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White's Cove on Catalina Island

Summer after summer after summer Catalina beckons and a community sets anchor in White's Cove

Meg Powers, right, and the White's Cove gang gather for an evening gabfest.

White’s Cove, four miles from Avalon on the leeward coast of Catalina Island, is a shallow inlet of tall palms framed by scrub-covered hills that jut sharply from the sea. Yachters from Newport Beach have sought out the idyllic spot for more than half a century. They tie up at moorings offshore, set out their deck chairs and fill tranquil afternoons with simple routines. At 5 p.m., they sound their boat horns in unison to signal the commencement of the cocktail hour.

Shortly before dusk, couples like Bill and Meg Powers converge on the narrow beach in motorized dinghies, toting bags of chicken, steak, corn on the cob and wine. They drag the small craft right up on the sand, stepping out of the lapping waves and into a fenced oasis of thatched umbrellas and lounge chairs. There’s a grass volleyball court, a bocci court and a shaded, open-air bar. Barbecue grills adjoin rows of picnic tables, where informal dinner parties often swell to 30 or more people on summer evenings.

Talk drifts to boats and sailing trips and colorful moments gone by, like the summer kick-off party of eight or nine years ago, when scaffolding was erected to create a vertical tic-tac-toe board – part of a “Hollywood Squares” quiz-show theme – and Bob Strang, who was dressed up as Big Bird from “Sesame Street,” had to remove some of his costume just to climb to his seat in the top right corner. Laughter carries out over the beautiful moonlit ocean.
This is a beloved place for Bill Powers, 60, who is engaging and vigorous. He spends so much time here that he has come to be known as “The Mayor of White’s Cove,” a title bestowed on him by the Balboa Yacht Club, which has leased this corner of the inlet since 1957. He and Meg are part of a hard-core contingent of Orange County boaters who devote a good chunk of the summer to living aboard their vessels on the island.

While many of their friends and neighbors are commuting in the heat on congested freeways, the Powers are reading, slathering on sunscreen in their shorts, or swimming in the cove’s cool waters, so clear you can see the bright orange garibaldi darting below. They expect to spend about 40 days at Catalina during the summer, an aquatic sojourn interrupted by regular forays back to the mainland to replenish water, food and supplies for their 48-foot boat.

“It’s a sad day when you run out of food and have to go home,” says Powers, gazing out from the bridge at the gentle swells passing on a mild, sunlit morning. Usually, his family packs enough provisions to go 10 days before having  to restock at home or in Avalon. “You always have cans of tuna for when you run out and want to stay that extra day,” Powers says.

The Powers, who live on Lido Island, are lifelong boaters. Bill sailed in New Jersey, where he grew up, and Meg did the same on the lakes around her native Indiana. They met at the University of Dayton in Ohio and moved to Newport Beach 35 years ago so Bill could pursue a career in sales for a major textile manufacturer. He sold flame-retardant fabrics to makers of jets and airplanes. Bill’s first trip to Catalina was with friends in the summer of 1978. “I absolutely loved it,” he recalls. So much so that he began whisking Meg to the island for long weekends together. Nine years ago, they bought a 35-foot powerboat “and we started coming to Catalina regularly for weeks at a time,” he says.

The latest boat – the 48-footer – is a new acquisition they found in Santa Barbara. It was built in 1989 and took five months to refurbish. It has inlaid teak floors, richly varnished trim and a flat-screen TV that pops up from inside a liquor cabinet with the push of a button. Having put four children through college, the Powers christened the boat Fifth Tuition, for the money that didn’t go to academia. It can house the entire family.

Beauty and tranquility draw her to the island, Meg says. “I love coming here. I feel like I’m 1,000 miles away. It’s like I imagine the coast of Italy – although I’ve never been.”
Various yacht clubs have their own outposts on Catalina. The San Diego Yacht Club has a camp at the opposite end of White’s Cove. The Newport Harbor Yacht Club operates just beyond the southern point of White’s, at a cove called Moonstone. The Corsair Yacht Club, made up largely of boaters from Long Beach, though it has no mainland headquarters, has a camp at Emerald Bay near the island’s isthmus. The outstations make it easier to moor or anchor for long periods. Boaters have a beachside meeting place. They can take walks and get to know one another. At White’s, they sit on Adirondack chairs, sipping beer while children scamper on the beach.

Ed Kliem, who is 74, peers from under a ball cap to watch his curly-haired, 3-year-old granddaughter, Anna. Kliem has been coming to Catalina since 1966. He and his wife, Karen, live in Huntington Beach but spend weeks during the summer at Catalina and make six or seven trips to the island throughout the year, often joining their two grown sons and their families.

Kliem’s mother, Bunny, called him by all sorts of humorous derogatory names during his mischievous boyhood – “Hooligan,” “Knucklehead,” “Raggamuffin,” “Chowderhead.” Hence, the names of the family boats: Chowderhead is Kleim’s latest, a 38-footer with GPS, autopilot, air-conditioning and a dinghy named Riff Raft. His son Cameron owns Knucklehead, and his son Kevin owns Hooligan. Kevin fell in love during trips to White’s Cove and married Bob Strang’s daughter Meredith, bringing together two yachting families and producing two sons who now regularly cavort there as well.

Strang once spent much of his time in the air – and not just as Big Bird. The former Air Force pilot tells of bullets piercing his plane’s tail during flight missions over Vietnam.
He later flew commercially, retired at 72 and now devotes himself to plying the seas in a 49-foot powered sailboat,  Sky.  Throughout the summer, Strang crisscrosses the channel to and from Catalina, staying days at a time at White’s Cove, the isthmus and Avalon. “I love being on the boat, sailing and cruising from one anchorage to another,” he says, even while pointing out the sheer amount of work involved. Responsibilities are many: keeping the water tanks full, keeping batteries running, maintaining equipment, watching the weather.
Heavy surf can knock boats around, especially when Santa Ana winds whip up. Even on the most placid days, salt water is corrosive. “Things break – everything breaks,” says Bill Frederickson, a 73-year-old former honorary mayor of White’s Cove who spends 40 or 50 days a summer there with his wife, Debbie. They have a 42-foot trawler named Tabasco. “Mechanical things break, structural things break,” he says. “The anchor windlass that pulls up the anchor. Your electronics can hiccup on you so you don’t have navigation. Your fresh-water system can spring a leak. Your sewage system can go.

“If you take whatever can go wrong in your house, it’s probably 10 times worse” on a boat, Frederickson says. Despite all that, the Fredericksons spend half their time living aboard between April and November. They roam up and down from San Francisco and parts of Mexico. “We always come back to White’s, ” he says. “We just love the island.”
Like other clubs, the Balboa Yacht Club spices up the summer with a series of special events, starting with the Memorial Day kick-off party. The Fourth of July bash features a dinghy parade; a year ago, the Kliems dressed up as bald eagles, a species now recovering at aeries in the island’s rugged backcountry.

In late August, the Balboa Yacht Club and the Newport Harbor Yacht Club collaborate to hold three days of sailing races. The first stage runs from Newport Harbor to Long Point, a promontory near White’s Cove. Sailors then race to Two Harbors at the isthmus, and on the final day race back to Newport. Dozens of boats take part.

Summer’s final events are an all-women’s cruise, near the end of September, followed by a “stag cruise” for the guys in early October. The festivities involve drinking, barbecuing, playing bocci ball and a skeet-shooting contest held on the boats offshore, says Doug West, vice-commodore of the 93-year-old Balboa Yacht Club. In between those organized gatherings are many smaller, more personal moments.

During a lazy afternoon sitting near the beach, Bill Powers appears, announcing there’s been a nearby buffalo sighting, and several men go hiking along a rutted dirt road into the backcountry. Shirtless and sockless, Powers soon spots the huge animal grazing in a ditch.
“There he is, boys! Do I have an eye?”

The group edges closer for photographs.

“If he comes over that berm,” Powers jokes, “it’s every man for himself!”

The hike continues up the steeply angled hillside, switching back past a water tank to a high ridge overlooking the cove. It’s become a rite of passage for young teens, a sweating Powers says, to hike the three miles up to the main road – and then, for the really fit, two additional miles to Airport in the Sky, at an elevation of 1,602 feet. It’s no small boast to say, “Hey, I made the airport,” Powers says. “You go to the airport, get a buffalo burger with your old man and walk home.”

There’s nothing better – unless it’s sleeping that night on the boat, the stars clear in the sky, the swells lolling you toward dreams. “It’s wonderful,” Bill Powers says, and Meg jokes they should have a machine at home to simulate the ocean. “The water just rocks you to sleep.”

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