Between the sea and an overcast dawn sky, the outline of Catalina Island sketched a long recumbent figure on the horizon 27 miles away. It was February, not bitter, but not exactly warm either. I tried opening the throttle all the way on Ogress, my father’s white fiberglass, 17-foot, ocean-going inboard outboard. But the swell was a little too big, or the interval between waves a little too short. At top speed of around 20 knots we were slamming the troughs with a keel-shuddering thud. So, I backed off the throttle until Ogress found a smooth pace, nose up, not quite planing over the glassy undulations.
I pulled the cellophane off a celebratory package of Tiparillos, chucked the wrapper into the endless ocean, and offered one to my classmate and new friend Jon Webb. We stood together at the helm, feet spread for balance, smoking those nasty, cheap things with the white plastic tips, kings of all we surveyed.
The memory is astonishing to me now, especially the part where my parents let me take the boat by myself, with an inexperienced friend, to Catalina, in the middle of winter, as a high-school kid. I was two months shy of my 18th birthday. I’d been to the island many times in summer with my dad, but never as the skipper, never in charge. I’d learned to steer by the compass, to work the two-way, ship-to-shore radio, to anchor stem and stern if necessary in a rough cove. But I’d never done any of these things alone. The responsibility was huge. The consequences of failure, of hitting a whale mid-channel, or of missing the island altogether in fog, of having someone go overboard . . . well, they were unthinkable.
And I didn’t think about them. I was 17. I must have talked up the adventure to Jon, a kid from inland who had not had much boat time. And somehow we convinced my folks (and his) to let us do it midweek, no less. We were ditching school; we had senior-itis. My parents must have thought, well, better they’re out doing something consequential, something memorable, than slouching through another couple of days in class. I’m still amazed they said yes.
A couple of hours later, in the lee of the island, the swell diminished, flattened out like low rolling hills – and it began to rain. I’d never seen rain on the ocean before. Ogress’s V-bottom hull sliced the dappled surface like ripping silk, as the island rose up before us. The hills were greener than they ever were in summer, new grass punctuated with occasional scrub oaks all the way to the summit of the island’s high point, Mt. Orizaba, at just over 2,000 feet. That’s the spot I was aiming for, the safe middle, which also happened to be an approximate indicator for our first-night destination at White’s Landing.
Catalina is 21 miles long. It should be hard to miss coming from Los Angeles or Newport. And indeed, it’s been a relatively mellow crossing for thousands of years. The native Indians paddled big canoes back and forth to trade abalone shells and carved soapstone bowls with mainland cousins. A great white steamship (it was actually called The Great White Steamship) plied the channel daily for decades between San Pedro and Avalon, the island’s only permanent community, ferrying southern California elites to parties and big-band concerts in the great, round Casino ballroom on Avalon’s harbor. “Twenty-six miles across the sea, Santa Catalina is awaitin’ for me . . .” The Four Preps had a breezy hit with that one, in 1958.
But on the wrong day in the wrong conditions, people have sailed right past the island, some of them never to be heard from again. Dad and I had a scare one day on our converted Navy whaleboat, the Mr. Robert’s. We were chugging west in thick fog, following a compass heading that should have taken us to White’s Landing. At one point mid-crossing, a noisy cabin cruiser appeared and hailed us. “Where are we?” The skipper seemed frantic, and without much illumination from us roared off again into the murk.
When the marine layer finally burned off around midday and we could see the island’s flanks, we realized we were off course by about 10 miles. We had faithfully followed the correct compass heading, but a strong current had shoved us sideways. Had we continued unawares, we would have missed the island’s northwest end with nothing but blue water between us and Japan.
To be continued . . .