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Darkest Before the Dawn

I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.

Heading down Baja was a new type of journey for me. There were moments of adventure, frustration, bliss and sorrow. The night passages were some of my favorite and yet some of hardest moments of the trip for me. My watch is normally 2-6 am, the darkest hours leading into the light of a new day. The nights where the wind was steady and the sky was clear, it felt like being in a dream. The wake around the boat would glow from the phosphorescence and an occasional dolphin would grace me with its company. I’d listen to podcasts and music, watch movies and read, but, more often than not, I’d sit with my face in the wind and my eyes on the sky. I’ve never seen more shooting stars than I did on our way down the remote Baja coast. Those nights were the ones I wish I could capture and share.

Most nights though, the winds were heavy and seas steep on our beam. It was like living in an endless earthquake. Large swells from the west, mixing with the wind chop from the east, had us feeling like we were living in a washing machine.

Everyone had told us cruising down Baja would be a breeze, “Just set your sails and you’re downwind cruising!”. Well, we couldn’t have had a more different experience. With La Nina conditions, we had cold weather, large ocean swells and heavy winds that always seemed to come from the wrong direction, or no wind at all and were forced to motor.

Mornings with him make me so happy.

So, when we left Turtle Bay just as sun was setting, I had prepared myself for another uncomfortable night. We headed offshore for our 240 mile sail south to Bahia Santa Maria with about 15 knots of wind, but as soon as it got dark the winds completely died. We ended up having to motor most of the night, watching lightning storms off in the distance. The second night of the passage we decided to head in and anchor in San Juanito since we had less than favorable conditions all day and were too exhausted to deal with the +25 knot winds and steep swells offshore. We pulled into the large bay around 1 am to find the anchorage lit with about forty large fishing boats. We navigated our way through the fleet to a spot we felt was a safe distance away and set the hook. We woke around 6 am to books falling off the shelves and decided to pick up our anchor and tuck further into the bay to try to find a more protected spot to get a few more hours of sleep.

It felt a little odd being the only cruising boat in an anchorage with so many old, dilapidated fishing trollers, even the fisherman came by in their pongas to wave hello, (mostly while I was showering on deck).

After some much needed rest we continued our journey south to Bahia Santa Maria. Finally, we had great conditions and were able to sail most of the way, we even caught a large sierra mackerel!

Sunrise in Santa Maria

That night during my 2-6 am shift, we hit a pocket of cell service and I received a message from my mother in law. As soon as I read it, tears started streaming down my face. She
was trying to contact us to let us know that Josh’s grandmother was sick in the hospital, and it wasn’t looking good. My heart sank, and in that moment, all I wanted was to be back at home to support Josh’s family and spend more time with Grandma. As the sun rose and we approached the bay, Josh’s watch began and I debated when the best time was to share the news with him. I decided it would be best to wait until after we had set the anchor and settled in. As soon as the anchor dropped I had a hard time holding it together, he asked me what was wrong and I shared the message I had received.

Entrance to Bahia Santa Maria.
Calling home.

It was one of those moments in life where you feel utterly stuck. We thought sailing meant freedom, but in that moment, we couldn’t have felt less free. We were anchored halfway down the remote Baja peninsula, with no access to roads or an airport. All we could do was sit there and pray for comfort for our family back at home.

Josh inflated the dingy and grabbed his board to have some alone time out in the water, I’m sure it wasn’t how he wanted his first surf session in Baja to go. That afternoon we were able to find weak cell reception and got a call out to Josh’s mom to speak with grandma to tell her how much we loved her and wish we could be there with her. With heavy hearts, we fell asleep for a much-needed nap.

In the afternoon, we decided to get off the boat for a bit and explore the estuary. There in the mangroves we found a small fishing camp, as we approached, the fishermen stopped cleaning their daily catch of clams to wave hello. We noticed a few lobster traps lying around and asked if they had any for sale, sure enough they did, $3 for a whole lobster! We bought four!

That night we feasted aboard Sloboda, with our new friends Mike and Nicolle and their adorable labradoodle, Dexter, who we had met earlier in the day. Little did we know, this couple would become some of our closest friends and one of the biggest blessings of our trip. In the morning, we buddy boated twenty miles south to Bahia Magdalena to explore the mangroves and small fishing village littered with whale skeletons.

Bahia Magdalena is most noted for the hundreds, if not thousands of grey whales that visit the bay each winter to give birth and mate. The locals make a living during that season taking tourists out in their pongas to get up close and personal with the whales. The town itself is on a small peninsula and completely cut off from the rest of the mainland. There are no roads, in or out, and yet there are about a dozen rusting, old vehicles littering the small village.

Preparing the lobster for dinner.
Whale bones piled up on the beach.

That night we went to shore to have dinner at the one “restaurant” on the beach. When we arrived and knocked on the front door, we noticed a man reclining on a couch under the window, watching television on a big screen. When he answered the door, we asked if this was indeed the restaurant, and if they were open for the evening. He eagerly replied that it was indeed the “restaurant” and they were indeed, “Abierto”. He called out to his wife, who was somewhere in the back of their house, and led us to a table out on the front porch. He quickly informed us the village had completely run out of beer, but, if we wanted we could go back to the boat and bring our own drinks for the night. He also informed us there was no menu, they would only be able to serve us lobster or fried fish tacos. Both sounded delicious, so we all ordered one of each! As we sat getting to know our new friends, I noticed the photos hanging on the wall. There were photos of fish larger than children, men petting whales and trucks floating across the sea on rafted up pongas.

Well, that solved the mystery of the cars in a place with no roads! I asked the owner, who happened to also be the town’s sheriff, why they brought cars over when they can’t drive anywhere?

Basically, he explained they did it to feel normal. It was the same reason he had a big screen TV, and most of the houses there had satellite dishes. There are less than 50 people living in this remote, small village, and even though the fisherman enjoyed living simple and quiet lives, they also wanted to enjoy the luxuries most of us have.

Exploring Bahia Magdalena’s mangroves with Sloboda.

It’s these memories that stick with me the most. Meeting the locals, hearing their stories and getting to see the world through their eyes, even for just a brief moment, humbles me and brings me immense joy.

The next day we left for our last passage down the Pacific coast of Baja, we were headed 200 miles to the southernmost tip of the peninsula, Cabo San Lucas. This time, the sea gave us exactly what we needed, perfectly warm, sunny days with 15 knots of breeze! It was beautiful!

Caught our first mahi. He was just a little guy so we threw him back!

The second night into our passage, on my 2-6 am watch I received another message, grandma had passed… I had just begun my watch, and as the tears streamed down my face once again, I turned my eyes to the sky ahead of us. There was no moon and the sky was clear. The stars shown brighter than ever before and the warm breeze kissed my wet cheeks. As I prayed for comfort for those we loved back at home, the sky ahead lit up with shooting stars. Over the next few hours I watched dozens, if not hundreds of shooting stars stream across the little patch of sky directly in front of us. Whether or not it was grandma waving goodbye, or saying it was ok to move forward, or just a random meteor shower, it brought me peace in those dark hours.

Josh taking down the main.

This time when Josh woke he knew immediately something was wrong. We decided to pull into the anchorage in front of Cabo even though it was still dark, instead of continuing on three hours east to the Los Cabos Marina. We had been there before and there were enough lights on the beach to help us spot the other boats in the anchorage. We dropped the hook, had a good cry and crashed hard.

Again, we woke to the boat rocking and rolling, we pulled the anchor and headed to the Los Cabos Marina where we planned to leave Agape to fly home for Grandma’s funeral. We definitely weren’t planning on returning home so soon, or having to say a true goodbye to someone we loved so dearly.

It was a hard lesson to learn so early into our voyage. For us, family always comes first, but we realize the lifestyle we have chosen will sometimes mean we cannot make it back home for certain life events. What we can do, what we all should do, is make sure our loved ones know how much we care about them. Life is truly precious and it’s most often better spent with the ones you love.

Onward to Bahia Tortugas

This time we made it out of San Quintin fuel leak and trouble free. With lighter winds we started off motor sailing south, towards Cedros Island. The first half of our passage was uneventful, but as darkness fell the winds started to pick up, building to 25+ knots. For us, the winds are not usually a issue, it’s the crazy and confused seas that we keep encountering that come with the winds. As the night grew later, the winds started to clock around from the north west to the north east, and now the building seas began to toss Agape about. As the boat speed started to build, Agape would surf down the faces of the swells, only to be slapped by the perpendicular chop at the bottom. The confused seas were giving the autopilot a run for its money. We really should hand steer when the winds and waves pick up, but at 2am no one wants to stand at the helm.

Sailing wing on wing south toward Cedros Island.

As I sat watching the swells build behind us and then rush past, I suddenly felt the boat rounding up and noticed that the wheel had stopped moving. Shoot! Mr. AutoPilot had finally decided that enough was enough and shut down due to excessive load. Well crap! Looks like it’s hand steering for now. I popped my head down bellow quickly to wake up Rachel (not that she was getting much sleep) to see if she could hand steer while I tinkered with the auto pilot. As I glanced bellow, I noticed the bilge pump light was on.  When Rachel came up, I opened up the floor boards only to find a bunch of water in the bilge. The pump would click on and drain the water out and then shut off, but as soon as it clicked off more water would flood in. I’m not going to lie, I definitely had a moment of panic, thinking, “Shit, we are going to sink before even making it down Baja?!?!”.

On Agape we have a very deep sump in the bilge and water can enter either from the bow section of the boat or aft from under the cockpit. This sump can be drained automatically by a electric bilge pump that is activated by a float switch or manually with a giant whale pump from the cockpit. I looked towards the bow and found no signs of water, then aft and still no signs of water…. Crap! Where is the water coming from?!

By now the initial shock of the boat being invaded by sea water had worn off and I wasn’t really as worried because the electric bilge pump was keeping up with the intrusion just fine. I thought about it for a second, everything is a little harder at 2:30 in the morning. After a few minutes I came to the conclusion that it had to be coming in through one of the bilge pump hoses and sure enough, when I closed the valve on the manual bilge pump, suddenly the water stopped flooding in. WOW, what a relief!!!!

In the morning we caught a bonito, he threw up a squid on Josh’s one and only pair of sweat pants. Definitely not a good start.

By now, Rachel had been hand steering the boat for a while in ever increasing swells and wind. She looked at me and I could tell that she was done.  I took over the helm and she went down below and immediately began picking up things that had flown off the shelves and wiping up the floor where my coffee had landed. Later, she realized that she had felt so out of control of the situation, that she subconsciously reverted to doing something she knew she was good at and had control over. When I got to the cockpit to take over the helm and felt how unbalanced the boat was after changing course without trimming the sails, I think she did a great job!!!! We rolled in a bit of head sail, eased the main to reduce some heeling and weather helm, and decided to alter course to head around the backside of Cedros Island. With those changes the boat became much more manageable and comfortable.

We learned a good lesson, that we need to pay attention to the autopilot and take the helm every once in awhile to judge how the boat is handling, instead of just letting the autopilot do all the work. We also learned that we need to keep a clean bilge. Later we found the anti-siphon device as well as the check valve on the manual bilge pump were completely clogged up with hair, wire clippings, zip ties and other junk.

(Our gimbaled camera really shows how much we were moving while underway. This was in the morning, after the seas had considerably calmed down. It’s like living in an earthquake 24/7 sometimes!)

A couple hours later, the sky began to lighten and everything suddenly became a little easier. The wind was now at a better angle and we had altered course again to have the seas from the stern. The motion of the boat became more comfortable again for the remaining 25nm sail around the back of Cedros Island.

Approaching Cedros Island

We knew there was an anchorage on the southern tip of the island, near a small fishing camp. We carefully made our way in close, as there are many detached rocks and shallow sections leading into the anchorage. The friendly fisherman helped point us in the direction they believed to be the best for us. When we found a spot that we liked, we dropped the anchor. We would end up picking up the anchor and trying three times to get it to set, but each time the anchor just dragged along the rocky bottom. On the third try it finally it set, but I felt like we were to close to the rocks and didn’t feel comfortable anchoring there overnight, so we picked the anchor back up again.

Trying to set the hook in the rocky southern anchorage of Cedros Island.

By this point I was tired and frustrated, and I made the decision it would be best for us to just keep going and anchor in Turtle Bay. We did the math and knew that we could not cover the 45 miles left before dark, and would be entering the bay at night. Usually, we try not to anchor after dark, but I had been there before and saved our waypoints. Turtle Bay is also a large anchorage with an easily navigated entrance. I had talked up the bay as this amazing little town with with a fun hike, that we had stopped at when we brought the boat north, and was excited to get there.

We had a great sail from 2pm until about 6pm, but as the sun set the winds started to lighten. We would rather sail, but honestly when the boat speed drops below 2.5 knots, one of us will usually fire up the engine. Around 10:30pm we neared the coast to enter the bay. The closer the coast got, the more nervous we both felt. We had the radar on and plotted our position repeatedly on our paper charts to make sure we were where we thought we were. Just before we entered the bay, Rachel and I said a quick prayer for safety when we saw a dolphin outlined in bioluminescence against the dark ocean swim up to the boat and then off in the direction we were headed. Even though we see dolphins frequently, I’d like to think that this one was a special.

Within ten minutes we had entered the bay and cleared any obstacles around the entrance. We continued in until we came to what we thought was a good spot to anchor, and a reasonable distance behind two other sailboats. We dropped the anchor, set it and passed out!!!

Woke up each morning to the local fishermen fishing near our boat.

The pier/fuel dock at Turtle Bay

Waking up and walking on deck after coming in at night was quite entertaining. We really thought that we had anchored in a good spot, but turned out we anchored right in the middle of the bay!!! The two boats that we anchored behind turned out to be really far away from any of the other boats and shore. I knew that on my previous trip to Turtle Bay that we had anchored in about 30 feet of water, but must have forgotten half the bay is 30ft! It didn’t matter though, the hook was set and in the flat bay we figured an extra minute in the dingy to shore wasn’t a big deal.

Once on the beach, I quickly realized that Turtle bay was not the perfect little anchorage that I’d remembered it to be. Not to bash it, Turtle Bay is exactly what it clams to be, a once busy fishing town that now offers fuel and food to boaters passing through. Lucky for us, that is all we needed. Rachel and I asked Enrique, the fabulously friendly dude at the fuel dock, if he could bring some diesel out to the boat. After some negotiations with Roberto his brother/owner of the fuel dock, Agape was going to be refueled in an hours time, at half the originally quoted price!

Taking out the trash and trying to find a place to fill our jerry cans with diesel.
Enrique filling our fuel tanks.
Agape being refueled at anchor.

We walked the dusty streets of the small town, looking for an ATM to get some pesos out. We asked everyone we saw, but turns out that there is no bank or ATM anywhere in Turtle bay. So with about 250 pesos (about $13), Rachel and I walked over to a little restaurant right on the water with a view of all the boats anchored in the bay. Here we re-met up with Michele and Jon on S/V Ardea, who we originally met up in Ensenada at Baja Naval, and Phill and “Mad Dog”  Mark, on S/V Lutra, one of the other boats we anchored with in San Quintin. We had a great evening talking and getting to know both boats, and were encouraged hearing that both the other boats had had “sporty” sails down.

Jon and Michele of S/V Ardea
Sunset in Turtle Bay.

That evening while walking around the boat looking everything over, I happen to look at the webbing strap on the on the foot of our head sail. I noticed that it was being held together by only a few strands of webbing, the rest had tore due to the twisting of the sail and the deterioration caused by the powerful sun. Great… and so began the first of many boats projects in remote and exotic locations. We pulled down the headsail in 15 knots of wind, which was entertaining to say the least, and pulled it into the forward cabin through the hatch so I could stitch it up. I now have a lot more respect for sail makers of old that would do this work all by hand, man it takes for ever!!!! I cleared all the old stitching and webbing off the sail and then made a new reinforced piece of webbing to replace it. Fitted and stitched it on, all in only 5 hours… Haha poor Rachel! She couldn’t even come in and go to bed because it was covered by the sail I was working on, so she ended up falling asleep in the aft cabin. I finally finished around midnight and put up the sail the next day, just in time to get out of the dusty bay and continue our journey south.

Leaving the bay at sunset for our overnight passage south.
Last light.

Agape’s Trip Across the Border

November 23, 2016

We pulled into Ensenada November 23rd, 2016 and tied up to the familiar docks of Baja Naval, where we had work done three years ago when we first brought Agape home from Mexico. What to say about Ensenada… well the highlights were the churros and cheap delicious food. Ensenada is a very touristy stopover for cruise ships, and although it can be a fun town it just really isn’t our style. It was also very surgey in the marina, so surgy that we chaffed through two of the 7 dock lines that we had to put out to keep us from slamming into the dock.

Sunrise approaching Ensenada.

Checking into the country was fairly straight forward. When we first purchased the boat I had gone through the complicated process of checking out before the name change, and then checking back in after with the new coastguard documentation under her new name and getting a new import permit, or T.I.P, for the boat, all while the boat sat on the hard in Baja Naval. Having previously gone through that procedure I had a good handle on what to expect this time around, and knew it mostly meant a long afternoon of waiting. After a nice little walk to the Port Captain/Immigration and paying our money we were legally in MEXICO!!!!!

Little Uziel never stops playing!

For Thanksgiving day we were able to make another trip to the Gabrial House. We love the children there and felt so blessed to be able to go and spend the day playing with them and helping the amazing staff. A true reminder of all we have to be thankful for. For more info on the incredible and touching work going on at the Gabrial house see our previous post.

Sergio loves the camera!
He also loves stuffed animals. El tigre being his favorito!

Rachel also cooked up an amazing Thanksgiving turkey dinner, so again food makes it into the highlights of our time there!

Waving goodbye to Ensenada and the cruise ships.

On November 25, 2016 Agape finally made it clear she was ready to go!! After starting to chafe through a third line, Rachel and I fired up Mr. Perkins (the engine), and with some help from one of the yard guys we pulled out of the Port of Ensenada and began the 112 NM overnight trip down to San Quintin.

Sunrise heading to San Quintin.
Caught our first fish of the trip just as the sun was rising! A pacific bonito.

Filleting up dinner!

After a beautiful sail, that turned into a motorsail, that became just a motor, we finally pulled into San Quintin. The bay is just a so so anchorage, and when there is any swell it can be very rolly. We decided to try and get into the protected estuary, but to do so would have to cross a shallow sand bar. We could see two other boats enjoying the calm waters but couldn’t seem to find the entrance. Every time we would nose our way in, the depth sounder would start to drop, 5ft… 4ft… 3ft… 2.5ft… 2ft…. then we’d get nervous and back out. Luckily our radio crackled with the friendly voice of S/V Orca asking if we were trying to find the entrance and if we would like some help getting over the bar. We radioed back,”Of course!!!!”.  After a brief explanation of where the channel was and a some reassurance that after the shallow area it would open up into a much deeper channel, we tried again. This time with inside knowledge, we found it and entered into the still, protected waters.

The lagoon area was amazing!!! With the tide changes, the water was either flowing into or out of the lagoon creating a fairly strong current, but with our anchor set firmly in the mud we enjoyed the flat water. I don’t think Agape has ever sat that still, even at the dock!!!! We spent the rest of the day just lounging around and relaxing which is pretty standard for us on post passage days. Rachel also cooked up fish tacos with the bonito I had caught earlier.

If we had known that the next two days would be so windy and cold, we would have explored the dunes earlier, but then again we like doing things a little more adventurous. In the morning I finally launched our single person kayak and paddled to the beach in a 5 knot cross current with 20 knot winds and Rachel on the back, it was far more exciting!

 

 

Finally off the boat and exploring the sand dunes.

November 28, 2016

With winds forecasted of 15-20kts, it seemed like a great morning to continue on our way south to warmer waters. After battling tons of kelp that had built up on our anchor chain, we headed out of the beautiful estuary and around the sand bar. Right as we were passing the bar Rachel said she smelled diesel. Since I had just added two of our jerry cans into the tank that morning I figured she was smelling diesel on me or the paper towel I had used to clean up a few drops on deck, so I told her it was a nothing and so we continued….

A little while later, after we were clear of the bar, I went down below and I too noticed a strong diesel smell. I washed my hands and changed my shirt incase I was just smelling myself and was then making my way back outside when I thought maybe I should just open the floor board and look inside. Sure enough I should have listened to my wife (you were right babe)! Upon opening the floor board I was met with a wave of diesel fumes and a bilge swirling with red dyed diesel.

We immediately turned the boat around and headed back to the main anchorage outside the estuary. With the floorboards open, I tried to find where the leak was coming from while Rachel found a good place to drop the anchor. We promptly shut Mr. Perkins down after the anchor was set. It took about an hour to find the leak and clean all the diesel out of the bilge and off of the engine. While digging around I ended up finding two leaks, one being a slow leak from the high pressure side of the injector pump and a large leak from the the return line on the #1 injector, because of this we hadn’t noticed any loss of power or strange noise, just the smell. I think they must have vibrated loose over the last few hundred miles down the coast.

After some boat yoga, a call to our engine mechanic and mostly a lot of paper towels to clean up the mess, Agape was on her way again!!! This time we headed out on a broad reach and it was looking as if we’d have a great sail.

However, as the next hour passed, the swells grew and the wind would continue to build. After three hours we now had a 20-25 knot head wind and massive short period swells. With the loss of time due to the fuel leak and now a serious head wind we would be arriving after dark at Cedros Island, our next planned stop. With the calm and protected anchorage just to our stern beckoning to us, we swallowed our pride and returned once more to the lagoon, this time easily finding our way. We dropped the anchor 7 hours later and fifty feet from where we started when the first rain drops fell. We both knew we had made the right decision that day. We enjoyed the rainy night relaxing and watching a movie with a delicious yellow curry and freshly baked zucchini breads.

Even with rain and winds upwards of 25 knots in the anchorage we slept comfortably in the flat waters of the estuary.

With an improving forecast for the next day we decided we would try again in the morning!!!!