We weren’t exactly crossing the Pacific but Colin and I were heading from Baja to Mazatlán, a journey of roughly 200 nautical miles across the Sea of Cortez. Depending on the winds, we’d be out of sight of land for 2-3 days. If anything went awry, we could be as much as 100 miles away from a doctor, mechanic or trained masseuse.
We had an EPIRB, sat phone and life raft if things went completely sideways, but we were going to be more alone than we’d yet been on our journey and the word ‘vulnerable’ was top of mind.
This time of year, screaming northerly winds can easily bring 25-30 knots and punishing waves so we patiently waited for a conservative weather window.
Thankfully, we managed to hit the weather spot on. Our first day started with light winds that built to a beautiful 10 knot broad reach as we glided peacefully along a flat sea under full main and jib. We had our first sighting of a new (to us) marine mammal species when a pod of pantropical spotted dolphins came to play in our bow wake at dusk. And as the day gave rise to a clear, moon-less night, the sky felt alive with stars above and glowing bioluminescence below. It was the stuff sailing dreams are made of.
After dinner, we shifted into our watch schedule. First I slept while Colin took the con, then we switched. Eventually the wind died out as it often does overnight and we turned on the engine, motor sailing through the darkness. On watch I tracked a cargo ship on AIS and stayed well out of its way. Otherwise all was quiet until the Valrossa. AIS told me she was a 700-foot tanker who in an hour or so would pass within a few hundred feet of us on our present course — definitely too close for comfort, especially in the dark. Boating rules of the road exist for every situation on the water and in this instance (open seaway, both motor-driven vessels), the boat on the right had the right of way. That boat was the Valrossa.
Thus, it was my responsibility to get out of her way, but the part I couldn’t work out was how. While most tankers speed along at 20 knots, this one barely seemed to be moving yet her heading kept shifting as much as 30 degrees. While I pondered how to avoid a collision with a drunken, lumbering Chrysler Building in the pitch black, my watch ended and I happily passed the mystery to Colin.
I slept peacefully. Colin, also finding himself unable to solve the puzzle, picked up the radio and hailed the Valrossa. Apparently, a friendly captain answered immediately and — in perfect English — explained that the Valrossa was adrift. He confirmed they could see Pristine clearly on their AIS and gave Colin permission to cross his bow, so onward we steamed. What I loved about that encounter, when I woke up and got the download, was that in many ways it was completely natural: Two boat captains talked on the VHF to decide on a safe course of action. Yet in another way, it seemed pretty remarkable to me that a massive oil tanker was happy to chat with a tiny sailboat in the middle of the night, and even give her right of way.
When the sun rose, I made coffee and we toasted being smack dab in the middle of the Sea of Cortez. The wind was too light to keep the main filled so we dropped our last sail and were motoring under bare poles. That’s when Colin had an idea. We killed the engine and let Pristine drift to a stop as the chart read 2500 feet of depth.
It’s not often that your morning shower becomes a lifetime memory-maker. There was a sweet tri-spigot marble bath at a hotel in Munich. Once in Botswana, elephants watched me lather up in an outdoor structure that provided privacy from humans but gave nature the full-frontal. To that handful of memories, I can now gratefully add leaping into the wide-open sea, savoring 75 feet of crystal clear visibility, swimming in the middle of a 200-mile wide bathtub.
When the wind picked up, we climbed back aboard, gave ourselves a spritz of fresh water, unfurled the jib and our slow but glorious broad reach continued. We ate yogurt for breakfast, salads for lunch and arroz con pollo for dinner. We read books and fished and found ourselves mesmerized by the peaceful undulations of the windvane, the sails and the sea. It was too beautiful to try to speed our progress with a hammering motor, so we let ourselves be pushed along, slow enough that we knew we’d spend a second night at sea. It was well worth a little less sleep.
Late that night, as I took over watch, Colin told me we’d had some gusty wind shifts and a few flashes of lightning. “Ok,” I said, my sleepy brain not putting the pieces together. Shifts in wind direction and velocity often mean a squall, even without a dead giveaway like lightning. But with so much else to learn about weather, I’d set aside a more detailed study of squalls, thinking — per our original intention to head north instead of south — that I wouldn’t need that knowledge until we reached the tropics. Siri, take note: Mainland Mexico IS the tropics.
If I’d handed Colin the Valrossa challenge on his watch, he’d returned the favor with a midnight squall. Within minutes I’d ticked off fifteen lightning flashes in the logbook and the wind died altogether, meaning the sucker was right on top of us. I turned on the motor and was furling in the jib when a bleary-eyed Colin poked his head out, curious how the perfect sailing conditions he’d left me had disappeared so fast, but the atmospheric strobe light answered his question before I could open my mouth. We spent the next couple hours ignoring our course line and driving in circles, searching for stars to get us out from under mother nature’s display of force.
Like all conditions in sailing, though, this one eventually passed and as the dawn broke the wind returned, giving us a beautiful broad reach all the way into Mazatlán, complete with whales breaching and frigate birds circling. After some of our harrier passages along the Pacific Coast of Baja, we were finally rewarded with this near perfect crossing of our beloved new sea.
We anchored just before sunset off Isla Pájaros, facing Mazatlán’s infamous Golden Zone beaches and high-rise hotels.
With settled weather, this was a perfect place for us to spend two days catching up on sleep and mentally preparing to be surrounded by humans again. We swam, read, slept, meditated, cleaned Pristine’s bottom, played guitar and ate the last of our fresh produce.
Then we threw all that healthy stuff aside and entered Mazatlan proper, for a magical week of food, music, architecture, history and new friends.
More on that adventure next time.
Fair winds and following seas, dear friends.