Friday, 31 August 2012

on flies, humidity, and good times

Rowing away from Nyon

There are always two sides to a coin. And if you’re the positive sort, the good wins out over the “perceived” bad. At Isla Mitlan, the humidity weighed us down and the black flies drove us to near madness. (Puffy the Fly-slayer would have had a field day here.) Yet, we loved it. 

We came to this anchorage after spending a lovely day and night at Laguna Rada. Isla Coronado, (not to be confused with Isla Coronados further south,) has three good western anchorages and we enjoyed two of them.

We spent our first afternoon there exploring the nearby lagoon in our dinghy. The greenery was a refreshing change from the rubble we’d grown accustomed to. Many nooks and crannies kept us nosing around the lagoon, until we re-emerged, ready to plunge into the markedly cooler waters around this island. We snorkeled, we fished, and that evening, we relaxed aboard Nyon while watching and listening to a whale making her way down the channel.

The lagoon

Watching the whale pass by as the sun began to set

After a quiet night there, we decided to up anchor and go to Isla Mitlan – there is an interesting anchorage between this island and the larger Isla Coronado. While strong currents squeeze in between the two islands, this spot is roomier and we were expecting company. The wind would be blowing from the south, but our boat would just as well point to the east. It was a wilder waltz than the La Paz Waltz. We willingly danced around the anchorage with our friends on SV Eagle, who arrived soon after us.

Wary juvenile opal eyes staring me down
The next morning, while Tom and Rick left to go fishing, Jeanne and I kayaked around Isla Mitlan, and along Coronado’s shore. It was lovely to catch up with each other during a peaceful paddle in the sunshine. Rick came back with no keepers after three hours of fishing. Once aboard, he took his fishing rod and dropped the lure to the bottom. He jigged it twice, almost immediately he caught a sand bass. It was a little small, so he let it go. The next two times he dropped his lure, he caught a nice sized barred sand bass each time: Right off the transom. You never know when or where the fish are going to bite.

Kayaker meets fishermen (Tom, Rick, and Jeanne)

I used Tom’s kayak more than once during our stay there, either alone or with Jeanne, to soak in my surroundings. (Thanks Tom!) I love starting my day off in quiet contemplation with the company of birds, sea turtles, a sea lion, and a whale. Rick, in the meantime, would catch our dinner almost daily. We enjoyed a porgy, a burrito grunt, a flounder and bass. The groupers, on the other hand, wouldn’t let him come near with his pole spear. Accompanied by the Eagle crew, we dove in the water for what we call marathon snorkels – we’d spend 2 to 3 hours in the water, meandering at a leisurely pace.

Our last night there, we found ourselves on the fringes of a not-quite chubasco; it was a brief, gusty affair that passed a little south of us. We didn’t see winds higher than 28 knots, and the breeze cooled off the boat, albeit briefly. Happily, we were in bed by midnight.

We enjoyed our few days at Isla Mitlan. While we saw a couple boats in Las Rocas, (the anchorage just south of us,) there were, remarkably, only up to 5 boats spread out between two anchorages over the five days we were there. We found this surprising, though we didn’t mind, we like it that way.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

a flame, rekindled

Solitude along the rocky shore

Kayaking buddies
(With Jeanne)
I got my first taste of kayaking a long time ago, something like 20 years ago. I had a good friend who was an avid kayaker; so avid, he worked and lived in a kayak shop and ended up owning three kayaks. I remember the first time he offered to let me use one of his kayaks off Willows Beach. I fell in love with kayaking then and there, and I assure you, it wasn’t just because I had fallen under my friend’s charms.

I enjoy approaching shore quietly, observing flora and fauna up close, and simply feeling in touch with my surroundings in a particularly intimate way. I have no idea why it has taken me this long to yearn for my own kayak. I kayaked a little here and there over the years; and now that I’m in the Sea of Cortez, I have fallen in love with it all over again.

Trisha, another kayaking junkie
Kayaking has also become a time of connection with other women. A couple of my friends out here have kayaks – we sometimes meet early in the day to explore our surroundings together. The morning air lends itself to tranquil conversations while quietly paddling along the shore.

And so begins my search for the perfect (used) kayak. We have a blow-up “bathtub toy” version of a kayak right now. And yes, it’s better than nothing. Recently, that kayak was renamed Malibu Barbie Kayak. When Trisha first saw it inflated from afar, she thought it was hot pink. I pointedly stated that it must have been the light; my kayak was faded red, not hot pink. Still, in spite of looking like it belongs to Barbie, it floats and points more or less where I want it to and it’s a stand-in until I can find a better one.

The infamous Malibu Barbie Kayak 
I can still recall that first time. It was an early summer evening, the sky was beginning to change colour; I could hear voices from the beach fading away as I paddled out. Curious birds came near, only to playfully fly past me; the cool water was within reach of my fingertips. I soon became far removed from the stresses I had left ashore.

Jeanne, leading the way
Little did I know I would be in the Sea of Cortez two decades later, with different birds flying around me, a very different landscape enveloping me, relishing that same feeling all over again.

don juan and la mona

High and dry
Two anchorages, two different experiences. Puerto Don Juan was for us, a pit stop. A continuous breeze and a pair of good books kept us tucked in our cockpit during the 2 days we spent there. Don Juan is known as a hurricane hole. While it is that, we have been considering other options too. It is a fairly large space, and we envision many boats would end up there. There is such a thing as too many boats in a hurricane hole, during a hurricane.

In Don Juan, there is also what’s called a careening beach – a steadily sloping beach once used for careening boats – you would manoeuver your boat to the shoal waters, let the falling tide lay the boat on its side in order to make repairs or repaint the bottom. Once the tide would rise again, the boat would be refloated. (Tides are fairly drastic here.) With the increasing commonness of boatyards throughout the Sea, I haven’t heard of many boats making use of it anymore. There is also a wrecked boat above the high tide mark, it’s been there for some time, but we don’t know the story behind its misfortune.

Cute sailor
While we were in Don Juan, we experienced another chubasco – after a few challenges, we got over the chubasco. (Our boat regrettably dragged a short distance and we began to re-anchor during a lull in the wind, as we felt too close to our neighbour.) This is challenging at night, in a storm: Lightning, while showing you the surroundings for a brief moment, also wrecks your night vision. Eventually we were well anchored once again.  We heard on the radio nets that some of our friends anchored in nearby La Mona had more excitement: Our friend John’s anchor swivel snapped during the storm. He lost his anchor in the process; from all accounts though, it sounds like he handled the night’s excitement with aplomb. SV Interabang was anchored a half a mile away from Time Piece and Eagle, and experienced 60 knot winds: Never a dull day in the Sea.

The search for the missing anchor

Sailing into Bahia de Los Angeles
Our last morning there, we enjoyed drinking coffee with Pitt on SV Karma Seas. Pitt is an Aussie singlehander we’d met in previous anchorages. (He is the fire breather I mentioned earlier this summer.) I noticed he also had some cool original paintings adorning his ketch, as an artist, I liked that. A few good stories later, we made our way through the passage into Bahia de Los Angeles, and finally, finally caught a fish underway. A sierra was brought aboard to our triumphant cheers. Upon arriving in La Mona, we cooked ourselves up a delicious meal and invited our buddy John over. A sierra may not be as glamorous as the numerous dorados he’s caught underway, (we’re still working on that), but he was more than happy to come fill his belly on Nyon.

Catch of the day

The downpour is about to begin

We stayed in La Mona for a few days. Our first two days there, we experienced the biggest downpour since Ensenada Carrizal. Lo and behold, we rediscovered our leaky corners and became re-acquainted with “damp everything”. Luckily, we also filled buckets full of water for our laundry and showers. It felt like the Pacific Northwest, except for the fact that it was 20 degrees Celsius warmer.

La Mona was a social place. We enjoy social, but we also enjoy solitude, when you arrive at a crowded anchorage it’s sometimes a tough balance. It was fun though. We also made a quick trip to the village aboard Time Piece; Trisha from Interabang came along as well. After gathering village dust on our feet, we were back aboard Time Piece and John was ready to weigh anchor when we got mighty excited: “Whale sharks, whale sharks!” At first, they didn’t appear like much, and then they came closer. Less than a boat length from Time Piece, one whale shark broke the surface – tail, fin, head – it was amazing. And BIG. (They can grow as big as 18 metres.) I’m glad I wasn’t the only one jumping up and down and squealing. Thanks Trish, I’m glad I can count on you! I hope I get to swim with one of these gentle giants soon. After the excitement, we returned to La Mona for a couple more days of fun in the sun.

Eventually, we quietly sailed off the hook, back toward the village and beyond.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

two sisters

Our little haven

Cala Puertocito de Enmedio

At first, this anchorage felt like the lesser of the two. Next door to the popular Animas Slot, the larger Cala Puertocito de Enmedio doesn’t feel as intimate; its steep beach is a mixture of pebbles and rocks. Compared to her sister next door, this cove is just a dusty, plain brown.

It’s funny how a couple days there changed our perspective. Maybe it was our restful stay there, or the brightness of the Milky Way; the taste of Rick’s freshly caught leopard grouper in the nearby reef teeming with fish, or the giant scallops given to us by the local pangueros, Carlos, Carlos and Estefan. And as it happens, the landscape isn’t just ordinary brown. Depending on the time of day, the sun paints the striking mountains in the background with shades of ochre, warm reddish browns, bright orange, gold, and dusty rose.

Fresh fish delivery!
Perhaps, we also liked it because we experienced a wonderful freedom having the anchorage all to ourselves; until the mild panic that comes with locating clothes as a panga enters the cove, that is. We did enjoy both the delicious gift of a yellow tail and a visit from Eagle, (they were anchored in Animas Slot for a time); mostly, we kept to ourselves – snorkeling, fishing, reading, writing, and throwing ourselves off the boat. When Eagle called to tell us they had just vacated Animas Slot, we almost felt guilty at the thought of leaving our little haven.

Then we thought of the lovely beach, caves and reefs next door, and got over it.

We eyed each other for a while...

A golden grouper, don't see many of those

Animas Slot

Nooks and Crannies

Our snorkeling buddies
The popular one. It’s big enough for one boat, perhaps two, giving it a cozy feeling. Again, it was just us there. At the south end of the cove, there is a fine white sand beach, bordered by the Sierra Agua de Soda mountain range; while on the western side, there is a rocky islet surrounded by reefs that make for excellent snorkeling. The coyote ashore was shy, but the birds filled the space all around us. We continually heard the heron’s croak and the seagulls’ noisy debates.

I shamefully got flustered when a pelican began following us around as we were swimming off the boat – did he think we would be his supper? After all, he could only see our heads bopping above the water. We tried scaring him away by splashing water at him, but he calmly kept getting closer. Eventually, while he went looking for me around the stern of the boat, I quietly swam around the bow to the ladder. He then resorted to chewing our dinghy painter (rope). Eventually, he went looking for tastier prey. I was almost sad to see him go.

Bye bye Mr. Pelican

White sand. Desert. Saltwater

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

san francisquito: the beach

Can you see the coyote?

A touch of turquoise

Giving new meaning to blending in

King of the mountain

Looking for shade

Feeling cuddly

Nyon and Time Piece at anchor

Monday, 20 August 2012

a question of balance

Canal de Salsipuedes 
If you notice anything, it leads you to notice more and more. – Mary Oliver

Trees, he misses trees. And the ocean smells different. For me, the answer is not so well defined. Sometimes, I think I miss the balancing act of contrasts. I remember reading somewhere that you can’t really experience joy, if sorrow has not carved a space into your being. Can you experience happiness if you haven’t experienced loss? Similarly, can you learn to love the rain when you have lived in a desert long enough?  

Cala San Francisquito (The Key Hole)
It’s curious how when you are first away from “home”, you miss everything more fiercely. As time goes by, you learn that to absorb what is around you, you have to let go of needing what once was. In a sense, you are making room for what is. Your memories then become sweeter, there to be savoured, not pined for.

Here, we are surrounded by desert. The sea meets the desert and there is no in-between. I grew up in a lush forest. The sweet smell of sap and the buzzing of insects were my companions. Trees were there for shade, or to be climbed. There was also a tree that held a tree fort, complete with a watchtower.  We built it with our father, the fine architect of the many forts of my childhood. The neighbourhood bear, the moose and deer, were our constant if wary cohorts.

In my childhood forest, we had distinct seasons. The summer was a time for exploration and Chasse Au Trésor games.1 Autumn was for trail building and extended hikes through jewel-coloured foliage. Winter was when skis quietly slipped through the snow-blanketed landscape. In early spring, we went to the sugar shack for fresh maple pull toffee. The contrast of the seasons defined our lives.

When I moved to the west coast of Canada, I found comforting distinctions that went beyond summer and winter: I noted the obvious spring in our step when the sun reappeared after the gloom of the rainy season; when the warm summer day was replaced by the markedly cooler night air; our downtown marina nestled in a world of concrete compared with the peaceful anchorage of a verdant island. These contrasts gave me a sense of stability.

Leaping Manta Ray: Splot, splot, splot, we'd hear all day
Here in the Sea of Cortez, just like time, our surroundings blur at the edges. The desert is a never-ending expanse of rubble and cacti. Early mornings, the coyotes forage on the beach while the pelicans and boobies predictably continue to dive bomb for fish. So where is the contrast? How do we find our equilibrium? Well, it seems the contrast I yearn for is more subtle here. It appears when the quiet flatness of a windless morning is replaced by a volatile southeasterly wind in the late afternoon. The contrast is in the shade offered by a rocky outcrop that briefly gives respite from the harsh and arid Baja sun; it’s the beauty of the fluid underwater movements of the manta ray compared with its comical flapping as it takes off out of the water and fails to fly through the air.

Of course, we do reminisce about our old life while we learn to appreciate the particulars of our daily routine in the Sea. The surprise comes with the shift in how we respond to what was once familiar. I feel pleasantly melancholic when the skies spit some moisture down on us these days. I fondly recall Victoria, and the hours I spent ensconced in the saloon with a hot cup of tea and a good book. I conveniently forget arriving at the boat soaked and cold, tripping over the strategically placed towels that were defending the cabin against leaks. I overlook the misery of too many grey days chasing one another in slow-motion. I often cursed the rain back then.

I know that at some time in the future, I will miss the smell of the desert, while conveniently forgetting the trail of dust it left everywhere. I will miss the warm turquoise waters, minimizing the discomfort of the god-forsaken string of pearls.2 I will remember the stark beauty of the Sea and desert merging together in its own distinctive way. I will miss the contentedness I have begun to feel here.

Perhaps the defining contrasts of the Sea of Cortez will become more obvious with the passing of time, but for now I will absorb it all. I will make room for the sometimes suffocating heat, the giant moths and playful dolphins, the burning sand, the solitude, the sticky cacti, the intense relief of an afternoon breeze, the dreaded chubascos, and the spicy, musky scent of creosote plants after a light rain.

It’s dusty, hazy here; as I take it all in, little by little, I begin to feel more centered.

1I believe the English equivalent is a game called Capture the Flag.
2String of pearls are a kind of small jelly fish that look like a string with beads, hence the name. When you run into them while swimming or snorkeling, they wrap around you and sting. They tend to leave small white welts. While the sting is not very painful (unlike man-of-war stings), it leaves a burning sensation that eventually just itches. Basically, they are an uncomfortable nuisance. Of course there are a variety of “jelly fishes” here, we keep a wary eye out for them. A skin suit is a good idea for anyone spending the summer in the Sea.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

ready, set, go

Sky art
We heard it coming. It is a very strange feeling to know that you are about to be overrun by something powerful, and all you can do is wait for it. You watch. And you wait.

Our first chubasco hit in the early morning of August 9th. We knew from the radio nets that the conditions in the Sea were leading to such a storm coming our way, but there is always that little voice in you that fervently wishes something like that away. While it is not a hurricane – you never know how bad a chubasco can get. When reviewing the night’s events the following day, Rick and John referred to this chubasco as a “chubasco with training wheels”. At least, to quote Trisha, we’ve got one under our belts now.

As is our usual routine, we’d cleared the decks that evening. After we had tied everything down, we warily watched the lightning in the distance prior to going to bed. Just before 02:00, I noticed the lightning flashes had become so frequent and bright, it looked like someone was frantically flicking a light switch on and off. I woke Rick up and we both stepped out into the cockpit to watch the show. We could see the storm approaching, the lightning bolts defining the sky east of us.

While I collected all our loose electronics, (laptops, handheld GPS, I-phone), Rick disconnected our depth sounder, VHF radio and GPS. We don’t take lightning lightly. Perhaps we’re over the top, but we prefer taking preventative action over worrying. Nearly everything electronic we own was thrown into the oven.1 We then both stood in the companionway, a mixture of nervous energy and excitement in our bellies. That’s when the wind hit.

Lighting up the skies
It took the wind less than 40 seconds to go from 5 or so knots to 25 knots. What you immediately notice is the sound. Wind is loud. Of course we already knew that, but when it goes from nothing to something so quickly, it’s portentous. The wind continued to build. (According to our friends Derrick and Trisha on SV Interabang, the wind topped out at 36 knots. While we’ve often sailed in that kind of wind, it can be unnerving at anchor. It could easily have been more: A 50-60 knot wind is common for a chubasco.  I have difficulty imagining what 50 knot winds sound like, the odds are that I will find out soon enough. (Our friends on SV Eagle, only 30 nautical miles north of us, experienced 45 knot winds that same night. Apparently, it’s loud.)

In the initial 20 minutes of the storm, I repeatedly mumbled the same mantra while gripping the companionway hatch: “Please anchor, don’t drag. Please anchor, don’t drag.” The anchor stayed put. The lightning was so bright, we could easily keep tabs on our position – The rocky cliff was much more ominous in this setting than it had been the afternoon before. As the storm progressed, our bow followed it. In the end, we swung a full 360 degrees around our anchor.

When the wind died down, the seas grew more confused, as if an afterthought. We got rocked to and fro – an uncomfortable motion that continued on for some time. By this point the thunder and lightning was above and all around us. As I repeatedly yelled: “Woah!” and “Holy shit!” I heard Trisha also yelling excitedly on Interabang. We couldn’t help but feel like we were watching a fireworks display offered up by the skies above. It was spectacular.

The storm hit at 02:15 Pacific time. By 04:15, we went to bed to the sound of raindrops and the occasional flash of leftover lightning west of us. More exciting than scary, that night was still a good reminder of our place in the nature of things. Let’s just say, we are small. And Mother Nature is a force to be reckoned with.

1A boat’s oven is commonly used as a faraday cage during electrical storms to protect electronics from the electromagnetic pulse that comes with a nearby or direct lightning strike. An electromagnetic pulse would travel on the outside of the oven, and would not penetrate inside the metal box. When a lightning storm comes near, we disconnect all our electronic gizmos (depth sounder, GPS, laptops, etc.) and throw most of them in the oven in the hopes of saving our electronics from being fried.

We have since experienced another chubasco in, I’m sure, what will be a series of them. While we faced some challenges that night (as we later heard, did some of our friends), we were unscathed and our healthy respect for storms remains solid.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

it's a hit

It finally happened. I speared my first fish and got to eat it for dinner. We were spearfishing in the shallow reefs of Cala Mujeres. While it is an odd feeling to end a life, we ended it swiftly. I made what I call a faux-jambalaya with some chorizo and my fish plus Rick’s two fishes, and boy did it taste good. The next step will be to learn to clean and fillet my own fish. I’m not quite ready for that yet.

That morning, Rick and I had decided to go to Cala Mujeres, just north of Bahia San Francisquito. There are two bays to choose from. The northernmost anchorage is lovely. At the head of the bay, there is a white sand beach, while reefs abound near the opening of the bay. We met some of the guys enjoying a couple days off from the little military base located in the “key hole”. We spent a terrific day there. We would have stayed longer, but the swells built up overnight and sent us packing the next morning. With predicted northerlies, we headed back to Bahia San Francisquito, toward our friends on SV Interabang and SV Time Piece, for a killer game of Baja Rummy. It turns out southerlies blew all day and it would have been a good sail north to Animas, but we didn’t mind – we scraped Nyon’s hull clean, washed the krill off our bodies and played cards with some very funny sailors.

Today, we are motoring into light winds. It is what it is, but we were ready for new horizons and chose not to wait for more favourable conditions. Sometimes, that’s okay.

making contact

Nyon and Storm Bay in the "Key Hole", Cala San Francisquito

Hiking buddies
We arrived in the pink light of dawn. San Francisquito is a large bay, some 80 nautical miles north of Santa Rosalia. The first anchorage is a narrow shelf tucked into the southeastern corner. It felt a little crowded to us that early morning, so we continued on toward the western anchorage. As we passed the tiny entrance to Cala San Francisquito, (what Rick now calls the Key Hole), we noticed but did not immediately recognize a lovely sailboat anchored in the protected harbour. “Look Rick, a sailboat braved going in there!” We’d read that the shallow entrance is fringed with reefs, and the small enclave itself shoals up quickly. As we continued toward the main beach, we noticed a lone figure rowing from said harbour. We anchored, and as the dinghy approached, we heard a familiar voice: “Ahoy Nyon!” We had been trying to catch up to that voice for the past 6 months. Margie’s big grin woke us out of our overnight-passage stupor.

The guys having a chat
We met SV Storm Bay’s Margie and Chris in Victoria over two years ago. Rick was working on a boat at the marina where they were docked; he and Chris fell into a conversation about engines, and Rick ended up rebuilding their injectors. Soon after, we were invited to their boat for Chris’ birthday – they hadn’t even met me yet. The connection was immediate. Over some good local beer, we got to hear these two Aussies’ stories (they’ve now been cruising for 10 years), and shared our dreams with them. We talked of meeting up in Mexico, as they were also heading down there. They left a year before us from the Northeastern Pacific.

The entrance to the Key Hole
That morning, we finally met up in the northern Sea of Cortez.

We enjoyed a few days of their company, an early morning hike, snorkeling, and sharing meals. Books were exchanged, stories shared, and even discussions about politics and religion were fair game. (We have a rule, Rick and I. After putting my foot in my mouth one too many times, we, meaning, I, am no longer allowed to discuss politics or religion with cruisers we don’t know well.) 

Storm Bay moved on for now, while we continued exploring the lovely Bahia San Francisquito, enjoying the company of more boat friends and rambunctious coyotes.


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