Puerto Balandra and the Islands

Saturday, December 31st, 2005

We escaped from La Paz Christmas day, having planned on leaving the previous day but realizing that we couldn’t actually enter the aft cabin for all the groceries and books and whatnot piled around. It took me three or four hours of intense griping and knee banging to reorganize all the food and put it back away, out of sight, off the floors and counters. Ahhh.

My first dealings with the beasties: bulk brown rice purchased at one of the bulk dry good shops on calle Serdan contained, presumably, weevils. Gah! I can’t see the things actually, but there are webby bits clinging to the sides of the bag. I am sort of unsure as to what I should do with it now, aside from isolate it in a wax-sealed lead-lined box; I will try extensive rinsing in salt water prior to cooking in hopes that weevils float, and actual rice pieces do not. We’ll see. Haven’t been feeling like brown rice lately, it seems. Other bulk items that are a super fat plus = cashews! They aren’t cheap but they taste way better than cashews I’ve bought in the states; they are larger, more irregular in shape, and have a harder/drier consistency (the states’ variety always are on the mushy, not-quite-roasted-enough side for my tastes). I’ve actually had cashews like these once before, bought off some kid on the side of the road in southern Mexico, or maybe Guatemala (hmm), and I’ve been pining after them for 10 years! (“Drop your linen and start your grinnin’!”)

With the boat all tidy and everything in its place, we filled our spare five-gallon jug with water and prepared to depart. Then we managed to accidentally drop the five-gallon jug of water overboard during the dingy docking procedure and it SANK. Fast. Oh well, we pulled anchor and ghosted out of the La Paz anchorage in barely any wind.

It took us a zillion hours to tack up the narrow channel in so light and flukey a wind and so we set our sights on anchoring at Puerto Ballandra, at the entrance of La Paz bay, rather than trying to get out to the islands and anchoring after dark (where our only guide is Charlie’s “Not for Navigational Purposes” Charts). We smugly anchored under sail and dug out the mighty Yellow Tigrelita for some exploring.

The anchorage here is great: lots of white sand and cool rock formations (such as Mushroom Rock), an inner lagoon with mangroves, and zillions of birds and fish, particularly pufferfish. Vast herds of pufferfish swimming all around the boat along the bottom. Pufferfish are insanely cute, by the way; they have big soulful eyes and spikes all over them. When they are freaked out, they puff up and the spikes poke out, and if one happens to be holding a freaked-out pufferfish in one’s hand, they make weird squelchy irritated little noises. Actually, we’re not sure what gets the pufferfish so riled, but there were many of them alive and puffed up and floating on the surface of the water. Frigate birds, which we previously held to be most noble and intelligent sea birds, have since been demoted in IQ status after we repeatedly observed them snagging the puffed-up pufferfish from the surface, fighting over it for a bit with their frigate bird pals, then dropping it after realizing that this fish is pokey and inedible. Then the same bird will hunt around some more, spy the SAME pufferfish pick it up again, only to drop it a few seconds later once it gels in its birdbrain that, well, it’s hard to imagine what goes on in a frigatebird’s brain. Not rocket science.

Mushroom rock puerto balandra, near La Paz, Mexico

Holding puffer fish in hand

We stayed two nights and finally headed off for Islas Espiritu Santa and Partida. Wind was nonexistent so we, cough, motored for a little bit until the glassy water started to riffle, then we killed the noisy thing and put up the gennaker, which is a thin nylon sail for light air, only to watch it hang limply. So we just sat silently in the middle of the channel between the mainland and the islands for a while, wandering around the boat, attempting to fish with the fishing rod, doing some chores, etc. When the wind picked up a tiny bit and we ghosted on towards the island. Curiously we were headed mostly downwind as we approached the islands, yet boats coming toward us, if they had sails up, were also on a downwind. That’s some flukey wind. As we got near our anchorage, the wind picked up considerably and we ended up with it directly on the nose as we headed up the narrow channel to Caleta Partida, which is an old caldera that has eroded and filled with water, thereby separating Espiritu Santa from Partida. It took us a really, really long time to tack up the channel because the wind changed direction and speed constantly as it came gusting down the many canons and arroyos of the island. I imagine the boats already at the anchorage had an amusing time watching us go back and forth, but we finally made it and anchored under sail again. Yay!

Sailing between Isla Ballena and Isla Espiritu Santo, Mexico

We managed to catch a sierra between Espiritu Santa and the tiny island Ballena and so we made fish tacos for dinner. They were mighty tasty too; the sierra resembles the bonito in texture and flavor.

Looking down into Caleta Partida between Isla Espiritu Santo and Isla Partida Mexico

The anchorage at Caleta Partida is basically a gap between the two islands, Espirito Santa to the south and Partida to the north. The western gap is blocked by a sandbar on the inside and rocky breakwater on the outside (appeared to be manmade, but we’re not sure; possibly for the purpose of creating a mellow bay for harvesting pearl oysters way back when?). A narrow channel runs between the sandbar and the breakwater so a dingy or panga can navigate through during high tide. There are fishing shacks on the sandbars and along the cliffs and we saw one or two pangas stop to cook food and camp. On the Partida side is a wide sandy strip and shallow rocky area with lots of critters like octopus (“pulpos,” which the Mexicans were hunting during low tide—we talked to one of the guys who said they like to hide out in rocky crevices and in old conch shells), stingrays—we saw two of these hiding in the sand, crabs, and lots of various shellfish and bivalves. There is a great hike up the canyon on the western side of the sandy beach area on Partida called “El Rincon” that takes you up the wash to the top of the island, where you can wander around on the loose volcanic ground enjoying the amazing view and get poked by a myriad of cacti! Just wear good shoes, watch for loose rock, and expect to get scratched up a lot. Joshua unfortunately managed to step on a loose section and twisted his knee, probably tearing one of those pesky knee tendons. He was able to put weight on it though and we picked our way down the trail and back to the boat where we put wet cloths on it (in lieu of ice). He’s okay and can lurch about the boat, if not with agility. Hopefully he’ll heal quickly or at least get to a more mobile state. He’s suffering now on the deck with a beer and his book lying in the hammock, which we slung between the fore and sidestays. Poor baby!

We ended up staying a couple of days at this anchorage; the last night we flagged down one of the pulpo-hunters and traded some beers for dinner. Having no idea how to prepare pulpo, we tenderized/cleaned it by rubbing the tentacles with salt (recommended by “Sushi, Taste and Technique”), boiled it in spices, and cut it into slices. It was boingy and a bit tough, but good I suppose; maybe next time we’ll try to tenderize it by whaling on it with a hammer in addition to the salt.

Joshua holding an octopus

Again we ghosted off our anchor in almost nonexistent wind and tacked out of the narrow bay (because the wind will never cooperate and blow in one consistent direction). We sailed up to Ensenada Grande, just a few miles north on Partida and anchored. Not only did I get to pull anchor for the first time since Joshua is incapacitated somewhat (and luckily it was dead wind so I didn’t have to embarrass myself by grunting and groaning over a tight anchor line), I dropped the anchor when we arrived at Ensenada Grande as well (first time I did that too), completely making a huge tangle of the line and getting it wrapped around places that are physically impossible to get wrapped around. Joshua prudently kept his mouth shut most of the time while I dashed about the deck swearing and tripping over lines. In the end I managed to get the anchor in the water without falling overboard or having to start the motor, and the event was declared a success.

We chatted a bit with Betsy and Richard from Qayak (a 32-foot Valiant from Seattle), who we have been running into a lot lately, and ended up having dinner with them that evening. Betsy made an excellent Thai shrimp curry stir fry (mmm) and we brought over a bottle of sake, which I believe Angelea accidentally left in our cooler after Burning Man (thanks Angelea!!). They are on a similar schedule as us: “Um, maybe we’ll hang around here for a while, then either go north or go south; we haven’t decided yet.” Also notable at this anchorage was a major pirate ship of 43-foot length (minus bowsprits) and 18-foot width (!!); Betsy said the owner built it himself in Port Orford, WA, of ferro cement and wood; it has two massive varnished Douglas Fir masts.

Bahia Santa Maria

Monday, December 12th, 2005

We decided to forego Bahia Magdelena altogether and anchor just north at Santa Maria. Notable is that now the water is blue, not black or gray or greenish gray, and we finally saw a frigate bird. Jeff had been increasingly put out by the lack of frigate birds. It started when he announced a few feet inside the Mexican border, “First person to see a frigate bird gets to buy a bottle of tequila!” We didn’t see one by the time we got to Ensenada and had to buy a bottle of tequila to quell the fear that something was not right in the world; according to Jeff, there should be frigate birds everywhere. Leaving Ensenada, we bought a few more bottles of tequila just in case we saw a frigate bird but weren’t near a store. We ended up having to break into those too in an attempt to forget about how we weren’t seeing any frigate birds. At last, evidence was observed on the beach at Bahia San Quentin: a dried-up frigate bird skull; we pondered this important clue over some tequila. Jeff’s unease increased steadily until, at last, not only was a frigate bird seen but also some flying fish, another creature whose absence was causing great anxiety. All remaining bottles of tequila were subsequently drained in preparation of being able to purchase a bottle of tequila once we arrived in La Paz.

We spent two days at Santa Maria wandering the beach and trying not to collect too many sand dollars (with which the beach is heavily littered). This place has everything: mangroves and marshy critters, a tranquil beach that goes on as far as you can see (and has the sand dollars), deserty mountains covered with cacti and other shrubs that will skewer you given half a chance, and a vast area of sand dunes; then on the other side is another beach that goes on forever, this time exposed to the open Pacific so there are massive waves crashing and different sorts of beachcombing loot. Like turtle skulls (of which we seem to have a couple bouncing around in our aft trampoline pocket).

We took off for los Cabos in late afternoon; the wind was ‘eh’ and the waves were fairly flat. Night was very iffy and we debated turning the motor on numerous times. The next morning was out and out pathetic, windwise, and after nine or so hours we had succeeded in traveling all of eight knots mostly in the not-towards-Cabo direction. Mutiny was afoot and the motor thus started.

We snarled our way forward in the right direction until a puff of wind convinced us that we were being fools! Using up precious gasoline when here was the wind, free for the taking. We hoisted both sails and watched them flop irritatingly around. Then we dropped the main and put up the gennaker. When that at last managed to hold its own, we ran both the gennaker and the 170% sail off the forestay (that’s another big lightweight sail—not as light as the gennaker—that takes up supposedly 170% of the triangle between the top of mast and the forward tip of the boat). One on either side. That lasted all of 10 glorious minutes where we managed a maximum speed of four knots and of which no photos were taken (looked kind of cool). Ah well. Here’s one of a sunset.

Sunset on the outer baja, mexico

Another night went by of flopping around, little sleep (flopping sails make a hell of a racket when below), and general irritation. Finally the sun rose to reveal major fish action (sadly we didn’t catch any of the damned things), whales, and the visual espectaculo that is Los Cabos. Wheeeee!

Rounding Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Cruise ships at anchor in the bay at Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

We carefully picked our way through the jetskiers and parasailers and Baja!Fun!Sports! tours at Cabo San Lucas, waved briefly at Bogtrotter, who were monkeying around with their anchor and looked like they had had a hell of an evening, and moved on.

The wind was mostly dead so we still had the 170%. Then it perked up to 30+ knots! Ayyyy! Down with the 170 and up with the storm sail! And a reef! Then it died! Stormsail down, reef out, and Mule up (that’s the ~100% normal sail). But that was too conservative and we soon swapped it for the 150. Then the 170. Then the wind died. Again. Then it was perky (Mule! Arrgh!), then not (150! Crappenshit!). Then it picked up considerably and, exhausted and having just actually caught a fish, we decided to anchor for the night off the beach just west of Punto Gordo where there was shelter from the sea if not the wind, which blew off the land. Once anchored, the wind began to howl, then died mostly in the wee hours.

The next morning began with a freakin’ gale. I was on anchor watch from around 3am to sunrise and measured a steady 20-25 with gusts over 30 around daybreak. We hid below reading pulp fiction and bitching about the noise but around 8 or 9 o’clock, it mellowed right out. We wandered about the boat in a daze for a bit, enjoying the sun, then pulled anchor and headed in the direction of Los Frailes.

At approximately 10:00am, the wind died. Died. But there were big ol’ waves remaining from the previous day’s wind, making everything totally annoying. (Imagine being in a giant boat-shaped rocker machine run by powerful yet senile dwarves. Senile dwarves with ouzo hangovers.) On the horizon, one could see… could it be… a herd of buffalo…? Huh. A herd of white buffalo, foaming at the mouths. Ayyyy! We watched with grave curiosity as the spectacle swallowed the horizon and crept slowly towards us as only a herd of foaming white buffalo can. At last, the windstorm smashed into us in all its splenditude catching us halfway down a reef, a storm-jib hastily hoisted (the stormjib is a wee puny looking sail that is mega thick material and very tough), and the discarded mule splayed all over the inside of the head/dressing room area. The wind was probably around 30, but we didn’t measure. This wouldn’t have been so terrible if it wasn’t coming from exactly the direction we wanted to go (north) or if it hadn’t been accompanied by very short choppy steep waves that smashed into us and brought us to a near-standstill with every direct hit. Therefore we had to tack back and forth a zillion times making a simple 20-mile journey more like a 60-mile one. Bleargh. I was driving initially, which wasn’t so bad aside from the obvious and numerous (and frequently conflicting) steering tips being cast in my direction (“Try to point up more” “Don’t point so high”) or the general radiating sense of unease exhibited by the crew when I was at the wheel, er helm. I relinquished the wheel late afternoon and preceded to have the daylights freaked out of me every 30 or 40 seconds when it felt like Joshua was going to tip the boat on some freaky wave. I guess it’s different when you are steering. Joshua and Jeff acted like this was fairly typical ho-hum weather and cracked jokes and basically appeared fairly comfortable. I, in turn, was completely irritated because I thought I steered better, my ass was hurting (sat on a winch accidentally and managed to grow a bruise so fantastic that it showed through my clothing), and it was getting cold and my foul weather gear was wet on the inside from spray hitting my face then dripping down. Then I had to pee and the prospect of being seasick in addition to being wet and having a big black bruise on my ass was just not sitting well. It got dark and although we could see the lights of Los Frailes, we still were hours away. The wind kept up but finally slowed to ~25 knots around 7pm. We came into Los Frailes anchorage around 8:30pm and dropped anchor alongside ~12 other boats.

Miraculously Joshua had managed to pull a fish aboard around sunset (a big ol’ amberjack no less!!) and once soundly anchored, we were thus inspired to fix a proper dinner before passing out cold in our bunks.

To Bahia San Quentin

Friday, November 25th, 2005

Still life of beach treasures collected at Bahia San Quentin, Baja California Norte, Mexico

The first thing that I noticed (going South—because it was certainly NOT getting any warmer) was the change in phosphorescence. Particularly in the head water. Huge honking many-legged beasties all a-glowing green and washing down, down to the holding tank.. And I sort of felt bad but was a little too fascinated to feel too bad. Not having cable while growing up does this to a person I suppose. Your typical American might be all “Oh, well, I saw these giant squid once on the Discovery Channel that could take apart a Timex at 1000 feet and they glowed rainbow colors, not just green.” Well, I suppose they might be impressed if one of those multi-colored things turned up in their toilet.

We thought we might anchor off Isla San Martin but annoying windy weather and the cold, cold, cold encouraged us to continue on to Bahia San Quentin. Notable highlights of the trip included the intrepid spotting and expert recovery of a fantastic orange life ring apparently blown overboard (like, there was no decaying body attached, thankfully) from the vessel “Arc of the Seas” out of Nassau. The thing was covered in wicked-looking sea beasties (one of which, named “The Kelp Monster,” Joshua nearly let loose within the cockpit—think “Alien”—good grief) and best of all, had been altered by some clever bored honeymooner to read “N” ARC of the SEAS. The Narc now rests in our aft tramp pocket.

Seasickness was combated with some annoying acupressure bracelets, which work not by magic, as the packaging might have you believe, but simply by cutting off blood and nerve supply to the brain the hard way—via the wrist. Bleargh. Seasickness index = “Sigh.”

Arrival at San Quentin had us anchored directly in the panga route up the estuary and the night was rather bumpy with the wind waves blowing off the beach. The moment we dropped anchor, we had the fishing pole out in an attempt to catch some dinner (it was the day after thanksgiving, I believe, but we had not had the proper “Thanksgiving” so this was it for us). Just when we were resigned to another evening of tunafish sandwiches, some gringo fishermen charged up with their aluminum skiff decked out with about 20 different poles of varying size and chucked a RED SNAPPER onto our trampoline! HOT DAMN!!! They refused trade items (hey we carry Playboy!) and wished us a nice eve before charging off homeward. (Thank you expert fisherman!)

Anchored off Punta Entra near Bahia San Quintin, Baja California Norte, Mexico

Despite harsh winds the following morning, we put our dinghy together and rowed the 10 thousand miles upwind to shore to walk on solid land for a bit. The beach was lovely and deserted and had lots of neat shells and dead seals in various stages of decay. We found a few seal teeth and various other random shell and plant matter that could not be lived without and, thus laden, headed back to the boat for an afternoon departure. The wind had picked up impressively and was blowing 20+ knots. We thought we’d head towards Cedros but after about ten swift minutes, decided we’d head for the next sheltered area to anchor: Punta Baja.

Coyote Point to Santa Barbara

Saturday, November 19th, 2005

Sailing under the golden gate bridge. San Francisco, California

We made our big escape from the San Francisco bay at 11:45 Wednesday morning and sailed under the Golden Gate bridge at about slack tide; we thought we’d be out of Coyote Point by 6am and have plenty of time to get to the bridge but of course we didn’t get out until 9 or so. Unfortunately the slack tide heralded the incoming tide and not the outbound tide and so after about an hour of tacking around, the waves got all wonky and choppy and the inbound tide created eddies and all sorts of general ickiness. Wind was strong and we were able to fight our way out, but it was not a comfortable ride. Welcoming us to the Pacific were a couple of dolphins (oooo!) and then some gnarly patchy downpour, dark, and a lightning storm (bleargh!), during which I probably asked eight times: “So, is this something we should be worrying about?” (Answer was something like this: “Probably. Don’t touch anything metal.”)

Finally the lightning went away and then so did the wind. After flopping around off Pacifica for 5 hours, someone had the bright idea to start the motor.

We saw lots of wildlife. Seals! They like to hang out in groups out in the middle of the dang ocean with their flippers and noses up in the air; they look like some weird kelp forest until they notice you and totally go haywire swimming around and around in manic circles about your boat jumping in the air and barking their heads off.

large group of seals offshore

large group of seals offshore

Sunfish! We saw two of these because they like to swim at the surface of the water on their sides with one fin flopping back and forth out of the water. They are also really really strange looking fish capable of disconcerted expressions. I know this because in order to get a better look at the guy, we swung the boat around to circle him and all hung off the rigging trying to get a better look; he stopped flapping and sort of regarded us with unease.

Humpback whales! We saw several of these guys traveling in groups, some far off so you could only see the spouts, some closer and doing that thing they show you in whale calendars where they jump halfway out of the water and then make a big splash when they come back down (wheeee! Fun! Get the camera!), and then we saw one of them 30 feet up in the air and 20 feet off our ama. This means that the entire whale minus a bit of tail was completely OUT. OF. THE. WATER. Gets you a really good look at the thing. Also scares the crap out of you and has you looking around for things to hold onto because after all, there were two of them to begin with. Seeing a whale was impressive enough since I had never seen one before; seeing one just up in the air and giving us the eye like that is wholly unreal. When she (we decided she was a she) came back down, we all got splashed and the boat rocked. We all began wondering out loud, “Where’s the other whale” and “She knew we were here, right?” “Where’s the other one?”

The other one surfaced over on the other side of the boat and they both moved on. We were all spazzed out and spent the next few hours talking about it and discussing how marine mammals use sonar and cell phones and all that stuff to navigate and not come up under boats or possibly land on them when jumping completely freakin’ out of the water.

Humpback whale breaching

Humpback whale breaching

Jeff was the only one with any sense to actually hit the “take photo” button on his camera when the whale jumped out of the water. Seems he was still zoomed in from the last shot when the whales were a 100 feet or more from us.

Almost collided with a humpback whale

We went across Monterrey bay and around Pt. Sur with reasonable wind and relatively comfortable seas. Monterrey bay started off with some confused seas but mellowed out once we got a bit south. Night watches went with everyone crashing around 6-6:30pm, me staying up until 10 or so, then Joshua and Jeff the rest of the night, me again early morning. We had an almost-full moon and lots of light most of the nights so that was great. Weather reports were saying that a strong storm off Alaska was sending some big ol’ swells our way (15-20 feet but with 12-second periods), due to hit Friday. Weather was good so we decided to skip Morro bay and San Simeon and all that and get south of Conception asap (like, before 18-foot seas hit us). Friday wind was perky and swells were maybe 10 feet at best. No 18 footers. My seasickness began to go away—did I mention I was seasick? Bleargh. That chop off the GGBridge did me in. Felt better after barfing but didn’t really eat much for four days. Joshua was the rockstar and made egg tacos every morning and spagetti and stuff every evening for dinner.

We were going to hit Conception around 3am Saturday morning and still our Alaskan swells had not hit (disconcerting); they never really did either—we saw maybe 15 feet at best but not consistent. The 30+ knots of wind the weatherbot mentioned, however, did arrive around midnight and turned the ocean to glowing green foam (I was trying to stay in my bunk at this point listening to the scary scary noises). Things quieted down when Joshua and Jeff dropped the jib and ran under only the reefed main. By the time I was roused to drive again, winds were back down to 20 knots maybe, the seas were mellowing, and we were right at Point Conception. That morning in the channel we hit some 30+ winds and clocked in at 13 knots speed and then the wind died. Completely. We motored the rest of the way to Santa Barbara after drying out and flopping around some oilrigs for a few hours. It was Saturday evening, 3.5 days after leaving San Mateo.

Santa Barbara, aside from being spectacularly located with steep green mountains and blue ocean, has the nicest public shower I have ever laid eyes upon and we had some rockin’ showers. We anchored one night and then headed on to Los Angeles.

Here’s the sunset we saw en route to LA.

the first of many sunsets at sea

Cheyenne Weil, Joshua Coxwell