Chapter 3 - Underway at Last
There was not a breath of wind at 0830 on the 20th of February 2004. At least none in sight from the mountains on one hand to nearby Danzante Island. That is a common situation here and means absolutely nothing about the wind for the afternoon, which might be just as calm, but more likely will come up with a breeze from somewhere at this time of the year, most likely from the Northern quadrants. Rather than my bright sunny skies, the morning gave us a high thin hazy overcast and it was noticeably cool, but then, I was in shorts and a tee shirt.
I started the little outboard and let her run at a high idle, just nudging the boat out of the harbor and over toward the North end of Danzante. Honeymoon Cove on Isla Danzante was our first anchorage in Mexico two years ago, and I wasn't about to pass by without at least looking in, so I let the motor purr quietly and spent a lazy hour at the crossing. There were kayakers around. If your shoulders haven't given out yet a kayak would be a lovely way to travel along this coast. There are many beaches a kayak can easily haul out on that offer no protection at all for an anchored sailboat. It would usually be an early morning game though I imagine, with the frequent rough conditions in the afternoons, I at least would want to be ashore hiking rather than wrestling with the wind and wave offshore. I could see 4 boats on a beach just North of Puerto Escondido's high hill entrance guard, just finishing loading for the day and another small fleet, more ambitious, already at sea and crossing from Danzante toward the mainland further North. At Honeymoon cove an hour later I found three other cruising sailboats, including a Flicka, the nearest thing to a small boat I would see on the trip, but I was not ready to anchor yet to join them. I'd come for sailing and planned to have some yet this first day. For the time being I shut down the motor just in the middle of the little bay and let her lie there, just sitting in the calm, while I tidied the cabin, checked various arrangements and changed things around til the cockpit, cabin, rigging and all were just as I wanted. There was even a little time to wipe some more of the road grime off the boat before the breeze came in at 11:35, light and from the Southeast, but a breeze. I got her underway then with the main and the bigger jib, the "lapper" and shaped a course North past the tip of Danzante toward Isla Carmen, one of the largest islands in the Sea and quite close by across a narrow channel. Isla Carmen is about 17 miles long end to end, sort of an irregular elongate triangle with the broader and mountainous higher end at the North, directly off the town of Loreto, extending Southward in a long descending sweep of glorious rock to end in a long sand spit South and East of the North end of Isla Danzante. There are several good anchorages around the island, but also miles of steep to cliffs and unprotected beaches. Once the water warms a bit more the snorkeling is said to be wonderful. On the first voyage in these waters we had passed along the Southern end of the island but had not explored at all. This time I was determined to circumnavigate and after a bit of dithering over whether to accept the fair wind North bound for Puerto Balandra on the Northwest corner of the island or take it as a head wind and beat around the Southern tip before turning North toward Salinas Bay and Punta Perico on the Islands Eastern side I soon decided that a fair reaching breeze to carry me Northward was not to be ignored, so laid the course easily paralleling the rugged shoreline about a mile and a half offshore.
The first WHOOSH!! of a whale's breathing always catches me by surprise and this was all the better since the fellow had come up right alongside the boat, perhaps only 50 feet away. Small and shiny and black, almost a miniature of the great whales, fins, seis, and especially the fantastic blues, this could only be a minke whale. Small. . .well, these things are relative of course, he was perhaps 30 or 35 feet long, sort of hard to tell, many many times heavier and a lot faster than "Gaviota". He circled the boat completely, breathing and blowing several times, quite close by. The breeze had dropped off for a bit and no doubt he found our speed uninteresting and moved on Northward on his own business, straining lunch out of the clear water. Later in the day he, or another just like him would pass again Southbound, but a little farther away. I'd really hoped to see whales on this trip and this made a fine if "small" start. A little later on I noticed quite a commotion on the surface of the water and a black and white manta ray perhaps 3' across leapt clear out of the water, obviously part of a large and busy school. They often jump like that, frequently turning backflips in the air, but I love best to see them swimming by under the boat, flying on rippling wings really, exquisite creatures. The wind came back after a short rest and built up nicely to 8 or 10 knots. I think we must have had a half or 3/4ths of a knot of fair current too. The boat was making no great fuss on a broad reach, but the shoreline fairly flew by and the new GPS showed 5.2 to 5.7 knots steadily.
Puerto Balandra on the Northwest flank of Isla Carmen is a nearly circular bay, guarding, in some part of its considerable acreage, against almost every wind that blows hereabouts. Late in the afternoon we found ourselves beating into the anchorage against our friendly Southeast breeze, turned into a headwind by the funneling effect of the hills around the bay and our determination to anchor off the "lenticular" cliff with its sandy beach at the Southern end of the bay. Just before entering I was startled again by the blowing of a whale nearby, but this was no minke. An enormous long dark grey back arched out of the water in a stately roll, perhaps a quarter mile away. He blew several times as we worked up into the bay between the rocky entrance points and past 7 other boats already at anchor. In fact, another boat was clearly visible motoring up against the last of the breeze from the Northeast. Balandra is a large bay and there was lots of room for more, even with all the other boats anchored up in the Northern bight of the bay. Finally, with the breeze dying off I hove her to perhaps 150 feet from the beach, stepped up to the bow and tripped the little Bruce anchor overboard. With 30 feet of chain out the anchor found sand bottom and we gradually settled back on the rode til she lay quietly. We were at anchor in Mexico again after so long. The sails came down in a rush. I bundled the jib away in its green stuff sack on the fore deck, put the blue coat on the main, snapped the fat yellow bungee cord onto the boom end to hold it off to one side of the cockpit (makes getting in and out of the cabin much nicer) and got the anchor light out of its hiding hole in the locker in the galley. Secured for the night, I turned to the faithful white inflatable canoe bobbing lightly astern. The paddle came out from under the starboard side deck and went together, I clambered over the side and aboard the canoe and we went whaling. No harpoon mind you (in an INFLATABLE canoe??), actually, not even a camera. . .we just paddled boldly out to find the big fellow who had been standing offshore to welcome us to the harbor. He'd moved off a little ways and was now blowing and breaching perhaps half a mile off shore and we never got very close. The funny white sausage boat really isn't much of a paddling vessel anyway, but it was good exercise and I was thrilled to see his broad back arching again and again out of the sea, listening to the sharp exhalation and seeing the silvery spout of his breath in the early evening. Then it was back to the boat for the last dinner of fresh meat for this trip, a bit of writing in the journal, and finally to bed in a flat mirror calm. During the night a light N'ly breeze came up and brought a little swell and chop into my Southern end of the bay, enough to wake me up with the slapping and rolling, but not enough to cause alarm. The first night at anchor I'm often restless anyway, so was content to lie in my bunk after first being sure we weren't dragging onto the little beach, which now amounted to a lee shore only a hundred feet or so away. . .in a very gentle sort of way of course.
Our first morning out, now the 21st of February, dawned flat calm hazy and cloudy but comfortable in the cockpit in my cruising clothes. The sea was a pewter platter as far as I could see and a whale was spouting a mile or so offshore, perhaps the same big fellow I'd seen the night before. By the time the breakfast mess was put away and the anchor on board again there was just a bit of breeze to work with, from the Northwest this time and we began tacking out of the harbor and up toward the Western tip of Cholla Island. Cholla lies, flat and featureless except for its navigation light, just off the Northwest corner of Isla Carmen. In fact, there's reported to be a shoal joining the two that only dinghies can pass over and there is a very long shallow reef extending on offshore beyond the above water part of the island. It was slow sailing up wind, though perhaps with a bit of fair current, and I brought the boat quite close to the reef before admitting I'd cut it too fine and would have to tack away to the West one more time. Finally we rounded the point, island and reef all clear and filled away across the Northern shoreline of the island. At times the sky was positively drab as the clouds thickened a bit, but then they'd thin and the sun, nearly burning through, made the whole sky a pearl overhead.
There's another point called "Punta Lobos" on Carmen, "Sealion Point" in English. There are many points, rocks and islets in the Sea named "Lobos" and usually you'll find sea lions singing in loud if dubious harmony all around them. Nearing this particular Punta Lobos I noted in the log that there were only pelicans, no lobos at all. . .but was forced to retract the entry once we rounded the point. They simply preferred the Eastern tidal shelf that day and their chorus accompanied us for at least a mile on down the shoreline. The wind came and went and we made most of our mileage that day in sudden short bursts of energy when we'd move along at 4 or 5 knots for fifteen minutes or half an hour at a time. Mostly it was a drifter, barely keeping steerage on the boat all day. At 4:30 in the afternoon having reached but not really rounded Punta Perico, the Easternmost corner of Isla Carmen and the basis of the sheltered anchorage we planned on using for the night, I decided it was time to find the anchorage and get on with supper. The motor fired right up and brought us on round the corner to where the small sand beach waited as advertised in the guide book. Once the hook was well set and all secured for the evening a pleasant breeze returned from the North that would of course have finished the day's work for us without a problem. Oh sigh. By 7:15 the sun was gone, the sky clearing and filling completely with brilliant stars. By 8:00 the little bit of a moon had set as well and the stars had the night to themselves. What incredible skies this place has. Tonight the sea was echoing the sky as well, flashing with phosphorescence even without my dipping a hand overside. I propped my chin on the cockpit rail and stared deep into the black water, flashing everywhere with pinpoints of light and now and then bursting out in a trail of cold fire when a small fish swam by under us. It was a living black opal to float on. Still, sleep came, at least for a while.
The anchorage under Punta Perico is a Winter anchorage, protected superbly
from any swell or wind from the North, whence come most of the Winter's
storms. In Summer, when Southeast weather might be expected, there's an
alternative anchorage on the other side of the point. I'd passed it by.
This night a small wind came up from the South of Southwest and drove
a surprisingly nasty chop right into the bay. Gaviota rolled as she never
has in my knowing of her, a violent bobbing roll, accompanied by occasional
hard splashes of a wave against the bow. Once again the sheltering beach
of night fall had become a lee shore while I slept. I spent more time
perched in the hatchway, checking the anchor and watching for any sign
of dragging. It was far from a storm, just an irritation from the wrong
side. Finally I slid back into the port quarterberth I call my own and
dared her to toss me out of it. Off and on I slept til the gray overcast
dawn finally brought dull light to the world.
In fact, that night it rained and blew quite a bit, but the Potter's cabin is a fine place to sleep on a night like that and morning came in with just enough breeze to get us out of the harbor and out onto the bay before it fell quite light. Actually, this was our first day of sun and wind on the trip, though the night's rain clouds hung on around the peaks just to the West most of the morning, making glorious scenery in the rugged rocks. This part of the coast is almost like sailing with one wall of the Grand Canyon just off to one side and the tatters of cloud mixed with the towering rocks made a dramatic skyscape.
When the wind did come back, half an hour later, it was bright and perky and straight out of the West, coming down over the mountains straight from the Pacific, perhaps 80 miles away. By the time we were halfway down the length of Danzante I was ready for the first reef, but we were jammed a little too tight up against the island to want to heave to and tie it in, so we flew a "fisherman's reef" that is, just luffed the main a bit to keep the boat on her feet and scooted quickly the length of the island. As soon as it looked good and clear of the reef at the South end of the island I tacked the boat over and hove her to to reef down, already thinking in terms of both reefs at once and maybe a change to the small jib. As soon as the boat shed her way and began that relaxed tussle between tiller and jib that holds her steady while I work forward, the un-tended canoe astern flipped over in the wind and spat out her inflatable seat. Dang. She's not worth much without it and it was being driven straight down into the rocks and reefs at the end of the island. Not a good outlook. I was really pretty busy managing the boat and not liking exactly where I'd decided to do all this work, Gaviota was making quite a bit of way back toward the reef herself, even hove to and was mighty lively, with me working up on the foredeck. I quickly got the main double reefed and then down on deck and pulled the large jib down off the stay. The little jib is quick to hank on, it's so short on the hoist there are not many clips to snap! Then I took time to look the situation over. The same scene in rain and cloud would have been terrifying, but with the bright sunlight showing the colors of deep water and the exact extent of the reef and rocks, I could see that there might be time for just one pass to pick up the straying canoe seat before it went ashore in an impossible spot. It wasn't a time to fool with seamanship. I started the motor with the sails all in heaps where they lay, the reefed main dropped in a pile on the cabin top and the jib with one lashing round the pulpit to keep it aboard. No doubt we were a splendid sight. The short shaft motor did NOT like the chop and even leaning way aft I didn't add enough weight to keep the prop buried all the time, but the boat swung round and ran off under good control. We made a perfect approach just to leeward of the seat and I touched it with fingertips with my chin tangled in the back stay and couldn't hold on. We drove on past with me commenting loudly on the skill and planning of the bumbling captain and crew. There really was room for one more pass. We did a 180 between the rocks and the chuckling seat, certain of his escape now, lined up more thoughtfully, took the stay and placed it safely to one side and made a determined grab, got the thing and pitched it rudely down in the basement. The nearest rock was still 100 feet away and we were going the right way to pull clear. I let the motor carry her on another minute or two then shut her down before she could blow up from running in air, jumped forward, freed the jib and hoisted away. We were well under way and sailing nicely clear in less than a minute. . .nothing hung up. Actually, that's one of my standard rules. . .always take the seat out of the canoe before starting for the day. I just forgot this morning. Life is a school, where the lessons are repeated until clearly understood. . .sigh. Shortly we were well clear and the double reefed main was carrying the boat along about as fast as she'll go on a beam reach.
The final approach to Agua Verde was much as I'd remembered. I'd kept the boat working as far up into the wind as she'd go with the odd rig and we'd saved up perhaps a mile in hand upwind of Roca Solitaria, the "whale's tooth" rock that sits out in front of the bay, sharp pointed and painted entirely white by eons of sea birds roosting on it. It must be the finest sign post for any harbor in these parts, visible from miles away coming down from the North and perfectly marking the center of the entrance. I had not wanted to take any chance of blowing on past and was absolutely tickled with the boat's performance and position as we closed the last mile or so. Coming closer to the beach it seemed the wind was falling off a bit and the GPS only indicated 2.7 knots. We would have to maneuver inside the bay to come to the anchorage, in fact, to choose between the two anchorages that make up the harbor, so once again I gave her back the double reefed main and we fairly flew across the chop into the bay. I suppose I was showing off my boat. There was one cruiser anchored in the Southern bight and five or six in the Northern. We came storming up between the mountains in the gusts heeling well over and making tremendous speed for what we are. In the tight quarters between the bluffs and reefs on each side we tacked over and back again constantly as the gusts shifted and headed us or we came too close to something hard and sharp. Both bights looked secure in the Westerly that was blowing, but the Southern one would be a death trap if it came to blow out of the North, which seemed a reasonable possibility. I knew the trail into the village from the Northern anchorage and felt it was almost perfectly secure in any wind. That settled the matter, even given the crowd that was already anchored inside. There was still lots of room for us. It wouldn't have been prudent though to have gone storming in there short tacking among all those anchored boats. We hove to just at the mouth of the bight, dropped the sails and loosely gasketed them as we blew off down wind. . .got the motor going and went in to anchor in the farthest corner of the bay up by the pangas on the beach. The anchor found a good hold on the second set and we were home.
When things were all put away, covers on sails, anchor light rigged and all the loose bits down below put back where they belonged, I went ashore for a short hike up the ridge line above the anchorage, looking back along the coast we'd scooted past during the day, my first time ashore in several days and my feet were getting itchy. I'd make up for it here. On our first trip through this country two years ago I was very inclined to linger here in Agua Verde but felt pressed to continue on to pick up a crew in La Paz. I'd had it in mind to do better this trip.