Chilling in Baja

In a ruggedly beautiful setting and with an agenda suited for mañana, a Sea of Cortez rendezvous couldn't be better. "Passage Notes" from our November 2009 issue

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Cruisers with the Seawind Catamarans flotilla visit the salt pond at Isla Carmen.Mark Pillsbury

A cold, raw April was nearing its end here in New England, and on this Monday morning, I came to work with just one thing on my mind: Tie up loose ends and book it to the airport. First stop, L.A. Second stop, Loreto, Mexico. That's Loreto, as in Baja California Loreto. Home to splendid seaside restaurants, an airport, enough bustling shops and sights to attract tourists, and a location that's just 14 miles north of the nearly perfectly protected harbor at sleepy Puerto Escondido, where I'd meet up with those participating in an about-to-depart Seawind Catamarans sailing rendezvous.

Was I eager to get going? Oh, just a bit. Weather.com forecast nothing but blue sky and sun, with highs in the 80s F and lows in the 70s F. I'd read in the cruising guides about the string of barren islands just outside the harbor. I'd looked at pictures of the jagged, rocky mountains that tumble into the sea and the deserted white beaches lined with cactus. And Seawind U.S.A.'s Kurt Jerman, organizer of this little gringos' getaway, had been e-mailing me for weeks about the sailing, tacos, and margaritas that awaited us-us being me; Kurt, and his wife, Lori; and their fellow San Diegans Roy and Debi Adcock. Once there, we'd be joining the crews aboard three other Seawinds that had been cruising in Baja waters for quite some time.

And then there was the plan: Head out upon arrival and gunkhole our way up and down the coast until Saturday, when we'd gather back at the harbor for the closing night's festivities at Loreto Fest, an end-of-the-season cruisers party that's grown over the last 13 years to four days and about 300 participants.

I met Lori and Debi on the Alaska Airlines plane as we winged southward from L.A. Their husbands had gone ahead to pick up a fourth catamaran and would meet us at the harbor. On our way there, we'd been bombarded by breaking news of the swine flu epidemic-a pandemic by the time CNN stopped flogging it. Seemingly everyone was talking about it.

"Swine what?" Kurt and Roy asked when we finally found the harbor and them, fresh in from their sail from Cabo San Lucas. When I looked around at the deserted shoreline, the few boats in the harbor, and the mostly empty waterfront buildings, it finally sunk in that in this part of the world, news-and most everything else-slows way, way down.

As we headed to the dock, I was introduced to John and Patsy Peterson, who invited me to be an overnight guest on their boat, SeaEsta. John had been in the printing business in Los Angeles, and though he'd once owned a Catalina 27, he was, by his own admission, more of a powerboater at heart. He'd had a Maxum Express Cruiser for a number of years, but then, during a Seawind demo day in San Diego about nine years ago, he fell for a Seawind 1000. He took to life on two hulls in short order, and four years ago, he upgraded to an 1160. In 2006, they sold the house, and he and Patsy lived in his 20- by 20-foot office for about a year-sleeping on a couch and her massage table-until he sold his business and they left for Baja in 2007.

Winters and springs, they visit the bays and anchorages of this immensely delightful cruising ground. Come summer, when temperatures soar and hurricanes threaten, they hole up; one year, it was in San Carlos, another, in San Pedro.

Their cruising schedule for this past season was iffy, except that they planned to visit Loreto Fest-they'd last stopped by in 2007-and they wanted to summer over again in San Carlos, a well-protected harbor on mainland Mexico. Other than that, they occasionally sail but mostly motor until they find a bay they like, and then they stay until they find a reason to move on.

Patsy hadn't been a boat person before they met, but she clearly possesses seafaring genes. Their boat is both homey and tidy, and as we traveled over the next few days, she was constantly reading the charts and cruising guides to be ready for the next cove or bay.

The anchorage that night was in Bahia Salinas, where fish tacos were served, compliments of Kurt's angling efforts during his delivery sail. The next morning, everyone headed to shore for a visit to the salt pond where workers had once harvested salt; the operation and the nearby village had been abandoned in the 1980s. Roy, Debi, and Lori all waded out into the briny water and floated on their backs, their bodies hyper-buoyant because of the salinity.

I sailed with them on their borrowed 1160, Cubo Lista, for the afternoon trip around Isla Carmen to V Cove, where we anchored between steep rock walls and swam amid the seeming millions of baitfish that were lunch to hordes of diving pelicans.

Roy, a longtime multihull sailor, is a friend and customer of Kurt's who'd recently ended a tryst with a Catalina 36, having traded it in for a new 1160 that he keeps in San Diego. As we sailed north and Roy took in more and more of the Baja scenery, he started rolling out scenarios of how his own boat might find its way to the Golfo de California, or Sea of Cortez, as many call it, in the not-too-distant future. For the time being, though, he was enjoying introducing Debi to the stability and comforts of sailing a catamaran and to the finer points of Catalina Island.

The next morning, I was up early and ready when Moon Drifter's skipper, Ralph Marx, came in a dinghy to fetch me for breakfast. Back aboard his boat, his wife, Helen, had tacos, eggs, fruit, and coffee waiting. Ralph, soon to turn 78, and Helen are something of a legend amongst this band of Baja cruisers. They'd been all but ready two years earlier to give up the cruising life and move ashore into a condo. After all, they'd been making the trek to Baja from their home in Wickenburg, Arizona, for a dozen or more years, sailing each season on their 1978 Buccaneer 28-footer. Ralph admits that he was getting tired of hoisting the sails and hauling the anchor by hand, and the camping-out nature of life on the modest boat was taking its toll. Then they met John and Patsy by chance in an anchorage and went to visit them on their catamaran.

"Our eyes lit up," says Helen. "'We can handle this boat,' we said."

So the 1160 Moon Drifter, with its electric winches and windlass, became their condo on the water. Or, as Ralph puts it, "This is just a mobile home that gets us to the snorkeling," which is a favorite pastime of Helen's when the two of them aren't out paddling their inflatable kayaks. The two are quite gregarious. During our visit to the salt pond, it had been Ralph who'd served as tour director and resident historian. And as we ate our breakfast, he fired up the SSB to join the morning net.

Their short-term destination was the Saturday-night dance party at Loreto Fest; Ralph came to the 1950s-themed affair with a rubber duck tied to his head, and Helen wore a poodle skirt. Long-term? Well, that's hard to say.
"My favorite anchorage is the one I'm in," said Helen.

Rounding out our little band was the crew aboard Gato Loco, a Seawind 1000 that's owned by four partners, including Lowell and Frankie McCulley (and their hound, Neely) and Bill Hensler, all from around Phoenix, Arizona, though they now have homes in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, where the boat's kept in the summer. Lowell is a retired computer guy, and Frankie can schedule customers at her hair salon so she has plenty of time off to cruise. Bill, a house builder, can set his own schedule. And so the three, along with their partners and assorted friends-like crewmember Kerri Fahey, visiting from Australia; she's a 1000 owner, too, and the partner of Richard Ward, who owns Seawind Catamarans-take turns on the boat and explore the Sea of Cortez in a yearly cruise split up into eight legs. The partners have been making the trip each year since 2003. For the McCulleys and Bill, their favorite cruising ground is the area stretching north and south from Loreto.

"We try to linger a little longer," says Lowell, who did double duty as the photographer of the rendezvous. "There are so many places to see, you're passing anchorages after anchorages."

And that's what keeps all of these cruisers coming back year after year. The lucky devils.

Mark Pillsbury, when not quarantined for swine flu, is the editor of Cruising World.