[041111; 1756 UTC; La Paz, BCS, Mexico; 24º 09.3’ N/110º 19.6' W]
Our crossing of 150 miles from San Carlos, Sonora to the Baja was blessed by the serendipitous selection of a tiny weather window with brevity unanticipated by the weather gurus. We left our El Carracito anchorage Saturday morning, October 23, 2004 and had light winds for most of the crossing. The brisk winds we experienced during the first afternoon got our adrenalin pumping though winds finally moderated with the setting sun. Overnight we enjoyed only modest winds and seas that allowed us to keep the boat moving with no stress at 4 knots, flying only a conservative nighttime sail plan. About 2 a.m. (0200 H or 0900Z) we began to see evidence of unsettled weather well off to our east but again, we were unaffected. We did, however, have torrential rains (sans wind) at 1300 H or 2000Z, about an hour away from our destination, Isla Carmen. Our anchorage at Bahia Perico on Isla Carmen (near the abandoned village at Bahia Salinas) was lovely with a broad beach and bizarre, striated stone cliffs. We looked forward to exploring it, though ultimately our desires were not to be fulfilled. The weather window was slamming shut and SE winds and squalls began to brew, leaving Carina vulnerable to winds and swell in this otherwise fine anchorage. Boats that left only one day after Carina from the San Carlos area were turned back in thunder and lighting and squalls that gusted to 40 knots. These squalls were remnants of a tropical depression near Isla Socorro whose influence was not forecasted to affect the Sea this far north. With the degeneration in the weather, we decided to move Carina just a bit south, seeking protection from the SE swells and winds by rounding Isla Danzante and tucking into a northwest facing cove.
During this passage we were astonished by the huge SE swell that reminded us of the conditions we experienced in the middle of the Pacific! Our passage plan called for traveling down the eastern side of Isla Carmen from our anchorage and rounding Punta Baja, then making a brief NW passage around the north end of Isla Danzante and south into our protected spot. All seemed to be going well, the seas notwithstanding. However, despite the fact that the waypoints we entered for this short passage into our GPS were derived from what were touted to be “GPS accurate charts”, the GPS directed us to steer Carina overland to our destination! As is typical, Sea of Cortez charts are inaccurate. Even considering the inaccuracy of the charts, we altered course and were extra cautious because what the charts did show were rocks at the extreme south end of Isla Carmen. Because of these rocks, we traveled well east and south of the point (using our radar to judge our distance from land) before rounding. Our course probably saved our boat and possibly our lives. While rounding Isla Carmen, we looked back up the east side of the Isla and were shocked to see a mile-long reef extending off NOT the southern tip of the island, but a point further north. This reef is NOT shown on any charts and is all but impossible to see if you have the sun facing you (as we did intermittently that day)! We had been fortunate that we had stayed so far off the eastern side of Isla Carmen
Getting settled in our “protected anchorage” at Pyramid Cove involved a few attempts at anchoring. This cove was not foreign to us, though on this day the skies were grey and it was raining, making reading the water depth and the positions of rocks a bit more of a challenge. Boulder sized scree litters the water along the south wall and getting settled in reasonably shallow water while positioning ourselves so that we couldn’t swing toward these hazards was critical. We were both happy with our position once we were settled and slept quite well with only calm winds and modest current in the cove.
It was interesting to revisit a place like this one where we’d been in early summer and to see the greenery that had sprouted on the mountainsides during the summer rains. The water in the Sea was also quite a bit colder and filled with jellyfish, a.k.a. “stingies” that attacked us almost immediately on any exposed piece of skin (lips, ankles, neck, etc.) while we snorkeled. We didn’t snorkel for long but enjoyed the lovely clear water and bright underwater sea life.
From Pyramid Cove we traveled south to one of our favorite spots in Mexico so far; the tiny, cliff-ringed Candeleros Chico. Here we were joined by friends on Serendipity who shared with us the total eclipse of the full moon and the alignment of the planets when the Red Sox finally shed the curse of the bambino. Most of you probably saw the same spectacle we did, but if you didn’t, it made us understand why the ancients got so upset during eclipses. The bright white full moon rose over the cliff to our southeast and almost immediately began to show a shadow at around “7 o’clock” that over the course of an hour or so, slowly enveloped the entire moon with a deep red veil. It was quite impressive.
We stayed in Candeleros Chico a couple of nights, snorkeled the underwater boulder fields and then picked a lovely bright sunny day with 10 knot winds to travel once again south, past Aqua Verde and Isla Marcial, around the huge and dangerous reef at Bahia San Marte and into its lee, seeking protection from a building “norther”. This day we were both startled and momentarily terrified by the blow of a surfacing fin whale that nearly HIT THE BOAT. All we saw (at one man-length from the cockpit) was his blow-hole and the top of his head. We both jumped and tried to change course, though the boat was being steered by “Bud”, our wind vane steering device. The whale must have recognized his mistake and dove under Carina, surfacing within a few seconds (though it seemed like eternity) about a boat length off on the other side of us. If you remember, these whales are huge, roughly two and a half times the length of Carina and can do quite a bit of damage to a boat. Thankfully, this whale seemed friendly and stayed somewhat close to us for a few miles further before finally disappearing to continue its hunting.
Bahia San Marte is formed by a prominent rocky headland and the aforementioned reef. The anchorage in 20 feet of sand is extensive, though swell during periods of intense “northers” wrap around the point and into the anchorage hitting boats abeam. Our brief stay there was marked by these building northers and some swell though we seem to be a bit more stable than many lighter or beamier boats we were anchored with. From this bay we’d hoped to hike to Aqua Verde about three miles up the valley to visit the small tienda run by the a small, lithe, pretty woman named Maria that we’d visited in the spring. We’d also hoped to get some of the fresh goat cheese that Aqua Verde is known for. Last spring we’d been unable to obtain goat cheese due to the lactating females that feed the "cabritas" (baby goats). Unfortunately, rain and wind and swell kept us aboard and we finally took the next weather window to make our next passage south, skipping our hike and the produce it might afford us.
This passage day was another marked by eventful weather. Winds slowly built over the course of the day as we rode an ebbing tide south and into the San Jose channel. For the most part conditions were simply spirited as we sailed downwind and ticked away the southbound miles under reefed main and genoa, and then just genoa alone. At noon, with Philip on watch, Leslie spotted what looked like a tornado to our east! Being a little naïve to such things, she mentioned this to Philip who corrected her that it was a water spout! Neither of us could tell exactly how far away it was but we estimated the distance to be about 15-20 miles. We took note of the time, our position, our bearing to the water spout and reported this later on the local SSB nets. As we watched, it slowly disappeared, though the tops of two other spouts that were much bigger and farther away followed in quick succession. A large, black squall soon dumped sheets of grey rain in that region of the Sea, also to our east. The SSB net volunteer weatherman (a retired Ph.D. chemist, ham radio enthusiast and credible weatherman) gave the entire Mexico cruising community a quick overview of this phenomena after our report that evening. These water spouts are indeed tornados over the water and move up from the water up to the clouds. Interesting to us is that they are so small and short-lived that the Coriolis Effect doesn’t apply and thus they can rotate either clockwise or counter-clockwise, making it difficult to anticipate the wind direction as they approach you. We only know of one other boat that saw the spout(s), but it’s good to know our observation was confirmed.
This day we anchored in San Evaristo, the site of a small fishing village and salt evaporation operation. We’d spent a few days here before, when we walked through the village, visited the tienda and the school and enjoyed the spectacular mountain backdrop. On this day we selected this bay to anchor due to its large, shallow sandy bottom, good holding and excellent protection to the north. The “norther” that had been forecast for a few days was finally materializing. A norther isn’t simply a period of north winds, it involves days of screaming and gusting north winds that kick up 6-12 foot seas in the normally-benign Sea of Cortez. The cause of these storms is a large pressure gradient that is generated by intense highs in the mountains to the west that press down upon more modest atmospheric pressures in Mexico. This “norther”” was generated by a high pressure system of 1030 mbar near the Great Salt Lake that supplied wind the length of the Sea to Puerto Vallarta where the pressure was only 1012 mbar. Winds were projected to be up to 40 or more knots with higher gusts and this turned out to be a conservative estimate. Winds of this magnitude are hazardous to small vessels navigating open waters, so we stayed in port.
Sharing this anchorage at San Evaristo was the sailboat, Bright Angel as well as three charter boats from the Moorings Company. Carina was the only boat in the region with an SSB (single side band) radio and thus the only vessel able to contact with other vessels “outside” during the high pressure gale. One Moorings boat was a bit of a disaster. Jacana is a 52 foot catamaran skippered by a licensed captain, and had a cook and five guests aboard. They limped into port and had a mad scramble anchoring in the wind while the boat was being blown backwards toward the southern shore. The first anchor dragged but the second anchor finally held and we quickly learned the saga. Both engines were non-functional, one without oil pressure and the other was overheating. The anchor windlass required an engine as did the freezer and refrigeration. Jacana was out of radio range with the home base in La Paz. This was the start of an adventure for guests and crew that lasted days after we were able to phone patch through the Maritime Mobile Service Net from Florida to La Paz, Mexico. The Moorings chase boat was then held in port because the port of La Paz was closed as the seas were hazardous. Two days later the chase boat made a second attempt to reach Jacana but when we sailed south past her, Morita, a 24 foot open console boat, was being launched skyward by every wave and was eventually forced to turn back again to La Paz for the safety of the crew. Jacana remained in Evaristo and, her guests, who’d paid a bundle for the charter, were not amused.
During this gale we did have the pleasure of meeting the crew of one of the charter boats, No Hurry. Jerry, Robin, Dave and Ansa were two couples from San Francisco who were holed up with the rest of us at San Evaristo and who invited us aboard for cocktails and appetizers. Ansa is originally from the Netherlands and Dave from Canada, though all the crew lives in the US now. We had a lovely evening chatting about sailing in different parts of the world and trying to avoid talking politics. We eventually saw them in two other anchorages where we gave them a CD of some digital photos we took of their boat under sail.
Though we enjoyed the camaraderie of the other boats “trapped” by the gale and we felt satisfied that we accomplished quite a bit of house-cleaning and re-organization of provisions, we were ready to move on when the weather abated. In retrospect we should’ve cooled our heels one more day but instead we took off the morning that weather forecast called for moderating winds by afternoon in the southern Sea of Cortez. Unfortunately, the weatherman was a little too optimistic in his predictions and although the winds were somewhat diminished, they were still in excess of 20 knots (gusting much higher) and the residual waves traveling down the entire length of the Sea of Cortez were enormous (to 10 feet or more), especially at promontories or areas of current races. Whew, what a wild ride we had that day. It was fun to be sure - at least for most of it - though towards the end we were tired after hand steering in shifting and gusting winds and unpredictable seas. Carina again proved herself to be the stable and reliable little ship we had hoped she would be when we bought her.
After a brief stay at Caleta Partida following our sleigh ride down from Evaristo, we pressed onto Caleta Lobos, near La Paz, and then onto La Paz. We are now in Marina de La Paz and have worn a few more wrinkles into our “town” sandals while running errands. We have a refrigerator full of fresh veggies and fresh juice, have visited our favorite, fabulous restaurant where they cook arrachera (filet) over an open flame and made our pilgrimage to La Fuente (the fountain) for some heart-stopping ice cream. Leslie even took an overland adventure to Cabo San Lucas in an aged Datsun pickup truck with Lisa of Andiamo. Unfortunately they missed an un-marked turn in La Paz and had to backtrack 10 miles on a washed out, dusty, washboard-graded dirt road from the seacoast into the mountains and then back to Cabo. The trip took 5 and a half hours while it should’ve taken less than three! It was a long day.
Carina is pitching and rolling in her slip at Marina de La Paz. We know the movement is caused by wind and a swift current that runs right through the marina, but it seems to us that she’s anxious to slip her mooring lines once again and move on. We do too!
Our plan is to leave Saturday the 13th to make the 450 (-ish) mile non-stop passage to the Puerto Vallarta area for a Thanksgiving reunion with Les’ family. Here in La Paz we’ve reunited with many friends who’d traveled out of Mexico for the summer or who are simply migrating through on their way to the “Riviera”, the area of Pacific Mexico south of Puerto Vallarta that hosts most seasonal cruising boats during the winter cruising season. We ourselves are planning to continue south from Banderas Bay (Puerto Vallarta) and visit spots such as Tenacatita and Zihuatanejo before continuing south through the dreaded Gulf of Tehuantepec and onto Central America before the hurricane season is upon us again. As always, our plans are fluid and stirred up almost daily by the omnipotent forces of weather.
Su amigos del velero Carina,
Leslie, Philip and el gato guapo, Jake
November 11, 2004
lying La Paz, BCS, Mexico