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5th November 2015 Back in San Carlos Marina Seca after some unwanted excitement in the Sea of Cortez


On my return to Nereida early in October, it was nice to reconnect with familiar people around the marina, which suddenly became far busier with cruisers increasingly returning to launch boats safely stored in San Carlos over the heat of the summer and hurricane season, to ready them for sailing in the far pleasanter, cooler, winter weather.   Days suddenly became pleasantly warm and nights cool.

It was enjoyable also to meet Tucson S.C. members down for their annual ‘Fall Regatta’.  I knew several from last year, met new ones and helped crew on ‘Last Dance’ on the first day of racing.  The nearby large Bahia San Francisco is a perfect venue for such a Regatta, with its several islands forming excellent course marks.  I’d also enjoyed crewing the previous weekend on a friend’s Viper in several Arizona Y.C. races on Lake Pleasant, a large reservoir just outside Phoenix.  (We made a 1-3-1 despite my dubious help!)

I’d been looking forward to seeing more of the Sea of Cortez but first wanted to finish a few more boat projects – among them fixing a hatch mosquito screen in the forepeak, which I needed help with since it needed two pairs of hands, and getting a bimini (cockpit sun shade) support organized.  That last item has been frustratingly difficult to make progress on for several months, with the work continually not being started as promised….   This is Mexico!

I finally got away from the dock at San Carlos around one o’clock on Wed 28th October after a prolonged Internet session at nearby Tequila’s (there’d be no Internet possibility once away) and having spent quite a time securing 3 newly-filled propane tanks in the gas locker, organizing  the dinghy and stowing my fold-up bike.

As expected, the wind was on the nose the entire way, so we motored north solidly, arriving  at Ensenada Chica just in time to anchor and relax before sunset…  Except that I couldn’t turn off the engine – the newly-installed replacement (keyed) start panel refused to respond when switched off…  The motor kept running….  (I realized a day later that I should have pressed the ‘Stop’ button before switching off , not after… obvious when you think about it!)

I had to get into the engine compartment to operate the emergency solenoid fuel cut-off.  Fortunately, I knew where to find it but was worried that the engine was hot and I had to reach down the far side of it….    It was a big relief when it stopped and I was able to relax and enjoy the dramatic view of pink, high, well-eroded-sandstone rocks and hills – so typical of the Sea of Cortez coastline and made even more spectacular as the sun began to set.


Where I’d anchored is reasonably well-protected from north winds – sudden, strong Northers being the main worry over the winter months.   With good, accurate, weather information difficult to come by in this area, it’s best to be safe and head for such protected anchorages, despite the frequent flat calm encountered on the way.

After cooking a meal, I planned my forthcoming passages over to Puerto Refugio and Este Ton, both on Isla Ángel de la Guarda, off the Baja coast, using two pilot books giving anchorages in the area – and also my iPad which I’d loaded, using Tequila’s Internet access, with detailed Google Earth photos of the coast and islands to back up other information.

From weather info given the next morning (Thursday) on several HF radio Nets and also from grib files I’d downloaded, it was clear a Norther ‘blow’ was expected – on Friday, they all said…  So I decided to head to a “textbook” secure anchorage a short distance further north, to wait for the Norther to pass.

Ensenada Julio Villa was certainly very calm, with none of the fair-sized SW swell which had built up entering it, but the cove was a lot smaller than I expected and also rather shallow.  Tidal info is not available for a lot of the Sea of Cortez so I ‘guesstimated’ the time and height of Low Water that evening by reference to a place on the other side of the Sea at a similar latitude.  .   
Rocky outcrops to East and West of entrance....    with sandy beach on North side of cove: 

Anchoring in 12 feet (3.7 (m) of water, well away from the entrance rocks, did not feel too good but it was around mid-tide as I checked the depth on display using a lead line – it was over-reading just 8 inches (0.2m) – not normally a problem…  I  snorkelled to check on the seabed below the keel and found sand with lots of small boulders.   But later, when 9ft was shown and not knowing exactly how soon LW was expected, I moved closer to the entrance while there was still good daylight, re-anchoring in deeper water but still protected from the waves outside… But we were now a little closer to the rocks on either side of the entrance and I could not deploy as much chain as I would have liked since it would place us too close to the rocks astern.   When the expected strong NW wind came, the extended chain would place us even closer to them.   I thought about deploying a second anchor but that doesn’t leave much freedom for a quick escape if needed.… and there wasn’t anywhere else close by to make for that would give protection from the NW.

I was, by now, feeling decidedly uncomfortable and very aware that the barometer had been steadily falling and was now very low - at 1002 hPa – but the forecast was for the Norther to arrive the next afternoon…  

As soon as pitch darkness had fallen, before moonrise, the wind quickly began to build and I heard occasional sounds from the bow so I went there thinking maybe I should organize a snubber (closing hatches on the way as I did so!) – but soon realized that the anchor was beginning to drag – and almost immediately felt and heard it dragging a lot…  The high rocky hill astern loomed closer in the darkness.  I dived back to the wheel and turned on the engine – but we were already on the rocks with the wind, now 28-30 knots, trying to push us further on.   I could see one rock glistening black at the water surface close by to port and the rudder would only move a small amount either way, so clearly there were rocks to either side of it or it was already stuck in a crevice - but the water depth (near the bow) was reading 9ft.

Desperately trying to save the boat, I powered the motor to maximum revs, hoping to prevent us from being driven further onto the rocks by the wind.  Nothing happened and I was thinking,  “If I have to keep on like this for some time (until after the tide turned, in several hours’ time, maybe), so be it – anything to prevent us getting damaged by from going further onto the rocks.  There’s no-one around to help…”    I could hear occasional crunching under the keel from the rocks there but my impression was that the hull was, so far, clear of danger.

I kept on powering forward, moving the rudder very slightly at times in an effort to free the boat by getting it to change its position…the boat occasionally rocked slightly which I felt boded well – “If the boat would only move a bit more,” I thought, “We might stand a chance of getting away… “

After an age not making any progress, I suddenly felt a small forward movement – and then we bumped away and off the rocks….   What relief!  

Steering us in the direction of the cove entrance proved surprisingly difficult (clearly not helped by chain and anchor being still deployed) and as we seemed to veer out of control and head to the beach, I was fearful we’d end up in more trouble, but she finally responded to my steering efforts and we made it out of the cove and into open water – where the seas had already built substantially – definitely a ‘washing machine’ action…!

The anchor and chain needed to be taken in urgently.  I reduced the revs a little to make it easier and kept us making headway towards deeper water, away from the headland where the cove lay, although only making about 2kt into the 30kt headwind.   Switching to autopilot, I went forward to a bow that was crashing into the rough seas.   The moon had still not risen yet but the navlights I’d hurriedly gone below to switch on showed just how rough and big the seas were – tossing us around like the proverbial cork, with resulting chaos down below.
Thankfully, the windlass gave no problem and I was able to work with the wave action, getting the chain in gradually, in fits and starts, as we plunged into the oncoming waves, having regularly to move piled-up chain clear of the windlass gipsy inside the chain locker  … The anchor came in finally also, although I noticed it was upside down as it came up…   Far too dangerous in those seas to do anything about that – I was just thankful it was in and all seemed secure so I could get back to the wheel - and grab some extra (dry!) clothing to put on…

As we headed south towards San Carlos (a safe haven, for sure), our slow change of direction, as we followed the coast well offshore, gradually brought the oncoming seas abaft our beam – lessening slightly the violent motion.  Eventually we were running downwind – although still being tossed round in rather confused, angry seas.

I was thoroughly relieved that, when headed north, I’d circled a big, high rock (El Acero – the Sword), partly to look for a colony of sea-lions said to inhabit it and partly because it was well over a mile off the coast, rather than just the ½ mile shown on the chart. If I hadn’t marked its position on my plotter, I could possibly have run into it in the darkness but I was now able to steer well clear of it.

Reaching San Carlos, nearly thirty miles away, took until gone 2a.m. with nowhere else to take refuge.  Entering the Bahia, the seas calmed and the wind died – despite 20 knots of wind and rough seas just outside.  The high twin peaks of Tetakawi – the distinctive symbol of San Carlos – and the other high hills around give the harbour wonderful protection from the north.

On trying to drop the anchor in the tranquil bay to get a much-needed rest, I discovered it was firmly wedged and refused to move, despite prolonged hammering in an effort to free it….  

I was not inclined to struggle in the dark with readying my secondary anchor at that point – far simpler to get fenders and lines ready and cautiously make my way through the badly lit channel, past mostly unlit boats, piles and docks to the marina Fuel Dock – empty…  Great! 

Stepping off onto the dock to tie up carefully alongside was the prelude to a good sleep onboard – I knew Pedro would recognize my boat and kindly move it along carefully if needed, in order to let another one fuel up – as happened early in the morning…   I turned over and slept on….  I was safe and so also, it seemed, was Nereida

Postscript:  The rudder had been damaged – the bottom was broken off (which possibly was the reason for my steering problem immediately after getting free if it was still partly attached for a time) - but the greater part of it was still there.  Being a sturdily-made semi skeg-hung rudder meant I came off the rocks with a rudder to steer with, rather than the entire rudder being torn away and/or bent, as some might well have been.   The propeller (a Brunton’s Autoprop) was fine and had, as usual, performed well and the hull was totally undamaged, as I’d thought.  Some small sections on the base of the lead keel were slightly dented – but nothing major.   “Nereida” is now on the hard in San Carlos - the Mexicans excel at this kind of repair but I'm having to bring down foam from the USA for the core.


Written by : Jeanne Socrates