September 24, 2009

Jacaranda Passage Note #34: We survived another summer in the Sea, Part 1: Heat and Hurricanes

We slipped into the marina in Santa Rosalia in order to attend the festival in San Ignacio, a small oasis of a community 2 hours north by bus on the Transpeninsular Highway. We had such a good time last year that we planned to return and mentioned to a few friends what we were doing. They had never heard of it before but were so intrigued from our account that before we knew it 5 other boats wanted to attend and were busy making reservations So we rented a van and driver and all had reserved air-conditioned yurts at the San Ignacio Springs Bed and Breakfast, run by a Canadian couple and located on the banks of a fresh water lagoon. The yurts were comfortable and the food  sumptuous breakfasts and a special pork roast dinner  was delicious.

The San Ignacio festival was a bit different than last year. Louder band music at the Big Dance in the town center in the evening drove us gringos with sensitive hearing away back to the quiet sanctuary of our yurts. The crowd this year was considerably smaller and fewer horses during the Sunday Cabalgata (horse parade) and procession changed the whole atmosphere. Local festival leaders attributed it to the economic difficulties of Mexicans this year. The highlight for us was a private mariachi concert hosted by friend Jane, proprietress of Casa Leree, in honor of the birthday of a neighboring 90-year-old Mexican woman. The Los Reyes, a mariachi band of nine musicians from Tijuana, were the special musical guests of the festival and the best mariachis we have ever heard. They knew every song the smiling toothless old woman requested except for one. The small audience of 25 people, including us cruisers and many of the womans ancient peers, sat on plastic chairs on the dirt lawn under an old laurel tree in front of her house listening to the music for two hours non-stop until it became dark and everyone departed to the zocalo (town square) for something to eat at the festival food booths.

San Ignacio seemed like a real vacation with its festive atmosphere and respite from the overwhelming heat of the Sea of Cortez. Cooling breezes from the Pacific wafted through the groves of date palms and we all remarked how wonderful it was to awake in the morning and be dry instead of moist from sweat. We all appreciated Gary and Terrys hospitality, the comfort of their B and B, and the fun of swimming in fresh water. Leaving the oasis behind, approaching Santa Rosalia through the dry desert, down the steep escarpments near the spectacular Tres Virgenes volcanoes, the sensation of heat returning, our driver turned to me and said in Spanish, we call this The Inferno. And so it is. Santa Rosalia was so incredibly hot that when we returned we wasted little time in getting provisioned and leaving.

It was a beautiful day with wind aft of the beam when we left Santa Rosalia headed north for Punta Trinidad. With the spinnaker up and the fishing lines out we were kicking back when we were approached by a very large Mexican navy panga with almost 1000hp of outboards on the back. They came along side and asked for a favor - the GPS coordinates of our location. We gave them the exact position and they happily zoomed off, only to see them coming out of the Trinidad anchorage just as we were headed in 3 hours later.

We intended to stop for an overnight at Trinidad but, finding it very rolly and figuring it couldnt be any worse at sea than in the anchorage, we instead headed out about 5pm for an overnight passage to San Fransisquito. We were watching a large bank of thunderstorms with lightning moving across the sea from mainland Mexico. Certain chubasco (summer storm from the east) in the making. About 2am, in the blink of an eye, the wind went from a very light westerly to a 35-40kt easterly with no rain! Two hours later the wind returned back to its original direction and speed. We sailed along with wind on the beam with reduced sail coming into San Fransisquito in the dark early hours.

We stayed a few days, anchoring upwind of the decaying whale carcass on the beach, and then decided to sail across the Channel to Isla Animas which we knew from last year would have much cooler temperatures than anchorages along the coast. Yes! Some relief from the heat!

An area we wanted to explore that we did not get to last year was Animas Bay further north back along the coast. So we left the island and sailed across the channel again to the coastline of Baja, putting the hook down in the western anchorage of Animas Bay. Indeed the conditions were very hot because of breezes coming across the sunbaked Baja landscape; the daytime temps often reached mid to high 90s. But it was such a beautiful area that we stayed two weeks. A fishing highlight for me was that I landed a 20lb+ dorado from the dingy which provided a good fight and numerous dinners. We snorkeled in a large man made walled off fish trap that we think may have been made by indigenous people years ago, full of live sand dollars, crabs, and clams.

Around the corner, Animas Slot, a one boat anchorage, became a favorite place. Linda gathered mussels and saw her first black sea bass (an endangered species) which she estimated to be 4 feet long with an enormous girth. They swam face to face and scared each other. I fished from the dinghy close to a huge bait ball with 1000+ boobies hitting the water like missles and hundreds of dolphins churning the water as they corralled and dined on the sardines. Being in the midst of so much activity is exciting! A hungry booby dove on my lure and while I stopped to unhook the angry dude a 70 fin whale surfaced and blew about 4 from the dinghy. I had the bird by the neck and we both turned our heads so fast in astonishment it looked like a ventriloquist comedy routine.



We proceeded north, heading up to the Bahia de Los Angeles area, where we hang around as the hurricane season gets stronger. The BLA area is a beautiful part of the Sea with its small village and bay known for its fishing and whale shark watching, surrounded by wonderful bays and islands to explore. This year we spent more time in the south part of the Bay called La Mona, off a gringo-home lined beach where the whale sharks like to swim. We connected up with Rick and Sharon on Limerick, my brothers former catamaran, and spent a few days with them cruising the bay following the whale sharks (the largest fish in the world) and getting in the water to swim with them up close and personal. There were five of these polka dotted giants, 12-16 foot juveniles (they grow to 40 feet), and it was exciting to be a few feet away as they swam on the surface, gracefully swishing their bodies and large tails, mouths agape, taking in the plankton rich waters, seeing them look at us with their small eyes. It was easy to spot them from the high freeboard of Limericks deck and Rick took some extraordinary photos. While in La Mona, we met a few new local gringo residents, including Mary (aka Baja Gal) who is building a home on the beach. She hosted us for barbeques and clambakes (and internet) and it was great to connect with her and some of the others we had met last year (Native Son and Rancho Pacifico).

This hurricane season (June 1-Nov. 30) was an unusual one. There are an average of 17 storms each season. While we religiously monitor the activity in the hurricane nursery near Acapulco, most of the early hurricanes are not a threat; this year many turned west and hit Hawaii. In Sept. we got word of Hurricane Jimena  a category 5 (the strongest) coming north toward Baja. With winds of 165 knots at that point, it was the most powerful hurricane our weather forecaster had seen in the last 20 years. So we ran to the best hurricane hole called Puerto Don Juan (affectionately known by cruisers as Puerto Pollo, or Chicken Port), and anchored with 25 other boats. Here we prepared ourselves for a big blow of 70+ knot winds - we stripped the boat of all the canvas, took the headsail down, rolled the dingy up on deck, deployed the huge hurricane anchor.and waitedto see where Jimena would track. Fortunately it stopped south of us, veered east and passed us by with no more than 20kts and a few drops of rain. There was an audible sigh of relief among the fleet!! Jimena had passed over Santa Rosalia, the central Baja, and then crossed over the Sea to San Carlos on the Mexican mainland. Then in an unusual move, Jimena turned around, much reduced in force, and retraced her steps back to Santa Rosalia. The news started to arrive about the terrible damage Jimena did to Santa Rosalia (town buried in 4 feet of mud and the old marina destroyed), San Carlos (25 inches of rain in 14 hours, town disabled with no electricity or passable roads, boats knocked over in the boatyard and others lost ashore), Mulege (flooding and mud slides), and Puerto Escondido, (90 knot winds drove some boats on the beach). We felt really lucky to have dodged that bullet!