Sailing – Mexico – Baja Coast
Departing San Diego
“What’s going on with this thing? Why isn’t it working?”
Probably not the comments you want to come from your husband 20 minutes before you depart on a 10,500 mile sailing adventure.
I’m pretty excited to get out of port but in my haste, I forgot a simple task, that is putting us about a half an hour behind our scheduled departure time. All I had to do was input a security code into my sailing instruments and everything would be fine, but I think it’s a wi-fi issue, so I’m troubleshooting that instead. Argg!
Okay, got that fixed, now let’s go!
Turn on the engine and realize the sea strainer was leaking due to a seal that wasn’t seated correctly. Another easy fix.
Can we go now?!
We departed around 2330 (11:30PM local) from Kona Kai Marina in the Port of San Diego. It was about an eleven hour sail/motor-sail down to the Port of Ensenada (Cruiseport). The night was really dark and cold but not too bad. I took the first watch and Melissa was on watch from 0200 to 0400. I slept on deck with her just in case anything weird happened. We arrived just as the sun was coming up over the Mexican mountains. Beautiful.
Wow! We were actually doing this. This was a dream
of mine for 10 plus years and we were finally doing it. I was so happy. Not just because I was doing this trip, but because my wife and soulmate (co-captain) was right there beside me and “all in” on this journey. Amazing!
Of course, when we pulled in to CruisePort, we were set up to arrive port side but our slip had us dock on the starboard. We scrambled to change lines over to starboard once we realized our error. Docked successfully with the help of the S/V Tanga crew (two French guys).
Settled in and cleaned up boat and ourselves and went to meet with Jonathan at CruisePort. We had all our documents in order (so we thought) and headed off to clear in.
We had sailed down once before to this port as part of our shakedown cruise, to ensure our boat and we were ready for the big trip, so we knew a little bit about this port. We decided to let Jonathan at the port agency help us clear in, since he does it day in and day out.
It was a Saturday, so we only had a few hours of working with the officials before they were off to enjoy their weekend. We got a lot accomplished, however when we purchased our boat i
n San Diego, the previous owners never cancelled their TIP (Temporary Import Permit) in Mexico and it’s a real hassle, if that isn’t done, when the same boat returns to Mexico with new owners. Needless to say, we got the runaround and had to come back on Monday to work on paperwork again.
If you’re not familiar with “cruising”, which is basically sailing on an unrestricted time limit to unlimited destinations, that’s what we are now doing. There are a lot of people out there doing it. More than you probably think. Families with young children, families with teenagers, retired couples, people like us that have scrimped and saved, younger people still trying to find out what they want to do with their lives and so many other types of people.
No matter who you are or what your social status is (was), if you are a cruiser, you are instantly welcomed into the cruiser family and network of caring and friendly people. One way cruisers welcome newbies is by having a “morning net” radio chat. There is usually a specified VHF radio frequency and time that all local cruisers get on the radio and check in and see what’s going on in their local community. Ensenada was no different. Usually you can ask a cruiser on the boat next to yours, or someone walking the dock, and they will be more than happy to tell you the when and what freq to listen to.
Within minutes of “checking in” on the local net, people were offering us rides to stores, banks and other places, since they knew we didn’t have a car. Vickie of S/V Loch Fyne took us to Costco, Walmart and the bank and gave us the “local” lay of the land. While we were out on the town, her husband Steve called her and told us that our bottled water was being delivered and asked if we wanted it poured into our holding tank or not. Amazing people that knew the true meaning of hospitality and Bienvenidos (welcome).
Melissa and I enjoyed a wonderful dinner in Ensenada in a place known to the locals as “Gringo Gulch”. We usually eat where the locals eat and just because it’s known as Gringo Gulch, it didn’t stop the locals from dining and shopping there. It’s a little more upscale than the rest of the town but it was close to the marina, so we thought we’d have a nice dinner.
While walking the docks we met an amazing man. He was a blind sailor. Yes. Blind. He walked around with his cane poking and prodding his way along, not letting his handicap deter him from his dreams. He’s not the only one. I also heard of a husband and wife that were both legally blind and they sailed from the Pacific Northwest all the way to Australia by themselves. Never underestimate peoples desire to dream and live life to the fullest.
On Monday, we had to go back and do more paperwork to clear in, so we went up to the marina office right before they opened. There was another couple in front of us waiting as well.
A young feisty lady standing in front of us turned around suddenly and held out her hand, “Hi, I’m Alaina!” she said with a huge smile. Her confidence and happiness was contagious. Melissa shook hands with her and the conversations ensued. Alaina and her husband Pat were clearing in as well and they were going to take the same route we were, down the coast of Baja.
We all piled into the marina vehicle and drove off to get our paperwork completed. Of course, we had a another snag in our paperwork, due to the TIP not being cancelled, so we left Pat and Alaina at the Port Captain’s office, while our driver took us clear across town to file paperwork with the Police. As we were doing our paperwork at the police station, they said we needed to make copies, but they couldn’t do the copies there, however, there is a copy machine down the street at the Corona store, where we could make copies. Too funny, we walked about three blocks down a dirt road, avoiding stray dogs and wondering cars until we got to the Corona store. An elderly lady took our paperwork and went into the back of the store, where she had a state of the art photocopy machine, and made copies for us for a very good price.
We arrived back to the Port Captain’s office about two hours later and Pat and Alaina were waiting for us. I thought they would be really mad, due to the time, but they were just as friendly as could be.
We invited them for “sundowner” drink that night and we had a great time getting to know each other. We decided that we should “buddy boat” down the coast together, since neither of us had made that trip and it’s much safer to travel together.
We departed an hour before sunrise on Tuesday, January 19, 2016 enroute to Bahia Tortugas. As both of our boats began to leave the bay, we knew it was going to be cold and wavy. The waves were so big that the Todos Santos Surf Challenge had big wave riders surfing 15 to 20 foot waves as we passed through the channel.
Three days and 295 nautical miles later, we both pulled into Bahia Tortugas and anchored. Pat and Alaina’s boat, “Swift Ranger” is a little smaller than ours (30 feet vs. our 38 feet) however they are great sailors and matched us knot for knot the whole way. Since we have a motor on our dinghy and they have a row dingy, I offered to pick them up and bring them to the fuel dock with their jerry jugs, so we could all get fuel and replenish what we used on the way down.
Let me just say, the fuel dock is scary. Getting on and off the dinghy is crazy because there are rusting hulks of metal everywhere and if you misjudge the rolling waves you could puncture the dinghy, fall in the water or get gashed. Luckily, we all made it safely on the pier. We haggled for the price of diesel and the guys seemed just a little bit on the shady side. It was decided that Melissa and I would go into town to try to find water and food and Pat and Alaina would stay behind with the dinghy.
Melissa and I walked for more than a half an hour, going from street to street trying to find a place that sold groceries (more than soda and cervesa/beer) but to no avail. We even asked the machine gun wielding masked Federalies (State Police) in our broken Spanish, were we could get internet and they helped us as best they could. We decided to come back to the fuel pier and then we heard yelling from our right. We looked across the small bay and could see Pat and Alaina waving us over to them. They had found a perfect little restaurant with the friendliest staff.
We all ordered lunch and believe it or not, this little place had real live internet. The fish tacos were delicious. The owner, Maria, had her boyfriend play some live music for us and we just let time pass and enjoyed ourselves with our new friends.
Before we left California, it was imperative that we do some good for others as part of our, “Pay it Forward” lifestyle. Melissa spearheaded a fundraiser and worked with an organization, Waves for Water, that provides clean drinking water filters to people/villages in need. One filter can provide up to one million gallons of safe drinking water from a not so clean source.
Since we are so interested in how others live, we asked if we could look around the cocina (kitchen) and restaurant. Melissa noticed that Maria had to ship in bottled water for everything from doing dishes, to providing drinking water. Due to Maria’s amazing view on life (she had to rebuild her restaurant when it was burned down the year before), Melissa decided she would be the first recipient of our water filters.
We told her that we were going to go to our boat and would be back in about an hour. We did just that. We dropped off Pat and Alaina and we got a filter kit, some earrings that Melissa hand makes, eyeliner and reading glasses for Maria and her boyfriend. They were so happy! See the quick video here.
We stayed at anchor that night and left the following early morning at 0224, bound for Bahia Santa Maria.
Detour to Bahia Asuncion
It was dark, stormy, cold and the waves were really starting to pick up. Our original plans were to head to Bahia Santa Maria and anchor up and get some shelter until everything blew over. We were in constant contact with Swift Ranger via VHF radio and by text on our Delorme InReach satellite handheld. After about six to eight hours, they hailed us on the VHF and said they were going to make a detour into Bahia Asuncion. Since we were buddy boating with them, we wanted to ensure their safety and told them that we would change course and go in with them. It was a win/win. We got to see a new place that we didn’t plan on seeing and we got to continue to buddy boat with our newfound friends.
We ended up anchoring at 1442 (2:42 PM) at Bahia Asuncion. We spent the night at anchor and the next day Pat rowed his dinghy over to our boat and Pat and I went into town to get some provisions and diesel. Really nice town and seemed like all the people were really friendly. I love dogs and ended up playing with a mama pit bull at the local gas station.
Our wonderful wives hung back on the boat and tidied up while we shopped. There are no gender roles when you are a cruiser. Everyone does what needs to be done and everyone is the happier for it.
We left the next day early in the morning (before sunrise). It’s always a little scary sailing at night because there are so many unknowns. When there are only two people on a boat, standing watch becomes a little tedious. Melissa and I took four hour shifts and it worked out well for us. Some other cruisers mix it up to whatever works well for them.
I happened to be on watch and after looking at the rolling seas for a while, I began to get bored. I decided to read a little from our cruising bible, Mexico Boating Guide, about San Ignacio Whale Park, which we happened to be sailing by.
The book is a wealth of information for anyone cruising in Mexico. I was reading that from December to May, thousands of gray whales migrate to this area and further south to give birth and to nurse their new baby calves. I thought to myself, “A THOUSAND whales?” Maybe I should stop reading this book and maintain a diligent watch. I put the book down and no more than five seconds later, I see a giant whale heading straight for our boat at full speed. I changed course immediately to starboard to avoid the whale and of course, it changed course too! I yelled down to Melissa, “Whale!” so if we collided, she would know what happened. We were on a collision course. As fast as I could, I pulled the wheel to port just as the whale surfaced thirty feet from us. Wholly shit! We missed each other by feet. Heart pumping and breathing hard, I managed to compose myself and when Melissa came up, I told her the story. Needless to say, no more reading books until we were out of the “whale zone”. I called Swift Ranger and gave them a heads up to keep a eye out as well.
Bahia Santa Maria (aka Santa Maria Cove)
We arrived just before sundown at this anchorage. Slept like a baby once we knew our anchor was set. Pat, Alaina, Melissa and I took our dinghy into a small estuary the next morning and went on a little shore side excursion.
We found all sorts of things, from corroded batteries that washed up, to beautiful sand dollars and shells. We all piled back into the dinghy and went up the brackish estuary river.
We really started to feel that we were on an adventure. The scenery felt foreign and we were doing things that people only dreamed of. We are forever grateful that we pushed ourselves to get to this point in our lives.
Later that day, Melissa and I took our dinghy into another beach and went on a short hike along the deserted cliffs. We departed the next morning bound for Mag Bay.
Bahia Magdelena (Mag Bay)
It’s really interesting when you look at the distance from Bahia Santa Maria to Mag Bay. They are about 10 miles apart as the crow flies, but when you are sailing, you have to sail all the way down to Mag Bay’s entrance and then all the way back up again, which took us about 7 ½ hours. We had to dodge a few pangas (Mexican fishing boats) along the way, since they were out working hard setting their fishing lines as we passed by. So far on this entire trip, the winds and waves were relentless. We found a safe anchorage in front of Man of War Cove at Puerto Magdelena. Even inside the bay though, the winds were blowing 29 knots and there were small wind waves whacking against the boat the entire time. Swift Ranger anchored downwind from us a little closer to the shore.
Melissa made a new Mexican friend on the VHF radio on the way in. I think what happened was, Melissa was talking with Alaina of Swift Ranger and then our new friend got on the radio and hailed Melissa. He was practicing his English and Melissa was practicing her Spanish. It was really great to “meet” someone on the radio, who you had no idea of who they actually were but have a great dialog in Spanglish.
We eventually made our way into “town” to check in at the Port Captains office and to get some lunch at the local restaurant. It was kind of funny because we could tell the owners were not actually expecting any tourists. Harlow Hut and Swift Ranger were the only two cruising boats in the entire bay. Once we ordered lunch, we could see the waitress take off to her own home to get some of the ingredients needed. The beer was ice cold and once the food arrived, it was delicious. The restaurant had some cool artifacts and a lot of whale and other sea mammal bones.
We went on a late afternoon walk after lunch and Melissa discovered pieces of broken dishes that washed ashore from the previous hurricane. She was inspired to use the colors and designs of these pieces in her jewelry and this began her, “World Travel Inspiration Line”.
The next morning Pat and I went for a SUP (stand up paddleboard) ride around the bay. It was great, Pat had never done this and it was great to paddle around looking at the sea life from up above, without having to get wet. We happened to do this before the wind started to pick up. Once it picks up, you could be blown all the way across the bay and possibly not make it back.
Later on, Melissa and I took our dinghy for a ride to the estuary. It was a very wide river that flowed into the bay but due to the shoals, it was hard to approach. We got within one hundred yards and I got out and pulled the dinghy while Melissa stayed inside. As we were approaching the head of the river, a large coyote started eyeballing us and then started to enter the water towards us. We yelled at it to no effect. I just kind of looked at us and looked hungry. We took out an oar and waved it over our heads. Finally, it got the idea that we were not easy prey and it sauntered off into the bush. I pulled the dinghy into deeper water and we began to motor off up the river. Wow! This was really cool. I love doing things like this. To do the things that I have watched on documentaries my whole life, it the best feeling I have ever felt. Experiencing the dream, rather than dreaming the dream, is what I live for.
We motored up river for about ten minutes and then it began to get really shallow. We turned around and found a great place to beach the dink. We got out and could see coyote tracks all over as well as other animal tracks. We walked on the shore for a bit and then saw two large black Police type boats heading right for us. The boats were going really fast like they had an agenda.
Since Melissa and I don’t know all of the Mexican laws, we started to feel kind of uncomfortable and decided to head back to our dinghy quickly, since we thought we may be on some sort of protected land. A Mexican jail was not what I envisioned as part of our trip. When we finally got into the dinghy and pushed off, we were both getting a little panicked. We motored out of the river and found a channel out into the bay. Of course, the two boats were in the channel and they headed right for us. A smile goes a long way, so we started smiling as big as we could.
As the boats approached, our smiles turned into laughter. The boats turned out to be tourist boats loaded with photographers on a whale watching tour. They were actually using their five thousand dollar lenses to take picture of us. Too funny.
The next day, we decided that we should go into the larger town of Puerto San Carlos and get some fresh veggies and additional provisions. We had met a local by the name of Martin who offered to take us into town on his panga for a small fee (which we never negotiated before – bad call). He picked up Alaina, and Pat stayed behind to keep an eye on the boats, since it was still blowing pretty hard. Alaina, Melissa and I jumped in and Martin drove his panga about twenty minutes, up to a beach where a car was waiting for us. We drove through town looking for a good market but nothing was “speaking” to us. We asked if there was another larger town nearby and Martin said it was about an hour away. We were all up for an adventure, so we opted to go to Constitucion.
Let’s just say Martin didn’t follow the good ol’ USA speeding laws. He was actually going so fast that we started to get a little scared. I asked him, “No Federalies?” to get him to think about his speed. It worked. He slowed down to a safer pace and we were much happier for it. It’s pretty much all desert in this part of Mexico and there are a lot of Catholic shrines just off the road to honor those that have died at that section of road. I’m talking like at least one a mile. Lots of them.
We finally made it to Constitucion and drove up to a supermarket. After purchasing all of our provisions, we went across the street and ate at a nice little chicken restaurant that had internet. It was so weird, because we had all these plans of what to do once we got internet, but as soon as we were connected, we all looked at each other in kind of a daze and couldn’t concentrate on what to do. It was so gratifying and unusual at the same time.
We drove back to Puerto San Carlos and Martin drove us around to meet with some of his family members. I guess he was happy to have paying customers and wanted to show us off. We didn’t realize how happy he was until we got to his boat and we finally haggled on the fee for the day’s journey. Martin told us it would be over $130 US for all of us. We were in sticker shock, since all we wanted to do is get provisions, however when we thought about it, it was a full day of boating/driving/gas and Martin and his son’s time. It was worth it, but we should have agreed on a price before we ever got off our boat and we should have shopped local and dealt with the smaller markets.
We loaded back into the boat and Martin allowed Alaina to captain for a bit, while he enjoyed his beer. It was a really fun trip back. The wind and waves were intense but it was all worth it when we drove by a beach with hundreds of Cormorant birds. It was another documentary type visual eye candy.
The wind picked up that night and it became more intense as the night went on. I woke up around 0300 and checked on our anchor to see if we were dragging. Since it was pitch dark and the town shuts down their generator at 9PM, I looked for Swift Rangers anchor light to get a bearing of where we were. “What the hell?” I said to myself, Swift Ranger was now one hundred yards in FRONT of us, when they should have been one hundred yards BEHIND us. Did we drag anchor? If so, we must have dragged a long way without feeling it at all. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I looked for landmark bearings and from what I could recall, we were in the same place. I was confused but we looked like we were safe and secure, so I went back down below to sleep.
The next day, I hailed Swift Ranger on the radio and asked if we dragged in the middle of the night. “No, we moved in front of you just after sundown.” They said. They thought we heard them, since they were making a lot of noise raising anchor and re-dropping it. I was so relieved. To drag anchor here would not be good because you may wash up on a small jetty on the inside of the bay (which is why they moved).
The weather window looked like it was opening up, so we decided to leave the next afternoon. As soon as we awayed anchor, both vessels were off on a good run. There are a lot of whales inside the bay, so we were on a close watch. As we exited the bay, I looked over at Swift Ranger and saw a large Manta Ray jump out of the water right in front of their boat. In case they didn’t see it, I called them on the radio and told them to keep an eye out. I guess the Manta jumped a few more times and they may have snapped a picture or two.
The waves and currents were large and confused and Melissa and I made a short video of our departure from Mag Bay.
Only 212 nautical miles to get around the cape of Baja and get into Puerto los Cabos.
As usual, the waves, winds and currents were bad the rest of the way down the Baja Pacific. Swift Ranger and Harlow Hut took different tacks a few different times but we were usually within sight of each other all the way down, until we cornered Cabo San Lucas. Our vessel made the corner first and came into a direct headwind. We thought about motoring right through it and making a rhumline straight for our destination, but I wanted to use the wind and made the decision to tack out into the Sea of Cortez to get some speed northbound.
Since I’m a waterman, I had all sorts of toys along for the trip, including two SUP boards on the starboard side in surf racks and three surfboards and a spare solar panel on the port side in another set of surf racks. The surf racks are mounted on stanchions about mid way down each side of the boat at deck level.
Well, we were going as fast as our boat could handle safely at 7.5 knots on a port tack (wind coming over the left side of the boat) and we were healing over just enough to get the water almost up to deck level. I was just about to tack to bring the boat back on course to our destination of Puerto los Cabos, when I heard “Slam! Crack!” I didn’t really know what was going on but those aren’t the sounds you want to hear in the middle of a pitch black night when you’re the only one on deck. I called down for Melissa to come up on deck now. I turned into the wind and stopped the boat quickly to ascertain what had happened. I felt really bad for Melissa because she awoke from a dead sleep to an emergency situation.
I’m so happy that we work so well as a team. I asked Melissa to get on the helm and turn keep the boat turned into the wind as much as she could. I always have my inflatable harness on and strapped on to the jackline to go forward to see what happened. I scurried up the starboard side and saw instantly that one of the SUP’s had hit a wave and buckled under the pressure. One of the surf racks bent so bad that it was literally hanging off the boat into the water. I tried to pull the SUP boards up, but they were connected to the racks and weren’t budging. I always have a knife on me while at sea and used my knife to cut the straps holding the boards to the racks. I used all my strength and pulled the SUP boards up on deck while Melissa maintained course as best as she could due to the circumstances. What an ordeal! Things happen so fast in the blink of an eye and usually in the middle of the night. Both Melissa and I were very happy it was just the SUP boards and nothing major went wrong.
After the boards were securely fastened to the deck we changed course and headed back to our destination. I called Swift Ranger and told them what happened and they said they were not going to be able to make it to Puerto los Cabos and they were going to pull into Cabo San Lucas. We were happy they would make it into port safely and at the same time, really sad because we had buddy boated with them for so long and this would be our first time apart.
We got into Puerto los Cabos just after sunrise and were so happy to be in a port with facilities.