BETWEEN TWO HARBORS
Memoirs of a Catalina Island Harbormaster
By Doug Oudin
Doug Oudin, author of ‘Between Two Harbors, Reflections of a Catalina Island Harbormaster’ (his memoir), and ‘Five Weeks to Jamaica’, a seafaring novel, is a former harbormaster on Catalina Island. He wrote a column for the Catalina Island Newspaper for twenty-one years, and also wrote for the Log Newspaper. Now living in Grants Pass, Oregon, he has been married to the love of his life, Maureen for thirty-eight years. He has two sons, Trevor and Troy. The sea is his earthly passion.
Catalina Island. The name itself conjures images of paradise. Located, as the song goes, a mere ‘twenty-six miles across the sea’, Santa Catalina Island has a magical allure that captures the imagination of the masses.
In the spring of 1978, my future wife Maureen and I packed all our worldly possessions onto a boat and headed across the channel to Catalina, a life-altering move.
Moving from the quaint little beach town of Hermosa Beach, California—where I was a self-employed carpenter and part-time commercial fisherman and Maureen worked for a BMW car dealership in Santa Monica—to the shores of Catalina Island (the Island) turned out to be much more than we envisioned.
Thirty-two rather amazing years, two children, and a lifetime of wonderful, challenging and interesting experiences later we left the Island. Along the way there were a multitude of memorable times, personal and professional events, and a lifetime of unique stories to tell.
There were harrowing storms, exciting rescues, a few tragedies (including the death of actress Natalie Wood), dozens of encounters on the ocean and in nature, and many unique experiences that can occur only on an island where, even though it is only an hour from metropolitan Los Angeles, it is a world away from mainland life.
Some of these recollections and reflections will undoubtedly be told with a certain amount of ‘literary license’ since the vast majority of the details will be conjured-up from the recesses of my memories and perceptions. If errors with timelines, references, or any personal information occur, please forgive the blunders. And for the many individuals that were a part of it all please forgive any omission or oversight of ‘monumental significance’ that occurred but are not included, in describing the life of a Catalina Island Harbormaster.
1. The Big Move
It was April 1, 1978, a grey, overcast morning that was typical along the coast of southern California. With me were my girlfriend Maureen, my brother Dave and my sister Vicki.
And yes, somehow it did seem fittingly appropriate to be moving to an island on April Fools Day.
As we approached San Pedro, the fluorescent lights of the waterfront cast an eerie glow over the warehouses and wharfs of Fish Harbor in the busy back bay of the Port of Los Angeles, where I kept my boat docked. Even though it was not yet daybreak, the hustle and bustle of the commercial basin was already teeming with activity as dockworkers went about the tasks of loading and offloading fish, supplies and cargo from the ships tethered to the docks.
We wanted to get an early start to the day, realizing that it would be long and that there would likely be a few unknowns to deal with along the way. As I backed my old Dodge pickup truck as close as possible to the dock where my boat Little Smoke was tied, my thoughts flew randomly from the present to the past, realizing that the move we were making was vastly different from the norm, and that the lifestyle that we were accustomed to living was likely going to change rather dramatically. Nonetheless, my senses soared with anticipation and my energy level was running at a feverish pace.
Climbing out of the truck cab, I looked around for a dock cart. The bed of my pickup truck was loaded with the last of our belongings. I located a cart next to the Port Police building and wheeled it over to the truck. Dave, Vicki and Maureen were already moving the boxes and assorted personal items from the bed of the truck onto the ground. There wasn’t too much left to move; we had loaded most of the larger belongings that we were taking onto the boat the day before.
Working as a team, it wasn’t long before the last boxes of clothing were stuffed into the bulging forward cabin of my old boat and everything stacked around the deck was tied-down and secured in anticipation of the ocean crossing we would soon make.
I parked the pickup outside of the gates along the side of Front Street, instructing Dave to park his vehicle nearby. We headed back to the dock where the boat was tied, climbed aboard and made preparations to depart.
Little Smoke, an old Hansen designed New England style lobster boat, was built in 1954. Her ribs were bent oak and her planks Philippine mahogany. She measured thirty-two foot in length, had an eleven-foot beam and was powered with twin six cylinder Chrysler Ace engines—classic old workhorse marine engines of the forties and fifties. My brother Mike and I had bought her in a state of sad disrepair about two years previously, and I had spent the past two years restoring rails, decking, cabin, and interior, while Mike and his good buddy Jimmy Watts rebuilt the engines and repaired and upgraded the electrical system. We set her up for commercial fishing, purchased a commercial fishing license, and did a limited amount of rod and reel rock cod fishing once she was running. Since the fishing endeavor was minimal, at best, and the expenses of maintaining and docking her in Fish Harbor was a burden on Mike’s limited personal budget, he had expressed no problem with me moving and taking the boat to Catalina Island.
I re-checked the oil and cooling system, inspected the bilges and fired-up the engines. They both started on cue, we cast off the lines, and pulled away from the docks. We were on the way to our new life on Catalina Island.
As the sharp semi-displacement bow of the Little Smoke knifed across the smooth, oily surface of the bay, tiny flecks of phosphorescence danced outward on the bow wake. Plumes of white, misty steam spewed from the stacks and industrial pipes dotting the shoreline, eliciting a vapory rainbow of color from the vast array of lights emanating from the waterfront. Passing through the narrow, rocky breakwater that leads into the outer harbor, I reached out and pushed forward on the short bronze levers of the twin throttles, increasing our speed to a steady ten knots. Little Smoke purred like a heartily stroked kitten.
Maureen came alongside where I was seated on the captain’s chair and placed her hand on my forearm. “I can’t believe we’re really doing this!” she stated.
I looked at her, smiled, and answered, “Well, it’s true. We are on the way, and I can’t wait to get there and start our new lives together.” She squeezed my arm affectionately. I flashed back briefly on the day we had met.
Maureen and I had been living together in a small cottage in Hermosa Beach. We had met one night at the ‘Poop Deck’, a small pub located on the strand in the little beachside town. I was tossing darts with my current girlfriend’s brother, Ron Stuerke. I looked over at the pool table and saw a cute little blonde preparing to make a difficult shot. The cue ball was on the far side of the table from where she stood and she needed to reach out and try to make the shot from the near side. In order to reach the cue ball with her cue stick, she had to stand on one foot, lift her right leg up onto the edge of the table, and stretch outward. When I saw her perform that maneuver, I almost choked on my beer.
Ron laughed, fully understanding my reaction. “Pretty nice, eh?” he commented. “Would you like to meet her?”
He introduced us. When I reached out to shake her hand, a slight but very noticeable jolt of current passed through my body as our fingers touched. I gripped her hand and looked into her sparkling blue eyes. Her touch continued to send tiny little waves of titillation through my system and I was momentarily stunned. I had never experienced anything quite like that, and I think I held onto her hand and gazed into her eyes for a prolonged amount of time. When I finally realized that I was caught in a trance, I grinned sheepishly and felt my cheeks flush. She smiled back, giving my hand one final squeeze before letting go. Both of us were very aware of the spark that had occurred.
We played a game or two of pool, and a few weeks later I dumped my girlfriend and we moved in together. Now here we were on a boat heading off to live on a remote island.
There wasn’t much boat traffic yet, and visibility was limited because of the gray canopy of a heavy marine layer that hung over the water, but we could see and feel an occasional boat wake as we ploughed toward the entrance at Angels Gate, the outer breakwater of Los Angeles Harbor. Rounding out around the L.A. Light, I checked the compass heading and steadied the boat onto a course of two hundred seven degrees, heading for the Isthmus of Catalina. I felt very comfortable about our compass heading, having purchased and installed a brand new Navigator Compass earlier in the week.
Once outside of the harbor entrance a slight southwest swell lifted and lowered the boat as it chugged seaward. Seagulls cawed in the milky darkness, ready to begin their insistent quest of hunting for food in the vast expanses of the surrounding sea. Not more than a mile from the breakwater entrance we became engulfed in the murkiness of a developing twilight, augmented by the presence of the persistent marine layer. It was a relief to know that daylight was not far away; there is always something disconcerting about cruising on the ocean in darkness, a noticeable sense of not knowing what is out there.
I was seated on the captain’s chair with a small padded ‘lift box’ set atop the seat so that my head poked out above the cabin hatch, thus giving me improved visibility. I kept a close eye on the compass, depending upon it to steer us toward our destination, some twenty miles away.
Maureen and my sister Vicki kept up a steady diet of chatter as we motored to seaward, while Dave and I sat quietly in the two helm seats pondering our own thoughts as they chatted. We all pondered the unknowns about our new adventure and what we might expect to encounter once we were settled.
Maureen filled Vicki in on how we had come to the decision to move to Catalina.
“We were really just looking for something new and exciting to do,” Maureen explained. “Initially, we looked into moving to the Marquesas Islands, a US territory that was actively seeking American citizens to invest or simply move to and work in the islands. It appeared that there was an abundance of opportunity for a young couple and we thought very seriously about going there. But it was a long way from home, family and friends, and so when we heard about a job opening on Catalina Island, we decided to look into it.”
Vicki interrupted her and asked, “How long ago did you hear about this?”
“Less than a month ago,” Maureen continued, “Doug has a friend, a couple that lives on a boat and they went to work on the Island for the summer. When they left the Island and returned to Redondo Beach, they got together with Doug and told him about a job opening for a bookkeeper at the Isthmus. I phoned, got an interview with Doug Bombard and his son Randy, the people who manage the Island operation, and they liked me. I was offered a job that same day.”
“What about Doug?” Vicki asked. “How does he fit into the picture?”
“Well, that was interesting,” Maureen chuckled. “When I told them about him, that he was a carpenter, did boat work and commercial fished, they said that he sounded just like the kind of person they needed on the Island. They told me he ‘could come along’. So a couple of weeks ago they invited us to the Island for the weekend to look things over. We stayed at the Banning House Lodge, looked at housing, and basically just checked everything out. When we got back home we gave notice to our employers and started preparing to move. Now here we are on the boat heading for our new home.”
“Wow!” Vicki exclaimed, “Sounds like you guys don’t mess around when it comes to making big decisions.”
“Well, like I said, we were feeling stagnant and just needed a change in our lives. We’re going to give it a try for a while. We’re thinking that we will stay for one year. It will certainly be different, but we are excited and looking forward to the change.”
About that time, the first vestiges of daylight were lightening the morning sky. As the light improved, a silvery glow began to spread across the sea surface, its metallic looking sheen casting rippled shadows on the subtle undulations of the moderate southwest swells. When the sun climbed over the eastern horizon, its muted rays cast a fiery glow onto the mirrored sea surface. The marine layer was thick enough to prevent the sun from being wholly visible, but its presence was marked by a spreading brilliance causing all aboard the Little Smoke to squint and don our sunglasses.
We were about an hour out of port, a little less than halfway to our destination. I lifted the engine hatch to check the bilges. The steady throb of the engines filled the cabin with a mild roar. Everything looked in order in the bilge, so I closed the hatch cover and returned to the helm. Visibility was still quite limited, although the advent of daylight lent a more comfortable feeling to all aboard.
About that time a pod of several hundred dolphins suddenly appeared around the boat. From all sides the cavorting mammals raced and leaped from the gray-blue depths, their shimmering bodies soaring out of the water and then gracefully splashing back into the ocean. Dave, Vicki and Maureen ran out onto the foredeck to watch the spectacle, while I climbed up onto the lip of the cabin hatch in order to get a better view, steering the boat with my feet. All around, the beautiful animals swam, leaped and danced, their antics generating ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from all of us. At the bow of the boat, two of the playful animals glided gracefully on the small wake of the prow, one on each side, and their powerful tails flicked only slightly to maintain their position. Occasionally they turned onto their side, their large black eyes seeming to glance upward to acknowledge the presence of the three humans standing on deck watching them swim. Periodically the dolphins rose to the surface and ejected a spout of seawater from their blowhole while releasing a sharp squeal in the process. The dolphin pod stayed with us for close to fifteen minutes before disappearing into the enveloping gray shadows that clung tenaciously to the surrounding ocean surface.
Another hour passed and I began to wonder why we had not yet seen the Island. We were now more than two-and-a-half hours from port and I fully expected to see land popping out of the misty gray. I slowed the engines to idle forward and spoke to the others.
“We really should be seeing land by now,” I told them. “Why don’t you all go out on deck and see if you can see or hear anything.”
As the others went out onto the foredeck, I shut down the engines. An all-encompassing quiet engulfed the boat. Only the muffled sounds of the rippled sea surface gurgled against the hull. A gull could be heard squawking somewhere in the gray, but we could not see it through the low hanging shroud. Above us the sky glowed pale blue, an indication that the marine layer was burning away, but at sea level the visibility remained less than a mile. As we all looked around and listened, I caught a brief flash of something off our port stern. Gazing in that direction I recognized the vague outline of what appeared to be a small boat.
“Hey, guys, there’s something over there,” I called out, pointing in the direction of the muted shadow that had caught my attention. “I think it’s another boat. I’m going to head over that way and see if we can find out where we are.”
Restarting the engines, I put Little Smoke into gear and motored in the direction where I had spotted the other boat. As we moved closer it soon became obvious that there was a small fishing boat drifting on the small, undulating swells. When we neared the boat, I put the engines into neutral and drifted nearby calling out,” Good morning. We seem to be a little lost in the fog. Can you tell us where we are, or where Catalina is?”
We could hear chuckles coming from all three men onboard as they looked at each other, obviously thinking that we must be idiots to be ‘lost’ at sea. One of the men spoke out. “You’re about two miles from the West End,” he informed us, pointing toward the east. “You can see the outline of the Island over there.”
Sure enough, when I looked in the direction he was pointing, I could see a very vague outline of the Island above the low cloud layer. I think all of us were focusing too much on the sea surface while looking around and did not recognize the outline of the ridge top of the Island.
“Great. Thanks for your help. Good luck fishing,” I told them.
Back at the helm station, I shoved the two cast-iron bars of the gearshift levers into forward and turned the wheel toward the tip of the Island. Soon we were rounding ‘Lands End’ on the western tip of Catalina and cruising along the leeside toward the Isthmus.
Our little fiasco of ‘getting lost’ on our move to the Island was ultimately one of the little ‘lessons of the sea’ that would serve me well in later years.
As mentioned previously, I had purchased and installed a new compass about a week prior to our departure. When I attached it to the console top in the main cabin, I presumed that it would perform properly—after all, it was brand new and the salesman at the West Marine store assured me that it was more than adequate for my boat. What I did not know at the time is that magnetic forces from metal objects can affect the performance of a compass, and even though I was aware of deviation tendencies from magnetic to geographical north, I was not aware that the influence from metals could significantly alter a compass’ reliability. As a consequence, when I installed the compass, I mounted it directly forward of the helm station, where the operator could see it easily. Unfortunately, the gear levers on the Little Smoke were cast steel levers, painted gray, and about eighteen inches long. When engaged, the levers moved to within six inches of the compass, thus exerting metallic influences onto the magnetic field of the compass and throwing the actual heading off by nearly thirty degrees. I had not taken the boat out since installing the compass, and so the deviation from my presumed heading put us way off course. I moved the compass to a less affected location a couple of weeks later, learning a valuable lesson along the way.
Later in my career, when I began giving ‘Discover Catalina’ seminars to groups on the mainland, I was to use that embarrassing story as one of my informative lessons for new boaters.
Once we were inside of the lee of the West End, the Island terrain became beautiful, covered in a lush layer of spring green grasses in the lower reaches and dotted with thick, dark green foliage in the higher elevations. Along the ridges a burnished red soil, peppered with patches of the dark green bushes, gave the scenery a vision of stark and artistic beauty. Along the shore, steep cliffs tumbled into the majestic blue waters where thick patches of floating kelp beds wafted lazily upon the calm sea surface. As we moved eastward, the cliffs ended quite abruptly, replaced by an expanse of a long pebbled beach that rose gradually toward low rolling hills. There was a small boat moored on a single mooring tucked into a tiny little cove nestled behind a low rocky cliff. Two small tents could be seen situated on another low bluff nearby. Dave pulled out the chart guide for the Island and informed us that we were looking at Parsons Landing and Starlight Beach.
Continuing eastward we passed the steep, bold promontory of Arrow Point, the rocky headland that breaks the incessant onslaught of the prevailing westerly winds and swells. Rounding that point, the calm seas laid down even more, flattening to a mirrored surface that brightly reflected the rays of the early morning sun.
Rounding Lion Head Point, a bold promontory that clearly resembles the head of a lion when approaching from the south, we passed by Cherry Cove and Fourth of July Cove, and then entered Isthmus Cove, with its two hundred forty-nine moorings and the small paradise that would become our Island home for the next thirty-two years.
Isthmus Cove is one of two primary recreational destinations on Catalina Island. Avalon, near the eastern end of the Island is the busiest, existing on the one square mile of publicly available land that can be bought and sold by the general public. The Wrigley family, who own the Island, deeded most of the remaining eighty-six thousand acres in 1976 to the privately operated, non-profit Catalina Island Conservancy, to be ‘maintained and managed in its natural state in perpetuity’. The remaining parcels of land (excluding Avalon, which was deeded by the Wrigley family and incorporated as a city) are owned and operated by the Santa Catalina Island Company, at that time under the leadership of William ‘Bill’ Wrigley.
William Wrigley Jr. purchased the Island from the Banning Brothers in 1919. He served as chairman of the board in those early years, and envisioned the Island as a prime recreational destination for southern California boaters, residents and visitors. His vision was to make Catalina a resort destination where ‘the everyday person’ could share and enjoy the Island that he cherished so dearly.
Two Harbors, or the Isthmus as it was more commonly referred to in those days, is a boater’s destination featuring nearly four hundred moorings in the immediate area, a campground, general store and one restaurant. It was managed by Doug Bombard, who served as president of the operation and agent for the Santa Catalina Island Company.
Doug Bombard had assumed leadership of the Isthmus in the mid-fifties, moving from Avalon with his family and taking over the operation from former manager Press Taylor. The Bombard family has a long and distinguished history on the Island. Doug’s father, Al Bombard, had served as Mayor of Avalon, started-up the storied Catalina Speed Boat operation in Avalon, and was deeply rooted into the Island community.
Doug and his delightful wife Audrey had four children, Randy, Greg, Wendy, and Tim. All four of them moved to the Isthmus when he took over the operation and all were working in one capacity or another when we arrived on the Island. Our interaction and relationship with all of the Bombards’ helped to shape our future on the Island.
We pulled into the floating dock and were greeted by one of the resident Harbor Department employee’s, Tim Taylor. Tim was one of the prototypical individuals that found his way to the Island and found a niche working in the Harbor Department for a few years. As with many of the hundreds of other people we met and worked with during our thirty-two years on the Island, he worked and lived and enjoyed island life until it was time to move on to other things. There are not a lot of other residents who stayed on as we did, but there are a few who have outlasted us and are still there.
As we unloaded our belongings onto the dock, one of the maintenance crewmen, Chris Peterson, met us on the pier with a pickup truck to help move our belongings to our new house.
On our introductory visit to the Island to check things out we were offered the choice of moving into a two-bedroom mobile home located in the small employee housing complex near the upper shop, on the west side of the tiny community, or a small, one-bedroom house just up from the beach on the east side of the cove. We asked to see the one-bedroom house first and after seeing it, we told them we did not need to look at the other. The little one-bedroom house was perfect!
Built as a bathhouse for a movie crew working on the original ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ film, the small house was converted a few years later into a tiny five hundred-fifty square foot housing unit. It was later expanded to about seven hundred square feet with the addition of a ‘living room’ a few years before we moved in, and then underwent numerous changes during our years living there. It was approximately seventy-five steps from the beach on a short bluff overlooking Isthmus Cove. When we saw the views from the living room, porch and yard, we were entranced. The entire bay was visible from our vantage point, with the two tiny ‘islands’ of Bird and Ship Rock projecting out of the clear blue waters as the silent sentinels that mariners look for on their approaches into the cove. We felt a little like modern day versions of Swiss Family Robinson, cast upon the shores of our own little island in the sea.