Last year, Steve took a series of sailing courses and became certified to charter sailboats up to 40′. Hoping to weave sailing into our broader travel plans, we decided to do a test run in Southern California to see if we were up for a bigger sailing adventure (and more importantly to see if Angie’s stomach could get used to the idea).
The Channel Islands seemed a worthy destination. Visible from the coast on a rare clear day in Los Angeles, this series of islands runs from Orange County up to Santa Barbara. Some islands are partially accessible by ferry but sailing offered a superior way to explore on our own schedule.
We rent a 32′ sailboat called License to Keel from a sailing school in Dana Point (just south of Newport Beach). Our plan: explore Catalina for a few days, sail up north to Oxnard to pick up our friends Neil and Anna, explore Santa Cruz island for a few days, and finally cruise back down to Dana Point.
(What is it they say about the best laid plans of mice and men?)
It all begins well. Skipper Steve sails us to Catalina with the South African flag flying proudly (prompting a powerboat to motor up to us and shout greetings in Afrikaans).
Catalina Island appears suddenly through the mist looking extremely lush…
Literally hundreds of dolphins and a few seals greet us as we pull up to the harbor.
We spend two nights in Two Harbors practicing our anchoring, snorkeling, hiking and generally exploring the island. It reminds us of Kawaii–peaceful and extremely lush. Hard to believe we were only a few miles from Los Angeles.
We leave at dawn on Monday and set sail for Marina del Ray (close to our old apartment in Santa Monica).
On Tuesday, we depart early for Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, enjoying picking out familiar spots along the coastline as we glide easily over glassy seas. Here’s Point Dume from our boat:
And more sea life.
Things are going extremely well until about noon when our GPS informs us that we are just two hours from our destination. Unfortunately, this is to be the inflection point of our trip! As we round Point Mugu and head into the infamous ‘windy lane,’ the once calm seas start to build aggressively until we feel like we were on the set of a bad Hollywood movie. At the same time, a substantial headwind picks up and our pace slows to a bumpy crawl. It is at this moment that our engine dies!
Unfortunately, we were too busy surviving to capture the moment on camera but if we did have photos, the captions would go something like this:
- “Donning ill-fitting life jackets in epic swells. Boat heels to horizontal as we tack pointing straight up one moment and straight into the sea the next!”
- “Angie graciously feeds the fish – with Steve grasping life jacket to prevent an unplanned overboard drill”
- “View of stationary mountains that refuse to change for hours, because beating into a headwind without an engine. felt. like. we. were. not. moving. [At what point do we call the coast guard?]”
- “Sun setting. Will we make it to the harbor before dark or should we get ready for a night at sea?”
- “Phew! We sail safely into harbor as the sun goes down. The day goes down as a ‘character building’ experience.”
Our friends Neil and Anna arrive that evening to join us for the remainder of our trip.
We spend the next day (when we were scheduled to leave for Santa Cruz Island) finding a mechanic in the boat yard. We locate one who was free but not licensed to work on the boat in water (really??). A towing company tows our boat 100 meters to the boatyard where it is lifted to shore. We are completely fascinated:
We have the pleasure of spending a night in the boat raised eight feet above the ground. Nothing like a boatyard BBQ!
The next day, our mechanic cuts a hole into the fuel tank and gives it a thorough (and long overdue) cleaning. It contains boatloads (excuse the pun) of fuel-loving algae which had caused the engine to seize up the previous day. Our boat is lowered back into the water and declared fit to brave the high seas, so we venture out for a pleasant evening sailing lesson. All seems great until fumes of diesel begin to waft through the boat, and we discover the bilge (area between the hull bottom and the floor of the boat) has filled with diesel!
Neil and Steve spend the evening pumping out diesel…
…filling several water bottles with the stinky mixture (which we later discovered is mainly water).
With the boat still reeking of fumes, we stayed in a nearby hotel for the night.
Friday arrives, and the mechanic cleans our fuel lines, tests the engine again, and again gives us the green light. We decide to salvage the trip and set out for a night sail that evening. We rent kayaks and get psyched to spend the next day exploring. We have an afternoon BBQ on the boat and go to bed early so we can wake up at midnight and begin the crossing.
It’s a beautiful evening, the moon is out, and we’re relieved to finally be on our way. Unfortunately, an hour into the trip, the engine dies again and won’t turn back on. The boat is cursed! Steve decides that it’s just too risky to cross without an engine because if the winds change, we could get stuck there. We return to harbor at 2am and, because we’re all wide-awake, stay up till early morning discussing our misadventure.
As it turns out, the gods are on our side, as an unpredicted Santa Ana wind blows in early Saturday morning. If we had actually made it out, we would have had to turn around anyway because its too dangerous to be on the island in those winds. We breathe a sigh of relief for our good (mis)fortune and spend the day wine tasting an hour drive north in Santa Ynez.
Sunday arrives and after much deliberation, we decide to leave the boat in Oxnard for the charter company to fix.
And so ends our first big sailing adventure. It didn’t go quite as planned, but we feel more prepared for future trips. And think that the calm waters of the Mediterranean might be a good first stop!