Douglas and I are in San Jose del Cabo, watching for a weather window to sail north into the Sea of Cortez, and attempting to process the latest stage in our adventure. In the past few days we crossed the Tropic of Cancer, and are now officially in the tropics, we have rounded the Cape at San Lucas and are beginning to edge into the Gulf of California. It is humbling to think that in May we left our little group of friends and snug harbor in Port Townsend, made our way along the inside passage of Vancouver Island, rounded Cape Scott on a glorious morning and have since sailed the west coast of Vancouver Island, the west coast of the United States, and now have completed sailing the west coast of the Baja Peninsula. We are here at a place that we sketched out in conversations, building a picture in our minds of what it would be like to arrive in the Sea of Cortez, how inadequate our powers of imagination compared to the reality of now.
Below are a few journal entries and notes on our trip south from Ensenada.
The black stains of lost cuttlefish tattoo our deck, salt has dried in large flakes across all surfaces exposed to the sea, Tumbleweed has returned to peacefully rocking us in the swell of the bay. My hands are sore from hanging on to the stern arch or gripping the railing around the dodger, after a deep sleep last night I am still weary and taking great pleasure in sitting at the table in the salon, drinking coffee and having toast for breakfast.
Since leaving Ensenada on December 2nd we have had a good adventure at sea. We left Cruiseport marina under blue skies and with only a few knots of wind. As we motored out past the Islas Todos Santos the wind picked up and we were able to set sail in 10-14 knots of breeze. We had an excellent afternoon of sailing, averaging over six knots boat speed for much of the day. Late in the afternoon the winds began to build and we reduced sail, putting in two reefs in the mainsail and furling in two reefs in the genoa for the night. Tumbleweed continued to romp along through the night, at times surfing over 8 knots, but mostly ranging from close to six knots to around seven. The seas were mostly organized along a shared wave train that worked against us for the first part of the evening. As we've experienced before, if we are sailing at an angle that puts us with even a slight beam to the waves and at odds to the wind direction the ride is pretty uncomfortable. Tumbleweed drops off the waves and rolls back and forth. It is a noisy, jarring ride.
Our first night out was clear and the stars and milky way were mesmerizing. I would spend my hours on watch looking at the sky, watching the sliver of moon as it traced the sky for a few hours, leaving us well before midnight, the sky and seas diminished without their counterpart the moon lighting the way.
The weather and seas held the first two nights at sea, we sailed with strong winds - mostly in the mid-20's with gusts into the 30's, and seas that began steep with short intervals to longer rolling swells as the winds began to ease. Sometime in the second day we gibed over back toward land and we were much more comfortable. The winds aligned with the swell and we kept a course fairly direct to Bahia Tortuga.
There is a fair amount of shipping and cruise ship traffic running along the coast here and a few pleasure boats, not many commercial fishing vessels. We saw a few sport fishing yachts but only a couple commercial boats. Nor did we see much wildlife at sea. No whales, only one pod of dolphins near Ensenada. No late night visits from dolphins playing in our wake, or whales spouting in the distance.
Our friends Devine and Rekka aboard Pino left Ensenada a few hours after us and hailed us on our third day at sea. We were all facing the same problem of closing on Bahia Tortuga after dark. We did not want to enter the bay after dark, it being an unknown anchorage with a passage through an area lined with reefs and kelp, with reports of many lobster pot floats in the entry and throughout the bay. We discussed our plans to slow our way south so as to arrive in daylight. We intended to keep offshore, reduce sail as much as possible and head back for the bay sometime in the early morning hours.
After midnight the winds dropped to a couple of knots and the seas calmed. We were rolling back and forth and began making our way slowly back toward land. With all sails down we were "sailing" under bare poles, still making 1-2 knots, barely enough to maintain steerage. But we could just keep our bow pointed where we wanted to go and rolled along pretty comfortably until a bit before dawn and only a few miles from the bay when we fired up the engine and motored in the remaining hour or so.
It was an awe inspiring sight to see the sun lift over Bahia Tortuga. The bay is a vast body of water, backed by desert, with a small, gaily colored village tucked up neatly along the northern curve. There were a few boats anchored near the village and a couple out further in the bay. We saw Pino and anchored a few hundred feet from them. The sun was beginning to climb and in the cloudless morning the heat rose with as well.
We made quick work of anchoring in 26 feet. Off went the layers of black sailing gear, boots, gloves, heavy coats. Soon we were in shorts putting Tumbleweed to bed, covering sails, tidying lines, straightening out the cabin. While putting away the mainsail Douglas discovered a cuttlefish had somehow found its way up into the fold of our reefed mainsail. We now have a black silhouette of a small cuttlefish stenciled on the sail.
As the afternoon began to fade and the bay became orange with the setting sun, a small fishing boat began to work its nets near us. With a crew of a about 6, they had run out a large net and were pulling it back aboard with the aid of a couple small pangas. We waved and shouted greetings back and forth, the fishermen waving a small fish our way and telling us they were fishing for Sardines. Dolphins and seals frolicked around the boat, a polite line of pelicans bobbed nearby, gulls circled the air above. It was a timeless vision. Easy to imagine Steinbeck pulling into this bay and witnessing a scene not much changed.
After putting Tumblweed back in order we had tacos for lunch with some of the excellent tortillas from a small tortillaria we visited in Ensenada, with a frosty beer. Then we slept deeply for a couple of hours. Last night we managed to stay awake until 9pm but crashed hard and were out until early this morning.
We were up at 8:30 finished breakfast when Devine and Rekka set sail. The motored by us slowly, getting video of us in our pajamas as we waved back and forth wishing each other safe sailing, and looking forward to seeing each other in La Paz. We are sorry to see them go, it was nice to be at sea knowing we had friends going through the same adventures.
Bahia Santa Maria
Anchored about a quarter mile from shore in 24 feet. The sound of surf is a gentle wash in the background. Last night we had a near full moon and a band of coyotes called out from the shore as the sun set. We watched through binoculars as they searched the waterline, sniffing at the wash of sea that rolled onto the beach. Two ranged east and a third wandered west. We watched them until the light faded and we could barely make out their silhouettes against the backing dunes.
We have been here two nights after sailing from Bahia Tortuga. We were exhausted on arrival, after putting Tumbleweed to bed and doing a little cleaning we had a light dinner and fell into a deep black hole of sleep. Yesterday we lazed about the boat, the sun is warm here, pleasant, with a light breeze. We had considered going ashore but the wind picked up in the afternoon and it would have been unpleasant trying to get ashore, if even possible. We are planning on going ashore today, if the winds are favorable. The beach is tantalizing - miles of long, light sand with high dunes in the background, rolling off to the horizon.
The bay is quiet, wild, raw, remote. There is a small cluster of buildings on the spur of mount San Lazaro, at night a couple of the buildings have faint lights, but otherwise there is no sign of population. There are three fishing boats in the bay - large trawlers - that go to work when the sun sets.
It feels good to be at anchor in such a remote place. I realized that since we left Vancouver island in August we have been staying at marinas with the exception of a few nights when we anchored in the channel islands. Otherwise, it has been a long stretch of marinas and cities and towns. Here we have pelicans, coyotes, a couple of seals, and Magnificent Frigatebirds. The Frigatebirds were a gorgeous sight to see, gliding about with sharply angled wings and long pointed tail feathers, they looked like a Matisse cutout against the blue cloudless sky. Lovely sight.
Punta Belcher, Bahia Magdalena
We had quite an afternoon. We left Bahia Santa Maria around 2:30 heading for Bahia Magdelana. As we sailed out of the bay the winds piped up a bit and with all sails set we changed out plans - we were going to sail for Cabo San Lucas. The seas were calm and the winds seemed solid, so we thought we'd just charge on ahead. After a couple hours, the winds died completely - about a knot of wind just puffing around. Back to plan A - as we approached the entrance to the bay the sun set and there was an hour between sunset and the moonrise, so we motored slowly, using binoculars to watch for lobster pot floats. Then the moon rose - like a massive street light flipped on. We could clearly see the whole bay. We motored across water as calm as a pond and dropped anchor around 8pm. We are well set with the anchor and will figure out a plan in the morning. This is a massive bay - around 80 square miles - so we might hang out here until the winds build from the north so we can sail to San Jose del Cabo.
This bay is so different already from the one we left. There are lights along the shore and many boats out fishing and zipping about, even late at night. At Bahia Santa Maria, there was little activity and some days, none. Usually the fishermen anchored during the day then set out for fishing as the sun set - trolling the waters slowly all night.
Today we had several whales surface near us, and watched many dolphins in the bay diving for fish. The coast line here is beautiful - very austere, rocky, with no sign of vegetation. It was a powerful image to see the sun set and rake across the mountains.
We left Bahia Santa Marie mid-day yesterday hoping to catch the afternoon winds for the 15 mile or so trip south to Bahia Magdalena. By the time we had hauled up anchor, made our way to the mouth of the bay, found a bit of wind and hoisted sails we began to realize that our goal was too distant for the afternoon and we'd be arriving after dark. We aren't fans of arriving at a new anchorage in the dark and after a bit of thinking it over deciding that given the good conditions, and near full moon, we'd instead head offshore and make our way to San Jose del Cabo. That thought lasted a couple hours, then the winds died and we were sitting a few miles offshore with the prospect of spending the evening rolling in the swell within sight of land. We reviewed the charts, considered the weather and that the moon would be a ninety-nine percenter, that the bay is massive and the anchorage pretty straightforward, and bounced back to our original plan. Which of course made sense all along.
We ghosted along under sail until the winds dropped to two knots and then switched to engine. As we neared the mouth of the bay the sun set and we spent an hour in darkness, idling along at slow speed, waiting for the moon to rise. The moon rose over the bay as a fiery orange and red mass, distorted as it broke free of the horizon. Soon we had a full moon lighting the way, the bay was clearly lit up, and we could see a couple dozen small motor boats, pangas, out fishing. The tidal current into the bay was running pretty swift - we were getting a bit over 2 knots, perhaps up to 3, of current speed. With the engine idling we were seeing speeds over 7 knots as we came into the bay and made for our anchorage.
Bahia Magdalena is about 80 square miles, a massive bay, that wraps around to a small opening to the sea. Once inside the distant eastern shore is a small sliver of tan with a miniature smokestack puffing away. We anchored off Punta Belcher with a few fishing pangas zipping about but otherwise left to ourselves. In the morning we'd find that an abandoned pier and ramshackle cluster of shacks lined the shore but last night it was all silhouette of a gentle shouldered ridgeline backed by a clear night of stars.
The anchor was set a bit after 7 and we quickly put Tumbleweed to bed and went about prepping dinner. Today we set out more detailed plans for our trip south and organized Tumbleweed for passage. We also took apart the mechanism to engage our autopilot - it had been sticking and we were at the point of no longer using it, after taking it apart we saw that there was heavy corrosion around some of the threads and soon had it all sorted out and reassembled. It will be good to have the auto helm up and running if we have to motor on the trip south.
Short term forecast is for light winds over the next couple of days followed by a few days of very little winds. We are going to take our chances with light winds tomorrow and head out mid day, trying to catch some afternoon winds to get off shore, and make for San Jose del Cabo. We'll check into the marina there for a couple nights, stock up on produce, refuel and head north for La Paz with a few stops at some beautiful anchorages in the Sea of Cortez.
San Jose del Cabo
The seas threw a bit of everything our way on the sail from Magdalena bay. We had a couple of days of light winds that kept us rolling with sails banging for much of it. We went through pretty much every sail combination on the way south looking for a fast and comfortable mix. Full sails; gennaker; poled out genoa; furled genoa with reefed main. Hours of great sailing, mixed with hours of uncomfortable wallowing with the genoa filling as we surfed along until we rode over a large wave, stalled a bit and were back winded enough to through us off course for a moment, the large genoa collapsing and banging around. We would have been better served to set the whisker pole with the genoa and did use it during the day a bit, but it kind of narrows our options for night sailing so we stow it away in the late afternoon.
There is a vast difference between being on watch, on deck, watching the horizon tilt and roll away with each wave, the sound of the waves rushing by, wind across the sails, all so beautiful and often powerful. Compared to life below deck, without the horizon in sight - even if peripherally - the world is just so much more chaotic and unorganized. The immediate sounds in the cabin are of objects sliding around in the lockers, halyards in the mast that bang back and forth. If the sails pop, or the boom catches on the main sheet, the sound above is normal and part of the whole, but below it can reverberate and sound like something awful is happening, that the world is above is out of control. When we have had light winds and the sails tend to backwind and slap, there is a light flutter to the sails that sends out a message, if below deck I tense up, wait for the sounds to slap - will it pass with a light flutter, or will the sail back fully- hang for a moment - and fill, slapping out with the crack of a shot?
When the winds and seas line up, downwind sailing can be a as good as it gets, and we had plenty of solid hours of great sailing after leaving Magdalena bay. The two nights we spent at sea were pretty uncomfortable, I don’t think either of us got more than an hour or two of sleep over the two nights. Tumbleweed would bash along, dropping off the backside of waves, shudder, pick up speed, cruise along for a bit, then repeat. But the two nights at sea were beautiful, the moon was waning, a few nights from full, and when it rose the water would shimmer with patches of silver and white foam. The moon became a presence we acknowledged and looked forward to seeing. The night sky the first night was really clear and we spent hours in the cockpit trying to pick out constellations.
Rounding Cabo Falso in the early morning hours the winds were very light and we were forced to motor for a couple of hours. Dropping the genoa we left up the main for stability and rolled along. Just before sunrise the winds picked up and we ran into steep waves that had been built up in the Sea of Cortez. We had quite the rude welcome to the waters of the sea. Strong winds, solidly in the mid-20kts directly on the nose, and short, sharp seas. We sailed with a double reefed genoa and a single reef in the main, taking a long port tack in the direction of the mainland for a couple of hours - the starboard tack toward the baja peninsula was at that point untenable. So we crashed along at 6 knots or so, moving steadily away from the comfort of the marina. Once we felt we had made a decent distance from the cape we tacked back and worked our way back toward the coast and a little closer toward San Jose del Cabo. A few shorter tacks after that the winds dropped to a couple knots, the seas calmed to the point of looking like a pond on asummer afternoon. We motored the last few miles in to the marina, noting that the early morning chaos was already feeling like a distant, thrilling dream.
The marina here is well run and mostly home to large, expensive motor yachts. There is a small section in the marina for sailboats and we lucked into the end tie on the dock, usually reserved for catamarans. One of the staff told us this was the first time the marina has been completely booked. It is a combination of one of the nicest marinas we’ve been in, and also weirdly rough around the edges. I think the Four Season’s resort have some involvement - they have residences down the road - but a group has put a fortune into building this place. Lining the path from our dock to the office are beautiful and strange bronze statues with some mythological bent. Staff is excellent, and at the completed docks where the large yachts are, I believe they are on desalinated water, with a secure gate and staff at the head of each dock. We are on the other side of the marina, no gate, no electricity and the water is untreated. But - we have crazy wifi access - 6Mbps up and 6Mbps down - which is kinda nuts. The immediate grounds are lush and nicely landscaped with cactus and many bushes in full bloom. But off the main track it’s pretty raw.
The norther that greeted us as we sailed in continues to howl and the forecast is for strongwinds the next few days. We’ll hang out here until we get a weather window and then head north, hoping to anchor at Los Frailles, and Los Muertos, and Isla Espiritu Santu before getting to La Paz and catching up with our friends there.