Saturday, December 27, 2008

Crossing to the Mainland

Winter has set in at La Paz. The water and air temperatures have cooled, albeit comfortably. The northers are difficult to ignore and while we still enjoy La Paz and all it has to offer, time has come to think about moving on to new places and warmer climates. I suspect we will settle on making a series of short sails, sailing back to Ensenada de Los Muertos and then on back to Los Frailes to shorten our sail to the mainland.

Kathie has made good use of her time here, taking intensive language classes for the last four weeks. While she's been in class I've been sanding, varnishing and waxing the boat. I still have to look at the auto-pilot to see if it can be programed to minimize its' wandering around the set course. Then we have to sit down with the cruising guide and charts to determine where we will be going and work out a loose schedule.

We had originally planned to leave on January 14, but by the time we did our last provisioning run, topped off the fuel and water tanks, dropped off our loaned Vanagon at Casa Margaritas, performed a final yard watering and house check it was well past noon when we walked back to the boat. Already well into our Mexican adventure, we implemented our back-up plan: Manana.

Just after peak high tide on January 15th, we left our slip in Marina de La Paz heading towards our first nights anchorage back at Ensenada de Los Muertos. It was an upwind tack to reach the San Lorenzo Channel just off Playa de Tecolote. The wind and wave action were both increasing as we approached the channel and into the Cerralvo Channel. Just through the San Lorenzo Channel we observed two frigate birds swooping down to the waters surface between the waves. A moment later, one of them emerged struggling to gain altitude having an 18" long sea snake dangling from its beak. We've read that La Paz Bay is the northern most boundary for these poisonous reptiles, but this was our first eye witness to their existence.

By the time we arrived at Los Muertos it was dark on a moonless night. We made our way through a small fleet of anchored boats (a few without anchor lights, which made seeing them difficult until they were within 50 yards or less)and made our way towards the beach. Fortunately, someone in a truck far down the beach made a U-turn and the headlights briefly illuminated the length of the beach and helped us find the western boundary of the bay. We anchored in 30 feet of water just off the beach.

The following morning, we weighed anchor and hoisted the mainsail at the gentlemanly hour just before 9 a.m. It was a beautiful downwind motor sail under sunny skies. We wanted to maintain boat speed to be able to reach our next anchorage at Los Frailes before dark. By the afternoon we were able to sail at a broad reach making between 6.7 and 7.3 knots of boat speed. The wind freshened as the day went on. By the time we reached our jibe point south of Pulmo reef the apparent wind was blowing between 16 and 18 knots. We entered the south end of Los Frailes bay making between 7.5 and 8 knots of boat speed. White caps filled all but 200 feet of the northern end of the bay. We doused the sails and made our way to within 100 feet of the beach, at the western most point where the rocky headland that forms Los Frailes and set our anchor in 35 feet over sand.

We were out of the turbulent white caps but still subjected to the constant wind which, during the five days we sheltered there, was gusting well over 20 knots. The seas offshore looked too nasty to make our jump, so we stayed put waiting for a drop in the northern. The timing turned out to be fortuitous since the second day there Peter came down with a cold and sore throat. We're not certain where he picked it up, but think it may have been his exposure on Skype cam to Hans just before leaving La Paz! We spent time enjoying the antics of the pelicans, who stopped by to visit and watch us and the spectacular show put on by the leaping rays. Small rays, about two feet across, would jump by ones, twos and even threes, flapping their pectoral fins as they would clear the waters surface by as much as four to five feet.

By late evening on the 19th, winds were moderating. We decided our weather window was opening so at 4 a.m. on the 20th, we pulled anchor, almost sailed onto the beach (a story for another time), and started our crossing of the Sea to Mazatlan. The first couple of predawn hours were calm with a light breeze and three foot cross seas. As the day progressed, the winds built to 15 to 17 knots with the cresting cross seas running at 5 to 7 feet. We were making over 7 knots of boat speed, even after our ever anxiety filled mainsail reefing exercise (more often than not, performed later than prudent).

At 60 nautical miles off the coast of Baja, the winds began to moderate between 9 and 12 knots and the seas were no longer cresting and were running 3 to 4 feet. By the time we had reached the midway point in the crossing (~80nm)the wind and the waves were both laying down and it became an enjoyable beam reach with reefed main (not wanting to take a chance!) and full head sail. Peter took a cockpit sun-shower while we sailed along at over 6 knots of boat speed.

Commercial boat traffic was light. We changed course to pass well behind a south bound freighter around 2 p.m. We passed about 2nm in front of a north bound tanker just after a beautiful green flash sunset. Around 1:30 a.m. we were joined for a couple of miles by an unidentified species of whale. It swam leisurely along our port side, about 50 yards off, breathing at regular intervals without sounding. There was no moon out so we couldn't identify it. It left large neon green slicks of bioluminecense each time it left the surface. We think it was interested in all the strange noises emanating from the boat as we sailed on.

It wasn't until we were within 60nm of the mainland coast did we begin to encounter commercial fishing boats. Most of these were purse seiners that we saw in the early morning hours. Being just after midnight on a moonless sea, none were observed fishing. The easiest to avoid were those that had all their deck lights lit traveling in slow circles. We assumed most, if not all the crew were sleeping, with the idea of operating in this manner they were visible from a long distance off and easily avoided.

There was one seiner we encountered that was virtually unlit, save for some of the smallest, least bright navigation lights we've seen. It was following an erratic course, meandering without pattern, that led us to believe if anyone were on the helm they were dozing off to sleep. Besides lighting our mainsail with our flashlight to increase our visibility, we finally resorted to starting our engine to motor sail away from this wandering hazard.

We reached the coast just southwest of Islas Pajaros just after 8 a.m. the morning of the 21st. Since neither the paper chart (corrected in 1984) nor our electronic chart showed the presence of the marinas at El Cid and Mazatlan (both located off a man made channel about 9 miles north of the old harbor entrance) between Rains Mexican Boating Guide and doing our own bumbling coastal reconnoitering we located the entrance and made our approach. Fortunately for us, a diving panga, entering the channel before us, helped guide us through the narrow entrance in a moderate swell. It was near mean low water for the day, and the channel depth, while adequate for our draft, promoted near surfing conditions making the negotiation of the narrow dog-legged entrance by a slow sailboat somewhat exciting.

We arrived at our assigned dock at 11:30 a.m. and finished checking in with the Harbor Masters office just after 2 p.m. We walked around the hotel grounds, checking out the pools and beaches and taking a different view of the entrance channel before getting cleaned up and going into the old part of town to wander and explore. We had dinner at a marisco's restaurant just across from the malecon before heading back to the boat. We took advantage of the hotel amenities by enjoying a long soak in one of the hot tubs and a short swim in the pool. We're beginning to think we're not real hard core cruisers! We're glad to have finally made it across and into the 'tropics'.

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