Our cruising grounds – San Carlos to Puerto Penasco
Sailing into the new decade hasn’t turned out anything like we hoped. We watched in March as the Covid 19 Virus slowly closed all options for our spring sailing season. We had Gato Loco out day sailing in the Penasco area before heading back home in Phoenix and found we couldn’t return until finally mid July. By the July timeframe we consider the weather to hot and humid to enjoy time on the boat. We did clean and detail Gato Loco for a last sail for the summer finding great winds to sail from Penasco to Cholla Bay as a consolation to the lost season. Gato Loco is now decommissioned for the summer with sails, sheets and canvas stored until October. For those who might not be familiar with Penasco weather, the monsoon season brings high humidly and hot temperatures and as the Sea temp rises September is the hottest month of the year. We will see Gato Loco again in early October.
We’re doing fine and taking this unprecedented time very seriously as we are in the virus’s targeted age. It’s very sad how the situation is impacting life as we knew it. We’re missing all our friend fellowship that is so important to us. We have many friends that are seriously impacted and try to do what we can to help paying for streaming music concerts and donating to causes where people are devastated. Our friends in the entertainment industry and our beloved Puerto Penasco have been seriously impacted. We hope things will improve soon especially for my 88 year old mother who we have isolated here in Phoenix. We count our blessings very day that we are retired and somewhat secure from the ravage.
Okay, on to the subject of this posting. We’ve been sailing the Sea of Cortez on Gato Loco since 2002 enjoying all she has to offer with our seasonal spring sailing cruises. Before Gato Loco, we sailed a Stiletto 27’ catamaran all over the northern Sea in a boat that’s like an oversized Hobie cat. I’ve been asked in the past and more recently for advice about sailing the northern Sea. I don’t claim to be an expert but do have the benefit of cruising to most of the anchorages some many times. Our passages usually involve sailing between Penasco to La Paz and most recently partnering with WestCoast Mulithull out of San Diego to hold a Loreto area multihull rally in the June timeframe. We don’t fit the full time live aboard scenario and usually have fresh crews with limited sailing experience on board. We love sharing the sea experience with friends organized around 1 or 2 week crew experiences. Unlike full time cruisers we prefer to sail between anchorages that can be done without overnight passages and night watch duties. With this in mind you will see our passages show sailing between reachable anchorage by day in some cases very long days. Typically conditions might have nice winds near sunrise, flatten morning and build in the afternoon so there usually some motoring involved.
I think it’s appropriate to discuss Gato Loco navigation strategy and equipment. We don’t have radar on board so night passages require extra vigilance. As we started back in 2002, and still today, we use a Garmin blue-chart chart plotter with it’s inherent accuracy issues. That means approaching land masses you need visible guidance. Most of the serious hazards in the Sea have accurate GPS Coordinates. Sea guides we use has evolved over the years. Shawn and Heather’s Sea of Cortez Guide is a must have now and sailing out of San Carlos Gerry Cunningham’s sea guides are probably the best resource for that area. He documents anchorages off the beaten path. The huge hardback Baja Sea Guide vol II by Leland Lewis published in the early 70s has great aerial photos and gives you a view how Baja has evolved through the decades,history and immense details. Before Shawn and Heather’s guide the Baja Boater’s Guide by Jack Williams was our most used guide. I would suggest having all of these on board.
With the short coming on charts based on historic sea surveys we’ve enhanced our navigation with the OpenCPN app. The flexibility of this app has allowed us to use CM93 charts with Google earth overlays including waypoints from Shawn and Heathers cruising guide which they sell on their website. These overlays have proven to be accurate within meters versa miles on historic charts including CM93. I created the Google earth overlays using an app named GE2KAP. Unfortunately, as I understand, Google has updated their program to prevent this possibility. If anybody has information on what can be done now I’m sure the community would be interested. In the chart here (click to enlarge) details for Puerto Refugio are precise with waypoints exactly applied to the Google overlay. This precision allows us to use these charts to enter anchorages after dark and early morning departures safely. The chart also shows Gato Loco’s favorite anchorage tucked in just north near the passage through the channel between islands.
Communication in the northern Sea is a challenge if you rely on cell service and internet cafes for your internet. This post is only covering areas San Carlos and north and as you leave the San Carlos area you will only have spotty service in the close by north anchorages. The next possibility is to cruise close enough to Kino Bay to pickup a cell tower there. Across the Sea in the Bahia San Francisiquto there is usually an option to go ashore and get access to a slow Hughes Net connection. Heading north the next possibility is to go to internet cafes in Bay of LA and sometimes Guillermo’s resort has working internet. Sailing northwest from Bay of LA, Gonzaga Bay’s Alfonsinas resort has pay internet and if you sail northeast through Puerto Lobos there’s a cell tower with internet there. Also the passage north from Puerto Lobos cell service can be snagged along the way to Penasco. San Felipe has good service but is not really on the way north to Penasco. To get consistent communication Gato Loco has a Iridium Glow satellite dome for phone and light internet.
Keeping abreast of weather is the key to safe passages. We listen to the Ham Sonrisa net and Amigo SSB net to pick up the Noaa weather and local conditions. Picking up online weather is more localized with better extended views for passage planning. I’ve found apps Sailflow and Windy seemed to be better that Predict Wind in the northern Sea. Winter North winds tend to come in cycles of 3 days and can be used to make good progress or time to hide out and wait for things to settle down. It’s best to be extra cautious and not be caught by surprise in the steep tight wave conditions.
I have to thank Brett & Heidi on catamaran Grateful Days, a 42′ Fontaine Pajot, for asking questions about sailing north from Guyamas to Penasco as an inspiration for this post. In thinking how to best advise them I decided to do a complete northern Sea brain dump. I do enjoy re-engaging in these details with what has taken place over the past months. I will start from the San Carlos area and move north in this discussion.
The following is a brief discussion of the anchorages heading north. You can click on the charts to see the Google overlay in greater detail.
Near by north anchorages
In the chart above you see three routes heading north. Typically heading south or north we take advantage of the anchorages reachable. An easy sail north from San Carlos Los Cocinas is a good south and SW wind protected anchorage. Posomarano Sp? is a small but good north wind protected anchorage. I’ve found both to have good holding. Click on the chart on the right to enlarge and see more details.
The northern most reachable from San Carlos is in front of a small village of Los Japonis. This is a small anchorage which can hold 2 boats and is open to the north. I’ve anchored a few times with mild weather conditions. There’s usually lots of village fishing activity.
Further north, Kino Bay is a good place to get provision and internet. There’s a wooden pier that can help when the beach wave swell is too high for safe landing. We swamped our dinghy a couple years back here. The island can offer some protection there but if seas are up it’s best to get supplies and head to Dog Bay on the SE corner of Isla Tiburon, We routinely pass between shore and the island with good depth however slack tide might be a problem.
The south east corner of isla Tiburon has two anchorages. Dog Bay on the east shore offers good anchorage for most winds. Sand bottom and good hold. It has been plagued with bees which has forced us to pull anchor and sail the area until sunset and then return. Bees thankfully return home at night but they will return early the next morning for morning dew on the boat. The second anchorage is Los Cruces (I believe) with a small fishing camp on the south shore just west of cactus pass.
Cactus pass is narrow passage between Tiburon and the island south. Follow documented waypoints for safe passage and check out the south island to understand the passage name.
On the southwest corner of Tiburon there are 2 anchorages. The one closer to the point provides some shelter from north winds but it’s been mild on our visits. The upper one is a bigger bay with a fishing camp. You may have company while anchoring here and they might be selling lobster. There’s good hiking on shore here. Both have sand bottoms with good hold. If you depart either of these with south winds. The point will accelerate winds for the first few miles west. Be prepared.
If you choose to make a crossing to Baja, the southern most well protected anchorage is Bahia San Francisquito. This point has some of the strongest tidal flows apparently due depth changes below. It can feel like a river and if your trying to make anchorage before dark it can be frustrating. Our last visit we saw Orcas whales here. The large bay offer lots of anchorage possibilities. We always anchor in the south slot and if we arrive early or spend the day there you can walk to the tiny airport resort to the east on the beach. I think things are declining there but they love guest. The west most house in the slot is where you might find internet
Isla Salsipuedes is a must see for us. It has a south and north anchorages, although the north slot is pretty tight. We’ve anchored there twice. This last visit we had swell coming into the anchorage with no wind apparently due to the Bay of LA Elefontes blowing swells down the sea into the anchorage. The entire island can be hiked which we do on each visit. Take note of the submerged rock marked by Shawn and Heather’s waypoint.
Isla Partida is a bird paradise. We anchored in the north bay a couple of times and have never gone ashore since there are no real beaches. I’ve read that shelter can be taken SE of the island also. Not much else to add here.
Isla Estanque is a small island with an inlet bay on the south east corner of Isla Angel de la Guarda. We’ve anchored in here twice. Mind you Gato Loco’s draft is 2’ 10” which gives us options. An interesting story probably 10 years ago when the marines were on the islands to counter smuggling there was an outpost on the north shore of the inlet bay. At sunset we took beers over and shared with them. Needless to say they enjoyed that. The next morning the tide was low as we tried to depart. After two aborted exit attempts they came with their boat and escorted us out by following very close to the shoal where it is the deepest. Cruising guides also show anchoring possibilities along the nearby shore of Isla Angel de la Guarda.
Bay of LA area has numerous anchorages. This area is covered well by Shawn and Heather. The southern most anchorage on this chart right you’ll find a Yurt resort where people fly into Bay of LA and get a ponga ride to the resort. We went to shore once and got invited to have lunch with the guest (we tipped of course). The next bay north has a failed resort with lots of buildings. Very interesting to walk the beaches and check things out. As you round the point Puerto Don Juan is the deep bay right after Punta Que Malo. This is considered one of the Baja hurricane holes. This whole area is prone to strong west winds at night called elefontes. Don Juan is a good hiding place but it does have an open slot to the west letting the winds in. Before upgrading to a rocna anchor we had problems holding in 45kt winds gusts here. We typically anchor overnight in front Guillermo’s resort in the village of Bay of LA. Winds might blow from the west but with little fetch so if the anchor holds all is good. Pay close attention near sunset and be prepared to return to your boat if winds arrive.
All of the anchorages in this area are subject to night time western winds. Isla la Ventana has the best protected anchorage of the anchorages in the area. it has known to have bees and hiking the island we found a bee hive in a cactus cluster along the trail. There’s a shoal along the north side of the entrance as well as on the NE side of the island. That’s one of the places that we’ve hit a reef so pay close attention in this area.
Moving north to Isla Coronado (Smith island) there are a couple of anchorages both open to west winds. The anchorage between Smith and the small island (Isla Mitlan) just west can really funnel winds. We’ve had a very peaceful night there and also the worst night ever on the Sea with gusty winds and dragging anchor towards shore. These are anchorages are great to stop for lunch heading south to Bay of LA.
That brings us to the passage north from the Bay of LA area. Sailing up or down the Canal de Ballenas (whale channel) can be challenging. There’s a Pacific wind gap over Baja north between Isla Coronado and Punta Remedios and if there is a barometric pressure difference between the Pacific and the Sea it can produce strong winds through this gap.The yellow lines on the chart right represent the winds and the red is our preferred route to avoid the distance from shore and the fetch it produces. The sea can really get to be a mess out in the channel while along the Baja shore you have strong winds and smaller seas which can be exhilarating if you’re prepared. This area has given Gato Loco the best rides in the Sea of Cortez. Follow this link to experience a sail north to Gonzaga Bay.
The near shore route works both south from Puerto Refugio and North from Bay of LA. If you watch the gap area you usually can see white caps and reef sails to enjoy the ride. Some days the channel is totally calm but always pay attention to that gap.
After that ride you arrive in one of the best anchorages in the Sea of Cortez, Puerto Refugio on the north end of Isla Angel de la Gurada. You will know you’re getting close when you spot sail rock. There is a huge reef as you approach the channel between La Guarda and Isla Mejia. Cruising charts document the safe passage into the channel. It’s best to follow that route although we routinely sail between the reef and La Guarda with clear passage. The landscape colors and cactus in this area are spectacular. We have a preferred anchorage in the small inlet of Mejia and the passage through to the north shore anchorages. The north shore has two large bays that will hold lots of boats and if there are strong south winds forecasted these anchorages are better protected. The east bay has a better gap south allowing winds in. On my last visit there was probably 15 boats in the area. This popularity is due to the interest in Penasco to be a great place to haul boats and clear of hurricanes. The anchorages between Bay of LA and Puerto Refugio are popular with boats that spend the summer in the Sea because Whale channel is so deep the waters in the area remain cool making the summer temps more acceptable.
Heading north from Puerto Refugio you have 3 options. Sail the 100+ miles directly north to Penasco. The most interesting and scenic route is to sail north west to Gonzaga Bay and Puerto Willard. Gonzaga has a beautiful white sand beach, clear waters, modest homes with an airplane runway behind. There’s a nice resort (Alfonsinas) on the north end of the beach with a very good anchorage right in front. This is our preferred anchorage and works well with the typical night time western winds. The resort shelters the anchorage and being close to shore there very little wave fetch. The resort welcomes sailors to their restaurant/bar for breakfast, Lunch, dinner and sell internet access. You’ll probably get to meet some of the locals and Baja land adventurers. This area like Bay of LA is whale sharks grounds. It’s not uncommon to have whale sharks circling your boat feeding.
Puerto Willard just north of Gonzaga is another of the Sea of Cortez hurricane holes with full protection. The inner bay is shallow and has growth on the bottom that present anchor holding issues. Always consider the western night time winds when choosing a spot in the bay. The north west shore has a local Mexican village with Americans also living there. Also there was a famous restaurant in this village that boasts the visit by John Wayne.
Also there are provisions and fuel just a mile west on the highway. Alfonsinas will usually arrange a ride out.
It’s also worth mentioning Two Headed Cove in the south east corner of Gonzaga Bay. It’s an area you can spend some time.
Our route back to Penasco from the west always includes an overnight in the Isla San Louis area just 10 miles north. This is the southern most island of what is called the Enchanted islands. San Louis is a volcanic island with two anchorages. The anchorage on the west side can be subject to western winds at night. The southern anchorage is better protected from the west. On the north west corner of the island there is a narrow channel you can dinghy up to a volcanic pool that fills and empties forming a water fall with the proper tides. The island is populated with lots of frigate birds. There’s some uncharted pinnacle rocks on the west side of the island and the waters between Louis and Isla Pomo are not passable.
One of the most interesting anchorages in the northern Sea is in the very small inlet bay on Isla Pomo just north east of Louis. This is a pumas island and the small bay has 200’ vertical walls surrounding the south and west side of the anchorage. It’s a small bay and should only be used in moderate weather as the bottom is mostly rubble. We use it as a launch point to sail back to Penasco. Anchoring there is like being in a cathedral and has a spiritual feel.
If you follow the enchanted island chain north you will reach Puertecitos. This is a very shallow bay that drains at low tide with good south wind protection. Anchoring just SW of the boat ramp has good sand bottom and enough water except for extreme tides. The town is not prospering due to rumored difficult land owner. I think home lots are still rented here. The hot springs on the east shore of the point is a nice way to finish the day. Many times we sail north towards Puertecitos and if winds are not good to anchor we turn and sail to Penasco. From here there’s usually a awesome north or south wind broad reach run back to Penasco.
The sail north to San Felipe has lots of shallow water. The breakwater harbor is just south of the city requiring a Taxi ride. The docs are pretty industrial as I remember so have good finders. The city is a bit smaller than Penasco fronts on a great sand beach and boardwalk. Lots of restaurants and stores. It’s been some time since we’ve been there. It’s the closest harbor sailing west from Penasco at ~80 miles. With our Stiletto catamaran we use to anchor on the beach in front of town
The east route from Puerto Refugio has an easy 60 mile passage to Puerto Lobos. This is a fishing village with many American home here also. The huge south facing bay has always be good for us on numerous visits. Our usual Penasco departures go through either Lobos on the east or San Louis for the west route. The fishing is this area is the best in the northern Sea. As I mentioned there is cell internet here as well as fuel and some supplies.
Puerto Penasco has been our home since 2002. Before that we always launched our Stiletto out for Cholla Bay to the west. Penasco’s harbor was recently dredged and clear passage with any tide. There are harbor entry guidance lights. As you enter line the light towers up and it will take you down the clear passage. There is a rock on the south side of the channel near the public launch area to be aware of so stay in the channel. There’s 3 marina’s here, Fonatur on the south of the harbor, Safe Mariana on the north east side of the harbor and Penasco Marina on the west north of the Marine base docks. Gato Loco’s home marina is Penasco Marina which has limited slip openings. Fonatur on the south has all the tourist boats and can be noisy. Safe Marina is probably the best marina to shoot for as you wait to haul out at Cabrales boat yard on the north shore of the harbor. The Port Capitan is near Safe Marina and Cabrales. Cabrales has developed into a very friendly boating community with good support and lots of nearby services and restaurants. I highly recommend them. Penasco has been our community since the 80s living in Cholla Bay just to the west.
Cholla Bay is west of Penasco down Sandy Beach where all the resorts. The village set west of one of two mountains in the northern coast with granite south shore lined with homes and a large bay to the north of the peninsula that drains with low tides. This is primarily an American community that has over 600 homes and a strong since of community that we love. It’s a beautiful sail from Penasco along the Sand Beach resorts past the mountain and along the Cholla shore. When tides are slack you can anchor in front of Tucson Beach just north of the west most point with good south wind protection.