TopKayaker.Net's Guide To Kayak Destinations

Ready to go at Cabrillo Catalina At Last by Robert O. Hess

As I shared with you in three previous articles and many forum posts, I have been planning to cross to Catalina Island off the Southern California coast by sailing kayak for quite some time. After two years of dreaming, planning, building, and testing, my plans finally came to fruition in June of this year. This is the story of my first crossing to - and my ensuing circumnavigation of - Catalina Island.


I arrived at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro at 7:00 am on a balmy Sunday morning. The air was unusually warm for the time of day, the residual effect of a dissipating heat wave that had held Southern California in a stranglehold for the past week. Catalina Island lay in plain view, resting peacefully on the southern horizon.

mapWith the call of the island loud and clear, I lost no time transferring my gear from my car to my twin-hatch Scupper Pro sit-on-top kayak. I closed the hatches about forty-five minutes later.

Every item had its designated place inside the hull, with sailing, diving and emergency gear as well as my tent and sleeping mat occupying the bow hatch for easy access, and with my personal gear, food and water residing in the stern hatch. The interior of the center tunnel held a spare sail and spare paddle.

Velcroed to the top of the center tunnel sat a zippered bag holding my VHF radio, emergency flares, a dive knife, deck compass, waterproof disposable camera, a ziplock bag with lunch, and, most importantly, my SPOT tracker, a GPS-based communication device that would allow me, by the simple push of one button, to send pre-typed e-mail and text messages (so-called OK messages) to my wife at regular intervals when I was out of cell phone range. The 911-function of SPOT would also enable me to call help in case of an emergency.

Strapped on top of the rear hatch inside a drybag was my sleeping bag. Another, small dry bag was stashed away in the day hatch between my legs, carrying my cell phone (inside another dry bag) and hat. I also stowed a weight vest for freediving (a more ergonomic alternative to a weight belt) in the space under my seat. All told, I carried at least 100 lbs. of gear (including about 40 lbs. of diving and sailing gear and at least 5 pounds of food that I didn't end up eating).

Side note on GPS: To be sure, I am not claiming to have any intuitive knowledge about any other parts of the ocean. This intuitive understanding has been confirmed many times over by everyday experience. I have come to trust this understanding, it's become part of me. For this understanding to work, I need to be completely in tune with my surroundings.

I need to constantly register speed, time (without a watch), direction of travel, current, wind drift, swell direction, shifts in the weather, etc., by carefully observing my surroundings, including landmarks, bouys, the position of the sun, the sea state, cloud formation, and other factors. Constantly monitoring my course by squinting at the tiny little screen of a GPS between my legs would simply require too much attention on my part.

Of course, with a GPS, I wouldn't really NEED to pay that much attention to my surroundings anymore. But then, being out on the ocean would lose much of its point for me. The ocean is, in many ways, an escape for me from the trappings of modern-day life. If I enjoyed electronics, I would stay home and play video games. Last but not least, I wouldn't want to have to rely on a GPS, as electronics still have a fairly significant failure rate in the marine environment.

That doesn't mean a GPS is useless. It would, of course, be extremely helpful, if travelling to destinations beyond the horizon or at night. I, for one, would certainly need a GPS to do so. Then again, kayakers and other mariners have navigated the world's ocean without the help of a GPS for millenia, in many cases quite successfully. Most notably, Ed Gillet paddled his kayak from California to Hawaii with just the aid of map and sextant in the 1980's.

So much for my aversion to electronic gadgetry.

I should perhaps note that, being the low-tech kind of guy that I am, I did not carry a GPS nor do I own one. The basic problem I see with a GPS is that, with its many buttons and options, it would tend to distract me from what is really going on around me. As it is, I have built up a very intuitive working knowledge of where I am in this part of the ocean. (<-Please see side note)

My first sight of Catalina after emerging from the fogAt 8:00 am I said good-bye to my father-in-law, who had volunteered to drive my car back home for me, and set off towards Catalina Island. The trim of my kayak turned out to be perfect, with just the right amount of weight fore and aft. Though I had known all along that a 100 pounds of gear would feel different than the usual 40, reality still came as a bit of a surprise - the sucker was heavy!

But soon my body and mind had adjusted to the different load, and I gleefully paddled over glassy water with my bow pointed at the isthmus of the island. I could hardly believe that my big day had finally arrived. This time, I would not have to turn back half-way across, as had been my normal routine on most weekends for the past two years. That thought alone, the freedom of traveling across the ocean to a destination on the horizon, meant a lot to me.

Alas, my bliss was short-lived. About 30 minutes after I launched into sunny skies, thick fog rolled in from the Southeast reducing visibility to less than ¼ mile. The Catalina eddy, which the weather forecast had predicted not to develop until the next day, had arrived with a vengeance.

Great, I thought, I have hardly ever experienced fog like that before in 15 years, and today has to be the day. As the fog had just arrived, there was little chance of it lifting anytime soon. With two shipping lanes to cross at 5-6 miles and 8-10 miles out, respectively, I reluctantly admitted to myself that I'd probably have to turn back and try again some other time. On the other hand, I had gotten up at 5 am, driven through most of LA to get to the launch site, and arduously loaded my kayak. So, I decided to make it sort of a dry run (pun intended) and continue on to just short of the first shipping lane before turning around.

Cargo ships in the inbound shipping laneI got to say, it was pretty eerie at first paddling through the gray gloom with just my compass for guidance. Once, a sea gull came into view from behind me, only to be swallowed again by the fog the next moment. Once or twice, I'd hear the bow slap of a small power boat somewhere in the distance, but other than that it was dead quiet. But at least the water was flat and calm, making for easy paddling.

When I approached the 5 mile mark, just short of the first shipping lane, visibility had improved a bit with the sun occasionally peeking through. Encouraging, I thought. From past experience I knew that for whatever reason the first (outbound shipping lane) was not busy. On most days, I'd see no cargo ships at all in that lane, whereas I'd normally see at least 3-5 ships in the second, inbound lane (if that ratio is reflective of the U.S. trade deficit, we are clearly in trouble ).

Having come this far, I now resented the idea of turning back even more than before. Aside from the fog, conditions were perfect and I knew that the fog would likely dissipate with the arrival of the afternoon sea breeze, only a couple of hours away. On the other hand, I had to concede that there was no guarantee as to when and where the fog would lift. The fact that ships were blowing their horns in the inbound shipping lane 8-10 miles out told me that the fog bank spanned at least half the channel.

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After some wavering, I decided to make a "securite" radio call on channel 16 (as I had just learned the previous day from one of Tom's articles: VHF Marine Radios & Communication Devices), advising commercial traffic of my position and asking whether anyone was headed my way in the outbound shipping lane. No answer, of course.

Hmm, I thought, what does it mean? That no commercial traffic is nearby? Or that they can tell I am radio-incompetent and just don't bother answering? Or, maybe that the radio operator understands and speaks only Chinese?

In any event, I didn't place much reliance, if any, on the lack of a response and instead decided to trust my common sense, eyes and ears. And right now, all three were telling me that it was safe to proceed. So proceed I did.

Though cargo ships don't make the kind of high pitch whine of smaller water craft, they can be heard from about a mile or two away, depending on conditions. As conditions were dead calm, with no wind or breaking swells to mask the low drone of an approaching cargo ships, I figured that I should hear any approaching ships in due time for taking evasive action if necessary. When travelling in fog, cargo ships are also required by law to blow their horn every three minutes, as some of them had been doing for the past hour.

Outfitting The Scupper Pro
Kayak For Sailing

See Article: Designing A Removable Leeboard System

w/ PA Sail

Links to more of
Robert's articles on his trip
preparations below.

with lee board


two sails

Scupper Pro w/ Leeboard attached

I also knew that cargo ships generally travel at fairly low speeds on approach to LA Harbor, certainly no more than 15 mph. All of the ones I had seen had been considerably slower. The reason, as I found out from a sailor later during my trip, is that cargo ships pay lower berth fees in LA Harbor if they approach at a slow speed (maybe, we should think of similar financial incentives for LA drivers ;-) ). With about ½ mile visibility, this meant that even if I did for some reason not hear an approaching ship, I should certainly see it about 2 minutes before any potential collision, plenty of time to get out of the way if necessary.

In case you wonder about the math: paddling at a leisurely speed of 3 mph, a kayaker can cover about 500 feet in two minutes, which is a significantly greater distance than the beam (width) of even the widest cargo ship.

Admittedly, I wasn't doing the math at that moment, relying mostly on my intuitive grasp of the situation. 20-30 minutes later I had crossed the first shipping lane without any sound or sight of a ship, or any other boat for that matter. So far, so good. Now, I was in what you might think of as the "center divider" between the two shipping lanes, an area about 2 miles wide. It is here where I'd usually turn around and head back to Cabrillo Beach.

Tentatively, I moved ahead toward the second and last shipping lane. Visibility was still holding at about ½ mile, with a bit more sunshine from above. As I continued on, a very mild southeasterly wind materialized, allowing me to deploy my Pacific Action sail and leeboard and paddle-sail from that point on. Though the wind was rather anemic, it was just enough to fill my sail and cut my paddling effort nearly in half. Together with the southeasterly current I had noted near a buoy shortly after I left, the wind would help me gain valuable upwind position for the anticipated afternoon sailing leg of the crossing. At that point, the wind would - according to the forecast and as usually happens in the afternoon - turn from Southeast to Southwest, then West, and later, near the island, Northwest. The helpful wind reinforced my resolve to forge ahead.

At some point, I saw a bird diving into the water just ahead, next to what appeared to be some kind of fin. At first I thought it was a sea lion hunting at the surface. But the fin was at the wrong angle and practically stationary. As I got closer, I realized that the fin belonged to a massive mola mola, aka sunfish. Though these odd-looking fish are known to spend much time near the ocean surface in offshore waters, I had never encountered one before, except once while freediving near Catalina Island several years back. Certainly, this specimen was the largest I had ever seen, with a diameter of 5-6 feet. I tried to snap a picture, but the disc-shaped giant sank into the clear blue right next to my kayak before I was ready to push the button. Still, it was an uplifting event on what had otherwise been a less than visually stimulating trip.

Just minutes later, as I was approaching the second shipping lane, I suddenly heard a blow, a blow too loud to originate from a dolphin. I heard the blow several more times, but could not locate the spout in the fog. I had seen and heard Minke whales as well as blue whales out in the same general area in the recent past. Based on the sound, I was pretty sure that it was a Minke whale. My guess was confirmed when I witnessed a Minke whale surfacing about 150 feet behind my stern, a whale easily identified by its dolphin-like dorsal fin. Hey, I thought, this trip is getting better by the minute.

A blow from the horn of a cargo ship to the West soon returned my attention to the task at hand: crossing the second - and busy - shipping lane. I knew I was either very close to, or perhaps already in, the second shipping lane and would need to proceed very carefully from hereon. The horn blew again, this time a bit closer by, about 5 miles by my reckoning. My eyes and ears were fully focused to starboard (West) now. Because the wind had suddenly died, I had taken down my sail, leaving my view to starboard unobscured. Other than my paddle entering the water, there was hardly a sound.

The horn blew again, this time noticeably closer, perhaps three miles away. I knew that if I was going to encounter a ship, it would be in the next few minutes. Still, no engine sound, however. About one more mile to go in the shipping lane.

When the horn blew the next time, it was pretty close, maybe a mile away, but I realized that the sound now came more from the Northwest than the West. In other words, the ship - which I knew was travelling almost due East - appeared to be heading not toward me, but rather on a course crossing behind my stern. At the same time, I began to perceive a low drone from the same general direction. The drone grew louder ever so gradually. I had to think of that World War II war movie where German tanks can be heard approaching, but remain unseen for what seems like an eternity.

Passing cargo shipThen, without any warning whatsoever, I suddenly emerged out of the fog into glaring sunlight under a radiant blue sky. Catalina Island lay straight ahead, even closer than I had visualized it in my mind. What a sight after 4 hours of nothing but gray!

A quick look to starboard confirmed what my ears had told me minutes before - three cargo ships, spaced apart by about a mile, were approaching from the West just outside the fog bank. They would each pass about ½ mile behind me. The closest one was still about 1 mile away. I had successfully cleared the second and last shipping lane. I also noted, with a sense of satisfaction, that my position was exactly as intended, even a bit more upwind than I needed to be. My many weekend trips into the middle of the Channel had paid off.

The second half of the trip was the exact opposite of the first half. For one thing, I now enjoyed 20+ miles visibility, which had a profound psychological effect. Navigating seemed like a piece of cake all of a sudden, with details on the island clearly visible. But more importantly, I no longer had to paddle, with both sails filled by a perfect 10 knot breeze from the West. Being able to sit back and eat a snack while cruising along at almost twice my paddling speed had a profound physical effect . Catalina Island, here I come!

Approaching Goat HarborAfter an hour or so of relaxed sailing on a southerly course with the wind abeam, the wind freshened and I had to inflate and install my leeward outrigger to stay upright. I also switched from my low-back paddling seat to my high-back sailing seat for more comfort, and donned my paddling jacket to ward off the wind chill. From there on, it was an exhilarating ride, with the occasional whitecap washing over the deck. Because my Scupper Pro sat fairly low in the water due to the heavy load, I took a bit more water over the side than I normally do. Upon arrival, there was about 1 ½ gallons of water in the hull, nothing to worry about, but still something to think about for future trips. I may have to devise my own waterproof hatch system, after all.

Arrrival at Goat HarborThe remaining 10 miles or so went by uneventfully. As I closed on the island, the wind turned more to the Northwest, allowing me to sail on a broad reach, rather than a beam reach. That made for a bit drier ride and less heeling. When I came level with Two Harbors, still 6+ miles away, I crossed paths with several boats and a ferry from the mainland. One guy in a power boat came over asking whether I was all right, to which I answered in the affirmative by giving him the thumb-up sign.

This sort of thing unfortunately happens almost every weekend. I am inwardly always a bit annoyed at the underlying assumption that a kayak is somehow inherently less seaworthy than a powerboat. The only two disabled watercraft I encountered or heard about on this trip were a wetbike/jetski (the type you sit on) that had sucked in a rock near Goat Harbor (I actually towed the guy a short distance to the vessel-assist boat), and a private fishing boat that was taking on water and whose crew had to be rescued at the Westend. Yet, I still try to appreciate the concern shown for me by other boaters and always wave back politely.

The beach at Goat HarborAround 4:30 pm I pulled into Goat Harbor, dropped my sails, and with a big smile on my face heard the bow gently grinding to a stop in the sand. The crossing had taken me about 8 ½ hours. While I don't know the exact mileage, I estimate -- and GoogleEarth seems to confirm -- that it was at least 25 miles. It would have been only 22 miles, had I traveled straight across. Because I paddled about 35 degrees to the west of my destination for the first 10 miles or so to gain sufficient upwind position for the afternoon sailing leg, that added considerable distance.

Sunset at Goat HarborSo, I certainly set no speed record. Competent sea kayakers (aka SINKs) usually take only about 6-6 1/2 hours to reach the island (though they normally head to Avalon, further downwind). Then again, I arrived rather well-rested, having paddled only a bit over 4 hours at the beginning and having relaxed during the last 4 hours of sailing. In fact, I felt just a bit unaccomplished. The crossing was almost too easy. But then I told myself that my goal was not to set any records, but rather to have a mode of transportation that would allow me to paddle and sail to Catalina in most conditions with relative ease. And on that account, the crossing was a complete success.

Sunset at Goat HarborAfter unloading my kayak and setting up camp, I exchanged a few words with a middle-aged couple, the owners of a beautiful sailboat picturesquely anchored just off the beach. I was pleased to see that their boat was equipped with a wind-powered generator (rather than a diesel generator) that produced hardly any noise whatsoever. That would make for a better night of sleep.

To my surprise, the couple did not emerge again from the boat for the next 24 hours, rarely appearing even on deck. Remembering that I had witnessed nearly identical behavior with another sailboat at Goat Harbor last year, I concluded that sailors and kayakers must be from different planets.

For dinner, I ate a solar-heated can of all-meat chili and tortillas, a routine I'd repeat for the rest of the week. No cooking, no dishes, no mess. Ah, the simple life!

Monday (Goat Harbor)

Goat Harbor is a crescent-shaped, pebble-strewn beach flanked by towering cliffs on both sides. The back of the cove is protected by steep hillsides covered with dry chaparral and, at the higher elevations, oak trees. The protected waters inside the cove offer good anchorage for sailboats and powerboats.

I spent the better part of the next day reading Pete Bray's "Kayaking Across the Atlantic", the story of a British kayaker who paddled from Newfoundland to Ireland clear across the Atlantic Ocean. Aside from being a good read, his story provided me with plenty of inspiration for -- and also with a more humble perspective of -- my own little voyage.

View of Goat Harbor from the topIn the morning, after downing a couple of cereal bars and an Ensure breakfast drink, I freedived in the kelp forest flanking the Eastern part of the cove, probably my favorite dive site on the island. During one dive, I had the rare privilege to encounter three black sea bass, each of them the size of a small trash can. They were hovering right above the sandy bottom at a depth of about 25 ft. Showing little fear, they allowed me to approach (by crawling ever so slowly along the bottom) to within less than 10 ft. It was another one of those moments were I wished I wasn't too techno-adverse to carry an underwater camera. Threatened by extinction not long ago, these humongous fish are still quite rare today, and few freedivers, let alone bubble-making scuba divers, ever lay eyes on a black sea bass.

In the afternoon, I hiked up the steep hillside rising from the pebbly beach. The hike can be described as strenuous at best. It was really more of a climb than a hike, with no trails of any kind. But it offered gorgeous views of Goat Harbor, as well as welcome exercise for my legs (who always feel a bit jealous of my arms ;-) ). One of these days, maybe I will make it all the way to the top.


Tuesday (Goat Harbor to Westend ~14 miles)

Blue Caverns sea caveOn Tuesday morning I set off for the Westend into sunny and calm conditions. After the first 7 miles, uneventful except for the sighting of a small pod of common dolphins, I stopped off at Two Harbors to replenish my water supply and eat a quick lunch (turkey jerky, dried apricots and Ritz crackers), and then continued on towards Parson's Landing, my intended campsite. As I rounded Arrow Point, I met with a stiff head wind.

Alas, when I reached Parson's, I saw that several boyscout groups had already laid claim to the place. Although they kindly invited me to stay with them, I politely declined, preferring a more private setting.

Paddling towards the WestendWith hardly any surf to speak of, I pulled my kayak back into the water paying little attention to the wave pattern. As (bad) luck would have it, a tiny little wave broke just in front of bow in about 1 foot of water flooding my low-riding cockpit. No big deal, except for the coarse sand that came with it.

I exited my boat to assess the situation. My kayak looked like I had just retrieved it from the bottom of the ocean. Feeling a bit embarrassed about my display of ineptness, I quickly shoved my boat out to sea, hopped on, and paddled into the stiffening afternoon sea breeze.

Paddling towards the WestendIt was getting late and the sun was low in the sky. From previous trips, I knew that there were several inofficial campsites farther West. But I hadn't been near the Westend for a while and wasn't sure exactly how far I'd have to paddle.

This is the point where even the leeside of the island takes on a very remote, rugged look, with no development whatsoever and no boat traffic (also due to the late hour). In retrospect, I enjoyed this leg of my paddle more than any other.

After checking out several small coves, I finally settled on what turned out to be the last pebbly beach short of the tip of the island, less than ½ mile from the tip of the island. I pulled my kayak up the steep beach as far as I could and then unloaded my gear before pulling the kayak all the way up beyond the high tide mark.

Cove near the Westend where I spent the third nightDespite the late hour, the sun had just set, I couldn't resist the urge of ridding my kayak of the sand that had been dumped into it at Parson's. To shortcut the process, I simply turned the empty boat upside down in the water for a few seconds. Voila, now it looked like a proper boat again. From what I understand, my disdain for sand on deck is an affliction more common among sailors than kayakers. I guess it's a good thing that I can't stay below deck all day on my Scupper Pro.

Having appeased my obsessive-compulsive sand-removing urge, I then pitched my tent in the only sandy spot on the pebbly beach - a spot just about the size of my tent. Serendipity! I spent the night under a starry sky, surrounded by nothing but rocks and water. Very private indeed.

Wednesday (Westend to Little Harbor ~12 miles)

The WestendAround 1 pm the next day, after a refreshing morning swim, I started out toward Little Harbor on the backside of the island. As I paddled out of my little cove, I heard the piercing cry of a bird, reminiscent of a hawk, but louder and a bit deeper in tone. Scanning the cliffs behind me, I could make out two large birds perched high above.

A closer look revealed that they had light-colored heads - there was little doubt that I was looking at two bald eagles. I had read about their successful reintroduction to the island, but seen only one other specimen many years ago. For a few precious moments, I felt a special connection to the land and the sea around me.

Eagle RockSoon after, I swung around the western tip of the island and then started heading down the backside of the island, and extremely rugged, austere-looking part of the coastline with tall, dark cliffs shrouded in fog at their tops. Boat traffic was sparse and diminishing with increasing distance from the Westend. Between the Westend and Avalon, almost 30 miles to the East, there are only two safe landing sites, Catalina Harbor and Little Harbor. The growing remoteness raised my level of awareness and filled me with a deep sense of satisfaction. Life was good.

My original plan had been to sail most, if not all, of the distance to Little Harbor, almost directly downwind from the Westend. But winds were very light for most of the afternoon and I started to feel the wear and tear from the previous upwind paddle. The grind was interrupted only by a passing pod of Risso dolphins, an offshore species encountered only in the open ocean.

Large ocean swellAt about 4 pm, the wind suddenly picked up a few notches and I eagerly raised my sails. The last 5-6 miles or so were sheer joy, with both sails propelling me forward without having to dip a paddle.

With the wind almost directly from the stern, I needed neither leeboard nor outrigger and was surfing down the swells at what seemed like break-neck speed. I pulled into Little Harbor under overcast skies at about 5:30 p.m.


Scupper pro with sailsThe unloading routine took more time than usually because the sandy beach between the water's edge and the campground was fairly wide and I had to make close to 10 trips shuttling my gear from the kayak to the campsite.

Last, I pulled my kayak across the sand close to my tent, with the bowline attached to a scuba diving weight belt around my hip.

I came up with this "oxen-style" method a few years ago to prevent recurrent low back problems. I have had no problems since.


Thursday (Little Harbor)

Inland view near Little HarborThe next day, I just hung out at Little Harbor reading and exploring some excellent hiking trails with breathtaking views. After two consecutive days of paddling my heavily loaded Scupper Pro, my body welcomed the change of activity. I also derived intense enjoyment from staying dry and warm for a whole day (the first since the previous Saturday).

Several campers, some of them power boaters, came up to me asking about my "weird looking" kayak (on account of the PA sail and leeboard saddle, I suppose). More than a little surprised were they, when I told them that this weird looking boat had provided me with safe passage from the mainland.

Shark HarborThat day, a fisherman also told me that a great white shark had attacked a kayak at West Cove several days earlier. Like the handful of other shark attacks on kayaks that had been recorded worldwide, this attack too resulted in no injuries. Still, the news did come as a bit of surprise, as there had been no prior shark attacks of any kind at Catalina Island in recorded history.

On the other hand, I had always known that sharks, including great white sharks, frequented the island and that an encounter was more than just a theoretical possibility. As a freediver, I had come to terms with that realization a long time ago. That is probably the reason why I did not feel any more vulnerable on my kayak for the remainder of the trip than I did before.

It is also important to note that like the preceding great white shark attack on a kayak, which occurred during a fishing tournament sometime last year in the Monterey area of Northern California, the attack at West Cove occurred in an area where several boats were fishing. In fact, the person who told me the news learned about the attack from a fisherman who was personally fishing in the area when the attack occurred.

Little Harbor and Shark HarborThere appear to have been at least three fishing boats at the time. As it is now summertime, yellowtail and tuna are biting. Once such large fish are hooked, there is an incredible amount of commotion underwater.

Sometimes, fisherman will also chum the water to attract fish. Over a period of time, with several fish being landed and blood in the water, it is therefore not surprising that a shark that happened to be in the area would come to check out the action. It's like ringing the dinner bell underwater. Because the kayak somewhat resembled an elephant seal or large sea lion and was the slowest, most vulnerable object in the water, not to mention the splashing noises emanating from the paddle, the now excited shark predictably went for the kayak. When the shark realized its mistake, it let go and swam off.

The moral of the story: If you're having a good day fishing with your buddies in the middle of the ocean, don't put your clueless wife in a kayak to paddle around the boat. From the news reports I later read, that is exactly what happened in this case.

Friday (Little Harbor to Avalon ~ 18 miles)

Shark HarborThe last day turned out to be the toughest yet. I left Little Harbor at 9:30 in the morning, planning to paddle for 5 miles or so and then sail the rest of the way. The forecast had called for SE winds at 10 mph (i.e., a headwind) in the morning, becoming SW in the afternoon. No problem, I thought, I can handle a headwind of 10 mph for a couple of hours or so. And then I'll stop paddling and sail on to Avalon in perfect recline.

For a couple of hours I did indeed manage just fine, making steady progress along what is some of the most beautiful coastline I have ever seen. At some point, I passed what looked like the entrance to a seacave. Having neither the time nor energy to explore the cave, I paddled on focusing on what lay ahead. When I mindlessly looked to my left several minutes later, I had a déjà vu - there was that cave again, the SAME cave I had passed several minutes ago! S(*^*(&%! I am stuck in a current, a strong current. I immediately turned closer to shore in the hope of escaping the relentless grip of the current that way. But there was little improvement, if any. Paddling almost as hard as I could, I was barely making any headway.

Approaching Indian HeadWhat to do? I still had about 12 miles to go, and there were no safe landing sites until I reached Avalon. So, going ashore and waiting for conditions to improve wasn't an option. For a few moments, I considered throwing in the towel and turning back. But then I saw two fishing boats - at anchor. Darn, I thought, I should have brought my little 3-pound squid anchor.

In a more lucid moment, it suddenly dawned on me that I didn't need an anchor. I could just tie up to the kelp as I had done many times in the past, though under less urgent circumstances. So, I selected a patch of kelp that was somewhat sheltered by a large pinnacle upcurrent and wrapped my bowline around several strands of kelp. The immediate problem was now solved. I was no longer having to expend energy just to stay in place. As it was almost noon, I figured that the SW wind should arrive soon, at which point my sails would allow me to overcome the current.

Stuck in the current near Ben Weston PointWell, like on the previous two days, the afternoon seabreeze was late that day, very late. After lying on my kayak tied up to the kelp for a good hour, I noticed that the SE head wind had abated somewhat and decided to give it another try. If I still couldn't make any progress, I could always find some more kelp farther down the coast.

To my pleasant surprise, the current was much more manageable this time. In retrospect, it appears that the current that had nailed me to that particular spot was locally enhanced by some underwater features, with the speed of the general current being much lower. As I moved away from the sea cave area, I was beginning to pick up speed, though the kelp was still laying down flat, indicating a significant countercurrent. But at least I was making headway again.

Pristine water on the backside of CatalinaSoon after, the wind died, and the current seemed to relax some more. While I had been cold resting on my kayak just an hour before, I was now hot and very tempted to slip into the inviting blue water. But that would have entailed a full change of clothes for which I just didn't have time - my ferry was leaving Avalon at 8:30 pm. So, I just took a good break and continued on, resigning myself to the idea that, this time, I may just have to paddle the whole way. There was no hint of the forecast SW wind.

But around 4 pm, after about 5 hours of paddling against wind and/or current, the wind finally came to my rescue. While it was just as anemic as two days earlier, it did allow me to paddle-sail and make much faster and easier progress than by paddle power alone. When I reached the Eastend near Seal Rock, the helpful tailwind evaporated, soon to be replaced by yet another headwind as I turned north on my final approach to Avalon. Then came the second deva vu of the day. This time, I passed an industrial crane on shore only to see it in almost exactly the same place several minutes later. I was stuck in yet another countercurrent. It was now about 5:30, and I had been in the boat for 8 hours. I wanted this to end - soon. So, I really lay into it, inching my way up to Avalon Harbor, where I arrived an hour later. What a feeling!

Two hours later, after going through some rather creative and contortionist unloading procedure at a dinghy dock, I slumped into my plush seat on the Marina Del Rey Flyer happy and at peace with the world.

Robert is a regular contributor to Topkayaker.net's Forum. Since this article he has done several round-trip paddles to Catalina and writes about them in "Catalina Revisited" also published here at TopKayaker.net. He also welcome's your questions or comments: Robert O. Hess.



Santa Catalina Island Resources:

  • 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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