Passage: Sea of Cortez (Mar de Cortés), La Paz to Puerto Peñasco
Mapache left La Paz, at the southern end of Baja California, in mid-April and spent six weeks meandering her way north, along the east coast of the Baja peninsula, through the Mar de Cortés, to Puerto Peñasco. Mapache will stay in Puerto Peñasco through the summer, while her crew visits friends and family in Phoenix and wait out the area’s hurricane season.
There is a line in the song, “Human,” by the rock band, The Killers, that is a reference to a comment by Hunter S. Thompson. The lyrics are: “Are we human, or are we dancer.” It received a lot of attention from fans and media as grammatically incorrect and because those, who did not know its origin, read its meaning different from that intended. Thompson’s comment was a criticism of society that people were acting as dancers, afraid to fall out of line, rather than being human. The lyric often pops into my head when I explain our choice to set sail on Mapache.
When people learn about our journey, many assume that we are skilled and experienced sailors. That is incorrect, and when people voice that assumption, we often respond that we are adventurers, not sailors. Certainly, we spent our spare time of two summers sailing a smaller sailboat around the Columbia River; Rob and I took a couple of weekend sailing classes; and we attended many lectures on sailing, weather, boat systems, safety, rigging, and sailboat maintenance and repair. We also spent hundreds of hours reading books on all subjects related to cruising (sailing for extended periods of time and distance). But when it comes down to it, we do not come close to having the time on the water that is required for one to hold themselves out as a “sailor.”
Rather, we have logged time on the tops of mountains, in endurance sports, on a motorcycle in untracked rural Mexico, lost in foreign countries, and overcoming challenges in our jobs. We are MacGyvers, not just in repairing and rigging physical things, but of problem-solving life. We seek the unbeaten path, because we know that the new experiences it holds make its difficulty worth it. In short, we are adventurers. And that is why we feel confident that we possess the skills necessary to take on sailing around the world without being “sailors.”
We recognize that that confidence involves some naivete. But a little naivete might be a good thing. It removes the prejudgment that could have kept us from attempting something like this. It causes us to do things the wrong way. And the wrong way is an efficient and effective teacher. For example, seasickness helped me understand why a sail up, even without wind, is important on a sailboat. A few wild rides on the ocean helped us learn why reading a weather report for the wind gusts and highest wave-heights, as opposed to wind and wave averages, is wise.
Further, not knowing the “correct” sailorly ways has helped us come up with simpler methods for boating tasks. After exploring several islands and bays outside of La Paz in the Mar de Cortés, we entered Puerto Escondido, a natural hurricane hole (protected on all sides) near Loreto, Baja California Sur. There, a boater’s choice to stay is either docked at the posh marina or attached to a mooring ball in the harbor. We opted for the less pricey option—mooring ball. We had never picked up a mooring ball and, failing to recollect the brief explanations we previously encountered, we decided that the best way was to treat it like a person-overboard. When picking up a person-overboard, one brings the boat alongside the bobbing victim, allowing easy access at the deck’s lowest point and gate. It also allows the most room for error, because one may grab the balance-challenged’s life vest or hand at any point of the length of the boat’s side. We applied the person-overboard technique and easily attached our designated mooring line (rope) to our intended mooring ball. Later, I reviewed some sailing books to find that the “correct” way to hook a mooring ball is to stand precariously on the front of the boat, lean over the railing with a boat hook (long pole) to snag the ball’s line, and rush to attach the boat’s line before the boat moves too far away. While in Puerto Escondido, we watched many sailors struggle with attaching to a mooring ball, often requiring several attempts. We smugly agreed to stick to our amateur method.
From Puerto Escondido, we cruised to several more islands and bays in the Mar de Cortés. The east coast of the Baja California peninsula is spectacular with powerful mountains colored with purples, oranges, and pinks. The landscape is dotted with cacti and other scrappy desert plants, showing an occasional bright flower. And the white sand beaches contrast brilliantly with the turquoise shallows, which blend into deep blue water under Mapache’s hull. The small islands are crumbs from the mainland, broken off and scattered around the Sea as samples of Baja’s geology and wildlife. The only residents of most of the islands and bays at which we anchored were coyotes, goats, lizards, seagulls, and pelicans, with the occasional fishing camp or small grouping of simple houses. But the water was filled with life—coral, crabs, starfish, urchins, and octopus; all sizes and colors of fish; leaping dolphins and rays; shy turtles and sealions (“lobos marinos” in Spanish, which means sea wolf); grebes, frigatebirds, and, even, the rare blue-footed boobies. Anchored at these lonely but vibrant spots was like living in a beautiful novel with poetic words of the desert’s wilds and the sea’s riches. We felt far removed from people’s pollution, like the 9-to-5 hustle, politics, rush hour, and hurried schedules. The simplicity of being on a boat anchored in those places meant that our minds were not littered with worry, allowing us to freely enjoy the world around us.
Our days were spent hiking up goat trails, snorkeling through reefs, and snacking on beaches. We found a hidden lagoon on Isla Coronados, inhabited by four giant black rays. I negotiated with a seagull to return my flipflop on a quiet beach. We analyzed pelicans’ strategies as they broke from their perfect flight formations to dive-bomb the water for fish. I learned to accept jellyfish stings as part of my daily swim. We explored mangroves by dinghy. We followed a dirt road from one beach to a lone streetlamp in the middle of nowhere, that was somewhere to the man who sold us vegetables straight out of his garden beds across from that lamp. We were puzzled by something constantly knocking on our boat’s bottom, until we saw large fish eating the marine growth off of our hull. We ate jicama every day, because it was the only consistently available vegetable in the small stores (usually run out of people’s living rooms) in the places we stopped. We watched a lunar eclipse from our boat in an uninhabited bay. The bioluminescence erupted around us with jumping fish as the moon darkened, and a lobo marino howl echoed against the mountains as if the land wolves were howling back. As the moon began to peek back out of the earth’s shadow, the morning sun started its appearance. We watched the sharp black and white lines of the lunar eclipse while smooth pastels of the sunrise washed across the sky and water behind us. The sky was awake.
Our clock was the sun and our only decision was when and which anchorage to head next. Every few days, we would cross our fingers for sufficient wind, weigh anchor, and head out. We always sailed, but the gentle breezes usually required us to incorporate the motor’s assistance. Our time in the Mar de Cortés is likely what many of you imaged we were doing our whole trip. Of course, our ever-needy motor gave us a project, requiring Rob to completely disassemble and reassemble the transmission in our cockpit. The repair to a loose gear-assembly worked, and we recalled the mantra: “Cruising is just working on your boat in exotic places.”
In these spaces, we met people on other boats with similar goals to us. And through those common interests as well as cockpit happy hours, a handful of those people are now good friends, planning to share the ocean road with us again. Many are in their 30s and 40s. They have worked careers, saving money to attain things like a house and vehicles. But when the time came, they traded in the dream of owning a permanent land home for a dream of more movement, exchanging the picket fence for an open horizon. Neither is right nor wrong. The boat life is merely what is right for these vagabonds.
Over the course of six weeks, we made our way from La Paz, up the Mar de Cortés, along the Baja peninsula, to Ensenada Alcatraz, which offers a protected anchorage. Alcatraz was our last stop before crossing the Sea from the Baja peninsula side to the Mexican mainland, ending at Puerto Peñasco for the summer. The crossing was a 24-hour trip. We had planned to stop over for one night at Alcatraz before making that leap, but that changed to two nights when the forecast showed a weather system pushing gale-force winds along our intended path around the tip of the nearby Isla Ángel de la Guarda. Two days later, we headed out with the rising sun and a favorable forecast, but quickly encountered big seas and powerful winds that forced us to retreat to the perhaps aptly-named Alcatraz.
When we are out of cellular signal, we receive the forecast on our computer through the single-sideband radio. The service we use updates at noon every day. At noon after our retreat, the forecast populated our computer screen, showing that we would be unable to make our escape until the following afternoon. That time came, and our third try had charm. We crossed in a calm sea, with sufficient sailing wind, and we watched the purples, oranges, and pinks of the Baja peninsula and its islands fade behind us.
About 22 hours later, and nine months after leaving Portland, Oregon, we arrived in Puerto Peñasco. It felt like coming home. I joked about sailing our boat to Phoenix (where I grew up), and this is as close as we can get. The last nine months have taught us that, although we understood basic sailing concepts, we did not really know how to sail. But we have learned, and we feel ready to continue stepping out of line to follow a nontraditional path in a nontraditional way. We are human.
Mapache, anchored at Isla San Francisco (mountains of the Baja peninsula in the background)
Us, following the trail along the ridge line of Isla San Francisco
Rob, making an angel in the salt flats of Isla San Francisco
Mapache, anchored at Caleta Partida, where two islands almost touch
An elusive turtle, taking a breath next to the boat
Cockpit happy hour on S/V Catspaw with our former Portland, Oregon, neighbors
Rob (in the water to the right), snorkeling off of the boat at Puerto Los Gatos
Pink rocks of Puerto Los Gatos
Red flowers, along the path on one of Sarah’s runs through the desert, off of a beach.
Exploring the mangroves at Bahía Amortajada
Mangroves, desert, and mountains at Bahía Amortajada
Us, enjoying the dinghy adventure at Bahía Amortajada
Local fishermen at Timbabiche
Rob, standing in the abandoned Casa Grande at Timbabiche, built in the 1920s by a local fisherman, who came into wealth when he harvested a large pearl out of the Sea
Mapache on the Mar de Cortés
The end of a goat trail at Bahía Agua Verde
Mapache, moored in Puerto Escondido
Steinbeck Canyon at Puerto Escondido
Typical day, sailing the Mar de Cortés
The dolphins almost always find us.
View from the peak of Isla Coronados
Hidden lagoon at Isla Coronados (Baja peninsula in the background)
Rob at Isla Coronados
New and old friends at beach snacky/happy hour on Isla Coronados
Us, enjoying the sunset from our new friends’ boat (Mapache is behind us)
Mapache, anchored at Caleta San Juanico
Rob and a new friend, buying fresh vegetables from the man who lives next to the lone streetlamp on a dirt road at Caleta San Juanico
Beach snacks at Caleta San Juanico with our new friends
Pelicans diving at Caleta San Juanico
Sunset at Caleta San Juanico
One of Sarah’s jellyfish stings
Blue-footed boobies at Punta Pulpito
A mural of the blue-footed booby (“bobo patas azules” in Spanish) at Bahía de los Angeles
Transmission rebuild in the cockpit at Punta Santo Domingo in Bahía Concepción
We stopped at a small marina in the town of Santa Rosalía.
Santa Rosalía was founded in the 1880s by a French copper mining company, and much of the original mining equipment remains today.
The mining company purchased a steel church, designed by Gustave Eiffel (creator of the Eiffel Tower), which was shipped from Brussels to Santa Rosalía in 1897. It is still in use today.
Mapache, sailing the Mar de Cortés
Lunar eclipse at Bahía San Francisquito
Sunrise, behind us as the lunar eclipse finishes in front of us, at Bahía San Francisquito
Mapache, anchored at Punta Islotes
The beach at Ensenada Alcatraz
Beach treasure at Ensenada Alcatraz: a dead sunflower sea star
Mapache, waiting to leave Ensenada Alcatraz (the white rock is Isla Alcatraz and the mountains in the background are part of Isla Angel de la Guarda)
An example forecast on our computer screen, downloaded through the single-sideband radio
Leaving the Baja peninsula behind us as night sets in and we cross the Mar de Cortés to Puerto Peñasco
Our first clear view of Puerto Peñasco under Mapache’s sail
Approaching Puerto Peñasco
Us, on land, overlooking Puerto Peñasco
Mapache, all sealed up for the summer (hurricane season in the Mar de Cortés)