rey fireworks I might add), the kids out of school and water temperatures finally moving past a hypothermic risk, many are ready to take the anticipated voyage to our very own idyllic island located 30-some-odd miles off the coast. A place where the pace is slowed to a crawl, where there is no traffic and where little orange fish swim all around your anchored boat.
I could go on and on about how delightful a place Catalina Island is – a true counter-balance to the complicated, endlessly moving city of Los Angles. And navigating one’s own boat to this retreat is indeed a satisfying feeling. But that’s the part that needs to be taken seriously…
Over the past nine years I’ve covered many stories that have related to this crossing and having spoken to many people about the trip, I’ve noticed a wide variance in how boaters perceive the passage. Some seem to see it as a car ride to the next town. No big whoop – gas her up – we’ll hit the island by mid-afternoon. “Do we have charcoal? No? That’s okay we’ll pick it up there.”
Then others, who have promised themselves they’d make the trip at some point, still haven’t mustered the courage. They tell themselves the boat isn’t ready, but it’s more than that. It’s a 65-mile round trip in the Pacific Ocean and impending tragedy looms large in their cautious minds.
Over this time I’ve written about 12-year-olds who have made the trip in 8-foot boats; I’ve done stories on rowers, paddleboarders – even swimmers – who have prepared and crossed, but I have also done more than one article on seasoned sailors who died along the way.
The real truth is that this is a serious trip and should be prepared for responsibly, especially if there are non-boating passengers in the mix. Underestimating a relatively long passage in an ocean environment that involves crossing a major shipping lane is foolish. Calm conditions are not guaranteed nor are forecasted ones. Things can change quickly.
Folks should enter into a Catalina crossing prepared for fog, equipment failure, medical situations and guests falling in the drink. I liken it to being a pilot in a single engine airplane; you’re having a good time but in the back of your head, you’re always looking at where you can lay that thing down.
A couple of years ago I had planned a sail to the island in my 21-foot catamaran with my little dog and girlfriend. The boat is very seaworthy but it’s always going to be just 21 feet.
The wind was blowing over 12 knots at the dock. I double-checked for my handheld VHF, life vests, batteries, GPS units – I went through and over the boat making sure nothing was going to come apart once a rugged ocean swell started man-handling her. As I got out towards Redondo Beach, winds were gusting to 18 knots and I looked around – my little dog, my trusting but somewhat inexperienced girlfriend, 6-foot waves, a reef in the main – then felt doubt. We turned around and although I felt defeated, I know it was right.
Chances are, the breeze would have been 20 to 25 knots once I got near the island and wave heights would have also been sizable. There’s an area, as the island looks close, where winds tend to pick up – some call it the Catalina Fan. Sailors, particularly in smaller boats, have to be ready for more serious conditions than they may see on a summer day in the bay.
Another element worth considering is that the ocean and winds do not care that you have to return to work on Monday. Many a boater has been thrashed on a Sunday evening fighting conditions that they shouldn’t be in.
“Don’t attempt to return in winds over 20 knots, high sea conditions or fog with visibility under 1.5 miles,” said Capt. Richard Schaefer, who teaches sailing and has made thousands of crossings to Catalina. “It doesn’t matter how important the Monday morning meeting is – in reality it isn’t – stay alive.”
For new boaters, there’s no shame in taking one of the many classes that the local Coast Guard auxiliaries offer or taking one-on-one boat handling lessons from any of the many private captains who offer these services. There’s also a great video called “Cast Off for Catalina” that is essentially a step-by-step lesson for the specific trip of Marina del Rey to Catalina.
Short of that, make sure the boat is clean, organized and that everything is marked off the checklist. If you’re apprehensive, that’s one thing – if you’re fearful, bag it. Do some more local cruising and go get ‘em next time.
But once you get your ducks in a row and make the journey, prepare to fall in love – it’s a gorgeous part of the world.