From Ballandra to Bahía Concepción - Technically
This is a long post by Mike, out of chronological order, about technical boat stuff. No pictures now, because of the bad cellular here in Bahía Concepción.
We just finished a 4-day trip from Bahía Ballandra to Bahía Concepción that didn't go at all according to our "plan". Quotes around plan because there is an old cruisers' cliché about writing plans in the sand at low tide. Planning is critical to good, safe, comfortable (and successful as we used to say in the business universe) even if you deviate from your plan right from the beginning of the journey.
The day before yesterday, we woke up in Caleta San Juanico, an anchorage that gets high marks from all cruisers. We were in the right place at the wrong time. It was overcast and the waves from the southeast wind made it challenging to put Millie, our dinghy, into the water to go enjoy a hike on an overcast breezy day. By the time we got back to Millie, the bay was churning and we had to launch her into the surf to get off the beach. When we got back to Calla Lily, we decided to get the heck out of San Juanico. It was too lively to safely get Millie and the outboard motor up on the davit so we decided to tow her to the next bay, La Ramada, about 2nm north of us. (We much prefer to have her safely tucked up into her perch in the davits when we are underway.) The guidebook said La Ramada had better south wind protection than San Juanico, so off we motored in search of a quiet haven. It was better, but the handful of boats anchored there were rocking and rolling hard, so it was now time for Plan C and we headed out into the waves and motored north to the next anchorage, Bahía San Nicolas, about 2 hours north of us. The anchorage looked pretty open, but also like it should provide protection from the nasty seas churned up by 15-20 knots of southeasterly breeze.
Before we go anywhere, we check the weather, wind, and tides for the journey. This tells us if we will be able to sail, and if so, what parts of the journey, how we will be setting the sails, and if it is a good time to go. Sometimes, for longer, overnight passages, we will do something called weather routing and departure planning. We use a service called PredictWind for this. It is cloud based and can be done in real time when we have access to the web through our mobile phone or wi-fi, or off-line using our satellite communicator (Iridium GO!). At the heart of Predictwind are weather data feeds and models. They do all the number crunching on their servers and we can get the results in little tiny 100kb files. Anything larger than that gives the Iridium GO! indigestion. Every day, we check both the detailed view of the wind forecasts within about 100 square miles and a big picture view of the entire Mexican Pacific coast and offshore areas. The detailed view shows us what to expect around us for the next 10 days and this helps us choose what day and what time to go. Most of our day to day trips are 20-50 nautical miles (4-10 hours of sailing.) The big picture helps us spot potential trouble coming our way, especially hurricanes. We are in the official hurricane season in the Gulf of California from June through November. During this early part of the hurricane season, most of the hurricanes head west well below (300nm) the tip of Baja California, so we don't expect to encounter any hurricanes directly, but they may influence our wind and weather.
This time of year is also the Summer Monsoon in the Sonoran Desert and although we are on a boat, we are still in the middle of this desert. Monsoon thuderstorms are called Chubascos down here and they originate on the mainland and can travel east all the way across the Gulf of California when the conditions are right. Mostly the conditions aren't right and they run into the prevailing south wind and dissipate. We are on the west coast of Baja California and will be until we make the final 100nm run directly north to Puerto Peñasco later this month. The Chubascos come late at night and do not show up in the weather models because they are so localized in time and space. We keep our eye on them through a NOAA satellite website when we can, and we get an email every night at about 8:00pm from a cruiser who watches out for their fellow cruisers. We can get email through the Iridium GO! so we can get the report even when we do not have cellular service.
Speaking of cellular service, we have it now (just barely) and will not have it again in Santa Rosalia which is about 80nm north of us. Between here and there and for the last 250nm after we leave Santa Rosalia, we will rely on the wonder of the 66 low earth orbit satellites in the Iridium constellation to keep us connected.
After choosing our next destination and the route we want to take, we put the route into our chartplotter, which is like a big iPad full of navigation charts and tools that lives in the navigation station with all the other electronic doodads. The next step is to zoom in and follow the route, looking for potential hazards that don't show up unless you zoom way in and we review the plan for the journey together. We agree on the plan and which sails we will use and how we will be setting them. There's an iPad (or 2) in the cockpit with us as well and the chartplotter app allows us to mirror the chartplotter's display and function which is super handy.
We also have a long-term, 3-4 week, "plan" of places we will stop and places we might bail into if need be. This time of year we focus on anchorages that will shelter us from south and east winds. We were just focusing on south winds but after this journey and our experience at San Juanico, we are looking at protection from the east, too. We also look for places hide from Chubascos, which also come from the east. We also figure out where we can get things like groceries, trash service, fuel (we have a new rule about not leaving any port where we can get fuel without topping off), propane (same), and laundry service. Restaurants are always noted as well. Over here in the Gulf of California, services are few and far between, unlike the mainland where we spent February through May.
Bahía San Nicolas ended up being perfect. It was nice and calm, and we had a breeze to cool us down. No bees either. Bees are an unwelcome part of a lot anchorages, especially the uninhabited islands where water is really hard for them to get. Because the wind was moderate (about 10 knots or so) and the anchorage wide open with no obstacles to hit, we decided to sail off the anchor for the first time. Sailing off the anchor is how sailors show each other they are badasses. Or at least tell each other about it. Usually, the de-anchoring process looks like starting the engine, pulling up and stowing the anchor, motoring clear of the anchorage (usually 1/2nm to 1nm), then turning the boat into the wind and raising the mainsail. Once we are under way with the sail providing enough speed that we can steer, we turn off the motor and unfurl the genoa (headsail). Then it gets nice and quiet. Sailing off the anchor looks like raising the mainsail (we are by definition pointing into the wind because physics), pulling up and stowing the anchor, falling off the wind (letting the wind push the bow back and to the side) until the mainsail fills, then slowly gaining enough speed to steer and control the boat. Quietly. It's very serene and magical. Our little team of 2, admiral and captain, did a great job and we patted ourselves on the back and unfurled the genoa to begin our 35nm trip to Bahía Concepción. San Nicolas was not on our original plan since it's only really positive (and for us crucial) feature was the protection from the southeasterly swell. Bahía Concepción is a big, quiet, 20-mile long, 2-5-mile wide bay that is very popular with cruisers and RVers. It has restaurants, small grocery stores, and great hikes. It's close to Mulegé, one of the many mission towns dotting Baja California.
The winds looked like they would be from the southeast and east at 10-20 knots. Given our destination, this meant we would have the wind roughly behind us the whole way. To date, we haven't enjoyed downwind sailing like this. Calla Lily just seemed slow and like she wasn't into it. I talked to other sailors and learned that it takes wind in the high teens (15+ knots) to get these big heavy boats moving downwind. Also, with the Genoa and mainsail on the same side of the boat (without forcing the Genoa to be on the opposite side of the boat from the mainsail with the spinnaker pole) we can at best sail with the wind at 135 degrees off the bow (180 degrees would be directly behind us.) If we go to 140 or more, then the Genoa hides behind mainsail and a. collapses, b. flaps around annoyingly, and c. doesn't help with the mission. Also, poling out the Genoa and going directly downwind would mean rolling back and forth for 5 hours. No thank you. So, we will sail with the wind at 135 degrees (apparent wind if that means something to you, but it isn't crucial to the story.) As luck would have it, that put us almost on our desired course, too. Bonus! We were able to stay on the same tack for 20nm, right at 135 degrees. Then the wind settled down to 9-11 knots. With the wind slowing down, there was less drive in the sails and 2 things happened. The boat started rolling more in the waves and it slowed down from 5-6 knots to 3-4 knots (a lot, that is.) The rolling also resulted in the sails flapping about and shocking the rigging when they refilled suddenly. Over and over, again. If this sounds annoying, you're getting it. It is really annoying.
What we did next sounds counter intuitive. Time for an experiment. The theory was based on the fact that sailboats are fastest when the wind is coming from the side. The hypothesis is that if we point into the wind a bit, the gain in boat speed will overcome the change in course away from our destination and we will actually get there faster than we would sailing directly there. We turned into the wind (and away from our destination) so we could get there faster. When the wind got to about 100 to 110 degrees, our speed went back up 5 knots. And the sails stayed filled and the rolling stopped. Sailboats are magic, indeed. We ended up jibing 3 times (2 more than we planned) but conditions were mild and we are pretty good at jibing. (Jibing is dangerous because the wind comes behind the boat and if the boom isn't kept under control, really bad things can happen.) We gradually turned into the wind and sailed almost onto the anchor. Things get weird pulling into anchorages sometimes, so we aren't interested sailing onto the anchor the first time we visit an anchorage.
It was a great long 8-hour, 41nm day of mostly sailing. We learned a lot about sailing from point A to point B in light air going downwind. And we learned to appreciate even more how well Calla Lily sails and what a joy it is to sail.