Sailing the L.A. Coast

A day on the Pacific Ocean by Santa Monica reveals a wonder of sights and sensations.

Text by Paul Feinstein
Images by AJ Feducia and Anna Harmon

The sprawling city of Los Angeles is known for many things: the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown, the sun-soaked beaches of the West Side, and the enticing array of world-class dining. Less often conjured, however, is the serenity of its stunning coastline.

Understandably, sailing aficionados lust over the dazzling inlets of Positano, the vintage marine docks of Monaco, or the classic beauty of the Greek Isles, and why not? But eschewing the white-sand beaches, surf-worthy waves, and variety of marine life in L.A. would be a mistake for anyone looking for an all-day jaunt in the Pacific.

When planning a storybook sailing trip off the sunny California coast, there is a bevy of options. You can make a multi-day excursion to the Channel Islands to spy unique flora and fauna and dock to hike among the beaches and cliffs. You could also overnight it to Catalina Island, which was once frequented by classic Hollywood celebrities like Clark Gable, James Cagney, and Charlie Chaplin.

The perfect L.A. sailing story, however, can be one “Long Day’s Journey into Night”—though unlike the tragedy of Eugene O’Neill’s play, this adventure will have a happy ending. Such a trip will likely begin in Marina del Rey, where clusters of colossal yachts and shining schooners await in the lapping waves and blinding morning sun. Entering the Santa Monica Bay with the arrival of daylight, you can catch sight of playful dolphins and voracious sea lions hunting for their breakfasts. Looking to the shore will reveal shadows cast by beachfront properties and the looming Santa Monica Mountains.

Meandering up the coast towards Venice Beach will reveal the famous boardwalk, with skaters arriving at the beach’s concrete bowls, gym rats pumping iron on Muscle Beach, and early morning basketball games. Venturing north, the glittering sand of Santa Monica beach is the next to come into view, as well as the landmark Santa Monica Pier, where tourists come to ride the solar-powered Ferris wheel and imagine a time when the famed Route 66 ended with the promise of the Pacific.

Further up the coast are the hilly confines of Malibu. Here you’ll get reacquainted with your sea lion companions basking in warm, sunny rays, this time in front of multimillion-dollar mansions and majestic seaside cliffs. If you’re adventurous (and don’t mind cold water), you can don a wetsuit and snorkel or dive in the Malibu kelp forests alongside curious harbor seals, California king crabs, and squat lobsters. This is also prime territory to reel in some giant sea bass for dinner.

Whale watchers will also find a lot to love, as groups of gray, humpback, minke, fin, and even killer whales have been known to migrate off the shores of Malibu and beyond. The best whale spotting typically runs from December to May, but don’t be surprised if you see one of these majestic creatures any time of year.

As you circle back south, the setting sun will cast the coastline of L.A. in its best light. Rolling hills, massive mansions, beachside bistros, and sandy strips come into view as you sit back and enjoy the quiet of the ocean. The final chapter of your odyssey could include grilling the day’s catch and popping bottles of champagne, or simply soaking in the sight of celestial bodies filling the night sky, shining companions of the lights of the city.

Arriving back at the docks, furled sails are like curtains that have closed on a unique vantage point to L.A. As you look back onto the Pacific, the wind in your hair, you’ll relish the moments it seemed you had the whole ocean to yourself.