Pacific Pleasures

Sea adventures by sailboat and kayak

By Don Sonderling
All photos submitted

Have you ever gazed out at the ocean, the sunshine glittering like diamonds bouncing off the blue water, the Channel Islands beckoning to you as you drive along the 101? Have you wished you could be out there, if only for a couple of hours? It’s easier than you might think! Here are two fun and unique sea adventures awaiting you off California’s Central Coast.

Hoist the sails

Sail the Channel Islands with Captain Dan. Experience the freedom of the open sea on one of his two magnificent sloops (nautical lesson: a sloop is a single-masted sailing vessel). Relish the wonders of a half-day sail in the Santa Barbara Channel, or book a multi-day sailing cruise to explore the wonders of the Channel Islands. Kick back, relax, enjoy, or take the helm yourself and learn how to sail. Don’t expect a party or “sunset cocktail cruise” — although you may enjoy a cocktail or sunset along the way! This is true sailing! Captain Dan and Bosun Dennis (or “Cookie,” as he is known) are certain to give you an amazing experience, whether on the 36-foot sloop Wiley or the 
45-foot luxury sloop Sancerre.

Depending on Mother Nature and her whims, a five-hour or so day sail out of Oxnard Harbor may be serene, challenging, or adventurous — but always fun. You are in expert hands with Captain Dan, who has more than 40 years of sailing experience that includes everything from a 14-foot Hobie Cat daysailer to being a duty officer on the USS Nimitz in the Persian Gulf. Captain Dan has also sailed oceans on the East Coast, Caribbean, and Mediterranean, and has been running his private charter sailing adventures around the Santa Barbara Channel and Channel Islands for 20 years.

Leaving the sailboat for a daytime excursion in the kayaks.

On my half-day sailing voyage with Captain Dan, we left Oxnard Harbor at about noon. There was a light breeze blowing; as soon as we cleared the jetty, the sails went up, and off we went. As a teenager and young adult, I spent a lot of time sailing. Decades had passed since I had been on a sailboat, but it was still magical, especially sharing the experience with my daughter and grandchild. Captain Dan has a particular course he sails, knowing the winds and currents as well as he does. He handed the wheel over to me at one point, as he and “Cookie” manned the mainsail and the jib. My daughter and grandchild enjoyed sitting on the bow, the wind and sun in their faces, getting an occasional spray as the boat cut through the water at a steady 5 knots.

A few hours into our sail, my grandchild Jadyn returned to the cockpit, and Captain Dan gave them a lesson in steering, compass reading, and focusing on a “point” just ahead. Jadyn captained the boat for the next several hours.

On the final leg, heading back to the harbor, the wind kicked up, the swells increased, and the boat started heeling, as we were being propelled by about a 23-knot breeze, while cutting through the water at a top speed of about 7 knots, getting somewhat bathed by the spray. There were big smiles all around.

During our sail, we were treated to the sight of a few schools of dolphins, and flying fish skimming the surface. We also got (somewhat) up close and personal with an oil drilling platform, and of course, the ever-present harbor seals on the breakwater.

Captain Dan and Cookie in their element.

Jadyn had never been sailing before, and to see the grin on their face was everything (“Grandpa, when can we go again?”). What a day! No computers, using the cell phone only for pictures, and enjoying the great, grand Pacific Ocean with sun, spray, wind, and great people.

If you want more than a day cruise, Captain Dan offers trips on the Sancerre to the Channel Islands. These can run for several days, and can include gourmet meals, kayaking, snorkeling, hiking, exploring, and of course, plenty of sailing. For the best experience, Captain Dan limits the number of guests to six.

For reservations and more information, visit or call (805) 750-7828

Captain a kayak in a cave

Get a little closer to the water line with a day of kayaking and exploring sea caves on Santa Cruz Island. Paddle through giant kelp beds, see aquatic life beneath you, learn about the surrounding geology, and watch various sea birds and birds of prey floating, soaring, and diving all around you.

Plan a hands-on, professionally guided cave kayaking trip with Channel Islands Adventure Company. And yes, you will get wet! You’ll be guiding your kayak over swells and into caves, and waking up all your senses.

Your sea adventure begins as you board the Island Packers ferry from Ventura Harbor, taking you to Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island. Island Packers has been around since 1968, providing access to the islands off our coast for education, recreation, and research. They are the official boat concessionaire for the Channel Island National Park, and their crew is knowledgeable and friendly. During your channel crossing, you may slow down a bit to view dolphins, whales, flying fish, and seabirds in flight.

Paddling into sea caves carved by eons of ocean waves.

Once arriving at Scorpion Anchorage, you’ll meet up with your guide. Prepare to spend several hours on the water exploring a variety of Santa Cruz’s sea caves, large and small. There are more than 300 documented “grottos,” or sea caves, in the Channel Islands National Park — more than anywhere else in the world. The time of year, the tide, ocean swells, and even cave inhabitants will determine which caves you go to, into, or through.

Last time I went, there were a few special caves where, catching the current just right, I was able to “surf” out the other side! Trust me: that is an adrenaline rush! You’ll 
probably go into Cavern Point Cave and the Green Room.
But you’ll have to book a kayaking trip to find out why these are so special.

Also on a recent trip, while we were paddling from one cave to another, a large eruption of water was stirred up about 20 yards from us. Suddenly, a huge sea lion jumped out of the water, wildly shaking its head back k and forth — and between its jaws was a large fish!

During your paddle, you may see bald eagles, island scrub jays (endemic to the islands), dolphins, and seals. While on land, keep your eyes out for island foxes (also endemic), and maybe an island spotted skunk (yet another endemic species). You’ll also notice flocks of brown pelicans, which breed on Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands. These are the only Brown Pelican breeding colonies in the Western United States.

Along with your kayaking adventure, you may also choose to add an hour of snorkeling, where you can view orange garibaldis, sand sharks, stingrays, and sea urchins beneath you. During summer and early fall, visibility approaches 100 feet as you float through the giant kelp beds with your guide. It is a wow-worthy experience!

For reservations and more information, visit or call (805) 884-9283

From ages 8 to 80 (plus or minus a few years), a whole world of adventure awaits you in the blue Pacific off California’s Highway 101. Whether you set sail with Captain Dan or hit the islands for a kayaking adventure, once you’re back home, you’ll be eager to start planning your next trip. I sure was!

Don Sonderling is a freelance writer covering California’s unique lifestyle of wine, food, and adventure from Ventura to Napa Valley and beyond. He may be reached at