[040926; 0140 UTC; Espuela Slot, Islas Pata y Bota, Baja California, México; 29º 00.73’ N/113º 30.78' W]
We have had many exhilarating experiences since our last passage note! One exciting bit of news just reached us this week when we learned from Don Anderson (a fellow living in Oxnard, CA who provides weather forecasts for the cruisers in the eastern pacific) that an article Philip wrote about a near collision with an unidentified submarine off the Mexican coast had been published in the October issue of Ocean Navigator magazine. This took us by surprise though we knew it was in queue for publication but had not yet learned of the publication date. We are very pleased that a magazine with such a good reputation in the offshore cruising community selected Philip’s piece for publication!
To back up to our traveling adventures…we left you at Ensenada Alcatraz where we stayed many nights without any significant drop in the westerly winds that make the beach lovely and clean and the hill southeast brushed with fine white sand. The great thing is we didn’t let the howling winds stop us as we snorkeled, trolled for fish and continued to study our celestial navigation. We tried a couple of times to clean the bottom of the boat but the short, choppy seas built up despite the short fetch and made us swallow more water than we’d wished, so we quit trying to be practical.
From Alcatraz, we backtracked to Isla Coronado and anchored between Isla Coronado and Isla Mitlan in the shadow of a dormant volcano caldera that, although barren and dry, is reminiscent of our own Rainier (Tahoma). We had hoped to climb it but our daytime temperatures were still in the low to mid nineties and we thought better of climbing under these conditions. This anchorage is troubled by some current, some exposure and a huge reef in its south end. Despite these drawbacks, though, it’s popular as the diving nearby is wonderful, yellowtail are caught easily from boats (though not from Carina) and fin whales cruise through during the night and early morning hours. The blows of the fin whales are quite distinctive; when they first surface they expel a large throaty sounding blow and then finish with a asthmatic sounding base note that reminds Philip of the sound produced by someone blowing across the mouth of a classic glass soda pop bottle.
Since we last wrote we’ve also been back to Bahia de Los Angeles (BLA) a few times, each time understanding the town a bit more. Hortensia was unfortunately away on our last visit and our laundry was held ransom for $150 pesos by her helpful relatives. Luckily when we visited this week, she was back so all was well again, though her till was empty and her supplies were marginal. We said goodbye to our friend Jacques, too who we may not see for awhile due to possibly divergent cruising plans. We also had the fortune to try to receive and send a fax and to call the USA from BLA, which made us understand more fully how truly resourceful its residents are.
One wonderful adventure we took was the counterclockwise circumnavigation of Isla Angel de La Guarda (Guardian Angel Island), a mountainous national park and the second biggest island in the Sea of Cortez at 41 miles long and 12 miles wide at its widest point. We departed on this venture from a bay near Puerto Don Juan called Bahia Quemado (Burned Bay), where we were disappointed by the mushy beach but delighted by the lithe, bluish, zippy 8 inch long geckos that fling up their graceful tail in a perfect curve up and over their back as they nearly fly away across the blistering white sand. We hoped to get a picture of these funny little guys but soon gave up hope due to their extraordinary speed and seemingly premeditated flight. From Quemado, we jumped off southeast to round the southern end of Angel de La Guarda. Under nearly perfect skies and glassy seas, we were careful in our piloting in order to account for the fact that two charts had nearly 1 degree difference in latitude for this point of the island (over one mile error!). Using our radar for reference, we passed over 1 mile south of the southern tip but saw the depths drop quickly to shoal depths (ca. 25 feet), another fact not mentioned on the charts. Soon thereafter we were surrounded by intense marine activity and quickly ascertained that our fishing lure was clear and trailing. Unfortunately, we hooked then lost a dorado along with one of our best lures.
Just north of here we encountered tide rips and current that reminded us of the Puget Sound. East and south of an off-lying island called Isla Estanque, we were held to a forward velocity of only 1.9 knots over ground…meaning we had over three knots of current dragging us backwards! Finally fighting our way north through rips and standing waves, then west towards the big island, we anchored in a tight spot near friends in a cove called Tiny Cove. This name says it all, though it was quite lovely with turquoise water interspersed with dark patches indicating sand and grass. Below us here was a virtual aquarium of sea life including – as it turned out - grouper, golden grouper, yellowtail, barracuda, grey bar grunts, Cortez grunts, triggerfish, opal eye, octopus and even a highly poisonous and very colorful yellow-bellied sea snake! Our first night here was idyllic but the second night proved more trying. South of us, a chubasco was brewing and we experienced winds in the 30+ knot range with large beam-to seas. We tried setting up an offset bridle as has been recommended by many experienced sailors, but we could not keep Carina pointing into the swells and just stuck it out. Our anchor was fine but we were tossed about as we napped in the cockpit trying to monitor the situation. Jake seemed to enjoy the melee and even jumped up on the life raft lashed to the stern pulpit and rode the (six-ish foot) beam-too swells like a kid on a carnival ride! Thankfully his sticky paws kept him aboard during this trying night. The following morning we were surprised to learn of the extent of the chubasco that struck with sixty plus knot winds nearly sixty miles south, damaging many boats and destroying Water Witch, a wooden boat from Port Townsend, WA. that went up on a lee shore beach and was holed by rocks. Thankfully no one was injured.
We were saddened to learn of Water Witch, though we’d only met Doug once in La Paz and not Port Townsend. Doug told us of having spent many years fixing up his boat for this dream cruise and it was clear he was a skilled shipwright and sailor. This unfortunate event reminded us again how we’re always at the mercy of the weather and anyone cruising can suffer a similar loss.
That morning following the chubasco, we got the sense that the large swells and the ebbing tide were bringing Carina dangerously near the shore, so we wasted not a moment and hauled Bacio (our dinghy) aboard, nested it on deck, pulled anchor and sailed out. Our destination was Pulpito West about 25 miles north on the eastern side of the island. Winds were with us and we flew up the coast, rounding Punta Rocosa with over twenty knots astern and with the current, causing us to fly at nearly 8 knots over ground. Punta Rocosa was as garish and amazing as its name connotes and we took many photos as we flew past under sail, none of which nearly capture the beauty and power of this red, rocky, precipitous point.
Going into Pulpito West (a cove within the much larger Bahia Pulpito), we were immediately impressed with the red rocky cliffs to the west. Anchorage here was off the beach in pristine sand and 20 feet of water with an outcropping that could be mistaken for an ancient Irish castle in disrepair. We stayed here three nights and explored the east and west sides, with cliffs of red crystals. With friends, we organized a trip to an uncharted reef over two miles east that has been dubbed “the aquarium”. Unfortunately, the day we arrived the water was a bit murky and our exploration was dampened by this reality.
We chose another day of strong southerly winds to continue north from Pulpito West to Puerto Refugio (reff–oo–HEE–oh) on the far northern tip. This area is really a collection of coves formed by a cluster of peninsulas and islands. It’s a magnificent spot with towering mountains to the south, jagged rocky islands to the north and a varied shoreline. We anchored in what is called the middle bight, near friends but also an old wooden schooner about 85-100 feet long called Montezuma (written in a script that is unfamiliar to us). The first evening we enjoyed watching the crew from afar as they whooped, swung from the rigging, swam and appearing to have a great time. Unfortunately after nightfall, winds freshened and Montezuma began to drag its anchor, apparently unbeknownst to the crew. We commented that it was odd that they’d be leaving at such an hour (8 ish and dark) but thought nothing more of it. After awhile they seemed to stop and about this time an animated Spanish language conversation began on the VHF radio. It became apparent that the schooner had dragged its anchor and was aground on what is called Fang Rock in the middle of the bay and was seeking help from a large (ca. 125 feet) fishing vessel, the Tony Reyes. The fishing vessel did a fabulous job of coming along side and towing the schooner off but promptly proceeded to tow it towards Carina and our friends anchored in the middle bight. Concerned, we turned on our “million-candle-power” light, deck lights, etc. which helped the vessels to steer clear of us. After re-anchoring with the fishing boat’s help, the schooner promptly began dragging north again, to stop this time shy of Fang Rock. In the morning, a Mexican Navy vessel came aside to assist and stayed most of the day, leaving the schooner again on their own. Apparently, not wanting a repeat the incident, the schooner sent a team to the beach with an auxiliary anchor that they left about fifty feet up the beach!
Refugio is a marvel of geology and spectacular sea life though we had difficulty staying there due to biting vermin of the “no-see-um” variety. It was still very hot here in Mexico, which precluded closing up the boat or sleeping below, so we burned anti-bug coils and tried to sleep in the cockpit. After three nights and dozens of welts, we heard of a break in the south winds and everyone in the bay (eight boats including the schooner) ran out of the Refugio with most heading south. We’re disappointed we didn’t see more of Refugio but what we did see made us understand why it is considered the ultimate destination to view undersea wildlife in the Sea of Cortez. During a snorkeling venture we tried to corner a grouper under a car-sized boulder in six feet of water that was nearly the size of Philip’s leg! This fish was smart though and we decided that that was probably how he got so big.
On one of the shores of Puerto Refugio lies the wreck of the sailboat Spirit Healer that went aground during hurricane Marty in September 2003. The boat had been uninsured at the time of the grounding, was holed and considered a total loss. We’ve heard that the couple who owned the boat have since divorced, truly a sad ending of an ironically-named boat.
Continuing counterclockwise around Isla Angel de La Guarda, we motored in light winds down the Canal de Ballenas (Whale Canal) to Isla Coronado, avoiding a large fishing net marked only on each end by a black (yes, black) float. This time we anchored south of Isla Mitlan in a spot called Las Rocas anchorage, nearby to Pegasus, a ketch from Bainbridge Island. Las Rocas has many small beaches, cliffs and outcroppings plus a prominent rock island nearly dead center. From Carina, we snorkeled the perimeter of this island and were thrilled with the brilliant frog-green coral that covered the steep rocky underwater scree and grew to form bulbous knuckles of green.
After another quick trip to BLA for water and fuel, we headed to Puerto Don Juan to rendezvous with Encanto, a sixty foot steel sloop with friends John, Judy, Gabi and Sami aboard. They had been underway on an overnight passage during that violent chubasco that destroyed Water Witch and ripped not only a new genoa, but their mainsail. (Incredibly, most of the battens were ripped out and lost during the storm, including those that were nearly six feet long!) The genoa had been repaired but the mainsail was by most accounts, beyond repair. We’ve done some sail repair and even built a sail, so we thought we’d try to help them get it fixed to get them through the season and back to a port with a resident sail maker. We spent two wonderful days working with our friends and did accomplish quite a bit. It’s not a perfect sail, but it’s no longer in shreds. Everyone participated, even Encanto’s girls, Sami and Gabi who provided water, shade with large beach umbrellas, snacks and some hand sewing. Judy provided fabulous cooking for lunches (and doggie bags for dinner!), including wonderful char sui bao, sticky rice balls with sashimi, miso soup, brownies, coconut jello with mandarin oranges, jamaica tea, etc. John and Philip sewed, while Leslie provided bobbins, hand sewing, sail reorganization, etc. We all laughed a lot and ended up calling ourselves Shady Sami’s Super Sail Salvage Service!
While at Don Juan working with the Shady Sami’s crew, it became apparent that tropical depression Javier would soon become a hurricane and threaten Baja California. Since we were already in our favorite corner of the best hurricane hole in the Sea of Cortez, we settled in for a longer stay. Slowly, slowly boats began to arrive so that within two days of the expected storm, there were 31 boats packed into Puerto Don Juan. Philip along with Hermy from IWA (pronounced EE-vah) organized a hurricane preparedness meeting to review materials prepared by Tackless II, a boat who’d previously summered here and that is owned by two captains who had experience with hurricanes in the Caribbean. It was an excellent meeting and all except one boat attended, sharing information, recommendations, personal accounts, etc. A wonderful spirit of cooperation allowed everyone to get settled and secure, stripping sails, dodgers, biminis, sun covers, etc. as we awaited the storm. Divers amongst the group, lead principally by Gary of Pegasus from Bainbridge Island, checked anchors and added crowning anchors for boats in deep water or with light tackle.
As it turned out, anticipation of the storm was worse than what actually occurred. Forecasters were saying we’d experience winds to about sixty knots, so everyone was on high alert and prepared accordingly. The morning we expected to weather the storm, we learned that Javier had moved across the Baja significantly south and was breaking up. We had sunny skies and little wind that day and everyone began to breath more deeply again. While putting our boats back together it became apparent that a potluck was needed for everyone to decompress and celebrate the non-event. Philip again coordinated the event held at “coyote beach” (coyotes visited there many times during our stay) where much wonderful food was consumed and music shared. Everyone sang heartily and talked of future anchorages and adventures.
We returned once again to Bahia de Los Angeles for supplies since we’d been out for two weeks and moved onto our current anchorage between the tiny islands of Pata (leg) and Bota (boot). It’s hard to call it a cove since it’s really a slot between the islands protected on the east end (both north and south) by breakwater-like piles of rock with a 6 foot sand bar in the center of the channel. The islands Pata and Bota run east west and afford nearly perfect protection from the north and south. Current still runs through here swiftly but the bottom is sand at 25-30 feet. Here we’ve experienced the finest snorkeling so far in the Sea, finding mussels and scallops (firmly attached to rocks!), exquisitely fine fan coral in whites and reds, a prehistoric-looking stonefish (poisonous!), triggerfish, grouper, sergeant majors and the lovely angelfish. We even caught yellowtail from our dinghy on the northeast side of the island.
Finding the rock scallops near here only seemed to frustrate us as they are in 7-10 feet of water and attached to boulders with glue that no mere mortal can disrupt. And, not being divers, we are limited by our ability to hold our breath. Please understand too, that it is illegal for gringos to collect any shellfish in Mexico, so our difficulties may be “beneficial”. However, we do have to admit that right near where our dinghies were anchored Leslie spied a rock that looked distinctly like an enormous scallop. It was and we managed to get it free of the rock it was attached to. This monster was about 10 inches in diameter and about 4 inches thick and made a very nice appetizer for four people!
Our little, private, wonderful slot is, however, rarely used as an anchorage, though two of the most popular guidebooks list it. There may two reasons for its lack of use: 1) it feels like it offers less protection than it does; and 2) it doesn’t have a name. We’ve decided it needs a name and are planning to propose Spur Slot since there’s an enclosed rocky pool on the east end of Bota (the boot) that looks like a fancy spur. In Spanish, it’d be Espuela Slot, though we’re going to confirm this with those fluent in the language!
You may have gathered by now that we spend quite a bit of time fishing for our dinner. As a matter of fact, Philip’s brother John asked colorfully as a post script to an email, “what the hell do you do all day?”, so we thought we should write a little bit about this subject. Certainly gathering our dinner takes time, though life aboard is far from simple. Like you, we sleep, bathe, shop for food, prepare food, wash dishes (no dishwasher!), clean the bathroom, sweep the floors, put the sun awnings up, put the sun awnings down, take care of managing our life support systems (health insurance, boat insurance,) etc. Our principle sources of entertainment are reading and visiting with other cruisers since we have no TV, radio, etc. Solitude enables us to forget about the many stressful current events.
One thing that’s very different about our lives is the primitive way we go about getting our provisions. We have no marina where we can park the boat, so everything (people, groceries, laundry, water, fuel, etc., etc.) is ferried back and forth to the boat using our tender. It’s a great little 8.5 foot boat that can carry a great deal of weight stably but it still sometimes takes hours to perform the simplest tasks, such as bringing aboard fuel and water. Frequently these chores are made more difficult or dangerous by afternoon high winds and choppy water, so we have to postpone our provisioning. For water alone: picture walking down a dusty dirt street in 100 degree weather with a folding hand-truck to which two six gallon jerry cans are strapped. With water, this is roughly ninety six pounds which you roll down the road, carry across the beach, load in the dinghy and motor out to the boat through sometimes nasty chop to the boat. With jerry jugs, Philip stays in the dinghy and Leslie climbs aboard prepares a halyard (the rope that you use to hoist the sails) to winch the jug aboard. Each six gallon can is brought aboard individually and put into the tanks. We are very conservative with our usage of fresh water and use only about two gallons a day, so, for each two week trip away from shore, we have to make at least two (sometimes three) trips back and forth with these two cans. And this is water only. Fuel is taken in the same sized jerry jugs but hauled from the other end of town. Then there’s groceries, cleaning supplies, etc. It takes quite a bit of time and we frequently end up taking two full days to stock up again before taking off. While away from town, we’re always working on some project, recently it was helping our friends with their sail and building a wind scoop for our forward hatch to try to make sleeping a bit more comfortable. Every system in the boat (electrical power generation, refrigeration, diesel engine) also requires installation and maintenance and we have no one but ourselves to perform these tasks. We are however fortunate that we do have these beautiful waters as a welcome distraction and source of our dinner, so we get in and under the water and hike about the islands as much as we possibly can.
On that subject, we have been meaning to tell everyone about one of our favorite dinner guests, the triggerfish. Prevalent throughout the Sea of Cortez in shallow rocky reefs these “fine scale triggerfish” are called pez puerco (or pork fish) in Spanish. It may sound silly but these intelligent fish are beginning to feel like reliable old friends. They are named for a prominent dorsal fin that can be locked up to form a sharp spine when the fish is threatened. Though they can get to be over two feet long, most are about a foot long, deep of body and are a purplish blue much like the blush on a perfectly ripe blueberry. They are curious creatures, slowly swimming about propelled by the coordinated undulation of their large thin dorsal and anal fins, following you as you snorkel. They frequently tilt their entire body, purse their voluptuous lips and carefully scrutinize you with large expressive, heavy-lidded “watch” eyes. Though they’re expressive and curious, they are aggressive carnivores that attack sea urchins and crustaceans (and fishing lures) with powerful, rounded, dwarfed but deadly teeth. And, though we love to have them around to watch while we’re snorkeling, we’ve caught many of them while fishing and never fail to enjoy having them to supper.
Our next adventure is upon us as we plan to travel this coming week across the Sea once again to the mainland side to visit San Carlos Sonora. Friends are bringing some parts to us from the States and are driving from NM to San Carlos where their boat is in dry storage (“marina seca”). Everything is weather dependent, but we will probably leave Tuesday and make a non-stop trip. We hope to only have a brief stay there to install some new solar panels, a new alternator, “equalize” our batteries and get propane. From there we hope to cross back and continue to enjoy the Baja Peninsula as the weather is getting more modest here (70s many nights!) though the water continues to be comfortably warm and hurricanes can still threaten.
Sus amigos del velero, Carina
Philip, Leslie and el gato guapo, Jake