Our 3rd crossing of the Sea of Cortez, but every crossing must be respected and prepared for. While we've done it before, there's new challenges EVERY time.

Crossing the Sea of Cortez for me is a spiritual experience. This is our 3rd time making the journey between the Baja peninsula and mainland Mexico and each time has posed some new challenge and discovery about not only ourselves but the world around us. For some, the crossing is a purposeful movement from here to there, but for us, the experience is a stark contrast to our typical casual day hop to a new anchorage or sitting in a marina with endless resources. Our focus is different on passage. With just over a year of cruising under our belts, crossing even the itty-bitty Sea of Cortez is an undertaking we don’t take lightly. As small as it appears on a map, this particular journey across involves 3 overnight passages between Bahia los Frailes and Banderas Bay with the reward of a beautiful stop-over in Isla Isabel. The passage requires prelaunch safety checks on the boat, planning for: meals, night watches, school, activities, etc., waiting on weather to provide just enough, but not too much wind and swell, and getting into a mindset to create a positive and safe experience for all.  Collectively, we run the gamut of emotions from frustration and fear to outright joy and gratefulness for the lives we live (although I’m pretty sure Quincy hovered more in the frustration and fear range). Historically, there hasn’t exactly been an enthusiastic “Woot Woot!” for overnight passages and sailing to areas where there is no land in sight from all members of the family. I’m finding in time however, we are discovering the unique magic that passages can hold for us, encompassing risk, vulnerability, courage, and wonder.

Having left La Paz, we crept down to Muertos and Frailes, two bays on the east cape of Baja California Sur to wait on weather and our buddy boat, S/V Kyrie. After 5 days of waiting out a northern blow with consistent 20-30 kts of wind inside the anchorage, we had our window and it was time to go. One more run for Quincy into shore before being on the boat for the next several days at sea and we were off (stretch those long legs while you can girl!). The wind was light and at the perfect angle for our new asymmetric sail which once hoisted, provided some of the smoothest sailing we’ve experienced. We blew out our old asymmetric on day 5 of cruising last year with me at the helm, so I was wary of putting her up at first. Ever since we lost that sail, we’ve been patiently awaiting a new one, so successfully raising her in just the right conditions was a true joy to kick off the journey. Once we got the autopilot set, the girls were able to see how comfortable sailing could be. The awkward heeling motion that raises anxiety aboard, or the rumble and forced motion of the engine that builds up frustration over time were both behind us and we set into a rhythm – smiles all around. The beauty however, was short lived as the wind died and clocked around in front of us….down came the asymmetric (with a controlled descent this time) and just like that, we were back to being a motorsailor. It was good while it lasted!

Happy to fly our new asymmetric.  Many thanks to the Cruising Sailmaker and Zoom Sails. 

Night watch is still my favorite time of passage. Magic, tranquility, bioluminescence, and mindfulness – such a gift! I get to spend some time tucking the girls in for bed, sharing stories and having Teagan read Wings of Fire to me until I drift off for a few hours of sleep before watch. The alarm goes off around 2330. The girls are fast asleep, the engine is humming steadily, and red light guides my way to caffeine and obligatory snacks for watch. Quincy too is fast asleep until Chad and I start talking. On the horizon there are no boats in sight except for the amber glow of Kyrie’s steaming light ahead. We were treated to not only bioluminescent jumping squid (many of whom didn’t make it past our deck), but also the fluorescent green spurts of dolphins swimming alongside the boat. I don’t think I was half as excited for this spectacle however, as my watchmate, Quincy was. What I wouldn’t give to be in her mind for that moment: “This sound and movement is so familiar, but what’s up with the psychedelic colors in the water?” Poor girl – it’s always something new for her! Halfway through watch I am treated to the orange glow of the moon rise, completely unobstructed by land. It changes color as it rises through the clouds, becoming more yellow and with it, the magical bioluminescence disappears. Sometime after 0400 I crash out next to Kellyn on the salon floor for a few hours before breakfast and the cycle repeats for day 2. After the second cycle, I am awoken to the call from the cockpit “Michelle come up and see Isla Isabel, we’re here”.

Approaching Isla Isabel

Isla Isabel was our initial destination although I didn’t let the sailing gods know that by way of writing it up into any sort of plan (made that mistake before on a crossing…never again!). My rationale was sound – Isla Isabel could be untenable due to swells making the anchorage terribly uncomfortable, overcrowding in the anchorage, or inability to set our anchor in the limited strips of sand amidst volcanic rock. The island is notorious for “swallowing” anchors due to the deceiving sand over rock bottom that when combined with strong tides can precariously trap your anchor. We weren’t willing to part with our big beast of an anchor anytime soon, so we knew there was no guarantee of staying in Isabel, despite our high hopes. I awaken to an orange sky and a perfect silhouette of the island in the distance. A humpback breaches on the horizon in front of us…REALLY?! Enjoy this moment! We pull into the east anchor, drop our hook in 20 feet over sand just south of Las Monas, shut down the engine and just….breathe. After just over 45 hours at sea, this is just what we all needed.

Isla Isabel is a Jurassic wonderland: miles from mainland, uninhabited and unspoiled by man, and presided over by thousands of birds and iguanas. The sounds of huge frigate birds, endearing blue footed boobies, and waves crashing on shore fill the air. This trip would mark our second visit, but first time setting foot on land if all goes well. After 2 days of little sleep, the responsible thing to do would be to take a nap, but we just don’t roll that way. Caffeinate and press on! Before we know it, the kids are jumping over the side into the crystal clear water to swim to their friends who are off their boat some 200 feet away– why not?! It looks like we have a good weather window to allow for 2 days here, so today we decide to snorkel between the two rocky pinnacles in front of us known as Las Monas. The water is warmer than I expect and the current is strong creating a waltz between us on the surface and the huge schools of fish below. Thoroughly invigorated, we return to the boat for some much needed down time and before long I hear a familiar sound. The prolonged exhale of a humpback whale surfacing is one of the most calming, yet exciting sounds to grace an anchorage. The sight of these magnificent creatures’ spouts, pectoral fins, and tails coupled with the sound has me once again, awestruck. They are so close and we all watch in wonder as the pod of 4 whales circle the island throughout our time in the anchorage. Once again, my camera fails to truly capture the experience – just enjoy the moment I tell myself.

Humpbacks (3) at sunrise, less than a quarter mile from us.

We planned the next day to hike to the top of the island, but the tides have our two boats sitting on a lee shore with a pretty strong swell. Further compounding our predicament is the fact that our boats are anchored fairly close together as one does in the east anchorage. I refuse to pass on a shore excursion this trip and we decide the responsible move would be to skip the hike and just visit the nearby beach. On shore is where the charm of Isabel is truely appreciated. Blue footed boobies are all around awkwardly waddling or swaying side to side with their oversized, beautiful turquoise webbed feet. They’re curious, but wary of us 2-legged giants who have just entered their territory. Then there are the frigate birds who are humongous! I had spied the males from our boat, with their inflated red chest sacks they stand out amongst the other thousands of birds perched on the trees, but to observe them up close courting the females was amazing. As the sun warmed the island, the iguanas emerged and when I say emerged, I mean out of every crevice such that you had to watch where you step! Unlike the ones I’d seen around Banderas Bay who scurry away from your mere shadow, these guys could care less about you. “Take a good look and bask in all my beauty!” they seemed to say, posing and cocking their heads to the side as we got close. The swell was increasing and it was time to dinghy back and get ready for the last leg of our crossing. We’ll save the hike for next time.

Eventually we once again secure for sea and bid adieu to Isla Isabel. We motor into the sunset for a calm overnight transit to the finish line of our passage, Banderas Bay. I am reminded of several things: that cruising is not just about the destinations, but maybe even more so, the journey to get there, that conquering fear and adversity is OH SO satisfying, and that cruising is better with friends. We’ve been so isolated in the COVID cruising era, but with some responsible discussions and quarantine time, it is good to be around friends again. We started this journey with frustrations over dysfunction in various boat systems, heightened emotions-questioning our chosen lifestyle after a long time ashore, and some utter failures in securing for sea (ummmm…you did follow the checklist, right?). We worked through all these nuances and showed ourselves how glorious a crossing can be. We may not have conquered a vast ocean, but we still celebrate an important milestone in crossing the Sea of Cortez safely. We focus on trying to teach our kids the importance of resilience and taking all the highs and lows of cruising in stride. We have increased confidence in our boat and our own capabilities. Thank you Isla Isabel for putting smiles on our faces, thank you Tulum V for being our sturdy seaworthy home, and thank you Mother Ocean for another safe passage.

This is what NOT secure for sea looks like…note the face plant our big screen TV did during passage, still works!

Finished our crossing and came into Banderas Bay a few days ago, but I’ve been working to get things done on the boat and missed a few days of writing.  We decided to slow down here for a week which will give me time to get back to writing and finish my repairs on Tulum.  Stick with us, I’ll answer every comment and question in the next few days!

2 Responses

  1. Still reading through this wonderful piece, Michelle, but I have to know…what happened to the jumping squid?? If 😳 Wish we could have made it alongside y’all. Big hugs!

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