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Exploring the Sea of Cortez in a 51-foot sloop

December 3, 2018. Los Islotes Island, Baja California.  We are anchored at the sea lion rookery of Los Islotes, 820 kilometers northwest of Guadadalaja. I am a guest of my neighbor in Zapopan, Richard Gresham, aboard his 51-foot sloop, the good ship “God’s Way.”

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We set out from La Paz for this point early this morning, passing Steven Spielberg’s huge yacht “Seven Seas” along the way. The other two crew members are geologist Chris Lloyd and tarantula expert Rodrigo Orozco.

At the moment, I am the only crew member on board, as the other three are 29 meters away hobnobbing with a bunch of very curious sea lion pups they found in a tiny inlet a hopefully safe distance away from the enormous males sprawled over nearby rocks and creating a great stir with their loud, raucous calls.

“The babies kept nibbling at my fins … they nibble at everything, just to see what it is,” Rodrigo told me later. “They seemed to be having a lot of fun.”

Jacques Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez “the world’s aquarium,” and no wonder. Over just a few hours my compañeros have spotted parrotfish, butterflyfish, triggerfish, billfish, surgeonfish, groupers, mackerel and sardines. As for birds, we have seen pelicans, cormorants, boobies, sandpipers, American dippers, great blue herons, ravens and, of course, seagulls.

Yes, there are wonderful things to see in the Sea of Cortez, but seeing them from a sailboat is not quite like seeing them from a cruiser. Now that I have my sea legs, I am beginning to realize there are two phases to boating. Phase One is getting to where you are going and Phase Two is being there.

pg9bI wish there were some way to eliminate Phase One. This typically starts out with the captain extolling the virtues of some island. “La Partida is a great place to anchor: nice and quiet and it’s actually the remains of the crater of a big, extinct volcano with a high, sloping wall that blocks the wind. You’ll enjoy walking along the shore: it’s just teeming with marine life.”

“How far away is it?” I ask.

“Just 21 nautical miles,” says Captain Gresham with a big grin. “We can be there in four hours.”

All of this is merely the prelude to Phase One. Now the engine is turned on, the captain takes the wheel and immediately the boat begins to crash over the waves: Bang! Bang! Bang! Everything inside the cockpit begins first to swing, then to rise and fall. Anything that wasn’t properly stored then slides off whatever surface it was on and crashes to the floor, rolling, bouncing, shattering or splashing in every direction.

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Bang! Bang! Bang! As the spray washes over the deck, every window in the boat begins to leak, including the one above my bed.

“Captain! The windows are leaking!”

Comes a reply, barely audible over the commotion of a ship underway: “John, in a boat, everything leaks. Better get used to it.”

With the ship in motion, we crew members now have a choice: stay in the cockpit and get seasick or go on deck and get blasted by icy spray that hits you every time the boat crashes into a wave. Well, on the deck it’s windy, wet and cold, guaranteeing that if you are up there during Phase One you won’t be passing those four hours reading or writing, so I opt for the cockpit and, fortunately, my stomach quickly learns how to adjust to the wild thrashing of the boat.

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At long last, the torture is over. The engine is shut off and there is a sudden hush as we glide into the remains of the old crater. Your body is still braced for the next bang – but it doesn’t come. Phase One is over. We have arrived.

When I signed up for this adventure, I somehow imagined Phase Two taking place at a dock where we would hop off the boat, walk along a pier and then stroll over to that place “teeming with marine life.”

I guess that must be the way they do it on a cruiser, but what’s this I see? The rest of the crew are putting on wetsuits (wetsuits?) and the captain is unlashing two red “kayaks,” molded plastic lozenges that resemble popsicle sticks more than boats.

“Hey, wait a minute! You mean I have to go to shore balanced on that red popsicle stick?

“Yes, John, you’re going to get wet.”

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“No I’m not. I think we need somebody to guard the boat while you three plunge into the bone-chilling water.”

“God’s Way,” my floating home for a week is owned by “semi-retired” mining engineer Richard Gresham, who says he’s always dreamed of sailing and bought his boat from a very religious man living in the Bible Belt: “He was no good at repairing anything, so I was able to buy the boat for a song because it was in a terrible state. But then it cost me a fortune to get it to where it is today. I intended to sail it through the Panama Canal, up through the Caribbean and on to Boston … but projects got in the way and, in the meantime, I fell in love with the Sea of Cortez, which I have toured eight times so far and which I expect to tour several times more, as there is so much to see in this wonderful sea … life is good!”

There is more to this story. See the Reporter for the next installment, as we bang our way over the bounding main to explore more of Baja California.

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