[040723, 1814 UTC, Bahia San Francisquito, Baja California, México;
28º 25.74’ N/112º 51.9' W]
We join you at Bahia San Francisquito about 80 miles north of Santa Rosalia and almost 500 miles north of Cabo San Lucas in the Sea of Cortez. We will continue to move north another 50-100 miles and will be exploring the area in and around the Bahia de Los Angeles, Midriff Islands and Isla Angel de La Guarda for most of the rest of the hurricane season. We’re coming up on the first anniversary of our departure from the Puget Sound, August 13, and have logged over 3,500 miles and put about 450 hours on our new engine.
This NE Pacific hurricane season has been quite unusual as there have been only three “named” storms so far, with at least 10-12 more expected. August and September are statistically the worse in terms of numbers of storms with later storms more likely to re-curve back to the Baja rather than continuing NW and out to sea, so we still have the bulk of the risk season ahead of us. We are beginning to experience unsettled weather, however, and many evenings there are towering cumulus clouds to our east on the mainland and to our west on the Baja shore. This is also chubasco season. Chubascos are particularly violent, short-lived thunderstorms that form in coastal mountains and sweep down and out to sea. They occur in the late afternoon or evening hours and can generate winds in an anchorage to gale force or beyond with little warning. Because of the risk in the summer and fall months, most boats take down sun awnings, bring in outboards and clear the decks of clutter each evening. We also leave our engine key in our ignition and will have plotted the bearing of a safe route out of our anchorage should we need to depart when visibility has deteriorated due to driving rain.
In our last passage note we were anchored at Punta Pulpito. While there we had strong southeast winds that brought large swells into the anchorage, causing Carina to lie abeam to the seas and making our last evening rolly and uncomfortable. This was one of the factors that prompted us to push on towards Bahia Conception and our ultimate anchorage that first evening, Bahia Santo Domingo. We had intended to try a couple of small intermediate anchorages, too, but the wind the day we left was fresh and the swells were large but comfortable making it a lovely, yet lively, day to put on some miles “a la norte” (to the north). Another factor was the planned Fourth of July celebration that was scheduled for a bay near there, Playa Burro. Every year, an American ex-pat named Gary donates some fireworks, his culinary skills, hot dogs and all the fixings at his beach-front cottage on Playa Burro. Cruisers provide additional potluck food and cerveza is available to purchase at 10 pesos a bottle (roughly $.90). It was billed by other cruisers as a party “not to be missed” but in retrospect we feel it was “missable” although we did have a good time catching up with many friends. Bahia Conception is one of the hottest places in an already HOT Sea of Cortez. Weekend cabanas line the shore and there is very little wind to stir the still air and cool your sweating body. The seawater in the bay is only marginally cooler than the air and doesn’t offer much refreshment when you jump in. We did have an abundance of fan scallops below the boat but don’t yet know how to harvest them and thought that this population might be compromised by the significant development on shore.
While at Playa Burro, we would have liked to thumb a ride into the picturesque village of Mulege (moo-lay-hey) 15 miles away for supplies (mainly fresh veggies), but we needed to hook up with other cruisers for a shared-expense taxi ride back and it seemed no one was available. We stayed at Playa Burro only two nights before heading north towards Santa Rosalia. As we approached ‘Domingo, our intended stop, we realized it was still early in the day and we got the sense the winds were building for a good sail north, so we decided to push on to another anchorage, Punta Chivato. Here there are many expensive homes (with airplanes and hangars) as well as the ultra-posh Hotel Punta Chivato. All seemed well after anchoring and during supper but during the night a southeast swell came into this anchorage (then a west wind!) and we spent a sleep-deprived evening as Carina wallowed beam-to in the waves.
Our next stop was Sweet Pea Cove on Isla San Marcos. Getting there involved passing through the Craig Channel, where currents run swiftly and we only had about twenty feet of water depth (we could see the bottom clearly!), a reef to our north and a bar to our south. We fortunately have a radar unit that allowed us to monitor the proximity of the shores and stay within the safe passage zone as noted in our guidebooks.
Sweet Pea Cove is lovely and we enjoyed our stay here so much we returned for a second visit. We thought the cove’s name might have originated from some sort of tropical vegetable growing there or because of the lovely color of the water up close to shore, but the shore was as much a desert as anyplace on Baja; lots of cacti and no water. No, we later learned, the cove’s name came from the name of an anchored sailboat that was driven ashore and wrecked by one of those violent chubascos we mentioned. Here we met for the first time Hermy and Jack aboard the vessel Iwa, who we’d been trying to catch up with for many months. Here too, we caught up with our friends Glenn and Liz on Serendipity who we’d first met in San Diego and who we’d last seen in Mazatlan a few months ago.
After a few days at San Marcos Island, we were again getting low on fresh vegetables and in need of gas for the outboard engine, propane for cooking and diesel, so we ventured on to Santa Rosalia, about 11 miles north. Santa Rosalia is the last town on the Baja where nearly everything is available (including cash from ATMs). How do we describe Santa Rosalia? It is a former copper mining town where until a few years ago copper was still mined, so tailings are still prevalent on the hillsides and there’s a reddish metallic dust that coats you and your boat if you stay too long. Except for the occasional cruiser, there is little tourism and so Santa Rosalia remains a Mexican fishing (squid is the fishery) and former mining village. In that respect, it’s wonderful. However, the marina at Santa Rosalia was the most marginal we’ve seen so far in Mexico as it’s been decimated by many hurricanes and neglected by its owners. There are only 12 decrepit slips remaining, 3 or 4 of which were occupied by boats that had been there quite a while and didn’t appear to be leaving anytime soon. During our stay, we experienced some strong SE winds that blew right into the breakwater-protected bay and proceeded to nearly pull our dock apart. It got so bad one blustery day that Philip sought out the marina manager, Ricardo, and provided the tools so that two-by-fours could be employed to help hold the docks together and keep the slip (and Carina, too) from floating away or crashing into the adjacent boats.
However rundown the marina facilities, the townspeople of Santa Rosalia are warm and friendly and luckily for us, we arrived during the town’s five day celebration of its 119th year anniversary. Because of this, we had the opportunity to view a small town’s celebration as nearly invisible observers, simply wandering around the festivities while the townspeople turned out to celebrate. The festivities were even attended by local politicians and dignitaries, including the festival queen and her princesses. Every night there were professional and amateur Mexican performers on three stages. The entertainment ranged from poetry to classical guitar, to vocalists performing traditional and not so traditional music, a cowboy polka singer, lounge singers, rock bands, etc. One highlight was an act by two prancing, feisty, mini-skirted young women who danced aggressively, flipped their hair and sang The Door’s, Light My Fire in English as well as many Spanish language rock and hip-hop numbers. We were most delighted by a mariachi band of young performers from Guyamas (Sonora). Their costumes were either a deep navy blue (nearly black) or brown each with scores of lustrous 1” etched silver buttons that ran in pairs across the chest of their bolero jackets and down the outside of their pant legs with white vertical sashes that started at their left shoulder and dropped to their ankles. The band included three vocalists, four violins, two trumpets, a bass guitar and several acoustic guitars. The downside to the festival for us was that everything was just getting started at 9 pm (!) and continued until 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning. We don’t like to leave Carina and Jake unattended for too long during the evening so we returned to the marina at midnight leaving everyone, including the grandmas and babies of Santa Rosalia, to the pueblo’s festivities.
We also learned while we were there that Santa Rosalia has a bit of a drug problem. It seems some of the local panga fishermen use and deal methamphetamine. Pangas are small, stable boats (20 + feet) with high freeboard that are the mainstay of the fishermen in Baja. These pangueros have apparently been recruited by drug producers who meet the fishermen offshore to pass the elicit cargo. It’s been reputed that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is funding an effort to interdict and search for drugs on any U.S. vessels that visit Mexico. This may be true since we were met by four members of the Mexican navy when we first arrived at Marina Santa Rosalia. Armed with automatic weapons and a drug-sniffing dog, these men were polite but boarded Carina and asked us numerous safety questions while casually searching the boat.
The upside to Santa Rosalia was that is was very quaint and provided us with a glimpse of “real” Mexico, unadulterated by tourism. The downtown is unique to Baja, having been built during the late 19th century by a French mining company and sporting a lovely and unique Eiffel-designed Catholic church and many buildings constructed of imported 9” tongue and groove wood, a building material unavailable in Baja and much less suited for the hot climate than traditional adobe. Santa Rosalia also provided us with much-needed supplies such as fuel, but also veggies, fresh and incredibly inexpensive flour tortillas (1 kilo – or 23 x 10 inch fresh tortillas - for $1.80 pesos or about 1.60 USD). While in Santa Rosalia we were invited to a birthday party for a local cruiser that was hosted by an American ex-pat named Brenda who runs a small hotel called Las Casitas (the small houses). There we met and talked at length with Carlos and Guerra (a nickname meaning “blondie” because she has light colored hair), a delightful, elegant middle-aged Mexican couple who have a home in town. Guerra told us about a French recipe for quenelles de poisson (fish balls). This simple recipe consisted of fish, a local type of oregano, salt, pepper, masa (corn meal flour) and Spanish-style tomatoes. She was so enthusiastic she insisted on meeting us at the boat the next morning and giving us some she had already prepared, as well as a plastic bag of the oregano and a tin of the tomatoes. Carlos accompanied her and they gingerly walked down the swaying decrepit dock the next morning in their stylish clothes (and she in high heels!) meeting us while we were busily washing the boat dressed only in bathing suits while preparing to leave the marina. We thanked them effusively, received warm hugs and sweet pecks on our cheeks and said our goodbyes. Carlos provided their telephone number and a description of where their home is located and pressed us to contact them should we be in town again. On our return trip south in the late summer, we hope to stop and host them on the boat, not only to thank them for their kindness, but also for the very selfish reason of spending more time and learning from these fascinating people.
After leaving Santa Rosalia we backtracked slightly to Sweet Pea Cove on Isla San Marcos where we spent some time trying to keep cool by snorkeling and fishing with a “Hawaiian sling”, a spear propelled by surgical tubing (sort of like a poor man’s spear gun). The disadvantage to the sling is that you need to get within 2-3 feet of your quarry before you can shoot with enough momentum to deliver a mortal wound and bring home dinner. With practice Philip was able to catch a few pargo (a roundish striped reef fish) and a Mexican hogfish – so named because they "root” along the coral looking for crustaceans. We saw many other fish, some of which we “ate with our eyes” – as they are so colorful. Other larger edible fish seemed to know our intent and avoided us assiduously. While there, we also visited numerous caves that dot the shoreline, some of which you can drive your dinghy into. When we entered one of these caves, it opened into an inner grotto where we were welcomed by 20-30 boisterous Mexican children, playing in the water and diving off rocks, while being chaperoned by a few adults,. One of the adult women was trying to work up the courage to jump off a rock. The children were laughing and trying to push her. We joined in the fun and Philip good-naturedly called out “pollo!, pollo!, pollo!” and the children erupted into another peal of laughter. (Pollo is Spanish for chicken) The woman eventually did jump or (really) slither off the rock, much to the delight of the children who’d been encouraging her.
Isla San Marcos has a small village (appropriately named San Marcos) that we were unable to visit since it was nearly four miles away, a long ride in a dinghy propelled by a small outboard. The main reason for the village’s existence is that there is an active gypsum mining operation since the whole island is pretty much composed of gypsum. Large deep draft vessels visited the dock near the village south of us and we watched in a bit of awe as gypsum filled the air around the 500 + foot vessel during loading. It is reported that the village’s church was also constructed of gypsum and is a sight to see. We’re sorry we missed it.
While in Sweet Pea, we also enjoyed the antics of the local marine fauna. Cortez garden eels peeked up through the sand directly below the boat and were visible in the clear 15-20 feet of water below. These appear to be some sort of single stemmed weed sticking up from the sand about 2 feet when if fact they are fish that stand up from their burrows, swaying in the current and feeding on zooplankton. Leslie also spotted an octopus while snorkeling near the boat and huge 2-3 foot squid would swim around the boat during the evening. An unidentified whale swam and blew very close to the boat early one morning, surprising us since we were anchored in only 15 feet of water and some of these guys get to be quite large. In addition to these animals, we were constantly entertained by rays which would leap repeatedly out of the water and flap their wings in what appeared to be an effort to take flight. During their leaps the rays would sometimes perform double or triple flips before belly-flopping back into the water. We would love to hear a scientific explanation for this behavior, but at the risk of anthropomorphizing, they seemed to do it just for the sheer joy of it.
We again got to visit with Jack and Hermy on IWA and Hermy agreed to trim Leslie’s hair (she still doesn’t trust Philip to cut it!). Philip does have to admit that Hermy did a much better job than he could do.
We left Sweet Pea Cove reluctantly and motored and then sailed in a fresh breeze to Punta Trinidad, 50 miles to the north, dodging fishing nets and long lines along the way. Just south of Trinidad, Philip was musing to Leslie that several cruisers had seen dorado (also known as dolphin or mahi-mahi) on the surface of the water but that was something we had never experienced. Almost on cue, we spied a fish making a bee-line towards the boat, leaping in and out of the water - a dorado, of course! Soon after the drag on the fishing pole began to scream as the fish we saw grabbed our lure. Fifteen minutes later, Philip brought the fish along side the boat and gaffed it whereupon the lure dropped out of the fish’s mouth. The fish was only lightly hooked and we were lucky to have boated it. We had wondered what we would have for supper but that problem was now solved!
Trinidad is a deserted spot except for a couple of run down fishing shanties, only one of which was occupied that evening. Nearly as soon as we arrived, we began to experience thermal westerly winds that gusted to over thirty knots. Since we were safely anchored in only 13 feet of water over sand and there was no fetch to allow waves to generate, we settled down to enjoy supper. Just after dark with the winds still howling, we heard noises on deck and ran topsides to see Jake and a cormorant in a staring contest. It seems the cormorant wanted to roost on Carina for the evening presumably because the winds were so gusty. So, after Philip threw the cormorant back into the water five or six times only to have him come back aboard, we conceded the deck to this bird, shooed Jake below and secured the slats on the hatch, knowing full well we would have to clean cormorant poop off the deck in the morning.
Anchorages are scarce along the 80 miles between Santa Rosalia and our current location, Bahia San Francisquito. Trinidad is one of the few available and not the ideal anchorage since it provides only marginal protection from southerly winds and southeast swell. These conditions occurred beginning about midnight that night and we endured yet another sleepless night wallowing beam-to the steep swell. The next morning, Philip once again threw the cormorant back into the water and (yes) cleaned the poop off the deck. Wanting out of Trinidad, we left early for the next 40 mile leg of our journey to Bahia San Francisquito. As before, we started out motoring but soon had strong southerly winds that prompted us to raise our sails and thankfully turn off our engine. We were riding a flood current which boosted our speed at times to almost 8 knots.
The wind was just starting to die down as we approached Punta San Gabriel so we furled our sails and motored into steep, square waves and tide rips caused by the flood current and the “cape effect” of Punta San Gabriel. Rounding the Punta we motored into the outer bay of San Francisquito and radioed Glenn and Liz aboard Serendipity who were anchored in the inner bay. They surveyed the inner bay and told us that, in spite of having four boats in this tiny anchorage, there was room for one more. As the wind began to pipe up once again, we entered the protected inner bay and were able to drop our anchor in about 15 feet of water, this time safe from any sleep-depriving ocean swell. A quick supper and we retired early to bed in a comparatively cool 83 degree cabin (we have had cabin temps reach 96 degrees on some other days!) to try to catch up on our sleep as the wind continued to blow all night long.
The wind was still blowing hard the next morning and during a radio check with the other boats in the anchorage: Serendipity, Two Can Play, Wildflower and Isla Encanto, we learned, as we had suspected, that our anemometer was reading too low. Our wind speeds read only 12 knots while the others registered 22! We’ll attempt to go up the mast and fix the 18 year old unit but are resigned to the fact that we may have to replace it at some future date. The upside to the strong wind is that it tends to keep the air cooler and we are generating lots of electricity with our wind generator, which we’ve nick-named, “Mariah”.
Today we hope to launch the dinghy and do some exploring. We’ll stay here at least 3 nights before again pointing our bow north towards Bahia de Los Angeles, our most northerly port in the Sea of Cortez.
Sus amigos del velero, Carina
Philip, Leslie and el gato guapo, Jake