North Half of Baja California
November 12 - 29, 2015
Clearing into Mexico - Ensenada
The cruising life is quite variable. Passage mode is entirely disparate from being alone at a remote anchorage, and different again from cruiser socializing life. At Ensenada we were in city mode and once again were cramming in as many tasks as possible into our few days at the dock. These included:
Doing all of these things with limited language skills in a foreign country adds a level or two of challenge and interest to what otherwise might be considered dull tasks. We enjoy the sights of a new place as we get our errands completed. Cruise ships visit Ensenada so there are many businesses catering to tourists, with venders all trying to get us into their stores. In addition to the Mexican art/crafts and so on, one of the more common businesses was pharmaceuticals. One store had a sign, "KEEP CALM AND TAKE VIAGARA". We kept calm and bought Mexican candy instead, an interesting collection of candied sweet potato, fudge, tamarinds in sugar or spice, and coconut balls. These treats kept up our energy while we tramped with a mini-wheelbarrow cart through the back streets, searching for a gas station that sold diesel, and the propane bottle filling station.
At Ensenada the process for checking into the country is streamlined by Mexican bureaucracy standards but still took about two hours, requiring us to visit 4 different agencies located in the same building, with a side trip for more photocopies of our passports (the first ones were hard to read on account of the copy-protection). The next day we had to go back in order to check out with the Port Captain. Our marina had given us much-appreciated written instructions in english. Possibly the most important step was, "wait patiently for your paperwork", which Bjarne needed a reminder of when he started grumbling under his breath. Another day in Ensenada would have been nice, however the weather was such that we needed to leave now or stay another three nights. One can only take so much of city mode, so adios Ensenada.
Our plan had been to head for San Quintin, about 110 miles away. We never did make it there. Perhaps that is all for the best since a friendly local sailor in Ensenada told us to bypass it because of bandidos. Somehow our weather on passage that night was not what we expected. The light winds died sooner than we'd hoped and early in the evening we started seeing lightning in the distance, which went on for most of the night. Where did that come from?! Although at times we could see actual bolts, it never really got too close. We had no way of telling where it was going to go, so although it was kind of pretty, it was also disconcerting and influenced some decisions about which way to head. Around midight we realized we were working very hard in the fluky winds for little distance covered. Forget that! We hove-to for a couple of hours. In essence, we gave up trying to get anywhere and relaxed until the wind improved. You can see by the track on the GPS that progress was poor - while hove-to we completed the bow tie we'd begun earlier in the evening. The miniscule overnight progress made it unlikely we would reach our original destination: strong winds hitting 30 knots were on their way so we pulled into the closer Bahia Colnett, a large open anchorage with tall cliffs blocking some of the prevailing winds.
We had a restful afternoon, catching up on lost sleep, watched a pretty sunset, and then around 22h30 the promised winds kicked in with a short-lived on-slaught of rain. Strong, gusty winds lasted throughout all the next day and into the night. The anchor held very well, a source of comfort to be sure, but the winds certainly stirred up the seas. We were bounced around so much that working on anything needing hand-eye coordination was difficult. We each felt a bit sea sick and mostly sat in the cockpit trying to read. Our neighbouring boat, Hoptoad (with Mark), was disappearing well up to the boom, and sometimes more, in the large swells rolling around the point.
Underway again in calmer weather, we admired Hoptoad's pretty spinnaker, and marvelled at the background that looked like a water colour painting. After 8 hours of motoring and sailing we reached the south side of Isla San Martin, but it was not much more restful than Colnett. We ended up anchoring over a very rocky bottom. Throughout the night we were kept awake by loud scraping sounds of chain abrading on the boulders, wondering how much of the galvanizing would be left in the morning and how badly we'd be tangled in the rocks.
Despite a rough night, the shore excursion was great. The small lagoon was bordered on the south by a long rock wall, well-decorated with pelicans and guano. Incoming swell travelled along the wall toward the entrance, allowing us to predict its arrival and safely negotiate the entrance. Once inside, it was a flat oasis, except for the dozens of heads staring at us from the water. Many quickly popped back under the surface with a splash, conveying disapproval of the interlopers. Those seals lounging on the beach barely spared us a glance; we went ashore well away from them on an area claimed by the seagulls. We picked our way through low brush toward the fishing camp (very minimally occupied at that time), on the lookout for the “rough paths” and the lava tubes mentioned in our guide book (Charlie's Charts). It was challenging making our way through the thick vegetation, much of it prickly, but we did scout out some blue trail-tape markers that led us to the promised tubes. On the floor of the large cave-like tube, one could see the ripples of the cooled lava. The tube narrowed and tunnelled toward the top of the extinct volcano, going further than we were willing to.
On the way back a large (inch and half diameter) cactus burr latched itself onto Barb's calf with three very spiny hooks. Bjarne had to give it a good yank, but seemed to know the technique to avoid transferring it onto himself. Childhood in the desert of Ashcroft, B.C. prepared him for this moment. (Bjarne also stepped carefully in his barefeet + sandals and avoided being tagged). Bruising around the three small punctures spread into one larger bruise the next day, making us wonder if some poison transferred from the barbs to the Barb. Smaller burrs also latched onto Barb's boots and socks – pliers were needed to get some of those spines out.
Upon departure, one of those night-time worries came to pass - we could not pull up the anchor with our windlass! With scuba gear, Bjarne descended for a look and was able to unwind the chain from the several boulders and crevices it had jammed in. What normally takes 5 or 10 minutes (weighing the anchor), took about an hour and a half; additionally, all the scuba gear (and Bjarne) had to be rinsed off and restowed (well, we didn't stow Bjarne). It was hardly a relaxed start to our 195 mile passage, but at least Bjarne received a shower (and got to see some pretty underwater life including some kind of orange squirrel fish).
The subsequent journey to Bahia de Tortuga (Turtle Bay) took just under two days in light following winds. Although the swell created the usual frustrating slatting of sails and uncomfortable boat motion, the weather was mild with clear skies. The half moon provided a friendly light for part of the night and once it set the sky came alive with brilliant stars and meteors. A humpback let us see some spouts and its great big tail as it sounded, and there were a few dolphins. We suspect we missed additional wildlife while distracted by our collapsing and whacking sails.
Turtle Bay – November 20-29
The large, well-protected, Turtle Bay is a popular stopover for boats and most days at least one or two cruising boats arrived or departed. Pangas regularly zipped in and out, and a couple of large fishing trawlers also used this as a home base. These boats were surprisingly obstrusive – we frequently heard loud radio communications and generators, smelled diesel fumes, and were blinded by their bright lights at night. Despite this, we remained a few days longer than initially planned; it was pleasant to have some down-time in a fairly flat anchorage and we occupied ourselves quite easily with boat tasks, shore excursions, swimming, Internet access, a day sail, and socializing.
Whales can be seen near the entrance to the bay. On our day sail to empty the holding tank and make fresh water we watched a humpback whale breaching. So very wonderful.
Taking advantage of the fact that most of the other cruisers were from the USA, we joined them for their Thanksgiving potluck. Maria, the warm-hearted proprietor of a small restaurant (where we could access Internet) graciously allowed the use of her place. Nine different boats were represented, providing us all with lots of good food and interesting folks to chat with. Maria joined us, noting she had had no idea what to expect but was very touched to have been a part of the celebration.
Going ashore, especially the first time, was a bit of a trial as some local entrepreneurs insisted on offering us services that we didn't want. It was difficult to dissuade them but after a few trips ashore we were better at avoiding them or being clear about what we needed or didn't need. The town itself was very dry and dusty, with many things appearing to be in disrepair. It did not really appeal to us.
We were surprised one day upon returning to the boat to see Yare (who had been in the anchorage when we went ashore) returning from seaward with Hoptoad in tow. Mark's transmission had seized up. As an aside, this inspired us to recheck our transmission oil. Bjarne helped Mark to remove the transmission by diving under the boat to take the prop shaft zinc off. Another project which unexpectedly ended up needing the scuba gear was the installation of the swim ladder brackets – sadly even with dive gear our cordless power drill was not retrieved due to the murky water and mushy bottom. We weren't the only ones doing recovery work: a runabout sank early one morning and we had the entertainment of watching as it was being raised and dragged onto the beach over the next few days.
A few other tasks that got done include installing cockpit lights, cleaning one of the winches (which had just started to make a funny noise), and some progress on the electric bilge pump (parts are needed when we get to La Paz).
We tried a few new local foods. The most fun has been the chicharrones de rueda, which start out as small hard wheels that look like a type of pasta. It took the poor store clerk some effort to explain how to cook these due to our poor Spanish. When put into hot oil the wheels puff up to several times their size to make a crispy, fatty snack - not bad with some salt added. We aren't really sure what they are made of, which is perhaps a little concerning, but they were well appreciated by others at our happy hour potluck on Hoku Pa'a. As a bonus, they are inexpensive and don't take up much storage space before cooking.
The supplies from home are gradually being consumed, including the last of the Captain Crunch. Fortunately, in San Diego we found Captain Crunch Donuts with Sprinkles to replace it – it might be even sweeter than the regular stuff. Yay!
The anchorage started accumulating a small build up of south-bound vessels as we all waited for hurricane Sandra to pass down by the tip of Baja California. This allowed us to get to know some of the other cruisers better - part of that socializing mentioned earlier. When the weather window opened, four boats left the same day (Hoku Pa'a, Konami, Anjuli, and Yare). It was interesting to have their company on the passage south. Seeing a tiny masthead light in the distance and knowing who it is during the dark, windy night was even a bit comforting.