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Classic Boat Magazine June 2020: Sea of Cortez - Sailing in the Aquarium

Article courtesy of Classic Boat magazine.

Celeste alone on the Isla Partida cove

A journey of contrasts from Alaska to the Sea of Cortez, taking in the stark beauty of the desert

Scrambling over loose red rock, threading my way between spiny cactus branches, I've started to wonder if this hike up the arroyo is really worth it. There's no trail up the dry river bed, which only flows – in torrential surges – during the hurricane season, in occasional floods of sudden rain. In the sailing season, from late fall to spring, the desert surrounding Mexico's Sea of Cortez is bone dry. At the end of the season, in the first weeks of May, the land is also very hot, an omen of the summer hurricanes to come. Between the steep walls of this arroyo, the air is baking and windless. Hiking uphill in the heat among cacti and boulders seems, with each step, like a worse and worse idea. It's amazing what a classic boat owner will do for yet another scenic view of her wooden treasure.

My husband Seth and I have owned Celeste, our cold-molded cutter, since 2013, when we were lucky enough to purchase her from her original owner, the man who had commissioned her. She is a custom design, drawn by Francis Kinney, the New York naval architect who edited Skene's Elements of Yacht Design and, during his tenure at Sparkman & Stephens, worked on many of the 12-Meter designs for the America's Cup. Kinney designed Celeste as an independent project for a sailor and businessman in British Columbia, Canada: she was to be a capable ocean-going vessel with classic good looks. Her owner wanted a modern (for the time – 1985) profile below the waterline, but a traditional appearance topside. So, Celeste has a fin keel and a separate skeg-hung rudder instead of a full keel. You wouldn't know it to see her in the anchorage, though – we're commonly asked if she was built in the 1950s. Her overhangs, curved sheerline and wineglass transom, combined with enough varnished wood to frighten off many a modern sailor, would ordinarily fit her in that decade of American yacht design.

Built of four layers of cold-molded wood, most of which is western red cedar, Celeste is a stiff and sturdy seafarer. She's made two crossings of the Pacific and has carried Seth and me safely over 20,000 miles from the Arctic Ocean above Alaska (CB 358) to the coral atolls of the South Seas. We like to think she adds to the beauty of any anchorage, no matter how naturally stunning it already is.

In autumn 2017, Seth and I set sail south from Alaska, which we had explored thoroughly over five summers of voyaging. After a fast and windy passage to San Francisco, and then some tedious motoring through calms down to Los Angeles, we cleared into Mexico in Ensenada, the port city at the northern end of the Baja Peninsula. Our goal was the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, between Baja and mainland Mexico. It is a unique area of nutrient-rich water, home to 900 species of fish, including different rays and sharks, as well as dolphins, whales, sea lions and many types of seabirds. Its topography, isolated on three sides by land, and its subtropical water temperatures mean it boasts many endemic species, animals found only there – one of the reasons why famous diver Jacques Cousteau called it the "world's aquarium".


Ashore, the Baja Peninsula has the stark beauty of the desert: harsh, dry, and wild. It was a beauty Seth and I were unused to, coming as we were from the dark and verdant temperate rainforest of the Pacific Northwest. Our wish to sail this area had been borne amid those Alaskan forests – a sailing couple we met there, who had voyaged all across the world over the last 15 years, had told us that the Sea of Cortez was, of all the places they had been, their all-time favorite cruising ground.

Celeste under sail at sunsetAbove:Celeste  under sail at sunset, in the Sea of Cortez

As soon as Seth and I arrived off Baja, we were struck by the brilliant contrast of the blue water with the red desert hills in the clear, dry air. As photographers, we couldn't get enough of it, especially in the evening, when the lowering sun bathed it in a kind of desert alpenglow. The west coast of the Baja Peninsula, however, is exposed to the Pacific and cooled by the California current coming south. But once you cross the tropic line, just north of Cabo San Lucas, you've reached the Mexico of the tourist brochures: warm, colorful, and full of music and good food.

Seth and I navigated Celeste into the large marina at San Jose del Cabo, just a little northeast of the touristic Cabo San Lucas, a little after midnight towards the end of February. It was our first port in the famed Sea of Cortez. A stiff north wind was blowing outside the harbor, and we'd been fighting it for an hour, shipping the short seas over the bow. Once we were finally inside the breakwater, the warm, tropical scent of the mesquite trees wafted over us from the land. We'd arrived.

Our stay in the marina was brief as we had a deadline to meet in La Paz, further north up the Sea of Cortez, where Seth's parents were coming to visit us. At first we had perfect sailing conditions: a close reach against 10 knots of wind over a smooth sea. Celeste flew over the waves, in her element, and Seth and I had leisure to observe the white beaches and the mountains, greener than we'd yet seen, ashore. The far southern end of the Baja peninsula receives more rain and is more vegetated than the areas further north.

As the coastline curved north, however, we soon found ourselves close-hauled and then unable to point our course. Seth and I took turns at the helm, steering as close to the wind as possible while maintaining speed. We reached our anchorage, Los Frailes, after nightfall, but fortunately the bay was wide open and without hazards so that we could enter in darkness. Only one other boat lay there, her riding light reflecting in the black water.

Phosphorescence sparkled in our wake as we came into the bay, a glittering trail of white and green behind Celeste. Nor did it stop once we had the anchor set. In my experience, one usually has to move the water to disturb the bioluminescence into sparkles. There in Los Frailes, though, it seemed to do it on its own, all over the bay. It was even brighter than the stars.

Celeste lay at anchor there for three days while we hoped that the stiff north wind, which had strengthened to 20 knots, would calm down. We wanted at least slightly better conditions for beating up to La Paz. The north wind is a feature of winter on the Sea of Cortez, however. We would have done better to have arrived at the end of autumn before the northerlies were so well established. At the end of three days, we could wait no longer and so set off for an overnight slog north.

It was not as bad as we'd expected. Despite bashing into head seas for the first few hours, the wind lessened overnight so that by dawn we were making good progress in the right direction. A glorious sunrise drenched the hills in crimson light as we approached La Paz. By mid-afternoon we were moored in the heart of the city in one of the marinas at the end of the malecón, or seafront promenade.

Ice cream shop on the malecon and a whale shark underwaterL-R:  An ice cream shop on the La Paz malecón; a whale shark in the Sea of Cortez

La Paz is a sailor's mecca, the marinas and anchorage crowded with boats: northerners fleeing winter, people interested in Mexican culture, adventurers drawn by the scuba diving or fishing, and sailors wanting to voyage the length and breadth of this almost-inland sea. Businesses in La Paz cater not only to the land-based tourist industry but also to the sea-going nomads. There are canvas makers, boatyards, chandleries and, of course, seafront bars and restaurants where a sailor can have a good meal and enjoy a margarita (or three). Almost every sailor is bound to meet people they know from previous sailing, and if not, you're bound to make new friends.

Enjoying mango margaritas in La Paz, and beached fishing boatsL-R:  Enjoying mango margaritas in La Paz; fishing boats drawn up on La Paz's beach

In town, one finds the grand old cathedral and several interesting museums, including one on the whales of the Sea of Cortez and one on the history of the Baja Peninsula. For most, though, the malecón is the best spot in the city. One can walk for miles along the wide, clean promenade, looking out over the anchorage toward the setting sun. Palm trees, wrought-iron benches and ocean-inspired statues dot the tiled walkway – mermaids, dolphins, a giant pearl oyster, a hammerhead shark – and thatched palapas give shade to bathers on the white sand beach just beyond. Children (and sailors) clamor for ice cream in the afternoons and impromptu music breaks out at the cafes in the evenings. It would be easy to spend the whole season right in La Paz, and many sailors do.

Eating ice cream on the beach, and the La Paz anchorageL-R:  Enjoying ice cream on the malecón beach; La Paz anchorage seen from the malecón


Once outside the harbor and out in the Sea of Cortez, though, a different world opens up. A world of wilderness, nearly empty but for the wild creatures of the sea. It's a world of teal-green waters lapping on white beaches, of rust-colored hills patterned with cacti, of schools of mobula rays leaping clear of the ocean, of desert islands silent under the starlit night skies.

We snorkeled among playful sea lions, the young ones frolicking between us and blowing bubbles. We snorkeled with whale sharks, placid filter feeders whose blue-gray bodies, flecked with white spots, can grow up to 30 feet long, making them the largest known fish. They can move surprisingly quickly for their size – we had to swim hard to keep up with them, even though we were wearing fins. With old sailing friends we'd met again in La Paz, we scrambled around in the desert, sometimes on hiking trails and sometimes losing the trail and picking our way carefully through the cacti. Frigate birds and gulls soared above us, below lay a playa of typical Baja beauty: calm, clear water and soft, white sand where we could end our hike with a swim.

Sea lions at play, and hiking above a playaL-R:  Snorkeling among sea lions at play; hiking above a beautiful playa

On one rollicking sail, we caught a big wahoo, a sleek and delicious tropical game fish that's highly sought-after by both commercial fishermen and recreational anglers. As soon as he struck, the scramble began. Seth grabbed the handline to pull him in, and I rushed to slow Celeste, letting out the main and rolling up the jib. The wahoo was the crowning glory of our fishing attempts in the sea, not that we made too many attempts as we always finish eating a fish before setting lines for another.

By spring, when our sojourn in the Sea of Cortez was drawing to a close, the strong north winds had been replaced by light variables, occasionally with a southwesterly Coromuel blowing up at night. We spent our last week anchored off Espiritu Santo and Partida Islands, our favorite places of the Baja voyage. A tiny cove on Isla Partida topped them all. It was just wide enough for one boat to swing, and we had it all to ourselves.

As scuba divers, Seth and I often like to load our dinghy up with dive kits to explore the underwater world. And where better than the "world's aquarium"? A rocky point at the southern end of our cove looked promising, so we rowed out to it and descended on our dinghy's anchor chain to a rocky reef teeming with tropical and subtropical fish. Colorful starfish made for easy (stationary) photography subjects and the highlight was a shovelnose guitarfish, a speckled bottom-dwelling ray neither of us had seen before.

The postcard idyll of our anchorage drew us ashore in the afternoon, to hike up the arroyo behind the beach for the perfect view of Celeste. An hour and many cactus wounds later, we were atop the red, rocky bluff, looking down on our floating home, a lovely little classic in a lovely little cove. ■

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