Sailing away with Nikk and Jan

Archive for April, 2013

The Magic of the Sea of Cortez

From March 16 to 25 Balance took us north of La Paz up to the desert islands and the coast of Baja in the Sea of Cortez, and then back to La Paz, where I’m writing this in a hurry so we can do chores, provision, refuel, do laundry, and begin to sail (hopefully) back across to mainland Mexico tomorrow. This segment of the adventure was pure magic most of the time, though with its moments of breakdown and minor injury. We said goodbye to friends on the 16th and motorsailed up to El Candelerio Cove on Isla Espiritu Santo to spend the night. Calm seas soon turned rough as a SW wind began to build swells that made us “hobby horse” all night. We tried to sleep on the settees, but had a rough night, so we left the next morning at 7am to motor the 2.6 miles back to Partida Cove between Isla Espiritu Santo and Isla Partida, where we explored before. On the way we realized that the chart plotter/radar wasn’t working. It’s our way to see depth, location and at night locate other vessels. Nikk tore it apart, hoping it was just a connection to the switch, but the fault lies in one of the boards of electronics, and will have to be sent back to RayMarine for fixing. Back to handheld GPS and paper charts, although we do have a sextant just in case all the electronics fail. Luckily Partida Cove was much calmer, as the winds blew outside the cove for two days straight. Paddling along the volcanic cliffs, snorkeling, hiking arroyos to caves, visiting with fellow cruisers and some sea kayakers, relaxing on the boat and reading, then cooking some delicious meals. What did we eat? On this part of the trip we ate red snapper cooked with olive oil, garlic, onions and Papa John’s seasoning, accompanied by salad; lasagna with spinach noodles and homemade sauce with salad again, (the salad is a real treat); fish tacos with lettuce, tomato, onion, black olives, sour cream and salsa, with pear pie for dessert (given to us by our friends on Brainstorm); BBQ bonita tuna (sold to us by fisherman Arturo in Partida Cove) with coconut rice and more salad; stew of pinto beans (cooked in the pressure cooker), carrot, yam,cabbage, onion, cumin, vinegar, salsa and salt, (a picture is at the end of this blog) with blueberry muffins for dessert; pinto beans with carrots, poblano and red peppers, olives and goat cheese in mole sauce with coconut rice and BBQ steak for Nikk. Of course lots of guacamole most days made with avocado, garlic, lime, salt and tabasco sauce. OK, I’m getting really hungry and it’s almost 11:30am with no breakfast yet, so I’m going to go pick up the laundry and head over to the Mercado Bravo, the indoor market, for fish, meat, vegetables and fruit, and some pastries. Hopefully this blog will be continued tonight.

We saw all the birds mentioned in other blog posts, plus a heron rookery in fig trees on the cliffs of Isla Partida, many nesting Yellow-footed Gulls, bunches of little “families” of Eared Grebes diving way deep to get fish and crustaceans, the males were just starting to get their orange “ear” plumage and it contrasted nicely with their red eyes. There were Phainopeplas and Northern Cardinals at Agua Verde where the trees, bushes and palms were still very green, probably from last fall’s Hurricane Paul. There were also Reddish Egrets at Partida Cove and Isla San Francisco, when they hunt they do a hopping, skipping dance on their long legs, very hilarious to watch. Most islands had Ospreys nesting too, we’d hear their keening cries as they flew. We got lucky on this part of the trip and had few bugs, no sand flies, fleas, or jejenes, and only one bite from a horse fly, of all things, at Partida Cove. Still, there must be enough insects to support all the lizards as well as birds. We mostly injured ourselves on the scenery, Nikk banging his head on the overhangs at the caves, Jan slashing her legs on thorny bushes while hiking at Agua Verde. The most spectacular animal sighting was the pod of hundreds of dolphins that we sailed through while heading back south past Isla San Jose. They were leaping, some doing back flips and even one double back flip! Because we saw even more the next day, also heading north, I think that maybe the season of spring leads to some sexual frenzy, perhaps, or maybe just a feeding frenzy. They weren’t interested in playing with the bow wake at all, just determinedly swimming and doing acrobatics. From the internet I learned that the gestation period for dolphins is about a year, with orcas it’s 17 months, and the females only breed about every 3-5 years. I guess if one only got to have sex once every three to five years there might be a reason for the frenzy. We also heard that Orcas have been seen in the Sea of Cortez this spring, but we didn’t see any. While we were gone from La Paz a juvenile humpback whale thirty feet long was stranded on a shoal at low tide, and many residents and cruisers came out to help get a rope around the tail and tow it to deeper water, which took about two hours to accomplish. After seeing the videos I’m grateful that there were so many people with compassion willing to help a stranded whale.

Partida Cove from the cave

Beautiful Side-blotched Lizard at Partida Cove (it’s name sounds like it has a disease).
It is only about 4 inches long.

On Saturday the 20th the winds died down as promised, we sat out in the cockpit enjoying the calm, until the lure of future islands became strong enough to get us going to up anchor and head north to Isla San Francisco. The knot log wheel below the water line almost always gets fouled with growths of barnacles and refuses to turn, which we discover when underway. Then Nikk gets to shed clothes and jump into the water (after slowing the boat down, of course) to knock off the growth before we continue on. We need to invent a way to knock off the growth from the comfort of the cockpit. The water temperatures have been only in the high 60’s or low 70’s, I need a full wetsuit to go snorkeling, so Nikk gets pretty chilled while freeing the knot log wheel.

After motorsailing for three hours in almost no wind and three to four foot northerly swells, we viewed Isla San Francisco; the southern end has hills of red, green and gray volcanic rock, and the anchorage is in 25 feet of water off a beach of brilliant white sand.


The brilliant white sand was an illusion, when we paddled in to the beach, we found ground up coarse particles of gray, red and white shells, coral and rock. Behind the beach is a salt pan, and behind that on the east side is a beach with big boulders of red, green and gray, the green of the rocks making the water a striking emerald color.


One of the lures of the desert islands is climbing the hills, the mostly irresistible desire to see the view from “up there”. Luckily Nikk loves to climb and scramble too.


On Isla San Francisco there are elephant trees that grow along the ground, but only in certain places.


Balance motorsailed again the next day to San Evaristo on the coast of Baja, a little village with lots of fishermen and also some huge salt pans where salt is heaped and bagged for shipping to La Paz. I wondered how many of our meals in La Paz were flavored with San Evaristo salt? After a short while in the village we’d seen four burros, several friendly dogs, some doves, a small school (where we wondered why the children weren’t in school until we realized it was Sunday, it’s too easy to lose track of time, days and maybe even weeks while sailing), a little tienda, and an open air restaurant with a very limited menu and selection of drinks. We purchased groceries at the tienda, and fish tacos at the restaurant, then back to the boat to study Spanish, play the accordion, finish Steinbeck’s Log From the Sea of Cortez, and get a really good night’s sleep in a quiet anchorage. Steinbeck chronicles the avaricious collecting expedition from Monterey to the Sea of Cortez in 1940 on an Alaskan purse seiner, led by his friend Ed Ricketts, the biologist and owner of Pacific Biological Laboratory, which provided specimens for schools, labs and universities, including paying boys to bring him cats, which he then euthanized and injected with colored latex to show their blood vessels. Nikk is reading it now, and I’m interested to see what happens when he gets to the parts where Steinbeck undertakes some stiff theological pondering and probing. My favorite part of the book this time through was his attempt to describe Ed Ricketts, who died after his car was struck by a train in Monterey in 1948, eight years after the expedition. Steinbeck writes an aching tribute for his friend, turning his powers of analysis on Ricketts complex personality, given that not one of his acquaintances or friends saw him the same way.

Our last stop on the northward jaunt brought us to Agua Verde, another little village on the Baja coast just south of Puerto Escondido. Beautiful little western cove for anchoring, off a smooth, curved beach.


The first afternoon we hiked the arroyo right off the beach, following hiking paths and goat trails, after seeing a herd of about 20 goats and two dogs negotiating the rocky shore and moving back into the hills while grazing. On the hike we met a man with his pit bull searching for the goats to bring them in for the night as protection against coyotes. We paddled in to the village the next day, and found that most of the homes had wooden fences, probably to keep out the goats and cows. Most of the homes, the church and the school were made of concrete blocks, and were fairly new, because a devastating flood came through in 1983 and one guide book described the place then as mostly deserted and only occupied by goats. Here is one more primitive home:


The next day we hiked with some fellow cruisers to an old cemetery and found two pictographs left by Indians on large rocks near a cliff and cave. More snorkeling near the rocks, and a party on the beach with fellow cruisers from about eleven boats completed our delightful time at Agua Verde. Ah yes, and the sunset and moonrise the last night wove their peaceful tendrils of magic into our hearts and minds. Almost every day at some time we look at the other and say “pinch me, I must be dreaming this amazing scene”.




This should go into the first paragraph with the food descriptions. Yummy stew.

Three Coves, Two Hikes, and One Wild Ride

Sailing across to La Paz from Mazatlan got off to a very good start. The port captain closed the bar on Friday April 5 due to large breaking waves, so we waited and snuck out Saturday morning. One of the cruisers at the marina took a video of Balance crossing the bar and posted it to You Tube. Go there and search Balance Timing the Waves to see it. After crossing the Columbia Bar in much wilder conditions Nikk says this was easy, but we sure bounced around a lot.

Saturday and Sunday the sun shone, gentle rolling waves made life grand on Balance except for a lack of wind to sail. The mainsail always stays up to steady us, but every time Nikk rolled out the headsail to catch some wind it died back to two or three knots, so the crossing was mostly motorsailing. We did have some company, we saw many Olive Ridley turtles paddling along, and manta rays jumping. When the rays get five feet above the water they crash down with a sound like someone bellyflopping in a pool. Must not hurt them that much. Here’s another common sight, what I think may be a Least Tern riding on a turtle, waiting for it to catch a fish.


We ate sandwiches and spaghetti, cooking was easy without the stove wildly gyrating back and forth like it does when we’re sailing, and at 2am on Monday morning all that changed. I was on watch when Nikk got up after only sleeping an hour and said those dreaded words “I think it’s getting rough”. He’d been bouncing up in the V-berth, but in the stern of the boat the motion wasn’t bad (yet). The winds continued to build as we were about ten miles off Isla Cerralvo which is almost to the Baja mainland. Soon the winds were 25-35 knots on the nose, and we were pitching into 3-5 foot wave chop, augmented by long northerly rollers. When the two came together we got water over the boat and into the cockpit. All the water began to find it’s way into the cabin, drip, drip, drip. In the next ten hours we used up every towel on the boat and it was almost time to start using the dirty clothes when we finally made it to a little cove right at the juncture of Isla la Partida and Isla Espiritu Santo at noon the next day. Nikk and I had on our foul weather gear that we hadn’t worn since November coming down the west coast of Baja. We were lucky to see a boat anchored at the little cove and know it was a safe anchorage, since most of the east coast of the islands is not fit for anchoring. There are no pictures or video of our wild ride because we were afraid a wave would splash the cameras if we brought them out. Even though we hadn’t eaten in 18 hours we just hung out everything wet and crawled into bed to sleep for four hours with the wind still howling but the waves only about a foot high in the cove. After a quick dinner of red snapper fish tacos it was back to sleep again with the wind still howling in the rigging.

Tuesday morning brought a brilliant blue sky, less wind, and the perfect opportunity to put the kayaks in the water and paddle through the winding channel between the two islands into the cove on the western side. We passed by two fish camps with pangas on the beaches of the channel, and barely made it through with the kayaks at low tide, but when we exited the winding channel we were in one of the most beautiful lagoons I’ve ever seen. Turquoise and emerald water over white sand, with cacti and other desert plants marching up the steep hillsides. We beached our kayaks and carried them up to what we hoped was an area above high tide, then set off for a sign marking a trail.


Imagine a trail up an arroyo filled at first with medium-sized rocks, then as the trail steepened the rocks becoming larger and larger, boulders of pink sandstone conglomerate packed with chunks of quartzite, slick basalt chunks, and sometimes reddish pumice. On up we toiled, being careful to avoid the cactus spines, past fig trees with octopus roots growing in the rock cliffs, and views of the cove which were more stunning with each ten meters of elevation gain.


Those little dots in the cove are sailboats, we will be anchored there in about two days time, waiting for some strong winds that are coming Thursday and Friday to abate. Our climb up the arroyo led us to the cave Nikk remembered from 28 years ago. I can imagine the ancient peoples of the island sheltering there, and we did too, the sun was strongly parching us.


Despite the heat we continued on above the cave to the base of a steep cliff and were surprised when we returned to the arroyo, two short-eared owls flew out of the arroyo and perched on the rocks to watch us. They are large owls, and are awake in the daytime more than other owls.


Six hours after we left the boat we were back, luckily still with the kayaks, they were only two feet above the water line when we returned. And we were so parched, our quarts of water were long gone, and we drank a really large variety of fluids back at the boat. Wednesday we sailed up around the north end of the island, listened to sea lions out on Los Islotes, and came back down the west side of Isla la Partida to anchor at El Cardonal, another stunning cove with a trail onshore past mangoves, a lagoon, and an easy hike this time to the other side of the island. We spotted Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Verdin, Black-throated Sparrows and an unidentified hawk, all desert birds. Tiny desert flowers bloomed near forests of organ pipe cactus, which resemble the saguaro of the Arizona deserts. Here is an old man organ pipe:


In a cartoon he would be wearing a sombrero.

The beautiful weather held, perfect for hiking and exploring, or just lazing about on the boat reading and eating. I made a fish stew with the last of the snapper from Mazatlan, added garlic, onion, potatoes, and carrots to a broth of mole, cumin, and chili sauce. The new moon was on Wednesday, so we had inky black sky with thousands of stars to gaze at while sitting in the cockpit at night. It did get chilly, though, I wore the crocheted hat and layers of sweatshirt and fleece jacket outside at night. And the water was only 70 degrees, instead of the 80 degrees in the ocean over by the mainland of Mexico. Too cold for swimming and snorkeling.

Thursday we motored down to Puerto Ballena, on Isla Espiritu Santo, seeing many tourist pangas from La Paz, and some sea kayakers out with a touring company, heading for the white sand beaches. We anchored in shallow water in the northernmost cove, and paddled to shore to do a little more exploring.



The arroyo we investigated was unexpectedly in bloom. Deep green geranium plants, bushes with flowers like impatiens, and then a mother goat and her all white kid on the hillside above. We are going back there now after four days in La Paz. I’ll cut this blog short so I can help Nikk get off the dock and out into the bay. We’re sailing to many desert islands over the next two weeks before heading back to La Cruz. Perhaps I’ll be able to share a few stories of La Paz and those desert islands when I’m finally back with internet connection again.

Here is one more picture of a hungry desert island denizen, a gigantic grasshopper.


Meandering in Mazatlan

Balance sailed out of the anchorage at Isla Isabela about 11am on March 31st, Easter Sunday, and arrived in Mazatlan Monday morning about 7:30am, 99 miles total, even though Mazatlan is only about 85 miles away in a direct line. Nikk tried to sail, so had to set a course which was some degrees off the direct heading to Mazatlan to try to use the fickle winds. Most of the time we once again motorsailed, with the ocean being so calm in the middle of the night that we could see waves of phosphoresence coming off the bow.

From the first light we kept looking for Mazatlan, a city of over half a million people which should have been very visible, with nothing in sight. We finally realized that we were heading for a fog bank, very eerie, since we didn’t expect fog with a temperature over 70 degrees. The city slowly revealed itself.


Mazatlan is an Aztec word which means “place of the deer”. Since Aztecs rarely ventured anywhere near Mazatlan, historians have to speculate that conquistador Nuno de Guzman may have had an Aztec interpreter when he burned his way through the present state of Sinaloa in 1531. Beautiful Mazatlan has three islands offshore, Isla Pajaros (island of birds), Isla Venados (island of deer), and Isla Chivos (island of rams)/Isla Lobos (wolves) I’m not sure if any deer, rams or wolves remain. The beaches of golden sand stretch for miles, with estuaries running far inshore, and giant tourist hotels lining the beach. Mazatlan became a prime tourist destination in the 60’s and 70’s, and is also an important manufacturing area.

We got a slip at Marina El Cid, a large hotel/condo complex with a small marina located about six miles from the Centro (old city). With our docking fee of $31 US/day we get use of the three swimming pools, spa pool, showers and grounds, with slight additional charges for electricity and internet. Here’s the view from the marina restaurant:


There are many Mexican families vacationing here, and a few gringos. It was probably really crazy during Semana Santa, which is also the Spring Break for Mexican college students, but that ended Sunday. There’s still live music at the pool in the afternoon, and sometimes zumba and bingo (not at the same time, now that would be interesting). Nikk and I paddled up the estuary past a protected area with birds and a lot of large green iguanas, then over through another marina, Marina Mazatlan, and back past the large dredge that keeps the channels open.

On another day we got a little open taxi (a Volkswagon golf cart made in Mazatlan), one of dozens that go back and forth transporting tourists, and went to the old town, with its narrow streets and old wood and plaster buildings. Our first stop was the Mercado Central, a covered market with perhaps a hundred stalls selling food, drink, clothing and crafts. We wandered for at least an hour, and bought sandals from Alfredo.


The archeological museum was closed, to our disappointment, so we meandered over to the malecon at the beach, then uphill for a view of the city, then back along the malecon heading north for several miles. Huge bronze statues on pedestals celebrate nature and perhaps the Woman of Mazatlan rising from the sea.


My favorite was the dolphins leaping inside jets of water. At night there are colored lights in the fountain, but we unfortunately didn’t stay until nightfall. Pirates used Mazatlan’s natural hiding places for their ships, which led to observation towers on the hills to watch for pirates, and later for Mexicans to watch for French ships during their war of 1862-64. We didn’t see any divers at the famous cliff area, only lots of stalls selling clothing and trinkets, and another strange set of bathrooms. In the front a woman takes five pesos and gives you toilet paper. She also sells candy, and watches telenovelas (Mexican soap operas) on a little TV. It seems a little strange to be selling food right outside a bathroom.



Nikk standing like a statue

These four days were mostly filled with tasks, though. Laundry, showers, fueling up the boat, filling the water tanks, shopping at the Mega Store, cleaning the anchor, tightening the fan belt, and hosing off the boat. Since Nikk had to do many of these tasks, I had time to write two blogs!
The winds may be favorable for sailing, or maybe too light, but we’re leaving to head across the Sea of Cortez to La Paz, where the temperature today was in the 90’s. Mazatlan’s perfect temperatures of high 70’s have been so enjoyable. But high temperatures means warm waters for snorkeling and diving when we get to the desert islands. Our journey continues on the Tropic of Cancer.

Island Mystique

There’s a ship
And it sails a sea of light
On it’s way (with) me tonight
From a distant shore
Taking me home once more
And the waves
And the whistling of the wind
Make me come alive again
My destiny’s at my door
…….Ooo la la la la
On an island I will dwell
Starlit nights in Paradise
On the Isle of (Isabel)
Crosby,Stills,Nash&Young Isle of Sanibel

The mystique of islands, terra firma but surrounded by water. Often isolated, and a perfect scenario for breeding birds. Isla Isabel, located about 36 miles from San Blas, eluded us on our last trip north in January due to headwinds and huge chop. Cruisers and blogs extolled the wonders of the bird life on Isla Isabel, and at last on March 23 we sailed over from Matanchen Bay near San Blas to reach an anchorage in sand and rock offshore on the east side of the island near the rock pinnacles called the Monas. For only the second time on this voyage we pumped up the dinghy, put it in the water, and lowered the outboard onto the stern. The waves were crashing onto the nearby beach so kayaks didn’t seem like a good option. A short dinghy ride later we passed the south anchorage, and then were inside the bay and landing at a fishing camp.


Hundreds of Magnificent Frigatebirds circled overhead and nested in the trees all over the small island, only about a kilometer in length and about 800 meters wide. Following the map painted onto the kiosk at the end of the fishing camp beach we headed off through the trees, across a crumbling basketball court, surrounded by nesting frigatebirds. Frigatebirds resemble something out of Jurassic Park, the females have white throats, the courting males display huge red balloons at their throats, and the chicks resemble large fluffy cotton balls with the head of a bird.



The frigatebirds spend hours in the air, they can’t take off from water, so have to snatch food from the surface of the ocean or steal it from other birds. We saw them grab boobies (BIRDS) by the wing and shake them to try to make them drop their food. From dawn to dusk, and sometimes even after dark, the frigatebirds circle and wheel over the island, or fly in from somewhere to the east.

The trail took us by a partly-completed huge concrete pavilion constructed about 30 years ago and left incomplete when government funding went elsewhere, and then about 200 feet up a hill past nesting Blue-Footed and Brown Boobies; the nests were so close to the trail that the boobies were honking and whistling at us constantly. We learned that females honk and males whistle.

Brown Booby with green feet (some are yellow)

Blue-footed Boobies panting due to the heat

The view across the island from the lighthouse. The fishing camp is right below the crater lagoon, with the Monas in the background

Getting down from the lighthouse on the slippery trail and broiling in the heat almost ended our explorations for the day, but luckily we decided to hike off in back of the fish camp and over through the trees to the east side for a view of our boat in the water. On the way we met five young researchers coming from their camp who invited us to partake of their chairs sitting under a tarp, which we did, and then when we saw them again on the way back, got invited to dinner that night. Thus began a wonderful association, which lasted our whole eight days on the island.
The researchers are all from the National University of Mexico in Mexico City. Oscar is working on his doctorate studying evolutionary biology using Blue-Footed Boobies, and is the director of the research. Each breeding pair has their nest marked with a stake, and every day and often
at night the researchers go out to measure, weigh, record, and even take blood samples. We learned that research on BFB’s has been taking place for 32 years on Isla Isabela, and both Jacques Cousteau and National Geographic have done programs on the island. Islands like Isla Isabela are perfect for breeding birds unless prey species are introduced, which is what happened at Isla Isabela. First Norway rats got onto the island, and preyed on the eggs. In the Midway Island in the Pacific in the 30’s rats wiped out Brown Boobies completely, so in order to prevent that disaster cats were introduced to rid the island of rats. You can imagine the havoc caused to the birds by the cats. Two years ago the rats were poisoned by pellets dropped onto the island, and the cats trapped and removed. However five cats refused to be captured, and New Zealand hunters were called in to get the last cats. Now the island seems to be cat and rat free, and the birds and lizards less likely to be harmed. We shared several dinners with the researchers, and I baked them brownies and cookie bars, since they were there for months, with a weekly food drop mostly lacking in treats. They also came out to the boat to visit at noon one day, four swam, and one rode with Nikk in the dinghy. One picture of the researchers at camp is at the end of the blog, I found out I can’t add pictures in the middle of a blog, ni modo.

Christina (Veterinary Medicine), Fernanda (Biology/birds), Jose (Biology/reptiles)

Oscar and Santiago (Veterinary Medicine)

Eventually their parents and friends will be able to see these pictures when the researcher’s time on the island without internet or phone is over. We enjoyed out times with them on magical Isla Isabela.

Eight days were filled with alternating activity and relaxing on the boat. We hiked on a little-used trail across the island to rock pools at low tide, viewing a Brown Booby nesting colony and tiny electric blue fish in tide pools. Some frigatebirds were drying their wings in the grass and gave us a startling view of how wide their wingspan is, a wingspan that is the largest for any bird of similar weight.


Several days we snorkeled above the shallow reefs of green coral that are recovering after a hurricane hit the island, oohing and pointing at the profusions of angel fish, turquoise parrot fish, silvery needle fish, canary yellow box fish, and many more. Another day we took the dinghy all the way around the island, and yet another day we hiked with cruising neighbors from “Identity Crisis”, their recently purchased boat that has yet to be renamed.


After the first day the waves calmed down and we were able to take the kayaks to shore for easier exploring and investigating. One afternoon I was entertained by a Blue-footed Booby doing the courtship dance.


Another afternoon we were sitting on the boat when two adult whales and a calf spent about a half hour rolling and spanking the water with their flippers, breeching, and even spanking with their tail flukes. They were too far away for pictures but easily seen with binoculars.

When we arrived there was so much fishing activity, due to many Mexicans coming to towns like Mazatlan and San Blas for Semana Santa, the two weeks leading up to Easter when they eat fish instead of meat, and many go on vacation. This time of year the fishermen were out in full force, sleeping on their boats and netting as many fish as they could. Then by Good Friday almost all of the fishermen were gone from the island.

Our fisherman neighbors in the anchorage by the Monas

I’ll finish with a shot of Balance and the full moon, and then one of the Monas at sunset. Now we’re in Mazatlan for about four days, leaving on April 5 to sail across the Sea of Cortez to La Paz.
If I can get WordPress to cooperate again I’ll post some pictures tomorrow of the rather sensuous sculpture along the malecon in Mazatlan, and other scenes.




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