Cuyler Harbor

The beach at Cuyler Harbor is usually deserted save for elephant seals
The beach at Cuyler Harbor is usually deserted save for elephant seals
Loc: SE San Miguel Island Lat: N34-03.4 Long: W120-21.3 Last visit: Feb 2011
Tide/Sun/Moon/WX Dist: 0 Cuyler Harbor WX
Chart 18727 San Miguel Passage NPS Alerts
Skipper: Capt. Dan Boat:Sancerre captdan Port: Channel Islands
Landing Permit Not Required National Park Service Local Notice to Mariners

Beauty and History

South beach at Cuyler Harbor
South beach at Cuyler Harbor

Cuyler Harbor is spectacular and usually empty. It is to our minds, the most beautiful spot to drop your hook in all the Channel Islands. Its remarkable rock formations, towering cliffs and Prince Island, which lies at the mouth of the harbor make this the only real harbor in the northern tier of islands. That said, most local mariners rarely venture here because of frequent punishing winds and high seas. It’s also a bit of a schlep from Oxnard/Ventura.

Prince Island -- If you're not a ranger, an ornithologist or some sort of bird, you're not allowed to set foot on this avian refuge.
Prince Island — If you’re not a ranger, an ornithologist or some sort of bird, you’re not allowed to set foot on this avian refuge.

San Miguel is the rumored final resting place of Juan Cabrillo, who discovered the island sometime around 1540, and died there after an altercation with the Chumash Indians in 1543. (Something about counterfeit chips at the blackjack table.)

While further away from Oxnard/Ventura, and more challenging in terms of navigation than most other off shore destinations, the trip to San Miguel, and Cuyler specifically, is well worth the effort (even considering all of Fagan cautionary comments, which are definitely worth reading).

Here's an exception to the claim that the harbor is usually deserted -- snow birds on their way from Washington to Baja.
Here’s an exception to the claim that the harbor is usually deserted — snow birds on their way from Washington to Baja.

As this is a fairly large anchorage, chances are great that there will be plenty of room, and very little company to contend with except for the occasional crabber or dive boat and migrants from the north heading for the Sea of Cortez.

Approach

Cuyler_anchoring_chart_fs
NOAA chart 18 depicting our entrance and exit from Cuyler Harbor. Click for full chart.

There are two possible ways in and out of Cuyler. Our first trip to Cuyler was by way of Point Bennett on the North West tip of San Miguel, around Castle Rock, past Simonton Cove and around Harris Point, about two-thirds of a circumnavigation. That’s the long way. It’s also the beautiful way.

Looking NW at Hare Rock
Looking NW at Hare Rock, Hill 485 to the left, east side of Harris Point in background.

The top picture shows Nifty Rock in the foreground, the peninsula a bit closer and Hill 485 and Hare Rock in the background. The shoulder of Harris Pt. is at the far right.

Following our route from the north, first identify Harris Point, which is unmistakable due its conspicuous hill, shoulder, and steep cliffs, and 288′ Prince Island, which lies approximately a mile offshore at the East side of the anchorage.

Entering Cuyler from the NE, passing Harris Pt with Nifty Rock and Hare Rock in sight.
Entering Cuyler from the NE, passing Harris Pt with Nifty Rock, Hare Rock and hill 485 in sight.

Our approach was from the NNW, keeping well off shore. As Nifty Rock and Hare Rock are 250 yards and 300 yards off shore respectively, we kept about 400 yards off shore lining up on Judge Rock (below).

Gull Rock and Judge Roock
Gull Rock and Judge Rock

Proceeding between Middle Rock (awash, and visible only at low tide) and a shoal off the point of the anchorage (a little more than 1/2 mile S of Hare Rock), we continued about 200 yards more before making a slight westerly turn. We dropped a single hook in about 25 feet of water, although we could have run up quite a bit closer to shore and anchored in 15 to 20 feet.

Fagan has an excellent description of this approach in his Cruising Guide, except from a slightly more easterly direction stating “Entrance to the anchorage lies one third of the distance between Prince Island and Harris Point cliffs. Shape your course to stay about 300 yards E of the Harris Point cliffs. Steer for a point somewhat inshore of Hare Rock until you are close to the cliffs” from that point it’s similar to the description above.

Rounding Harris Point
Rounding Harris Point

Part of a prudent sailor’s preparation for a journey to Cuyler should include careful study of Coast Pilot and Fagan’s Cruising Guide.

In Feb 2011 (I’m not sure I’d recommend going to San Miguel in the winter, but we were very, very lucky and had the best weather we’d ever seen between Santa Ana events), we approached from the north side of Prince Island.

Point Bennet - getting to Cuyler Harbor the long way around
Point Bennet – getting to Cuyler Harbor the long way around

There is a small island near Prince and some hidden rocks just past the end of the island. Once we were abeam those rocks we headed into the anchorage. As usual, the setting sun was in our eyes, but it’s an easy route into the anchorage. We anchored in 30 feet and listened to Elephant Seals squawk, whine, moan and bellow all night.

Castle Rock on NW shore of San Miguel
Castle Rock on NW shore of San Miguel

BTW – when approaching from the east, the breakers on middle rock and others in the center of the harbor make the area look impassable if there’s any sort of swell. Press on and reevaluate the conditions when abeam the west end of Prince Island. It’s quite likely that you’ll find a relatively calm passage to the anchorage. BTW2 – there is usually a fair amount of kelp to avoid, but on our Feb 2011 trip it was 95% clear.

Anchoring

Cuyler Harbor San Miguel Island
Cuyler Harbor looking toward Harris Point

Conditions were extremely benign while we were there each fall in 2006, 7, and 8, and allowed us to use a single hook, Fagan cautions that wind and substantial swells can come up suddenly, requiring a second hook, or if conditions deteriorate sufficiently, render this anchorage unsafe. Fagan states “Heavy swells can break in the entrance in rough weather. Entering or leaving Cuyler in these conditions is crazy.”

All sailors speak from experience, just not necessarily their own. Even so the consensus among locals is that this can be a very hazardous spot. On the other hand, fall provides some excellent weather for this trip and the consensus is Sept. and Oct. are the best months to venture this way.

Departure, the eastern route

We decided not to leave the same way we came  in and departed the anchorage and headed south toward Judge Rock, taking care to avoid the numerous kelp beds.

Judge rock
Judge rock

At Judge Rock we turned east and paralleled the shore, staying about 100 yards off while maintaining a course which took us between the shore and Clover Rock, which was awash. We continued on a course that kept us between the shore and Prince Island and stayed close to shore until we were abeam of Prince Island and clear of the reef.

Obviously the reciprocal of our departure route could be used as an approach into the anchorage.

Cuyler Harbor San Miguel Island
Gull Rock marks the entrance to Nidever canyon

However, it is a somewhat tricky approach requiring careful avoidance of the kelp beds and keeping well inside of Clover Rock. While one might be tempted to set a course midway between the shore and Prince Island heading straight into the anchorage, this would take you between Middle Rock and Clover Rock, both of which are exposed only at low tide, and may shoal up in between them depending on the surge and swell conditions.

Dangers

Kelp beds abound and there are several small reefs/rocks which are only visible at low tide. In addition, Fagan cautions about a foundation of an old pier at the south corner of the anchorage that should be avoided.

Landing and Facilities

Ranger George Roberts, who retired from the Park Service and returned to San Miguel as a volunteer.
Ranger George Roberts, who retired from the Park Service and returned to San Miguel as a volunteer.

No landing permit is required. However a guided tour with a part ranger can be arranged by calling the Park headquarters in Ventura at (805) 644-8262. You can also contact the ranger on channel 16. Excursion parties generally meet the ranger at 0900 near the four palm trees on the beach. We did not take the time to go ashore in 2006 or 2008, but in 2007, we launched the dinghy and met the ranger at the top of Nidever canyon. He juggled his schedule a bit and took us on a hike to the Caliche Forest. Frankly, I was very nervous about leaving Sancerre unattended, so we abbreviated our excursion.

Cuyler Harbor San Miguel Island
Caliche forest

That turned out to be a good decision as the wind came up and the anchor needed tending by the time we got back aboard. I will never leave the boat unattended in this anchorage again. The best place to go ashore is at the NW corner of the bay near the palm trees, but you can encounter hazardous surf conditions. Be ready to abort your landing plans or be prepared for a swim.

Fagan also cautions that a landing attempt opposite the path to the ranger camp is to invite a dunking. We second that motion.

This is about the easiest spot to get ashore. It's a trek from Nidever canyon, but the surf is less of a problem here... usually.
This is about the easiest spot to get ashore. It’s a trek from Nidever canyon, but the surf is less of a problem here… usually.

There are two stories that purport to explain the curiously out-of-place palm trees on the beach. First story: the palms are courtesy of a movie company that filmed a feature there in the 1920’s.

Story #2 comes to us from Jeffrey LaBarre, who wrote:

“I was having dinner as a reciprocal guest at the Santa Barbara YC and talking with a couple at the table next to me about my visit to Cuyler Harbor. I was telling story #1 when another older gentleman piped up. He said that, while this story has been repeated many times, it was false. The four palms were planted, he said, by a fellow SBYC member. He said he knew this was true because he knew the man and his son who did the planting and that it was much later than 1935, in the early 50’s he thought (this is, I think, consistent with the size of the palms). I can’t say for certain that this guy was right but it is certainly commonly accepted knowledge at SBYC and I have since heard this from other sources as well.”

I don’t know if/how that story connects with what appears to be the real story at islapedia.com, but frankly, we like the movie-maker story legend better, even if it’s not true.

Kayaking in the fall is superb, but we got lucky in February, too. Be cautious of elephant seals. The males weigh in at a ton or two and are very territorial. They will come after you.
Kayaking in the fall is superb, but we got lucky in February, too. Be cautious of elephant seals. The males weigh in at a ton or two and are very territorial. They will come after you.

Mr. LaBarre added “Cuyler WAS used as a location for the 1935 filming of Mutiny on the Bounty but the crew “mutinied” over the remoteness of the location, bad weather (a crew member was reportedly swept overboard and lost), and the constant wind. The site was abandoned in favor of the Isthmus at Catalina.”

There you have it: a true sea story – two plausible accounts and sailors who swear that their version is accurate at least one of which includes the phrase “was there” or the principle “knew someone who was there.”

The ecosystem of the island was devastated by feral sheep. It became a sandbox. The reforestation program ... well, there wasn't one other than wait-and-see. The island is now mostly covered by plants courtesy of the lupine. The guess is that a few of these plants or perhaps just seeds, were in gullies and under rocks inaccessible to the starving sheep. They eventually bloomed, but their important contribution is that they are nitrogen fixers, putting nutrients back in the soil where other plants eventually flourished.
The ecosystem of the island was devastated by feral sheep. They ate everything, roots and all, and the island  became a sandbox. The reforestation program … well, there wasn’t one other than wait-and-see. The island is now mostly covered by plants courtesy of the lupine. The guess is that a few of these plants or perhaps just seeds, were in gullies and under rocks inaccessible to the starving sheep. They eventually bloomed, but their important contribution is that they are nitrogen fixers that take nitrogen from the air and “fix” it in the soil, giving nitrogen-dependent plants a favorable environment.

Ecology notes: The environment is beginning to recover after being devastated by ranch animals, mostly feral sheep that were abandoned when the ranching operation was wrapped up. With little ground cover, the wind swept the landscape, gouging sand rivers through the terrain, which are most distinctive in aerial photos. Next trip we plan on spending extra time for kayaking in the harbor, which appears to be excellent. In addition to elephant seals on the harbor beaches, we ran into a pod of humpbacks in 2006 – more accurately – they joined us on our way toward Santa Rosa. Seven (or so) animals including two juveniles. In 2007 and 08, Fin Whales joined us for over an hour of whale frolcking.

Updates

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Photos

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