Northern Channel Islands

Friday October 16         

It’s leisure time: no immediate deadlines. After coffee and breakfast Jerry and I leave RD by dinghy to explore the five islands that make up the Channel Islands off the shores of southern California. They are lumped together with a common name and look, but the close inspection available to someone sailing along the shores at 6 knots begins to yield their differences. Each has its own shape, geology, topography, unique sites to see and story to tell. The northern Channel Islands are made up of San Miguel, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz. San Miguel is the furthest out and beyond our reach — or saved for the next time we pass this way.

Santa Barbara Island is our first port of call, and we head to Betcher’s Bay, a long semicircular bite providing protection from most winds. We long to get to shore, but the swells of only one to two feet are crashing on the beach making landing conditions beyond what we judge prudent to attempt. We had to be satisfied anchored within a tantalizing 100 yards of the land. So we stretched out in the cockpit, propped up the cockpit cushions to make chaise lounges. We satisfied ourselves captivated by with a stunning view and a couple of margaritas.

Following advice from our Santa Barbara friends we allocated two days to visit Santa Cruz Island.  Our first destination was Painted Cave, on the northwest shore. it is believed to be the largest/longest sea cave in the world.   The first of its four rooms has a gaping mouth stretching from the sea floor to a height of 150 feet, easily enough room for a sailboat to enter. And many have tried – — with success. A fleeting vision of a photograph of RD inside the cave came to mind, but I consulted with Raven’s Dance who declined my offer. (Donn: just to keep your trust in me as the captain, there was no chance that I would take any such risk, other than in my fantasies).

We want to visit the sea cave, but there is no safe anchorage nearby, and the guide book advises that the holding is poor and if you anchor off the cave leave someone on board. Our problem is that only two of us are on board. Mother Nature doesn’t seem to invite many visitors.   Its remoteness, lack of nearby anchorage, poor holding ground offshore and the usual NW surge conspire to keep visitors away.

Undaunted, Jerry launched me in the dink and took command of the mother ship circling in a holding pattern off shore while I braved the surge and dinked into the cave. It was tricky splitting my attention between gawking at this awesome cavern, listening to the growling echoes and driving the dink in a washing machine.   There are four successive rooms, but I didn’t think it prudent to go in any further under the prevailing surge. Sometimes we just go as far as we can.  But I am satisfied to know the Painted Cave, and I can add it to my list of a places few have reached. I’ve floated inside the world’s largest sea cave, and I am absurdly proud of it.

I seldom have regrets about moving on to the next site, however I regret we did not backtrack and attempt another visit the following morning. Oh to have seen the second and the third and the fourth rooms! Humanity goes to Mars with the same innate drive to expand our reach.

Caught between my opposing desire for adventure into the cave and a primitive instinct to survive (knowing that even a slight injury to myself or my dinghy could turn life-threatening in an instant), I chose a path of “prudent risk”.   Is there such a thing? I hope so because I think it is this practice has allowed me lots of adventures (and a few close brushes with death) and kept me safe in the process. It is the zone I sail in with RD. Every night we set an anchor with a lee shore at our back.   That’s the risk part. And after doing so we sit in the cockpit with our evening drink and observe our holding for 15 minutes. That’s the prudent part.   We also live by the sage advice “trust and double check” by setting two anchor drag alarms. If we do drag I’d like to be crudely awakened well before I hear the horrific sound of fiberglass being ground up by rock. So far so good!

Later in the day we anchored at Little scorpion — another picturesque and well-protected anchorage. And this time I got to practice the skill of beach-landing a dinghy while remaining right side up. It requires accurate timing and confident guts.   Perhaps he who hesitates is not lost, but he surely will be upside down.

The launch back into the surf is even more challenging.  Better not bring your auto-inflate PFD as it may go off in the wet process of launching the dink into the surf. Not so long ago my cell phone got wet and never spoke to me again.

Never will I feel more like a Navy seal as when Jerry is on one side of the dink and I on the other giving the command “go, go, go”. And once again he who hesitates is upside down in the hilarious failed attempt at a launch. Always take the time to stop and watch a dinghy launch into the surf. You might learn something you need to know, or you might laugh at a good slapstick comedy. I’m sorry we have no video of our launches.

Smuggler’s Cove was exposed to our winds and otherwise over-rated so we decided to double back and anchor at Little Scorpion harbor.

Everywhere we go we are fortunate in unexpected ways. Don, an elderly park ranger, took a personal interest in us (perhaps because we showed interest in him) and gave us a private tour, including the attempt to raise sheep on the island –which collapsed when the price of wool plummeted in 1983. The mechanical remnants of this business lay scattered about. We walked through the artifacts of someone else’s dream — always an eerie thing and better done with humility and reverence.

For several successive days I have proclaimed this the best day yet. And here I am doing it again.




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