Mamacita's Love Affair With The Channel Islands

By Sean Watson

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 sunsetPhoto: 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.

Photo of author's daughter Caity enjoys the sailing breezesDaughter Caity enjoys the sailing breezes. (Photo: Sean and Mary Watson)

Mamacita In Windy Lane

This day, when we entered the sometimes-infamous Windy Lane, we expected the wind and swell to build the closer we sailed to the islands, as they had on earlier trips. However, on this trip, the wind stayed with us for about an hour, then eventually diminished, and we motor-sailed the last five miles. The clouds overhead appeared almost tropical, and the jagged outline of Santa Cruz was backlit in the fall sunlight, which also cast diamond-like reflections from the rippled water as we sailed closer, surrounded by life. We were escorted by sea lions and pilot whales, as well as the occasional shark.

Even though summer was over and we were sailing in unsettled conditions with rain a possibility, I was surprised at how few weekend sailors had made the crossing. As we approached our anchorage, on the north side of Santa Cruz, most of the other anchorages were deserted, leaving us with the island to ourselves. We set our two anchors, bow and stern, about 25 yards from the west wall of the cliffs of Fry's Harbor. With the boat secure in this quiet bay, I looked out over the ocean, back toward Santa Barbara. I could see the mountains enshrouded with ominous, black clouds, but the ocean between the mainland and our Mamacita was flat.

Photo of Mary Watson at the tillerMary at the tiller. (Photo: Sean and Mary Watson)

Sweet Interruptions To The Silence

Shadows extended over the bay as the sun set behind the island's 2,000-foot mountains, and as afternoon transitioned to nightfall it was the sounds that I noticed: Sea lions baying in the distance in their noisy search for a meal, seagulls crying out in the descending darkness; the quiet, comforting sound of the ocean as it rose and fell against the cliff walls, and the sound of waves as they gently lapped on the shore. The island chain is home to a variety of species including 140 bird, 11 mammal, three amphibian, and five reptile species. Large colonies of nesting seabirds, breeding seals and sea lions, and other animals and plants call this archipelago home. Because of its isolation over time, many distinctive plant and animal species that exist here are found nowhere else on the planet.

As evening deepened, I set up the barbecue. Mary and I enjoyed our dinner with a fine bottle of wine under a brightening canopy of stars. We were able to see a dim hue on the horizon from the mainland as the coastal cities electrified the night so close yet a world away. Tucked into our anchorage, we felt that we'd escaped the rat race of life in town, if only for several days. We both felt that we'd become spectators of two distinct worlds: the world that surrounded our anchorage, ever-brightening stars, a gently heaving ocean, and the marine life that surrounded us; and that now-distant realm we called home, glowing across the water.

Photo of dinner on the Mamacita at Prisoners Anchorage Dinner and wine at Prisoners Anchorage. (Photo: Sean and Mary Watson)

Throughout the night the winds shifted, but our anchors held us securely. For me, checking on our anchors throughout the night is standard procedure. It's during these times that I love to absorb the nightlife surrounding the boat. As I made my way forward to check our rode at about 2 a.m., I noticed a disturbance in the water caused by a huge school of silver-colored smelt, congregating in the umbrella of light cast by our masthead light. The school morphed into ever-changing helixes to avoid hunting sea lions that looked like dark torpedoes careening through the fish. This dance between species was made truly beautiful by bioluminescent plankton, which cast electric-blue outlines showing the paths of both the hunter and the hunted. Overhead, pelicans and other seabirds silently flew into the night. Periodically, the ocean surface exploded with each avian dive on the fish below. Higher in the heavens, shooting stars ripped across the sky.

A New Day In Autumn

We awoke early to more unsettled, but beautiful autumn weather. As we warmed our hands with our coffee cups, we watched the night yield to the day with colors changing from darkness to golden light. The sea lions were still active and I was pleased to actually see a bald eagle perched on a cliff. The bald eagle is one of the island species that's making a comeback, thanks to conservation efforts and the ban on DDT.

Photo of the Mamacita anchored near Cueva ValdezMamacita anchored near Cueva Valdez on the west end of Santa Cruz. (Photo: Sean and Mary Watson)

Later, Mary and I paddled ashore for a brief hike into the canyon, where we noticed the island fox, another unique species making a comeback. Island foxes are the smallest canids in North America and are found only on the Channel Islands. About the size of a house cat, the average weight for an adult male is about six pounds. The success of the native island fox is a direct result of the return of the bald eagle, which displaced the non-native golden eagle. The golden eagle has been a very successful predator of the island fox. Luckily for the fox, the bald eagle prefers seafood.

We then spent some time in the kayak, exploring the rock walls and some of the local caves close to our anchorage. Santa Cruz Island has hundreds of caves accessible by kayak. The visibility is often crystal clear and a colorful array of fish, including the orange Garibaldi, sheepshead, and other rockfish, can be seen drifting below the surface.

Photo of hiking at Prisoners Harbor on Santa Cruz IslandHiking at Prisoners Harbor on Santa Cruz Island. (Photo: Sean and Mary Watson)

At around noon, we began an uneventful sail home to Santa Barbara, which was still coated in thick black rain-laden clouds. About halfway across the channel, winds picked up to about 20 knots. The channel was calm and we sailed into the harbor at maximum boat speed.

The Treasure Of The Coast

Every visit to the Channel Islands is a unique experience. With each voyage my appreciation for the natural marine world off our Southern California coast grows. This fall crossing proved to be one of the most beautiful trips so far. Many of my harbor compatriots adhere to the conventional wisdom that channel crossings should be limited to the summer months. While the weather is certainly better during the summer, off-season trips to the Channel Islands will be a rewarding experience for those who prefer fewer neighbors in the anchorages and can accept temperatures only a few degrees lower. 

Sean and Mary Watson grew up in Santa Barbara, California, where they met in high school and have enjoyed boating for most of their lives. Now that their son and daughter have moved away, they have more time on their hands and have rediscovered the harbor life and overnight sailing trips to the Channel Islands.

— Published: October/November 2012

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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