2 Jul 2011

Sea of No Cares

Posted in Travel by Paul Wheeler. No Comments

Relaxing on the Beach at Los Frailes Many, or perhaps most, of the posts I’ve written here have been mere chronologies recounting our journeys in simple terms without flourish or expansion. My reasons for setting these events down has been some combination of a belief that our undertakings are worthy of sharing (narcissism?), a desire to record the events of our lives for our own memory (diarism?), Serenity at Anchor in El Embudo on Isla Partidaand a hope that our stories will inspire people (delusions of grandeur?). To what end I hope to inspire people, I don’t know. Certainly not to be like me, since I’m sure if one weighs my virtues against my flaws the scale would tip steeply toward the flaws. I suppose my hope is that the knowledge of another person’s undertaking of any kind might broaden one’s view as to what paths lay open for them to choose.

When it comes to our time in the Sea of Cortez, however, I’m at a loss for motivation to commit such a log to writing. In essence, our journey through the Sea, spent basking it tropical sun, diving in clear water among exotic fish, and sailing under deep blue skies, was idyllic. It was not without its trials and tribulations, including Jen’s brief and mysterious illness that caused us to make anPaul Spearfishing emergency return to La Paz, rough conditions experienced beating up wind in a Norther1, losing our dinghy briefly due to a poorly tied knot (although I blame boat pixies), and others that I may recount at a later date. But the pleasanter aspects of our trip far outweighed the bad. We forgot our anxieties about the future. We succeeded in ignoring all the unfinished projects we’d promised ourselves we’d accomplish during all the free time on our trip, and even avoided most of the pangs of guilt our upbringing and culture have programmed us to have as a result of our lack of productivity. We delighted in time spent with visiting friends, and relished our new friendships made. We purely, deeply, and undistractedly enjoyed ourselves.

Bill Fishing But like all good things, our days in the sun had to come to an end. As I write this we are paying off the debt accumulated during our good times. That payment is in the form of a laborious and trouble laden bash north. Whence we will return to the real world of bills and bank accounts, professions and repairs. Our dreams of many years of cruising have largely been smothered by a soggy blanket of shortcomings in our boat and finances. But hopefully Serenity will shine anew with a year or two of love and we won’t become those people clinging to the deteriorating boat they once dreamed of going cruising in, only to put it off year after year to save a bit more or fix things up a bit more in all that free time or with all that extra cash we never seem to find, and when found is so easily lost again to a little temporary recreation.

Dolphins Swimming Through the Anchorage at Isla San Francisco

  1. Norther: Strong north wind condition in the Sea of Cortez, caused by a high pressure region that develops over the deserts to the North and then funnels winds down the length of the Sea, reaching upwards of 30 knots and creating short, steep wind waves.

10 May 2011

Bahia de Tortugas to Los Cabo

Posted in Travel by Paul Wheeler. 5 Comments

Anchored in Bahia de Tortugas The morning after we arrived in Bahia de Tortugas we slept in, enjoying our newfound freedom from the watch schedule. Shortly after we got up we were surprised to find that Mexican Navy making rounds through the anchorage. I was immediately glad I had done our entry paperwork in Ensenada, and felt somewhat vindicated in ignoring the suggestions that we check in at Cabo. Thankfully the visit from the navy was brief and painless. Later that day Bill and I went spear fishing and brought back a Garibaldi and an Opal Eye for dinner. Before the day was out we put the outboard on the dinghy and took a tour of the bay in the dinghy, on the way we stopped by Jatimo, the small sloop that had pulled into the bay earlier in the day. The vessel was sailed by Jan and Ramona, also from the San Francisco Area. I had been looking forward to actually meeting other cruisers and becoming a part of the community so I invited them over for dinner. The next day, my birthday, we went to town and were shown around by Pedro from the fuel dock. He awkwardly sat around while we ate our lunch, and after showing us the way to internet cafe, I realized why and gave him a few dollars to leave us in peace. Truthfully he was pretty helpful and it was nice that he didn’t outright demand money for his services. We grabbed some groceries and headed back to the boat. Jen made a delicious meal of risotto and squash, and Ramona brought over some homemade hummus and a salad of fresh veggies, always a treat when you’ve been at sea for a bit. We had a great time sharing stories of our travels. They had a lot more than we did, having been doing this for over 20 years, and it was a pleasure to listen them and gain some wisdom. Friday we returned to the village for lunch with a view at La Palapa. This quaint little cantina came highly recommended, and it lived up to the expectations. For those who might be visiting, just walk east along the beach from the pier, go up the small hill to the right just past where the fishing boats launch. It’s a small white open air building. Bring your Spanish-English dictionary as there are no menus. Afterward we went for a long walk out to Punta de Kelp.

Bill & His Calico Bass Cooking Lobster

After four nights we left Tortugas in the afternoon for an overnight sail to Bahia Asuncion. The trip was another fast, double reefed sail down the coast, and we had to heave to overnight to delay our arrival until morning. For the last few miles the wind clocked around and we were forced to motor into a strong headwind and current, approaching the anchorage at a crawl. We spent a day and a half in Asuncion. After a long upwind row we did some more diving and fishing. This time scoring a large Calico Bass on the rod (nice work Bill) and two lobsters. The lobsters are relatively easy to catch if you have a quick hand and a tight grip. Happily they have no claws with which to defend themselves. Unfortunately the kelp beds were so thick that stalking fish with the spear proved untenable.

The following evening we departed for Bahia Santa Maria. The trip was again uneventful. We sailed the whole way, only running the motor for the first few hours to charge the batteries. Our autopilot steered faithfully for the entire trip. We continue to have no luck trolling the hand line. I taught Bill to put a reef in the mainsail. We sailed upwind into Bahia Santa Maria to within a half mile of the anchorage. I wish I had some more poetical things to say about the trip, by suffice to say it was idyllic sailing.

Hiking to the Break As soon as we had anchored in Bahia Santa Maria and had breakfast I was rallying the troops for a trip to shore to hike out to the point on the north side of the bay entrance. I had spied the telltale white spray of offshore winds on breaking waves and felt a burning desire to get some surf. To be honest my hopes were not all that high. We hadn’t been seeing much in the way of the south swell that would be required to make this spot break. Jen and Bill were both eager to get off the boat and hike around, so when breakfast was done we got the dinghy ready, packed up, and made the arduous paddle to shore in moderate winds. It was still nothing compared to the headwind Bill and I had fought to go fishing in Bahia Asuncion, where we only made it because I jumped overboard with fins to help propel us. Once on shore we discovered a convenient trail that took us the 1.5 miles out to the point. My excitement increased when View From AboveI found evidence of a surf camp, which although it was vacant at the moment was clearly still seeing active duty during the peak season. Just then I started running. I was driven forward from within as I watched a set of waves wrap beautifully around a point into a small cove. I couldn’t believe it, after months without surfing I was finally going to catch some waves. The session was great. The sets were infrequent, but the waves were waist to chest high with smooth curling faces. The break had alternating steep and gentle sections, and the rides were long, making it a great wave to mess around on with cutbacks and sweeping turns. I couldn’t help but smile at the fact I had sailed over 1300 miles to ride these waves.

In the Curl Takeoff
A Long Ride

The following day Bill and I took it easy on the boat while Jen explored the “village.” It ended up being completely abandoned, although not apparently disused. We theorized that it was used in peak season by the fishermen. Jen was then stranded on shore for two hours while she tried vainly to hail us on the radio. What she didn’t realize is that our portable’s transmit function had died. Wondering where she was I scanned the shore with the binoculars, but couldn’t see a thing for the light of the setting sun bouncing off the water. Finally the wind let up enough for us to here here faint shouts over its steady roar, and I pulled to shore to pick her up. Sorry Jen.

Our last day at Santa Maria we made a second attempt at the surf. This time we were all armed with boards and we set out in the dinghy with the outboard. We zipped up the coast and put in at the panga landing beneath the surf camp. Unfortunately we made two critical errors. 1) I hadn’t properly relayed the plan to bill so he had no shoes for the quarter mile walk we had to make to the spot. 2) The tide was much lower now, so getting out meant walking over 50 yards of barnacle encrusted rocks with urchins lurking in the cracks. Bill, who already had massive blisters on each foot from the walk to the spot decided it was hopeless and waited on the beach. Jen, struggling with a nine foot board which had a mind of its own in the strong offshore wind was having trouble making it past the fields of urchins. After paddling around in the break for a few minutes watching the others struggle I realized we need a new approach. So with Bill wearing my too small sandals we headed back to the dinghy and simply motored out and dropped anchor. I felt like an idiot for not doing this in the first place with the swell so light. The break I had surfed two days earlier wasn’t showing at all, so we paddled around the corner to a totally hair-brained spot over shin deep boulders that jacked up steeply, and held up only for about 30 yards before smashing into the rocks on shore. After catching a few waves I shouted to Jen that you’d have to be crazy to try to surf this spot, as I paddled for another wave. It was a short but exciting ride in which you made a steep takeoff, doing everything you could to keep the nose from digging in and vaulting you bodily into the air, made a hard right and flew threw the hollow section over the shallow boulders, and then rode it out for a few seconds before bailing off to avoid the rocks. Fun!

Sailing Near Cabo San Lucas

Paul Securing the AnchorBack at the boat that evening we spent a few hours getting everything ready to go and then we were off to San Jose del Cabo. Ironically, after spending the last two days complaining about the constant, strong NNW wind that kept us rocking in the anchorage and fretting about our ground tackle (which held beautifully), the minute we got outside the cove the wind suddenly died. We had played it close with our schedule and had to been in Cabo in 48 hours to pick up my friend Steve there. So on went the motor and we proceeded in light and variable winds toward San Jose. But the gods of the sea and the wind smiled on us for a bit because after lunch the wind picked up. Having hoisted the staysail we were able to make 5+ knots close on the wind with Serenity steering herself dead on our best course for the Cabo Falso, the point at the south western tip of Baja.  The sea was calm the wind was perfect and the weather warm. And just when it seemed things couldn’t get better we were surrounded by a massive pod of dolphins porpoising and breaching on all sides. They must have been feeding because moments later we got a strike on the hand line we’d been trolling on and off since San Diego with no luck. I watched as the line swung from side to side as the fish tried to fight.  “Fish on” I shouted excitedly as I started hauling the line in. I’d been waiting to say that since I’d gotten the fishing gear in the first place. Making SashimiBill came on deck to assist and deftly gaffed the fish and brought it on deck. It was a small but beautiful yellow fin tuna (I say small, but that’s because they get up to 400lbs, this one would feed us for several days). Blood poured all over the place as we tried various techniques to disable the fish (alcohol on the gills, bashing with the winch handle, and finally decapitation). Once it was finally subdued I quickly fell to filleting, knowing that the tuna’s meat would be degraded by the post mortem nervous system activity and I wanted to get some good sashimi out of it.

Bill and Paul Boating a Yellow Fin Tuna Yellow Fin Aftermath Cleaning Up the Mess

The wind failed at dusk, so after a dinner of tuna steaks and curry we motored on to San Jose del Cabo. We decided to stay at the Puerto Los Cabos rather than deal with the glitz and hubbub of Cabo San Lucas. The marina is nice enough, and a slip sans electricity was only $44 USD per night (50ft slip), but the place is a sort of half finished feel, with a lot of incompletely construction and vacant trash filled lots right next to manicured lawns. After checking in at the marina office we were off to the nearest American restaurant to get what had become for us the yardstick of civilization: cheeseburgers. Conveniently, the cheap slips are on the side of the marina where Tommy’s Barefoot Cantina is located. They have great food, including American fare, cold beer, a pool table, and free wifi. We had officially made it to Los Cabos.

Rocks Off the Point Approaching Cabo San Lucas

Bahia Santa Maria Surf

The Break at Bahia Santa Maria For those who may be interested, there are multiple spots along this patch of coast. Bahia Santa Maria is a large deepwater bay with ample space for boats. It is just WNW of Bahia Magdalena (Mag Bay). Check the cruising guides for more details on Bahia Santa Maria, but I will say this: there is nothing here. No diesel, no water, no mercado, and nobody selling fish. So come well supplied. The surf we saw is located on the inside of the northwest point that makes the entrance to Bahia Santa Maria (aka Santa Maria Cove). These spots all require a decent south swell, and high tide seems best. There were consistent off shore winds the whole time we were there (April 13-15 2011). I recommend a short board or fish, but you could make a longboard work. This isn’t a good beginner spot because if you don’t stay out on the shoulder you end up on the rocks and a small day means no day at all, not to mention you need to dodge the occasional rock in the lineup. Urchins and barnacles are an issue, so bring boots. There is a small protected landing spot just beneath the surf camp where the fishermen tie up. There are also trails further out the point and north toward the fishing camp/village where there are more landing spots. We were anchored at 24°46.276N 112°15.488W, 300 yards off the coast about three quarters of a mile south of the inlet to Santa Maria Lagoon. We went ashore on a patch of sand right where we were anchored. In any case, be careful where you leave your dinghy because of the tide. The hike out wasn’t too bad, but motoring out definitely saves time and arm strength. The second time out we just dropped the dinghy anchor just outside the break in 15 feet of water because the swell was small.

5 May 2011

The Blue Trance

Posted in Life by Jen Wheeler. 1 Comment

Sunset Leaving San Diego

“What day is it?”

There was a long pause.

The moment of silence dragged on as the three of us looked at each other, calculating furiously in our heads. Even when we started to venture guesses that the others agreed on, we had to verify our conclusion in the ship’s log and additionally consult the calendar to determine the right day of the week. After all that was done, we were left wondering, ‘What difference does it make?’.

It turns out the answer was, ‘Not much’. We were out sailing far off the coast of Baja Mexico. A few days before, we had finally finished our repairs, upgrades, and general resupply and preparation in San Diego. We had hoped to take things easy and sail  instead of motoring on our way out, but we wanted to do our check-in process in Ensenada, just over the border. Time was running out on our cat’s health certificate, good for just ten days from the date of issue. Also, the next day was Friday, and if we didn’t get in early enough, we worried that we’d have to wait until business hours again on Monday. That time, it made a difference.

Other cruisers do their check-in further down at Cabo San Lucas, but we chose Ensenada because of the cat health certificate, and for peace of mind while anchoring and going ashore on our way down the coast. It was additionally appealing because all of the various offices were together in one building, compared to other cities where they were spread all over the place. This made the process more streamlined, although we did have to wait around a bit since the Port Captain’s desk was empty at first. Some of our rush was unnecessary since the customs officers didn’t want to see the health certificate at all, even when we offered it. They barely even noticed what we had checked off on our paperwork; we probably could have written that we brought lots of guns and drugs and they would have just smiled and filed the forms away.

We were still glad to finish our exercise in government bureaucracy before the weekend, and in about two hours total, not counting a lunch break. It felt good to be done rushing around, and even better to sail a bit the next afternoon, instead of running the motor. We ran out of wind later on, and had to listen to the roar of the diesel beast overnight, but starting the next day we had plenty of breeze that lasted us all the way to Bahia de Tortugas.

That passage is still my favorite to date. Nothing especially interesting happened; no particularly memorable or happy events. The day we arrived, I could barely remember what had happened in the few days before – it just all melted together, making for a somewhat sparse journal entry for the middle day of the passage. We just sailed on and on; long blue days drifting by between brilliant starry nights. Sometimes there was more wind, sometimes less. We were long out of sight of land, or anything else for that matter.

What I did enjoy was the calmed state I found out in the sea. It was a quiet that was only partly related to the lack of engine noise. Most days (and nights) I spent simply sitting and looking at the waves, from the foredeck by day or the cockpit at night. It was mesmerizing – one long blue trance that I was happy to slip in to. Out at sea the boat seemed small, and any sense of urgency was lost in the vastness of sky and water.

Paul Checking Weather Models, Jen CookingIt wasn’t as if I became a zombie, or lacked drive or focus. We all still went about the daily activities onboard; trimming sails, adjusting course, taking notes in the ship’s log and making food every so often. Things also weren’t perfect the whole time – I would have liked the weather to have been slightly warmer and we discovered a small leak in the bow. The electric bilge pump became useless when its hose detached due to an aged coupling part, and we began a regular schedule of pumping the bilge manually. But the leak was small enough that even that became part of the routine, slipping away from the realm of things to worry about. The ocean was simply big enough to absorb all concerns, or put them in a new perspective.

Maintaining a laid-back attitude was not new to me, in general; I have always had a relatively steady disposition, and have become increasingly mellow over the years. Yet this was a new feeling, a state of peace greater than anything I had experienced before. The sea had reached out and quieted a part of me that I can only describe as my soul. Descartes determined that he existed because there was some entity to question that existence. I have often wondered if there was such a thing as a soul, but since that voyage I am rather convinced that they might exist because I felt mine becalmed by the sea.

Anchored in Bahia de TortugasAfter experiencing that, what did it matter what day it was? We had nothing to do on arrival, no agenda or schedule to follow. We would get there whenever we got there, and even that seemed to have less and less importance. With plenty of food and water, we could have sailed on comfortably for days. Except that we were interested in seeing the town and getting some rest, we could have just kept going and going. We were certainly happy to be in contact with friends and relatives again, but out at sea it felt like the rest of the world would carry on just fine without us.

When a light on the dark horizon could be a distant bright ship or a rising planet, perspectives change. Things that seem important just drift away, and the place that they occupied becomes filled with the wide expanse of ocean and sky. It is one of the best parts of cruising for me, and something that I can enjoy and look forward to on tough days. After all, there’s less that matters out there in the blue trance – not much, anyway.

25 Apr 2011

The Channel Islands – Part 3. Santa Cruz Island & The Trip Home

Posted in Sailing by Paul Wheeler. No Comments

September 24th – October 4th, 2010

Fishing by Moonlight The passage to Santa Cruz began perfectly. We had strong wind, a beautiful sunset, and a full moon lighting our way as we went. Unfortunately it wasn’t long before the wind died and we were motoring again. Motoring isn’t terrible; the hum of the motor is close enough to white noise that it doesn’t inhibit sleep, and it’s easy enough to escape by going on deck. I hope that when Jen and I are making passages in the future we’re able to take our time so that we don’t have to run the motor so much, and instead just sail more slowly and take a few extra days to reach our destination. One thing I’ve learned on this trip, however, is that it is not only slower to sail under wind power alone, but when the wind is light enough and the sea is of any size at all, the motion of the boat tends to become very uncomfortable, and it becomes difficult to even steer the boat. So in many cases we may have no choice but to motor if the wind doesn’t cooperate.

Prisoner's HarborUpon making landfall at Santa Cruz island, we passed by several prospective anchorages, finding none of them to our liking, and finally settled on Prisoner’s Harbor. Prisoner’s harbor is the easternmost anchorage where you can go ashore without a permit. There is a pier and some structures used by the Park Service. We spear fished in the morning with much success including bagging one of the elusive Kelp Bass. The fishing on Santa Cruz island was generally quite good, despite the frigid and slightly murky water. I think the fish on Catalina have learned to be a bit more wary of divers. In the afternoon Jen and I pulled to shore and went for a hike. The only hiking trail we could find was a dirt road. There were good views of the coastline and some of the more rugged terrain the island had to offer, but it would have been nice to have found a more primitive trail. We tried some bushwhacking out to a point with a nice view, but the overgrown grasses were full of burrs that made it pretty unpleasant.

Jen Hiking on Santa Cruz

The next day we motored over to Painted Cave in the hope of being able to take the dinghy in, but the surge precluded it. We found good views all the same. We doubled back under sail to Fry’s Harbor. Fry’s was a gorgeous, small anchorage tucked far back in a bight in the coast. We had to set a stern anchor to limit how far we would swing because of our proximity to the rocky shore. As usual we did some more diving and fishing. In the evening we had a delicious meal of coconut curry and enjoyed our last night on the hook.

A Natural Arch Near Painted Cave

Monday the 27th we were headed back north. We sailed on passed Point Conception in calm conditions. The oil platforms created quite a spectacle as they lit up the sky burning off excess gasses. Unfortunately it wasn’t long before the wind abandoned us again and we were force to press on under power. We abandoned our plan to stop at Morro Bay because of the large swell running and reports of breakers in the harbor entrance. We pressed on to Monterrey.

Sunset on Glassy Water On our way north I spent a lot of time thinking about what lay ahead for Jen and I. We finally had our boat, but that meant we now had over 100 small to large projects to accomplish. We had more stuff to get rid of. We still had a lot to learn before we could go cruising on our own. I had work to complete, including a trip to Seattle. Combined with my worries over Jen’s feelings about our present trip and our future these things produced in me a state of anxious excitement. It was all a bit overwhelming, but there is no better place to meditate on ones future that in the solitude of the sea.

Jellyfish at the Entrance to Monterey Our stay in Monterey was quite a relief. We were able to get a full night’s sleep, and a long, free, hot shower. It was nice to stand under the streams of steaming hot water for minutes, letting the week’s worth of salt and sweat wash down the drain seemingly taking the stress and worries with them. Feeling like new we went into town, stocked up on groceries, took care of some boat paperwork at Kinko’s, and went out for lunch.

From Monterey we did a day sail over to Santa Cruz (the town, not the island). It was a great sailing day with a moderate NW wind allowing us to reach the whole way. We spend our time practicing manual navigation; using triangulation and running fixes of visual landmarks along with dead reckoning and depth changes to bring us within 100 yards of our target, a buoy off the Santa Cruz pier. We anchored there, within a few boat lengths of the pier and within sight of Steamer Lane, the famous Santa Cruz surf spot. I characteristically wasted no time donning my wetsuit and paddling the half mile over on the longboard. The wind had died for the evening and a moderate northwest swell was running. I got a couple of quality waves, although it was hard to spot and avoid the kelp. As dusk fell the land based crowd dwindled, opening the spot up for some of my best rides. By the time I made the long paddle back to the boat I could barely see the waves anymore, nor convince my arms to move much.

The next morning Jen and I made the slightly more sane paddle over to Cowell’s. We’re were one of the first people out, so despite the small size and infrequency of the sets we had a pretty good time. The last time we were out at Cowell’s the break had been so thick with newbies that every ride was a party wave, slaloming through packs of clueless beginners drifting inside, and almost ending with a gentle collision. I always try to be good natured and have a good time in such beginner breaks – after all we all had to start somewhere, but the empty break was a welcome change. When the morning surf classes hit the water and things started to get congested we headed back to the boat.

We got underway later that morning. As Bill got us going on his own the motor suddenly died after the anchor was up. He tried to deploy the Jib to sail us out of harms way, but with scant distance between us and the pier, he gave the order to drop the anchor and disappear below. We got the anchor down and the sail furled in short order. We could have hit the pier with a rock. Everybody’s heart was thumping. Luckily Bill resolved the issue quickly and got us moving again.

We sailed in light winds for the first day and a half. On the first day out Jen and Bill saw two large humpbacks breaching fully out of the water. I was napping at the time so I can only imagine what it must have been like to see their hulking bodies erupt from the surface only to fall back again with a splash. Later that afternoon while I was on deck I called out that I had spotted what looked like a shark. There was a grey dorsal fin moving slowly through the water ahead. As we approached, we realized it wasn’t a shark at all. Instead it was the strangest looking fish we had ever seen. It was large and triangular with pronounced dorsal and anal fins but no tail at all. It’s mouth was beaklike, similar to that of a parrot fish. It rolled about on the surface ahead of us, finally submerging and gliding away as we slid passed slowly in the light wind. As it turned out it was a Pacific Sunfish, a very odd, jellyfish eating fish ranging up to XXX lbs.

On the second day out the wind freshened and by the early morning hours of the third we were under reefed sail and taking watches in pairs because it was so rough. We would be entering San Francisco bay around sunrise. We raced in doing 7-8 knots, first close hauled and then downwind under the bridge. I must have been beat, because I slept through the whole thing, a feat Jen found rather impressive considering the conditions around the gate.

A few hours later we were back in Richmond, 23 days after we left. The trip had been a success in my mind. We had learned an incredible amount about large boat sailing, boat maintenance, anchoring, mooring, etc. Sailing for such an extended period with an OCSC instructor proved to be invaluable. I could only hope I hadn’t worn out my welcome peppering him with questions every chance I got. It certainly could have been better. It could have been warmer, we could have caught more fish, we could have sailed more, we could have been able to make a second stop at Avalon and a stop at Morro Bay; but overall I had a good time, and looked forward to making the trip again in my own boat. Jen, however, may have seen things differently, but that is a story for her to tell.

The Coastline of Santa Cruz Island