An unexpected stop, with unexpected misadventures
VENTURA TO CAT HARBOR THIS WAS NOT THE PLAN – but at that point, what was? Accepting the unexpected had certainly made me a more patient person, and I wasn’t necessarily opposed to stopping at Catalina. On the contrary, I was excited to spend our last days in the U.S. on the magic little island, even if it was all while waiting for parts to arrive by mail.
Somewhere between Morro Bay and the present our Starlink decided to stop working. We were getting .3 megabytes per second download speeds in comparison to our friends who we were buddy boating with that recorded 100+ mbps from their unit. The lack of consistency wouldn’t do for this crew since I am still actively working and running my business while we cruise. It was 5:00 am, and I was hoping to get some work done while we were sailing, but soon realized that without a proper connection I was SOL and shut my laptop in frustration, hoping we could figure out the issue when we arrived to our destination: Cat Harbor.
It wasn’t the most comfortable sail in the world sailing on the tail end of a strong Santa Ana with confused seas left over from the blow. The chop was about five to six feet, coming at us from all angles in addition to the predominant NW swell. Our buddies on SV Kessel who had left at the height of the wind event, four hours before us, were now only about 10 nautical miles ahead. We had closed distance on them when they slowed their boat down to ride out the swell during the worst of it, which unfortunately lasted longer than anticipated. Avocet punched through the washing machine chop holding an average 6 knots with full canvas up. It was a bumpy ride, but we arrived at the anchorage an hour after our friends, snagging a mooring just as the sun went down.
Catalina Harbor is one of the “Two Harbors” near the town of Two Harbors on Catalina Island. The other harbor is Isthmus Cove where the Catalina Express ferry docks in Two Harbors. These two coves are back to back with a half-mile wide isthmus between them.
Catalina Harbor a.k.a. “Cat Harbor” is the deepest cove on the island and provides excellent protection for boats anchored or moored there. It is one of only two U.S. Coast Guard “Year-round Safe Harbors” in Southern California with 96 moorings located more inland with a decent size “anchorage” outside the mooring field – however, the depth in the anchorage are around 60 – 100 feet. Since it was the offseason, we paid for two nights and got five for free which at $73/night seemed like a pretty good deal to us.
In the off-season, the isthmus is lightly reminiscent of our beloved Santa Cruz Island, especially in contrast to the hustle and bustle of the city of Avalon located on the southwest side. Although there is some infrastructure (a bar, restaurant, laundry, restrooms, and kayak rentals) they are mostly inhabited by only the ghosts during the winter months, leaving a somewhat eerie feeling.
As a “digital nomad” I rely on wifi to conduct my business from wherever the wind takes us. Going up the California coast and all throughout the Bay we had no issues with Starlink, and loved having an additional system to check weather, messages, etc. However, after our stint in Morro Bay our “Dishy” never worked the same, leaving us with an unreliable service that I couldn’t sustain a business with. After we slept off the rough passage, Peter from Kessel was aboard Avocet in the early hours of the morning to help us troubleshoot, and hopefully find a solution.
The boys shuffled between Kessel and Avocet all morning with Peters Dishy, our Dishy, Peters router, and our router, trying new cables and configurations. It was all one big (frustrating) experiment but I was hopeful that a fix was on the way – little did I know we would have to really work for it. Chris sent in a help ticket on the Starlink app, the only way you can contact a technician, and was pleasantly surprised to get a response within five minutes. Essentially, the tech confirmed it was a hardware issue and arranged for entirely new hardware to be sent to our address… which was still set as Ventura Isle Marina.
Fortunately, our pals Mitch and Quincey were still living aboard in the marina while running their growing sock business (use code AVOCET15 for a discount) and hopping between California and Utah. They didn’t hesitate to step in and agree to receive the package whenever it arrived, and were kind enough to send us their router in the meantime. We seriously love our friends. Unfortunately there was no good way to get to the Avalon Post Office from Cat Harbor in the offseason, but Chris was determined to make it happen. He was actually excited to try and ride the 40 mile round-trip-trail, but after his first attempt was rained out by a squall he decided it was probably best to sail the boat over for a night – and only a night – before sailing to Mexico. However, since it was Friday the post office would be closed over the weekend anyways, leaving us with two full days to explore Cat Harbor.
“Harlow no! Leave the Buffalo alone!” Peter said as one of his two malinois pups decided to try and get close and personal with a buffalo. Don’t worry, buffalo didn’t magically develop flippers or gills and swim their way to the island. On the contrary, 14 of them were planted here by a movie production in 1924, and got pretty busy populating the island with the 150 buffalo that now call the island “home”. Today the Catalina Island Conservancy maintains Catalina’s American bison herd as well as the island’s landscape, keeping the natural magic of Catalina alive and well for all to enjoy.
Peter spent a good amount of time on the island as a Scout leader, so when Chris and I mentioned that we were interested in a good hike he knew exactly which trail to take: Goat Whiskers Trail. We decided to hike the trail backwards, starting with the steep, sun beaten ridge where we came across our lonely Bison friend. With the dogs back at our sides demonstrating a perfect “heal” we continued onwards and upwards – emphasis on the upwards.
“Did you pack your inhaler?” Peter asked jokingly as we began our ascent. Back in SLO I think I had a mild asthma attack when trying to hike Bishop Peak, resulting in this new, never ending joke. I laughed through my panting, taking a swig of water before marching up to the next vista. With the recent rains the island was painted in bright green with pops of colorful wild flowers, contrasting with the blue ocean that surrounded us. During our hike we encountered an abundance of native flora and fauna, because the goat population – for which the trail is named – was annihilated. Thousands of goats once roamed the island; descendants of a herd brought by early Spanish missionaries. However, in the 1990s the Catalina Island Conservancy was determined to protect the native ecosystem and solicited sharpshooters in helicopters to execute the nonnative ruminants – a similar story to the pigs and sheep on Santa Cruz Island. Although the Bison were pardoned, no goats remain today.
As we came to the top of the peak we were greeted with the infinite view of ocean to the west, and the mainland, with snow capped mountains, to the east. It was so picturesque, and as we began our descent the sweeping grandeur of the landscape and the island’s furrowed coast splays open like a deck of cards, revealing unmatched views of Catalina’s wild side.
It was a long hike, and we were exhausted the following day, but Chris and I still managed to get out and stretch our legs, scrambling up the cliffside nearest to our mooring. There was a lot of washout due to the rains, resulting in unstable ground, but we hiked as far as we could before turning around. To my delight, we foraged some fennel (an invasive, delicious, species), California Sage, and the best surprise of all: pickleweed! Back on Avocet, I stowed my foraged goods then we turned on our water maker for the first time – it worked exactly as we had hoped and our tanks were topped off within the hour. That evening we brought Cleo to shore to stretch her legs and get some enrichment – but just as always she was not a fan of “outside”, so we reluctantly took her back to Avocet where she ran inside to curl up in a dark place. Boat sweet boat.
The opportunities to hike and explore are endless on Catalina, and although we were not planning on stopping at the Island during Mission: get south of the border, we are so thankful we did.
The wind caught our sails the moment we were out of the lee of Cat Harbor, giving us a good lead on our friends who were still maneuvering through the mooring field. It had been a wonderful weekend of hiking, wifi troubleshooting, games and sea side celebrations with the Kessel crew, who were now one crew member short. After a trial by gale on their way to Catalina, Peter and Olivia decided the salty life was not suitable for their dog Harlow, making the arrangements for his new life on land with family. It was an extremely hard conclusion to come to, laced with tears and reassurance that they were doing the right thing, but with their circumnavigation plans in mind, traveling with one dog is tough enough, especially when the dog is a high energy malinois. We applaud them in making the right call for their beloved Harlow, giving him a much more comfortable life on solid ground.
“I see the tannies” I said, watching through the binoculars as Kessel unfurled her tanbark genoa. Clouds formed on the horizon, quickly coming our way and growing darker as they closed the gap between us. We short tacked along the shore, sailing upwind down the coast, another southerly which seemed to be the “norm” for us at this point. Heading to Avalon from Cat Harbor was another twist in our already unexpected plans, especially when we had hoped to be in Mexico by that time already, but we leaned into the situation, making the best of it.
Catalina’s East Side is wild, with steep cliff sides speckled with bird nests and some trees hanging on for dear life. The only “beach” we saw was filled with sea lions, that could unmistakably be heard barking across the water. We rounded the lowest point of the island where Connolly Pacific Quarry came into view. The quarry, in operation since the mid-1900’s, supplied many of the Southern California breakwaters with the stone necessary to create them. At this point Kessel had passed us on a starboard tack after sending it straight out so they could round the point in a single tack. The wind started to die down, so both crews decided to motosail to reach our destination on time.
“Avalon Harbor, Avalon Harbor, Avalon Harbor, this is Avocet” Chris repeated on the VHF, which was set to their hailing channel 12. No response. Luckily we had cell service and got ahold of them, right as the rain began to pick up. We danced circles alongside Kessel outside of the breakwater, waiting for a patroller to guide us to our mooring ball. It was a long wait made even longer by the weather, as the wet mixed with the bite of the breeze, reminding me of our long weeks in Morro Bay. Eventually, a patroller guided us to our mooring, a large one used for 60 foot vessels. “You know there is a system coming through, right?” He asked as we got our lines situated. We nodded, knowing what was coming our way and started to mentally prepare for a bumpy night.
As soon as we were secure we launched Winglet and Chris made a mad dash to the post office to retrieve our mail that contained our ticket out of California – or so we thought.
Connectivity Woes Part II
Packing paper was everywhere. It looked like Christmas morning inside the boat as Chris dove into our very packed package to retrieve the item he was after: our friend’s Starlink router. Peter came over for the moment of truth, and when we plugged it in we were shocked: still. no. signal. Tired from a day of transit and weather, we decided to table the diagnosis process for the following morning.
The Santa Ana wind event came and went bringing two to four foot wind blown chop into the mooring field. We rocked and rolled, and abandoned ship when the sun came up to wait out the sea state before returning to troubleshoot our Starlink issues. After a lovely breakfast and computer work session at Catalina Coffee & Cookie Company, we made our way back to Avocet.
“It’s your inverter bro” Peter said, after measuring the hertz with a multimeter. Unfortunately, we were getting various hertz between 40 – 300, but not a stable 60 which is what we should have been receiving from our Renogy 2000 pure sine wave inverter. Another Renogy product that had failed us, miserably, at a time when we needed it most. Although the inverter seemed to have served us well, we never measured it since at the time we didn’t have a multimeter that could read hertz, but thinking back it started to show signs of failure when we returned to Morro Bay after the holidays. We theorize that during one of the storms there was a surge that led to the inverters’ demise, going unnoticed until we tried to use Starlink when sailing south.
Fortunately, Peter’s mom was planning on visiting the next day and we had time to ship an inverter to her that she could bring to the island. Since it was extremely short notice, we could only get a 500 VA Victron inverter in time, but it would at least suffice to run our Starlink and charge our laptops safely, which were our two main points of concern. We slept better that night having thought the issue was resolved, but of course, it was not.
Peter’s mom arrived by ferry the next morning with boat parts in hand for her cruising son and his friends – but not before the unthinkable happened. It was 8:00 am, I was peacefully drinking my coffee in the cockpit when Peter arrived on his Ocean Craft aluminum dinghy to say hello. He had just dropped Olivia off onshore so she could get work done, and was on his way back to the boat when he decided to check in on us. After a quick chat, he got word that his mom arrived and had just pushed off from Avocet when he dropped his phone in the drink. The visibility was spectacular, so he could spot his phone quickly but that didn’t help the fact that we were (hopefully) Mexico bound in the morning. Without hesitation, I called Olivia to let her know what had happened. She sighed, unsurprised by the news, and said she would relay the info to Peter’s mom.
Within an hour Peters mom, Mama Metcalfe, was aboard Avocet, with the inverter in hand. We all stood by hoping for the best… but once again we were met with the worst. Profanities were exclaimed. We still weren’t seeing a stable connection. It had to be our dish – perhaps faulty upon arrival or even damaged by the weeks of rain or the potential surge in Morro Bay. Regardless, we were feeling SOL again, and stuck in California for the foreseeable future. Luckily, Peter wasn’t going to let us fall behind on our Mexico plans any more and quickly took over as project manager, creating a list of options for us but we all settled on option 3, which came together thanks to our friends ashore, creating the most impressively executed plan we had ever seen. Here’s the breakdown:
- Peter needed a new phone, so Olivia went back to the mainland with Peter’s mom to visit the apple store.
- We needed a new dish, so our incredible friends Mitch and Quincey once again said “no problem” to our request to use theirs – “we” just had to get it from Ventura.
- Peter’s sister Bethany lives in Thousand Oaks, so he called her and asked if she could retrieve the dish from Ventura, 30+ minutes away, then hand it off to Olivia. We have never met Bethany, so the fact that she didn’t hesitate to say “yes” proves that the entire Metcalfe family is amazing.
- Olivia drove to Bethany to get the dish, then hopped on the earliest ferry back to Avalon – she was up at 5:00 am and back to Kessel by 8:30. She is our hero.
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Last Night in the U.S. of A
Olivia was on the mainland leaving Peter and Ginger alone aboard Kessel. If all went according to plan, we would be Mexico bound by the morning so decided to spend our last night out on the town, soaking up our final moments in the States. Ironically, we decided to order nachos for dinner despite the fact our following months would be full of Mexican cuisine. We talked about our wild week, our plans, and how happy we were to have amazing friends.
After we ate our weight in chips and cheese we walked to one of the best vantage points that overlooked Avalon Harbor, the lights on shore looking as picturesque as ever. As always, Chris had his camera and snapped some photos and videos to commemorate the end of this unplanned adventure before we all made our way back home to our boats. I couldn’t sleep that night, full of anxiety, excitement and fear for all the things to come.
Morning came all too soon as I rubbed my sleepy eyes. My phone lit up with a message from Olivia, who had been awake 3 hours before me, and was 10 minutes away from making landfall on Catalina. Without a phone, the only way we could wake Peter up was through VHF… which he slept through, so Chris went to retrieve our dish-toting-heroine from the shore.
Connectivity Woes III ~ Fini
With Mitch and Quincey’s dish, we set up all the components and plugged them in, finally seeing the results we were after. It was a sigh of relief as tears cascaded down my cheeks from thinking about how amazing our friends are – none of this would have been possible without them. With steady connection we could finally depart for Mexico, and did exactly that as soon as the dinghy was on deck.
(It is worth noting that once we arrived in Mexico we learned that Mexican Starlink was not only cheaper, but could be shipped to Marina Coral. If we had known that was an option, we would have considered it, but since I needed to have connection for work during our passage this was still probably our best option)
So, just to summarize: We are thinking that Avocet experienced a surge during one of the storms in Morro Bay when we were visiting family in the mountains. Because of this, her Renogy Inverter* fried and from then on couldn’t hold a stable output to support our Starlink. There is also speculation that our dish was weak and fried after plugging it into our defunct inverter, resulting in the frustration we experienced up until Avalon. With Peter’s help, we identified the issue and ran our findings by our electrical friends who validated what we already thought to be true. We bought a cheaper, smaller (better) Victron inverter to get us through the next few weeks until we rendezvoused with Chris’s family on mainland Mexico where Mama Neely brought us our new Victron 1200 VA inverter – but more on that later.
*ALL Renogy products besides our Solar Panels have failed us. We cannot recommend this brand.
We were doing it! After years of dreaming, months of scheming and weeks of uncertainty we pointed Avocet’s bow south and set our course for Ensenada, Mexico. As the rugged shape of Catalina shrank off our stern and snow capped mountains of California’s Sierra Nevada disappeared we knew we were getting closer to the promised land – but we had a 130 nautical miles ahead of us.
Kessel’s tanbark sails decorated the horizon behind us as we settled in for the passage. It was nice to chat back and forth on the VHF, which we would soon learn made night passages go by a lot faster. Our stereo played Mexico, by CAKE, which had been our rally song since Morro Bay – inspiring us to keep going because eventually the lyrics would ring true, and by the grace of Poseidon they finally did.
Oh baby, I was bound for Mexico…
We are still in awe of our friends and how they stepped up to help us achieve our goals, even when the logistics were a borderline nightmare. We are anchored here in La Cruz, Mexico where I am writing this post that wouldn’t have been possible unless for our incredible “crew”. A special thanks to the entire Metcalfe family for being so generous and helpful, to Mitch and Quincey for lending us their Starlink unit, to Dan and Steven for being our tech support, and to anyone else that kept our spirits up when we were so down. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.
Marissa (and Chris and Cleo)