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by Robert Hess – Glendale, California - USA

Last weekend I finally made time to take my first overnight trip to Catalina Island, a crossing of about 22 miles from Los Angeles Harbor.

My friend Edwin, who though not sailor himself had agreed to join me, had to bow out at the last moment for "wife-related" reasons. So I went by myself, which is my usual mode of travel anyway.


As expected the crossing was uneventful. I had a good westerly breeze of 10-15 knots right from the start, around noon, and found myself 1 mile off Goat Harbor on the leeside of the island around 4:30 pm. I never reefed the main, though one reef in the last hour or so wouldn't have hurt, and had the tiller lashed all the way across.

Here's a short video taken shortly before arrival:

Things got interesting when I tried to cover the last mile into the cove at Goat Harbor. Not entirely unexpected the wind dropped from 15 knots to 0 knots as I came into the lee of the island. Without the benefit of a motor, I had to rely on paddle power. Navigator, I knew, could be paddled all right by two people, but not so well by only one person.

My job was made much harder by the fact that conditions were quite choppy despite the lack of wind. Swells were rolling in, refracting off the steep coastline, and creating a nasty seaway. The boom was swinging to and fro, making paddling on either side of the boat trying at best. Plus the chop took away much of what little forward momentum I was able to gather while paddling furiously.

After about fifteen minutes I realized the futility of my efforts and called it quits. At that pace it would have taken me a good hour to drop anchor in the cove. If there was even a slight current, I might well end up on the rocks south of the cove, I feared. So I turned the boat around, in the process of which I received a few more good knocks on the head causing me to lose the grip on my paddle. With a bit of disbelief I saw it drifting 25 feet behind the boat. It was a weird moment because I had paddled my kayak for many years without ever dropping, much less losing a paddle. And here I was paddling my sailboat and losing the paddle in the first 15 minutes. Lol.

Luckily, I always carry two spare paddles and so began to claw my way back out to sea. If anything, the going was even slower now and progress seemed impossibly slow. The boom was still doing its best to make my life miserable, but I didn't want to drop the main because I would need it as soon I was out of the lee of the island, only 200 feet or so away now.

As sudden as the wind had gone, it was back. The sails filled, the boat heeled over a bit, and I took great pleasure in hearing the gurgling sound of Islander under sail again.

Now it was time to decide where to go from here. There were basically two options: Sail back 22 miles to the mainland or try to make Two Harbors which lay 7 miles upwind. I soon dismissed the first option realizing that I would not make it back before the wind died down for the night.

So I turned the bow in a northwesterly direction and settled in for what I knew was going to be a close race against time. The sun would set around 7:30 pm, in less than three hours, and the westerly breeze was sure to die soon thereafter. My hope was that I would get close enough to the isthmus at Two Harbors, which I knew from prior kayak trips would still generate enough wind for sailing well after dark.

Here's a video from that part of the trip, taken just before sunset:

At sunset, I was still about a mile downwind from Two Harbors. As expected the wind began to drop noticeably soon after the sun had sunk behind the horizon. But at least I was still moving in the right direction. When I was almost abreast of Two Harbors I succeeded in calling my wife on the cell phone (there is otherwise little or no cell phone coverage around that part of Catalina Island). I explained to her why the Spot Tracker messages she had been receiving from me did not show me snugly tucked into the cove at Goat Harbor and told her that I should reach Two Harbors within the hour.

The truth was that at that point I wasn't so sure yet that I was going to make Two Harbors. If the wind dropped anymore I might simply have to spend the night bobbing around near the island until morning. Not a big deal, as I carried plenty of lights, food and water, sleeping bag, etc. But not the kind of thing my wife wanted to hear.

When I was just about to resign myself to a night at sea, I finally caught the much awaited southwesterly breeze from the isthmus. This allowed me to finally turn the bow toward the island, a very good feeling. It was almost completely dark by the time I passed Bird Rock near the eastern end of the isthmus, and I readied several flashlights and positioned a white paddle light on the stern. Though close to my goal, I knew I'd have to be very careful threading my way through the maze of buoys, moorings, boats, and channel markers in the dark.

My familiarity with the area saved the day. Occasionally lighting up the waters ahead with my powerful (470 lumen) flashlight, I managed to reach the eastern, least busy part of Two Harbors without hitting anything in the dark. As soon as I was off the beach near the campground, I looked for a wide open area to drop the anchor. I soon found what I was looking for, an area of calm water with several other sailboats bobbing at anchor.

Now came the final test: Would I be able to anchor in the right spot on the first try? And would the anchor hold? I had never before used my brand-new 11-pound Bruce anchor, and somehow had never thought that the first time would be in the dark and by myself, with other boats (obstacles) all around. I hoped that it would turn out not to be much different from anchoring my kayak (for which I use a 3-pound grapple hook).

When I believed to be in the right spot, with plenty of searoom astern, I uncleated the main and jib and sheeted in the mizzen all the way. I also raised the rudder and furled the jib. With the mizzen pointing the boat into the wind, I slowly dropped anchor and chain over the starboard rail from the cockpit and paid out about 120 feet of anchor rode. I then quickly stepped up on the forward deck and securely cleated off the anchor line. After a few seconds, the anchor caught and stopped the boat from moving backward. Done. All things considered I felt rather accomplished. Or maybe it was just relief.

The rest was easy. After calling my wife, I ate a can of cold chili, spread out my Thermarest mattress and sleeping bag, got out of my foul weather gear, and slipped into my warm sleeping bag. Though it was mid- August, the night was chilly, with the wind blowing at about 10 knots all night. With a small board, about 3 feet by 6 inches, spread across the cockpit along the side seat, there was plenty of space for me to lie down comfortably. I was also impressed with the kindly motion of the boat. This was probably in large part due to the mizzen, which unerringly held the boat in place.

After making sure that we were not dragging anchor, I finally drifted off to sleep. Well, sort of. Though comfortable enough, continuous sleep was hard to come by. My main antagonists were the many screeching sea gulls, which for some reason seemed to eschew any rest at night. The cacophony of the sea gulls was augmented by the sharp breaths of sea lions surfacing next to boat, also all night. Don't these creatures ever sleep? Haha.

Still, I rather enjoyed my first night aboard Islander and would not have wanted it any other way. Even when the sun came up the next morning, I felt no urge to get off the boat, though I had brought an inflatable kayak as a tender. Instead I downed a quick breakfast of cereal and then raised the anchor to take advantage of the southwesterly wind that was still blowing unabated.

Here's a short video of Islander leaving the isthmus:

An hour later we were becalmed three miles off the island. Though I had hoped for a quick sail back to the mainland, I knew that these were normal conditions for early morning. So I dropped the main and took the opportunity to take a nap. This time without sea gulls or sea lions.

Refreshed I woke up about an hour later and took a look around. The sky was still slate gray and betrayed no intention of clearing up. And so another 2 hours passed. By noon there was still no change and I was beginning to get just a bit antsy. I still had over 20 miles to go and did not need another race against the sun. The forecast was the same as the previous day, 10-15 knots out of the west in the afternoon. But from experience I knew that on certain days, the westerlies don't pick up until mid or even late afternoon. Perhaps too late to make landfall before dark - again.

To my relief, a slight breeze sprang up around 1:00 pm and I was underway again. By 2:00 pm the wind had increased to about 10 knots and I was confident I would make it back on time without any problems. I covered the remaining 15 miles or so in good time on a broad reach... Shortly before entering Los Angeles Harbor around 5 pm, it was blowing so hard, I actually put in a single reef. By 6 pm Islander was back on its trailer.

Some Lessons I Learned

I will need to give my sculling oar another chance. I bought it to be used in combination with a so-called Scullmatix, a device sold by Duckworks to facilitate sculling. The problem is that the oar, when assembled with the Scullmatix, doesn't fit inside the boat, and, when unassembled, is a PITA to put together at sea (e. g., I need to use pliers and even then it's a bit of challenge to get the two loom to line up with the handle). So, I had pretty much given up on the oar. But now, I think I will give it another try to see what can be done with it.

The Bruce anchor works very well, and I now feel confident that it was the right choice. 11 pounds is, of course, overkill. But I like it that way, plus it fits perfectly under the thwart seat inside a plastic box. I also carry an (as yet untried) 4-pound Danforth anchor under the stern seat, mostly for use as a stern anchor, but I don't trust it yet. It just seems so light.

The boat is quite comfortable and easy to sleep on, exceeding my expectations. That I didn't sleep well that night had little to do with the boat, and more with my noisy surroundings. It's amazing that the little board I use (3 feet x 6 inches) and a Thermarest mattress are all it takes to turn the side seat into a comfortable bed.

The tiller tamer is absolutely indispensable on a solo trip like this. Without it, the 40 miles on the first day would not have been much fun. As it was, I stayed comfortable and alert throughout, with little or no physical wear by the end of the day. I use it 99% of the time anyway, but on this trip I really came to fully appreciate its necessity.

Wives don't much like the uncertainty that comes with sailing an open boat without a motor. I guess I am lucky that mine hasn't revoked my sailing privileges yet.

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