Postcard From L.A.: A sunset cruise, a glimpse at the good life on Santa Monica Bay

How much is a fancy charter on Santa Monica Bay? Probably less than you expect. As summer kicks in, join columnist Chris Erskine on a three-hour cruise from Marina Del Rey, almost to Malibu.


We’re cruising aboard an ugly duckling trawler that has been varnished like a violin. At times, it passes for a swan. The way Streisand or Gaga can be striking at times — and oddly angular at others — that’s this boat.

There is the hint of the Hamptons about it — of Gatsby and cable-knit cardigans and buttery summer afternoons.

For the record:

2:00 p.m. May 30, 2019An earlier version of this post gave the Charter L.A. Yachts website as It is

To my right, another man’s wife. I’ve known Kelly for 25 years. We raised our daughters together, if raised is the right term. Endured. Worshiped. Nurtured. Cajoled. The two daughters are still soul mates, now off seeing Italy, Instagramming every enviable moment.


So we have a history, this mom and I.

Frankly, I have a history with all the guests here on Santa Monica Bay: tailgate sidekicks, a niece in town for the weekend, my goofy son and his buddy Chase.

The guest list is filled out with other dads — goofs as well. They are like loud Irish uncles, in the sense that they cannot lie, except when they speak.

Yet they are brutally blunt too, especially when they catch you in some little hypocrisy. You can’t buy pals like these, nor would you ever want to.

Look, I don’t make friends so much as I take hostages.

All told, there are a dozen misfits aboard this burnished yacht — yes, a yacht. The three-hour charter is surprisingly affordable, especially if you spread the cost around a little. We’ll get to that later.

For now, all aboard, mate. We want to make sure your algorithms are set to summer. You bring any gin? Well, we’ve got your tonic. Specifically, this jaunty ocean … this next-door-neighbor we rarely visit, wedded as we usually are to baked concrete and the urban grind of bus brakes.

To be at sea like this, for just a few hours, mists us like tonic.

Welcome to Postcard From L.A., our character study of SoCal summers — a tribute, a paean, a public service and a total boondoggle (if you ask my snarky coworkers). Each week, we’ll take you someplace you’ve never been. Or, if you have, maybe it’s time to go back.


Climb aboard.

This is a sunset cruise on an elegant 44-foot trawler, the hands-on passion project of owner-captain Bill Austin, who sanded, varnished and renovated this beauty and now runs charters out of Marina del Rey all summer for well under a grand per voyage.

The 44-foot trawler offers lounge areas front and back, plus couches and a fire pit.
(Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

Some of the best things in life are free. This isn’t one of them. At $799, not an everyday splurge, to be sure, but not priced like many activities around L.A. — beyond the reach of those who work for a buck.

Rental sailboats (including captains) are even cheaper, a hundred or two less.

On this day, we’ve brought our own food and drink, so I dabble a lot in that, of course, mocked by the Irish uncles as I struggle to tape a video to accompany the story. (I speak with the self-conscious cadence of someone new to a country asking for emergency medical care.)

Even with that, it is a sublime SoCal day.

The weather is a little crisp, the first Memorial Day weekend in memory where we’re still wearing wool. The high is 68, with a light chop — waves 2 to 3 feet. We motor along at 7 knots, and the onshore wind slaps us in the cheeks a few times, until we turn and run with it, the gusts dying down to almost nil.

A sweater or hoodie is enough. No traces of seasickness. Indeed, our boat (the Buen Camino) is a stable old tub (32 gross tons, the equivalent of 20 Honda Accords or 5,333 Yorkshire terriers).

Eight of us head to the upper deck, where a couple couches and beanbag chairs are perfect for party conversation.

“I’m not moving,” Mark Miller says as he nestles into a corner of the couch, his back turned slightly to the wind.

Two teens head to the large cushioned lounge at the bow, a bit windblown, but with blankets strewn about, as you would find in a TV room.

We keep the food — wings, sandwiches, assorted cheeses — in the roomy cabin or near the sink in the galley.

Moving about is easy, though once you plop down, you tend to stay plopped, so comfortable are the seating areas.

Each hour, the patina changes — the color of the swells, the plum of the mountains, that gauzy sea haze. Incredible light. Our cellphone photos look like high-gloss Polo ads.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

We swing north. The Santa Monica Pier is packed, and we come within half a mile of the Ferris wheel, then head farther up the coast, past the Palisades, almost to Malibu, but not quite.

Boat traffic is remarkably light despite the sun and how close we are to one of the world’s biggest man-made marinas. There’s a smattering of sailboats out this holiday weekend, some fishing charters, and every once in a while, a large party ship — one apparently hosting a quinceañera.

From the upper reaches of the boat, you can appreciate the curve of the bay, from the bluffs of Palos Verdes Peninsula to Malibu. Hazy, almost ghost-like, sits Catalina Island.

“The biggest day I’ve seen is still less than 100 boats,” says Austin, who has been sailing the bay for 20 years. “I have been out many times when I am the only one out here.

“On my dock of 20 boats, nine literally never go out.”

Each hour, the patina changes — the color of the swells, the plum of the mountains, that gauzy sea haze. Incredible light. Our cellphone photos look like high-gloss Polo ads.

“There used to be this bar near church camp…” one of the uncles starts a story. “I think it was called Malone’s.”

Our private cruise runs 5 to 8 p.m., so we gaze out at the setting sun. No one drinks too much. The sea air is boozy enough.

Talk turns to the two daughters touring Italy and the total tonnage of pasta they might consume (the equivalent of 37 Honda Accords).

We talk, inevitably, of the magic of our own home and how there is always something about L.A. — a city of vast topography and extra contours — that we haven’t seen.

“Is that the Getty up there?” one buddy blurts out. “I think that’s the Getty.”

“I’m just a kid from Syracuse,” another buddy chimes in. “All I wanted to do was get out of Syracuse.”

Just when it gets a little cool, our skipper pulls the top off a coffee table, revealing a gas fire pit.

About 7, the sun starts to melt over Malibu; the California blush hangs on the horizon for a good hour, like a stubborn sunburn, before we swing around and head back to the harbor.

Might just be the best blush we see all summer. But we’ll keep looking.

Chasing sunsets. Making memories. Sending these postcards to your door.

Bundling up as the sun sets.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The Essentials

A three-hour cruise aboard Bill Austin’s 44-foot trawler costs $799. That includes captain and fuel, but not tip. It can be booked through Onboat Inc., (844) 500-2628,

Other sail and powerboat options:

Charter L.A. Yachts, (310) 957-2827,

Los Angeles Yacht Rentals,

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