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Alternate Traffic Lanes Complicate Catalina Trips (from Living Aboard Magazine Nov. 2010)

My wife Pamela and I love to sail our boat, Red Dolphin, to Catalina Harbor. Over the past one and one-half years we have spent about 3 months there living aboard our restored forty-six foot Ericson sailing sloop. Catalina Harbor is the safest, snuggest harbor you can imagine, and it offers an environment so close to Hawaii’s that it is quite romantic and relaxed. Of course nearly tripping over the occasional bison makes it more like a scene out of “Lost.”
We have traveled to Catalina several times over the past years and have always been wary of both container vessel and tanker traffic in the Santa Barbara Channel. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the United States Coast Guard (USCG) have provided a long-standing traffic separation scheme the length of the Santa Barbara Channel. Ships entering and leaving San Pedro Bay would turn up this separation channel allowing other ships and boats to be able to anticipate traffic and keep a watch for it. Generally speaking we would sail our boat on either side of the separation lanes, leaving them for the big boys!
Well, everything has changed now. In the last year we have seen very little traffic in the separation lanes which has made me quite curious. Furthermore we have noted the passage of many ships both leaving from San Pedro Bay and going to it. In almost all cases they are now using an alternate departure and arrival pattern that conflicts heavily with recreational boaters traveling to Catalina Island’s West End for either side of the island.
Our observations over several passages to Catalina Island are as follows: container vessel and tanker traffic are leaving San Pedro Bay and then turning to a heading of 280˚ magnetic for a course that will take them 8 nautical miles northwest of West End, Catalina Island and then north of Santa Barbara Island and south of the northern Channel Islands. Conversely, incoming vessels seem to come out of the west in a zone between 8 and 12 nautical miles northwest of West End, Catalina Island. This new pattern cuts right through any vessel’s trip from anywhere in the Santa Barbara Channel or northern California. It even complicates U.S. Naval activities as this new cargo vessel route conflicts with the Pt. Mugu Sea Range, where they test missiles! Please realize that this routing is uncharted.
We have observed one other change in traffic patterns.  We have encountered as much or more traffic between San Diego and East End, Catalina Island. In these cases, you are not only dealing with U.S. Navy maneuvers and exercises around San Clemente Island, but with ships approaching from the south and north to refuel off of a tanker. These maneuvers are highly complex and dangerous to be near. We experienced this one spring night when seven vessels of various sizes approached our position to refuel with a tanker that was paralleling us both in course and speed. This all occurred 15 to 5 nautical miles south of East End, Catalina Island over a period of four hours. Finally, all the ships drifted south as the tanker issued one Securitè after another. Of course we were in constant contact with the tanker as it was no more than a quarter mile away for more than 3 hours. The tanker pilot was nice enough to coordinate the other ship traffic for us and thus we avoided any real problems, but still, it was exciting.
So, the obvious question is why is this happening? What has almost all southern California shipping abandoning well charted shipping lanes? Why are we all now at a little more risk and what can we do to protect ourselves as we move our water-borne recreational vehicles around the many beautiful ports of these great southern California waters?
The California Air Resources Board (CARB) instituted a new regulation titled “Fuel Sulfur and Other Operation Requirements for Ocean-Going Vessels within California Waters and 24 nautical miles of the California Baseline.” It went into effect on July 24, 2008 and the effects of this regulation are going to be phased in until 2012. This article is not written to critique this regulation. Suffice it to say that it requires all coastal shipping within 24 nautical miles to switch from heavy fuel oils to light, low-sulfur distillates to reduce all types of air pollution including nitrogen, sulfur, and soot pollutants. Apparently ships have or are developing the ability to switch between fuels. This operation is fraught with danger and expense, thus causing the USGS to issue instructions on how to do it safely. The bottom line for pleasure power and sail boats is that the 24 nautical mile base line is drawn from the east side of Catalina Island to the west end of Santa Rosa Island. For a ship to stay inside of the Santa Barbara Channel traffic separation lanes would mean that it would have to burn the cleaner fuel at much greater expense. San Pedro Bay receives almost all shipping from China and the Pacific Rim. These ships have developed this set of alternative shipping lanes and refueling practices to circumvent the regulation. An interesting note to all this is in one of the rule-making notices on the CARB website. “CARB strongly advises non-tanker ocean-going vessels to continue using established traffic separation lanes in the Santa Barbara Channel and avoid transiting through the Point Mugu Sea Range outside the traffic separation scheme.”
What can you do to be safe?

  • Use your radar effectively. Set it to at least 12 mile range. Determine CPA on your radar plotter.
  • Visually scan the horizon. Use your binoculars.
  • When within 15 nautical miles of West End, Catalina Island be hyper aware. Ships are probably out there.
  • This might just be the time to invest in an AIS receiver. They are now incorporated into VHF radios at very low price. They are very easy to use.
  • Talk to the ships. We talk to any ship that looks like it will get within four nautical miles of our position at CPA. Believe it or not, sometimes they don’t see you. Fiberglass doesn’t reflect radar well.
  • Call the ship on VHF channel 16 giving your name, GPS location, and relative position to them. They will call you back. You will have to switch to another frequency as 16 is for contact and emergencies. Work out a plan with the ship on who is going to do what so as to avoid each other. We have found that the largest container ship captain is as polite as our next-door neighbor.

On a lighter note, we recently were talking with a large Chinese cargo container vessel. We had changed our course marginally so that we would pass each other within on mile, or so. We then received a call from the ship in question to inform us that a “large whale” was approaching our port bow. Sure enough, a quick look revealed a large whale that swam just a few hundred feet ahead of our bow!
This new traffic separation free-for-all is instructive. Many times we have felt that once we safely crossed charted traffic lanes we were “home free.” That is no longer the case here in California and it probably never really was. Scanning for traffic and monitoring your radar and AIS are imperative in all operations. Ship traffic is bound to increase as our foreign markets continue to increase productivity. CARB regulations have ended any semblance of traffic separation, so be safe and look out!