Mexico: Cruising the Sea of Cortez

Jeez, so much has happened since we last wrote (May) that I don’t quite know where to start, so I’ll give you a basic outline of what’s been happening.

While still recovering from the repeated “rum fronts” that hit us during the La Paz Race Week activities, Ingrid and I frantically secured Moonshadow in preparation for our trip to the U.S.A., and left her in the able hands of Carlos Solis at the Marina de La Paz. We enjoyed a week of great weather, food, friends and music at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and then flew “homeÓ to San Francisco. Ingrid moved into a beautiful apartment in the Marina district with her good friend Lisa, and returned to work at IBM, and shortly after accepted an excellent new opportunity with Forte Software. She’ll be missed aboard Moonshadow and by the cruisers we’ve come to know.

I spent four weeks frantically trying to catch up with all my family and friends, track down a multitude of boat parts and other things not available in Mexico, attend to affairs such as income taxes (ugh!), and of course enjoying some of the best sailing in the world on San Francisco Bay.

When I returned to La Paz, (my favorite Mexican city so far), Moonshadow was hauled, received a fresh coat of bottom paint, was reprovisioned at the plentiful supermercado and headed north into the Sea of Cortez. I rejoined my “buddy boating” friends, Ruth and Buddy on Annapurna in Santa Rosalia for a few days before they headed off for the U.S.A.

Since then, I have been hanging out in the vicinity of Santa Rosalia, Mulege and Loreto/Puerto Escondido, in the southern Sea of Cortez.

The Sea of Cortez

The Sea of Cortez is bordered on the west by the Baja peninsula and on the East by the Mexican mainland. I like to describe it as the Grand Canyon, three-quarters full of water. It is beautifully austere, with many spectacular rock formations, and in many places, cactus growing right on down to the water. The unusually heavy rainfall in this “el nino” year has caused the desert to come to life, with the greenery and blossoms giving it an almost surrealistic appearance. With its many remote islands, plentiful fish and sea life, numerous protected anchorages, generally placid waters, cheap living and close proximity to the U.S.A., it is some of the best cruising ground in the world. Many cruisers who left home with intentions of circumnavigating never got past the Sea of Cortez, dubbing it “the Sea of Broken Dreams.”

We have our own daily live versions of the Nature Channel. From the cockpit of Moonshadow, the show begins with manta rays jumping three feet out of the water, doing belly flops and double back flips. We are often visited in the anchorage by pods of dolphins, sometimes putting on a Marine World type acrobatic show. Sometimes they even “scratch” themselves on the anchor chain. If there are bait fish about, they are usually followed in hot pursuit by dorados (mahi-mahi), flying through the air in hungry pursuit. Round about sunset, the pelicans dive bomb upon their prey, scooping up dinner with their flexible beaks. Sometimes at night, we have to turn out the lights, because they attract so many small fish that the sounds of them breaking the surface drown out the sounds on the stereo.

The Sea of Cortez has an abundance of yummy fish and other delectable items. With a minimum amount of skill, one can pretty much put a seafood entree on the table five days a week. Dragging a line while the boat is moving will sometimes get us a dorado or yellowfin tuna, both of which is excellent eating. MaiTai has developed a Pavlovian response to the boat slowing down and the fishing line being reeled in. She stands on point, on the cushion of the aft cockpit, waiting for her dinner to come on board! Snorkeling in a good habitat, we can usually find either spiny or slipper lobster. (A slipper lobster is a prehistoric looking creature that has a very high percentage of tail to body-yum yum!) Donning SCUBA gear and brandishing a spear gun or pole spear, we have taken all sorts of delectable reef fish such as grouper, cabrilla, pargo, triggerfish, hawkfish and grunt. Some of the beaches have clam beds full of pismos, steamers and the tastiest and most plentiful, chocolatas. The name comes from the beautiful brown variegated brown stripes on the shell. Twenty minutes work in the water will usually net enough for a bucket of steamed clams or a batch of clam chowder. We have even eaten the fruit of some of the cactus after a good rain.

There’s only one word to describe summer in the Sea of Cortez-HOT! Sometimes it’s clear and hot. Sometimes it’s rainy and hot. Sometimes its dry and hot, humid and hot, windy and hot, still and hot, but it is always hot. Daytime temperatures range from 95 to 110 degrees. You don’t have to think about drinking eight glasses of water a day. One learns to slow down-even typing too fast can cause you to break out in a drenching sweat. To cool off, you have to get in the water, and it is warm too, usually about 90 degrees at the surface. Once you’re 20 or 30 feet below the surface, it gets nice and cool, so SCUBA diving is the call. MaiTai, cursed with her permanent black fur coat and no desire to go swimming, is generally comatose most of the daylight hours. By the time you get a sack of ice cubes back to the boat, it’s half melted, so you put it into the freezer and it turns into “block ice.”

The Sea is plagued with “ghosterlies,” winds of little velocity, from no particular direction. Occasionally, there is a Santa Ana type of wind storm, that comes up very suddenly at night, with winds of up to 50 knots lasting for a few hours. Then there are the dreaded “Chubascos.” These little buggers are intense thunderstorms that come up very suddenly, and can pack winds of up to 80 knots, thunder, lightning and torrential rains for an hour or so. They play havoc with anchor holding, awnings, dinghies and any loose items that may be left on deck. A direct lightning strike can make toast of your electronics, knock you on your ass and scare the shit out of you. And yes, we are at the top of the tropical “hurricane belt.” Most of them start in southern Mexico and head west out into the Pacific, dissipating before reaching any land forms. Every once in a while, one makes a big U-turn and comes back over the Baja peninsula. We cruisers listen regularly to the ham radio weather broadcasts, and we watch the paths of tropical disturbances like Russians watching the Mir space station. Although it is generally very relaxed cruising here, one must always be aware and prepared for the worst.

The SCUBA diving has been good to excellent all summer. Most of the islands have numerous dive sites to explore, and with caves, pinnacles and sheer rock walls, the underwater terrain is always interesting. Although there is no coral reef, there is an abundance of beautiful tropical fish, eels, turtles, manta rays, nudibranchs, sea fans and even sea lions at some locations.

While cruising in the Sea, my main provisioning point has been in Loreto. Loreto is a quiet little fishing village that is the site of the first of the California missions, which was founded 300 years ago this October. Provisioning here is like trying to do your grocery shopping at a 7-11 in East Jesus. The selection is sparse and when they run out of something (like butter), it could take weeks to get restocked. A huge thanks to all my visiting friends who schlepped much needed parts and provisions down with them from the U.S.A.

The Sea of Cortez vs. the Mainland Coast

Here one swaps storm covers for wind scoops, foul weather gear for SCUBA gear and at night, wool blankets for cabin fans. The Mainland has nice marinas, the Sea, gorgeous anchorages. The Mainland has fuel docks, while in the Sea you “jerry jug” or siphon diesel out of 55 gallon drums from the back of a pickup truck on a dock. There are fewer tourists and more travelers. Instead of tracking the stock market, I track hurricanes. We prefer to listen to Baja Sessions instead of the Macarena. The most one usually wears is a bathing suit, and usually less, as the daytime temperatures are usually near 100 degrees. In the Sea we eat out once a week, on the Mainland we ate in once a week.

Things We Want to Remember

Being able to hang out on my last boat, Player, in Sausalito, thanks to owners Alson and Keith, during my visit home. Hanging out in La Paz with my cruising pal Eric on Chicadee, and running into a spontaneous jam session at 2:00 a.m. on the Malecon (boardwalk) with two Mexicans and one Gringo, Lee, playing guitar and half a dozen people singing along. Many lunches and dinners at Tacos Mario, the best taco stand in La Paz, and the only one with an outside sales force. Getting the coldest Pacifico “Ballenas” (quarts of cerveza) wrapped in insulating newspaper, at the deposito (liquor store) a block from Tacos Mario. The best hamburgers in Mexico, at a little stand only a block from the Marina de La Paz, for about $1.00 each. The summer solstice and full moon occurring on the same day while anchored at Bahia Ballandra near Loreto. This resulted in a simultaneous sunrise/moonset and sunset/moonrise that day. Living in 2 swimsuits and a t-shirt for a week, and the t-shirt was still clean. Exploring the “commodious caves” on Isla San Marcos with Diana and Tom on Sweet Dreams and Ruth and Buddy on Annapurna. The verrry fruitful lobster hunt with Mike and Neil from Tortue. Dorado and yellowfin tuna jerkey made according to Ted Gimble’s yummy recipe. Standing on the bow, seeing your anchor well set in 30+ feet of water. Getting boat parts in Mexico, freight and duty free, from Downwind Marine in San Diego, who will put your order in private cars driving down to Santa Rosalia, Loreto and La Paz. Spearing a lobster under a rock at Isla Carmen, and having to fight for it against a huge moray eel. Watching a meteor shower from under the clear Baja sky. All of the friendly, helpful and fun locals in La Paz. The incredible support and camaraderie as the cruisers pulled together in Puerto Escondido after the fleet was hammered by a waterspout and Chubasco. Some of the incredible food shared at pot lucks while anchored out at “the islands.Ó Having the time to read all of those books I’ve been wanting to read for years, and being able to nod off and catch a few z’s in the afternoon.

Things We Want to Forget

Being pinched for “mordida” (bribes) by the immigration officer at Loreto. Being constantly badgered and splashed by the young boys playing around the dinghy dock in Loreto. The four-foot swell that came up in the middle of the night while anchored off of Mulege, rolling Moonshadow 15 degrees side to side all night, everything clanking and banging, ruining our night’s sleep. Being awakened at 2:00 a.m. during a sudden gale, by squid fishermen in a panga (local fishing boat), who wanted to tie up to us. Not thinking clearly, I let them, and ended up with black squid ink all over the boat the next day. Taking a direct hit by a waterspout (sort of a waterborne tornado) that preceded the big Chubasco that hit Puerto Escondido. The winds, estimated at 80 knots, spun Moonshadow around and heeled her 45 degrees (no sails) and then flipped the dingy, which was tied to the stern. Learning how to repair an outboard motor that has been flooded by salt water. Spending hour after sweaty hour with Mike from Tortue trying to repair one of the air conditioners, to no avail. Having the transmission coupling fail at Caleta Partida, and having to make our way back to the marina in La Paz without the engine.



The cruiser’s motto is We have no plans and are stickin’ to ‘em! My intentions this point are to be in the Sea of Cortez till late October and then head to Mazatlan, with a farewell stop in La Paz. November through January will be spent cruising the “Gold Coast,” from Puerto Vallarta to Puerto Escondido on the mainland of Mexico. February and March will be split between Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and the Galapagos Islands. If the “el nino” weather pattern doesn’t interfere too much, we should be making the passage to the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific early in April of ‘98.

This entry was posted in All Cruising Logs, Mexico Logs. Bookmark the permalink.