Sunday, February 27, 2011

Cruising from Puerto Escondido to La Paz

Rani is working on blogs about our recent hiking adventures as well as some information on the local flora, so I will fill in a few details on where we have been since Puerto Escondido. For those of you who are sailors, I will try to include some details on the passages (day sails) we have made between Escondido and La Paz, where we are now at anchor.

Agua Verde - the palapa is now home base for bow hunters after big horn sheep. The custom caravan belongs to a couple from Alaska.

Our first passage south was from Puerto Escondido to Aqua Verde, a pleasant 10 mile run. We had light airs for much of the passage although we had a promising start with moderate following winds from the northwest. These were strongest in the area of Danzante island, probably due to funneling between the tall peaks of this island and the Giganta range on the Baja 'mainland'. Later the wind petered out to a few knots and we used our whisker pole to hold out the jib, running with our main out on the opposite side. We spotted what we believed to be Gray whales swimming and resting on the surface. The quiet seas made it easy to see the whales from miles away and we would often hear their breath as they breached before we spotted a jet of spume.

Barrel cacti

Snug anchorage under the bluffs

We stayed two days in Agua Verde, due to light winds, buying a few supplies at a new tienda that has opened since the last time we had visited. The goats are not producing much milk at this time of year and we were not able to buy any of the delicious queso fresco that we had enjoyed in previous years. The highlight of my visit here was a tour of the Vancouver island sailing vessel, Aleydabeth. Lyle and Lark showed us around this lovely 35 footer, which they had built from a bare hull. In the heads was a magnificent English toilet, called a Baby Blake, which they had bought second hand. Unlike your typical plastic boat toilets of the $150-300 variety, this beauty was over $5000 new, made of porcelain, bronze, and leather. I was privileged to take the Baby Blake for a test drive and will try to install one in Ladybug if we ever run across a used one in good shape.

Anteater or elephant?

We sailed from Agua Verde out to one of the offshore islands, with winds gusting to 25 knots. It was a great ride with the beam wind pushing use along at a solid 7 knots for much of the way – a 'soldier's breeze'. This sail reminded me a lot of our trip out to Santa Cruz island in California in our first Ladybug. The spray was flying, but the greater freeboard and length of the newer boat kept the cockpit much drier (in Ladybug I, we took frequent spray over the dodger). We dropped the hook off a rock formation that our friend, Rob, from New Zealand on Blue Moon nicknamed the anteater (Rani thought it looked more like an elephant). Despite the strong winds we risked a kayak landing and hiked up an extensive arroyo filled with cacti and flowering desert plants. The trail led up and out of the arroyo onto a plateau that looked out East toward the mainland of Mexico. The sea far below was dotted with white caps and we were glad to be in a relatively snug anchorage.

Ladybug ghosting under the cruising spinnaker.

Two days later, we had a somewhat disappointing sail into El Gato, under whose familiar red cliffs we had anchored on several earlier occasions. After a nice downwind sail of about 8 miles, the wind went elsewhere and we resorted to motoring, taking the opportunity to make water. However, a light breeze filled in after an hour and we had a pleasant drift into El Gato, where a swell bending round the point gave us a rolly few nights at anchor. In El Gato we met Randall on Mure, a graceful 31 foot Mariner ketch. Randall was taking a year off to sail Mexico and planned to return to San Francisco via Hawaii in the summer. We invited him to join us on a lengthy hike and he made a great companion, pointing out and naming birds and plants that we had seen before, but had not identified. He later gave us a book on the plants of the Baja that has added a lot to our enjoyment while hiking.

Mure at sunrise in El Gato

Our next passage saw us using the motor more than we had in total in the previous two weeks. The wind gradually died as we headed south and despite and abortive attempt to fly our cruising chute, we ended up running the iron genny for more than three hours. We made so much water that the tanks overflowed and we had to pump out our bilge and dry out the eggs and cheese we had stored there. We anchored in a new-to-us anchorage near the north end of Isla San Jose. Two other boats were already at anchor when we dropped the hook off a stunning sand spit. We kayaked ashore and walked along the beach as the sun set behind the mountains across the channel – a magical place.

Strange little silverfish like bugs scoot all over the rocks near El Gato. Rani does not like these little beasts one bit!

To make up for all this motoring, we did not use the engine at all on the next four passages, sailing out the anchor and anchoring under sail in each new cove. I justified these maneuvers to Rani as good practice for when our engine would not start. It certainly builds skill to do this and I think Rani may even be starting to enjoy the extra challenge and the occasional round of applause we get when we do an elegant entry or exit under sail into or out of a crowded anchorage. On one passage, another double ender, a graceful Pacific Seacraft Mariah 31, anchored under sail beside us. We exchanged compliments when we sailed out our anchor a half our later, passing close under their stern as we left Isla San Francisco.

Starfish in a tide pool near El Gato

The most challenging maneuvers were when in a tight anchorage on a lee shore as happens quite often in the two big islands close to La Paz. On Isla Partida, we had to beat our way out of a narrow cliff lined bight, tacking every half minute or so into a west wind. Almost all the anchorages face west and we had a similar experience in the wider anchorage of San Gabriel where we missed stays twice due to having up too little sail and nearly ran into the cliffs on the north side of the anchorage. It is a trick to stay calm when you are drifting sideways towards the surf, but this is what you must do if you are to roll out more furled jib and convince the boat to come about on the other tack. We kept the key in the ignition just in case, but I refused to turn on the engine as this would reduce the realism of the whole exercise. Rani is still talking to me, so she is either turning into a real sailor or maybe just becoming resigned to her fate.

Ladybug anchored off Isla San Jose. Nopolo is in the background.

Because there was a National Geographic mini cruise ship anchored in the hook at Isla San Francisco and two other large power yachts besides, we gave this favorite anchorage a wide berth. Instead, we tried out another new-to-us anchorage off the Baja peninsula just south of and opposite Isla San Francisco. We anchored in shallow water in an open roadstead off a fishing camp. Ironically, we had one of the most peaceful nights here in all the places we stayed north of La Paz, for over the next few nights we suffered through Corumel winds blowing directly into the bays on the west side of the islands. We laid out a stern anchor to keep Ladybug facing into the gentle swell and slept like babies.

Balloon fish.

In Cardoncito on Partida island we re-connected with our friends Dennis and Lisette on Windward, spending a few days in their company, hiking, and sharing delicious potluck meals. As is often the case, Windward was heading in the opposite direction and we made tentative plans to see them later in the spring when we should cross paths on our return 'migration' to the storage yard.

Our final port outside of La Paz was the Lobos anchorage about 8-10 miles from La Paz. The anchorage was fairly crowded when we arrived but we tucked ourselves in under sail beside an elegant 40 something foot Swan sailboat. When we came back from a hike, we found 11 boats at anchor, of which 4 were from our home port of Victoria.

Ladybug sails along the Baja.
The sail into La Paz was a dead beat to windward into a short chop. We made it into the channel in two long tacks, but gave up beating up the narrow channel due to traffic in both directions. We anchored off Marina de La Paz near a shallow sand bar that separates the main channel from the Mogote. We plan to be here for about a week.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Heading South

From San Juanico, we sailed to the Coronados Islands, stopping for one night and hiking to the peak with Kurt off Raven. Once the wind filled in the sail was a delight, reminding me of why we started cruising in the first place. I was struck with how much more connected I feel here to the richness of our natural world than when I am living a 9-5 existence at home. We have traded the abstract complexity of our workaday lives back home for this more immediate and deeper experience. Anyway - enough philosophising...

Hammerhead shark head

Rani and Nancy (off Raven)

Kurt off Raven
On our hike up to the peak, Kurt talked of his sailing trip from Hawaii to San Fransisco, during which he and his girlfriend ended up in the Pacific Gyre (an area of calm water at the center of the Pacific high). Here they found all sorts of debris, although not the acres of plastic that now exist there. In addition to Japanese glass floats, they found the floating corpse of a giant red-coloured squid, longer than their 26 foot sailboat. Kurt told me that he later talked to an expert on these squids who told him that he had heard of only a few sightings in all the years he had been studying them.

Sun star

Anchorage on Isla Carmen

From Coronados, we parted ways with Raven and sailed for Isla Carmen where we anchored in a sheltered bay. Eager to stretch our legs, we found a lovely hike to a grassy plateau below which was the site of an abandoned village. The shell middens in this area were a couple of feet thick and extensive.

Grassy plateau on Isla Carmen

View towards Loreto from Isla Carmen

Trigger fish head

Cactus worship

Village shell midden

Sea arch on Isla Carmen

We are now in Puerto Escondido anchored off the Singlar marina.  Ladybug has full water tanks and washed down decks, the laundry is done, and this blog updated, so its time to head south again towards La Paz.

Riding out a gale

Sailors may seem overly preoccupied with weather from a landsman's perspective. Each day we wake up comparatively early to listen to one or more weather forecasts on our long range shortwave radio. When we meet another sailor, weather and sea conditions are almost always part of the conversation. The reason for this is that where we travel, our comfort and safety at sea, and even where we choose to anchor each night are determined to a large extent by the wind's direction and speed.

This time of year in the Sea of Cortez, it is common to have strong northerly winds reaching gale force and often lasting for several days. That means that it is very difficult to travel north and even traveling south can be dangerous or at least uncomfortable during these periods. These winds are caused by areas of very high pressure air north of us in the southern US and much lower pressure air south of us near the equator. The air flows south channeling through the Sea of Cortez until the pressure levels off to the north.

Rani relaxing in the balmy tropical breeze
During the northers, cruisers find an anchorage with some protection from the big swells and waves that build up after a day or so as well as some shelter from the wind. However it is hard to avoid the wind, which will somehow manage to bend its way around even the biggest mountain in its way. We anchored as close to the shore as we dared in a sandy cove with hills to the north. You want good 'holding' so that your anchor will dig in well and sand works well for this.

Before the gale we prepared the boat by removing extraneous items from the deck, tying off any lines that could flap around and keep us awake at night, and tying an extra line around the sail cover. We let out extra anchor chain and put on lengths of fire hose around our bridle (the line that ties the boat to the anchor chain) to reduce the chance of this chafing. We also turned on our mapping GPS, setting an anchor drag alarm. The GPS will detect when you have moved further than X feet (say 120) and will sound a beep to alert you. During the gale, we would get up about once every hour to check for chafing and ensure that the anchor bridle was properly positioned in the chocks. By zooming in on the GPS map, we could see our track as we swung back and forth on the anchor. Finally, we set a small sail called a riding sail from the stern of the boat. This supposedly helps reduce the amount of swinging you do around the anchor, but Ladybug has a very high bow and she still sails around her anchor vigorously.

The first day was exciting and we lost plenty of sleep in the night. The second day we got a bit stir crazy and desparately wanted to get off the boat. We chatted with Kurt and Nancy on the sailing boat Raven, anchored a few hundred feet downwind of us and they were feeling the same - you could here the frustration in their voices. By the third day we had settled into a routine, reading, baking fudge and bread, lazing in the cockpit (dressed in our winter clothes due to the icy winds), and watching movies on our netbook.

We also managed to get our water maker working, which was having problems due to small leaks on the system. The beast runs at 800 psi in order to extract fresh water from sea water through a membrane, so even a tiny leak will cause the whole thing to fail. Fortunately, we were able to tighten a few connections and make 6 gallons of pure drinking water.

First day ashore - We made this rock ladybug to place in the 'cruiser's shrine' - a tree on the beach where boaters have left memorabilia of their visits.

We were very glad when the winds died down enough on the third day for a quick paddle to shore. The following day we were able to go ashore together and think about heading south to our next anchorage.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Back on the water

Rani was not feeling at all well. Neither of us had been on the water since last April and the seas were coming in nasty short 5 foot lumps, pushed by more than 20 knots of breeze from the north west. Ladybug broad reached across the Sea of Cortez, the windvane steering capably now that we had turned her bow well south of our original course for Santa Rosalia. It's funny how quickly our plans change when confronted by an uncooperative wind. We had both been so looking forward to visiting the nursing gray whales in San Ignacio, intending to leave Ladybug in a marina in Santa Rosalia. Now however, we were bound for a snug anchorage at Bahia San Basilio, much further south. Here, we hoped to wait out the much heavier winds forecast for two days later.

Ladybug in the slings ready to lift. Francisco is the yard manager (standing by  Chris)

Ladybug ready to launch

Slings stuck in the mud under the keel - it took an hour to free her up.

A day earlier we had sailed out of Guaymas after a difficult launch. The launching channel at the marina seca in Guaymas is shallow and, unless the tide is high, when boats are lowered from the travel lift, the launching slings can become trapped under a boat's keel. It took more than an hour and much prodding with poles and hanging over the lifelines to free up the big canvas slings without damaging our new bottom paint job. Ladybug's keel settled into the viscous black mud and we tied her off around supper time to wait for an early morning tide.

Fishermen at sunset off Miramar, San Carlos area.

Before the sun rose the next day, we motored down the channel in the pink haze of pre-dawn. We had light winds most of that day but I was happy to be back on the water and we meandered the dozen or so miles to the Miramar anchorage near San Carlos. We were awakened the next morning by a heavy swell rolling into this anchorage, which made it impossible to sleep. By 11 am, the brisk north west wind that was now driving us toward the Baja had come up without any warning, and we quickly hoisted sail and got underway. The heavy wind caught us by surprise and Ladybug healed over so violently that our newly acquired handheld VHF flew across the cabin, it's volume knob breaking off in the process. We hurriedly put two reefs in the mainsail and later dropped the main altogether proceeding under reefed jib alone.

Patron saint of fishermen?

Rani's malaise was short lived as the Gravol took effect, and after a brief snooze, she was able to take her turn on watch. We sailed on through a moonless night toward a previously logged GPS waypoint that would hopefully keep us clear of the intervening dangers. Before we had GPS, I would not have attempted a night crossing like this with a predicted dawn arrival. Instead, steering only a compass course and estimating our progress via dead reckoning, I would most likely have slowed the boat down or steered further offshore to ensure we avoided the off-lying islands. As it was, even with GPS, our charts for this area were so inaccurate that it was prudent to ensure that we were at least two or three miles from the charted position of the off-lying islands.

San Juanico

Rancho Santa Ana welcome sign made of shells embedded in sandstone
We made landfall around dawn at San Basilio and anchored in the San Juanico anchorage after sailing about 100 miles in less than 20 hours. Despite getting little sleep on the crossing, we knew we had to make the most of our first day here because gales were forecast for the following three days that would probably keep us pinned down on board Ladybug. We inflated our double kayak and paddled over to a nearby beach from which we hiked all afternoon along the shore and over several bluffs to a rancho that lies in a valley a few kilometers away. We returned via a true high clearance road (Rani all but disappeared in the ruts!) and spent the evening preparing Ladybug for the predicted high winds. A 39 foot Westsail had anchored nearby while we were off hiking and shortly after we returned to Ladybug, Kurt and Nancy motored over to say hi. We discussed our preparations for the blow and agreed to monitor 18 on the VHF in case either boat needed help.