You may recall that last year we had a particularly “sporty” sail across the Sea of Cortez. We were trying to go north up to the island of Tiburon, but were turned back by strong NW winds and large seas. Instead of going back to San Carlos or Guaymas, where we would have had safe harbour, we decided to cross over to Santa Rosalia on the Baja side instead. Despite thinking we were far enough north to have a good wind angle, we ended up sailing a close reach with large, beam-to seas regularly spraying through the cockpit for the entire ride. Gary was seasick, I was fine (I believe in seasick med, he is skeptical). 16 hours and many frayed nerves later, we were safely moored to the dock. There was a lesson in there somewhere.
This year we vowed to “do things right”. But, of course, we wanted to sail (both of us, not just Gary this time). We looked at the weather and there was a moderate norther starting last Thursday. We looked at the wind direction and reasoned that if we sailed from Guaymas down to the Loreto area we should have a great downwind, broad reach sail. In theory, the seas would be behind, or at least on the back quarter. We discussed our plan with other sailors at the Guyamas Fonatur marina, and the ones that actually sail their boats agreed all indicators pointed to a good, fast downwind run.
With that in mind, we left on Thursday afternoon. Shortly before hauling anchor, the wind cranked up to 17 knots from the west. Hmmm, we had so sail due west to get out of the harbour, but that should be OK, right? We’d bet to turn to the S/SW direction once we cleared the point. We continued on. Once outside the harbour buoys, we hoisted our sails and were off. The seas were moderate (still protected by the point, remember) and we had a screaming sail in a SE direction. Not exactly the direction we wanted to go, but no matter. We’d correct that once we got outside the protection of the point. Well, we passed the point and our pleasant sail turned into a survival exercise! The waves quickly built to 4-5 feet (with about a 4 second period – yikes!) and the boat was on its side more than it was upright. We set our course, expecting to be on a broad reach, and discovered we’d need to sail a close reach to even get close to making our destination of San Juanico. We looked at each other and sail convinced ourselves that surely it would get better once we were out of the influence of the Guaymas mountains and land effects. We carried on. About an hour into it (and 7 nm from the point!!) we had to admit that the wind was coming from the NW, not W as we’d originally thought. And yes, our sail was going to have to be a close reach to make San Juanico. For the next 18 hours. By this point half the things on the starboard side of the boat had found their way onto the floor. And the rest were leering at us just waiting to make the leap. The boat was rocketing along under double reefed main and genoa at 7-8 knots and being knocked down every 5-6 seconds. Aaaagggghhhhh!!!!!!!! We started to have the “OK, this sucks, what are our options?” conversation. Option 1, keep going. Not attractive. Option 2, turn back to Guaymas. Also not attractive as Gary doesn’t believe in going backwards. Option 3, turn downwind to a comfortable point of sail and end up in Topolobombo or Mazatlan 36-48 hours later. Sort of attractive, but neither of us really wanted to go to Mazatlan, and we would arrive in Topolombombo in the dark. Very unattractive.
We chose option 2 and turned back towards Guaymas. We were only 7nm from the point, so it would be an hours sail back in. We’d arrive in the anchorage we’d chosen (Bahia Catalina, just off the point) at dusk. Perfect, right? Well, turns out that we had to sail an even hotter angle (almost close hauled) to make it back to the anchorage. Now everything on the port side of the boat decided to join the ‘suicide party’. Total carnage down below. The seas were incredible. At one point we sailed through a wave, not over it, and the entire cockpit enclose was treated to a lovely salt water shower . All good fun. After an hour of clinging on for dear life, we passed the point and the waves settled out to something manageable. Remarkably, considering what we’d just gone through, the engine started (no air lock – yippee!) and we motored into the anchorage with an entourage of pelicans, as the sun set. That part was perfect.
After a restless night in the anchorage (Gary got up to pee at midnight and discovered the boat ahead of us had dragged into us – I could literally climb into the guys cockpit from our bow pulpit), we regrouped, looked at the weather in the morning and decided our mistake was trying to leave too late in the day. The weather patterns around Guaymas are a bit strange, in that the wind tends to blow west in the afternoon, where everywhere else it blows NW. Our thought was that we had been stuck in the westerly afternoon winds on our way out of the Guaymas area, and if we’d gone ‘just a little further’, we would have found the good wind and had a good sail. It seemed reasonable. Surely we hadn’t got this whole wind angle thing wrong, right??
Gary estimated we’d need to get about 20 nm offshore before we’d be free of the Guaymas westerlies. We left early, at 10:30 am, and headed out again. The seas were still the same, but this time the winds were moderate. We motored in a NW (well, more W) direction for as far as we could in the beam-to seas, and started to sail about an hour in. It certainly wasn’t pleasant. Again, we were on a close reach and the seas were incredibly uncomfortable. At least I’d secured things a bit better below and so the carnage was kept to a minimum! About an hour in, Gary announced he wasn’t feeling well. I handed him the barf bucket that lives in the cockpit while we are in passage, and he immediately found in it useful. Oh dear. This was going to be a looonnnggggg trip. We discussed turning around again, but I guess he can only do that once a season. Again, we hoped it would get better. It didn’t.
We raged forward at between 7-8 knots under double-reefed main and genoa. The boat was doing fine…the crew, not so much. Gary went down below to sleep while I took the first watch. Otto (our autopilot) seemed to be doing fine, but the boat was on it’s ear every 10 seconds. I’m pretty sure the keel was exposed to the waves on a fairly regular basis. But, we persevered. By dusk, the winds had increased from 16 knots, to a consistent 21 knots and our boat speed had increased to a consistent 8-9 knots. It felt like we were on an out of control sleigh ride. Happily, by dusk the wind angle had changed slightly to a beam reach. The seas were slightly behind the beam, but they now had a good slap to them. We started to regularly take water through the cockpit. Oh joy. When I came on watch at 9pm, the world was dark, dark, dark. The moon hadn’t risen yet, but you could see the bioluminescence-filled waves cresting as they charged for Sea Rover’s starboard beam. The spray of water through the cockpit would come next. Joy. The motion was so violent that dinner consisted of picking the meat out of the sandwiches we were supposed to have eaten for lunch (for me at least; Gary didn’t eat the entire trip). There was a brilliant moonrise at about 10pm, which highlighted the craziness of the boat. We were up, then down, then up, then down, then up, then wet, then up, then down… you get the picture. I literally held on for dear life and encouraged the boat to hang in there. Again, she was fine (in her element, really) – it was the crew who were suffering!
Finally, after 17 hours of ‘fun ride’ hell, we arrived at Isla Coronado just as the wind died and the seas turned to behind us (ahhhhh, blessed relief). This was a good thing, as of course the engine had an airlock. At 0315, Gary was down below with the shop vac trying to convince water to run through the engine cooling system. The benign conditions (finally!) made it easy, and we got the hook down shortly after.
I’m sure there is a lesson in here somewhere. Like, don’t cross the Sea of Cortez when the wind is forecast to be greater than 15 knots. And, there is a reason most experienced Sea of Cortez Cruisers choose to cross when there is a lull between weather systems and the winds are calm. I’d like to think we’ve learned that lesson after 2 Sea of Cortez beatings, but knowing our track record, I wouldn’t put money on it.
Sorry, not pictures for this on. We didn’t have enough hands to hold onto the boat and the camera at the same time.