Sailing with the spirits of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts on a new voyage of discovery around Baja California

The Log

La Paz to Monterey:
Coming home through the "Baja Bash"

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Last night was our last peaceful sunset as we looked west after leaving La Paz. The waves were just beginning to rise. As we neared the cape—Cabo San Lucas—the swells increased. They seemed to be coming out of the southwest. So we still held out a small hope that we wouldn't be running right into them as we rounded the cape and headed northwest.

Alas, as we came around the cape it became clear that the swells were bending around the peninsula. We were headed right into the prevailing winds and swells.

First there were whitecaps. Then we were bucking wave after wave.

We cleared the decks, battenned down the hatches, and hunkered down for the long voyage home.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The days pass slowly when you're moving at an average of 5 knots and sometimes as slowly as 3 or 4 knots. It just isn't worth trying to go any faster when you're headed right into famed "Baja Bash." You hope that the afternoon winds will die down and allow some smooth sailing for a spell. This evening, the sunset was beautiful, but brooding. And the dark waves seemed to be holding back their power in a menacing way.

We were off the coast of Magdalena Bay, searching for a spot where researchers had found larvae of jumbo Humboldt squid in plankton tows years ago.

We lowered the nets time and again in the bucking waves to no avail. At least on the first look at the samples, Bill Gilly could see no jumbo squid larvae. The samples will go back to CIBNOR in La Paz for a closer look under a microscope on a laboratory bench that is not tilting wildly. But the initial results were frustrating.

This work out on the Pacific Ocean is a whole different ball game, nothing like drifting in the ethereal gyre in the middle of the gulf. It is rough and cold. And you hang on for dear life.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Another day of bucking the "Baja Bash." When you are traveling at less than 5 miles an hour across a vast, featureless seascape, your sense of time and space melts away. We are going nowhere in no time, it seems. The only markers are sunrise and sunset.

We are taking spray regularly over the bow and sides. Reading and writing is difficult at best, nauseating at worst. All that is left to do is sleep and eat to stay alive.

Raul Ramirez Rojo, who joined us on this last leg of our journey with his professor Cesar Salinas, proved a resourceful galley mate. When the squid research proved difficult in the roiling Pacific, Raul rolled up sushi made from fresh yellowtail caught on one of the trolling lines. His innovation: soy sauce with jalapeños instead of wasabi.

And in a tilt-a-whirl galley, Bill Gilly cooked up bonito in a fine tomato sauce. The days pass like this in a blur.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here

Friday, May 21, 2004

Today, north of Cedros Island, the sun came up and was briefly framed between the low overcast clouds and the dark Pacific. We are making progress, slowly. Last night, while I was on watch from midnight to 3 a.m., we had a couple of hours of calm water and we made good speed: 8 knots.

But today we are back at it, running into the teeth of the Pacific swells.

There is always someone on watch: 24/7. But "Iron Mike," the autopilot, does most of the work of keeping us on course.

The guts of Iron Mike are in the wooden cabinet behind the wheel.

A compass that swings back and forth. Electrical contacts that complete a circuit each time it swings. Triggering an old Ford starter motor to change directions.

And through a series of gears and chains, the motor moves the wheel back and forth, which moves the rudder back and forth, and through these constant minor course corrections, Iron Mike keeps us on course, headed home.

After many hours of contemplating this process, and with many hours with nothing to do but contemplate and speculate, Iron Mike has inspired some of our most serious philosophical discussions. Is Iron Mike teleological? He certainly has a goal and keeps himself and us moving constantly in that direction. Is Iron Mike holistic? He certainly is at the center of this whole boat, which is buffetted and moved by the big ocean, and he is connected to those forces and responds to them. We have grown fond of Iron Mike and consider him an essential member of our crew.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Lest we forget, this sign hangs in the galley. As this journey continues, and especially as we battle through the Pacific to get home, it has become clear that our captain, Frank Donahue has given his all to this expedition. He has given his heart and soul and body, and the heart and soul and body of his boat, the Gus D, to this journey.

As skipper...


And a fundamental force of nature that has held us together on this journey.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Today I got off the boat in San Quintin, about 100 miles south of Ensenada and 150 miles south of the border with the United States. The San Quintin Bay is like San Diego a hundred years ago. It is a place where you can see the past and the future of Baja California. And it is an ecosystem of coastal scrub shading into mountain pines that Alta California and Baja California share across the boder.

I had been invited to accompany Horacio de la Cueva, Alan Harper, and Ernesto Franco—of the group Terra Peninsular—on a visit to see San Quintin and travel into the San Pedro Martir mountains to hunt for condors.

We would have liked to have seen them soaring above the tall pines, along the granite cliffs, overlooking the ocean. But when we drove high into the mountains, we found the condors still being cared for in an aviary.

In the next few days, they will be released to fly over the sierra where they have historically been found. Still, this also seemed an apt way to see them, under the intimate care of people, working to restore all the elements of an ecosystem.

Like Terra Peninsular, a conservation group that is a collaboration, like so many of the efforts we have seen throughout our journey, the condors are being cared for in a collaboration between Americans and Mexicans. The condor project is a collaboration between the San Diego Zoo and CICESE, a scientific research center and graduate school in Ensenada. Up in the mountains, Catalina Porras, Juan Vargas, and Mike Wallace are working together to make sure the condors find their way back into the "toto picture" of this ecosystem, to borrow a phrase from Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck.

Why come so far from the sea to see this? For me, there were echoes of the hunting trip that Steinbeck and Ricketts took up into the mountains on the other side of the peninsula to see bighorn sheep. I wanted to hunt too. But not to kill. And I wanted to see something of the connection between the land and the sea, by traveling from the San Quintin Bay, up through the coastal shrub to the pine covered mountains, where a great bird, which once depended on abundant sea life, and especially marine mammal carcasses, for survival, is coming back.

There was another surprise waiting for me at the top of the mountain.

A view east across the desert to the Sea of Cortez.

And west across ridges likes waves to the Pacific Coast. Seeing this picture whole—with the mountains running south down the spine of Baja California and north into California, with the Gulf of California to the east and the Pacific to the west—I felt whole. And ready to come home.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here

Coda: Return to Monterey. Click here to read the final log entry.

Return to the index to The Log.

Baja California & The Sea of Cortez
Image provided by SeaWiFS Project
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center


The Western Flyer:
the fishing boat that John Steinbeck
and Ed Ricketts took to
the Sea of Cortez.
photo courtesy Bob Enea.


The Gus-D:
the fishing boat we will take
back to the Sea of Cortez.


Sea of Cortez:
A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research


The Log from the Sea of Cortez