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Crossed Up

The journey from the mainland to Catalina Island may look as easy as a trip to 7-Eleven, but with little notice, Joe Robinson writes, an ocean jaunt can turn into a dangerous adventure.

August 24, 2004|Joe Robinson

Avalon Harbor — THE PACIFIC IS DOZING, ABOUT AS animated as a bowl of soup. But to Avalon Harbor patrolman Orne Carstarphen, it's a con, a ruse. He knows that his blue front yard can at any moment revert to its status as a card-carrying ocean, one that can slap around interlopers. "I've heard people refer to crossing the channel as 'going across the pond.' I would never show it that kind of disrespect," says Carstarphen, gazing for trouble from his dockside tower overlooking Santa Catalina Island's Avalon marina. "This channel has taken a lot of lives."

It may seem like a liquid freeway to anyone with a paddleboard, Hobie Cat, Jet Ski, luxury yacht or vintage schooner, but this untamed thoroughfare can deliver that rarest of modern experiences: impromptu adventure. I've come on a packed summer day to turn up some of these tales of crossings gone bad.

Carstarphen already has a live one. "Harbor officers received a report of a tour boat being chased by a man wielding a machete in a skiff," he says.

It has promise, but I decide to skip the slasher skipper and track down somebody lucid in the forest of masts in the marina. I rent a hydrant-yellow craft propelled by foot pedals mummified in ancient duct tape and set sail.

I inch a zigzag course through rows of sleek yachts with occupants snoozing inside, double-storied Chris-Crafts lined with industrial-strength rod holders, and vessels up to their stern rails in puns, from Afishonado to Fishian.

"Nice boat," the captain of a huge ship shouts as he wrestles with a sail. I pedal over to a guy tanning on the deck of his trimaran.

"Ahoy," I yell.

It's Bill Garvin, an amiable substitute teacher whose life in the sun suggests a knack for outfoxing the survival game. He says he built his 35-foot Third Dimension 25 years ago and has logged many crossings. The one he remembers most clearly, he says, took place in fog so thick he couldn't see a cargo ship stalking him.

"I was only going about two knots, just trying to keep pointed toward Catalina, and this thing's just getting louder, and there's not a sound of an engine. I said, 'What the heck? This is spooky!' Beeeep!

"Then a minute and a half later the same sound again. Beeeep! This goes on for 45 minutes. I have no idea where it is except for the last beep. When I finally saw it, it was probably 100 yards in front of me."

With my own boat mercifully docked, I talk to John Mello, a former lobster fisherman who now runs the Catalina Divers Supply and Snorkeling concession. Mello was on a fishing run, coming back from San Nicolas Island, he says, when "all of a sudden it started raining and pretty soon we felt the boat almost roll over."

He had been slammed by a water spout, a funnel cloud that forms when unstable air meets warm ocean currents and high winds. The spout kicked up 20-foot waves that shook the boat and ripped the covers off his lobster containers.

But of all the stories I heard on both sides of the channel, two stand out as sagas in search of Homeric verse.

It was the kind of morning Carstarphen had warned me about, sunny, with ocean as flat as a postcard, when John Olguin, 79, and his wife decided to row to Catalina, a jaunt the former director of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium has done 14 times.

He was in his early 60s when he and his wife got caught by the channel bait-and-switch. Halfway across, the winds roared up to 20 knots. Soon 14-foot waves lashed over the rowboat. Olguin tossed out an anchor to secure the seafarer's parking position into the wind known as heaving-to, trying to avoid getting broadsided. "I couldn't stop shivering," he says. "I took my belt off and put it across my armpits. The wind was whistling into my body. I crossed my arms to hold the oars and try to maintain body heat. I was afraid of hypothermia."

The sun went down but not the wind and waves, which rose with the darkness, blasting his fiberglass boat. If it strayed even a couple of degrees, the green water would swallow him.

By 3 a.m. Olguin and his wife were climbing peaks 15 to 18 feet high. Then a "sneaker" wave of about 25 feet reared. "I thought, here's one that's going to sink us," he says. "When I saw that mountain coming, I started rowing real fast and I got momentum and climbed to the top and down the other side so hard that the hull got half buried."

He battled the waves and cold until dawn, when the wind finally let up, allowing him to pull up anchor and row the final two hours to Catalina. "It was a cleansing experience," he says. "Ice cold temperatures, all by yourself on the open ocean."

Crossing debacles happen more often on the return trip, as seas blow up with the afternoon winds. Larry Walter was reveling in the 18 knots pushing his 40-foot sailboat Cha-Cha-Cha to full spinnaker run when the apparel manufacturer from Newport Beach caught sight of a stalled powerboat, its passengers waving T-shirts. Although the boats were in mid-channel, in 6-foot seas, a man dived from the powerboat and started swimming toward Walter.

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