“How it goes with the first day’s traveling, so it will be with the rest of the journey.” - Sami proverb
I was wrong. There is no cell coverage on the backside of Catalina. Which is fine. There is something fitting about being out of contact with land when one is at sea. It reinforces the sense that you have left civilization. Perhaps we didn’t just sail over miles of distance, you ponder as you watch the sun set from the Pacific rim. Perhaps we sailed outside of time.
I’ve made about a half dozen trips to Catalina Island. There is a certain predictability to the voyage. You sail out, usually on a beam reach, and around sunset you reach the first and smaller of Catalina’s two ports. If Avalon is the island’s Disneyland, Two Harbor’s is like staff housing. Visitors to Two Harbors are less likely to dress up and more likely to walk in to the port’s only restaurant wearing foul weather gear.
Greg and I actually met there during their Buccaneer Days festival in 2012. He was dressed like Will Turner from Pirates of the Caribbean. I looked more like Peter Pan’s Mr. Smee. At the end of the evening, separated from my companions, I came upon him for the second time. “It’s you,” I said, the alcohol having taken all of my poeticism away. “And it’s you,” he replied. We spent the rest of the evening together. I still have a ripped corner piece of notebook paper stuck to my fridge with his phone number on it. Underneath is reads: “For a sexy pirate. Greg.”
After a night out at the restaurant you spend the day lounging on the boat or snorkeling, you take coin-operated showers and make dinner on the boat, then head back again to Marina del Rey, again with the wind on the beam. It’s easy, and I like the trip to Two Harbors for this – for its lack of pretense or surprises.
Neither Greg nor I had ever made the trip to “the backside.” When I mentioned our plans to two salty sailors a week ago, one of them asked rhetorically, “Why?”
Most people don’t venture there for the same reasons they don’t go to the northern Channel Islands: there are no facilities. It is also more exposed to sea and wind. But both Greg and I were in search of a new adventure and, after having faced 50-knot Santa Ana winds a few months prior, we scoffed at the prospect of wind.
We knew the trip would take longer than the usual leg to Two Harbors and we wanted to leave enough time to anchor while it was still light out. We were at the fuel dock when they opened, just after 7 a.m., and out on the ocean by 8. We’re never out that early. The city looked different at that hour, and newly washed from recent rains. As we raised sail, I was filled with a sense of anticipation.
“Adventure awaits!” I exclaimed giddily.
Along the way light winds turned to very little wind. It was hot.
As we hit the shipping lanes and Greg diverted course to avoid a giant container ship, I read aloud from a remarkable account of a rescue mission during the 1996-7 Vendée Globe Race.
The Vendée is perhaps the most rigorous sailing race there is, in which single-handed sailors see who can circumnavigate the fastest. In the story I read a sailor named Pete Goss gets caught in a massive storm in the Southern Ocean, experiencing “a fall in barometric pressure of 36 millibars in 24 hours and most of that in the last twelve.”
Goss writes, “I tried to ignore the feeling of uneasiness but it followed me around the boat as I checked that everything was as it should be. Fear was not an emotion which I associated with the sea. Of course, I respected the ocean but for me it was no longer an alien environment, it had become my way of life over the years and I was comfortable in its presence.”
As the storm builds, Goss is barely able to take down his sails fast enough. Leaving one tiny bit of canvas up, “little more than the size of a tablecloth,” the boat is still flying along at 27 knots. She gets smacked down, and Goss looks out to see the spreaders in the water. Then she pitch-poles and is completely submerged. And that’s when Goss gets a message via satellite communications: a mayday from another sailor in the race, 160 miles away.
The towering container ship passed by us on the port side as I finished the story and we soon emerged on the other side of the shipping lanes, about 30 miles out, where the ocean became a vivid shade of teal. I made a lunch of meatloaf and tomato jam and a spinach salad with baby beets pickled with juniper berries.
I don’t want to spoil the ending of the Pete Goss story; you should read it yourself. But he is now a polar adventurer as well as a sailor, and the man he rescued is featured in this article: “French daredevil plans ‘green’ New York to Paris flight.” The plane will be fueled by nothing but “seaweed and sunshine.” Apparently, nearly going down with his ship after getting hit by a six-story wave was not enough of an adventure.
The “front” side of Catalina faces the mainland; the backside faces the vastness of the Pacific. We could see three other islands from our hike to the top of the ridge the next day: San Clemente, where the military routinely tests their fire power; Santa Barbara Island, a small hump of an island to the northwest, and San Nicolas, a barren patch of earth another 40 miles out to sea which I would wager most Californians don’t know exists.
Though it seems like a small thing, to approach the island heading east along its northern shore was in itself a novelty. We passed the West End, nearing Eagle Rock, and the topography immediately changed. It was like a line had been drawn down the island’s middle: green hills on one side, barren dusty cliff-sides on the other. The wind came around and pushed us along from behind.
I brought up Greg’s recent proposal to sail with him to Central America. In my research I’d stumbled upon the island of Curacao, a place I’d never really thought about. I said if I joined him, I wanted to add it to the list. But then I told him I was having second thoughts – because I still want to meet someone and fall in love and have children. If sailing away with him put me further from that possibility, maybe it wasn’t the right thing to do.
“The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive,” he said.
We arrived in Little Harbor about an hour before sunset. The harbor is actually two little harbors in a “w” shape, with Little Harbor on one side and Shark Harbor on the other. Extending inward from the starboard side of the “w” is a line of boulders that serve to practically enclose Little Harbor, though they create a small break in high tide.
Looking in toward land there’s a small stand of palm trees, nestled oasis-like between the hills. I made my welcome drink as planned and Greg inflated the kayak. We climbed to the top of the rock that separates Little Harbor from Shark Harbor on the inland side and watched the sunset. Then we came back down and grilled flank steak and vegetables for dinner. As we ate the sky filled with stars and planets – Mars, Venus and Jupiter – and the full moon rose from behind the island and illuminated Little Harbor like a spotlight.