Approaching Anacapa Island on a 16-foot catamaran at midnight is the closest I will ever get to feeling like an eighteenth century explorer.
I was completely numb from the cold and so exhausted from rowing that my sense of self had dissolved into an animal-lack of identity. 13 hours of miserable rowing. I had no reason or self-awareness. I was just a body and the instinct to find dry land. The night was cloudless and the stars were so bright that I felt a childlike dread that I could fall off the earth. Only one part of the sky was black, the outline of Anacapa. Its sharp heart-beat silhouette blocked the stars from view, and stood black and heartless on the invisible horizon.
My friend Steve, whose brainchild is this Wilderness Collective project, invited me to join his small joke of a boat trip in the fall of 2011. It was three of us: Steve, Joel, and myself. We all live in the density of Southern California and a weekend of sailing and exploring an uninhabited island sounded like medicine. The island sits 11 miles from the closest rocky jut of California coast near Oxnard and is easily seen from Highway 1.
We launched from Ventura Harbor late on Saturday morning, assuming that the cartoonish blue sky would present decent sailing weather. It should take us only a few hours to take our toy boat to the island. We’d camp where we landed, explore the cliffs and tide-pools, and sail back in the morning. We were sitting on a canvas square the size of a picnic table, drinking good beer too early in the day and congratulating ourselves with cigarettes. We got a few miles out to sea with modest wind and felt like a painting.
But five miles out, in the middle of the Santa Barbara Channel, there was no wind. Not even an exhale. A feather could have napped on my shoulder. By the forth hour, we were hardly halfway there. We should have already been ashore.
As the sun set, and the jagged outline of Anacapa sat like a mirage that kept pace away from us, we grew anxious. Our tiny motor, even more toy-like than the catamaran, was out of battery. We would have to row the rest of the way. Steve, Joel and myself took turns.
We rowed for two hours, and the island didn’t move. We fought to keep our optimism that we’d make it by dark, but the sun was setting and the island was still a distant mountain range. As darkness fell, and our sense of distance was lost, we tried to keep the tone positive. Jokes on jokes on jokes. Then silence.
We rowed for an hour with hardly a word. I’d give my best weak joke, or Joel or Steve would say something encouraging and insincere, and we’d row for another hour.
Expectation is everything. When you expect a four-hour easy sail and a long hike on a beautiful island, a thirteen-hour stagnant Life of Pi re-enactment is anguish.
If you have ever felt despair, bring forth that memory and place it here. The quiet embarrassed panic of certain defeat, and the cornered mind listing the scenarios ahead. We would have to row for hours to reach the edge of the island, and then spend who knows how many more hours finding a beach on the other side. We may have to fall asleep on this boat, drift out to Japan, and call for help in the morning, if our phones worked. My mind was in a bad place.
A divine distraction saved us from breaking: glowing green lights in the water. The bioluminescence of bacteria floating in the current found its way beneath our boat. These bacteria are hardly visible in the day, but on a dark night, any movement in the water will cause them to glow like blue-green fireflies. If you’ve never seen it, it is surprisingly similar to the trail of magic that follows tinker-bell. Suddenly, we were being explored by sea lions, and their whimsical flips in the water were glowing like friendly ghosts to guide the way. It was impossibly beautiful.
The light show saved our spirits for an hour, and when it subsided, we were finally close enough to the island to hear it. I didn’t expect to hear it, but I’ll never ever forget the sound. Anacapa Island is famous for the thousands of birds and sea lions that live there. And at 1am, every single one of those animals is talking. It sounded like power.
Like a plague, or an angry ghost-town if it could speak and do its best to scare you away. Ominous and massive, the black outline was shouting in the dark, without form or words, only pulses of strength. Like an orchestra warming up. It did not say go away. It did not invite you in either. It demanded respect of its indifference.
This must be something of what the explorers felt. A mysterious island, with God-knows-what on it. No clue where a beach is. No clue how long this peninsula will stretch before we can round it. Dread. And wonder. And pride in conquering the mystery. And humility in accepting defeat.
Two hours more of rowing, around the hateful cliffs that gave no inch to a beach, and the sea lions poking their heads out in the dark to bark and smell the boat, we found Frenchy’s Cove at 1:00am, the only beach on the north side of the island.
A thirteen-hour journey that was expected to be 4 hours is a test of patience. The law of delayed gratification. The longer the waiting the sweeter the kiss. I have never found a dark and cold beach so lovely, so life giving. I’ve never kissed the ground as I did.
The beans and bread we ate were delicious, heated by an illegal fire on the skin of an island that hated us an hour before. It loved us now. Food never tasted so good. Sleeping on the ground never felt so reassuring and sturdy. And Los Angeles never felt so distant and forgotten.
Misery in the moment of challenge becomes nostalgia in the storyteller. I hold that despair like a blanket, and look to the men who lived through that weekend as specially bound. It was only one hard night. It was only the Santa Barbara Channel. But it was an invitation…
Words by: Jedidiah Jenkins