Across the Sea of Cortez to Atlata - Pucker Factor Six!

On Friday, November 23, it was finally time to leave El Cardonal Cove and make our way across the Sea of Cortez. We chose to take a "shortcut" to Altata, a small fishing village on the mainland, rather than heading directly to Mazatlan, for several reasons. First, it would shorten our crossing by about 50 nm, although we would still have another day-night leg to Mazatlan following. Secondly, we had read in the Raines Cruising Mexico Book that Altata was an undiscovered gem. We raised anchor at about 6:00 am, so as to arrive in Altata at slack high tide the next day for the bar crossing.

The winds were vigorous as we pulled out of El Cardonal, blowing 15+ knots in the early morning. We chose to not put up our sails until we had rounded the northern point of Les Islotes, a small group of islands at the northern end of El Partida.

Once we put the sails up, at about 8:15 a.m., the going was great. We were on a broad beam reach in 15-20 knots of wind and made 7 knots all day long. The seas were not too rough, and they were on our rear quarter, so the ride wasn't too bad.

As the sun set and the moon rose, the wind continued to build to the low 20's with regular gusts over 25, and the seas began building to 4+ feet. It wasn't scary or anything, but as a precaution, we put in a double reef and started the motor for the night watches. Good thing.

PK had the 9-12, and I had the 3-6 am dog watch. The crew let me have a little extra rest and sent me down at 7:00 or so while they manned the helm. I had set the motor back to 1200 rpms, and about 5 knots of boat speed, so that we would not arrive too early in Altata (after our great sailing earlier at 7+ knots all day). At 9:00 pm I was awakened as the motor increased in rpms and I came onto deck to find that just as PK was taking the watch, we found ourselves on a close course to a freighter ... PK said that he had appeared to be well off, but then seemed to converge ... when he honked his horn and shined a light on the boat, they had decided to high-tail it out of his way, hence the increased rpms. Once we were safely away, I took a few minutes to instruct the crew on the use of the radar's MARPA facility (Mini-Automated-Radar-Plotting and Acquisition), which would have shown them the course of the freighter and also showed them how to turn on the AIS (Automated Information System, which we have been leaving off as it beeps every 10 minutes when it has no contacts). Then I went back to bed.

I woke about 2:00 am. The weather had deteriorated and the mate informed me that there were lightening clouds dead ahead and thought I should know. Sure nuff!

As soon as I shook the sleep off, I changed our course 90 degrees to the south to avoid the lightening, but then changed it again 180 degrees to the north a few minutes later when I realized that the previous change was in the same direction as the clouds were moving. Also, by now the winds had built to steady 25's with occasional 30's, so I took in the rest of the sail and we proceeded under motor alone. The movement of the boat was pretty raucous for her, and PK, who could not have actually been sleeping below as the boat heeled first 30 degrees to one side and then 30 degrees to the other with each passing wave!

I sent the mate below at about 3:20 am for some rest and continued manning the helm thru daybreak. Thank goodness the moon was out or it would have been really scary. I had plotted a course directly from Espiritu Santos to Altata without realizing that, even 15 miles off shore, it took us over some pretty shallow water. As I watched the depth meter read 50, then 40, then 30 feet, and the waves built from 5 to 7 to perhaps 9 feet, I realized I would have to get out of the sitiuation, so I hurridly plotted a new course to some deeper water to get us to Altata. At one point a wave that was 9+ feet (higher than the bimini on the boat) came up behind me and really caused me some concern. And to top it off the winds were now regularly 30 kts, with occasional gusts to 35.

After what seemed an eternity, the sun rose, and I woke the crew up at 6:00 am to explain the situation to them. We could try the bar crossing into Altata (13 ft at low tide after crossing 15 miles of shallow, sure-to-have-waves water), or we could skip Altata, turn out sea, and go on to Mazatlan. We all thought about it quite a bit, looking in books and so on. I even got on the SSB, downloaded a new weather grib file, and we all looked at it. By now it had started to rain pretty hard too. The grib file showed that the unexpected storm would increase thru the morning and would head south, so if we proceeded to Mazatalan, we'd probably be in it all day (and perhaps night). So we all decided to try the bar crossing rather than risk another 24 hours of the storm.

Finally, at 8:30 am, we made out the entrance to the bar, and got a little guidance from a pilot boat that was leading a barge out of the channel, who pointed us in the right direction. We powered thru the bar at 9:30 am, timed just right on the slack high tide, and even so there were waves literally breaking on both sides of us. Then we suddenly we found ourselves in the calm waters of Bahia Altata, motoring along at 5 knots with dozens of Panga fishermen in their boats working around us. One even pointed us to the correct place in the channel where the water was a little deeper (20-30 feet as opposed to 10-12) and we proceeded to town.

Crossing Sea of Cortez and Images of Altata

It was another 10 miles or so (2 hours) until we dropped anchor off of the La Perla Restaurant at 11:45 am after making 171 nm in 29 hours from El Cardonal. We all had shots of whiskey (yes, even at 11:45 am!), beers, and whipped up some sandwiches. That was when PK mentioned that he thought the night warranted a six on the pucker scale! After our snacks and drinks, we all then immediatly crashed for 5 hours until nearly sunset!

That night, we had a nice spaghetti dinner and guess what? After we ate we all crashed again. PK said he slept like a rock when we awoke at 7:00 am on Sunday. I spent the day doing boat chores and writing web pages while the crew took a panga into shore for provisions and lunch at La Perla. As I'm writing this it's 4:30 p.m. on Sunday and we're planning on going into town for one more dinner before we depart tomorrow morning for Mazatlan.

In spite of the scary tale, Altata and La Perlas are definite places that cruisers should visit. They are building a private marina, and the place is as-yet-unspoiled relatively speaking, and from what we hear, the bar crossing is not bad in the normally somewhat calm waters. To whit, you may want to click here to see the informal Notice To Mariners that I put together to help you with getting into the bay.

If you ever do get here, say "hi" to Gustavo from Pat!