The Official Magazine of the Bluewater Cruising Association

Harlequin Cruises the Sea of Cortez

Henk and Lisa Benckhuysen

Express 37 Sloop
December 29th, 2017

Earlier this year, we spent eight months cruising from Sidney, BC to the north end of the Sea of Cortez. In May 2017, we hauled the boat out and flew home for a few months. We evaluated our cruising experience so far and planned for our next adventure: across to the Marquesas and beyond. The lessons learned, for us, are:

  • Know yourself
  • Know your boat
  • Reach out
  • Open your eyes (and your mind!)

Know Yourself

This one is subject to change so it will be found at the end of this article.

Know Your Boat

This one you can do mostly before you leave. Our sloop, Harlequin is a heavily modified 37 foot 1985 Express. The Carl Schumacher race-design hull was attractive to us as speed translates to safety in our minds, and as an older boat, the price was in our range. Henk, a plumber by trade, spent two years modifying the boat in our Vancouver backyard, in order to incorporate the features of newer designs. As a result, Harlequin has a 3,600 pound, retractable, deep draft, fin keel, fitted with a lead bulb (draft 8ft 10 in to 5 ft 10in), a walk through stern, reinforced bow, and extended cabin headroom (so one can wash the dishes without being bent over like the hunchback of Notre Dame!). The rigging is heat treated dynema. Henk also put in new  plumbing, electrical, communication and navigation systems.

Because Henk overhauled the boat so thoroughly, he knows it inside and out and has spare parts for many situations. For example, he has rebuilt the toilet twice, replaced the impeller and cleared the engine water intake filter numerous times. We have both HAM radio /Sailmail  and Garmin inreach/ipad systems for weather and communication and both have their limitations: sailmail depends on HAM reception, which varies with the time of day and the amount of interference (masts) around you and the Garmin limits you to 160 letters/message. Our Gennaker furling system broke way back in November 2016, in the middle of the night on the Pacific side of the Baha, so now we just shadow it behind the main and take it down by hand. (What were we thinking, running a Gennaker in the middle of the night you ask? That’s another lesson learned!)

Lesson Learned: Take advantage of the seminars offered by Bluewater Cruising Association and prepare your boat as carefully as you can, BUT expect things to go wrong and expect things to break. Take spare parts and be ready to adapt and repair.  Depending on where you go, supplies may or may not be available. We recently took a rental car up to San Diego to pick up parts we couldn’t find in Mexico.  Suppliers can often ship parts, but going ourselves in a rental car was faster and also gave us a holiday from our cruising holiday!

Peaceful anchorage

Reach Out

This should be a no-brainer, but needs to be said. Being on a boat cuts you off from your normal social ties and supports. You have to make new ones. The good news is there are ample opportunities.

We have really enjoyed the company and security of cruising buddies and interactions with local people along the way. We started alone, from Sidney, and made our way down the Pacific Coast to San Diego in jumps of 2-5 days, staying for a couple of days or even a week in each place. Everywhere, we met other cruisers and shared meals, information and experiences.  The people we met along the way were an enormous positive addition to the trip.

Once in San Diego, we joined the Baha Haha fleet. What a great experience!  There were seminars and a costume party beforehand and then the excitement of sailing out of San Diego in a fleet of 150 boats! We were blessed with nice following winds and marvelous sailing for much of the trip. The beach parties and get-togethers were wonderful opportunities to eat, dance, connect with other cruisers and just a whole lot of fun!

Carrying on into the Sea of Cortez, we enjoyed constant company from Haha boats, and joined in on cruiser community events. We spent a whole week snorkeling and hiking at Cabo Pulmo (Los Frailes) with several other boats. This spot is a success story in the Sea of Cortez. Since fishing was banned here, the reef has regained some of its former diversity, making it the best snorkeling site in the Sea. At Isla San Francisco, we spent a magical evening on the beach around a fire, making music under a full moon. Another memorable day we spent exploring the upper reaches of Tabor (aka Steinbeck) Canyon near Puerto Escondido. I felt about 12 years old, squirming under boulders, through waterways and shinnying up trees. That was so much fun we went back three times! Regular running workouts with Laurie, from Muskoka, have been another great addition to our cruising lifestyle. The cruiser community, Club Crucero in La Paz, runs activities every day of the year, from celestial navigation, quilting, dominoes, line dancing and daily coffee, to annual charity events. I went to the Post Office in San Felipe, looking for internet service and was instead invited to stay and join in a belly dancing class that was starting. Of course I stayed and yes, it was fun. You never know what social opportunities will come your way, but they definitely add to the enjoyment of this lifestyle.

With the exception of somewhat aggressive vendors in Cabo San Lucas, we have had excellent experiences with locals. Marta at Marina Cortez in La Paz, is super helpful and friendly when you need to leave your boat for a few weeks. Lupe runs a tiny restaurant on the beach in Puerto Escondido, serving up a menu of excellent Mexican food and happy conversation. Mario, owner of a remote rancho, saddled up and rode his mule behind our car to show us cave paintings. Strolling the malecon on Friday night in towns from La Paz to Puerto Penasco, there are people of all ages, families, and local bands playing different tunes at the same time. Its colorful, noisy and fun. Our experience with Mexican people has been extremely positive. We have found them to be unfailingly courteous and helpful.

Lesson Learned: Everything is more fun with company, so reach out to fellow cruisers! Invest in learning to speak the language so you can talk with the locals. Many Mexicans speak English to varying degrees, but all appreciate your efforts to speak Spanish.

Open Your Mind

Learn something new every day!

“This Isla Ventana is totally barren,” I thought as we approached the beach. “There is nothing here but more rock and cacti.” Then I saw the cactus flowers… bright red and four inches across. I took pictures because I hadn’t seen that kind before and we needed to move on due to weather. When I returned to the boat, I found that what I’d seen was endemic to the islands of this area so suddenly it was a “once in a lifetime” day for me. Similarly, after a long hike in the painted desert hills  behind Este Ton, I found a lovely yellow and purple flower that I cannot identify from any of the plant guides. I wonder if I have found a new endemic species? Scrambling up Steinbeck Canyon we found maidenhair fern surrounding a shaded spring, as well as palm trees, fig trees and wild grapes. Absolutely the last plants I would have expected in that dry desert canyon!

Making time to hike and explore!

Our marine wildlife viewing highlights have been tempered with the growing, somber awareness that this area is over-fished and some species are threatened with extinction. We are heartened to see more marine mammals than we did on our trip here ten years ago: blue whales, humpbacks, fin and  pilot whales as well as dolphins almost daily, and colonies of sea lions. Near La Paz, we swam with a thirty foot whale shark and that was a huge thrill, but many areas where we expected to find great snorkeling have been disappointing. We are told by fishermen, activists, marina staff, museum staff, and longtime cruisers that this wonderful aquarium, so called by Jacques Cousteau, is vastly depleted due to nearly a century of over-fishing.

In San Felipe, we met the Sea Shepherd crew of the Farley Mowat and learned about their efforts to save the nearly extinct vaquita. This tiniest of cetaceans is endemic to the northern Sea of Cortez and there are only an estimated thirty of them left. They get tangled in fishnets and die. While fishing with nets is illegal, it is not illegal to buy, sell or possess nets. So Sea Shepherd volunteers go out with a Mexican naval escort and remove the nets. The goal of the fishermen is to catch totoaba, as the swim bladder of this giant sea bass is highly prized in China. This is obviously a complex issue, but the bottom line is we are losing another species right here and right now. I was immensely impressed by the passion and determination of the Sea Shepherd crew, who come from all over the world to donate their skills, time and energy to saving the vaquita from extinction. Hopefully this will be another success story, like many whale populations, Pacific sea otters and Cabo Pulmo reef fish.

Bird watching has been fascinating here in the Sea of Cortez. We saw red cardinals and vermilion flycatchers for the first time on the roadside at Puerto Escondido. While rowing along the shoreline at remote Puerto Refugio, I noticed nesting colonies of pelicans. Because I was going slowly, I saw the adolescents in their fluffy, white, awkwardness and even caught a glimpse of wrinkled, black nestlings. We have seen many osprey nests on rocky pinnacles. Often there are young inside and sadly there is often plastic and other debris incorporated into the nest. We visited Isla Raza, where most of the world’s Heerman gull population goes to nest. A green heron, Xantus hummingbird and a hooded oriole are also on my list of birding “personal firsts”.

The land itself puts on a dramatic show here. A wide vein of black obsidian curves across the cliff at Punta Pulpita and chunks of the volcanic glass litter the beach and dunes. Isla Encantada  sheds floating rocks (pumice). At Puerto Los Gatos, ancient red sandstone is carved in intricate, lacelike patterns: it looks like water frozen in midsplash. Caves dot the shoreline near Caleta Vee on Isla San Jose and at Puerto Refugio on Isla Angel de la Guarda. On Isla Coronados, we climbed to the top of the extinct volcano. The mountains on Isla Angel de la Guarda  range through geological  kaleidoscope of yellow, brown, purple, red pink and green! In addition to the natural colors of the desert landscapes, ancient people left their dramatic art in hidden caves and canyons here up to 7,500 years ago. National Geographic calls Baja” the great mural country”. We spent three memorable days visiting sites in La Trinidad and Las Borjitas near Mulege and another cave near Agua Verde. Getting there was an adventure in itself but the paintings are truly overwhelming.

We have met cruisers who pursue all sorts of interests on board. One friend is an avid quilter and another paints. My cruiser buddy, Laurie, can count on one hand the number of days she has missed her running workout in the last year of cruising! We met one couple who had a guitar and a folding flamenco dance floor on board! I would not be without my piano and have had hours of pleasure from it on this trip.  The cruising communities in La Paz and Zihuatenejo both organize week-long events to benefit local charities and there are many opportunities to get involved in these and other cruiser organized events. Learning Spanish has been a good challenge for me. There’s nothing like memorizing pages of verb conjugations if you like that kind of thing… Clearly the boat itself provides endless challenge and reward as something always needs fixing or improving.

Lesson Learned: Take your hobbies and interests along, expand them, start something new. Learn something new every day and have “Aha” or “Wow” moments as often as possible.

Know Yourself

This is the hardest bit. Don’t underestimate your own needs. Keep the sailing in perspective and figure out what you need to keep an even keel in your own head. For me, it’s social interaction (strangers are just fine), daily physical exercise, playing music and learning. For Henk, it’s good friends, good food, red wine, listening to music and reading pulp fiction. We can find all of those things while cruising, so we are looking forward to the next episode of Harlequin‘s adventures when we head for the Marquesas and the South Pacific. If you are interested in a more in depth coverage of our cruising to date, read our blog.



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