Thursday, November 18, 2010

San Diego to Turtle Bay

San Diego to Ensenada

We were anxious to be off – to continue the next leg of our journey into Mexico itself. Right after breakfast on November 7, we cast off the lines and after refueling, headed out of the harbor for the Coronados Islands, 15 miles south of Point Loma.

At the fuel docks in San Diego

Silas Crosby and Ka'sala at San Diego fuel docks - we pay a lot less than the ones behind us!

We encountered winds of 10 – 15 knots and had full sails on a beam reach.

Silas Crosby sailing out of San Diego

We arrived mid-afternoon and dropped the hook at a roadstead anchorage amid fish pens and fishing boats. Silas Crosby was with us and we had an early dinner, leaving again at dusk. (A roadstead means there is no real bay or cove, just a series of sheer cliffs sheltered from the prevailing NW wind and, according to our friend Sean, this concept comes from a time when the coasting vessels that plied the open roadsteads in Europe were called "roadsters" and the term "open road" was used to describe an anchorage)

Silas Crosby at Cornados

pretty barren roadstead anchorage at Cornados

Ka'sala approaching Coronados

We knew we would have to slow our passage time down to arrive in Ensenada after dawn. This was an unfortunate circumstance because there was a sloppy sea that night – a 6 foot swell coming in from the north and some wind wave action from the other direction. If we had been able to keep our full sails up we would have coasted along at 6 knots, but we had to increasingly decrease our speed by furling in the headsail and eventually even reefing the main. The wind then died and we found ourselves motoring along at 3 knots with the boat rocking and rolling in the uncomfortable seas. The clouds moved in and at 8am we dropped our anchor inside the Ensenada breakwater, on the other side of the cruise dock, in a cold drizzle. C’est Si Bon and Thor, two sailboats that left San Diego at the same time as us, were waiting for us.

Ka'sala and Silas Crosby at anchor at Ensenada

We launched the dinghies and managed to soak ourselves in the rain on the way to the dock. The first order of business was to find a safe place to stow our little craft while we proceeded on to clear into Mexico. There were a series of docks in various stages of disrepair, but two men called us to their dock and we negotiated $5.00 to leave both our dinghies. They entreated us to bring our sailboat too, and offered us a slip for $10.00, but the space was at the end of the dock and just a few feet from the rocks, so we declined.

docks at Ensenada

malecon at Ensenada - the huge flag is no longer on the pole

Ensenada has a very convenient “Centro Integral de Servicios” where a yachties can get all their paperwork and payments completed in the same place. This central office has immigration, customs, fishing licenses, TIPs (temporary import licenses for boats), as well as harbor clearance in and out. There is a bank and photocopying services to facilitate the work, but with all that, it still took us over three hours to complete all the tasks. The major hold up was the bank, which was manned with two clerks. Each time a piece of paper was completed at the various offices, a fee had to be paid, so in order for the paperwork to be completed, there had to be proof of payment.

It went like this: go to the immigration desk to get your 180 day tourist visa, fill in the forms and get a stamp. Take the stamped form to the bank and pay the $23.00 US per person fee and get another stamp. Bring the document back to immigration and they stamp it again. Then you need to take the paper to the Port Captain so you can clear into the port, fill out more paperwork and get another stamp. Then you have to clear out of the port. To do this you need a letter from a marina. We weren’t staying at a marina and discovered that anchoring in the breakwater was not allowed. So through much negotiation and Meredith’s excellent Spanish, we discovered that if we went down to the harbor office we could get a letter of clearance for our illegal anchorage. When this letter was obtained, a processing fee of 200 pesos was charged, but the stamp was given and the paperwork and all the copies were returned to immigration for another stamp.

While Doug was looking after all the aforementioned, I was getting fishing licenses and the TIP. I went to the two separate offices in the building and got the forms, got the photocopies at 25 cents a shot and stood in line at the bank for 1 ½ hours waiting to be processed and get my stamps before I could return to the original offices. In line, ahead of me, was a Mexican man who ended up monopolizing one of the two clerks for two hours. He seemed to be clearing in the crew of a ship. That left the other clerk, who, we found out, did not process fishing licenses, only TIPs. I think you get the idea!

Besides Silas Crosby, there was C’est Si Bon and Thor all trying to do the same things. Eventually, I got to the bank clerk and midway through the paperwork had to run and get a couple more photocopies, then Doug had to take over as the “Captain of the vessel”. Luckily he was finished with all the harbor clear in/out stuff, but ran into a snag when his MasterCard was not recognized to pay the $50.00 US fee. After several phone calls and heated Spanish conversation, the card was accepted, the TIP was processed and he then had to proceed to Customs. There, the paperwork was checked, including the illustrious TIP certificate that had been issued, and he was asked to press a button connected to a stoplight that had a green light for “Pass” and a red light for “Alto” (stop). If the red light came on, Ka’sala would be inspected, if the green, we were free to “pass” into Mexico. We discovered later that if you did not take out a TIP, you were just waved through customs – no pushing buttons at all!

While all this was going on I was back in line waiting to pay $46.00 US each for our fishing licenses. Even though it is unlikely I will fish, as the man said: “How many rods?” When I said “two”, he said “two licenses then”. Okay. At the end we left with our tourist visas, Ensenada harbor clearances, TIP, and fishing licenses.

It was interesting to watch all the comings and goings as we waited in line. The building is quite small, about 2000 square feet, and the offices are lined around a central waiting room. There are 6 chairs in the middle, three back to back, and the whole time we were there, two of them were occupied by two older men with official looking badges that did nothing but greet the various Mexican people who came in and out. And lots of people came in and out, though it was hard to understand just exactly what they were doing. At one point a woman came in carrying a basket of burritos for sale to anyone waiting in line. There was no water, no washrooms, no take-a-number. On the positive side, all of the clerks and officials had enough English to let us know what we needed to have. The whole process was unbelievably bureaucratic, giving the term “rubber-stamping” a whole new meaning, though I believe it was probably one of the most efficient operations on the west coast of Mexico. I can only imagine clearing in to a place where the offices are all over town – which is the case everywhere else except La Paz. We were very, very glad to have it done, because it meant that we could buy fuel and supplies where available as we worked our way down the west coast of the Baja.

For those of you intending to clear into Ensenada I would recommend you bring with you all your original documentation: passports, boat registration, insurance, and crew list (in Spanish). I had made photocopies of all these documents in advanc.  Even armed with these I still didn’t have enough - I had to make photocopies of documents as they were being processed as well. Everything could be paid for with US dollars (preferred), or pesos, and some credit cards. We used a combination of all three as described above.

Our work was not yet over as we still needed to get Mexican currency. We strolled down the main street until we came to a HKB and a Norbanke. Through our bank cards at the ATM we withdrew pesos from our Canadian bank accounts (250 peso fee for processing, though we know our banks will charge us their fee, and work out the exchange rate). There was a huge line up at the HKB, so after I got my pesos (all in very large denominations), and crossed the street to the other bank, where the line-up was very small, and exchanged some of the big bills for smaller notes. Now that the business was complete, we felt relaxed enough to have a look around.

taking down the quarentine flag and raising the Mexican ensign

The first thing we noticed was that Ensenada has seen better days. Many businesses were closed and many shops had “for lease” signs in their windows. There were very few tourists or “gringos” on the streets. The famous fish market was empty and the little taco stands that line the market were all empty, the pretty waitresses all trying to solicit us to come inside and try the food. (We chose one and had a feast of fish tacos, burritos, chips, 6 different types of chili sauce, and, of course, very, very cold bottles of Negros Medelos, while the owner’s children watched us with big eyes.) A little further down the street there were some very fancy looking restaurants. One French place had a gorgeous outdoor patio, the waiters all suited up with linen napkins over their arms, polishing glasses, with no customers at any of the tables. As we left Ensenada the next day, a cruise ship was coming in, so hopefully they got the business they were looking for.

enjoying yummy fish tacos

And luxury it is!!

We found the panaderia and loaded up on fresh buns, crescent rolls, apple turnovers and sweet squares before returning to our boats. We had an early night and were up just after sunrise to continue our voyage south.

Ensenada to Isla San Martin

We motored out of the harbor with Silas Crosby into a very large swell rolling into the shallow bay.

leaving the breakwater at Ensenada

The farther out we got, the higher the swell reaching 12 to 14 feet, but very little wind. We headed toward the Todos Santos Islands, following a tugboat pulling some kind of fishing apparatus.

looking to Todos Santos and the huge swell

When we had cleared the reefs on the Punta Banda, we changed our course in a more southerly direction and picked up a 10 – 15 knot breeze which came on the beam. We streamed down the coast watching the sun play on the cliffs and palisades that stretch along the route. It was a brilliant, sunny day, the swells died down, the wind held and we listened to Chris Isaac’s ”Baja Sessions” three times through. We were treated to a spectacular sunset and assumed three hour watches. Unfortunately the wind died just after midnight and we found ourselves motoring the rest of the way, arriving at Isla San Martin in the rosy dawn.

dropping the hook at Isla San Martin

anchorage at San Martin - little fish huts on the beach, lobster pens at the floats

dawn at San Martin looking toward mainland

Isla San Martin is a remote ancient volcanic island. Shaped like a double “coolie” hat, with two cones in the middle, it has a small cove that is protected from the northern swell. Unfortunately, it also has a lot of kelp, fish pens, (guerrero) oyster farms and traps. We were tired and not happy with our holding when we dropped the hook, so decided to leave for San Quentin, 15 miles away, after breakfast.

heading to San Quintin - Isla San Martin in the background

We had in our minds that it would be a quiet bay where we could enjoy sunshine and a lazy afternoon. Silas Crosby decided to stay and negotiated with the local fishermen for two humungous spiny red rock lobsters, which the locals call “langostinas”. We continued on.

Silas Crosby's "catch"

Bahai San Quintin

We didn’t find the quiet afternoon we were looking for. As sometimes happens with adventures, we got more than we bargained for. We left San Martin about 11 am and enjoyed a sunny, brisk sail to the Cape of San Quintin. As we approached the Cape, the wind picked up. We knew we would have to turn up closer to the wind and Doug warned me that it could be an exciting beat. Within a few minutes we had a reef in the mainsail and had also reefed the yankee. The wind continued to pick up. The “quiet little bay” was actually HUGE. We flew by the first anchorage that had been described in Captain Rains Boating Guide to Mexico and noted the white caps and gusts of wind that blew off the long spit. We continued on to look for the second anchorage described, farther into the bay. Surely the wind and waves would be calmer further in? We read we were to look for the hotel where “if you ask permission to use the restaurant and bar you might be able to buy a hot shower”. As we approached the shore where the hotel was supposed to be we could see nothing but more wind and waves, a few derelict houses and what we presumed must be the hotel, but looked more like abandoned condos. We also noticed that the bay was getting extremely shallow – 5 meters passed under our keel. We had been told that when you drop the hook in an exposed place to be in at least 25 feet of water. To find this depth at San Quentin we would need to be anchored in the middle of the bay!

looking at San Quintin's four volcanic cones

We turned around and decided to take a closer look at the first anchorage. We zoomed back across the bay and became very alarmed when suddenly our depth showed 4 meters and it began to look like the sea was breaking just in front of us. As our depth sounder showed 3.5 meters, far from shore, in the middle of the bay, our hearts almost stopped. Doug managed to change our heading fast enough that we coasted over three swells before finding ourselves in deeper water again. In the middle of this operation, a whale came to the surface and seemed to say, “Are you here to play?”. Ha! We had read that the sands shifted in the bay, but had no idea that they would shoal so far from shore.

aerial photograph of San Quintin

With beating hearts we approached the original anchorage again and, as we got closer we found a pocket of 8 meters. We sounded all around, trying to get as close to shore as we could, but ended up dropping the hook about ½ a kilometer from the beach. Luckily the holding was excellent and we let out 40 meters of chain as back up. It felt like we were in the middle of a vast lake, protected to the northwest from the swell, but totally exposed to the south. If a strong wind and swell were to rise from that direction we would be in a very unenviable place. Only then did I appreciate the video Chris Bennett took of this bay in a southeaster he and Rani encountered when they were there on Ladybug at the same time of year in 2008. Wow!

The wind continued to blow throughout the evening and we paid close attention to our holding while we watched the pangueros (a swift fishing skiff) navigate the channel into the estuary at high speed. It was a very dark night, but the wind died down about 1am leaving a slight swell. It was a very cold morning, despite the sunny day, and when the wind picked up again at 1pm we were far from inclined to be in the cockpit. Instead, I spent my time below reading books and Doug inspected the engine, checking the seals and the transmission. Silas Crosby joined us later that afternoon and we barbequed the giant lobsters they had bartered for with rum. (Thank you Silas Crosby!) We also took a moment to acknowledge all those who have been involved in the wars as it was Remembrance Day.

John figures this lobster was 25 years old

not the greatest picture, but you get the idea!

The next day was very benign at San Quentin, so we decided to stay another night. I rowed the dinghy ashore (my first beach landing – dry coming in, a different story going out later - thank goodness for waterproof bags!) and joined John for a walk along the inside of the long spit, around the west side of the estuary, over the dunes and onto a vast, uninhabited, empty beach with huge breakers rolling in. Big chunks of lava rock were all about, obviously the result of the eruption of one or more of the 4 volcanic cones that overlooked the area. We followed a sandy 4 X 4 track to the end of the spit and back along a quiet inner beach to where we had landed the dinghies. The scenery was spectacular, the sun warm, but spoiled somewhat by the large amounts of plastic and refuse we found laying all around. Most of it looked like it might have come from boats. The vegetation was sparse and grey. We saw only one seagull, very sick on the beach. Several vultures circled overhead. We encountered some gringo surfers and a memorial for a lost one. An abandoned, rusted beacon has had its light replaced with an enormous bird’s nest of straw, rope and refuse. Below it was a wrecked catamaran - totally stripped, now just a hollow shell. On the inner shores were derelict campers and such a feeling of abandonment and neglect, it seemed an unloved place. I was overwhelmed, and felt very small and vulnerable with the vastness of it all around me. Unfortunately, I forgot my camera, so no pictures.

Our walk took over four hours and I was pretty tired by the time I got back to Ka’sala. Doug had spent a quiet day honing his skills on the ham radio as we had begun to monitor the various “hamster” nets that broadcast each day. We had begun tuning into the “Amigo” net and the “Chubasco” net, to hear the weather with Don Anderson and find out what other cruisers were experiencing in Mexico. We were especially delighted to hear Jeanne Socrates on the Najad 38 foot Nereida – a brave lady trying to set a record for the first woman to complete a non-stop singlehanded circumnavigation the globe from North America. She had left Victoria, Canada on October 25 and was making radio contact on the various nets as she made her way hundreds of miles off the coast.  (go to to find out more about this extraordinary lady)

On November 13 we pulled anchor after an early lunch and headed to Islas San Benitos, approximately 95 miles to the south. Silas Crosby decided to stay, but moved into the estuary after taking soundings of the entrance. Thor arrived the morning we departed. I, for one, was glad to go.

Islas San Benitos

The first part of our trip was sunny and windless. We motored on past the Sacramento Reef before the wind picked up at midnight. There was a 4 – 6 foot swell, but our mainsail kept us steady as we cruised along at 5 knots. We sailed for 8 hours in the night in 10 – 15 knot winds, in a brilliant half moon, and many, many stars blanketed the sky. We encountered one boat on our AIS far in the distance and, otherwise, we were alone on this stretch that breaks away from the coast. At first light we were so far from land we could see nothing but sea.  The wind died again before picking up in the late morning. We approached Islas San Bonitos and entered this three island group through the deep Pick’s Channel just after 1pm, and maneuvered our way through the kelp to put out 50 meters of chain in 14 meters of very clear water. C’est Si Bon was already here. It is interesting to note that our chartplotter was again out and showed us passing over one of the islands instead of through the channel.

entering Islas San Benitos

We weren’t anchored long before one of the local pangueros came to see us. He asked Doug if we had any candy and we managed to scrounge up some chocolate. Doug also gave them a few cans of beer. We also thought they asked us for water, but in his broken Spanish, Doug managed to tell them that we needed ours and unless it was an emergency we wanted to keep it. We later found out they were asking for soft drinks. They then asked us if we wanted anything. Doug, remembering the lobster from the other day, and after being told by C’est Si Bon that they had traded lobsters with them earlier in the day, asked for some of the spiny red creatures. Next morning, just after light, the fishermen were back and we ended up with 7 (yes, seven!) lobsters for 4 granola bars, 2 boxes of juice, a piece of chocolate and a chart of Cedros Island we no longer needed, ripped out of our large chartbook. Everyone was happy with the trade, though I wish we had had the Spanish words to ask them what they needed as opposed to what they wanted.

One of seven - note the new haircut!!

Two of seven

The anchorage at San Bonitos was well protected to the north west and east, but exposed to the south. There was enough of it to break the swell and, although it was somewhat rolly, it was from surge, not swell. The place itself is awesome – three volcanic looking islands – two large, one small, the larger ones with cones. There is little vegetation other than cactus and scrub. There are many, many sea lions and from the amount of guana on the rocks, lots of birds too. Many of the sea lions are babies and cry like them too. The moans, mutterings, groaning and whines are quite disturbing, as they sound like they have been abandoned. Yet, when we had the dinghy alongside Ka’sala, several of them came over to play with it. They are pretty cute when they do their little circus act of leaping out of the water, craning their necks and frolicking in and around the bow.

anchorage at San Benitos

There is a tiny little village tucked away among some rocks, but when we came to see it in our dinghy, it looked uninhabited, so we didn’t like to go ashore. The only locals we have seen are the two panguero boats which amount to 5 men. We discovered from them that they trap lobsters and drive them over to Cedros Island in their boats where they are flown out from a dirt airstrip. Now we know why these little critters are so expensive!

On the second day we went ashore and found some surf tossed abalone shells, and lots of evidence of sea lions and birds, but other than that pretty desolate. It is a beautiful place, however, wild, remote, clear and clean – a place we will never forget.

Our dilemma was that Turtle Bay, the next stop, was 55 miles away. Should we leave in the morning and risk arriving in the dark, or leave at the end of the day and hope to slow ourselves down enough to arrive in the early morning? We chose the latter, though, Thor, who arrived midday on our second day here, left in the early morning. We are looking forward to a bit more civilization and hopefully the internet.

Thor trading for lobsters
Islas San Bonitos to Turtle Bay

We finally decided to leave Bonitos in the late afternoon. We really loved this place and were sorry to leave. We left about 4pm in the dying light – watching the islands disappear in our wake as the sun slipped into the ocean. To see them lit up in the rose and golden hues was a sight I won’t forget soon. We could see the lights of the village for a long time after dark until one, by one, they too disappeared over the horizon.

Our sail that night was gorgeous. The winds stayed at around 5 – 10 knots. The moon was half full and followed our progress until about 2am when it too sunk below the water. The stars were very bright and I was surprised by the incredible radiance of the morning star as it appeared about 4am on the eastern horizon. At first I thought it was a ship, then a sailboat, before I saw it was a star. It’s wonderful to see it because you know in another hour the dawn will arrive.

entering Turtle Bay

We sailed into Turtle Bay and dropped the hook about 8am.

dawn light on the hills surrounding Turtle Bay

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