Southern California's Road Less Traveled

Though Catalina is Southern California's cruising destination of choice, there is much to be said about the anchorages at Paradise Cove and Santa Barbara Island. Together, they create a nice triangular, 100 nm run from Marina del Rey. Along with idyllic scenery, the upside is you may be the only cruiser around when you get there.
Author:
Publish date:

Paradise Cove, at Point Dume, and Santa Barbara Island are two terrific anchorages in Southern California. Together, they create a nice triangular, 100 nm run from Marina del Rey. Another upside is that odds are you will be the only boat around if you make the trip. The main draw for Marina del Rey boats is Catalina, and rightly so. These two anchorages are not that far away, and both offer fun things to do. It’s the perfect opportunity to load some supplies, a couple of good books, and just hang out on the hook with some privacy for three or four days.

Paradise Cove looking west towards Point Dume. These beaches have had a starring role in many a TV show.

Paradise Cove looking west towards Point Dume. These beaches have had a starring role in many a TV show.

Paradise Cove beach has been a Malibu institution for as long as I can remember. The Gidget movies and Baywatch TV shows were filmed there once upon a time. In 1998, Bob Morris converted the existing Sandcastle restaurant into the Paradise Cove Beach Café. His family originally owned the location 100 years ago. It’s a fun spot, right on the sand, filled with beachgoers, and is as much a beach club as a restaurant. It is an ideal spot to dinghy in and enjoy the day.

Santa Barbara Island is the smallest of the eight Channel Islands, about one square mile. Windswept and rugged, it rises as steep volcanic cliffs above the waterline. As part of the Channel Islands National Park, boaters can go ashore and enjoy the several hiking trails along the top. In spring, the island is awash in colorful flowers, nesting birds are raucous, and the sea lion colonies are filled with new pups. It’s a slice of nature not found on the other islands.

Paradise Cove

From Marina del Rey, Paradise Cove is a 20 nm run across Santa Monica Bay and is located about a mile into the lee of Point Dume. Both the restaurant and the pier are clearly visible to approaching boats. When visiting, the oft-changing Kelp beds dictate where cruisers can drop the hook.

Norma Jean at anchor in Paradise Cove.

Norma Jean at anchor in Paradise Cove.

Southern California waters are prime territory for kelp, which accounts for the high concentration of sea urchins and its attendant fishery. The urchins feed on the kelp’s holdfast, which keeps it anchored to the sea floor. Kelp has multiple uses in consumer products, pharmaceuticals, and as food for commercial abalone farms. As a result, specialized boats frequently harvest Kelp, leaving changed anchorages depending on their last visit.

Beachfront seating at the Paradise Cove Beach Café.

Beachfront seating at the Paradise Cove Beach Café.

If Paradise Cove hasn’t had a recent haircut, it may be necessary to anchor outside the kelp. The swells are the same, but it’s a much longer distance to row to get ashore. I like to weave inside the kelp ring when I can, using the pier head on as a route marker, then drop the hook in about 15 feet of water, right in front of the restaurant. The kelp ring starts at the edge of a reef, so caution is necessary. It is worth noting that this is not the place to be if southerly weather is coming.

Once in place, my thoughts immediately moved to getting ashore, and doing so without getting soaked. Bob Morris welcomes boaters, but since there are frequently children on the beach and in the water, he requests that beach landings are south of the pier and by oars only. The beach has a drop off right there, so going in is easier at high tide. My surf landing was successful (this time), but there is plenty of outdoor seating at the restaurant if it is necessary to drip dry. The food is great, and you will not leave hungry. It’s also a fine time to just hang on the beach or take a walk towards Malibu passing the beautiful beachfront homes.

Santa Barbara Island

Leaving Paradise Cove, it’s a 35 nm run to Santa Barbara Island, passing absolutely nothing fixed along the way. Approaching the island on your starboard beam will put you right in the anchorage at Landing Cove. Be careful not to crowd the access ladder dropping into the water. From here the steepness of the island rise is quite dramatic, and looking around, you feel how tiny the island is, giving you the feeling that you are in the middle of nowhere.

Arch Rock at Santa Barbara Island.

Arch Rock at Santa Barbara Island.

To go ashore, I tied my dinghy to the access ladder, allowing scope for tidal change but not so much that the dinghy will bang into the rocks. After climbing the ladder to the landing, it’s about a 200-foot rise to the top through a series of stairs and elevating pathways. Wednesday mornings are not a good time to go ashore, since this is when the supply boat arrives from the mainland with supplies for workers on the island. Currently, the Park Service is in the process of re-establishing native vegetation.

The multiple hiking trails atop the island range from easy to difficult, and a posted map at the top of the stairs shows the available routes. In spring, the island is loaded with nesting gulls and pelicans, which frequently establish their abodes next to the hiking trails. Wear a hat, since the birds will dive-bomb you if they think you are too close to their nest.

For me, the most fun is watching the sea lions, and especially the groups of pups playing in the water under the watchful eyes of mom. Floating in the dinghy, they will approach to investigate. With one sweep of the oars to move towards them, they scatter about, but re-form in thirty seconds to do it all over again. Before long it is a big game for them, diving at and under the dinghy, behaving just like children at play.

Sea Lions snooze on a sunny day at Santa Barbara Island.

Sea Lions snooze on a sunny day at Santa Barbara Island.

The water is beautifully clear in the cove, and both snorkeling and diving are allowed, though fishing is not. If you are there on a hot sunny day, the island rock may heat up enough to create an updraft after the sun goes down, resulting in some night wind in the anchorage. The wind will push you away from land, so with sufficient scope it’s no problem.

The ride back to Marina del Rey is about 45 nm. On a clear day, you may see Catalina Island about 20 nm off the starboard side. The route passes perpendicular to the shipping lanes, but once past them, don’t be surprised to meet a tanker beam to beam. It will be coming from the El Segundo Oil Facility, just south of Marina del Rey.

This trip is always a favorite of mine, with Santa Barbara Island being the prettiest in the spring (although this year there wasn’t much rain to help that along). Just as I was leaving, a dozen or so small yellow birds landed in the aft deck cockpit, apparently planning to hitch a ride. I frequently snuck a peek, trying not to spook them, but they just sat quietly for four plus hours, sometimes sleeping. Maybe a half a mile from the mainland, they took off together. I still wonder where they were going, hoping they didn’t accidentally hop on the wrong boat.

Paradise Cove Beach Café in full swing on a sunny day.

Paradise Cove Beach Café in full swing on a sunny day.

Related