The California Bucket List: Your daily guide to the best adventures and experiences in the Golden State

Rush hour with dolphins

Times Staff Writer

Seven bottlenose dolphins came to play, skipping across the waves toward the bow of our boat. Within seconds they were hopscotching through the sea ahead of the towering schooner, playing a masterful game of catch-me-if-you-can. We leaned over the rails and cheered them on.

They were the first of dozens of dolphins we would see on a three-day cruise south along the California coast aboard the 73-foot sailing vessel Dirigo II.

Ten of us — four paying passengers and a crew of six — left Long Beach on an overcast morning this month bound for Ensenada. We were on a "downhill run," a sailing term for an easy voyage running with the wind.

Unlike the huge cruise ships that ply the same route, we would not light up the night with a disco dance floor, create shock waves with blasts from our horn or unleash 2,500 passengers onto the streets of Ensenada.

We would see dolphins and sea lions, cormorants and pelicans, jellyfish and sunfish. And we would travel the way men and women have traveled for eons: under sail, relying on the wind and a well-built wooden ship to sustain us.

Designed more than 60 years ago, the Dirigo II (Latin for "to guide or lead") is graceful and strong — a mahogany and teak beauty with 75-foot masts and four sails that fly 1,500 square feet of canvas.

"Look at her lines. She pushes the world away," said Chris Eann, a longtime sailor who faces life away from the sea as an actor and writer.

And it was true. Life became simpler as soon as we left Long Beach harbor. The sails took over. There was only the wind, the sea and a lovely old schooner.

We lounged on the deck watching the Southern California coast slowly fade into the distance. Before long, the marine layer cleared, and the ocean turned from gray blue to cobalt. Instead of hearing city traffic and noise, we heard canvas rustling, water lapping against the hull and seagulls crying as they passed overhead.

Built as a family's private yacht, the Dirigo II sailed around the world and eventually found a home in Long Beach's Alamitos Bay. It now takes passengers on day sails, evening cruises and multi-day excursions to such places as the Channel Islands and Baja. Some of the crew work for free — for experience and for the opportunity to sail on the boat.

We spent a lot of time enjoying the clear air and a lot of time eating. There were bagels midmorning, chicken Caesar sandwiches at lunch, hors d'oeuvres in the late afternoon, barbecued tri-tip for dinner. Plus multiple side dishes.

"You're hungry all the time because you're always moving — trying to steady yourself against the rolling movement of the boat," said Len Daniello, who cooks aboard Dirigo II and owns Horizons West, the adventure travel company that operates the trips.

"It's sort of like isometric exercise, right?" asked a crew member.

Len nodded.

"Then I have an excuse to have a second helping."

Everyone laughed.

Late in the afternoon, the marine layer drifted back in, toning down the sunset and hiding the stars. But our fascination with wind and waves kept most of us on deck anyway until late in the evening.

Hal Stoelzle, an old friend from Denver, had come prepared for chilly weather. When the wind picked up after dark, he pulled on thermal underwear and a fleece jacket. He was still cold, as were several others. They headed for sleeping bags — passengers in tiny, mahogany-trimmed staterooms, crew members on open berths in the main cabin. Traveling in the Dirigo II is a bit like camping at sea.

The boat tossed during the night, and the wooden hull creaked and groaned. A few people found it difficult to sleep. Not me; the movement and the sounds made the night special. (But I've fallen asleep in a dentist's chair, so perhaps I'm not a good benchmark.)

We awoke to more dolphin antics the next morning.

Dozens were leaping through the waves, but none seemed interested in us. Then we saw why: Yeehaw! A fish roundup was in progress. A team of dolphins had surrounded a school of fish and was cutting through the waves in large circles. The rings became steadily smaller as the wranglers drove the school into a tight group. That accomplished, the dolphins took turns diving into the center for a quick meal. Seabirds loved the tactic: Dozens gathered above the trapped fish, swooping down for meals too.

Our overnight passage had taken us into Mexican waters. Now we headed for Islas Todos Santos, 10 miles west of Ensenada. The two stark, desert islands — Isla Norte and Isla Sur — lack amenities, but seabirds and sea lions love them. The birds wheeled on air currents or perched on ledges; the sea lions lounged and barked in a sandy cove.


Going ashore We reluctantly left this craggy seascape behind and turned toward booming Ensenada. The Dirigo II dropped anchor in a shallow area of the harbor; nearby — in a deeper section — was Carnival's 855-foot Ecstasy, a 2,052-passenger cruise ship. Our captain registered the boat and crew with customs' officials, and we caught a ride to shore on a water taxi.

Hal and I strolled around the waterfront, watching pushy pelicans beg for handouts from tourists and marveling at the variety in the open-air fish market, including tuna, barracuda and huge shellfish.

We stopped for margaritas and fajitas at El Cid Restau- rant Bar, checked out the upscale shops on Avenida López Mateos, and stumbled into four shops with signs reading "Official Hussong's Cantina Store" before we found the actual Hussong's Cantina. It looked just as it did the last time I was here a dozen or more years ago. We caught a water taxi back to the boat and spent the night anchored in the harbor. Everyone slept well.

The next morning reminded me of leaving camp at the end of the summer.

Six of us would be shuttled back to Long Beach in a van — a four-hour ride. The rest — all crew — would take the boat back up the coast. It wouldn't be much fun, because the wind would be against them and they'd probably motor the whole way. They'd get back about 30 hours after we would.

We hugged before parting. Although we'd spent only a few days together, we had shared sea and sail. We had let a fine old schooner "push the world away."



Catching the breeze


Horizons West Adventures, 182 Marina Drive, Long Beach, CA 90803; (562) 799-3880, . Sailing trips include day trips, whale-watching and evening cruises and multi-day excursions in the Channel Islands and to Baja, Mexico. Trips are aboard the 73-foot schooner Dirigo II.


Day trips range from $65 to $75. A three-day trip to Catalina is $395; the trip to Baja is $485; a six-day trip to the Channel Islands is $825. The price includes food aboard the ship. The shuttle trip back from Ensenada is included in the price of the Baja trip.

— Rosemary McClure

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