Rugged California — posted by Erin

It has been interesting to see my home state, California, from a new perspective over the past few weeks. The Southern California that I grew up in was crowded, sophisticated, hot, sprawling, and relatively sheltered from harm (as long as you didn’t mind the occasional earthquake). But the California that we’ve been experiencing from the water is much different — it’s beautifully rugged, desolate, expansive, and exposed to often brutal wind and seas.

We’re anchored off of Santa Cruz Island right now, in a cove called Albert’s on the south side of the island. We’ve been on and off the island for more than a week and have been able to experience relative leisure. (Thankfully there are no grocery stores within walking or swimming distance!) We are truly in a world of our own out here. Last week we were anchored on the north side of the island, in Fry’s Harbor, and didn’t see another boat for days. Now we’re on the south side and once again isolated in our private anchorage — it’s just us, along with the sea lions, pelicans, and gulls enjoying the steep cliffs and rugged coastline.

It has been windy, though. And cold. Santa Cruz Island is an isolated landmass more than 25 miles from the mainland, and with that comes unpredictable wind and big seas. Last week we sat at anchorage during a Santa Ana wind that exceeded 40 knots, and over the weekend a gale whipped across the island at more than 55 knots. (Before the gale blew in we decided to hightail it to Ventura and hunker down in the safety of a marina.) Now, a few days after the gale, the seas still haven’t settled. We’re riding one swell after another on our anchor chain, feeling like cowboys on a bucking bronco.

It’s interesting… I thought the Channel Islands would be teeming with boats. This is Southern California, after all, one of the most populated places on earth, per capita. The guidebook that we’re using describes 30-40 boats anchored in the same coves that we have all to ourselves. When I was a kid, I never imagined California having an off-season — every month was golden in the Golden State. But out in the ocean things are different. We’re riding out weather and storms much rougher than what blows through here during the spring and summer months. But in return, we get the place to ourselves.

We took advantage of the isolation last week, and spent some time exploring the underwater world of Fry’s Harbor. It was a great way to experience the open ocean, sans instructor. Fry’s Harbor is a small anchorage no deeper than 30 feet, and there were some kelp beds and big schools of fish to check out.

I descended into the water first and waited on my knees in the sand for Brian. Within seconds of getting to the bottom, a group of seven or eight Gopher Rockfish swam up to check me out. They stared into my mask, swam down to my knees and back, and then did circles around me. I must’ve looked odd to them in my thick wetsuit, hood, gloves, boots, and tank. When Brian arrived, they left, but so did two massive Bay Rays that were buried in the sand next to us. After exploring the kelp and swimming with a couple of schools of fish, we decided to swim back up to the surface. Right when my head came out of the water, I felt something big behind me. With much trepidation (I’d been thinking about sharks the entire time we were swimming), I turned around to see a Harbor Seal within a foot from me. He stared at me for a few seconds before I realized what was happening, screamed, and quickly swam away. He must’ve felt badly about scaring me because later that night he was swimming circles around our boat for 15-20 minutes, scratching his back on our keel and looking up at us with his big, curious eyes.

Tonight we’re going to sail 67 miles to Catalina Island to escape the swells, the wind, and the cold (we hope). Catalina is much more developed than Santa Cruz Island, and populated. We aren’t expecting to be the only boat around, but we’re excited to head further south. I have a feeling it’ll be a lot more like the Southern California that I remember as a kid, only on the water, and with beautiful anchorages in place of crowded parking lots.