San Benito Islands

Our chart plotter shows how we apparently sailed over land
A pit stop at San Quintin the previous evening treated us to a pretty pastel sunset

When approaching an unfamiliar anchorage, sailors are advised to arrive in daylight so that they are able to look out for hazards for themselves, rather than relying on charts that may be outdated, inaccurate, or insufficient to convey critical information. In practice, that means dividing the distance you need to travel, by your anticipated boat speed, to figure out a suitable departure time from your current anchorage. This has worked out on Monsoon most of the time, except when we approached the San Benito Islands. Land was within sight as the sun sank lower and lower into the horizon, and we willed the wind to pick up just a bit more, but eventually we arrived an hour late. Not wanting to heave to for the rest of the night so frustratingly close to an anchorage where we could sleep soundly, we forged our way on gingerly, our senses peeled for potential obstructions and muscles tingling to jump into action at a moments notice. Switching on the radar however, we noticed a glaring mistake in our charts. In the narrow channel that we needed to pass to get to our anchorage, the radar was sensing land offset to the west by a quarter mile compared to our charts. But the moon was bright and the sky was clear, and we managed to ease our way slowly into anchor by relying on the radar, watching in disbelief as our chart plotter traced our progress supposedly right over land. Flying fish scattered away from our boat as we dropped our anchor, and the sound of elephant seals barking into the night greeted our arrival at this peaceful deserted island group.

Clementine the dinghy at the San Benito beach landing 
The modest fish camp church 
Safety at sea is at the forefront of the fishermen’s prayers

In the morning, we woke up to find that we had anchored an embarrassingly long distance away from where we needed to land our dinghy to get to shore. A panga with 4 guys in it came out to greet us; our first contact with locals fully devoid of English and in a non tourist setting. With our terrible fragments of Spanish, we gave a shot at communicating with them anyway, resulting in an awkward and short conversation whereby we guessed that they were asking if we had any alcohol to trade with them. They were polite enough and waved us goodbye, and we retreated into the boat in embarrassment to look up some basic phrases we could use when we inevitably saw them again.

The trail up to the lighthouse
Approaching the newer, more utilitarian lighthouse
This is what a lighthouse’s power supply looks like

The next day, notebook full of phrases and Spanish dictionary in hand, we rowed our dinghy to shore. In front of us was a collection of small huts, but there were no people in sight. Our cruising guidebook had mentioned that it was a fishing village, but at the moment, it looked abandoned. Wading up to the village’s dirt road from the beach, we had the feeling of trespassing onto someone’s lawn. Could we walk around the island unattended? Presently, the same 4 guys from the panga the day before emerged to greet us. Were they the only people on the island? Time to put our phrases to use. “¿Vosotros sois pescados?” No, they explained. They were the security team on the island looking out for abalone poachers. The huts around us was a seasonal fishing camp, but the season wouldn’t start until December. ” Oh, look, a baby! “, they exclaimed happily, and introduced themselves. Ruiz “the Captain”, Manuel, Nery “the Chef”, and Alejandro. We asked if we could hike around the island, at which Alex happily offered to guide us up the hills to look at the island’s lighthouses.

The older lighthouse on the north side of the island is out of commission, but is nevertheless a pretty ruin


Our walk turned out to be quite a hike, huffing up to the highest peak on the island carrying an oversized toddler in a backpack. The view however, was spectacular; a 360 degree panorama of the 3 rocky San Benito Islands with waves crashing all around, and the neighboring Cedros Island and mainland in the distance. “Look out for these detached cacti balls though”, Alex pointed out, at which all 3 of us were summarily stabbed in the foot multiple times along our hike, despite us keeping our eyes out for them. Our conversations started out awkwardly, but we gradually got used to the idea of passing the dictionary between each other and began to chat a bit more. Alex told us that he had a wife and two kids back on Cedros Island. “It’s a nice place there, you should go and see it. It’s a lot bigger than this island”, he said. The security team was on a 15 days on, 15 days off schedule, so he got to go home and see his family then. “What do you guys do for fun here then?”, Travis asked. ” I play baseball on Cedros. Oh, you mean here? We’re on watch 24 hours a day, but we listen to the radio a lot.” Travis asked what all the holes he kept sinking his feet into were, at which Alex explained that they were tunnels made by burrowing birds. We stopped by the newer, working lighthouse first, and then were led to the older discontinued one down the hill. “We don’t come up here at night”, said Alex, pointing out a grave in the side of the hill. “It’s haunted by the ghost of a captain that we murdered here.”

Detached cacti balls that work best for stabbing you in the foot
A cuter, flowery, non detachable type that I prefer 
A local plant that I can’t identify

Later that day, we had the crew over on Monsoon as guests. “Mi casa es su casa”, we said, borrowing a popular host phrase. They were delighted. We had planned to trade movies on our hard drives, but we did not have any in Spanish or with subtitles, so the idea was scraped. Instead, Ruiz entertained us by playing our ukulele and singing, while we compared fishing lures and they taught us which ones to use for different types of fish. We showed them the cruising guidebook that we had, and when they landed on the entry for Turtle Bay; our next stop, Manuel exclaimed ” Hey, that’s my cousin in the photo, the restaurant waitress. Her name’s Carla.” A small world indeed. At one point, they guys’ dinghy somehow detached itself from Monsoon and started drifting away. There was a moment of panic, and deliberation about the best way to get it back, which ended in Alex jumping into the water and swimming after it. The water was still cold around these parts, and the current was washing the dinghy away out into the open ocean faster than Alex could swim. Travis and I started panicking, sure that we were about to watch a guy die in front of our eyes. We tried to up our anchor and go after him, but the rest of the guys didn’t seem overly concerned. 15 minutes later, Alex was driving the dinghy back, but then accidentally rammed Monsoon a couple of times trying raft up. At this moment, I may add that this was a sizable dinghy, at least half the size of Monsoon. “He’s the new guy,” Nery said apologetically. We got a towel out for Alex and made hot mocha for everyone.

The catch of the day
Ruiz and Manuel filleting fish for lunch

The next morning, our 4 new Mexican friends stopped by Monsoon and told us that they were off fishing, would we like to come along? I stayed on the boat to look after Rowan, but Travis followed them, eager to learn more fishing skills. In the afternoon, he returned with an invitation to a fish lunch at the security hut. “They taught me how to swear at other fishermen in Spanish”, said Travis excitedly. When we arrived at the hut, Manuel and Ruiz were busy filleting the fish that they had caught; 20 or so white fish. “I caught 3 of them”, said Travis. We asked if we could help out, but they motioned for us to have a seat, “Mi casa es su casa.” Nery and Alex had in front of them a gigantic bowl, in which they were making fish ceviche for tostadas. We hadn’t had tostadas before, but we told them we were glad that we could eat it first as home cooked food with locals instead of at a restaurant. Rowan had the rule of the hut, walking wherever he pleased. All the guys there had kids of their own, except for Ruiz. Alex joked that Ruiz should be Rowan’s padrino; godfather, and we spent the rest of the day referring to him as such.

Nery, Alex, Rowan, Travis and Ruiz take a group photo
The view from our hike

Dropping us off at Monsoon, the crew seemed genuinely sad to see us leave. “Where are you off to next?”, they asked. “Turtle Bay tomorrow, La Paz by December, and eventually the world round”, we replied. They waved us off and asked us to visit again someday. Such is the nature of our nomadic lifestyle; we make friends that we almost know better than the people we see every day at home, but then we have to say goodbye. More adventures, new friends and great memories beckon to us in the future.

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