sailing homepage : trip reports : 3: cabo to pv : crossing cortez to mazatlan
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Dec 4-6: Passage from Ensenada de los Muertos - across the Sea of Cortez - to Mazatlan, big wind, huge waves, and surfing at more than 10 knots!

We checked the weather one last time before leaving Muertos. Sometimes internet access can be a lifesaver! Everything looked good, although we all knew the conditions would be challenging. The high winds from the US had been blowing for almost a week and we were sure to see some big waves. It was grey and overcast when we left.

Sara takes us out of Muertos


It's much bigger than in the picture

As soon as we cleared the protection of Muertos' headlands, we picked up the wind and waves from the north. It was exactly as forecast: winds around 20 knots and waves averaging between 8 and 14 feet. Sara and I quickly remembered what's so special about the Sea of Cortez: wave periods get compressed when the tide is flowing up into the sea. We were seeing waves on six second periods!

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The wind made everything bearable. With wind, especially a good strong breeze, we can steer. When you can steer, everything is cool. It's possible to dodge breakers, take waves at different angles, and have a say in how the boat moves. A nice wind also makes the boat lean over, which very much helps our motion through the sharp-faced waves we faced. We were moving at more than 6.5 knots all day, which is pretty cool for us!

Waves from two directions


Sara got drenched right after this shot

The sun finally broke through the clouds and the afternoon was nicer. We hand-steered because some of the bigger waves were VERY big, and we needed to immediately change course when they came under us. The sharp faces of the waves also was to blame for several cockpit drenchings. Both Sara and Sean had separate moments when they were relaxing and reading, only to be doused with buckets of water.

Reading and dodging spray


Looking for freaky huge waves

We've all been aware of an important fact about forecasts: they predict the average wind speed and wave height. Gusts can bring instantaneous windspeed 25-50% higher than average, and waves often travel in different directions and add constructively.

A single 15-foot wave isn't a problem, it's when two or three 15-foot waves just happen to intersect at the same time in the same place. This results in the 'freak' wave that you hear so much about: 70-ft monsters that damage cruise ships, nasty waves that roll, flip, and sink boats.

We know this happens from experience now. I was below, cooking dinner. It consisted of ramen noodles, which only need to be boiled in water. Just holding the lid on the pot, while bracing myself in the galley, while tilting the pot to keep everything inside, was difficult.

I had opened the curtains on the window above the galley to watch the incoming waves, so I could brace myself better. Sean was steering, Sara was on 'wave-spotting' detail.

Sara was saying something, and she suddenly went quiet. Sean said his only warning was the look of terror in her eyes, and her silent mouth agape. I looked up from the stove to see a wall of water. I had to crouch down to see the cresting top of the wave. Shit! I was going to pour hot ramen water all over myself!

It was huge, about 30ft high. Sara only remembers seeing clear blue water and bright white froth at the top of the wave crest, WAY above us. Sean spun the wheel fast and steered us down the wave. The sound was just crazy, our regular dull roar became a crashing crescendo. The boat accelerated and screamed down the wave. Suddenly it was gone and we were back on course.

Dodging waves


10.5 knots corrected!

We later corrected our knotmeter, shown, and discovered it was reading at least 10% low. That means we passed 10 knots on that one monster wave. We were shaken, but it's worth noting that Wanderlust handled it with grace, just as she did every other wave thrown at her that long day.

We hand-steered until sunset, when the waves had calmed a little and we found Otto could handle them after all. I took the first watch and finally convinced Sara to go below and get some sleep around 10PM. We passed an oncoming ferry a half hour later and he was very good - he was on a course that took him two miles from us, and he acknowledged my spotlight flash quickly.

A second ferry an hour later wasn't so aware of our presence. He must have been on our track, on our heading, he was coming at us from behind in such a straight line. He was also moving FAST! He appeared and got within a few miles of us in just a few minutes!

I flashed the spotlight at him three times, for five seconds each time. I did that four or five times before I started to get concerned. There was no one paying attention. I turned on all the lights. I hailed him on VHF. No response. I left the spotlight on, aimed at the sails, and grabbed the flares from below.

I wasn't in a position to do a radical course change: the motor was off, I was sailing singlehanded, everyone else was asleep, and I had probably waited too long trying to get his attention. If he didn't change course, I wasn't sure I could avoid him. My plan was to fire off a sparkler at the bridge and turn straight downwind. I had rigged the preventer, and I was worried about backwinding the main in the rolling seas.

I was running through what I would do in my mind: yell below to wake everyone up, fire the flare, use the autopilot to turn 90-degrees, change clips to the line on the starboard side, go forward and blow the preventer, get back into the cockpit and trim sails before the boom clobbered me. It was going to be messy for sure.

I came up with the flares and gun and was preparing to load when he took a hard turn to the left. He turned so sharply I wasn't sure what was happening: his lights, which before were in a straight line, suddenly stretched apart and were separated by a huge black mass. It took a moment for me to catch up and stop planning.

The La Paz ferry


Buzzed by a tenth of a mile

I didn't have time to get scared. I quickly took a picture of the radar screen and he was gone in less than ten minutes. Crazy. I did visual sweeps of the horizon every five minutes after that, and of course didn't see another soul.

Moon goes down...


...sun comes up

Sean was the next watch, I was asleep before my head hit the pillow. Sara woke a few hours later and shared the end of the watch with him. It worked out well, both Sean and I only had a few hours when we were sailing solo. Another person makes a world of difference.

Sean singing like a madman


...or maybe a baboon

Sean's an artistic photographer. He's a really good photographer!

Safety clips are a must


Wet decks

His morning watch was relatively uneventful - the waves had decreased to around 10 feet after our shift change, but the tide must have reversed, and he was tormented all morning with slappy waves and little wind. Not a good combo, but he brought us through it and I didn't wake up once!

Sara watching the dolphins



The next morning we were treated to an exclusive dolphin show. How amazing to be out here, dodging ferries, fighting huge waves, and playing with these beautiful creatures.



So beautiful

Swimming under the boat


Cute cuddlies



Sailing and dolphins? Awesome!

We came into cellphone range near Mazatlan and did our regular no-preparation landing: frantically call every marina, find the very last spot, and book it just minutes before the office closes for lunch. We're pretty lucky finding slips at the last minute.

We found the marina breakwater, crossed a really shallow bar, and idled up to the fuel dock. Too slow! A powerboat zipped past us and grabbed the last spot. No problem, jerk, your boat is ugly anyway.

Busy fuel dock


Nice looking boat!

We fueled and parked Wanderlust on a huge end-tie reserved for a much larger boat; I guess we're lucky he was gone that weekend! We had enough of the afternoon left that we jumped into an open-air cab and zipped into town.

Snacks before dinner


Sara playing with the kids

Mazatlan is a beautiful city, we really enjoyed hanging out there. It had a similar 'chill' factor to La Paz, but in a tropical location with palm trees and coconuts. We explored, went to the market for a little re-provisioning, and wandered around like happy dogs.

Outdoor/indoor market square


All this was just $4!

The next day, Wednesday the 6th, we swam in the pool, did email and webpage work, etc. Sara and I went downtown and looked for some last-minute wedding gifts for family, had a great lunch, and were back before 3PM. Our next step was an overnight sail to Isla Isabela, then on to PV.

Chillin on the beach in Mazatlan


Huge marlin from a sportfisher

Only twelve days to the wedding! We were getting excited.

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