I’m so glad we’ve had the opportunity to dawdle down the California coast. This experience has allowed us to realize just how much we don’t know. And when I use the word ‘realize’ what I mean here is ‘experience in real time’. We learned to cruise in the Pacific Northwest’s protected waters. We are now beginning to ‘realize’ how easy that is compared to other places. There are more protected anchorages; places to get out of the weather, and it’s way easier to get to shore.
For the non-boaters, when living and traveling on a boat, you have two choices about how to get to shore. Three if you count swimming. You can dock your boat or your dinghy at a dock or you can land your dinghy on a beach. We learned to be good anchor-outers in the Pacific Northwest. Even in the wild and wooly west coast of Vancouver Island, we prefer to anchor out and take our dinghy to shore. Where we come from, here’s the simple routine for dinghying ashore when there is no dock: get in the dinghy. Go to shore. Gently land on the pebble, rock, or sandy beach. Maybe step into ankle deep water to pull the boat up the slope. Find tree or big piece of driftwood. (See photo above.) Tie dinghy off and have a great hike. That is all.
In addition, there are an amazing number of places that have a dinghy dock of some kind, even when there is no town. Those docks are low enough to tie the boat to a cleat and climb up onto the dock. Most towns have public dinghy docks if there is water access. In all the years we boated in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, finding a place to land a dinghy was never a problem. After visiting the Channel Islands in southern California for the last 2 weeks, we now have a new appreciation for the dinghy privilege with which we have become accustomed. The wilds of these California islands have schooled us about all we took for granted in our home waters. The dinghy-landing rules here are very, very different. Here’s how they go:
1.) Approach shoreline. Determine that the surf is going to kill you. Go back to the boat. Look at land longingly from cockpit. Imagine walking for for than two steps in a row.
2) Assess the shoreline. Notice dock. Notice dock is 20 feet high with steel ladder leading from water. Measure surge and realize it’s kind of big. Too big. Decide you’d rather not die that day. Stay on boat. Look at land longingly from cockpit. Make up stories in your mind about that time you took a long walk. Consider a long swim.
3). Assess shoreline. Notice that the surf is manageable. You might get hurt, but you probably will not die. Approach shore in the correct perpendicular-to-waves manner. Jump into thigh deep water as the boat begins to turn sideways as steering is lost in the approach to shore. To let it go is to risk it flipping over or being pooped by a wave. Walk boat to shore, grateful to have kept all 11 pair of water sandals that some people said you would never need.
I am not making this up. These are pretty much your choices.
Up close, it looks more like this:
Let’s take the landing we did on San Miguel Island. There was surf, but the beach was sandy and the water was warm. The waves were not too bad and we surfed our dinghy onto the beach. I only got two bruises on my legs from that landing after scrambling into the surf to keep the boat going in the right direction. We pull the boat up onto the beach and there is literally nothing to secure it to. Not knowing how far the tide might come up, because the tides are different here, we end up pulling the 135 pound boat as far up on the beach as possible to the one log that was way above the tide line. I just cannot relax knowing the boat isn’t tied to something. I better get over that because, get this: these beaches have no driftwood and no trees! Who knew??
Here’s the other thing: if you come back to your dinghy and the surf’s down, you better thank the sea gods of your choice and get that boat in the water immediately because if you wait even 10 minutes, the gods will consider you ungrateful, wave their mystical arms and surf will be up again and you’ll have to wait that out or risk certain death. Yeah, we learned that as well. When we got back to the dinghy on San Miguel, surf was down. But we started talking to two other sailors, ignoring the gift that had been given us. Pretty soon the surf was back up. Our new friends offered to help us get the dinghy launched.
That was a mistake. If it takes more than two of us to launch the boat, we need to wait. The boat got turned sideways, Mike turned his back on the sea (A BIG mistake) and before you could say ‘poopedy doop’ a big wave had risen up, grabbed the dinghy, and dumped many gallons of water into it. Mike got a nasty surprise and a thorough soaking but very fortunately did not get hurt. Good thing I 100% of the time put my stuff in dry bags that are securely clipped into the boat. Otherwise my new camera would have been toast.
At that point we DID need those other two sailor lads because with a dinghy 1/4 filled with water, there was no way we could have dragged it out of the surf by ourselves. It was already digging itself down into the sand in a nice wallow. It took all four of us to pull it out, get it turned over and the water drained. Then we tried again. This time Mike and I walked it out past the waves, he got in and started the engine as I gave the dinghy a final shove and flopped in. Oh, and did I mention there were lots of little Leopard Sharks in the water. I tell you this, I was glad I knew they didn’t have big teeth so they aren’t dangerous (and in fact they are kind of cute). But where there’s one kind of shark…. Damn. I think the total number of bruises for that day was 4. Even so, San Miguel was fantastic and I would launch that dinghy in surf 100 times to go there.
Next was Smuggler’s Cove on Santa Cruz Island. We went to Smuggler’s Cove on the recommendation of our cruising guide, “Exploring the Pacific Coast” by Douglass and Hemingway-Douglass. Here’s what it says about the cove:
“There is a nice beach here, an old ranch adobe and olive tree and eucalyptus groves on the otherwise dry grassy hills.” That is all.
And that is an accurate statement, except for the part about the beach, which we cannot confirm. We cannot confirm it because my life is worth so much more than trying to land our dinghy anyplace with a rock beach and waves that are literally thundering, they crash so hard. The swells were so huge that Galapagos disappeared behind them as we motored our dinghy in front of her. The very idea of landing on that beach fills me with terror. Now, I’m sure that on a perfect day when the Pacific is like a mill pond people would be able to land on that beach in relative safety. But we were there two days, then we tucked in there about a week later and the beach was still a hazard to life and limb. Once more, we stayed aboard and looked longingly at those beautiful olive groves. We certainly couldn’t get to them.
Prisoner’s Harbor was a happy surprise. We hadn’t planned to anchor there, but Santa Ana winds had us running for cover. (Truthfully, we spent a lot of time in the islands running for cover.) As unlikely as it seems, this anchorage turned out to be fairly calm. The high winds petered out just before reaching that part of the island, even though it looks on the map like it would be completely exposed. It’s important to stay open to the miraculous out here. Because some days you need it. Anyhow, Prisoner’s Harbor sports a very nice long dock that is at least 20 feet off the water. These docks are common in California. I’ve never seen docks this high outside of the working docks for big ships. Apparently they are meant to serve the boats who bring tour groups out to the islands, and the park service boats that bring in supplies. But they don’t serve private boats very well. Private boaters are asked to ‘pull their dinghy up out of the water’ and put it up on the dock. Yeah. No. That’s just not going to happen with a dinghy like ours. And I don’t know how it would happen with almost any dinghy, especially if you have an engine on back as well.
So to get to shore (because surf and big rocks did not allow landing the normal way), Mike rowed up to the big dock, I timed the swells and grabbed the steel ladder, bringing the dinghy painter (line) with me. Mike followed suit, and we walked along the dock, pulling the the dinghy over to the end by the shore, which is not as easy as it sounds from that high up. I figured the line was long enough where we could bring the dinghy around the big rocks on shore and to the less-big-rocks cobblestone beach, but Mike was worried that the boat would get sideways in the surf and get pooped. So he climbed down into the water from the big rocks, grabbed the painter from me, and then got the snot knocked out of him by the surf, which was actually kind of tame right there.
It only goes to show that even surf that looks manageable has a lot of power, especially when round rocks are rolling around under your feet. Fortunately the water was shallow. He was wet and irritated, but not hurt. We pulled the dinghy up and were rewarded with a nice hike in the heat. Relaunching was easier as the surf was down. But again, we waded into waist deep water past the waves, then hopped in. We’re used to getting wet now. That’s fine with us when the water and the air are both warm. If we’d had to do it this way in the Pacific Northwest waters, I would have gone home a long time ago.
Our final attempt lately was at Santa Barbara Island. We sailed there from Santa Cruz enroute to Catalina. (And as an aside, this turned out to be an excellent idea, giving us a view of this stunning, windswept island and keeping us from having to try to enter Catalina Harbor at night. Really, an excellent decision.) This landing place, at ‘Landing Cove’, just made us laugh and shake our heads. Here’s what our guidebook has to say,
“If you go ashore, be careful getting in and out of the dinghy because of the surge.”
Really? Is that all they have to say about this deathtrap? Who are they kidding? There is no safe place to land a dinghy. There are steps at the top of rocks that are exposed to surf. Not surge. Surf. Breaking waves. The photo above was taken between wave sets to show the exposed slippery and deadly rocks where you allegedly are supposed to land. Even if we had been crazy enough to try it, there would literally have been no place to leave a dinghy safely. With only two of us, we don’t have anyone who can stay and watch either of our boats. So we have to know they are going to be safe while we are gone. I suppose we could have asked the sea lions on the steps to watch over the dinghy for us, but they probably would have just moved in and made themselves at home.
We didn’t even bother to get the dinghy off the foredeck at Santa Barbara. We just shook our heads and decided to live another day. It’s really too bad because that is a stunning island and has over 5 miles of trails. I would have loved to hike them. It was worth sailing out there, just to see it. Maybe I’ll just pay the tour boat to take me out there. I’d like to see how they get up to that dock.
Of course, all of this is dependent on weather and the direction of the swells and all the other stuff we didn’t ever have to think about in the protected waters of the Salish Sea. If we wanted to hang around until a calm day, however long that took, we might be able to land anywhere. But even though we have no schedule, that’s asking a lot. We’re learning as we go, changing course when we need to, giving in to Mother Nature’s demands, and in general having a terrific time. I know that these are the issues we will face in pretty much every other part of the world we will visit by boat, so we are thinking about what other equipment we need in order to be safer in our landings. When you are over 50 miles from the mainland at a literal desert island, the last thing you want to do is break an arm. Or a head. Getting hurt would seriously wreck our groove here.
After 2 weeks in the outer islands, we are at Catalina Island for as many days as we want to be here. We have cell phone coverage here, we are not in a hurry, and there’s a lot of island to see. There’s a beach right behind the boat that looks like we can easily land on it (we hope) and there are trails galore. We may be here awhile!