High drama sailing across the Sea of Cortez

Finally I am on dry land after a highly adrenalised sailing trip across the Gulf of California. Things went wrong from day one and I was almost surprised to have made it to dry land.

Since my last post in Loreto, things had been delightfully boring; a chance to reflect on the trip so far and enjoy some downtime. I spent New Year’s Eve in Ciudad Constitución with Billy. Not an obvious place for new year celebrations, but we were caught in the desert and this was the closest reasonably sized town to where we were.

All the bars were empty or closed until after 1.30 a.m. as everyone stayed in with their families celebrating. At 12.30 a.m. we gave up and headed home only to be picked up by some local Mexican girls circuiting the town in their car. After some initial banter (something about ‘chingonos’)  they invited us to join them; not wanting to be rude we got in. We drove round with them for an hour or so listening to music; they spoke so fast I couldn’t understand a word, throwing their empty cans out the window muttering it would be cleaned up tomorrow. A common theme in Baja it would seem judging by the amount of roadside rubbish.

A couple of days later we made it to La Paz where Billy got the ferry across to Mazatlan. I wanted to sail across so I headed down to the Marina and broadcast a message on the radio to all the local boats moored up. I waited and half an hour later a couple came up to me offering me a lift across the 250 mile stretch of water in their 39 foot single hull sailing boat.

We headed out last Wednesday for Puerto Vallarta. The engine failed on the first evening. Heading between the island and Baja, these waters were still relatively busy even at nighttime; it was a moonless night and virtually pitch black. Sailing under virtually no wind we were almost becalmed. In the distance I could see light coming towards us; I alerted the owner.  As it approached it became clear that it was a large fishing vessel heading straight for us. Pleading with the owner to push the boat to port he insisted to continue on the same heading saying we right of way.  I implored him to radio the vessel to alert it to our presence: there was no response. 200 metres, 100 metres, 50 metres, the vessel kept coming. I shouted for the flares and said I was turning to port. At which point the vessel started turning. A scary moment which set the theme for the trip across.

The next morning, because the wind was so light we had not travelled far and were still near Baja so I requested that we turn back saying I was uncomfortable to continue. The owner reasoned he was going to sail across anyhow so the engine was superfluous; we continued on across a 200 mile fetch with no engine power to rely on if something went wrong.

The first couple of days were quite calm and windless, progress was slow. Teams of inquisitive dolphins surrounded the boat on a couple of occasions.  (I’ve heard some people seeing thousands of them at a time in the same sea).  Taking the helm at night was amazing, it was a surreal place to be; the bright stars and phosphorescence on the bow waves added to the experience. I mused on the fact that we were 100% dependent for life on the boat, up to 100 nautical miles from land.  I found myself drawing parallels with being on a spaceship; to fall in the sea here would be the end. Sleeping down below, other parties wouldn’t know for hours.  It became a struggle to stay awake at the end of the 4 hour shifts. Set on autopilot, every 10 minutes I’d stick my head up and search for lights on the horizon and I would wake the owner on the very rare occasion I’d see something.

Night three brought with it a change in weather. The wind started to really pick up and by the morning I was being chucked about in my cabin as the boat lurched up and down and side to side in a violent motion. I harnessed myself onto the only thing available, a fragile hatch, to save me being thrown onto the floor.

The wind was around 20 knots and the sea becoming rougher and rougher. Steep waves with short wave lengths meant uncomfortable sailing and a tendency to sea sickness.  I stayed on deck as much as possible, even a few minutes below looking at the charts had me feeling unpleasantly nauseous.

The time came to turn the boat onto a different tack.  The waves repeatedly pushed us back as we tried to tack so we decided to gybe instead; an easier yet more aggressive method of turning the boat. The sail swung round violently and incredibly broke the traveller that attached the boom to the deck. This meant the boom was totally free and lethally swinging a full 90 degrees back and forth on port (left) side. In addition the sail had ripped. As the owner took down the sail, I had to do something about the boom so waited for it to swing back, grabbing the preventer (a rope attached to it) and wrapped it around a cleat as fast as I could. All the while the boat was rocking severely with the rough seas but finally it was secure!  Meanwhile, the owner managed to pull down the sail and tie it down.

With only one sail, no mainsail, no engine, 20 knots, rough seas, dwindling water supplies and limited sailing experience between us I persuaded the owner to go to the nearest port: Mazatlan. 30 nautical miles away, I pointed the boat as far upwind as possible. The waves pushed us sideways and for a time I wasn’t sure if we would make enough ground upwind (it was harder with just the jib / front sail).

As we sailed to harbour I felt very concerned; I strongly suggested we reach out to the port captain as early as possible and get a tow into the harbour. With our experience level, how could we possibly safely negotiate a gusty tricky harbour entrance with the threat of large ferries and tankers going back and forward on just a jib? I just knew we wouldn’t be able to and my mind couldn’t compute how we could possibly make it safely to land.

We initially tried to anchor at a place called Isla Venados just off the coast of Mazatlan. As we approached the island my heart was in my mouth and I was relieved when he decided to go to the main harbour. I assumed we’d get a tow from near the entrance but he insisted that we’d sail in. I confronted him  telling him it was madness but he was stubbornly sticking to sailing in. I tried to highlight the risks: what about the ferries / tankers?

As we turned the headland to enter the harbour, the wind totally dropped and started blowing the other side of the jib pushing us dangerously close to the rocks. Then the wind settled a bit and I headed on course for the entrance on a beam reach (right angles to the wind). He then ordered me to bear away so we’d have a better angle of approach. I sensed that this would make it impossible to enter the harbour so not really understanding his plan I gave him the helm. Sure enough as we approached the entrance it was very clear we were too far downwind and heading right for the rocks. I’d shouted at him to turn round and he ignored me. 30 metres away, I begged him to turn before he didn’t have the opportunity. He kept going. Finally at around 15 metres, he turned about. This whole scenario happened again and I was starting to really wonder how this would end.

Just when I’d almost given up hope, our saviours arrived in the form of Jeff and Nancy. Risking their own necks they came out to save us.  Jeff was at the helm skilfully circling us whilst Nancy tried to throw us a tow rope. We caught it on around the 5th time and the owner tried to tie it to the boat, but failed and got his finger caught (which broke his finger). Finally on about the 7th time we successfully secured the rope and Jeff and Nancy began towing us through the harbour entrance. The rope was short so if Jeff stopped we would almost certainly crash into him. However, clearly a very capable man, he safely brought us into harbour and we dropped anchor.

Yet it was not over, the owner refused to take me to shore that evening so I was forced one more night in the boat. It was very windy so I half expected the anchor to slip and to be woken  up by the noise of us ploughing into the harbour wall. Finally a local came to the rescue with their dinghy in the morning and brought me safely to shore. I can’t tell you how good that felt.

Amazingly it turned out that Billy was still in Mazatlan staying in a beautiful house with a pool and ocean views; Bill, the owner, very generously let him stay even though he was in the US. So I joined him and have had some much needed downtime over the past few days.

19 thoughts on “High drama sailing across the Sea of Cortez

  1. Sweet sweet Jesus. I assume you won’t be exchanging Christmas cards with the boat owner any time soon!! Get back on the bike: much safer! Safe travels Socio!

  2. Sounds like you chose quite a character to cross the Sea of Cortes with….playing chicken with a larger vessel etc….where was he from?…and his wife joined you on the crossing?

  3. Yikes! I’ve always romanticized about hitching a ride on a sailboat. I never pictured it turning out like this though. It seems, otherwise, Mexico has been pretty safe?

    Why is there no more updates on Trackleaders?

    Cass and I are off to bikepack a portion of the AZT next week.

    Travel safe!

    • Hi Gary! Yeah, don’t let it put you off; it’s an incredible experience, my circumstances were probably more extreme than most. I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.

      Mexico has felt very safe so far, really enjoying it.

      Have fun on the AZT! and say hi to Cass for me.

  4. An interesting 24 hours at Mazatlans Old Harbor. Enjoyed the blog and wish you’d write more of them. Did the skipper really break a finger? If so, please extend apologies!

    • Hi Jeff, always good to hear from our life savers! Finger wasn´t your fault; just unfortunately caught between the rope and the boat.

      Having issues with my mobile at the moment; hence the lack of blog writing. Currently in an internet cafe trying to download my photos; finding it strangely hard and tedious!
      Cheers, N

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