Sailing California’s Channel Islands
A similar version of this story was first published in December 2019 edition of Latitude38
It’s a magical time of year on California’s Pacific coast. The pelicans are heading south, the nights are becoming colder, and sailboats start to head south for Mexico and the start of a new winter cruising season. But while Mexico lures cruisers with sundowner margaritas and warm waters, it’s easy to forget that California also has some incredible cruising too – particularly in the fall.
For much of the year, California’s coast is notoriously unfriendly. Few harbors, strong winds, and large swell rolling in from across the pacific. But fall typically brings weeks of magical calm where the northwest winds abate, the swell subsides, and anchorages that are typically wild become thoroughly pleasant places to drop the hook and experience a side of California few get to experience.
This October, we sailed Emma down to San Diego taking time to enjoy the Channel Islands – the group of eight islands spread out across the southern California bight. Each islands offers its own charm, with much to see and do.
Coming from San Francisco, San Miguel is the first island on the route south, and normally one of the most difficult to visit. Jutting out west beyond the protection of Point Conception, it is battered by northwest winds and the cold Humboldt current for much of the year. Shoals and rocks encourage mariners to give it a wide berth, and it’s barren windswept hills seem empty and uninviting. But as we rounded the corner into Culyer Harbor under the morning sun and calm winds it appeared almost paradisiacal. We anchored in 30′ of water off a broad white sand beach with barely a footprint on it at all.
San Miguel is part of the Channel Islands National Park, and its’ only regular inhabitants are park rangers and some biologists. You can enjoy your time at anchor or get a guided hike of the island. This offers opportunity to observe a petrified forest and tens of thousands of sea lions and elephant seals lounging on the beaches. We spent a couple nights at anchor at San Miguel, while all the time, a lone grey whale circled nearby feeding on krill. The water was a chilly sixty degrees, but with a wetsuit and fins I was able to bring home fresh scallops and fish for dinner. Sea life was abundant. Mankind felt distant.
Santa Rosa is the next island down the chain. We traversed the south side taking time to drop the hook behind Johnson’s lee. This island is also managed by the Park Service, and feels equally uninhabited with little more than a fading network of fire-roads and trails from decades ago when cattle ranchers worked the island. We hiked the south side of the island where trails from native foxes were more distinct than those of humans. Down at the beaches we got to see juvenile elephant seals testing each other with body blows and grunts.
Sailing west the water starts to warm. The 25 mile long north coast of Santa Cruz island offers a myriad of anchorages and enticing shoreline to explore. With stand-up paddle boards or a dinghy, you can explore numerous beaches and caves. Perhaps the most impressive of all of them is Painted Cave, one of the world’s deepest sea caves. It’s entrance is large enough to drive a sailboat into, though you’d be bold to do so. With a dinghy you can explore deep inside to where the cave narrows and enters into a second chamber where the barking of sea lions and pitch darkness raise hairs on your neck.
Fall is when Santa Ana winds from the east start to sweep across southern California. Warm dry winds spread from inland and funnel through the valleys out to the sea. Out at the islands anchoring is turned on it’s head as normally exposed coastline becomes safe, and typicallyh safe harbors become exposed to raging winds and short chop. With gale force winds forecast for Santa Cruz island, we headed south towards Santa Barbara Island with the coastguard issuing small craft advisories over channel 16. This set us up for an eerie night anchoring under the cliffs of the west side of the island – something that would be unheard of for much of the year. But while we were protected from the santa ana winds and chop, the pacific swell never stops and we spent a bit of a rolly night on the boat.
In the dawn light, we circled the island hoping to get ashore from the main landing, but with the east wind still blowing and waves crashing ashore, this wasn’t the most sensible option. We pressed on south.
Catalina is the most popular and most visited island of the chain, but as we sailed down the west side, it looked as uninhabited as the ones we’d come from. Taking advantage of the light winds, we found ourselves a spot to park before sunset below the towering 1600′ mountainous ridge of the island. Here the water was blue and clear and pleasant 67 degrees – not quite warm, but pleasant enough for all the crew to jump in and swim, and for us to snorkel. Forests of kelp waved in the clear blue waters, with abundant fish taking shelter in their fronds. It made us feel like we had arrived, and we hadn’t yet got to the start.