The Downhill Run is my 1200 mile commute from the incredible see lodges summer home in San Pedro (LA Harbor) to our winter playground in the Sea of Cortez, base port being La Paz, the City of Peace and capital of Baja California Sur.
After weeks of gathering stores of prized foodstuffs not readily available in Mexico or dearly overprice there, plus accumulating all the spare parts our forward thinking could remember, not to forget harvesting our tomatoes and canning them into sauce, picking and drying three burlap sacks of walnuts and chain-sawing and splitting enough firewood to help keep the fires going in my family’s three households, it was time to pack. Pack the wagon and leave our cozy little foothill lake house and start the overland first part of the commute.
Shortly after our arrival at the Cabrillo Way Marina, my crew began arriving, Caleb from Prescott Arizona followed shortly thereafter with our long time friends Chris and Kathy from Santa Barbara with their teenage grandson Jacob in tow. The next 24 hours were full of chores readying her (the INNcredible Sea Lodge) for the near three week journey through the Pacific waters of coastal Baja California.
Pushing off the dock in San Pedro, one stop remained – topping up with diesel at Jankowitz fuel dock. The long time lure of cheaper fuel prices in Mexico had disappeared just two years ago, so filling up in LA Harbor saved almost $2 per gallon compared to the over $1 (18 pesos) per liter price in Mexico. That done we motored outside the breakwater of the world’s fourth busiest harbor, raised our sales and set our course for Ensenada – ETA 26 hours later.
I like to keep two lines out trolling for dinner but the floating big bulb kelp is such a menace that all lines come in at night because even in the daylight we still snag a floating island of kelp now and then. That cursed fiasco demands a complete slowdown of the boat to muscle the long trolling line back to the boat so we can release the kelp.
The predicted weather showed a big blow coming in late that next day shortly after our projected arrival and I really wanted to experience that event snugly tied to the dock at the Cruise Port Marina in Ensenada. We made it not only in time to miss the blow but in time to walk the 10 blocks to our favorite fish taco street vendor in all of Ensenada Los Flores – 18 pesos for taco pescado, 23 pesos for taco camerones with all the fresh fixins. With a crew of non-drinkers, the idea of partying the night away on the strip in Ensenada was not even on our radar for this Sunday night. A good night’s sleep after our first overnight sail was everyone’s desire.
Ensenada, our port of entry into Mexico, is so unique around the world in that the clearing process can be accomplished all under one address, in one building, in one big room with counters for the port captain, immigration, customs, the bank even fishing licenses. Brilliant idea that has not inspired anywhere else in my cruising halfway around the world.
Officially entered and free to roam about we pushed off early at the reasonable hour of 0815 heading out round Bufadora and 120 nm (nautical miles) down to the big shallow mouth of the estuary at San Qintin arriving the next morning at 0630 just before sunrise. After breakfast, a little extra shut eye, the crew kayaking to the beach and back, the consensus was to catch the present wind and sail all the way toIslas Los Benitos about 30 hours away. But the winds blew a perfect 8 to 15 knots propelling us at 6 to 8 knots SOG (speed over ground) sailing wing-on-wing then back to a reach all the way to the land of the elephant seals.
Anchored in 28 feet in a patch of sand amongst rocks in this remote mini archipelago some 50 miles offshore of the mainland, we could hear and smell the elephant seals a little better than we could see them as they blend into the hard scape along the shore. Visible unaided when they rear up there heads and with more detail through the eyes of binoculars, the lure of the elephant seals pull me back each year both coming down in November and going back in April.
Another lure and treat of the Benitos comes from the local Pescadores, of which there are only a few, who trade with us for lobsters – a bottle of wine, five beers, some fruit and other foodstuffs got us 15 lobsters to enjoy. Barbecued for dinner, added to our scrambled eggs for breakfast and made into a lobster salad sandwich spread for lunch we had the taste of lobster in our mouse for the next 24 hours all the way to Turtle Bay.
This being my sixth visit to Turtle Bay on my commutes back and forth to the Sea of Cortez, I have never seen a turtle here and on the navigation chart it’s officially named Bahia San Bartolome . Yet this dusty oasis of a fishing village, which is a stop on every boat’s journey for both fuel and some provisioning, is always referred to as Turtle Bay. My first mate Caleb mentioned that Turtle Bay just got a new ballpark filled with Astroturf. As we were anchoring we could already hear the cheers and the announcers chatter from a several thousand feet away. By the time we lowered the dinghy and got ashore this Sunday late afternoon the ball game was over but the ballpark was no less impressive.
The next morning came after a good night’s, a full nights, sleep and by 1000 our sails were up and she was headed out on a two day/two night nonstop run to the broad sweeping well protected Bahia Santa Maria. But first we had 255 nautical miles of open seas to cross. Here is where the mainland arcs way in to the east and we beeline straight across putting us 50+ miles offshore when we’re more than 125 miles from land on the north/south axis. But not to worry, for if you can swim in 10 feet of water, you can swim in 10,000 feet of water – the same goes for sailing. I know both are true for I sailed across the Atlantic and swam in the middle of it too.
We caught our first fish, this first day of December, and a real treat – a big eye tuna. Within five minutes after the tuna hit the deck, I had both thick fillets stuffed in the fridge to chill all the while sailing along.
All eyes were on the big eye tuna as it appeared again, this time thinly sliced cross cuts served on a communal platter with a special wasabi sauce. Anyone’s reluctance to sashimi (a.k.a. raw fish) disappeared after one bite melted away as smooth as butter, unless you overdid on the wasabi and singed some of the hairs in your nose. Not even the finest sushi restaurant could compete with this simply spectacular sashimi experience.
This double overnight sail was conveniently punctuated with an early arrival at 0230 because we did so well sailing along at 6.5 – 8.5 knots SOG. By 0245 all were fast asleep peacefully rocking at anchor in Bahia Santa Maria.
The sun rising has a way of luring me up and out of bed to witness the awakening of a new day regardless of what time I had laid my head down – and so it was. Bright sunshine, albeit windy, with the water warmed to a balmy 77°, I decided to suit up in my dive gear to deep clean the bottom of my catamaran’s two hulls and two saildrives. I sucked in every drop of air in my tank over the 75 minutes to scrape off the white crusty growth acquired in the INNcredible Sea Lodge’s summer home in Southern California.
Meanwhile this beautiful day was the crew’s day to get out and explore – and so they did. The long sandy beach here is littered with sand dollars and shells and fronts an estuary alive with birds of many different feathers. The bay is so shallow that although we anchored in only 19 feet of water, she laid more than a quarter mile to shore. Against the offshore relentless wind made for a vigorous kayak in, the alternative being a good long swim.
When at anchor the batteries need a good charge each day. Our 13.5 KW diesel generator on board is mighty enough to do that plus everything else all at once. So after dinners the generator runs, all rechargeable devices are plugged in, the water maker is making 20+ gallons per hour, and we all sit down to enjoy a movie on the flat screen. By movie’s end all is turned off, the batteries nicely topped up, and total quiet returns aboard the INNcredible Sea Lodge – perfect for a much-needed full nights sleep.
Deciding when to leave is based on our ETA to the next anchorage. It’s always best to arrive in daylight unless you have intimate knowledge from experience of that next anchorage. Also the first part of this multiple day/night run has in the past, delivered the most awesome whale watching. So we started our run on December 3 at 1400 with an ETA 0700 on December 5 at the famous Cabo San Lucas.
Whales cited yet no showstoppers breaching like last year here, at least not yet.
Soon after dawn’s first light I let out the trolling lines on both rods. We were making good speed, 6+ knots, which is important to interest the exciting more athletic predator fish. ZZZI IINNNG! The sound of the line running wildly out and Jacob is the first to the portside reel. Reeling in but getting nowhere, this fish, whoever it was, was giving this modest reel and Jacob a fight. In short time Jacob claims he’s reeling in pain. I take over and slowly make little bits of progress reeling in this deep diver.
And wouldn’t you know minutes later, the starboard side reel starts to ZZIINNG and only Jacob is up to get it. Pain aside, Jacob starts reeling in albeit much easier on this larger rod and dual speed real. Jacob has this fish in before I have mine close enough to see what it is. Jacob pulled in another big eye tuna and eventually so did I.
For lunch the crew powered down two platters of the best fresh raw tuna on earth. And there was plenty more to enjoy served in other ways for meals to come. The day wasn’t half over when about 45 nautical miles north of Land’s End the much anticipated multicolored speed demon struck our painted cedar plug. Always a challenge until on board and knocked out, the Dorado (a.k.a. Mahi-Mahi) likes to jump, leap, wiggle and flop and find ways to get free even when already on deck. Bracing my crew over–enthusiastically with that bundle of knowledge all within 30 seconds, we were all ready to successfully bring this one in. And so it was.
Reminiscent of crossing the Atlantic, this same beautiful hot sunny day prompted me to suggest we stop out here 20 nautical miles off the coast near Todos Santos, sails down and motors off, and everyone go for a refreshing swim. Thousands of feet deep, so crystal clear and warm, once in, we all just swam, frolicked and floated for nearly half an hour reluctant to get out.
We made such good time on this run that instead of arriving at our ETA 0700 we rounded the famous Land’s End in the glow of the beach resort’s lights and set our anchor right off the sandy beach at midnight. A whole day of fun swimming, snorkeling and crowd watching looking in from our anchorage was ours to enjoy when we woke.
Then late afternoon Caleb, Jacob and I took the dinghy into the harbormaster’s dock to explore the town. Walking the barrio, then into old town so Caleb and Jacob could shop for gifts, we found our much sought after destination – Mi Casa restaurant for dinner. The ambience of this iconic cantina is well worth the extra effort to find, a true dining experience.
After dinner we hopped onto a small collectivo bus to meander through the barrio’s out to the big box store Soriana to gather some major provisions for our next weeklong journey up the Sea of Cortez. The collectivos are the way to go where the equivalent fair of $1 instead of $20 for a taxi gets you just about anywhere you need to go. But on the ride back, all loaded down with our bags full of provisions, the collectivo we hopped on smelled like it was leaking gasoline – bad. We just figured it was coming from the engine. One stop along the way a man came from the back of the bus carrying a car battery and got off. Behind him came another man carrying a large plastic container full of gasoline and thank God got off too. Had a cigarette been lit well, I wouldn’t be writing to tell this tale.
Now it was time to turn the corner and start heading up the Sea of Cortez. The challenge is this time of year the wins like to blow down the Sea of Cortez bringing with them steep, close together, confused wind waves that can bring even the best of cruising sailboats to their knees.
So were up with our anchor at 0400 in total darkness saved by the rising third quarter moon beaming that perfectly lit our pathway out through the other boats anchored off Cabo. Made good SOG 5.5 to 6.2 knots until about 1000 when the wind quickly built to 25 knots on our nose and stayed there all day bringing our SOG at times down to 3 to 3 1/2 kn.
Nevertheless we made it to anchor in the lee of the big rocky mountain called Los Frailles and put out about 150 feet of chain just to make sure we weren’t going anywhere.
The idea was to get up again at 0400 and muscle our way up to Ensenada de Los Muertos to sneak in those precious hours of relative calm before the northerly winds howled again. 0400 came, the captain and his crew mobilized, but the wind had never backed down and was already howling. So I said to my mates, “Back to bed, we’ll try again tomorrow”. No one argued.
That gave us a day of leisure – each and everyone free to do whatever- great snorkeling here. Two fishing boats had pulled in and anchored off and behind us. Quiet all day after their night of fishing, the deck came to life late in the day. Seeing a neighboring sailor returning to his sailboat in his kayak with a load of shrimp, I lowered our dinghy with two bags in a bucket in hand and motored over to get some of this action. “Queremos a comprar camerones, por favor. Tres kilos.” The deck hands duty fully filled our two bags and weighed them showing us the scale to verify – 4 kg. But they said 300 pesos the price for 3 kg will do. So the US equivalent $18 bought us 8.8 pounds of fresh shrimp.
Back at our boat I portioned, bagged and froze more than half for later as our feasting began. Here it is December 18, were enjoying some today and probably enjoyed more well beyond Christmas.
By 0400 on December 8 conditions improved a little but it was time to take the bull by the horn and muscle our way to Muertos. Bashing up to Muertos wasn’t pretty and a long day going only 3 to 4 knots but with INNcredible muscle we made it – alive.
Anxious to start exploring Espiritu Santo, we were under way by 0500 the next morning. To my surprise the conditions kept improving as the day went on and we made anchor in 9 feet of water off Playa Bonanza, at the lower end of Espiritu Santo, by 1300. That early arrival gave us plenty of time to swim, beachcome and explore before the long swim back to the boat almost a quarter mile offshore yet in 9 feet of water. There was even time for me to help Jacob with his geometry and algebra worksheets. We powered through the problems over the next couple quiet hours as the others napped. I enjoyed remembering geometry all over again.
Totally beyond where we needed to go, I took us up to a favorite anchorage called Caletta Candelero where we enjoyed the most perfect day of the whole trip. Candlero has a tall rock in the middle of the bay around which we snorkeled an exciting reef. Then went ashore for a hike up the canyon sculpted by time and lush with vegetation and fig trees before returning to the INNcredible Sea Lodge for our Last Supper on the hook December 10.
Next morning we headed for our final destination Marina Costa Baja whom I had emailed days before and said we will arrive by 12 noon. And just like a well run railroad Captain Fitzwine was tied up the fuel dock to check-in at 1155 after 18 days and 1200 miles at sea.