Continuing the 'Voyaging with Velella' series by American Sailing Association (www.american-sailing.com!ASA ) writer-at-large Meghan Cleary. Meghan, her fiance Prescott, and their kitten Nessie are on a planned 9-month cruise in the tropics.
Velella on her way
Last week, after over three months living on the lush tropical coast of mainland Mexico, it felt strange to be leaving it for good. We spent a couple of nights sleeping soundly in the gloriously still estuary at San Blas, surrounded by complete peace.
The morning of our departure was hazy; the water still as glass, broken only by pelicans. The sails hung like rags and we drifted. Finally, we decided to make some way by motor, and proceeded under power through the silent night, under a full moon reflected perfectly in the mirrorlike surface of the quiet ocean.
We knew that strong north winds were coming, so we inched our way as far north along our course as possible, knowing that once the wind came up we could fall off on a starboard tack and have a better shot at making our northwesterly course across the Sea of Cortez.
Come morning, weather forecasts made it clear that we were going to get some substantial wind howling down the Sea, then it would let up for 48 hours, then howl through again. Instead of trying to hustle up across the 300 mile expanse before the wind arrived, we prudently slowed down, trying to pace ourselves so that we started crossing right when the wind let up.
Despite our best efforts, what might have been a three-day passage in good conditions turned into an almost six-day slog in less-than-good conditions. We had tried to maximize our best weather window, but the reality was that the window was a rather small moving target. So we buckled down, tucked in a couple reefs, and nosed our way into the heavy chop that often builds in the southern crossing of the Sea of Cortez.
The first days, much like those on any passage, were uncomfortable. We knocked around the cabin, spilled things as the boat lurched, felt thick in the head most of the time, and acutely queasy whenever we would go below. Forcing our bodies into a six-hour night watch rotation (mine began at 2am and lasted until 8am) made us perpetually tired.
It was almost comical how each day we calculated optimistically that we could close the rest of the distance by the next morning. Then the wind would veer or strengthen and put us just enough off course to really put the kibosh on those plans.
There wasn’t a lot of point in becoming demoralized about how long we had left to go, because there was absolutely nothing we could do about it. We stopped miserably eating crackers and began to make the most of our floating world.
Beneath us, the deep water foretold a dramatic change in scenery waiting for us on the other side. The water near the mainland was murky and moody, often affected by red tides that stained the entire coast.
But by the middle of the sea we’d left all that behind and cruised across deep clear blue, tinged with turquoise when the sun hit it at an afternoon slant. The closer we got to Baja, the more vibrant the water became, until finally one morning at sunrise the huge dry mountain ranges of Baja stood up in stark contrast to the drinkably clear Sea of Cortez lapping at its beaches.
Sighting landfall is always a cruel mind trick. You think, 'There it is! We’re so close to dropping the hook and sleeping for as long as we want!' But usually it takes almost another day or more to reach anchorage after sighting land from sea. And this passage was no different; we still had almost 24 grueling hours between us and our protected little bay.
That morning the sea had flattened out and the wind, though on the nose and fresh, was manageable. As we approached the coast, I eyed the notorious Cerralvo Channel on the chart warily. The 16-mile-long Isla Cerralvo lies parallel with the Baja shoreline; in order to reach La Paz, we would have to sail all the way up this channel, then turn left and head down into La Paz bay.
The problem is, this channel is perfectly arranged to act as a wind tunnel for any prevailing wind. Pile a squeezed tidal current on top of the accelerated winds, and you have a nice recipe for a rough passage that could very well last all day.
As it turned out, we arrived at the mouth of the channel just after the afternoon winds had reliably built to their peak for the day, and on a strong opposing tide. Whereas any other day we may have scrapped it and pulled into an anchorage south of the channel to wait out more favorable conditions, we needed to make it into La Paz before the forecasted Norther was going to hit the following day; we had friends coming to visit and didn’t want to get stuck on the other side of the peninsula due to weather. We were between a rock and a hard place.
As we inched our way up the narrow mouth of the channel at a speed of 2 knots per hour, we were pleased by how well Velella was able to hold her course, and how well we were feeling despite the extreme turbulence. I realized elatedly that I was even still able to read my book without getting sick: I had bona fide sea legs! So we bashed through steep chop, our bow rising and falling at 45-degree angles, and had a decent time of it. Later in the evening as the channel widened to the north, the chop subsided and I was able to sleep for a couple hours.
When I awoke, the moon had not yet risen and the night sky was deeply black. Large dark hulks of unlit land surrounded us, with no light loom anywhere in sight. We screamed along at 6 knots completely blinded by the night, headed for our ever-nearer anchorage waypoint. Finally at 1am, we reached the bay and could just make out a white sliver of beach running around its edge.
As we dropped the hook for the first time in a week, I felt like we’d accomplished something. We’d never been sailing that long before—but if we can do one week here, we can do three weeks on the way to Hawaii. The Sea of Cortez just gave us a little entrance exam: we passed.