Cruising the Channel Islands
The Pacific Wild
Cruising the Channel Islands aboard a trusty Fleming 65 proved to be quite an adventure; and one where Mother Nature had her say.
It was half an hour after midnight, zero dark thirty, when the rumblings of the big 800-horsepower MAN diesels woke me up. I threw on my clothes and ran into Tony Fleming, the owner of our Fleming 65 Venture and the founder Fleming Yachts, on the way up to the pilothouse, where Chris Conklin, the captain, had just fired up the engines. Christine Edwards, the mate, was just behind us.
Outside, the wind was howling—no, shrieking—as the Simrad wind gauge at the helm danced spastically between 50 and 60 knots, and it was pitch black outside except for the almost iridescent white foam that was blowing horizontally off the top of the waves. When we had anchored here in Forney’s Cove late the previous afternoon, we’d thought we would be protected in the lee of Santa Cruz Island, one of the famed Channel Islands off the Southern California coast. Indeed, Forney’s had seemed like a pocket of calm as we let out 300 feet of chain in only 17 feet of water. The weather forecast had warned of a dreaded Santa Ana wind blowing dry air in a fury off the mountains, but we thought it was headed farther south. Still, this was early December, and the wind was going to be cold; there was already snow on the hills behind Ventura, where we had started our cruise. After dinner, Conklin set the anchor alarm and then stretched out on the sofa in the saloon while the three of us went below to our respective cabins; if the anchor dragged, he would start the engines and we should come running.
In the dark pilothouse, Fleming took the helm while the three of us went out to pick up the anchor. On deck, a gust of wind knocked me against the railing; this was serious stuff. As the chain rattled in Conklin grabbed a machete-sized knife, bent far out over the pulpit and hacked away at clumps of kelp that came up with it. Kelp shrapnel kept flying back and hitting Edwards and me in the face at 60 knots. At last the big Ultra anchor came up, wrapped in a ball of kelp; Conklin hacked away until the anchor was back on board. Fleming turned on the FLIR thermal-imaging camera, which helped us find a kelp-free zone in the cove, and we dropped the hook again and hoped for the best.
After dawn, the thin, red track line on the Nobeltec cartography displayed a tangled zigzag where the Santa Ana had blown Venture back and forth, but the anchor had held. A few hours later however, with the wind still howling about 60 knots, it seemed that we were getting closer to the rocks off our port quarter. In the morning light, the beach in front of us had taken on an odd otherworldly golden glow; the water was a cold steely gray with angry waves and flying foam. We were alone in the cove until a little fishing boat seeking protection came in, looking half submerged, spray flying. The chartplotter registered 1.2 knots SOG as Venture swung back and forth, the big TRAC stabilizers working overtime.
But now picking up the hook seemed problematic. The chain tightened and became almost vertical—and stuck. Fleming tried to horse the bow around with the engines and thruster, but the wind was too strong. The stresses at work were enormous; the bridle line broke on the starboard side. Finally the big 132-pound Ultra came up and we could see the problem; the shank was bent about 90 degrees. It must have been stuck under a rock. (To its credit, Ultra sent Fleming a new anchor after our trip.) As Venture swung free, we took a big wave over the bow, and the three of us were soaked to the skin. Back in the pilothouse Fleming shook his head. “That was the worst night at anchor I’ve ever spent in my life,” he said.
And that’s saying a lot, because Fleming has cruised Venture about 25,000 nautical miles since she launched in 2005, plus several thousand more on Venture ll, another Fleming 65 that he kept in England until recently, using both boats as test beds as well as for extended cruising (see “Better Boat: Equipment That Works,”). This particular trip was unusually close to home for Fleming, who lives only 100 miles or so down the coast in Newport Beach, though he had never been to the Channel Islands before, and neither had I, although we both had motored by.
Divided from the mainland by a bluewater trench that is deeper than the Grand Canyon, the four Channel Islands we were visiting—stretching from Anacapa, (only 16 miles off Ventura) to San Miguel (70 miles from Ventura), with Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa in between—have been part of a national park since 1980. Isolated, windswept, and dotted by sea caves, cliffs, a few beaches, and more than a few shipwrecks, the Channel Islands understandably don’t have many inhabitants.
What the Channel Islands do have is one of the world’s richest collections of sea life, brought together where the cold currents heading south from the upper Pacific meet warmer waters from Mexico. Attracted by the currents and nutrients in the sea (not to mention kelp forests), the islands at various times of the year are home to gray whales, seals, and California sea lions. On the farthest side of San Miguel, more than 100,000 seals and sea lions (including 6,000-pound elephant seals) haul out each year, resting on rocky cliffs and wide beaches; it’s the largest elephant-seal rookery in the world. All that’s on the water, of course, but if you look up you’ll see brown pelicans and peregrine falcons flying overhead. To the four of us, all this was inviting; to Fleming, a dedicated photographer and videographer in addition to his boatbuilder activities, it offered a wealth of new material.
With our bent anchor back on board, we headed west, toward Santa Rosa and quickly put the Santa Ana behind us. Over the next few days, we enjoyed exploring the islands, finally heading out to Point Bennett, the rocky western tip of San Miguel. There seals were often perched way up on the cliffs. How in the world did they get there? Then, around the south side, hundreds and hundreds of them filled the beaches in three distinct groups, with the big elephant seals in back, looking like black boulders, while small seals played in the surf, all honking away in a never-ending din.
When it was finally time to head home, we turned south toward Avalon on Santa Catalina, about 90 miles away. The ocean was calm, the sky blue, and we cruised along happily in our own, self-contained universe, entranced when a school of dolphin played along in our bow wave.
After a delightful night moored bow and stern in the Avalon fashion, we turned west to Newport Harbor, as civilization and responsibility beckoned our return from the Pacific wild. On the way in, we all agreed that we’d love to go back to the Channel Islands—but next time we probably could do without the Santa Ana.
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This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.