For a half a century, and through three generations of the Connally family, Island Packers has been providing visitor service to the Channel Islands.
Inspired with a vision to share the wonders of the Channel Islands, Island Packers founder Bill Connally left his job as an engineer to provide boat excursions to the remote offshore islands.
To realize his vision, Connally bought a dilapidated World War II vintage converted navy launch and enlisted the help of his wife Lil and their four children to work on it for weekends on end. He told the kids they would be paid ten dollars a day, money they never saw. They named this first vessel Island Packer and christened it on Mother’s Day in 1968.
Early excursions were weekend outings to Anacapa Island at a cost of $7.50 per person and summer camping trips to a Polynesian style village they operated on Santa Cruz Island. They took out just a few thousand passengers each year.
In December 1969, the Island Packer sank in extremely rough seas off Anacapa Island, a loss that threatened to close down the developing business. One of the roughest patches came with a downturn in the economy in the 1990s and was coupled with the loss of Bill Connally to cancer in 1987. In these early years, they coined the winter months as poverty season due to the lack of business.
Business has been booming the past decade, due in part to the fleet of three 145 person capacity catamarans that operate out of Ventura Harbor and a 64-foot, 80-passenger vessel that runs out of Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard. The catamarans have greatly improved the comfort for passengers and speed of travel to the five islands.
In 2017, Island Packers transported 109,000 people on day, camping, and whale watch trips to Channel Islands National Park and the surrounding waters. These trips provided visitors unparalleled opportunities for whale watching, wildlife viewing, hiking, camping, kayaking, and snorkeling.
Since its inception, and to this day fifty years later, the business has been a family tradition. It is led by Mark Connally as company president and sister Cherryl Connally as treasurer and marketing director. They are joined by longstanding business partner Alex Brodie as fleet manager and 45 employees. Jason Wendell, Cherryl Connally’s son, is one of the longest serving crew, having grown up on Island Packer boats and as captain of the Vanguard since 1998.
Family matriarch Lil Connally retired last August after 49 years of managing the business bookkeeping and store. Speaking fondly of her, Cherryl Connally said, “She virtually ran the business.”
Reminiscing on the history of Island Packers, Mark Connally said, “It is gratifying to see people so excited about visiting the islands. You don’t see that in other businesses. It is most rewarding to see so many satisfied customers. On Trip Advisor we have a 99% ranking and people rave about the crew, service, and professionalism.”
Cherryl Connally reflected, “The best days of my life are working here. I am so proud to see the boats full, so many people wanting to get out to the islands and they’re happy. It touches your heart to know you are making a difference in people’s lives.”
Island Packers has made a difference in our community as well. In 2005, within hours of partner Alex Brodie coming up with the idea, they had lines out the door of people who were stranded due to the La Conchita mudslide freeway closure and needed ferry service. This past winter, they provide this vital transport between Ventura and Santa Barbara counties during the devastating Thomas Fire and Montecito mudslide.
The Connally family will share some of the company history during a 50th anniversary celebration on Friday, May 11, 2018, at the Channel Islands National Park Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center, 1901 Spinnaker Drive in the Ventura Harbor. The anniversary celebration will occur from 6:00 to 7:30 pm, and includes a display of fine art prints and special presentations. The event is free and open to the public.