Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sea of Cortez (2011)

After a few weeks in La Paz, we decided to spend some time in the Sea of Cortez before visiting mainland Mexico.  We headed north on January 4th and spent five weeks exploring the sea.   We made it about 115 miles north before heading back to La Paz again.  We had a great time and really enjoyed the quiet anchorages, beautiful desert landscape and especially all of the marine life.  We saw blue whales, grey whales, lots of dolphins and jumping manta rays, as well as a few sea turtles, many pelicans and other birds. 

Sea of Cortez wildlife

On our first day out, a norther started blowing so we decided to pull in to the protected anchorage of Bahia Falsa, only a few miles north of La Paz.  A norther is the typical wintertime wind that blows in the Sea of Cortez.  It comes from the pressure gradient caused by a high pressure system in the Great Basin or Four Corners area of the U.S. and low pressure in the Sea of Cortez.  The winds generally blow 20 – 30 knots for three or four days during a norther, which seem to come every two to three weeks.  Although the wind can be annoying, it is generally harmless.  The real issue is the waves.  The winds start to blow in the north and they create larger and larger waves as they funnel 600 miles through the sea down to the south end, where we were.  These waves can be quite tall with very little distance between them and can be dangerous for boaters.  Throughout our trip, we listened to the weather reports every day on the shortwave receiver, so we could get to a good anchorage before the wind picked up.  Then we stayed put and waited it out.
For our first norther, Bahia Falsa turned out to be a good spot, as it is a very protected anchorage and we had it to ourselves, except for the local fisherman living in the bay.  The winds blew hard for four straight days.   Since we were stuck there, we spent some time working on some boat projects and doing a lot of reading.  When the winds calmed down a bit, we got the sailing dinghy rigged and took turns sailing in the bay.

Bahia Falsa

On the 5th day in Bahia Falsa, we noticed a boat approaching at full speed.  They made a lap around us, and pulled up alongside.  We were informed that they were part of the Mexican Navy, and needed to inspect the boat.  You wouldn’t really notice a difference between some of the Mexican navy boats and the boats used by the local fisherman, except for the guys in camouflage with machine guns.  The leader of the crew spoke a little English and was fairly pleasant, and the whole inspection took less than ten minutes.  However, we were a bit rattled after the unexpected visit.  The wind died down that afternoon and we decided it was time to be on our way. 
After leaving Bahia Falsa, we sailed north to Isla Espiritu Santo (Holy Spirit Island).  Isla Espiritu Santo and the small island to the north, Isla Partida, are both national park islands.  There are many beautiful anchorages on these islands with shallow crystal clear water and white sand beaches.  For our first anchorage, we stopped at Bahia San Gabriel because there is over a mile of white sand beach and a five mile hiking trail to the other side of the island.  It had been about five days since we had been on land and we were looking forward to getting off the boat and doing some hiking. 

Bahia San Gabriel

After only a day in Bahia San Gabriel, another strong norther was forecast to blow, so we made our way to El Metzeno, an anchorage on the northwest side of Isla Espiritu Santo.  This is a small anchorage, only big enough for a couple boats.  We chose this spot because it also had a hiking trail and good protection from the north winds which were expected to blow hard for about three days.  El Metzeno was a great anchorage, but we were starting to get a little frustrated with the winds.  Fortunately, this would be our last significant blow for the next few weeks.
El Metzeno
After four nights in El Metzeno, we headed a bit further north to Ensenada Grande on Isla Partida.  For the first time in a while we had completely calm winds and seas.   We spent the afternoon fishing, but the only thing we could catch were balloon fish, which are toxic.  There were lots of pelicans in this anchorage, and it was fun to watch them dive into the water, right next to the boat, and scoop up fish.  
We had very calm winds forecast for the next few days, so we decided we would cover some distance north while the winds were light.  Our next stop was Isla San Francisco, about 20 miles north.  This is a small island with a beautiful crescent shaped anchorage on the south side and lots of great hiking trails.  We spent a day and a half at the island hiking around and then made a long push the next day for Puerto Los Gatos, which is 40 miles to the north. 
Isla San Francisco
We had calm winds and seas, and on the way, we were accompanied by a pod of dolphins and a few whales.  Puerto los Gatos is a fairly small anchorage and very popular, so we were excited to find only one other boat in the anchorage when we arrived there late in the afternoon.  We spent a couple hours exploring the red rock cliffs and tide pools before the sun went down.  The other boat in the anchorage was Silas Crosby, a boat from Vancouver Island, BC, with Steve & Meredith aboard.  They paddled over in their kayaks and invited us over that evening for dinner.   We had fresh fish tacos and enjoyed talking with them.  They plan to head from Mexico to the Galapagos in February, and then further on to South America.
Puerto los Gatos
We headed out for Bahia Agua Verde the next day.  We were glad to have a good guidebook for this area, because there were a lot of shoal areas both in the bay and on the approach.  We bought brand new charts for Mexico before we left Seattle, but they didn’t have much detail of this area.  Although they were newly printed, closer inspection revealed that they were based on the most recent survey by the vessel U.S.S. Ranger in 1881.
Agua Verde is a small fishing village with probably less than 100 permanent residents, and we were looking forward to getting a few provisions there.  This is a great anchorage with very clear water in the bay, and the Sierra de la Gigante range provides a beautiful backdrop.   We walked into the village and found the tienda, which is a small one room cinderblock store located next to a house.  We grabbed a bunch of fresh produce and asked if they had any tortillas.  They didn’t have any, but said they would make some fresh tortillas for us if we came back in an hour.  We came back in a couple hours and they were just finishing making them.  When we got back to the boat, we had to eat a couple while they were still warm and somehow managed to finish off the rest of the kilo (2+ lbs) within a couple days.
We really liked Agua Verde, but decided we wanted to make it a little further north and that we would stop and spend a couple days there on the way back.  The next day we headed out for Puerto Escondido.   The winds were about 15 knots from the north, and we made some hard earned miles sailing upwind.  We were rewarded by catching another small tuna on the way in.   
We pulled into Puerto Escondido late in the afternoon, and picked up a mooring buoy in the main bay.  Puerto Escondido was an interesting stop.  It is actually fairly popular with cruisers because there is good protection from winds in all directions and because of its proximity to Loreto, which is about 14 miles to the north.   There isn’t much in Puerto Escondido other than the small marina, which did have laundry, hot showers, water, and a small store, all of which we were happy to see.  They also have a cruising club with a book exchange and lots of movies that you can borrow.  We were originally planning on going to Loreto, but the busses only stopped in the middle of the night and we were told they could sometimes be a few hours late, and a cab turned out to be quite expensive.  So instead, we spent a few days there just relaxing and catching up on laundry and emails and watching a few movies.
Now that we had full water tanks and replenished provisions, we headed back out to the islands to begin making our way south to La Paz.  We had hoped to make the first stop at Honeymoon Cove on Isla Danzante, but the small anchorage was full, so we continued on to Punta Colorada on Isla Carmen.  On our second day there, another sailboat, Harmony, joined us in the anchorage, with Steve and Kyle from Utah aboard.  They invited us over for drinks that night, and we had a great time hearing their stories and telling our own.  This was the furthest south they were going and it was our furthest north, so we headed opposite directions the next day.
We sailed south from Punta Colorada back to Bahia Agua Verde, which was our first downwind sail since leaving La Paz.  We arrived in Agua Verde in the late afternoon and decided we would spend a couple of days here this time to do some hiking and enjoy the place.  Our first hike went up over the cliff at the northwestern end of the anchorage and down into the valley behind.  The path led by the cemetery and through lots of palm trees to another beach.  There were free range cattle grazing in the palms, and turkey vultures were everywhere.  They would perch on the trees and cactus and air their wings.  The second hike led up over the cliffs at the northeastern end of the anchorage to a lookout over Punta San Pasquel.  After all this hiking, we decided to head into town to get some provisions.  We hiked along the road into town, which was a hot, dusty trip. Fortunately, on the way back it was low tide, and we were able to make it back by walking along the shoreline.  Agua Verde is one of our favorite spots so far.
Bahia Agua Verde

Reluctantly, we left the following day for Timbabiche (Bahia San Carlos).  There was an uncomfortable NNE swell of about four feet running with no wind, so we couldn’t get there fast enough.  However, about five miles from Timbabiche, we had two tuna hit on our fishing lines at the same time.  We managed to get both of them up to the boat, but decided to let the big one go.  The smaller one was plenty of food for the two of us for the next couple days.  It doesn’t feel right to let a fish go back, especially a nice sized tuna, but without refrigeration, it would go bad before we could eat all of it.
Once we arrived in Timbabiche, we had fresh tuna for lunch and then headed ashore to look for Casa Grande (large house).  This is a house that was built in the 1920’s when a local boatless fisherman harvested a pearl reported to be at least five carats.  The proceeds were enough to build this large house and buy a fleet of fishing boats.  The fisherman has since died and the house has been abandoned and only the exterior walls remain.  The town is now a small ranching village with free range cattle walking down the roads and the beaches and a few families living there.   That night, for the first time since leaving San Diego, it rained.  It was very light rain and only lasted for a few minutes, but it rained.  We are actually starting to miss the rain a little.
Timbabiche (Bahia San Carlos)
The next day we headed over to San Evaristo, which is a quiet little fishing village, except for the local fisherman who like to sing quite loudly while they are unloading fish and sorting out their nets.  We really enjoyed our two nights stay in San Evaristo.  There is a nice protected bay to anchor in with good snorkeling.  There are also a couple of good hikes in town and a small tienda where we were able to pick up a few provisions.   
San Evaristo
The forecast was for relatively calm weather the next day and night, so we hopped over to Bahia Amortajada on the southwestern tip of Isla San Jose.  This anchorage is close to a large lagoon, which we set off to explore.  We didn’t time our trip very well, as the tide was ebbing which caused strong currents.  Fortunately, it was near a low tide, so we were able to drag the dinghy along in the shallow water which was flowing at about 3 – 4 knots.  As we were dragging the dinghy we did the “stingray shuffle”, which involves shuffling your feet through the sand instead of stepping.   Apparently, it is better to kick them than step on them.    
After we pushed and pulled the dinghy through the shoal areas leading to the entrance, we eventually made it through the deeper and slower moving waters of the mangrove-lined channels.  These channels wind through to the large lagoon to the other side.  We had a good time exploring the channels and the lagoon and watching all of the birds and fish that inhabit the area.  On the way back to the boat, the manta rays started jumping, some very near the dinghy.  We spent the last couple hours before sunset watching the rays jump out of the water all around the boat.
Bahia Amortajada
Over the last week, we had been hearing about a really big norther that was coming and was now just a few days out.  We decided we would head back to Isla Partida and the anchorage at Ensenada Grande over the next couple days.  We stopped again in Isla San Francisco for a night, and then made it to Ensenada Grande the next day.  We were happy to find the small northern anchorage empty, which had room for only one boat and had the best protection from the north winds.  Since we arrived the day before the big blow, our first night was comfortable, and Bruno and Yvonne from the sailboat Momo stopped by to say hello.  They are from Switzerland and were anchored in another small bay just to the south of us.  We don’t normally leave our VHF radio on all the time while we are anchored, but this time we all agreed to leave our VHF radios on channel 16 in case the others needed help during the storm.
Ensenada Grande
We spent the rest of the day getting the boat ready.  We put two anchors out and got the decks cleaned up, removing the forward sails that have a lot of windage and making sure everything was lashed down.  We kept listening to the forecasts and hoping that it would turn out to be less severe than what had been originally predicted.  Unfortunately, the next afternoon the winds started to blow hard and were just as strong as they were forecasted.  We had consistent gusts in the 30 – 40 knot range with occasional gusts over 50 knots (60 mph). 
This was much worse than anything we had experienced at anchor before, and we were a little concerned about how our anchor gear would hold up.  We decided to do anchor watches for the two worst nights and alternated two hour shifts.  The first night we learned something else about the strong northers.  They blow the cold temperatures down from the north.  It got down to the low 40’s in the cabin and with the wind chill outside it was much colder.  Every hour or two we would go on deck to let out a little bit more anchor line so it wouldn’t chafe through, and we really bundled up before going out there.  Although we won’t get much sympathy from our friends in Seattle, it has been a while since we have experienced temperatures that low and it was a bit of a shock. 
There were 12-18 ft breaking waves out in the sea and just about every boat was taking refuge.  There was even a large commercial fishing boat that came in and anchored behind us for a couple days.  We heard on the radio afterwards that seafood restaurants were running out of fish, as the local fisherman either couldn’t get out or were spending their time fixing the wind damage on their houses. 
After three days the winds finally calmed down and it warmed up outside.  I think we both gained a few pounds as we didn’t get much exercise and Di decided to ease boredom by baking.  We had fresh bread, muffins, cookies and cornbread.  After the wind calmed down, we spent an afternoon hiking around the bay, and then headed back to La Paz the next morning.  We were looking forward to getting into a marina and washing the boat, which had salt caked on all the way to the top of the mast from the high winds.  The water hose won’t reach that high, and now we’re really hoping we can get some rain.