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Exploring in the Sea of Cortez

February 2019:

After our lovely trip to see friends and do some inland exploring, we were well and truly ready to get off the dock and out into the Sea of Cortez. We'd been delayed because of heavy winds and we'd also had some canvas work done that took longer than expected but finally we were ready to head out for a few weeks of cruising.

New canvas sunshades being fitted for the cockpit

I know most people have never heard of the Sea of Cortez (or simply “The Sea” as we cruisers affectionately call it). For some reason in the United States it's called the Gulf of California (not that the name makes a difference – still no one knows where it is) and we really hadn't known much about it either when we set off on our journey. But as we traveled further south and researched the places we were visiting, we heard many wonderful stories of the incredible sea life and beautiful landscapes of the area, so we changed our initial plans to head straight down the coast just so we wouldn't miss it.

The body of water separating the Mexican mainland from the Baja California peninsula, for millennia it's provided sustenance for the indigenous people of it's shores, and to this day fishing is the primary industry and food for the locals. The Sea has also supported other commercial interests - pearling, mining and salt have contributed to the livelihood of many over the years.

In addition to subsistence, eminent marine biologist Jacques Cousteau (does anyone else remember watching his documentaries as a kid? 6:30pm on Channel 9 every Sunday night in Australia!) proclaimed The Sea “the world's aquarium” because of it's abundance and diversity of marine life. We were excited to head out to discover this for ourselves! (Incidentally, along the beautiful La Paz Malecon there's a statue of Jacques among the many others celebrating the ocean and it's importance to the locals.)

Our destination was Ensenada Grande, a small cove on Isla Partida about a 5 hour journey north from La Paz. Glorious sunny skies, light winds and calm seas, a beautiful day to be on the water but we noticed our wind and speed indicators weren't working at all. Argh it's always something! We were focused on checking the transducer, resetting instruments and scrutinizing electrical connections when we realized the dinghy had somehow come adrift from the mothership and was floating away from us back into the channel.

All hell broke loose as we turned back, dodging the anchor chain of the massive oil tanker we'd stayed well clear of on our way out but the dinghy was floating towards. Cap'n Underpants threw the engine into neutral and was able to avoid running over the floating line (oh the terror if it got caught in the propeller), manoeuvered expertly alongside the dinghy while dodging buoys, speeding fishing boats and aforementioned anchor chain and deftly grabbed the line, while hanging from the transom step, with a boat hook.

Retrieved and Re-tied!

Dinghy secured properly this time, we resumed our course to our anchorage for the night and continued the wind/speed troubleshooting but were distracted by Mobula Rays jumping all around us! They're so amazing to watch as they flip and flop back into the water! There are a few theories about why they do this – showing off to a potential mate? Just for fun? Or a food collection strategy? We're not sure but we could watch them all day and never get tired of their antics!

We arrived to Ensenada Grande a little after 4pm, ready to explore a little then settle in for the night. The water was incredibly clear and blue, we anchored in 28 feet of water and had no problem seeing the bottom. Puffer fish have the cutest faces and are so curious, we could see them checking out the anchor chain and they hung around for a while, patrolling back and forth along it.

A quick trip in the dinghy took us into the tiny cove at the head of the anchorage. There's a statue of the Virgene de Guadelupe high up in the side of the cliff, it must have been quite the feat to get it up there. We see this quite often in many places we go to, statues or paintings of La Virgene in unexpected places, high on hills or on the side of a cliff or tucked in an eroded niche just above the waterline of a quiet cove. We sometimes see fresh flowers strung around them too, evidence of their importance to the folk who leave her gifts in return for her protection and answered prayers.

We returned to the boat after exploring the beach and the dunes, just in time for sunset. Spectacular as always, flat calm water, the cliffs around us lit up with the setting sun. What a perfect way to end the day. We expected a quiet night on the hook, that wonderful gentle rocking that sends us into a deep restorative sleep, the familiar “plink plink” of wavelets lapping on the hull. Such bliss. And it was, until about midnight.

We were woken by the wind whistling through the rigging and the boat bouncing on the swell coming in from the west. This wasn't entirely unexpected, in fact it happens often as the cold air of the Pacific side of the peninsular funnels over the mountains and meets the warmer air of The Sea. The anchorage is exposed to the west, so there's absolutely no protection to be had in the cove.

After checking the anchor and resetting the anchor alarm to a more conservative range, Daz promptly went back to sleep. Not I however, I stayed up, obsessively watching the wind speed indicator and shining the torch outside to make sure we weren't drifting onto the beach. Daz hopped up a few times over the next few hours but there really wasn't anything to be done but wait it out. And so we did.

As the sun rose the wind abated but the swells were still coming into the anchorage and while not large by any means, they were very close together and thus we were bouncing around a lot. It made for interesting breakfast preparation!

Weighing anchor, we headed out into the bay into very choppy seas and headed north towards our next planned anchorage, Isla San Francisco. We guessed the wind was about 15 knots as our wind instruments still weren't working, which ordinarily would be a lovely sail but with the chop wasn't very nice at all. Additionally, with all the bouncing around we noticed our dinghy painter (the line that attaches the dinghy to the boat as we tow it behind us. Why is it called a painter? Great question! It's from the Middle English “peyntour” meaning a line to tow a boat. This is probably derived from the Old French “penteur” a nautical term for a rope running from a masthead. There's your 'learning something new everyday' item completed for today – you're welcome!) had chafed badly and was about to break. So we pulled it in, Daz tied another line to it which would get us to the next anchorage where we could replace it completely.

The swell calmed down a bit as we entered the channel between Isla San Francisco and the peninsula, but as we came to the anchorage it was plain we wouldn't be staying there that night – it was completely empty (this very rarely happens, it's a hugely popular location for tourists) and waves were crashing on the beach, so we'd need to continue on a few miles to San Evaristo, a small bay on the peninsula side of the channel with a bit more protection than the islands. A huge pod of dolphins caught up with us midway across the channel, surrounding us entirely. I can tell you this never gets old. It's one of those amazing experiences that you can't quite believe is happening as they dive in and out of the water ahead of the bow, or sometimes they just slowly swim alongside for a while. Magical.

San Evaristo is a small isolated fishing village of about 100 people. Fishing pangas were lined up on the beach, there's a small restaurant at one end and a desalination plant at the other. A tiny church looks down over the bay from a hill behind the village and there's a small shop also. The only road out is about 30 miles of gravel, impassable when it rains and terrifying on a good day going through the passes, so we heard. With a few other boats already in the bay, we found a good place to anchor, dropped the hook and settled in as we planned to be here for a few days. We decided to try the restaurant on the beach for dinner, we'd heard great things about it. We'd also been told there was no set opening hours, just watch for the front door off the porch to be opened, then you know they're ready for business!

And so we sat on deck with a cocktail waiting patiently for the magical moment the door would open. No food critic at a Michelin starred restaurant could possibly be more excited than we were to try the fish tacos – we'd heard they were amazing and we fully intended to make a thorough investigation to find out if the description was accurate!

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