We traveled from Ensenada to Cabo San Lucas in November. This 800 mile stretch of coast surprised us with its serene beauty and interesting anchorages. We stopped six times in total, did not stay long enough to do any of them justice, and each stop was different enough that we would have trouble editing this list if we were to do it again. Ensenada you’ve already heard about, but read on for more about the other stops.
Every passage has its “interesting” moments and ours, still being a shakedown, did not fail in over-interesting moments. There was plenty for me to worry about, but in each case Jon was able to fix, work around or do without, so I am still here to tell the story. Maybe you’ll learn something, maybe you would have known better – so there’s something for everyone. I’m still here onboard so that’s something.
We also saw amazing beauty – the landscapes are fabulous but my favorites were the bio-luminescence during the night watches. We had seen and continued to see glowing clouds of dolphins, but during this portion of the trip we also saw flying fish at night as glowing frisbees that scooted along and then disappeared into the sea. They are wonderful to see during the day but glorious at night.
On the way south from Ensenada just after dark we had our first scare – way too much water in the bilges. The electric bilge pumps don’t seem to be working so Jon brings out “Big Ed” the Edson manual pump that is said to be able to pass a pair of trousers. The damn thing weighs about 60 pounds and for much of the rest of the trip Big Ed was ensconced at the bottom of the companionway ladder with his huge flexible hoses running to the engine room and up the companionway ladder and over the rail. Ahh, the little comforts of life at sea. The good news is that because of this we didn’t sink. That’s always nice.
At this point we also realize we are unable to connect to stations with our SSB – despite having had it repaired in Marina Del Ray. Frustrating as this makes it hard to communicate with folks back home or to update our location on this blog. But as it turns out since we are coastal cruising there are a surprising number of times when we are able to get cell signal – we are not exactly in isolation.
We sail and motor, mostly motor, south from Ensenada for a couple of days and decide we don’t need to be in a hurry- we can stop and join up with our friends who are just a day or so behind us. Besides there is the radio thing and the bilge pump thing that we might be able to work on if we are not sailing 24/7. And what we are passing is so alluring… we decide to make some stops.
Isla Cedros – Cedar Island – is a large island about 300 miles south of Ensenda. Rather than drive at 3 knots all night or arrive in Turtle Bay in dark (we have a boat rule not to enter unknown harbors at night) we opted to stop in the north-most anchorage of Isla Cedros and spent one night. No other boats! It is an open roadstead anchorage but protected from the northwest winds. It was a bit rolly but pleasant the night we stayed. We had to get very close to shore to find the 25 foot depth we like to anchor in, but as quiet as it was and the wind blowing us offshore we felt very safe.
As we were anchoring a small panga came up and offered us four lobsters for 400 pesos – about $20. They fit – just – in my pressure cooker pot without the pressure lid. A little garlic butter, the greek salad and hummus I had made earlier, and we had a dinner fit for kings. Luckily we had no kings to share it with and ate the whole thing ourselves. Zoë approved though she thought her portion peculiarly small.
The next morning just ahead of sunrise we upped anchor for Turtle bay. Turtle Bay, properly Bahia San Bartolome, is 50 miles south of Isla Cedros. As we motored out of the anchorage we realized the autopilot was not working. At least it’s a short day and mild weather for hand steering. Bilge pumps, SSB radio, autopilot; “what’s next” my worrier self wonders. Good thing I didn’t know!
Later that morning as we motored along a panga approached holding up a lobster. We said no, we didn’t want to stop to negotiate and pay and besides we had just had a lobster dinner the night before. So the panga sped off – then suddenly turned around, came alongside and threw four lobsters on our boat, laughed and waved as he sped off. One didn’t quite make it over the netting and one crawled under the netting and off the boat but Jon was able to secure the last two and pop them in a bucket of seawater. Actually, it turns out that lobster two nights in a row is quite nice.
We had hoped to go to Turtle Bay to join our friends who were part of the Baja HaHa – a large sailing rally that traditionally stops here. A dozen friends from East Bay, San Francisco where we lived for two years were going to be there. Old home week! We arrived just as the Haha was forming up – there were maybe a dozen boats in the large harbor when we arrived. At its peak over the three days we we stayed over 100 boats arrived. The energy in the harbor was lovely – water taxis, dinghies and paddle boards zipping around as people visited each other – and the beach party our last night was quite fun. While we were in town one dapper and elderly man, looking into the harbor from the sea wall asked me, in far better English than my own Spanish, how many boats I thought were out there. When I said I thought there were supposed to be over 100 he grinned, shook his head slowly and said, wonderingly, “100!” I guess it was like circus weekend for them.
However in general the relationship between town and HaHa did not impress. Turtle Bay seemed a gringo town, a tourist town, and I suppose it was once several hundred relatively wealthy yachties had arrived. The prices were high and the prices listed in US dollars rather than pesos. The fuel practices were iffy – people reported being charged $7 a gallon for 55 gallons in a 50 gallon tank and other similar things. In town the fuel was a more normal $5 a gallon, but the Haha people requested that we buy it from the dock at the inflated prices rather than walking into town to get it ourselves. Some kind of noblesse oblige thing I guess. However, as has been true throughout Mexico, the people have been very lovely, very interested in us, and very kind. And fascinated by Zoë as the only black curly dog we’ve seen here yet. The kids always want to pet her, the adults smile when they see her.
We didn’t just play for the three days we were there. Jon built a new antenna to pull up into the rigging – and I was able to transmit! But then we tried the regular antenna again – it also worked. Sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t? What is this – a boat?
After leaving Turtle Bay we had some nice sailing. But later that night the steering and autopilot started to be very difficult to handle, swinging wildly out of control and lagging terribly as we tried to correct. We finally gave up on the autopilot and hand steered – which is never fun but is particularly difficult on a boat with hydraulic steering as there is so little feel to go buy. Add pitch black night and a strangely lagged navigation display and you have near hysteria in a certain sailor. I stood my watch and managed to mostly keep us moving in the right direction, but frankly I was frightened – frightened to keep going, frightened of continuing closer to land – I really wasn’t sure how we were going to get to an anchorage with steering this arbitrary. I buttoned my lips and stared at the heading indicator through what seemed to be a long night.
The next tenable anchorage that we could enter – after dawn remember as we don’t like to enter unknown places after dark even when our steering works properly – was a place called Punta (“Point”) Abreojos. It’s a popular surfing location which doesn’t seem to mesh well with “quiet anchorage” but it’s all a matter of the shape of the bottom. Just a mile or two behind the surfing grounds at the point is a lovely quiet anchorage.
After arriving we ate and slept – it had been an exhausting night.
The next morning Jon diagnosed the steering problem as being a lack of hydraulic fluid. Whether from a sudden leak or just the decay of time was not yet clear. But there did not seem to be any hydraulic fluid on the boat so we dug out the “Spanish for Cruisers” book and did a bit of research. Hydraulic fluid is “Aceite Hydraulico” etc. I wrote down some pertinent Spanish phrases “Where can I buy hydraulic fluid” and “how much does it cost” and “when do they open” and “my aunt put her pen on the table”. Sorry that last was from Spanish class and no one has EVER needed to say that in the history of gringos in Spanish speaking lands, but hey, we are ready if it comes up.
Off Jon went on the paddle board. He came back a couple of hours later with a gallon of hydraulic fluid. They tried to sell him a 5 gallon bucket but when it became clear that was way too much they were very helpful. First they said some very quick Spanish, pointing helpfully the while. That turned out not to be useful. Then they wrote a note and pointed to the building they wanted him to take it to. He brought the note to what turned out to be a huge and very clean ice plant – this town packs and cans their own fish – and gave it to a young man there. The young man came back with a clean one gallon plastic soap container. Jon brought that back to the fisheries supply store where they decanted a gallon of hydraulic oil into the plastic container. Mission accomplished!
We spent several hours slowly pouring hydraulic fluid into the top of the system, forcing out air bubbles, and removing excess from the bottom of the system until the steering turned smoothly and there seemed to be no more trapped air. At that point the steering worked but the autopilot still didn’t. Jon opened the back of the binnacle and secured any loose wires and that turned out to fix the autopilot as well.
Remember the radio that we “fixed” in Turtle Bay? It stopped working again after we left – and I suddenly realized, bolstered by a review of my radio log – that it worked when the engine was off and didn’t work when the engine was running – clearly some kind of electrical interference. Arrggh. We had done so much motoring on this trip that I stopped noticing. This will take some chasing down but at least we know.
Later that day some fishermen came up and offered to bring us some diesel. They negotiated a price for us on the phone with the fuel dock, we gave them the cash, and they came back 30 minutes later with about 60 or 70 gallons. They could not leave the containers so we siphoned the fuel into our tanks – which takes forever. Very helpful to have it delivered that way. The following morning we left about dawn – fueled up and with steering and autopilot working.
Bahia Santa Maria
150 miles on from Punta Abreojos is Bahia Santa Maria. It is a large bay that adjoins over a mangrove strip the very large and well-known bay called Magdelena Bay. Santa Maria is as beautiful and serene as its reputation would have it. It is very easy to get into, so we decided to stop for relaxation. It turned out to be the most satisfying anchorage to date. The anchorage is completely sheltered from wind waves but still with a nice breeze over the hills for coolness. It was the quietest anchorage – three other boats, all far away and quiet – and no wake or roll. Delightful. The swimming was sublime.
The quietness of the water, especially in the morning, also convinced me to finally try the paddle board we had been given. I paddled first on my knees, but soon found the standing position quite tenable. The next day I took Zoë with me. The swimming was also delightful – warm but still refreshing temperature. Jon scrubbed the waterline, propeller and rudder while I cooked us nice meals. It was a nice respite. We should have stayed two days more, had we only fully known what we were heading into. All we had eyes for is the promised 25 knots – a seeming delight from the 3-6 knots we had had most of the way down so far. And with Cabo and the storm 36 hours away we figured we would arrive after it ended. What we didn’t realize is that apparently it covered some 400 miles or possibly more – it caught folks crossing the Sea of Cortez from Banderas Bay hundreds of miles to the east and us, nearly 200 miles north.
Tropical Storm Raymond
This was not a destination, nor even a desired activity, but an unfortunate choice that could have ended worse. We were naive about how far a tropical storm could stretch – yes there was a storm down at Cabo, but the 25 knots that we saw 200 miles north of there looked like a godsend. We had done little but motor for several weeks and were delighted to see some real wind. Interestingly the waves started arriving before the wind. And the waves were what nearly did us in. When is 25 knots not an exciting day sail? When it is accompanied by 10-15′ square waves from multiple directions – what we dubbed the washboard storm. Luckily our boat is stout and we had just fixed the steering so we motored into the storm for 36 hours. We chose our direction by heading nearly into the waves – hitting them abeam was out of the question. Since the waves were so mixed this was not always successful and we had some hard pounding occasionally as the boat fell into a particularly deep trough. This event sounded about like a cement truck falling 30 feet and we were not sure the boat would survive it. We did resurrect some leaks we thought had been cured, but nothing worse. We cut our watches to 3 hours as sleep was nearly out of the question anyway and any longer in the maelstrom was demoralizing. I found I did get some sleep by laying the cockpit cushions on the salon floor and wedging myself between the salon seating and the salon table legs. I pulled Zoë into my midsection and kept her from being thrown about as well. On the loudest crashes she lifted her head to look at me but I told her everything was fine in the most soothing voice I had and she would lie down again. I tried to believe my words myself.
Would it have been smarter to go to shore? Of course, but the storm didn’t get serious until we had passed the last tenable anchorage at Magdalena Bay. We still thought it was just going to be a messy night and day at that point. Should we have taken the storm more seriously? Yes, but the low winds made us think it wouldn’t be that serious. Supposedly it did get 35 or 40 knots 200 miles south, but we never saw over 28 or 30 and only for short periods. Most of the wind was 15 to 25, it was the waves that were the problem. With wind relatively low and waves relatively large we had two choices – motoring into the wind or turning 180 around and sailing or motor-sailing with a scrap of jib. But we judged that with the waves that wild and erratic attempting to sail into the wind would have been harder on the rig than simply motoring. We had taken the sails down earlier as they were just collapsing in the waves and then snapping back as the wind caught them. By the time the waves forced us straight into the wind of course sailing was impossible. Motoring into the wind may have felt wilder, but I don’t think it was harder on the boat than sailing/motoring downwind under bare poles would have been . I do think motoring into the wind and waves is more secure than sliding away as pushed by the wind and waves. It is easy to get cross-wise to the seas when the wind and waves are behind you. We made our best judgement and just hung on until it was done.
Cabo San Lucas
36 hours later we turned the corner at the southern extent of Baja at dawn with large waves and about 20 knots of wind – the storm clearly damping down but not over yet. We pulled into the Cabo San Lucas harbor about 8:00 am to find the harbor had been shut down for a couple of days. The port captain had closed the anchorage, every marina was chock full, and early refugees from the storm had been told to go to La Paz (150 miles away). As we arrived the marinas were still closed and not answering their calls. We pulled into the fuel dock and were told they would open the following day. With no other options we tied up at the fuel dock and started cleaning up the boat. Everything was soaked but the sun was warm so we festooned the boat with damp everything – clothes, cushions, towels… the perfect image of “boat people”.
About 2:30 that afternoon the fuel dock told us they would sell us fuel and we had to leave. And go where? La Paz. Or the anchorage will probably open later. Is the port captain open yet? No, not yet. What happens if we anchor out before he opens the anchorage? He’ll probably open it later. Can we contact him? No, he’s not open today.
So we got fuel and went into the harbor to anchor, hoping we wouldn’t be sent away. We were still exhausted from the storm. As the sun set we were already rocking to sleep to the sound of the hotel bars’ music. Lovely night, just a little rolly. We left the next morning after a quick water taxi trip into the harbor to the convenience store for the most basic of supplies.
Cabo is beautiful. The “friars” or large rocks that march down from the harbor mouth to the point are striking, the arch is perfectuly picturesque, and the tiny isolated beaches around the friars are to other beaches as a doll house is to a surburban house – pure delight in miniature. We never got into the town, and I suppose it is a town for wealthy people, but I can certainly understand why the location appealed. I wish we had had time to see more.
Next Stop, the mainland
So we left Cabo headed to mainland Mexico: Banderas Bay and Thanksgiving in Puerto Vallarta – a trip of about 300 miles / 3 days. Nothing but mild weather ahead!