Magic Log #2: San Carlos

Lisa and I married on September 7, 2014, in Boise. A few days after the wedding we drove down to Phoenix to pick up some gear we were storing at my mom’s house, and then down to Guaymas to get back to Magic. We had visions of a months-long tropical honeymoon on the boat: relaxing, doing sports, having fun. This plan went seriously awry, incredibly quickly.

I worried about Magic all summer. Due to a lack of options and plans falling through (see log #1) we left her in the water at a marina with poor protection from any weather that might roll in to Guaymas. Back in May the hurricane season started setting records for the size and number of huge storms being generated, a pattern which continued through much of the summer. None of these came close to Guaymas, thankfully. However, the historical pattern in the east Pacific is that early season storms go out to sea, while late season storms get closer and closer to Baja, as waters in the Sea of Cortez heat up.

We arrived in Guaymas to find the boat in good shape, with a couple rub marks from a bad job tying up to the dock and a shredded tarp (plastic tarps don’t belong anywhere near a boat!), but little other damage. We started moving new toys aboard — a dive compressor, several surfboards, more solar panels — and getting things ready for cruising. The weather was incredibly hot during the days, and we were motivated to get going.

Then we started paying attention to Odile. At that point a tropical storm, Odile was originally forecast to head out to sea, but the forecast track started sliding closer and closer to Baja. When it eventually made landfall near Los Cabos on September 15, it was one of the most powerful and most devastating storms to ever do so. Los Cabos suffered a huge amount of damage, and while La Paz was not as badly affected, several cruisers who stayed on their boats in the La Paz harbor died.

At that point though, we were at our wit’s end. It’s one thing to look at the power of a storm in retrospect, and quite another to contemplate it as it bears down on you. When the storm made landfall we were 350 miles further north and were away from the forecast track, but there was no guarantee that track wouldn’t change again. We spent all day beforehand reading about hurricanes and forecasting, thinking about contingency plans, and fighting. I had more faith in the NOAA forecast than Lisa, little fear of the hurricane, and wanted to be in a place where I could help protect the boat. This is, after all, what I had worried about all summer. Lisa did not want to be anywhere near the hurricane. We talked about her going north alone, but she could not bear the thought of leaving me in Guaymas as the storm approached. Ultimately, we secured the boat, tied it in the middle of the two slips it was occupying, and drove together to Phoenix the day after the storm hit Los Cabos.

Looking at this in retrospect, I see it mainly as a reflection of my inexperience with being in a relationship. Several other times I’ve proposed us temporarily splitting up as a way to deal with our different approaches to risk, and in each case we’ve found a way to reconcile that difference instead. Ultimately I need to recognize that everything I do affects Lisa as well, even if I do it solo, and I need to accept the hit to my sense of freedom that comes from caring about my partner. I love Lisa more than anything in the world, and Magic is in the end a floating piece of plastic, wood, and metal.

After a week or so in Phoenix, we took a bus back south to the boat. This wasn’t without trepidation: Odile had passed by, but the hurricane season wasn’t over yet, and it was so hot in Guaymas it was hard to get through the days in comfort. We decided we were going to get the boat out of Guaymas as quickly as we could and find a place where we could go swimming and have some fun. If another hurricane threatened, we would store the boat again and return to the US.

And so, the next day we motored out of Guaymas with the boat still only put half together, and made our way to San Carlos, 20 miles to the west. We anchored in Caleta Lalo, a couple miles west of town, and immediately jumped in the water. Swimming was incredibly refreshing. The water was wonderfully warm and immediately cooled me off, and my worries just seemed to melt away.

San Carlos is a popular diving destination for folks from Arizona, and we were eager to use our new compressor. I hadn’t been diving for over two years, and it had been several years longer than that for Lisa. Having done so much of this in the past though I got back in the swing of things quickly, and did a solo dive on a reef near the boat to check out conditions and get used to my new equipment. This went great, and the dive was nice. Several moray eels, lots of stingrays, an octopus in the open.

The next day I did a short dive with Lisa under the boat so she could reacquaint with the sport, then we dinghied back to the same reef and finished our tanks. Lisa did great, and we had a lot of fun poking around and looking at fish.

The next day started out nice. I did a solo dive at a spot further off while Lisa relaxed, came back, and we contemplated doing a second dive in the afternoon. The day had started off clear, then some clouds started moving in. A south wind started blowing, light at first, then stronger and stronger. Then it started raining, light at first, then harder and harder. Within a couple hours the winds built to, I would guess, 40 knots or so (our anemometer was broken at the time), several foot seas and a driving rain that was painful to be out in.

This is the worst weather I have ever seen, and we were totally unprepared for it. The forecast was for fairly calm conditions, and we hadn’t seen any weather at all previously in Caleta Lalo, a cove that is well protected from every direction but the south. We were positioned so that the wind and huge waves were trying to drive us into the rocky shore a few hundred feet away. At the height of things I went on deck and added more scope. Our anchor held, though I hate to think about what would have happened if it hadn’t.

At least the squall passed quickly. After an hour or so of the worst winds they started to tail off, and a few hours later conditions were pretty mild except for the remaining waves.

We went to bed, and the next morning moved the boat a mile north into Bahia Algodones, where we were protected from the south. Lisa wanted to move the boat into Marina Real, which we were just outside of. I wanted to stay out in the anchorage, as I thought our new position would leave us in a safe place should another squall arrive. This precipitated another fight, after which I about completely shut down. I could hardly speak, could hardly think, and did some horrible things I can in no way justify. I felt worse than I ever have in my life.

I’ll get to this in a later post, but several months later in San Blas I had a similar — though not as extreme — episode. Talking to Lisa some time after that, she thought I had been showing some signs of PTSD, and looking at wikipedia (yeah, yeah) I definitely could have had a low grade stress disorder. I felt disassociated from Lisa and even from myself. Both times the episode came on during calm conditions the day after a severe weather event; I can’t say this won’t ever happen again to me, but I’m hoping that just being aware of what is happening to me will help me cope.

At the time, we didn’t know about this. In the moment, it eventually became clear to me that I wasn’t fit to run the boat. Boats need a captain, someone with the final word on where the boat goes and how things are done. I had been the captain since buying Magic, and in Algodones gave this responsibility to Lisa. This is I think the best decision I’ve made about Magic. I trust Lisa’s judgement and decision making more than my own, especially when we combine that with my own experience and consideration of the conditions and weather forecast. This change also defused a lot of tension on the boat, and made Lisa a lot more comfortable with going to sea.

And so we went to the marina, and spent several days there. These were pretty relaxing, and I spent a lot of time propped on a beanbag chair in front of a giant fan, working on my laptop. Each day we would leave the marina in our dinghy to go diving or snorkeling. Nearby Punta San Antonio had good diving, with a series of small, shallow walls, a fair amount of fish, several octopus and many eels.

In the marina we started trying to understand the squall that had hit us. Our guidebook talked of Chubascos, squalls that can strike in the Sea of Cortez during the summer. Some web research led us to the WunderMap, a resource on wunderground.com, and maps from NOAA weather satellites (the two might be based on the same data, it’s hard for me to tell) that show current and historical cloud intensity information. The day of the squall, a large mass of angry clouds that formed near Puerto Vallarta moved up the mainland, and headed right over San Carlos. If we’d had some advance warning we would have been able to react well before we were hit.

I’m still thinking through the best way to make use of this data, especially in regards to our trip to the South Pacific next year. Some parts of that region are squally during the times we’ll be visiting, and I’d like to be able to get these maps, or a facsimile, when we are out of cell range and are sipping from the internet at a few hundred baud through a satellite connection.

Anyways, armed with some knowledge and a website to visit to check for storm activity, we left the marina. We were both getting a little bored, and wanted to see more of the area. However, we wanted to stay close to the marina in case of either squall or hurricane, and went to the other end of Bahia Algodones, less than a mile and a half away. This is now one of our favorite anchorages in Mexico. There are a lot of activities on offer here, at a relaxed, well protected spot.

Isla Venados, which forms the outer edge of Bahia Algodones, had several great dive spots, with varied structure, which we visited most days. Octopus, crabs, some nudibranchs, all sorts of interesting critters. Some large schools of fish. Visibility was hit or miss, but we had one day with 60′ or so.

Further inside was some good snorkeling, and I went spearfishing several days. Other times we would go in and eat at the Soggy Peso, a friendly and relaxed beach bar, or go jogging along the road leading to the bar. It can be pretty hard at times to get regular exercise on the boat, and we’re still figuring out the best way to do this at various types of anchorages.

We were usually the only sailboat in the anchorage, though folks would regularly buzz around in powerboats and jet skis. One was a character. George came up to us one evening, very drunk, asking for gas. I said sure, then we spent several minutes tossing lines around and trying to get him rafted up. At one point, he backed into us hard in reverse, scratching our paint. After getting some gas, he left. This was a good lesson about needing to be very careful about people rafting up. This was the second lesson, actually. Earlier in the year, while we are at Espiritu Santo on Grand Illusion, we went on another sailboat to snorkel with sea lions. On return, it was windy and they crashed into Grand Illusion, destroying a lifeline stanchion. At least neither incident did any real damage, and after the second we named our barely functioning stereo after George.

The last activity we got into at Algodones was kiteboarding. Inside Isla Venados is a narrow, shallow channel that concentrates the northwest sea breeze, creating a small but flat and pretty consistent area for kiting. I hadn’t done this since 2012 but wanted to get back into it, so paddled over to the beach with my stuff. I was pretty apprehensive about flying the kite again, but it was like riding a bike and I immediately got up and going. Not very well, mind, and I was underpowered and wasn’t able to stay upwind, eventually finding myself on the beach near the marina we had stayed at earlier. The walk back to the kayak was long, hot, and complicated, but it felt great to be out kiting again.

I went out kiting a few more times and started getting the hang of things again. Lisa had always been interested in this sport but had never done it. Lessons are really important for kiting safely, but she had some experience flying stunt kites so we went to a quiet section of the beach one day and she flew the smallest kite we had while it was attached to me, to get a feel for it. This went fine, until one time the kite flew from the water and over my head, crashing on the beach just a few feet from a guy walking along. We hadn’t noticed him (he was the only person who came by the entire time we were there), but at least there was no harm done, and we decided Lisa needed to take some real lessons before continuing with the sport.

After a week at the anchorage we had settled into a nice groove. Then, yet again, a hurricane threatened. After Odile, Polo and Rachel had gone well offshore, but the next storm, Simon, looked like it might cross the upper Baja peninsula and head towards San Carlos. It seemed unlikely we would see much wind, but the possibility existed, and rather than continue to deal with the stress of following the hurricanes we decided to take the boat back to the marina and return to the US until hurricane season ended. This would have already happened in most years, but it had been such a big year for hurricanes and they just didn’t seem to want to stop coming. In early October, we took a taxi to Guaymas, then got on the bus north to Phoenix.

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