Monday, October 27, 2014

Las Cuevas
By Michael

Frances silhouetted on the dinghy
bow as we motor out of another cave.

This past May, sitting in a Guaymas boat yard with the mercury showing 111 degrees Fahrenheit and with blast furnace-like winds filling the air and the inside of the boat with dust and with mosquitos toughing it out just to suck us dry, we wondered aloud how we were going to survive a summer in the Sea of Cortez. I mean, this was still springtime and Guaymas wasn’t even as far north as we planned to sail. All the superlatives we’d read and heard people use to describe the summer Sea suddenly carried great weight. We were doomed.

Yet for all the dire warnings and our own apprehensions, we also knew people who’d intentionally spent multiple summers in the Sea and they didn’t seem totally nuts.

We remained steadfast to our plans, we would subject ourselves to a summer in the Sea and judge it for ourselves.

This was our favorite cave, a big, cool
cavern in the Sea that few seem
to visit or know about. It's on the eastern
side of Islas Espiritu Santos, just south
of Caleta Partida.
Back in September, on a still-hot day in the northern Sea of Cortez, Windy said how she wished we had time to spend at least next summer in the Sea too. We all agreed. Every summer day seemed better than the last. And it wasn’t just a matter of acclimating and good preparation.

The fact is, nearly everyone eagerly warned us of the heat and of the lack of services in the northern Sea, but few said anything about the positives, the things that overwhelmingly make a summer in the Sea something especially wonderful. Following are four of those positives:

  • Especially up north, summertime is a paradise for solitude lovers. We saw increasingly fewer boats north of each big milestone (Loreto, Bahia Concepcion, Santa Rosalia, Bahia de Los Angeles). Take the Refugio anchorage at the top of Isla Angel La Guarda. The water was clear and warm. Rock spires jutted out of the water, their cragged faces glowing warm reds and browns and oranges. We swam with members of a small, nearby sea lion colony. We dropped the hook anyplace we wanted and spent a few days snorkeling, eating, and reading without seeing another boat.

  • We lived with the critical, ever-present threat of hurricanes, but using the shortwave radio nets, they were easy to track from anyplace we were—so that we could be in a protected place when they threatened (and as evidenced this year, the northern Sea is statistically safer). And threaten and strike they did this year, but even storms that never reached the Sea tended to generate unsettled conditions that brought welcome relief from the relentless, clear, blue skies and the penetrating sun. We spent whole days under the cover of high clouds. Some days thunderstorms brought wind and rain. The clouds provided shade and the rain could drop temperatures by fifteen degrees.

  • The water is exceptionally nice. People told us the Sea would get so hot that jumping in would offer no relief. This just ain’t true. This year, water temps in the Sea were hotter than normal, and yet we all enjoyed every cooling minute we spent bathing, swimming, and snorkeling.

  • And there are caves. The pictures say it all. What a great place to spend a day, either exploring them or hanging out inside of them with a cooler of snacks and cold drinks—beautiful, primitive, cool respites.

If you’re looking down the road at your Mexico cruising itinerary and you have a summertime window you could spend in the Sea, reconsider fleeing to Banderas Bay or booking it back north to the States. Steel yourself for the heat, prepare for the bees, make lots of shade, pay strict attention to the weather, and have the time of your life in one of the world's best cruising destinations.


Snorkeling paradises are along every shoreline.

Not a bad way to spend a day.

Natural playgrounds, see Eleanor?
My little spelunker.

The crew in our dinghy.

Eleanor feeling her way.

This photo is right-side-up. Look at all the good-sized and disparate
rocks that appear glued to the ceiling of this cave. Some of those are

Thursday, October 23, 2014

By Michael

Windy and I aboard the first
Del Viento, early 1997, motoring
along the then undeveloped Cabo beach.
I’m 45 years old and exploring the Sea of Cortez’s islands and Baja aboard our 40-foot sloop. I take in and process the beauty and wonder of this place and I can’t get away from an awareness that my impressions are simultaneously dulled and heightened by my past.

I’ve been here before, age 31, in a small plane, an engagement ring hidden in my pocket. She said yes, on the beach of Punta Chivato. I was here in my late 20s too, aboard the previous Del Viento, with my girlfriend, Windy. We came up only as far as the islands north of La Paz before we crossed the Sea for Mazatlan and continued on to Panama and eventually, Florida. I was here as a teen, again and again in my folks’ small plane, landing on sandy strips that would be awash with the tide hours after we touched down. We’d siphon fuel through a chamois and eat huevos rancheros that made my mouth sing.

For thirty years this peninsula has woven in and out of my life. Today, as we sail around and I watch my girls process all of the Baja I am able to show, I share snippets of memory with them as places emerge familiar. It is a cruising ground both exotic and familiar. Is it any wonder we're here?

Also 1997, sitting on our Avon Redcrest in front of the
Hotel Palmilla before crashing the pool, San Jose del Cabo.
Still 1997, Windy swimming with a sea lion at
Los Islotes, just north of La Paz.
Windy newly engaged, 1998, Punta Chivato.
Sailing a friend's Lido 14, Punta Chivato, 1997.
With my dad, 1993, Bahia San Luis Gonzaga.
With my dad, 1988, Punta Chivato.
Sometime in the mid-1980s, plane touching down on the airstrip,
Bahia San Luis Gonzaga.
Me, 1997, aboard the first Del Viento, La Paz waterfront in the

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Santa Rosalia
By Michael

The girls in front of an old locomotive
in the town plaza. The base
translates roughly,
"Give before considering."
The places of Baja, where the people live, are surprisingly diverse. Whereas the peninsula may appear to be painted with a single brush of sand and cactus, geographic, political, and economic influences spanning decades—centuries—have resulted in mining towns, fishing villages, tourist meccas, and gringo enclaves. There are communities of dozens and cities of hundreds of thousands. Some places are connected by highways, some by rough roads, and some by panga. There are hubs of affluence and education and outposts where essential knowledge is passed down and there is very little money. This year, traveling the 500 nautical miles between Cabo San Lucas and Bahia San Luis Gonzaga, we’ve met people—all of the same country and all of whom speak the same language and all of whom call this desert place home—who live completely differently from one another.

Santa Rosalia is one of the bigger towns along the eastern Baja coastline. Nearly twelve thousand people live here and the main, transpeninsular highway passes right through it. Santa Rosalia features internet and phone service and a ferry from mainland Mexico calls here, but the nearest big airport is in Loreto, a two-and-a-half-hour drive south.

What caught my eye right away is that Santa Rosalia is a wooden town, like something out of the Old West. All the buildings are made of lumber, yet there are no forests on the Baja. The city is a former company town that came into being in the 1880s. The streets are narrow and the buildings feature porches and tin roofs. It’s easy to imagine hitching posts were once everywhere.

It was the French who founded Santa Rosalia (employing Native American and Chinese laborers). The mining company, Compagne de Boleo, set up here to get at the rich copper ore buried in the hills. They built an extensive operation, sophisticated for the time, that included reverberatory furnaces and metallurgical converters and custom-built locomotives that moved dirt and ore. Much of this machinery is still in place, though rusting and collapsing under the weight of time and neglect.

It's a nice library, again, all wood.
The French left in the 1950s, all the easy-to-get copper was gotten. But during the seventy years they were here, much of the ore was loaded onto square-rigged sailing ships and sent south, down around the tip of Baja and then north, all the way to Tacoma, Washington for smelting. On the return trip, the ships would carry lumber from the Pacific Northwest, to build this industrious town in the middle of nowhere.

Of course, the French departure didn’t create a vacuum that spelled doom for Santa Rosalia. A Mexican mining company took over the infrastructure and continued operations for another 30 years. By the time that operation ceased in the late 1980s, the Santa Rosalia economy was multi-faceted, benefiting from traffic on Highway 1 and a massive squid fishing industry that had blossomed.

My friend, Alex aboard Maitairoa, tells me that several years ago, every night, the waters offshore of Santa Rosalia were ablaze with the bright lights of hundreds of squid fishing boats. He told me this weeks ago, staring out at a black Sea. Apparently, after Hurricane Jimena passed over the city in 2009, the squid population left and hasn’t returned.

This is just one challenge facing Santa Rosalia. I’ve heard that there are plans to divert Highway 1 away from this city in a more direct route to the metropolises down south. Too, the current mining operation, owned by a Korean company, is 10 kilometers north of town and is self-contained, contributing little to the local economy.

Eleanor’s birthday is at the end of this month. We heard from a Mexican friend last night that kids here walk the narrow streets in groups chanting in Spanish, “give us our Halloween.” In response, shopkeepers and homeowners emerge to deposit treats in bags. There is a big cemetery atop the hill that promises a lively Dia de los Muertos celebration.

Eleanor plans to be a jellyfish. Frances will wrap herself in LEDs to become bioluminescence.


This church is probably the most noted aspect of Santa Rosalia. The all-metal
structure is said to have been exhibited at the 1889 World's Fair in Paris and then
acquired in Belgium and shipped here. It is said to have been designed by
Gustav Eiffel, the tower guy. 
Here is an old picture of the church, shortly after it was erected
in Santa Rosalia.
Everyone raves about this bakery. My guess is that it was good back
when the French were here, but that when they left, all the bakers
went with them--and they didn't leave any bread-making instructions

I think this abandoned building (among several) was a power generating
plant for the mine. Note the French influence in the metal trusses.

Eleanor trying to turn the power back on. Can you imagine a place like
this in the States, just sitting open to explore?

One of the most appealing aspects of the town is the changes in
elevation. From the water it is built deep into a natural arroyo
and then up and over the surrounding hills.
Typical street view.

From this waterfront street you can see the old mine shafts cut into the hill.

This is the Santa Rosalia Marina office on the malecon. The entire marina and
the half-dozen boats in it were wiped out in the recent hurricane.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Mary Made It
By Michael

The girls watching the sun set while
anchored in Santa Rosalia's tiny harbor,
a couple weeks before the storm.
"Feet off the moon!"
As we waited anxiously for the hurricane to reach us, we heard reports on the Sonrisa SSB net, reports of destruction and of missing boats and people in Baja cities and towns that we’ve come to know and love. Then we heard about Mary, a 70-something singlehander on a Pearson Triton 28 named Iver. People reported seeing her before the storm, but nobody knew where she’d holed up and whether she was okay. Every morning people requested news and information about Mary.

Then, maybe two or three days after the storm, a boat reported VHF radio contact with her. She was okay, in a desolate anchorage called Trinidad, between Santa Rosalia and Punta San Francisquito . But Mary was stranded, her boat washed ashore, wrecked and dismasted. The person who contacted Mary reported that she didn’t want to leave her boat, it was her home. She still had hope that she could be pulled off and asked the boat to get a request for help to a port captain down south or to the Mexican Navy.

On Monday the 22nd, after we were able to buy fuel and get water in Bahia de Los Angeles, we headed south, with plans to stop and check in on Mary. En route, we got word that Alex and Sue on Maitairoa were also headed south, a day behind us. They planned to stop in Trinidad at dawn and to offer to take Mary and her things to Santa Rosalia. Mary would have to be willing to abandon her boat.

Late in the afternoon on Tuesday the 23rd, Mary hailed us from shore on channel 16, just after we’d spotted Iver on the beach. She sounded very happy to see and hear from us. I told her we’d be ashore shortly to introduce ourselves. I told her Maitairoa was on the way and of their plans to arrive the next morning. She was surprised and relieved. She now regarded her boat a total loss and was eager to be rescued.

Ashore, she greeted us warmly. She’d been alone on the beach with her cat, Banderas, for seven nights and eight days. But she effused about the beauty of the place. She said she had plenty of food and water and wasn’t scared, not even during the height of the maelstrom. She pointed to the top of a nearby dune, “I hauled nine gallons of water and some food up there, see it? It occurred to me on the second day or so that if some more bad weather comes, it could take the boat and then I’d have nothing.”

The sun was setting and I invited her back to Del Viento for dinner. “You could even sleep aboard if you’d be more comfortable, you’re absolutely welcome.”

But she politely declined. She was more comfortable aboard and she usually went to sleep at dark. I realized she had no idea of the destruction and loss of boats and life down south. I filled her in and she was aghast, she'd assumed her boat was the only casualty of the storm. She asked me for a hug.

The girls scouting for Mary's boat on a
windless passage en route.
The girls and I motored ashore just as the sun was setting,
Iver on the beach ahead.

The girls with Mary. The 50-plus year-old boat
doesn't look too badly damaged in this pic, but her
time is up. Toe rail and hull-deck joint destroyed
at port bow, stanchions ripped out, rudder and stock
destroyed, dismasted. With all of her keel buried
in the sand, the expense of hauling her off from this
remote, distant anchorage to tow and repair just
doesn't make sense.
Windy talking to Mary the next morning. We removed
all her things that day. The yellow box on the stern is
her sewing machine.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Fortunate 13
By Michael

I wrote the following three days ago. We anchored off the village in Bahia de Los Angeles yesterday afternoon. I’m posting this today (Sunday) from an internet cafĂ©. We plan to leave here soon to explore a bit south.

This old wreck is on the shore of our
hurricane hole.
This is our account of how we heard about and responded to hurricane Odile. It struck Cabo San Lucas at the tip of the Baja peninsula at 2:00 a.m. on Monday, September 15. Today, September 18, Del Viento and crew are anchored with 12 other cruising boats in Puerto Don Juan, near Bahia de Los Angeles in the northern part of the Sea of Cortez, 450 nautical miles north of Cabo. We’ve been here since the 15th and have received only snippets of information via our high frequency radio. We are all quite well, but very concerned about the welfare of friends further south.

September 9: From Bahia San Luis Gonzaga (190 nautical miles north of Santa Rosalia), we day sailed offshore and anchored in a cove at the northern end of Isla Angel la Guarda. We bay hopped and explored, enjoying ourselves for the next few days.

September 14: We dropped the hook in an anchorage called Este Ton. There we met a father and son camping on the beach with their kayaks. They’d left Bahia de Los Angeles a few days prior and planned to circumnavigate this large island over the next couple weeks. We hung out for a bit and gave them cold drinks and 20 liters of water. We’d been keeping tabs on a hurricane brewing south, but we’d missed that morning’s 6:30 a.m. weather broadcast. We told the kayakers we’d get them an update before they left the next morning.

September 15: The news was shocking. We learned hurricane Odile had hit Cabo San Lucas a few hours prior with 130 knot winds. We learned it was the most powerful storm to hit the Cape since 1969. We heard it was a large storm. It was coming our way. We passed this weather info on to the kayakers (they had no communication devices that we know of) and raised anchor and headed straight for Puerto Don Juan, a hurricane hole on the peninsula, just south of Bahia de Los Angeles, and less than three hours away under power. (A hurricane hole is a place that is widely regarded as a good place to weather a severe storm, generally because of natural geographic features that offer protection from stormy seas and wind.) There were already eleven boats here when we arrived (one more sailed in a few hours after us). We said hello to our friends aboard Maitairoa and then found a spot to anchor.

We dropped and set our 66-pound Bruce anchor on 300-plus feet of 3/8-inch chain in 45 feet of water. We hitched a length of ½-inch 3-strand line to a bridle to serve as our primary snubber and then, after leaving a bit of slack in the chain, secured a second bridle of 5/8-inch three-strand to serve as a back-up, emergency snubber. We attached rode to our second anchor (a 55-pound Delta) and flaked the chain on deck, ready to deploy in an instant. We re-furled our headsail and made sure there was plenty of sheet wrapped around it. We put the mainsail cover on and then over-wrapped it with a spare halyard. We wrapped duct tape around our leaking mast deck collar and unzipped the center panel of our isinglass dodger. We double-secured everything that would remain on deck and cleared everything that wouldn’t. We checked and re-checked everything. Down below, the girls got started on a 1000-piece puzzle of a map of Disneyland.

That afternoon, the 20 knots of wind we experienced during our crossing from Isla Angel la Guarda disappeared. It was eerily still. That night, the wind picked up a bit, gusting 15-20 knots before holding steady in the high teens. Neither Windy nor I slept well.

September 16: Windy rose at 6:00 a.m to be sure to catch the weather report on the high-frequency, short-wave radio. The wind was blowing, now strong. It surprised her when she looked out because Del Viento was buttoned up against the rain and very cozy below. The guy who normally does the weather is named Gary, located in Bahia Concepcion, 230 nautical miles south of us. He was silent. Another guy, Bob, in Arizona, reported the weather. Other sailors who checked into the net shared information from their locations. Everything sounded dire. Many, many boats were reported to have sunk or washed ashore in La Paz. There was a list of people missing. One name we recognized was of our friend, Gunther, a singlehander aboard Princess. Straining to hear faint, scratchy transmissions, we learned that one of the two tiny marinas in Santa Rosalia was destroyed and three boats were washed ashore. We learned that the other (FONATUR) marina was damaged and that many of the boats there were damaged, but that all the people aboard all the boats there were fine.

We learned that the hurricane was scheduled to peak for us later this day. It was already gusting close to 50 knots. In the afternoon, a boat near us, Dream Catcher (Eureka, CA), began dragging. We watched, fascinated and concerned, as they reset their hook (two large anchors in tandem) in winds that blew so strong the rain hurt our skin. It was a challenging operation for them. It could have been any of us that dragged, we were glad it wasn’t us. We hoped this wasn’t the beginning of all hell breaking loose.

In the late afternoon, the sky began to lighten in the west and it seemed a dark mass of clouds was moving just east of us. The wind had settled back down to 20 knots. It looked like the worst may have passed. It turned out it had. We slept very soundly that night.

September 17: On the morning radio, we learned only a little more about conditions along the Baja. We learned that perhaps an additional 20 boats were lost in La Paz. These were boats stored on the hard near Marina Palmira, all knocked over like dominos, apparently. We fear that our friends’ boat, Willful Simplicity, is among them. We learned that our friends aboard Manakai are safe in Santa Rosalia, but that their boat is damaged to some extent. We used the day to dry out. During the latter half of the storm, we’d opened up a deck plate and successfully diverted about 30 gallons of water into our tank. This will prove valuable as water (among other things) may be in short supply along the peninsula. We are in conservation mode. Concerned about our families worrying about us, we managed to get a health and welfare email sent to two addresses via another boat’s (Ceilidh) short wave radio. We know that at least one was received, so hopefully that news will spread. It may be a while before we have internet access (and therefore before I can post this report). We launched the dinghy and met some of our dozen neighbors in person and explored ashore a bit. The girls (with help) finished the Disneyland puzzle.

September 18: We learned on the radio this morning that Gunther’s body had been found in La Paz, his boat sunk. We shared the news with the girls, lots of tears. He was old. The girls adored him and his tiny dog, Fritz. Everyone here in the anchorage knows Gunther and there is lots of sorrow. We lowered our Mexican courtesy flag to half-mast and others followed suit. There is still one cruiser missing in La Paz. We’re worried about our close friends who live on the Magote. They live in a concrete house and have lots of food and water stocked up, but they may have lost all transportation off the Magote as well as their infrastructure, including the desalination plant that supplies water to that community. We’re worried about the welfare of our other friends on the Magote and of our friends who live in the city. We heard there is looting and rioting in Cabo and that the airport is destroyed, whatever that means. We have no means of reaching anyone, yet. Though we got through this unscathed, and we have power and food and water and shelter, we are a very small island with scant information coming in. It is a blue-sky day and our setting is peaceful and beautiful, terribly incongruous with what we’ve been hearing.

We plan to stay here for the next couple days, at least. There is another hurricane (Polo), but the projected track doesn’t look as threatening. All of our fresh food is gone and we only have about 10 gallons of diesel. Our plan was to refuel in Bahia de Los Angeles, but they still have no power and we learned the road that connects them to Highway 1 is impassable. Hopefully things will change in the next few days.

We also heard that south of Santa Rosalia, Highway 1 is not passable. This is the overland lifeline for the lower part of the peninsula so we hope that is resolved soon. Windy’s mom is scheduled to fly into Loreto on the 29th of this month. Before making a decision about whether she should cancel that trip, we’re going to wait a few more days to see how quickly things are restored. If things improve even a bit, we may head down to Santa Rosalia so that we may be close enough to bus down to meet her in Loreto and then make our way back north to the boat—assuming that becomes feasible and we are able to confirm that it is.

A Mexican military helicopter just flew low over the anchorage. Our hearts go out to everyone who suffered in this disaster. Following is a list of the 13 boats that weathered this storm in Bahia de Los Angeles (Puerto Don Juan), September 15-18:

Audacious (formerly Shamu)
Del Viento
Dream Catcher (Eureka, CA)
Dream Ketcher (Tucson, AZ)
Jade Purl
Sea Note
Take Five

A post-hurricane raft-up of the boats that weathered
the storm together, really nice folks.

The girls' puzzle, done.
This is just one small wash-out of several in
Bahia de Los Angeles. Lots of rain and mud
was the biggest problem there. People were
rescued from rooftops, but nobody died.
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