Actually Sailing the Sea of Cortez

Most blogs you read about sailing in Mexico describe the amazing things there are to see and why it’s worth spending a few seasons there.

This is about the sailing experience.

In the Sea of Cortez, the wind either doesn’t blow at all, or it blows like crazy from exactly where you want to go.  In the lulls you drift aimlessly in circles, listening to sails flog. When the Norte blows, you have 30+ kts on your nose and it’s a bashingly numbing ride. For about 4 hours a day, you have perfect sailing conditions. Just time it with the tides…

What I’m saying is, it’s a motor boater’s paradise.

The first major city heading north, La Paz, even closes their harbor when they see 15kts of breeze from the North. 15 kts!! No boats are allowed in or out. I don’t think the weekly regatta has been allowed out to sail once with a decent breeze. Quite a different vibe compared to the race boats in Santa Cruz that come screaming back into harbor under big powerful kites in all but treacherous conditions.

The Sea is amazingly beautiful, Jacques Cousteau fittingly described it as ‘The aquarium of the world,” and It’s absolutely worth every minute you spend there exploring. We swam with sea lions and floated over schools of vibrant tropical fish. We ate delicious fresh ceviche, fish tacos and sashimi all from a few hooks hanging over the stern. We love it here in Mexico.

Ask almost anyone who participated in the 2018 Baja Haha how many hours their motors were running when they were up in the Sea. That should give you an idea of what it’s like to sail here.

The sailing itself, sucks.

We attempted sailing North in both a Norte and without a Norte. Both are trying.

A Norte is a strong northerly wind that seems to occur once every week or so and last a few days during winter months. Sometimes they occur back to back and they last for nearly a week. If a Norte is blowing, expect square 6-8’ waves to build, as the fetch from the Northern Sea is nearly 400 miles. That mass of water moving south also tends to push a sizable current.

In the Norte, you are taking hundreds of gallons of water over the bow and watching your tacking angles  get worse and worse. But hey, there is wind! The trouble is trying to sleep when you are getting air  in your berth as the boat pounds away.

When the Norte doesn’t blow, all predictions are off. Sometimes the wind is blowing from the south, sometimes the west, sometimes the east, but never over 10 kts (on rare occasion you might see 15). Expect lots of lulls and lots of drifting.

While we were here, we did not find any wind prediction software to be accurate, nor the charts for that matter. We tried PredictWind, Sailflow, Windy, and NOAA’s GRIBs, but none of them were accurate when a Norte wasn’t blowing.

All of the tall volcanic islands and hills in the area seem to confuse the fickle winds and make prediction difficult.

Our trick was to wait until well after the Norte shut off and  use a honed skill of… looking out the window.

When the light wind starts to blow in the early afternoon, we would weigh anchor and ride the puffs North. Ideally we landed in any of the hundreds of majestical, calm anchorages before the wind shut off for the night.

If we timed it right, there wasn’t any swell, and we would be hunkered down in an amazing anchorage while the Norte kicked up for a few days. After things chill out, you can weigh anchor and keep going… slowly.

If you have a typical “cruising boat” that is heavy and doesn’t point high, expect to fill those diesel tanks often!

Fortunately for us, Cinderella is a great light wind performer, and though wet, she can pound her way to weather if need be.

Either way, actually sailing in the Sea of Cortez, as with anywhere patience is key, and schedules will make life painful.

Expect to develop monk-like patience here if you attempt to experience the Sea under sail as daily passages tend to be roughly one third to one quarter the mileage you experienced coming down the West coast. For instance, 20 miles may take you all day. But don’t worry, there are plenty of perfect beaches to help you find heart’s center.

Don’t let the sailing discourage you, it is trying, but the experience here more than makes up for it. We wish we had more time to stick around and spend a few seasons really exploring.

Sailing the Baja California Sur

We have been making our way down the beautiful desert like Baja coast about a week behind when the HaHa left. Classic Cinderella, un poco tarde. All for the best though, the sailing was amazing and we had a chance to really explore each anchorage and meet some other boats.

We were finally headed south to Mexico! All that was left was to pick up a backup anchor (thanks again Marina Hell Rey) and fill our water tanks. We said our goodbyes to Dan and Bev and off we sailed… er drifted.

We got a bit of a late start and missed the sea breeze that would take us out to the steady northwesterly blowing down from the North Pacific. 

After a night of luffing sails the wind finally filled in and we were off. The passage was a bit rolly, but filled with fish! we caught four Skipjack Tuna hoping for some yellowtail. Skipjack are a beautiful fish that taste a bit fishy, but make great fish tacos!

In our last port of call Bahia Tortuga, we had been fortunate to meet a delivery captain named Jeff who was basically a local, who organized a fish fry and introduced us to some of the locals our age who were so welcoming and spirited. They invited us surfing first thing in the morning, the local spot they frequent. How do you say, HECK YEAH en Espanol? Adriana is a super rad chica and shreds the gnar on the regular at their surf spot. She spent a lot of time teaching Pajo how to surf and we ripped a couple waves in. Then once everyone had their fill, we got back into the truck and drove along the beach bumping feel good vibes and looking out to the surf, we saw dolphins (the real locales) getting their fill of surf. It was only noon and already it was of those days where you have to pinch yourself that this life is real.

We thoroughly enjoyed kickin it with Adriana and the local guys, connecting with them in Spanglish and playing Sublime songs at the Cantina. We shared some cervezas with Anotnio who was in from Mexico City to open up the cantina for the HaHa crowd. Our time in Bahia Tortuga was something we will never forget.

The festive spirit was high after leaving Bahia Tortuga with Colmena and Sea Casa. We felt grateful to have all made it to this beautiful place called Mexico and to all be together exploring. There was a good little hike over the ridge to Punta Hughes and a favorite little beach nearby. I paddled over and relished some private yoga time. The water was cool and refreshing in the dry heat.

We spent some time exploring the standing wave right outside the little estuary. We found lots of dead things on the beach including a hammerhead shark spinal cartilage and other mummified remains. Pajo and I gathered wood for the beach fire.

Our second night in Bahia Santa Maria was Thanksgiving and Dan and Bev showed up! We had a thanksgiving potluck hosted on Malo complete with sweet potatoes and Trader Joe’s pumpkin pasta Bev made. Yum! We cracked open our reserve of Bourbon and lit off another cruiser’s stash of American bought fireworks (likely contraband, but don’t worry – biodegradable).

These anchorages just keep getting better. Next stop, Cabo San Lucas where Pajo’s parents will visit us. Then we plan to round the corner up to La Paz for some imminent boat projects.

Happy Thanksgiving from Baja!