Part 2 — The Blog from the Sea of Cortez

Ros Hodgekiss
Aug 9 · 14 min read

“Enero loco y Febrero otro poco.”

We had rounded Isla Lobos, a rocky marker of an island, painted white with bird droppings — and found ourselves with not just the eagerness, but the conditions to sail. With the wind blowing 12 or more knots from the north-east, we pulled in our halyards and soon enough, were riding 4–5 foot swells on the push of Mother Nature, our speed regularly topping 8 knots. This was decent progress for a solid boat, far better suited to cruising in comfort, than breaking any speed records.

Looking west from Isla Espiritu Santo.

The swell was intensifying — but we were never quite poised to surf it. The genoa (foresail) would occasionally luff, but could not be coaxed into wing-on-wing; with the wind strengthening and the boat pitching like so, we soon lost the desire to test trouble too much. This was a vacation after all! A cruising holiday in a glorified Airbnb, more loaded with millennial ambition to casually “blow up the (Insta)’gram”, than to drive fast, feisty and heeled-over like we do in San Francisco.

It was in these conditions of relative comfort, cocktail-making and generally very little-to-do that the first of many little disasters came about. There was a quick snap — like the crack of a metal whip — and in my periphery, I saw a line go skyward like a rocket. “Backstay! Backstay!”, I shouted. With aft tension removed, the mast bent, shuddered and drew a wild arc with the boat, but otherwise held. Meanwhile, we had released the genoa, which promptly whipped windward, slapping our skipper with a strong golpe to the face.

Not a working backstay.

By firing up the engine and turning into the wind, we were able to drop the sails. Our skipper’s injury was compounded by his ever-present cellphone disappearing overboard — and with it, all the photos he had taken during his exploratory hike of Isla Espirito Santo. This had all happened sometime between him getting raked by the sail and our emergency maneuvering, all of which left had M., our skipper, understandably shaken and upset.

By this point in the trip, all three of us guests felt genuine compadreship with M. and offered him a suck on our bottle of mezcal. As the long weekend would prove, he always kept a warm smile in reserve for us — that is, until he had to excuse himself after a drink to be sick in the ship’s head.

As the ship’s nav console had been hit by lightning (earlier) and our charts were on our skipper’s cellphone, the Navionics app on my phone was used to pick a course around the reefs and rocky points between us and La Paz. It became clear — with the shallows not revealing themselves on the chart unless well zoomed-in — that this was a fairly essential task. Off the coast of Isla Espirito Santo were seawall-like reefs that, if not for the presence of birds, provided little definition from the black, unsettled sea.

With no iPhone in my pocket and a skipper that was in an inward-facing mood, I rested my eyes on the cliffs of Isla Partida. As the view transitioned from dramatic, rocky uplifts, to the deserted, sandy inlets and coves of Isla Espirito Santo, the thought did go through my mind that yes, this would be a pretty lovely place to be somewhat fucked.

The evening prior, Will, Mary and I had sat on the deck of our chartered Cooper 416, a 1980’s-era cruiser owned by A. from San Francisco. Our skipper M. had turned into his berth early, but stayed awake, only his face visible in glow of his cellphone. He had schooled us earlier on why it was good to find a protected anchorage before nightfall, as the Sea of Cortez’s winds habitually turned from barely a sniff, to strong in a matter of moments. With these winds came large swells, that at the very least, could mean a restless, see-sawing night — assuming you were at anchor and it was holding fast.

Now, hooked firmly in a cove that protected us from northerly winds, with the spreader lights turned off and the moon starting to set, we picked out bright lights and constellations, but knew few of their names. We occasionally talked — and still do — about learning celestial navigation, but for now, speculation is all on the points of light surrounding us, like a marvelous, edge-to-edge, boat-in cinema.

It was during times like this that our personalities are most in contrast. In comparison to Will and I, Mary — an old colleague and enduring friend, often recounts past events like a list of facts, say, like someone tasked with reading the wiki post on the Panama Canal. The ships are so big, the lake so deep, flooding the locks has this effect and so on. While being prone to analysis and concern, she is a reliable witness; the stories are always good and true. As one could likely imagine at this point, she is completely dedicated to storytelling, sketching (she is a designer), cooking, or any other task in her care — and that’s what makes her excellent sailing crew.

We recounted the day’s events — the swim off Playa Balandra, with its green-blue water in contrast to the arid desert landscape, a palette unique to Baja California. The manta rays that shot up from the Sea of Cortez like they were meeting the end of a ramp — leaping in sets of 3, before disappearing under the waves. The red-yellow sedimentary layers that rose out of the sea and formed the desert islands around us. The future of our rum cocktails, now that we were out of guava juice.

Mary, being the better person in our trio, hopped up well before midnight, leaving Will and I on deck to talk about sailing — or the lack of it — and to smoke. We toyed with a flashlight, throwing lit shapes on the northern wall, which was good enough a surface to project a movie. Mostly, I drew figure-of-eights on the cloudy blue-green water, thinking that attracting fish should be as simple as YouTube videos make it out to be.

I like Will wholesomely and after the many hours we’ve spent under sail, feel he brings the experiences of three lives, in contrast to my condensed narrative of one. In my case, a prosperous career and marriage have supported a life by lived with desperate gusto, like Faust after the devil’s bargain. Together, there is barely a silent moment, except to light tobacco — it is like knowing is an itch with Will and he’ll only pause, sometimes with a “huh!”, to let something set in, a feeling be momentarily sated, before continuing a story or idea at a prompt clip.

As I learned in time, he never likes hearing the same thing twice. I had complimented him on a thing on two separate occasions; the second time, he reminded me of it, as if tenderness is kind, but taking up the space of something else. So it is that he craves newness and adventure; sometimes I feel like Scheherazade from One Thousand and One Nights, at the peril of being cast off at each story’s close. But somehow, I have survived — and to that effect, he will send me little note, every other day.

The moon was starting to set; my brain mistook its cloud-masked orange glow for a passenger ship on the horizon, perhaps sailing to Loreto. I could not shake the thought until it disappeared under that distant lip, leaving Will and I to sit in the blackness, the open nothing of the sea. I think these quiet times to be romantic in the Thoreau nature-worship sense, but perhaps to Will, otherwise. At any rate, we had barely picked up our pile of blankets and ash-filled mugs when the wind direction turned and with it, our boat around its anchor. The evening winds that M. had prepared us for had arrived.

“There are two kinds of sailors: those who have run aground, and those who lie about it.”

In contrast to the fore-aft rocking of the boat that night, the motor back to La Paz was gentle, even pleasurable — a piece of fortune, given that there was no backstay to support a mainsail. I had never used an auto-pilot before and enjoyed changing the boat’s heading in 5-degree increments, edging around Point Lobos without ever touching the helm. The sun was beginning to set as we sighted the petroleum depot that marked the mouth of the La Paz channel; this view gave way to the faint flashing of red and channel markers, spaced impossibly far apart. With Will at the helm and rounding the first bend of this dredged section, the boat went from steadily motoring at four knots, to suddenly, zero. Like when kayaking in the shallows during the summer months, we had hit resistance, accompanied by the sound of sand against the underside.

Inauspiciously, my head had been sunk into a message informing A., the owner, of our estimated time of arrival into the marina. That was an hour that would come and go.

The first time we ran aground in the channel, we came unstuck easily enough, but it was enough of an event to put Will into a sulk. M. and I joked about how he’d graduated as a “Type 2” sailor (incorrectly, as per the quote above), while Will proceeded to sit on the foredeck and smoke a cigarette.

With the night washing away most detail from the scene, M. took control of the helm and we continued our stoic, black march down the channel. The lit markers started to meld amongst the city lights of La Paz in the distance, but with M. being an experienced skipper and La Paz local, we trusted his take on the channel. He knew this and so made the events that followed all the more terrible for him.

Again, the boat came to a firm halt. My head popped up from under the canvas bimini and I saw a red flashing buoy, less than 20 feet astern.

“Will, we need your deadweight.”

After his cigarette, Will had gone to sleep in the v-berth. A minute and no politeness later, Mary and the both of us were up on deck, attempting to rock the boat and set the keel free. I thought of the tonnes of crockery, ice, boat tools, soft furnishings, bilge, jalapeños, old books… All the things below-deck that make sea-faring pleasant, but ensured that the combined weight of four people made not a bit of difference to the angle of the keel.

Attempt two involved using the dinghy to drop the anchor in the channel, then use the windlass to pull us out. This was promising, until the point that the electric windlass fuse blew; I stationed next to the fuse and reset it repeatedly as it armed, popped, armed and popped again, all with the horrible knowledge, that — you know — these fuses exist for a good reason. At this time, I was already thinking about the story I would write — indeed, what you are reading now — and thinking that there would be no finer ending than to have an electrical fault escalate into a floating cremation pyre… and thus our initiation into Valhalla YC.

This process was abandoned and Will immediately progressed to his next tactic, one which I had initially discouraged. Taking the unused main halyard and tying it to a line, he hopped back into the dinghy and drove into the channel. I had warned him earlier about trying to lever the boat by the mast, given that we had no sense of whether it had been compromised after losing the backstay. Also, the idea of us dismasting in calm waters — just mere feet from the channel — was pathetic and surely would do nothing for M’s fraying mind.

But you know, it worked. The bow came around, the engine grinding away with frustration as the prop spun and we pivoted on the keel. M. surged the boat forward into the channel, leaving Will behind in the dinghy. With only a small outboard motor, he was quickly losing ground. Will — perhaps with unpleasant pauses and fullstops manifesting in his mind — told me later about how from this episode came a profound dread, of abandonment in a waterway so dark that you could not see where the sea interfaced the sky.

The third time we ran aground was when M. mistook a red light denoting a navigational hazard — the end of a sea wall — for a channel marker. I will stop here to prevent further embarrassment.

During our channel troubles, Mary had fried up some breaded pork, hot food now established as the tried-and-true help for the hapless sailor. M’s wife and two chihuahuas had been waiting on the dock, hours after our arranged time, and all were tired, anxious and with no desire to draw out un día terrible.

After they had departed, we hungrily downed the pork pieces with champagne from the cooler box. Still not adequately decompressed, Will and I lounged below deck in opposing corners, watching Spongebob Squarepants until 2am.

The following day, our final day, M. arrived at the marina around 10:30am — and with the mast out of commission, he suggested we motor to a beach. This seemed fine and relieved of the possibility of sailing, we helped M. push off the slip. The three of us then spread out on the deck like La Paz’s resident sea lions.

We took in the warm February sun as we rumbled up the long channel, challenging a breeze that made the day more sweater weather than San Tropez (imagined). In my swimsuit, I had all plans to “tan out” a wide bruise on my hip, the result of being hit by a car two weeks prior. Less convinced that the sun was any benefit, Mary lay beside me in a wide hat and goosedown jacket.

Out of the channel, the swells picked up again, with Will calling me back from the foredeck, fearful that the mast could come down and take Mary and I out in a brilliant spray of fibreglass and crimson. It was a practical request. Barely a beat later, the motor cut out and it was “all hands on deck” again.

In rolling seas, M. tried to restart the diesel engine, but nothing would take. He said the filters were dirty. He said it was something else. Mary asked me quietly if she should prepare a ditch bag. Her white-knuckle dedication to getting the fuck away made me smile.

With the motor appearing to be thoroughly expired, we turned our attention to how to limp the boat ashore. Meanwhile, the boat ladder went overboard as the boat pitched from side-to-side. It was an entertaining break as Will chased it in the dinghy, the ladder quickly floating away from us. The waves were so high that we had to persistently direct him from the deck, until the dinghy was nearly on top of the ladder’s grey plastic frame.

Regrouped, we made the decision to sail back to port using only the genoa. The genoa’s furling line itself was compromised, with the outer weave having detached from the nylon core after yesterday’s rapid takedown. At worst this would prevent furling at our destination; more seriously, I didn’t want to stress the mast, even with it jury-rigged in place using the main halyard.

With an easterly wind picking up, we set a course to drive straight for the #1 green channel marker and initially fell short — we just couldn’t get upwind enough. While gybing out, M. made another attempt at restarting the engine, which momentarily spluttered alive… But only for long enough to cut the painter to the dinghy and set the little boat adrift. The inboard motor then died, possibly fouled in the painter.

We sailed some impressively tight circles to deposit Will in the dinghy, tumbling him in like a sack of onions. After securing the dinghy, he noted that there was something wrong with the dinghy transmission — or perhaps it was the prop? — and its usefulness may indeed be coming to an end.

As if to give us hope, a juvenile whale then appeared in the mouth of the channel and for a brief moment, elated and wanting some upside to this, we cheered it on. If there had been any discussion about requesting our money back, it was then dropped. With the whale, we’d not only had our cruise, but a safari —albeit in a busy Mexican shipping channel.

It took another attempt — which involved drifting perilously close to both green and red channel markers — to get us past a section of channel that involved sailing upwind. After that, we bore away and sailed a comfortable, genoa-powered broad reach all the way back to Marina Cortez, the nearest place we could drop anchor. With the day quickly disappearing and each of us feeling to some degree that our adventure should come to an end, M. assured us that we would be promptly taken ashore at Marina Cortez, if only the dinghy should cooperate for a final time.

For me, the short 4.5nm trip back to the anchorage was the longest stretch of actual sail time I’d spent at the helm of this boat. It was not challenging, but it felt full of accomplishment, given the circumstances. Most importantly for both our safety and my ego, I did not run aground.

What a strange thing, being back in the familiar grid of a gringo town, after two days of wondering if the Cooper would evaporate under our feet. The energy was still high and after dropping our bags in our simple concrete-block apartment, we spent an hour on its balcony recording an account of what had happened. This was followed by a move to Will’s spartan room for a five-minute video recap. Mary relished this. The recap in particular turned out like an Al Qaeda-style hostage video, albeit one where our club burgees hung like insurgent flags and everyone — especially our rapid-fire storytellers in Will and Mary — was having a very good time.

The rest of the trip was spent largely in regular comfort. There was a band that night at a local expat haunt, La Morante. The waitress played Jenga with us, the Jenga pieces had truth-or-dare -style questions written on them in Spanish, and me — being a Spanish speaker and no stranger to sexual words — was embarrassed in company, I stopped reading them aloud. The waitress noted that it was La Morante’s anniversary and handed us thick slices of sheet cake. Overfull and overwatered, it was one of the few evenings I’ve thoroughly wanted to leave a tip, but for whatever reason, forgot to do so. This is now — strangely — part of my desire to return to La Paz, to thank the waitress for her kindness, the cake and perhaps to replace that tacky Jenga set.

Back on the balcony of our apartment, we were out of alcohol, but had a stash of puros to smoke. Mary being no fan of our smoking, was soon excusing herself to bed, leaving Will and I to the breeze off the Sea of Cortez, with our faint, unforgiving channel markers blinking in the distance.

I remember being so taken by the night air, the sound of the breeze in the palms, a complex friendship and the desire to sleep outside. I remember the sound of a tipped glass rolling along the tiles, then a splitting crash as it shattered in a garden below. I remember stretching out on the balcony sofa — languid and lovely likely Manet’s Olympia — and saying something unwise. It made Will put on his hat and go indoors, closing the door behind him.

With nothing more to say, I remember lying under those beautiful palms, finally, finally all by myself! My heart felt strong, swollen and unrelenting in my chest — and I was there, keel intact… I was running free.

At Close Quarters: Stories from sailing and the sea.

Sailing essays, reading lists and salty tales.

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