Field Notes: Exploring Catalina-Final Act

Coming out of Little Harbor, the conditions proved to be exactly what they looked like. The 10 mph west wind hammered us and there was no chance of even taking a stroke on the right side. After about 45 mins of futile floundering Dave and I made the call to swing back and check on Whitney before we got too far ahead. This was her trial by fire. Her first ocean SUP outing was yesterday and it was gravy. Today Mother Ocean was showing some teeth.

As we approached her, we were impressed to see her still on her feet and making some ground. We told her we were calling the boat to get us out of there and she didn’t protest. Getting back on the 45-foot sailboat in these seas was another trick and Dave’s 14-foot Zephyr got drilled by the bottom of the ladder and punched a hole almost clean through. The storm was stacking up against this southwest facing side of the island and the forecast was grim. Small craft advisories were likely overnight and gale force winds for the next day.

We sailed down the coast with Catalina’s towering white cliffs as a backdrop. The wind direction was coming more side-shore now and the sun was forcing its way out. Conditions were ripening for a little downwinder and we started to get the boards ready to hop back in.

From the helm I could see Dave near the bow, strumming a tune on his guitar (I like to think it was Uncle Johns Band) and looking over the port side with raised curiosity. Capt Oakie and I moved over to see what it was. A couple of feet under the surface was a, seemingly resting, 16-foot Great White Shark, half rolled on its side offering the white contrast of his underbelly against the deep blue water. Now, having never seen a Great White, it doesn’t register at first. Then when it does, even the security of being on deck of a boat didn’t seem like enough. We swung around to see if we could get another look but no luck. Instead we saw a small sea lion, surfing along the swells headed towards us. Everyone on board was pretty sure that we were about to witness some food chain action but it must have been this little guy’s lucky day.

Now, doing a downwinder on an SUP, is pretty much my favorite aspect of the sport and I was eager to get on with it. But I also felt better giving it another mile or two to distance us from the largest carnivore I had ever seen. Once we did hit the water again, someone would’ve had to remind me what we saw back there, the fun factor was far outweighing the risk, and even on these touring-specific SUP’s we were catching some stellar bumps.

The dreamy little runners we were picking up started to get pinched off by the next turn of the island and the water was flattening out. There was a growing concern about the weather and where we would be and when. The decision was made to get us within 10 miles of Avalon and paddle to the harbor so we could set sail back to the mainland before the storm.

On that stretch we came upon the aptly named Seal Rocks and the place was silly with Sea Lions lining the shore and perched on the outcropping. Sticking outside the kelp line felt like a safe distance away as some of these big boys looked in excess of 500-pounds

I guess things had been slow lately because suddenly we were the talk of the town and within a minute they were all in the water, a couple hundred sea lions barking in chorus and darting under the boards. As we moved on around the point, a couple of them stayed in tow, investigating closer every once in awhile. Seals and Sea Lions are everywhere on Catalina and their playful presence always brings a smile to my face.

We paddled on towards Avalon and I had felt like I had a good picture in my head about what to expect after looking at so many pictures beforehand to orient myself with Catalina. None of those pictures did any justice and rounding Abalone Point into the bustling Avalon Bay was a jaw dropping sight. Catalina Casino sits like a timeless beacon and the Mediterranean-tiled bungalows and houses nestled in the hills create an ambiance that can’t possibly be on U.S. soil. But here it is. We put in on the beach and immediately the town draws you in to its storefronts and restaurants and bars, just like it has to seafarers for ages. The only thing I wanted to do was roam the streets and dig on the cool vibe. Not to be on this visit though. Sadly, it was back to packing up the boat and securing the gear for what was looking like a gnarly sail home. –Ron Ayres

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Photos: Fuze Group