Around Dec. 18th we started looking seriously for a weather window to cross to Mazatlán. Winds in La Paz have been abnormally high with barely a break in the action. It’s been cold there as well - in the 60’s! I know…It’s just downright intolerable that I had to break out my jeans and sweatshirt.
When I talk about a “weather window” that means we need favorable winds and seas for a certain length of time. In this case, we need a minimum of 3, preferably 4 days of benign winds. Part of that window includes time for letting the seas calm down from the previous blow, plus 2 full days of travel, and some slop time in case of a delay or the weather pattern moves quicker than predicted. Since we left San Carlos we’ve rarely seen a window that long. It seems impossible that we will get so lucky.
It just so happens that a slight “window” was our Christmas gift. Wind maps from SailFlow.com show the big norther dying down on Tuesday the 22nd. It should be a good passage all the way through Friday, Christmas Day. But the blustery weather ramps right back up again on Saturday. Uggh. Gotta get in on Friday for sure.
On Tuesday afternoon Dec. 22nd, we began our trip. First and only stop: Caleta Lobos. Think of this anchorage as a highway rest stop, only 10 miles/2 hrs out of La Paz. Our reasoning was simple: get out of the marina. It will be easier raising anchor in the dark than maneuvering out of a marina and up the narrow La Paz channel at night. We can meet our buddy boat from Costa Baja, Jeff and Breezy on “Starfire”, at the anchorage. Getting together to plan the next day’s crossing was imperative. Plus, we could easily coordinate our departure and mentally prepare for the passage.
We arrived at our “rest stop” excited to finally be leaving port, headed for parts unknown. It was a beautiful day: blue sky, light winds, the anchorage was lovely and serene. All was well with the world. Our buddy boat Starfire wandered in a ½ hour later and we met on our boat to strategize. Later, while eating dinner in the cockpit, we enjoyed a peaceful, moonlit evening at anchor. The perfect beginning to a perfect cruise. Then it started…
Around midnight, the wind picked up. Night winds in La Paz are specifically called Coromuels. They are unpredictable timing-wise, but usually emanate from the south or southwest. Unique to the La Paz area, they are generated by cooler winds from the Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula funneling through the mountain gap to the warm waters of La Paz. Evening Coromuels can last for a few hours or all night, causing uncomfortable wind waves until they cease.
Well, this Coromuel was the gift that keeps on giving. The wind began from the west, instigating moderate west moving wind waves, a direction for which our anchorage was wide open. On top of that, after 4 hours of this, the wind then switched to the south, which means we now pointed south, with westerly waves rolling right into our side. All…Damn… Night.
Sleep was almost impossible as the boat rocked side to side as it sat beam on the waves. Bouncing up and down from the south winds, rolling side to side from the remnant west waves, Indigo was a washing machine and we were the helpless load of clothes. I literally dreamt my bed was a trampoline. Repeatedly, I woke up from a fitful half-sleep swearing my body actually took flight off the v-berth after bouncing so hard. My only consolation prize was that I miraculously did not get seasick from all that ocean motion.
The alarm rang at 4am. Uggh. Is it really time to get up already? Soooo tired. But even we “retired” people sometimes have a schedule to keep. Despite my fatigue, I held my crankiness in check and made coffee and cereal while Brian prepped the boat for departure. The freakish midnight winds and waves had not dissipated. At all. At our 5am launch time, the moon was just setting. Indigo and Starfire: rockin’ and rollin’ and raisin’ anchor in the pitch black together… this was beginning to be a crappy crossing.
230 miles and 2 days
From Caleta Lobos, we headed southeast to Mazatlán. No more rest stops. Motoring or sailing an average of 5kts, this 230 mile passage should take approximately 46 hours.
I started out at the helm, steering anxiously surrounded by darkness, oscillating awkwardly side to side. Indigo uncomfortably rode beam-on to the wind waves for over an hour. But as we rounded the corner into the San Lorenzo channel, the sun rose, our angle to the waves eased and the motion wasn’t as bad. The farther away we traveled from La Paz, the better our wind and waves. We shot across the top of the Cerralvo Channel to the north tip of Cerralvo Island, sailing with 12-17 kt winds on aft quarter (in other words, a really nice sail). Past the island with 200 miles to go, we were finally out in the Sea of Cortez. Our winds lightened considerably with favorable sea conditions…just as Sail Flow had predicted. Ahhhh. I relaxed.
This will be our 7th “passage”, to us meaning one or more full nights at sea. But it will be the farthest we’ve gone offshore. On the Baja Ha Ha rally, we only were ever 40 or 50 miles from land at any given point. Crossing the southernmost and widest part of the Sea of Cortez, we will be exactly 100 miles from terra firma center-sea. We are happy to be buddy-boating with our friends on Starfire. It’s a little more fun to be in VHF communication as well as within visual sight distance with another boat on such a long passage. Gives you a warm fuzzy knowing someone else is out there.
No one but us and Mr. Moon
And there was literally nobody else out there for 200 miles…no lights, no other sailboats or fishing boats, no dolphin escort. Once, at night, we passed a tanker by about 2 miles and another large freighter out much farther during the day. We briefly glimpsed a whale catching a breather about a ½ mile to our stern. Other than that, we were alone with the sea and the stars…and the MOON!
Aside from our Christmas present of a wonderful weather window, our other gift was a gorgeous full moon coinciding with said window. On Christmas Eve (our second day of the passage), the blindingly-bright full moon rose before the sun set and stayed with us until after the sun gloriously rose again on Christmas morning as we pulled into Mazatlán. We had an entire night of exquisite moonlight to guide our way...every minute; now THAT’S the way to sail. What synchronistic timing. A 100% full moon on Christmas Day is a rare celestial event in and of itself, last occurring 38 years ago.
Pretty Perfect Passage
Despite our rough start, we could not have asked for a better passage. We alternately motored and sailed depending on wind strength. We slept well; we ate well; the wind waves were low most of the way. Thankfully, it was not a Cranky Crossing like last time. Christmas Eve Day we happily sailed to the Christmas sounds of Mannheim Steamroller, Johnny Mathis, The Muppets Christmas (my personal fave) and various old school icons like Burl Ives and Perry Como. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!
As Christmas Eve evening began, our perfect light winds increased. The now 12-15kts normally would have been good sailing conditions as we were flying. But we needed to arrive at Mazatlán near dawn. So we reefed and double reefed and still flew at 4 kts towards our goal despite our best efforts. At this rate we’ll get there at 1am! I hate when that happens. When you really need to get somewhere, you don’t get enough wind; when you just want to slow down, you get too much!
After a while, the wind eased and we ‘snailed’ our way towards land under reefed main and no jib, poking along at 2.5kts… on purpose. We arrived 10 miles out from harbor at 4am Christmas morning. Still dark, we needed to wait until sunrise to head into port. So we bobbed about in the lumpy remnant wind waves for 2-1/2 hours, the current pushing us slowly in the general direction of the port at about 1 kt an hour. I could have crawled faster. As soon as the sun peeked out, we began our final motor to the marina.
Timing is Everything
The lumpy wait was worth it. We were so glad to have a well-timed entrance to Mazatlán marina harbor at exactly high tide. 3 issues: dredging, shoaling and tidal flow. The marina harbor entrance is super narrow (shockingly so). It shoals quickly and therefore needs constant dredging. So timing a port entrance at high tide in the morning is important. Mid-tide is reportedly only 7ft deep according to the marina. Arriving inside the channel at 8am, we saw 18ft. But this was a very high tide, caused by the full moon. One cruiser told us they hit sand at low tide the day prior - 4ft! Yikes. He luckily was able to back up but needed to dangerously skim the dredge, passing by its long hose with a mere foot to spare.
That’s another problem, the dredge. We’ve heard it currently runs from 10am to 2pm and then again from 4-5pm or thereabouts. Running dredge = no entry = bobbing outside for hours ‘til it stops. Problem is, when it stops, it’s now low tide time… or it’s dark. Just can’t win. Current advice from multiple sources: stay far to the left/north side of the channel, hugging the dredge, to avoid shallow water in the opening, whatever time you arrive.
Complicating matters, we’ve heard rumors of a 4kt current running as the tide goes out. Currents can drastically make docking difficult pushing the boat around. Not fun. Later on in the morning I could see flotsam floating down the channel towards the sea at a rapid pace, verifying there is quite a current running. Not to mention all the tourist boat activity in these cramped quarters once the hotel guests wake up. So, all around, coming in at high tide sure seems like a solid bet for the best possible conditions and we were pleased with our good timing.
We made it!
We even survived a bit of harried docking at Marina El Cid. Performing a squat and shallow S maneuver in the VERY narrow fairway to get into our slip, we nearly clipped the anchor of one boat. But, the important thing is… we made it and were thrilled just to have not hit anything. (Not sure how we’re going to get back out again, but we won’t dwell on that subject.) We checked into the marina then made a bee-line to the hotel restaurant for much needed coffee and waffles for $10, just steps from our boat. Oh joy! Methinks we’ll eat here… like… every day.
After exploring the tropical hotel/marina grounds, we enjoyed a restful afternoon in the arms of a warm sparkling pool and even hotter hot-tub. Oh yeah, I think I’m going to like this place. No infinity pool like Costa Baja, but El Cid has TWO pools (with waterfalls and Playboy mansion like grotto under the falls…without the Playboy bunnies) and a huge hot tub AND a swim-up bar. Along with fellow buddy-boaters Jeff and Breezy, we finished the day by savoring in our successful crossing with a celebratory Christmas dinner. We made it to Mazatlán! Woohoo!
First item on our agenda: Star Wars!