Magic Log #3: San Carlos to La Paz

After a couple weeks in the US (mostly spent mountain biking and canyoning in Arizona and Utah) hurricane season seemed to be winding down and Lisa and I headed back south to Magic on October 19. In short order we left the marina the boat had been stored at, returned to the nearby anchorage we had been using in Bahia Algodones, and settled back into our routine.

Temperatures had moderated while we were gone and it was now comfortable sleeping belowdecks. Unfortunately, the water visibility had decreased a lot and was only 20′ or so in most spots. Diving was still good, though, and we did a few around nearby Isla Venados.

Four or five days after we arrived my mom and her husband, Tim, drove south to see us. We had been doing some canyoning with them in Zion before coming down to the boat, and they wanted to visit for a week and do some diving. Overall their visit went really well, but there is a definite learning curve to the whole boat-visitors-arriving-in-a-foreign-country thing. I’d been planning on picking them up at Marina Real, where we had left the boat while we were in the US, and gave them instructions there. On the day of their arrival it looked like there was going to be a strong sea breeze building which could make this dramatic, so we moved the boat to the other anchorage we had used in the area, Caleta Lalo, which was protected from the sea breeze. I wasn’t able to communicate the change in plans very well over the phone, so when they arrived at the marina well after dark I tried to take the dinghy a mile and a half around nearby Punta San Antonio to get to them. This did not work out very well, as the sea breeze had built after all and dinghying into a sizable wind swell at night with no moon is no fun. After getting a quarter of the way there I aborted and returned to Magic. From here I needed to get to my mom’s car so I could guide them to our new location. Rather than walk 2 miles on roads to get to the marina I tried going cross country, and after some thorny desert bushwhacking, friendly flashlight-armed guard encountering, wall scaling, and being-escorted-off-the-premises-ing I finally made it to them. We drove to the beach in Caleta Lalo and after a few dinghy trips had everyone and their stuff aboard the boat, then I drove the car back to the marina to store it and jogged back to Caleta Lalo on the roads. Phew.

Over the next few days we did some diving at the spots we were familiar with around Caleta Lalo and Bahia Algodones. This was nice, but we had our sights set on a new spot. 17 miles west of San Carlos is Isla San Pedro, the main destination for the town’s dive boats. Lisa and I had been interested in this island since we got to San Carlos, and having more people along seemed like it would be more fun and make things go more smoothly. We didn’t know anything about anchoring there and would be figuring it out as we went. Early in the morning on October 25 we left Bahia Algodones for a bouncy motor to the island.

When we arrived we saw cliffs along most of the island. There was one small beach near the southeast tip with some promise for anchoring; we headed over and found it dropping off steeply but were still able to anchor in 50′ of water. I jumped in with a tank and found about 80′ of visibility. I headed down the anchor chain and wrapped it around a boulder to make sure we wouldn’t drift if the wind came up.

The beach was covered with about 50 sea lions. They didn’t seem to care about us and went about their business barking at each other. We were interested in diving with them though, and not long after arriving I went in with my mom and Tim and we swam off towards the wall on the south side of the beach, away from the beach itself, and descended. After a few minutes some sea lions came over and started to play with my mom and Tim. Well, that’s what it looked like to me anyways; they thought the sea lions were being aggressive, and Tim started fending them off with his flashlight. Sometimes it’s hard to read the sea lions’ intents, and I’ve never had a problem diving with them in Mexico, California or BC, but after a few more minutes we aborted and returned to Magic.

We thought we might have been encroaching a little too closely on their beach, and later in the afternoon I went out in the dinghy with my mom and Tim to look for a dive spot further away. We went to the south tip of the island, at a spot we had seen a dive boat at earlier, and which would become our mainstay dive site at the island. This spot had much better topography, with some nice walls and a big cave, and while we had sea lions come along for much of the dive, they were friendlier than at the other spot.

Lisa was concerned about the sea lions and wanted to make sure we found a spot where they wouldn’t be a problem, so she didn’t come along on this first dive. And besides, we only have three tanks on the boat, so we couldn’t all dive at once. After our good time on the first dive, the next day we did two dives with Lisa coming on both. Great diving, with some sea lions, a large variety of fish, an octopus.

We spent three nights at Isla San Pedro, doing seven dives. I went on every dive as the ‘guide’, with Lisa, my mom, and Tim alternating as the the other two. As the days went by visibility steadily decreased, to 30-40′ on the last day. On the second to last day, while I was diving with Lisa and Tim, Lisa didn’t like some sea lions which kept swooping in from the darker water, and we turned around and surfaced early.

To cool off we went kayaking, visiting some sea caves both north and south of our anchorage and watching all the birds and sea lions on the rocks and cliffs. This was a lot of fun, and we went even further out the next day.

Despite her worries about the sea lions, Lisa wanted to dive again, so the next morning we went when there was more light and stayed at shallower depths. This was our last dive at San Pedro, and several sea lions came by which were playful and fun to swim with.

After the dive I was hoping the sea breeze would pick up and we could sail back to San Carlos, but it didn’t and we had a relaxing motor in a dead calm. The day after returning, my mom and Tim drove back to the US, and we were back to our usual routine. We started diving again but found that conditions had gotten worse: the poor visibility we had here previously was due to a plankton bloom, which was in turn causing a bloom of stinging jellyfish. After finishing a dive they would get all over the anchor rode, and if I went out spearfishing they were unbearable in the surface waters.

We pretty much stopped going in the water and started looking for other things to do. One activity we had really wanted to do was go on a nighttime insect safari. When I did the jog to the boat back when our visitors arrived, I came across a walking stick right next to the road and got some crappy photos of it with my phone. Lisa had never seen one, so we went back to Caleta Lalo and went ashore an hour after sunset to wander around in the brush. This was a surprising amount of fun, and there were a lot of insects: spiders, katydids, and so forth. Eventually I found the fabled walking stick, and went back to the boat to get a real camera while Lisa communed with it.

The jellyfish were even worse in Caleta Lalo than they had been at Algodones, so we returned to the Algodones anchorage. We would go ashore to jog and to eat at the Soggy Peso, and I did some more kiteboarding. Very relaxing, and lots of fun.

We started itching to move along, though. The hurricane season seemed to have ended and we felt safe heading further south in the sea. I was hoping to sail, and one evening we left and found pretty rough conditions outside the bay. The autopilot stopped working, and faced with a sleepless night hand steering the boat through chop we quickly turned around and returned to the anchorage. We tried again the next afternoon, when there was a nice but too strong breeze.

We had trouble from the start. The starboard engine wasn’t making water (the engine’s main cooling comes from seawater which is pumped through a heat exchanger and then overboard) and we could only run it a few minutes at a time. We decided to press on anyways since conditions were so nice. Then the autopilot stopped working again. We figured out it was shutting down when battery voltage got too low, so several times in the night we would run the engine for a few minutes to charge the batteries a bit.

Ideally we wouldn’t have to resort to this. The boat has two engines which are almost totally redundant. The port engine wouldn’t start, though, and hadn’t since our San Pedro trip. When Tim was here he played around with it and found that jumping the starter’s solenoid with a screwdriver would start the engine, but recommended against doing this and I forgot to see how he was doing it anyways, and didn’t want to figure this out while we were sailing along at night. We also have a generator, but I couldn’t find the adapter needed to plug it into our battery charger. Poor preparation, I guess.

Anyways, other than the engine drama we had a very nice crossing and sped across the sea, arriving in Loreto bay the next morning. At this point the wind died and we were just kind of bobbing there for a bit. I hopped into the water to see if the starboard engine’s problems were due to the raw water intake being blocked — no luck — and then figured out how to jump the port engine. We motored a few miles east to Puerto Ballandra, to the northwest on Isla Carmen, and anchored.

This was a wonderful anchorage. A small, remote cove with good internet access and great scenery. We anchored in the north lobe of the cove and relaxed from the crossing. Some time later we took the dinghy out to dive at the point marking the southern end of the cove. This was a treat after our recent time in Algodones, with a good 60′ of visibility, no jellyfish, warmer water, and a huge and varied population of fish.

We stayed at Ballandra for a few days, diving at this spot again and at one a couple miles north. I went spearfishing twice; during the second session I shot a couple fish and was done in 5 minutes, as I’d anchored the kayak in a small group of baitfish and the nearby predators were kind of stupid with hunger. We also went hiking on shore, having fun seeing all the life in the area.

We were getting pretty comfortable with the south point dive site, and decided to try a night dive there. I’ve done night dives plenty of times in the past, but Lisa never had, and we wanted to take it easy. The night beforehand, we went to the spot and snorkeled, seeing plenty of cool stuff. With all this preparation, the night dive itself went off smoothly; we stuck to shallow depths and made our way along, poking around. Lots of sea cucumbers and sea hares were out (which we never see during the day), along with many fish lazily swimming in place, several free swimming morays and lobsters.

Before we could leave Ballandra, I had to get the engines working again. I checked the raw water impeller on the starboard engine (which pumps seawater through the heat exchanger) and found it was shredded. I replaced it, picked out some impeller fragments I found downstream of it, then tried the engine again. It seemed to be making water now, so we left the anchorage. As I was watching the raw water flow as we left, it was clear it was still very deficient and the engine was overheating. We turned around and went right back to where we had been anchored. This was pretty deflating; I took the raw water circuit apart again and found another pile of impeller fragments. After removing these we left the anchorage again, and again not long after leaving the engine started overheating. At this point we were determined, though, and switched over to the port engine. I took apart the raw water circuit a third time and found yet more impeller fragments. After removing these, the flow in the starboard engine was finally in good shape and we were able to use it.

We went 20 miles south to Bahia Candeleros, an anchorage we had checked out briefly on the way north back in the spring. We stayed here a few days this time, as we found better internet and could work, and now that we had a compressor we could dive at the nearby Candeleros islets, a well known dive site in this part of the sea. The walls of these islets drop away quickly underwater, which is different from other islands we have seen in the sea, which generally hit sand at 30′ to 40′. We did two dives at the Candeleros, getting down to 60′ or 70′. Deeper isn’t better in diving, but the different nature of these sites was refreshing, especially with some beautiful gardens of soft coral we found in the deeper parts.

After our second dive at the Candeleros we left for a long overnight motor to Isla Partida, 85 miles away, which went smoothly. As we left we started seeing dozens, then thousands of butterflies flying across the water, miles from shore. We had seen some of these while diving at the Candeleros; sometimes they would lay flat on the water, resting, then just take off like nothing had happened. They got all over the boat and would sit in one spot for hours, exhausted from whatever migration they were on.

We were getting close to La Paz and it felt good to be back in familiar waters. We anchored in El Embudo, a small and narrow anchorage near the island’s north end, and went diving at Los Islotes, the sea lion colony a mile away which we’ve been to several times before. I did two long rebreather dives here on a liveaboard trip back in 2008 — the first time I ever went to La Paz — which were great, and I was pretty eager to dive here again.

We anchored the dinghy on the north side of the islets, and during the dive had great visibility and saw a fair number of fish, sea lions and so forth as we swam around a big jumble of boulders. It was nice, though there are some other sections with better topography and corals. After getting back to the boat I went spearfishing and took a dog snapper, one of the largest fish I’ve shot yet. Delicious meat.

We stayed the night, but the next morning found waves from Corumuel winds (a southwest wind frequently seen near La Paz) entering the anchorage and making us uncomfortable about the nearby rocks. We left the anchorage and motor sailed a few miles south to Ensenada Grande, where we found a more open beach to anchor off of. It was still wavy, but such conditions are far more comfortable in a catamaran like Magic than a monohull like Grand Illusion. In the afternoon the wind died and we went diving at Rocas Tintorera, a nearby spot. This was a great dive, with better fish and corals than at Los Islotes, several different species of morays and lots of macro life.

The next morning we went hiking on a trail at the south end of the anchorage. We did this trail back in the winter and wanted to see it again; it goes up an interesting drainage and crosses the island to some nice viewpoints.

In the afternoon we motored south to Bahia San Gabriel, another anchorage which we had been to before on Grand Illusion. We’d snorkeled here several times in the past, and wanted to see how the diving was. Alas, the spot we went to, at the north end of the bay, never got very deep and diving didn’t add a whole lot to the experience compared to snorkeling.

After a couple days we left the anchorage and arrived in La Paz, at last. We had several days here before we would be flying back to the US; we would be north for about a month and needed to arrange storage for the boat while we were gone, but otherwise had time to enjoy the city. I took Lisa in most mornings so she could go to an exercise class with her friends, and we did some jogging. I found some time to finally debug the port engine, and found that a bad electrical connection was keeping the engine from starting. After replacing this with a new wire run the engine started and ran fine.

I also found time for some new engine drama. When we’re in La Paz we stay in the main anchorage in front of town, which is a nice spot and close to the main attractions and all our friends. We would be storing the boat at Marina Fonatur, four miles west of here, which is more isolated but had space for us. The morning after we got in I motored to Fonatur in our dinghy to pay for the slip and so forth. Half way back to Magic the motor flew off the back of the dinghy and into the water. It was tethered to the dinghy so didn’t sink, and I got it back aboard and mounted it. It wouldn’t start, not surprisingly. We had two beat up oars on the dinghy but no oarlocks, and I tried to jerry rig an attachment so I could use them. This went poorly; I was able to paddle a little bit but mostly got carried back towards Magic on the tidal current. I sent Lisa an email to let her know I’d be running late, and she found someone to come and pick me up in his dinghy. We went back to the marina where Lisa had been waiting for me, then I found out she had gotten a separate ride back to Magic, then — still refusing to ask anyone for help myself — I paddled the dinghy back out towards Magic. I was about halfway there when a ferry driver came by and insisted on giving me a tow before I got swept out towards the entrance of the bay. I don’t know if this actually would have happened, but I was getting pretty tired and frustrated and gladly accepted the ride.

Now back at Magic, I had a drowned outboard to deal with. I’d hardly as much as taken the cowling off an outboard before, and after doing some research found I needed to remove and clean the carburetor, remove the spark plug and drain and then add oil to the cylinders. This all went pretty quickly though, then I got the outboard back on the dinghy and it started up after a few pulls. No problems since then with the outboard, thankfully. It’s good to know how to do this, I guess, but also a good lesson about the risks of deferred maintenance. I’d known the screws which attach the outboard to the dinghy needed lubrication, and weren’t as secure as they could have been.

The rest of our time in La Paz went pretty uneventfully, and on November 25 we took a shuttle to Los Cabos and flew to Phoenix.

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