Tag Archives: sea of cortez

Voyaging with Velella: First Class Tickets


Continuing the Voyaging with Velella series by ASA writer-at-large Meghan Cleary. Meghan, Prescott, and their kitten Nessie have just concluded a 6-month sailing adventure in Mexico and are returning to explore the Pacific Northwest by sail.

I was extremely tired from traveling as I walked into a Wal-Mart to pick up some cat food yesterday. I barely noticed the huge display of familiar Mexican food items in front of me: masa harina, pan tostadas, cane sugar bottled Cokes, Penginos, and other typical corner store stock. It slowly dawned on me that literally everyone around me was speaking Spanish too—and I almost asked “Donde está la comida para gatos?”—when I realized with a start that what the heck was Mexico doing following me to Hood River, Oregon?!?

We’ve come to Prescott’s parents’ home hear Hood River to “decompress” for a week while we wait for Velella to arrive by Yachtpath ship. We figured it would be good to come to this quiet country place first to alleviate the culture shock of returning to the US. But (despite the local Mexican population here that tricks my tired mind into feeling like we’re still in Baja), it’s still shocking to be home in the states.
yachtpath ship arrives
Last week at this time we were in limbo in La Paz, waiting for our Yachtpath ship to arrive. By the middle of April the heat had become aggressive—not stiflingly humid, but a dry baking heat like being in a kiln. By the time the ship arrived I felt like I was going to melt to my grave, and was glad to leave Mexico for the temperate and beautiful Pacific Northwest summer. Of course as we approached the carrier ship at sunset, all the emotions of change came flooding over me. Pride for all the miles passed beneath our keel, futile longing to rewind the tape and play it again, fear for Velella as we left her in the care of other hands to make the long transit home.
velella hoisted by her own petard
The loading operations went smoothly, and before we knew it we were being zipped to shore by a panga as Velella was being hosted by crane onto the ship called the BBC Rhine.

As we headed to the airport and waited for our flights, I realized with some sadness that I hadn’t brought home a single “souvenir” from our time in Mexico. I’d been too busy living the whole adventure to even consider that someday we’d be looking back on it. I browsed the jewelry shops, thinking perhaps I’d take a keepsake to remind me of this time, but I knew that no token could capture it all. As our flight soared above the Sea of Cortez, we pointed out the islands we’d called home for the past couple of months, I realized that what we brought home were priceless memories and thousands of photographs and a changed way of being.

There’s nothing quite like the first time for anything, and it’s been bittersweet to close the book on this tropical sailing adventure. But we’ve no doubt that we’ll point our bow south again someday, and meanwhile we will be exploring the Pacific Northwest by sail.

The very day we arrived in Oregon the tulips blossomed, all lipstick red and lemon yellow in the mossy woods. We are taking hot baths and sitting by the woodstove and waiting for Velella—because where ever she is, we’re home.

velella sailing
Stay tuned for the further adventures of Meghan and S/V Velella!

Voyaging with Velella: Going Home

Continuing the Voyaging with Velella series by ASA writer-at-large Meghan Cleary. Meghan, Prescott and their cat Nessie are concluding an extended cruise along the coast of Mexico.

We are anchored amongst a thicket of sailboats in La Paz. The sunsets here are look like a forest of masts on fire, trailing red smoking clouds across the evening sky. We’ve returned to the flock.

As daunting as it is in some ways to re-enter “society” after weeks in island isolation in the Sea of Cortez, I’ve always loved being in the company of other boats. We row to shore during the morning and appraise each one, walk along the yard fence and comment on the shape of that one’s underbelly and this one’s prow. As usual with any gathering of boats, the range of personality is huge—from the cruiser who has every current convenience and spotless canvas coverings for it all, to the floating piece of (steel? wood?) that has lawn chairs strapped into the cockpit, propane tanks rolling around the foredeck, and hanked-on Kleenexes for sails. And of course we note their names: Wandering Puffin, Murre, Arctic Tern, Rocinante, Gypsy. . alongside Neener Neener Neener or You Got A B Kiddin Me. Almost every single day I turn around as we’re rowing away and pridefully tell Velella that I think she’s the prettiest girl at the dance.
rowing out to velella
People love cruising for different reasons, I know that. Some are fueled almost completely by the desire to travel, so they are content to navigate in anything that stays afloat. That’s cool. Others are racers are heart, and above all else yearn to make mile upon mile under wind power alone, teasing every inch of speed out of their well-tuned rigs. Good for them. We fall into a third category: We just love living on our boat. Regardless of where or how far the boat ever travels, the liveaboard lifestyle alone is a strong enough pull to the water.

Living aboard is like owning your own island. We get to row out to our home, surrounded by a moat of privacy. On our island we bake fresh bread. We crank whatever music we want to without disturbing the neighbors. We shower in the sundrenched cockpit. We have only our own creative projects to keep us busy, and only the weather reports to tune into on time. The physical distance from the rest of the world makes you feel like you can control your own life, at exactly the pace you want it to be. It’s like inhabiting a small cabin on a cliff, overlooking a city stretched out in tiny silent frenzy beneath you.

It’s unbelievable real estate, no matter where you are. I’m convinced that we’ve stumbled upon the most brilliant, best kept secret on the market.
fireworks over the sea
I woke up from a dream last night and the air was unusually calm in the bay. I pulled on my bathrobe and peeked out into the cockpit to see that all was well. As I inhaled the salty still air and scanned the horizon, I caught my breath on a surreal vision. The rising moon had etched the black silhouette of a sleeping schooner into its enormous glowing belly, like a huge gold coin stamped with a proud sailing ship. That is the picture of this lifestyle’s currency, I thought, as I crawled back into bed with a skylight view of swaying stars.

Next week our overhead view will be much the same, but we’ll have traded our sunshowers for flannel sheets and Pacificos for hot cider. After soul-searching for a long time, we realized that two major ocean crossings this summer in order to get the boat home to the Northwest via Hawaii was simply not our idea of an enjoyable honeymoon. So we’re headed home with Velella the expedient way (via Yachtpath carrier ship) to take advantage of the stunning Pacific Northwest sailing season in the San Juan Islands. Although we’ll have to leave behind the tropical heat in Mexico, the things we love most about our little private island know no season.
on the bow
In the Northwest, coffee in the morning will be all the more welcome, our well-sealed decks more appreciated, our propane fireplace and glowing oil lamp beacons of creative coziness. And the pale spring Northwest moon ascends through night air crisp with cherry blossoms. When we exchange our gold moonrises for silver ones, we will still be just as rich living aboard.

The Voyaging with Velella series will continue with the crew’s sailing adventures in the Pacific Northwest, so stay tuned!

Voyaging with Velella: The World a Spare Room

Continuing the “Voyaging with Velella” series by ASA writer-at-large Meghan Cleary. Meghan, her fiance Prescott, and their kitten Nessie are on a planned 9-month cruise in the tropics.

He’s driving me completely nuts.

We’ve had a lovely “early honeymoon” this week, sinking into the solitude with each other (after a month of guests aboard) and exploring some of the most remote anchorages we’ve yet seen. As the sole boat in an enormous reef-fringed anchorage on an uninhabited island, you can hike up the cliff in the nude if you feel like it! There’s nobody for miles but the scuttling crabs and soaring hawks. Yesterday I laid in bed for almost the entire day reading a book, which is a rare treat even when you’re on perma-vacation like we are now. We cook food, read to each other, play chess and cribbage, swim, sleep, you get the picture. It’s been beautiful, and all the more savory because we’ll be leaving Mexico in less than two weeks.
anchorage baja
As our wedding date approaches and our sailing trip comes to a (temporary) end, we’ve been congratulating ourselves on the wisdom of heading “off the grid” during our engagement. We spent the last six months working really hard together, overcoming fears, facing a huge range of problems, and enjoying many spectacularly gratifying moments as well. Lots of “quality time.” Our guests (fellow cruisers and landlubbers alike) often remark that if you can get along with each other on a 35′ boat for this long, you’re well equipped for marriage.

If marriage is eternal tolerance, then yes, I would think we’re well equipped. I mean, I can’t imagine a point in my life where I will ever be MORE annoyed with this man on a daily basis. I’m so sick of hearing, “Can I squeeze past you?” (about 12 times per day), that I’ve started to just say, “No more squeezing past! If I’m occupying our 1-foot-square galley, you can’t ‘squeeze in’ too!” There’s no room in our bedroom for both of us to get dressed at the same time! Now that I sat down to write you need something out of the quarter berth beneath me?! I’m sure he’s just as annoyed with me because, after all, we only have 35 feet, and that’s mighty little for two to share. But for the most part, we suppress these annoyances because, well, we chose to live in a tiny house.
sailing baja
Compounding the small space arrangements is the fact that absolutely everything we do is a decision to be made, which amounts to about 65 decisions we make TOGETHER per day: do we tack upwind to get to the cooler anchorage North of us or head around the corner to the South for a more comfortable sail? Should we reef the main now? Should we fly the staysail with that? How about trimming in, easing off, closing that thru-hull valve, anchoring in three fathoms or five, and oh I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the things we decide on together. Naturally, both being well-educated and stubborn, we have a few differences of opinion on our forced and frequent collaborations. Just a few.

Having such confined space to cohabitate (and make so VERY many decisions within) is a struggle-I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t. We all need space to live. But while everybody else may have larger homes than ours, and rooms they can retreat to for peace and quiet and space from one another, nobody has the kind of backyard we have. It’s full of dolphins.

We have the whole navigable world to stretch out in-and it’s always a million-dollar view. You are all cordially invited to visit as guests to our expansive, skylight-lit spare room. It’s easy to get started learning to sail: Just click here.

And click here to see where Velella is squeezing into right now.

Voyaging with Velella: There’s This One Place…

isla carmenContinuing the “Voyaging with Velella” series by ASA writer-at-large Meghan Cleary. Meghan, her fiance Prescott, and their kitten Nessie are on a planned 9-month cruise in the tropics.

A V-shaped notch opens at a sharp slant to the Northeast on the very northern edge of Isla Carmen, about midway up the Sea of Cortez. This particular spot is not a place many people get to visit. More often than not, the weather makes it an unsuitable anchorage, and when the weather does behave, there’s room for only one boat, maybe two. This week, we happened to be in the right place at the right time.

As we approached the corner of the bay, I crossed my fingers that we’d have the place to ourselves. We rounded the point and saw with satisfaction that the long cove was completely empty, as were all the other coves we’d passed on the entire North side of the island. The wind, usually clipping down from the North in the afternoons, blew instead from the Southeast, making the secluded little notch a perfectly protected anchoring spot for the night.

The practice of anchoring in the Sea of Cortez’s crystal clear water is delightfully simple: I could see the anchor drop with a puff of sand four fathoms deep, and the snaking chain payed out along the rippled bottom and set the hook solidly. While several dopey-looking puffer fish cruised up to nose at the anchor chain, I jumped in the inviting water for a quick and chilly swim. It was only after I’d toweled off and the memory of the engine noise and jangling chain had faded from my brain that I started to notice the shoreline.
meghan diving
White cliffs dove into the water on both sides of us and converged at a steep sand dune at the head of the cove. Numerous gaping caves lined the anchorage, cool invitations to hide from the relentless sun. We launched an evening expedition in the dinghy, dragging our faces along in the glassy water to view the aquarium passing beneath us. Deep purple, marigold, and white angelfish; spotted brown rockfish; perfect aubergine spines of urchins; and flashing silver schools flitted below in the prismatic evening underwater light. Towering above us rose the unusual white rock of the cliffs, like an enormous brick of salt, carved craggy by the persistent wind.

At the outer lip of the bay, there were three yawning caves, large enough to row a dozen dinghys into. The long light fell across the opening of the first cave like a curtain–bright white entrance on one side, the pitch black interior beyond. As we floated towards the opening, the shadow of the rock fell over us, and with it the damp scent of air deprived of sunlight. The water, even in the shadow of the cave, was clear and cold. Perfectly raked white sand and smooth stones covered the bottom like a peaceful Zen garden. The only movement was from a lone Bullseye Stingray, which twitched, sending a ripple along the length of its crepe-thin body and scattering a flurry of flourlike sand. The sound of individual drips falling randomly around us resonated in the quiet cavern, and occasionally the unearthly groaning of a wave surged and sucked out of the cave’s deeper pockets.
dolphin
Blinking in the sunlight again, we decided to come back first thing in the morning.

The next day’s mission was even more stunning than the first, punctuated as it was by an enormous convoy of hyperactive dolphins. I rowed the dinghy while our visiting friends jumped in and swam with the dolphin horde in no more than 10 feet of water. The beautiful creatures shot through the tropical aquarium outside the caves, circled around rock islands, jumped and dove in pairs, slapped the water with their tails, and did a much better job of catching fish than we did. We reluctantly departed V-Cove midday, but with dozens of dolphins following us out of the anchorage.

It was a place I felt so privileged to have experienced, and a place that we most likely will not be able to return to again. The secret treasures like these, shared with friends and a throng of happy dolphins, are what make exploring by sail so entirely wonderful.

Here’s where the crew of Velella are exploring by sail right now:

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Voyaging with Velella: Baja Hospitality

cacti on bajaContinuing the “Voyaging with Velella” series by ASA writer-at-large Meghan Cleary. Meghan, her fiance Prescott, and their kitten Nessie are on a planned 9-month cruise in the tropics.

The Sea of Cortez is adorned with striking contrasts: dry pink cliffs standing up out of drinkably blue water, lime green cacti amidst creamy soft sand dunes, the throbbing sounds of Carnival resonating against black nights glittering with millions of stars.

Just a short way from the southern Sea of Cortez base of La Paz, where we picked up friends for a week-long cruise, all traces of civilization drop off completely. Our views are filled with stark geological formations and turquoise bays and cliffs silhouetted against blazing sunsets. Coming from the smokey green mainland Mexico, arriving in Baja feels not just like another country, but perhaps another planet. Today we tasted coarse pink salt from moonlike salt ponds; we picked our way past no less than 8 different kinds of cacti while hiking the backbone of a pink-and-green striated mountain, and returned to Velella lying in a perfectly circular anchorage formed by a volcanic crater. For us, this stuff is the cream of cruising.
fisherman with octopus
We’ve been excited to pack four sets of visitors into this busy month. While it’s hard to host guests in our tiny home for weeks on end, it’s so much fun to experience this environment with company. On a beach walk the other day, we all watched stunned as a local fisherman stuck his spear between the rocks and pulled out a writhing purple octopus, promptly squeezed it so the black ink dripped out like blood, and threaded it onto his buoy. By the end of the afternoon, he had several octopi, clams, and other shellfish, all foraged from within a mile of his home. And we followed suit–bringing home six large razor clams that we grilled up with garlic butter for lunch. Watching the enjoyment our guests take as they learn to sail, fish off the back of Velella, spot a whale or dolphin, and try a hot cockpit shower for the first time refreshes our own love for our cruising way of life. We also like having people held captive to play four-person board games or cards with us in the evenings!

Yesterday afternoon was blustery, so we spent the afternoon swimming in the wind-whipped bay and enjoying cold Tecates. Then, my two girlfriends, our guests for this week, decided to take a dinghy excursion to shore. Unlike most cruisers, Velella carries no outboard motor for our dinghy. There have been only a few times we’ve regretted not buying an outboard; most often we congratulate ourselves for choosing to rely only on oars. Of course by now, we’re both pretty strong rowers… our guests sometimes have a bit more trouble, especially in 20-knot gusts.
meghan rowing
We gave the girls the handheld VHF radio and told them to call us if they needed to. From the cockpit, we watched them row to shore, angled far up into the wind and blown way down onto the leeward end of the beach. No harm done. They spent a bit of time exploring the town, and the next thing I noticed out of the porthole was them dragging the dinghy upwind along the beach. One of them had the painter line and the other grabbed a handle of the side of the dinghy, and they trudged along in about two inches of water all the way up the beach so that they were upwind of Velella. We silently congratulated them on this plan, hoping that their strategy would make the row home an easy one, and set to work making dinner.

Soon, on the radio I hear, “Velella, we’re almost there! Can you come out and catch us?!” in a somewhat strained voice. I jumped outside to see the girls about 10 feet from the boat on the starboard side. I called “Row over here and throw me your line” to which they replied “We can’t!!” and spun the dinghy around in an ineffective circle as the wind blew them further downwind. I started laughing and wondering how the heck they had gotten all the way back to the boat and then couldn’t make it the last ten feet, but soon realized that they were being blown beyond hope of recovery. As the gusts funneled through the bay, they overpowered any rowing efforts the girls made and they drifted downwind despite their great strain. I quickly threw them our 150-foot heaving line, but it still came about fifteen feet short of them, and they could not make way upwind that far. Not that any harm was going to come to them if they blew back down all the way to the bottom end of the beach again, but I felt bad for my guests in this frustrating situation.

prescott with clams
The hero in happier times

Just then, Prescott emerged from the cabin in swim trunks, said “This is gonna be really cold,” and dove in. In a ridiculously heroic manner, he swam out to the damsels in distress, clamored into the dinghy, and rowed them home with the strength of someone who’s been practicing for six months. When they got back, I heated up a freshwater shower for our hero, and everyone changed into dry clothes. Then, the man of the day proceeded to whip up a pot of the most delicious tortilla soup imaginable. I smiled as we ate, pleased that we somehow manage to give all Velella’s guests some sailing lessons and a taste of both sides of the sailing lifestyle.

Here’s where Velella’s dinghy will be rowing ashore today:

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Voyaging with Velella: Entrance Exam

velella in sea of cortezContinuing the “Voyaging with Velella” series by ASA writer-at-large Meghan Cleary. Meghan, her fiance Prescott, and their kitten Nessie are on a planned 9-month cruise in the tropics.

Last week, after over three months living on the lush tropical coast of mainland Mexico, it felt strange to be leaving it for good. We spent a couple of nights sleeping soundly in the gloriously still estuary at San Blas, surrounded by complete peace.

The morning of our departure was hazy; the water still as glass, broken only by pelicans. The sails hung like rags and we drifted. Finally, we decided to make some way by motor, and proceeded under power through the silent night, under a full moon reflected perfectly in the mirrorlike surface of the quiet ocean. We knew that strong north winds were coming, so we inched our way as far north along our course as possible, knowing that once the wind came up we could fall off on a starboard tack and have a better shot at making our northwesterly course across the Sea of Cortez.

Come morning, weather forecasts made it clear that we were going to get some substantial wind howling down the Sea, then it would let up for 48 hours, then howl through again. Instead of trying to hustle up across the 300 mile expanse before the wind arrived, we prudently slowed down, trying to pace ourselves so that we started crossing right when the wind let up.

Despite our best efforts, what might have been a three-day passage in good conditions turned into an almost six-day slog in less-than-good conditions. We had tried to maximize our best weather window, but the reality was that the window was a rather small moving target. So we buckled down, tucked in a couple reefs, and nosed our way into the heavy chop that often builds in the southern crossing of the Sea of Cortez.
handling sail
The first days, much like those on any passage, were uncomfortable. We knocked around the cabin, spilled things as the boat lurched, felt thick in the head most of the time, and acutely queasy whenever we would go below. Forcing our bodies into a six-hour night watch rotation (mine began at 2am and lasted until 8am) made us perpetually tired.

It was almost comical how each day we calculated optimistically that we could close the rest of the distance by the next morning. Then the wind would veer or strengthen and put us just enough off course to really put the kibosh on those plans.

There wasn’t a lot of point in becoming demoralized about how long we had left to go, because there was absolutely nothing we could do about it. We stopped miserably eating crackers and began to make the most of our floating world.

Beneath us, the deep water foretold a dramatic change in scenery waiting for us on the other side. The water near the mainland was murky and moody, often affected by red tides that stained the entire coast.
clear waters
But by the middle of the sea we’d left all that behind and cruised across deep clear blue, tinged with turquoise when the sun hit it at an afternoon slant. The closer we got to Baja, the more vibrant the water became, until finally one morning at sunrise the huge dry mountain ranges of Baja stood up in stark contrast to the drinkably clear Sea of Cortez lapping at its beaches.

Sighting landfall is always a cruel mind trick. You think, “There it is! We’re so close to dropping the hook and sleeping for as long as we want!” But usually it takes almost another day or more to reach anchorage after sighting land from sea. And this passage was no different; we still had almost 24 grueling hours between us and our protected little bay.

That morning the sea had flattened out and the wind, though on the nose and fresh, was manageable. As we approached the coast, I eyed the notorious Cerralvo Channel on the chart warily. The 16-mile-long Isla Cerralvo lies parallel with the Baja shoreline; in order to reach La Paz, we would have to sail all the way up this channel, then turn left and head down into La Paz bay. The problem is, this channel is perfectly arranged to act as a wind tunnel for any prevailing wind. Pile a squeezed tidal current on top of the accelerated winds, and you have a nice recipe for a rough passage that could very well last all day.

As it turned out, we arrived at the mouth of the channel just after the afternoon winds had reliably built to their peak for the day, and on a strong opposing tide. Whereas any other day we may have scrapped it and pulled into an anchorage south of the channel to wait out more favorable conditions, we needed to make it into La Paz before the forecasted Norther was going to hit the following day; we had friends coming to visit and didn’t want to get stuck on the other side of the peninsula due to weather. We were between a rock and a hard place.
safe harbor
As we inched our way up the narrow mouth of the channel at a speed of 2 knots per hour, we were pleased by how well Velella was able to hold her course, and how well we were feeling despite the extreme turbulence. I realized elatedly that I was even still able to read my book without getting sick: I had bona fide sea legs! So we bashed through steep chop, our bow rising and falling at 45-degree angles, and had a decent time of it. Later in the evening as the channel widened to the north, the chop subsided and I was able to sleep for a couple hours.

When I awoke, the moon had not yet risen and the night sky was deeply black. Large dark hulks of unlit land surrounded us, with no light loom anywhere in sight. We screamed along at 6 knots completely blinded by the night, headed for our ever-nearer anchorage waypoint. Finally at 1am, we reached the bay and could just make out a white sliver of beach running around its edge.

As we dropped the hook for the first time in a week, I felt like we’d accomplished something. We’d never been sailing that long before—but if we can do one week here, we can do three weeks on the way to Hawaii. The Sea of Cortez just gave us a little entrance exam: we passed.

Velella is safely at anchor in La Paz and getting some well deserved rest:

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