The Sea

Sailing to Avalon – Catalina Island

| Zack Newsome |
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Sailing is a blast anyway you do it, but sailing to a destination is another level altogether. We recently had the opportunity to sail to Avalon on Catalina Island. The trip was days of enjoying the ocean, exploring Catalina activities, and appreciating the outdoors in a whole new way.

The Trip

Sailing to Avalon Catalina Island
The first to spot Catalina Island wins.

We departed for Avalon from San Diego Harbor and immediately set course for Oceanside Harbor. Avalon is an 80-nautical-mile sail. With an average speed of 7 knots/hour, a straight line from San Diego to Avalon would take us more than 11 hours. We arrived at the boat in San Diego in the morning, too late to make Avalon before nightfall. Instead, we elected to leave that afternoon and head up the coast to Oceanside – 40 nautical miles from San Diego. We stayed the night at an overnight slip in Oceanside Harbor, filled up with diesel first thing in the morning, and headed out toward Avalon.

The 47 nautical mile sail to Avalon took us just under 7 hours and was filled with the quiet peacefulness of the open ocean. Sailing along the shoreline gives you the security of knowing that if something happened you could easily get help, but sailing without land in sight generates an anxiety that is somehow both thrilling and terrifying. With modern technology such as GPS, VHF radios, and satellite communicators, rescue is always a quick call away, but on a trip like this, you hope you don’t need to rely on such help.  With nothing but blue water and rolling swells all around you, you keep the boat pointed in the right direction and knock off any many miles as you can each hour.

The waters between San Diego and Avalon are beautiful and typically filled with sea life.  The last time we completed this trip, we saw multiple whales, sea turtles, and even some sunfish.  This time we weren’t as lucky.  Running across pods of dolphins is almost guaranteed on a trip of this length, but for some reason, we couldn’t get any of the small pods we saw to come close to our boat. Regardless, destination sailing in the open ocean is “gorgeous captivity” – you can’t really do anything but take it all in.  The sea breeze in your hair, the salt spray on your skin, and the gentle rocking of the boat make for some of the best opportunities to just relax I’ve ever experienced.  Sailing is an excuse to do nothing….and to love it.

Mooring at Avalon

Sailing in Catalina
The Mooring Field in Avalon Harbor

After making great time on our sail from Oceanside, we arrived in Avalon Harbor around 3 pm to secure our mooring. Avalon Harbor has a network of moorings available to vessels of all sizes.  The challenge is that these moorings can’t be reserved ahead of time.  It’s first come, first served, and if no moorings are available, the harbor patrol will push you out of Avalon Harbor into a mooring in a nearby bay.  These moorings are fine if that’s all you can get, but you are much further from the action and amenities of Avalon.

Upon arrival at Avalon, you’re told to just hang out in your boat outside the harbor and to wait for a harbor patrol boat.  Almost immediately upon arrival at the entrance of the harbor, a patrol boat will find you.  Once they arrive, you’ll be assigned a mooring and pay them directly.  It’s a pretty smooth process, though passing credit cards and receipts boat to boat can be tricky.

Once you have your mooring assigned, you make your way to it and pick up the mooring buoy – a long stick floating upright at the front of your mooring.  Once the buoy (and stick) are on board, you must quickly tie it off to a front cleat and then pull the aft end of the line up as you walk to the stern of your vessel.  As you pull, you’ll eventually come across another loop on the line that you’ll tie off your stern.  You can learn more about the tie-up process on the City of Avalon’s website here. Having both your bow (front) and your stern (back) of your boat tied to the mooring keeps your boat secure and always pointed in the same direction.  Once you’re tied off and have a chance to look through the myriad of boats in the harbor, you see why it’s important that both bow and stern are tied. If just one boat wasn’t properly secured in strict order, total chaos would ensue.

Snug in your spot in the harbor, you start to get a feel for life in Avalon.  The colorful hillsides spotted with vibrant villas that surround the harbor capture the eyes don’t let go. Tour boats and mainland ferries arrive and depart nonstop. Parties overflow from neighbor boats as they tow whatever will tow (think inflatable docks, kid’s rafts, paddleboards) up and down the fairways. The sights and sounds are unforgettably active in Avalon harbor.

Things to do in Catalina

Once you’ve gotten your bearings in the harbor, it’s time to hop in your dinghy and head into town. While the harbor offers a shore boat to pick you up at your boat and bring you to shore (at a charge per person, each way), you want to have your own dinghy in Avalon.  Having your own transportation gives you the freedom to explore the harbor and to party like the locals while you’re here – all without emptying your pocket.

Whether you prefer lounging the day away on your boat or exploring all that the town of Avalon has to offer, Avalon offers the best of both worlds.  We prefer to do a bit of both, typically chilling on the boat during the heat of the day and retreating to the bars, restaurants, and shops in the afternoon/evening.  In any case, there are a lot of activities in Avalon to keep you busy and entertained.

Hanging on Your Boat

By far my favorite activity to do while in Avalon is just to relax on the back of the boat. Pick the music and your beverage of choice and do a lot of nothing for as long as you want. If doing nothing is not your cup of tea, there’s plenty to do right off your boat.  Go fishing for the small fish that live under your boat.  Float around behind your boat on anything that floats – having a line tied to your boat is a good idea for this one.  Take a dinghy ride around the moorings.  Go paddle boarding.  Swing from your spinnaker halyard. Swim under and around your boat. Tow your friends/family on inflatables around the mooring field. Get some sun. Take a nap. Did I mention hanging on the boat is my favorite activity while in Avalon?

Check out Avalon’s Bars & Restaurants

There’s a lot to explore in this category – plenty more than you’ll be able to visit in a single trip.  Here are some of the spots we visited while on our trip:

The Lobster Trap – this place is ranked #1 on Yelp for good reason.  It has all the seafood you would hope for in an island town AND has a table made from an old boat.  Do your best to get the “boat table” It’s worth it.

El Galleon – while the name and theme fit the “island experience” to a “T”, we were disappointed with our dinner at El Galleon.  Inside, this bar/restaurant misses the opportunity to achieve its potential for the maritime dive bar Hall of Fame.  It’s just ok in every way – well except for the prices.  Like most places in Catalina, prepare to pay higher prices than the quality of food deserves.  It’s just how it goes in a tourist town.

Island Donuts – this place is a little corner hole-in-the-wall, which in my experience usually means “Great”. The donuts are above average, but much better when they are procured by an early morning dinghy ride and brought back to those still sleeping on the boat.

Originals Antonio’s – There are 2 pizza places in Avalon.  Both are named Antonio’s Pizza.  I’m not sure of the history here, but Antonio’s Pizza is on the water’s edge in the middle of town. Original Antonio’s is a much cooler, much better pizza place a block away.  Don’t mess with Antonio’s.  Go with the original and you’ll be happy.  The seating inside Original Antonio’s is tiny and the line can get long.  I recommend phoning in a to-go order to bring it back to your boat.

Catalina Snorkeling

The waters around Catalina Island are much clearer than those near the mainland. They also seem to take on a deeper and more beautiful shade of blue as you get closer to the island. While this may be an illusion caused by the anticipation of reaching your destination, Catalina Island has some good snorkeling. Just remember that this isn’t the Caribbean – the water is colder and the fish are much less colorful. Regardless, if you’re anything like me, you never miss a chance to get in the water to get a closer look at the creatures that call the ocean home.  My favorite creature is the Garibaldi – a bright orange fish also known as “Catalina goldfish”. Garibaldi can be found all around the shoreline of the island and are so bright they can be spotted from docks in the harbor.

The main spot to snorkel in Avalon is at Lover’s Cove, just south of the ferry landing at the south end of the harbor. Lover’s Beach has good visibility, and a decent amount of fish to see, but can get crowded.  The highlight of this spot is the fish food dispenser at the top of the stairs.  Make sure to bring some quarters and pick up some handfuls of fish food on your way down to the beach.  Having the fish swarm you as you dish out pellets of fish food is an experience – especially for kids.  You can snorkel at Lover’s Cove with even the simplest of gear – goggles or a mask will allow you to see the fish clearly and a full snorkel setup will allow you to do it uninterrupted.  This spot is fun for a short snorkeling trip, but it will most likely take you longer to walk there and back than you will be in the water.  Don’t forget to bring some type of water shoes.  The beach is made up of small to medium-sized pebbles which can be painful (but very possible) without something on your feet.

I enjoy snorkeling in Avalon anytime I’m in the water.  While Lover’s Cove is the “snorkeling spot”, it’s just as much find to find fish and explore the underwater realm from the beaches in front of town, the beach club in nearby Descanso Bay, or off the back of your boat at your mooring.

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Catalina Camping

While I’ve never camped on Catalina Island, it’s on my to-do list. How much of an experience it must be to take the ferry to Catalina Island with all of your camping gear, to hike to your campground, and to be fully immersed in the semi-wild that Catalina Island offers!

While there are a number of campgrounds on Catalina Island, the only campground in Avalon is Hermit Gulch Campground.  Hermit Gulch is tucked into scenic Avalon Canyon behind the town of Avalon.  Only 2 miles from downtown shops and restaurants, Hermit Gulch seems to offer the ability to sleep under the stars while being close to all the activities and amenities of Avalon. Reservations for Hermit Gulch can be made at visitcatalina.com.

If you’ve got more time and more adventure in you, consider hiking and camping along the Trans-Catalina Trail – the 37.2-mile trail that covers the majority of the island’s length.  Numerous campgrounds exist along the trail to break up the trip and reservations for these campgrounds can also be made at visitcatalina.com.

Catalina Island camping

The Return Trip

After 5 days of Avalon, we didn’t want to go back to real life.  But we were due for a real shower schedule (our rule in Catalina Island is that a swim in the ocean is equal to a shower) and had to get back to real work.  The pace of life in Avalon is whatever you want it to be.  If you like always being on the go, there’s plenty to occupy your time.  And if you like slowing things down a bit, no one in Avalon will complain.  Alas, we had to head for home.

On our final day, we awoke around 6 am, fired up the engine, and tossed the mooring ties overboard.  As we departed the harbor, the seas were flat, a light fog covered the air, and, though it was summer, the morning air was crisp. Reluctantly, we set a course straight for San Diego and anticipated a long 11-hour trek home.

We found ourselves windless for most of the morning and had to rely on our diesel engine to keep up the pace.  Though noisy, motoring allowed us to fully appreciate the beauty of the calm seas ahead and to keep a keen eye out for aquatic life.  We spotted several flying fish – an amazing sight to see for the first time as these small fish skip over the surface of the water.  We also caught glimpses of a few small pods of dolphins too far away to be tempted to swim in our bow waves. As the day wore on, the wind built and soon we were motor-sailing along at just over 8 knots – speedy for our boat.  Hoping that the wind would fill in enough to drop the engine entirely. Unfortunately, it never did.  With the available breeze, we were able to keep both the sails up and the engine running to get back to San Diego in incredible time.

Sailing between Catalina Island and San Diego is easily the most nerve-racking leg of this trip.  For the majority of this route, you’re sailing about 25 miles off the California Coast.  Something going wrong during this part of the trip would cause the most grief.  When we sail offshore, we always carry our Garmin inReach SE+ Satellite Communicator.  In case of emergency and VHF radio issues, it allows us to text friends and family back home using a system of satellites that extend far beyond cell range.  It also has an SOS button that automatically alerts search and rescue authorities and includes our location.  It’s something we hope we’ll never use, but it sure makes us better enjoy the trip more knowing that we have multiple ways to stay in touch if something should happen.

Returning to San Diego from Catalina Island is always bittersweet. Sweet because sailing into port after a long day on the ocean is always calming and secure. Bitter because the responsibilities and schedule of real life are back in play.  I’d recommend that anyone who can take a trip like this.  Enjoy a long “destination sail” on the open ocean.  Fight with the insecurities and anxieties inside yourself as you bob around in a small boat without the sight of land. Take full advantage of the change of pace – of “island time”.  Learn to enjoy doing nothing.  Put your head underwater and see what is staring back at you.  Experience sleeping each night with the gentle rocking of the boat and the waves. Go to Catalina.


Interested in More Sailing Adventures? Check out our “Sea” adventures series for more.

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