sailing homepage : trip reports : 6: zihua to la paz : crossing cortez
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Feb 27-Mar 2: Double-overnight passage crossing the Sea of Cortez from Mazatlan to La Paz, caught in a storm, monster wind and waves, wanderlust hits 9 knots with a reefed main and jib; recovering in La Paz

We had been monitoring the weather since Mari left on the 25th, and identified a three-day break in the unusually strong winds that have been sweeping down from the US. The timing was great: a storm system had blown through on the 25th, the 26th was calm, the 27th and 28th were forecast to have light winds, and it was going to get snotty again on March 1st. Yep, there was an Impending Storm, bad omen #1.

Our mistake was waiting until the 27th to leave. We should have immediately cast off and motored across in the calm winds. I'm not sure if my reasoning makes sense now - hindsight is always 20/20 - but I wanted to give the rough seas left over from the previous storm a chance to die down.

Big waves and no wind is miserable, sometimes even more miserable than big waves and big wind. Correctly-trimmed sails are really nice to have in shitty weather, they help the boat punch through breaking waves, they ensure we have steerage, and they reduce the amount of rocking and rolling - the boat will stay at a constant lean angle. Plus sailing is more fun than motoring.

So we wasted the 26th and some of the 27th lounging around watching the last few episodes of the second season of Grey's Anatomy that Mari brought us. Yes, we got our asses kicked because we were watching McDreamy and McSteamy battle it out for Meredith's attention. Yep, we were Distracted And Unconcerned, bad omen #2.

During checkout at Marina Mazatlan some other cruisers overheard our plans to cross the Sea of Cortez. Cruisers are a nice bunch, they look out for each other, but it's always fun to tell one you're thinking about doing something sketchy. We had a few people mention that it had been a 'dangerous season' so far, and that the winds were unpredictable, and that we should 'add 10 knots' to the forecasts we received.

I'm always nervous about listening to folks who live in marinas. Sure, we stay in marinas all the time, but we spend lots more time out at anchorages. Some marina cruisers are overly cautious, we've seen entire communities adopt dangerous-weather-groupthink. Analysis paralysis takes over, and the morning nets are full of people agreeing that 15-knot forecasts could really be 25-knots, so they shouldn't leave this week.

We had to go. We needed to meet Angela and Jeff in La Paz on the 3rd, and everyone agreed the weather was going to get absolutely miserable after March 1st. If we delayed any further, we were going to run the real risk of being trapped on the mainland for a week or more. Yep, we were Sailing On A Schedule, bad omen #3.

Enough foreshadowing, I'll get on with the story. We checked the weather one last time, made sure the Impending Storm wasn't scheduled to arrive until the afternoon of the 1st, packed up the boat, and motored out into the Sea of Cortez at 5PM.

See ya later, Mazatlan


Sunset on the sea

We cleared the rocky breakwater and the local islands, dodged a fishing boat or two, and set the autopilot while raising the mainsail. Otto decided he wasn't going to contribute anything to the trip, and quit working. We didn't realize it at first, he didn't squeek or shudder as he does when he's overpowered by wind or waves, he just quietly drifted off course. Sara noticed first during a routine check and called me over. Yep, we were experiencing Serious Equipment Failure, bad omen #4.

So we steered by hand. It wasn't too bad at first.

That first overnight was routine and calm: we had 2-4ft chop on small swells, with wind on the nose less than 10 knots. Even when the notorious Sea of Cortez tide was coming in and compressing the southbound wave periods, we were comfortable and stayed dry. We took two or three hour watches at the helm, slept below in the bunks, and made good progress. For some reason I couldn't sleep very well, so I took longer watches and let Sara enjoy snoozing.

Sunrise in the middle of nowhere


Nothing but ocean all around us!

The second day started out calm, too calm. Okay, I'm being dramatic, but it was really pretty flat. As the sun came up we were enjoying 1-2ft chop on what felt like no swell at all. That's pretty easy, Wanderlust was loving it, and we made good progress entirely from the benefit of our 51hp Yanmar diesel: 6 knots VMG at a scant 2200rpm.

By noon I was mentally celebrating. The conditions were still relatively calm, the wind was almost in the right direction to sail, and there was no sign of a front or other weather system ahead. It looked like our forecast had been correct, the concerned Mazatlan cruising community were overly cautious, and we were going to have another calm overnight before arriving in La Paz.

Some spray from choppy waves


Drying everything out in La Paz

By 4PM the chop was back, the winds were picking up, and I was still cautiously optimistic. By 6:30PM the winds were 15 knots, the seas were 4-6 feet and close together, our speed was down to 5 knots VMG at 2900rpm; we decided to bear off and sail to ease some of the pounding and get some more boat speed. We were shooting plumes of spray off the bow as we pushed into the oncoming waves, occasionally getting a little wet. We put away the books and prepared for the overnight passage. I didn't feel fantastic anymore.

We sailed for three hours and the weather rapidly deteriorated. By 9:30PM we were in 20-knot winds - gusting 25 knots - and the waves had grown considerably to 8-14 feet. The waves were bad, much worse than the wind, and the occasional breaker would knock the boat around or drench us with seawater. We wouldn't have been able to proceed safely without the full moon, which let us get a good look at what was hurtling down on us. We considered falling off and heading for Ensenada de los Muertos, but decided to press onwards.

We furled the headsail, turned the motor back on, trimmed the mainsail, and headed up to clear Isla Cerralvo. Sailing for three hours had been easier than motoring, but we had sacrificed almost 10-degrees on the course we required to clear the island between us and La Paz. I would like a do-over on that decision!

The weather got worse. By 1AM we were experiencing 25 knot winds gusting above 30 knots. The waves were now huge moving mountains that towered over us, many over 20 feet. We would steer our course, 275-degrees magnetic, until a particularly nasty-looking wave approached. As Wanderlust improbably climbed the face of the wave, we would spin the wheel away from the wind and lean the boat over, clear the top of the wave at a 45-degree angle, then spin the wheel back and surf down into the following trough.

It was exhausting. I was doing most of the steering, but I had to take short breaks because the muscles behind my shoulderblades were seizing; Sara was calling out the bigger waves and trimming. I wasn't tired, adrenaline was keeping us pretty wired, but I won't say I didn't worry. I wondered if the conditions would get worse, I wondered how we could turn around safely and run downwind, I wondered what would happen if waves combined and we encountered a rogue.

I didn't worry about Wanderlust, it was clear that she was in her element. I worried about Sara, but I shouldn't have - she held it together and helped me do the same. I guess we didn't stress out too much, we were too busy. I was happy we had prepared so well: the day before I had double-checked everything was securely tied down, wrapped another line around the anchor and dinghy, stuffed a rag into the windlass chain hole, etc.

About 3AM we decided to reef the mainsail. This is a big deal for us, we've reefed only twice before in six months of sailing. Wanderlust is a heavy boat and we've found that she just doesn't need reefing until the winds are over 25 knots. Without the headsail we had been fine, perhaps a little overpowered, but still fine. Reefing was a good move.

It took only a few minutes, but I had to go onto the foredeck to lower the main. I brought two safety leads and wrapped one around the mast before clipping it onto my harness. The change in scenery was dramatic. The waves were huge, spray was everywhere, and in the moonlight everything was an ominous dull metallic silver liquid. Forward visibility was pretty much zero, and the sea state was such that we couldn't see anything unless the boat was cresting a wave. I got back to the cockpit as quickly as I could, hauled in the clew of the mainsail, and rejoined Sara behind the wheel.

It was the smart thing to do. I didn't want to do it earlier because I liked how the boat would lean when the sail was allowed to scoop the air - it totally helped us scoot over the top of waves - but it was a smart thing to do. If we had been knocked sideways by a wave, if the wind had changed, blah blah blah. Anyway, maybe we'll reef more in the future.

By 4:30AM we cleared Isla Cerralvo, fell off 20-degrees, unfurled the 100% jib, and turned off the motor. The effect was dramatic - our boatspeed went from 4.5 to more than 8 knots, the motion of the ocean became much easier to handle, and the huge waves were much less threatening. It was great. Suddenly I was wide awake, totally in the zone, and for the first time since noon I was happy.

Clearing the island was a huge milestone. From the top of Cerralvo to the channel leading to La Paz is only 18nm, and we almost got there before daylight! Sara took a long turn at the wheel, giving my back time to relax, and I even grabbed an hour of sleep curled up in the cockpit beside her.

The conditions were still serious, we had to inefficiently sheet the headsail to avoid overpowering the boat, the port rail was underwater for almost three straight hours, and we occasionally got doused when a wave would break right next to the boat and shower us with spray, but it was better. Much better. We kept our boatspeed above 7.5 knots and occasionally passed 9 knots! It was awesome!

Daylight came and I'm not sure it was advantageous. Seeing the waves helped us steer around the nastier ones, but seeing the waves also scared the shit out of us! Things had started to moderate somewhat, but we encountered the worst wave just before entering the protected channel leading to La Paz.

Sara was below using the bathroom, I was standing and steering. A big wave was coming right at our beam, but it looked like it had a sloped face and I didn't bother to steer into it. At the last minute the wave rose, steepened, and crested. A wall of green water slapped the side of the boat and the cabin.

All the books on the starboard bunk shot across the cabin. I got smashed with gallons of seawater - I had to brace myself with the backstay. Sara probably had it worst of all: she was in the bathroom and didn't know it was coming. Wanderlust rocketed on like it hadn't even happened, and I just held the wheel straight while trying to get saltwater out of my eyes.

Sara was fine, but it was a reminder not to get complacent. We shot through the shallow gap leading to La Paz, turned the corner, and the wind and waves went away. Well, they didn't really go away, but poking along at 6 knots just didn't feel fast anymore. Running downwind was annoying, we were both exhausted, so when our speed dropped to 4 knots we hauled down the sails, cranked on the motor, and came into La Paz under steam.

We got a slip, docked the boat, and collapsed. We were both exhausted. We slept for a few hours, put everything that was wet outside to dry off, and went back to bed.

Sunset in Marina de La Paz


Beautiful shoreline

We ventured off the boat to get some food and exercise, but quickly returned and went back to bed again.

Nighttime at La Paz


Sleepy Sara

It was a rough trip. Those stupid cruisers in Mazatlan were right: add 10 knots, don't trust the forecast, blah blah blah. I hate it when other people who give you kind and sound advice are right.

We're really thrilled and excited about the 750+nm we need to bash up the coast of Baja. I called Duane and prepped him for the potential nightmare he was signing up for. I guess he's still coming, we'll see when his plane lands in Cabo. Sara keeps talking about flying north to find us an apartment or something, but no way I'm doing this without her.

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