A Landscape Between Mars and Midnight
My husband, Billy Black, is a pretty
rugged guy, but he's no fool. Halfway through shoveling our Rhode
Island driveway in the first nor'easter of the season, he always starts
to talk about the Caribbean. We've had some nice trips to the
islands, but I put my foot down last year and insisted that we go
someplace new. We asked friends, looked through magazines and websites,
and finally ended up on a trip to a place so new to me it was like
another planet: Baja California.
Our cruise was from La Paz to
Puerto Escondido in the Golfo de California, or Sea of Cortez. It's
barren and beautiful, and once you leave La Paz, it's nearly untouched
by civilization. What we found there is a breed of cruising sailor
willing to cope with few navigational aids, very few stores and
restaurants, and nearly empty anchorages.
We met J. W.
Bradford Ray in La Paz, enjoying a few rare days at the dock in Marina
Palmira. Ray, from Denmark, South Carolina, had a good job before he
became a cruiser, but in that part of his life he was just a sailor
waiting to get out of his disguise. He left San Diego on Gamecock,
his wing-keeled Pearson 37, in the company of a group of cruisers in
October 1995. His boat, named after the University of South Carolina
football team, is hull number 19, circa 1989. The boat is simple,
practical, and a little lived in, but it's inhabited by Ray in a way
that truly comfortable cruisers can achieve. Clearly at home, he refers
to the areas belowdecks as the "kitchen," the "bedroom," and the
"bathroom" when he tells his stories. He's been out there really going
places, mostly singlehanded, for 10 years, and he falls into the
He tells of the time that his steering
linkage broke in Costa Rica. It was quite convenient, he thought, to
make repairs in Puntarenas, a waterfront city on the country's Pacific
coastline. The marina sent a boat out to lead him in, but the tide was
going out, and Gamecock ran
aground. "It was getting dark, and it had already been a bad day," Ray
says. "I just went and lay down to get some sleep, and the boat was
pretty comfortable sitting on the keel. That was until I got up to go
to the bathroom. The boat fell off the keel and tipped right over with
the spreaders in the water." Ray has refined his delivery, taking
advantage of every extra syllable his South Carolina accent offers.
"And I said, 'Oh, no!'" This, by the way, is his favorite punch line.
He describes lines and clothes hanging sideways across the cabin as he
went back to the bedroom. He finishes with his favorite happy ending:
"Then in the morning, she popped right back up."
Ray set off
on his cruise having sailed only 10 times before. He learned what he
was doing on the way. He's been through the Panama Canal twice, to all
the islands in the Caribbean, and to much of Central America. He loves
to ask you to identify the most dangerous piece of equipment on a
sailboat. Then he tells you it's the calendar. We met him in Baja in
May, the end of the winter season, and Ray was headed to San Carlos,
where he planned to put the boat up for a while to go help his mother.
She's 93 years old and watching over the family farm. The last time he
quit cruising, he fell into a state of depression that lifted
immediately when he got back to the boat. He was feeling better about
this visit home, even though he'd miss his mother's birthday. "She'll
appreciate me that much more when I do get there," he says. His advice
to would-be cruisers: Bring twice as much money and half the clothes.
As the sun went down over La Paz, Derek Pritchard from Nokomis of the Orient came over to Gamecock
just to get off his boat. It had been spraying oil all over him that
day, and he'd had enough. Pritchard's accent is as posh as Ray's is
Southern, but only a few days on the dock had made them comfortable
friends. When I asked about his life story, Pritchard cheerily admitted
to being a youthful delinquent who'd been given a choice by a
magistrate of probation or Outward Bound. The sentence was so effective
that Pritchard went to work for Outward Bound in 1949 and eventually
became the executive director, retiring in 1999. Now he and his wife,
Patricia, pursue an ambitious cruising schedule that gives her plenty
of time on the boat but lets Derek bring helping hands aboard during
the seasons that Patricia's in the garden at their home on Whidbey
Island, in Washington state.
In a couple of days, Derek and a
crew of friends were headed from La Paz to Hawaii for six weeks of
cruising; then they planned to sail to Sitka, Alaska. He'd made a nice
tour of the Sea of Cortez, and he took us back to his immaculate,
custom 32-footer, built in Brittany in 1982, to share the coordinates
of his favorite anchorages.
The emptiness of this stretch of
Mexico is one of its attractions, and anyone who heard that Billy and I
were working on stories first clutched their heads and moaned, insisted
that they hoped we wouldn't spoil it, and then happily shared inside
information. The lovely rows of red and green buoys that line harbor
approaches in New England are missing in Baja. Cruising guides describe
the charts as old, inaccurate, and dangerous, and all the geographical
features are sharp, so talking to people who know Baja is invaluable.
One of the people who's working to make navigation a bit easier is Mike
Rickman, a cruiser who has settled part-time in La Paz. He and his
wife, Tonya, live on Amazing Grace,
their 37-foot Prout catamaran, with the duchess of the docks, Sophie,
who's part Chihuahua. After careers in the car business, they sold off
their goods and worked their way down the Baja coast, stopping in La
Paz to do some projects on the boat. Mike and Tonya were impressed, as
Billy and I were, with the gentle generosity of the people who call
this dry and spiky landscape home. It's great for a photo shoot but
rough living for sure. Mike found work skippering boats for The
Moorings charter company, and Tonya got involved with helping local
school children. For recreation, they go out to the anchorages up and
down the Sea of Cortez and take accurate GPS coordinates. They've
become local authorities on passages, harbors, and people. Mike and
Tonya tell stories and answer questions in concert, like four practiced
hands on the piano. "Last summer, we took three and a half months off
to go cruising and went up to Caleta de San Juanico," Mike says.
"We stayed out until I told him I didn't want any more lobster," Tonya finishes.
Mike gives one of the greatest check-out talks in all of chartering. By
the time you leave The Moorings base aboard your boat, you know from
his slide show that you have to provision for your whole trip before
you leave La Paz, but that if you drop his name with local fishermen,
especially Mañuel, you'll get an honest deal on the day's catch.
Once we left the dock and headed north, we were amazed at both the
emptiness and the other-planetary nature of the landscape. It's empty
of poles and wires, cars and roads, water tanks, church steeples, and,
In their place is a dramatic landscape in
which rocks reach up to the sky and, without interruption, march away
from you in picturesque ranks of red and plum and ochre.
Although the anchorages often offer solitude, we did run across a great
rendezvous of cruisers, and a few times we had the good luck to end up
near enough to a boat to strike up a conversation. One morning, we met
Jack Herbold and Lauren Chandlee on Mandan,
Jack's 32-foot, Lyle Hess-designed Bristol Channel Cutter. Jack is
originally from North Dakota and named the boat after a tribe of
Indians who were important to Lewis and Clark's success. He made his
money as a contractor, building franchise stores in California, and
left Los Angeles in November 2004, heading straight south. He and
Lauren are having a good time and suiting themselves as much as
Loreto Fest is a popular arts festival and cruiser
rendezvous a few miles up the coast from where we met them, but Jack
and Lauren were dragging their heels, shifting harbors and laying low
until the crowds were gone. When the coast was clear, they'd get water
and a few fresh goods and check on their kids and their mail. Jack
started improving his boat as soon as he first looked at it, and
they're talking about all the things they'll do to get ready for a
Pacific Ocean passage via the Galápagos.
Lauren, a horse
trainer and folksinger, met Jack when she took a sailing class he was
teaching 10 months before we met them. Billy asked if she'd imagined
ending up living the cruising life.
"Absolutely!" she replies. "This is the ultimate dream."
Jack's dream is to go back to Vietnam, where he fought in the war, as a
cruiser. He plans to go ashore, catch some crabs, dig a hole in the
beach sand, and have a barbecue. Jack's advice: "You can't follow The
Dream if you don't get in the boat."
Two people who followed
that dream with extraordinary deliberation are Grania and Charlie
Lindberg, from Napa, California. Charlie, who worked at Kaiser Steel in
quality control, bought plans for a steel Roberts 38. "I was seduced
into thinking that the project would take a couple of years," he said.
It actually took 20 years of nights, weekends, and every vacation.
There was no money to go on vacation anyway because all of it had to go
into the boat. Finally, when Charlie retired, the end was in sight, but
only after Grania added her expertise as a manager. "I came home one
day when Charlie was working on the boat," she tells us, "and found a
pile of twigs on the porch. When I asked him about them, he said he was
trying to help the birds that were building nests. I knew he needed
some help focusing."
Zester is the boat they ended up with,
and it's a clean, artful, and immaculate expression. It's named after
one of their favorite tools, the microplane, and also for a kitchen
tool useful for getting at the zest of things. Every one of Zester's
belowdecks details--the blond wood, the caned cupboards, the way every
drawer makes the most intelligent use of the space available--shows
what you can have if you build every inch yourself. Now that the boat
is going places and they're enjoying it, it's a little hard for Charlie
and Grania to unwind and go slow. What have they learned now that
they're afloat? "We've learned we can trust the boat," Charlie says.
And what did I learn? That I'm going to keep sailing in more new
places. I love the Caribbean, but my new Internet web-browser bookmarks
are all about Croatia (I'm conducting extra research into how many
seaside restaurants there are in that great cruising ground). Jack
Herbold suggested that people who go sailing are different, and if you
find yourself in an anchorage with a few of them, it's not hard to meet
some nice folks.
she's not helping Billy with their marine-photography business, Joyce
Black convinces him to sail to new destinations, and then she writes
Hot for the Desert?
by Tomas Zyber
Consider these chartering options if you're planning to sail the Sea of Cortez: Baja
Coast SeaFaris (+52-612-125-9765, www.bajaseafaris.com) offers two
50-foot sailboats that are chartered bareboat or crewed by the week
from La Paz, Tesoro del Mar and Irish Mist. Bercovich Boat Works
(+52-612-121-6363, www.mexico-marine-services.com) has begun offering
bareboat charters aboard a Newport 33. If you're looking for a budget
trip, this refit 1985 Newport 33 may be just what you want. The
Moorings (888-952-8420, www.moorings.com) makes available for charter a
fleet of 36- to 51-foot bareboat or skippered monohulls and multihulls
that are docked at Marina Palmira, La Paz.
You can enjoy a
personal touch for a day or a week aboard a Morgan 44 from SeaScape
Charters (888-759-1735, www. seascapecharters.com), either sailing with
Captain Bob Moore or chartering it as a bareboat. And the skippered
47-foot catamaran Windsong
(Windsong Sailing Charters, 877-408-6769,
www.cortezclub.com/windsongsailingcharters) departs from Marina Costa
Baja to the islands and bays around La Paz and north.
For the scoop on anything Baja--from anchorages to weather, from fishing to food--see the online magazine BajaInsider
(www.BajaInsider.com). The La Paz Cruisers Club (www.clubcruceros.org)
is a charitable organization that helps cruisers contribute to local
communities and provides information on events for cruisers. Maracay, a
Baja computer store (www.lapazbaja. com), offers live weather
forecasts, and ¡Viva! La Paz (www.vivalapaz.com) supplies general La
Paz travel details. The newest addition for sailors is Latitude Mexico
(www.latitude mexico. com), which is loaded with helpful Mexico
cruising advice and notices of events of interest to cruisers. And for
information regarding Loreto Fest, the end-of-season gathering of
cruisers that happens the first week of May, check out the website of
the Hidden Port Yacht Club (www.hiddenportyachtclub.com).
If you sail here, note that personal watercraft and jet-skis are prohibited from use in the Sea of Cortez.
Tomas Zyber is the co-publisher of BajaInsider.