La Paz, Costa Baja Marina
The Sea of Cortez
On Christmas Eve we set out from San Jose del Cabo north for Ensenada de los Muertos. We made an early start to arrive at the fuel dock when it opened at 6am and landed there just as the fishermen started rolling out for the day. Several small boats buzzed in around us, quickly taking on fuel and then setting out. Making our way out to the sea from the inner basin we passed a crowd of various sized charter boats buying bait off fishermen in pangas. They had formed a line across the channel and were hoisting nets of small fish across the boats, we fell into line behind a large fishing boat and slowly made our way out. I was focused on the pangas, day boats, a couple large motor yachts all moving slowing and gracefully around each other in the narrow passage, trying to keep to the dredged part of the channel and avoiding the rocks to starboard. Glancing up I watched as the ridiculously out of scale National Geographic cruise ship “Sea Bird” made her way into the cove. The rest of the vessels seemed like toys, and it was a wonder there was draft enough for the “Bird”. She moved in gracefully, seeming to nod down at the rest of us as she went by. The fishermen scattered to the edges, I did my best to drift from the center of the channel as we skimmed past each other.
The waters of the Sea of Cortez were settled and we had a generous sky as we made our way north. We never saw more than a few knots of wind and were forced to motor 14 hours. We arrived after dark feeling our way into the bay with chart plotter and radar. The shore and other boats always feel closer in the dark, the lights on masts easily confused with those on the shore. Radar helps - the shore becomes a blobby red line and the other boats in the bay become undulating red blobs that wink in and out with the waves. There were many boats already at anchor when we arrived and with our natural caution when approaching a new bay we anchored far from the shore. On sunrise the following morning it was clear that we were on the verge of ridiculously distant from the shore, but given that the bay shoals quite a way and that there were many boats bobbing it felt right.
Ensenada de los Muertos was a beautiful place to spend Christmas Eve. After putting Tumbleweed to bed and getting the boat sorted I made a dinner of Douglas’ favorite eggplant parmesan. We listened to an old podcast of Terry Gross interviewing Leonard Cohen. Cohen singing “You Want It Darker” is probably not everyone’s go to Christmas carol but I found it beautiful and resonant. “ A million candles burning for the help that never came”…..indeed.
In the light of Christmas Day the bay showed itself to be beautiful in the particular way of all remote, barren places of the desert. A small restaurant at the north end of the bay, a concrete ramp for fishermen to run their pangas into the sea, south a cluster of sharp looking buildings that make up a small hotel and vacation homes. The space between them and out to the distant horizon was desolate. Cactus, sand, a scraggle of fence, in the far distance to the south we could make out the handful of lights of a distant village, to the north on a bluff overlooking the sea scattered a few vacation homes that lit up for a couple hours each night at sunset but dimmed quickly.
The week we spent at anchor there was a welcome shift from our time in San Jose del Cabo. Winds picked up each morning and Tumbleweed bobbed in the waves, the wind generator howling and threatening to lift off but producing loads of power - 10 amps at times. At night the winds usually died and we would lie beam to, rolling back and forth in the waves. The first couple of nights it was just too much and we slept little. Rolling back and forth in our berth, contents in lockers sliding from one side to the other, us roaming about packing cloths, towels, books here and there to quiet Tumbleweed. We made it to shore several of the days, and several of the days the winds and seas were just too much for our little dinghy and we stayed aboard. We met a cheerful family from Santa Barbara who knew Ken Minor and of “Morning Song”, we shared a couple meals ashore and Douglas set up a VHF game of riddles with the girls. It’s continues to surprise me how we meet people and strike up conversations and connections that can range over sailing, politics, books, technology, home ports, etc in such compact amounts of time. We enjoyed their company very much and were sorry to head north when the weather cleared.
One of the rules of sailing in the Sea of Cortez at this time of year is to travel when the weather opens up, hunker down when the northers blow and enjoy where you are for as long as a cycle takes. When the weather opened up on New Year’s eve it appeared that the door would be held open for only a couple days before closing with another strong cycle of heavy winds and their attendant uncomfortable seas. Espiritu Santo beckoned, a national park with many bays and coves, clear waters, and a stunning landscape.
When we had anchored on Christmas Eve, Douglas noticed that our infamous gypsy had broken once again. This time at the tack welds. This saga is woven through pretty much every post since May of 2016 so I won’t go into the details. But given that this was the third gypsy we’d installed with much drama and hassle over the past year, it was quite the capper to the year. Douglas managed to align the gypsy and tighten the brake enough to keep it working to haul up our chain. His Christmas present to me was not telling me it had broken until a couple days after Christmas...
New Year’s eve we had a beautiful sail to Espiritu Santo. Light winds, a flat sea, making an average 5 knots. The landscape along the coast was mesmerizing, red earth, the occasional mound that looked to be from a long dormant volcano. We passed Jacques Cousteau island, saw the occasional distant boat, passed too close for comfort several fishing nets. Large plastic buoys marked the ends of massive nets just left to hang in the sea, capturing whatever passed their way, thankfully not us.
We made Playa Bonanza on Espiritu Santo late in the afternoon, with plenty of time to take in the large bay and the 11 other vessels including a couple super yachts. From a distance there are no signs of manmade structures, the interior is barren and covered with cactus and the occasional shrub. After an early morning start and a day on the water we didn’t last until midnight but had a good send off to the old year. Over the next few days the most of the other boats left and we re-anchored closer to shore and tucked up into the north end of the cove. The shallower and more protected waters let us get a better night’s sleep and kept Tumbleweed more stable during the day. The beach is covered in shells most ground to small pieces, but also a beautiful assortment of various cones, scallops, whelks, in a wide range of pastels. We spent hours walking the beach fascinated by the remains of puffer fish, bones of birds, shells, bits of coral. The action of the waves sorting out the elements by size so that some parts of the beach were covered in large shells and other parts were covered in small broken pieces worn smooth by the waves.
On the first of the year I glanced over the side and noticed the water was so clear I could see our anchor and anchor chain in the pristine white sand. I spotted a school of over 65 sting rays that hovered near our bow, drifting with the current, splitting apart for a few moments, than reforming to hang in the sea, casting shadows to the sand below. It was a magic welcome to the island and the new year.
Most days we were able to make our way to the shore and explore the beach, or the small cove just to the north. But as with Ensenada de los Muertos we had many days where the winds were just too strong to make it to shore with our dinghy. If the outboard had conked out I don’t think we would have been able to row our way against the waves and wind. Most days were glorious there, the light sharp and clear, the sunset behind the island each night washed the sky with various shades of orange, the distant mainland usually settling back, outlined with a wash of pale blue that darkened with each receding mountain range.
Soon enough the call of civilization got the better of us and we made our way to La Paz. We’ve been here a couple of weeks and have been enjoying the town and marina. Our friends on Essencia and Sherpa are at the same marina. Our friends on Pino are at a marina in town. There’s a shuttle that runs between the marina and town many times a day. The marina, Costa Baja, is essentially a gated community a couple of miles out of town. Traveling between the two is like leaving a neighborhood in Phoenix and being beamed into Mexico. There is a golf course, several good restaurants, a hotel and the beginnings of a community of high-end vacation homes. The few houses on the hillside overlooking the marina wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of Dwell. The marina was blasted out of the desert, the rock and debris from the inner marina used to create the outer breakwater. It is an impressive achievement. The staff is friendly and the place is very well managed. It is what our friend Kim refers to as “the gilded cage”, and I’d have to second that. Although the islands and remote anchorages call, the marina whispers “infinity pool, Japanese food, laundry service”.
It has been a good city to explore. There is an excellent farmer’s market twice a week, the core of downtown has a central square with trees providing shade over a several benches, narrow winding streets , good food is plentiful, people are really friendly, and although a bit rough around the edges, it’s a pleasant city. Families stroll the malecon as the sun sets, and the city shows another side of its personality. Late in the evening cafes and clubs begin to bustle.
There are various services for the boating community. We were able to find a machinist to re-weld our broken gypsy, he did an excellent job of welding the halves back together and milling it all back to spec. There are also several chandleries around town and other basic boating services. And there are those massive grocery stores. A good place to restock and deal with repairs.
Our ever evolving plan is to head north next week when we get a weather window and spend a few weeks exploring the islands between here and perhaps Loreto, though I don’t think we’ll get that far north. We’ll head back to La Paz in late February and sort out our trip to the South Pacific. We have been spending part of our time in La Paz doing research and trying to get our minds around sailing all the way to the Marquesas. Much to do to get ready but we are both excited to make the long crossing and begin working our way westward.