Return to Santa Cruz Island
Third Time's a Charm

By Bill Mattson

Gary Friesen and I were at it again. This was to be our third trip to Santa Cruz Island, which is located about 20 miles off the coast of southern California. As with prior trips, we would make the crossing aboard Gary's Mystere 6.0 meter beach catamaran.

Our first journey was one-day scouting trip back in June. The lesson learned then was not to underestimate the time to cross the Santa Barbara Channel and sail the coast of the Island, especially in large coves that had little wind in them.

Our second trip was a two-day camping trip in July. We kept our schedule a bit loose, and equipped the boat with a small outboard motor to be used in sheltered coves or when becalmed during the crossing. On this trip, we confirmed the boat (and our) durability in relatively heavy weather. However, we also revealed our inattention to tide levels, as we came close to damaging the boat on the rocks at the high tide line. We did damage a rudder in surf, which would force an early return to the mainland, and kill our plans for hiking the island.

On this third trip, we really had our crap together.

One frustrating aspect of the two previous trips was the length of time it took to get the boat loaded and rigged. Our list of safety gear and provisions was extensive, and items were stored in different places based upon weight and accessibility factors. In the two trips so far, we were nearly 2 hours behind schedule when shoving off. We both brought plenty of gear and provisions, so most of the morning was used to sort out the stuff, eliminate duplicates, and find a place for everything. This time, our checklist was divided into "storage location lists". We had a list for the starboard side deck port, another one for the port side deck port, one for the tramp, the tramp bag, the waterproof bags, etc. I packed my stuff in bags labeled with the storage location to make loading the boat a slam-dunk. Another big time saving step was that the boat was towed to Ventura Harbor the night before the trip. That night, the mast was stepped and the boat partially rigged. By then the only things left to do that night were to get some dinner at the Anacapa Brewing Company in Ventura, and get a good night's sleep at my nephew's place in nearby Santa Paula.

The morning of the trip, we arrived at the harbor and quickly loaded the boat using the "storage location lists". We finished rigging the boat, and we were on the water by 8am, right on schedule. As usual, a marine layer blanketed the area, and conditions were light. We used the motor in the harbor, and continued to use it for a significant time in the channel. Boat traffic was very light this early in the morning.

Into the mist we went.

For me, It is a strange feeling to be on the water in calm conditions with no reference to land. In all directions, a dull gray mist is all I saw. No sights, no sounds. It was calming and unnerving at the same time. I felt that I was definitely away from the stresses of civilization, however, was unnerved by the seemed desolation. Moreover, I knew the power that nature can unleash in this area. For some, sailing in calm conditions in the Santa Barbara Channel is relaxing. For me, it is sailing on the back of a sleeping lion.

Channel Crossings Press

With an early start, and an outboard motor, this trip had aggressive objectives. We would first attempt to land at Prisoners Harbor at approximately 11am. We would hike portions of the island, then return to the boat by 4pm to head to Scorpion Anchorage. Once landed at Scorpion, we would hike to the top of the hills above the campground. We would then return to the campground to spend the night. The next morning, we would sail around the east side of the island, and land at Smuggler's Cove. We would hike this area, then return back to the mainland in the afternoon.

I plotted tide levels on a chart to help with landings. We were quite familiar with Scorpion, since we had landed there twice during our previous trips. With rocks at both high and low levels, my chart included a band showing the "safe" times to land there.
Both Prisoner's and Smuggler's would be first time landings for us. We both felt a challenge with first time landings, in that we did not know for sure what we would encounter. These wildcards helped contribute to the "expeditious" nature the trip. In preparation for the trip, landing areas were evaluated by researching books and web sites. Gary had even found a site with color satellite photos of the island. Once you see a landing area from multiple angles at different tide levels, you begin to form a mental picture of it. Still, it was sometimes difficult to assess rocks, surf, and submerged hazards. Gary's exceptional level of seamanship had us more than prepared for these landings, in procedure as well as in equipment. Procedures were discussed via email before the trip. We were prepared to lower the sails and motor to assess beach conditions. We had procedures to "back" into the beach to avoid rudder damage from surf. We had a bow line with a throwable boat cushion, as well as four small beach rollers Gary had manufactured for the trip.
Meanwhile, in the middle of the channel, we continued through the mist. Wind was very light during the crossing, and soon we were hopelessly behind schedule. There was no way we would make Prisoner's by 11am, but I still held out hope we would be able to hike that day. Soon the wind picked up a bit, but was not as favorable in direction as it had been in previous trips. This one was going to be a beat, against the wind and swells, all the way there.

Soon the sun was out, and we had our first view of the Island. It was now after noon, but the wind was now at moderate levels, so we had a bit better boat speed. I welcomed the increased visibility, which at least provided a view of where we were going, as well as an indicator of our progress. As we neared the Island, we began observing pods of dolphin. Lots of them. After making our first tack to port, we encountered a very large pod ahead of us, swimming from left to right. Soon we sailed right into the group, and some of them
began making a quick turn to sail between our hulls. This was a first for me, and I found it incredibly fascinating. Two or three of them would turn to swim with us for a few seconds, only to break off and be replaced by others. I tried capturing this on film, but only got pictures of splashes between the hulls as they surfaced.
After checking the GPS, we made our starboard tack for Prisoner's Harbor. As it was nearing 2pm, I did not foresee how we would get any hiking in that day, since we had to leave by 4pm to make our campsite at Scorpion. Soon, we approached Prisoner's, and saw the pier where the Santa Cruz Island Company used to load cattle and sheep onto boats in the early 1900s. There were about four monohulls moored in the bay. As we came into the wind shadow, Gary rigged up the motor to get us to land, and I started scanning the shoreline. The beach was about a mile long, and I saw rocks spanning the entire distance.

As we motored into the bay, Gary and I tried to make assessments in where to go. There was a small area clear of rocks, near the pier, but not quite large enough to get the boat out of the water. Then we saw it: A twenty foot patch of clear sand at the far west end, adjacent to a rock cliff which marked the end of the beach.
At least it looked like sand. Maybe it was just smooth rock at the base of the cliff. We decided to give it a shot, and got the rollers and bow line ready. Aside from a few small rocks, this area was nearly perfect since it was sandy and sheltered from both waves and wind. We hit the beach, deployed the rollers, and pulled the boat up in a picture perfect landing. It was 3pm, and we were 4 hours behind schedule for our hike.
We decided to get a hike in then assess our options when we returned. Since we hit the beach within minutes of high tide, we knew the boat was fine right were it was. While we were near the Nature Conservancy Boundary, (The Nature Conservancy owned portion of the land is considered private property), we were still on National Park Service (NPS) property. So after securing the boat, we removed our gear and prepared for the hike. After opening my waterproof bag, I started saying nasty words.

"What's the problem?" asked Gary.

"I forgot my friggin' shoes!" I replied.

I had packed my waterproof bag at home, and had intended to pack the shoes I was wearing once I removed them at the harbor. That is why I had a little tag on the bag that said "SHOES!".
I stared at the tag that just hung there yelling "SHOES!", the exclamation point now more appropriate than ever.

"This is bad. This is bad." I said.

"What size shoe do you wear?" Gary asked.

"Ten and a half."

"Well. That's bigger than mine. But I bet the sandals would work.", he said. "I'll take the sandals off and wear the shoes. You can wear the sandals."

"That's okay. I'll just wear my wetsuit booties." I said.

"Are you sure?"

I didn't want Gary to have to lend me his shoes. Moreover, I was really pissed at myself and figured that my stupidity needed punishment. Yes. A nice walk over river rocks in wetsuit booties would teach my ass a lesson, but good.

We began our walk down the beach, and soon found a trail. We found a rather new "out house" and some construction going on. Gary had heard that a second campground was being installed to take some of the load off Scorpion. It appeared that this was it. Also nearby, were abandoned stalls and corrals where the animals used to be kept before putting them on the boats. We continued up the trail, which led up through a canopy of trees, then to a junction were various destinations were noted on signs.
As we continued on, I was impressed with the various landscapes that existed on the island. In a very short walk, we had seen beaches, forests, rivers, barren chaparral, cliffs, and mountains. There were beautiful views in all directions. Some could be captured on film, but others could not.

Then there was the pig.

Various animals inhabit the island, including wild feral pigs. While hiking along a small stream, Gary and I encountered a large black pig walking ahead of us on the trail. It was making its way slowly, looking for food as it went along. Gary and I began to slowly sneak up behind it, both of us having a camera at the ready.

As we closed out distance to the pig, I realized these animals were not acutely aware of there surroundings. I mean, it's not like Gary and I are Indian trackers or something. We were stumbling along behind this pig and it never knew we were there. As we neared the pig, I saw it go behind a boulder, but never saw it continue on its way. Gary was in front, as we approached the boulder.

"Where did he go?", Gary asked.

"I think he's behind that boulder", I whispered.

Gary had his camera ready. "I'm going to sneak up to the boulder, then stand up to get a shot. Pick up a rock."

"A rock?", I asked. "What for?"

"If the pig charges me. You hit him in the head with the rock."

Naturalist Gary Friesen and The Pig
Yeah, right. I picked up a rock to satisfy Gary. The truth is, I was ready with that camera rather than the rock. Put it this way: Picture Gary Friesen running towards me with eyes as big as pie plates as he is being charged by a wild pig. That, my friends, is a photo op.

So Gary sneaks up to the boulder, stands up, and takes a picture.

The pig goes about his business.

Soon, we are both standing there watching the pig. Then he sees us. He does a sort of double- take, thinks about the situation, then starts stumbling off into the brush, tripping over his own feet in the process. Personally, I have never hunted animals. Hunters tell me how hard and complex it can be. I honestly think I could have killed this pig by walking up and hitting it in the head with a rock. And I would not even have to throw the rock.

And speaking of rocks, the wetsuit booties were getting very uncomfortable. Gary was noticing.
The Pig

"Ya know.", Gary said. "These shoes are really nice. The soles are so soft. I'm really glad I brought them."

I don't recall what I said to him at the time, but I think it may have included a reference to my genitalia.

By the time we returned to the boat, it was close to 7pm, which left barely enough time to reach Scorpion by nightfall. Looking at the relatively light conditions on the water, we figured it was unlikely we would make the landing in time. Therefore, we decided the safest option was to camp on the beach at Prisoner's. While technically not allowed, it was our best option. Gary and I are both meticulous about picking up our trash, so there was no harm to be done in staying there for the night.

Prisoner's Harbor near sunset

Prisoner's Harbor circa 1900
I just could not handle the wet feet anymore, so I took the booties off and put on a dry pair of socks. As the sun set, the temperature fell, but I remained comfortable after donning the jacket I had included in my waterproof bag. We got our sleeping bags out on the sand while we still had light, then broke out the military style rations (MREs) and had some dinner. As a special treat, Gary had brought some excellent tequila. In addition, he brought out a harmonica and started playing some tunes.

So there I was, sitting on the sand with my back against a log, sipping tequila in the darkness under a starlit sky, and hearing Gary's harmonica and the gentle surf in the background. We all have special times that we never forget. For me, this was one of those times.

The exhaustion from the day's activities combined with the tequila was getting to me. The beautiful music was lulling me to sleep. Soon I was in my sleeping bag, sound asleep.

During the night, I awoke on occasion, and had that that feeling in which you are not sure where you are. Then I had the luxury of seeing the stars, hearing the surf, and thinking "Oh yeah.. I'm on Santa Cruz.", before going back to sleep.

At one point, I awoke suddenly as Gary was yelling. "HEEYYY. GO! GO! GET OUT OF HERE! HEYYY!" Then he started pitching rocks like Nolan Ryan into the brush.

"What the hell is going on?", I asked.

"It's a pig.", he said. "A pig is wandering into our campsite."

After he was through yelling and pitching fastballs, I went back to sleep.

I awoke early the next morning and found the area to be shrouded in fog. Our sleeping bags were soaking wet on the outside, as was everything else we had left out in the dew. We noted that the next time we did this, we would cover our sleeping bags and other articles with plastic for the night.

Breakfast consisted of a Starbucks Frappacino, and a power bar. We spread our gear out to dry, then prepared for our second hike that would take us to Pelican Bay.
There is a rich history at Pelican. A camping resort was once operated there by Ira and Margaret Eaton from about 1912 to 1937. Many movie stars and other famous people frequented the resort over the years. It was shut down when the island changed owners and the Eatons were ordered off. Most of the history of this era is chronicled in "Diary of a Sea Captain's Wife: Tales of Santa Cruz Island."
Lookout shack above Prisoner's (Note Pier)
Prisoner's area cira 1900 (Note lookout shack on hill)
The first part of the hike took us to the top of the hill at Prisoner's. A lookout shack is located at the top of the hill, which served to observe ships in the channel and signal them when the Santa Cruz Island Company had trade. On the backside of this hill, is a valley, which leads to the Central Valley of the island.

Valley leading to Island's Central Valley

We continued our hike along the coast towards Pelican, and found the trail much more rugged than anticipated. We would reach a peak of a ridge, descend into a canyon, and then climb over the next ridge. At the top of one ridge, we had a nice view of the coast, and could see Gary's boat far below.

In the canyons, it was obvious we were traversing some water-flow areas that would produce spectacular waterfalls during rainstorms. At times, we crossed trenches in the rock that were as smooth as a manmade water slide. The colorful rocks, majestic oak trees, and ferns created a beauty that I found breathtaking. Again, an entirely different landscape just a short walk away.

Time was again becoming a problem. We still had a visit to Smuggler's Cove on our schedule. We had planned to visit it on both of our prior trips, but each time it was not possible due to time restraints. This time, we definitely wanted to see it, so we abandoned our hike to Pelican and returned to the boat.

Back on the beach, we packed up our stuff, suited up, and left the beach under motor. It would have been a perfect launch, had we not left one of the beach rollers sitting on the beach. So, back we went to retrieve the roller, after which we were finally on our way to Smuggler's.

It was another misty morning, with limited visibility. Sea life was everywhere, in the way of seals and dolphin. The water was smooth, the air was gray mist, and an animal would pop up every now and then. What a magical place this can be sometimes.

The fog cleared somewhat, although we never had much sun on the second day. It can be particularly challenging to sail around the east end of the island, since the wind forms an eddy in the area.

Gary decided to give the island a wide berth in that area, so we sailed wide and back into the shipping lane, before tacking back for the island. The shipping lane is a bit spooky for me. The freighters that move within them are very large, and surprisingly fast. While in the shipping lanes, I made it a responsibility to watch for freighters and inform Gary every time I saw one. During this tack, I was observing a monohull, which was dead ahead and heading towards us from about a mile or so. After watching the monohull for a while, I glanced over to starboard to do a freighter check. That is when I saw the freighter, less than a half a mile from us, and on a seemed collision course.

It looked about the size of Cleveland, Ohio. But then again, Cleveland does not do thirty knots and run over stuff.

"Freighter.", I said.

Just about all my freighter sightings were miles and miles away, and the notification was more informative than anything else. Gary acknowledged me, and then glanced to look at yet another ship I had mentioned.

"Uh.. Okay. Douse the chuter.", Gary said calmly. "May as well not take any chances with this one." He then steered us downwind, and waited for the ship to pass.

We continued on, then started dealing with the wind shifts on the east end of the island. Soon the wind had died down, and we broke out the motor.

The southeast coast of the island is quite dramatic, with waves crashing into cliffs, and small waterfalls flowing off the rocks as the surge recedes. I would have loved to get a closer view, but then again, I have this aversion to being smashed against rocks by powerful waves.

Approaching Smuggler's Cove
We noted a few boats moored at Smuggler's cove, and saw that the beach had moderate sized surf along its entire width. Although rocks were at the high tide line, it appeared we had enough sand to at least land the boat. To avoid repeating any rudder damage, Gary had decided to back the boat onto the beach.
I had reservations about this, as I always run my boat onto the beach bows first. However, Gary's boat had the motor and two paddles, so we had more to work with besides the wind. After lowering the sails, Gary motored us close to the surf line, aimed the bows into the waves, and then raised the rudders and motor. We started paddling the boat into shore. Soon, a wave had us, and the boat surfed backwards towards the shore. Once in shallow water, we jumped in and pulled the boat onto the sand.

Beach at Smuggler's Cove
Unfortunately, there was not enough open sand to pull the boat completely out of the water. With the tide still rising, we would not be spending much time on this beach.

However, I had to pee. I had to pee, badly. There was an audience of boats moored in the bay, and I am sure the occupants had watched our beach landing. I could not really leave the boat, and there was not a tree in sight. Sometimes, you just don't care. So I faced the land, started peeling down the spray pants, trap harness, and wetsuit, and did my business on the beach. Later, Gary had commented it would have been impressive to the other boats if we had departed right then and there. A dramatic surf landing and launching, just so the crew can take a leak.

Gary wanted to look around a bit, so I held the boat secure while he took a short walk to see what was in the area. After a few minutes, he returned and we departed the area.

The return home was uneventful as usual. Just a twenty-mile broad reach, double trapped much of the time. There was one close capsize, where Gary had to let go of the main completely to keep us from going over. Being double trapped, we were both "tea bagged" on that one.

We pulled into Ventura Harbor at 6pm to close our most successful Santa Cruz Island trip to date. We accomplished our major objectives by landing at Prisoner's, hiking the island, and finally getting to Smuggler's. We also get a half a point for almost making it to Pelican Bay.

As summer ends, visits to Santa Cruz Island will need to wait until next year. Falling temperatures, along with the risk of Santa Ana Wind conditions, make channel crossings far less appealing. Next year our plans include a visit to Pelican Bay, Painted Cave, and new expeditions to nearby Santa Rosa Island.

Thanks again to Gary Friesen. He is a great friend, skilled sailor, and best of all: He brings the booze.