Sea of Cortez Sailing
We’d heard all the stories of relentless heat: day after day of 100F temperatures coupled with high humidity, windless days followed by hellacious nighttime chubasco winds, and thunderstorms that uproot anchors with 40 plus knots of wind which can materialize with almost no warning — not to mention the occasional hurricane that meanders up the Sea beginning in late August through September and occasionally October — But we’ve also heard of the unpopulated anchorages, fantastic fishing, abundance of clams, scallops, oysters and mussels there for the hunter gatherer types of which we include ourselves.
Here are the ‘chocolates’ we gathered and feasted on.
Also appealing are the warm, clear waters, something one cannot expect in the winter months. Water temperatures range above 80F, so snorkeling excursions are never terminated because of the cold. The chubasco risk can be managed somewhat through careful anchorage selection, good ground tackle, and thunderstorm alerts by radio, given by good samaritans, usually land-based, with powerful VHF radios and good weather software programs on their computers.
The hurricane risk can also be managed, mainly by positioning yourself in the northern Sea of Cortez. The area around Bahia de los Angeles is popular with summer cruisers for two reasons: 1) not many hurricanes venture this far north 2) one of the best hurricane holes in the entire Sea of Cortez is Puerto Don Juan, just a few miles from the town of Bahia de los Angeles.
After endless 'should-we-or-shouldn’t-we’ discussions, Liz and I thought the pros outweighed the cons and decided to spend at least most of the summer with the hardy souls planning to do the same.
It was late May, and Feel Free had been in La Paz for two weeks. The water temperature in the middle of the north Sea was just beginning to rise above 70F. This fact, coupled with the increase in southerly winds, a marked contrast from the prevailing northwesterly winds of fall, winter and spring, provided the trigger for us north bound cruisers.
From La Paz, we hopped north stopping in Bahia Ballandra, Ensenada Grande and Isla San Francisco. Isla San Francisco is a favorite old haunt from past trips in the Sea. The two anchorages ensure protection from either north winds or south winds and the hiking is superb.
What will forever be etched in my memory about this anchorage though, was when our friend Albert of the boat Northern Summit killed a four foot dorado while walking along the beach. The hapless fish was cruising in very shallow water along the shoreline. Albert instinctively grabbed a nearby boulder, hurled it at the fish, stunning it long enough to scoop it up from the beach. Two hours later the delicious fish fed 10 of us.
On our departure from Isla San Francisco we were greeted by 10 knots of southerlies which gradually morphed into 25 knots of southerlies as the wind funnelled through San Jose channel. We passed anchorage after anchorage, not ready to kiss off the favorable winds. With mainsail alone we charged on at seven to eight knots, fully expecting the winds to collapse as they so often do in these waters, but not that day. We finally called a halt to the proceedings by rounding up and heading behind the lee of the southern promontory of the exquisitely surreal Bahia San Juanico.
After months with no spearfishing, we could once again find our dinner swimming close to the ship’s galley.
One of the pluses of sailing in the Sea in the winter months is the predictability of the winds. Although it sometimes blows harder than you might prefer, and a little colder than you might like, you can bet the winds will be northwest. The countless promontories along the Baja coast provide excellent protection from these “northers”. However, come spring, summer and early fall, all bets are off. Although light southerlies prevail, there isn’t that same ‘guarantee’. This unhappy fact was driven home in San Juanico. In the two nights we were there wind shifts provoked us to re-anchor three times, in three different spots in the bay, twice on the south shore and once on the north shore. As beautiful as it is we just can’t live that way so continued on north to Candelleros Bay.
This lovely, large bay offers protection from south winds which were the flavor of the day, however, most of the 20 cruising boats in this fairly remote bay were there because the resort on shore sent out a strong and free wifi signal, a glue strong enough to keep the yachts in the bay even during the periods of strong westerlies.
If we have one disappointment about the Sea of Cortez, it would have to be Puerto Escondido. This large, landlocked natural harbor lies below the majestic Sierra Giganta mountain range that makes up part of the backbone of the Baja Peninsula. Fonatur, the government-run company which developed this natural resource, dropped the ball. Thanks to their inefficient bureaucratic ways, and insensitivities to the needs of their marina customers, many cruisers are boycotting Puerto Escondido.
Not put off by the widespread complaints, Liz and I sailed into the bay to anchor, only to find a $20 fee is now charged just to drop the hook. Our 65 pound Bruce didn’t get wet in Puerto Escondido. What a shame. Hopefully the new Mexican government will speed up the attempt to privatize the numerous government run marinas throughout the country. The widespread mismanagement of the few government run marinas would be laughable if it didn’t so negatively impact the thousands of boaters in Mexico.
Fortunately, Feel Free was well provisioned so we could give Escondido a miss and cruise the nearby anchorages of Isla Carmen and Isla Coronado.
Bahia Conception, the mammoth bay on the Baja side of the Sea was a destination where we planned to hunker down for a couple of weeks. Numerous anchorages with road access to the quaint town of Mulege and the fact that Don and Nancy, good friends from Bag End, recently bought their retirement home there, were good reasons to hang there for a while.
The wind gods were particularly benevolent. The last of the 10 day stretch of southerlies switched to northerlies just as we rounded Punta Conception. They had been milked to perfection. A week of northerlies followed, with Feel Free comfortably anchored in the lee of the long white sand beach of Santispac. Sometimes you just get lucky!
So life was good, until the catfish attacked!
As is our custom, Liz and I regularly swim laps around the boat for exercise. Immediately after dropping the hook, we were happily doing our lengths. I had finished my 10 laps and was treading water when I felt something nibbling on my toes. Liz was also in the water so my immediate thought was it was Liz pinching my toes as a joke, but Liz was nowhere in sight! Yikes what’s down there? I yelled at Liz to get out of the water which she did slower than I wished and I quickly followed. She thought my semi hysteria rather amusing and jumped back in the water to finish her laps. When her heels immediately suffered the same fate, she was out of the water like a Polaris missile. From the deck, I could see the cause of the panic. 10 to 12 small catfish about 10 inches in length boldly swam up from the depths and for some unknown reason, thought they could make a meal of us.
Although catfish don’t have teeth, their mouths are lined with rasp like structures that can break the skin and draw blood, which we later learned happened to a crew on a neighboring boat.
These wannabe man eaters didn’t keep us out of the water. We continued with our daily swims and baths because we learned that they only rose from the depths to ‘attack’ when one stopped vigorously churning the water with arms and legs. When I learned this I planned my revenge.
Armed with a pole spear, I hung motionless beside our inflatable dinghy. As they rose to the bait- my feet, I carefully took aim, making a point not to shoot myself in the foot, and shot them. In total, I shot six. Remarkably, in one shot, I skewered two fish. Unlike most other fish, which scatter after one has been impaled by a spear, these cannibals seem to find delight in the misfortune of their neighbors and attack it in its final minutes of life.
That night catfish was on the menu. Revenge tasted sweet.
A far more catastrophic and strange story took place during our stay in Bahia Conception. I mentioned Don and Nancy from Bag End bought a lovely house/hacienda in one of the smaller bays, called Bahia Posada. They purchased their Posada home while their boat was anchored in La Paz some 180 miles south. The day they sailed into Conception to take possession, Feel Free was anchored four miles south of Posada. We insisted they jump in their newly acquired truck (which they’d delivered previously to their property) to have a celebratory dinner with us and new Swiss friends Marianne and Christoff, which they did.
At 10 p.m. I took Don and Nancy ashore so they could return home by truck. Thirty minutes later over coffee and brandy while in the middle of our conversation, we saw smoke and flames, lots of both, over Posada. Houses were ablaze. Don and Nancy’s first night in their new community found them in a bucket brigade, putting out a major fire.
The night was windless, otherwise all 60 homes would have been lost. Don and Nancy’s house was spared; still, it was not an auspicious beginning. The cause of the fire was an improperly installed fitting on a propane fridge.
Five days were spent with Don and Nancy and have to say that it was exciting to spend those five days with fellow cruisers, to see how they executed their ‘re-entry’ back to the land based dirt dwelling world (Don and Nancy finished their 22 year circumnavigation within weeks of Feel Free’s). Mexico is where they swallowed the hook. For years, they dreamed of a house on the water in the Sea of Cortez with their Westsail 32 on a mooring out front. Their dream has come true.
For those five days Liz and I had the privilege to be with them as they went through their house and discussed the changes they’d make- paint schemes, solar panel installations, additions, furnishings etc.; we could easily visualize ourselves in a similar mode, maybe in Mexico, maybe in Canada. One day, maybe soon, we too will be land based.
After 27 years of wandering on the water, the thought does have considerable appeal. Well, we’ll be talking about that in our soon to come final Boat US blog.