Crossing the Sea of Cortez

“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”

-Edgar Allen Poe

Feeling a bit restless and a bit poorer we were ready to move on. Pinned down by a nasty system in the Sea of Cortez our logistical stop in Cabo had become an extended stay. So we decided to jump on the tail end of  the system hoping to move quickly and make good time. Everything looked good, PassageWeather was telling us 20knts of wind and it looked like the low that had passed through lost most of its punch. We figured we would have some unsettled seas for the first day as things began to calm down but no worse than we had seen during the trip down the Baja peninsula.
After breakfast and closing out the bill on our overpriced slip we began making our way out of the harbor. The bay was in a state of madness the likes of which I have never seen; the IMAG0926catalyst, two cruise ships. The tenders, coutless sportfishing vessels, faux pirate ships, “extreme whale watching” boats(seriously, it’s a thing) and seemingly every panga in cabo jockeyed for position like scooters do in Southeast Asia. And there we were, right in the middle of it, doing 3.5 knots with our little single cylinder Yanmar thumping away. We spotted a couple of whales as we pulled away from the chaos and moved towards open water.

We started to notice a significant change in the sea state about five miles east of the bay. The seas were confused with steep waves out of both the north and north east making for an uncomfortable motion. 15 knots of wind from the north pushed us along and began to topple the peaks of the waves. Despite the bad motion it looked like we should make good time.

Five hours and 25 miles later the sun was getting close to the horizon and the situation had been progressively deteriorating as each mile passed. We  had 35 knots of wind and the waves were now breaking. Uncertain of what to expect, I decided to pull in a third reef before night fall. We hove-to and I went forward to begin taking in sail. Just as I reached the mast a massive plume of mist shot up into the air as a humpback whale surfaced not more than 10 ft away. It was an incredible and humbling experience but it put me on edge that evening. The thought of hitting a 20 ton whale in the dark of night 100 miles from shore amidst breaking seas and strong winds would keep creeping into my conscious mind till day break. Once the whale went on his way it was time to get that reef in and press on.

wavesThe winds continued to increase and a few hours after nightfall I was glad I put that 3rd reef in. It was good and rough now, foam covered the seas, spray filled the air and crashing waves came from three directions. Waves frequently found their way into the cockpit; even in my Grundens  I was soaked through and through. We were close-hauled, pointing 45 degrees higher than what our heading should have been and we were still moving south. Josie was sick and vomiting by this time and I decided it would be best to let her sleep til dawn and hold fast through the night.

There was a thick cloud cover and it was impossible to see beyond the boat. I was getting a good soaking every 5 seconds or so while sitting in the cockpit trying to avoid the larger waves. With my harness on, I would peer vainly into the darkness looking for approaching waves, whales or other vessels only to get a face full of water for my efforts. This went on the whole night as as I sung Plastic Jesus and took solace in the fact that it seemed as though we have reached a sort of plateau. I knew rest was just on the other side of dawn and there was enough work to be had to keep me occupied that night.

With sore arms, raw fingers and a fuzzy mind the grey of morning slowly set upon us. The winds had subsided if only in the slightest. I was exhausted and starved, I roused Josie and she came on deck to take her watch. As she settled in I went below to dry out, find something to snack on and get some rest. I smiled to myself as I thought about the warmth of the blanket and the momentary escape sleep would bring. I sat down and began taking my jacket off when we were hit by a large wave. My arms bound in my half removed pull-over I was sent flying across the cabin face first into the leeward window. It all happened in a blink, no time to react, no time to brace one’s self. I was no worse for wear but my shoulder had pulled the depth sounder out of the bulk head, bolts and all. Worse yet my face broke the 1/4inch polycarbonate window in two places and pushed it out half an inch.

By this point the boat was a mess and everything was wet. This was my breaking point, I went temporarily out of my mind as I searched for duct tape, a towel, a screwdriver and a hammer. Back on with the boots, the harness and the foul weather gear. Crawling on hands and knees I wedged myself between the kayak and the shrouds. I tried to unscrew and reset the window but it would not go back in. So after the screwdriver went flying into the ocean, never to be seen again, I took to the infuriating task of wiping down the window between waves and trying to put wet tape over a wet surface. After going through five or six pieces I shouted “Stop being fucking wet!” but the ocean would not abide, instead it dipped the rail in an act of defiance; filling my boots with water. When I finally did manage to get the window covered well enough to keep most of the water out, I was too riled up to have any hope of sleep. So I sat with my wife, whose finger had been smashed by the companionway cover, for a short while to calm down and get my mind right.

I eventually did get to sleep and when I awoke the wind had dropped to 20 knots although the seas were still heaving. I was at a loss trying to figure out what was to come in the next 24 hours, the signals were mixed; we had a red sunset and IMAG0954-1-1-1sunrise, both mares’ tails and mackerel skies, the barometer went from 30.00 to 30.05 and then back to 30.00 again. With nothing to go on but my gut and remembered weather maps we proceeded cautiously.

Throughout the day the seas began to settle and the winds continued to become more fair, a good thing too because we had been pushed south and needed to make up some ground. The weather finally gave up her secret and on the horizon rain squalls could be seen making their way towards us. But as long as we had the wind on our side we made good use of it, always keeping a weary eye on the sky.

Fortune was with us the rest of the day and the rain stayed well clear of our small sailboat. As the second day became the second night lightning began to appear in the distance, first in the west, then the south and finally the northwest. We spent the night in the cockpit, knowing full well our favorable winds could change in the blink of an eye. We could be engulfed in a squall and be set on beam’s end and be sent scrambling on deck to pull in sail. This was to be another restless night, watching the fire in the skies, hoping the seas would be kind but awaiting her fury.

We were looked upon favorably that night and even though mother nature growled she did not bite. 30NM from Mazatlan the sun began its daily journey across the sky, lifting the darkness from the sea. The light of the new day revealed that the rain was in fast pursuit just off our stern. A warm front like this usually moves between 180 and 240 miles a day so we pressed on as quickly as we could hoping to make landfall before it caught up with us.

20130123_102310-1-1As we came within a few miles of the harbor we called the marina for our slip assignment. We were informed they were dredging and we would be unable to enter for another two hours. This was alright because the following clouds had moved to the south and we were now becalmed. We hove-to 3 miles off shore, made lunch and relaxed until we could enter the breakwater.
It may not have been our longest, nor the winds any stronger than the norther we experienced in Baja but it was the most exhausting, wettest and least comfortable trip the Vento Dea has been on. When you are out there, in the middle of it, your self-importance is washed away and you can see clearly how finite and easily quantifiable our lives are. Without our fellow human beings our lives hold no meaning. These eternal winds and waves will rage on long after we have all gone from the earth and the whole of human history will pass without notice.

4 thoughts on “Crossing the Sea of Cortez

    • She was a bit stressed out but she did fine. She stayed inside the cabin for two days and we finally let her out to the cockpit a few hours before we arrived in Mazatlan since the weather calmed down.

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