Santa Catalina Island

Written by Michael Badnarik

Twenty-six miles across the sea
Santa Catalina is a-waitin’ for me
Santa Catalina, the island of romance

The Four Preps “26 Miles (Santa Catalina)” (Glen Larson and Bruce Belland)

Shortly after I moved to California in 1985, I found and joined a sailing club in Newport Beach. They had beautiful sailboats to charter, but in order to sail across the channel to Catalina Island, you had to take and pass their navigation test. Because I passed with a perfect score, I was now authorized to charter any of their boats up to fifty feet long. That’s a lot of boat. Although I was confident I could sail a boat that size, I usually chose boats that were closer to thirty-five feet long. Still comfortable, but more manageable to handle by myself.

The boats were beautiful (to those of us who are hard core sailors), but they were also a bit pricey. In order to visit Catalina twice a month, I found it necessary to enlist the help of my coworkers on the Stealth Bomber project. “How would you like to take a sailing vacation to Catalina next weekend?” These were symbiotic relationships. My passengers would pay for the boat, and I would provide the sailing instruction. Everybody wins.

There are two harbors on the island. The largest and most popular is Avalon, and the other is appropriately named “Two Harbors”. The island has a narrow isthmus at the north end of the island, so sailors can moor their boats on either side of the island. There are moorings in all three harbors, but you cannot make reservations for any of them. They are all “first come – first served”. This is a disadvantage for sailboats. Power boats (aka “stink potters”) can arrive early on Saturday morning, which means there is “no room at the inn” for sailboats. And since there are no shallow waters to anchor your boat outside the harbor, the Captain of the boat is forced to sail all night to avoid crashing his boat on the rocks. Ask me how I know that.

I would invite my crew to arrive at the dock anytime Thursday night after work. After they stowed their gear I would pour wine, and serve cheese and crackers, or something to nibble on. I would also draw their attention to my ensign which was already flying from the backstay. I would tell them that I always fly the ensign because I’m very patriotic, and that I love my country. “But…”, I would say, “a mysterious and magical thing happens the moment we leave the dock. From that point on, my vote is the only one that counts!”

As the Captain, I am totally responsible for what happens to my ship and the crew. From a practical point of view, at that moment, I am the only one who knows how to sail. You would never walk into the cockpit of an airplane and tell the pilot how to do his job. The same logic is used aboard a boat.
Rule #1: The Captain is always right.
Rule #2: When in doubt, refer to Rule #1.

Shortly after sunrise on Friday, we motor out of the harbor and point the bow in the direction of Avalon Harbor. Roughly southwest to landlubbers, and exactly “238 degrees True” to the Captain. For several hours my crew is perched on the high side of the boat, clutching the rail, wondering when the boat will finally tip all the way over and sink. During this period of “increased anxiety” they are not in any mood to learn the numerous nautical terms that accurately define the parts of the boat. This is why I limit myself to a boat that I can easily sail by myself.

When we arrive in Avalon Friday afternoon, there are still plenty of moorings available for the weekend, and I pay for two nights. When we take the water taxi ashore, my novice crew is happy to be on land again. A few literally kiss the dock as if they’ve been at sea for several months. It’s an over-reaction that I try to ignore. Dinner and enthusiastic conversation fill our time until we return to the boat to sleep on the water. The gentle rocking of the waves has everyone dead to the world in a very short time.

Saturday morning means a quick breakfast before we drop the mooring and sail to the southern tip of the island. I introduce my crew to the Pacific Ocean. The “granddaddy of all water”. At this moment there is nothing between our boat and Hawaii except weather. The California mainland is now far enough away to be below the horizon, and with most of Catalina pointed north, there is nothing but “water, water, everywhere” for 350 degrees on the compass. One person said, “We’re in the middle of the ocean!”. This is a gross exaggeration. As sailors, we are barely dipping our toes in the water, however the appreciation for the vastness of the ocean, and the insignificance of our tiny vessel is an important and valuable lesson for all seamen to learn.

Sooner or later I have this conversation.
“Can I drive the boat?”
“No. Nobody can drive a boat.”
“Aren’t you driving the boat right now?”
“No, I am piloting the boat.”
“Can I pilot the boat?”
“Yes, but only if you ask the proper way.”

My crew spends the rest of the day learning how to sail. We pretend that we’re practicing for the America’s Cup race. We tack, slowly at first, so that everyone can learn what needs to happen. Everyone is required to work every position so they can fill any role on a moment’s notice. Gradually we increase the speed of our drills until we would actually be competitive in a regatta. At the end of the day, we return to our mooring and eat dinner cooked on board the boat. After a day filled with sunshine, fresh air, and lots of exercise, the crew is usually asleep by seven-thirty.

On Sunday before daybreak I make crepes for breakfast. Coffee and orange juice, and then a quick wash of the dishes. The water sparkles in the sun as the seagulls shriek in the morning sky, and my crew begins to wonder whether or not they would be happier living on the sea. I pour a cup of coffee for myself and never have to touch anything for several hours. I merely bark commands to my new recruits, and they know how to “fall off the wind” and “take a heading of “58 degrees True”. Oddly enough, the same people who were mildly offended by my announcement that “my vote is the only one that counts” are now strangely disappointed if my commands are uttered in a civil tone. They much prefer my impersonation of Captain Bligh, when I preface my remarks with “Put your backs into it you scurvy lot, or I’ll have ‘ye all KEEL-hauled!” Apparently it makes them feel more like “real sailors”, when I scream at them. Go figure.

I allow them to sail all the way to the mouth of Newport Harbor, however boat traffic in the harbor is so chaotic that I take the helm myself. We start the diesel and lower the sails, and begin navigating the maze of powerboats who seem to have no appreciation for the fact that sailboats are not as nimble as their floating automobiles. We are within 100 yards of the yacht club, implying that our adventure is almost over. Little do we realize that the real adventure is just about to start.

The engine makes a disturbing noise, and I look over the stern to see oil being ejected out of the exhaust. This is not a good thing, but we’re only 100 yards from the dock. Certainly the diesel will make it that far. As the thought passes through my mind, the engine makes a huge CLANK before sitting silently. I suppress my realization that we are in a world of hurt. One of the responsibilities of being Captain is to always project confidence to your crew. I start to bark orders again, and this time my crew responds with appropriate swiftness. “Unfurl the jib!” “Fall off to starboard!” “Heave-to on the main halyard and raise the mainsail!” We are now sailing, but heading away from the yacht club. Because of boat traffic, I am forced to turn hard to starboard to avoid a collision, but now I am sailing down a row of moored boats, and headed for a brick embankment 150 yards away. I remind myself not to panic. I see an empty mooring ahead, which means I have a very narrow escape route. “Prepare to come about!” My crew scrambles to the winches. “Helm a-lee!” I manage to sail our boat through the narrow gap, and we’re now heading back towards open water. The Harbor Patrol comes zooming up in their small power skiff to inquire why I am gallivanting through the mooring area. I explain our emergency, and immediately get a police escort back to our home dock.

Sailing a boat to the dock without using the motor exhibits a high level of sailing experience. It is also frowned upon by many as simply showing off. My recently-seasoned crew does a fantastic job of hanging the fenders and preparing the mooring lines. We drop the sails and our boat drifts slowly to hover mere inches from the dock. This is truly an America’s Cup performance. Well done, crew! It would be an understatement to say that they are pleased with themselves. They are no longer landlubbers.

It has been much too long since I’ve spent time on the water. I’m hoping to find people who want to experience the wind in the wires, and a salt spray in their face. I would be all too happy to help you plan a family vacation to the British Virgin Islands – or even a weekend on Lake Travis here in Texas. If you want to learn “the world’s oldest profession”, give me a call.
(Please note: prostitution was invented AFTER the sailors returned home.)

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  1. Deirdre

    Thank you for an insightful and humorous story, your teaching style is so fun.

    [mjb: Thanks, Deidre. The student does all the learning. The only thing the teacher can do is make it fun (and understandable).]

  2. Larry Graves

    I love your short vignettes — keep ’em coming. As I sit here “on a break” from working at home, I find your stories to be a refreshing moment away from all the crap we’re dealing with.
    Best Regards My Friend,
    LG in Oregon

  3. Georgine Scott-Codiga

    I too love your stories so skillfully and beautifully told. My 1st husband and I used to take my dad’s little 17ft Bayliner to Catalina and moor it in the harbor. We’d put up the biminy top and sleep on the boat. We had so much fun on those little trips playing with the dolphins on the way back n’ forth and exploring Catalina. Thanks for your story and reminding me of fun times long ago. Keep em coming!
    (Gilroy, CA)

  4. Katherine O'Neal Duran

    🤣🤣🤣 Hahaha!

  5. Kay

    Wonderful Story. Could almost feel the wind on my face. : )

  6. Teresa

    “Three sheets to the wind!” keeps coming to mind. I think it is just quarantine blues. Loved the tale my friend.


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