Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, with its teal-blue waters and balmy breezes, beckons many a West Coast sailor. Good anchorages, desert islands, huge game fish, colorful towns and delicious street food—there’s something for everyone. To get there, though, requires surmounting the hurdle that is the long, largely unprotected coastline down to Cabo San Lucas, the southernmost tip of the nearly 800-mile-long Baja peninsula.
The Pacific side of Baja can be cold, foggy and windy, the same as coastal California. It’s also similarly governed by the same cold-water current that sweeps down from Alaska and British Columbia, keeping sea temperatures for the most part below 65 degrees F. Sailing conditions can be anything from dead calm to a fresh 25-knots, flecking the sea with white horses. Many—it’s probably safe to say, most—sailors regard this long stretch of open water as something to simply be gotten out of the way before finally relaxing in the Sea of Cortez. This can usually be done in around six days of nonstop sailing and motorsailing, depending on your boatspeed. You can also break it up into shorter chunks. Almost no one lingers to cruise this stretch of stark and sparsely populated desert.
My husband, Seth, and I initially fell into this camp as well. Armed with an old copy of the Charlie’s Charts cruising guide to Mexico, we planned on a “short chunks” itinerary similar to that of the Baja Ha-Ha rally, which departs San Diego each fall.
Due to work commitments, however, we ended up casting off lines much later than either the rally crowd or most of the other sailors heading south. In fact, both air and sea were at their coldest as we puttered out from behind the Marina del Rey breakwater late one afternoon on the second to last day in January. Passing LAX, the planes seemed close enough to touch our masthead. Out beyond Point Vincente, though, the world quietened down again, and it was just the hum of our little Yanmar as our cold-molded cutter Celeste cut through the mirror-still calm. The sunset in crimson clouds over the Pacific. The silhouette of a freighter appeared black against the sharp horizon. Inland, the enormous orb of that night’s “super moon” rose in the east, due for a total eclipse a few hours later.
The calm continued throughout the next two night watches, allowing me to capture the eclipse at 0430 with a 400mm zoom lens. Low-light photography, challenging enough on land, can be especially tough aboard a small sailboat. I was grateful for the steady deck and clear skies. Afterward, when it was Seth’s turn on watch, he was greeted just after sunrise by an equally photogenic pod of dolphins.
We reached Ensenada, our port of entry into Mexico, after dark that same evening. At the Hotel Coral Marina just outside of town, a security guard with a flashlight was there to greet us and take our lines as we maneuvered into the slip—thankfully the ETA we’d called in the day before had been right on. Because of the marina’s steep price tag, we stayed only long enough to clear customs and immigration, a process that took two days, due to the fact the power kept going out in the port office. Otherwise, clearing into Mexico was fairly painless, as the marina van ferried us to all the right places where the driver was also kind enough to translate. Newly acquired cruising and fishing permits in hand, we were ready to cast off lines and continue on our way.
Already, though, our plans had changed. Sunrise at the end of our first night out had revealed a very different landscape from the one we had left behind in Los Angeles. The red hills to port were bare, free of the dense development that characterizes Southern California—and they were beautiful. Neither Seth nor I had ever spent much time in any kind of desert before (though we had sailed to the cold, tundra desert that is the Arctic), and we were both struck by the contrast between the brilliant blue ocean and the chalky dry red of the land. It was dazzling to look at, magnificent to photograph.
As a result, when it came time for us to cast off lines in Ensenada, we were no longer just trying to make tracks to Cabo. Instead, we now wanted to linger a little, enjoying the scenery and watching for wildlife along this starkly beautiful stretch of coast: our first destination, a fair-weather anchorage we’d noticed on the chart with no permanent habitation, only a small fishing camp, about 100 miles to the south.
Underway again, we had another night of motoring. With the dawn, though, came some wind, a light breeze from the west. Out came our bright blue spinnaker with its yellow stars, after which we floated blissfully along over the low ocean swells, reveling in the quiet lap-lap of the water under Celeste’s forefoot. Soon enough, the island sheltering our destination came into view, a classic volcanic cone. Threading our way in between reefs and kelp groves, we set our anchor in a patch of white sand we could clearly see through the crystalline water a good 30ft beneath our keel.
As fate would have it, we’d gotten lucky at this first Baja anchorage. The water clarity along the west coast of the peninsula is variable. More often than not, visibility is around 15ft to 20ft, not the 60ft we encountered. Of course, we had to get in it! Out came our wetsuits, booties, gloves, masks, snorkels and fins. Weight belts cinched tight, we jumped in for a swim to a nearby patch of kelp. The tall stalks, or “stipes,” swayed ever so slightly as we kicked our way among them, their fronds waving and curling, darkly translucent against the sky-blue water above. Bright orange garibaldis and googly-eyed olive-green rockfish darted among the holdfasts. Harbor seals came in as close as they dared before diving away. We’d found an enchanted underwater world. Two hours later, we still weren’t ready to return to Celeste. But the chilly water had begun slowing our movements to the point where even with our wetsuits on it was time to warm up again.
Ashore we found yet more wild beauty. Our original goal had been to climb the cinder cone, but we only made it a few yards before we had to give up. Vicious cacti stuck their needles into our shins, socks and even our shoes. When I tried prying them off, the barbed spines jabbed my fingers like so many tiny arrowheads, even breaking the skin in places. The summit definitely wasn’t worth it.
Walking the shore instead, we soon spotted four elephant seals, the gigantic pinnipeds that migrate to this part of the world each winter to breed, the males roaring and fighting over the females (who never strike me as looking particularly thrilled about the process). In this case, we’d stumbled upon a pair of females, each with a pup, dozing on a warm, sandy beach, free of any harassing bachelors. As we watched from behind some rocks and dry grass, one of the pups started squawking for its mother, who rolled over on her side and let it enjoy a quick snack.
Afterward, we met some fishermen at the nearby camp and exchanged happy, uncomprehending smiles along with a few bits of our bare-bones Spanish. Rowing back to Celeste, the pale pink sunset over the desert hills, the calm sea, the pelicans perched on the men’s fishing pangas, all felt so, well, Baja, a nice change after having spent the previous five years cruising the icy-cold waters of Alaska.
Underway again the following morning, the wind continued to build as we carried on down the coast, taking advantage of another perfect spinnaker breeze as we set a course for the all-weather anchorage in Bahia Tortugas (Turtle Bay). As we clicked off the miles, Seth and I both felt a bit sad about the other great spots we knew we must be missing along the way. But we didn’t want to waste such champagne sailing weather. That evening we dropped the spinnaker just before sundown—a practice of ours ever since tangling it up in a dying breeze on our first trip across the Pacific—and spent the rest of the night sailing wing-and-wing under genoa and full main. Far from the light pollution of Southern California, the stars sparkled bright in the black sky. The creak of the mainsheet block and the water swishing down Celeste’s sides were the only sounds to break the stillness of the night air.
Over the next couple of days at sea, Seth and I quickly got back into the routine of watch rotations, tending the boat, navigating and simply observing the ocean around us. The second day out we were startled by the sight of a Laysan albatross, an old friend from Alaska, swooping in to investigate. Laysan albatrosses typically breed on the remote atolls northwest of Hawaii (Midway in particular). But as we later learned, a few also breed on the offshore islands to the west of Baja.
The day after that we sailed in through the entrance to Bahia Tortugas in the pre-dawn glow, picking out the anchor lights of a half-dozen other sailboats. At the height of the season, the bay would have been filled with cruising boats. But by early February most other southbound crews had already long since moved on to begin exploring the waters of the Sea of Cortez.
Being bird nerds, one of the first things we noticed were a number of black brants, a species of small goose we’d last seen way up north on their breeding grounds along the Arctic coast of Alaska near Prudhoe Bay. After that was the church across from where we’d dropped the hook. Well-kept and graced with lovely stained glass, it is the town’s most prominent feature and our first destination upon going ashore. Next up, of course, were fish tacos at one of a number of little restaurants near the beach.
Our three days in Bahia Tortugas were a mix of walking around the village, strolling the nearby sandy beach, meeting the other cruisers and working—both on boat projects and the work we do remotely via our laptops whenever we an internet connection. That done we were off again on our way south to Bahia Magdalena. We’d wanted to do another kelp dive in a likely looking nearby forest, but the wind and sea had conspired against us—the wind picking up from the northwest, bringing with it a choppy sea, making the exposed kelp forest untenable for either anchoring or diving. The water clarity had now also degraded to its usual 15ft.
Of course, every cloud has a silver lining, and with this same 20-knot wind on her quarter, Celeste flew along until nightfall, when the wind began to lessen. After that, as had been the case on all our Baja passages thus far, Seth and I enjoyed another series of pleasant, easy night watches as a refreshing change from our years sailing in higher latitudes. The air was also getting warmer the farther south we went, with the next day bringing proof-positive of our arrival in sub-tropical waters—a tuna! Okay, a small skipjack, but still a tuna, and we enjoyed sashimi as a first course followed by seared steaks. There’s nothing like fresh fish for dinner! And so it went, all that night and then the day after that, downwind the entire way to Bahia Magdalena, one of the winter homes of Baja’s gray whales.
One of the best things about cruising Baja’s west coast is the migratory wildlife, and in our own case, we felt a bit like we were a part of the migration as well, having just come down from the frozen lands of northern Alaska. First, there had been the black brants, then the Laysan albatross. Now we were sailing among gray whales, creatures we’d last seen amid the equally gray waters north of the Bering Strait.
Entering Bahia Magdalena we immediately sighted two of them before anchoring in a spot off a rumpled coast of pyramid-shaped hills, where we enjoyed another superb encounter the following morning. For some reason, they seemed to favor the entrance, at least while we were there. Maybe it was nearing the end of their breeding season, and they were starting to think about the trip north again. Whatever the reason, we got plenty of great views of their mottled gray backs and broad flukes as they surfaced and sounded all around us.
After that, it was time for the final leg of our passage down to Cabo San Lucas and the Sea of Cortez. Ahead of us lay a beautiful new cruising ground, described to us by several bluewater veterans as one of their all-time favorites. As we set sail, though, we were glad we’d slowed things down a bit, as opposed to hurrying straight through. After all, isn’t that what voyaging is all about, slowing things down, living in the moment? For months now, as we’d been making our way south from Alaska, it had been all about the future: rounding Cape Flattery, reaching San Francisco and then continuing on to Baja. Once we made it to Baja, though, we’d been able to begin living in the present again, and the present had never felt better.
Prepping for Baja
The west coast of the Baja Peninsula is remote, so if you’re thinking of giving it a try, be sure to plan accordingly. A few tips:
• Sail as much as possible and have some kind of renewable-energy system (solar or wind) on board. Fuel is hard to come by and expensive.
• Shore water is often unsafe to drink. If you don’t have a watermaker, have a surefire way to purify.
• Provision for the time you plan to be out there and then some. Be sure to have plenty of cooking gas.
• Make sure your boat is in good offshore sailing condition, including all the necessary safety gear, first aid and communications equipment. Carry plenty of spares and tools (and know how to use them).
• Although fall is the favorite time to go south, in winter you get emptier anchorages, great whale watching and well-established northerlies for some fast sailing.
• By spring, it’s good to be thinking about where you’ll spend cyclone season. Many boats return to California, which usually requires a generous fuel supply.
• Summer is hurricane season. Best not to be there.
Writer and photographer Ellen Massey Leonard have sailed over 50,000 miles on classic boats, including a circumnavigation by age 24, a voyage to the Arctic and a second crossing of the Pacific after leaving Baja. She was the 2018 recipient of the Cruising Club of America’s Young Voyager Award.
Photos by Ellen Massey Leonard