We loved cruising in the Sea of Cortez in 2016, so when Dennis asked if we’d like to return, we accepted without any hesitation. Sailing in shorts and tee shirts is always appealing, especially in March. Add in some adventure, good company, and Mexican culture, and the decision to go made itself. A couple of significant differences meant that this trip wouldn’t be a repeat of our adventures in the Loreto area: our intinerary and the crew.
Dennis has been cruising in Mexico since 2015, with significant diversions ashore during hurricane season, first in the Sea of Cortez, and then along the west coast of the Mexican mainland.
In 2016, he found a partner to join him on these adventures. Gerri’s home is now Ultegra, and she was graciously inviting us to share it based only on Dennis’ experience with us two years ago. Wow.
Second – the itinerary. This trip wasn’t to be the pleasure cruise of 2016. Instead, Dennis and Gerri have been working their way north from their southernmost point of Zuhuatanejo to La Paz, and asked us to join them for the offshore portion from Puerto Vallarta. As the crow flies, this is 360nm (648km), all against the prevailing NW winds. With a couple of zig zags in our course, we could cut the longest leg down to 170nm – at least one night at sea, maybe two. Speaking to those cruising in Mexico, this crossing sounds pretty routine, but for Lori and I, doing this trip would be it’s a step up in terms of length at time at sea and would be an opportunity to get some more offshore experience in a small, bite sized chunk.
We arrived in Puerto Vallarta on Wednesday, March 21, made our way by taxi 25km to the small town of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, and joined Ultegra as she swung on the hook in the bay just off of the beach.
La Cruz is on the north side of Bahia de Banderas, and is wide open to the Pacific, but the brisk thermal wind held the boat into the prevailing swell making the boat motion bearable. We did our introductions, stowed our stuff, had a drink and headed in for dinner. The town itself is ridiculously cute with cobbled streets, narrow streets and good restaurants. Our meal at a small cafe on the street – literally – was a highlight.
Thursday was very busy – provisioning, clearing out of the port, and moving to a quieter anchorage 10nm closer to our destination. Lori and I love provisioning in new places – there is no easier way to get a feel for a place than to go grocery shopping with the locals. La Cruz is too small for a proper market, but a short ride into Bucerias gave us access to a huge supermarket that carried everything from tires to Tequila. The bus ride was a lot of fun too, but it was a good thing that Gerri knew what she was doing, because the buses in Bucerias don’t work quite the same as they do here.
While we shopped, Dennis cleared out of the port. In la Cruz, this involved a trip to the port captain’s office with our passports in hand. This process in not consistent throughout the country and one needs to rely on cruisers already in port to determine the procedure in each new place – we cleared into La Paz on the radio.
Friday began with a series of boat jobs including a good bottom scraping and the installation of the still broken hydraulic backstay adjuster. We weighed anchor at noon and motored out of the bay bound for Isla Isabela, a small island 70nm north.`
The first night only confirmed our previous experience with exhaustion, and as we approached Isla Isabela at 2 in the morning, I needed sleep badly. Unfortunately, the favoured anchorage – a small bight behind some pinnacles – was occupied by three cruising boats and a number of fishing lines attached to floats. As we bobbed around looking for space, I began to hope that Dennis wasn’t just stopping here because Lori and I wanted to see the island, but couldn’t find the will to say anything. We should’ve kept going but I just wanted to sleep. In the end, we found a safe spot in the less desirable southern cove and grabbed a few hours of rest.
Isla Isabela is quite astonishing in the daylight. In particular, the pinnacles on the eastern shore are very dramatic. The underwater scenery is also supposed to be very good, but unfortunately, our schedule dictated that we move on without a swim.
The next 48 hours were almost everything Lori and I could have wished for: sailing, fishing and getting into the rhythm of being at sea. Immediately upon leaving Isla Isabela, Dennis put out the fishing gear, and not long after, had a Yellowtail Jack on the line. These are prized game fish with dark flesh and a mild flavour. Box ticked.
The forecast winds were supposed to be out of the north, building up to 20kts for the days we’d be crossing. We didn’t really get these winds until we were withing sight of the Baja Peninsula on Tuesday morning. Instead, we got light, variable winds for the first two mornings, building to 10 from the NW in the afternoons. Despite these contrary winds, we managed some wonderful sailing, motoring for less than half the passage. Our strategy under sail was to point as high as possible while maintaining boat speed.
Ultegra is a racing boat at heart, and sailing her in the light and variable conditions was an enjoyable challenge. We followed some advice I’d read about passage making and focused on keeping the boat moving in the right general direction, not our rhumb line (direct course), figuring that eventually the wind would shift in our favour. Our first tack took us north towards Mazatlan, and the second across the sea. Our passage ended early on our third day with our promised 20kts from the north: a favourable shift and strengthening winds on the starboard beam, giving us 8kts of boat speed and huge smiles all around
We landed at an open anchorage not far from San Juan del Cabo called Bahia de los Frailes at 9 am. The winds remained strong, but the anchorage was very comfortable with minimal swell. The dinghy stayed deflated and stowed, but after a long swim with a challenging exit in the surf, Lori and I managed a short walk on the beach anyways. The next day was another long passage to windward, bound for a bay called Bahia de los Muertes, but Ultegra was built for this kind of work, and despite the rough conditions, performed beautifully with a couple of reefs in the main and full 135 genoa.
We spent an extra night at Bahia de los Muertes, hoping the strong northerlies would ease. The break meant that we could put the dinghy back in the water and go ashore. Finally! This is a beautiful spot with a sandy beach and a couple of beach restaurants. The highlights here were a bocci ball game, drinks in a posh resort with the crews from two other boats, and a fine meal out at the restaurant at the other end of the beach.
The winds didn’t die early enough to make our next passage easy, but we were feeling a little pressed for time and left anyways. This stretch, between the mainland and a large island – recently re-named Jacques Cousteau Island – has a reputation. The pass has currents up to 2.5 kts and the wind can howl. Fortunately for us, the high tides were in the morning, so the ebb current and northerly winds were going in the same direction. Even though they were contrary for our direction, the fact that they agreed laid the seas down a bit and made the passage smoother. As the day wore on, the wind gradually eased, and by the time we neared the northernmost point of our trip and stated to turn south into La Paz Bay, the wind had died completely.
The difference in marine traffic around La Paz was astounding. All of a sudden, we were worried about room in the anchorage. We managed to find a place in one of Dennis and Gerri’s favorite spots called Caleta Lobos, and spent a quiet last night in the wilderness before returning to civilization.
A short sail the next day put us anchored off of La Paz at about 2 in the afternoon, thus completing our transit of 430nm in 8 days.
We’d pushed hard to get to La Paz on Friday so that we could explore the city all day Saturday before flying out Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t quite what I expected. It is a cruiser’s resource center, with tradesmen, chandleries, a sail loft and access to materials. None of this is apparent from the waterfront. In addition, the downtown core is suffering from big-box-itis – as has happened in many other places (hello Nanaimo); the proliferation of big box retailers farther out of town has left many storefronts in town empty and in disrepair. We saw evidence that this is slowly changing – there has been a large investment in the seawall path (The Malecon), along with services that cater more to tourists, such as restaurants and coffeehouses. With its beautiful location, I can envision a day when the seaside is once again thriving.
Lori and I love sailing here, and this was a great trip to expand our experience. Thanks for the invite Dennis and Gerri!
Lessons we learned:
Sleeping during the day, even with the engine running, isn’t an issue. All it takes is a little sleep deprivation to get you in the mood, and then it’s lights out. As for the engine noise, well that normally irritating dull, constant throb might even help.
We enjoyed being at sea for more than a day. There was was plenty to do, and tons of wildlife to watch.
Comfortable watch keeping seats are a must. My back was killing me after sitting for most of two days, and I hand steered almost all of the passage from Los Frailes to Los Muertos – 60nm – just to be doing something while standing.
Overall, Predictwind.com was only marginally better at forecasting the weather than using a “tomorrow will be just like today” methodology. It was wrong all the way across the sea, but did accurately predict the wind going from strong to light as we neared La Paz.
Under sail, unless you are close to your destination, boat speed trumps a rhumb line course in light winds or head winds. This has been borne out repeatedly on our trips. The wind always shifts.