Posted on 28 October 2009
Written by Peter Swanson
A Sea of Cortez charter follows in John Steinbeck’s wake
On our second day out from La Paz, heading roughly north over the Sea of Cortez, I recognized yet another familiar shape — two of them, actually.
“Do you see the monkey over there?” I asked, glancing to port.
“The white one who looks like he’s sitting down. You see it, too? I was thinking that looked like a monkey!”
She was amused that, despite the gender divide, both our brains had “seen” something simian about a pile of boulders rising from the dark blue sea.
“But do you see the big dog?” I asked. “He looks like he’s sneaking up on the monkey.”
“Now I do,” she said. “He’s going to get that monkey.”
As children, all of us played this game with clouds, but over these Mexican waters the clouds were scarce. Instead, the rocks and cliff sides teased our imaginations. Prior to our monkey, I had beheld a queen on her throne, the Queen Mary under way, an ancient Buddhist totem, and several crumbling Celtic forts and crusader castles. To me, those four fabulous boulders standing shoulder-to-shoulder conjured The Beatles.
The only natural sculpture I can recall from my native New England was the Old Man of the Mountain. Though his face fell off Cannon Mountain in 2003, the granite profile continues to adorn the back of the New Hampshire quarter (a two-bit memorial). Travel deep enough down the 800-mile Baja Peninsula, and you are certain to find the Old Man’s brother or cousin — maybe his entire beetle-browed family — keeping vigil in his stead.
A writer I know says he experiences heightened powers of observation when he goes to sea — the survival instinct of a creature away from his native element. Imagine, then, two people from the woodlands and suburbs of the Northeast on their first cruise in the Sea of Cortez. Not only are we two land dwellers gliding across a couple of thousand feet of blue liquid, but it appears we are doing so on some other planet. With the possible exception of the Red Sea, the Baja resembles nowhere else on earth you can take a boat.
Nothing happens for nothing. Therefore, seeing shapes in clouds and rocks is more than child’s play; it may well be an attempt to impose order on an apparently random world. The ability to crack the code, to identify patterns, is a survival skill that can benefit any of us, from the trooper in Afghanistan to the broker on Wall Street to the nurse in the local emergency room. Recognition sometimes comes to us as a gut feeling — or the hairs standing up on the backs of our necks. Seeing shapes may well be equivalent to involuntary mental calisthenics, exercises enabling us to win greater rewards and avoid suffering.
As the expression goes, a change of scenery will do you good. And an extreme change of scenery might do you even better, so welcome to Baja.
* * *
Given their overfamiliarity with Western topography, I doubt our cruising brethren from California, though they love the Baja, can experience the region as intensely as East Coast people. And in our particular case, we were doing so from the flybridge of a Moorings 47, a futuristic power cat with a commanding view of the lunar-like sea of tranquility that lay before us.
For 20 years I’ve been an enthusiastic Baja fan. Flying into San Diego, I made several road trips partway down the peninsula, which happens to be longer than Italy. In 2003, I delivered a trawler from Florida to Ensenada (a Mexican port about 60 miles south of San Diego), and though we stopped at Cabo San Lucas, I deeply regretted not having time for a detour up the Sea of Cortez. Realizing belatedly that my best chance would be to charter a boat, I turned to The Moorings, which has a base at Costa Baja Marina, the newest marina in La Paz.
Good charter grounds share several features. They are beautiful, reasonably compact in size, and have protected waters with numerous sheltered bays and islands to visit. Shoreside, there is town life with restaurants and shops. And there is an international airport not far from the charter base. This describes the Bahamian Abacos and the British Virgin Islands, and it describes the area from La Paz to Puerto Escondido in the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California).
Most charter grounds fall into two categories: Old World or tropical. Old World includes any place in the Mediterranean or the barge canals of France; most others look alike — sugar-sand beaches and palm trees. For proof that the Sea of Cortez is not like the others, you only have to look at the photos on these pages. However, in addition to its powerful scenery, the Baja has three unique qualities.
1. It is a fabulous eating destination that has developed its own “Baja-Med” cuisine — a fusion of Mexican, Mediterranean and Asian cooking using fresh, local ingredients. (El Ajibe and Las Tres Virgines — in La Paz — are notable Baja-Med venues.)
2. Related to No. 1, the fishing is so good that waters of the East Coast and Caribbean seem barren by comparison.
3. Related to No. 2, the sea-life watching is superb, especially the whales that inhabit these waters from January to March. (Jacques Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez the “world’s aquarium” and the “Galapagos of North America.”)
Though not unique to the Baja, it should be noted that the people are friendly, and they like Americans. No, they really do. And being in the city of La Paz feels as comfortable as a well-worn pair of shoes. The water is clean, the streets are clean, and at the end of the working day the city’s seaside boardwalk (in Spanish, the malecon) comes alive with families and friends enjoying the gentle breeze and colors of sunset.
We arrived for a weeklong charter in mid-August following the hundreds of other Moorings customers who have sailed before. But the most famous person to have chartered in the Sea of Cortez did so nearly 70 years ago — long before The Moorings. Author John Steinbeck was at his peak, having just published “The Grapes of Wrath,” when he and his best friend, a marine biologist named Ed Ricketts, chartered a 76-foot sardine boat for a research voyage. In their 4,000-mile trip aboard Western Flyer, Steinbeck, Ricketts and four professional mariners ventured up and down the Sea of Cortez, including an eventful leg from La Paz to Puerto Escondido — the very same trip we had planned for ourselves.
The Western Flyer expedition discovered several new species, but that was not the goal. Steinbeck and Ricketts were early adherents to the notion of holistic ecologies that we take for granted today. They were more interested in seeing how different species in the intertidal zone related to one another — urchins, starfish, hermit crabs, etc. They collected thousands of specimens.
Published in 1941, a year after the expedition, “The Log from the Sea of Cortez” contained much more than marine biology, however. The book was a lively blend of travel narrative, philosophical musings and a brooding sense of history-in-the-making. In 1940, the “hinge-year” of our 20th century, Hitler’s armies were rampaging across Europe, but the United States was still at peace, drifting uneasily toward Dec. 7, 1941. Four years later, the end of World War II would set in motion the trends that created recreational boating as we know it and produced such new cities as Cabo San Lucas. Today, the influx of gringo baby boomers is positioning historic La Paz as the Baja’s genteel alternative to the party-hearty environment at “Cabo Wabo.”
“On the water’s edge of La Paz a new hotel was going up,” wrote Steinbeck, “and it looked very expensive. Probably the airplanes will bring weekenders from Los Angeles before long, and the beautiful poor bedraggled old town will bloom with a Floridian ugliness.” Steinbeck was referring to the Hotel Perla, and he need not have worried. La Paz was not ruined, old Perla is still entertaining guests, and though several new resort hotels, villas and condo complexes dot the adjoining landscape, there is little ugliness of any sort.
* * *
After two days of enjoying the sights of La Paz, we set our charter cat, Costa Baja 1, on a course for Puerto Escondido, where I had never been. This “hidden harbor,” as its name signifies in Spanish, had long held my interest because of its on-again, off-again development as a recreational port. Steinbeck called Escondido a “place of magic.”
To make the round trip in our allotted number of days, I determined that Day One would be our longest passage, about 85 nautical miles. With conditions of total calm and a boat that cruised happily at 10 knots, this was pure pleasure. With plenty of daylight, we had time to alter course for little detours. First we nosed the big cat up to Los Islotes, rock outcroppings where boatloads of tourists come to swim with sea lions.
Steinbeck and Ricketts, with their ideas about interspecies relations, surely would have had something to say about that. Personally, I would never get in the water with even a single sea lion, let alone a platoon of them, though we watched a gaggle of happy campers doing just that. The sea lions, I’m told, hardly ever bite the tourists, and everyone involved in that day’s mammalian love fest seemed to be getting along … well, swimmingly.
Shortly after turning our bow northward again, we saw a big stingray near the surface, then a pod of pilot whales. Looking rubbery black and keeping close together, the pilots were our consolation prize for not having chartered during the winter months, when gray whales are everywhere. Next we nosed up to Isla Coyote, the smallest inhabited island in the Sea of Cortez. A clan of fishermen lives in a neat little village there, built atop what looks like a sloping flat rock.
Then we saw dolphins by the hundreds, as we did every day thereafter. This dolphin army cavorted all around us, many launching themselves high out of the water to get a better look at us. By the dozen, they took turns rubbing their backs against the water displaced by our bows. They seemed genuinely happy to see us, unlike their Floridian cousins, who seem to have become indifferent to our presence.
Despite our unfamiliar surroundings, and whatever my earlier musings might have suggested, the crew of Costa Baja 1 felt totally tranquilo while under way. Sitting on the flybridge, we felt any lingering tension dissipate as if we had just exhaled a deep breath. We were in the shade and, though landward it may have been 100 degrees, our own apparent wind, added to a few knots of northeasterly breeze, kept us cool. We glided into Puerto El Gato at 4 p.m. and anchored near the bay’s most distinguishing feature, a rock slope that looked like giant toes molded from red clay, left out in the rain, then baked.
Two worn Cal 25 sailboats were already in the anchorage, and we took note that neither had an outboard in its transom slot. Male and female buddy-boaters, both in their 20s, had bravely cruised down from the States under sail alone, according to some American sailors who knew the pair. I’ll think of those kids next time I am in a Bahamian anchorage, surrounded by a fleet of overequipped, overcautious and overweight American cruisers.
Steinbeck’s expedition had dealings with native people — described as Indians — paddling dugout canoes. We met our version at El Gato in the form of Manuel the Fisherman. When we arrived at El Gato, he was putt-putting around the anchorage in his outboard-driven panga. He stood off and watched us anchor. Even a rural Mexican fisherman knows you need to watch out for those charter customers, and when he saw the hook had set, he signaled to us that we had done a good job. Then he came alongside and introduced himself.
“Are you interested in having some lobsters for dinner?” Manuel asked.
No, thank you, I said, exercising my Spanish, but do you have any clams?
“Clams? I would get you some ‘chocolates’ right now,” he said, “but I am 74 and have a difficult time diving.” A “chocolate” is the local version of what New Englanders call a quahog, though its shell is not grayish but brown like a Hershey bar.
After Manuel left, the bees arrived. Our briefer at The Moorings had warned us they would come. Not every bee in the desert is assigned to flower duty; some are sent to collect water, which they regurgitate to be shared or used for cooling purposes back at the hive. Apparently a boat under way collects puddles of fresh water too tiny for us to see but big enough to fill a bee’s gut. Dousing the boat in salt water, our briefer told us, keeps them from coming, but that had seemed like a lot of work to us. Now they were swarming into the main saloon, and we faced a dilemma.
I had earlier decided we would not run the air conditioner that night — and, therefore, the genset — in deference to our neighbors on the Cal 25s. I know how annoying it is to be in a hot bunk and unable to sleep because of the throb and splash of a generator from a boat whose occupants have the thermostat set to 62 degrees. Now we were closing all the hatches and doors because of the bees, which made the interior unbearably hot. We decided to move to the far end of the anchorage and run the AC.
I’m sure our neighbors in the Cals took this the wrong way, as the act of a couple snotty charter people reanchoring just to get away from them, but that really was not the case. Eventually the bees retreated, and we cooked a couple steaks on the grill and settled in for the night.
* * *
The next morning, we left El Gato shortly before 9 a.m. to finish the trip to Puerto Escondido. Manuel the Fisherman apparently had taken us for late-risers and had to gun his Mercury outboard to catch up. He waved us to a halt, hollering “chocolates, chocolates!”
Manuel came alongside and held up a mesh bag full of clams. I asked him how much for 20. As most of the negotiating world learned long ago, you never answer this question from a tourist directly. “Give me what you think they are worth,” he said. Twenty years ago, I had bought 20 steamed clams for $4 in San Felipe, but that was 20 years ago.
I proposed paying $20 U.S. for the clams. He raised his right hand, and seeing five fingers, I thought he was upping the ante. OK, I started to say, I’ll pay $25.
“No, no, amigo. High fi, high fi!” Manuel said. Ahhh … I get it, high fives! With the slap of our hands we had a deal: a buck a clam. For another $15 we bought a beautiful little souvenir pillow that Manuel’s wife had decorated with intricate needlepoint flowers. “She spent an entire week doing that one,” he said.
Despite the brisk business, Manuel wasn’t feeling too well, describing bellyaches that may have been anything from severe indigestion to a kidney stone. He asked for an aspirin, and when I tried to give him the whole bottle he refused it, taking just one. He said goodbye and told us we might see him later. He said he was planning to take his skiff to the hospital 40 miles away at Loreto. Never saw him again.
A few hours later, we dropped anchor at Isla Danzante, at a lovely little anchorage called Honeymoon Cove. When we arrived, we saw two small stingrays leap high out of the water, but they were not merely jumping. While airborne, they actually flapped their “wings” and even seemed to be gaining some air traction — “I think I can. I think I can” — when gravity pulled them back into the turquoise waters.
We had stopped for a swim and a leisurely lunch of steamed clams, since the cove was just 3.5 nautical miles from Puerto Escondido, our destination on the “mainland.” I served the clams just as they had in San Felipe, on a tray with a cup of melted butter at center, slices of lime lining the outside edges, fresh cilantro leaves sprinkled over the open shells, and with bottles of hot sauce and two frosty Pacifico beers on the table.
The clams were good, but chewier than my recollection of the San Felipe variety, which more resembled our own quahogs. Cherrystones or littlenecks (depending on the quahog’s age) are a sweet little amorphous mass of pale pinkish yellow flesh. Inside its shell, a “chocolate” seems to have a number of parts and pieces either absent or unnoticeable on a steamed quahog. This includes an appendage that looks like part of a squid and, most noticeably, something resembling Gene Simmons’ tongue only redder. (Gene Simmons from the rock band KISS, of course, not Jean Simmons the actress.)
At Puerto Escondido, we took one of 115 moorings installed in a large, perfectly sheltered harbor. Operated by the Mexican government’s tourism bureau, Puerto Escondido turned out to be a gem of a facility. It had a fuel dock, slips for another half-dozen boats, a haul-out yard, a cruisers lounge with Wi-Fi, an excellent exchange library operated by the local ex-pat “yacht club,” a small store, and an on-site restaurant. For years, the Mexican government has championed the idea of a “nautical ladder” of marinas spaced along the coast of Baja and the Mexican mainland on the Sea of Cortez. Puerto Escondido was one step of that ladder.
While waiting for our cab to Loreto, we found a gathering of local cruisers in a breezy spot between buildings. The conversation among these Californians turned to whales, each story topping the one before. California may have a lousy coast for boating, but, boy, does it have whales. My favorite was an anecdote about an orca — apparently we are not supposed to call them killer whales anymore. This orca liked to “spyhop” right beside the cockpits of anchored sailboats, like a kid sneaking up and shouting boo behind the sailors’ backs, a killer story if I ever heard one.
Our cab driver took us through an enormous and largely deserted condo development — thousands of units — about halfway to Loreto. The Americans, he said, would begin coming back in October when the weather cooled. Proudly, he also pointed out Loreto’s new hospital, where Manuel the Fisherman may have gone.
Like La Paz, Loreto is another old colonial town, albeit smaller. We enjoyed walking down its tree-
shaded market street and along the breezy malecon. Before returning to the anchorage, we drank margaritas at Augie’s on the malecon, a restaurant and pub that will cook your catch to order. Tailhunter’s, a similar gringo hangout back in La Paz, does the same. Tomorrow, we would catch our own fish and grill it, I promised. There was no shortage of them; ever since La Paz we had seen the silvery flashes of leaping tuna. And, according to the guidebooks, August was the best month of the year for both yellowfin and dorado and it doesn’t get any better than that.
* * *
Leaving Puerto Escondido, we were now officially on the return trip to La Paz. We went around the north and down the east side of Isla Danzante because our chart, annotated for anglers, said the drop-off there would be good for dorado in summer. I had packed a hand line and a couple lures in our luggage. The “reel” was a circular assembly made of plastic, with finger grips on the inside of a rim wound with line.
Letting out a couple-hundred feet, I hung the reel over the faucet at the flybridge sink. In one position, the spigot locked the reel in place. By rotating the spigot 90 degrees, the reel would release to pay out more line, even making a clunking drag-like sound as the finger-grips rapped against metal. Despite the chart and sophistication of our gear, we had only one strike and no hookup.
We arrived at our next anchorage, Agua Verde, with grilled chicken on the menu. Agua Verde was another beautiful bay set against a backdrop of mountains, with a tiny fishing village along its shore. With the sun falling low in the sky and the air cooling, we watched in fascination as a herd of 50 or 60 goats moved from one rocky hill to another. Every time we thought the lead goats had miscalculated and could proceed no farther because of a drop-off or barrier, they managed to find a precarious way forward, and the herd followed.
We had watched this show from the “brows” of our Moorings power cat, a series of steps in front of the windshield that provide both exterior seating and shade for the saloon. We returned after dinner with glasses of wine to gaze at the night sky, which shone more intensely than possible in the light-
polluted skies over the East Coast this time of year. I pointed out the communications satellites orbiting overhead, and even though the Perseid meteor showers had happened a few days earlier, the shooting stars were numerous.
Shortly after departing Agua Verde the next morning, we once again unrolled our line and lure. Soon we could see the flashes of silver jumping from the water around our faux squid. The clattering of plastic against chrome signaled “fish on” as the line ran out. Throwing the engines into neutral, I retrieved reel from faucet. To my relief, the strength of the tugs suggested that we had hooked a fairly small specimen.
Passing the line down onto the aft cockpit, I went down and slowly “reeled” the fish in. Lifting our tuna onto the aft-most “sugar scoop” of the port hull, I could see it was a perfect fish for two people, a little more than 2 feet long. I gripped the tail with a bath towel (sorry Moorings) and poured tequila down its gills. Alcohol is a non-violent way to dispatch a fish, which, having imbibed, promptly takes a one-way trip to pelagic Margaritaville.
Speaking of which, we put the tequila to use again that night. After dropping the hook at Isla San Francisco in a circular bay called The Hook, we tried a new margarita recipe using available ingredients. Combining fresh slices of mango, lime juice, ice and tequila in the ship’s blender, we discovered, will produce a creamy, fruity and most excellent sundowner cocktail.
Our tuna I had cut into steaks, then marinated in lime juice and pepper. Clearly we had enough for one or two more people, so I should have gone ahead and chunked the steaks by cutting away the spine and bony parts altogether. Grilled until it was pink in the middle, our fish was superb — bones and all. I shone a light off the stern as we tossed the leftovers overboard, and we watched as thousands of small fish came to share our meal. Were they young dorado? Maybe.
* * *
Next morning we dinghied to the beach and hiked the ridge of hills surrounding the bay, where four other boats lay at anchor widely spaced along its shore. After a last swim, we set off on a leisurely cruise back to The Moorings base for one last night in the City of Peace. En route, we nosed into the various lovely anchorages on Espiritu Santo, an island about the size of Manhattan just a few miles outside La Paz. If you ventured no farther than Espiritu Santo on a charter, it would be a week well-spent nonetheless.
In fact, it should be noted that to cover the 230 nautical miles we covered in five days, you would almost certainly need a power cat. If chartering a sailboat, plan on taking longer, especially during the short days of winter, if you want to reach Puerto Escondido.
During our time aboard Costa Baja 1, we had perfect weather, but as I write this, a hurricane is barreling northward directly toward the Baja’s southern tip. In winter, the whales may be thick in the water, but the price of admission is in the gales that sweep down from the north. In the warm-weather months, mariners here must also contend with reversing “Corumel” winds in La Paz Bay and fierce line squalls called “chubascos.” It pays to heed your Moorings briefing and match your anchorage to the weather forecast.
After backing the big cat into its berth at Marina Costa Baja, we had time to reflect on our short voyage. We were grateful that The Moorings had made the commitment to a base at La Paz, because getting a couple East Coast people out on the Sea of Cortez would have been unlikely, if not impossible, otherwise. We were also grateful for the quality of the food and drink in The Moorings’ provisioning plan. That, and the superb restaurants of La Paz made for a great eating experience.
Most of all, I was grateful to have finally seen the Baja Peninsula from the Sea of Cortez, rather than vice versa, and someday I would love to trace Steinbeck’s entire route around the gulf. And while I understand that our five-day trip was a small thing compared to his 1940 voyage, let me end by quoting from the final chapter of his book:
“This trip had dimension and tone. It was a thing whose boundaries seeped through itself and beyond into some time and space that was more than all the Gulf and more than all our lives. Our fingers turned over the stones, and we saw life that was like our life.”
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This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue.