Back to the Sea of Cortez


By Liz Tosoni

We are back in the Sea of Cortez again, having completed our circumnavigation of the big wide world and in a way, visiting these anchorages and islands we know from previous visits feels like coming home. The main town of La Paz is surprisingly, much like it was back then (13 years ago when we left from Cabo San Lucas with Feel Free), real Mexico, but cleaner now, with a fine new board walk. It’s a city of 215,000 people, yet almost everyone you pass on the street says "buenos dias" or "buenas tardes". It’s as if they are saying "Welcome back!" A big city with a small town feeling.

We love it here, all over again, and how could we not? It has everything we look for in top of the line cruising grounds: breathtaking scenery, wilderness sailing, countless protected coves and bays, great fishing, hiking and snorkeling, amazing rock formations and beaches, abundant wildlife, friendly locals and cruisers, and enough towns with supermarkets to keep the larders full. This place is very hard to beat in so many respects.

There is a sensation of being bathed in the light and color, of being gently buoyed up by the breeze and the luminescence of the water. The hues of the desert landscapes, skies and the seas, always strike you- the shimmering silvery waters below, the vast, intense, blue heavens; sometimes, the slender, sleek zinc of clouds, above, and between the two, the august peaks and silent canyons in ordered layers, burnt sienna, bronze, ocher, blue tinted grey, depending on the time of day or weather brewing.

16th Century Spanish explorers who first arrived in these parts thought Baja California to be an island rather than a peninsula and depicted it as such in the first maps. Today, we know that it’s the fourth longest peninsula in the world (about 800 miles) after Kamchatka, Malay and Antarctic, that’s a little longer than Italy or twice as long as Florida.

We also know that before plate tectonics caused separation, the entire length of Baja was attached to the mainland, 2/3 of it lay beneath the ocean, and the hydrosaur, mammoth, bison and camel roamed the region. The Sea of Cortez itself became a stable feature some five million years ago. A very long time to us but in the real scheme of things, not so long. The islands in the Sea, 25 of them named, comprise one of the most ecologically intact archipelagos in the world.

Scripp’s Institute of Oceanography in San Diego pronounced the Sea of Cortez to be “one of the most productive and diverse marine nurseries on earth”. It’s been said as well that the Sea is biologically the richest body of water on the planet, supporting 900 species of vertebrates and over 2,000 invertebrates. Whoa, we are definitely privileged to be here.

Simply put, the Sea of Cortez is “way cool." There are cruisers that do an annual loop, year after year, spending the sultry summers in the Sea, hanging out in the northern reaches, and when the air and water temperatures cool down during the winter months, head to warmer climes down the mainland coast with the northerly breezes as far south as Puerto Vallarta, Zihuatenejo or Acapulco. When the waters start warming up again and the southerlies start blowing, they make their way back up to the Sea. Not a bad way to go.

There is the matter of hurricanes that can make their sleazy way up into the Sea during the summer months, but that is manageable. With modern weather forecasting and the cruiser and maritime radio “Nets,” folks know well in advance of their arrival and can plan accordingly by moving to any number of “hurricane holes” in the area. The best all purpose guide for the Sea, Sea of Cortez, A Cruiser’s Handbook by Shawn Breeding and Heather Bansmer provides times and frequencies for all of the nets as well as graphs from NOAA showing frequency of storms that have entered the Sea of Cortez over a period of at least 50 years.

The fact is that you do have to play the winds like a fiddle in the Sea of Cortez. Thankfully though, there are so many anchorages to choose from offering protection some from the north and east, some from the south and west, and some from almost every direction.

Over the years, we’ve met lots of people who raved about their summers in the Sea so we were looking forward to trying it ourselves. We are enjoying summer in the Sea, although it is hot, HOT, HOT, HOT! Last night, the temperature didn’t get below 84 F. Daytime temps are in the 90s, sometimes over 100F. Now we can understand what they were talking about! If you are on the water, and sailing, it’s AOK, especially if you are a water baby, like Tom and me. Too hot? Just drop over the side.

Without a doubt, though, the best sailing season is during the winter months, December through March, when the winds are consistent and from the north, temperatures during the day are warm and by night cool and there are so many sweet places to stop with northerly protection. Water temps are not warm, so a wet suit or some equivalent is in order.

Since our arrival, we’ve sailed to various anchorages, some new to us, some we’ve been to before: Bahia de los Muertos, Bahia Ballandra, Ensenada Grande, Isla San Francisco, Bahia Candelleros, Honeymoon Cove, Isla Coronados, San Juanico, various bays (bahias) in Bahia Conceptiion.

Our favorite anchorage so far though has to be San Juanico, a spectacular, large bay with several beautiful beaches and a choice of anchorages depending on the direction of the wind.

When we first arrived there, the wind was blowing from the south so we dropped the anchor in the south anchorage next to an awesome pyramid like monolith.

Every which way we looked, there were more stunning rock formations. Ashore, we strolled among smooth salmon-hued swirling structures, white ones, tooth like pointy ones, striated in rich layers — a fairy tale land of rocks and stones and beaches.

When the wind switched around to the north, we headed to the northern anchorage, awestruck yet again. We anchored in 15 feet of water between two tall sets of pinnacles at the top of which were nests, huge bird nests tended by doting osprey parents, moms and dads carefully watching out for danger.

It’s been a thrill to hook up with old friends again, friends like Henry Korol (the guy in the middle) who sailed from Vancouver to San Francisco with us back in 1996 and now makes La Paz his home. He’s a musician in the band “Laura and the Baja Boys” voted “the best band in La Paz” in 2011. Henry’s become a rock star since we left him.

We reconnected with another very dear old friend, Arthur Todd, in Huatulco on our way up the coast. He became a rock star of a different sort since we last saw him 12 years ago. While in El Salvador eight years ago aboard his 42 foot trimaran Juluka, he was involved in a rescue operation involving a couple that got into trouble in heavy weather crossing a bar aboard their 35 foot catamaran. As a result of that rescue, he and wife Susan are now a ‘two boat family,' the proud owners of that cat, having bought it from the insurance company, as well as Juluka. Over many beers, we got all the amazing details of that story, and lots more.

Now, we are at anchor in Bahia San Carlos, just north of Guaymas, our old stomping grounds on the mainland side, about half way up the Sea, a stunning anchorage, the dominant feature being the Tetakawi (goat’s teats) mountain to the north.

We made use of the haulout facility located here twice in the past, once 15 years ago as well as the following year, 14 years ago, after which we set out across the Pacific, and wanted to check out the facility once again for Feel Free’s much needed makeover. After her world tour, she deserves some beauty treatment and we plan to indulge her.

We are blown away by the changes that have taken place here since our last visit. Where once there were fields and hills with the odd palapa, now there are condos and villas, grocery and hardware stores, restaurants and bars, a huge marina. The Marina Seca dry storage area is thriving and growing still, boats wedged in like so many sardines. Maybe Feel Free will be one of them, maybe not. Along with all the development, there are now more boat yards to choose from too. We’ll see.

Of the Sea of Cortez in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck wrote: The very air is miraculous, and outlines of reality change with the moment. How true those words.