Catalina Express: Bringing the World to Catalina Island

Jet Cat Express
Jet Cat Express
The 145-foot Jet Cat Express began service in 2001. She carries 381 passengers at a cruising speed of 32 knots.

Catalina Island has long been a favorite getaway destination for Southern Californians — and indeed receives visitors from across the country and around the world.

For the majority of the last hundred years, the island has been a remote location accessible only by slow boat, seaplane or helicopter. It was difficult and expensive to visit.

But all that changed in the summer of 1981 when Doug Bombard, his son Greg and colleague Tom Rutter bought the sport fishing boat Checkmate from Washington-based Westport Shipyards and modified it into a passenger vessel to carry passengers to and from Catalina Island.

At the time, the Bombard family had operated a resort and hunting lodge in Two Harbors on the island’s west end. The family determined that they could increase the number of clients to Two Harbors by providing a faster, less expensive way to access the island from the mainland.

The Bombards and Rutter retrofitted the 56-foot Checkmate above deck to carry 60 passengers and turbocharged the diesel engines. Rechristened the Catalina Express, the modified vessel could make the run between San Pedro and Avalon in about 90 minutes.

When the Catalina Express was put into operation between the mainland town of San Pedro and Avalon on Catalina Island, visitors were no longer restricted to choosing between a two-hour boat ride on Catalina Cruises or a more expensive seaplane trip aboard the Grumman Goose amphibious planes. (When the planes were decommissioned by the FAA, options became even more limited.)

By 1982, the second year of operation, the Catalina Express was making three roundtrips a day and carrying 36,000 people to Catalina Island. The little ferry proved so popular that the company needed a second boat.

The challenge however, was that 22 miles of open ocean environment made for uncomfortable pitch and roll in a traditional vessel. The transit also crossed international shipping lanes that served one of the busiest ports in the world.

Tom Rutter, Doug Bombard, Greg Bombard
Tom Rutter, Doug Bombard and Greg Bombard came together in 1981 to found Catalina Express.

The company envisioned providing year-round service in about an hour, commuter-style, similar to airplane service.

The solution was the Avalon Express, another Westport-designed fiberglass monohull. The basic yacht design of the existing vessel was adapted to include airline-style seating for 149 passengers and a galley with cabin attendants to serve refreshments and light snacks.

A pair of turbocharged Detroit 12V71 engines provided a service speed of 22 knots, and ride control was added to the Avalon Express to make for a more comfortable ride: stabilizing fins and trim tabs reduced roll and smoothed out the passenger experience.

The bigger, faster, smoother boat was an immediate success. Visitors continued to come, and the company added two more Westport-built monohulls in 1985 and 1986.

Demand continued to grow. In 1989 Catalina Express opened a second terminal in downtown Long Beach and built its fifth monohull. The Super Express had a service speed of almost 30 knots. Even though Long Beach was further from Catalina than the San Pedro terminal, transit time aboard the Super Express was cut to just over an hour.

After an unsuccessful attempt to introduce an East Coast-built catamaran in 1990, Catalina Express went back to monohulls.

Catalina Express commissioned newbuilds from Westport Shipyards, which delivered the Catalina Express and Islander Express a week apart in 1994.

In 1997, the company made another run at a catamaran with the Cat Express, a former Alaska cruise boat built by Whidbey Island Washington-based Nichols Bros. The Cat Express proved better suited to the task than was the previous catamaran the company had tried five years earlier. In fact, the Cat Express was so successful, she has remained in the fleet for more than 25 years.

The Checkmate, rechristened Channel Express, was the first Catalina Express vessel purchased in 1981. She carried 60 passengers at a service speed of 22 knots.

The relationship with Nichols Bros also proved mutually beneficial.

After adding the Starship Express, another East Coast Cat in 1999, Catalina Express hired Nichols Bros. to build the Jet Cat Express in 2001 and added the Catalina Jet in 2004.

Built to Incat Crowther design, these new generation catamarans are big, fast and comfortable.

Four 12v 4000/70M 2335 Horsepower MTU engines power the 145-foot Jet Cat Express, which can carry 381 passengers at a cruising speed of 32 knots.

The 144-foot Catalina Jet relies on four Caterpillar 3512 C rated 2365 Horsepower engines to carry 450 passengers at a cruising speed of 33 knots.

The addition of these two boats completed the fleet at eight vessels, with the capacity to serve demand for travel to the island. Starting in 2000, the company started to carry almost 1,000,000 passengers annually to and from Catalina Island and the mainland.

With carrying capacity achieved, Catalina Express focused on modernization and efficiency.

The company has a long history of testing new technologies and adopting those that fit its service model.

Catalina Express works closely with boat builders to design vessels that ensure optimal performance in the Catalina Channel. The company was an early adopter of computer-monitored ride control-systems for vessel stability that smooth out 90% of the ocean’s roll to provide the fastest, most comfortable ride.

Airline-style cabin seating, cabin attendant service and panoramic viewing windows and on-deck seating make for a pleasant experience for visitors and commuters alike.

The company invests continuously in evolving state-of-the-art navigational equipment and radio communications systems to ensure that the trip is as safe as well as fast and comfortable.

Preventative maintenance plays a significant role in the safe and efficient operation of all seagoing vessels, and high-speed boats like those operated by Catalina Express benefit from a robust in-house engineering department that maintains the vessels to the highest Coast Guard standards. Every other year, each vessel is removed from the water to receive technical and operational upgrades, as well as attention to the aesthetics of the interior and exterior to ensure the best possible passenger experience.

Catalina Express has also continuously re-engineered the fleet as best-available-technology evolves to reduce greenhouse emissions. All vessels meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s Tier II and Tier III.

According to Port of Los Angeles measurements, Catalina Express has reduced annual NOx emissions by 80 tons, particulates by 30 tons, and greenhouse gas emission by 10,000 tons. That’s the equivalent of taking 10,000 cars off the road.

Toward the end of 2012, Catalina Express moved its San Pedro location to the building that once served as the hangar for the seaplanes that provided service to Catalina until the 1970s.  The company remodeled and expanded the hangar to enhance the passenger experience by adding more outside lounge space for passengers to relax before departing on their trip to Catalina.

The outside lounge is an asset to the San Pedro community in its own right, providing event and social space for local residents as well.

2020 was a challenging year for all in the tourism and hospitality industry. Strong community roots, a conservative management approach, and invested employees have positioned Catalina Express well to welcome passengers back to enjoy their favorite Southern California getaway.

As president and CEO Greg Bombard sums it up: “From the reservation agent to the captain and his or her crew, our goal is to offer passengers more than just a boat ride but a total travel experience. Our repeat business and increasing passenger loads through the years are proof that it works.”

Catalina Express has said that it’s excited to celebrate 40 years of service to Catalina Island and that it looks forward to another 40 years of providing fast, reliable transportation to visitors and the Catalina community.