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.

Cinderella in Latitude 38!

Around the world on renewable energy. So you have a generator right? No.

A few months ago, Ava and I set off from Seattle in pursuit of a dream. A dream that lingers in the back of the mind of almost every sailor. The dream to sail around the world. We untied from our dock at Fremont Boat Co. on September 3, 2017 at 2am to catch the morning ebb. As I write this, we are approaching Cabo San Lucas. We’ve logged nearly 2,600 nautical miles and we’ve sailed just about all of it.

It started with an “enlightened moment” that struck me while working remote from Stoneway Cafe in Fremont Seattle. Too many days spent droning away like this hunched over the old laptop. I made up my mind. I’m going to quit the 9-5, untie the lines, and aim for the BLT (big left turn) out of the Straights of Juan De Fuca. I figured I would work another two years, save up some money, and find a way to head out. 

Around that time, I met and fell in love with an amazing gal, Ava. On one of our first dates, I asked her what her 5 year plan was. I told her mine, it was to leave in two years to sail around the world for two years. 

Her thoughts?

Cute, this guy is a dreamer.

Cut to two years later, she was selling her car, Honda Spree scooter and her vinyl collection, found a new home for Jennifer the cat to move on board Cinderella. We spent 2017 rigorously preparing while both working full time jobs and picking up odd jobs to save money. We had a monster of a to-do list to get our boat ready for the voyage (of which some we are still checking off along the way).

Our boat Cinderella is a vintage Ericson 35-2 from 1971. A friend was interested in buying a boat so I went with him to Ballard to check it out. 

My first thought on this boat was “what a project” but was somehow was drawn to it. So naturally I put in a $6,000 offer which was rejected. Weeks later I was still thinking about that boat. It had some curious modifications for racing that were clearly not stock Ericson. Her “Spartan” interior looked almost gutted, with little else than bare fiberglass hull, a massive diesel engine in the center cabin and a couple of settees. A modest galley with the sink draining right to the cabin sole. I really tried to forget this project boat. Then about a month later, the sellers called me back and my offer was accepted. 

Am I crazy? 

I soon found out Cinderella had a racy past. She went to Hawaii twice in the Pac Cup and had numerous first place trophies from racing on Lake Washington. She was completely overhauled by one of the previous owners. I later learned, he watched the interior pan break free and sway back and forth independently of the hull while underway to San Fran from Mexico. Rarely do we get to know the people who hold the secrets to our boat’s past lives, I got lucky.

I spent nearly two years educating myself and refitting Cinderella for blue water cruising. Whenever Ava had to track me down, I was usually at my favorite place, Fisheries Supply. Or maybe buried somewhere deep in power tools and fiberglass.

It was a crash course on boatbuilding while working full time as a traveling engineer. You see Cinderella was a spartan racer, not a cruising boat. So I essentially built a tiny house with custom cabinetry, plumbing and a functioning head, a water system, berths and a solar power system. The big question marks were the rig and rudder. We pulled and inspected the rig and rudder last winter, the budget way, doing all the work ourselves through the night at Canal Boat Yard. We also added roller furling, re-habbed and installed an old Aries wind vane. 

Ava might think I’m a glutton for punishment but our budget means I re-build or custom build every damn thing. Though, I do draw the line on Diesel. My obvious solution to weasel my way out of engine maintenance and save money was to figure out a simple auxiliary drive that was fueled by renewable energy.

After engine failure #2, I promptly removed the “expensive anchor” and began researching an electric drive. I shuddered when I saw how the few kits on the market were incredibly expensive, as or more costly than diesel.

I discovered Sailing Uma on YouTube, an inventive DIY electric boat. They had helped me see that a conversion to electric drive was possible and feasible for Cinderella. I was inspired and dove into researching and piecing components together (I swear I was working this whole time).

Our electric motor drive is the motor half of a Briggs & Stratton 10hp generator… with some odd golf cart add-ons. Due to our budget battery bank, our range is limited but it has been one of the most trouble-free systems aboard. While it does get frustrating watching sails flog in windless conditions, I will take that any day over dealing with the breakdowns and maintenance required of it’s petroleum driven counterparts. Luckily Cinderella is a fantastic light wind boat.

Anyone who tells you battery tech isn’t there yet, or it’s not practical has not properly educated themselves. After overhauling the energy vampires, we have enough renewable energy to power our floating home comfortably. We are able charge all of our devices, pressurize our water, run our LED lights, rice cooker, and power tools. Not once starting a generator. We save our motoring for getting into harbor and for any “we need to move” moments while underway.

Unfortunately, our golf cart controller’s regen only works from about 5 – 5.7 kts underway. Since we are either sailing faster (with wind) or slower (hardly any wind) we don’t use it very much. One day if we can find funds, it might be nice to play with that and use the excess power to run a freezer for the fish we catch or hot water if we ever decide to go back to cold climates (not sure why just yet). It’s a system that I’d love to refine when I have the opportunity.

So far cruising is everything I imagined and more. After a bumpy ride down the Washington and Oregon coast, we were escorted into California by a pod of dolphins. We have seen so many whales we lost count. Believe me, watching the sunset from your “back deck”, cold beer in hand never gets old. 

As we write this, we are sailing south along Mexico’s Baja California en route to Cabo San Lucas. We have just spent a festive Thanksgiving in Bahia Santa Maria complete with a potluck and beach bonfire with some fellow gringos. In Bahia Tortuga, we were invited to go surfing with the locals at their favorite spot. How do you say, HECK YEAH in Espanol?

It’s not all glamour out here as you can imagine. We pitchpoled our sailing dingy in rough surf in the Channel Islands after a harrowing passage around Point Conception. We’ve also had a horrendous experience with corrupt harbor patrol in Marina Del Rey and discovered first hand the harassment of local boaters (that’s a whole other story). We’ve also been caught numerous times bobbing for hours in dead wind.

Needless to say, sailing an electric boat certainly requires a special brand of patience, foresight and tenacity at times. 

We’ve learned that the wind will always blow and hey, we are at home. The experiences and places we’ve discovered so far seem to erase those frustrating times. The payoffs are incredibly worth it and we wouldn’t trade anything for it.

Looking forward, we are studying weather patterns south to Costa Rica where we would like to spend some time with family and friends. This is where we want to make the big puddle jump with the Panama boats to the Marquesas and onward through the South Pacific to New Zealand… and onward around the world. Want to see where? Check out our proposed travel routes here and stay tuned for more blog posts. They are coming, we promise 🙂

We wrote this for Latitude 38 who published our article in the January 2018 issue. You can read it online here!