Monthly Archives: January 2014
Our sailing trip got off to a windy start but then the weather calmed as we continued to explore and enjoy the islands in the southern Sea of Cortez. We decided if a norther, or strong wind, is in the forecast, we’ll head to La Paz or Puerto Escondido for shelter. We’ve anchored in some gorgeous bays, enjoyed some good snorkeling and also visited the famous Sea Lion colony, Los Islotes! When we pulled up to the round, tan, rock island of Los Islotes and saw a huge National Geographic ship anchored there, we knew this would be a great place to see animals.
We left early in the morning for Los Islotes and when we got within a mile of it we began to hear the cries and belches of hundreds of Sea Lions. They bellowed loudly as they luxuriated and flopped around on land.
Off in the distance we saw an amazing sight – flying manta rays! The sounds of them loudly belly flopping into the water first attracted our attention as we cruised a half mile away from them. Brian pulled the boat up next to them. They would launch several feet out of the water with wings flapping wildly in mid-air as if they felt confused about their location. Land or water? Can I fly away if I flap hard enough? They were very entertaining. We saw them a couple more times at sea after this, doing the same thing.
Within a half mile of the sea lion colony, groups of curious sea lions approached the boat at the surface of the water. These creatures couldn’t wait to play with us. When we finally anchored next to the National Geographic ship and jumped into the water, several small sea lion pups immediately swirled around us in the water! They were very cute and curious.
As we swam toward Los Islotes, groups of young sea lion pups circled around us and swam right at our faces, blowing bubbles and changing course right at the last minute to avoid head butting us. I looked down and saw a pup chewing on one of the fins on my feet with big teeth! I felt a little nervous. Other sea lion pups were chewing on ropes. How do I know they aren’t going to chew on me? Brian explained only the small pups chew on fins, and they do this to humans because they also chew on each other’s fins. There were some very large sea lions in the water, and thankfully they were not interested in us at all. I would sure not want one of those big bulls nibbling on me.
We stayed in the water for at least an hour enjoying their company and I grew more and more relaxed with them. After all, they are used to tourists visiting their home and they seem to like us as much as we like them. After our Sea Lion encounter, we moved the boat to Ensanada Grande in some pretty big waves – bigger than the boat. The boat just bounced right through them. This small boat is made for big waves with a 4,000 pound piece of lead in the keel to keep it upright. I find sailboats to be pretty amazing.
Ensanada Grande is a turquoise bay surrounded by peach colored rocks. We ended up having only one boat with which to share the anchorage, and later in the evening the captain, Clif, rowed over in his dinghy to invite us to have drinks on the beach with he and his girlfriend Giselle later than evening. These young sailors had just sailed all the way from Juneau, Alaska to La Paz, Mexico and had some exciting sea stories to share. They are currently living on their 34 foot sailboat and cruising around Mexico for the next couple months, snorkeling, diving and hiking along the way.
As we chatted on the beach, the sun set and a small black rabbit visited us. He sniffed Giselle’s finger and hovered around our little beach party for at least an hour. Clif and Giselle planned to visit the Sea Lion rookery the next day, so we went again for a second day of playing with them! This time we rode to the rookery in Clif and Giselle’s boat and then they returned us to Ensenada Grande afterward. I wouldn’t mind yet another day with the sea lions, but the next day we did a great sea kayak and hike on Ensenada Grande. We boulder hopped up a rocky valley, avoiding prickly plants. We got to the top and enjoyed a great overlook of the Sea of Cortez. Doesn’t it look calm and glassy today?
We left La Paz on a calm morning, excited to make our way out to Isla Espiritu Santo. As we motored on glassy water, bottlenose dolphins jumped in playful arcs around the boat. One of them swam right next to the bow and peered up at Brian. These wonderful creatures are sentient, form tight and long lasting family bonds, and are highly intelligent. They visit our boat often while it’s in motion, swimming laps around it and jumping into the air as if to say “hello” to our little boat and to get a better look at who is aboard. I love this quote about dolphins:
“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”
― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
After about five hours, we arrived at our anchorage on the main island. That evening we kayaked along one side of a tiny nearby island, admiring huge sea birds at close range. Blue Footed Boobies, Cormorants, Frigate Birds and Pelicans all find safety on this tiny, isolated island. We jumped in the water and snorkeled along the other side of the island, enjoying wonderful fish life with many beautiful Triggerfish and some very skittish Grouper. The Grouper are a delicious game fish which are commonly hunted by spear fisherman, which may explain the skittishness. That night we went to bed early in calm conditions, the flat water reflecting the orange light in the sky. Turtles surfaced for air and we strained to get a look at them in the fading light.
The next day we snorkeled around the shallow bay. I saw an eye peeking out of a shell amidst red, wrinkled skin. Immediately I recognized it was an octopus, one of my favorite sea creatures. Brian swam over and bravely poked his finger gently into the shell to touch one of its tentacle covered arms. He gently scooped the octopus out of its shell and placed it in my hands. It was about the size of one of my hands, dark red in color, with soft, slimy skin. I felt such reverence as I held and stroked this beautiful, intelligent creature. I’ve always loved octopus and admired them from afar while diving, now I was holding one in my palm as it tasted my skin with its tentacles. Its arms moved slowly across my palm with a hundred little suction cups squeezing and releasing quickly on my skin. After a couple minutes, it began to nibble my ring finger gently with its beak. It didn’t hurt, but I could feel the animal’s desire to get free and I wondered if it would bite harder the longer I held it. We let it go and it swam away quickly.
A few minutes later we found yet another red octopus. Brian once again scooped the little animal from its hiding place, this time a piece of coral. However, this one was rowdy and did not like being handled. He squirmed out of our hands, landed with a plop in the water, and released a cloud of dark brown ink. He then swam away in a fury.
Around 10 PM a strong wind began blowing and increased throughout the night. In winter, strong winds from the north, called “Northers”, are common on the Sea of Cortez. These winds start in the US and blow all the way down the sea, creating big waves with frothy tops. Thankfully we were anchored in a bay off the main Sea of Cortez. The weather forecast mentioned a small craft advisory for the next day on the main sea. This means being out in the main sea is dangerous for small boats like this one.
The wind blew all night. I didn’t sleep at all. It gusted up to 40 knots and our little boat rocked and rolled dramatically. Terrible noises echoed through the boat. I heard thuds, creaks, and splashing waves. The boat would swing around over and over again in the bay, blown by the wind. In my mind, I imagined the force of the swinging boat ripping the anchor from the sandy bottom, and the boat being swept out into the main sea and clobbered by big waves. Brian assured me he had set an alarm on the GPS which would beep if the boat moved more than 50 feet. With each thud, I imagined parts of the boat coming apart in the gusting winds. Brian was very sweet and tried to comfort me as my entire body would tense up when a gust of wind rocked the boat or splashed the side with waves. After a couple hours of this, my back and neck felt sore.
I felt composed and aware during this whole episode, and grateful to be near shore and not out in the middle of the big, furious Sea of Cortez. I fantasized about returning home. La Paz was less than a day’s sail away with an airport to whisk me away to safety. I had envisioned a mellow ocean cruise where we would see whales and snorkel with beautiful fishes. This night was anything but mellow and I can’t remember a time I felt more frightened. My thoughts kept returning to the octopus, though. That had been one of my best encounters with a sea creature and left me wondering what else I may see here. I wanted to experience the Sea of Cortez so badly. Wasn’t there some way to avoid storms like this and make this a mellow trip after all? I laid there torn about what to do in these unexpected circumstances.
For a long time, I was afraid to leave the bed and look at the sea around us. I just stayed in bed and hoped for the best as the boat rocked, rolled, and made terrible noises. Eventually, though, my curiosity got the best of me and I poked my head out of the cabin. To my surprise, the waves were not large at all and the boat was still in one piece. The thudding noises were the sea kayak and surfboard shifting around on the deck. The splashing waves were only a couple feet tall, but sounded bigger because they were hitting the boat from the side as it swung around on the anchor. Out on the main sea, I could see big waves with whitecaps in the distance but in this bay the waves were small. Also, it was comforting to see the shore only 100 feet away. I could easily swim to safety if necessary. I returned to bed with a new realization of what was going on outside, and I knew that as long as the anchor held we would be ok. We weren’t in any real danger, but since I was so new to this activity the experience had felt a little intense.
I felt happy to finally see the sun come up in the morning. Although the gusting winds continued throughout the morning, at least I could sit up on the deck and see what was happening. Somehow that was comforting.
The wind gusts slowly died down throughout the day, but started up again at night. We were relying on text messages on the satellite phone to tell us the wind speeds in the forecast. The latest message hadn’t been so good. Today wind speeds were still forecast above 30 knots and the next two days they were forecast in the 20s. We didn’t have access to a detailed forecast since there was no cell phone access at this location. We hoped the next morning it would be calm enough to move the boat a few miles to an anchorage with cell service so we could see what weather was coming next and form a plan to stay safe and continue the trip.
The wind was forecast at nearly 20 knots today in La Paz, Mexico. Most whale shark tours were cancelled. The sea was lumpy and most tourists wouldn’t want to swim around in big waves with huge sharks. However, this would be our last day in La Paz and possibly our last chance to snorkel with the whale sharks. We called around and found a tour company who would take us.
Brian and I were the only tourists on the small motor boat. We bounced a couple miles across the ocean to reach the feeding area of the Whale Sharks. Our guide got very excited when he saw several huge, dark shapes in the water.
The Whale Sharks are easy to spot. They often feed right near the surface on plankton and sometimes tiny fish. Their size was surprising and a bit intimidating – at least 30 feet long. They are the world’s largest fish, and some were easily as long as our boat.
We put on our snorkeling gear and jumped into the waves. It was easy to swim right up to the sharks and appreciate their beautiful, spotted skin, fluid movements and tremendous, gaping mouths. It’s forbidden to touch them, but in surging conditions like this one of them gently brushed the tip of its rough tail against my hand as it swam slowly nearby. Its firm skin felt like the finest grit of sandpaper.
Ocean waves rolled over us, filling my snorkel and mouth regularly with salt water. I didn’t care. I was too enthralled with the largest sea creatures I had ever encountered. Thankfully they only wanted to eat plankton and had no desire for human blood. As I floated at the surface, spitting sea water out of my mouth, the whales bobbed a few feet away. Their bodies were often vertical, mouths outstretched toward the water surface, bobbing up and down.
Our guide swam with us for the first 30 minutes. As he got close to a shark to take a video of its huge undulating body, a strong current pushed his torso against the middle of the shark’s body. The shark didn’t like this unexpected contact and curved its body away from the guide, swished its tail powerfully, and was gone in an instant while the guide was tossed off to the side like a rag doll. Our guide was unhurt, but it was a powerful display of the speed and strength of this large fish.
We got back on the boat. Our guide’s brush with the whale sharks made them skittish and they moved on to feed in another area about 100 feet away. The boat’s captain drove over to the new location for the sharks, then allowed Brian and I to swim with the sharks unsupervised. Our guide said this was one of the best days he’s seen for snorkeling with the whale sharks, with at least 5 feeding right near the surface. He wanted to give us some extra time with them. By now, I felt relaxed and at peace with the huge sharks. As long as we stayed out of their way, they would just go about their business of feeding and we were free to watch them. We floated around admiring their graceful curves until we got cold. During the boat ride back, we were glowing from the close encounter with these magnificent animals and excited to tell our friends back at the marina all about it.
I thought cruising was supposed to be relaxing. For the last two days we’ve done nothing but work on the boat from sunrise to sunset. We’ve taken many trips to stores for supplies, spent hours scrubbing grime from every surface, and Brian completed many repairs and upgrades. Finally the work is done and we leave tomorrow morning for a couple relaxing days on the Sea of Cortez. We still need to return to the marina for a sim card for the satellite phone, which was somehow delayed by FedEx. I’m excited to enjoy the boat and just snorkel and relax rather than scrubbing it for hours.
I’ve washed every interior surface of the boat and added feminine touches throughout, and it’s starting to feel like home. The living room needed the most work. To the right is a photo of the earlier stages of the living room cleanup – scary! And this photo was taken after the cleanup had already begun. The boat is well built and in good shape overall, but it was certainly earning no style points. Here is my earlier blog post about arriving at the boat late at night and seeing it for the very first time, then sleeping in it and deciding it needed an extreme makeover before it became our home for five weeks.
To the left is the living room post-makeover. I’m so happy with how it turned out. The new seat covers, pillows and clean floor give this room a whole new look and now it’s a pleasant place to hang out as the boat rocks gently here in the Marina De La Paz. After plenty of cleaning with orange scented Pledge wood cleaner, the boat even smells nice.The cabinets and seats have great storage space and we’ve filled them to the brim with food and supplies. We won’t have access to a good store for several weeks, so yesterday at the grocery store we filled the cart so full we could barely push it. We’ll be eating well, but simply. There is no refrigeration on the boat.
To the right is the bathroom. It has a composting toilet which works well and is pretty convenient in the middle of the night. There are two compartments – one for pee and one for poo. The toilet is remarkably skilled at separating the two. The pee compartment gets emptied into the ocean every week or so, while the poo compartment is large and probably won’t need to be emptied this trip. It contains compost and a crank on the side of the toilet mixes it after each use. It doesn’t smell at all. This composting toilet is awesome. As you can see in the photo, we’ve stuffed all storage areas of the boat with food items, including the bathroom.
Here’s the marine stove, which swings around on two strings attached at the sides. A couple scuba weights hang from the bottom to counterbalance the weight of a pot on top. The cooking surface stays level even when the boat is rocking. Beneath the stove I’ll be storing our very few cooking supplies – one pot with lid, one frying pan, a cutting board, plates, bowls, cups and utensils for two. Nothing fancy is needed aboard this boat, it’s just like van cooking only the stove moves with the boat. Very interesting setup.
Here is a better view of the living room, showing the cabinets and our maps set out to plan tomorrow’s course. We’ll be going just a few miles away to a bay to relax and ease into the sailing trip gradually before returning to the marina on Friday. This will be a good test run for me; I’m excited to try sailing and hope I won’t be seasick or frightened by big waves.
Our next adventure will be five weeks of cruising in Brian’s sailboat in Mexico on the Sea of Cortez! I have never sailed and have no idea what I’m getting myself into but that is usually how most of my adventures begin.
I hadn’t even seen a good picture of the boat I’d be living in, just an exterior photo from a distance and some of Brian’s vague descriptions of the features of the interior. It has a “composting toilet”, a “v-berth”, and a “marine stove” which hangs in mid-air on two strings. Fascinating. I don’t even know what these things are.
Off we went to Mexico. We arrived at the boat around 6 pm after a long day of flying. We took a cab from the airport to the La Paz Marina, where Brian’s boat has been waiting patiently for over a year. From the outside the boat looked great. It’s much bigger than the van we live in and seemed to have plenty of windows. Both of these discoveries delighted me.
When Brian opened the door to the interior, it was hard to feel excited about making this our home for the next 5 weeks. Everything was pretty dirty but at least when I scanned the interior with my headlamp I found only one old spider web and no insects. The cushions on the sleeping area (the “v-berth”) were dirty and stained, and all we had between us was one thin, stiff sleeping bag with a rusted zipper and two limp pillows. The floor of the boat was covered in huge batteries – 8 of them to be exact. Navigating around the boat required acrobatic moves from couch to doorway to avoid stepping on the batteries.
We settled into the v-berth. I left my clothes on, not wanting my skin to touch the crusty cushions. A strange crackling sound filled the cabin of the boat. We listened closely and finally decided it must be the nocturnal shrimp in the ocean below. They had come out to feed and socialize in the dark. Brian had heard this same noise while scuba diving before. I loved the shrimp’s gentle sounds as they fed and communicated below the boat in the darkness. This night was getting better already.
As I lay there on the v-berth that night, I decided this boat needed an extreme makeover. I could see it had a lot of space and potential for being comfortable, but this was one serious bachelor pad.
The next morning Brian jumped out of bed at the first light and started removing all the batteries and filling big, black garbage bags with trash. Bless him. When I emerged from bed a couple hours later I found the boat looking much better. I started to fall in love with her as I noticed all the nice wood, well designed cabinets, ample couch space and abundant storage areas. Yes, this boat could make a good home.
We organized the boat and then went to Wal-Mart, where I bought some nice bedding and ten pillows. Brian was very sweet to indulge my desires for soft, fluffy things aboard. When we returned to the marina, I pushed a huge cart full of assorted pillows down the deck and joked with our very friendly neighbors that I cleaned Wal-Mart out. I bought all their pillows. They laughed and watched me unload my new pillow collection. I went to work on the bed and after covering it with a mattress pad, new sheets and a pretty comforter the boat started to feel much more like home.
I’ve seen way too much Sex and the City. I never imagined our recent trip to New York would include a day of ice climbing in a beautiful gorge. I met John Udall and he mentioned he loves ice climbing and would be willing to take us to one of his favorite places. This was a dream come true for me because due to other amazing adventures planned this winter, I would miss my two favorite winter festivals: Freezefest and Icefest. He had New Year’s Eve off from his job at an outdoor recreation store in Ithaca, New York, so we made plans to spend that day hanging in the air and chipping away at a wall of ice.
Freezefest is a winter canyoneering event which takes place around New Year’s Day. We swim in icy water, rappel snowy slots and suffer in the cold. It’s an amazing time with great friends, regardless of the conditions. Icefest is an ice climbing fest in Ouray, Colorado where gear makers allow climbers to demo clothing and gear while ice climbing in easily accessible canyons with fantastic ice. Both these fests have been the highlights of my winter adventures during the last few years. Of course, no one needs to feel sorry for me that I’m not getting enough adventure…but I felt sad to miss these fests this winter.
Then I met John Udall, Brian’s former scoutmaster who he hadn’t seen in a decade. He offered to take Brian and I ice climbing in upstate New York at Tinker Falls. He also offered to supply all the gear, drive, and even bought me breakfast at Dunkin Donuts, too! John is the best. He did a really good job of selecting a suitable climbing area early in the season, evaluating the ice, setting up the anchor, demonstrating some techniques and helping to keep us warm and safe.
We drove to Tinker Falls and hiked a quarter mile to the climb. The approach was a little sporty with a creek crossing on a snowy log and some side hill hiking on a shallow layer of snow at a steep angle. We arrived at the climb and admired the setting in a gorge deep in the middle of a hardwood forest. Snowflakes swirled around in a gray sky. A small waterfall poured over a wide, curved lip of shale and sharp white icicles, creating a swirl of ice formations at the bottom. A tiered wall with glassy ice and more icicles had been created by a small seep to the side of the waterfall. Later in the season, the waterfall turns into a thick, freestanding, vertical pillar, but today we would just climb the frozen seep.
Ice climbing season is just beginning in New York and the seep of ice was less than a foot thick, but in great shape and our crampons and ice axes just sunk right into it. We stayed all day and did many laps on the 25 foot tall, vertical wall before it was time to go back to a hot shower and a New Year’s feast of prime rib, shrimp, oysters and champagne. This was the best way to end a day of adventure. It was a great day out. Thanks so much, John!