During my circumnavigation of Catalina Island last year I was awed by the remoteness and rugged beauty of the West End. It is a place where relatively few boats venture and where a pair of bald eagles make their home.
As its name implies, the West End is located at the western tip of Catalina Island, about 24 miles southwest of Cabrillo Beach. The problem with kayak sailing to the West End is that it is about 14 miles west -- and thus upwind -- from Goat Harbor, my destination of last year's crossing. Unlike a regular sailboat, I remind you, my sailing kayak cannot sail upwind. The best I can do is sail on a beam reach (90° to the wind). This meant that I could at best reach Two Harbors, about 7 miles east of the West End.
For a long time, I accepted that I simply would not be able to reach the West End in one shot. But, I guess, some part of me never quite gave up on the idea and I finally hatched the following plan: I would paddle directly towards the West End as far as I could, hopefully about 15 to 16 miles, and then pray that the wind would turn to the northwest allowing me to sail into Emerald Bay, only about 4 miles from the West End. From there, I could then paddle west to Starlight Beach or at least Parson's Landing (3 miles from the West End) in the early evening once the wind had dropped off. With the long daylight hours of summer, I should have enough time to arrive before darkness. Or so I thought.
On July 9, 2009 I launched from Cabrillo Beach at 8 a.m. in the morning. A fairly large south swell was running and I had to time my entry well. I took a smaller wave over the bow, but managed to cross the surf line without incident.
Paddling conditions were less than exciting. Due to a Catalina eddy condition (the same weather phenomenon that had shrouded the first half of my crossing in fog last year), skies were overcast painting everything in a uniform gray. Even the water looked depressing, without its usual sparkle, a condition exacerbated by a recent plankton bloom. The milky green was reminiscent more of a duck pond than the great Pacific Ocean.
But I took solace in the fact that there was no fog and visibility was good, with the island visible on the horizon. The water was glassy and the paddling easy. On a heading of 225, I made my way directly towards the West End trying to focus on the goal ahead. Because it was midweek, I had the ocean virtually to myself, save for a few fishing boats.
About 4 miles offshore, a whale spouted some distance away to port. The column-shaped spout, easily 10 to 12 feet in height, indicated a fin whale. I stopped paddling hoping for a glimpse of the whale, but the whale had other plans.
A short while later, as I was crossing the first shipping lane, a light south easterly breeze sprang up. From past experience, I knew that this wind was going to be short-lived and probably last for no more than an hour or two. Still, I was grateful for this gift from the weather gods, as it would allow me to sail southwest, directly towards the West End. Under just the Pacific Action sail, I eagerly paddled on, my morale boosted by the improved progress. I did not deploy either leeboard, as in this instance I welcomed leeway - to the west.
Around the noon hour, I spotted the SP 13 buoy 2 miles to the east. So far, my navigation had worked out as planned. Both the southeasterly morning breeze and a mild current from the same direction were pushing me westward. Thanks to the help from the sail, I still felt strong and decided to paddle on as long as the wind lasted.
Alas, when I entered the second shipping lane, the wind finally died and, to my chagrin though not unexpectedly, soon turned to the southwest. If the wind had been my friend five minutes before, it was now my foe. For the next hour or so, I paddled into a 5 mph headwind, figuring that the wind would soon veer west and later hopefully northwest, the normal wind pattern in the summertime.
However, the wind had a mind of its own and persistently continued blowing from the southwest, directly on the nose, steadily gained in strength. After passing the halfway point, I realized that this was not going to be easy and resigned myself to several more hours of upwind paddling. Despite having wind and swell against it, I was still making good progress and the island was now in clear view. To cheer me up, the sun finally came out turning my world of gray into one of color.
After about seven hours of paddling, I began to feel the physical strain. The wind was now blowing 10-12 mph, still from the southwest, and the wind chop was building. I seemed to be moving at a snail's pace, inching closer to the island at an imperceptible rate. At some point, the captain of a passing fishing boat hollered across the water, "You've got 7 miles to go." " Seven miles to where?" I wondered. "To the West End? To Two Harbors?"
Whatever the answer, I was pretty sure that I would not be able to paddle seven more miles against this uncooperative wind, which was now blowing at 15 mph from a more westerly direction. Had the wind cooperated and blown from the northwest at this point as it usually does in the afternoon, I could have sailed to Emerald Bay as planned. As it was, I had only two options: Paddle on and hope for a windshift later in the day or sail south to Two Harbors.
After another hour or so of strenuous paddling, an effort born more out of defiance than reason, I finally admitted defeat and turned south. Flying both sails, I aimed the bow wishfully at Emerald Bay, now only about 6 miles away. But I knew right away that given the leeway of my sailing kayak, I would not be able to make it to Emerald Bay under sail, not even close.
One and a half hours later, I arrived at the beach below the Two Harbors campground feeling cold and just a little disappointed. Disappointed not only because of my failure to reach my intended destination, but also my dislike for public campgrounds. It was 6:30 p.m. I had been on the water for 10 1/2 hours and covered an estimated distance of 23 miles.
Bedraggled I swaggered into the campground, looking for an appropriate campsite for the night. Apparently surprised by my sodden looks, a camper asked me in a serious tone of voice, "Did you swim in?" I managed but a meek "no," muttering more to myself than to him that I had kayaked in. I did not mention my point of departure, as this usually results in a drawn-out question and answer session, for which I had neither the strength nor the patience at this point.
A few hours later, I was snug and warm in my sleeping bag. True to fashion, my neighbors in the adjacent campsite started a big fire just as I was trying to fall asleep. That's exactly the reason why I wanted to be at the West End, I thought. Oh well. The West End would have to wait until tomorrow.
I left Two Harbors first thing in the morning after paying the nine dollar fee for my waterfront campsite. My body was still aching from the exertion of the previous day, but I had little option as the afternoon seabreeze would only make it harder to work my way westward.
I stopped at Parson's Landing for lunch, a large sandy beach about 4 miles from Two Harbors. For a short while, the wind was actually blowing from the southeast again, but by the time I was back on the water it had died down. In glassy conditions, I continued on covering the last 3 miles to Starlight Beach.
As last year, arrival at Starlight Beach was tricky. The beach, composed of large pebbles, is so steep that I, for one, could not pull my fully loaded kayak completely out of the water. To solve the problem, I pulled the boat up onto dry land as far as I could and then unloaded my gear in the water until the kayak was light enough to be pulled up all the way.
The key to success here was to use one hand to pull out dry bags, etc., from the hatches and throw them far enough up on the beach so that they wouldn't roll back down, while the other hand held on the kayak preventing it from being sucked back out by the surge.
With the unloading procedure completed, the laborious part of the day was over. I was delighted to find that my favorite "campsite," a small patch of soft sand just large enough for my one-man tent -- on an otherwise pebbly beach -- was still as I had left it last year.
As the little spot is not visible from the water, not to mention the steep slope of the beach, it is doubful that many kayakers have considered staying the night at Starlight Beach. Despite its picturesque name, the beach really is not much more than 100 feet of pebbles marked by rocky outcroppings on both ends. But it suited my ends perfectly and would be mine and mine only for the night.
I spent the rest of the afternoon reading "The Ocean Waits" by Webb Chiles, part 2 of the incredible account of one man's almost successful attempt to circumnavigate the world in an 18-foot open boat.
In the opening chapter entitled "Apologia," Chiles writes about his motivation for voyaging by sailboat:
"One of the pleasures
in setting out on a voyage is not knowing
"A voyage is a struggle
against wind and wave, and time and
There are many reasons
why you make such a voyage, among them simply that you like to
sail. But mainly you go because you
Maybe, I should give sailing, real sailing, a try.
In the morning I was awakened by the flapping rain fly of the tent. Wind. Early in the morning. This was a good sign. By the looks of things, the Catalina eddy that had held back the normal seabreeze the previous two days had abated. The sky was blue with the mainland clearly visible in the distance.
The only fly in the ointment was that I had idiotically forgotten to bring my VHF radio. I therefore had no way of checking the latest weather forecast to confirm that conditions had in fact returned to normal. As I was pondering my options, a nice-looking power boat, equipped with radar and various other electronic equipment the purpose of which eluded to me, pulled into the cove. Though there was little doubt that the boat had a radio, I hesitated asking for the forecast. I have a general disdain for power boats and also didn't want to look foolhardy. To a power boater, crossing the channel by kayak would probably sound like a foolish proposition to begin with. Doing it without a radio (or radar) would likely compound that impression. But eventually, fully loaded and ready to go whatever the answer, I paddled over to the boat and sheepishly inquired about the latest weather forecast, explaining the situation. As expected, the owner of the boat had the forecast - in fact, he advised me, he received regular printouts of the forecast on his boat. Today's forecast: Wind from the west at 10 to 15 mph in the afternoon.
Satisfied and after thanking the boater-cum-printer, I was on my way back to the mainland at about 9:30 a.m. Thanks to the early seabreeze, now blowing at about 5 to 8 mph, I was able to hoist both sails right from the start. Because I was sailing on a broad reach (about 120° to the wind), no outrigger or leeboard was needed. The boat stayed upright and tracked perfectly straight without them.
In high spirits, I pointed the bow towards Point Vicente, about 8 miles west of Cabrillo, to allow for current drift and a possible wind shift to the northwest later in the day. This being my first crossing to the mainland, I was unsure how high I should point and chose to err on the safe side.
I soon realized that, if I so chose, I could sail all the way back to Cabrillo without ever dipping a paddle. But with nothing else to do, I paddled anyway and happily so. For a kayak, even a sit-on-top kayak, is comfortable over longer time periods only if paddled. So paddle I did. In fact, except for a few short breaks I ended up paddling the entire crossing. With the assistance of the sails, my Scupper Pro felt like a much sleeker vessel offering only little resistance to my strokes. What a difference from the upwind paddle coming from the mainland!
In the early afternoon, the wind picked up to about 12 mph. The boat remained steady as a rock and I still saw no reason to deploy the outrigger. I was now moving at about 4 mph with hardly any effort on my part. This was kayak sailing at its best. Or so I thought at the time.
About 6 miles off of San Vicente Point, I saw a small black fin sticking out of the water. First, I thought it belonged to a mola mola (a.k.a. sunfish). But a second look revealed a second fin, this one a bit taller, that seemed to belong to the same creature. At the same instant, I realized that I was looking at the dorsal fin and tailfin of what was likely a 6 to 7 foot blue shark. I wanted to stop to get a better look, but the sails continued pushing ahead. Striking both sails would have taken only about a minute, but the shark would likely have been gone by then. When I last saw the shark, it was swimming upwind and away from my kayak. He had made the decision for me.
But the shark was soon forgotten, with the wind picking up another notch to 15 mph. Satisfied that I was well upwind from Cabrillo beach, I now turned onto a more easterly course, parallel to the coast. Swells were now running at about 3 feet and coming almost directly from astern. By paddling hard at the right moment, I was able to catch and surf down the faces of the larger ones. In several instances, my kayak stayed on a plane for 15 to 20 seconds moving at what seemed like breakneck speed. Yet, I never felt out of control, thanks in part to the large sailing rudder and in part to the greater stability of a fully loaded boat.
Things got truly interesting during the last half-hour. At that point, the wind had piped up to 20-25 mph with white caps all around. I had never sailed my kayak downwind in such conditions with both sails up and briefly considered deploying the outriggers or reducing sail. But soon I realized that there was no need. My trusty Scupper Pro was tracking straight ahead like a freight train with no tendency to broach whatsoever. So on I went careening down the swells, sometimes leaving the face of one swell only to catch the face of another one. This was by far the most exhilarating kayak sailing I had ever experienced.
Having no GPS, I don't know how fast I was moving. However, I was going so fast and got so caught up in the exhilaration of the moment that I misjudged the time for turning north to Cabrillo Beach. By the time I reacted, I was so far downwind I had to sail the last two miles on a beam reach. This would have been no problem with outriggers or leeboard. But there was simply not enough time left to stop and install the outriggers and leeboard. By the time I finished, I would have been blown downwind another half mile. The smart thing probably would have been to quickly strike the main sail and continue on with just the Pacific Action sail. This would have practically eliminated the risk of capsize. But something in me, perhaps not the best part of me, decided just to push ahead and keep on paddling. I almost broached twice, but never lost control. Nor did I ever feel like I was about to go over. Clearly, the heavily loaded boat made a huge difference.
I landed safely at Cabrillo beach at 3:15 p.m. having covered an estimated
24 miles in less than six hours. The best thing was that I felt none the worse
for it. Except for a 10 minute break, I had never even stopped along the way.
If only every crossing were that easy.
Catalina Revisited Again
At about 8:30 a.m. I launch my kayak through the gentle surf at Cabrillo Beach and point the bow in the direction Catalina Island some 22 miles to the south. This will be my third crossing to the island. Having returned from my second crossing only about a month ago, I feel lucky that another window of opportunity has opened so soon. Like my first crossing last year, today's crossing will take me to Goat Harbor, a protected cove nestled among the mountainous cliffs that drop into the ocean along the center of the island.
Compared to my more ambitious second crossing to the West End of the island, which presented me with long hours of exhausting upwind paddling and very little sailing, this third crossing should be a piece of cake. I will paddle southwest three, maybe three and a half hours to my usual turnaround spot, the SP 13 buoy and then set sail and effortlessly cruise the rest of the way to Goat Harbor.
Or so I hope. For the marine forecast is, at least if taken at face value, not in my favor. Winds are predicted to be variable less than 10 kn in the morning, becoming 10 to 15 kn from the southwest in the afternoon. Southwest, of course, is the direction in which I will be paddling for at least the next 8 miles. Wind from the southwest also would not allow me to sail the second, southerly leg of the crossing in the afternoon. But trusting my past experience, I am confident (I tell myself) that the marine forecast is by necessity overly broad and that the actual wind direction near Catalina Island will be west and probably even northwest due to the island's channeling effect, rather than southwest as predicted.
As I take the first strokes, I notice, not without a slight sense of foreboding, a slight ripple on the water -- from the southwest. It's only the slightest of breezes, but, nonetheless, I know that the wind will gradually gain momentum as cool ocean air is sucked inland by rising temperatures in the mountains and deserts. The last thing I need is a repeat performance of the upwind paddling fest during my second crossing.
It does not help matters that the sky is gray and overcast and the island obscured by haze. I can see a cargo ship in the distance, leading me to guesstimate that visibility is about 6 miles. Though normal for this time of the year, I still can't help but remember last year's crossing, when dense fog suddenly reduced visibility to a quarter of a mile or less for the first half of the day forcing me to navigate through the shipping lanes by compass alone. This is another experience I care not to repeat today.
But if I have learned anything from the ocean, it is that conditions are rarely ever as predicted or expected. Conditions could be much worse than expected, or they could be much better. Often, it is a little bit of both. As I will soon find out, this is also true for today.
The first two hours of paddling pass uneventfully. The ocean is a gray slate, and the only diversion is the occasional cargo ship passing in the distance. Though the wind is still from the southwest, it has not gained in strength, allowing me to make good headway.
There is little sea life to break the monotony. The only exception is a small shark suddenly leaping clear of the water almost straight ahead only to disappear a split second later. While this is a first for me, I am immediately reminded of an account by another local kayaker who reported seeing several jumping sharks while crossing back from Catalina earlier this summer. I also remember that the only two other shark sightings I ever had from a kayak were earlier this year. Maybe, sharks are making a local comeback. But I don't want to get my hopes up. Time will tell whether these sightings are an anomaly or indicative of a trend.
Later in the morning, the sun finally pokes through the clouds. This is a mixed blessing. My world now looks much more welcoming and auspicious, but the hot August sun ist soon turning my black rash guard into an oven. Switching to my thinner, white rash guard and putting on my wide-rimmed hat brings some relief.
As I approach the first, outbound shipping lane, I encounter the only cargo ship of the day. It is still about 5 miles to the east, but I soon conclude that we are on a collision course. I am not at all surprised. In fact, I have come to expect it. For whatever reason, and I wish I could say that Murphy's law was not among the ones that come to mind, I have been on a collision course, or very close to it, with many, if not most, cargo ships, I have encountered in the past. Luckily, there aren't very many of them, and as long as I can see or hear them, they don't worry me.
With the cargo ship now within a mile, I reckon that I should be able to comfortably pass in front of it. Still, I increase my paddling cadence just a bit to make sure. On occasion, I have seen cargo ships suddenly change course by just a few degrees at just the wrong moment. This is exactly what happens a few minutes later, but in my favor. The cargo ship veers slightly to the north and minutes later passes about a quarter mile behind my stern.
I continue on and begin to look for the SP 13 buoy, which I know to be located between the inbound and outbound shipping lanes, about 8 miles offshore. Because conditions are still hazy, the buoy remains hidden from sight, as does Catalina Island. I navigate by following a compass heading of 215 and occasionally checking for current drift. I do this by twisting around and looking to see whether my stern is still lined up with Cabrillo Beach, my point of departure, now barely visible in the distance. So far, I can detect no noticeable current.
After another hour of paddling into the southwesterly breeze, I finally spy the buoy about 2 miles away, slightly off to port. As is my habit, I have steered just a bit upwind from the expected position of the buoy to allow for current and wind drift. My reward is that I can now bear off for the last 2 miles, instead of taking the wind directly on the nose.
When I reach the buoy, I lie down for a good rest and a quick lunch of beef jerky, dried fruits and nuts, surrendering the boat to wind and current. No sooner have I reclined to a comfortable position with my feet on the stern hatch and my head on the rim of the bow hatch than the wind picks up another notch, setting me back downwind at an unexpected and unwelcome rate. Although I have no way of verifying it, my sense is that the wind is aided in its attempt to thwart my efforts by a surface current running in the same direction. My guess is later corroborated by the fact that it takes me 15 minutes to regain the distance that I drifted during my 30-minute break. That corresponds to a drift rate of about 1.5 mph, a higher drift rate than a 5 mph southwest wind alone normally generates in my experience.
Paddling to the buoy for the second time today against the current is not only a psychological damper, it also saps much of the energy I just regained from my much-needed break. To make matters worse, my stomach has gone sour from the upwind paddle right after eating, and I soon feel queasy and have a dull headache. The sun is now beating down from directly overhead and I contemplate slipping over the side into the water. But I know that there is no time for that. The wind is still from the southwest and I will probably have to paddle several more hours, possibly for the rest of the day, before I can set sail or reach Catalina Island under paddle power alone. Its hazy outlines just emerging in the distance, the island is still 14 miles away.
I continue on at a slower pace for an hour or so, trying to minimize abdominal movement, an attempt doomed to failure by the persistent headwind. In my weakened state, and growing more concerned about the unwavering southwest wind, I am wondering how much longer it will be before I can set sail. As the miles go by without any noticeable change in wind direction, I am beginning to face the reality that the forecast may have been right on target and that this time I may have to paddle all the way to the island without assistance from the sails. Less than joyful prospects, with another 10 miles to go.
As if I need to be reminded of my slow speed, a small pod of common dolphin pass me to port, effortlessly cavorting in the general direction of Catalina Island.
After another five miles of uncomfortable paddling, just as I have resigned myself to paddling for the rest of the day, the wind finally shifts to the west. In no time, I have both sails up and stop paddling. The wind is still anemic, but at least I am making headway and in the right direction. Hot and still feeling a bit weak in the stomach, I slide into my seat with my feet resting on top of the rudder controls, taking comfort in the knowledge that at least I won't have to paddle the whole rest of the way.
A while later I have regained some strength and continue paddling to assist the sails. Our combined effort gives us a speed of about 3 mph, very respectable given my condition and that of the wind.
With the island now only about four miles off, I make a cell phone call to my wife to let her know that I am all right and will make landfall soon. Closer to the island, I know I will lose cell phone reception.
In the last hour, the wind finally picks up enough for me to stop paddling. About one mile from the towering cliffs guarding the entrance to Goat Harbor, I notice a strong current swiftly setting me east. With the wind directly on the starboard beam now, I have to paddle hard even with assistance from the sails to cut across the current before it can sweep us east past Goat Harbor. With little room to spare, I make it into the protected waters of the cove.
My adrenaline still pumping from the last-minute effort, I pull my kayak up the steep pebble beach at around 5:30 p.m. As if on cue, two recreational fishing boats pull up anchor and head back to wherever they have come from. There are no other boats in the cove, there is no one else on the beach. I am alone. Goat Harbor will be mine for the night.
It is still warm and after unloading my kayak, I take a quick dip in the cool, clear water. Floating on my back, I take in the beauty and serenity that surrounds me. Whatever doubts I may have had about the wisdom of this trip one hour ago quickly evaporate. It was not the easy crossing I had hoped for, but well worth the effort.
Taking advantage of the last rays of the sun before it sinks behind the cliffs to the west, I place a can of chili on the hot pebbles to "cook" my dinner. While not as romantic as a campfire or as effective as a gas stove, I have found this method to be the most efficient and clean way to heat up food. Its only drawback is that on foggy or cloudy days, my culinary master piece looks and smells a bit like canned dog food. Such is the price of simplicity.
As soon as the last rays of the sun are gone, the cove turns chilly and I pitch my tent on the pebbly beach less than 20 feet from the water. Thanks to the steep berm, I will stay dry here during tonight's high tide despite the close proximity to the water.
After darkness falls, I read the first chapters of John Guzzwell's "Trekka Around the World," the fascinating account of Guzzwell's circumnavigation in a 21-foot sailboat that he had built himself. It is a clear night and the Milky Way is clearly visible above me. The lights of the mainland are twinkling across the water in the distance. A light swell aided by the incoming tide is rolling thousands of small pebbles back and forth in a rythmic pattern. Every now and then, the cry of a seagull pierces the darkness. Otherwise all is silent. Perfection.
I retire to the tent around ten o'clock and am soon soundly asleep.
Several hours later, I am rudely woken by bright lights, the sound of metal against metal, and loud voices. My first thought is, "I'm being invaded." I open up the tent fly just enough to see a motor boat trying to anchor in the cove less than 100 feet away. Several men are talking loudly in Spanish, shining several bright spotlights all over the cove. They are apparently oblivious to my presence. I shine my tiny flashlight in their direction to send a message, however meek, that they are disrupting what has until a few minutes ago been a tranquil night of much needed sleep. But their antics continue for another 20 minutes, which I take as an opportunity for a walk along the beach. Finally, things settle down, lights turn off, and all goes quiet. They are securely anchored and, as far as I can tell, asleep.
Satisfied that these are merely fishermen not particularly adept at anchoring in the dark, rather than drug traffickers or modern-day pirates, I return to my sleeping bag and soon fall back asleep.
When I wake up to the gentle sound of the early morning surf, the motor boat is gone. The cove is all mine again and I soon emerge from the tent to be greeted by the sun just climbing over the cliffs to the east.
Today will be a rest day or at least a non-paddling day. My body needs to recover for tomorrow's return trip to the mainland, which I expect will require another long paddle of at least 15 miles. As it will turn out, this is a prescient decision.
After a quick breakfast of granola bars and a protein drink, I reimmerse myself in "Trekka" and spend the better part of the morning marveling at Guzzwell's ingenuity, courage and skill. Guzzwell is not only the first of the modern-day small boat circumnavigators, he is also a fine writer. I feel privileged to be sitting here on Catalina Island reading his account of his voyage in Trekka more than 50 years later.
When the sun is almost directly overhead beating down mercilessly onto my shoulders, I decide it is time for a dive. I don my wetsuit, weight vest, mask and fins and am soon gliding along the kelp forest flanking the eastern wall of the cove. The water is relatively cool for this time of year, no more than 65°. Visibility is just average, maybe 30 feet.
I drop down about 20 feet on my first dive, small fish scattering in all directions and then returning slowly with wary looks. Having purged all air from my wetsuit, I resurface and continue along the wall towards Twin Rocks, a pinnacle jutting steeply from the ocean at the end of the wall. Every 50 feet or so, I drop down deeper and longer until I reach the 50-foot level and my breathhold has stabilized.
To my dismay, though not unexpected, the kelp forest seems empty. In the past, I have encountered schools of barracuda and skip jacks, and occasionally even giant black seabass here. Today, there is no sign of them. Even the ubiquitous kelp bass are conspicuously absent.
I continue on, looking for more life father down the reef, but eventually give up and return to the beach. I try to tell myself that it was just a bad dive and that later on or tomorrow the kelp forest will be teeming with fish again. But I know better. Several dives at various other locations along Catalina Island and also the mainland this summer brought similar experiences. There are simply less -- much less -- fish in the ocean now than there were five or 10 years ago, not to mention 50 or 100 years ago.
This is the price we pay for overfishing. In this case, not overfishing by commercial fishermen, but recreational fishermen. It is a price apparent mostly to those who venture below the surface of the ocean at least now and then. But eventually everyone will take notice. When they do, I fear, it may be too late to recover what has been lost.
In the afternoon, I hike up the hillside that steeply rises hundreds of feet in the back of the cove. Winding my way through the golden grass that blankets much of the hill, I stop and take refuge in the shade of dense stands of gnarled live oak every now and then and let my eyes drift across the blue horizon to the north. With the mainland obscured by haze, the ocean seems boundless and unconquerable. The cool sea breeze is much stronger and cooler up here, enhancing the feeling of distance and isolation.
On the way back down, I suddenly see a kayak paddling into the cove from the east. I am still too far away to make out any details. The paddler seems hesitant, first stopping and then paddling on. Finally, the kayak heads for shore and I pick up the pace to welcome whoever it is that is paying me a visit.
I soon find out that the paddler is a young blond woman with blue eyes, freckles and a disarming smile. Her rental kayak is a Scupper Pro, the same model as my own kayak. A novice paddler, she has paddled in from Avalon, 7 miles away, to spend a night under the stars. I help her pull up the loaded kayak and pick a suitable campsite. I am surprised to learn that she has come with just a thin sleeping mat and a borrowed sleeping bag of questionable quality. She has no tent nor has he brought particularly warm clothing. She is equally surprised when I tell her that I paddled in from the mainland.
Even though both of us have come to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and to enjoy the solitude of a deserted cove, we are soon immersed in conversation and I show here the gorgeous view from the top of the hill. At night, we light a small campfire, making use of whatever deadwood we can find around the cove.
When we run out of wood and the night air turns cool, we call it a day and turn in for the night. Lying awake inside the tent snug and warm in my down sleeping bag, I hope for her that the breathtaking view of the night sky will make up for what is bound to be a cold and uncomfortable night.
The next morning we are both up early and break down camp. Around eight o'clock, we say a quick goodbye and part ways. She heads east back to Avalon, and I north to Cabrillo Beach.
The first thing I notice as I leave the protection of the cove is that despite the early morning hour there is already a 5 mph wind blowing from the northwest. Perhaps I should not be surprised. I encountered precisely the same conditions on my last return trip to the mainland only a month ago. But I can't help musing about the irony: Two days ago when I paddled to Catalina Island, I needed a northwest wind and it was blowing southwest most of the day. And today, when I am paddling back to the mainland, I need a southwest wind and it is blowing northwest.
In any event, it will no doubt be another long day of upwind paddling. Adding to my concern is the fact that this is my first return trip to the main island from Goat Harbor. Last month's return trip from the West End was a downwind run with little navigational or physical challenge. I was able to sail as soon as I sat down in the cockpit and, due to my favorable upwind position, was able to reach Cabrillo Beach with minimal effort.
Today will be different because Cabrillo Beach is not downwind, but rather upwind from Goat Harbor. To have any chance of sailing part of the 23-mile distance today, I will have to first find and then reach the SP 13 buoy about 14-15 miles directly upwind. That would put me on a straight beam reach for the last 8 miles to Cabrillo Beach. In theory, this should be doable. But as the early northwest wind is reminding me, on the ocean things often turn out different in practice.
The key to success will be speed. The sooner I reach the buoy, the less wind I will have to deal with. If the wind is already blowing 5 mph early in the morning, it can be expected to blow well in excess of 10 mph by late morning, certainly by noon. With that realization, I start laying into it after only a short warm-up period. Thankfully, my body has recovered well from the ordeal two days ago, and I feel rested and strong.
The headwind is both challenging and invigorating. As is my habit, I take short breaks every 45 minutes or so to pace myself. Pushing ahead too hard, especially at the beginning, will only make things tougher later. Still, every time I stop paddling the wind predictably pushes me back towards the island, and the longer I am stopped, the more distance I have to regain. Perhaps mostly for psychological reasons, this makes me keep breaks to a minimum.
Despite the persistent northwest wind, which luckily has remained steady for now, I am making good headway, and Catalina Island is slowly receding in the distance. The island is aglow, looking mysterious, in the early morning sun. It is not without a sense of sadness that I show my stern to this beautiful place. Who knows when I will be back the next time. Perhaps never.
But I have little time or energy to spend on such gloomy thoughts. I must stay focused on keeping up a steady paddling rhythm, pulling my boat over the oncoming swells with minimum loss of speed.
After two hours of vigorous paddling, a solitary Risso dolphin appears off my starboard beam traveling west. Part of me wants to change course and paddle along with the dolphin to get a closer look. Apart from being a rare sight, Risso dolphin often swim slowly enough for a paddler to keep up comfortably. My best and longest dolphin encounter was with a pod of Rissos that allowed me to paddle among them for the better part of an hour. But I quickly dismiss the idea as there is simply no time for that today.
To console me, a small pod of common dolphin cross my bow only minutes later, and two of them change course to dive beneath my kayak several times and then rejoin their companions. No matter how many times I have seen it before, I am always delighted by the sight of their sleek bodies streaking through the clear, blue water below, sometimes turning sideways as if to say "hello."
About 8 miles from the island, I am as far west as Two Harbors and cross paths with several sailboats heading back to the mainland. The buoy is still 6 to 7 miles in the distance, I know, and I will have to paddle at least another three miles before I have any chance of seeing it.
As if to keep me motivated, the wind picks up a notch, and there is still no sign of the buoy. Because the buoy is yellow and framed by the golden cliffs of the Palos Verdes peninsula in the background, I realize, it will be harder to see than coming from the mainland.
I tell myself that finding the buoy is not an absolute necessity, and that I should be able to reach Cabrillo Beach under sail even without the buoy. Yet, I know from experience that if I start to sail at a point downwind from the buoy, a beam reach - for this as close to the wind as my kayak will point - may carry me beyond Cabrillo Beach, forcing me to round the long breakwater and paddle an extra 1 1/2 miles upwind through the harbor basin. This is something I would rather avoid at the end of a long paddling day. To be on the safe side, I thus continue to paddle on a course that I think will put me slightly upwind of the buoy.
As I am crossing the inbound shipping lane at about the midpoint between the island and the mainland, I see a cargo ship approaching from the west. Needless to say, we are once again on a collision course. To save energy, I decide not to speed up and pass in front of the ship this time. Instead I veer off to the west paralleling the ship's course for a few minutes and allow the ship to pass. Stopping for several minutes is not a good option at this point as the wind has picked up another notch and would cause me to lose hard gained ground.
Back on course, I suddenly detect a small speck several miles ahead in the general direction of the buoy. This is it, I think. But as I get closer, or rather don't get closer, I realize that if this is indeed the buoy, it is moving away from me faster than I am paddling. Not without a sense of embarrassment, I surmise that it must be a sailboat or other small boat with a superstructure mimicking the shape of a buoy.
It is not until another hour later that I finally locate the buoy only about 1 1/2 miles slightly downwind, just where it should be. I can't help but feel a sense of accomplishment. Guided by just the compass and dead reckoning, I have hit the buoy almost dead-on. I also note with satisfaction that despite 5 1/2 hours of upwind paddling, I am not on my last hole yet and could carry on if need be. In fact, I briefly consider doing just that to find out whether I can paddle the entire distance and upwind to boot. But I remind myself that record setting attempts can and often do result in needless mishaps. There is no point in tempting fate.
Still, I continue paddling until I am well upwind of the buoy to allow for downwind drift while rigging. Once under sail, I finally relax, sit back, and in minutes wolf down almost the entire bag of nuts and fruits. From here on, I will be traveling through familiar territory, and I am confident that I will make landfall at Cabrillo Beach in about two hours. The wind is now blowing at about 12-15 kn from the west as it usually does in the summer months, and it is a comfortable ride requiring little else of me than the occasional rudder adjustment.
Around 3:30 p.m., I skim across the kelp bed surrounding Point Fermin and minutes later jump out of the cockpit to pull the kayak clear of the surf. Looking out across the channel, I behold the hazy outlines of Catalina Island in the distance. The island looks far away now, yet so close.
Robert is a regular contributor to Topkayaker.net's Forum and has written a series of articles on his quest for the perfect sailing kayak linked below. He also welcome's your questions or comments: Robert O. Hess.
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