The Remote Encounters and Recent History of San Miguel Island
Stepping onto a boat has, for me, always felt like stepping onto a spaceship. Taking an airplane is more like stepping into the “transporter” and getting “beamed” down to a planet: In a blur, you’re there. But on a boat, you can perceive your slow motion across the vast reaches of an abyss. You have a routine and carve out a little life for yourself on the boat.
I woke up around 8 a.m. in late October 2020 as San Miguel Island sat squarely to starboard of the Kelly Peterson Esprit. Motoring on glassy seas, we anchored, drank coffee and canned Mai Tais, and swam in the clear, cold water. We had arrived to “unusual conditions” in Cuyler Harbor — anything less than 25 knots blowing 24/7 was considered “unusual.” Calm and warm in the sun, it was easy to forget San Miguel’s delicate perch on the edge of a continent. But reminders abound.
About five million years ago, the Channel Islands were kind of spit out of the West Coast of North America. Looking at the tall peaks on San Miguel, it was easy to imagine plate tectonics, geysers of liquid hot magma, and the fiery innards of the Earth rising into islands and mountains.
We took to the water in a small inflatable armada in October 2020, paddling from Esprit to the beach. A short hike through a small canyon took us to a mesa and the ranger station, complete with a volunteer ranger who came out to say hello. (It being 2020, we all stood at what even now would seem like an unnatural distance from the ranger.) If memory serves, we met two researchers who were tagging and tracking the island fox, a tiny, genetically isolated cousin of the mainland variety. We hiked over the empty campground, and would later see a boat driving to the beach and unloading a gaggle of campers.
Every time I’m tempted to use the adjective “remote” to describe San Miguel, I remind myself that there is literally a “bus” from L.A. County dropping off people on the beach.
We eventually found a monument and plaque honoring Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo (who was believed to have died on San Miguel) and “the first recorded European voyage” to the Channel Islands in 1542. The year 2020 saw a kind of reckoning over legacies and history, and challenges to the notion of discovery. (There is also a debate over whether Cabrillo was from Spain, or rather, was João Rodrigues Cabrilho from Portugal.)
As a rule, California is named for the Europeans who settled and colonized it, and not for the indigenous people. “Some of the oldest human remains known in North America were discovered [on the Channel Islands],” said narrator Kevin Costner in the short documentary Channel Islands National Park — Treasure in the Sea. “The native Chumash people were one of the most advanced societies of their time,” Costner said in Treasure in the Sea. According to the National Park Service, “Approximately 148 historic [Chumash] village sites have been identified, including 11 on Santa Cruz Island, eight on Santa Rosa Island, and two on San Miguel Island.” (San Miguel is known as “Tuqan” to the Chumash.)
To me, history has always come down to digestibility. Given its recent past, written documentation in a Latin-based language, artist’s renderings and celebrated explorers, the Europeans have understandably dominated the historical narrative. By contrast, the spoken history of Native Americans and Polynesians, which is generally absent a central, heroic figure, has evaporated.
Treasure in the Sea is slightly overwrought, complete with epic western music and the aforementioned Oscar-winning director at the narrative helm painting a picture of the Channel Islands. “Out past the edge of the continent, out on the edge of our imagination, this lost world beckons. Harsh and lonely, shrouded in mist. Isolated. Their jagged beauty, their rugged charm in a quiet corner of the world.
“San Miguel: An island of extremes. Wild, windy and remote.”
Given the aforementioned “busload” of campers and the mellow conditions, San Miguel didn’t feel wild or remote, or rather, with good weather and a few boats in the harbor, one could easily forget their delicate perch on this delicate perch.
Mitch Andrus, Quincey Cummings, Brian Cline and I had planned to leave for Santa Rosa on a calm afternoon, but when we tried to weigh anchor, the windlass would spin for moments, then nothing. Mitch got his tools and began diagnosing the winch with the optimism of any good boat owner. As happens so often in cruising, our plans became fluid; we would leave the next day.
The Short Happy Life of Chirpy McVonstein
I don’t remember at what point on San Miguel we had “poured one out” for a lost and unexpected member of our crew.
On day two of our sail from the Bay to the Channel Islands, a small bird circled the boat, landed on deck, and won us all over with his(?) gregariousness. We immediately offered him handfuls of seeds and nuts, and within minutes, he was jumping onto our bowls while we ate dinner. We named him “Chirpy” because he was chatty, and I added the most absurd surname I could think of.
Panda, Mitch and Quincey’s cat, took a different kind of interest in our visitor, but we discouraged too much curiosity, which, of course, can kill.
We were all a little concerned at Chirpy’s audaciousness, and were relieved when, after making a few aerial laps around the boat and landing again, he seemed to depart for good. In the months after the trip, we would hear several stories about birds befriending boats transiting the California coast, with crews surprised and delighted at the forwardness of the winged visitors. Most of these boats probably didn’t have cats, though.
Less than 24 hours later, as we were waking up at anchor in Morro Bay, I heard Panda Cat bouncing around. Looking down at the cabin sole, I saw an ominous trail of feathers, and the lifeless body of Chirpy.
Lesson learned: Had any of us known how this would end, we would have (obviously) shooed Chirpy away immediately, but we were thoroughly charmed by him and didn’t know that we needed to protect him from his own sociability. (On a calm morning in Cuyler Harbor, a small seal swam up to Brian, who was sitting on a SUP, and hung out for a while. We, as sailors, cherish these kinds of encounters — it’s why we go sailing. We wondered if we could feed the little seal something, when Quincey said, “Remember what happened the last time we fed wildlife?”)
Change of Plans, Part 2
The 25 knots famous for blowing 24/7 on San Miguel arrived in the middle of a moonlit night, and I awoke to news that we were dragging anchor and headed for a reef.
In an instant, we felt the “remoteness” of San Miguel, and the stakes were suddenly much higher.
The windlass would spin and stop, spin and stop. We had a handle to crank the winch manually, but it was prohibitively slow. Brian pulled the anchor chain by hand, while I fed the excess chain into the anchor locker.
It was sketchy. (I think there was some consideration of abandoning the anchor and chain.) The wind howled, and Esprit bobbed on the short, moonlit chop. It felt as if we could see ourselves moving against the island. We kept trying the windlass, and it would work in tiny bursts, before it finally spun for long moments and gathered some 50 feet of chain.
Before we knew it, we were free, bound for Santa Barbara.
We had good wind on the beam, and went from stuck to gloriously free and broad-reaching in an almost imperceptible interval. The waxing gibbous moon set behind us as we headed for the dim lights of the mainland, behind which the sun rose a few hours later. Streaks of phosphorescence torpedoed toward the boat, then swam with us, and we took turns at the bow watching dolphins (or porpoise?) watching us from just beneath the water.
In my 30 years at sea, it was one of my favorite moments.
So, want to go to San Miguel. Nice write up. Always 25kts when I have sailed past. Some day.
Having been an aircrewman at Pt Mugu in the late 70s, I became very familiar with the Channel Islands due to low level aero tours while on hold during range clearance operations. San Miguel was often under FBI surveilance because of smugglers using the island as a remote landing destination. Am really happy that the offshore realm is now a park and marine sanctuary, trually the best use imaginable. Good article.
A birder amigo identifies the bird as a pine siskin, noting particularly the slender bill. A seed eater, as you described. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology notes that the species is widespread across North America, including most of the US, a good chunk of southern Canada, and much of central to eastern Mexico. They do gad about somewhat, including, obviously, offshore.
Stephen Buckingham of San Francisco comments: “If there are interested parties, the campground with lean-to’s pictured in ‘Lectronic Latitude is on Santa Rosa Island. I love that place, spent 10 days there. Hope to go back in the RoG [River of Grass].”