Sailing from San Diego to Catalina Island

Spring break 2020, we set off to sail from San Diego to Catalina Island. We had never attempted this trip before. The total sail distance round trip ended up being around 200 miles, with stops at Oceanside, Dana Point, and Avalon on Catalina Island. 

The trip ended up had quite a bit of excitement, including an engine break down, loss of transmission our and first-time anchoring and mooring Tusitala.


The trip from San Diego can be made in many ways, but the way we chose to do it was in 3 legs. 3 Legs because I was not confident in night sailing. The weather was also predicted to get light air from the northwest in the afternoon and some onshore wind in the mornings for the next few days. 

A note on scheduled trips: We have to reconcile with living in Utah and owning a boat in California because we don't often get to choose optimal weather windows. This means that we have to be more flexible in where we go and how we get there. The most often compromise if we are headed to a specific destination is to the motor, and thus it was with this trip. 

San Diego to Ocean Side 59 M

This leg of the trip is roughly 59 miles, including the 14 miles we have to sail from Chula Vista, where our boat is currently moored. We decided to catch the onshore wind in the mornings and motor as we needed.  

Sailing in the bay is an enjoyable experience. From Chula Vista on, you have a nice tour of the Naval Base and the many ships that make up most of the Pacific fleet. We normally take a close pass by the USS Midway and the old wooden tall ships at the Marine Museum. If you are ever in San Diego on Covid free days, I would suggest going through both Museums. My favorite ship in the bay is the Star of India, an old cast iron-hulled square-rigger that shuttled passengers from California to Australia. 

About three-quarters of the way out of the bay, our engine alarms went off and almost ended our trip. Investigating, I quickly shut down the port diesel and found the engine compartment full of oil. After a bit of looking about, I noticed a small oil gallery plug had popped off, spuing all of the oil into the bilge. I plugged the hole with a bit of a rag and sent my wife to shore to buy 6 quarts of oil in the dinghy. The whole ordeal added a few hours to our day.

However, once we got out of the bay, the onshore wind picked up, and some easy sailing close to the coast cheered everybody up. The crew settled in for board games and dolphin watching and fishing for a day. 

Dolphins were soon riding our bow waves, much to our delight. We don't get tired of watching the playfully little beasts. We also got out the trolling rods in hopes of catching some lunch. This was our first-time deep sea fishing, and we did not know what to expect. Our Walmart lures didn't let us down; we need up spending the afternoon catching several barracuda, not ideal fish, but still lots of fun for us.

We arrived at Oceanside harbor late to find a local charter captain about to squat in our reserved slip. He was kind enough to move on, and we docked Tusitalla right in front of the Jolly Roger. 

Oceanside to Dana Point 29 M

We arose early the next day to make a very similar trip to 29 miles to Dana Point.  The Naval base in San Diego always proves to add some excitement when sailing near the San Diego Bay. On this trip, we were confronted by a fleet of hovercraft. Three massive LCAC came roaring off the beach and passed in front of us as we peacefully sailed up the coast.

We arrived at Dana point after about 4.5 hours of sailing in the early afternoon. Here you can anchor for free if you arrive early. The water at the point is clear, and Baby Beach provides a great place for an afternoon swim, so we hopped on the paddleboards and headed to shore.

 Dana Point to Avalon 38 M

I've made this trip twice now, and on both occasions, this has been my favorite part of the journey. The crew has settled into the pace of sailing, and the winds generally are favorable for the crossing. This was true on this occasion.

Upon arrival at Avalon, we hailed the harbor patrol on channel 12, and they assigned us a morning for the night. This was a new experience for us, and luck would have it, our starboard transmission failed, and just as we sailed into Avalon, the wind picked up to 15 to 20 knots. But luck was with us, and the Harbor Patrol at Avalon are incredibly patient and helpful, giving us quick instructions on how to tie up the ball, something we had never done before. The mooring system there is much different from what one may read about in one's sailing texts, with a pickup stick and a for and aft tie sturdy and easy to use. 

We spend the day on Avalon, walking the city and hiking the roads through the houses. In the afternoon, we snorkeled in the kelp forest and clear water. Snorkeling in Catalina is a unique experience unlike any other. The water is clear, and the fish are colorful and plentiful. We took our dinghy over to the preserve just south of the Avalon harbor braved the chilly water. I would recommend full-body wet suits in the spring. In the summer, the water temperature can reach the high 60s, low 70s, but it is quite brisk in the spring. 

Avalon to Cat Harbor 22 M
The next morning we unleashed Tusitala from her morning and sailed 20 miles around the back of the island to Cat Harbor, where again we tied up to a moring ball. The harbor was almost completely empty, aside from a few permanent semi abandoned-looking liveaboards. We hiked the hills and shorelines, eventually crossing over to two harbors. The next morning I threw off the morning lines before the sun came up for our trip back to San Diego.

Catalina to Chula Vista 107 M
I have to say that one of the things I really like about a Catamaran is that it has redundancy built-in. We had no trouble on our passage back to our slip deep inside the San Diego Harbor with one transmission down. Light winds astern, we never made more than 5 knots under sail and often resorted to using the Diesel.  With the wind and swell at our back, the sail was pleasant. We arrived in the Familier San Diego Harbor after sunset and enjoyed the San Diego Skyline's beautiful lights. Round trip, we sailed some 255 miles, a distance that could be traveled in an afternoon by car. Yet, we experience so much more by slowing down, enjoying the moments, and taking things as they came, which is what I love about sailing. 

What Would I Change?
I have thought about this question lately since I have now completed this trip twice. One major change I made on the second trip was that I made the final crossing back to San Diego at night. I really enjoyed the passage by starlight. It was a new challenge that one should not attempt lightly, but with a bit of vigilance and preparation, I think it is an alteration I would stick with. In the future, I may also make the crossing to Avalon directly to spend more time exploring the Island. I also would consider setting up for the first crossing by making the trip out of the bay the day before and anchoring outside the bay just south of the breakwater.

Happy Sailing!


  1. Thanks for sharing an awesome family trip! Beautiful Sailboat!


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