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The Tranquil Sea of Cortez? Not This Year!

Karina McQueen & Gary Peacock

Sea Rover II
Oyster 435
June 21st, 2016

We’d heard about the strong northerly winds (known as “Northers”) that plague the Sea of Cortez from other cruisers, while we were still Dreamers in Vancouver.  We saw pictures of friends huddled on beautiful beaches, wearing fleece jackets and pants and thought, ‘that’s January in Mexico??’  So we were warned!

We experienced our first Norther in early January 2015, when we got stuck in Los Frailes, about 100nm south of La Paz, for 13 days.  The few boats that tried to leave during that time (including one that had just completed the Northwest Passage and had over-wintered on board in Alaska) all limped back into the anchorage and dropped the hook until the winds calmed down.  It isn’t the wind itself that makes the Northers so difficult to sail, it’s what the wind does to the Sea.  Picture a day in Georgia Strait, when all the ferries have been cancelled, then imagine those same waves 3 seconds apart and you have the typical sea state in the Sea of Cortez during one of these events.

Sailing into La Paz harbor with 4 knots of current against 25 knots of wind.

Sailing into La Paz harbor with 4 knots of current against 25 knots of wind.

After our extended introduction to Northers that January, and despite other veteran Mexican Cruisers saying it was the worst season they’d seen in 10 years, the 2015 Cruising season in the Sea wasn’t too bad.  We had some Northers, but after January, they lasted for a day or two before giving way to calm (or at least calmer) seas.  We even had some Southerlies, which made traveling north to our haul-out location in Guaymas a breeze (no pun intended).

Fast forward to 2016.  As supposedly 2015 was the worst year people remembered, we’d figured this year wouldn’t be bad.  Unfortunately, we hadn’t taken El Nino into account.  The Northers started the first week of November (ie, the week I arrived at the boat) and ended in late April (ie, when we left the boat).  And it was wind, wind, wind for almost the whole time in between.  Of the 180 days we were on the water, we figure 100 had winds >20 knots.

Another BCA member, Tanya VanGinkel from Kialoa, coined the term “sporty” to describe the sailing this season.  The best way to define a “sporty” sail is half way between exhilarating and terrifying.  The term quickly caught on with the sailing community, and soon we were hearing it being used by others on the morning Sonrisa HF net to describe a sail the previous day.  We had many “sporty” sails this season.  Sometimes they were exhilarating, like our downwind run between San Juanico and Agua Verde with my parents aboard. And sometimes they were terrifying, like when we out-sailed a waterspout while sailing from Bahia Concepcion to San Juanico while buddy boating with Tricia and Jim Bowen on Falcon VII.  Sometimes they were both, like our sail from San Evaristo to Isla Espiritu Santo on New Years’ Eve, although according to Gary, this was the best sail of the season!

The Northers made entertaining guests on board this season “interesting”.  Our first guests were fellow BCA’ers Rosario Passos and Denis Heinrichs, at the beginning of February.  Instead of the expected calm mornings and nice afternoon breezes that are typical for this time of year, they got to experience an 8-day Norther, which will forever be known as “the never-ending Norther”.  We had a great beam-reach sail to the north end of Isla Partida, just north of La Paz, then settled in to wait out the strong winds.  After several days, when it became clear the winds and seas were NOT going to die down, we pulled anchor and had another “sporty” downwind sail towards La Paz.  Both Rosario and Denis got to experience downwind sailing at its best and each had a chance to steer the boat in 32 knots of wind with 6-7 foot following seas.  While not the relaxing holiday they were hoping for, they got some good sailing experience.

Guests Rosario and Denis still smiling during the never-ending Norther in February.

Guests Rosario and Denis still smiling during the never-ending Norther in February.

While the Northers produced “sporty” conditions when sailing in a southerly direction, they made going north at the end of the season a real challenge.  Unlike last season, southerly winds were virtually non-existent.  As we move faster under sail than under power, we tend to sail regardless of the conditions.  If we’ve made the decision to be out there (ie, we have a decent weather window), and there is a breath of wind, we sail.  This motto has served us well over the years, but ended up leading to my worst and Gary’s second worst sail ever.  In early April, another multi-day Norther was forecast, and tired of being in the typically rolly anchorages of the Central Sea, we decided to push the weather window and sail overnight from Isla Coronado north up to Bahia Concepcion, 80nm away.  The sail started off well, with light breezes and small seas from the north.  As the day progressed, the wind and waves continued to build, making for a very slow, choppy passage north.  Every hour through the night, we inched 2nm closer to our destination, despite sailing along steadily at 6-7 knots SOG.  As we lost too much ground whenever I tacked the boat alone, I got to go down below and “rest” (which was laughable due to the conditions) while Gary struggled to keep us moving forward.  One tack was reasonably comfortable, but the other pounded the boat mercilessly.  Walking around the boat was difficult, eating was impossible and going to the head was pure torture.  As we’d been having intermittent air lock issues with our engine, we were reluctant to turn the engine on and motor.  While Gary can fix the issue reasonably easily, it involves removing the hose from the heat exchanger and sucking the air out with the shop vac.  This would’ve been a real challenge to do in the nasty seas.  However by 8am, when we had been 5nm away from Punta Concepcion for the last 4 hours and turning around was “crazy talk”, we gave in and decided to give the engine a try.  We both silently prayed to the Sea gods as we turned the key and waited.  Surprisingly the gods decided to give us a break that day, as the engine started up and ran without issue.  Lucky for us, or we’d still be out there tacking back and forth to no-where!

A ‘sporty’ downwind sail off Punta Pulpito, Central Sea of Cortez in December. Sorry we were too busy when the water spout was chasing us to get a photo.

A ‘sporty’ downwind sail off Punta Pulpito, Central Sea of Cortez in December. Sorry we were too busy when the water spout was chasing us to get a photo.

Despite the continued winds and the challenges this past winter brought us, the season was still wonderful.   Since we had to routinely wait for weather windows, we got to spend a lot of time in many of our favourite anchorages.  This gave us the opportunity to spend quality time with good friends, as well as make new ones.  We learned to accept getting wet while dinghying to shore where we hiked and walked the beautiful beaches.  We saw lots of wildlife, both in the sea and on land, and had no major boat issues.  Our 73 lb Rocna anchor never let us down, even during a microburst event in Guaymas where the winds hit 46 knots.  Best of all, according to the log book, we sailed more than 2/3rds of the distance travelled, something we can both be proud of.   Besides, nobody can ever REALLY complain about weather in Mexico when they come from the Pacific Northwest.

The tranquil Sea of Cortez?  Not this year, but we haven’t lost faith that the tranquility exists.  We look forward to searching for it again next season when we return to Sea Rover II in November.

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  1. Carol Arnold says:

    Hola: In preparation for publishing our sailing blog in a book fomat, we’ve been reviewing and editing our three cruising seasons in the Sea of Cortez onboard SV INTREPID II, for 2009 through 2012. You won’t be surprised to know we experienced many of the same “Northers” adventures and were bemused that at times we were indeed in fleece jackets and gloves. Or, that our crossings between the mainland and the Baja peninsula required donning Pacific Northwest foul weather gear. However, those episodes only lend colour to the stories we can tell and ensured we appreciated the wonder and beauty of those very special cruising grounds. Fair Winds!

    Carol and Kelly Arnold
    SV INTREPID II
    http://svintrepid2.blogspot.ca/

  2. Laurie Ritchie says:

    Hi Gary and Karina! Great article abou the Sea of Cortez! It gives us a perspective of what we will be dealing with once we get there. We will be untying the lines July 25 and will hopefully see you in the Sea of Cortez sometime this fall.
    Cheers,
    Laurie and Scott
    S/V Muskoka

    1. Gary Peacock says:

      Great to hear you are still planning to lose the dock lines come July.
      Take your time heading down the coast, no need to get south of San Diego before November.
      Hopefully we’ll see you at the rendezvous in July but otherwise we’ll keep an eye out for you coming around the corner of Cabo.

  3. Wanderer I says:

    We saw some of the worst unforecast weather this year in the Sea Apr-May getting beat up by some northerlies and one particularly bad westerly, but I’ll still be back in Nov. Are you at Gabriels yard or Fonatur? see you in November. Steve and Sibylle

    1. Gary Peacock says:

      We are in the Fonatur this year and yes, we’ll be back this November as well.

      1. Donna carter says:

        Are you in Fonatur in La. Paz?

        1. Gary Peacock says:

          No, in Guaymas. We are still wusses when it comes to hurricane season.

  4. Tom Baker says:

    Hi Guys,
    Back when we were there Don Anderson used to call those winds “Screaming Blue Northers”. One winter we were in tea shirts and the next we were in parkas thanks to those winds.
    Cheers,
    Tom & Dawn
    sv Warm Rain
    http://www.warmrain.typepad.com/