TopKayaker.Net's Guide To Kayak Destinations

Parson's Landing Santa Catalina Island Crossing
By Calamari Chris

Here are trip reports from two of the author's many 52 mile round-trip kayak crossing experiences from San Pedro, California's Cabrillo Beach to Santa Catalina Island ; his first in August 2000 and one later in 2004 by a paddler significantly more familiar with the route. Photos are from his 2005 crossing.

August 2000 - As long as you don't do anything stupid, ocean kayaking can be a pretty boring pastime compared to mountain biking for some. For hours you stroke a paddle smoothly to pull yourself and your coffin-sized craft over the water, like some Tupperware-Ishmael.

It's not unlike driving on the smooth Interstate 80 across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah--your speedometer says 70 miles per hour and your engine is making noise, but all your senses tell you the car is not moving. On a kayak, instead of doing 70 you're traveling at a walking pace and instead of the comparatively confined spaces of the Bonneville Salt Flats, you're on the slightly larger salt-flats of the Pacific Ocean.

As a paddler, you're far away from the noise, crowds and the...dirt of the shore. And if you paddle out far enough to lose sight of the shore, it seems as though you're a little spec of space dust lost in an endless two-dimensional universe. You hear nothing but the sound of water lapping against your boat: no birds, no waves; silence that makes your ears ring. I've often gone kayaking to escape humanity and then caught myself paddling like mad to catch another kayaker out past the surf zone.

A Catalina crossing was in the works before I bought my kayak, and so I was glad to be finally taking off, at about 5:45 a.m. on this very foggy August morning in 2000, almost a year after buying this Ocean Kayak Cabo. Cabrillo State Park is the closest point on the continent to Catalina Island, so it seemed a logical launch-point.

Trouble is, Cabrillo Park is the upper lip of the mouth of Long Beach Harbor, one of the busiest freight thoroughfares in the world, with many enormous freighters suddenly appearing in the fog, then disappearing just as suddenly. In reality, they were probably only tearing past at 25-30 knots, but the fastest I could manage was maybe six. (See TopKayaker.Net safety articles: Paddling in Traffic and Judging Collision Course)

If you're considering making this crossing, please bring a battery-operated light to make your boat more visible in the fog. Crossing a major shipping lane in the fog is roughly as foolish as running across a busy freeway in the fog. One freighter and a small sailboat blasted me with their horns and those suckers are loud! (See TopKayaker.Net's article: Kayak Lights & Kayak Lighting Techniques For Dawn, Dusk & Night Paddling)

at seaI soon lost sight of land and didn't see it again for 3 hours; just paddling-paddling-paddling and watching my Army surplus compass. Nothing visible in all directions, my life rested on that little magnetic needle bobbing around willy-nilly in its case. I was temporarily overjoyed when land very suddenly came into view, but soon learned why.

The strong wind that blew the fog away turned out to be a shot glass of blessing and a pitcher of curse. I aimed at the low point between the mountains on the island, but it would be another four and a half hours of paddling, because the wind and the chop were vicious. A few large powerboats passed by, but no sailboats at all. The wind and chop kept pulling the boat off-course to the left. Lacking a rudder, I had to pull very hard with my left hand and lightly with the right the whole time. I had tendinitis in my left forearm for 3 weeks after this adventure.

A white rock or islet became visible and it seemed a reasonable landmark. It turned out to be Bird Rock and I got pretty excited when I finally saw sailboats anchored behind it. Despite the seeming nearness, it was another two hours of solid paddling to keep on course and moving. I stopped for a 2-minute water break and the boat was turned completely around and I hated to think about how much ground I'd lost while massaging my sore arm.

As the chop worsened, my paddling form involuntarily deteriorated too. I put on the Walkman so I wouldn't have to hear the howling wind or my own frustrated cries. [Stupid 80's music tape!]: Belinda Carlisle singing Heaven on Earth, with the lyrics: "When I'm lost at sea, I look for you and you carry me..."; and Falco's Der Komissar: "...the more you live the faster you will diiiieeee." (Ugh.)

The chop and swell grew worse still and at one point I was toppled by a 6-foot whitecap that broke at the perfectly wrong moment. The boat flipped and I was instantly floating serenely under the water, looking at my compass and my Walkman hanging happily in front of a beautiful, inviting green void. It was so quiet and I heard, "You could die here..." and after more than seven hours of paddling so hard, the word die had a softer meaning then: more like rest or take-a-break.

There is a moment in the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, in which we are placed in the perspective of a soldier struggling in the surf of the beach; while the camera is above the water, we hear machine guns, terrifically-fast violence, men crying out. Below the water, everything relaxes to a peaceful silence and even the bullets slow down and leave charming little bubble trails. It was just me and that large green restful void. Ahhh...

I scrambled back up into the howling wind and started paddling with renewed vigor. The Walkman was still working and the soaking had rinsed some of the salt crust off my arms and refreshed me. The closer I got to the isthmus, the stronger the wind pressed against me. I was so relieved when I finally made it to the shelter of Bird Rock, that I didn't mind the stink from the bird droppings, which is what Bird Rock is apparently composed of. I rested for about 10 minutes then went back out into the furious howl.

All eyes were on me when my prow finally hit the sand of the beach, so I restrained myself from kissing the ground, though I could have gargled the sand I was now walking on. A lifeguard stopped me as I was drunkenly pulling the Cabo up on shore:

"Are you in the gray kayak?"
"Did you paddle from the mainland?"
"[Uh-oh, I'm probably going to get a ticket or something] ...Yeah."

"You picked a bad day to do this--35-40 knot winds. One of the powerboats that came in earlier reported you as a vessel in distress. The Coast Guard was just about to come looking for you."


I was ready to collapse from exhaustion and relief, but still had to secure a campsite and get the tent up. There was a steel-drum band playing and the place was jam-packed with Parrotheads of the Seal Beach yacht club. They were dancing, drinking and there were volleyball, tug-o-war and horseshoe matches between power-boaters and sailors, both groups intent on out-cheating the other.

Once my tent was up, I paddled (ugh) back to town and ordered a maitai and a tri-tip sandwich. Both tasted better than anything in memory and the delicious maitai made me giddily gigglish. The Two Harbors Market was sold out of disposable cameras, so the only photographic evidence I have of this trip is a postcard I mailed to my ex-girlfriend.

Because I was so paranoid about keeping the boat light for the crossing, I froze my butt off in a thin, felt sleeping bag (the kind kids use when they play camping and pitch the tent in the living room) The wind howled that night and despite being exhausted, I didn't sleep well.

At least that made it easier to wake up and set out early. It was pitch black and there was one little fishing boat powering out from the harbor. I grabbed a little white rock as a souvenir and paddled straight back in five hours and 15 minutes. I was pretty proud of that until learning that some of the elite long-distance swimmers can make the crossing about that fast.

Santa Catalina Island Crossing - May 29th, 2004

launchI launched from a dark and deserted Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro Saturday morning and started paddling almost due-South.

So many flukey references to death kept coming up in the hours before this trip! On Friday night I helped to set up a memorial of 811 little white crosses with candles and the names, dates, hometowns of the soldiers who have been killed in Operation: Iraqi Freedom. Quite depressing to see so many of them gone in their 20's and to think of the vast number of Iraqis killed.

While constructing the memorial with my brother Veterans for Peace, the background was full of cheerful young surfers really living-it-up on some tasty waves--many the same age as these soldiers and marines we were memorializing. Then I ran into a motorcycling friend of mine on Friday afternoon whom I hadn't seen for nearly a year because he took a hiatus from riding after sadly, a good friend of his crashed and died while they were riding together. Even my dog's eyes seemed to be trying to tell me, "Don't go now, bad juju this weekend!" and to prove her point, she got sick and threw up on the carpet a few times.

The sea was a little frisky, but I hoped it would settle down once I got a few miles clear of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. No such luck, but at least the wind was moderate, and the solid west-flowing swell didn't seem too malevolent.

catalina islandI'd never gotten seasick before, but got pretty queasy when the island eventually became visible, then started ducking up and down from behind the tall swells. At least it must have been a decent Memorial Day weekend for those happy young surfers. I focused at cloud formations directly above my aiming point and concentrated on smooth paddling form and the lecture-on-CD about the effects of Darwin's Origin of Species. For some reason death kept popping up in this lecture too.

So in popped something a little more cheerful: Herb Alpert's Little Spanish Flea and Mexican Taxi was fitting the bill nicely when I noticed a broad gaggle of gulls straight ahead. The gaggle was much too large to go around, so I paddled steadily and hoped that they'd be done pecking whatever it was by the time I reached them. Turns out a large pod of hyperactive little dolphins was feeding on a school of small fish and had them pinned at the surface, which attracted the gulls who were going after the little fish too.

These were only slightly smaller than normal dolphins, but also slightly less hyperactive than silkies which are the hummingbirds of aquatic mammals. A few of them rode up to my prow to surf the pressure wave as they do with larger boats, but I'm afraid my kayak's small size and low speed didn't make much surfing for them (so much for "not-the-size-of-the-boat-but-the-motion-of-the-ocean!"). But just as surely as territorial human surfers will crowd and shove each other for even the littlest ripple at Swami's on a flat day, these dolphins crowded to my prow and bumped and shoved each other and my little boat with good-natured ferocity. They were swarming, porpoising, and moshing so hard around my boat that it quickly changed from delightful to worrisome then terrifying and, finally, annoying.

They looked like a cross between common bottlenose dolphins and the smaller, darker silkies, both in size, coloring and hyperactivity. I was whistling along to Herb Alpert (which either excited them greatly or royally pissed them off, I'm not sure), but eventually they finally peeled off and I shouted "Adios moockachos, [my nephew's endearing mispronunciation stuck] long life, much fish and good sex to you!"

They'd splashed plenty of water on me and made it hard to keep on course for about half an hour, but watching their synchronized turning, writhing and slam-dancing seemed to rinse the stink of death away.
Until later, about 10-miles out, where there was a large buoy with a solitary female sea lion with cartoonishly feminine eyelashes resting on it. She looked at me a little nervously when I asked her, "How'd you get way out here pretty lady?" 10-miles out on the open sea isn't much of a place for a single sea lion--she must have hitched a ride on a boat and jumped off after waiting too long. With 10-miles of open ocean between her and the kelp, shore and shallows, I didn't like her chances. (Ugh, more foreboding.)

bargeThen far off to the west I could make out two large parallel freighters and judging from their smokestacks, chugging at a good clip in my general direction. I picked up the pace a little. One freighter was stacked high with railcars and the other appeared to be some kind of oil tanker, they were moving fast and appeared to be coming right at me. After about 20 minutes of building anxiety about these ships, they'd gotten within about a mile of me and were still headed right at me! On the comfort of dry land, I now realize that the whitewash on their prows appeared larger and louder only because the boats were getting closer, but at the time it seemed as if they were accelerating and intentionally trying to run me down. (See TopKayaker.Net safety articles: Paddling in Traffic and Judging Collision Course)

I'm paddling at full-gallop now and the two boats are storming along, side-by-side and even appear to be turning gradually toward me. I considered aiming for the 200-300-yards of daylight between these two speeding freighters, but this would be the equivalent of a squirrel running across an interstate who is considering standing on the painted lane-line between two semi-trucks. So I went into full-sprint to get out of the way of the second freighter and made it by roughly 30 yards. This sounds like a lot, but these boats are pretty enormous and move pretty fast.

catalinaI kept sprinting to avoid the most violent part of the second boat's wake, and once over it I glared angrily at the helms of these boats. Glared turned out to be the operative word indeed! As soon as I looked back at them I was blinded by the sun reflecting off the water. My right hand went directly from flipping-the-bird to smacking my own dumb forehead--these captains weren't being reckless or inconsiderate, I was being invisible!

Two Harbors was of course a madhouse of wealthy powerboaters. I had to dodge one gargantuan opulent yacht driven by (surprise) a cell-phone driver. I still kissed the shore when I landed and didn't care what the wealthy tourists thought. At the completion of my last crossing I didn't want to appear too theatrical, but I owed the island a big kiss this time, so let the world look on. (See TopKayaker.Net safety article: Harbor Kayaking: The In's & Out's)

The power-boaters were packed like sardines (mmm...sardines) into the only bar, and the restaurant was not open, so I grabbed some Nutter-Butter cookies, a big bottle of beer and another gallon of water from the crowded market. Printed on the underside of the beer's bottle-cap was the phrase: "Go ahead. You've earned it." (YA-DAMN-RIGHT!)

Naturally all campsites were booked-solid, so I whispered to the young lady that she could take my money or not, but that I was probably going to squat somewhere on the island instead of paddling back to California the same day. She was very polite and receptive to my reasoning that:

a) the overflow campsite she was assigning me to was at least half a mile from the shore
b) I could not carry my kayak half a mile up that hill
c) there were dozens of restless youths milling about already and
d) if anything happened to my kayak, I was Gilligan.

So with her giggling, I was given informal authorization to stay at Parson's Landing and freed from the hoity-toititude of Two Harbors.

The restaurant in town didn't open until 5:00, and the only non-hardtack available was the little fast-food shack that had burgers, nachos, pizza and other movie-theater fare. While eating my cruddy medium pizza (cruddy because they were out of anchovies--fish, fish everywhere for the last 5 hours, and nary a sardine for me!), I saw this rotten pre-teen kid chasing and throwing rocks at a running seagull with a broken wing. I chased him down and told him to leave the poor thing alone and went back to my fishless pizza, when a young lady from the dive-shack thanked me for stopping the kid from bullying Bruiser, their mascot at the dive-shack. It turns out they've been feeding and keeping this poor flightless gull for nearly a year now.

Parsons Landing is preferable because it has no moorings for large power boats, no touristy crap-shops, no insecure pecking-order posturing and everyone there is likely not to be carrying too much baggage, since the only two ways to get there are by hiking 7 miles from Two Harbors or kayaking there. The granola-set are less likely to bring loud portable stereos or maladjusted seagull-tormenting children, so another four miles of paddling into the freshening 15-knot afternoon breeze even sounded inviting.

Parson's LandingOnce at Parsons, I quickly got the tent up, gobbled down the last 3 cold, soggy slices of fishless pizza and settled in to my home for the night. There were maybe a dozen tents at Parsons Landing and it's a large campground. My neighbors were utterly quiet and friendly, such a stark contrast to the prison-exercise-yard atmosphere of Two Harbors. They invited me over for hotdogs and beer and were looking forward to two more days of hiking, swimming and relaxing at this wonderful place. After some pleasant conversation I bade them good night and good times and hit the sleeping bag.

I learned at 2:30 that next morning that no place is safe from the powerboaters. I was awakened by a light on my tent and a young man who was drunk, cold, scared and quickly sobering demanded, "You gotta help me man!" The moron was staying on his parents' yacht in Emerald Bay and he'd taken the yacht's dinghy to Two Harbors for a little nightlife. And to make finding his way back to Mom-n-Dad's yacht on a dark sea a little more challenging, he drank-himself-stupid at Two Harbors.

ViewI got up, helped him free his boat from the kelp and up on shore, then gave him my map and showed him the footpath that would take him the mile to Emerald Bay and Johnson's Landing. "But how am I going to get back on their yacht when I get there?" (This kid was a real winner.) He probably was attracted by my bright yellow tent and got stuck in the kelp on his way in. Next time I come here, I'm going to have a camouflage tent.

Thanks to the dingy dinghy pilot, I got a late-start of 6:30 and it looked like the return crossing was going to be a little tougher, but thankfully the wind was a little milder than yesterday. I tied my previous crossing record of five hours and fifteen minutes, but from a farther (and more lovely) spot on the island.

Cabrillo beachAt 11:45 on a Memorial-Day Sunday, Cabrillo Beach was no longer dark and no longer deserted. The line of cars waiting just to get into the place was too daunting even to ask if I could park my truck inside the park just long enough to get my kayak loaded. So it took me more than an hour to securely hump my gear and boat up the hill and loaded on my truck.

At one point there were a couple of older kids looking at the contents of my clear dry bag (the one in the above photo), so I jerked out my bilge-pump (which looks like a cartoonishly-large Swedish penis-pump) gave it a couple of pumps and said in my best Austin Powers voice, "This sort of thing isn't my bag, baby ...Yeaah-baby-hah-haah." It was so good to be alive and to have lived another successful adventure, I didn't mind that they were laughing at me rather than with me.

-Read more adventures from Chris on his website: CalamariChris.com-


Primitive Boat-In Campsite information: There are designated primitive coastal campsites with access by water only and requiring reservations. Owned by the Catalina Island Conservancy & requiring Leave No Trace practices.

For developed campsites, reservations: Visit Catalina Island

Climate Station readings for Santa Catalina Island and Rainfall Data. There are three meteorological stations on the island. One each at Middle Ranch, Wild Boar Gully and Parsons Landing. These stations record temperature, rainfall, relative humidity, incoming solar radiation, and wind speed and direction.

A Tribute to Santa Catalina Island, California

Catalina Island Kayak Expeditions - for kayak and equipment rental. They offer Ocean Kayak boats: Two-Hatch Scupper Pros as well as Scupper Pro TW, Malibu II and Cabos.


Catalina Conservancy Divers - CCD was formed in 1991 with the goal of assisting the Conservancy in achieving its mission with respect to Catalina's marine environment. The membership consists of scuba divers but there are also members who are marine researchers, boat owners, and other persons interested in the near-shore waters of Santa Catalina Island.The CCD documents, studies and works to conserve the complex marine environment that surrounds Catalina and they set up a temporary underwater naturalist trail, called Casino Point Scuba Trail, once a month within the Casino Point Marine Park (Avalon) to help educate the diving community to the dynamics of the unique kelp forest ecosystem.

Catalina Island Conservancy - Recreation opportunities and guidelines with links. This website is indispensable to the kayaker or anyone visiting the island. It gives a thorough glimpse of the island's noncommercial side with up-to-date wildlife and ecology news, including inland hiking trail information.

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