June 5, 2015

Mooring ball or drop the anchor in Catalina Harbor?

Every time I boat out to Catalina Island, I make sure to spend a few nights on anchor in Catalina Harbor. Cat Harbor is certainly the most strikingly beautiful anchorage in Southern California. You can grab a mooring ball or else drop anchor in the outer Catalina Harbor for free. Once your boat is secure, crack a beer, dingy to shore and hike out to the dramatic headland cliffs.

mooring balls catalina harbor
boats on anchor and mooring balls at Catalina Harbor
We sailed my Newport 30 from Two Harbors out and around the northwestern tip of the island and then approached the stunning geologic headlands of Catalina Harbor. The cliffs are a combination of sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous rocks - with large quartz veins creating a banded pattern across the sheer face.

anchoring in Catalina harbor
approaching the Cat Harbor headlands
sailing to Catalina Harbor
sailing around the northwest tip of Catalina Island

Getting a mooring ball in Catalina Harbor

Catalina harbor has a soft sandy bottom that shallows out near the inner harbor (where the dingy dock is located). Depending on the size and draft of your boat, the harbormaster will find you an appropriate mooring ball. As of 2015, the price for one night is 41.00 for a 30 foot vessel and 49.00 for a 40 foot mooring ball location. Apparently, this price if going up a few bucks every year...

The harbor master will be cruising around the harbor in their powerboat, they will offer you rides to the dock if needed. They will also be collecting money upon your arrival.

Anchoring in Catalina Harbor

As the harbormaster will tell you, you are also welcome to drop anchor for free in Catalina Harbor. There is usually plenty of secure anchorage to be found. If you are a small boat (under 30 feet with less than 5 foot draw) then you can motor to the inner harbor and and drop anchor near the dingy dock. But - watch the tides, because at a negative tide your keel will be close to touching bottom.

For a larger boat (30 feet or more) you should look for anchorage space in the outer harbor. By outer harbor, I mean just outside of the last row of mooring balls. This will put you in 50 feet of water. And, of course, the farther out you anchor - the deeper the water.
Anchoring out is is free but you will get a bumpier night (depending on swell size).

I recommend a stern anchor, as this will keep your bow into any western swell, and minimize any beam roll.

If you anchor in outer harbor, the dingy ride is longer to the dingy dock, but you can also just paddle over to the nearest shore and then walk the rest of the way on dry land. It's a beautiful area with great trails, so this is my recommendation. You'll be drinking a Buffalo Milk at the Harbor Reef in no time at all.

If you plan to explore other anchorages or harbors around Catalina Island, its good to have a cruising guide on board. Fagan's book, the Cruising Guide to Central and Southern California is considered the gold standard for boating Central and Southern CA. Plenty of detail on your local waters and its just good piece of mind having this in the navigation table. Amazon sells cheap used copies.

how to anchor in catalina harbor
long term resident on anchor at Catalina Harbor
We dropped anchor next to this guy "Chester" in about 50 feet of water. You can see the trails on the southeast side of the headlands in the background. This anchorage is a short paddle in a dingy to a rocky beach.


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Wow great read! This was the first helpful thing I've read on this! I want to live on an anchor out there for a few months and was wanting to know if thats possible . I'm thinking it would, maybe have to rent a ball now and again if theres bad weather... What do you think?

Captain Curran said...

Alexander 6 -

Oh yeah, it is possible. It's going to be bumpy, so prepare for that... Also consider Catalina Harbor - on the west side.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful news. Anybody know if it's cheaper to truck a 30 ft boat across the land, or use the Panama canal? How much does the canal cost?

Captain Curran said...

It is much cheaper to truck the boat across land, this could cost 5-8K to move across the country and take a few days.

To move a boat through the canal into the east coast.... will take you about a year - and many more dollars once the adventure is complete...

PLP@MT said...

Great blog! What kind of anchors do you recommend for Catalina? I have a Gougeon 32 catamaran (about 1100lbs before water ballast, double that with) with a Fortress anchor (7lbs, I think) and am trying to decide what to get for a second anchor.

Captain Curran said...


Good question.... so I am biased as a monohull guy.. but I love my Danforth anchors. They are good for the mixed material bottom you get in California. I use a 25 pound danforth on my Newport 30. For a lighter Cat, you can probably go with something under 20 - but ask around... have fun.

Unknown said...

I would really like to visit Catalina on my Venture 25. I miss my King Jesus! His house is so far from Catalina island!

Captain Curran said...

Oh yeah, have a blast. Venture 25 sounds like a great boat for that crossing!

Rick M said...

Where can I find rules and regulations for free anchoring in the waters around Catalina Island, or other locations in the area. Am looking to purchase a converted Trawler as a live aboard, and am finding slip fees and live aboard restrictions are making it difficult to find a place to reside : (

Captain Curran said...

Rick M,

Head to your local boating store and buy a chart of the island. That's the best way, anchor spots are marked. Or google anchoring catalina island.

Rick M said...

Thank you Kevin