Log #23—The Baja Coast to La Paz

Thursday December 9th, 1999—Rounding the Southern Tip of Baja

Raised anchor in Bahia Asunción at 0740. We sailed 55 miles that day, and anchored in Bahia de Ballena at 1820 hours (26º 44.50'N, 113º 24.37' W). It was an uneventful day that accentuated both the beauty and desolation of the Baja: blue sky, blue water, brown hills, and no human contact.

During the day, Debi commented that she was ready for some substantial human interaction-just as I was thinking the same thing. Little did we know what we were in for.

Friday December 10th, 1999—Ill-Prepared for Ocean Cruising?

0815 hours: Hauled our anchor up in Bahia de Ballena. About three miles out of the bay two fishermen approached near to us in their ponga. "Langosta por chocolade?" I asked. My Spanish must have been adequate, because it elicited a stream of Spanish, the likes of which I will probably never understand. "No comprender," I implored.

Another barrage of Spanish followed, along with sufficient sign language to indicate that they were off to visit another one of their traps. Minutes later they returned with four fresh lobster in exchange for two more See's (dark chocolate with almonds) candy bars. A fine start to a beautiful morning.

At 1015 we picked up a call on VHF from Freerider, a 30-foot Endeavor sailboat. Freerider (not the real boat name) appealed to anyone in the area because they were having engine trouble. We responded to the call. So began a 24-hour, hour-on-the-hour, handholding session off the coast of Baja.

Freerider communicated that they were having intermittent engine trouble, although they said they were not in need of assistance at this time. We informed them that we were under sail approaching their position from the north.

At 1100 we called them back to determine the specifics of their situation: what kind of engine trouble? Freerider reported vibrating and smoking at higher rpms. We suggested that the problem might be their fuel filter. If the filter was clogged it could cause those symptoms when the engine runs at higher speeds.

After a brief off-line conversation, the three of us concluded that it would have been preferable to help Freerider then rather than turn back for a rescue six or 12 hours later. We called Freerider again and asked several additional questions to collect more specifics:

"Freerider, are you familiar with your engine, and comfortable working on it?"
Reply: "No."

"Are you able to sail?"
Reply: "No. We broke our boom at Isla Cedros."

"On a scale of 1-100, where 100 is normal, and 1 is trouble, where are you?"
Reply: "50."

"We have an engine mechanic on board. Would you like us to board and help you with your engine?"
Reply: "Yes."

John and Sue (not their real names) sounded eager to have help. So we agreed to rendezvous.

At 1135 we approached Freerider with a touch-and-go-close enough for Dan to step onto their boat, but with adequate distance to avoid trading paint. Once on board, Dan showed John how to turn off the fuel line, change the filter, and bleed the fuel system. Dan tested the engine, and it appeared to work fine, even at higher rpms.

We picked Dan up again at 1225. Once back on board, Dan bemoaned Freerider's state of disrepair. Their fuel had been contaminated by water and dirt. The boom had been damaged when a preventer torqued and cracked their boom during an accidental gybe, with too much sail up for the wind conditions at the time. (However, another cruiser in Turtle Bay had completed repairs to the boom, and Dan felt the patch would hold effectively.) Freerider's overall state of repair for her critical systems was low, not to mention that the sailboat wasn't up to offshore specifications. Dan was happy to leave John, Sue, and the German Shepard to their own affairs.

1304 hours: we received a distraught call from Freerider. Engine performance was degrading again. You could hear in John's voice that they wanted Dan back. On the VHF radio, Dan suggested that the fuel tank might be so heavily contaminated that John might need to change the fuel filter again.

1440 hours: Dusk approached, and Freerider expressed concern about making it through the night. We offered to set up an hourly contact schedule on single-sideband radio. Upon testing several single-sideband frequencies, it appeared that Freerider's SSB wasn't working. They could transmit, but not receive.

We recommended a second set of frequencies. Freerider's radio failed the test for a second time. The Andanté crew was beginning to see a pattern here: inappropriate boat for the task, broken boom due to improper sail handling, contaminated fuel system, inadequate maintenance and repair. In this case, ignorance equals risk; not bliss.

Freerider was able to get their SSB working around 1500. We think the volume knob wasn't turned up enough. When Susan heard me transmit, she sounded like she had been rescued from 12 months on a desert island. "Oh, thank you! Thank you! I feel so much better," she exclaimed.

1600 hours. Wind and seas started to build. It looked like we were in for a bit of a blow. John called to express concern about the boat bouncing so hard that it was "uncomfortable." We ask him if he had the sails out. Pause. "My wife is afraid of the sails after what happened when the boom broke."

There are so many things wrong with this statement; I didn't know where to begin. For example, I wanted to ask:

  • If you don't know how to sail, why did you buy a sailboat?
  • What is Susan doing out there, at all, if she's afraid of the sails?
  • How did you possibly get this far south from Seward, Alaska (where the boat was registered)?
  • John, how did you possibly talk Susan into coming along with you on this trip?
  • How new is this relationship anyway?

We recommended to John that he put his sails up. "It will help you stabilize the boat, maintain way, and save the engine for when you get into an anchorage."

1700 hours: John called to say that he had the main down on the 3rd reef, and the jib furled to 50%, but he was still bouncing, and the sails were going "whomp whomp." We assured him that we too were bouncing, and that occasionally our sails also went "whomp whomp."

As the night wore on we continued to extend our remote-control safeguarding.

"John, have you done watches before?"
Reply: "Yes."

"What is your watch schedule?" I asked.
Reply: "One hour on. One hour off."

"John, we think that the person who is off-watch needs to get more rest than just an hour. We recommend at least three hours off."
Reply: "Our autopilot is broken, and so we have to hand steer. Three hours is too long to hand-steer."

No surprises here. As we check in throughout the night, Freerider also reports that their GPS was only working intermittently.

During each contact on the hour, Freerider had been providing us with their latitude and longitude position. They then wanted us to relay our distance and bearing to them. They were now relying on us to help them navigate. We had ourselves a genuine tar baby here.

At 0200 I plotted all of their hourly positions on our chart for the previous five hours, and discovered that every hour they had been blown about one mile east, toward the shore. During the 0300 call I let them know that if they didn't change course they would be on the beach in about two hours. I recommend a new course for them to steer to. They adjusted their course, and we later confirmed that they were maintaining adequate distance from the beach.

Throughout the night, we sailed along between 7-8 knots in 25-30 knot winds, and 6-foot bumpy seas. The bouncing never ceased. Dan likened the inside of the boat to a cement mixer. I thought it was more like trying to sleep through a 12-hour train wreck.

Saturday December 11th, 1999

After checking in with Freerider, now about 25-miles behind us, we anchored in Man O' War Cove, in Magdalena Bay at approximately 1145 Saturday morning (24º 38.94'N, 112 08.07' W). We immediately started to recuperate from a rough, relatively sleepless night. Several hours later we heard Freerider on the VHF when they pulled into a neighboring bay. To ensure that we could catch up on some uninterrupted sleep, we turned off the VHF, just in case.

Sunday December 12th, 1999

After a lazy morning, we hauled anchor and made the 11-mile trip north to the town of San Carlos. After Turtle Bay, San Carlos looked like a large city. We anchored just north of the port, and then inflated the dinghy for a shopping excursion to town for much-needed huevos (eggs). We needed the huevos to make more brownies.

The only landing area available for our dinghy took us directly into the port. On the outside pier several fishing boats unloaded a large herring catch. A small pipe pumped the herring to shore, where they rode up a short conveyor belt, which then dumped the fish into an open dump truck. The presence of so many herring proved irresistible to hundreds of pelicans and seagulls. The birds swarmed the pier as if it was a scene from The Birds.


Pelicans in San Carlos


Herring Into the Truck

The combination of herring and birds made for a nasty dinghy landing. First of all, on approach, you wanted to make sure that you didn't look up. With so many of these creatures everywhere-they sat on the pier, covered the roof of the warehouse, lined up across the pipeline, and filled the air-everything was covered with … I'm sure I don't have to explain it. In addition, the volume of fish processing going on here created an LZ (landing zone) covered white with-no, not snow-fish scales. I don't mean just a few fish scales floating in the water. I mean fish scales several inches thick on the beach. This, in turn, produced the most unpleasant odor you could imagine.

Debi was the only one smart enough to wear her Tivas sandals. Dan and I, prepared for walking, had worn walking shoes, which had to be removed so that we could wade through, yes, several inches of fish scales.

Once on land, it felt great to stretch our legs. The walk to town, over dusty roads, laid before us a depth of civilization which we had not seen in weeks-primarily defined by small Tecate stores (a brand of Mexican beer) every 100 feet. Because it was Sunday, few people could be seen; although a local football (soccer) game raged furiously at one end of town. You knew when a goal raised the score, because of the cacophony of car horns that erupted wildly every few minutes.

We found a stack of fresh huevos at the super marcado. But no egg cartons. You just took as many as you needed, and improvised your own transport system. My backpack, stuffed with polypropylene, did the trick. Bumped, bruised, and blemished, virtually all of the produce at this store would have been rejected by your local grocer.

Monday December 13th, 1999

Our day trip to San Carlos yesterday required another visit this morning for official duties: We had to formally check in, so that we could formally check out.

We first stopped at immigration to present passports, ship documentation, and our zarpa-essentially a standard document that we word processed and printed on board. The zarpa defines the name of the boat, gross and net tonnage, departure port, destination port, as well as names of the captain and crew. Once signed (and stamped) by the migration officer, we next walked to the harbor office where we paid an anchorage fee of 57.20 pesos (about $5.72). Then, it was off to the port captain's office in town where we presented ship documentation and the zarpa, which the office signed (and stamped). Official stamps appear to be an important part of the process.

After all of our documentation had been completed, we walked the streets of San Carlos and happened upon Ed Borcherdt, from Bozeman Montanna. Ed, along with his Mexican partner, owns Ocean Splendor Seafood. The company exports blue crab to Taiwan, and also packages crab for grocery stores under the Ocean Splendor name.

Ed gave us a walking tour of San Carlos, and introduced us to the Alcatraz Motel (the nicest facilities in San Carlos, should you want to travel there), and the accompanying El Patio restaurant. We had lunch at El Patio in a courtyard shaded by coconut palm trees.

"Why would you want to travel to San Carlos," you ask? It turns out this part of the Baja Peninsula is the only breeding ground for gray whales. The season ranges from January through March, but the best time for a visit is February.

Tuesday December 14th, 1999

We left San Carlos and Magdalena Bay in the morning with the anticipation of an all-night passage that would take us to Cabo San Lucas, and beyond. South of Magdalena Bay temperatures rose. T-shirts, shorts, and Tevas instantly became the de rigueur dress code.

Late afternoon, Debi decided to bake bread. Although we have several prepackaged bread mixes on board, we don't have a bread-making machine. (Couldn't find any storage space for it.) Craving freshly baked bread, Debi kneaded the dough by hand, and then let it rise in the warmth of the cockpit locker, where the heat from the engine rises and makes the locker … toasty. Then, she baked it carefully in the oven. This was an important experiment. If we could successfully bake bread in our marine oven, it would open up many exciting new culinary opportunities for Andanté and her crew.

Standing at the helm in the cockpit after dinner, as dusk faded from the golden western horizon, through shades of lavender, deep purple, and black in the east, the crescent moon brightened overhead. We sailed along in gentle seas, underneath this airbrushed, moonlit sky, to the sounds of Christmas music from the CD-player, while the aroma of freshly baked bread wafted up from the galley. It was like one of those cartoons where the fresh baked bread aroma takes on an animated life of its own, curling up through the air, enticing and coaxing, and then lifting Donald or Goofy off the ground. When Debi passed up a slice of oven-warm bread with melted butter, I went into sensory overload: Sight (sunset), smell (bread), sound (Christmas music), taste (warm bread and butter), and touch (gentle sea breezes).

Wednesday December 15th, 1999—Close Encounters in Cabo San Lucas

We had a nice overnight passage-enough wind to sail along between 7-7.5 knots, but calm enough that everyone was able to sleep.

After I came off the last watch at 0600, I dove into my berth and slept a solid four hours. During that time, Debi heard something catch the line on our fishing reel, and run with it. She looked back in amazement to discover that she had hooked a 150 pound marlin, which was leaping out of the water. By the time she maneuvered to the back of the boat, all 300 yards of our 20-pound line had disappeared. Marlin can reach 14 feet and 1500 pounds. We're lucky we didn't lose the rod and reel.


Los Arcos, Cabo San Lucas


At 1300, after sailing past Los Arcos (the natural rock arch landmark), we stopped into Cabo San Lucas to refuel. Once inside the harbor, we thought that it might be fun to spend a night there. However, both marinas indicated there was no space available.

Actually, the first marina indicated there was no space available. The people at the second marina weren't quite as clear. Around 1330 we approached a U.S. citizen who sat officially behind the marina office desk. He responded to our request for moorage space by saying, "I don't know if there are any slips available. You'll have to talk with Marie, and she won't be back until four. You better make it 4:30 or 5:00 so you don't have to wait." I wanted to ask a few pointed questions, such as:

  • "If you don't work at the marina, why are you sitting at the office desk?"
  • "If Marie runs the marina office, why does she leave all day, only to return at 5:00?"
  • "Are you really from Mars?"

But I refrained.

The deskman continued, "We're pretty full up. You can see from the board there that we're pretty full up." He gesticulated toward the wall. Debi and I turned to look at the wall-mounted white board, and immediately noticed 2-3 unassigned slips. It was clear that the man behind the desk was perhaps allocating 15% of his focus and attention-and he wasn't too happy about giving us that much.

"Do you think something might open up later in the day?" we asked. "You'll have to talk to Marie," he said, "and she won't be back until 5:00." And then he said, "Oh, here she is now."

Marie approached the office. Encouraged at the prospect of having immediately saved three hours, and also enthralled with the idea of talking to someone with more processing power, we eagerly watched Marie, a professionally dressed woman of oriental descent, enter the office. The deskman provided an introduction. "Do we have any slips available? I don't think we have any slips available. You said you only want to stay one night, right?"

Marie gave us the attention of a dead fly on the windowsill. I think she may have noticed the two of us standing there, but I'm not really sure. She made no eye contact, shuffled some papers, dug around in her purse, looked at the deskman, and to some extent nodded and blinked when he said, "I don't think we have any slips available."

At this point, I wanted to ask another pointed question, such as: "Do you have a numbered list with all of your slips indicating which ones are leased, and which are not?" I considered how taxing and abrasive this question might be. Marie had her back to us. The deskman was clearly struggling with the logic of the previous several minutes. Like Coolhand Luke, what we had here, was a failure to communicate. After ten minutes of conversation, we had not been able to get a definitive answer on whether or not they had any slips.

Debi tried another approach: "If we wanted to check in with you later in the afternoon, can we contact you on VHF? What channel do you monitor?" The deskman responded with "Channel 16," just as Marie leaned over and turned on the office's VHF radio, which had been off all morning.

Debi and I looked at each other, and then I said, "Thank you." And with that, we left. During our walk back to Andanté we had a "what's wrong with them" conversation, fully recognizing that the same conversation was probably going on inside the marina office.

We promptly sailed out of Cabo, and then northeast along the coast another 18 miles to Bahia San Jose. Approaching the bay, Dan reeled in a Black Fin Tuna from the stern, which Debi immediately filleted on the deck. That night the Black Fin, sautéed in butter and garlic, more than made up for our Cabo encounter.

Thursday December 16th, 1999

0955 hours. We departed Bahia San Juan to start our way up the Sea of Cortez. All charts refer to this body of water as the Sea of California, but all cruisers seem to refer to it as the Sea of Cortez. After a few hours of vigorous sailing we ran into strong winds coming down from the north. These are called 'Screaming Blue Northers.' We sailed (beat) into 35-40 knot winds, and seas in the 4-8 foot range, with an occasional 8-10 footer. All this under a perfectly clear sunny sky.


Karl Reefing the Main

We been slammin'. Waves broke over the bow and soaked the entire boat, from stem to stern. Waves crashed into the sides and sprayed the deck. Some of the waves exploded walls of water up over the top of our dodger. We had to scrunch up under the dodger to stay dry. The Hallberg-Rassy hard dodgers, constructed with fiberglass and tempered safety glass windshields, seemed like an indispensable accessory then.

Photo: Into the wave

It required about eight hours to complete 35-miles. Two other sailboats were out with us--one about two miles in front of us, and another about a mile behind. Both of them turned back to Cabo.

We set anchor at 1800 in Los Frailes (The Friars) (26º 44.50'N, 113º 24.37' W). I'm convinced that the Catholic Church has named almost every physical feature in Mexico. So far we've encountered All Saints, Magdalena, the Asunción, the Friars, and several more I'm sure I've forgotten.

Underneath the Friars, and presumably with their blessing, we anchored 1/4 mile off of a large 755' rock hill. Even so, the wind occasionally whipped through the anchorage at 35-knots.

That evening we dined on fresh mahi-mahi, caught during the afternoon.

Friday December 17th, 1999

Not content with the pounding we took on Thursday, we left Los Frailes just after 1000. Like Thursday, the morning provided us with a pleasant sail. Like Thursday, the wind and waves built up in the afternoon. Several more hours of slammin' ensued.

However, we were now within one day's striking distance of La Paz. At 2000 we anchored in Ensenada De Los Muertos (cove of the dead-for another religious experience).

Saturday December 18th, 1999—Landfall in La Paz

0710 hours. We departed Ensenada de los Muertos. Most of the day we motored north against the wind, through Canal Cerralvo and then Canal de San Lorenzo. The surrounding mountains and hills reflected tan, brown, gold, and red under the bright afternoon sun.


Arriving in La Paz:
Carlos' Friend & Son, Debi, Dan, & Carlos


1645 hours. Arrived La Paz (24º 09.24' N, 110º 19.66' W). Debi called ahead to contact her longtime friend Carlos Solis, who owns and operates Water Works Boat Service in La Paz. Miraculously, Carlos was able to find us moorage (at the repair dock) despite the fact that both marinas in La Paz were completely full. Carlos motored out into the bay to greet us, along with a friend who works at the port captain's office, and their two sons.

As they approached our boat, they immediately announced that we needed cerveza, and passed up three Pacificos. As we advanced slowly to our intended slip, we bottomed out on the soft sand. No worries. Carlos passed up three more cervezas. An empty space on the other side of the dock enabled us to slide in with adequate depth. Three more cervezas, "for the road," Carlos said.

We made it! La Paz is our first major destination port since leaving San Diego (1036 nautical miles back). We look forward to some time in port: Civilization. Restaurants. Laundry! Give Andanté a much-needed bath. Give ourselves a much-needed bath.


Debi & Karl in La Paz


Up Next …

Log #24—Adventures in La Paz

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