It usually takes a big, fancy boat to attract attention in Newport Harbor, but plenty of heads turned this week when Brian Hogan and Tina Rael cruised past the breakwater in their 13-foot inflatable boat. That's because Hogan and Rael were part of a pack of 37 portable boats bound for Santa Catalina Island.
A Catalina crossing is commonly made in boats much more substantial than inflatable, rubberized dinghies. But every summer since 1975 a group of inflatable-boat owners has been getting together to prove that you don't have to own a large yacht to make an ocean voyage.
The Catalina crossing is organized by Port-A-Marine, a Costa Mesa company that sells inflatable boats. "We are trying to show the versatility of these boats," said owner Scott McIntosh. The trips were begun to take new customers across the channel to prove that they could make the crossing.
"We wanted to show that Catalina is not so far off, that you can make a safe crossing in a boat like this," McIntosh said. "In all the years we've been doing these crossings, we have never had an instant of danger. And we have never had to cancel a trip because of weather."
While inflatable boats range in size from eight to 24 feet, the minimum McIntosh allows for the Catalina trip is 13 feet. Minimum size for the outboard engine is 25 horsepower. Most of the approximately 100 people who made this year's crossing camped overnight on the island, but a few returned to Newport Beach that day. The crossing takes about two to three hours, depending upon wind and weather.
For Hogan and Rael, who just bought their boat three weeks ago, the voyage was their first to Catalina. As a part of the contingent that camped overnight at the Isthmus, Hogan and Rael loaded their small boat with sleeping bags, tent, ice chest, gas tank and duffel bags. There was still room left for some water balloons, and they conducted a spirited attack on fellow boaters as they cruised along the coast near Avalon.
The trip was also a first crossing for M'Lou Dietzer, 60, who skippered her 13-footer. "We came to see if we could really go out in the ocean in a boat this size," she said. "It is wonderful."
Dietzer, who also owns an eight-footer, uses her boats primarily on nearby lakes and in local harbors. However, she plans to fold up the eight-footer and take it along as baggage on an upcoming trip to Hawaii. "We want to see all the beautiful bays from the water," she said.
Bill Pahle, an experienced boater who made the Catalina trip in a 17-foot inflatable, called the trip challenging and was glad to make his first crossing with a group. Pahle trailered his boat from his home in Ventura and launched it with the rest of the fleet at Newport Dunes.
McIntosh said he stresses safety. He conducted a pre-trip meeting, handing out a three-page flyer, listing equipment and offering advice to the first-time voyager. For example, participants were required to bring plenty of fuel, an anchor, anchor line, flotation devices for each person on board and a compass. He also recommended a hand-held marine radio for boat-to-boat communication.
To ensure safety, boats were divided into three groups, each led by an experienced boater. Participants were required to stay in their designated groups and were not allowed to pass a group leader. "The key to a safe trip is keeping your eye on the others in the group," McIntosh said. "If someone stops, we all stop."
Making the crossing in a group is wise, according to Coast Guard spokesman Nick Stagliano. "There is always a risk. That is just the sea. There is a risk no matter what type of vessel you are on, but if you do it with prudent seamanship, you can make a successful voyage. Their boats are capable of making a waterborne trip, but should they do it or not? I probably wouldn't recommend it."
Although this year's trip was made in near-perfect weather and sea conditions, McIntosh can remember making the passage in six- or seven-foot seas. "Last year we had fog and less than a 100-yard visibility."
One of the most memorable crossings took place two years ago, he said. "We had a big freighter cross our paths, and so we hit his wake, which was a 12-foot-tall wave. You could see it coming and it was big. But we just went over it, no problem."
Each year at the halfway point between Newport Beach and Catalina, the group stops for coffee and doughnuts. "A lot of passing boats are surprised to see us out there," McIntosh said. "We've had some powerboats just stop and look at us. And when the flotilla gets to Avalon and lands at the dock, it's like an assault group approaching. People just look at us and say, 'You came all the way over in that dinghy?' "