Continuing the “Voyaging with Velella” series by ASA writer-at-large Meghan Cleary. Meghan, Prescott and their kitten Nessie are on a planned 9-month cruise in the tropics.
We entered Mexican waters over a week ago, but it wasn’t until yesterday that we actually set foot on shore in Bahia de Tortugas for our first $1 cervezas on the beach.* Offshore, there was little to distinguish the coast from that of southern California, although night watches have gotten progressively warmer (or perhaps that’s only psychological, it’s hard to tell). Groups of islands that look remarkably similar to California’s Channel Islands have appeared every hundred miles or so; the Coronados, Islas de Todos Santos, and Isla Cedros and surrounding islets. The arid coastline has been marked by deep arroyos, scrubby sage-colored vegetation, and pods of dolphins and spouting whales. Pacific sunsets each night are spectacular, and sunrises even more so after twelve hours under the stars.
The most marked difference in Mexican water so far has been the red, white, and green courtesy flag flying from our starboard spreader—each time I trim the sails I’m reminded that we’re guests here.
After over a week of lonely voyaging (with one stop in a desolate anchorage where we didn’t go ashore), we pulled in yesterday morning to Bahia de Tortugas, or Turtle Bay, a favorite all-weather port for cruisers making passage down the Baja coast. For days, I had looked forward to arriving at the small village our guidebook reported as having a café, hospital, grocery store, hotel, etc. We could top off our diminishing water supply, re-provision, send emails and photos to family from the internet café, and do laundry—the ultimate luxury! Pulling in to the bay, though, I was dubious that we’d find any of that, as the village appeared to be no more than a few deserted shacks on shore. But there was a large sign painted on a concrete seawall in black lettering that said “Bienvenidos a Bahia Tortugas.” We must be in the right place.
After a fabulously revitalizing sun-shower in the cockpit and a much-deserved three-hour nap, we decided to get the dinghy down and row to shore on a reconnaissance mission. On our way towards shore, we passed a panga moored some way off the beach that was filled to the brim with pelicans — so far, the only sign of life in Bahia de Tortugas . We were pleased to find a floating dinghy dock extending out from the pier though, a nice alternative to surfing the dinghy up to the beach. We tied up next to a handful of other cruisers’ tenders, climbed the suspect staircase up to the pier, and met Pedro and Enrique, the dock attendants.
Though they spoke little English and we little Espanol, we determined that they not only had purified water, they would deliver it to our anchored boat and fill our tanks for less than $15 (the alternative would be a tricky “med-moor” to the pier with heavy surge, no thank you). They showed us the laundry lady’s home next to the beach—she does all your laundry and returns it to you folded. Then Pedro walked us all the way to the mercado grande, and on the way back showed us where showers and the wifi cafés were.
It amazes me that in a sleepy town whose half-finished or torn-down structures are all covered in windblown desert dust, and where there appears to be no more than a few dozen people living, there are not one but TWO free wifi cafes.
We were quickly introduced to the circle of gringo cruisers sitting along the beach with cervezas, and we made friends with several couples instantly. After all, it’s a very small community, and we have quite a bit in common. The cruising community is a strong one, in part because it’s small, and in part due to the lack of constant access to the internet. Going cruising is like stepping back in time—no longer can you look up the NOAA weather forecast online, or the phone number or directions to the nearest repair shop, or where to get a good hot meal in a given city. Cruisers keep a wealth of information alive for each other by sharing bits of information constantly on shore and over the radios. It would be tiring if you had to find your way around a new town every other day, but as soon as you drop the hook, a chat with your first cruising neighbor reveals not only where the port captain and grocery store is, but also where to find fresh bread baked daily, or where locals will trade you five live lobster for two of your beers.
I’m on shore today to buy some yeast so I can bake bread for one of our sailing neighbors, who lent me her sewing machine so I could fix a tear in our mainsail. We all check in daily to several cruising nets on the SSB radio to hear weather forecasts tailored specifically to those of us “on the net;” to take down each other’s passage plans and positions, to relay messages between friends over thousands of miles of ocean.
Our newfound cruising community gives us a great sense of security. Until now, we’ve been alone and offshore, and seeing a ship’s lights on the horizon at night (or even more unnerving, an unlit ship on the radar) sends chills down my spine sometimes. But since we’ve arrived at Bahia de Tortugas and met more cruisers, we look forward to checking in with them daily on the nets and swapping red peppers for beer or gum for fresh shrimp. Ironically, we’re strengthening our human community by venturing farther off the grid than ever before.
Until the next check-in, this is Velella, WDF4539, clear and on the side!
*We actually did spend four and a half hours on Mexican soil a week ago clearing in to Ensenada, but I maintain that you haven’t truly arrived in Mexico until you’re having a cerveza on the beach!