Pandemic Cruise to Baja and Back

Steve Hodges


If I’d understood the brain-tickling nature of the COVID-19 test, I might have thought twice before agreeing to join the crew of Tranquilo. However, since the boat’s four crew members would be living in close quarters, we’d all agreed to do anything we could to protect each other’s health during our pandemic cruise to Baja and back.


Tranquilo’s new owner, Mike Haden, had been eager to sail his Catalina 445 from Channel Islands Harbor Marina to Baja and back. He’d initially wanted to participate in the Baja Ha-Ha, but it had been canceled due to coronavirus concerns. Instead, he signed up for the Nada Ha-Ha, a socially distanced flotilla following the same route, from San Diego to Bahia Tortugas and Cabo San Lucas.

Rounding out the crew were Mike’s childhood friend and Santa Barbara Sail & Power Squadron/13 member, George Poe; Mike and George’s mutual friend Greg Carlson; and me.

As usual, the list of preparation tasks seemed to grow as we checked off items. How can you be ready for anything that might happen? And, as anyone who has sailed far knows, almost anything can happen.

Meanwhile, the discouraging news about COVID-19 made the idea of spending so many weeks sailing to Cabo and taking a flight home less appealing. I voiced my concerns in a crew conference call, and after some discussion, we agreed to sail only as far as Bahia Tortugas. We estimated the new route to take two weeks.

We planned to depart Channel Islands Harbor on Halloween, a Saturday, which meant we had to get our COVID tests on Monday or Tuesday. Unfortunately, the day after his test, Greg had coffee with a friend who subsequently developed the dreaded symptoms and tested positive. Now what? We nixed a Saturday departure, but if Greg retested successfully, we could leave as early as Monday. He repeated the brain tickler and drove to Ventura on Monday for an antibody test. Both came back negative.

Cruise Log

Day 1: Nov. 2, 2020

Mike was waiting at Tranquilo when George and I arrived at Channel Islands Harbor Marina at 2:30 p.m. Greg appeared with our food soon after. Tranquilo headed out of the harbor at 5 p.m., motor-sailing due to light wind and taking the less-traveled route between Santa Catalina and San Clemente Islands. Greg served nachos for dinner.

Pandemic Cruise to Baja and Back gave us sunset on the water.
Red sky at night, sailors delight

Day 2: Nov. 3, 2020

George and I had the 3 to 6 a.m. watch and enjoyed a lovely sunrise. Mike and George estimated our fuel use at one gallon per hour. As we approached and passed Point Loma and San Diego, a Navy warship performed high-speed maneuvers a few miles away. By midafternoon, we sighted Isla Coronado. Greg served a tasty dinner of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Around midnight, we entered Ensenada Naval Harbor and were secured in our visitor slip shortly after.

Day 3: Nov. 4, 2020

With the marina agreeing to act as our agent, we’d hoped to clear immigration and depart as quickly as possible. But, as often happens in Mexico, plans changed. We had to go downtown to clear immigration.

The marina drove all four of us. Three of us waited outside an hour or two while Mike got us cleared. Finally back on the boat with our papers, we headed to the Pemex fuel dock across the harbor at Marina Coral at 3 p.m. The fuel dock service guy recognized the boat, which he’d seen several times before under its previous owners. By 4 p.m., we departed, heading south-southeast for Bahia Tortugas and motor-sailing through the night.

Day 4: Nov. 5, 2020

The lovely rise of Venus followed by a gorgeous sunrise rewarded my solo 3 to 6 a.m. watch. I could feel mental tugs from my sextant. George’s French-pressed, fresh ground coffee provided a morning treat. By mid-morning, we were sailing wing-in-wing with the Genoa poled-out to windward. We were still sailing at dinner when Greg served spaghetti with red sauce and baked acorn squash. Yum!

Day 5: Nov. 6, 2020

Dinner off the hook, a skipjack tuna
Dinner off the hook: A skipjack tuna

I was again rewarded for my 3 to 6 a.m. watch with the lovely rise of Venus and another glorious sunrise. A little past noon mountain time, we caught our first sight of Punta Eugenia, just beyond Isla Natividad above Bahia Tortugas. It was a lovely day to do laundry and take a shower on the transom. As we neared our destination, Mike’s trolling hand line snagged a medium-size skipjack tuna. After anchoring at about 4 p.m., we enjoyed a meal of fresh sauteed tuna with onion rice.

Day 6: Nov. 7, 2020

The ubiquitous Enrique in his panga visited us just before 8 a.m. We asked for 40 gallons of diesel. While we waited, we siphoned fuel from our eight jerry cans into Tranquilo’s tank. Soon thereafter, Enrique arrived and refilled the jerry cans. Now we had enough fuel to make it back to the Channel Islands, or in the event of northwest winds, at least to Ensenada.

The view from our spot in Bahia Tortugas, aka Turtle Bay, looks directly south, so I decided to take sun sights on and off from about 11 a.m. to after 1 p.m. Local area noon was at 11:44 a.m. My reduced sight gave me a position within 12 nautical miles of our GPS location—not too bad for a rusty user with an old lifeboat sextant! (I regretted not bringing a better sextant.) Greg treated us to a tri-tip and risotto dinner, after which we watched our only movie (thank goodness), “Captain Ron.” I slept in the cockpit under the stars and planets, with Mars overhead, Orion and Sirius to the south, and Saturn and Jupiter setting to the west.

Filling jerry cans in Bahia Tortugas
Filling jerry cans in Bahia Tortugas

Day 7: Nov. 8, 2020

Mike was still working out the bugs in his Iridium Go! Satellite receiver, via which we were hoping to obtain marine weather forecasts. In the meantime, I fired up the boat’s Icom 802 SSB/ham transceiver and listened in to the Bajanet. The forecast called for a moderate-to-strong passing front with northwest winds to 25 knots and large, growing seas. My sailing mentor and friend, Dave Wyman, at home in Santa Barbara, texted me a similar forecast calling for seas up to 15 feet! Subsequently, we decided to delay our departure until Tuesday morning when conditions were forecast to ease. My cockpit sleeping experience ended with a sudden wee-hour drenching as the cold front moved through—not too surprising in hindsight!

Day 8: Nov. 9, 2020

As we swung on the hook in Turtle Bay, I listened to the Baja and Sonrisa nets. Neither their forecasts nor Dave’s had changed. As we waited, we discussed various options for a return route. Based mainly on the weather forecasts, we decided to depart early the next day.

Day 9: Nov. 10, 2020

At 4 a.m., we pulled anchor and headed into the blackness, south out of the bay before turning northwest. Since it was bumpy, we had no meals and didn’t do much talking. We sailed close-hauled 40 to 45 degrees off the wind using the
100% jib Mike had bought for this purpose. With a reefed main, we sailed with reasonable weatherly progress into 25- to 30-knot winds and 7- to 12-foot seas—a typically uncomfortable Baja bash.

Day 10: Nov. 11, 2020

The rising crescent moon followed by Venus and a red sunrise provided the highlight of my 4 to 7 a.m. watch. To the south, Sirius was approaching zenith, and Polaris was on the bow. I took sights of the moon’s lower limb and Sirius, but due to the boat’s motion, Polaris’ dimness, and no sextant optics, I couldn’t bring down the North Star. Still, I obtained good sights for a reasonable two-body fix.

As the day advanced, the bump gave way to a gentler swell, and we enjoyed some pleasant upwind sailing. We planned to anchor for the night at Isla San Martin off San Quintin. Unfortunately, as we approached the island around midnight, the depth sounder indicated startlingly shallow water, less than 20 feet in places where, according to the chart, we should have had hundreds of feet below us. We slowed down and headed offshore, deciding it would be safer to anchor after sunrise.

Day 11: Nov. 12, 2020

Before 7:30 a.m., we anchored in Isla San Martin’s “alternate” anchorage, just outside the lagoon. Mike and Greg went down for well-earned naps, while George and I lazed in the cockpit. A fishing panga stopped and offered us lobsters with sign motions. We happily accepted and soon had a bucket of them. The fishermen refused payment and left with smiles and waves before we could gather gifts in return. Lesson: Have give-away stuff at hand.

We considered going ashore until Dave sent another weather update: A stronger frontal system was headed our way that night! After only about five hours at anchor, we departed, taking advantage of the calm conditions to transfer fuel from three jerry cans to the main tank. For dinner, we enjoyed sauteed lobster tail on rice.

Day 12: Nov. 13, 2020

During our cruise to Baja, we take on a hitchhiker
We take on a hitchhiker

I spent a bleary watch from 1:30 to 4 a.m. At 2:30 a.m. Ensenada was some miles to starboard, and I detected several boats in the darkness. One appeared on radar but not AIS. The other, a fishing boat I could see, had no AIS or radar signal. Scary!

Day 13: Nov. 14, 2020

I had another 1:30 to 4 a.m. watch. Now in California waters, we saw a lot of naval activity between San Diego and San Clemente, as well as several freighters as we approached Santa Catalina Island. Since it was calm outside Channel Islands Harbor, we transferred the dinghy from deck to davits and traded the small jib for the Genoa. By 1 p.m., Tranquilo was in its slip with the engine off. With check-in now allowed by phone, clearing immigration was easier than ever. We were home! The brain-tickling nasal swab had been worth it.

Steve and his wife, Susan, have been Santa Barbara Sail & Power Squadron/13 members since 1996. After numerous trips to the Santa Barbara Channel Islands, the Sea of Cortez, San Francisco, and the Hawaiian Islands, they are looking forward to more time on the water with grandchildren.

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