Cabin fever hit us all hard this year, thanks to COVID-19. Since I travel about 50 percent of the time, I was really going stir crazy by summer. Finally, I gave in, put on a couple of masks, doused myself in sanitizer and booked a flight to Cabo, Mexico (perhaps the riskiest part of the whole trip). One of my favorite land destinations, Mexico has great sailing and best of all, the Dream Yacht Charter (DYC) base in La Paz was open! (Please check the current travel restrictions, your state's COVID-19 boating rules and CDC guidelines before traveling or booking any trips.) This would be the socially-distant boating get away I'd been dreaming of.
Boating In The Sea Of Cortez: Getting There
My crew and I booked a private car for the two-hour drive from Cabo San Lucas to La Paz and by dinnertime, we were swilling margaritas at Steinbeck’s, a lovely open-air restaurant at the premier Marina Costa Baja. We were the only table there, which was simultaneously pleasant but somewhat sad. The perks of a pandemic can be a double-edged sword.
A Socially-Distant Sailing Adventure
Dream Yacht Charters (DYC), the only big brand outfit offering power and sailboats for hire in Mexico, is at the bottom of the Sea of Cortez, which Jacques Cousteau called the “Aquarium of the World”. In winter you can watch whales breaching for hours and pods of dolphins playing off the bow. In August, the temps push triple digits, so between the weather and COVID, we truly had the place to ourselves.
The next morning, we headed to town to sightsee and provision. The Malecon was wrapped in yellow tape, so off limits, while the sidewalk across the street was open. Pandemics often don’t bring out the best in common sense even when you cross the border. But the people here were actually quite serious about the virus. Everyone was wearing a mask, our temperature was taken inside upon entering every store, and we got a mandatory squirt of hand sanitizer by a greeter at every door. A shoe-wash also waited by every door. We might slip on wet tiles and twist an ankle, but we weren’t as likely to catch COVID!
Heading Out: Provisioning Our Nautitech Open 46 Catamaran
We provisioned at the giant Chedraui, loaded up our Nauititech Open 46 catamaran (a beautiful yacht) and as I settled into the chart briefing, I learned that the islands Esperitu Santo and Partida were closed. These two island became part of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and are the main attraction right outside of La Paz. This uninhabited island was allowing no hiking, no swimming and not even anchoring. Our DYC checkout guy, Ernesto, had words of advice. “Patrol boats stay around Esperitu Santo,” he said. “Go to Isla San Francisco and then north and you’ll be fine.”
North to San Francisco
The next morning we headed north but since Esperitu Santo is the first thing you run into once you depart the Bay of La Paz, we took the opportunity to circumnavigate the top of Isla Partida known as Los Islotes, which is a sea lion rookery. Normally, there’d be dozens of hotel pangas swinging on moorings with gaggles of snorkelers but we were alone in circling the weather-beaten, guano-covered rocks that ring with the hoots and barks of the dogs of the sea.
Soon, we picked up a light westerly breeze and motorsailed to Isla San Francisco and its striking crescent bay ringed with white sand. There were about 10 boats there already but the anchorage can probably hold 50 so we didn’t feel crowded. Just as we were anchoring, I noticed the plotter had us positioned on land. I decided to deal with that after a swim and a hike.
Although short, the walk up the ridge of San Francisco was like hiking in a steam room so we scurried back down and went for a snorkel where we found a huge ribbon of angel fish flowing lazily by. At one point, we were caught in the middle of a giant bait ball. It’s terrifying to look up to see a hungry pelican falling from the sky, seemingly aiming at your head and splashing down just a few feet away.
Back To Basics: Paper Charts VS. Digital Plotter
The next day it became clear that our chart plotter was kaput so I dug out the good old paper charts and binoculars and from there on, we came into every anchorage at a snail’s pace with all eyes peeled. We stopped at the bottom of Isla San Jose at Bahia Amortajada, a mangrove lagoon that you can tour by dinghy. We found the entrance to a channel, which teemed with life. There must have been a dozen species of birds and with the exception of one superyacht tender, we were, once again, alone. The waves were breaking over the southern shore but inside, we were in glassy water with sea turtles swimming all around.
Setting Course For San Evaristo
That night’s anchorage was San Evaristo only seven miles up on the Baja Sur peninsula. I set the course on paper as the sun started getting low. Suddenly, it was “fish on” as Mervyn hooked a dorado that gave a good fight and then threw the hook and chased us around the cockpit. I splashed it with tequila to calm it down. (Dinner was great and there was just enough tequila left for a round of margaritas.)
We dropped anchor in San Evaristo just before sundown and put Monika, our Spanish speaker, on the kayak and sent her ashore to ask if we could come for an outdoor dinner at Lupe’s. Lupe wasn’t in but we were invited for a beer on the beach. We dinghied over wearing masks and found a giant cold Pacifico on a table. What an exclusive happy hour.
Anchoring Overnight At Sea
The nights in the Sea are beyond description. The stars reflect on the water and soon you lose perspective on what is sky and what is sea. There’s basically no light pollution on the Baja Peninsula due to the sparse population. The night skies kept us entertained every evening and good thing too because there’s no cell coverage so no distractions from the beauty. No COVID case counts, no politics, no worrires. Even the thought of really having no way to get assistance for snafus like the chartplotter was, in a way, comforting because we were truly self-sufficient.
Carefully Sailing Our Way North
Finding Los Gatos cove turned out to be our greatest challenge the next day. After 20 miles of northward progress, we picked out a few landmarks and anchored in what we thought was Los Gatos, a gorgeous anchorage with a red rock formation and sand beaches. Remember – no chart plotter so lots of guesswork!
San Telmo: A Nice Surprise
However, after studying the photos in the cruising guide, I realized we had passed Gatos two miles back, putting my dead reckoning about 10% off. We had instead, found San Telmo, another unbelievable spot so we stayed a while and then backtracked to Gatos just for fun.
Our progress to Agua Verde (literally “green water”) the next day was slow as there are reefs and since we had only an approximate position, it was best to take it easy. We dropped the hook in an anchorage that is normally packed with cruisers but many had decided to stay at home, so we had the run of the place. It was just us, a few locals, a bunch of goats and a small tienda that was out of cerveza.
That night, our happy hour entertainment included dozens of pickup trucks that pulled into the village and backed trailers laden with pangas into the water. The men were going fishing for the night and the women threw a small "covid-friendly" outdoor beach party. Everyone was laughing and waving and it seemed the rest of the world was truly a planet away.
The next morning, I noticed our plotter was somehow back and the cartography was loading again. COVID gremlins? Maybe.
Back To Esperitu Santo
Our run back to Espritu Santo was 75 miles but we managed it nicely. The big cat was great and averaged 9.5 knots when motorsailing which we had to do since the wind was gusting to three knots. We pulled into Ensenada Grande cove on Partida at 7:30 pm but since it was August, that wasn’t an issue at all.
Anchoring In Strong Wind
We had a swim and felt quite secure. Everything went well until about 10:00 pm when the winds started gusting out of the south at 22 knots. We hadn’t had an updated forecast in nearly a week. That left us on a lee shore in the pitch black with the waves hitting us on the bow and then refracting from the sheer rock cliff behind. The anchor held and the stars were still dazzling as I can attest because I sat anchor watch most of the night.
I was up and cranky the next morning so we weighed anchor and motored south, taking time to sneak in to the cove that divides Partida from Esperitu Santo. Two boats that obviously spent the night were heading out but one, a small boat with a naked cruiser aboard, stayed, so we dropped anchor about 300 yards from shore to nap and rest from the rough night.
Moments later, we saw the flashing lights of a patrol boat with two masked guards telling us the island was closed. We acted dumb, which wasn’t a stretch, and thankfully they let us go without incident. After all, it seems unlikely that COVID-19 could swim a quarter of a mile to an uninhabited shore, but you never know.
Because there wasn’t so much as a half a knot of breeze, we motored out into the channel and went for a swim. Out of nowhere, we suddenly had 20 knots so we got in a week’s worth of sailing by tacking back and forth from Esperitu Santo down to Balandra Cove on the peninsula. It was lovely sailing even if it was to nowhere.
COVID Chartering: What To Know
We wrapped the trip with a visit to San Jose del Cabo, a tiny historic town, full of galleries and eateries. Only 12 miles from Cabo San Lucas, it’s a whole different world.
Vacationing during COVID certainly has some restrictions and inherent risks, but overall, this trip was a real treat. We saw lovely remote places, met some genuinely nice people and had the surreal experience of being alone with nature. Yes, it was hot but the water was a wonderful 83 degrees so there were no complaints. Yes, there were limitations on where we could go but that just pushed us farther than we would have normally gotten. And yes, it took some careful planning but you can’t put a price on a terrific break from cabin fever.