The main reason for our trip to the small working port of Topolobampo was to stretch our legs and venture inland. We left the boat in the secure marina and headed to nearby Los Mochis, where we caught the train, “el Chepe,” and embarked on what is hailed as one of the most scenic train rides in the world. The route winds its way into the Copper Canyon, Mexico’s version of the Grand Canyon in the US (but an area four times larger).
With 37 bridges, 86 tunnels, and even a full 360 over itself to gain altitude, the train ride itself is spectacular. Stops in several small towns give a glimpse into local life along the way.
One of the stops is Divisidero, a stop without a town, where you can hop off the train to see the canyon (Clark Griswold style), grab a quick bite to eat – numerous vendors sell gorditas (tortilla pockets stuffed with cheese and other yummy fillings) – and browse the local handicrafts.
Our end point in the canyon was the town of Creel, located at 8000 ft. This area is home to the Tarahumara Indians, who are known for their ability to run extreme distances. We found them to be shy and reserved but friendly people. The weather was cool and beautiful and we took the opportunity to visit one of the nearby Tarahumara communities and the 18th century San Ignacio Mission.
On the way back we spent the night in El Fuerte, founded in 1564. It is the birthplace of Zorro and home to one of Latin America’s last remaining dry tropical forests. Its location by the Rio Fuerte makes it an oasis in the midst of the surrounding dry, arid landscape. In town are numerous old mansions that have been turned into boutique hotels, each quite charming and unique.
Our visit coincided with that of a regional dignitary, too, so we got to catch the local parade in his honor, complete with caballeros and dancing horses!
One thing we took away: 3 days was too short. We would love to return to explore more of the towns and spend time hiking and biking in the canyon. This was a tasting menu of a trip, for sure.
As the number on the depth finder started rapidly decreasing, I tried to reassess my route while asking Wags for a sanity check. 7 ft… 6 ft… 5 ft… “It’s getting shallow quickly!” 4… 3… 2… Gadabout slid to a halt in the soft sand bottom just outside the channel. We were aground.
After an overnight crossing of the Sea of Cortez to the mainland, we arrived at Topolobampo where we planned to leave the boat while we took the train inland to explore the famed Copper Canyon. To get to the marina we had to leave the main channel and negotiate a secondary channel. There are channel markers in place but the channel is not depicted on the electronic charts, only in one of the guidebooks showing the general path, a path which appears to cross areas much shallower than our 6-ft draft. We were motoring along between the channel markers at about 5 knots. I was at the helm with the next set of markers firmly in my gaze (I thought) and Wags was focused on shore, trying to identify the correct marina through his binoculars, when we came to our abrupt halt. I immediately put the engine in reverse and, luckily, was able to back off without any damage, other than to my ego, as a panga full of fishermen pointed out our error – I had missed a right-hand turn in the channel. Adrenaline still pumping, I guided Gadabout back into the channel and proceeded, SLOWLY, with Wags on the bow keeping a close lookout, until two shrimp boats – yes, they also got to witness the entertaining scene – passed us and provided a clear picture of the way ahead. To our surprise, there were a couple of times the shrimpers went outside the channel markers, their local knowledge serving as a proof point of the constantly shifting bottom.
An hour later, securely in our slip at the marina, we toasted our good fortune – a sand bottom, helpful locals and no damage. There’s a saying that goes, “You haven’t been around until you’ve run aground.” Well, now that we’ve been around, there’s no need to do it again.
From La Paz, we headed north to explore some of the islands and anchorages along the east coast of the Baja California peninsula. Each place was beautiful and unique.
Isla San Francisco offered turquoise blue water, a fun hike and a nightly display of jumping manta rays:
San Evaristo was a charming fishing village with Lupe Sierra and Maggie Mae’s, a wonderful little watering hole where we enjoyed fresh ceviche and cold cervezas while watching the waterside activities and painting a seashell to be hung in the bar for posterity:
In Timbabiche we explored the beautiful mangrove lagoon and snapped a few pictures of the once majestic Casa Grande:
Aqua Verde was a treat with roaming goats, a quiet fishing village and a tienda (store) selling queso fresca (fresh goat cheese):
Puerto Escondido provided a stopover for laundry, provisioning and a place to park the boat while we took a day trip to nearby Loreto:
Our last stop was Isla Carmen, the main attraction of which is Bahia Salinas, where a now defunct salt mining operation once thrived. There is still a caretaker and an active hunting lodge on the island, and the remnants of what once was make for an interesting walk ashore:
There’s much more to see in the Sea of Cortez and we could spend years exploring the area but it was time for us to make the jump to the mainland.
It is our last night in La Paz, Mexico. After a long day of pre-departure errands, we’re on the boat with a glass of wine, watching Pete the Pelican, a nightly visitor, fish from the dock. We’ve spent the last six weeks in La Paz, which is actually about four weeks longer than we originally planned. Plans change when you’re cruising, however, and as we got to know La Paz, it was an easy decision to stick around longer.
With a population of approx. 200K, La Paz is the capital city of Baja California Sur (the southern half of the Baja peninsula). It offers a great blend of culture, art, restaurants and activities, while maintaining a laid-back feel. The people we’ve met are friendly and welcoming, always willing to lend a hand or help us with our “muy malo” (very bad) Spanish. The town’s main tourist draws are the whale sharks – swimming with them is an amazing experience – and trips to the Espiritu Santos islands 20 miles off the coast. On land, one of the best activities is a simple stroll along the malecón, the town’s waterfront. With shops and restaurants on one side of the street and a tiled pathway on the other side, it is alive with people jogging and cycling, children playing, and families and friends enjoying time together.
Another of our favorites in La Paz has been discovering the art around town. Here, it’s not as simple as going to an art gallery and gazing at the paintings and sculptures. The paintings and sculptures are everywhere – some out in the open, some tucked away on a side street, some disguised as graffiti covering entire walls, and some hidden in plain sight in vacant lots turned parks that are easy to miss if you’re not paying attention.
This is a special place. There’s a saying that “the La Paz bungee cord is strong.” We get that. By boat or by land, we’re certain we’ll be back again someday.
The whale shark (tiburon ballena, in Spanish) is the world’s largest fish, reaching lengths of 40 feet or more. Whale sharks have very large mouths and are filter feeders. They feed almost exclusively on plankton and, therefore, despite their size, are completely harmless to humans. They also play friendly host to other fish, such as the remora, or suckerfish, which often hitches a ride. We recently had a unique and amazing opportunity to swim with these creatures in La Paz. Be sure to check out the video!
We were sailing south about 15 miles off the California coast when we saw a huge group of sea lions splashing in unison in front of us… there must’ve been over a hundred. It appeared they were herding some sort of bait fish. We slowed the boat to watch. We didn’t need to move closer as the whole group shifted and swam toward us. It was a phenomenal sight, a sea lion feeding frenzy — then suddenly, several whales surfaced in the middle of the melee. We watched, transfixed, as the sea lions and whales broke up the bait ball, herded it back together, and feasted over and over again. Another amazing day as we explore the world on our sailboat, Gadabout.
Be sure to check out the video, too!
Those who know us well know that we’re fairly social people. They also know, though, that we don’t seek out large group social activities and we typically like to do things on our own program. For instance, when we wanted to snorkel with the manta rays in Hawaii, did we sign up for a tour with its easy transportation and group fun? No. We took our own snorkel gear, rented a dive buoy and light, and slipped into the dark depths of the ocean to swim around a point at night for our own adventure. And it was awesome (except for nearly being dashed on the rocks and the slight sea sickness due to the rough water). For our first foray into Mexico via sailboat, however, we decided to sign up for the annual Baja Ha-Ha rally and make the trip from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas with 530 of our closest friends (or rather, strangers).
Leaving San Diego harbor with 135 other boats was a sight to behold. As darkness fell that first night, it was a surprising sight, in fact. Most offshore overnight passages produce very few encounters with other boats. Our busiest to date had been in Oregon when we saw about 10 fishing boats throughout the night, but that was nothing compared to the number around us on the first Ha-Ha leg. Night watch required constant vigilance to avoid too close passes or worse, collisions. By the second day boats had dispersed enough that these close calls were less of a concern. The benign weather of past Ha-Ha rallies refused to appear, however, and any hope of a relaxing passage disappeared in 25-knot winds and 10-15 foot seas, making for a very uncomfortable ride and a diet of pretzels and water. Day three brought a reprieve from the rough seas in the lee of Isla Cedros before we headed through Dewey channel to round the point toward Bahia de Tortugas (Turtle Bay), the first official anchorage of the rally. Making good time and with only an hour more to go, Wags saw a flash of light and we heard the distress signal from a fellow rally boat that had run aground very near our position. Our “one more hour” became four hours as we diverted to assist with the search and rescue effort (see “Disaster!”). We finally dropped the hook in Turtle Bay and settled down in the cabin with a drink and dinner in the wee hours of the morning, thankful to have the first leg behind us and a couple of relaxing days ahead.
With the Ha-Ha fleet present, Turtle Bay was abuzz with activity. The normally tiny town with dirt streets and only a few fishing pangas in the harbor was transformed into a bustling scene: over 100 anchored boats dotted the bay; Ha-Ha participants visited each other via dinghy; pangas in their temporary roles as water taxis screamed past carrying passengers to and from the beach. In town the few restaurants were full of people eager for cervezas, tacos and wi-fi. As we wandered the streets to get a feel for the town, the elementary school let out and several children took the opportunity to practice their English with the gringos, one little boy asking if we were going to the baseball game later that afternoon. “Si!” we replied. Turtle Bay, thanks to a wealthy benefactor, has a first rate baseball field, complete with artificial turf and grandstands. Each year, the Ha-Ha rally hosts a just-for-fun baseball game. There are no teams, no score, just the requisite people covering bases and the outfield – several decide only at the last moment whether to put down their beers to shag a fly – and a LONG line of batters made up of rally participants and local residents. In the stands, people cheer on the spectacle, reserving their loudest cheers for the local kids, some of whom are, no doubt, the best players on the field. An all-day beach party and picnic the following day gave us a great chance to get to know some of our fellow cruisers.
Leaving Turtle Bay, we continued south for two more days to Bahia de Santa Maria. Perfect conditions on day one yielded great sailing and our first fresh fish dinner. Lack of wind on day two forced us to motor, but the calm seas were still a welcome change from the first leg. Bahia de Santa Maria is a beautiful, remote bay. There is no town, only a smattering of small shacks used by the fishermen during the season. We spent two days there, working on our tans, doing a few boat projects and socializing – a dinghy raft-up/impromptu jam session the first night and a beach party with a live band (that traveled 12 hours to get there) the second night. The best part of Bahia de Santa Maria, though, was the surf break. The waves weren’t big but they were fun, and we were the only surfers on them.
One more overnight brought us to Cabo San Lucas. We continued on for another 20 miles to Puerto los Cabos in San Jose del Cabo, a much quieter and more laid-back atmosphere than the late night party scene and rolling anchorage of Cabo. (Based on feedback from other cruisers we made the right decision.) Transportation was a challenge being so far from the immigration office and rally activities, but we quickly remedied that with a rental car. The Ha-Ha rally officially ended with two more parties and an awards ceremony.
Following the rally wrap-up, most boats immediately headed to the Sea of Cortez. We opted to hang back for another week. We were in no rush and wanted to take a little extra time to enjoy the area before moving on (and to allow Wags to recover from the first food-borne illness of the trip). One day we strapped our surfboards to the top of the car and headed north. An hour and a half later, with bellies full of scrumptious shrimp tacos at non-Cabo prices, we bounced down a mile-long, rutted dirt road to Punta Pescadero and spent the afternoon surfing. Afterward, we headed to Todos Santos, one of our favorite Mexican towns, for a post-surf cerveza and snack before returning to the boat.
Traveling as part of the rally had its positives, including learning from the challenges faced by 135 other boats and the opportunity to meet a lot of great people we’ll cross paths with again in the future. After 10 days of crowded anchorages and large group fun, though, our social meter was pegged at overload. We were ready to get back to our own, fairly social, program.
It was a pitch-black night after three very rough days of being offshore. We were nearing our harbor and being very careful to ensure we gave the entrance point plenty of clearance. Normally we try to avoid entering unknown harbors at night, but the entrance was straightforward and half the Baja Ha-Ha boats were already there providing a good idea of where to anchor. Suddenly a loud alarm started blaring and a red light flashed to my port. I immediately turned away from the land/light while Paula went down to check on where the alarm was coming from. My initial thoughts were that someone was trying to warn us of a hazard, and it was quite unnerving in the inky blackness to not understand what was going on. P silenced the alarm—it was a distress signal coming from the VHF radio. Whew! At least we knew it wasn’t something we had triggered. The alarm blared again, this time with a “Mayday” call. It was garbled, but something about “we’ve gone aground.” Then, silence.
The distress signal automatically transmitted coordinates so we were able to plot it and see that the signal had, in fact, originated where I saw the red flash, probably a flare. The radio was filled with chatter with the rest of the fleet trying to make sense of what was showing up on their systems. Since we were closest to the transmitted coordinates, we became the de facto “on scene commander” and headed toward the location. For the next several hours we circled off shore scanning the darkness for indications of signal lights, wreckage or survivors in the water, relaying radio transmissions and being careful not to put ourselves in the same predicament—the first rule of a SAR (search and rescue) is don’t become a SAR yourself. Another boat that was assisting was able to go closer to shore where a fisherman came out to meet him. There was a language barrier but the crew was able to determine that an American sailboat had run aground and that the passengers were now on shore and being attended to by the Mexican Policia. We stayed on station a while longer until we were able to verify that all occupants were safe and accounted for, then resumed our pitch-black harbor entrance; it was now one thirty in the morning.
The next day we were able to piece together some of what had happened. The boat that went aground was a US sailboat (SV Summerwind, a Newport 41) and part of our rally. There had been three people aboard, the 58-year-old owner, his 22-year-old son and a 75-year-old crewman. No one was injured, but the boat was a total loss. Initial reports indicated that they had tried to navigate by the wrong scale of chart. This has not been corroborated but based on the benign conditions at the time (other than darkness) and the fact that no mechanical difficulties had been reported, it likely was human error. It was a late night after several very rough days so fatigue may have been a causal factor. Paula and I were certainly knackered when we finally dropped anchor. I’m sure it was a devastating blow to the owner and his crew, but on the positive side, no one was injured. Boats can be replaced, but people can’t.
San Francisco: A week in San Francisco Bay is never enough to see and do everything but we were able to explore some areas we hadn’t seen in previous visits – Sausalito, Angel Island, Berkeley and Emeryville. The annual Fleet Week was in full swing, too, so we caught a Blue Angels show, which is always a treat.
Leaving San Francisco, we hopped down the coast, stopping at several more northern CA ports along the way –
Half Moon Bay, home of the famous Mavericks surf break;
Monterey, where the sea lions rule the roost;
Morro Bay (one of our favorite coastal towns), where we caught up with new friends, Carl & Bebot, whom we met in Brookings, OR.
From Morro Bay, we did an overnight and rounded Point Conception, our last major West coast navigational challenge, at night. We were lucky to have light winds and calm seas the entire time.
Santa Barbara: We pulled into Santa Barbara in the early morning and settled into our first southern CA port. We spent four days there, taking in the Harbor Festival, marveling at the beautiful Spanish architecture throughout town, and filling our bellies with good food before continuing south.
LA: After a full day of motoring (thanks to more low/no wind conditions), we grabbed a slip in the beautiful setting of the Marina Del Rey Marina and watched the weekly sailboat race in the channel. With only a couple of days in town we hit the ground running the next day, hoofing it to Venice Beach to check out the famous boardwalk and returning on our newly procured skateboards, a slightly faster but less stable (for Paula, at least) mode of transportation. The next day, we rented a car and explored further afield – Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Hollywood Blvd., Sunset Blvd., and Burbank, plus a visit to the Griffith Observatory and an obligatory pic of the Hollywood sign. Our only rule when driving in LA was “NO HIGHWAYS,” so our route back was an interesting tour of business districts and neighborhoods, some grungy and others over the top swanky. We had a fun time but two days was enough – time to leave the city in our rearview mirror.
Catalina Island: Several people had told us how beautiful the Channel Islands are and that we absolutely must visit, especially Catalina. We nearly skipped it because we only had a day to spare and there were other coastal ports we wanted to visit. With such strong advice, though, we figured we should give it a go. When we moored at Isthmus Cove in Two Harbors, we saw a barren and dusty landscape and a harbor full of mooring balls filling up quickly with weekenders from LA, not exactly the serene beauty we had hoped to find. What we experienced over the course of a day, however, was a laid-back, festive atmosphere with tons of activity – kayaking, paddleboarding, snorkeling – and water so clear you don’t even need to touch it to see the sea life fifteen feet below the surface. We took a few hours to check out Avalon, as well, which has a much different feel, with a busy harbor, a bustling tourist town full of boutique shops and restaurants, and the Casino (not a gambling establishment, but rather, a large event center and theater).
San Diego: One overnight from Catalina Island put us in San Diego, where we’ve spent the last week doing all the last minute preparations before we leave the US and head into Mexican waters. It’s not been all work… we’ve also had the chance to visit some of our fave locations and catch up with old friends, the best way to finish our trip down the US West coast.
On Halloween morning, we departed for Mexico as part of the annual Baha Ha-Ha cruisers’ rally from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas (www.baja-haha.com). Be sure to follow along on our international adventure!
After five weeks at home visiting friends and working on boat projects we put Anacortes in our rearview mirror on Sep 12th and headed to Neah Bay, WA, the stepping off point for our trip down the west coast. Our plan was to take advantage of a short but good weather window that would allow us to go 30-40 miles offshore and sail directly to San Francisco, taking about 5 days. Best laid plans…
After two days we were making good time, albeit with the motor assisting the sails due to a lack of wind. We had settled into our 3 hours on / 3 hours off nighttime watch schedule. On the third day the wind finally picked up, as did the seas, and we shut off the motor. Unfortunately, shortly after, our autopilot seized up and we were forced to hand steer, which is akin to driving a semi truck without power steering. In calm conditions this wouldn’t have been a big deal, but with strong winds and heavy seas it was a very uncomfortable and physically taxing situation. We certainly didn’t want to deal with it for another three days to San Francisco so we headed to the nearest harbor, Brookings Harbor, OR – which wasn’t all that near – about 30 miles (or 6 hours) away.
A week later, with a freshly repaired autopilot, we motored (still no wind) down the coast to Eureka, CA, where Wags polished off a few more boat projects while Paula jumped ship for a short trip to Ohio to attend her high school class reunion and visit with family.
When we finally passed under the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco Bay, a quick calculation showed that our 5-day passage from Neah Bay had taken 17 days. Yes, it took longer than planned, but we faced new challenges, saw new places and met new people along the way, all the elements of a good adventure!