How do you sail from San Diego to Catalina all at once? Read the post and we'll talk you through it.

Heading from San Diego to Catalina Island by sailboat is fairly easy…unless you want to try to sail the distance via a straight course.  Most of the time the wind blows from the north straight south, meaning most boats will be heading directly into the wind to get to Catalina on the shortest course from San Diego.  If you have time; you can tack toward Catalina Island, but that will add infinite hours to your sail.  There are also folks who break up the trip by heading for guest slips in Oceanside or Dana Point, making it a 2-3 day trip just to get to the island from San Diego.  We neither tack or break up the trip getting there; but we do have to motor TO Catalina, always trying to sail back.  Seriously, without the motor heading to Catalina it’s just no contest, as we usually don’t have the time it would take to do the long sweeping tacks (on a rhumb line it’s approx 72 miles to Catalina just from the 4th buoy outside of San Diego).  We’ve done this trip many times from Oceanside when we had a boat there, but it’s a different animal from San Diego.  Read on for more-

We knew on a sailboat (under motor) doing an average speed of 5.5 kts or more that we would either have an overnight passage to get to Catalina or a day passage and we’d get in after dark.  We opted to start our trip while there was light (to see) getting out of San Diego and took off at approx 1650 on a Thursday afternoon (we try not to do Friday passages).  Knowing we would be doing our first overnight (on this boat) Quincy stayed behind and we had a family friend on board to help with the dog watches (and she’s a great cook).

ADVICE: Coming into or out of San Diego, go all the way to (what I call) the 4th buoy….DON’T CUT THE CORNER or you might be sorry.  Why?  Cause there’s kelp and we’ve made that mistake before.  See my hastily marked up picture below.

After taking our turn north at the 4th buoy and setting a course of approx 286 to Catalina, we relaxed into the large but gentle swells rolling in.  We had threaded a window for the trip between two small weather systems, so we were hitting the seas at the end of one system and expecting a couple days of good weather for the remainder of the trip.  At 2000 we set 4 hr watches, doing approx 5.7-6.3 kts at 1800 rpms for the next 15 hours to reach Cat Harbor at Two Harbors, Catalina at approx 0900 on Friday morning.  Doing the night watches we did cross the LA Shipping Channel and see multiple ships, including very large container ships, but they were always well lit.  Here’s Catalina after 11 hours underway:

Pulling into the harbor, we caught a mooring and were thankful for a safe passage.

We’ve been to Avalon on Catalina once but now we do the longer trip to the backside of Catalina as we love Two Harbors.  It’s quieter with lots more room for boats and there’s a lot more room to maneuver our big heavy girl (boat) as she’s not as light and nimble as the Hunter 460 used to be.  Cat Harbor is also one of the most protected harbors in Southern California, meaning it’s pretty calm with a usual afternoon wind pattern.  However, the bay outside of Cat Harbor has a steep underwater canyon coming into it and various depths, making for short wave patterns in the mornings and usual wind.  When we leave Cat Harbor in early mornings, we usually motor straight into the swell vice having it hit us on the side, but we always have to make the southerly turn and get used to those swells rolling at us from behind.  I digress.  Two Harbors is awesome and photo opportunities abound.  The 1/4 mile walk to town via an old airstrip and current road across the isthmus is refreshing and provides great views.

Looking toward the entrance to Cat Harbor from right above the Dinghy Dock.  Shallower water in the foreground.
Looking toward the entrance to Cat Harbor
Looking toward Cat Harbor with the road in the foreground. It’s an easy 1/4 mile across the Isthmus to town from Cat Harbor.
Looking toward Cat Harbor

We travel with our kids most everywhere, so part of the charm of anywhere is whether it’s family friendly.  Two Harbors is family friendly, with playground on the walk into town, beaches with soft waves, great ice cream at the General Store and drinks for mommy and daddy at the bar/restaurant (where you can see your kids on the beach as they play).

Playground and outside concert venue on the way into Two Harbors.

Knowing the trip back to San Diego would be faster with following wind and swells, we opted to do a day trip back, leaving Cat Harbor as soon as we had any sort of visibility and after one of the rain squalls has just gone through.

Raising the Mizzen to (hopefully) help with the rolling (just a bit). We did have all of our safety gear on.

On the way home, we motorsailed as much as possible, putting up the big forward jib and leaving the mizzen up.  Under this configuration with following seas to surf and wind from the stern, Tulum hit 9.3 kts once.  On average we cruised all the way home at approx 7-8 kts with those sails up and the engine up at approx 1500 rpms (yes, we wanted to come into San Diego while there was still light) but none of us felt we were pushing the boat at all.  Along the way, we experienced a variety of weather, wind and sea conditions ranging from overcast, cold and windy to full sun and lighter winds.  We had dolphins on the bow several times and spotted a blue whale (tail) and spout between us and Pacific Beach on the way back to the buoy’s + one seal.

Usual sea conditions
Big Jib up on the bow, easing along at 8 knots.
There’s dolphins down there somewhere, look close.

 Our usual course takes us out of Cat Harbor to a point we where we can head south at approx 90 degrees. held this course for the next 12 hours till we closed the buoys outside San Diego, getting back into our slip at approx 1930.  On our way into San Diego we were treated to a surprise as we came up on the San Salvador under way.

San Salvador under way, the bridge in the background under a cloudy evening.

To cap off a safe trip, our super-helmswomen put us back into the slip without incident and we had our celebratory beer to toast the ship and crew.

I’ve paid special attention to this post and added more detail and photos because there’s not much out there discussing the direct trip between San Diego and Catalina, except some good info on Captain Currans sailing blog.  Although written in 2012, it’s some of the only info out there that I could easily find.  If you’re like us and still working, you may want to try the direct passage too; this post and website might be able to help with that.  

Of course, I’m available till end of October for questions, comments or concerns.  And….if you liked this post you might consider following us or contributing to our adventures via our Patreon link.   




4 Responses

  1. Kerry, thank you. Yep, that one shot makes me a bit sick too but it’s cool to have in there. My wife told me to shoot through the trees and then we turned it into the black and white shot. It’s one of the yacht clubs on the island with lots of trees and the windmill, pretty cool to look at. Thanks for reading and commenting, you and JDR have been around on my blog for the longest time and I love that you’re still reading-

  2. Great post. Thank you . I was surprised to read: “head south at approx 90 degrees. held this course for the next 12 hours” I would have thought the course would be closer to 150 degrees from the southern tip of Catalina?

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