February 1, 2010

Bahia Magdalena, Belcher's Point Anchorage, 1989

We've had a delay in leaving Roca Azul - Chuck has a cold! As it is now the 3-day Mexican Constitution Day holiday, it's just as well we wait a few days. In the meantime, here's another entry from our 1989 sailing log describing the second leg of our passage down the Baja coast, on our first trip to Mexico.
Log of the S/V La Mouette. November 25, 1989.
Cedros Island to Bahia Magdalena: 77 hours, 289 nautical miles.
(Bahia Magdalena is called Bahia Santa Maria on the map below. Cedros Island is the irregular island above Turtle Bay. Map provided by the great sailing rag, Latitude 38.)
On Thanksgiving Day we entered Magdalena Bay against a slight current after a three-night passage from Isla Cedros. As we sailed into the gap between rocky headlands, the bay opened up, so wide that we could not see the other side. We’re here!

Our first day we had a lovely sail down Cedros Island, in company with Bequia Chief and Lisette, then a tense time 6-8:30 pm between Cedros and low-lying Isla Natividad in moonless deep dark with dinner sticking to the pot on the stove as we plotted our DR course and stared into the black night! The rest of the night was quiet, and we had to motor a fair amount. The next day dawned hot and beautiful. 

By late afternoon the smooth seas grew large and confused, and wind built beyond the capacity of the 155 drifter hanked onto the headstay. Silly us didn’t reef until about 9 pm, when we switched the 150 for the staysail, C doing a heroic job in extremely rough 3-5’ seas and wind 20k. I was pretty good at the helm, too! Through night till dawn the ugly though never dangerous seas went on and on. In spite of alternating 3-hour watches, both of us were exhausted by morning, when seas became calm. Then we spotted a whale and tried to turn on the engine…they say the sound will keep them away. Click click goes the ignition, nothing. Dead battery! No wind! Lots of flopping around while getting out the portable Honda generator to recharge. Good thing we keep it lashed  handily on deck! After a couple of hours, we started the Perkins’ 50 horses and motored on. Finally had a chance to rest - at 2:00 pm for Chuck, 4:00 for me. A fine and fast sail that third night.

Daybreak, Chuck motoring spots land against the rosy sunrise and stops! I run up top (why could we be stopping?). We seemed so close! C flashed a light, and we moved cautiously. We checked soundings, tracking bottom contour. There could not be land here! We later discovered we were miles off and had been set (pushed by current) easterly about 12 miles from our intended landfall into the early mist of Bahia Santa Maria, north of Cabo Lazaro! No problem, we knew which way to go, and motored on. Rounding Cabo Lazaro light, we heard VHF radio chatter. It sounded as though half the sailing "class of ’89-90" was in “Mag Bay.” Bequia Chief and Lisette were already anchored. We glided south along the rocky cliffs.

We entered the huge bay in time to drop the hook and coordinate Thanksgiving dinner with the others. I'm so tired that baking pumpkin pies was nearly beyond me, and hadn’t made a crust from scratch in 15 years! Cruising does bring us back to basics! With C’s support I succeeded. He barbequed yellowfin and bonita tuna caught underway. Avatar hosted the crowd and it was a great evening.

The Bequia Chief women are great cooks!

Our anchorage is off the ruin of an old whaling station on a sand spit. There is a sizeable fishing camp with corrugated shacks and 30-50 people. Medium to low grey hills line the east side of the bay, with red dirt and a neglected bulldozed road behind the rocky beach. Pangas - Mexican seagoing open boats with outboards - come and go. One delivered lobster early the next morning – our first trade, and we got flustered and couldn’t figure what to give – the fisherman didn’t want a T-shirt - “Pequena!” (too small!) so we just gave him two beers. So unoriginal!
                                                Here's a group of typical Mexican pangas.
Next day I beachcombed with Bequia and Lisette – found large drifts of multi-patterned scallops and a few other shells, large whitened vertebrae (whale?), bird bones, pink barnacle skeletons, turtle shells, tiny white dried pinchers by the millions (lobster young?), amid grey and green stones. C burned trash. Magnificent frigate birds soared overhead.
Sunday the Mexican and the gringo kids have shy near-encounters until Bequia’s young Tavis gets out the fireworks. The first night display draws cheers from the shore community! The next night the older boys from two boats, Tavis, Ben and Ian, take the “bombas” ashore and draw a crowd, the men helping to shield the matches in the breeze. We adults played Pictionary till after 1 am aboard La Mouette.

Notes: Bahía Magdalena/Magdalena Bay is a 50 km long bay on the west coast of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, noted for the seasonal migration of the California Gray Whales that arrive during winter to mate and bear their young. Due to its size, richness and strategic position, Bahía Magdalena has long been coveted by foreign governments, whalers and adventurers.

In the mid-1800s, the bay was the scene of a bloody whaling trade as American and European ships harvested California gray whales and littered the shores with the bones and rotting remains of animals that had been boiled down for their oil. By the turn of the century, commercial fishing brought tall ships from distant ports to harvest the abundant fish, lobster, clams and scallops until overfishing removed the industry incentive. In the 1950s, canneries were built to serve international Pacific fishing fleets.

Today, more ecological uses of the bay include winter whale watching excursions, sports fishing, adventure camping, and ecological tours of the bay and mangrove swamps, now sea bird sanctuaries. A Gray Whale Festival is held in February and March

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