Log #1: Channel Islands Summer Shakedown
Avalon Harbor postcard
We're heading north for California's Channel Islands and the start of our Summer Shakedown, an important precursor to our global travels and the opportunity to test new equipment to see what repairs the boat needs before we leave for places where parts and materials are difficult and expensive to get.
This will be the third summer we have spent sailing here, mostly in the Channel Islands National Park and Marine Reserve - a remarkable place known as "California's Galapagos" for its isolation and richness, diversity and accessibility of wildlife. It is one of the least visited and most unique parks in the country. There are 8 islands in the Channel Islands chain. The 4 southernmost lie off the coast of Los Angeles; the 4 northern ones are off of Santa Barbara and Ventura. The National Park consists of five of them - Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Anacapa, San Miguel (the 4 northernmost) and Santa Barbara Island. The latter two islands are our favorites and will be where we plan to spend most of our time. The sixth in the group, Santa Catalina, is the only one that is inhabited and is well known for the picturesque town of Avalon, quite the glamorous resort in its earlier Hollywood heyday. The last two southern islands, San Nicholas and San Clemente are controlled by the military and are generally off-limits.
In the early afternoon, we sailed from San Diego Bay to Mariners Cove in Mission Bay, a favorite spot that puts us within the sound of the delighted screams of the roller coaster riders at nearby Belmont Park and gives us a front row seat for evening fireworks displays at Seaworld. Finally leaving San Diego a few days later, we hopscotched up the coast, stopping in Oceanside and Dana Point before crossing the Channel, escorted by a welcoming party of cavorting dolphins, and arriving at Catalina Island .
Monday, MAY 23, 2005 - Santa Catalina Island
Bypassing touristy Avalon Harbor, we anchored up the coast at White's Cove, a beautiful spot off of Buffalo Beach where several Southern California yacht clubs have adjunct camping facilities for their members. Here Catalina's buffalos, the Hollywood movie props that have flourished since their abandonment on the island in the 1930's, sometimes make their way from the steep rugged interior to the sand.
Our next stop was a short distance northward to the Two Harbors area and The Isthmus, the eastern cove that faces Los Angeles - a grey smudge on the distant horizon twenty miles away. This is a relatively busy summer beach area with a decent sized harbor consisting of neat rows of white moorings surrounding a central dock. We dropped anchor in front of a campground and the Wrigley Marine Science Center located on the southern headlands of the harbor. USC runs this small research facility. When we were there a few years ago, we spoke to a young woman who was fussing over several frothy sea water tanks containing small blue and red striped fish called gobies. She had explained that a goby can change its gender: if one male and several females are placed in the same tank for a few days and the male is removed, the dominant female changes her sex and fertilizes the eggs of the other two females. Can't wait for a human application for that one!!!!
We shared the harbor with two large square-riggers and watched a few intrepid guys swing out over the water on a rope hung from a yardarm and drop into the frigid water...for fun. We dinghied ashore and after showers at the public facility near the outdoor bar where you can order buffalo milk (a vodka based drink), we stretched our legs by ambling a few hundred yards across the narrow spit of land (the isthmus) separating us and the second harbor - west-facing Cat Harbor.
Thursday, MAY 26, 2005 - Santa Barbara Island
We left the Isthmus early, motoring in the grey windless morning past the West End of Catalina Island and continued for five hours until reaching Santa Barbara Island. We're now in the National Park, at the southernmost and smallest of the five islands. It's chilly - time to get the sweat suits on!! This is the earliest we've ever been out here and we're all alone - even Randy Ranger is gone. It's even too early for the raucous crowd of barking sea lions who usually take up residence on the rocky shores adjacent to the cove's wooden landing pier. Now, only a few curious adolescents slip in and out of the water, stretching their heads high above the surface to see what we're all about.
We settled in and were reading quietly after dinner when we suddenly heard a "Thwunk" - something hit the boat. A few minutes later, another "Thwunk" from the other side. I went out on deck and looked into the darkness. We were under siege -- a night time attack by sea and air. Peering down into the black water it looked like green torpedoes were being launched and deflected from our boat at the same time that small green missiles appeared to skip along the water surface and become airborne....It turned out that four or five sea lions were having a feeding frenzy chasing flying fish that were attracted to the boat by our anchor light! Because of the bioluminescence in the water, everything that moved glowed so you could see the sea lions swimming, then hear them snorting and huffing as they surfaced. The flying fish were skimming the water as they were being chased and a few of them landed on the deck of the boat. They were quite large, about a foot long, and made a lot of noise flapping around. It was hard to fall asleep with all that activity!
The next day, after washing flying fish scales from all over the deck, we went ashore and hiked one of several trails that loop along the island's edge. We took the short dinghy ride to the pier, tied the dinghy, climbed the vertical metal ladder, and walked up the steep sets of stairs cut into the cliff to the top of the island near the ranger station. There are 6 miles of trails and we took one to Elephant Seal Rookery on the opposite side of the island. After walking a short uphill distance through meadows of dried grasslands, we crossed a ridge and started down through a large seagull nesting site. Santa Barbara is the second most important seabird breeding site in the Park with 11 nesting species that are monitored every year by scientists. Thousands of California sea gulls were nesting this year and many of the shallow straw nests were on the ground right next to the path. Most had 1-3 olive speckled eggs but several already held furry spotted chicks. Walking through here is straight out of Alfred Hitchcock's movie, "The Birds". We were flown at, strafed, dive-bombed (and even pecked once) by hundreds of screeching gulls who rose up indignantly to defend their nests.
Forty minutes later we were eating our picnic lunch on the edge of a cliff overlooking Elephant Seal Cove. Below us was the noisy activity of hundreds of California sea lions. Large harems of pregnant females were sprawled along the entire length of the cove, each watched over by a huge bellowing dominant male who swam back and forth aggressively guarding his family's piece of waterfront property. Immature seal lions slept, waddled along the sand, frolicked in the surf, or chased each other in the kelp beds.
When we looped back on the trail to our starting point at the Ranger Station, we saw we had been joined by a few boats, a handful of the eventual 20 or so that would make up the Memorial Day Weekend crowd. We also noticed that the flag was flying from the park flagpole, indicating that Randy Ranger had arrived. Redheaded with a ruddy complexion, Randy Nelson has been the ranger here for many years and loves his square mile of rock. He has residential quarters in the one building that houses a small visitors center and a bunk area for itinerant scientists but he has a wife and house on the mainland. As always, he is full of stories and wildlife watching tips.
Saturday we explored the island perimeter by dinghy. The cold water was crystal clear with lots of fish, especially around the columns of kelp that rose up from the sea floor. Just around the corner of the anchorage heading south was a small sandy beach with two dozen sprawling elephant seals, looking like sausages about to be packaged. The sea lions scattered among them were dwarfed by these enormous animals with their big fleshy probosces. The Visitors Center has a photograph taken in the late 1800's of a spunky woman (one of the island settlers of the era), looking like granny in the Beverly Hillbillies, holding a shotgun point blank in the face of a huge male the size of a small elephant. Further up the rocky shore we passed an extensive sea lion rookery below a large pelican nesting area on the dry grassy bluffs. Above all the animal and bird hubbub, Chuck and I thought we heard bagpipes! We looked over at one of the dive boats that regularly ferry mainlanders out here and sure enough, there was a man standing on the upper afterdeck serenading the divers as they slipped into the water.
Over the next few days we hiked, explored, and spent hours observing the wildlife from some favorite perches. From the top of the island we spent many an afternoon watching the sea lions below. The females had started to pup and the rocks at the edge of the sea were full of new mother/baby pairs. Amid the baritone barking of the dominant males and deep baying of all the others combined came high little cries, like kittens, as the pups struggled to nurse or stay curled up next to their moms. The mothers are very attentive as we observed close up when the solitary female next to the landing dock had her pup. We scanned the beach and saw two brand new births, heralded by flocks of sea gulls swooping in to fly off with the placenta as a tasty treat.
The pelican babies were in all stages of development, from snowy white balls of fluff waiting in the nest to be fed to brown "toddlers" with translucent gullets roaming around play fighting with nearby buddies. Some fledglings took off and shakily flew a short distance to the kelp beds below to try feeding themselves. Once in a while an adult would return from fishing and stand by a nest, trying to balance and stay upright as a chick inserted its entire LONG beak down its throat. And I thought breast-feeding was bad!
There was tide pooling with noisy oystercatchers, the singing of the pigeon guillmots as they bobbed together on the water in packs, and the sighting of the endangered Xantus's murrelet which flew at night. An ornithologist monitoring these interesting birds showed us an empty nest located in the middle of a low bush near the Visitors Center. The chicks are only two days old when they tumble from the nest and go out to sea with the parents, never returning to land again except to breed.
After Memorial Day we thought we'd be alone again but a ship from Long Beach University arrived with students in a Recreation Class to camp on the island for a week. We watched the never-ending assembly line as large white buckets were hauled up the trail all afternoon to the spartan campground adjacent to the ranger station. One morning I watched one of the students make a gyotaku print (the Japanese art of fish printing) of the slippery fresh perch she had just caught near the tide pool. In the 1800's, Japanese fishermen took newsprint, ink and brush out to sea with them to record their catches. Prints were brought back and displayed in their homes to be used as conversation pieces and to relate proud and heroic stories.
Thursday, JUNE 2, 2005 - Back to Catalina Island
The wind was atypically from the southeast when we left Santa Barbara at 9 a.m. so we motored all day back to Santa Catalina Island in a slight drizzle. We bypassed White's because it looked pretty rolly, and anchored further south near Frog Point. The evening cleared and we watched as a few small power boats pulled in good sized fish all around us.
Friday, JUNE 3, 2005 - Avalon, Catalina Island
We're in the tropics now! No more sweatsuits as we sit at our mooring in the bright sun in picturesque Avalon wearing shorts and t-shirts! It’s busy here but it’s the beginning of the weekend so activity in the harbor and the pretty little town - filled with golf carts instead of cars, strolling tourists, and hawaiian shirt shops - will amplify as the day goes on. Avalon has a decidedly Mediterranean feel and is full of color - from the unique Catalina tiles with their distinctive palette adorning buildings and fountains, to the mint green pier with its assortment of Fisher-Price-like tourist boats. In the background the bell tower on the hill peals out the time at half-hour intervals.
On Saturday, we attended a real treat in the afternoon. But first we had to stay on the boat to fend off the sleek expensive power boat attempting to pick up the adjacent mooring. The captain wrapped the lines around his prop, called a diver to free him, and then promptly rewrapped it again. Luckily the frustrated diver had taken up residence on his stern. Anyway, back to the treat - the 18th Annual Silent Film Benefit in the Casino’s wonderful art deco theater. The round Casino is Avalon’s unmistakable landmark - as exquisite inside (murals) as outside (Catalina tile mosaics). The movie was the first film version of “Peter Pan” made in 1924 and was thought to be lost until rediscovered in a Rochester, NY theater with its original organ score. The Casino boasts an old Page organ - one of only two left. Therefore, we watched the film just as 1924 audiences would have experienced it. An added bonus was the retirement salute to Avalon’s beloved organist, replete with gushing small town sentiment and fanfare. It was an afternoon of ceaseless clapping between the farewell organ concert, excited acknowledgment of Catalina as the movie location for Captain Hook’s pirate ship, and, of course, the entreaty to keep Tinkerbell alive!
David, Linda’s son, took the ferry from Dana Point and stayed with us for two days. We explored the area with the requisite golf cart loop through the surrounding hills, took a shuttle to the airport at the top of the island, and sighted a few buffalos.
Tuesday, JUNE 7, 2005 - In San Diego Again
We left Catalina to return to San Diego at 6 a.m. and were able to maintain a beautiful sail at 6 knots for most of the afternoon, finally quitting when the wind lightened up past La Jolla. We pulled into Silver Gate Yacht Club at 7 p.m. to a group of welcoming friends. We'll be here for a while and get a chance to do some of those boat projects that arose on the trip.
MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for LOG #1