Saturday, April 15, 2006

Dispatch 12 Sea of Cortez Crossing

April 1-4, 2006
We crossed the Sea of Cortez the first time heading east and south to Puerto Vallarta (approximately 400 miles) in late January. The conditions were delightful with wonderful downwind sailing once we got our sea legs (see Hell and Heaven). We stopped at Isla Isabella and had wonderful memories in retrospect of the crossing which took a total of 4 days due to the stop at the island. Thus, we were unprepared to think of the Sea crossing as daunting even though it involves 180 miles of open water, out of sight of land for at least the middle third and subject to very rough conditions due to the enormous fetch of the Sea, several hundred miles north to south. The prevailing winds are northwesterlies, and, any sailor with a lick of sense would have realized that traveling north and west back to the Baja peninsula might be dicey. We are not sailors with a lick of sense apparently.

We left Mazatlan with a weather prediction of North, Northwest winds 10-15 knots for the next 3 days, hoping to make our total transit to La Paz (240 miles approximately) in 2 very full days. As always, we were looking forward to sailing rather than motoring, scoffing at those who left in flat calm conditions and no doubt had to motor across. Scoffing is never a good attitude when it comes to passages—respectful attention to more experienced cruisers would be a smarter attitude, one which we learned the hard way. To be fair, we weren’t ready to leave with the others in the calms, so our timing was not just willful ignorance.

It had been flat calm for 4 or 5 days, so, when we left, the seas were flat. The wind started up pretty quickly after a couple hours and, through our passage, remained at the predicted 10-15 knots with 15-20 knots in the afternoons, also as predicted. Had we been going the other way, we would have been happy campers, but we were doing something we hadn’t done for months which is beat to weather (upwind), and, in this case, for 3 full and exhausting days. After a couple hours of wind, the seas began to build and, as always, this became our nemesis. We struggled to keep up enough sail area to drive the boat forward, but not so much that the boat was heeled over so far that it had water over the rail. We would just build up our momentum over a few small waves when we would hit (head-on) a set of 2 or 3 waves that were like walls and would stop our momentum immediately. The boat would hobby horse (bob forward and aft as it went over the waves) and we would wince at the motion. The waves were not regular so the motion was rather chaotic—what we refer to as washing machine motion—and, forgive the mixed metaphor, but, when it was all over, we indeed felt we had been through the wringer!

Even more so than on our rowdy downwind passages, the boat motion was impossible and required lots of hanging on. Unlike a downwind passage, the overall orientation of the boat is heeled over so nothing is upright and things fall from side to side if not secured. Luckily, we had no breakage or problems on the passage. For the first time, Betsy actually succumbed to seasickness during the second day and had to live in the cockpit or be supine and sleeping down below. We tried to put ourselves in a state of suspended animation knowing the nothing but time would get us through the conditions. Nothing was extreme, but, nothing was very pleasurable either. Betsy ate little for a day and a half of the fun and the pre-made dinner had to wait until we arrived at Baja. We debated selling the boat and hanging up our cruising life, we discussed all kinds of ways we’d much rather be spending our time at that very moment, but, in the end, we just prevailed, and, as with all passages, it finally came to an end. The wonderful thing about rough passages is that they’re like childbirth—forgotten once they are over until the next time.

For the final day, we began to be able to see land which was both exciting and frustrating (because it was still so far away). Finally, on the last night (our third night out), the wind began to drop and we arrived at more protected waters and started the engine and motored overnight to a protected anchorage in the beautiful islands above La Paz where we rendezvous-ed with friends from the NW who were there on a one week charter. They were amazed to see us actually arrive and even more so when they realized we had been going day and night for 3 days to meet them. That night we slept like logs because the boat was still and, even when large waves came into the anchorage in the morning from the newly arisen 20 knot southerly wind, we barely noticed. Our friends were so traumatized by the waves in the anchorage and the violent motion of their boat that they headed for La Paz in the early AM. We, on the other hand, were thinking things were pretty nice in the anchorage but left late morning to follow them and found the wind had died.

That day, for some reason, we became the “Help” boat. Richard helped out with a radio relay from the Moorings charter office to one of their customers that kept him on the radio for at least a half hour. At the end of that service, we heard a call to the “southbound boat near Isla Ballena” which turned out to be us. Another sailboat was becalmed with a dead engine and was being set back on the island and was requesting a tow. Well, having been towed ourselves once before, we were happy to help and headed over to hook them up. Safely tied together, we motored on to La Paz (a total of about 20 miles of towing!) Shortly after we were all hooked up, we got a call from another boat in the area who we had met in the PV area and they wanted a little medical advice which kept Betsy on the radio for a while.

We motored the whole afternoon with the other sailboat in tow listening to Jimmy Buffet and even dancing in the cockpit, ecstatic from withstanding our Sea of Cortez ordeal and happy to be heading back into La Paz, a city we feel at home in with our boat functioning well enough to help out someone else. As we entered the channel to La Paz, a whale breeched right in front of us. Life was great.

Since we’ve returned to La Paz, we’ve visited all our favorite restaurants, the organic ice cream shop, bought tamales from our favorite street vendor and begun the process to update our immigration status. It’s fun to be back. In another couple weeks, Betsy gives a seminar to local cruisers on First Aid and use of medications in the first aid kit. Then we’re off to explore more of the beautiful islands in the Sea of Cortez, mostly in protected waters for the next several months.