“Let me tell you how it works.”
These few words, uttered late at night in the men’s room in a La Paz marina, would completely change the nature of our overseas voyage from Baja California to the Mexican mainland.
On a hot and sunny Friday afternoon, Lucie, Yolande and I rolled into the lovely seaside city of La Paz. As usual, our first stop was for food. After our customary and necessary feast directly outside the grocery store, we parted ways with the two-wheeling Tasmanian, who hoped to hitch a ride across the Sea of Cortez on a private boat through one of the marinas. One passenger with a fully loaded bike is quite enough to test the good nature of many a mariner; the three of us together wouldn’t stand a chance. Lucie and I had plans to take the TMC cargo ferry, rumoured to carry touring cyclists across at 800 pesos a piece (meals included), significantly cheaper than Baja Ferries’ walk-on fee.
After sending a couple of brief messages and updating our location on the map at a downtown internet café, time was getting short to find (free) accommodations for the night. Luckily, we had a lead.
A phone call and a couple of hours later, we found ourselves pitching our tent on a grassy, palm-lined helicopter pad next to Marina Palmira along the Malecon. Our “host”, semi-retired pilot Brian, was referred to us from friends in Long Beach, CA. Brian would have been happy to have us over on short notice but was busy entertaining across town. He stopped by our tent late in the evening to see how we were faring and to give us the keys to the marina’s showers and washrooms.
I walked Lucie over to the marina. The place was downright elegant. It was fashioned completely out of white stone and plaster; luxury condos, a swank cafe and waterfront offices with floor-to-ceiling windows faced the dozens of idle yachts. I was aware I looked a mess: unshaven, sunburnt, dirty and dishevelled. Yet I felt I belonged here, or could at least pretend I did long enough to get clean and regroup. No one would turn us away, simply because we didn’t look like locals, and this was the one place in town where no one was local. Staff outside the buildings greeted us with smiles and friendly waves. I positively swaggered, smiling back broadly, looking exactly like someone who could own a yacht, our appearance explained by the fact that we’d just been at sea for forty days straight breaking some kind of record. If we’d tried to crash a marina in California looking the way we did, the help would have been reaching for their four-pound flashlights.
After seeing Lucie to her destination, I swiped the card and ducked into the men’s bathroom and showers. I put my hands under running water and fell into a kind of trance. A lean, silver-haired fellow with spectacles and a neatly-trimmed beard was washing up next to me and shot me a quick glance in the mirror as I scrubbed my grime-caked hands in the basin.
“Just get in?” he asked, confirming that I had mastered my disguise as a ragged, weary sailor.
“Yes,” I truthfully replied.
“Which dock are you on?”
“I’m not at a dock, exactly… We’re camping next to the… um… helicopter. We’re cyclists…”
“Are you looking for a ride to the Mainland?”
I paused, intrigued by this turn in conversation. A light went on in a back room somewhere inside my unkempt head.
“Well, we certainly wouldn’t turn down any offers.”
He put down his kit bag and leaned against the counter. He gave me a searching look, and in a moment seemed to decide something about me.
“Let me tell you how it works,” he said.
Kurt and I joined Lucie outside and continued talking in the mostly deserted terrace of the marina, where a few late diners were sipping coffee.
After a ten-minute chat, we were versed in the use of VHF radios, the selection process for crews and passengers, the proper dosage of effective seasickness medication and many other pertinent details that would increase our odds of sailing out of La Paz. He also mentioned he knew some people getting ready to “jump” to the mainland. It was the equivalent of learning the secret handshake of an underground order.
Early the next morning, Kurt, our unfailing advocate, introduced us to Elizabeth and David Newsome, farmers from Alberta. They were making last-minute preparations for a three-day sail to “Pee Vee” (Puerto Vallarta). David measured our bikes. He and Elizabeth held a brief consultation. Within a couple of minutes, they agreed to take us across, because, hey, how much trouble can a couple of Canadians on bicycles be? The middle-aged couple seemed warm and unassuming, and we felt extremely lucky to have found them.
We had two hours to get ready. We scrambled to get some extra groceries, wolf down some hot tamales and do a load of laundry. Then we strapped our bikes down inside the dinghy and threw our panniers into the hold. It was the first time either Lucie or I had been on a sailboat in saltwater.
Here is a very brief log of our crossing the Sea of Cortez aboard the sailing vessel Demelza:
Day 1, Saturday: Exit marina in La Paz. Big waves. Lucie pukes. After a short motor (using the propeller instead of sails) we drop anchor by a white sandy beach and snorkle. Torrey gets hypothermic and needs hot chocolate. Lucie scrubs barnacles off the hull (possibly to stay off the boat as long as possible). Crew looking less than promising. We learn that Kurt stopped by the night before and spoke warmly of us as though we were old friends. Whales!
Day 2, Sunday: Working our way down toward the southern end of Baja. Anchor at Los Meurtos. Sea turtle spotted!
Day 3, Monday: Arrive at Los Frailes (end of Baja) and anchor in the dark. Eat our fresh-caught sierra mackerel, very tasty. Dorado fish lost – line breaks with fish alongside the boat just as Dave prepares his death blow with the gaff.
Day 4, Tuesday: Los Frailes. Ham radio nautical weatherman “Doomsayer” Don predicts mass carnage on the Sea of Cortez. We stay put. Snorkeling along coral islands with sea lions, parrot fish, puffers and dozens more. Lucie’s and my food stores are pretty much gone, despite Dave and Elizabeth’s generosity. Even though we’ve been off the bikes for several days, we eat about 3 times as much as our hosts. Hungry all the time, afraid to eat to our fill lest we completely run out of supplies before even starting the crossing.
Day 5, Wednesday: Orders are to lift anchor and head Southeast across the Sea. Before leaving, Lucie concocts a plan to swim the ½ mile to shore to try to find some tortillas (with a life jacket and a drybag, of course). She relays this plan in entirely rational terms to Dave and Elizabeth. A food-sharing plan is roughly sketched out. Lucie and I take 1st and 3rd watch through the night. Finally feel like part of the crew. Flying fish and phosphorescence entertain us all night.
Day 6, Thursday: good wind, big waves. Lucie and I cook a huge pot of rice on a madly swinging gimble stove. Put out the line hoping for some fresh fish. Lucie and Torrey share a quiet watch from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Day 7, Friday: Arrive at Isla Isabel (38 nautical miles from San Blas) with the sun. Wake up to shouts of a fresh catch, another mackerel. Humpback whales blowing and breaching, sometimes two at a time. Bleary-eyed Torrey can hardly take it and makes a very strong pot of coffee. Later, we visit the Island and enjoy close contact with thousands of frigate birds, boobies and various reptiles, who let us come within inches. We get a mackerel as big as my leg from Isabel’s fish camp. We toast with margaritas and eat to our fill. We even have leftovers.
Day 8, Saturday: Pancake breakfast. Plans are made to head to San Blas, a sleepy fishing village. Lucie and Torrey are ready to get back on the bikes. Fish number two obtained from the pros – pacific red snapper. Yum.
Day 9, Sunday: Weather is too rough for us to safely venture out. We stay put one more day and relax on the boat.
Day 10, Monday: Straight six-hour shot to San Blas. We get off the boat and stagger, no longer able to walk straight on terra firma. Lucie and I have completely demolished Demelza’s food stores. David and Elizabeth prove there are no hard feelings by treating us to a nice dinner in the friendly fishing town. Live music in the main square!
Over the last week and a half, the four of us have shared far more than the close quarters of the 32-foot sailboat. When we climbed aboard, Lucie and I had no idea how much more we’d been offered than a simple ride. To live on a boat with others is to enter into their lives, and we’ve come through it richer for the experience. We leave the Newsomes with a bit of a heavy heart, with a sense that we’ve become part of an accomplished crew, and something like a family.
The desert now is well behind us. Just beyond San Blas, lush green mountains loom. Crocodiles slither through mud and mangrove. The heavy steam of living stuff fills the soft warm evening. The tropical chapter of our journey has begun!