The Island Beyond Avalon

CW editor John Burnham takes the family cruising to California's Santa Catalina island.

CatalinaStory

Leaving crowded Marina del Rey for a 30-mile sail, the author's extended family arrives at Howland Landing, a quiet anchorage near the west end of Catalina.John Burnham

You've probably seen pictures of this seaside town before: Avalon, a town of 3,500, sits at Santa Catalina island's east end, easily recognizable with its 1920s-vintage casino perched on the seawall. The small harbor is jam-packed with sailboats and motorcruisers, all moored neatly in closely spaced rows. You don't see it in the pictures, but you can imagine the teeming promenade, the shops, the restaurants, and the atmosphere festive with lots of beautiful people.

I carry those images in my head as our four-day June cruise draws closer, but I begin to wonder why sailors from California hardly mention Avalon when discussing Catalina, one of eight Channel Islands just off the Southern California coast. They keep talking about hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, and generally chilling out. They say we should sail to the west end instead. And this presents a problem.

You see, my crew includes my wife, her brother, his wife-plus five teenagers who like stores and restaurants more than secluded anchorages. In New England, that means cruising to Block Island, Edgartown, or Castine or Camden. Our girls and their cousins can chill out for a while with the best of them, but going to Avalon will be on our itinerary for sure.

Entering our first anchorage at Howland Landing, a dozen miles east of Avalon, I begin to see the true scale of this 22-mile-long island. Above the rocky beach, a rugged, empty valley spreads into the island's interior, its surrounding hills climbing 2,000 feet above us into the blue Pacific sky. As far as I can see, the hills are barren, covered only with grasses, cactus, and other plants requiring minimal rainfall.

But at first I'm not spending much time taking in the scenery. Aboard Marley's Ghost, our Catalina 42, everyone has shaken off the listlessness from 30 easy-sailing miles from Marina del Rey, located on the Westside of Los Angeles. They all have questions for me, ranging from where we are to when they can go swimming to what's for dinner. For the most part, I tune them out as I focus on our approach to a field of closely spaced white mooring buoys. We're looking for "A-3," a mooring generously reserved for us through the Los Angeles Yacht Club.
In common with several Southern California clubs, LAYC's members lease moorings in one area of Catalina and pool them for other club members to use. LAYC has succeeded well enough over the years that they now have most of the moorings at Howland Landing, and the club has also established a simple camp facility ashore. I've been provided an honorary club membership allowing us to use the barbecue, volleyball court, and showers.
I appreciate having a welcoming destination, but right now that only serves to make me anxious about how our boat-overstuffed with cousins, aunts, and uncles-will be received. Will we fit into the quiet surroundings or leave our mark as troublemaking East Coasters? More immediately, can I get our boat successfully attached to our bow-and-stern mooring without ramming the commodore's boat?

We motor in, dead slow, and pick out "A-3," but then I notice a woman swimming languidly in the vicinity.

Should I turn around and wait outside the mooring field? Or if I drift in neutral, will she swim on? Just then, an inflatable zooms over, and Ward Davidson welcomes us to Howland, offering to help with our mooring, pointing out the best place to snorkel, and inviting us to join his group ashore when they start flipping burgers. While we talk, the swimmer moves along, and my wife, Rachel, snags the pickup buoy.

"Which is your boat?" I ask Ward as I haul up the stern loop.

"CRA-fish," he says, pointing her out. "A 42 just like yours. We've got three generations, a total of 10 aboard."
Ninety minutes later, the flippers and snorkels have been deployed, the kids have snorkeled along the rocks and back, and the transom showers are complete-50 gallons of water later, no doubt. The harbor patrol has been by to collect $28 for the mooring, and I feel good that we've arrived in a friendly, secure anchorage. But I'm still fidgety. Do I have things well enough organized? Why can't the kids keep all the duffel bags zipped up? How are we doing on our power consumption and refrigeration?

I dive off the back of the boat and let the cool but comfortable water-in the high 60s F-refresh me. It's time to turn off the noise machine inside my head. Ward and his gang already have the fire going, and I realize it's OK to relax for a few minutes and enjoy the late-day sun. Soon enough we'll rustle up our burgers, dogs, and salad and head ashore. There we'll meet several other club members, no doubt, and enjoy a quiet welcome to their offshore cruising grounds.

Mid-June is still early season at Catalina, and the harbors aren't full. Southern California's "June Gloom" is supposed to be hanging heavily over us, but the days are warm and clear. Overnight, the wind shifts just enough north of east to rock us around a little. This gets me out of my sleeping bag to move the dinghy to the other side of the stern mooring line so it won't bump our hull. In the morning, the tops of the hills are obscured by clouds, yet the water is clearer, giving a good view of our moorings beneath the keel.

Everyone is slow to get up, and I notice Ward's clan is finishing a morning hike before our kids are out of their bunks. By the time we eat and go ashore, the sun is hot for our hike to nearby Emerald Bay-a much larger cove with a promise of good snorkeling at an offshore outcrop called Indian Rock. We scrabble our way down a steep hillside from the dirt road and explore a section of beach, much of which is covered with smooth stones mounded so deeply that you feel as if you're wading in them as you walk.

Under way shortly after noon, we motor down the northern side of Catalina. The San Diego half of our crew has school the next day, so I point us toward Avalon, where they can catch a catamaran ferry, the 35-knot Marina del Rey Flyer (www. catalinaferries.com). We could put them on an earlier ferry from nearby Two Harbors, but we don't want to say good-bye so fast. Plus we can't miss Avalon.

I don't mind the scenery at all as we chug along the steep sides of the island, 95 percent of which is owned, preserved, and protected by the Catalina Conservancy (www.catalinaconservancy.org). First we pass Two Harbors, a tiny town a couple of miles east of Howland. The island narrows to half a mile at this point, with Isthmus Cove on our side and Catalina Harbor on the far side. Open to the northeast, Isthmus Cove is shielded somewhat by the only significant obstructions to navigation on the entire northern side of the island: Eagle Reef, Ship Rock, and Bird Rock, plus a well-marked inner shoal. As we steam by, I decide we'll come back here for our third and final night.

Will we find a mooring in crowded Avalon? Our advisers said it would be too crowded on Saturday night, but that Sunday should be fine. They're right-the harbor is only two-thirds full.

Maneuvering to the mooring is a bit like finding your seat in a football stadium-motor down to row V, turn right, don't bump into boats already settled in their spots, and watch out for surprises, such as a loaded dinghy under way. Once you find your mooring and have the pickup buoy aboard and the loop for your bow pendant on the cleat, you pull up the messenger line between bow and stern loops until the stern loop comes up to your transom. When the mooring loops are too far apart, I find that leading a dock line through the stern loop and back to a winch snugs us up just fine.

Ashore, we wander near the head of the bustling main pier, scoping out the shopping emporiums, learning where the grocery store is, and soon finding ourselves in a Mexican restaurant. Even though we've only been on the island for 24 hours, it's a shock to be surrounded by people, ordering nachos and burritos, and watching the Red Sox on television. In some ways, I'm regretting Avalon already-but in fact, the maragarita tastes pretty good. After our early dinner, we see our cousins off and then get serious. Rachel and the girls take off, and I find a quiet bench along the waterfront and dig into my book.

Once upon a time, the Catalina Casino was a leading-edge entertainment complex. Built in the late 1920s, the 1,200-person downstairs auditorium was the first theater acoustically engineered for talking movies. Upstairs, the ballroom dance floor could accommodate 2,500 couples. When Rachel and I investigate in the morning, the casino isn't open for viewing. We walk around outside, taking note of its mix of storefronts for dive lessons, paragliding, art galleries, and a museum store where we watch a video history of the casino. Although many concerts and dances still occur here, the grandeur of the place probably isn't what it was when you came on a black-tie ferry ride to see and be seen at a movie premiere.

Going back in time might be the theme of the day. In the afternoon, we walk a dusty road that spans the half mile from Two Harbors, on Isthmus Cove, to Catalina Harbor. Although there's some construction under way in the town, we're soon walking a much older landscape. We pass a vintage windmill, an old tire swing under a solitary tree, and not much else. We rest on a bench by a rusty service van and gaze out at Cat Harbor, where a couple of dozen cruising boats are spread along its skinny length. Then it's back to Two Harbors for ice cream and some bags of ice for our drinks cooler.

The next morning is our last, and Rachel and I hike a mile or so to the east, around tiny Fourth of July Cove. It's cloudy and cool at this hour. When we look down from the high road at Fourth of July Yacht Club, we can see an exercise class in front of the clubhouse. Around the next bend, we follow a path to a promontory with a good view of Cherry Cove. At its end, a Catalina Conservancy bench bears a plaque that gives us a good sense of just how hooked cruisers get on this island's anchorages. It reads: "In memory of Virginia and Fred Bice. A 50-year love affair with each other and Cherry Cove."

On our walk back, we meet a fellow cruiser off a Catalina 36 who's been sailing here for 20 years. I suggest to her that maybe we've tried to fit in too much; maybe we should've stayed in one place and relaxed. "Oh, no," she says. "I like to move around and get to know different harbors."

On the way home, motoring across an oily Pacific swell, we see a seal, a few dolphins, and then a bunch more seals on the mooring drums off Manhattan Beach. The girls read and snooze. Fresh from setting a transpacific record, the 120-foot trimaran Geronimo paces by, probably doing 14 knots in seven knots of breeze. Our main is up, at first just to reduce the rolling, but by the time we cross San Pedro Channel, the jib's unfurled and the diesel's silent. The cool Pacific air fills up my lungs, and our bow tosses a light spray across the deck.

Is it over too soon? Did I learn enough about Catalina cruising? I think back to our three days and realize that on our first night I may have come as close to finding the essence of Catalina as I ever will: I'm in my sleeping bag in the cockpit, and it's cool, almost chilly as I read my book with a flashlight perched on my shoulder. Eventually I stir and look around. The water laps against the hull. There are no bugs. And above the dodger, a brilliant canopy of stars looks down on me.

Should we have gone to Avalon first, or West End? What would real Catalina cruisers do? Well, they probably do what works for them. For our two families, they might suggest we all take a deep breath and gaze far into the stars.