Mini-Cruise

Just because it only lasts several hours doesn't mean a daytrip to Catalina Island isn't a cruise unto itself.

We — Sea managing editor Mike Werling, Sea assistant editor Stephanie Shibata, Stan Miller Yachts salesman Geoff Swing and Werling’s wife, Dawn — are feeling none of the Wednesday wishy-washiness, because the island visible through the weak haze is our destination. Our day is going to be better than most. We are dayboating on an MJM Yachts 40z, but not just around the harbor or to Dana Point or Long Beach for lunch. It’s not just dayboating, it’s day-cruising. We are headed for the island, just for the day — the afternoon, really — which is something too manySoCal boaters forget they can do.

Is Catalina better for a weekend excursion rather than for a day? Yeah, that’s probably accurate. But that doesn’t make it any less appealing as a day-cruise destination. Play hooky on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday–we are working, not playing hooky; we’d never condone that, wink wink — and finding a mooring shouldn’t be a problem. Heck, we are here in early August at the height of the season and have no trouble. Getting around town is easier midweek, too, as is finding a table for lunch and dinner.

DAYBOATS & MORE
We published a feature a few years ago about dayboats. Our writer examined what dayboats are and how their capabilities have expanded over the years. He labeled dayboats “made-for-the-way-you-reallyboat” boats. Our ride for the day, and several other dayboats I’ve seen recently, certainly fits that description. They have amenities that stretch beyond a day on the water, but they don’t waste space on features that will hardly ever get used.

Our writer went further: The term dayboat suggests a boat made for harbor-hopping and little more. Au contraire. These boats are perfect for coastal cruising, and if you find the weather not to your liking, they’re fast enough to get you into shelter quickly. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t seaworthy. You may not want to cruise your dayboat to Alaska, but other dayboat owners have. You may not want to run from Southern California to the tip of Baja on a dayboat, but other dayboat owners have. Bottom line: Dayboats are surprisingly tough, and you’ll probably want to head back before they do. (See Our Ride for evidence of this.)

THE ISLAND
A flash of color streaks through the haze. A parasail. It’s a popular activity in the water just off Catalina, one the Werlings have done in the past. We’re not taking to the air today, but the sight of a parasail means we’re getting closer to Avalon, which is confirmed by the increasing size of the Casino through the camera lens. Other landmarks are filling the viewfinder, too: Descano Beach, the Green Pier, Chimes Tower, a passenger ferry arriving from Long Beach. Werling tells his fellow passengers he sees a buffalo, but everyone’s fairly certain it is a tree or a bush. The last time his wife and he visited, they took a Jeep ride around the island and saw several of the furry, horned beasts up close, so he knows they’re big but probably not see-them-from-several-miles-away big.

We are holding out hope for a whale or even a pod of dolphins, but they are proving as elusive as Nessie. Instead, we reach the mouth of the harbor empty-handed, so to speak. The harbor patrol officer meets us to collect our mooring fee for the day and assign us a mooring ball (see Grab a Mooring for information on daily rates). With the administrative duties out of the way, we find our spot, tie up and catch a ride to the Green Pier. There we split up. Shibata grabs a bite at a local on-the-pier lunch spot, Earl & Rosie’s Fish and Chips, while Swing and the Werlings head to Bluewater Grill.

After our respective repasts, it’s time for activities. Swing heads back to the boat to do some work (see, no hooky) while Shibata takes a dive — she rides in a semi-submersible called Nautilus with Catalina Adventure Tours — and the Werlings hit the slopes — they rent a golf cart and head for the high ground to get a view of the island and the surrounding ocean.

From atop the hillside south of the harbor, golf cart parked on the side of Wrigley Road, our view is expansive on a rapidly clearing day. The hills to the north, west and south are brown and lifeless, a testament to the years-old drought in California and a reminder of the Island Fire that threatened the town of Avalon in 2007. Lovers Cove is serene, and boats bob at anchor north and east of it. A colorful parasail floats silently above and behind a towboat we can barely hear. Avalon Harbor is tranquil; it looks like a setting in a miniature tabletop town. This view — postcard-worthy and chamber of commerce– endorsed — is one of the attractions that brings boaters and ferry passengers to the island by the hundreds every summer weekend, and for much of the off-season. The view from the zip line farther north is likely just as good — and probably infinitely more thrilling — but we haven’t tried thatattraction yet, and won’t during this trip.

Shibata’s view is less expansive but equally impressive in its own way. She’s staring at sea life, including a giant sea turtle, through a porthole on Nautilus, oohing and aahing at the variety of fish swimming past and right up to her window to the underwater world. As an added bonus, she touches a button that releases fish food into the water right outside her porthole, and the fish swarm. OK, technically fish school, but that doesn’t sound as visually impressive.

WEST COAST DAY-CRUISING
Western boaters are fortunate to have a variety of locations suited to dayboating, whether that’s the more traditional and staid version of the activity or a more vigorous version. In California, San Diego boat owners — and the many Arizonans who keep a condo on the water — have San Diego Bay, a buffered boating haven with full-speed waters just outside the protection of Shelter and Harbor islands, the Embarcadero and other spots. Plus, all sorts of cool Navy ships and aircraft use the bay, so it’s possible to get up close and personal with bad-ass military machines — just keep a respectful distance.

Newport Harbor is a dayboating sanctuary that itself holds an entire day’s worth of activities for a group that truly wants to take it slow and easy, but it’s also a spot from where boaters can hug the coast to Oceanside or Long Beach or, like we’re doing, head to Catalina. San Francisco Bay and its offshoots make the Bay Area ideal for day-cruises. Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge get all the press, but the big bay is full of places to go and see.

The day-cruising possibilities in the Pacific Northwest are nearly endless. Islands abound. Protected passages proliferate. Quaint, quirky marinas are manifold. The San Juan and Gulf Islands are reachable in no time from many launching points in upstate Washington and southeast Vancouver Island, as our friend and frequent contributor Deane Hislop will attest.

So if dayboating sounds too tame, tell folks you’re day-cruising. It will work, especially if there’s an island involved. And the type of boat really doesn’t matter. Sure, a layout that gets as many passengers as possible outside is going to be preferred, but is someone really going to turn down a trip to the island for parasailing or a different harbor for lunch at a favorite restaurant just because the boat’s design doesn’t “look” right? We think not.

REALITY CHECK
We’re heading home with a freshening breeze to our back and a slightly choppier sea than we’d had on the outbound journey. No matter. The Seakeeper 5 gyro keeps the boat solid and level. That’s an advancement boat owners are sure to take advantage of, especially if they like to drift with the current and fish all day. And with the gyro units getting smaller, more and more boats can install them.

Shibata and Dawn manage to catch a little shuteye while Swing and Werling converse at the helm. Again the sea life proves to be elusive, still not over its hump-day ho-hums, but a cold beer, leftover donuts, a warm breeze and the soothing motion of the ocean are enough. Heck, not being stuck behind a desk is enough; being on the water is the icing on the cake, the cherry on the sundae, the olive in the martini.

The autopilot is locked in on the entrance to Newport Harbor, and the engines are comfortably pushing us along at 21 knots and getting better than 1.5 mpg. We’re in a 36- to 38-knot boat, so we could be cruising much faster, but the day is warm, the gyro makes it feel like we’re cruising on glass, the “workday” is drawing to a close and the coast is dancing mesmerizingly on the horizon. Who’s in a hurry to get back?

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