I ran down the dock under the cover of the warm afternoon light, eager to trade my work attire for bare feet and shorts. Avocet sat in her slip with the engine purring, disrupting the calm water beneath her while Chris was at the helm, looking as ready as ever to kiss the dock goodbye and chase the sun that was setting over the horizon. With the dock lines stowed away for safekeeping we left the breakwater at 5:30, setting our course south towards Catalina Island.
With our homeport of Ventura shrinking in the distance, we settled into the constant motion of the following sea, being pushed along solely by the wind that filled our sails. I retrieved two warm bowls of chickpea curry from the galley, a hearty meal to prepare us for our night passage that was quickly approaching. It would be our first night passage without additional crew, and I was a little nervous to be on watch alone with nothing but the moon and stars to keep me company. For the past two months I had been studying for my USCG Captains License and was itching to apply what I had learned to the real world- the ultimate test of my newfound navigation knowledge.
As time progressed the wind decreased to less than a breath, giving our hungry spinnaker a run for it’s money as it struggled to stay full. Just before 8:00 pm we decided to change our tactics, dousing the spinnaker and deploying our headsail. The gentle “fwump” sound of the sails combined with the calibration noise of our autopilot (named R2Sea2) was music to our ears as it was the sound of movement. We slowly pushed through the water creeping up to 2.4 knots as the swell continued to push us on our stern quarter. We sailed wing-on-wing catching the little wind we could. Chris was determined to truly sail rather than motor and despite our lack of speed, we were still making way, and were in no rush so enjoyed the sound of mother nature’s symphony. A single dolphin played in our wake, only seen by its phosphorescent glow and heard by its breach.
The Milky Way Galaxy glowed off our starboard bow untouched by the light polluted land to our port. the sound of cars driving in the distance echoed across the water as they travelled in parallel to us, their lights insuperior to the stars in the sky. Just as I was scanning the horizon a huge *SPLASH* hit off our portside. I thought for sure something had fallen off the boat, exclaiming “Oh SH!T!” while attempting to process what it was. Chris joined me, and tried to convince me that what I had heard was a dolphin, but I thought the splash sounded like a marlin. Just as he was about to denounce my prediction a 4’-5’ marlin jumped again off our stern, slapping its belly on impact. Then again. And again. And then another one joined. We were in awe and just as we had reached for the camera the jumping fish had done their last stunt and disappeared into the ink black sea.
Just as predicted the wind died at 8:30 and to Chris’s dismay we furled the headsail and turned on the Perkins before he retired below deck for his first round of sleep. At last, it was just me in the cockpit surrounded by the sounds of the sea and the occasional VHF chatter on channel 16. I entered navigation notes into my digital log every 30 minutes while trying to decipher the ship lights off in the distance. For the next 3 hours I would be Avocet’s captain, keeping us on course and scanning the horizon for hazards. While looking through my binoculars I watched a single shooting star fall behind our stern; I wished for wind. By 10:00 pm Avocet was nearly through the shipping lane, and I was deep in poetic thought, far from cell service and the distractions so easily available on land. I felt so small as I looked over our starboard side to see the line where the sky met the sea blurring into one void, dark yet inviting as we continued to gravitate towards it.
At 11:00 pm Chris emerged from below to take my place at the helm. I took 3 melatonin and gave my watch debrief while waiting for the supplements to take effect. Before I retired a slight breeze returned and Chris’s first act as captain-on-watch was to deploy the headsail and catch whatever wind was present. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of water rush against the hull and the whistle of wind between the halyards. Cleo curled under my neck, purring. Naturally, as I began to doze off the wind died, replacing the peaceful serenity with the rumble of the engine. I smooshed a pillow over my head to muffle the noise into something bearable, falling asleep shortly after.
In the early hours of the new day I took the helm again, trading my pajamas for my heavy jacket and beanie. My second watch made up for the lack of excitement in the first round, pushing me to my limits of comfort and testing my knowledge of navigation lights. It was 3:00 am and the wind direction changed again, filling the other side of our sail that was up for stabilization. We motored along at a steady rate while I tried to identify the lights of the vessels along our course. Most of the large ships were idle, not anchored, floating like zombie ships waiting for brains (or diesel). The port of Long Beach was full, pushing cargo vessels to wait and anchor on the outskirts. This was uncommon but a trend recently since 2020, seen in various places such as the SF Bay, Los Angeles, and Boston… if you are missing something you ordered online there is a good chance it was stuck on one of the waiting vessels. Only a handful of these vessels displayed the proper lights, causing a disconnect between the classroom and real life experience. I adjusted course accordingly, but one vessel in particular had me scratching my head, unsure of the best move. There was still plenty of distance between us and the mystery vessel, so I continued to look for apparent dangers.
Time really flies when you’re alone with your thoughts. The boat vitals remained unchanged as I noted them carefully into my log. My mouth was watering as I thought of the breakfast burritos I had prepared for this trip that were waiting in the fridge; I couldn’t tell what was louder: the Perkins or my stomach growling. Two captains chattered on the VHF defining their intentions as we all were lacing our way through the ships that were standing by. I could see lights off our bow but not well enough to determine the risk. My fingers were cold as they gripped the binoculars, bringing them to my eyes every 10 minutes to scan the horizon as the large ships were growing more dense in numbers. Around 5:00 am the vessel-in-question was within a mile of us. I was still unsure of their heading, and couldn’t decipher their navigation lights so I adjusted our course to starboard a bit to avoid collision. As we got closer I decided I needed a second opinion and woke Chris up 10 minutes before his watch.
“We are fine, our course doesn’t intersect” he said confidently as we approached the monstrosity that toward over us. In the early hours of the morning, the vessel was merely a dark shape against an even darker backdrop, only lit by its cabin lights and questionable navigation lights. Almost as soon as the words left his mouth, the vessel gave us one blast of their horn signaling to us we should adjust further to port. We did as instructed and were then our horizon was free from obstruction. There was nothing between us and the outer tip of Catalina Island. Since Chris was awake he offered to take over so I could get some sleep. He promised to wake me up at sunrise so I could enjoy the entire day from start to finish. After a quick kiss and one last look over the bow I snuggled into our blankets alongside Cleo who purred me to sleep once more.
Just as instructed Chris woke me up at dawn so I wouldn’t miss the first light, and went a step further to hand me a cup of tea he had prepared for me. Our anchorage was just coming into sight as some dolphins welcomed us to the island. We anchored in Emerald Bay alongside S/V Watercolors, a Kelly Peterson 46 crewed by our friends who happen to be the coolest sailing family of 5. We anchored in 30’ behind “Indian Rock” near the outermost mooring ball where a Catalina covered in Jolly Rogers was tied. Once settled we hailed S/V Esprit, who had grabbed a mooring ball the day prior, and they joined us in the cockpit for coffee. Cleo emerged from her slumber with big stretches and made her rounds greeting our guests and checking out our new location.
Soon Cole from S/V Watercolors was at our beam chatting from his paddle board. We had recently shared an anchorage with them at Santa Cruz island when we were aboard Mama Neely’s Mason 43, Sea Castle. “I can see the family resemblance” he said as he carefully compared our boat to Sea Castle while paddling around her. They do look strikingly similar at first glance with golden accent, dark teak trim, and classic lines. Cole’s two sons could be seen jumping off their boat, perfecting their diving and cannonballs alike while Rebekah and baby Cuyler watched from the cockpit. Their energy radiated towards us as we felt the need to get moving. After some chit chat, Mitch and Quincey dinghied back to Esprit while we loaded up our newly named Fatty Knees 8′, Winglet, to stretch out legs on shore.
The sun was hot, bathing our skin in it’s golden rays. It was the first week of October but Fall clearly missed the memo at Catalina Island as the 80 degree weather was reminiscent of the summer days we never had this year in Ventura. We successfully beached our Fatty Knees and dragged her up the shore. Chris was quick to dive in the crystal clear water while I stood by appreciating the view. Behind us was a steep trail that Mitch referred to as a “scramble” that we carefully climbed up to reveal an overlook that gave us a near birds eye view of the whole anchorage and mooring field. Power lines stood tall over a semi-paved road leading off into the other side of the island while a scout camp occupied the left side of the shore, a reminder that this “remote” island was not-so-remote like our home island of Santa Cruz.
Before Mitch and Quincey left Emerald Bay for their next anchorage we met by Indian Rock for a snorkel session. Armed with our new GoPro 10 and dome casing we captured beautiful photos and videos of the ghirabaldi that curiously swim near us, yet remained just far enough out of reach. Our friends gracefully dove beneath us as I still struggled to get my feet below the waterline. In comparison, they looked like mer-people while I resembled a wounded sea lion waiting to become a larger sea creatures lunch. Chris attempted to help me by pushing me along as I continued to try my hardest to sink, making little headway. Eventually (with the help of Quincey’s dive weights) I propelled myself to the ocean floor where I grabbed a rock as a souvenir of my minor accomplishment before surfacing for air.
Back on Avocet we rinsed off in the cockpit and strung our wetsuits along the lifelines to dry. I grabbed the Stephen King novel I started a year ago in hopes I would get through more pages during this rare moment of down time. Chris sat on the foredeck watching the crew of S/V Watercolors wake surf using their inflatable dinghy and kids’ paddle board. We cheered as the family ripped through the wakes, cheering even louder at their wipe outs. After reading two out of 516 pages, I laid my book aside and started on dinner. The wind was starting to pick up and thunderheads were forming in the distance. “Do you think we should put the dinghy on deck?” Chris asked, and thank god we did.
A large system out of the north formed above us bringing the most magnificent colors at sunset along with a stagnant humidity and brisk wind chill. After reviewing the weather reports and local sources we decided to let out more scope in anticipation of the predicted winds that were noted to die around 2:00 am. As the wind built outside we enjoyed the warmth inside our cabin thanks to our diesel heater. Pitter patter, pitter patter It’s true you know: nothing excites a Californian more than rain. The first drops hit our deck sporadically, but soon the system was atop of us and opened the heavens to unadulterated rainfall. We gathered under the dodger to see the miracle for ourselves. Cleo was confused by the water droplets, sniffing the air as they would fall on her curious nose causing her to shake and swat with her paws. The strong and consistent 28 knot winds out of the North West blew us to the end of our scope about 20 yards from Indian Rock. Chris checked the deck while I secured the port lights and hatches below in anticipation of more rain but nothing could have prepared us for what would happen just a few hours later.
It was 2:00 am. Chris and I both sprung out of bed after we heard the sound of water crashing into rocks, all too close. He ran above deck, shirtless, while I scrambled to put my contact lenses in. We were less than 2 boat lengths away from Indian Rock, the system we went to bed with had left us as predicted only for a high wind gale to come in behind from the opposite direction. I threw my foulie jacket on and took the helm while Chris charged to the foredeck in hopes to bring in the additional scope that had kept us secure during the first storm. Lightening surrounded us in large cracks over the lightening while the bow lurched aggressively up and down from the 5-6’ chop every 3-5 seconds. It was like riding a pissed off bull through a china shop as white water splashed up the sides of the hull like glistening glass. With the engine on, our windlass brought up 100’ of the original 175’ of chain leaving a scope of 2:1. Although we were much further away from the rocks, it was still way to close for comfort and the 2:1 scope was extremely insufficient for the 35 knots of south easterly wind. Our windlass tore our 55 pound Vulcan from the seabed like a champ, and after struggling for a few minutes Chris managed to lash the anchor on the bow in the heavy chop without taking paint off the bow in the process. I was nervous as the spray showered him on the bow as he stood their securing the anchor, shirtless, wet, and not a life vest to be seen.
With the Anchor up I revved the engine to gain distance from shore as Chris threw 2 reefs in the main and hoisted the sail within a span of 5 minutes. I threw his pfp at him, his adrenaline keeping him warm without a shirt. With a small amount of Genoa unfurled we broke off the wind and chop at about 35 degrees and made way for deeper waters. Once a mile or so from our anchorage in 100’+ of water I turned the engine off, the sails keeping us moving at a consistent 6.5-7 kts. After about 2.5 nm we hove-too bringing the boat to a near stop, reducing the aggressive rolling and returning a small sense of comfort. At this point we were able to reconvene, layer up, and figure out a plan. Chris and I watched the lightening strikes bewildered as the dark clouds rolled over the island as if they were a direct reflection of the sea. We decided to wait out the storm from the safety of the deep water, hoven-to, then make a break for Avalon when the winds lightened up. I was fading from the excitement, my finger tips cold from the early morning air. From below deck I grabbed two blankets and a pillow, making myself comfortable in the cockpit. With the given weather, I wasn’t going anywhere in case Chris needed me.
That was the first time Chris and I had woken up and been in a bad lee-shore situation with Avocet. The fact that we were able to start the engine immediately, pull the anchor and be under sail in the matter of 10-15 minutes is paramount and a true test of our skills; The dinghy was stored up on deck, the engine through hole was open, the navigation equipment was ready and the sails needed no fiddling about- there would have been no time to waste if our anchor had been fouled or started to drag. Our only true screw up was leaving our flop stopper deployed, lazily stowing it during our early morning haste. The unit was stowed on deck while the spinnaker pole remained deployed over our beam, unable to safely take it down while maneuvering out of the anchorage. Chris didn’t feel comfortable trying to take down during transit because of the potential risk of a line being caught up in the prop, skying a halyard, or the pole getting out of hand and causing damage to ourselves or the boat. Although not ideal, it was much safer in its current position 15 feet off the water and tied taught. This is one of the biggest reason we are swapping out our rigid boom vang for the traditional block and tackle with a topping lift so we can easily use the boom to deploy the flopstopper versus the pole for faster deployment and retrieval. In retrospect, we should have pulled up our Flop Stopper when the weather flipped to sporty that afternoon, but hindsight is always 20/20
The next time I opened my eyes the sun had replaced the lightning, and blue skies replaced the clouds. The Avalon Casino could be seen off our bow. “Good morning sleepy head” Chris said, handing me coffee instead of waiting for my response. “What time is it?” I asked, still very groggy from our *exciting* night. The last time I saw Chris he was wearing his Adidas pajama pants, a PFD and nothing more, but somewhere between now and then he had added a long sleeve shirt, jacked, and beanie to his ensamble. It was 8:00 am and I was ready to rendezvous with our friends on Esprit to chat about our wild night. “Avalon Harbor, Avalon Harbor, Avalon Harbor, this is Sailing Vessel Avocet” we hailed the harbor patrol on channel 11 orchestrating a mooring reservation since it is first come, first serve. Masts teetered back and forth in the mooring field. Mitch and Quincey intercepted us on 11, meeting us at our ball to help secure the line and avoid surrounding vessels. It was a very tight squeeze, and without them I don’t think our execution would have been as graceful. Harbor patrol came by and collected our money along with the other formailties. In Avalon, they generally come aboard and drop a dye tab in your toilet to ensure your holding tank truly holds. “How was it around here last night?” Chris asked over the sound of the wind. “A lotta’ contact.” The man said before returning our credit card and making his round through the mooring field. Boats swayed back and forth in unison as they held strong on their moorings. Esprit’s tall mast could be seen swaying back and forth like a metronome.
Once situated, we boarded Esprit’s tender and made our way to shore. Mitch and Quincey had a rough night as well, and were much closer to the lightning. During the night we had texted them our plan, hoping the message would go through. Come to find out they received it and followed suit leaving their anchorage and heaving-to in deep water too. We all agreed that it was the right call give then conditions, and were ready to find a beach to make up some of the lost hours of sleep. Quincey as the nutritionist of the group located a great grab-and-go cafe where we had a healthy breakfast to start the day. The place is called Cafe Metropole and Chris won best dish with his choice of veggie panini, but we were all pleased with our options. I highly recommend that you bring your own containers since they serve in single use plastics. Additionally I think it’s important to mention that the entire island only serves water in plastic bottles due to drought and in an attempt to preserve the little water they have for the residents. So fill your water bottle aboard to avoid the excessive waste, if possible.
With full bellies and an adrenaline crash we sought after a quiet beach. It was the weekend after Buccaneer Days, and much of the island still showed their saltiest flair with jolly rogers, eye patches, parrots and more adorning the streets. We walked along the shoreline past the Casino and found the beach club. You do have to pay to use the cabanas and actual seating, but due to California coastal commissions regulations on unobstructed access to the ocean we were able to lounge on our towels on top of the sandy sea wall. The Esprit crew was quick to jump in while Chris and I cracked open a couple of cold ones while soaking in the sunshine. With the “E team” back we were tagged in and took the plunge, wetsuit free in October, enjoying life to the fullest in that very moment. The salt water washed the stress of the night before away, baptizing us, and completely making up for the hours of lost sleep. “Can we just keep going south?” I asked Chris while trying to grab a shell with my toes. He gave me that look, and I continued to float through the water. Soon enough that will be our reality, but for now we have a few months of boat work left before we can embark on our grand journey. On shore the four of us watched a large cruise ship come to port, off loading its passengers that flooded the island.
The sun began to hide behind obstacles on our little slice of heaven, prompting us to retreat to a new location. As we made our way back to the dinghy dock we crossed paths with the crew of Watercolors who had just come to the anchorage shortly after our arrival. Their son Carter was doing cannon balls off the break wall, which is when I realized that I have never seen those kids dry or out of their swim gear. We all chatted about the wretched night prior and how they faired at Emerald Bay. From the story they told it sounds like we definitely made the right choice to pull hook and heave-to. Together our extended party walked along the shoreline looking salty as ever.
Q+M dropped us off aboard Avocet where we had planned to nap. Just as I was settling into a comfy spot in the cockpit Chris stood above me with his big blue eyes and said “we worked SO hard to get here… why would we waste this by napping?” And before I knew it we were sitting in Winglet attempting to sail with the little wind we had, threading through the mooring field. Our red sail was a moving target drawing eyes from boats and the shoreline, one man on his boat called to us exclaiming how “cool” we were… and to be honest in that moment we felt it. Our home was currently in Avalon, California and tomorrow it could be somewhere entirely different – what’s cooler than that? We secretly grabbed our super soaker, hoping to battle the Watercolors kids who were already diving off their boat but Cole had other plans. As we reached their beam and got one shot on Carter, Cole executed the most beautiful cannon ball displacing the most water I have ever seen directly into our little dinghy. It was glorious, and oh-so-wet. Rebekah stood in horror apologizing for her “adult child” while I laughed harder than I had in a long time. I was still in a bikini, the GoPro was waterproof and my phone was far out of reach… it was all in good fun and I was there for it. We forfeited the fight knowing there was no way we could compete. S/V Watercolors 1, SV Avocet/Winglet 0.
Chris dropped me off on Avocet to hang my shorts and lounge in the sun to dry off. I reached for my book again making it through another whopping 3 pages before falling asleep. Winglet tacked back and forth in the distance chasing the puffs of wind. I fell asleep in the sun, Chris waking me up when he returned to move below for a proper nap alongside him in our berth. Cleo joined us, rolling up right above our heads. Time passed by and I didn’t care – we had no plans, no set schedule, and no one to please but ourselves. 5:00 came before we knew it and our stomachs growled for dinner. Esprit met us onshore for dinner at Mi Casita Mexican cantina. We were all smoked from the day and had a relatively quiet dinner after cheersing with well deserved margaritas. After dinner we walked along the Main Street ducking into Luau Larry’s for a night cap – we couldn’t leave Avalon without getting a Buffalo Milk and Wiki Wacker!
On Avocet the four of us played two games of Stans Marble Game, an underground marble game our two boats play habitually with a very competitive running scorecard. Cleo had a hard time choosing whose lap to sit on so rotated through us all while the game intensified. Live music could be heard from the Casino where a band was staged outside along the water front. They played an incredible selection of rock classics and punk getting us all to sing along from the belly of our boat where we sat in the warmth. At 10:00 the game finished and band packed up. It was quiet in the mooring field besides the sound of gen sets from power yachts. Q+M returned to Esprit safe and sound, and we were all ready for a full night of unbothered sleep; in fact, we were so unbothered we slept in.
It was 8:00 am and the coffee gurgled in the percolator filling the cabin with the warm smell of freshly brewed beans. I tossed some breakfast burritos in the oven and got the urge to bake so cubed some apples, grabbed my spices and made apple cinnamon muffins. We enjoyed the morning on the bow, watching the water and island come alive. Our friends aboard Watercolors waved goodbye as they were headed south for the Bahahaha. I hope that Chris and I can have our own sailing family someday, with kids that are even half as cool as theirs. I stowed the cabin with a muffin in my hand, undoubtably leaving crumbs with my every move. The wind was in our favor and if we were lucky we would have a lovely sail to our next destination. We struggled getting off the mooring but finally broke free, setting our sails and heading for emerald bay where we will get one more night of island magic before returning to Ventura.
Avocet sliced through the water with a hull speed of 6.5 in 9 knots of wind with full canvas. We played “leapfrog” with Esprit as we crossed each other’s course. Chris launched the drone to capture the two boats with Avalon off our sterns charging in formation towards the horizon. It was still relatively warm and we were determined to squeeze all the summer we could out of the season so we took turns sitting on the bow allowing the water to kiss our exposed skin. We scoped our Two Harbors, 4th Of July Cove, and Cherry Cove, but without a mooring the depth to anchor was nearly 80’ which we were uncomfortable with. Esprit agreed with our assessment and the two of us were off again with a course set for Emerald Bay where we set our hook a bit farther from Indian Rock in case we experienced a change in wind direction… you know… speaking from experience.
We cleaned up a bit then rowed over to Esprit for dinner with special guests from SV Salty Bob who we had met through Instagram. I have never been disappointed from a thing that has come from Esprit’s galley and this dinner was no exception; Q had prepared a vegetarian chili and corn bread while I brought a cheese plate mostly due to the fact I had raw honeycomb that I wanted to share. It was a great evening sharing stories and getting to know Ira and Greg from Salty Bob and their sailing plans. I sincerely hope we share an anchorage again someday and look forward to following along with their adventures through social media – give them a follow!
I popped 4 melatonin at 9:00 pm and was down for the count by 9:30 getting as much sleep as possible before our sail back to Ventura in the morning. The anchor was up by 12, Chris managing to handle it all by himself while he urged me to stay in bed with Cleo. My deep sleep turned into hours of cat napping while listening to the engine go on and off as my husband attempted to keep the sails full for as long as possible- we may have only been moving 3 knots but hell if we are making headway the engine remains off! As always, Chris woke me up at sunrise and despite Cleos contest I got up and relieved him of his watch. Strangely enough, our little adventure cat decided to be brave and climb the companionway steps to join me outside. It was cold, but she curled up in our folding chair with her yellow eyes wide open at every sound and movement. I tucked her into Chris’s jacket, her eyes staying on me the whole time, and before I knew it she was sound asleep.
Chris had set our course for Anacapa Island, where we planned to spend a few hours of the day before making our final sail back to port. I picked up the book Chris left in the cockpit: Sailing a Serious Ocean by John Kretchemer… he had read this a handful of times and the pages were dog eared, stained, and well loved. I scanned the horizon for danger then began reading chapter 1. Esprit was off our quarter, sharing our course in parallel on our way to the island. Dolphins made an appearance off our port beam, charging on their morning hunt. The sun glistened on the sea as the mammals broke through the surface capturing my attention and she cameras. Soon the familiar shape of our home islands appeared on the horizon, their simplicity unmolested by human inhabitation was appreciated after our visit to the Mecca of island living in California.
We anchored in Frenchy’s cove in 25’ with 3:1 scope off the southern wall. There were no plans besides taking a moment to appreciate “it all”. I made eggs in a raft while Chris doted on our brave little sailor cat. We spent about an hour in the anchorage before we sailed off anchor and put our bow towards Ventura. The wind was light, barely shaping our main, and we were far too exhausted to rig the spinnaker. Esprit attempted to fly their Aso, but failed in the barely-there-breeze, socking it and turning on their engine. We followed their lead and ignited our Perkins to make our final trip to port. We entered the breakwater at 4:30, just in time to grab our mail from the marina office and catch up on everything we missed. Chris washed the boat down with fresh water while I cleaned up inside after a few things were moved from their place. Just like that our trip was over, and we were packing for our next adventure to the Annapolis Boat Show which was a mere 5 days after our return.
For the next few months we will be crossing the final items off our to-do list including: finishing our floors, replacing our rigging, building a hard dodger, and a lot of sewing. It is going to be busy, but we are ready for it! We can’t wait to share the progress with you and the details from the boat show, keep your eyes open for more stories, photos, and videos because they are coming in hot! As always, thank you for reading our blog and we hope you have fair winds and following seas, wherever you are in this wild world.
Marissa, Chris, Cleo