“You can sit on di beach, but you can’t stop di tide.”
So said a thoughtful Caribbean man to Josh when he was delivering boats in the islands. This phrase came back to Josh as we pushed further north into the Sea of Cortez and discovered what happens when a sailboat meets the water from the 3rd largest tidal fluctuation in the world. Despite all intentions and plans as humans, we are still beholden to nature in specific ways—especially if one chooses a life of salt water. Oleada had flirted with the tides as we moved north, but we were in for a surprise as the sea constricts to its narrowest point at our destination, Bahía de Los Ángeles.
When we departed at 3am from Santa Rosalia, our eyes were trained on the black water for a completely different reason. Thanks to the recent rain, the sea was full of debris. We used our spotlight–a DeWALT flashlight–to scan the water as best we could on the moonless night.
To my surprise, it was enjoyable to be on the water at night again. And without the moon, the bioluminescence made our prop wash look like a comet, and our bow wake glittered like a neon green gown of ever-flowing sequins rippling out to sea. The first light of day revealed the oily smooth surface of the sea. The sunrise glowed in pinks and savannah reds that rouged the clouds, and a rainbow dipped down toward the sea. Dolphins surfaced all around us. A bat, an incongruous site when over five miles from shore, appeared from the east and fluttered around the sail. It seemed confused, and I armed myself with a flimsy flyswatter in case its swoops around the boat were motivated by rabies. (Imagine a groggy me with a limp pink flyswatter, swinging uncoordinated around the cockpit—quite a scene.) I have since learned that there is a species of bat, the murciélago pescador, which fishes with its long talons at the surface of the water. The abundance of a sea provides a niche for everything.
We also discovered a stowaway. With an alarmed tweet, a little finch emerged from the stack pack, where she must have decided to tuck away for the night. She flitted to the spreaders and chirped frantically. We were far from shore, and she nervously took to the top of the mast for a few more plaintive tweets. I thought she might stick out the whole ride, but sometime in the morning she must have weighed her options and made the long flight back to shore.
Our final visitors were tiburoneros who emerged from the east. With their panga bow high, they barreled blindly toward the sailboat. When other boats approach in open water, it makes me a little nervous, so as soon as they slid alongside, I asked if they were okay. But they had found us just to show off their catch. The slender man in the front pulled a Bonnethead shark from the bottom of the boat, and when I asked if I could take his photo, he beamed. The driver then switched places with him to heave a bigger shark over his head. With proud smiles, they then took off for the western shore.
As the wind picked up, we rolled out the jib and cut into the north wind, making six knots. The wind clocked around at varying speeds as the day turned to afternoon, and we still made decent time with the wind ‘on our quarter,’ the direction between perpendicular (on the beam) and at our tail.
And then the sailing changed. Our speed dropped from six knots to three in less than ten minutes. The gentle wind swell out of the southeast suddenly met the outgoing tide, and Oleada rolled awkwardly in chop and swell. The water stood up like stiff peaks of black merengue. As we cross current lines, we crawled forward. When the wind picked up, we rolled out the jib; ten minutes later, we would have to furl it back in as the wind died. With a breath of air, we would roll it out again. And then the wind would die. Our furling line requires a little more muscle than it should, and with little sleep, we were soon weary from this jib dance. We were attempting the sail on the new moon under strong tides, and without the wind, we were mired in a current much stronger and more confused than anything we had seen yet.
A rusty fishing ship had been shadowing us for most of the day, and we soon saw their goal–a line of buoys`and plastic bottles strung together between us and our destination. When we thought we saw the end of the line, another string of buoys would appear. We could tell that they were all tethered together, but we couldn’t see the line or the net at the surface. I tried calling the pescero desconocido on the radio to ask if we could pass, but received no reply. If we run over a line or a net, we can tangle our keel, motor, or rudder in miles of heavy line, which could damage the boat or at least mean that we would have to jump in the open water to try to free our boat. Tired and annoyed, we approached a buoy to see if we could see the line in the water: nothing. As the string of whatever-it-was pushed us further away from our destination, Josh had finally had enough. At one of the buoys with a flag, he put the motor in neutral and we glided between the buoys. I was too busy staring into the water, searching for a glimpse of an ensnaring line or net, to pray for our passage through. But we passed through without snagging anything. (Longline fishing like this is not legal in the Sea of Cortez.)
As we watched our GPS, our speed slowed even more as we approached the point protecting the south end of San Franciscito. The sun sunk lower and soon dropped below the hills as we rocked and rolled in the water. The water around us now swirled like whitewater, with boils and little whirlpools sometimes pulling Oleada sideways. We had read about strong currents around our upcoming corner, but no one had mentioned this area to us, nor had we read about it anywhere. We later had a conversation with Mike and Neah, the two young and talented sailors aboard the 28-foot Azul, and they lamented the same thing: this long stretch of water approaching San Franciscito from the south was quite deserving of talk, yet somehow was never mentioned. (In hindsight, Dan on Dazzler may have tried to warn us in Santa Rosalía, but since we had never been there before, we thought he meant the current at the point.)
The sun slid into night. We would be pulling into an unknown anchorage amid ripping currents in the dark. Sigh.
As we rounded the little cape and started to pull into the bay, the current and the swell were both blocked by the northern point of the bay. The wind picked up on our beam (the fastest point of sail and perpendicular to the direction of travel), and we unrolled the jib for the final time and rocketed toward our anchorage. The steaming light on the top of our mast lit up our jib, and I hoped that someone, somewhere could see our beautiful boat flying into her safe harbor in an ethereal glow. We could smell the sweetness of the blooming desert wafting off the land, a smell that brings me joy from somewhere deep in my soul. We rolled in the jib and cruised to a stop. We could hear the waves on the beach as we dropped anchor. I think I made spaghetti putanesca for dinner, and, with apologies to Uly for not wanting to brave an unknown shore in the pitch dark, we crawled into bed.
The morning revealed a clean sand beach, and Uly and I hoped on the paddleboard to explore ashore. The low tide lapped at one of the biggest whale vertebrae I had seen, partially buried at the tide line. Uly zoomed around the beach, overjoyed with sand and space.
We stayed three nights at San Franciscito. In the evenings, Josh fished from the rocks, catching a fish with every cast (this is not an exaggeration.) We ate grouper and sea bass every night. The water was clear and cool. What finally drove us away was the rolly anchorage, but not before we explored the surrounding rock reefs by paddleboard. Uly became fascinated with fishing. He stays glued to Josh’s side as he casts, waiting with extreme interest for what Josh will reel in.
And then, there was the attack of the…completely innocuous but terrifying puffer from the deep. In San Franciscito, I experienced something that has always scared me: something emerging from the depths to get me. As I treaded water one day next to the boat, alone in the water, I distinctly thought how there was no reason to be afraid of touching the bottom. With that thought, I suddenly felt teeth close around one toe on my left foot. This creature, whatever it was, chomped my tootsie with the complete intention of EATING IT. With a scream I climbed up the nearest object: the flopper stopper rope. From here, I hoovered over the water and I pleaded with Josh to PUT THE PADDLEBOARD IN THE WATER FASTER!! Once safely on the board, I got out of the water only to discover not a bleeding toe, but a blister! A blister? Despite feeling the teeth close around my skin (a very bizarre feeling,) the critter had only left a little mark (on my foot–my psyche was another story.) Josh dropped a hook in the water and almost immediately pulled out….a puffer fish. My terrifying attack came from a chubby fish with teeth much like our front teeth!
But our main problem remained the tides. We were now aware that we couldn’t fight them here in the narrowest part of the Sea of Cortez, only about 75 miles across and cluttered with islands. We timed our departure from San Franciscito accordingly. Before we departed, I met the first boat we saw in our entire summer cruise north: Eric and Vandy on the lovely Abel Apogee 50′ SCOOTS. These Bay Area compatriots invited me aboard as I bobbed around on my paddleboard chatting with them, and once inside I marveled at the minimal movement of their boat (Displacement! Eric said with a grin.)
We sailed for the Animas Slot, only 35 nautical miles away but a distance we knew would be complicated by tides. We slid through the channel between Isla Salsipuedes (Leave If You Can) and the Baja shore and only met the outgoing tide once outside the channel. I felt grateful for our reliable motor, and I could imagine being stuck forever in the wash of tides without a motor or good wind. We couldn’t believe our timing: we pulled into the slot in the twilight, which would have been overly exciting in the dark given the obscured and narrow entrance, and set the stern anchor in the dark. (In the morning we discovered that we dropped it only feet from a reef near the shore.)
Animas Slot can only be described as magical. You get to sit on a boat completely surrounded by a desert canyon. Barn owls screeched, and we watched fish streak through the bioluminescence. Josh started fishing, and we watched the lure glow in the water while the illuminated shadows of fish touched it timidly. The sky burned through with a billion stars. We stayed up later than we normally do, breathing in the desert and watching the world spin under the star-lit canyon.
We awoke as the wind picked up in the morning and paddled to the reef on the west side of the canyon. We got in the water to find the rocks teeming with reef fish and big school of what were maybe juvenile barracuda. Josh and I chased snapper around as Uly swam circles around us and then decided that the little dive float that Josh uses for his spear was a dog toy to be returned to the beach. We laughed and laughed as Uly repeatedly dragged Josh through the water by the float. But we had to leave all the fish on the reef to catch the tide to our next anchorage, Punta El Alacrán (Scorpion Point).
It was a short sail, only eight miles, and we saw another sailboat departing the anchorage as we arrived. The beach was a long strip of white sand, with eight luxury yurts on the north shore. To our surprise, the yurts were in use, with people milling about the shore. A dog, Choco, from the yurts joined us as we walked Uly on the long beach. At night, I came outside to discover a ray diving and swirling through the water, gliding and flapping on wings rimmed with bioluminescence. A green neon ray! I called Josh outside and we watched the creature carve the underwater world under our boat, its whole body perfectly outlined in the lime green fire. It was an image I will never forget–graceful movement, all in neon.
We left on the incoming tide the next morning, sailing way out into the channel before tacking back toward Bahia de Los Angeles. It was incredible to believe that we were finally here, our northernmost destination in the Sea of Cortez. As we slipped between the surrounding islands on the tide, we didn’t know what would be in store for us.
It’s easy to want to give up when moving into the current. (Or get grumpy, that’s my tendency.) The same holds true with (climate) research. By all accounts, the science behind climate change indicates that we are fighting a massive tide with only a tiny boat. But the sailboat has something to teach us: if we pay attention to the conditions, we can still make our way forward. Many of the forces that drive climate change are completely out of my control, just like the tide. But by paying attention to the ebb and flood, we can still navigate where we want to go. It’s through practice and attention that we get better at it. Timing is important, as is listening to the people who have done it before. A good night’s sleep doesn’t hurt, and access to information, whether research or weather, is crucial. Instead of sailing off into the sunset, we sail into the future, learning as we go in these changing conditions.