Friday, January 10, 2014

True North December 17 to December 22: Crossing the Sea of Cortez, Isla Isabela, and Chacala

“What's on the other side? The other side!” An adventurous traveler must see it for himself.

This was the day many boats had been waiting for: calmer seas to make the crossing from La Paz to the Pacific coast of Mexico on the opposite shore of the Sea of Cortez. For us and two other Ha-Ha boats, Resolution and Sand Dollar, the initial goal would be Isla Isabela, a World Heritage Site full of seabirds and iguanas and with excellent snorkeling reefs, about 310 nm (~62 hours at 5 kts) from La Paz and 40 nm from the coastal town San Blas, our next planned stop. Isla Isabela is tricky because the anchorages are open to swells and have rocky bottoms which can make setting an anchor securely and later retrieving it from the crevices challenging. Plus, fishing nets and long lines surround the island for miles out offering another hazard by fouling propellers and rudders. We decided to at least pass by and check it out for calm seas and if it appeared too rough to stay, we would proceed to San Blas. Word from others on the mainland from a few days earlier was that the anchorages were too rolly to stay.

Perfect sailing across the Sea of Cortez
We sailed the first 31 hours in pure bliss with a perfect wind NNW 13 to 20 kts. Once set, we barely made sail adjustments. Resolution caught a fish the first morning and called to let us know it – our reputation for being unable to catch a fish was known to them! They dropped back while doing fish prep. We had our hand line out the entire day and didn't catch or see a single fish which means to date, no fish dinners had materialized while underway.

True North and Sand Dollar buddied the rest of the way, keeping within a few miles and VHF radio contact. Sand Dollar, from Seattle, has a unique history: the family bought their 40' older boat for a dollar, spent six years rebuilding it from the inside out, and now have their beautiful Sand Dollar, named by the kids: 14, 12 and 10, out for a year's adventure. It is a work of art and a labor of love. Lucky family, neat kids, and a great bonding experience.
The Sand Dollar kids
Our crossing coincided with a full moon. Such a welcome change to be able to see the water so well in all directions. We could see the La Paz Star, a huge freighter, coming towards us during the night and tried to raise them on the radio see if they were aware of us but to no avail. We changed our course to get out of their way and they passed just a quarter mile away! The following day and night, no other boats came anywhere close.
La Paz Star a little too close at night
It was calm with just a 3 kt wind so we motored. Meanwhile, the wildlife sightings had begun. Sand Dollar reported that a frigate landed on their anchor and stayed with them the whole night. This was still 100 miles from land! They also had a whale sighting just 150' from their boat. Dolphins swam with our boat and shortly later flocks of birds indicated that we were getting closer to Isla Isabela. About 30 nm from the island we saw what first looked like fishing buoys scattered throughout the water but they were turtles, dozens of them spread out over a wide area, many with birds catching a ride on their backs.
Seabird hitching a ride on a turtle
Then, finally, land ho! The fuzzy outlines of the distant islands appeared. We were anxious to arrive before dark! As we got closer, there were a couple of fishing boats. One directed us around his boat in order to avoid his fishing nets. Of the two anchorages at the island, we checked out the one at the south end first, a kind of gloomy looking place with just one sailboat. We then went to the east side, smaller anchorage to find eight boats and dropped our anchor at the north end with two tall rock pinnacles against a pink sky as the sun was setting, and two boats adorned with Christmas lights. Spectacular! We set the anchor at 1740 with a trip line for recovery insurance. We had completed a significant sea crossing safely.
East anchorage, Isla Isabela
December 20-23: Isla Isabella and Chacala
The first night in the anchorage was dead calm. In the morning we were anxious to check out the blue-footed boobies on the beach and hike the trail to the crater lake but the surf was a little rough for a safe beach landing. Instead we snorkeled over to the two rock pinnacles with the Sand Dollar kids. Lots of colorful tropical fish kept everyone easily entertained. Later in the morning, Resolution arrived. They had not been able to get to the anchorage before dark so they hove to in the perfectly calm sea offshore for the night to arrive by daylight. By afternoon, the surf had died enough that we made our break for shore. Gregg shuttled crews from Sand Dollar and Resolution to the beach with perfect timing through mild surf for each landing, losing no one overboard. It's tricky! Ashore, colonies of blue footed boobies walked the beach, some doing the mating dance, and others sitting on nests of blue eggs on the ground while their partners stood guard nearby. They are quite used to being around people and were unafraid of us.
Very blue-footed boobies!
We hiked the trail to Crater Lake, the caldera of an extinct volcano now filled with water, encountering yellow and green footed boobies and frigates along the way. Surf can change abruptly so even while ashore, we kept watch to make sure we would be able to leave before it became too rough

In the evening, Sand Dollar hosted Resolution and True North for drinks and dessert while discussing plans for the following day. Resolution would stay another night. Sand Dollar would proceed to San Blas to tour the crocodile estuary with another kid boat. We chose to go on to Chacala, just 55 nm away. Then we would all meet a couple of nights later at La Cruz. Lightning to the east lit the distant sky and a strong north wind gave us a very rolly second night at Isabela. Being open to the ocean, I got up several times during the night to check our position with respect to the landmarks and make sure we weren't dragging our anchor...we weren't!

We were up early, retrieved our anchor easily, and left Isla Isabel for Chacala at 0630, followed by five other sailboats leaving for San Blas. We raised the sails with a good 13 kt wind for several hours, then doused it when the wind died later. It was a relaxing day with many breaching whale sightings and pods of dolphins swimming alongside now and then. We constantly scanned the water for fishing lines and while we spotted the occasional float, there seemed to be no visible lines attached. We had our hand line over the stern rail and had been paying no attention to it when at last, fish ho! We caught a skipjack! Gregg promptly cleaned and filleted all 3 pounds of it for dinner.
Our first catch of the entire trip!
We arrived at Bahia Chacala about 1815 just after dark. There were two other sailboats in the anchorage, one without lights. Festive music from the palapas ashore was very inviting though we did not attempt to find the dinghy landing that night.
"Downtown" Chacala
Morning light made it easy to identify the two sailboats in the anchorage, Winterhawk and Unleashed. We hadn't seen them since Thanksgiving in La Paz. Rick from Winterhawk putt-putted over in his dinghy for a morning greeting and to catch up with each other's news. The previous night when we saw lightning in the distance from Isla Isabella, they were directly in a heavy rainstorm in the Matanchenga anchorage just outside of San Blas. Seeing Chacala in the daylight convinced us we needed to stay the day and another night to check it out.
Coconut vendor, Chacala
Plus, both Winterhawk and Unleashed would be staying. We rowed our dinghy to shore early in the day to walk the few streets of boldly colorful houses, small hotels and waterfront restaurants. A couple of mercados lined the main cobblestone road with good-looking produce and beautiful beadwork made by the Huichol Indians from nearby remote mountain villages. We found a place on the beach selling fresh pineapple, then stopped for a bite to eat.
Chacala's beautiful beach and palapas
Later in the day we met Winterhawk and Unleashed where they were watching a Seattle Seahawks game (ie, football). We joined in for some pizza and returned to our dinghies just as it was getting dark. We three boats would be leaving early the next morning for La Cruz.
Unleashed, True North, and Winterhawk in Chacala

1 comment:

  1. Great pictures! Love that you got to stay at Isla Isabella, interesting place. We are in Ensenada, waiting out some wind. Prob. off tomorrow. Possibly see you in La Cruz end of the month if you're there.