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May 6, 2008

Jacaranda Passage Note #22: We Are Now in the Sea of Cortez

Agua Verde, Baja California del Sur

We're now in the Sea of Cortez!! The east coast of the Baja California Peninsula is new territory for us and we are excited about seeing new places and spending time in new anchorages. Jacques Cousteau called the fish-rich waters of the Sea the worlds aquarium  it supports 875 fish species and 30 species of marine mammals. The beauty of this special place has inspired writers such as John Steinbeck and Edward Abbey. Indeed it is a place of spectacularly stark, rugged landscapes edged by white sand beaches and dazzling turquoise water. Its where the desert meets the sea and looks like Death Valley and the Grand Canyon have come to the beach.

Our intention is to spend the summer on the boat exploring the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California). The extreme heat is forefront in our minds and we are hoping we can cope with temperatures reaching 100 degrees with no air conditioning (well, we do have small fans and spray bottles of water). Being in anchorages where we can jump over to cool off will hopefully make it bearable although 85-degree water may not be as refreshing as we would like.

Most of the sailing we did this past season on the Mexican mainland coast was to old haunts and in most cases we were so familiar with the area that we didnt even need to have a chart out. Use of the charts has to be put in perspective as in many cases they are off by more than a mile; often we are sailing on land according to the GPS. The only places they appear to be somewhat accurate are major harbors like Mazatlan, Manzanillo and La Paz that have been updated due to the major shipping centers. So we get close and revert to the age-old method of eyeball navigation and common sense. Lastly we have at least 6 cruising guides for the Sea of Cortez area - from the first one published (1971) to the latest (2007) - that really does spoil us. Being able to read about an anchorage or an area before entering does have a calming quality and gives us reasurance. For those folks who have never cruised in areas with guides, you get a whole different perspective about navigation and anchorage approaches.

So  back to our travels - we departed Mazatlan on Sunday morning, April 20, for the 43-hour trip across in what is called the southern crossing to Espiritu Santo Island outside of La Paz. It turned into one long motorboat ride as we were only able to sail a few hours. The wind was right on the nose and thankfully light so we could motor sail (motor with the mainsail up). We were planning for a bit more northerly shift in the breeze that would have allowed us to sail but it never materialized. Everything had to be closed up tight as we had constant spray coming over. Thankfully, we sealed a few deck leaks before departing PV a month earlier. Fishing report one tiny mackerel that we tossed back and our favorite lure chomped off by something big since the 300lb test wire leader was shredded. Fish 2 Jacaranda 0.

Our ETA was estimated at 2:30 a.m. but we have grown much more comfortable with the use of radar since leaving SD and there was a full moon to help us see. We changed arrival locations to a more easily approachable bay with no off lying dangers. A bay called Bahia Bonanza had no obstructions, a Nav light on one end and a 2 mile brilliant white sandy beach that glowed under moonlight. We dropped the hook about 2a.m. in 20 feet of water and could see the bottom under full moonlight! Everything we touched on the exterior of the boat had a very thick coating of salt from all the wind driven spray. But the fresh water rinse (love that watermaker!) could wait till the next day as we crawled into the v-berth, thankful for a bed that was not rolling around.

The next morning we awoke to a beautiful turquoise bay and white beach with stark dry landscape all around. and we had it all to ourselves. Cactus and a few birds were the only living things we could see. The water was 74 degrees and clear. We cleaned up the boat, went for a swim and just relaxed. We hung around for a few days, walking on the beach to stretch our legs and swimming in the clear water.


Thursday we sailed the 23 miles to the city of La Paz to restock our supply of diesel, stopping at beautiful Bahia Ballandra for lunch and a swim (this beautiful bay is known for its landmark El Hongo mushroom shaped rock, which actually fell off its pedestal a few years ago but was rebuilt with resin and rebar). By the time we departed, the wind had come up and we were able to sail all the way down the long channel right into the anchorage in La Paz, settling in front of Marina de La Paz near the downtown. La Paz is a wonderful town with a beautiful long malecon adorned with bronze sculptures, the place to be to watch sunsets! We stayed just long enough to get diesel, provision for food, and have a few good seafood dinners with friends we havent seen all season!

We sailed out of La Paz on Monday, stopping in an old haunt of mine called Caleta Partida on Isla Partida. I had stopped there in Jacaranda in the 90s before departing for the South Pacific and did a few Sea of Cortez Race Weeks there in the 80s onboard Runaway and Pioneer Spirit. The anchorage is part of a blown out volcano crater with large cliffs rising on both sides and a white sandy beach with a Mexican fish camp on one end. We had one night of totally flat calm with mirror like conditions; but the next night we had a 25 knot Coromuel (strong south westerly evening winds typical of this season in the La Paz area) which had enough south in the wind to keep us very protected and keep the wind generator happy.

The next morning the forecast was for southerly winds in the 15-18 knot range so we jumped on it and sailed north 28 miles to Isla San Jose with the wind vane driving beautifully in the warm breeze. We sailed past the beautiful hook on Isla San Francisco, close to the colorful tiny village perched on Isla Coyote, heard the sea lions barking on Rocas de la Foca and pulled into the large anchorage of La Amortajada (The Shroud), rolling the headsail up just before dropping the anchor. This bay is located on the SW side of Isla San Jose and is made up of a long 5-mile white sandy beach with vivid turquoise water. Protected from the southerly breezes it offered fantastic views of the rugged and very dramatic Sierra de la Giganta mountain range on the Baja Peninsula. The mountain range gives the impression of rising straight from the depths of the Sea of Cortez and reminds us of Utahs Lake Powell.

Last night while leaving a friends boat after dinner, their stern spot light showed the water full of activity. Tons of krill, small crabs, plankton, fish, fat centipede-like worms, a few colorful sea snakes plus the bottom in 30 feet of water. It really looked like a live soupjust the kind of rich food chain necessary to support such biodiversity here!

From La Amortajada we headed north 28 miles to Los Gatos, an incredibly beautiful anchorage with pink rock cliffs surrounding a double lobed anchorage. A boat is protected from the north winds on one side and from the southerly winds on the other side. When the sun rose in the morning it appeared that an artist took a paint brush and brushed the cliff faces with soft pink paint. We enjoyed a tequila welcome from friends on Angelfish, lobsters purchased from a local fisherman, good snorkeling, and the sunset conch-horn reveille blown each evening by Eric on Miha. The anchorage gave us views of the colorfully striated mountain range that runs along the Baja coast, and we went ashore for a 5 mile hike into this spectacular desert landscape with friends from Sweetie. Walking on goat trails and along a dirt road to the neighboring northward anchorage called Punta Telmo, we saw a hawk, turkey vultures, lots of jack rabbits and the tracks of wild burros and coyotes.

Yesterday we traveled north again another 15 miles, skirting a number of shallow reefs to anchor at Bahia San Marte, a secluded spot so thick with tiny silvery fish that it created dark shadows on the bottom and churned the water into a large boiling surface. Pelicans and cormorants were diving all around us, gorging themselves on the fry. Linda jumped over with a snorkel and swam in the midst of these huge schools of sardines, watching packs of larger fish dart through and raid the buffet! Unfortunately, the wind came out of the south during the later part of the afternoon making for an uncomfortable anchorage in the building swells. So after three hours in this treasure of a place, we moved 7 miles further north to popular Bahia Aqua Verde.

Beautiful Aqua Verde offers good protection from every wind direction except East depending on which of the three anchorages you choose. During the evening the catabatic winds hooted (bullets of 30 knots) and we were very glad we did move to a more protected anchorage. San Marte in those conditions would have been awful and rocky to the point of being unsleepable! Bahia Agua Verde is popular for a reason  it is spectacular scenery with lots of good hiking and divingand there is a small tienda in the fishing village of 200 people for a bit of reprovisioning when the tomatoes, avocados, bananas, and other fruits and vegetables have all run out. There is also a tiny church, a school, and a small dairy for freshly made goat cheese. In the evenings, you can hear the tinkle of bells as the goats roam the hillsides.

Today, by the time we returned to the boat from shopping at the tienda, the tiny anchorage started to get packed with many vessels traveling across the 1 mile bay to get set for the 20 knot northerly breeze forecast to start this evening. Also boats came in from both anchorages to the south and north. So we are crowded into a tiny corner of the anchorage with just a few boat lengths separating folks. It feels like Avalon on Catalina Island in California on a busy weekend.

This is the furthest north we will travel for now  95 miles north of La Paz. We are planning on heading back south in the morning hoping to take advantage of the northerly that is predicted to blow all tonight and tomorrow. We need to be back in La Paz by the 12th to meet friends and then Linda departs on May 15th for 2 weeks in the states (San Diego, Tucson and Florida) before resuming our cruising in the Sea.


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