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Finding Safe Harbor at Catalina's Isthmus

Catalina is a great getaway for Marina del Rey boaters but know what you're doing before you helm your own craft across the sea.

Vividly I remember my first visit to Isthmus Harbor. I had taken the Catalina Express to go camping there, but I was struck by the conviviality shared by the sailors at the bar. I was roughing it at a campsite, but the people around me had put their faith in their boats and set to sea, far more of a challenge. I was eager to do the same myself. In my many visits back as a sailor, I’ve always enjoyed the trip.

Santa Catalina Island is a marvelous getaway for boaters in Marina del Rey. The island is 22 miles long, eight miles across at its widest. It's just 22 miles from the mainland, a mile further than the distance across the English Channel, yet it's a world away from L.A.’s smog, freeways and traffic. If you've ever watched the 1935 best picture Oscar winner Mutiny on the Bounty you've seen Isthmus Harbor.

The settlement at the isthmus is inhabited by less than three hundred souls who provide services for the visitors. There’s a general store, school for kids, a couple of yacht clubs, a snack bar, full restaurant and bar with a dance floor. It's popular with boaters because at 30 miles away it's the shortest distance to any Catalina harbor from Marina del Rey.

Visitors swim, hike, snorkel through crystal clear waters, as well as have access to a couple of public tennis courts and volleyball on the beach. Fishing is first rate. USC’s Wrigley Science Marine Center is based at two harbors and offers tours to the public. Catalina’s marine life highlights include bright orange Garabaldi fish, and flying fish. The island also has numerous bison. If you hike to the backcountry to see them, be wary of cactus and rattlesnakes.

The destination will be more convenient for boaters this summer with the start of for moorings. If you do plan to go I urge making a reservation in advance. Some moorings will still be available first come first served but there won’t be many. Expect them to be gone quickly.

If you can’t moor you’ll have to , a challenge in Catalina because you’re trying to hook the side of a mountain that rises from a channel that’s 3,000 feet deep.  You can realistically expect to anchor in at least 50-60 feet of water. With a scope of 5:1, that means an anchor rode of 300 feet. Be sure to check it before you leave. You should have at least two in case you find an anchorage where everybody else is moored fore and aft.  

Here are some steps to follow: The first is simply making sure that you have a big enough boat. I’ve been over there in a range of craft from a 25 foot sloop to a 43 foot ketch. People can make it in far smaller vessels, but I wouldn’t do it in anything less than a 20 foot boat with a motor, and below deck galley, berth and head. Make sure that you know your boat thoroughly before taking it across. I suggest day sails and an overnight cruise to  ahead of time to get your sea legs.

Check the weather conditions before you leave. Be sure to have at the very least the following: a chart to show you water depth and compass bearings, a working motor in case you get becalmed, marine radio and navigation lights, bilge pump and compass.

For emergencies, the Coast Guard will require that every person on the boat has a personal floatation device, PFD. Radar, a GPS, and depth gauge are handy extras. A working flare gun is recommended as is a well stocked first aid kit.

It's essential to bring a couple of bright flashlights. Binoculars are a good idea; those with image stabilization are even better. I always bring swim goggles or a mask. More than once now on other skipper's boats, I've had to duck underwater to free a line from a propeller shaft, an impossible task if you can barely see.

It's a good idea to have your own dinghy, always with oars, preferably with a working motor. Blow it up before you leave to make sure it holds air. Carry a patch kit and pump. If you don't have a dinghy, you can always take a shore boat to get on land.

Make sure that you are well provisioned. Everything costs more on the island, especially gas and diesel fuel, so take as much as you can. Be sure to bring plenty of food and water. If you indulge in so called recreational chemicals, it's a good idea to leave them at home. If you get stopped by the Coast Guard in possession of them, you could have your boat seized.

One advantage of taking a powerboat to Isthmus Harbor is speed. A friend made it to Catalina recently on his 33 foot fishing boat in less than 90 minutes. If you sail, expect to take between six and nine hours. On the trip across, remember to apply sunblock frequently.

Many days to get to Isthmus Harbor you can readily see the island and aim for the dip in the mountain range that reveals Two Harbors. If you can’t see the island in the mist, follow a compass course of 170 degrees magnetic, nearly due south. Your return trip to Marina del Rey will be magnetic 350.

If you’re sailing, don’t hug the Palos Verdes Peninsula. You can get caught in a wind shadow there. Conversely, you’ll be drawing close to Two Harbors in the afternoon. There the winds will be up, funneled through the isthmus, so expect these conditions when you approach.

Know the rules of the road for both and  but don't ever try to enforce that old saw of sail over power. Your course will intersect with some of the most active container shipping routes in the world. If you notice that a ship is on constant bearing and closing distance, you are on a collision course. Aim for the larger ship's stern. Be careful with tug boats, especially if you travel at night.  They frequently tow barges, so look for them and aim for the stern of the entire tandem.

If you aren't an experienced boater, it's a good idea to crew on somebody else's boat first to see how it's done, before taking on the responsibility yourself.

Once you are ready, have fun. Unlike like a trip to the mountains in a car, when you sail to the island your vacation begins the moment you clear the marina breakwater. On recent Catalina trips, I encountered a couple of whales and hundreds of dolphins, fellow mammals who saw us off from the mainland with good wishes to spare.

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