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Charter the Sea of Cortez

There’s a stark, almost sublime beauty to be found cruising Mexico’s Baja Peninsula

There’s a stark, almost sublime beauty to be found cruising Mexico’s Baja Peninsula

Chartering and the notion of going “off the beaten path” may sound self-contradictory. Charter companies tend to put bases where demand is high and they can turn a profit, so if you’re lucky enough to find an outfit and a destination that gets away from the typical—say yes.

To be clear, “off the beaten path” doesn’t mean unfriendly or uncomfortable, and certainly not boring. In fact, you may even find yourself discovering your “tribe” when chartering farther afield in a place where it feels more like actual cruising. To do this, though, you need to go where the cruisers go—which is how we found ourselves connecting with West Coast Multihulls (WCM: westcoastmultihulls.com) in Loreto, Mexico, on the Baja Sur peninsula about halfway down the Sea of Cortez. Here, you know you’ve found the real deal when conversations start with, “This is our 20th year cruising the Sea.” After nudging your way into this kind of crowd, you’ll never feel like a tourist again.

We flew directly into Loreto, rented a car and made our way down to Marina Puerto Escondido, a large and modern facility about 15 miles south of town. The cruising boats docked there ran the gamut from 30-year-old Ericson 38s to a Nordhavn 72 that looked so new it seemed as if parts of it were still wrapped in plastic. We were welcomed by the WCM team, including Guinevere who runs sales and marketing and Sebastian, the base manager. We also met John and Macrina, a husband and wife team that runs Balam, the Fountaine-Pajot Saba 50 that was ours for the week. Normally, Balam doesn’t go out bareboat. But we got lucky and had the run of the six cabin/six head, fully outfitted boat that turned heads wherever we went.

Loreto

When companies lean on platitudes about how they embrace a family culture, the more cynical side of me usually has to suppress an eye roll. However, after watching the WCM team manage our welcome and vessel walk-through, I had to admit, these guys meant what they said. The respect they showed both us and each other was the real deal.

WCM is a charter outfit, multihull brokerage and ASA accredited sailing school that charters bareboats out of San Diego and La Paz as well as Loreto. When teaching, John puts students through their paces as they get their certificates with a dose of authentic cruising. When not a training vessel, Balam also goes out on crewed charters, which I’d envy anyone opting for, if only for Macrina’s skills as a chef. I wasn’t going to come close to her fresh-caught sushi creations or John’s boat-baked pies and desserts. That experience would have to wait for another time.

It was blowing stink out of the north the day of departure, so we headed south to the protection of Bahia Agua Verde, where we tucked in on the peninsula side. I had been to this same spot a mere six months prior and knew it was well protected from winds from just about everywhere except the east. We hiked, had margaritas on the flybridge and spent a quiet night there.

The next morning, we headed northeast to Isla Monserrate and it’s distinguishing yellow cliffs, known as Yellowstone. Monserrate is one of five large islands comprising Bahia de Loreto National Park, a UNESCO site just off the coast. Because Yellowstone opens onto a fairly open roadstead, we headed up the eastern side of Isla Carmen to find a home for the night after our time ashore. The weather was weird, and the wind was shifting to the south, so we tucked into Bahia Cobre where we watched fishing pangas come and go all evening. With zero light pollution, the sky was all falling stars and vivid constellations.

Because we had skipped Bahia Salinas the day before (a large bay on Isla Carmen that’s open to the south) we doubled back to check out this old salt mining operation turned hunting lodge. The one-room mission-style chapel is still in pristine shape, as are the two rooms of the lodge that you can rent out if you’re hunting the bighorn sheep that are stocked there. The beach is a mile-long stretch of white sand interrupted by the remnants of an old pier and a couple of barely recognizable beached vessels. Offshore, a buoy marks the wreck of a fishing trawler that sank in the 1980s and now makes for good snorkeling. We hiked around the salt ponds and checked out the ruins of the mine, complete with rusting equipment, including a number of forklifts that have been all but reclaimed by nature as cactus now grow where the seats once were.

The remains of a wrecked fishing vessel in Bahia Salinas

The remains of a wrecked fishing vessel in Bahia Salinas

Our next stop was El Refugio, or V-Cove, on the northern side of Carmen. It’s named for its shape, which includes a deep, narrow cut between cliffs pocked with caves. If you can tuck far in, it’s protected from all but northerlies. However, we expected 22 knots that night from the northwest, so after hiking we reconnoitered the next cove over, Puerto de la Lancha, which could accommodate multiple boats for what I expected was going to be a blowy evening. In the end, it was much ado about nothing, but we met some great people.

Anchoring around cruisers is a lesson in etiquette. When we’d nosed our way slowly into V-Cove, we’d encountered the pose known to cruisers as “bitch wings.” That’s when the captain on the boat already there runs out on deck, puts his/her hands on their hips and gives “advice.” “It’s rocky here. Our anchor is over there. We’ll swing differently from you. It’s gonna get rough tonight. There are sea monsters below us.” Not wanting any trouble, we’d scooted over a ridiculous distance before dropping the hook.

Afterward, though, at the next cover over, we were greeted with, “You guys want to come in closer so you don’t get the wind tonight?” Our new neighbors had been cruising the Sea for 25 years, knew every corner, and were all smiles and courtesy. It’s not where you anchor, but who you anchor next to that makes all the difference.

From V-Cove, we ran north along the Baja Peninsula—a good decision as it turned out. Arriving at Caleta San Juanico on the mainland a short distance north of Isla Coronados, we headed for the northwest corner, joining a few other cruisers anchored around a spectacular rock that was the centerpiece of a pelican playground. Up on the hill was the Sanctuary of San Basilio, a sort of conservation headquarters with accommodations for an exclusive, investing clientele. It was hard to tell what exactly was going on there, but there were no cold cervezas, so we left unimpressed.

Along the way we found what are locally known as “Apache Tears” of black obsidian, a kind of volcanic glass. Said to be healing crystals, the pebbles are used to calm and detox the body. According to legend, a group of Apache warriors in Arizona once rode their horses off a mountain rather than be captured by the U.S. calvary. Their families cried endless tears. It’s said anyone in possession of the pebbles will never know a sad day or cry tears of their own. I figured it couldn’t hurt to stock up.

San Juanico is a favorite with cruisers, and it wasn’t long before a dinghy came by to announce a game of bocce ball on the beach. We joined a dozen people, many of whom clearly already knew each other. A few headed off to a nearby farm to get some tomatoes and goat cheese while the rest of us played. I quickly learned I suck at bocce, but made up for it by inviting everyone back for a sun-downers aboard our 50-footer, the biggest boat in the anchorage.

Hours later, a slightly tipsy crowd poured their way back into their dinghies and dispersed, but not before we were surprised by the sounds of blowing conch shells coming from all around the anchorage as part of some sort of cruising ritual. Unplanned events like these are the best. The stories told on the foredeck that night turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.

Weather forecasting can get creative off the grid

Weather forecasting can get creative off the grid

Although we were tempted to go even farther north, being cruisers for only a week meant it was time to start heading back toward base, so we set a course for Isla Coronados to the south. Arriving at the crescent of white beach to which the hotel pangas of Loreto ferry tourists all day long, we put on our hiking shoes and headed to the top of the nearby volcano. With little to show the way but cairns, the hike was tough going—not so much because of its length or elevation, but the treacherous footing. In all it took three hours to cover three miles. I declared it a once-in-a lifetime hike if only because of my vow to never do it again, though the exercise and views were worth the effort.

After the pangas left around 1500, we had the place to ourselves. Because the forecast called for winds of all of 6 knots, it didn’t really matter that we were anchored on a lee shore, and we enjoyed a quiet evening. From Isla Coronados we ran down to Isla Danzante (Dancing Island) and Honeymoon Cove, where we spent our last night before heading back to Puerto Escondido, three short miles to the west. Our welcome by the WCM staff was as efficient and friendly as our departure.

Because Alaska Airlines only has flights on certain days, we had a little extra time to kill before heading home, and I’d booked the Posada de las Flores hotel for the night as well as a land tour with Rodolfo Palacios Castro (nativotours@gmail.com). The hotel proved to be storybook perfect with a rooftop lounge; you couldn’t ask for a better location, right on the central square where there’s a farmer’s market every Saturday morning. Nearby was the Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó where you can spend a few quiet moments contemplating the history of this now tiny town that once was major center of commerce. The following morning we were serenaded by an elderly gentleman who appeared in the plaza with his guitar at 0700, seemingly playing for everyone and no one in particular.

Off-the-beaten path doesn’t mean uncomfortable!

Off-the-beaten path doesn’t mean uncomfortable!

A note on provisioning in Loreto: El Pescador and El Rey are the two main grocery stores, but they can be a challenge. Be warned: no alcohol is sold after 1900, so if you’re stocking up late in the day for an early morning departure, the cocktail hours on your trip may end up being seriously limited. Second, finding the freshest fish or hottest tortillas can be a challenge. Fortunately, when we mentioned this to Guinevere and Macrina, a bag of fresh-caught fish showed up a short while later. We were also able to get directions to a couple of tortillerias in town. Pulling over at a roadside shack, we joined the line of local people waiting there and were not disappointed.

Again, the Sea of Cortez is stark and remote, the kind of place where the whales outnumber restaurants. Of course, with that comes a bit of inconvenience, like a complete connectivity cutoff. We didn’t have cell coverage far outside of Loreto, so for things like weather information, we had to talk to those cruisers we found who were sufficiently well connected to explore for months on end.

Making friend with the liveaboards is also a great way to learn about both the best places to go and the best anchorages. At the end of the day, the Sea of Cortez remains cruisers’ territory and chartering there is a privilege, if for no other reason than it gives you a taste of what it would be like to sail your own boat and cast off lines indefinitely. The people here make the experience, whether it’s WCM’s true family-style way of doing business or the neighbors in your anchorage. If ever you get a chance to go off the beaten path down here, do yourself a favor—say yes. 

The author says hello to some of the local wildlife

The author says hello to some of the local wildlife

Cruising Tips

Alaska Airlines and American Airlines both make frequent trips via Los Angeles, Phoenix and Dallas.

April to June is high season here, but even then don’t expect crowds. Going later in the summer will mean warmer water for all-day swimming. Hurricane season is a factor here, but unlike in the Caribbean, storms are rare.

If the weather is amenable, choose to go north of Loreto, even beyond Caleta San Juanico if possible, so you can explore like real cruisers.

If you ask, chances are your provisioning will get a boost from your charter company, because it knows the local spots for fresh fish and tortillas. Talk to cruisers to get a lead on ranchitos for fresh produce and cheese to supplement your provisioning along the way, but don’t count on restaurants, which can be few and far between.

Get comfortable anchoring because there are no moorings or docks on most of the cruise.

Bring an open-minded attitude. Talk to cruisers. Take them up on their invites and reciprocate. You’ll remember them long after the name of the charter boat escapes you.

Photos By Zuzana Prochazka

October/November 2021

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