A Landscape Between Mars and Midnight

Cruisers along Mexico's Baja California peninsula enjoy 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 stories effortlessly.

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, sadly, restaurants.

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 possible.

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 Galapagos.

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.

When she's not helping Billy with their marine-photography business, Joyce Black convinces him to sail to new destinations, and then she writes about them.

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.