Velella's Drift

An account of Velella's voyage from Seattle to New York via Panama, 2009-2011

Archive for March, 2011

There’s This One Place

This particular spot is not a place many people get to visit. More often than not, the weather makes it an unsuitable anchorage, and when the weather does behave, there’s room for only one boat, maybe two. This week, we happened to be in the right place at the right time.

A V-shaped notch opens at a sharp slant to the Northeast on the very northern edge of Isla Carmen, about midway up the Sea of Cortez. As we approached the corner of the bay, I crossed my fingers that we’d have the place to ourselves. We rounded the point and saw with satisfaction that the long cove was completely empty, as were all the other coves we’d passed on the entire North side of the island. The wind, usually clipping down from the North in the afternoons, blew instead from the Southeast, making the secluded little notch a perfectly protected anchoring spot for the night.

The practice of anchoring in the Sea of Cortez’s crystal clear water is delightfully simple: I could see the anchor drop with a puff of sand four fathoms deep, and the snaking chain payed out along the rippled bottom and set the hook solidly. While several dopey-looking puffer fish cruised up to nose at the anchor chain, I jumped in the inviting water for a quick and chilly swim. It was only after I’d toweled off and the memory of the engine noise and jangling chain had faded from my brain that I started to notice the shoreline.
White cliffs dove into the water on both sides of us and converged at a steep sand dune at the head of the cove. Numerous gaping caves lined the anchorage, cool invitations to hide from the relentless sun. We launched an evening expedition in the dinghy, dragging our faces along in the glassy water to view the aquarium passing beneath us. Deep purple, marigold, and white angelfish; spotted brown rockfish; perfect aubergine spines of urchins; and flashing silver schools flitted below in the prismatic evening underwater light. Towering above us rose the unusual white rock of the cliffs, like an enormous brick of salt, carved craggy by the persistent wind.

At the outer lip of the bay, there were three yawning caves, large enough to row a dozen dinghys into. The long light fell across the opening of the first cave like a curtain-bright white entrance on one side, the pitch black interior beyond. As we floated towards the opening, the shadow of the rock fell over us like a cool shawl, and with it the damp scent of air deprived of sunlight. The water, even in the shadow of the cave, was as clear as a mountain stream, and as cold. Perfectly raked white sand and smooth stones covered the bottom like a peaceful Zen garden. The only movement was from a lone Bullseye Stingray, which twitched, sending a ripple along the length of its crepe-thin body and scattering a flurry of flourlike sand. The sound of individual drips falling randomly around us resonated in the quiet cavern, and occasionally the unearthly groaning of a wave surged and sucked out of the cave’s deeper pockets like a monster living in the depths.

 

 

Blinking in the sunlight again, we decided to come back first thing in the morning.

The next day’s mission was even more stunning than the first, punctuated as it was by an enormous convoy of hyperactive dolphins. I rowed the dinghy while our visiting friends jumped in and swam with the dolphin horde in no more than 10 feet of water. The beautiful creatures shot through the tropical aquarium outside the caves, circled around rock islands, jumped and dove in pairs, slapped the water with their tails, and did a much better job of catching fish than we did. We reluctantly departed V-Cove midday, but with dozens of dolphins following us out of the anchorage.

It was a place I felt so privileged to have experienced, and a place that we most likely will not be able to return to again. The secret treasures like these, shared with friends and a throng of happy dolphins, are what make exploring by sail so entirely wonderful.

Advertisements

Baja Hospitality

The Sea of Cortez is adorned with striking contrasts: dry pink cliffs standing up out of drinkably blue water, lime green cacti amidst creamy soft sand dunes, the throbbing sounds of Carnival resonating against black nights glittering with millions of stars.

Just a short way from the southern Sea of Cortez base of La Paz, where we picked up friends for a week-long cruise, all traces of civilization drop off completely. Our views are filled with stark geological formations and turquoise bays and cliffs silhouetted against blazing sunsets. Coming from the smokey green mainland Mexico, arriving in Baja feels not just like another country, but perhaps another planet. Today we tasted coarse pink salt from moonlike salt ponds; we picked our way past no less than 8 different kinds of cacti while hiking the backbone of a pink-and-green striated mountain, and returned to Velella lying in a perfectly circular anchorage formed by a volcanic crater. For us, this stuff is the cream of cruising.

We’ve been excited to pack four sets of visitors into this busy month. While it’s hard to host guests in our tiny home for weeks on end, it’s so much fun to experience this environment with company. On a beach walk the other day, we all watched stunned as a local fisherman stuck his spear between the rocks and pulled out a writhing purple octopus, promptly squeezed it so the black ink dripped out like blood, and threaded it onto his buoy. By the end of the afternoon, he had several octopi, clams, and other shellfish, all foraged from within a mile of his home. And we followed suit–bringing home six large razor clams that we grilled up with garlic butter for lunch. Watching the enjoyment our guests take in fishing off the back of Velella, spotting a whale or dolphin, and trying a hot cockpit shower for the first time refreshes our own love for our cruising way of life. And, we also like having people held captive to play four-person board games or cards with us in the evenings!

Yesterday afternoon was blustery, so we spent the afternoon swimming in the wind-whipped bay, washed our hair, and enjoyed cold Tecates. Then, my two girlfriends, our guests for this week, decided to take a dinghy excursion to shore. Unlike most cruisers, Velella carries no outboard motor for our dinghy. There have been only a few times we’ve regretted not buying an outboard; most often we congratulate ourselves for choosing to rely only on oars. Of course by now, we’re both pretty strong rowers… our guests sometimes have a bit more trouble, especially in 20-knot gusts.

We gave the girls the handheld VHF radio and told them to call us if they needed to. From the cockpit, we watched them row to shore, angled far up into the wind and blown way down onto the leeward end of the beach. No harm done. They spent a bit of time exploring the town, and the next thing I noticed out of the porthole was them dragging the dinghy upwind along the beach. One of them had the painter line and the other grabbed a handle of the side of the dinghy, and they trudged along in about two inches of water all the way up the beach so that they were upwind of Velella. We silently congratulated them on this plan, hoping that their strategy would make the row home an easy one, and set to work making dinner.

Soon, on the radio I hear “Velella we’re almost there can you come out and catch us?!” in a somewhat strained voice. I jumped outside to see the girls about 10 feet from the boat on the starboard side. I called “Row over here and throw me your line” to which they replied “We cant!!” and spun the dinghy around in an ineffective circle as the wind blew them further downwind. I started laughing and wondering how the heck they had gotten all the way back to the boat and then couldn’t make it the last ten feet, but soon realized that they were being blown beyond hope of recovery. As the gusts funneled through the bay, they overpowered any rowing efforts the girls made and they drifted downwind despite their great strain. I quickly threw them our 150-foot heaving line, but it still came about fifteen feet short of them, and they could not make way upwind that far. Not that any harm was going to come to them if they blew back down all the way to the bottom end of the beach again, but I felt bad for my guests in this frustrating situation.

Just then, Prescott emerged from the cabin in swim trunks, said “this is gonna be really cold” and dove in. In a ridiculously heroic manner, he swam out to the damsels in distress, clamored into the dinghy, and rowed them home with the strength of someone who’s been practicing for six months. When they got back, I heated up a freshwater shower for our hero, and everyone changed into dry clothes. Then, the man of the day proceeded to whip up a pot of the most delicious tortilla soup imaginable. I smiled as we ate, pleased that we somehow manage to give all Velella’s guests a taste of both the obnoxious adjustments to this strange lifestyle as well as it’s undeniably beautiful rewards.

Entrance Exam

Last week, after over three months living on the lush tropical coast of mainland Mexico, it felt strange to be leaving it for good. We spent a couple of nights sleeping soundly in the gloriously still estuary at San Blas, surrounded by complete peace. When it was time to go, we exercised our cruisers’ freedom said, “nah, let’s stay one more night.”

After walking down the dusty road to San Blas and buying bags of fresh tomatoes, chilies, and plantains, we returned to Velella in the afternoon and filled her with the yeasty smell of rising bread and the pungent overtones of enchiladas simmering on the stovetop. We fried up fresh corn tortillas and cooked two loves of French bread in preparation for our passage across the Sea of Cortez. At sunset we explored the mangrove-lined beach and tideflats, split a bottle of wine over a game of Scrabble, then went to bed.

The morning of our departure was hazy; the water still as glass, broken only by pelicans. The sails hung like rags and we drifted. Finally, we decided to make some way by motor, and proceeded under power through the silent night, under a full moon reflected perfectly in the mirrorlike surface of the quiet ocean. We knew that strong north winds were coming, so we inched our way as far north along our course as possible, knowing that once the wind came up we could fall off on a starboard tack and have a better shot at making our northwesterly course across the Sea of Cortez.

Come morning, weather forecasts made it clear that we were going to get some substantial wind howling down the Sea, then it would let up for 48 hours, then howl through again. Instead of trying to hustle up across the 300 mile expanse before the wind arrived, we prudently slowed down, trying to pace ourselves so that we started crossing right when the wind let up.

Despite our best efforts, what might have been a three-day passage in good conditions turned into an almost six-day slog in less-than-good conditions. We had tried to maximize our best weather window, but the reality was that the window was a rather small moving target. So we buckled down, tucked in a couple reefs, and nosed our way into the heavy chop that often builds in the southern crossing of the Sea of Cortez.

The first days, much like those on any passage, were uncomfortable. We knocked around the cabin, spilled things as the boat lurched, felt thick in the head most of the time, and acutely queasy whenever we would go below. Forcing our bodies into a six-hour night watch rotation (mine began at 2am and lasted until 8am) made us perpetually tired.

It was almost comical how each day we calculated optimistically that we could close the rest of the distance by the next morning. Then the wind would veer or strengthen and put us just enough off course to really put the kibosh on those plans.

There wasn’t a lot of point in becoming demoralized about how long we had left to go, because there was absolutely nothing we could do about it. As we began to get over our early passage nausea, we began to make the most of our floating world. We had “dates” in the cockpit each night at sunset—cribbage and hot cocoa. We stopped miserably eating crackers and began to put together great hot meals underway: I would chop vegetables in the cockpit while Prescott simmered a broth for tortilla soup. We routinely stood longer than necessary watches while the other was asleep, and each morning felt surprisingly well rested.

Beneath us, the deep water foretold a dramatic change in scenery waiting for us on the other side. The water near the mainland was murky and moody, often affected by red tides that stained the entire coast blood red. But by the middle of the sea we’d left all that behind and cruised across deep clear blue, tinged with turquoise when the sun hit it at an afternoon slant. The closer we got to Baja, the more vibrant the water became, until finally one morning at sunrise the huge dry mountain ranges of Baja stood up in stark contrast to the drinkably clear Sea of Cortez lapping at its beaches.

Sighting landfall is always a cruel mind trick; you think “There it is! We’re so close to dropping the hook and sleeping for as long as we want!” But usually it takes almost another day or more to reach anchorage after sighting land from sea. And this passage was no different; we still had almost 24 grueling hours between us and our protected little bay.

That morning the sea had flattened out and the wind, though on the nose and fresh, was manageable. As we approached the coast, I eyed the notorious Cerralvo Channel on the chart warily. The 16-mile-long Isla Cerralvo lies parallel with the Baja shoreline; in order to reach La Paz, we would have to sail all the way up this channel, then turn left and head down into La Paz bay. The problem is, this channel is perfectly arranged to act as a wind tunnel for any prevailing wind. Pile a squeezed tidal current on top of the accelerated winds, and you have a nice recipe for a rough passage that could very well last all day.

As it turned out, we arrived at the mouth of the channel just after the afternoon winds had reliably built to their peak for the day, and on a strong opposing tide. Whereas any other day we may have scrapped it and pulled into an anchorage south of the channel to wait out more favorable conditions, we needed to make it into La Paz before the forecasted Norther was going to hit the following day; we had friends coming to visit and didn’t want to get stuck on the other side of the peninsula due to weather. We were between a rock and a hard place.

As we inched our way up the narrow mouth of the channel at a speed of 2 knots per hour, we were pleased by how well Velella was able to hold her course, and how well we feeling despite the extreme turbulence. I realized elatedly that I was even still able to read my book without getting sick: I had bona fide sea legs! So we bashed through steep chop, our bow rising and falling at 45-degree angles, and had a decent time of it. Later in the evening as the channel widened to the north, the chop subsided and I was able to sleep for a couple hours.

When I awoke, the moon had not yet risen and the night sky was deeply black. Large dark hulks of unlit land surrounded us, with no light loom anywhere in sight. We screamed along at 6 knots completely blinded by the night, headed for our ever-nearer anchorage waypoint. Finally at 1am, we reached the bay and could just make out a white sliver of beach running around its edge.

As we dropped the hook for the first time in a week, and the moon finally ascended like a big dripping slice of cantaloupe, I felt like we’d accomplished something. We’d never been sailing that long before—but if we can do one week here, we can do three weeks on the way to Hawaii. The Sea of Cortez just gave us a little entrance exam: we passed.