Channel Islands of California

The Expedition in our own Backyard

In September 2010 a team of California-based paddlers will attempt to be the first team to visit all of the Channel Islands of California by kayak.

If time and weather conditions allow, some of the team may attempt a route that circumnavigates all of the island archipelago, a total distance of approximately 470 miles.

channel island route 2_001-001

The 4 islands of the northern group; San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and Anacapa along with the northern-most of the southern group, Santa Barbara make up the Channel Islands National Park. In addition to Santa Barbara Island, the islands in the southern group include Santa Catalina Island (commonly know just as Catalina), San Nicolas and San Clemente. The latter two are under the control of the U.S. Navy and this is probably the main reason why no-one to our knowledge has attempted this challenge before now. It is not lawful to land on either San Nicolas or San Clemente so we will have to paddle to and return from each of these islands without getting out of our kayaks, covering distances up to 80 nautical miles which will take in excess of 20 hours. We will be raising funds for the Channel Islands Park Foundation which is dedicated to enhancing the awareness and understanding of the California Channel Islands. You can support our efforts by donating here.

We have decided to attempt this challenge in early Fall as this period has the best potential for good weather, fewer foggy days than summer and hopefully less wind. We will also have less daylight so  it will be necessary to paddle at night during some of the longer crossings.

Pedro Frigola kayaking off Anacapa - photo by Bryant Burkhardt

 

The TEAM

We are a diverse group of paddlers with some considerable experience in long open ocean crossings:

Bryant Burkhardt has been an avid kayaker since his first day on the Pacific a decade ago paddling the swells off Catalina Island in Southern California.  He is an ACA Instructor Trainer in both Whitewater and Coastal Kayaking.  He has headed the UCLA Sea Kayak Program and was the Valley Program Director for California Canoe & Kayak.  In 2006 he captained the U.S. National Kayak Polo Team at the World Championships in Amsterdam, Netherlands.  In 2010 Bryant produced his first paddling DVD entitled Paddle California and now works full time as an instructor and film-maker.

Bryant has paddled to six of the eight Channel Islands, including a six day, 180 mile tour of the four northern islands (San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and Anacapa) and a paddle out and back to Santa Barbara Island from the mainland.  In 2009 he completed a 300 mile solo circumnavigation of Moresby Island in the Queen Charlottes, BC.

Pedro Frigola has been an avid sea kayaker for nearly 20 years. He has paddled extensively in California’s Channel Islands, visiting all of the publicly accessible islands.  His memorable trips in the area include a week long tour of the Northern Channel Islands (including crossing to and circumnavigation of San Miguel Island), and a weekend crossing to/from Santa Barbara Island and the mainland.  Pedro has also enjoyed extended trips in the Pacific Northwest, where he has kayaked in the San Juan Islands, Canadian Gulf Islands, Desolation Sound, and Tofino.  Other paddling destinations have included Canada’s Georgian Bay, Lake Powell, Yellowstone Lake, Florida’s southwest coast, French Polynesia, and the Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands.  Originally from Cuba, Pedro has spent most of his adult life in Southern California and enjoys a variety of outdoor activities, photography, and occasionally even work.   He shares his photographs at pedrofrigola.com.

Sean Morley originates from the UK and is now a resident of Marin Co. CA. He has been kayaking for 35 years and took part in his first kayak race in 1978 and has competed in many disciplines of paddle sport since then including white water slalom and downriver racing, marathon, sprint, wave ski, surf life saving and surf kayaking with success at national and international level.

He began expedition sea kayaking in 1996 and in 1998 set a record for the fastest crossing of the Irish Sea in 11 hours 6 minutes. In 2004 he achieved his childhood dream by completing the first solo circumnavigation of the UK and Ireland by sea kayak; the first ever to include all of the inhabited islands. The 4500 mile expedition took 183 days and is the longest kayak journey ever undertaken in British waters.  Sean raised over £10,000 for charity and was nominated as the Royal National Lifeboat Institute’s ‘Individual Supporter of the Year’.

In September 2008 Sean attempted to break the record for the fastest circumnavigation of Vancouver Island. He completed the 700mile (1000km) circumnavigation in 17 days, 4 hours and 49 minutes taking over 6 days off the previous record.

Sean is an ACA Level 4 Coastal Kayak Instructor and Level 3 Surf Kayak Instructor and an employee of California Canoe and Kayak. Sean is also the founder of Expeditionkayak.com a Worldwide Kayak Adventure Community and the Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium.

The ROUTE

You can view our proposed route on Gmaps Pedometer here.

The basic plan is as follows: leave Gaviota and cross to San Miguel, paddle down through the archipelago visting each island (Sean will attempt to circumnavigate), cross back to mainland from Catalina to San Pedro (Sean will return to Gaviota via the northern islands).

9/10/2010  Fri Gaviota-San Miguel 30 miles
9/11/2010  Sat SM-Santa Rosa 40 miles
9/12/2010  Sun SR – Santa Cruz 32 miles
9/13/2010  Mon Santa Cruz tour 5 miles
9/14/2010  Tue SC-Ana-Santa Barbara 48 miles
9/15/2010  Wed SB-San Nicolas-SB 58 miles
9/16/2010  Thu SB (Rest Day) 0 miles
9/17/2010  Fri SB – Catalina 32 miles
9/18/2010  Sat Cat-San Clemente-Cat 50 miles
9/19/2010  Sun Catalina tour 14 miles
9/20/2010  Mon Cat-San Pedro 22 miles

You will be able to track our progress because Bryant and Sean will be carrying SPOT Satellite Trackers.

Bryant’s SPOT here.

Sean’s SPOT here.

UPDATE: Six out of eight islands visited. See Bryant’s You Tube video here.

And below is Sean’s expedition report complete with shark encounter:

The Channel Islands of California

‘An expedition in our own backyard’

The plan was a simple one: be the first to visit all eight of the Channel Islands by kayak. Legendary open ocean pioneer Ed Gillet is believed to have visited seven islands in one trip (missing San Nicholas) and local limit-pusher Duane Strosaker has also visited the same seven (in separate trips)  but no-one, perhaps since the time of the Chumash people has visited all eight.

Kokatat team paddler Sean Morley joined experienced Channel Island explorers and Kokatat supported paddlers Bryant Burkhardt and Pedro Frigola in an ambitious plan to knock off all eight in one trip. When you look at the chart it looks very feasible but then when you start doing the research you find out that two of the islands (San Nicholas and San Clemente) are owned by the military and the waters surrounding them are strictly controlled. They are used for live-fire practice and for Navy Seals to train so you most certainly don’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time!

On September 10th 2010 we set out from Gaviota on the mainland, west of Santa Barbara and headed south to San Miguel Island. This crossing had the most potential for wind and rough conditions. We timed it perfectly with barely a breath of wind to ruffle the glassy smooth surface of the ocean for almost the entire 26 nautical miles. Despite the beautiful weather, there was a slight chill to the air suggesting the fog wasn’t too far away. I wore my Gore-Tex Tec Tour Jacket for the last half of the crossing and was once again impressed how comfortable I was and wore the jacket for the next three days despite temperatures in the mid 60’s.

Sean approaching San Miguel Island. Photo by Bryant Burkhardt

Sean approaching San Miguel Island. Photo by Bryant Burkhardt

We arrived on a perfect beach on San Miguel and hiked up to the campsite, eating dinner watching the fog envelope the island as night fell. It was still foggy the next morning but almost no wind and barely any swell as we headed west around Point Bennett, the largest pinniped rookery on the west coast with literally thousands of elephant seals, sea lions and a few harbor seals sharing every available beach. A cacophony of barking and bellowing combined with a stench that was overwhelming, not helped by the huge rotting carcass of a dead blue whale. It was an incredible experience and set the tone for the rest of the journey around these amazing islands. They say the Channel Islands are like mainland California was before Europeans arrived. We felt it was a privilege to paddle along this pristine coastline and we were lucky enough to experience almost perfect conditions.

Bryany off Pt Bennet, Photo by Sean Morley

Bryany off Pt Bennet, Photo by Sean Morley

We made the short crossing to Santa Rosa Island before the wind got up and camped on another perfect beach on the south side of the island. A praying mantis seemed to want to share my abode but I didn’t fancy his alien-like eyes staring at me all night so we persuaded him to return to the undergrowth for which his camouflage was better suited.

Santa Rosa to Santa Cruz Island was yet another perfect day of coastal paddling with pods of dolphin in the Santa Cruz Passage and some hilarious sea lions off Gull Island.

Bryant approaching Scorpion

Bryant approaching Scorpion Anchorage. Photo by Sean Morley

The day ended at the appropriately named Scorpion Anchorage, because after a long day in the kayak the sting in the tail was a nasty little 20 knot headwind that hit us as we came around the northeast side of Santa Cruz. We decided to take a rest day the following day and contemplate our next moves. Pedro’s pace was unrelenting, but probably too slow to make the next long crossing to Santa Barbara Island an enjoyable experience. Bryant and Pedro decided to return to the mainland via Anacapa allowing me to push on at my own pace. I was using a P&H Cetus MV and I was very pleasantly surprised at how quick the boat was proving to be. I could keep up a steady cruise of four and a half knots and if I had help from any tail wind or following sea I could push that to well over five knots for hours at a time.

Anacapa. Photo by Sean Morley

Anacapa. Photo by Sean Morley

Anacapa is a chain of volcanic islands and I used the largest, West Island as a stepping stone before heading south to Santa Barbara Island, some thirty nautical miles away. It was a long, frankly largely boring crossing, the only excitement when a missile twice came screaming across the sky at low altitude, at a speed well in excess of any fighter jet I have ever seen. The whole area is part of a missile testing range and I had no desire to be a target. An annoying 20 knot cross wind developed towards the end of the day and I had to low brace numerous times as waves broke over my deck and I just hoped that the wind would relent for the paddle to San Nicholas the next day.

Landing Cove, Santa Barbara Island

Landing Cove, Santa Barbara Island

I had been warned about the landing on Santa Barbara Island and it was just as brutal as I had feared. The surge from a southerly groundswell meant that using the ladder was impossible so I had to make the horrible decision to land my brand new gorgeous Cetus MV on the rocks, fully laden. I did my best to minimize the damage by jumping out of my kayak into the water but believe me the volcanic rock is the worst possible kind and I grimaced as I heard gel coat being scraped from the hull of my beautiful kayak as I heaved it beyond the grasp of the waves. Once ashore it took me two hours to carry my gear and the kayak up onto the dock where I saw a sign warning visitors to enter the water at their own risk as great whites had been witnessed attacking sea lions in the very same cove just a couple of months previously!

It was dark and after an eleven hour crossing and such a brutal landing I was exhausted and didn’t bother with the steep climb to the campsite but instead pitched my tent on the dock and spent the rest of the evening fending off the deer mice that were as bold as can be and determined to steal my food. I wouldn’t have minded sharing but these guys are known to carry the Hantavirus which can be life threatening to humans. Great, I thought – even the mice are deadly!

Unorthodox campsite on Santa Barbara Island - beware the mice!

Unorthodox campsite on Santa Barbara Island – beware the mice!

The next morning I was pleased to see that the surge was less and the launch only took an hour and a bit more gel coat. I was already doubting my willingness to put my new boat through another landing on those rocks but if I was to visit San Nicholas Island, that would be exactly what I would have to do. You are not allowed to land on San Nicholas and so I would have the make the 44 nautical mile round trip and land once more on Santa Barbara Island. I set out for San Nicholas with grim determination to be the first to make it there by kayak but as I left the shelter of Santa Barbara Island I realized that the wind remained from the west and whilst it had reduced to about fifteen knots, it was going to be a very long and very hard paddle to San Nicholas. All sorts of questions and emotions ran through my head and after much debate I made the tough decision to abandon the attempt to reach all eight Channel Islands. To be honest, I just didn’t fancy it. I knew it was possible; I would just need to spend all day and probably all night paddling. But I knew I didn’t want to do it and then face that same landing on the rocks.

Sea lions and elephant seals on Santa Barbara Island.

Sea lions and elephant seals on Santa Barbara Island.

So I spent an hour circumnavigating the small island of Santa Barbara, trying hard to not be disappointed with myself. The island itself is probably the wildest place I have ever seen. The hillsides have been terraced by generations of elephant seals and sea lions. Guano from thousands of brown pelicans and cormorants have turned the dark volcanic rock as white was quartz. Caves were filled with the shiny black and brown bodies of sea lions. Blow holes exploded like geysers as the powerful swells, slowed by the thick kelp, forced their way into every nook and cranny. The corpses of dead Sea lion pups were picked at by gulls, their entrails nibbled by fish below. The sights, sounds and smells were as intense as my emotions as I knew that I was about to start heading home.

So I began the 20 nautical mile crossing to Catalina with mixed feelings. I had turned my back on what would have been possibly one of the greatest challenges of my long padding career but I felt quite happy that I had made the right decision, both for me and my young family who would undoubtedly be pleased to see me much sooner than we had planned. It turned into a beautiful day the further east I paddled.

I was listening to my iPod to relieve the boredom of yet another long crossing when suddenly I felt as much as heard a big splash behind me. I assumed it was just another dolphin or sea lion but when I glanced over my shoulder I saw not just a dorsal fin but a tail fin as well. And it was going from side to side. A shark! And a big one! It must have come right out of the water for me to have felt its splash and now it was right behind me, bumping the stern of my kayak.

What should I do? My GPS told me I was 8.2 nautical miles from Catalina. There were no other vessels in sight. Great! I don’t mind admitting I was terrified. There must be something in a sea kayaker’s DNA that produces an overwhelming urge to paddle flat out when pursued by a shark. I resisted the urge to sprint, knowing that it would be futile and wanting to save my energy for a possible fight. The situation was quite bizarre. I distinctly remember Dire Straits’, “The Sultan of Swing” playing in my earphones as the shark chased me.  The shark swam right underneath me, its dorsal fin close enough for me to hit with my paddle. As I did so it flicked the underside of my kayak with its tail, forcing me to low brace. I kept paddling and the shark circled and came right at me head on. I lunged at it again with my paddle but missed. As far as I am aware the shark never tried to bite the kayak or me for that matter but instead seemed intent on harassing me, like a cat with a mouse.

Again it was on my stern. I reverse paddled and the shark came by me, again flicking the boat with its tail as I hit its fin. I was using a wing paddle which is not great for low bracing but I was determined not to capsize. The shark circled around and gave me the opportunity to get a really good look at it because the water was crystal clear. It was about ten to twelve foot in length, certainly not as long as my kayak. But it was just as sleek and really fast. I am fairly certain it was a blue shark. It had a torpedo-like head and long slender tail and whilst I have only seen a small great white in an aquarium, this shark seemed more slender, more graceful. It was a beautiful fish and had I been in a decent sized boat, the encounter would have been wonderful. In these circumstances however, I felt completely vulnerable, truly scared and more than a little bit stupid. Why should I be surprised to see a shark? This was their domain. I was the intruder. I had probably paddled past dozens without knowing it but now I had met one that was hungry.

The encounter lasted for about five minutes. What was really scary was how persistent the shark was. It must have known that I was not part of its normal diet. Yet it seemed intent on giving me a bad time. I had plenty of opportunity to take a picture of it as it cruised around me and chased my stern but I had absolutely no desire to take my hands off my paddle. I had a knife in my pocket but again was unwilling to let go of what I considered to be my best defense – a carbon wing paddle. I became exasperated. The thing just kept following me. What should I do? My VHF radio was in reach behind me but I felt a bit ridiculous shouting “Mayday” when the shark hadn’t actually bitten me.

In the end I summoned up the courage to take my hand off the paddle to reach into the pocket of my life jacket where I knew I had some energy bar wrappers. I threw these into the water in the hope of distracting the fish. Then I found a half eaten Power Bar that I had forgotten about. I threw that in as well. May be the shark went for it and realized that I didn’t taste good after all? Who knows, but finally after what seemed like a very long time, the shark disappeared.

Post shark encounter - not happy!

Post shark encounter – not happy!

I took a picture of myself once I was confident the shark had gone. My wife Gina says she has never seen me looking so angry. I was, largely at myself for having put myself in such a ridiculous and dangerous situation. I have two young kids who need their Daddy. Of course I spent the next eight miles constantly looking over my shoulder but I never saw the shark again and to be honest, I hope I never see another shark like that, especially on my own and so far from land.

Catalina campsite

Catalina campsite

I landed on another beautiful beach on the east side of Catalina and finally got to talk to Gina on the phone after a week of no contact. I described the shark incident and she clearly wanted me to take the ferry back to the mainland from Catalina. But I have been surfing and kayaking California’s coastal waters for four years now and this was my first shark encounter. What were the chances of seeing another one the following day?

I could see the lights of the mainland that night and resolved to finish the expedition by kayak. And the following morning I had perfect conditions to make the sixteen mile crossing to San Pedro and Los Angeles.

Blue whale approaching fast.

Blue whale approaching fast.

But my wildlife experiences were not over as I had the exhilarating pleasure of paddling with maybe as many as twenty blue whales that were just a couple of  miles off the mainland coast. I thought of the millions of people going about their busy lives who had never seen such a spectacle. It felt good to be alive!

Sean Morley

See all of Sean’s pictures here.

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