Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Week on Isla Espíritu Santo

Mexican “Island Life”: Journey Up Isla Espíritu Santo
An on-going journal of our week out at the Islands.

Quick Note: I did update our schedule page with a calendar and notes for those interested. We will be back states side at the beginning of April and start working in Juneau in May.

A Little Geography to Start You Off…

Caleta Partida (View from our hike)
Our boat has been in La Paz for the past month, on the eastern side of Baja, within Bahía de La Paz. Isla Espíritu Santo lies about 15 miles north of La Paz. It’s comprised of two islands, although a skinny, sandy shoal connects them: Espíritu Santo and Partida. The islands are frequented by many Sea of Cortez cruisers.

Some Unexpected Visitors…
When cruising down the Pacific coast, all that filled our heads was the though of reach Cabo San Lucas. If we reached Cabo, we were footloose and fancy-free. Sea of Cortez was cruiser country. Great sailing, beautiful turquoise anchorages, small Mexican cantinas… right? What we didn’t anticipate (or look into, for that matter) was the amount of North wind the Sea experiences after Dec. 1st. These strong north winds are affectionately called “El Norte,” and can set in for several days at a time, making any passage north, virtually impossible. These north winds force most cruisers south to Puerto Vallarta and beyond. The La Paz marinas are full of sailboats, just enjoying their winter while waiting out the wind.
In one of the many pristine anchorages.

Our trip across to Isla Espíritu Santo was beautiful, the perfect amount of wind. We actually sailed right into our first anchorage until the wind died and we lay suddenly still in the clear calm water. We put away the sails very casually, turned on the motor and found ourselves a nice spot to anchor.

The first night, we fell asleep in a perfectly calm boat. Around midnight, we woke to a bow bashing into large waves: the wind whistling above us. Where were these large wind waves coming from? We were bouncing up and down in the v-berth, when we realized we weren’t experiencing an El Norte, but rather the much talked about south and southwesterly Coromuel Winds that churn up as night in the spring and fall. The whole entire Bay of La Paz had time to build before it hit our anchorage. Clif and I took turns going outside and securing anything that moved or crashed about. We checked our anchor holding constantly until around 4am, when the wind died off and the waves abated. We hoped that the Coromuels wouldn’t be a normal occurrence during our island visit.

Stuck on the Boat…

It is rare that we ever get stuck in a non-inhabited anchorage because of weather. In fact, I can’t remember a when we have been truly stuck. The majority of time we are waiting out bad weather in a port, nestled into a nice comfortable slip, with the ease of coming and going on and off the boat as we please. We had such fabulous weather in Alaska and BC, that we didn’t even run into “weather window” problems until we reached Campbell River, on the inside of Vancouver Island. Sea of Cortez, similar to Southeast Alaska and Coastal BC, has a wide variety of anchorages to explore with few villages or amenities.

Our first day in Bahia San Gabriel, carrying the Walker Bay ashore.
Our second night on the island, to avoid the Coromuels that left us sleepless that first night, we moved north to a smaller cove, less exposed to the south. We anchored in our own private Ensenada de Gallo, just around sunset... just in time to feel the north wind begin to blow. And blow it did. This El Norte was not going to be a smooth ride. Throughout the entire time the wind gusted from 0-40 knots about once a minute. Some of the gusts were smaller than others, but every gust would catch our boat side on, because we were swinging back and forth so heavily on our anchor. The wind funneled through canyons on the island and directed all its force onto our little home. Night two: no sleep. I played Sudoku for three hours in the dead middle of the night, checking our GPS occasionally to make sure we weren’t dragging anchor. There was no sleep for me.

In the morning, we convinced ourselves that the wind had calmed down enough to find a new anchorage, somewhere a little bit more protected. We made for a spot less than 4 nautical miles north, but the strong wind and waves didn’t even allow us around the first exposed point. We were making less than one knot motoring. We had to turn around and go back to our spot. We anchored up in the same spot, hoping for a little relief, and hunkered down.

Being stuck on a boat at anchor is like being weathered out in a small winter cabin. You embrace the small cozy space; find joy in relaxing activities, and nap. Clif and I have passed our time with (and gotten especially good at) Sudoku, Solitaire, cleaning house, reading extensively, practicing ukulele, cooking, washing dishes and planning our next year.

Our third day out on the island was perfect. Early in the morning we plowed our way upwind to a small caleta (cove) that promised shelter from the north winds. Our guidebook warned us that there was only room for one or two boats, so we were shocked to find NO boats anchored in the perfect getaway. Another boat joined us less than an hour later. The wind lay down in the afternoon and we took the opportunity to row ashore and hike up the arroyo (brook or stream… or in most cases like ours, a dry stream bed) of a long canyon. We heard that there was a spectacular view waiting at the top of this hike, although “hike” can be a very relative term in cruising guidebooks. We were bouldering, hoping from rock to rock, using our bodies like we haven’t been for a long time. The view was indeed spectacular, but the heat and the wind at the top of the canyon drove us back down quickly, in time for a cold swim before the sun set.

El Mezteno, view from the beach (Sound Discovery is that white dot on the horizon)

A Word About Desert Hiking…

El Mezteno.
The desert is a prickly place.

While I grew up in Juneau, hiking over streams and fallen mossy logs, I have had experience hiking in hot, dry places. However, none of my Arizona hikes compare to the bush-whacking that ensues on some of these so-called “trails.” Long pants become a must, even with the heat; otherwise, you sacrifice the skin on your ankles and calves. Shoes that are close-toed and strong are a necessity, something I don’t have on the boat. My barefoot gel-soled shoes took three steps off of the beach and were covered in spinney stickers that I could feel protruding through both the bottom and top of my shoe. On our first full day-hike out of Bahía San Garbiel, I had to carry a rock with me to scrap the painfully strong stickers off the sides and soles of my shoes.

Most “trails” listed in the book are dried up creek beds that wind into the mountains. While the scenery is phenomenal, no trail is ever maintained, so we spend time searching for the path of least resistance. The amount of water we’ve consumed during and after these hikes is astonishing… especially when your drinking water is so, well… regulated.

But after all that gripes, a couple cactus battled wounds and a little blood is worth getting to really experience the wilderness. We got to see wild goats climbing the hills yesterday, spooked from our presence, and more picture perfect vistas to count.
View from the top of our canyon/arroyo hike
More Thoughts on Cruising…

As a cruiser I have come to feel once in a while a lack of purpose. I don’t know if it’s just being around a lot of retired Americans or not knowing what is going on elsewhere in the world, but I know, personally, I need more of a purpose than just hanging out. So many people call themselves cruisers, yet they’re living on their boat in a La Paz marina for 8 months out of a year: cozied up to the dock, plugged in with TVs and Internet. Is that really cruising?

When we were coming down the coast, we had such a strong purpose and destination. I always felt like we were on an adventure, making it day by day, slowly further south. Now that we’re in the Sea of Cortez, I feel antsy. I can relax into the retired lifestyle for maybe a day or two, until I get bored stiff and want to see a new place. Because that’s what cruising is about, right? The problem is, constantly moving around at a fast rate is exhausting… exciting, but exhausting. I need a purpose to be on this boat, or I feel as lazy as a sea cucumber. I’ve been excited recently at the planning of making our way north, not only because I get to see Juneau again in April, but because we get to actually start moving again: having a destination and places to see along the way.

Is it because I’m a little too young for the cruising lifestyle? I don’t think so. I think it’s my instinctive nature of being busy. I have been a busy girl and a busy young woman. Maybe it’s a good change for me not to be busy for a while? Clif was certainly not born with the same “keep busy” gene. However, I do think my busy schedule at home keeps my energy up.

If the boat is our mode of travel, we have to find a nice balance between both: exploring and covering new ground, and spending time relaxing: really getting to know a place.

Back in the Blue Sea of Cortez…
I kept this shell... a good find on the playa of San Gabriel.

My absolute favorite part about the Sea of Cortez is the remarkably clear turquoise water. Every anchorage we can watch our anchor drop down, dig into the white sand, and pull the anchor chain perfectly straight. It’s a luxury most Southeast Alaskan boaters couldn’t even imagine. The Isla Espíritu Santo anchorages give new meaning to a Southwestern color scheme. The turquoise water against the pink-orange canyon walls, with bright accents of green cacti and agave plants, make me dream of canvas and oil paints. Oil paints might be the only medium to give this vibrant landscape justice… and maybe Photoshop. Alas, oil paints are not the medium for boat life, but Photoshop most definitely is.

Swimming seems to cure my nautical version of “cabin fever” instantly. I can stick my head in the still water, hearing only the faint sound of popping coral and a panga (fiberglass skiff) passing in the distance. I watch Clif gracefully kick across the sandy bottom beneath me… oblivious of the wind whipping above the water’s surface. This El Norte seems to be sustaining itself very well, more so than usual. Or maybe it’s just felt much more out here than deep in the La Paz Bay.

We did dishes tonight (our fourth day out) while listening to the north wind pick up again: each gust growing stronger and stronger. We shut all of our windows to avoid the sound of rattling outside and inside. Will it ever let up?

We were invited over for snacks on our neighbor’s boat, and asked them (a more experienced cruising couple) about the constant wind. They said, “Out here [Sea of Cortez], when the El Nortes aren’t blowing in, expect a southern wind at night… hands down, year round.” Sounds like it might be a rough ride in March, working our way up to Santa Rosalia and then over to Guaymas.

Bathing in the Sea

We spent our sixth night out in Ensenada Grande, which offers three small anchorages. We picked the smallest of the three, closet to the north to protect us from the availing winds. The wind calmed down in the morning as we sailed north, but picked up heavily once we made it up this far, so we turned in and anchored, hoping for a calm morning to approach Los Islotes, the farthest north islets with a large sea lion rookery.

The water in our anchorage is shallower, therefore, slightly warmer. Clif immediately jumped in after we anchored. However, what was more important to me than swimming was bathing! I’ve learned that taking a quick dunk off the boat does not do much for actually getting my skin clean. A good scrubbing is in order. I situated myself on the bow of the boat with our special seawater soap and new backpackers’ bucket to dip over the side. With the wind blowing in my face, I bravely scrubbed all over my body vigorously with a wet washcloth: a full body exfoliation. I then dosed myself repeatedly, becoming cold enough that my swim would actually feel pleasantly warm… and it worked! All clean. Can’t say that much for my hair. It’s a lost cause as sea. I can brush it every day, but it still will have layered of caked salt, making it even thicker than usual.

New Friends (Marine Life)
Clif meets a new friend!

Sea lion pup playfully slips by my camera.
Our last two days on the island held some pretty magical moments… as far as snorkeling goes. The wind calmed down (finally) which meant we were able to get in the water swimming quite a bit more. We motored the boat up to Los Islotes, two small islets on the north shore of Isla Partida. Los Islotes is famous for its large sea lion rookery, and vast amount of sea lion pups! During the wintertime, many tourists flock to these rocks to snorkel with the sea lion pups, who are friendly and curious. Clif and I swam around with a swarm of four or five pups for over 20 minutes, mimicking their bubble blowing, spins and somersaults under water. The sea lions come straight up to your snorkel mask and stare at you with their wide eyes, looking for a playmate! They also are very well known for nibbling at your fins, trying to attract attention. What an experience! The GoPro photos we took don’t do it justice, but the videos are pretty awesome. I will work on compiling some video footage and making it small and easily accessible.
Showing off for the GoPro.

A great group of pups hang out with Clif and I for a while...
This morning, before leaving our anchorage at Cardoncito on Isla Partida, we swam out to a reef close by. The reef was full of fish, but poor visibility (we had to dive down to really be able to observe the marine life). We didn’t expect to see anything spectacular, and because of the murky visibility, I didn’t bring the GoPro camera. We poked our heads up out of the water to chat, when we started to hear load slaps echoing across the sea surface. This slapping sound belongs to the manta rays, jumping high out of the water and belly flopping hard as they descend. We could see the manta rays very close, thinking it was possibly a cluster of two or three. We put our masks back on and began to ever so slowly fin forward, towards where the rays were jumping, when suddenly, through the murky, plankton filled water, a school of manta rays appeared underneath us. There was not just a couple… there were at least a hundred or more black 2-3 feet long manta rays effortlessly gliding only feet below us. They were layered in a formation that wasn’t phased by our presence. I held Clif’s leg, keeping completely motionless and quiet, watching the creatures pass, so crisp and clear… and SO MANY! They kept coming! How big was this school of rays? Finally, the last of them receded off into the green water beyond. It was incredible. Such a high. I have never seen anything so spectacular in my short snorkeling/diving career. I was so glad that I opted to put on the cold wetsuit this morning and dive in with Clif. I was kicking myself for not having the camera, but honestly, clicking away on the GoPro would have taken away from the mystic moment. It was only less than a minute. The sea is full of such wonders and we have only begun to explore.

A New Home

We motored back to La Paz this afternoon and managed to snag a coveted spot in Marina de La Paz, a harbor right in the heart of downtown La Paz. There is a large cruisers community, morning coffee and cookies at the cruisers club, DVDs to rent and many wonderful Mexican restaurants within easy walking distance. The grocery store is close (what a novelty) and there are excellent showers… and I mean good. You can only imagine how it feels to wash my thick hair in a high-pressure shower after a week at sea. It was divine.

So, now that my hair is washed, I’ve got some limonada in my belly (still going no alcohol for a while), and I’ve updated the blog, I’m ready for an extremely restful nights sleep.

Sunset tonight at Marina de La Paz, the new home for our boat... at least for the next 30 days.

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