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Small Boats Can Handle Mexico's Sea of Cortez

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http://www.msog.org/trippics/cortez/jm_cortez.cfm

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Small Boats Can Handle Mexico's Sea of Cortez From Sea Magazine, March 1984 Story and Photography by Diego Kahr Contributed by Randy Watkins, M-15 #194

When I tell people that Jerry Montgomery and I spent eight days cruising in Baja California on his Montgomery 15, they often look at me as if I were crazy. Montgomery and I are not exactly tiny people. Our combined middle-aged paunch can balance half of his 15-footer's dry weight. Outside of the Apollo program, it isn't often that two men of conventional sexual proclivity want to occupy a space as small as this for such a length of time. We did it to prove a point as well as to have a good time. We realized that this kind of cruising is not as exciting to read about as hair-raising accounts of single-handed voyages across the Atlantic in winter, but neither of us is financially, physically or emotionally prepared for that kind of voyage. We used the boat as the majority of its owners would use it. We have for many years subjected ourselves to the pain of listening to a lot of misinformation about small cruising boats. It's hard to imagine the agony of standing around a boat show hearing how some idiot's log floated across the Atlantic in 503 days and how this proves that logs of this dimension are the ultimate answer for long-range family cruising. This is nonsense. Small boats are for small

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Small Boats Can Handle Mexico's Sea of Cortez

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voyages. If you plan carefully, equip reasonably and proceed cautiously, good times can be had at tremendous convenience and exceptionally low expense. We chose our boat primarily because it was available. Montgomery Marine builds it and had one set aside for our use. It is an exceptionally well-built little sloop. Fifteen feet long and 6 feet 3 inches wide, its fiberglass lapstrake hull carries 300 pounds of ballast in the shoal draft keel/centerboard. The boat has a cabin with a single V-berth and a 5½ foot self-draining cockpit. It, therefore, has the necessary features for open water passages—self-righting, self-bailing and a cabin large enough for meaningful shelter. Southern California is not a cruiser's paradise. Nature has endowed it with few harbors or anchorages. It is impossible to make a 20 to 30-mile passage and get anywhere you'd really like to be. Small boat cruising demands many small hops, snug coves and good weather. These are, fortunately, nearly always available by trailering. Long passages are easily made at 55 mph. In our case, we trailered to Bahia de los Angeles, about halfway down the east side of Mexico's Baja California peninsula, only 500 miles from home. The usual intense heat of Mexican desert driving was absent for our trip, so we arrived at the mountaintop overlooking Bahia de los Angeles reasonably refreshed. From these heights we could see islands stretching to the horizon. The brilliant blues of the sea and sky contrasted sharply with the arid brown of all else. Below us lay the largest village in that part of Baja California. Its airstrip, Pemex gas station, launch ramp, restaurant and stores make it an important center of boating activity for the area. Just 12 hours separated us from the chrome-plated luxury of Newport Beach. We launched the boat and left our truck and trailer with Michael, who lives outside the village. All this took barely half an hour and very quickly we were looking back at the village disappearing over our transom. Eager to get to our first anchorage by nightfall, we motorsailed the 8 miles to Bahia do Don Juan. Motorsailing can become a way of life in the Gulf of California. Strong currents and light winds are part of every day's sail. One problem, of course, is gasoline. With supplies often 100 miles apart–and that not too certain–large amounts of spare gasoline must be carried. The larger the motor, the worse the problem. The 2-hp outboard we carried pushed our boat at 4 knots. In eight days and 250 miles it burned only 5 gallons of gas. Not bad, but even such a small amount of fuel aboard causes worry. Each night at anchor we removed it from the cockpit and stowed the cans of gas on the foredeck, as far away from our cooking stove as possible. Each day we covered the cans with a wet towel to provide some protection from the heat of the sun. As our boat moved closer to its first evening's anchorage, one of the great truths of sailing in the Gulf of California became evident. All Mexican anchorages look the same. Or, rather, they don't look like places

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Small Boats Can Handle Mexico's Sea of Cortez

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to anchor until you're in them. Jerry, a native westerner, denies this, but to my practiced eastern eye, one brown rock always looks like any other brown rock. Each massive cliff headland looks like the next. As a navigator, I was hopeless. We arrived, nonetheless, at Bahia de Don Juan just as darkness enveloped the surrounding cliffs. Sunset provided enough light to set our 10-pound CQR anchor. With the outboard shut down, the silence was overwhelming. If the moon had real seas, they would be like this. Rugged cliffs and escarpments ringed our crater-like bay. Walking more than a few hundred yards inland seemed impossible. The area was desolate, devoid of life. Peaceful. Hunger drove us to the preparations of an evening meal, and the realization of another maxim of small boat cruising: You can never find anything without pulling the whole boat apart. Despite what I thought were some very clever ways of storing supplies, it was necessary for one person to sit on the aft edge of the V-berth and hand out the right things to the man in the cockpit. On little boats with cabins and cockpits, almost everything except sleeping takes place in the cockpit. This is a fact not generally known or accepted by the current generation of small boat buyers. I judge this from their inordinate interest in cabin accommodations and upholstery color as manifested at boat shows. I think that Jerry regarded our trip as an opportunity to diet. In fact, he told me of a time when he was younger and of going into the wilderness of his native Oregon to live off the land. I, on the other hand, come from a background of having a delicatessen on every street corner. Obviously our food needs were different. When we were going through the supermarket provisioning our cruise, I had my first inkling that this trip might not make the pages of Gourmet magazine. "We don't need that. We're going to run out of room taking things like that." I sheepishly returned my choices to the shelves. Of the tasty delectables that found their way to the boat were many cans of beans. This is probably not true, but in retrospect almost everything that we ate, that we didn't catch, reminded me of beans. Take the hominy, for instance. I had never seen it outside the southerners' "grit" version. Jerry bought it and he loved it. To me, it was beans with prison pallor. To our delight, the live off the land philosophy was vindicated. We caught a lot of fish and barbecued it on our miniature hibachi. The first night established the evening routine we followed throughout our cruise. Drop anchor, secure the gasoline forward, rig the boom awning (if not already in place), place one of the drop hatch boards aft across the seat and put the camp stove on it. Cook, eat, clean and stow everything away for sleeping. Based upon his previous experience with the heat of Baja California, Jerry chose to sleep in the cockpit. Since he is taller than the cockpit is long, he slept on the diagonal with the drop hatch boards bridging the footwell and the cockpit cushions on top. These same cushions which served so well as a nighttime mattress, were indispensable by day. Moving about is difficult on a small boat, so where you sit better be comfortable. The boom awning, another absolute necessity by day, became a tent roof at night, sheltering the cockpit from the dew and abnormally cool evening temperatures. The cabin was a better place to sleep. Since I could not enter or leave

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Small Boats Can Handle Mexico's Sea of Cortez

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without disturbing Jerry, he had all the anchor watches. Even with time taken for breakfast, we were on the move again shortly after dawn. We motored and finally sailed in the barest whisper of wind. Michael, the young man with whom we had left our truck and trailer, came roaring up in his high-powered inflatable. He was whale watching on a grant from an oceanographic study and asked us to keep track of whale sightings. As he sped away, I wondered whether the beautiful brunette who accompanied him was standard issue for such scientific endeavor. We did see, but more often heard, many whales. When our motor quit on the passage from Animas to Salsipuedes, the whales heard us in return as we wrestled with the problem of removing a flywheel without proper tools. By midmorning the breeze had filled in and we were steady on our southerly course for Bahia de las Animas. We flew an unusual jib. To gain extra power for the light winds, Jerry had fitted a short bowsprit and extra jibtop. It is definitely not standard or necessary for the Montgomery 15. It just represented a half fulfilled desire to have a 15-foot cutter. As the day wore on, more favorable winds developed, allowing us to set our spinnaker and increase our speed. By 3 o'clock we were again out of wind and we continued our passage under power and sunshade. We anchored for the evening in Las Animas' Seegerstrom Cove. It had a good hard bottom and a good beach for swimming. Ashore there were signs of people, mostly old tin cans. Garbage on a beach that you feel is a million miles from nowhere is saddening. The next three days were much the same as we hopped from island to island crossing the gulf. We shared our anchorage the following night at Isla Salsipuedes with Edna (she showed us her 53-pound grouper) and five gringo fishing boats. After dark they treated us to a 5,000-watt Frankie Laine concert. I had to be restrained from giving my own concert on our 25mm flare gun. I guess they were "real good people" but it is astounding how many Americans can't cope with silence. Salsipuedes otherwise was a beautiful anchorage, with two deep, narrow symmetrical bays, one open to the south, the other to the north, offering protection no matter what. While we were there the island was covered with thousands of molting pelicans. These great birds generally behaved quite well (and kept their stereos barely audible). Upon leaving the next day, we were presented with yet another lesson in Baja California sailing. "The strength of the opposing current varies directly as the square of one's desire to proceed." The waist of the Gulf of California where we cruised is famous for its wild and unpredictable currents. Many islands and peninsulas divert the tidal flow into hundreds of eddies and countercurrents. Even while sailing along at an apparently good speed through the water, our charted position would sometimes not change for hours, or more often, would move miles in a lateral direction. Our motor and boom awning again became our most prized possessions on our passage to Isla San Esteban. The island was remarkable for its many sea lions and a few good anchorages. We had chosen the easternmost anchorage, closest to Isla Tiburon, and it proved to have poor holding ground. I slept like a babe, but Jerry was awake most of the night, anxiously checking our proximity to the lee shore. We hauled anchor at 3 a.m. and with relief resumed our sail in a reaching breeze strong enough to push us to hull speed. The M-15 made short work of the 20 miles to Tiburon. With full moon and sail it seemed like the height of adventure. We entered

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Small Boats Can Handle Mexico's Sea of Cortez

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Bahia Las Cruces on Tiburon at 7 a.m. Its large sheltered harbor provided a temporary home to a number of Mexican shark fishermen. The water was warm and clear on the mainland side of the gulf and the holding ground was good. All was well as we napped contentedly to shake off the fatigue of the night passage. We had completed our crossing. Our voyage now became a traveling village of boats. We had rendezvoused with five other boats sailed by friends from Arizona. They had started from Bahia Kino, on the mainland, the day before and had arrived late in the afternoon. They carried cargos of food and drink that defied our imagination. We had no ice . . . they had plenty. A visit aboard a 17-footer was like stepping aboard an aircraft carrier. Everything seemed so big after the compact snugness of the 15. Fish and food were shared and each afternoon at anchor there were visits, drinks and quiet conversation. Surprisingly, for we were the smallest and supposedly the slowest boat in the fleet, we kept up as we crossed the gulf again, a 40-mile passage. By leaving our anchorage a little early and motorsailing when the wind dropped, we were nearly always first at the next stop. We usually would take advantage of our short draft and drop the hook close to the beach. We could then let ourselves back on the anchor rode and walk ashore. We spent the next two days at the fly-in resort of San Francisquito. There, Tom Van Atta, skipper of a Montgomery 17, treated us to our next lesson in small boat cruising. Never fix your outboard while it's hanging on the transom. Several inexpensive but indispensable outboard parts now permanently reside at the bottom of this scenic bay, and Tom now possesses a 4-hp outboard with the propeller epoxied to the shaft. We stayed at San Francisquito for an extra day, taking advantage of the resort's restaurant and shower. The shower was delightful. Our M-15 became the shore boat. It was far easier for us to pick up the sailors from the larger boats and bring them to the beach than it was for them to launch their dinghies and row ashore. The fleet moved north again accompanying us as we retraced our steps to Bahia de los Angeles. We were celebrities since we sailed such a small boat. I have talked with many micro-cruisers and it is the same everywhere. In a small boat you are never treated as a rich yachtie. Little boats make the statement, "I'm just like you . . . I could be you. I'm a real person. I'm not just another tourist." Even the Mexican fishermen were interested in us and our boat. People identified with the Montgomery 15. Neither it nor its sailors intimidated them. So they talked to us, related to us, making our trip more fun than otherwise possible. The others in our fleet were surprised at how complete were our preparations and extensive our gear. All our supplies, equipment and clothing weighed perhaps 400 pounds. We had two anchors and chain, and five sails. Stowed below were sleeping, fishing and cooking equipment and enough food and water for two men for 15 days. We had everything the other boats had except ice. We had forsaken the miracle of cold food and drink to save room. To carry enough ice for eight days would have been impossible, so we relied on canned and dried food instead. Our boat cruised, as opposed to sailed, as fast as the larger boats, sometimes faster. The only thing we sacrificed was the lounge around room that larger boats offer.

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Small Boats Can Handle Mexico's Sea of Cortez

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Small boats are tight space capsules and just like astronauts we were glad to get off. . . and in a few hours' time, anxious to go again. Sea, March 1984

3/21/2009 11:06 PM


Small Boats Can Handle Mexico