Velella's Drift

An account of Velella's voyage from Seattle to New York via Panama, 2009-2011

The Island of the Apocalypse and Lala land

San Luis Obispo bay anchorage

I first have to thank my family. We stayed in San Luis Obispo for three days, and my aunt Janice made herself completely available during our preparations for the next leg. She offered to let us stay at her house but, fearing that our boat might do something rash in our absence, we declined. We did however take her up on her offer to do laundry, take us shopping, treat us to dinner and act as our personal tour guides to the missionary history of San Luis Obispo. What amazed me most (aside from her generosity), was how relaxed I felt.
When we tell people about this trip they respond that it sounds like a wonderful vacation. Most of the time, it is. But rarely is it relaxing. Aside from the stresses of living in such close quarters, the boat itself is a constant source of anxiety. It is the burden of owning a used car, with thirty year old engine that needs constant attention. The sinks, electrical system, toilet, and wood require all the work of a homeowner. Last but certainly not least, we have to worry about the boat floating onto shore.
Leaving it when it’s anchored is stressful, because a wind or a large swell could rip the boat off anchor and toss it onto shore. Even sleeping on the boat is difficult. A particularly large wave crashing on shore is sufficient to wake us from sleep, and we bolt up and rush to a window to check our proximity to land. So as difficult as it was to leave, it was nice to be away from the boat for a couple hours. We were finally able to relinquish the reins of responsibility and just go with the flow while Aunt Janice and Butch showed us around.
Our luck held for the next leg of the journey. Perhaps it’s the California sun, or maybe the living here really is just easier. But as soon as we dipped around Point Conception just south of San Luis Obispo, the ocean calmed. Because the land cuts drastically to the east, it acts as a barrier that protects boats from northerly winds and swells. It’s also home to the Channel Islands, the most amazing land we’ve seen since we left Washington.

Ridge on Santa Cruz
It’s hard to believe that, were the Channel Islands connected to the mainland, they would be only an hour drive from Los Angeles. They are so beautiful, and so remote that they feel as if they are from a different time. I would love to live on them. If the apocalypse occurs in my lifetime, I’m resolved to head for the Channel Islands.
There are a total of eight islands scattered off the sixty miles of coastline that makeup greater LA. We anchored off of Santa Cruz Island, in a protected bay called Smuggler’s Cove. The complete lack of civilization was surprising and at first a little unnerving. We rowed the dinghy through some large surf to explore the beautiful and vacant beach. A mile of the sand bordered by steep, rocky cliffs, the beach seemed the sole access point onto the island. Indeed the entire twenty mile circumference of the island is cliff face, except for the protection at Smuggler’s Cove.
The mountainous landscape is arid; predominantly cactus and grass with a few groves of wind-whipped trees. Our beach is at the base of a small vale which, in the wet months, hosts a tiny creek. The result is a tiny riparian zone, one of the few green spots on the island. The rich vegetation creates a little grove, and the shade of several large eucalyptus trees immediately blots out the sunlight. Dozens of huge ravens, three times the size of a crow, rustle around in the undergrowth. They eye us curiously but seem unperturbed by our presence.
Not two hundred yards into the valley is Smuggler’s Ranch. The ranch consists of little more than a windmill, a broken fence and two stone buildings which, according to the engraving above their doors, were built in 1889. The buildings are in good shape. The grass around them is green, and a flowering vine twines around the remnants of the fence. Either the ranch has withstood the hundred plus since its foundation, or else park rangers have a hand in its upkeep. I suspect the later, especially when I see tire treads on the ranch’s dirt road. Still, with no other trace of the 20th century, it’s easy to pretend that we have stumbled across a 19th century bandit hideout.
The island has an interesting history. Two Years Before the Mast, the book Butch gave us in San Luis Obispo, gives us an overview of the area. We know that Smuggler’s Cove was named for otter hunters that took shelter there two centuries ago. Apparently there was a tax on otter pelts, and some ships would avoid the tax by never coming in to port. The sailors would live their entire lives at sea, and only stop every so often in Smugglers’ Cove for shelter, returning all the way to Hawaii to overhaul the ships.

Velella in Smugglers' Cove
In addition to European usage, the island has significant Native American history. Each spring, the natives rowed across the channel from the mainland as a rite of passage, and there was a seasonal village on the west end of the island. Like the Galapagos, the island boasts a host of unique species that are present nowhere else in the world, including the island fox and the island jay.
We don’t see any wildlife on our hike across the island, but nor do we see any people. The old road took us up a surprising elevation gain and then we were up in a sparse high desert, winding up and over several hills. I thought more than once of the westerns of Sergio Leone. He shot his movies (including The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) in Italy to imitate the harsh landscapes of the 1800’s American west. As we passed through a small plantation of olive trees that were gnarled in their decades of abandonment, I felt we could have as easily been in Europe as California.
Though the length of the island is 15 miles long, it is only 3.5 miles north to south. We descend from the hills into the northeast end of Santa Cruz, which offers stark contrast to the desolate beauty of our hike. Here are the National Park campgrounds. Each Friday, a powerboat deposits hundreds of beer-chugging mainlanders on Santa Cruz for a two-day “camping” excursion. According to some bird watchers we met, the noise pollution from imported ipods and speakers is enough to rival frat parties from the mainland. Luckily, the lecherous crowds rarely attempt the steep climb to the south side of the island and our deserted beach. Never was I happier travelling by sail.
After a three day anchor at Santa Cruz (in which I attempted snorkeling in the not-quite-warm-enough waters), we headed back for the mainland. We both were feeling anxious over what we might find when we arrived. I relived some terrible Los Angeles memories from when I lived here for two years, and Meghan was balking at the idea of endless blacktop, high heels and yippy lap dogs. It was dark before we finally arrived, but the light pollution of the city provided more visibility than a full moon.
We spent four nights anchored at the Redondo Beach Marina. The marina was very nice, but the harbormaster made it very clear that we weren’t going to be staying for any length of time. He came out in his boat to “escort” us to our anchorage. I asked him if there were public bathrooms in the marina and he responded that there were no public facilities (which we soon discovered was a blatant lie) and informed us that it was illegal for us to discharge any waste into the marina. We quickly learned that the city of Redondo isn’t interested in housing transient boaters. The 3-day “anchoring permit” they issued us and their less-than-courteous harbormaster were effective messengers. Despite the fun neighborhood and beautiful beaches, we were treated like gypsies and we had no desire to stay.
So here we are in Marina Del Rey. It’s an adjustment, to be sure. The Marina is huge, bigger than the town I grew up in. But our slip is at the bottom of a very nice park and the weather is gorgeous. The biggest adjustment is going to be the lack of forward momentum. After two and a half months of inching south each day, it will be taxing to remain stationary for any length of time. But Los Angeles is not as bad as I remember and the unfamiliarity of beach life reminds me that this is all part of the adventure.

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1 Comment»

  josh wrote @

sign me up for the apocalypse. Channel islands sound like a nice hideout when we raid the mainlanders.


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