Wednesday, June 19, 2024

A week on the Sea of Cortez leaves the author happy to be on dry land

Day 5, El Embudo on Isla Partida

This tiny bay has space for only one boat to anchor at a time. The next morning, while everyone else heads for shore, I finally attempt to wash my hair which, by now, resembles a long neglected mop head impregnated with used motor oil and grease.

“Don’t use sweet water,” I was told, as our supply is very limited. “Just swish your head in seawater.” I follow instructions and gain new respect for those sailors who spent two months crossing the Atlantic with Christopher Columbus.

We raise anchor at 11:38am and begin to experience a choppy sea. The boat is soon rolling wildly with almost everything on every shelf launched into the air and distributing itself all over the floor. I learn the difference between rocking and rolling: the former frays the nerves while the latter wreaks havoc with anything that’s not nailed down.

Then, for the first time, we hoist our sail. The engine is turned off, the sail is unfurled and now it’s the wind that’s carrying us to Espiritu Santo Island.

Silvery sheen in sea and sky near San Evaristo.
Silvery sheen in sea and sky near San Evaristo. Rodrigo Orozco

At last I discover what sailing is like and it turns out to be marvelous. There is neither rocking nor rolling now, just silence, blissful silence. And although we are moving at high speed, the ride is smooth and we are no longer battered by icy spray because the wind is with us instead of against us. I love riding on the wind!

Day 6

Back on Espiritu Santo Island, said to be the most beautiful island in the entire Sea of Cortez. We spend our last night anchored in Bonanza Bay which has a spectacular, two-mile-long beach upon whose gorgeous white sands I cannot spot a single human being. The only inhabitant we can see from the boat is an osprey which sits atop a tall cactus, carefully watching the water and occasionally swooping down to catch a fish.

Apparently we can enjoy pristine beauty and solitude at Isla Espiritu Santo in great part thanks to two “gringos.”  According to writer Bryan Jáuregui, American aviator Charles Lindbergh visited Espiritu Santo in 1973 and was so impressed that he went to see the president of Mexico just to promote the idea of protecting the Sea of Cortez.

The result was a decree including 898 islands in a new protected area. Nevertheless, says Jáuregui, entrepreneurs somehow managed, in 1997, to buy 90 hectares near Bonanza Beach, where they planned to build a casino and cabins. Tim Means, the owner of an ecotourism company, got wind of the plan and started an international drive to frustrate this scheme.

Abandoned salt flats near San Evaristo on the mainland.
Abandoned salt flats near San Evaristo on the mainland.

A coalition of conservationists from all over the world was eventually able to buy most of the island for several million dollars and once they owned it, they promptly donated every one of their properties to the Mexican government. All of this led to the naming of Espiritu Santo and 244 other islands a World Heritage Site in 2005.

As darkness descends over Bonanza Bay, the waves get choppier and gusts of wind set the boat rocking at irregular and unpredictable moments. It’s time for our last dinner and we thaw out the frozen shrimp we have been saving for this occasion: it’s party time!

This same evening, we use up the very last drops of our drinking water. “No problem,” says the captain, “we can substitute beer.” It turns out, however, that we have a liter of fizzy mineral water left which, I discover, turns tooth brushing into a whole new and delightfully bubbly experience.

By the time we hit the sack, the boat is rocking so badly that the captain gets up four times in the night to make sure we are still anchored in the same spot. To sleep, I have to get a good grip on the bed so I won’t roll into the wall. At first my mind keeps wandering to tomorrow: if the water is so choppy here in this protected inlet, what will it be like out in the open sea? Will we be forced to stay in Bonanza Bay an extra day, missing our plane? Or worse, will the anchor work itself loose, sending us crashing into the rocks?

“Has the anchor ever come loose on you?” I asked Captain Rich earlier.

Arrival at the La Paz Marina.
Arrival at the La Paz Marina.

“Oh sure, many times!” he replied, as always with a big smile.

Along with the roar of the wind and the normal creaks, whaps and gurgles, tonight the boat is making new noises: Thunk! Bump! And Raka-raka-raka! The turning ship is scraping against the anchor chain. Well, at least the anchor is still there, I think — but where is “there?”

All the ingredients were present for a night spent in wide-eyed paranoia but, while holding on to the wildly rocking mattress, a kind of peace comes upon me and I decide to stop worrying and enjoy this truly bizarre experience of being thrown around all night. Amazingly, this actually works and I think I slept better this weird night than any other aboard the splendid ship God’s Way.

Day 7

As the sun comes up over Bonanza Bay, the thrashing of the boat actually becomes a little worse instead of better. Even the captain admits to having a less than happy stomach. How is this day going to end?

[soliloquy id="71906"]

Well, Chris makes scrambled eggs for all of us, as if to say, “Who cares what’s going to happen to us, let’s enjoy what we’ve got!” And somehow those eggs seem to me a good omen: don’t worry, enjoy a great breakfast and everything will turn out fine. So we do just that: eat breakfast, raise the anchor and — to everyone’s surprise, I suspect — once we are under way the boat becomes more and more stable.

We are now being pushed by a favorable wind in the general direction of La Paz and we reach the marina much faster than we expected. Upon arrival, at least 20 people pop up. “Welcome back, Richard!” they shout, every one of them kindly offering to lend a hand in the tricky business of “parking” our boat. Bravo, Captain Rich! You brought us back alive.

Afterwards, upon reaching my home near Guadalajara, I discovered I could barely walk a straight line across the living room: the walls were heaving! And as much as I didn’t want to accept it, they kept moving for five more days. Meanwhile, friends were asking: wouldn’t you like to do it again?

Funny, every time they ask me that, the words of a song I heard by Lewis, Pint and Dale come to mind. I’d say they sum up my feelings perfectly:

“An ex-sailorman is the only thing I want to be,

I’d rather cruise a country road than sail upon the stormy sea,

I’d rather drink me tea in bed than leave me breakfast in the head,

An ex-sailor’s life is the life for me!”

The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for more than 30 years and is the author of A Guide to West Mexico’s Guachimontones and Surrounding Area and co-author of Outdoors in Western Mexico. More of his writing can be found on his website.

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