Emerald waters, desert hills, and windy nights
06 April 2011 | San Francisco Island, north of La Paz, Mexico
Our time in Mexico is drawing to a close. We hurried north from Puerto Vallarta, after the boat was hauled and painted, realizing that we had only a few weeks to enjoy the Sea of Cortez. We hadn't succeeded in finding warm, crystal clear water on the mainland coast, and reports from our cruising friends were that waters were much clearer and warmer in the Sea of Cortez. The goal is to find snorkeling locations that are full of interesting sea life - brightly colored fish and complex corals being the ideal. We're unlikely to go diving with full tanks and all the gear, but snorkeling gets you 100% of the underwater view at the surface.
Our first real attempt at snorkeling was yesterday at Ensenada Grande on Isla Partida, just north of La Paz. The water wasn't particularly warm, and certainly wasn't crystal clear, but it's definitely better than most of what we found along the mainland. We saw convict fish, angelfish, big groupers, big parrotfish, and a few small but interesting corals. The 75° water, though, kept us from swimming for very long. Next time, we'll be using our wetsuits.
Ensenada Grande had been suggested to us by Doug and Kathy from a boat called "Spirit Quest." We met them in Ensenada La Gallina, on Isla Espiritu Santu. They invited us over to their very spacious DeFever 62, and we spent an hour with our heads in the charts and guidebooks, annotating our materials with their suggestions. They also gave us some tips about the likely weather: The La Paz area is subject to gusty nighttime winds called "Viento Coromuel." This is a wind that comes across the low area of the Baja Peninsula adjacent to La Paz, and then funnels northward into this very popular cruising area. The wind can make a real racket at night, whistling through the rigging, swinging the boat around from side to side, and grinding the anchor chain against any rocks on the bottom. We sleep, of course, with our ears close to the anchor chain, so that grinding is sometimes not very conducive to pleasant sleep. We've considered moving our sleeping quarters to another area of the boat, but in the end, it's easier to find an anchorage with pure sand on the bottom - no rocks, and therefore no grinding. That's what we found at Ensenada Grande.
Ashore on the beach at Ensenada Grande, a Mexican tourist company ("Fun Baja") has a franchise from the park service, ferrying in day-trippers, divers and overnighters from La Paz. As we left this morning, they were getting ready for 10 tourists who were going to stay five days, in tents just being erected. We talked to the tour director for the 10 tourists, here from frigid Chicago, and she was looking forward to five days of sunshine and margaritas. The chef from "Fun Baja" had been around in his dinghy a couple of days before, asking for some flour, which I gladly gave him. Apparently they haven't quite worked the kinks out of their provisioning. The chef invited us to come ashore at the beach and use their facilities (such as they are). We did land there, looked things over, and started a hike on the "trail" to the other side of the island. As it turns out, the "trail" quickly degenerates into a steep dry creek bed, full of giant boulders and the occasional sinkhole, steep cliffs on either side. (We found ourselves thinking this wasn't exactly where you'd want to be in an earthquake.) We made it perhaps a half a mile, but it didn't show any signs of getting better, and our knees were beginning to protest. We found an extremely rare shade tree, and sat down under it for a snack, before turning around and going back.
The land here appears desolate, but it's full of life. During our hike we saw a number of different kinds of cactus, two types of trees with green leaves, little squirrels with stripes on their backs, lizards, iguanas, and birds ranging from tiny to huge. We heard even more birds, including some kinds of birdsong we've never heard before. The rocks are mostly orange, with an occasional blue, black or dark green boulder thrown in. If you pick up a rock, you find it's extraordinarily heavy. (Lots of iron?) From a distance you can see great stripes of sedimentary deposits, and fascinating patterns of sandstone erosion. Sometimes the shoreline looks like a set of futuristic teeth, or modern sculpture. Some of the sandstone erodes in lacy patterns, forming a fancy cap over the teeth.
We had stopped at Mazatlan to do a major provisioning for these two and a half weeks "off the grid." In part, this is an effort to see how long the fresh veggies and fruits will last - both how fast we'll eat them, and how well will they store - a dress rehearsal, as it were , for our crossing to Hawaii. The Hawaii crossing will take 3 weeks, more or less, and there will be three of us, not two, but during our sojourn in the Sea of Cortez, we should get some pretty good indications of food consumption and spoilage rates. We're also growing sprouts, and I'll try making yogurt with powdered milk. (Unflavored, unsweetened live yogurt has been difficult to find in Mexico. I did finally find some in Mazatlan, and we'll see how it works as a starter?)
We've arrived now at Isla San Francisco after any easy downwind trip north of 18 nm. San Francisco has a beautiful bay on its southeast corner, with excellent protection from north winds. Unfortunately, 12-16 kn south winds are blowing and forecast to continue for the next 24 hours. So we motored around the point to the bight just to the north, where one other sailboat is anchored. This provides no real protection to the south wind whistling across the sand spit, but the waves wrapping around the corner are tolerable. When the wind swings to the north, we will have to move, hopefully not in the middle of the night. But we are prepared, none the less.
We listen to at least two weather forecasters on the SSB radio each day. Sometimes their forecasts are quite different from each other. Geary, based somewhere in Baja, says we'll have south winds for the next several days (in which case our anchorage here should be okay). Don, based in Oxnard, says tomorrow the winds will be light and variable, followed by a turn to a north wind. Each of these guys have a distinct personality, and their forecasts (particularly Don's) are long and chatty, covering all of the Pacific coast, including sometimes a hint of what's going on at home in Portland. Both Don and Geary say that there is a cold air mass moving south, and Portland may well have snow down to the valley floor. With all respect and sympathy to our friends in the Pacific Northwest, we're glad we're here!
In another week, we'll head to La Paz, to begin our provisioning, boat maintenance work, and final seaworthiness review before we head to Hawaii. If all goes as planned, our crew, Jamie (coming all the way from Halifax, Nova Scotia), will join us on April 18, and we'll head out on April 20.