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Chuck Graham

Santa Barbara Channel Crossing 101

How to Kayak from the Mainland to Channel Islands National Park


I was having a tough time judging the angle the freighter was taking in the Santa Barbara Channel’s northbound shipping lane. Paddling in my kayak, I was sitting low on the water, kind of in no man’s land. I blamed it on the four, tail-fluking humpback whales spouting 50 yards off my bow, a fine distraction indeed. Do I sprint ahead hoping to see the freighter’s massive bow way over my left shoulder, or do I play it safe and back paddle northeast out of harm’s way?

There’s always much to consider before attempting a channel crossing in the Santa Barbara Channel, destination the Channel Islands National Park. Float plan, check. Flares, radio, glow sticks, check. Compass, paddling leash, and spare paddle, check, check, and check.

I’ll study those weather reports and hope they’re somewhat accurate. I can never decide what’s more of a deterrent: dense fog or howling northwest winds? I’ve paddled across in both, and it challenges any glimmer of positive energy working from my shoulders, down through my forearms, and eventually into my forward stroke.

I’m always on the lookout for marine mammals and big fish too. It’s always inspiring and uplifting to be swarmed by several hundred common dolphins just off my bow. When I see them, I want them to stay with me until I’m within two miles of my destination. When I see fragile little seabirds like Cassin’s and rhinoceros auklets, hardy avian species that brave one of the most dangerous channels in the world, I force myself to quickly stop feeling any sort of self-doubt, especially once I’m beyond the oil platforms.

Of course, it doesn’t help things any when, on one particular solo crossing, a three-foot-tall dorsal fin rose out of choppy seas on the swell in front of me just beyond the oil platforms. Cruising west to east 50 yards off my bow,it dove below never to be seen again. Needless to say,though, my head was on a swivel all the way to Scorpion Anchorage near the southeast end of Santa Cruz Island. I couldn’t help but have visions of terror, that faraway look a great white possesses as it eyeballs its prey. Sitting low in the water,I could easily see it catapult me out of my kayak or troll after me off my stern. I remember not stopping the rest of the way that day, no eating or drinking the final 10 miles. My paddling pace maintained at a high clip, but so did a sore neck from looking over each shoulder.

Once past the oil derricks, the Pacific Ocean seems to get a bit bigger, the north and southbound shipping lanes transform into some sort of paddling gauntlet, and beyond that it’s eight miles of nonstop paddling to the largest and most diversified isle off the California coast. Once inside the one-mile National Park boundary that extends around each isle in the park, I typically relax, soak in the moment, and realize it’s not that bad of a commute.

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