Holidays in the Sea of Cortez

Holidays in the Sea of Cortez

Last night, Philippe and I rang in the new year with a group of good cruiser friends from sailing vessels Taliesin Rose, Cinderella, and Tioga (check out their blogs, too!). We toasted to the end of another wonderful year and the beginning of what we are sure will be an adventurous 2018. Philippe and I had the most incredible week in the Sea of Cortez, and while it’s great to have Wi-Fi, friends, and warm showers close by, we’re sad we won’t get to spend more time in that beautiful region this trip.

Since we couldn’t post from the islands, I kept a daily log. It’s long, so cozy on up with a cup of hot chocolate!


December 24

We raised the sails for the first time in a month today, and it was really fulfilling. We had 16 beautiful knots of wind for a couple hours. The wind died eventually, but our sail from the entrance of Puerto de La Paz to Balandra Bay was only 7 nautical miles anyway, so we didn’t have to motor far (map – note: you can click on the camera icons to see images from the trip). We anchored towards the middle of the Bay, in a spectacularly beautiful (but not super well protected) area. We jumped in for a quick snorkel next to the boat before the sun set, but some invisible jellyfish must have been lurking around us. After a few minutes, we both climbed out with a few stinging red spots.

El Hongo (the mushroom), a favorite feature of Balandra Bay, with Untangled in the background.

We had some Northerly winds, which made things particularly rolly. Both of us were feeling a bit seasick. Philippe munched on some leftovers for dinner, I stuck to ginger ale and Saladitas (the Mexican version of Saltines). We did perk up enough to open our Christmas stockings and unwrap our gifts. This year, we opted for a non-traditional gift exchange. We did some shopping for three boys (ages 8, 5, and 3) from a nearby village. In total, the local cruisers bought gifts for about 70 kids this holiday. The shopping was arranged by Club Cruceros, La Paz’s local cruiser group. The Club also maintains a small clubhouse with floor to ceiling bookshelves, so Philippe and I spent a morning browsing the options last week. We each picked 3 books to exchange as Christmas gifts. Our holiday was small and quiet, but we’re so thrilled to finally be offline for a bit and are excited for the rest of our week.


December 25

This morning we un-pickled and ran our Spectra watermaker for the first time. All went well, but it only produces 6-8 gallons an hour (we have about 130 gallons of tank capacity, so it would take over half a day of continuous use to fill the tanks). We let the watermaker run while we took the dinghy to shore to beat the crowds. Yuki got to run off some energy, and we waded in the turquoise water, hiked in the soft sand, and enjoyed the stunning scenery. Before heading back to the boat, we anchored the dinghy near some coral and did a little snorkeling.

Exploring Balandra Beach
Handsome pup at the top of the Balandra Bay hike

Since the seasickness has finally passed, we enjoyed our festive holiday meal of fondue and Christmas cookies.


December 26

Philippe and I started our day with a morning workout on the beach (abs day!). We cleaned up the boat and prepped for a day of sailing to Punto Salinas on Isla San José, which our guide book said was 33 nautical miles away. We got started a bit later than we’d hoped, and were disappointed to learn that our chart plotter actually calculated our distance at 40 nautical miles (map). Since Untangled (with her slightly fuzzy bottom and a persistent headwind) could only motor at about 6.5 knots, we were looking at a later arrival time than was ideal. We left Balandra Bay around 11 am, and were dismayed to see that, after a couple hours of sailing, the vacuum gauge on our Racor fuel filter registered a need for service. This has been an ongoing issue since our sail from Bahía de los Muertos to La Paz, when our engine died and we realized there was a tiny stream of bubbles entering the Racor filter. Philippe thought he had diagnosed and fixed the issue, but it seems like there’s more work to be done. We decided against an emergency filter change, though, and we arrived at our anchorage around 5:30pm without issue. Immediately after anchoring we were delighted to see a performance by about 20 nearby manta rays against a creamsicle sunset. The rays were each 2-3 feet long, and would propel themselves out of the water and belly flop back down.

Shoreline at Punto Salinas

After a quick walk on the beach, we settled in to read some more of our new books, have a quick dinner, and get some much-needed rest. Even on these days where we’re mostly motoring and using our autopilot, we find that the full day of boating really wears us out.


December 27

A common sailing refrain is that “cruising is just fixing things in beautiful places”. We got a taste of that this morning, when we spent some time working on this Racor issue. I’ll save the start-to-finish story for a future post, but at this point we’ve implemented a temporary fix that eliminates the symptom (bubbles in our Racor filter that prevent the whole filter from being used and lead to premature filter failure) but doesn’t really solve the overarching problem (where are the bubbles coming from and how do we stop them).

After our engine work, we got ourselves to shore to explore Punto Salinas. The point, which lies at the Western edge of Isla San José, used to serve as a salt mine. We wish we knew more of the history, but alas, we do not. All we know is that at some point, the mine was abandoned and a number of dilapidated buildings and rusting machines were left behind. Philippe and I love this kind of stuff, so we spent our morning walking among the ruins. We also found some beautiful seashells, including a spectacular starfish and numerous fish skeletons. The puffer fish skeletons are really incredible with their long quills. We admire them from a distance and keep Yuki on a leash, though, as they are very toxic to dogs and we’ve heard a quick lick from a pup Yuki’s size could be lethal.

Puffer fish on the beach
Exploring some old machinery at Punto Salinas
Old machinery with buildings in the background
Philippe’s new ride

The wind picked up in the afternoon, so we curled up in the sunshine on deck and read our new books. I’m working on Heat, which is about a journalist from the New Yorker who quits his job to become a “kitchen slave” in Mario Batali’s famous restaurant, Babbo. You can only read so much about fresh pasta before the cravings really start to set in, and Philippe, always one to indulge my silliest whims, played right along. I pulled out The Boat Galley Cookbook and found recipes for pasta and a creamy chicken, mushroom, and basil sauce. With our last three eggs, several cups of sifted flour, and a dash of good humor, we rolled out and cut our pasta. We certainly didn’t want to wait the 4-6 hours for it to dry, so we pulled out the solar food dehydrator, filled it with our strips of pasta, and hung it from the boom.

The end result, while far from perfect, certainly satisfied my craving.

handmade pasta in the solar dehydrator


December 28

After a long, cold snorkel, there’s nothing like swimming alongside the boat (spitting, shivering, peeling off fins) to find Yuki, with his paws hanging over the edge and a great big smile on his face. It can be frustrating when he adds a constraint to the trip (he’s not allowed on several of the islands, which are classified as national parks), but when he runs along the beach he has so much joy and exuberance. His happiness brings out happiness in us, and that’s worth it.

Today was one of those days where we set ourselves up with high expectations and things didn’t quite pan out. We’d planned to wake up early, take Yuki to shore for a quick run, and take Untangled over to Bahía Amortajada. The Amortajada anchorage was only 4nm away. We’d drop anchor, take a nice long dinghy ride through the mangroves and lagoon, and then pack up to take Untangled another 5nm or so to Isla San Francisco for the night.

Instead, Philippe wasn’t feeling well and hadn’t slept much. We got a late start. We got soaked with cold, salty spray on our dinghy ride to shore. We were both a little grumpy by the time 11am rolled around and we still hadn’t left for Amortajada, but then we were on our way and things were looking up. Until we got there, had a bit of a communication breakdown during anchoring, and felt the bottom of the keel bounce off of the sand. I was at the helm, and watched as the depth sounder went from 42.7 feet to 6 feet in an instant, and then just as quickly measured only 4 feet.

Without fail, if something starts to go wrong on Untangled, you can be sure that within the next 10 seconds a giant wave will come crashing through the cockpit, soaking everything in its path. It’s no matter that it had been a calm day with no waves and mild wind (you know, the type of day when you leave your book sitting open on the page you were reading), that sucker mustered up as much force as it could and barreled its way towards us. Yuki looked up at me with his sad eyes (this again?!) and dripping puppy dog face. I shook my head, shivered, spit out salt water, threw the boat into reverse, and walkied up to Philippe that we needed to abort and he should come back to the cockpit. They say that there are only two types of sailors: those who have run aground, and those who are lying. There’s no lying on Untangled, but who knew we’d be admitting to our second grounding after only a couple months of cruising! Thankfully, both times have been in soft sand, and this time was more of a quick keel bump than anything else.

Nevertheless, we wanted to inspect the bottom of the boat and ensure that everything was fine, so we decided to skip this tricky anchorage and instead head right to Isla San Francisco (map). The main anchorage at Isla San Francisco is stunning. It’s a nearly perfect semi-circle with about 300 degrees of protection from wind and waves, which makes it very popular. We found a good spot to set our anchor and checked on the engine (the Racor filter looked good!) and keel/rudder (phew – no damage!). The day had worn us both out, so we took about 30 minutes to sulk, complain, and reflect before deciding that our pity party wasn’t helping either of us. We jumped into the cold water for an afternoon snorkeling session. The snorkeling, although not the best we’ve done in Mexico, definitely cheered us up. And that’s when we came back to find our sweet pup, tail wagging, waiting expectantly in the cockpit. Not such a bad day, after all.

Isla San Francisco main anchorage


December 29

We spent our morning exploring more of Isla San Francisco. First, we took the dinghy around the northern corner to explore the small secondary anchorage. We planned for just a short walk, but I so regret not taking the camera! The cove clearly serves as a stopping point for some fishermen, and the natural caves on the mountainside had remnants of human inhabitants. A friendly puffer fish took a liking to Philippe and spent some time following him around and nipping at his toes.

After a quick stop at Untangled for breakfast, we took the dinghy into shore at the main anchorage and climbed the steep hillside on the southern edge. The views are beyond explanation – little islands dotting the vast ocean as far as the eye can see, with Untangled tucked into the shallow turquoise water of our little corner. We walked the ridgeline for a bit, spent some time chasing crabs on the rocky shoreline opposite the anchorage, crossed the crunchy, crystalized salt flat, and returned to Untangled. Thirty minutes later we were headed back out to sea in search of our next anchorage (map). We had planned on a small anchorage on Isla Espiritu Santo called Mextaño, but there were already three boats tucked into its protected waters, so we doubled back and retraced our steps for a couple nautical miles to set anchor in Ensenada el Cardonal, a bigger anchorage on Isla Partida that only had one sailboat, Hylight. We took our dinghy over to say hello and had a good laugh when we were telling them about losing our propeller during the Baja Ha-Ha and they said, “Oh, it’s you guys! We read about you in Latitude 38!”.

Hiking trail at the southern edge of the Isla San Francisco main anchorage

The anchorages just keep getting better and better. We went to shore shortly before sunset, just in time to catch a spectacular show by 35 pelicans and dozens of little white birds. It was feeding time, and watching them dive into the water was captivating. The little white birds start a free fall from maybe 30 feet in the air, hurtling their entire body into the water at top speed before coming right back out and into flight. The pelicans make a bigger splash, but they coast gracefully about 10 feet above the water before cocking their body, retracting their feet, and diving headfirst into the water. Rather than fully emerging again, the pelicans just tilt their body and wind up floating on the surface. Watching the giant flocks interact and hunt simultaneously was easily the highlight of the evening.

Sunset at theEnsenada el Cardonal anchorage
Pelican in flight


December 30

Tonight, for the first time in my life, I took a shower using only dish soap. It’s not that I was out of normal body soap. I have plenty of soap – bars of soap, bottles of body wash, small containers of multi-purpose hotel soap. It’s that I was covered in a thin, slimy film of decaying whale blubber, and the only thing that reliably removed it from my skin was the tough-acting, grease-cutting power of Dawn.

Yeah, it was as gross as it sounds.

This morning, Philippe and I had a leisurely morning at Ensenada el Cardonal anchorage. We woke up, drank some coffee, read our books, and took the dinghy to shore for a short hike. We were thrilled to see a giant sea turtle swim past, even though the angle of the sun and the depth of the water meant that we saw more of a turtle silhouette than actual turtle details. On shore, we got to watch hundreds of inch-sized fiddler crabs as they pitter pattered their way (sideways, of course) to holes for safety. The male crabs have one distinguishable large claw and one comically small claw. The hike was stunning, as it started at one end of the island and meandered its way through barren dessert and lush lagoon to the other side of the island. Aside from birds and crabs, we found a small skull and numerous pellets (likely some sort of weasel or rodent) and a few very large paw prints (maybe a coyote).

Fiddler crab defending himself against Philippe’s camera
Super cool formations in the rocks along the edges of Ensenada el Cardonal
The edge of the lagoon at Ensenada el Cardonal
Hiking at Ensenada el Cardonal
Can’t get enough of these cool rocks!

Shortly before lunch, we packed up Untangled and headed toward Bahía Falsa for our last night at anchor. We picked Bahía Falsa because of its proximity to La Paz. I had to do an hour of work before 5pm PT, which meant I needed internet. Plus, Bahía Falsa has a restaurant, and after a week at anchor a big margarita with lots of ice was sounding pretty fantastic.

On a schedule and with the wind at our nose, we motored the 20 nm to Bahía Falsa (sigh, so much motoring! Map). On the bright side, the alternator worked! It wasn’t charging the batteries yesterday, which was concerning. This is both a blessing and a curse, since we’d rather have it working, but the lack of producible problem makes troubleshooting very difficult.

We anchored in about 25 feet of water around 2:30 pm and immediately launched our dinghy (it just occurred to me that I haven’t been using our dinghy’s official name which, true to form, is Untethered) to take Yuki to shore. There are two shores, and I directed us towards the further one, since it looked empty. As we approached the shore, we played a game of “what’s that off in the distance?” A tree trunk? Some junk that washed ashore? A black tarp of some kind? We decided that it could actually be a beached whale, which we figured would be both really cool and really sad. By the time we brought the dinghy onto the beach, we were 90% sure it was a whale, but we still didn’t have a great view. “I’m surprised it doesn’t smell,” Philippe said. I put Yuki on leash and we walked toward the beast. We didn’t get very close. The odor hit us like a wall. One second it was faint and recognizable only in hindsight. The next it was putrid. It’s hard to describe what rotting whale blubber smells like, but I doubt I need to get too detailed for you to understand that it’s really bad. Overwhelmed by its pungency, it required no communication for us to both turn on our heels and head for Untethered.

Unfortunately, our fun was just beginning! As we neared untethered and peered into the water, things seemed suddenly different. Where we’d once seen just a typical Baja shoreline with some sand and rocks and small breaking waves, we now noticed an oily film and some pink, frothy muck. Philippe can do a lot of filthy boat projects with a smile, but include a pungent odor in the task and he starts gagging immediately. Don’t get me wrong, he’ll still do those projects, but sometimes it’s just easier on both of us if I take the smelly ones. Philippe dug our dinghy anchor out of the sand and tried to wipe it off in the water, but was struggling to manage. I stepped in to take over, but quickly realized it was a lost cause. It was like trying to wash a greasy frying pan in a mixture of water and olive oil. Despite having handed off the anchor, Philippe was still gagging, which was now making me gag. So off we went – slippery dinghy anchor in hand, greasy sheen up to our knees and elbows, gagging our way back to Untangled.

We have since taken our Dawn dish detergent showers, eaten dinner, and had some time to relax. Once you know the smell of rotting whale, it’s hard to not notice that it is actually everywhere, it’s just much more dilute out here in the anchorage. It also takes some time (and some coconut scented lotion) to remove the smell from fingernails and skin. Neither of us actually threw up, so that was a big plus. We used a few baby wipes to rid the anchor of grease, although I’m sure it’s still a little slippery. Tomorrow, we’ll take Yuki to the closer beach.

We’ll also pack up and head back to La Paz, where we’ll settle in at Marina de La Paz for about 2 weeks. It will be nice to be closer to town, where we can easily reach Club Cruceros activities (like coffee hour and yoga), restaurants, and shops. We’ll be welcoming Keith and Ed aboard in a little under two weeks, and the two of them will help us make the passage from La Paz to Mazatlán. We’re sad to be wrapping up our week in the Sea, but are looking forward to checking out the mainland.

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