Cruising Destinations: The Sea of Cortez

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The author’s boat, Distant Drummer, has an anchorage to herself in Bahia el Cardoncito

The author’s boat, Distant Drummer, has an anchorage to herself in Bahia el Cardoncito

We had left San Diego in early November and spent a month sailing down the west coast of Baja California on board Distant Drummer, our Liberty 458 sloop. After a week in Cabo San Lucas, a brash and brassy town at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula where we provisioned the boat, topped up the fuel tanks and enjoyed the many delights the town had to offer, my husband, Neil, and I were looking forward to a couple of months exploring “the Sea” as the locals call the Sea of Cortez. The Gulf of California, as it is also known, is bounded by the Baja Peninsula to the west and the Sonora and Sinaloa coasts of mainland Mexico to the east. Cabo is the starting point for cruisers looking to explore the Sea.

Baja19Map

Weatherbound in Bahia San Lucas

Bahia San Lucas is a pleasant anchorage with good shelter from the northerly winds that predominate during the winter months. Unfortunately, when the wind veered to the northeast the bay became a washing machine with winds gusting up to 30 knots driving a steep choppy swell into the anchorage. The cruising yachts and pangas that crowd the narrow northern shelf were pitching and rolling and swinging almost randomly. A cruise ship anchored in the deep east-west channel that bisects the bay swung unexpectedly and almost sank us. It was nerve-wracking being there, and after three days we were relieved when the wind finally eased and we were able to leave and head north into the Sea.

We had planned an overnight passage directly to La Paz, but with a 15-knot northerly breeze it was a tight beat and the blocky swell made sailing conditions quite uncomfortable. After a day of pounding the waves, we, therefore, decided to stop for the night in the small cove at Bahia Los Frailes. We arrived after dark and found several other boats had had the same idea. Although Cabo Los Frailes is only a minor headland, the water behind it was calm, and there was plenty of room for us to find a space amongst the fleet and drop anchor.

Los Frailes turned out to be a great place to spend a couple of days; the wide white sand beach was perfect for walking, and snorkeling among the fissures and boulders at the base of the cape revealed a surprising array of reef fish. The hike up the steep rugged path to the top of the granite headland was also a good workout, and the view along the coast and into the inland hills was fantastic. One evening when we had sundowners on board Distant Drummer, 12 people squeezed into the cockpit to enjoy swapping tall tales of foreign shores.

Moderate northerly winds persisted the following week, and we stopped twice more on the way to La Paz. We were fast learning that the trick to cruising northward in the Sea of Cortez in December is not waiting for favorable winds, but waiting for days when the northerly breeze lessened and then hopping up the coast.

We anchored the first night in Bahia de Los Muertos, a bight in the coast just south of Isla Ceralvo where it is possible to tuck in below the headland and shelter from the swell. Next day, the wind backed to the west, and we had a lovely sail up the coast, piloting through the channels between Isla Ceralvo and Isla del Espíritu Santo to our next anchorage at Puerto Balandra. The bay there lies on the east side of Bahia de La Paz and is open to the north and west, so we had another rolly night and were glad to make an early start for La Paz the next morning.

La Paz

Worth the hike: the author takes in the spectacular view from the headland of Los Frailes

Worth the hike: the author takes in the spectacular view from the headland of Los Frailes

The city of La Paz lies on the southern shore of Bahia de La Paz and is protected from the swell by a broad sandspit. The channel behind the sand bar that drains a large lagoon also has strong tidal flows, so it is recommended to go in on a rising flood tide. Despite the fact it is well buoyed and regularly dredged, when the wind blows over 25 knots waves break across the entrance, making passage into the anchorage dangerous. When that happens the harbor closes for departing traffic, although vessels are still permitted to enter. Luckily we had a light northeasterly.

The anchorage in front of the town was quite crowded, with dozens of yachts swinging around as the tide ebbed and flowed—known by the locals as the “La Paz waltz.” We, therefore, dropped the pick on the south side of the anchorage not far from Marina La Paz, where cruisers are well catered to with a dinghy dock, a laundry and a clubhouse. Club Cruceros is a social club set up for cruisers by cruisers and is a very useful port-of-call when first arriving in La Paz. They also have a morning radio net (VHF 22a) that broadcasts what’s happening in town along with weather and tide information, the lowdown on yoga classes, where to get your dinghy fixed and anything else you need to know. Morning coffee at the clubhouse is a great place to catch up with friends and meet other boating folks.

We arrived in La Paz on December 15 and were looking forward to spending Christmas in the “City of Peace.” Many of the shops were decked out with tinsel and baubles and Santas and snowmen, and Christmas tunes played over countless tinny sound systems. The Hotel Perla displayed a skeleton in a Santa outfit, a wonderful blend of Mexico’s Christian and pre-Christian roots—Christmas meets the Day of the Dead! The Christmas market filled the streets of the old town with stalls selling a predictable assortment of “made in China” clothes, but also the occasional poncho and sombrero (strictly for the tourists). Interspersed were open-air street stands selling tacos and hot dogs and churros—delicious sticks of hot fried dough covered in sugar, like straight doughnuts, but way better.

The anchorage at La Paz always seems busy

The anchorage at La Paz always seems busy

Noche Buena or Christmas Eve is the focal point of the holiday season in Mexico with music, family and roast pork being the central themes. We joined the other Christmas orphans for a potluck at Club Cruceros. After a great feast and a stroll along the Malecon we headed up to our favorite bar, “Bob Marlin,” to drink a few tequilas and celebrate Christmas with the friends we’d met along the coast.

Whale sharks are common in Bahia de La Paz at this time of year and snorkeling with them was a remarkable experience. They are the largest species of shark, but like many whales, they are filter feeders and live on plankton, krill and any other small critters that get sucked into their enormous mouths. We snorkeled with one for about 15 minutes and watched it feeding, drawing in vast quantities of water from just below the surface and expelling it through its gills. It seemed completely undisturbed by our presence, its eyes just swiveled around watching us as we watched it feed.

Heading for the Islands

Like most of the other sailors in La Paz, we headed into the islands for the week between Christmas and New Year. From Bahia de La Paz a chain of islands stretches northwest paralleling the coast with Isla del Espiritu Santo in the south and Isla de San Jose in the north. We had been told to watch out for the squally westerlies that blow up at night and make the west coasts of these islands a lee shore. The GRIB files from Sailmail are recommended by local sailors, substituting the code NDFD for GFS in the GRIB request for the best forecast for these westerly busters.

Several fingers jut out from the west coast of Isla del Espiritu Santo and her northerly sister, Isla Partida, providing a series of beautiful shallow bays lined with white sandy beaches. Rough trails can be picked out in the arroyos at the head of some of the inlets linking the bays together. We enjoyed hiking up the dry stream bed in Bahia el Cardoncito, scrambling over rocks, watching out for scorpions and laughing at the bizarre shapes of the cacti. It was too hot to climb up very far, but snorkeling in the clear, cold water soon cooled us down.

After a couple of days, we departed Isla Partida bound for Bahia San Francisco at the southern tip of Isla de San Jose. Strong tidal currents flow through Canal de San Jose, and although we had planned the 20-mile passage on a flood tide, we still arrived with a couple of knots of current against us. Clearly, local knowledge is needed to get the tides right.

Leaving Bahia de La Paz, we thought we might have left the crowds behind us, but soon realized we were just catching them up. On the first night in Bahia San Francisco, there were 14 other boats in the bay. Some left the next day, then four catamarans came in and rafted up together. Tents were set up on the beach for lunch parties, dinghies and SUPs flitted between boats for social calls, and one guy was even wakeboarding through the anchorage behind his tender. Everyone had come out to party in the islands!

We welcomed the New Year at Isla del Espiritu Santo, where we anchored in Ensenada La Gallina, watching stingrays leap out of the water, fly through the air and crash-land on the surface with thudding belly flops.

Heading for the Mainland

After stocking up with supplies in La Paz, we waved goodbye to Baja California and set course for Mazatlan on the mainland. Local sailors recommended retracing our steps to Bahia de Los Muertos, then crossing the sea at the start of a northerly blow before the blocky swell built up. Following this advice we had a great overnight passage; with a full suit of sails and a 15-20 knot breeze, we scooted along through the first day and night. The next morning the wind dropped, and we motorsailed for the last few hours, so that we could be sure of arriving in Mazatlan before sunset.

As well as being the biggest port on Mexico’s Pacific coast, Mazatlan has also been developed for mass tourism. Several marinas are located in the Zona Dorada (as the tourist belt is known), but during moderate to large swell conditions, breaking waves form across the entrance to the lagoon and the narrow channel may be closed. The alternative anchorage at Club Nautico lies just inside the harbor breakwater close to the heart of the old city. The club facilities are dilapidated, but yachts at anchor can use the dinghy dock for a small fee paid to the caretaker, who will also keep an eye on your boat if you plan to explore inland.

Old Mazatlan is very picturesque, and the historic buildings, steep hills and narrow streets have a distinctly European feel. The city was founded by the Spanish in 1531, but remained a quiet fishing village until the mid-nineteenth century, when it was developed as a seaport to import equipment for the nearby gold and silver mines. A group of German settlers also established the Pacifico brewery in Mazatlan and, happily for sailors, have been brewing great beer ever since.

We explored the town on our bikes, visiting the basilica and the market, and later in the afternoon, we rode along the Malecon to La Clavadista, a 100ft crag from which men (macho or crazy or both) dive into a small tidal pool where the surf crashes against the rocks. For 300 pesos Chapis, our champion, climbed up the steps and crossed himself six times as he stepped out onto the platform. He waited until the swell was just right and did a beautiful swallow dive into the pool. Although I struggled with the moral dilemma of paying someone to risk his life for my entertainment, it was breathtaking to watch, and Chapis was very proud as he posed for a photo afterward.

With the steady northerly breeze now acting in our favour, the overnight passage from Mazatlan to Isla Isabel was a beautiful downwind run. Known as the “Galapagos of Mexico,” this isolated volcanic outcrop is home to thousands of birds, including boobies and tropic birds, and is protected as a World Heritage Site. We anchored in the bay on the south side of the island and spent four days hiking and enjoying the amazing wildlife. We also visited a cluster of short stumpy trees around the abandoned research station there that are thick with nesting frigate birds. It was quite the scene: the females nurturing their fluffy chicks while the males puff up the big red bladders on their chests making a sort of hollow rattling noise to attract the girls.

After a climb to the top of the steep hill to the west of the anchorage, we also found a colony of boobies: strikingly attractive birds related to gannets and superb divers. Both blue-footed and green-footed varieties share the colony, nesting on the ground as the males and females take turns sitting on the egg while their partner fishes. The blue-footed boobies also perform a strange courtship dance together, lifting first one foot then another off the ground and raising their tails. Both species are completely unafraid of humans, and we watched them for hours.

From Isla Isabel, we crossed back to the mainland to San Blas, where we anchored in Bahia Matanchen, a large bay a few miles east of the town. (And where we had been advised to drop the pick at least a mile from the shore to avoid the sand flies, or jejenes as they are called locally.) Crossing the Tovara River on way ashore to reach the town we spotted a large crocodile. No need to take the tour at the crocodile sanctuary now!

San Blas is a small sleepy town, but the fine church, elegant colonial buildings and the old customs house are testament to a glorious past: in the mid-1700s San Blas was the base from which the Spanish navy explored and colonized the entire Pacific Coast of America. A taxi is the easiest way to reach the Contaduria, an impressive hilltop fort that was built to protect the town and guard the colonial riches. Unfortunately, the original structure was destroyed in a hurricane, but the view over the town and out across the Pacific Ocean is fabulous.

In the end, we found the Sea of Cortez to be a magnificent place for cruising, with numerous islands and miles of sparsely populated coastline to explore, but also the convenience of the city when the comforts of civilization are desired. We enjoyed sailing there during the cooler winter months: although passages up the Baja coast had to be planned when the strong “Northers” eased, the same winds turbo-charged us southward down the mainland coast. But that’s another story… 

Suzy Carmody and husband Neil are continuing their cruise down the Pacific coast of Central America on their Liberty 438 cutter, Distant Drummer

Photos courtesy of Suzy Carmody

April 2019

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