Avalon Awaits! Not the island off the coast of California, for that certainly is a counterfeit paradise or, at least, one lost, but like to the mythical paradise of Arthurian legend, The Sea of Cortez will not wait.
Come sail the Sea of Cortez, "aquarium to the world" and one of the rare places where you can awake in your own private bahia. Having sailed thru 4 decades, more than 17K sea miles and half way around the globe, editor/capt. Tomas provides his perspective on and extends this invitation for cruising the Sea, NOW.
Sailing the Sea of Cortez is a cruising trip that many boat owners along the west coast of North America aspire to. The beautiful warm waters, the fishing, the hundreds of secluded bays and islands to explore and a plethora of secure anchorages with cactus down to the waterline, not to mention the fabulous people you meet along the way, make cruising Baja world famous. But the days of ‘cruising’ in the Sea of Cortez, at least in the purest sense, are fading into the mist.
Don’t get me wrong, The Sea of Cortez is actually more accessible to recreational boating than ever before. The availability of slips in actual marinas, marine services, parts, supplies and even the marking of hazards to navigation are exponentially improved from when I got to La Paz nearly 10 years ago. Recreational boating is just beginning to bloom here; large yachts, ski boats and a modest and a tolerable number of personal watercraft are now showing up amongst the pangueros, fishermen and cruisers that use to own the Sea. But it is in these same ‘improvements’ that I see the death of the cruising age in the Sea of Cortez.
I chuckle a bit here, thinking of my old friend Ray, who was, without getting into legal detail, ‘marooned’ here in La Paz in the late 70’s and early 80’s. He told tales of the time before marinas, before temporary imports and anchorage fees. The days of old when social pirates still ran free in the Sea and the cruising lifestyle ran true to the pages of “The Log from the Sea of Cortez”. He would laugh and say that true cruising ended a long time ago in the Sea and that I wasn’t a purist because my boat has an auxiliary diesel. I guess it is all a matter of perspective and timing.
Things like email, DHL and The Transpeninsular Highway have changed the cruising lifestyle as much as real estate development, fees and regulation. It use to be an accepted part of the cruising challenge to find something you needed, be it pitted green olives or an impeller for your water pump. We even had a term for the failure to find items. Being ‘in the La Paz Zone’ referred to spending all day looking for a purchase that you just saw yesterday or are certain that there must be a purveyor for in the city, but without success. Today, you can just go to Soriano’s, Walmart or Home Depot or have it air freighted into any one of the marine chandleries. The days of serendipitous delays, where you met new friends or explored deeper into a locale while waiting for parts – are gone. Well, almost.
The distance between 4 significant marinas in La Paz, the major Sea of Cortez cruising port, has changed the comradery of the cruisers too. Marina de La Paz use to be the only game in town. You only ‘docked up’ when you needed supplies, parts or were sick. The loss of Paradise Found, restaurant, bar and yacht club in that order, also took away a focal point of cruiser life. Then, no one had Internet access or hundreds of DVD’s on their boat, so everybody gathered for English movie night at the bar.
With the ease of access, GPS navigation and improved facilities the cruising crowd has changed too. My old friend Ray told tales too, of boaters that bought a boat on Monday and set sail for the Sea on Friday. But their numbers seem to be increasing, judging by the number of folks that run aground coming into La Paz. I have come to the rescue of more than one of these newbie boaters (I hesitate to call them sailors or mariners, perhaps boat drivers is more appropriate) in my time in Baja. Although navigational aids, GPS and chart plotters have made life easier, there are still a plethora of places in the Sea to bring a happy cruising adventure to a disastrous end. A cruising guide is a must.
There are a whole new subspecies of cruiser brought forth by the availability of secure marinas, the “Commuter Cruiser.” They make a grand adventure once, then store the boat through the ugly part of the season to return two or three times a year. Again, there is nothing wrong with these folks, they just still have one foot back, in reality, diluting the brine of the true cruisers.
With the changes in the economy, the average age of the cruiser has risen as well. Back at the turn of the century (2001), there was a bar full of us young whipper-snappers who would drink, shoot pool and party 'till closing time several (every) nights a week. Now you can roll up the docks early, Cruiser's Midnight is 9 PM.
With the larger North American populations now living on shore, rather than on deck, even the ‘cruiser events’ have evolved. Bay Fest and Loreto Fest are absolutely great fun but hold more a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey beach party feeling than anything to do with cruising. A tiny number of sailboats even turned out for the single 7-mile race. These events are cruising shadows of “Race Week”, which drew 200 boats to a remote location on Espiritu Santos in the early 90’s and sailboat races were the name of the game. These events were shamelessly for adults, access able to Boaters (or friends of Boaters) only! Race Week was not something you did while you were in La Paz, Race week was something you came to La Paz FOR! (some boats from as far away as Panama)
The ports cruisers visit have evolved. Prices have risen and cruising isn’t ‘cheap’ anymore. Towns are more sophisticated, and cruisers now make up a tiny fraction of the tourist dollar in even remote locations. Trading for lobster and shrimp with the commercial fishermen actually became illegal in 2002. An unshaven cruiser with mismatched cloths and a dirty shirt looks just as much like a homeless person in La Paz as he would in San Diego.
Free anchorage in La Paz is due to be moved to Little Pichilingue, some 8 miles from town. There are fees to go ashore on the islands of the Sea of Cortez and to anchor in their sheltered bays. There are mandatory mooring balls in Loreto and more soon to be installed in Espiritu Santos. Dogs are no longer welcome ashore on any of the Sea’s islands. Park rangers enforce the rules (and collect the fees) at many of the major island anchorages. Dye caplets in your holding tank can’t be far behind because far too many boaters think the 3-mile limit doesn’t apply in Mexican waters.
The changes aren’t all bad. The moorings keep the increasing number of anchors being tossed, preventing their plowing up the entire ocean bottom. At dive sites and popular anchorages the increasing traffic makes them a good idea, when they hold. The new port check in check out rules has made cruising Mexico far simpler. And most personal watercraft are banned within 1 mile of all island ecosystems. The increased number of boaters has also led to the better navigational markings of hazards and port entrances. And I will have to admit, not waiting for port-bound 6 weeks for the mail or ‘Downwind’ to deliver that simple 10mm screw for your autopilot has its advantages as well.
As the ‘Cruising Mexico’ lifestyle fades into the log book, recreational boating is just starting to bloom here in the Sea of Cortez, opening the experience to more people every year.
Back in my last U.S. port of San Diego, we had would-be cruisers that really planned on going, but needed that right radar, water maker or propane heater before they could make the leap. We called them ‘list-makers’ and eight seasons later I have yet to see any of them make it downwind. My advice to those of you who have dreamed of experiencing Cruising the Sea is do it now, this season.
Conversely of course, to all you recreational or less daring boaters who now know that the Sea of Cortez experience isn’t as bold and scary as it used to be, there are many of the modern conveniences you are used to; Maybe the time is right for you as well. We still don’t have SeaTow though…
As my old salt Ray said, “There is only one piece of equipment you really need to go cruising, and that’s a good axe. And you can get rid of that, after you cut the dock lines.