Having rounded Cabo San Lucas, we were still not properly in the Sea of Cortez yet. In the transition zone between Cabo and La Paz, the weather is influenced by systems coming from the open ocean to the south and within the sea itself from the north. Cruisers who have sailed in these parts warned us of the turbulent seas that form in the transition zone, especially when heavy Norther winds blow in opposition to currents coming from the south. But having spent 6 months comfortably sailing down the Pacific coastline, almost exclusively downwind and in gentle ocean swells, it did not hit home to us what this transition zone would feel like.
Watching our weather reports, we picked a day to sail from Cabo San Lucas to San Jose del Cabo, a mere 18 miles away, in wind that we considered if anything to be too light for our heavy, full keeled, slow Monsoon. Leaving at daybreak, we felt hopeful for an easy sail and maybe even exploring some tide pools after lunch. We did not even put our dinghy on deck since it was such a short transit. Shortly after leaving our anchorage however, we realized that it was going to be a slog to get to our destination. In our most pessimistic speed estimates, we expect to sail at only 3 knots, but with choppy seas in our way, our speed was cut down to a pathetic 2.5 knots, the speed of someone taking a morning stroll, stopping to pick flowers and have a croissant. At times we swore we were even moving backwards. We were settling in for what we expected then to be a boring and uncomfortable ride when suddenly Travis looked over our stern and noticed that Clementine was filling with sea water. Panicking, we realized that a tiny hole that had been building over the past months just above the waterline was causing the dinghy’s storage compartment to fill with water. Watching in horror as Clementine started disappearing below the sea, we pulled her up with all our might and started bailing her out, then proceeded with the tricky process of lifting our heavy fiberglass dinghy on deck and tying her down while the sea bounced us around.
Shaken, tired and apologetic for not having put Clementine away Bristol fashion like we should have, we proceeded on to San Jose. However, approaching our destination, we consulted our cruising guide and saw that it called for an anchorage that did not seem protected at all from the weather; a mud bar outside the estuary that protruded instead of indented into the surrounding landscape. We could see breaking surf all along the beach, and nowhere to land our dinghy. By now we were used to overnight passages, so we thought nothing of making a split decision to continue on through the night towards our next planned destination; Los Frailes. We would spend the next 10 hours cursing that decision.
As evening progressed, the wind grew stronger, and at last we were able to sail at a decent speed; 6 knots or so. In our experience, the wind grows stronger in the evenings once the land has had all day to warm up, and then it dies down again as the sun sets, so we usually relish a few hours of extra speed around sunset. But as night grew closer, the wind only grew stronger, and we decided to take down our mainsail so as not to be overpowered. As night progressed, we waited for the wind to die down, but it grew yet stronger, and the seas became rougher and rougher. In darkness, we sailed on, hardly believing how heavy the weather had become. Our weather forecast had shown only 15 knots of sustained wind speed, what we consider mild back in the San Francisco Bay. But we felt like what we were experiencing was at least double that. We reefed our jib, then reefed it more and dropped the mizzen too. We were still getting overpowered. By now, we only had a sliver of jib out and our engine on to power us through the merciless waves. We were only making about a knot of headway, and were continuously drenched by spray coming over our dodger. Once, a wave crashed into our cockpit, flooding it. We were heeled over so much that once even our coaming went underwater. Wind can only do so much, but waves can break a boat. Each wave we hit felt like smashing into a pile of bricks. Scared doesn’t even begin to describe what we felt; one wrong maneuver could roll us and seriously damage our boat. My mouth went dry and my mind raced in hyper alert mode. Mercifully Rowan was asleep in the cabin, safely nested in the leecloths and unaware of our stress. We watched the chart plotter tick down the remaining transit time; our arrival seemed an impossibly long way away. It is said that if you spend any amount of time sailing, you will spend some of that time wishing you were somewhere else. Right then I was fantasizing pretty hard about living in a house on land and growing a nice little vegetable patch.
By the third time our cockpit was flooded, we decided that we had had enough, it was better to turn back to San Jose and lose 8 hours of progress than to endure gale force winds for another 12 hours. We changed course to sail downwind, and the apparent wind conditions calmed down a bit and the boat became more controllable. Travis had been hand steering the whole evening once conditions had become overwhelming for our windvane. Tired and hungry, he was able to have a snack and nap while I steered. Following the waves, it would only take us 2 hours to retrace the same distance we had fought for in the last 8 hours. We were feeling so defeated that all we wanted to do was reach a safe harbor as quickly as possible. Conditions looked manageable for the first hour back, when the wind direction changed yet again and we somehow found ourselves sailing upwind into gale force winds. This time we knew that a safe marina lay only an hour away, so we powered thru with the last of our determination. The only problem was that we were arriving in an unfamiliar marina in pitch darkness. We spotted another boat anchored outside the breakwater, but rather leaving us in the fate of the weather, I decided that for our safety, we absolutely had to muscle through into the marina. We just had to trust that our charts and radar were accurate and our eyesight good enough to identify the channel lights.
The next morning, anchored within the already filled to capacity marina, we watched as boat after boat arrived seeking refuge from the weather. 3 boats that had anchored within the marina had come detached and gotten blown onto the rocks, one of them suffering rudder damage. Other boats rocked so badly that their crew became seasick. Talking to other sailors that had to endure the same bad weather as us was therapeutic, although most of them did not have to go thru as extreme conditions as we did, having arrived earlier or only having sailed on the outskirts of the gale. We were happy to be safe, and spent the next 2 days licking our emotional wounds before a second attempt to Los Frailes. On hindsights, we could have weathered the gale much better if we had hove to; stopping the boat in such a way as to create calm conditions for the boat to wait in. But that will remain a lesson learned for future reference.
Our second attempt towards Los Frailes turn out a lot better. We waited for the gale to have passed long enough that the seas were once again flat. Boats that had proceeded a day ahead of us still reported unreasonably lumpy seas. We were looking forward to Los Frailes, since it is the closest anchorage to the Cabo Pulmo reef, the only hard coral reef in the Sea of Cortez and a thriving habitat for colorful tropical fish. Disappointingly however, neither us nor any of the other cruisers around us could figure out how to get to the actual reef, several miles away from the anchorage. Going by dinghy would require a good engine and lots of fuel, while going by road was tricky and involved some trespassing onto private property. So instead us cruisers created our own fun. Campbell’s Sloop; one of the boats in the anchorage, put on a screening of a documentary about whales by projecting it onto the side of one of the local fishermen’s white trucks. All of the fishermen at the camp were invited, as were all the cruisers in the anchorage, most of whom came from the Baja Ha Ha flotilla. It turned out to be a fun night as everyone sat in the warm sand under the moonlight to watch the show; kids, dogs, family and friends, with a box of popcorn to pass around. It might have been an ordeal to get here for not much of a reward, but here we were enjoying a unique experience only afforded to cruisers. We were part of the society now.