Some of the least known islands in the United States are on the doorstep of one of the continent’s most densely populated cities. Only a handful of sea kayakers have paddled the Channel Islands, a rugged eight-island archipelago located in southern California’s offshore Pacific Ocean waters. It’s believed that legendary San Diego sea kayaker Ed Gillet made it to seven of eight Channel Islands in the 1980s, a feat matched by contemporary SoCal paddler Duane Strosaker in a series of trips. In September, a team of California paddlers led by British expat Sean Morley attempted to be the first to knock off all eight in one shot. They came close, but the U.S. military-owned island of San Nicolas remains elusive.
Morley joined Bryant Burkhardt and Pedro Frigola on what they coined “an expedition in our own backyard.” The premise was simple: To link the eight Channel Islands with a series of long-distance open-water crossings, circumnavigations and overnight camps. The team departed on September 10, making the 26-mile crossing from the California mainland to San Miguel Island. From there, they hopped over to Santa Rosa, and then to the Nature Conservancy-owned Santa Cruz, the largest of the Channel group. At this point Burkhardt and Frigola left the expedition and Morley continued alone, slogging through crosswinds in an 11-hour, 30-mile epic to Santa Barbara Island. There, he crash-landed on an unforgiving coastline of volcanic rock of “the worst possible kind.”
According to Morley, the crux of the expedition was the 22-mile jump from Santa Barbara to San Nicholas Island, which is military-owned and off-limits to landing—meaning that visiting it would mean 44 miles of non-stop paddling and likely another rough, nighttime landing on Santa Barbara. Morley began the crossing but soon tucked tail due to questionable winds. “To be honest, I just didn’t fancy it,” he wrote in his blog. “I knew it was possible, I would just need to spend all day and probably all night paddling…I had turned my back on what would have been possibly one of the greatest challenges of my long padding career, but I felt quite happy that I had made the right decision.”
Abandoning San Nicholas in favor of the 20-mile crossing to Catalina Island proved equally hazardous. Midway through, Morley was followed by a 10- to 12-foot blue shark. “I don’t mind admitting I was terrified,” he wrote. “What was really scary was how persistent the shark was.”
Upon reaching Catalina, Morley promptly called the expedition off and crossed back to the mainland the next day, reaffirming San Nicholas Island’s title as expedition sea kayaking’s nearest faraway place. “Somebody will do it,” he says. “The sensible thing to do would be to get some sort of agreement with the military to land. We’ll be trying to do it again, and we’re going to try that route.”
– Conor Mihell