11. Exploring Upwind – Sea of Cortez

January 14th – February 3rd, 2020

Puerto Ballena

On a sunny and warm January afternoon we pulled anchor in Puerto Balandra and motored the short distance over to Puerto Ballena on Isla Espiritu Santo. Puerto Ballena consists of three lobe shaped anchorages and when we let the anchor go in the northern most lobe, we were the only boat around. The hillsides were steep and colorful and we found it amazing how different the landscape is from one island to the next in the Sea of Cortez. A few minutes after we arrived a panga pulled up along side Atica with three park rangers onboard. They were extremely friendly and encouraged us to explore and enjoy their island after they viewed our one-year park passes that we luckily had just purchased in La Paz. After lunch we both dove in the water to scrub the bottom and came out covered with tiny shrimp creatures, yuck. A few hours later Wild Rye dropped the hook to our starboard and a catamaran pulled up into the shallows. Not minutes after their anchor was secure the older French couple on the cat were on deck sunbathing in the nude. At sunset Polaris anchored to our port. The bay was filling up with familiar faces and we were glad for the company. Hillary, Liam and Scott from Wild Rye came over for rummy hot chocolates and board games the first night and we spend the next day onboard Polaris hanging out in the sun and eating tamales for lunch. In the afternoon we decided to motor the 6nm north to Caleta Partida along with Polaris to secure a good spot in the anchorage for the upcoming blow.

Celeta Partida

Celeta Partida is a unique and protected bay formed by an extinct volcanic crater. It lies between Isla Espiritu Santo and Isla Partida. On our first day the winds were still calm and we took Litha through the cut between the two islands and past a well taken care of and colorful fisherman’s camp. We had some questionable pork tacos for lunch before hitching a ride in Polaris’ large inflatable dinghy to go check out the sea caves through the shoal cut and around the corner. The east side of Espirtu Santo was very different, huge colorful windswept cliffs with large caves and arroyos’ (valleys) plummeting into the sea. Tourista (food poisoning) hit Elise as we were heading back from the caves and she quickly rushed to the head as soon as the dinghy pulled up to Atica. Over the next few days the winds picked up and we laid low in the boat. Elise nursed a sensitive stomach with a diet consisting primarily of gold fish crackers and electrolyte water while we consumed books and movies. When the winds were not blowing the scenery outside was beautiful and we enjoyed seeing the heads of turtles popping up around the boat throughout the day. We took the dinghy into the shallow beach on Isla Partida for a walk. The beach consisted primarily of clay and made the shallow water milky like the hot springs in Iceland. On our last evening in Celeta Partida we went over to Toketee for a tour and nachos on their amazing yacht. Dar, Dianne and Kim spent 8 years doing a total refit of their 58’ Skookum ketch. The boat was originally a fishing boat but now is a beautiful yacht with all the modern amenities. We happily enjoyed their onboard ice maker and generous hospitality.  

Isla San Francisco

On Sunday the 19th of January we decided to head North while there was still wind to sail in. We sailed off the anchor and put out the fishing lines just outside of the cove. With Wild Rye sailing out behind us, an unofficial race had begun! Less than an hour in the handlines started jumping and Austin pulled in a Mahi Mahi, while Atica healed over sailing up wind. The wind and swell picked up so we reefed the main and shortened the jib. We made shorter tacks up the channel while Wild Rye took a long tack way out until we could no longer see them on the horizon. We have this race in the bag we thought. As we bashed into the swell, we saw a large, black and white shape in the face of the next wave. Elise exclaimed, “Is that an orca?!” On closer look Austin identified the unfamiliar shape as a huge Manta ray with its arms wide out surfing down the wave and going right under the boat. What an amazing sight, we couldn’t believe it! The wind became fickle as we got closer to Isla San Francisco and the outline of Wild Rye grew bigger and bigger on the horizon. Later at the unofficial after race gathering, they told us, they thought they had us beat until the wind died just south of the island. It ended up being pretty much a tie as we anchored in the large circular bay of Isla San Francisco shortly before Rye.

The next day we rowed Litha to shore and walked along the shell beach. Hillary and Scott joined us and we started out on a hike over the salt pond. Scott identified a prickly pear cactus stating that you can eat the tender fruit that grows on them, so Austin got out his knife and we cut a few off. Elise got prickles all over her hands but the worst casualty was Scott getting prickles in his mouth. It was definitely not worth the effort of pealing these small, salty, seed filled, cucumber tasting fruits. It may be a good option if you were stranded in the desert but we have plenty of food on our yacht. From the salt pond we scrambled up a steep slope for a view of the east side of the island and made our own trail down the slope full of cactus. At the bottom we found a real trail and hiked the length of Isla San Francisco’s southern arm. The trail was narrow and steep but the views were worth it for sure. From the top we could see Toketee and Polaris come into the anchorage. After the hike we gathered on the transom of Toketee to go for a snorkeling/spearing mission on the south reef. No fish were speared but we made the plan to try again the next day with a more favorable tide. The next day with better visibility from the outgoing tide, we went to the west reef, where we both speared our first fish. They were small but delicious as fish and chips for lunch.

San Evaristo

With good wind we decided to have another sailing day up to San Evaristo. This time with Wild Rye and Toketee. We were flying in 15-20 knots of wind with very little swell. Elise hand steered and Austin pulled in a big skipjack tuna. With no fish in the fridge we decided to give it a try and kept the less than desirable catch. When Austin killed the fish, blood went everywhere including Elise’s leg that was braced against the leeward seat back with the heal of the boat. The boat was healing so much that when Austin poured a bucket of seawater into the cockpit it wouldn’t drain off the seats and just left a pool of bright red bloody water. As we pulled into the anchorage and into protected waters the boat came back upright and bloody water sloshed all over Elise’s feet. It was a memorable entrance after an exhilarating day sail. The bay in San Evaristo was tight and there were clouds in the sky so we just stayed one night. Austin boiled and then cooked the skipjack which made the meat only barely tolerable.

Puerto Los Gatos

From Evaristo we sailed up the channel between Isla San Jose and mainland Baja. This area is a known wind acceleration zone and we had gusts into the high 20s as we sailed upwind. After a morning of tacking back and forth across the channel we were half way to Los Gatos and the wind died back to nothing but the swell continued to increase. We turned on the engine and motored in the swell the rest of the way. The entrance to Los Gatos is framed by three reefs and we slowly navigated our way into the small bay. The swell was coming into the anchorage and the boat rolled back and forth. The crew of a catamaran that was already anchored in the bay stopped by the boat to invite us over for sundowners and we mentioned we were thinking about putting out the stern anchor. He said, “do it! It was rolly in here last night, even in my catamaran.” With the stern anchor deployed we were able to face Atica’s bow into the swell and the boat felt much better. We rowed over to the cat at sunset for cocktails. Ken & Trish shared interesting stories of their past and current sailing adventures, between them they own a fleet of four boats scattered around the US, Mexico and Canada.

By the next morning the swell had died down considerably and Toketee took the catamarans spot in the anchorage. We went to shore with Liam and Scott and met a nice Canadian overland camper named Wayne and his dog. Los Gatos is extremely remote and he told us about the rough “road” that he took to get out to the beach. We climbed up the undulating pillow like rock formations to the fisherman’s cross on top of the hill. The view was spectacular. We were taking about how remote the location is when a National Geographic Cruise Ship anchored in the entrance to the bay. They quickly offloaded pallets of kayaks and boat loads of “Eco-Tourists” onto the beach. In the evening they had a headlamp-lit dinner on the beach. The ship and all its accessories were gone before the morning.

January 25th was Elise’s birthday and we made plans with Toketee, Wild Rye and our new camper friend Wayne for a beach party to celebrate. We started the morning with yoga and a walk on the beach. Austin prepped pizza toppings while Elise and Hillary swam to shore and laid in the sun. By mid-afternoon we all gathered on the beach to make pizzas on the BBQ and snacked on fresh mahi mahi ceviche that Dar caught on the way to Los Gatos. Wayne gave Elise a birthday gift of a big bag of bread yeast that he had mistook for coffee grounds in a Baja grocery store. In the evening we made a fire on the beach with fragrant mesquite wood and ate chocolate cake right from the pan.  This was not the typical winter birthday!

Our last day in Gatos was full of relaxing. After a lazy morning Austin went spear fishing on the reef with the boys and Elise did yoga on the boat. In the evening we all headed over to Toketee to play poker and had a fish fry with the halibut that Liam speared that day. Diane made Elise another birthday cake with delicious cherry frosting and the mere mention of ice cream to go with made the crews of Wild Rye and Atica light up. The next day we headed up to Agua Verde. Apart from an hour of good sailing there was no wind and we motored. Hillary called on the radio to say that they saw some Minke whales but all we saw on the way was turtles.

Agua Verde

When we entered the bay of Agua Verde an “Uncruise” cruise ship was anchored in the bay along with its menagerie of shuttle boats and kayakers. We rolled our eyes at each other; we were not stoked to see another cruise ship in a quiet and remote anchorage. Thankfully they, like all cruise ships, only spend one day at each place and sometime in the middle of the night they depart for the next location. Monday is cruise ship day in Agua Verde and the rest of the week it’s a peaceful little community of villagers, campers and cruisers who all make a long trek to visit. Agua Verde now ranks high on our favorite destinations list because of its natural beauty and the amazing people we got to share the bay with.

We sat wrapped in towels after cockpit showers as a large group of Uncruise kayakers paddled by. Just then we heard a thud of a kayak and then a friendly voice from the transom yelled up, “I’m Donna, I came to invite you over for happy hour on Windsong”. “When?” we replied. “As soon as you can get there.” We quickly got dressed and rowed Litha over to Windsong, one of the few powerboats we have shared an anchorage with in the Sea of Cortez. Donna & Dennis are farmers from Canada and are some of the friendliest and jolliest people we have met. They quickly became the surrogate “boat parents” of the anchorage to the group of “young boats” as they called us. A green boat named Fiona really moved the scales of youth as its crew included Kyla the sweetest nine-month-old baby.

One day we took Litha across the bay and we went into the village for groceries and internet. The village was tiny and spread out over many winding dirt roads. In the middle a sign stated the towns stats: 3 stores, 2 churches, 5 schools, 1 park, 2 restaurants and 1 “hospital”. The “big” store was surprisingly well stocked with solar panels on the roof to power the 3 inside freezers and satellite internet. Outside ice boxes were filled with fresh fruit and vegetables. After stocking up on food we headed for the beach restaurant for tacos served by Maria, a friendly older woman who didn’t speak any English. After a delicious lunch we loaded our groceries into the dinghy to head back to the boat. The swell had increased and the steep beach did not make the take off easy, 13 eggs were the casualties of Litha jumping off and slamming down in the waves. We took note that the better way of getting into town was to walk along the tidepools at low tide or take the 4×4 only road into the village from the protected beach.

The next day Donna agreed to be our guide on a hike to the ancient cave with hand prints. It was about 6k from our anchorage and pretty hard to find without the help of someone who had been there before. Liam, Hillary & Scott came along too and the six of us hiked up the donkey trail, down to the cemetery and through a palm jungle to the long north facing beach. We were not expecting Baja to be so green and definitely didn’t think we would be walking through a palm tree grove. From the long beach we hiked through a cactus forest and up a steep rocky trail to the cave. The cave was pretty impressive and had what appeared to be separate rooms with sleeping rocks along the edges. At the mouth of the cave the rock face was white washed and marked with red hand prints. We were all curious as to the caves original purpose and the story behind the hand prints.

The major highlight of Agua Verde was spearfishing. Kyle and Lori are professional Free Divers and both hold multiple world records for the largest speared fish of different species. We all benefitted with a daily supply of fresh fish that Kyle or Lori speared. One day Donna, Hillary and Elise babysat their baby Kyla while the rest of the group went out to the reef to go spearfishing. It was pretty windy and the conditions were not ideal for diving, but Austin got some good pointers and got to observe the art of hunting fish with a spear. Dennis joked that as soon as the boys returned from spear fishing, he would warn them that there were lots of fertile woman in the bay from playing with a baby all day.

On our last day in the bay Kyle came over and invited us to go out spearing with Lori. He had injured himself from staying down at 60’ for too long to spear a 22lb grouper so he would stay on the boat with the baby. We quickly packed up our gear and headed out on their boat Fiona to go to the reef. Kyle let us borrow pro spear guns and Austin got to try out his 4-foot-long carbon fins. Kyle handed Elise a big gun and said, “this should work for you, but you won’t be able to reload it since it is set up for commercial diving.” He was right, the bands were so tight even Austin had to work to load it. Like any adventure sport, the gear makes so much of a difference and we were in for a treat to try out these powerful tools. As soon as Elise jumped in the water, she saw two black and white spotted rays glide underneath her and then we both saw a turtle zoom bye. Austin speared a trigger fish and Elise took a shot and missed another. On the way back to the boat to get the gun reloaded Elise was stalked by a large yellow tail and rays zoomed below her. At the next stop Kyle warned us that we might be swimming with seals at this spot, but turns out that was the least of our worries. Elise stocked and speared a big trigger fish and then swam back to the boat for a rest. Shortly after Lori speared a Cabrea (Leopard Grouper) and climbed back on board. Austin was still in the water when we looked over the transom and a big tiger shark, probably 10 feet long swam between Austin and the boat. Kyle and Lori were surprised because they thought that all the tiger sharks in the sea had been hunted, Austin wanted back on the boat a.s.a.p. With everyone safely back onboard we headed to the last stop. Austin and Lori got back in the water and Austin speared a good size parrot fish who’s rainbow scales sparkled in the sun. When we got back to the anchorage Kyle said “Pick up your fish, we got to get a good picture! Austin hold yours up higher, yours looks too small next to your wife’s big one!” After a successful spear fishing mission, we invited Kyle, Lori and Kyla over to Atica for a fish fry and fresh apple cake.

With the fridge stuffed full of fish it was time to make our last hop north to Puerto Escondido. The Uncruise boat was back in Agua Verde so we knew we had spent a full week in the amazing anchorage of Agua Verde. We motored for an hour before a westerly wind built and with just the headsail, we were cruising at over 6 knots. We sailed in gusty wind by an island shaped like an elephant and through a narrow channel. Puerto Escondido is the “Hidden Port” since you can’t see the large bay from the outside. A small buoy lined channel with 12’ of depth leads into a large basin surrounded by steep mountains. The bay is fully regulated and the price to anchor is the same as it is to take one of the many mooring balls that fill the bay. Since this is one of the best hurricane holes in the Sea of Cortez it’s a popular anchorage to wait out weather and visit the town of Loreto. We grabbed a mooring and headed into the fancy marina for a rare cruising treat, a hot shower!

5 thoughts on “11. Exploring Upwind – Sea of Cortez”

  1. Hey Elise and Austin: Thanks so much for the instalments of your adventures, the pictures say it all – you’re living the dream and I applaud you for it. There are times when I wish I could join you for a day or so, soak up that beautiful sunshine and feast on fresh fish. We’re having a terrific winter – fresh powder almost everyday! Wishing you fair winds and safe harbours, Lothar


  2. Austin and Elise, I so enjoy reading about your adventures. You certainly are adventurous . Here we are in Wa. fighting floods and endless rain. Personally I had a 10 day break in Hawaii and on the return plane sat next to a 25 yr old who had just spent 2 months on Midway island guarding the Albatross birds. I think he said 30 people live there but not sure. He was in the Air Force. Expect one day you might be there….Jean, friend of Elise’s Grandma .Estelle


  3. Pop says, “Good Job,” ( he says he is not much on writing, but can read!) So funny! He wants to let you know that the cap rail on the 42″ Selene that you worked on, is now a part of your house deck rail. Looks very nautical and shiny!
    We love the photos of your exploits! You both look so healthy and happy. And the prose really paint a wonderful picture of your amazing experiences. But no more communing with the sharks, okay?! We are looking forward to and hoping to see you before the big crossing. If not, then New Zealand for sure! All our love – C & M PS. the ferry broke down again today…HAHAHA


  4. Hi Elis & Austin, We love the blue & pink fish in the bucket and the blue toes great picture. You two are having to much fun keep it up. Aunt Paula & Uncle Sal


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