Now’s the best time to cruise to the lesser-visited Isthmus Cove

By Paul M. J. Suchecki

Follow a compass course of 170 degrees magnetic from Marina del Rey to the isthmus Photo by Paul M. J. Suchecki

Follow a compass course of 170 degrees magnetic from Marina del Rey to the isthmus
Photo by Paul M. J. Suchecki

Santa Catalina Island is a marvelous getaway for Southern California boaters. Catalina is just 22 miles from the mainland (a distance about a mile greater than the width of the English Channel), yet it’s a world away from L.A.’s smog, freeway traffic and heat.

“I’ve been to islands in the Pacific, Mediterranean and Caribbean. Catalina is great, offering the island lifestyle just off our coast,” local sailor Carolisa Pomerantz said.

Catalina is eight miles across at its widest, but one alluring destination is much narrower. The village at Isthmus Cove is called Two Harbors because Catalina Harbor is just half a mile away on the opposite side of the island.

Fewer than 300 people live on the isthmus, most of them providing services for visitors. There’s a bed and breakfast, campground, general store, a dive shop, a couple of yacht clubs, a snack bar, and a full restaurant and bar with dance floor.

Visitors can hike, kayak, swim or dive through crystal-clear waters and have access to a couple of public tennis courts and volleyball on the beach. Fishing is first rate. USC’s Wrigley Marine Science Center offers public tours.

Now that the peak summer boating season is behind us, moorings are easier to get while the water temperature remains tolerable (for extended swims, I recommend a wetsuit). Best yet, if you plan to stay for at least three nights you can reserve a mooring online. If you can’t moor, you’ll have to anchor —a challenge because you’re trying to hook the side of a mountain that rises from a channel that’s 3,000 feet deep.

If you decide to go, you’ll need a big enough boat. I’ve been there in a range of craft from my own 25-foot sloop to a 43-foot ketch. Be sure to have a working motor, below-deck galley, berth and head. Make sure that you know your boat thoroughly before taking it across.

And don’t forget the basics. Check weather conditions before you leave. At the very least, have a chart to show you bearings and water depth, a compass, marine radio, navigation lights, flashlight, binoculars and a bilge pump. For emergencies, the Coast Guard requires that every person onboard has a personal floatation device. Radar, a GPS, and depth gauge are handy extras. A working flare gun is recommended, as is a first aid kit.

It’s a good idea to bring your own dinghy. If you don’t have one, you can always take a shore boat to reach land.

Also, make sure that you are well provisioned with plenty of food and water. Everything costs more on the island, especially fuel and ice, so take as much as you can.

Sailing to Catalina can take between six and nine hours, so remember to apply sunblock frequently. One advantage of powerboating to Catalina is speed.  A friend routinely made it to Catalina on his 33-foot fishing boat in 90 minutes.

On clear days, when you can easily see the island, aim for
the dip in the mountain range that reveals Isthmus Cove. If there’s a mist and you can’t see the island, follow a compass course of 170 degrees magnetic, nearly due south. Your return trip to Marina del Rey will be magnetic 350.

If you’re sailing, don’t hug the Palos Verdes Peninsula. You can get caught in a wind shadow there. Conversely, you’ll be drawing close to the cove in the afternoon. There the winds will be up, funneled through the isthmus, so expect these conditions as you approach.

Know the rules of the road, but don’t try to enforce that rule of sail over power. Your course will intersect with some of the most active container shipping routes in the world. If you notice that a ship is on constant bearing and closing distance, you’re on a collision course. Aim for the larger vessel’s stern.

If you aren’t an experienced boater, it’s a very good idea to crew on somebody else’s boat first in order to see how it’s done before taking on the responsibility yourself.

Once you are ready, have fun. Unlike like a trip to the mountains in a car, when you sail to Catalina your vacation begins the moment you clear the breakwater.