Small Boat To The CHannel Islands... Usual length

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Posted by seahunt on April 09, 2001 at 10:55:26:

Small Boat To The Channel Islands

Here is the first of three parts of an essay I put together.
I hope you enjoy it, seahunt

I like to write about diving. I generally avoid writing about getting
to the diving, dive resorts, dive masters or many of the other things
that go with diving, unless they are part of the adventure. Well, if
you've ever gone small boating in the ocean, especially to the Channel
Islands, you know that often just getting there is an adventure.

This originally started out as a description of some trips I had made
to the Channel Islands in small boats. Then I started to remember how
many trips I had made over the years in small boats. Viewed from over
the years, they all tend to blur together. Some of that blur might be
just that common fog of the 70's and 80's. Still, trips like those
are so memorable and there were so many memorable events on these
trips, that looking close I start to remember that each trip was
distinguished by its own special experiences.
This was one essay that sort of breaks up into three parts. The first is
about boating in general. The second is about my many trips with Kevin.
The third part is about my trips on the Island Breaker with Don.
Conveniently, the older essay about Central Coast Adventures With Dale,
that talks about boating along the Central Coast, can just follow

Seeing these essays after they are written, I see that they could
just as well be called More Ramblings From The Diary Of A Dive Bum.
I guess it is just some parts of the dive adventure that I never really
wrote down before, but this was some of the best exploring that I ever
got to do... Heck, much of the time we had no idea where we were.
Looking at it all together, I find it hard to believe how many trips I
made in a few small boats. They were wonderful adventures.

Anacapa Arch, West End

The Channel Islands are just a magical place for me. A place of exotic
beauty, mystery, surprises, peace and excitement that demand that I
explore just a little bit further, beyond the next point, to the next
island. They are a perfect place to explore. I have spent a lot of time
there, but there is still so much to see and so many
Front Side Coves that I just never
had the time to stop and visit.
One of the best times is when you pull into a calm cove and look down
along the kelp stands until you can see fish swimming among the rocks
and kelp on the bottom. Another is when you are descending far from
a shore and out of the gloom appears a vibrant reef that would
be unsuspected from the surface, but is really a vast lush world to
swim through. Under each cliff are its castoff rocks providing a beautiful
reef. There is far more hidden in the water there, than I will ever
see. I have not yet taken my own boat for a slow explore along the backside
of San Nic or Miguel.
In a big boat you tend to go from place to place. You stop at each dive
site, dive and then wait for everyone to get back abord. You then take
a fairly slow trip to the next spot. On a small boat you pull into
an area and find a place to anchor. Then maybe you go ashore or you
dive. Then, being in a smaller faster boat, you tend to cruise along
near the shore, slowing down whenever there is something interesting
to see. You tend to have less tanks (usually no more than 3 per person)
so you have more time when you are not diving. You also spend less time
travelling, so you have more time to look around. You get to see more and
explore more in a small boat. It's not a cattle boat, but small boats
always mean tight quarters and while the boat is not that crowded, the
crew is certainly loaded full up most all of the time.

Most of the time the Channel Islands present an appearance of arid,
almost desert or chaparral. There are many faces to the islands
though. It seems that the shoreward sides of the islands get more rain
and the backsides get much less. It seems that most of the rain storms
there come from the north and not from the southern ocean.
Sometimes there was green grass on the hillsides of Catalina that
was so thick and lush that climbing up the island presented the hazard
that you could start slipping on that grass and you weren't going to
stop. Go along the backside of Santa Cruz Island from the west end and
the mountain side there looks like a moonscape. If you study the natural
history and the human history of the islands, there is obviously a
great deal to learn and some mysteries that will never be known.

Backside Santa Cruz from Gull Island

The Coast Guard recommends a 40 foot boat for crossing to the
Channel Islands. It is cold open ocean and can get quite rough,
sometimes suddenly and unexpectedly. Still, it's a beautiful trip
that sportsmen have been making in small boats for a long time.
In the early 70's I well remember the small, open wooden outboards
that were common at Anacapa and the southern end of Santa Cruz
Island. These were mostly fishers and looked to be often husband
and wife crews. These were small boats, mostly less than 21 feet and
mostly seen in summer. They were made of coppery red mahogany and were
beautiful. The early 70's constituted the end of the era of these
craft. This was near the beginning of the time of the molded fiberglass
hull. Now a wooden boat like that is a rare classic, but some still do
Going to the Channel Islands in a small boat is always memorable.
On a good day, it is calm cruising and exploring in beautiful and
empty coves. When things go wrong, it is as harrowing as only a
small boat owner can understand. Just having the boat start and work
good when you get to the ramp is a challenge. Then you also have to
make your own weather judgments and reporting wasn't very good then.
Navigation isn't too tough... unless there is fog... Also, aside from
any diving, fishing or mis-adventures, it is a long tiring ride, when
it's not rough.

Then there is always the pound. It's just part of boating in any small
boat. That is what happens whenever the person driving the boat makes a
mistake. It may be an unavoidable mistake, but it is certainly a mistake.
It is when the boat, for some reason, comes down wrong and instead of
cutting through a wave, it simply
pounds down. It makes the boat shudder in an unforgettable way, because
that shudder goes all the way to your spine. It is the boat's way of
telling you that you made a mistake. Make enough of those and the boat
is going to come apart... and you can clearly and intimately feel that
message. It also feels pretty nasty on your back if you aren't standing
to take the shock.

There is one important caveat to remember about boating to the
Channel Islands. "You can always find calm water at the island".
Most places you go boating out of, you know the conditions as soon as
you leave the harbor. If it's rough, it's going to stay rough and you
might as well turn around. Not so at the islands. No matter how rough
it is when you leave the harbor, you can blindly hold on to some hope
that you can find some calm water when you get to the islands.
This is an extremely important item, because it dictates the nature
of boating there. While diving and boating is easier and generally
more fun when the seas are calm, even if it is rough, you can pretty
much always find some sheltered cove for diving. It's just a matter
of getting there. So sometimes, you go out when it's a bit rough.
Sometimes you go out when it's way too rough. That's what makes for
memorable moments in boating. You look at each other and you both
have the same "did you see that" expression on your faces.

Often the boating aspect is actually more of an adventure than the diving.
It's far more work and there's more to go wrong. Loading a boat starts
with gas, oil and the endless maintenance. Food, clothing and dive gear
come next, if there is no bedding. Tanks are heavy, hard and they
roll really good if not fixed in place carefully. Heck, I've been in the
parking lot with the outdrive pulled apart. Careful on the ramp!
You quickly learn a system where the regulars cooperate in a well
coordinated system that gets the job done amazingly quickly, but it's
still early in the morning and things still tend to go wrong.
The drive to the harbor is the same way. If everything goes good, great
and forget it. If salt water has destroyed a trailer bearing, you're
gonna have an adventure. Brakes. Brakes and heavy loads. Whee... We
slide right through the red light. You've already slid enough and made
enough noise that no one is going to hit you, but I suspect they were
laughing a bit as they watched us slide by.
Both Don and I always had an ear cocked. That may sound like a lobster
slapping in the ice chest, but we knew that sound. That's a water pump
belt that just broke. Time to pay attention. Any boat can start taking
on water for some unexpected reason. Engines just hate that. There are
other sounds you have to listen for, like any new sound. Running out of
gas sucks, because sure as the ocean is wide, you're going to be a long
way from a gas pump
Let me tell you, when you've gotten up early, taken an all day cruise
in the sun, spray and wind, bouncing across swell, dive and then driven
back, you still have to clean out the boat, clean the boat and clean
out the outdrives. We do it for fun.

There are other things you learn about.

If you talk to the guys at the Isthmus or Avalon gas docks at Catalina,
they will tell that at least once a week, somebody comes across to the
island, stops for gas and starts sinking at the dock because they never
put in their plug.

There are obviously a lot of hazards to avoid when in a small boat, but
one is a bit unexpected. Those big container ships are much faster than
they look. Any time you are near one and have to make a judgment about
passing them, be careful. They are very easy to misjudge, especially
if you think that you have the speed to blow by them. You don't. You
can meet them coming into San Pedro Harbor or out in the open channel.
It's not just that they are big, they are boogying. Going into the
breakwater at San Pedro, if one of those ships is in front of you,
don't try to pass them and get in first. You may very well not make it
and you will probably come closer than you want.
Don and Marci were laying down in the back of the Island Breaker. I was
standing with Joe, who was driving. We were in the open channel off of
Ventura. Joe asked whether he should go behind or in front of this one
big ship. I judged he should go in front. (He who hesitates is certainly
lost). We went in front and then turned along side it some to get back
to the desired course. Don could then see the ship sticking up next to
us. I still regularly have to tell him not to bother me, that it was a
valid judgment call.

One thing that is funny about driving a small boat. You usually are
following a course set by the compass. Well, unless you have a long
range view and something to aim at like an island or the shore,
you will tend to deviate from your planned compass course. This is
called 'falling off'. You fall off your planned course. Almost all
people do this. Then you have to look at your compass and correct
again. What is interesting is that the amount and direction that a
person falls off is generally consistent. They always fall off to the
right or left, but not both. Some people fall off a lot, some fall off
less, but it is usually the same amount... Kevin rarely fell off much,
but he was the exception... Me.. 15 degrees left. Considering that the
difference between hitting the east end of Anacapa and passing to the
west of San Miguel Island (50 miles away) is only 15 degrees from the
mainland, that can be important. You can learn your natural fall off,
but it is still hard to adjust for correctly.

There are eight Channel Islands. Most people have heard of Catalina, if
not the rest. On the east end of Catalina is the town of Avalon. Many
people know of it and it is a respectable town with mansions, businesses,
dive shops, tours, underwater parks, all the amenities of a resort and
the Casino. Also, zoo crowds in
summer. Less known is Isthmus towards the west end of Catalina. On both
sides of the island are deep coves. The seaward side cove is called Twin
Harbors and the shoreward side is called Isthmus. As opposed to Avalon,
it is like a sleepy, dusty village with dirt roads and palm trees. There
is a gas dock there and sort of a dive shop (you can get fills if someone
is there). There is even a store, restraunt and a bar that is now open
all year, instead of just in summer. For boaters and divers, Isthmus is
quieter and provides all that is needed. There is real good diving right
close to Isthmus, including Eagles Reef, Bird Rock, Ship Rock, Isthmus
High Spot, Blue Caverns and other excellent sites. Often Isthmus was our
destination. Both Isthmus and Avalon are crowded from Memorial Day
to Labor Day and are insane during the annual Pirate days, but both are
peaceful other times, though the weather is usually excellent all year.
Isthmus, especially, outside of tourist season, is a quiet pleasant
place. The kind of place for a quiet pleasant cruise.

I hope you enjoyed part 1 of this essay.
For more stories about diving fun, check out
seahunt Diving and Morguntrality

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