We made it to La Paz.
Three months ago. I’m a little behind on the blog. So I shall catch you up with the most painful/glorious moments.
As soon as darkness fell on our sail out of San Juanico, the autopilot broke. The autopilot allows us to steer the boat electronically by setting a heading, and its internal compass keeps us on track and steers with a belt driven gear (it looks like a donut) fastened to the wheel. Without an immediate fix, we knew this would mean standing at the wheel all night. I ended up with the 3-to-6 am shift, and standing at the helm under the bright light of the moon, bundled in my foul weather gear, I had imaginary conversations with old friends and political figures. I not only sang most of The Little Mermaid, I danced along.
We sailed past the remote surf breaks on the outside of Bahía Magdalena and motored into the choppy, confused waters at the mouth. Once inside the bay, we cut our motor for the best sailing of the trip over smooth bay waters that stretched to the invisible east shore. We also stretched our dwindling diesel.
At Puerto Magdalena, a tiny fishing village inside the massive bay, we spent the last of our pesos and dollars for a half tank of fuel. Eduardo, an employee of the Port of San Carlos, motored over in his panga as soon as we set our anchor, easing alongside Far. He clambered aboard (much to Uly’s delight, a visitor!) in his tired fleece and white fishing boots. Once we were able to figure out what our amalgamation of cash would buy, this older man muscled a translucent 40-gallon jug of fuel onto the deck, screwed off the cap, put his lips to a clear tube, and siphoned the diesel with his mouth from his jug to our tank. After this graceful fuel drop, he sat in the cockpit and I gave him juice and Tiger Balm (he asked for it, his wife has a shoulder problem.) When I asked him about change in Puerto Magdalena over time, without hesitation, he said things have stayed the same. But he misses his childhood home in the Manglito (little mangrove) neighborhood in La Paz, down by the water, and hopes to return someday.
The anchorage was so calm that night it felt like we were on land. It was our first still night of the trip. We spent two more days exploring the quiet surrounding land. Josh rebuilt the carburetor in the dinghy’s outboard and we suddenly had a motorized dinghy. I looked longly at the restaurant in town. Zero dollars remained, and our supplies dwindled.
On our overnight sail from Bahía Magdalena to Cabo San Lucas, food poisoning (from our remaining stocks) hit me at midnight on my watch. It was the only time on the trip that I thought I might prefer to be on land. My violent vomiting, curled around our blue bucket, was so loud it woke Josh up, despite sleeping inches from the motor. It wasn’t until I took grapefruit seed extract the next day that I started to feel better.
As we motorsailed into the morning, puffs of mist surrounded us and the accompanying fish-stink of whale breath. If you ever want to see a whale, go to Cabo in the winter. It’s outrageous. We saw hundreds of breaching whales, and based on their form (belly flop versus curved side smash) we could identify gray and humpback whales. We were dodging whales as soon as the tip of the peninsula came into view.
Sailing to the end of the Baja peninsula was an amazing moment. We had worked so hard on Far, and we had learned so much on our first long sail. It felt surreal, like the end of the beginning of our new adventure. We came around the corner wing on wing, dead downwind with the jib and main on opposite sides of the boat. It feels like soaring. I was giddy and proud with a tinge of disbelief. We did it. We made it. In 8 months, we had completely restored this sturdy little Cal, and she had carried us safely over 2,200 Pacific ocean miles. We now turned her, wings outstretched, toward the magical Gulf of California.
The natural beauty of Cabo, as approached from the sea, is almost overwhelmed by the vapid commercialism ashore. After dodging tens of jetskis, whalewatching pangas, glass bottoms boats, and burning my hand on the “loaded” (meaning full of all the power of the wind in the sail) jib sheet after trying to release it (sleep-deprived decision-making at its best,) we made it into the Cabo marina. We stayed in this bizarre land for two nights.
In Cabo, we stepped off the boat and into a shopping mall. After the quiet isolation of the Pacific coast, the chintzy glitz stunned us. However, excellent churros can still be found on the street one block away from the overbuilt tourist strip.
We departed Cabo on the third morning after regaining sleep, aimed for the Los Frailes anchorage 50 nautical miles away. In the late morning, after sailing in oblivious glory in the lee of the land, the winds picked up and blasted out of the north for the rest of the day. Six-foot seas slammed into the bow every two seconds. In these conditions, the bow of the boat lifts out of the water and whacks the surface with its 17,000 pounds. It was rough sailing, and as wave after wave broke over the rail, I finally understood why people would wait for the northerlies to abate before attempting any passage in the Sea of Cortez. We beat upwind for 12 hours with reefed sails and motor, painfully inching and clobbering our way into the very bottom of the Gulf of California. I’m pretty sure Uly was ready to be readopted after that day, and we arrived at last light into the pretty little protected anchorage that already contained 5 other boats. We no longer had the sea to ourselves.
The next day was glassy, and the change was unbelievable after our first day’s introduction. We made it to Bahía de Los Muertos by 2pm, where we walked the beach and Uly found the intestines of some large animal floating in the surf. He made a mental note, and once we were at the other end of the beach, he took off running for the prized innards. I chased him down for half a mile, but considered it his revenge for the previous day’s sail. Now that we had cash again, we could enjoy the one restaurant on the beach, where we befriended two other mariners in the anchorage. We discovered that developers had renamed this sparkling bay “Bahía de los Sueños” for a better sounding name (sueños are dreams, and muertos are the dead.) However, the original name is steeped in local history, since the Dead here translates to Deadheads, giant balls of local iron that were used to anchor the barges from a mining operation at the turn of the century. Most have been removed, and now the white sand bottom is eerily peppered with shark heads. The original name slips away, with its history, on the tide.
If there are two sailboats aimed in the same direction at the same time, it’s a race. The next day, we caught a lovely breeze up the Cerralvo Channel, and raced our new Canadian friend Geoff, amid the whales, dolphins, and baby dolphins. Yes, baby dolphins. The Sea of Cortez, friends, does not mess around when it comes to amazing marine life.
As we rounded Playa Tecolote, the beach at the end of La Paz Bay, a text from our friend Shannon popped onto my phone,”We can see you!” I fumbled excitedly for the binoculars: indeed, our Berkeley friends had sailed out to meet us! The tanbark sails of their Hans Christian peeked around the corner, followed in quick succession by two other boats they had roped into a greeting committee. In a testament to the friendship of the sea, they anchored with us that night at Playa Balandra, despite knowing the anchorage is often rolly (and it was.) Amid beers and mezcal, everyone rowed to the white sands of Balandra under the moon for a campfire on the beach. We could not have asked for a warmer welcome to the beach where we first fell in love with La Paz.
Laura, our family in La Paz, brought her new puppy, Conchita, as well as her dog Kekito out to the boat the next day, and we rocked and rolled over the turquoise waters. That evening, we made our way through the narrow channel and into La Paz, our home.
From here, we have been working and staging for the next part of the journey, which begins now. The Institute of Current World Affairs (ICWA) has funded us to sail through the Sea of Cortez, down the Pacific coast of Mexico and Central America, through the Panama Canal, and into the Caribbean over the next two years. This unique fellowship allows me to explore the undiscovered in climate change, Latin America, sailing, and myself, all with the main goal of writing about it. I will write a monthly newsletter for ICWA, but update the blog regularly with shorter writing, images, and video.
It’s difficult to step back and parse out the things that I learned on our sail down the Pacific coast of Baja, but here are a few that come to mind:
- Sailing, despite sitting an awful lot, is exhausting. I have worked 16 hours hiking and surveying in the desert and been able to sit down and work at a computer afterwards. Not so on a sailboat. And this is okay. I have learned to budget time for working, and commit to the sailing days.
- Choose crew wisely. You are stuck on a boat together, and people who pull their weight cooking, cleaning, night-watching, and staying safe, calm, and enthusiastic make the time far more enjoyable.
- Start crying and dolphins will appear. The sea provides an endless roll of miracles. Bathe in them. Keep your eyes open for them.
- Talk to people. They do not care about your bad Spanish. They have amazing stories to tell.
- Beer-battered fish: flour, add beer until sticky, coat fish, fry in coconut oil. This makes all fish amazing. (Thank you Shanny!)
- Prepare for sleeplessness. I don’t really know how one can do this, but be aware that you will be very tired and still have to make decisions. Breathe, sleep on deck, and remember what my mom says: even if you aren’t sleeping, you’re resting. And that’s good too.
- Sailing and video do not go hand in hand. We made it easier for ourselves with different GoPro camera mounts to capture our sailing. I am also getting better at grabbing our camera—and it lives within easy reach at the nav station.
- Don’t release a loaded sheet.
- PACK MORE FOOD THAN YOU THINK. Also, stash emergency cash all over the boat so you can support the tiny little local restaurants. It was pretty lame running out of money and food.
- Watch the weather closely. Josh and I had no desire to get caught in a storm, so we took our time and waited in safe anchorages. This saved us, the dog, and the boat from uncomfortable and dangerous conditions so far.
- Watermakers (aka desalinators) are expensive. And they are worth every penny.
- Living on a sailboat while remodeling it is challenging. Sailing this sailboat down a remote coast with this same person is another sixteen levels of challenge. I am forever grateful for Josh’s calm, his knowledge, and his cooking. We make a killer team, and that has been the best thing I have learned so far.
- The boat will never be ready. You just have to GO.