Travels from July 20 to July 31, 2000:
Nanjo benefited from the tidal flow that had been flooding for 5 hours. Aside from the boat speed of sailing at 5 to 6 knots, the tidal current made the net speed as high as 8 knots. North of Santa Rosalia savvy navigators try to time their passages to be compatible with the direction of the tides. This knowledge is presented in cruising guides and reinforced by experienced cruisers met in The Sea. In addition to affecting boat speed, at points of land the currents can present tidal rips, standing waves and other navigational challenges.
As Nanjo approached Punta San Gabriel, the turning point before reaching San Francisquito in the so-called Midriff Islands area, Nancy and I had been alerted by notes and comments that a "potato patch" condition would exist off the point. Another skipper in Santa Rosalia had advised us that the area was not shallow and since we were used to the similar conditions outside the Golden Gate we could pass through this section if we deemed it reasonable. Otherwise the cautious navigator would swing several miles outside the area.
While we had made that day's passage with the flood, the tide had almost achieved its high point and would start ebbing soon. Then Nanjo would be "fighting" to make way against the current. I approached the area of standing waves and finally announced to Nancy that I was going to enter the turbulent area and test our maneuverability. Standing waves are waves that aren't created by wind and do not move before the wind. Rather they appear to grow straight up from flat water before sinking right back down. They indicate conflicting currents below the surface.
Nanjo's course was affected only to a minor degree as she entered the chop, so I proceeded to cut the corner. The deeper we got into the rip, the current was felt more but it merely required a little more rudder to maintain the course I desired. The standing waves got a little bigger and an easterly swell began to show, coming from astern. Since we had cleared the point and the coastline beyond was visible, we began looking for the entrance to the cove where we wanted to anchor. This effort soon had us concentrating on our destination more than our passage. Of course I automatically checked depth and I looked to the sides occasionally to check the growing swell.
Nancy, sitting on the port side of the cockpit, looked up from the cruising guide to give me some advice on how to locate Cala Mujeres, our destination, when she stopped in mid-sentence, looking at me with her mouth open. Before I knew it, a wave hit me from behind, pushing me against the helm. The cockpit was filled with water (luckily the cockpit window into the aft cabin had been shut a few hours before), the cruising guides were soaked, as was anything else in the cockpit. I looked behind me and off to each side. The same conditions that created the standing waves had apparently caused a swell to stop and pile up right behind Nanjo before breaking and dumping onto us. Nancy said she saw it grow and grow until she was looking up over my head. She estimated it grew to 9' or so. So we finally have been "pooped", the cockpit flooded by a wave off the stern.
After that experience, the chop began reducing and the swells diminished. Nancy pealed the pages apart in the soaked cruising guides in an attempt to salvage them. Luckily, none stuck together. These are our main source of navigational advice. We had found that our chart book provides only large-scale charts north of Santa Rosalia. Charlie's Charts has GPS waypoints for many points, hazards and anchorages. Williams provides excellent photographic displays of selected sections of the area where anchorages are located. Both give written information on passages and warnings. These are our primary aids. They had to be preserved!
We located our cove and anchored. Cala Mujeres was chosen over San Francisquito because the guides caution that the lagoon is recommended for boats with 5' or less draft, therefore, too shallow for most sailboats. That leaves deep anchorages in the main bay, providing limited shelter. [Later, Martha Rose gave us information after they stayed in the lagoon for 10 days or so - The depths are far greater than the guides suggest. They sounded and mapped up to 11' in the center, 8' at the entrance, 6' at some places. This was done at a low tide at a time we were having minus tides and an 11' range between high and low.] Mujeres is shallow as well. We finally anchored in 16' near high tide. We watched carefully as the afternoon passed and the ebb was working toward a +1.9' low. Actually, I hadn't recognized that there was such a major change in the tidal range between Santa Rosalia (4') and here (11'). As we rested in the beautiful, private cove after diving to inspect the anchor set, I dug out a third cruising guide that I had purchased at a church thrift store in Oakhurst when we visited Grandma White (Nancy's Mom) last Spring. After reading Dix Brow's, Sea of Cortez Guide (published in 1982 and out of print) more closely, having previously judged it to be outdated, now I recognized it gave invaluable information that the other, more current guides did not - tidal range. This information now gave us concern about being too shallow, although in 16'! However, if we moved out into deeper waters, we would loose the shelter from the northeast. So we remained, watching the depth and our position. I dove again and swam to the perimeter of our swing with 90' of chain out, looking for rocks or other submerged problems. After finding none, we waited for 9:30pm and low tide. The minus tide coming the next morning, another five feet lower, would be at 0900. The depths only dropped to 12' by bedtime, so we curled up in the cockpit for the evening, slowly falling asleep with lightning dancing far to the east.
We were awoken at 0200 by the wind generator. Our first experience of a Chubasco was upon us! A strong wind was blowing from the southeast and lightning was jumping around in the clouds or spearing the ground. The wind built to 35 knots and Nanjo was straining on the anchor chain. Nancy suddenly screamed, "The shower!" The high wind had the solar shower flying horizontally from the gallows crossbar where we had left it after our shower that evening. It was just below the tips of wind generator's blades, a spinning blur, and Nancy could imagine it connecting with the blades, the shower disintegrating and the blades breaking - not a pretty picture! I leapt to the stern railing and reached out to catch the wildly gyrating plastic bag. We were lucky and I caught it before our worst fears were realized. Then I went forward to check the anchor snubber (a 10' long ¾" length of rope which is hooked to the anchor chain and tied to a cleat on the bow. The snubber acts as a shock absorber when waves or winds push Nanjo away), I found it had worked past the chaff guard (a piece of 1" hose surrounding the snubber rope where it passes around the cleat and over the rub-rail on the side of Nanjo). However, with the strain it was under, I could not do anything about it.
A Chubasco is a unique form of weather in Mexican waters. It is sometimes confused as being the Mexican word for hurricane. While this is not accurate, Chubascos have similar characteristics. Convection storms over mainland Mexico occasionally move west across The Sea. These storms have a lot of moisture and are extremely unstable low-pressure storms or squalls. The instability at ground/water level has rotational winds. Most of the Chubascos we have experienced rotate no more than 90 degrees, but we have had a few that have gone 360. Fortunately, Chubascos usually last a few hours only.
As the low clouds, the source of the closest lightning, slowly moved past the cove entrance, the winds shifted around to the northeast and the wind dropped to 30 knots. Until then, the water in the cove was choppy but we had no swells. Now we had a small swell. We watched the depth drop below 9' as Nanjo shifted to follow the wind's direction. The swell made it vary between 8.2 and 8.8 feet. There was about 3 feet under the keel and it was high tide!
The lightning was quite a spectacle - some strikes were like worms wiggling through and between clouds, others danced for seconds to the ground. Only occasionally did we hear thunder, a mystery because we had always thought each strike would yield a clap or grumble. At the same time, phosphorescence would wink in the water around us like a thousand stars. The small white caps beat up in the cove by the wind had phosphorescent caps. Although all this was very entertaining, I broke away and went below and disconnected the radio antenna and power wires, in case the mast took a hit. We were close to land, so Nanjo's mast was not the only high grounding point in the area. We were entertained for an hour before the wind dropped into the lower 20s. Nanjo shortened its radius as the weight of the chain drew her closer to Max, nestled in the sandy bottom. I took advantage of the opportunity and pulled in the snubber until the chaff guard was in the proper position around the cleat.
Finally we settled back on our beds and slowly drifted off, although the wind kept blowing in the lower 20s for several hours.
The morning brought a quiet sea, a blue sky and a tide line that looked 8' high. Still the gauge indicated 9.5' and we were within an hour of the lowest tide we would see. Nanjo had been pulled back into the center of the cove, the deepest part, by the shifting wind and the weight of the chain. In the shallow water we could see the chain making a giant "S" on the sand.
The next two days saw us finish the dinghy cover, a form-fitting work of art.
Each of the next two nights presented a Chubasco. The first occurred an hour before sunrise with a peak wind speed of 25 knots. The second was just before bed with similar winds. The main difference was that they brought a little rain, short in duration but substantial. The first morning we had mud deposits below the backstay where the rain had washed the accumulated dirt off the wound cables holding up the mast. This was reported to be the first rain in this area in 7 years.
In addition, the morning after the first storm we had a visit from two local fishermen. They inquired if we wanted some fish. All we could see in their panga was a huge manta ray. Although we had not caught anything on the two-day trip up from Santa Rosalia, I said, "No, gracias." They then asked if we had any candy, I called down to Nancy to see if she had any she might want to part with. Soon she handed me a small zip-lock with her special, leftover Easter candy from Mary's Easter Sunday party with the family last Spring. It had some sunburst jellybeans and a few malted milk eggs, plus a few Nestle crunch eggs. I handed it to the man at the outboard, El Jefe, the boss. Instantly his eyes became wide with pleasure. Reaching into the bag, he plucked a piece out and popped it into his mouth. He pointed to his crewman and said something. Out of the net came a small marlin. He asked if we wanted it cleaned and the head removed. Not only did they do that, but they also cut the edible part into three sections, just big enough to fit into our largest zip-lock bags. They left happy, we were happy . . . and overloaded with fish. Nancy filleted most before freezing it, leaving a "side" of fish for me to bar-b-q that night.
We waited one day too long and left our cove on a day without wind as we headed for the closest of the Midriff Islands. A windless day was becoming the exception rather than the predicted rule. During the summer, The Sea is typically stifling because of the lack of wind but not so far for us. Our trend was winds beginning in the late morning and building during the afternoon, dropping as the sun was setting. It made for a great sailing schedule.
We had slipped out of Santa Rosalia with a light wind. A week later, some serious Chubascos around Santa Rosalia turned our favorite anchorage at Los Arcos, Isla San Marcos, into a nightmare. We heard the skipper of one boat say he experienced 60 knots of wind there.
We had spent a week in Santa Rosalia, although we would have left after one night if we didn't have to wait for my blood-test results to be returned from Ensenada. The weather was the hottest yet, driving any desire to explore the history of this unique town from our thoughts. The harbor is too dirty to jump into the water to cool off. Each evening a parade of panga squid fishermen began with boats departing at high speed until well after dark. There must be 200-300 pangas based there. Then at 0200, they all returned with up to 1000# of squid in each boat. Their loads were taken to the processing plant at the north end of the harbor. There the catch is pre-processed with heat and the smell was overwhelming. The first night it took our breaths away. After a few nights we slept through the screaming outboard motors and rank odors only due to our exhaustion.
Santa Rosalia is a very friendly town. It used to be a French copper mining town. Most of the buildings are made from wood, as preferred by the French. The church, however, is made from sheet metal and was designed by Eiffel who had his name immortalized by the tower he built in Paris.
The town has good provisioning options close to the dinghy dock and small marina which usually has no vacancies for weeks at a time. The official paperwork is slightly different than other ports - First Migracion, then API and finally Port Captain. The offices are very conveniently located: Migracion is two blocks south of the marina, API is two blocks further south, just before the Port Captain. They require new crew lists for Salida, not accepting "puertos intermedios". At API, on checking in, you must pay port fees in advance (like in La Paz) before the Port Capt. accepts your Entrada. We paid for three days but stayed for a week.
The wind we departed Santa Rosalia with stayed with us almost to Trinidad, the anchorage north of Tres Virgines. There we stayed overnight as do about half of the northbound boats. This area is known for strong westerlies as you pass Tres Virgines and in the night at Trinidad. We had neither. The following morning we made the second half of the transit to Bahia San Francisquito with a light following breeze. We ran wing-and-wing passing up two optional anchorages we could have stayed at if we didn't have wind to aid us.
For those of you who will be cruising these grounds in the future, based on our weather and what we have heard from those who have more experience, plan to be north of Santa Rosalia by August. Angel, the marina manager, says the worst heat begins in Santa Rosalia then. Chubascos begin to make their way across from the mainland in August. Santa Rosalia has already (by August 17) experienced two storms with 60+ knots, while the greater Bay of LA has seen winds usually half that strength.
The best part of storms is their winds are cooling. Upon leaving Santa Rosalia, we have rarely seen temperatures over 95. It is the humidity that makes the difference. But for now, we end our days with a beautiful sunset before hesitantly peering toward the dark eastern skies for any signs of Chubascos - distant blooms of light from lightening. Yeah, there's one. OK, check the anchor, tie down everything and set the anchor-drag alarm. We'll get a little less sleep tonight!
Crew of Nanjo