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Our Sea of Cortez Trip with Santana Sailing

For those who seek seagoing adventure and discovery, there may be but a precious handful of adventure trips that compare with sailing the Sea of Cortez, perhaps the most unspoiled, uncrowded cruising waters anywhere.

About 775 miles long—separating the Baja California Peninsula from mainland Mexico—its clear deep waters are often tagged as the “world’s largest aquarium”. The Sea, as it is affectionately called, boasts 31 species of whales and dolphins—one-third of the world’s total—along with colonies of sea lions, turtles, 500 kinds of fish, and 200 or so varieties of mostly migratory birds.

Little seems to have changed here since author John Steinbeck (Sea of Cortez) was here 75 years ago. The deep blue sea is surrounded by stark and desolate desert landscape characterized by cactus, dry scrub, colorful striated cliffs, crenelated castle-like red-rocks and sea caves. Mountains rise 1,000 feet straight out of the sea.

Sharon and I signed up for a March, 2018, trip offered by Santana Sailing, an outfit mostly known for its top-level sailing instruction, based in Newport Beach, California, and run by Skipper Marc Hughston and assisted by wife Chrissie. In years past, I had learned a lot from Marc in his role as a Level V Skipper Rank Chief Instructor for OCC School of Sailing & Seamanship in Newport Beach, California, and additionally as a NauticEd instructor. Having long admired Marc’s professional teaching skills and easy-going, gentle disposition, I jumped at the chance to join him on a week-long trip from La Paz to Loreto, Mexico. (We signed on for the one-week return leg as well.)

Our seagoing home for the next two weeks was a 42-foot Lagoon sailing catamaran with spacious salon and deck areas and four cabins, each with private head. The Sea of Cortez can be unforgiving, with its numerous reefs, rocks and shoals. Potential hazards are made worse by often erroneous and outdated charts. A skipper must be superbly capable with an eye to hidden danger and a keen sense for rapidly changing wind and wave conditions. With his professional skill set and previous trips to the Sea, Marc fit the bill perfectly.

On this particular trip, several trip participants were seasoned sailors, while others were enthusiastic beginners. Most eagerly took a turn or two at the helm, along with winching and anchoring. Those of us who needed help with a thing or two were amply rewarded by Skipper Marc’s teaching skills.

Locally sourced produce and fruit—mangos, melons, papaya and pineapple— and fish figured prominently in delicious meals prepared by Skipper Marc and Chrissie, along with occasional contributions by participants with a culinary bent. Like many seagoing adventure trips, the camaraderie and budding friendships were a trip highlight. Stories among sailors like my dear friends and long-time cruisers Joe and Sue, who circumnavigated for 12 years, were recounted with enthusiasm. As oft happens with sailors, one story begets many more!

The Lagoon carried dinghy, kayak and paddle board, enabling guests to snorkel, paddle, fish, hike and generally explore each afternoon while anchored in secluded rocky coves or sweeping bays with sparkling white sand beaches. We alternately sailed and motor-sailed between anchorages— among literally hundreds in the Sea—which sported names like Bahia San Francisco, Bahia Agua Verde, Honeymoon Cove on Dazante Island, Caleta Candeleros Chico, Puerto Los Gatos, and Ensenada Grande.

Our March trip was graced by abundant sunshine, blazing star filled nights, spectacular sunsets, and cool nights. Daytime temperatures were in the 70s and 80s.

A couple of tiny fishing villages, one at Bahia Agua Verde and the other at Coyote Island, afforded interaction with locals. The most unique was Coyote Island, a tiny rock outcropping where a handful of fishermen and their families take refuge in brightly painted wood and stone shacks clinging to rocky hillsides. A weather-beaten white cement block chapel adorned by simple white cross sits high on the hillside. We took many memorable pictures, purchased fish being filleted on the beach. Sharon bought a simple string necklace with a shark tooth, and left a few small presents and candy for one visible shy child.

On the last night of the trip, Skipper Marc chose a secure anchorage on Isla Partida which along with Isla Espirito Santo is a national park. Los Islotes, just around the corner from our anchorage, is a sea lion rookery populated by

hundreds of these blubbery, bewhiskered behemoths with their non-stop breeding and barking.

Reportedly, visitors regularly swim with the sea lions here, but unfortunately we were unable to legally visit Los Islotes, thanks to a new park requirement requiring permits and guide arranged in advance. Ah well, a big part of adventure is the never-ending process of discovery!

The following morning, while motor sailing on silky smooth seas, a school of dolphin sped alongside, repeatedly diving under the bow and seemingly chasing one another. A most fitting escort for our return to the bright lights and bustle of the city of La Paz.

Larry Lake, President Western River Expeditions