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From Whales to Whale Sharks: The Commodore Visits the Fleet

Jennifer Handley

Camdeboo
Lavranos 50 Cutter-Rigged Sloop
March 29th, 2015

What initially was an invitation to crew aboard Good as Gold (with Malcolm MacPhail and Dina Aloi) from La Paz to Cabo last month, very quickly turned into 12 days of BCA gatherings (aka BURPs) and informal meetings. These were with present and past members of the BCA Fleet, who have been cruising in the Sea of Cortez for one or more seasons. Not having been to the Baja before, I did not know what to expect, although having attended Trish and Jim Bowen’s presentation at the Victoria Chapter Club Night in February, I had a sense of what our holiday might be like. I had naively believed that I would be sailing from La Paz to Cabo and thus have a complete break from everything related to home (including BCA), as we would be without Wi-Fi and other electronic means of communications. But within 3 days of our arrival, plans changed and word spread quickly that the Commodore was in town. Nine days later, by the time we boarded our flight home, we had connected with or had updates from nearly a dozen boats. And all the sailing had been local – out to the islands and back – but what a great time it had been!

Rob Murray (Avant) left a record of our BURP at Villas Mar Y Arena, Puerto San Carlos, Magdalena Bay, Baha

Rob Murray (Avant) left a record of our BURP at Villas Mar Y Arena, Puerto San Carlos, Magdalena Bay, Baja

It was a warm and dusty evening when we arrived in La Paz, after 18 hours of travel from Victoria. Not 12 hours later and still feeling a bit disoriented, we were bundled into a 15 passenger van, which headed north and then west to Puerto San Carlos, a small village on Magdalena Bay. The first BURP was underway; we were 10 BCA members – Scott and Tanya (Kialoa), Deb and Rob (Avant), Karina and Gary (Sea Rover II), Malcolm and Dina (Good as Gold) and Campbell and me (Camdeboo) – plus four other friends and family. After a four hour drive, with only one stop enroute at a “Coffee Star”, (complete with a familiar, but slightly different looking logo), we enjoyed a typical (unhurried) Mexican lunch. Eventually, after some confusion, we piled into a couple of pangas for an afternoon on the water, looking for the grey whale mommas and their babies. Unfortunately for us, the winds were up and the seas disturbed, so the whales were also more restless than usual. Thus, we did not have the same experience that many other visitors have at this time of year, when the mommas actually lift their babies towards the pangas, and allow humans to reach out and touch them! Nonetheless, we saw quite a few of these magnificent creatures and their babies, albeit not quite close enough for those really amazing photos, and the afternoon passed quickly.

The start of our whalewatching adventure, Puerto San Carlos, Magdalena Bay, Baha

The start of our whale watching adventure, Puerto San Carlos, Magdalena Bay, Baja

Then suddenly it was late, the sun was dipping low towards the horizon and we were miles out in the bay, with the wind and waves against us on the homeward journey. To say it was a long, painful bash would be an understatement. Rob pulled out his trusty iPhone GPS and, with 18nm to the wharf, reckoned it would be long after dark when we got back. Those of us sitting on the uncushioned front bench in the bow of the pangas were quickly drenched by the spray and the waves; we became colder and colder as time passed, and a bit of misery and self-pity crept in. The drivers were skilled, however, and our driver only stuffed the bow of the panga once – thank goodness! As we finally entered the lengthy channel to our destination, those sitting aft were prevailed upon to hold up the panga drivers’ cell phones, which were then used as nav lights.  While not enough perhaps, in our estimation, all the boats coming out saw the weak lights of the iPhones and steered clear. Although we were all wearing life jackets of assorted shapes and sizes, someone commented that our own PDFs probably had more safety gear attached to them than was in each panga. Needless to say, the return was more of an adventure than the afternoon had been! And we did arrive safe and sound, but well after dark, feeling sore, desperate for washrooms and in need of hot showers. There was much to talk and laugh about that evening – especially as the power went out in the middle of dinner – leaving us once again, in the dark, with a few cell phone flashlights strategically placed on empty plastic water bottles for ambiance.

Scott & Tanya (Kialoa), Rob & Deb (Avant), Gary, Karina & ship's dog Charlotte (Sea Rover II), Jennifer & Campbell (Camdeboo), Dina, Malcolm and daughter Zophia (Good as Gold), friends Rick & Julie, and Kaylee. Grey whale skeleton at Puerto San Carlos, Magdalena Bay, Baha.

Scott and Tanya (Kialoa), Rob & Deb (Avant), Gary, Karina and ship’s dog Charlotte (Sea Rover II), Jennifer and Campbell (Camdeboo), Dina, Malcolm and daughter Zophia (Good as Gold), friends Rick and Julie, and Kaylee. Grey whale skeleton at Puerto San Carlos, Magdalena Bay, Baja.

We left a record of our BURP on the wall of the restaurant the following morning, as many previous visitors have done over the past couple of years, and posed for a group photo in front of an immense grey whale carcass adjacent to Villas Mar Y Arena. Our hospitable hosts, Adolfo and Vito, asked us to tell BCA members who anchor in adjacent Bahia Santa Maria on their way south, that they can be hailed on VHF Channel 18 and food, beer, and boat parts will be happily delivered – no need to navigate the entrance to Magdalena Bay and no need for our cruisers to go hungry or thirsty! NB: Members of the Fleet of 2015, take note!

Jennifer & Campbell hoisting Malcolm to retrieve skied halyard, El Candelero

Jennifer and Campbell hoisting Malcolm to retrieve skied halyard, El Candelero

After those brief, action packed 36 hours, the rest of our stay was based in the La Paz area; that’s not how it was supposed to be, but being cruisers, we knew our flexibility would go a long way to ease the stress on Malcolm and Dina as they prepped for offshore. And so instead of sailing to Cabo, we enjoyed a leisurely week in the Bay of La Paz, exploring a few of the nearly two dozen anchorages in the beautiful Espiritu Santo archipelago, which became part of UNESCO’s World Heritage of Humanity sites in 2005. This allowed us to do some sailing and see something of the Sea of Cortez, and also allowed Malcolm and Campbell to tackle a few things on Malcolm’s to-do list, before the puddle jump.

Typical landscape around La Paz Bay - volcanic rock, scrubby vegetation and cacti

Typical landscape around La Paz Bay – volcanic rock, scrubby vegetation and cacti

The names of the anchorages tripped easily off the tongue: Caleta Los Lobos, Bahia San Gabriel, El Candeloro, Playa Balandra… and they were idyllic: beautiful white, sandy beaches sandwiched between aquamarine crystal clear waters (just warm enough for a swim or snorkeling expedition), a fringe of scrubby vegetation that gave way to seemingly barren hills rising to form a warm, red, rocky backdrop. Of course, the landscape was not barren – there were cacti of varying shapes and sizes to be seen in all directions, and the occasional small herd of wild goats – but to our eyes, accustomed to the rich, damp greens of the Pacific rain forest, it was arid, dry and without much life. If asked, we’d say that Candeloro was our favourite place; the easy walk just before sunset with Scott and Tanya up from the beach, through a cleft in the rock to the dry waterfall and overhanging cave, a small oasis complete with greenery, was the highlight of the day.

Frigate colony and chick, Bahia San Gabriel, La Paz

Nesting frigates and chicks, Bahia San Gabriel, La Paz

After a week on the water, we understood why Jacques Cousteau labelled this region of the Sea of Cortez the “aquarium of the world” many years ago; during our short stay we saw a variety of sea birds (including a frigate colony), sea lions galore, dolphins, turtles, whales, a myriad of tropical fish species, and, on our final day, we swam with the whale sharks, just off the Magote in La Paz. Possibly not for the faint of heart, or those with a healthy respect for large, underwater creatures (that would be me); I nonetheless plucked up my courage and once in the water was rewarded with a never-to-be forgotten, up-close-and-personal encounter with a whale shark that was about 20 feet long! It was hard to believe that these large, polka-dotted, docile mammals aren’t bothered by small groups of excited snorkelers swimming alongside them, or trying to keep up with their seemingly slow pace. The whale sharks were always faster than us, however, and would disappear into the murky distance with a strong, but effortless flick of the tail. We would then swim back to the panga, clamber out, warm up and go off in search of “one more”.

Jean-Guy and Fran Nadeau (Gosling) arriving for a visit at Playa Balendra, La Paz

Jean-Guy and Fran Nadeau (Gosling) arriving for a visit at Playa Balendra, La Paz

Our week on the water also gave me an unexpected opportunity to connect with a number of past and present members of BCA over appies, sundowners, walks, and games of bocce ball on the beach. What more could the Commodore have wanted! The number of Canadian-flagged boats just in La Paz was staggering, and the number of “BCA boats” or former BCA boats that we met was also surprising (although given the cruising opportunities, the cost of living, the comfortable environment with lots of English spoken, I shouldn’t have been at all surprised). There were many, many conversations about how well BCA prepares its members for cruising, and the value of the mentor, education and Fleet programs. There was also much discussion about how BCA might better serve its Currently Cruising members and offer greater value for membership. And I experienced first hand the challenges with intermittent Wi-Fi and the BCA website, as we helped a couple of cruisers renew their membership.  Best of all, I was honoured to present Rob and Deb with their Coastal 999 awards on behalf of Past Commodore, Boudewijn Neijens – the first time, I believe, that cruising awards have been presented overseas!

One of the more interesting get-togethers in La Paz was with a group, representing maybe 12-15 boats, who were planning to leave for French Polynesia within the month. Campbell and I were invited to attend and answer questions about the passage, weather, ports of entry, provisioning, etc. A memorable moment was when one cruiser asked about paper charts and what charts people were carrying. A second cruiser replied that he had seven to get to New Zealand and the first asked if he could borrow them to make copies. This led to the formation of a chart copying committee, whereupon Malcolm and Dina offered up their portfolio of 98 charts. The offer was not taken. We were left wondering, with the obvious reliance on electronic devices and charting, what would happen if they were hit by lightning…  Again we realized that BCA members who take advantage of our programs are, generally speaking, far better prepared than many other cruisers.

La Paz Malecon: Statue of Jacques Cousteau looking out to the Sea of Cortez

La Paz Malecon: Statue of Jacques Cousteau looking out to the Sea of Cortez

Our twelve days in the sun worked their magic; we returned home with a better understanding of why cruisers choose to stay in the Sea of Cortez for multiple seasons, and thinking it would be a great idea for the Commodore to visit BCA members in Mexico every year. Who knows, perhaps Camdeboo would like to set sail again for warmer climes too.

As for Good as Gold? With the few final tasks taken care of, Malcolm and Dina are, at the time of writing, now 2 days and 300nm south of Cabo San Lucas, enjoying fair winds and sunshine.

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  1. Judy Barefoot says:

    A great article! Thanks for sharing your holiday.

  2. Tricia and Jim Bowen says:

    Sorry we missed you in La Paz but it was great to connect via VHA at least! We are now in Santa Rosalia with Kioala, Sea Rover VII and Avant for Easter Weekend. Within the next few days we’re all working our way to Guaymas, 72 nm to the east on Mainland Mexico to haul our boats out before returning to BC. We’re looking forward to connecting with everyone in person, perhaps at the May Rendezvoous. Cheers and happy travels.
    Tricia and Jim