When it comes to ocean tourism, Island Packers is at the forefront of the local industry. And it’s no wonder. The Connally family has been working at perfecting the business for 50 years this week, Mother’s Day in fact. From Channel Islands visits to whale watching, special events to shuttle service during natural disasters (La Conchita and Montecito) and just an overall supportive organization in the community, if one hasn’t heard of Island Packers, perhaps it’s because one is a new arrival to the area. But 50 years is a worthy milestone that few businesses actually get to celebrate, so how did it happen? This week, we walk through the last five decades of the pursuit of seafaring entrepreneurship.

The beginning: 1968-1987

Bill Connally, patriarch and founder of Island Packers, born Aug. 27, 1929, was a man with a passion for nature. While he was a full-time design engineer in Newbury Park, one of his life goals was to build a pack station in the High Sierras. When his family (wife, Lillian; sons Mark, Kirk and Brad; and daughter, Cherryl) moved to Oxnard Shores, he became focused on the Channel Islands. Kirk wrote about their first experience headed to the islands in 1966.

“On the day of the trip we loaded Jake’s 40-foot boat with several thousand pounds of food and gear, including a borrowed 12-foot rowboat and old army raft and an eight-foot dinghy,” wrote Kirk in the Island Packers’ 20th anniversary memoir. Jake was a boat owner who Bill referred to as “Jake the snake.” “Jake scowled as his boat settled deeper and deeper into the water. The seas were calm as we departed Ventura Harbor and Jake smiled as he thought of the easy $50 he was making. Unfortunately we started sinking when only 2 miles from Anacapa. Father jury-rigged a patch, but Jake was turning back anyway. We abandoned ship and, towing the old army raft full of gear, rowed the last 2 miles to the island.”

The Connally family’s two-week adventure on Anacapa was surely rugged, including a rat eating a Baby Ruth candy bar perched on Bill’s head as he slept, plus a lot of towing, rowing and hiking. But out of that, Bill “launched a scheme in his mind that was to become the Island Packer Company,” wrote Kirk.

In 1967, Bill had his eye on Verna F. a World War II vintage converted navy launch at the fledgling Ventura Harbor, “neglected, rust-streaked and her bilges full of water,” according to Kirk. Bill bought the boat for a cheap price and the entire family, including the young kids, worked hard to restore her and then launched the first ride to the Channel Islands on Mother’s Day, 1968, and officially named it Island Packer.

“She was 52 feet of gleaming white paint with her name painted in gold leaf on a flowing blue banner on either bow,” Kirk wrote. “There were four gold stars following the name — one each for the Connally kids. A golden eagle adorned the front of the wheelhouse. As 100 of our old and new-found friends arrived to watch mother break the traditional champagne bottle across her bow, the Island Packer was launched and our lives would never be the same.”

By fall 1969, Bill bought another boat, WWII vintage, Paisano, and pursued another “grand scheme” of a floating classroom, which included recruiting local educators John Prince and Les Meredith, who became deckhands/instructors on the Paisano. But the original Island Packer was not long for this world. After having broken down in December 1969 upon returning from a dive camp at Santa Cruz, the crew had to abandon ship without the necessary help to get her home.

“Through the darkness and breaking seas, the captain saw her lights go out as she slammed into the cliffs of Anacapa Island,” Kirk wrote. The engines remain to this day in a reef at the eastern part of Anacapa in about 25 feet of water. Insurance didn’t cover the loss.

Nevertheless, Bill persisted, relying on Paisano until 1975, when it was retired to a local beanfield and replaced by the Sunfish, a power monohull vessel that was originally used as a sport fishing boat for salmon. It was reconverted into a sightseeing vessel and remained a part of the Island Packers fleet for 25 years. The operations continued at Ventura Harbor with a final landing spot on the docks near the Channel Islands Visitors Center.

The legendary life of Bill Connally unexpectedly ended on Nov. 22, 1987.

“In July of 1987, Bill Connally was down in the bilges of an IPCO (Island Packers Company) boat lifting batteries. He hurt his back and had to be admitted to the veterans hospital. There he ‘gave them hell’ for a month while they did tests to determine what was wrong. Even while there, and in constant pain, he continued to give free boat rides to other patients and to talk about IPCO and the Channel Islands. Finally, however, he tired of all the tests and launched a rescue effort to get himself back to Ventura. He was wheeled into the office to say ‘hi’ to the gang on Nov. 14. On Nov. 22, 1987, he died of cancer.

“Bill Connally’s ashes are buried on a mountain peak deep in the mountains of his old stamping grounds. To go there, one would have to hike many miles, wade through chest-deep icy streams, push through thick brush and traverse perilously narrow ridges. Once there, and overlooking miles of beautiful and wild country, you would find a bronze plaque with the following inscription:”

Bill M. Connally

August 27, 1929 – November 22, 1987

Fearless Father’s Last Grand Scheme

Growing the business: 1987-2001

Though Bill was gone, the Connallys pulled strength from one another to keep the business going.

“Bill became ill very quickly with cancer and passed away unexpectedly,” said Cherryl, co-owner and office manager of Island Packers. “It was devastating to all of us and still is. We all worked the business. Lil ran the office, Mark, Kirk and Brad and myself worked the boats and the books. We had to pick up the pieces and kind of learn real quick, put our heart and soul in to keep it operating.” 

But it wasn’t a cake walk.

“When Bill passed we all had to merge together to manage the business more,” Cherryl recalled. “We didn’t know how bad it was as the business was in debt, and during rough times, there wasn’t enough funds to pay all of us. So Mark (age 33) and Lil stayed on, and Kirk (age 32), Brad (age 31) and myself (age 30) left the company. Kirk started his own nonprofit business and ran ships all over the world. Brad moved to Washington and did commercial fishing in Alaska. They both were able to help Island Packers with some of the debts by working outside of the business. I went to work for the Friends of Channel Islands National Park and then for the marketing of the Ventura Harbor Village. I helped where I could, but Mark and Lil were running the business alone.”

Over time as the company became more stable, Island Packers grew to include sailing schooners for sunset sails, half-day and all-day sailing trips, an oil crew boat and a power monohull vessel converted into a sightseeing vessel. There was also the Speed Twin, a 65-foot catamaran for whale watching; the Sundown for multitrips for students and the public; and the Vanguard, a 65-foot power monohull newly built vessel. The Vanguard continues to operate out of Oxnard Harbor for Island Packers and the captain is the third generation, Cherryl’s son, Jason Wendel. 

It was “easier for us to be found because of the Internet,” and the business started growing, Cherryl continued. “We could only afford local advertising. … In time, more areas opened for the visitor to go to the Channel Islands, including Santa Rosa and East Santa Cruz Island, Scorpion Cove.”

2001 to current: Go big!

By 2001, it was time to make a big investment.

“Fleet manager Alex Brodie had researched the New Zealand design built by All American Marine,” Cherryl wrote, noting Brodie is also a current partner in Island Packers. “The vessels are stable and efficient in operating costs, more comfortable [to] ride. The difference of the catamarans we had built is, they go to the islands in half the time, carry more passengers and can stop and pick up and drop off at several locations. The older monohull vessels made one trip, maybe two trips per day, to only one part of an island. The cats can go to two or three parts of the island in a day.”

The new catamaran, Islander, was so successful that Island Packers added two more, one in 2003, Island Adventure, and then another in 2013, Island Explorer, after Island Packers secured in 2012 the 10-year Channel Islands National Park Concession for boat transportation to the Channel Islands National Park. These three boats operating out of Ventura Harbor, and the Vanguard operating out of Channel Islands Harbor make up the fleet. The passenger count over the last 20 years has exceeded a million. The company currently has 45 employees.

With the many adventures that Island Packers offers, however, Cherryl’s fondest memories are the passengers and one special occasion.

“I served coffee and helped the passengers when not feeling well,” she wrote. “I would also raffle off a watermelon on the way home from the island with raffle tickets. For my 13th birthday, I brought my girlfriends out to Anacapa on the Island Packer. It was such a special birthday I remember so well.”

Cherryl, however, keeps things in perspective when it comes to the longevity of Island Packers.

“One of biggest reasons Island Packers has been successful is our wonderful staff we consider our family,” she said.

And so, the Island Packers looks ahead to another 50 years and many more adventures to come.

During the month of May, Island Packers will offer passengers traveling that month a chance at the “Golden Ticket.” This Grand Prize will be awarded to a lucky traveler, chosen randomly, who will win trips for four to all the Islands that Island Packers visits.                            

From May through the end of the year, Island Packers will operate a coordinated social media contest that rewards followers who post the best picture or island memory from island trips.

On select days in the fall season, Island Packers will celebrate 50 years with several $50 fare promotions.  Day trips to Santa Cruz, Anacapa and Santa Rosa Islands, as well as a “2 for $ 50” fare for Island Wildlife Cruises will be offered. Stay tuned and check their website updates for the specific dates.  

For the month of November of this year, Island Packers will offer day trip discount per adult fare for Santa Rosa Island, observing 50 years with $50 fares, up to four fares per customer.  Not valid for group reservations or any other discount.