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By Brendan Huffman
With so much of the world off limits to cruising this year, many cruisers can find adventure here among Southern California’s Channel Islands.
To be sure, we are blessed to have Catalina Island so close to our mainland and delightful weather most of the year.
However, for the more adventurous among us, the northern chain of Channel Islands—Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands— is not much further away than Catalina but can seem a world away once you arrive. Different terrain, rock formations, views of the mainland, far fewer boats and more stars visible at night are just some of the features you’ll quickly notice in contrast to Catalina.
From L.A. County marinas, we usually opt for nighttime passages after the westerlies have shut down for the evening, usually motoring by Anacapa around dawn.
Smugglers Cove on the east end of Santa Cruz has a beautiful beach and is an easy place to anchor on one hook for the day or overnight and comfortable in most wind conditions. For surfers, Yellow Banks is close by and worth the visit especially for surfers in winter months.
Depending on weather conditions, cruisers can choose to venture up the north side of the island or the backside. Both have interesting places to visit for the day and safe overnight anchorages, just be sure you’re following the weather forecasts before you make your decision.
We usually opt for the north side of the island, exploring blowholes and coves such as Platts, Lady’s and Potato Harbor. Although sometimes crowded (but not like the Isthmus at Catalina), Prisoners, Scorpion and Pelican make for good overnight anchorages.
If you have never been, Painted Cave is a must see. We try to arrive as early in the morning as possible before the westerly fills in and row (or kayak) in from the mother ship. There is no place to anchor nearby so we find it best to split our crew so 1-2 people stay on board outside the cave while the others explore, then we switch. Be sure to bring high powered flashlights so you can see the colors on the cave’s walls and the many sea lions inside the cave. We strongly recommend folks turn off their outboards and either row or paddle so you can hear and fully appreciate this unique location. It’s a spooky experience for first time visitors but well worth it!
Our favorite anchorage on Santa Cruz is Forney Cove, located on the southwest side of the island. It’s well protected from the prevailing winds with stunning views of both Santa Rosa Island and down the Santa Cruz Island’s backside. Forney Cove has a long sandy beach with amazing tide pools.
From Forney Cove, we like to leave early in the morning to motor up to San Miguel Island. Although we don’t stop, we keep close to Santa Rosa Island which has some dramatic coastline of its own. (We have stopped in Becher’s Bay on occasion, which has some of the best tide pools around). Another fun fact about Santa Rosa is the high amount of pygmy mammoth bones found on the island and are now in display at the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum.
Just to the northwest of Santa Rosa Island is San Miguel Island with what we consider the crown jewel of the Channel Islands—Cuyler Harbor. Although it’s usually windy throughout the day and night, Cuyler Harbor is a well protected anchorage and worth exploring by dinghy. We love the long sandy beach and cliffs. When it’s sunny, the color the water turns to emerald green with shades of blue depending on depth. We’re usually the only boat anchored in Cuyler Harbor when we visit. The island also has one of the largest rookeries for elephant seals in the world and can be viewed if escorted by a park ranger. (Visitors are asked to call in advance).
San Miguel has a unique (and sometimes controversial) history. Is Juan Cabrillo really buried there? Did the original production of Munity on the Bounty abandon their set in Cuyler Harbor for the sunnier location at Isthmus Cove? Who planted the palm trees—Hollywood set designers or Santa Barbara YC members?
What is not disputed about San Miguel’s history is the presence of Chumash Indians for thousands of years followed by sheep ranchers. Many books have been written about San Miguel inhabitants, particularly the Lester and Waters families.
If you make it up to San Miguel Island, be sure to bring a spinnaker for what is typically a spectacular sail down to Santa Barbara or Ventura. Sailing down the windy backsides of Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz is even more thrilling!
For landing permits, be sure to check with the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy, which owns 76 percent of Santa Cruz Island. Some Covid-19 restrictions might be in effect as well at some landing points.
If you venture up to the northern Channel Islands, it’s important to monitor weather forecasts and to be familiar with safe anchorages. Charley’s Charts is a resource we use again and again even in the anchorages we know well.
Visiting the northern Channel Islands takes a little more preparation than sailing to Catalina for the weekend. UK Sailmakers can help you plan ahead with input on your sail plan, reefing systems, and rigging improvements. Give us a call!
On a closing note, we recommend cruising the Channel Islands for all our customers planning international cruises. Although there are many pleasant anchorages, some of them (and weather conditions) can be challenging and simulate what you’ll encounter elsewhere. This is an excellent time to practice locally in preparation for when the world is open again for cruisers.
Brendan Huffman is an experienced racer and cruiser. His family has been cruising the Channel Islands for four generations. He recently joined UK Sailmakers-Los Angeles.