Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Writing from Bahia de Tortugas

We did well on our first night passage with just the two of us. I should say, I faired well, getting about 6 hours sleep, and lucking out by getting to catch the sunset and the sunrise! The full moon’s rising and setting have been equally mesmerizing…What a way to watch the world turn…

Morning watch -- warm clothes still feel good
I think Lanham slept quite a bit less, but was still energetic when we arrived about 10 am at Isla San Benitos. We were able to sail most of the night! in 10-15 knots. We only saw one freighter about 2 in the morning, but we did learn that there is lots of chat, music, cat-calls, and even farting sounds broadcast over VHF channel 16 through the night in Mexican waters.

Sunrise over Cedros Island

And in the other direction, the moon is setting.

This is a beautiful area of islands and waters that are absolutely teeming with sea birds and dolphins. We sailed through a herd(?) of dolphins that must have numbered 400 – the water was 
literally bubbling with them jumping in all directions. They especially like to swim along right under the bow, mostly staying clear of the boat, but sometimes nudging us – what must they be thinking about us??

The fishing village of San Benitos (we didn't go ashore) but our telephoto
lens gives us a good view

We anchored among the rocks in 30 feet off West Benitos Island. A very small town, but large enough to have a two-towered church was around the corner.

Before we even had the anchor set, we had the traditional visit from a panguero and made a trade of 3 langostinas (lobster) for 2 cans of cold beer. Word got back to his buddies, because in a half hour another boat pulled up, clearly hoping we had more cerveca to trade -- four more lobster for 2 more beers. With dinner chilling in fresh seawater, we sun-screened up and headed out in the kayaks to explore the sea elephant colony (from the water) and the tidepools.

With the water at 76 degrees, I used my shortie wet suit and snorkel gear to swim around in the turquoise water. Lots of little fish, the most tropical looking species was an abundant bright orange goldfish shaped fish, ranging from 4 to 8 inches. We didn’t get too close to the sea elephants – just close enough to smell them!

We feasted on lobster, with olive oil and lemon, and slept a solid 10 hours. Again, the flopper-stoppers were put out to reduce our rolling in the swell. We had decided to only go a short 15 miles the next day, breaking the 65 miles to Turtle Bay into two shorter days and giving us a more leisurely start time.

We are so glad we decided to take our time… on the way to Isla Cedros we put in the line and caught the biggest fish to date – a beautiful, maybe 30 pound dorado (mahi mahi). While we are certainly enjoying the fresh seafood, it is with mixed feelings that one brings such an amazing and beautiful creature on board. We have also had 3 or 4 large ones on the hook that have shaken free and we are always a little happy to know that they CAN win sometimes.

The light at play in the hills
Our only chance to use our well-stocked first aid kit so far.
L stubbed his toe big time on our little hike. That will sound familiar to his big sisters.
All healed now and he was good about not swimming for a few days!

Another variety of fish tacos and iced coffee for lunch underway.

We followed the guide books’ recommendation to yet another gorgeous and protected spot in Bahia del Sur on Cedros Island for Sunday night. A long relaxed afternoon of swimming, sunning, (a little on board work-out with my weights), and then making sushi and grilling dorado steaks, proceeded a full moon kayak into the beach. We had watched a local family of 6 hike down the cliff side to enjoy this little beach earlier in the day. Our excursion left us soaked as we negotiated the surf to get back to the boat – but our inflatable kayaks are intrepid!

And so… Monday morning we got an early start, motoring by 6 and arriving in Bahia de Tortugas by 1 pm. It is a well-protected bay, and we are one of 4 sailboats anchored here. We are very glad not to be one of the 120 boats that will arrive as part of the BaHa Ha Ha in about 2 days. Too crowded for us! We plan to get going by Wednesday morning and stay a little ahead of them.

Once anchored we turned off the computer (and anchor alarm – ahh!) for the first time since Ensenada – what a champ! We took the dink in, tied up at the rickety metal stairs on the town pier and gave the gang of young men a propina to watch the boat. They are gearing up for the yatistas arriving and were ready to sell us fuel and anything else!

Lanham explained that his “pelo es no muy corto!” Pedro jumped right in and walked with us at a breakneck speed to the shop and house of Jesus, the local pelucuero for un corte de pelo. This was a great intro to the working part of the village. Jesus’s family was all in the next room with the TV blaring, and his kids kept bopping in eating sweets and talking about Halloween. Pedro, a one armed, baggy shorted, fifteen-year-old liked the tip we gave him for the walk to the barber and wanted to hang out with us hoping for more.

He showed us to the minimercado, where we initially tried to pay 700 pesos for a box of cereal and 2 cans of juice. The shopkeeper wouldn’t take $56, only $5.60 and we all got a good laugh. Pedro then walked us to a family restaurant overlooking the bay. We managed to ditch Pedro there, with another small tip, and we chatted with the gringos that were from the two other sailboats.

Cute dogs about town
Maria's restaurant, where we made a friend and found a spotty internet connection -- Solar Wind is out in the bay -- plenty of room for more boats
King of the roost
 After a great selection of beef and shrimp tacos, we made friends with the waitress and owner. She hoped we would recommend her place, which she took over from her brother only 2 months ago. Her English is about on par with my Spanish, but she was so happy to try to talk. She has big plans for her new venture. She would like it to be a gallery/museum in addition to a restaurant. The first item in her collection will be her fossilized sharks tooth, which she proudly showed us. It came from the mountains, inland (I think!! I understood). She wants to have a school for children to study music on the top floor of the museum/restaurant. She asked if I could maybe put a letter on the Internet, telling people about her place. When I asked the name of the restaurant, she thought about it… and finally said, there are 4 Marias in my family and named them all. We agreed the place should be Los Cuatros Marias! And she added, Los Cuatros Marias y Melinda! So – here’s my plug for Maria and her project. The next time you are in Turtle Bay, you must stop in. And ask about the shark’s tooth fossil!

Maria made a cake to sell to the upcoming BaHaHa crowd and insisted that we try a piece.
Before heading back to the boat, we walked the town a bit more, found the elementary school (one of my favorite photographic subjects wherever I go), looked for the tortillaria, but only found the panderia (with the ubiquitous dry sugared stale sweet rolls) and enjoyed watching the dogs and kids playing on the abandoned boats on the beach.

Lots of pride evident at the escuela primeria

Shade- wherever you can get it! 

We are headed back to Maria’s this morning to – we hope – post this on the blog. While there is no reported Internet CafĂ© in town, we did see a kid on his computer and Maria asked him for his code… it all seems pretty mysterious to those residents that we’ve met… maybe there is internet… maybe not… sometimes… mas o menos…

Next post will probably be after we hit Cabo San Lucas, but the deLorme tracker is working well and we have been posting our position nightly. Also, you can send short emails to WDF6911@sailmail.com and we will probably answer back! Thanks again to everyone who is reading along and sending their good wishes and thoughts! What can we say? We are having the trip of our dreams???

The Wild Baja West Coast

It feels like we are now truly off the beaten path (off the worn heading?) and the “wilds” of the Baja Peninsula are just that! We have been anchored in a somewhat “sheltered” bay for the 36 hours with 15 knot (now feels like a gentle breeze) to 35 knot (makes us wonder how our anchor could be holding) winds on our bow. We are taking turns at anchor watches around the clock. This doesn’t actually involve going out where the anchor is, but just staying inside our warm comfortable well-lit cabin, listening to the howling wind rise and fall and watching a little green boat-shaped icon bobbing inside a red alarm circle that we have set up on the computer screen. The GPS stays on and if our anchor lets go in one of the big gusts, we will drift out of the circle, an alarm will sound, and we will be ready to start the motor to either reset the anchor or motor on out of this harbor. On the same screen we can watch the wind speed and wind direction, as well as our boat’s heading. So far we have stayed lined up with the wind, which we like because it keeps us off the shoal and rocks to our port side and keeps the boat pretty comfortable in terms of rolling. We have had lots of time to discuss anchoring tactics, options, back-up plans and our “escape route” should we drag anchor. Since the only forecast we’ve been able to get says that tomorrow’s wind may be stronger, this afternoon we rigged our second anchor and have it on the foredeck ready to add as insurance if needed.

On the chart and in the guide bibles, Bahia San Quintin looks like a good place to wait out this blow. In person, it is a large bay (Elliott Bay size) so has a long fetch for the wind to build up and is very shallow (we are in 13 to 18 feet) with shoals and sandbars that can’t really be charted because they shift with the seasons. We have read that there are two beach hotels, an old mill site with an Olde Mill Restaurant, and even a town about 5 miles up an estuary and 5 miles in on a gravel road. Everyone is holed up for the storm and our view is of empty sand dunes, a couple fishing shacks and the friendly waving panguaneros who have come out twice a day to check lobster pots. If (I mean when) the weather settles, we still may get the dinghy out and go investigate up river. For now, we are hunkered down, taking turns sleeping, cooking, reading and watching. We think it is Wednesday!

In the last few days since we left Ensenada we have had some great sailing – fast and fun – and some really unique and beautiful anchorages. Also, uncharacteristically gray and spitting skies and (we now think pretty typical) rolly anchorages with less wind shelter than we might like. Here’s a recap:

Friday, Oct 19 – Isla Todo Santos -- After topping up our fuel at Marina Coral (about $1/gal cheaper than the last fill in US) we sailed the 10 miles West of Ensenada to Isla Todo Santos. This island is frequented by dive boats and commercial sportfishing outfits, has a well-know surfing area – and more recently has growing aqua-culture facilities near the common anchoring area. We discovered that pretty much the entire anchoring cove was filled with fish growing pens and buoys. We thought we saw an open area and inched in, only to stop the boat just in time to avoid fouling a 3-inch thick unmarked line tying one of the pens to the shore.

We thought these two looked like Action Figures -- and had the poses for it.
Two local divers came racing out in their panga. We expected they were coming to tell us we weren’t allowed to anchor there. Between our Spanish and their little bit of English, we understood we could rent a buoy for $25. Even though it was more than we had been paying the last few marina nights, it seemed like a bargain given the lack of options. We threw in a couple beers, they assured us that it was a “strong” buoy, introduced themselves as Juan and Reme and said we could call them on the radio if we needed anything else.

Most of the "anchorage" is taken up by aqua culture pens such as this...
So we felt lucky to be able to rent the one buoy that is usually used by the locals.
Kayaking around the wild rock formations was fun!
One more picture (not the last) of Solar Wind at anchor. Be sure to notice the residents in the upper left.
Dinner time!
The island only has one small settlement and is mostly a bird sanctuary. Exploring the rocks and little bays around our boat by kayak was magical. Paddling under the watchful eye of the pelican colony and through the throng of curious seals was such a treat. As the sun set the birds’ feeding time was amazing to watch --lots of species sharing the air with no apparent competition. The water would ripple with hundreds of 8-10 inch fish flipping at the surface and the pelicans would dive bomb from 100 feet up, going underwater to emerge with a fish.

Saturday, Oct 20 -- 
Puerto Santo Tomas – Saturday morning was overcast and windless. As we motored south we got misted on and our foul weather gear felt good over shorts and sandals. We liked the looks of Santo Tomas, especially the wide-open anchoring space out of the way of the local pangas, so we stopped on the early side of the afternoon. The village on shore looked sleepy with fog hanging above the hillside. This village had been the loading site for barrels of wine from Santo Tomas vineyards 30 years before they moved the winery to Ensenada – thus the fancy gate and sign.
 Fishing, lobster and sea urchin diving are the economy now.
Puerto Santo Tomas -- making a go of it

Just as we got our anchor set, we looked up to again see a fishing boat racing up to come alongside Solar Wind. Uh oh, they want $25 for us to stay here I thought. But not at all, he was just coming with dinner – did we want fresh lobster? $7 each. We bought one with 100 pesos. Sorry no change he said, how about a crab too? We kept it simple with one lobster, and since then have bought two more and found them easy to clean, grill or bake. We are learning to bargain and barter, as we should. At the next stop, our two large lobsters didn’t come with a price tag, but the boat driver asked for a trade. We offered half a bottle of tequila and they seemed happy (and maybe puzzled, too?)

Sunday, Oct 21 --  Bahia Collnet – Our route on Sunday took us right through the middle of a “hot” fishing ground. Lanham had the pole out, got a couple strikes and reeled it a beautiful tuna (yellow fin, we think). The filleting was easy with a calmer sea and smooth motoring and we bagged two large flanks for the freezer and a generous meal of sushi for which we had all the trimmings on hand -- white rice, sesame seed, seaweed, wasabi, soy sauce and pickled ginger!

The high bluffs and colored striations of rock and sand were dramatic as we rounded the head of Punta Collnet (said to be the most distinctive geographic feature on Baja) to find our planned anchorage. Again, the guidebook description of the best spot to drop our hook sounded specific but didn’t really match the visuals and depths that we were getting. We picked our own spot and like other coast line anchorages so far, we could tell it would be a very rolly night. But the anchor set well, the holding was good and we had nowhere to blow but out to sea!

We tried using a stern anchor to keep perpendicular to the swell but that wasn’t a go. This gave us a chance to try out the “flopper stoppers” which are a series of plastic cone-shaped disks that you put out on either side of the hull to add drag and minimize the rocky motion. Lanham rigged one way out on the spinnaker pole and it made a significant difference. We have used them a couple nights since and since they are not the easiest contraptions to store it was good to know that we have been carting them around for a reason.

Monday, Oct 22 – to Isla San Martin – We started Monday morning with banana pancakes. We are using up the perishables as needed. We had a fresh breeze from behind and got to try out the newly shortened pole for holding out the jib – much more manageable! The wind continued to build into the afternoon so we made quick time on the 30 miles to Isla San Martin. We dropped anchor on the leeward side of this little round volcanic cinder cone island. In the distance we had a view of 5 more such cone shaped peaks on the Baja coast.

Isla San Martin -- where we kayaked into the lava boulder beach

With a good set we pumped up the kayaks (which we now store under-inflated, along with the dinghy, so they can expand in the sun) and went off to explore the little lagoon we could see ashore. We have been the only pleasure boat at any of these stops. Maybe we’re just that early in the season, or maybe we don’t pick the more traditional stops?

A bay FULL of seals -- so curious! All eyes were on us -- until we looked their way.

It was a gorgeous little black sand beach surrounded by a natural lava rock breakwater, full of desert fauna, birdlife, and a colony of the most curious seals we’ve ever met. They would all line up to watch us paddle up to them, then suddenly become shy and flip underwater as soon as we made eye contact. We could see folks in a fish camp across the way.

The next morning our intention was to hike to the top of one of the cone peaks. We got about 3 feet into the desert brush in our running shoes and met our nemesis. The cacti balls seemed to have the ability to jump onto our shoes and pant legs, the spines had no trouble penetrating fabric and they left something under the skin that immediately swelled to a hard lump where they entered. We might be looking for some inexpensive leather boots with Vibram soles or stick to beach hikes. Consider the following -- shots of the cacti walk and beach still life:

Tues – Thurs, Oct 23-25 – Bahia San Quintin – The wind continued to build as predicted, so we came the short 10 miles around the point into this “sheltered” spot early on Tuesday afternoon. It took us a while to find the described anchorage – between shallows and a long way from shore. The wind was blowing 25 as we set the anchor, so even though it was less than 20 feet, we put out 150 feet of chain. After 36 hours and lots more wind, we have build our trust of the holding.

When the wind came down to 15 kts and then to 5 kts on Thursday morning we both slept and then went ashore in the dinghy. We were tempted to make a run for the south, but are glad that we got to experience the up close beauty of the sand dunes and stretch our legs with a great walk to the top of one of the little peaks. This time we found a dirt path that kept us out of the cacti.

When we finally went ashore after being holed up for 36 hours, this walk was our reward. 

View of the estuary at San Quintin that the grey whale swam up
We speculated about all the tracks through the sand – some sort of feline, some small member of the deer family, jack rabbits, and some ATVs. To top our list of sightings, from the cockpit we watched a grey whale come gliding up the bay! In only 15 feet of water, he would surface, blow, and sink as he gently made his way alongside the boat – so exciting to see.

We are not getting very precise local weather forecasting here, but the GRIB files and faxes for the broader area project the wind lessening, and no major storms headed in – so we plan to catch that wind and go offshore tomorrow, making a 140 mile, 26 hour run to Isla Cedros or Bahia de Tortugua. Both have towns and provisions, and more anchoring choices than any of the little bights along the coast between here and there. Time to make some mileage!