You Can’t Get There From Here

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.

Typical Pacific Northwest beach. Take note.

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.

Beautiful San Miguel Island. Worth it. The surf only looks small from far away.

Up close, it looks more like this:

This is actually more like the waves at Smuggler’s Cove. But in actuality it’s a wave a Santa Barbara Island.

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.

That surf doesn’t look too bad, does it? Waves only a little over a foot high coming in. Of course, this photo is take from above the waves. But even with surf this tame, you don’t want the boat getting sideways on you.

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.

This surf at Smuggler’s Bay doesn’t look bad, until you realize you can’t really see where it hits the beach, because the water drops out of sight. Because the surf is that big. Those little splashes are only the very top of the surf. That’s how high the swell is.

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.

Galapagos disappearing behind the swell. Spooky. Soon only the tip of her mast was showing.

The trail unwandered.

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.

The high dock at Prisoner’s Harbor. The steel ladder is obscured by this National Parks boat and things are much larger than they seem in this photo. Much. Like that’s a regular sized trash dumpster being loaded.

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.

The long, high dock at Prisoner’s Harbor. And the surf. Always the surf. The beach is cobblestones. Big ones.  The brown in the water is sand stirred up by the waves.

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.”

See that white thing on the left? That’s a sea lion on the step. Those rocks below the step are where you are supposed to be able to land. Yeah. Nothing doing.

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.

The wild volcanic coastline of Santa Barbara Island. Complete with elephant seals and sea lion colonies. And blow holes. But literally no place to safely land a dinghy. Still completely worth the trip.

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!

Action shot of Kevin Baerg from SV Blue (Gig Harbor) jumping in to save the day as Penguin the Pudgy turns in the surf. Once the engine is up, there’s no steering. Note that completely useless really high dock in the background. This is Scorpion Ranch anchorage on Santa Cruz Island. (With Cressie Stahley Baerg and Mike)


12 thoughts on “You Can’t Get There From Here

    • Oh, we’ve looked longingly for a long time, Matt. We just haven’t pulled the trigger on one. We saw one we liked at the boat show two years ago. It was a fold-down transom and you could store the whole thing in a bag. Honestly, we love the Pudgy for most things. And I’m not sure even an inflatable would have been safe landing at Santa Barbara. But definitely the pudgy, being a hard dinghy, hurts like heck when it hits you. We may end up getting an inflatable and keeping the Pudgy as well. Who knows?

  1. Exciting post!! I’m curious about the blow holes in the volcanic area. Are these steam outlets for volcanoes? At first I had the silly thought that there’s no way a whale could get in there! I guess the contrasts of the very challenging or impossible docking experiences with the easier ones make the whole experience more ‘real’ than the (so far) anticipated ones!

    • The blow hole is where the water pressure builds up below, due to surf, and then blows out a hole in the rock that has worn away over time. This is purely a ‘volume and pressure’ blow hole, not a steam vent, although that would be outstanding. I’d love to see one of those. Definitely this life is filled with highs and lows. We appreciate even more those times when we have access to a nice dock or a gentle beach.

  2. Your landing stories remind me of being in a small, small boat with about 6 passengers to be dropped at Lover’s Beach in Cabo, and they timed our landing with incoming surf, same with our exit, and it was all very fast – get out, get out now! Quick! If you have been there you realize it is similar to what you are describing. The boat would rush in on a wave and land part way up the beach so we could jump out.

    With an inflatable you could likely pull it way up the beach to feel safer leaving it and walking about. Maybe a paddle board. I wonder if swimming in is easier. ?? In Puerto Vallarta, though, we could not even navigate getting in the water to swim, due to the super ridges on the shoreline.

    Definitely not in a place where a blow hole is, however, as that means the rush of seawater in is so powerful that it spouts up like a geyser in the opening.

    • Yes, the panga drivers in Mexico have these beach landings down pat. And they use hard boats like ours, but they are not as ’rounded’ as our Pudgy is. More streamlined. I imagine it’s a matter of learning and taking a few more chances. The inflatable dinghies flip over easily, too, but they aren’t as hard on the body as the hard dinghy. Also having a more powerful engine would probably help get us going in the right direction. We’ve heard of people being stuck on the beach for the night when the surf gets up too far to launch safely. I guess that could happen, too. INflatables are not much lighter than the dinghy we have, especially once you add the engine, which would be larger. We may end up getting a different dinghy so we’ll have a choice of boats.

  3. Reading this post, I alternated between laughing out loud and making sad faces over your dinghy landing adventures. It’s a good thing you’ve got a great sense of humor, because it sure sounds like you’ve needed it. We’ve had a few dinghy misadventures, but yours really takes the case.

    • Well, mostly it is funny, but only because what else are we to do? But I am curious about how you land your dinghy in surf. Don’t you guys have plenty of surf in the Caribbean? Surely we are not the only ones who have needed to learn this skill. Tell me the truth – is it us? 🙂

      • “Don’t you have surf in the Caribbean”: Not on the Leeward side. Most anchorages are in coves, inlets or harbors so they are protected. Especially the Bahamas. Never had a rough landing on a beach there. There is a three foot tide which means high docks and ladders. Sometimes crude ladders with missing rungs so we time our trips around tides.
        We have limited experience in the Caribbean so far but so far it has not been an issue.
        You might want to consider a dinghy anchor for beaching when you cannot find a nice log or tree. Granted, this will not always be functional in all types of beaches but is good for sand.

        • We do have a dinghy anchor and we have deployed it. We found today that deploying it over a rock reef could cause a problem in retrieval, but we managed. In the Pacific Northwest they frequently use floating docks because the tidal swing can be many feet.

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