BoatUS Special Report


Mamacita's Love Affair

With the Channel Islands

By Sean Watson
Published: October/November 2012

It takes some effort to get there such as some tricky navigating of the Santa Barbara Channel but the reward is arriving at one of their favorite places on the planet.

At 4:00 a.m. Mary and I were awakened at home by the wind blowing in through our open sliding glass door. The direction confirmed our weekend weather forecast. Our normal weather pattern features westerly winds, but this morning's winds were coming from the south, usually meaning unsettled weather conditions. So far, we'd sailed Mamacita, our 24-foot sloop, into the channel only during the summer months with warmer and more predictable weather. With the changing weather conditions of autumn, we both felt antsy about our first autumn channel crossing, and wanted to be careful and get it right.

Photo of the Santa Barbara Channel
Photo: Quang-Tuan Luong

The wind was blowing straight onshore as we departed, and there was a light chop on the gray sea. Dolphins took a break from their morning fishing routine to join us on our way to sea, exploding over the surface of the water, then weaving back and forth under our bow. For an hour, some swam alongside us upside down, bored with the conventional way of swimming. Eventually the pod moved on to more interesting diversions.

Having spent numerous days on the channel, I've learned to respect this crossing, especially the last 10 miles, which locals call "Windy Lane." Boaters to these islands must be prepared for high winds, fog, and the rough seas that appear quickly. Luckily, we'd see none of that. Our wind remained light and variable, shifting between the southeast and southwest. We crossed the shipping lanes, watching freighters passing through the channel and, as always, were amazed at their speed, often crossing our path within 15 or 20 minutes of our spotting them on the horizon. I was glad for our radar reflector, mounted high on Mamacita's mast, and felt proud of our little boat, chugging across this expanse, carrying us safely to our weekend adventure.

Photo of the Santa Barbara Channel at sunset
Photo: Quang-Tuan Luong

Originally owned by my wife's grandfather, Mamacita has been in the family for three generations. However, over the past 20 years, a busy family life meant that she'd been maintained to the bare minimum, and we were only able to use her occasionally for day sails. About three years ago, I began updating her for island crossings. Even though she's smaller than most, she has a lot going for her. Built in Southern California in the late 60s, the Del Rey 24 was designed for crossings to the offshore islands. As fiberglass became a popular material, the Del Rey was built with much more material than would likely be used for a similar craft today, making it a very sturdy boat.

Our upgrades have included a new rudder, sails, lines, and electronics. I finally replaced the 40-year-old standing rigging. With every new feature, our old boat became younger, faster, and more responsive. The improvements I made to the boat also helped improve my boating skills as I've become reacquainted with an old friend.

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Boaters' Advice for the
Channel Islands

Channel Islands National Park consists of five islands and the surrounding ocean out to one mile offshore. These unique islands stand guard to the sunny Californian coastline only 25 miles away. Located at a confluence of the Oregonian and the Californian ocean currents, constant nutrient-rich upwelling from the deep waters surrounding these islands means sea life abounds with diverse species, some traveling from thousands of miles away. Although most people visit the park from June through August, many boaters consider fall the best time of year, when sightings of blue and humpback whales are common. November and December are also a great time to see elephant seals returning to their rookeries.

For those visitors who enjoy diving and snorkeling, ocean temperatures are still tolerable; mean sea temperatures for November are 59 degrees compared with 64 degrees for the warmest months of July and August — and visibility this time of year can reach 100 feet. November air temperatures average in the low 70s.

Being prepared for an offshore trip to this unique marine sanctuary goes beyond daysailing and racing. Even with the updated digital technology and communications that make offshore boating safer nowadays, thorough planning is essential.


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