Monday, October 13, 2008

Update on the Voyage of the Manatee Sol Part 1: Ventura to Cabo San Lucas

With the disruption of relocating twice since summer, I’ve found that the Muse hasn’t visited as often as before, but I have unearthed a piece of crumpled arcana which is worth sharing.

A couple of years ago our friend Steve, a young aspiring botanist, (who we’ve met in the piece “King Neptune Slaps Steve Upside the Head,” August 2008) sailed with his father down the Pacific coast of Mexico (part of Dad’s “mid-life crisis,” one suspects), and sent back two separate notes detailing his adventures–encounters with pods of whales, venturing ashore at remote fishing villages, and fighting the unusually powerful storms that made sailing along the Baja coast so formidable that year.

The climax of that voyage was a heroic crossing of the Sea of Cortez during a gale, when Steve, like a young Ulysses, single-handed the Manatee Sol for twenty-four hours, as his dad lay disabled in the bilges, a victim of a combination of mal de mere and South-of-the-Border cuisine.

With any luck the crumpled scrap detailing Part II may also soon be discovered. In the meantime I hope Steve will forgive me for reworking his missive slightly, touching up spelling and grammar, correcting a few nautical terms, and eliminating most of his thoroughly obnoxious Spanishisms.

Well, we have now completed the first thousand miles of our journey, and I am writing this from beautiful, tranquil Bahia de Magdalena, about 150 miles north of Cabo San Lucas, at the end of Baja California. We are anchored off of Puerto Magdalena, a small fishing village, whose population is either 295 or 300 (I've seen both on signs). Looking out a porthole, I see a glassy calm bay, its surface interrupted only by an occasional pelican or sea gull. Toward the north is an endless series of uninhabited sand dunes, a perfect place to search for shells or for some discrete sun-worshiping. Just to the west of the dunes are the first mangroves I have seen since leaving Florida, predominately white mangroves with a few blacks scattered in. Many of the coastal plants that border them are the same as we have in Florida, a couple of common coastal grasses, some saltworts, Batis maritima, and sea purslane. The only major differences are the scattered chollo cactus and a prolific aster with Flaveria-looking flowers.
The mountains start just past the dunes, rising up with their desert scrub to form the thin barrier between us and the Pacific. The indigenous spiny Magdalena mouse and black-footed jackrabbit descend on occasion into the dunes, as evidenced by their tracks, visible between the clumps of vegetation. The bay almost looks like an ocean itself. One enters through a narrow mile-wide entrance with thousands upon thousands of sea birds, and then the bay spreads open like an inland sea.
It was first visited by the Spanish in the 1500's, and the small town we are anchored near was founded about 1709 by a Catholic missionary intent on establishing a refuge for fishermen off the coast of Baja.
Whale bones and skulls, boiling tanks, and other relics of the whaling industry still litter the coast. We saw a pair of whale ribs set up in front of the only restaurant in that little town that each measured at least fifteen feet.
The voyage has been grueling so far, no doubt about it. We’ve had few days where the wind didn’t get up to thirty knots. There have been several days with constant twenty to thirty-five knot winds all day. At times we had those conditions for days on end. If sailing during the day has been tough, the nights at sea were correspondingly tougher with the rocking of the boat in the darkness, all of which made reaching safe harbor at last that much more a welcome event. One particularly interesting stop was Bahia de San Quentin. The night before we arrived, we went through a series of squalls, blowing rain and cold sea spray in our faces as we bounced in the twenty five-knot winds. After a truly exhausting night, when we reached the harbor, both of us slept for almost twenty hours.
The next day, we noticed several whales passing by us on their way up into a sheltered lagoon. We were surprised, since the water there was so shallow. Later, when we tried to go into town for food in the dinghy, we were even more amazed. The lagoon was crowded with gray whales; we didn't realize it until we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a pod. One surfaced off our port side, only about thirty feet away. Its back was eight or nine feet wide, about as wide as our dinghy was long. Their breath thickened the air all around us, and we steered out of them as quickly as possible.
Their company continued for almost our whole trip, sometimes surfacing through flocks of a type of drifting sea bird, a beautiful tern-like bird we were never able to identify. Sea lions along the coast barked encouragement. As we looked back, the whales’ breath was like a fog above the water. Although we never did reach the restaurant (possibly just as well), the trip was worth it just for this remarkable encounter with nature.

The lagoon has five extinct volcanoes that rise to the north of it, remnants of ancient peaks, which now resemble well-worn hills. It had been unseasonably cold and the inland mountains were wreathed in snow that day. I'm glad to say it has finally warmed up a bit.
The next day, when we left, the sailing was better, at least at first. A couple of hours into the sail, I saw a whale breaching over toward the shore. What an incredible sight, a huge mammal rising up out of the blue and foam to suspend itself momentarily above its aquatic world, almost as if it was saluting the sun. I've heard that they do it to rid themselves of parasites or as an aid somehow to their navigation. But I think they do it just for fun, just because they can.
The feeling of seeing them is such a pure joy. It’s hard to imagine it being otherwise.
Being conscious of the occasional damage they do, unwittingly I suppose, to the unlucky sailboat, I steered offshore to try to stay out their way.
That may have been stupid, but it seemed to make sense at the time. As I headed out, I realized that there were hundreds of them around us, making their way back north. They had the most disconcerting habit of appearing right under the side of the boat or in front of the boat, and I saw at least one pass right below us. Never could get any pictures of them though-- they would just disappear by the time I got my camera out.
As I finish writing this, we have finally arrived in Cabo San Lucas, and we’re enjoying being on land. It's a stark contrast from the rest of the Baja California, which is sparsely inhabited and mostly a windswept desert with Sonoran cactus standing guard over the coast. Down here is the land of yachts and fancy people from California getting their tan on. It'll be nice to get down to the mainland where things are a little more authentic. People everywhere have an interesting story to tell though, especially when you bother to listen, although the Spanish helps, I must admit.

Bueno, amigos, espero que todo esta bien con todos ustedes, y que mi mensaje lIegue a encontrar todos feliz y con bueno salud. iHablaremos pronto!

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