What to do for a socially distanced Thanksgiving? Cruise Catalina Island on a sailboat of course! I love Thanksgiving. It brings to mind memories of sitting around the dinner table with family. At my grandmother’s house there would be 100 different little plates of things arranged around the table. Most of us love having a relaxed meal while enjoying company, some you may only see once or twice a year. None of this was in the cards for 2020. So this year we decided to have Thanksgiving on a boat moored at Catalina. Here’s how our 2020 Thanksgiving went.
Long Beach to Avalon – November 24th 2020
We’ve discovered a charter boat we really love named ‘Afternoon Spray’. She’s a 2017 Beneteau Oceanis 35′ with two cabins and the L-shaped galley. She’s a good size for a couple and maybe one or two close friends. Charter boats can be funky, but Afternoon Spray is new enough that she hasn’t developed much charter boat funk yet. She still feels new and lightly used. I particularly enjoyed using the German mainsheet system and traditional mainsail that fills and powers us forward, instead of flapping endlessly like a limp furling mainsail can.
It was November 24th, two days before Thanksgiving, and we planned to sail from Long Beach to Avalon for the first leg of our four day adventure. The weather forecast warned of strong winds around Thanksgiving Day, but today was one of those gorgeous clear fall days we have in California that I love so much. I know I’ll need a jacket later, but while the sun is up it’s a t-shirt November day in Cali, and I couldn’t be happier to go cruising Catalina. On our way to Avalon we see a whale breach in the distance. Awesome!
Avalon Small Craft Weather Warning
We arrived in Avalon, but with the pandemic still going most things looked closed, and for the first time ever we didn’t go ashore. I have a feeling we didn’t miss much. The harbor patrol warned us about a strong northeast wind that would arrive around Thanksgiving, and they were evacuating the harbor. Avalon is positioned so that the regular northwest winds are not a problem, the boats are protected by the island features, but when the strong Santa Ana NE winds blow the waves can get huge and it’s a dangerous place to be.
This was an excellent opportunity for us to circumnavigate the island. Catalina Harbor on the south side of the island is a naturally protected harbor, and one of the safest places to be in strong conditions. We had a relaxing evening at Avalon Harbor in the cockpit watching the sunset, and planned to head around the east end in the morning towards Cat Harbor before everyone else got the same idea.
Around Catalina’s East End from Avalon to Cat Harbor
We set out mid-morning on November 25th. The back side of Catalina between Avalon and Cat Harbor was totally deserted, with very little but barren cliffs and rock formations. It reminded me of Greece as we motorsailed along in the bright fall morning through still conditions. The only place of much interest to me was Little Harbor, but the charter company had said it was “off limits due to necessary local knowledge.” This sounds to me like some irresponsible charterer had an accident, ruining it for the rest of us.
Arriving in Catalina Harbor
Arriving in Cat Harbor is a really cool experience, and it’s not like Avalon or Isthmus Cove which are just indentations in the coastline. Cat Harbor goes deep inside the island behind some cliffs and you really feel protected by the hillside around you. It’s a long narrow crevice cut into the island, and it’s full of moorings. We got a great spot about halfway in with an awesome view out to sea to watch the sunset. This is one thing Catalina Harbor has besides protection, is the beautiful sunsets. We intended to relax, enjoy dinner and wake up on Thanksgiving Day in our private little paradise. Then everyone else arrived.
That evening and the next day we watched a steady stream of boats come in until Cat Harbor was completely full and there were no more moorings available. It was amazing to see how many boats came in. It was good that we got there first, a day early. We listened on the radio on Thanksgiving Day to people being told by the harbor patrol to wait outside, or to tie up to the buoy at the entrance. The weather was calm until dark on Thanksgiving Day. We finished our dinner and then the wind started to howl.
Catalina Island Gale Warning in Effect
When I checked the weather on Thanksgiving Day, the forecast small craft warning was upgraded to a gale warning with gusts up to 35 knots predicted. And they weren’t wrong. That night the wind was incredibly strong and it made me think of the stories I’d read of winter storms and disaster on the island. But Cat Harbor truly was the best place for us to be on the island that night. The wind was strong, but we didn’t have the whole ocean coming at us from behind like we would in Avalon or Isthmus Cove. I listened to the radio and there were boats out in the entrance who couldn’t anchor in the deep water, or were struggling to tie up to the entrance buoy. After a while the harbor patrol simply stopped responding. I wondered were they overwhelmed with calls or off duty?
Heading Home Around Catalina’s West End
November 27th it was time to go home. The wind had died down and it was a beautiful fall day. We dropped our mooring and headed out, turning right to go around the west end of the island and back to Long Beach. On our way we passed Iron Bound Cove, which in the cruising guide is a place to find shelter from strong winds.
Iron Bound Cove looks like a carved out area in the tall rocky cliffs. I wouldn’t want to spend the night there, that’s for sure. But I suppose if you’re desperate for shelter it’s an option. According to the cruising guide you can anchor there in 60′. Once we got around the west end we passed Parson’s landing and saw some people camping there. They must have had quite a show on Thanksgiving Day camping on that beach facing the angry wind and ocean.
On the way home we saw hundreds of dolphins which swam with us for more than half an hour! It may have been the biggest pod of dolphins I’ve ever sailed in. I never get tired of seeing them jump and play around the boat. We got some fantastic wind approaching the Palos Verdes peninsula and some epic sailing conditions. I was looking forward to experiment some more with this main sheet system. It is totally different than the regular system. You let the main sheet out from one side or other on the boat, and there is no traveler. The boat has an angle on the hull sides that hits the waterline while heeling in some wind and the boat slides along the water like a sled. I was really impressed by how she sailed and look forward to taking her sailing again.
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