Bienvenida a Mexico! This second sailing saga is coming to you from sunny, warm (and humid!) Mazatlan. Oh, by the way, please go easy on me if I happen to somewhat butcher the Spanish language. Trust me, the attempts are with good intent to try to give you a little flavor of “south of the border.”
In the first saga, Our Hero (aka “The Captain”), managed to safely sail from San Francisco to San Diego. This saga chapter will hopefully enthrall you with the trials and tribulations of single-handing down the Baja coast (more than 750 nautical miles) and then the less-than-ideal conditions (understatement!) experienced when crossing the Sea of Cortez.
So, get comfy, put on some sunscreen, but keep your foul weather gear handy (for the exciting conclusion). Cast off the dock lines at Fiddler’s Cove Marina, and let’s head out to sea.
Late in the day (4 Nov), The Captain left San Diego for the overnight sail to Ensenada, Mx. A late departure helps ensure a daylight arrival in Ensenada (a busy commercial port). Leaving San Diego Bay was accomplished in blustery winds (an omen of things to come?). Also, the cruise ship Norwegian Sunlumbered by (outbound as well) with its complement of armed escort boats providing security.
Light winds and small waves of the harbor increased in speed and size respectively. Unfortunately, these conditions prevailed for all but the last three hours of the 17.7 hours to Ensenada. Needless to say, with frequent sail adjustments (engine on and off depending on wind speed) and the cold and dark, the night seemed to last forever.
Arrival in Cruiseport Village Marina was uneventful. Checking into the marina was easy, but Our Hero’s Spanish-challenged vocabulary was already becoming very evident (to The Captain and the unfortunate person with whom he was trying to communicate). I did my best to prepare them with such gems as: “Por favor, disculpame, mi Espanol no es bueno” (Please excuse me, my Spanish is not good), and “Podemos hablar Ingles?” (May we speak English?). The answer to that last one was typically no since the person had little or no English vocabulary.
My saviors were Jonathan (Harbormaster) and his assistant, Enrique. They provide the wonderful service of driving you to and from the various offices one must visit to check into the country. In each office (e.g., customs, immigration, port captain), they would help me with translation and complete the paperwork. Without them, especially when resolving the issue of the missing temporary import permit for No Moss, the whole process would have been terribly time-consuming and stressful.
The end result of all this was that I could now fly the Mexican courtesy flag. Doing so indicates that I’ve completed the check-in paperwork and I’m legal to sail in Mexico. This may preclude an unnecessary visit from the Mexican Navy while sailing or in port.
Other than a visit to a local dentist to replace a filling that fell out, I was ready (mentally and physically) to head south. Onward.
On 10 Nov, Our Hero left the Ensenada breakwater in the morning with the next stop about 26 hours down the Baja coast at Bahia San Quintin. Wind and waves were light until close to Islas Todos Santos at the south end of Bahia Todos Santo (Ensenada) where one turns left to head southeast down Baja.
Here the wind and seas increased – a mixed blessing. Wind from the west about 18 kts was great for sailing, but waves (and underlying swells) from the same direction hit the boat on the starboard quarter (back right corner of the boat) and created a ride – not hazardous just tiring when experienced for hours on end.
Just like the overnight leg from San Diego to Ensenada, this one had its share of sail handling and engine on/off activities. Light winds on arrival in Bahia San Quintin made anchoring easy. The large bay was all mine since I saw four sailboats leaving (southbound) in the distance as I was entering. After anchoring, I put the boat in order (on deck and below deck) and ran the watermaker for four hours (to make 32 gallons of excellent water from sea water). At sunset, everything was calm and peaceful.
Take a deep breath, get in a “Zen place,” because the next leg from Bahia San Quintin to Turtle Bay (Bahia de Tortugas, half-way down the Baja peninsula) is a non-stop two-nighter! Our Hero will be mightily challenged.
Leaving Bahia San Quintin about mid-day (12 Nov) was marked by ideal sailing conditions: long, low swells; good wind with only small wind waves; and sunny and warm weather. Finally! It lasted for seven hours.
Then it was back to flukey winds (too much or too little) and engine runs as needed. I covered the entire length of Isla Cedros (about 24 miles) in the dark with “entertainment” provided by Mother Nature. Somewhere beyond the south end of Isla Cedros, there were two thunderstorms with very impressive lightning displays (cloud-to-cloud, and cloud-to-sea). Hmmmmm. Does this bode ill for The Captain and his worthy ship No Moss? We shall see.
Surprisingly, cell phone reception (and some wifi) has been more frequent than I would have guessed since leaving San Diego. Thus, while motoring slowly past the town at the south end of Isla Cedros, I was able to use my phone to check weather and text Paula to let her know where I was and how things were going.
FYI . . . I also have a satellite phone aboard and use that for the same purposes (weather and calling home) whenever I’m at sea or there is no cell or wifi service.
Well, at sunrise and after rounding Punta Eugenia southeast of Isla Cedros and northwest of Turtle Bay (almost there with only four hours to go), and while endeavoring to sail the remaining distance, that pesky ol’ thunderstorm decided to head the same way, but it was going much faster than I was. Consequently, it caught up and passed me with impressive displays of lightning and bone-rattling thunder. The accompanying downpour was very welcome as it did an excellent job of washing off the accumulation of salt on the boat.
After all that, arrival in Turtle Bay (14 Nov) was rather unexciting but a welcome respite from the three days and two nights underway. That is my preferred personal limit when single-handing. Once the anchor was down and set, I went through the usual motions of putting the boat in order.
Enrique Jr. is the proprietor of the fuel dock and has a monopoly – he’s the only one in town offering fueling services. He’s definitely a “wheeler-dealer” and takes every opportunity to raise the cost of fuel with each cruising boat. For instance, if he refuels your boat when you are at anchor (instead of coming to the fuel dock), he charges $4.95 a gallon. However, I heard from a fellow cruiser at anchor that a day or two ago, Enrique Jr. charged only $4.50 a gallon.
Once I was on the fuel dock with my diesel jugs, he wanted to charge $4.95. I negotiated in my best Spanish and his not-so-good English a descuento (discount) and got my fuel at the $4.50 price. It’s amazing what a little back-slapping, good-ol’-boy, used-car-salesman banter can do for you.
I spent an extra day in Turtle Bay to wait for better weather. The forecast for my planned departure day called for winds in the high twenties/low thirties with gusts to forty (knots). As I tell my consulting clients/students: “it’s a smart sailor who knows when to stay in port.”
The wait was a good decision. I finally left the following morning (17 Nov) for the next three-day/two-night leg to Bahia Santa Maria (about two-thirds of the way down Baja).
It was still windy but tolerable, and leaving the bay I had to dodge anchored fellow cruisers and Mexican fishing boats; all of whom had arrived to avoid the bad weather.
The wind and waves were mixed in speed and direction respectively. The result for 32 of the 50 hours underway was the worst rolling/rough ride I had experienced on the cruise so far. I was very glad that I did not have anyone crewing with me (George, good thing you couldn’t go). It would have been a very bad experience; they would have been miserable. But, approaching Bahia Santa Maria on the last day it was bright sun and calm waters and winds.
This leg was not without its equipment issues: early in the leg the main halyard got away from me and tangled so badly in the mast steps that I couldn’t free it – no main sail for most of the leg (jib only); and the outboard end of the whisker pole jammed shut around the jib sheet. I had to hang over the life-lines with a screwdriver to pry it open (yes, my safety tether was clipped on). While at anchor in Bahia Santa Maria, I was able to climb the mast (that’s why I installed the mast steps) and free the halyard.
I didn’t wave to them. They came on their own. Three fishermen in a panga (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panga_(boat) slowed and pulled alongside while I was putting fuel in the tank. Them: no English. Me: less Spanish than a three-year-old. But, we managed to figure out that one of the fishermen needs two AA batteries for his handheld VHF radio. So, I go below and find two.
Once he gets those batteries, one of the other fishermen wants (and this took a minute or two to figure out) two D batteries. Same drill – he gets the batteries, then asks for two more!. No, sorry. I need two for me.
Well, at this point I eventually get across the idea that we need to do some bartering here. They have a number of fish lying in the bottom of their boat, so I ask for two. Done deal. Oh, by the way, fillet them for me. OK. I now have four fillets of Corvalo.
Next, the guy who got the two AA batteries asks if I have any candy (he actually used the English word) for the children (in their fish camp at the head of the bay). I said, “uno momento por favor” and dive below for the Halloween candy I bought in Fiddler’s Cove and never had to give out. And while below, I grab one of my planned bartering items (a P2 t-shirt from my last cruise ten years ago), stuff it in a ziploc bag and give that to him.
“Uno mas por favor, fileteado.” One more (Corvalo), please. Filleted.
Now, they have their stuff. I have six fillets of Corvalo. Everybody’s happy, and they’re off to their camp.
In my experience, Bahia Santa Maria is the only anchorage where I have this interaction with the local fishermen. In the morning at daybreak, they go whizzing by in their pangas to start the fishing day and then come whizzing back about mid-afternoon. Typically, they don’t stop at your boat unless you wave them down. It’s kinda fun (more so if you speak Spanish well) and an easy way to get some really fresh fish.
One more time Our Hero stolidly motors forth from an anchorage. Mid-day (21 Nov) the anchor is up and I’m on my way for another three-day/two-nighter bound for Puerto Los Cabos Marina (around the tip of Baja and north of Cabo San Lucas). The entire leg was a record-setter: the longest non-stop engine run I’ve ever done. There wasn’t enough wind to sail, so it was motor-sailing the entire way (200 miles, 50 hours).
There were only three events of note to break up the boredom: cruise ship contact by radio, a visit from a solitary Orca, and assault on my mast by a frigate bird. Here’s the scoop on each one.
I was passed by three cruise ships at night: two northbound and one southbound. They are easy to see because they are a blaze of lights (and they show up on the GPS and my radar as AIS targets). I called the northbound ship (Celebrity) to inquire how well I showed up on their radar (I have two radar reflectors in my rigging to improve the return of the radar signal to their scope). I got a good report and the ship passed more than a mile away. The southbound ship (Star Princess) passed well clear; no reason to call them on the radio.
However, the other northbound ship (Grand Princess) seemed to be heading right toward me (collision course). I called them to confirm that my course was okay. They said yes, but it didn’t look that way to me when referring to my GPS and radar. I called them a second time to voice my concern and they said to hold my heading. Well, sorry. I don’t want to get that close, so I turned farther left and the ship still passed about a quarter-mile on my starboard side.
This was the most exciting (fun) thing to happen: a visit in daylight hours from an Orca (killer whale). This was unusual for two reasons: I don’t think they usually frequent waters this far south, and most of the time they are found swimming in pods (not solitary). I thought at first it was a dolphin when at some distance, but when closer the dorsal fin was much too tall and the body was bigger and all black. It swam toward the port side of the boat, swam under the stern, and then swam briefly off the starboard side before disappearing in the distance. I think it came to the boat out of curiosity.
Lastly, the attack of the frigate bird. They like to land on top of masts (to rest, I guess). The problem is they are fairly large and heavy and will damage anything at the top of one’s mast (e.g., wind indicator). I like my wind indicator and don’t have a spare, so his landing at the top of the mast was not an option.
Wave action causes the mast to swing back-and-forth. This complicates his approach and landing – but not enough to keep it from happening. So, Our Hero got resourceful and employed a hi-tech solution: strobe light. I have an LED flashlight that is really bright and has a strobe function. I aim the light at the bird/top of the mast and the strobe (think disco effect) sufficiently disrupts his visual capacity to see and/or gage his landing at the top of the mast. The Captain: 1. Frigate Bird: 0.
Arrival at Puerto Los Cabos Marina (San Jose del Cabo, north of Cabo San Lucas on the east coast of Baja) was essentially uneventful. I ended up in a nice big slip among the “Big Dogs” (60ft+ sport fishing boats). Here I spent a few days resting and preparing the boat for my crew, Nathalie Mary (one of my consulting clients who wanted to have an opportunity to sail warmer waters and experience Mexico cruising). Little did we know what was in store for us when crossing the Sea of Cortez to Mazatlan.
Nathalie arrived Wednesday (25 Nov) and we had planned a Friday (27 Nov) departure. However, Mother Nature stepped in once again and tossed a “Norther” at us that resulted in the marina closing the harbor – no one allowed to leave).
The winds were forecast to have abated (but still in the low 20kt range) for Sunday (29 Nov), so we departed that afternoon. All was well until three or four hours later when we left the protection of the NE-tending coastline and experienced the compression effect of wind hitting land and accelerating as a result. The winds were from the north, on the port quarter of the boat, and at their worst (at night of course) estimated to be high 20 kts gusting mid 30kts.
That wasn’t so bad. It was the confused and large wind-generated waves that really made this horrendous. One can’t judge the wave height at night even with a full moon, but in the morning we were seeing 6-7 foot wind waves that would really push the boat around. It was difficult to move round inside the boat, and cooking without a gimbaled stove would have been impossible.
These were the worst sailing conditions I have ever experienced. The boat performed marvelously; there was never a moment when I thought we were in jeopardy AND the Hydrovane (wind vane steering device) steered the boat the entire time. Once we finally settled on a single-reefed main sheeted far to starboard (no jib or staysail), all we had to do was occasionally tweak a heading correction for the windvane and hang on.
This lasted about 30 of the 40 hours for the crossing. The last six hours before arriving at the Marina Mazatlan breakwater saw the wind and seas gradually abate to the point that both were calm upon arrival (midnight, eight hours earlier than planned). Waiting for daylight, we motored in a holding pattern a mile or so from shore.
Shortly after eight a.m., we were tied up in a slip at Isla Marina with the able assistance of Roberto Animas. He owns an Island Packet 38 too, and was a couple slips away from me in Westpoint Harbor, Redwood City. It was great to see a friend in a far off port and take advantage of his local knowledge since he has settled here in Mazatlan.
The only gear issue resulting from this demanding crossing was the chafing and failure of the first reef line for the main sail. Very fortunately, that didn’t happen until we were off the Marina Mazatlan breakwater. It would have been much more serious if it had happened during the worst of the crossing. Thank you to whoever was watching out for us . . .
Nathalie flew back to Oregon on 3 December. I have been repairing stuff (e.g., reef line), cleaning stuff (the entire boat and all foul weather gear was coated in a wind-blown salt spray), and catching up on the ship’s log entries as well as writing this saga chapter. I have also managed to get a haircut (badly needed) and patronize the local laundry service. So, things are getting back to normal in the context of having access to shoreside amenities.
The burning question on everyone’s mind (including Our Hero’s) is . . . what’s next?
Well, Puerto Vallarta beckons. As for a departure date, that is yet to be determined. I’d still like to see if anyone is available to crew for this leg. It is the nicest leg because there is only one overnight sail required and the anchorages and marinas along the way are enjoyable. Of course, everyone is caught up in the spirit of the holiday season and unlikely to want to (or be able to) get away – most understandable.
But if you have the hankering, a current passport, two weeks to spare, a desire for some adventure outside of your comfort zone, like warm sunny weather, and want to have an experience that doesn’t come along every day, let me know.
Stay tuned. More adventures to come as The Captain and No Moss sail south.
Signing off for now,