8. Sailing Baja – Ensenada to Cabo

December 4th – December 19th, 2019

Ensenada to Mag Bay

Day 1:

When we left Ensenada on December 4th, we didn’t have a destination in mind. We just wanted to keep moving south, out of the rain and into warmer weather.  After filling up the diesel tanks for the engine and stove as well as our two jerry jugs we set the goal of trying to make it last. Our journey, up to this point, had required lots of motoring and we were getting tired of the fuel bill and noise of the engine. We sailed as much as we could through the states but when the wind dropped below 10 knots and the sails start to flog and bang, we always caved and turned on the engine. This passage will be different we said, were going to figure out how to deal with light wind. After all we can’t motor across the Pacific.

The wind was still coming from the South bringing rain squalls with it as we left the fuel dock. We had a great few hours sailing up wind across All Saints Bay and out through the channel that separates Islas de Todos Santos from the peninsula outside of Ensenada. The rain let up and we were treated to a full rainbow over Ensenada as we sailed back into the ocean. The wind shut off as the sun set and we had our first test of patience. The boat speed dropped from 6 to 4, then 1.5, then less than a knot of speed. “Should we turn on the engine?” Elise said. “No, I think we should just drift tonight and see where we end up in the morning” said Austin. All night we floated with the lights of Ensenada still in view, taunting us with the short distance we had traveled.

Day 2:

At the 0600 watch change Austin showed Elise that we were in a distant collision course with a cargo ship coming into Ensenada. Elise turned on the engine for an hour to get out of the way and then turned it off again to continue the float. We got an update from our friends on Wild Rye and Molotov Marin in the morning that they had both motored during the night and were already over 50 miles further South than us. We had to keep reminding ourselves that it wasn’t a race and we were not in a hurry to get anywhere. During the day we put up the “green” spinnaker and were able to eek South at around 2 knots in about 5 knots of wind. It was slow going but we were headed in the right direction. Spirits were high and we were adjusting to a floating life at sea. One benefit of going slow is that you see so much in the water. Half a dozen sea turtles drifted past us and we saw a sleeping sea lion that almost bumped into the boat while snoring.

Day 3:

We continue to float. The water was so glassy you could see the boats reflection and there wasn’t even enough wind to open the spinnaker. The daily update showed we were now over 100 miles behind our friends and the cloudy skies made it hard for the solar panels to keep up with our energy consumption. We agreed, lets turn on the motor for two hours so we can charge up the batteries and make some water. After 2 hours the timer went off and we were back to drifting. The days highlight was a huge pod of dolphins that came from all directions towards the boat. We apparently were not very interesting to them and they darted off as quickly as they had arrived.

Day 4:

We could feel a light breeze and were starting to make some Southward progress. We decided to pass by Turtle Bay which is a common stop off point down the coast of Baja. We were feeling good, finally sailing at five knots and we could see on the forecast better wind was just in front of us. Our friends had also sailed on past and that was a little extra motivation to keep sailing.

We had been dragging our handlines behind the boat to fish since leaving Ensenada but hadn’t got any bites, likely due to the slow speed we had been moving. Just North of Turtle Bay the handline started bouncing around on its bungy and Austin ran back to start reeling it in. On the end of the line was our first catch on Atica, a nice size Yellow Fin Tuna! We did not yet have method for bringing a fish onboard and processing it. Blood went everywhere including on us! We now have a solid plan: As soon as we get a hit one person starts bringing in the handline while the other person throws everything in the cockpit down below. Next, we squirt tequila into the gills to help speed up and reduce the bloody mess of killing the fish. After the fish has been killed and filleted, we use our canvas bucket to wash down the entire cockpit with salt water, even the smallest bit of blood or scales left behind produce an intolerable scent. We celebrated the catch with fresh tacos de pescado and cervezas for dinner. Austin was so happy, he said “This is what it’s all about. Let’s never go back to land, I love it out here!”

Day 5:

The wind had still not completely filled in and after 5 days of floating the batteries were lower than we would like. We started to feel like we needed to keep things moving and turned on the engine. When we turned on the engine and heard a squeaking sound coming from the engine compartment. Austin went down below to investigate and saw that the saltwater cooling pump was leaking and the pulley was hot to the touch. After making some adjustments we turned the engine back on, shortly after the squeaking turned into a loud popping sound caused by the bearing in the water pump failing. Unfortunately, the rebuild kit we had onboard for the water pump did not include a replacement bearing and we couldn’t risk the engine overheating if we tried to run it without saltwater to cool the engine. So much for that, back to drifting we went. We were feeling a bit down, but after some fresh fish ceviche and a shower in the cockpit the wind started to fill in and spirits lifted.

Day 6:

We finally caught the wind and were making great time. The wind was 15 to 20 knots and we were cruising downwind between 6 and 8 knots. The boat was a bit squirrely in the newly forming seas but we didn’t care because we were going fast! Around mid-day we got pretty close to a panga style fishing boat and clearly, he was in a good spot. A few minutes later the port side handline started bouncing. As Austin went back to start reeling, the other one started going off too. We had two fish on at once, this time two Skipjack tuna. The wind was consistent through the night and we made up 150 miles towards our destination in 24 hours.

Day 7:

At the 0600 watch change Elise was surprised when Austin put the handlines out. “O so I’m fishing now?” she said. “Yep, first light is the best time to catch fish, just wake me if we get one” said Austin before climbing into the passage bunk. Not 15 min later, Fish On! Austin bolted up to start reeling in the fish. This time it was a bright green and yellow Mahi Mahi. It wasn’t very big but it was pretty mangled by the large hook so we decided to keep it. “What do you think,” Austin asked “should I put the line back out?” Mahi Mahi or Dorado as they are known in Mexico are schooling fish that hunt in large groups so where there is one there is usually another. As Austin was filleting the fish the handline started bouncing uncontrollably. We had another fish on and this one was a fighter. It’s a big one Austin kept saying as he pulled and reeled with bloody slimy hands. We could see the flashes of yellow in the water as the fish was coming in. When he pulled the big Mahi Mahi on board it started flapping around on the other partially fileted Mahi Mahi. Blood went everywhere, even on the underside of the solar panels and the wind vane. The huge fillets filled a gallon size zip lock bag. We were so excited to share our catch with our friends and it looked like with the speed we were making that we would be to Bahia Magdelana, by dinner time! We were so excited to drop the hook, forgoing our daytime naps because we were going to get to sleep “like normal people” that night, or so we thought…

By 1400 we were within 20 miles of the opening of Bahia Magdelana, (Mag Bay for short) and of course the wind died and we were bobbing yet again. We switched back to the lightest sail and slowly crept towards the entrance. We would not be making it in by dinner let alone in the daylight. Curbing your expectations can be difficult but is very necessary when cruising. It is so hard to predict an arrival time especially if you can’t flick on the engine to keep moving when the wind dies. We drifted through the sunset and made it to the opening of Mag Bay around 2300. Suddenly the wind was blowing 15 knots, too much for the light wind sail we had been drifting with. We made a quick sail change and the intensity picked up with the current going through the inlet. On the radio we heard whistling and someone say velero (sailboat) before blasting rock music on Channel 16. “Ugg shut that off” Elise yelled to Austin in frustration and annoyance as we sailed upwind in the dark with strange shifty winds changing from 5 to 15 knots and back. Looking back, we guess that was probably the local fisherman welcoming us to the bay but we were not in the mood. We struggled to make headway up the bay to Man O’ War Cove, each tack seemed to put us 90 deg from our target, just in the opposite direction. To make it even more stressful the bay was filled with small fishing boats with all different colors and assortments of lights zooming erratically around the boat.

By 0200 we finally could see the mast light and AIS beacon of Molotov Marin indicating yet again that we were arriving at the correct location in the dark. With just the headsail out and the shifty breeze ,it was hard to maneuver into a good spot to anchor. After a few passes we found a spot and Austin freed the gypsy on the windless so we could drop the hook without starting the engine. As soon as the boat was secure Elise burst into exhausted tears and said, “That was terrifying, without the engine, oh man that was awful”. A few moments later Austin heard Elise say in a sad and defeated tone “my sailboat is broken” and he thought oh no, I guess that was the breaking point. When he went down below, he was so relieved to see Elise holding onto a little sailboat Christmas ornament that had fallen off the mast and broken in two. This was something he could fix, easily! Exhausted and wet from the upwind sail up Mag Bay we climbed into the v birth for a well-deserved sleep.

Mag Bay

Waking up on anchor after seven days at sea felt odd, the boat was still slowly rocking in the small waves but we were no longer going anywhere. We made a special treat of pancakes and bacon for breakfast and enjoyed coffee for the first time in a week. As we were eating, two large dolphins welcomed us to the anchorage as they cruised by the boat. Man O’ War Cove in Mag Bay was beautiful, a small village surrounded by desert hillsides dotted with green vegetation. A whale watching camp on the outskirts of the village had two full whale skeletons displayed on the hillside. We spent the day relaxing and napping and by evening it was time to party! We had Morgan and Tree from Molotov Marin and Hillary and Liam from Wild Rye over to Atica to celebrate the passage and toast with Tequila shots, the accomplishment of making it, “half way to the equator”. We had all left from the Straits of Juan de Fuca which lies at about 48 degrees North and we were currently sitting on anchor at about 24 degrees North. This had been the longest passage for all of us and we were all proud of the little amount of motoring we had collectively done. It was fun to here each other’s tales of the passage and remark about the similarities and differences.

Our four days in Mag Bay flew by. We spent time each day troubleshooting the water pump and learned that the small town of San Carlos was not likely going to have the parts we would need. One of the other boats in the anchorage had an old bearing that was the correct diameter but different thickness and he gave it to us to use. This was a good temporary patch that would allow us to pull the anchor with the windlass but was not sustainable enough to motor any distance. We sent messages over the SAT phone and determined that the best option was to have family get a new pump in the US and Elise’s dad Don was onboard to come down for a visit to deliver the parts.

Our afternoons and evenings were full of socializing. We spent an afternoon on Wild Rye and cocktails on Molotov Marin. We had become a little trio of boats and had a blast becoming good friends with likeminded sailors. We dubbed Molotov Marin, the biggest boat, the Mothership and were happy to get drinking water from their high output watermaker. We had a fish living under the boat that everyone called our pet. It would come out and greet all the dinghies that pulled up. He was not afraid of people and not interested in any of the lures Austin tried to catch him with.

After a frustrating day working on the engine, we decided to take the dinghy over to the sand spit that Hillary & Liam were on to go for a much-deserved swim. We pulled the dinghy up on shore and walked out into the water to meet them. Not 20 ft from the dinghy Austin yelled out in pain, he had stepped on something sharp. We quickly rushed back to the dinghy to rinse the jagged cut with clean fresh water and then headed back the mile or so to the boat, in the dinghy. All evening Austin was in a lot of pain but the next day he was feeling much better. From the shooting pain and the rough shape of the cut we are thinking he stepped on a small sting ray. We cleaned the wound really good and it started healing right away with no signs of infection. It was a good reminder to wear wetsuit booties in the water and shuffle your feet.

Mag Bay to Cabo San Lucas

With confirmation that Don would bring the replacement water pump to Cabo and the offer from Molotov Marine for a tow out the bay, we made ready to leave on Sunday. The tow turned out to not be necessary as we were able to sail off the anchor and out the bay with no problem. In the channel out of the Bay we were met by at least twenty small fishing boats and tons of small floating water bottles holding up the fisherman’s lines. As we swerved through the fleet, we put out the handlines and got a bite right away. Austin reeled in a good size skipjack, a few minutes later another bite, this time Elise brought on board a larger version of our pet fish from Man O’ War Cove. It turned out to be a California Yellow Tail and the white meat was delicious in taco bowls and ceviche.

We plowed south in great breeze and at 6.5 knots we were making great time. All day we passed by dozens of sea turtles, it felt like we were on the turtle highway. At sunset, big dolphins gave us a show leaping fully out of the water right next to the boat and even doing flips in the waves. It was a great day of sailing and it looked like we would be in Cabo in no time! We could see the AIS beacon of Molotov Marin within ten miles of us the whole night. The next morning Morgan sent us a message on the SAT phone that she thought it was their record for most miles in 24 hours of sailing. Just the thought of a quick and simple passage must have jinxed us because an hour later as Cabo Falso came into view the wind dropped back to nothing and we were bobbing. We put up the asymmetrical spinnaker for the drift and a few hours later Molotov Marin drifted by with her chute up too.  We got within normal talking distance and had good a laugh about being at sea forever like in water world, before slowly drifting away again. In the afternoon the sun was heating up the cockpit and we seemed to be in a washing machine of current that caused the boat to rock side to side and forward and backwards erratically in the nonexistent wind. Austin was growing more and more frustrated and decided we should motor a few hours to get out of the current. When we turned on the engine, this time it was worse, it wasn’t even spitting water. Ugg, back to bobbing.

Our plan was to bypass Cabo San Lucas and go to San Jose Del Cabo to avoid the tourist hustle and bustle. We floated until about sunset and then all of the sudden we had wind, lots of it, but this time on the nose coming straight out of where we wanted to go. With the shift and increase in wind we were down to just a small portion of the headsail and the direction of the increasing swell made it nearly impossible to make headway toward San Jose. Waves were crashing over the boat and soaking us in the cockpit. It was a strange feeling because the waves were sticky and warm not cold like we are used to back home. At 0200 Austin made the call, we weren’t making San Jose and we needed to run back to Cabo San Lucas. Begrudgingly Elise agreed. We were getting pretty beat up heading into the wind and were both exhausted. We turned down wind towards Cabo San Lucas, the wind was still strong but felt so much more comfortable coming from behind. Elise fell asleep in the cockpit and Austin woke her at 0500 saying we were two miles from Cabo San Lucas and there was no wind again. We were back to the wind hole around Cabo we had floated in the full day before. Austin tried to start the engine again and it still wasn’t spitting. Then he came up with an idea and jumped down below. Austin yelled up for Elise to start the engine and after a few sputters the engine was spitting again! “What did you do to get it to work?” said Elise. Austin replied with a grin, “I loaded up the water pump with the oil we use to lube the toilet!” (vegetable oil) Whatever the trick, we were relieved to be able to motor the last two miles into the marina. As the sun rose we passed by the Cabo Arches as hundreds of sports fishing boats headed out of the marina.  After a long night we tied up in a big slip next to all the fancy sport fishing yachts in the IGY Marina.

Cabo San Lucas

The people and activity of Cabo San Lucas was a lot to take in after being remote or at sea the last two weeks. We slept for a few hours and then headed to the marina office to check in and have our first meal out in Mexico, yummy breakfast tacos with a rooftop view of Cabo San Lucas. After breakfast we walked about a mile to the Port Captains Office to check in to Cabo San Lucas. It seems a bit unnecessary but at each port you have to check in and out with the Port Captain. Now days you don’t have to pay any bribes but they do make copies and paperclip all your important documents together for unknown purposes. After waiting in line and filling out the paperwork the man said we had to wait there an hour and a half to get the papers stamped since the Port Captain was on siesta. We asked if we could come back later and he said that was ok. Back at the boat Austin scrubbed the salt and dirt off the boat while Elise did multiple loads of laundry. Earlier we had ordered drinking water and around noon the water arrived in 12, 5-gallon jugs which we slowly poured through a funnel into our tanks.

In the afternoon Don arrived from the airport with a bag full of boat parts and Christmas stocking stuffers from back home. We celebrated his arrival with margaritas at a nearby cantina. The next day we stocked up on provisions at City Club, the Mexican version of Costco, and walked around downtown Cabo San Lucas. Austin installed the new saltwater intake pump and everything seemed to be working again. That night we went on a search for the best Margarita in Cabo and tasted the #10, #4 and #2 versions based on reviews Austin found online. We were thankful to have Elise’s dad with us in Cabo and we had so much more fun than we would have expected. Our favorite restaurant was Mi Casa, a family style restaurant with huge and delicious margaritas. It’s no wonder they were #2 on the list! A few margaritas in Don thought it would be hilarious to have us drawn by the Mexican caricature artist with a French beret and mustache to boot. What a work of art!?

Looking back on our trip down the Pacific Coast of Baja California, Mexico we feel proud of our accomplishments. We had many figurative and literal breakdowns along the way but we also had an amazing time in amazing scenery with amazing people. We have taken Atica half way to the equator and are not stopping there! We have only scratched the surface of our adventure and have so much more to see and learn. We are confident in our little boat and even more confident in each other.

6 thoughts on “8. Sailing Baja – Ensenada to Cabo”

  1. Congratulations on reaching the 24 Latitude – Merry Christmas and Wishing you both a Happy and Healthy New Year for 2020!!
    Love the writing and photos you share!! ☺
    Hugs to you both – Love, Beth

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  2. Austin & Elise, you are doing Fantastic, what an adventure ! Merry Christmas and a Happy and Exciting 2020. Love Aunt Paula & Uncle Sal “Be Safe”

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  3. Wow, Elise! I am so excited and happy you guys are actually doing it! (And a bit jealous I’m not doing something like that too)
    I hope safe travels for you and Austin!
    -Jen

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  4. Hi Elley and Austin, Just read your last post and loved learning all about of your adventures. I am glad you are having so much fun and leaning so much. Wishing you a happy new year with wonderful new adventures. Think of you often. Love, Grandma

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  5. Happy New Year Elise and Austin!
    Wishing you a new year 2020 full of happiness, adventures, safety, fair winds & following seas, peace, and health! We are just getting caught up on your posts, which we so enjoy reading, and look forward to catching up on your recent ones.

    As we write, there is a sailboat beating up wind in some rough waters. We’re thinking of you, not only from your recent trip down the Baja Peninsula with the head winds You experienced, but also wondering if this might be an a AYC race today?

    We are so happy that you are loving your voyage and that the enjoyment you’ve received on your journey outweighs the challenges associated with the experience. Safe travels! JoAnne & Michael

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  6. Good you are doing this adventure when you are young. I don’t think Grandma Estelle and Grampa J will be joining you. Ha Ha
    . Be careful out there in the Pacific……Jean Ball. Estelle’s friend.

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