Isla de GuadalupeJan 13, 2010
Along the Pacific west coast of Mexico, the hurricane season was ending. It was late November and the time had come for Anna, our Tayana 37 cutter, to begin working her way southward, from Baja California Norte to Manzanillo, Mexico; a gritty, colorful industrial port located just beyond the Tropic of Cancer. Manzanillo was our jumping off place for a Pacific Ocean crossing to the Hawaiian archipelago. After clearing Customs and Immigration, in Ensenada our plan was to sail directly to Bahía de Tortugas — Turtle Bay in English. Turtle Bay was typically the first of two stops along the way to the southern tip of Baja California and the entrance to the protected Sea of Cortez and then, the Pacific mainland coast beyond.
The reverse commute
We were not in a rush to make the Sea of Cortez. We planned, in fact, to arrive in La Paz, in the Sea of Cortez, just to the north of the southern tip of the Baja peninsula, in early January. It was the off-season — when air and water temperatures are cooler. It’s a time when most visitors prefer the warmer, drier climate of Mexico’s Pacific mainland coast — the “Gold Coast.” Our preference was for the reverse commute — staying in the Sea of Cortez during the winter, when the northers blew through, providing a steady breeze to sail from anchorage to anchorage. It is a season when the crowds thin out, leaving the sea wide open; when the insects are on holiday; when the water is crystal clear and snorkeling visibility unobstructed. We would have plenty of time to make our way down the Gold Coast later, when the vast majority of cruising boats would be heading northward — we would be doing the reverse commute, so to speak.
We pushed off from Ensenada, our port of entry into Mexico, planning a relaxed sail, off the wind, following the contours of the coastline of Baja California to the south and east. But the breeze was originating from the north and west and rather than sail a tedious dead run we opted, spontaneously, to plot a course that would take us well offshore, instead — a comfortable broad reach to the south and west. In essence, we were making a large triangle that would take us on a direct path to nowhere in particular. After all, we had the time. As we plotted our new course, we realized that the Mexican island of Isla de Guadalupe intersected our course. It was the apex of our triangle; the point where we would begin to turn south and east, once again, towards Bahía de Tortugas.
Isla de Guadalupe is not on the way to anywhere. It is a removed outland. A direct course with stopovers along the Baja peninsula — that is, a coastal run southbound or a bash, if headed northbound — is the typical sailing strategy. For Anna, however, a peripheral detour was just what we wanted, just what we needed. This would help to push back our arrival in the Sea of Cortez until comfortably after the hurricane season and, it would provide us with a glimpse into a rarely visited, isolated island — with an anchorage off a wildly beautiful volcanic mountainside. Isla de Guadalupe is the westernmost offshore territory on the Pacific Ocean side of Mexico. We could relax here, on the hook, after a three-day, two-night passage from Ensenada; an untroubled broad reach for some 250 nautical miles to the south and west of the northern entrance to the Pacific coast of Mexico. Anna ghosted along at 2 knots for the 12 hours under a full moon, until dawn on day three, when we rounded the southern end of the island and dropped anchor in a pristine, volcanic bowl, named Melpómene Cove — a geological wonder, raw and strikingly beautiful.
Extending from the cove’s shoreline, boulders and reefs diminished the effects of the rollers. A small black-sand beach was set off against high sandstone cliffs. Omni-directional striations — bands of textured red, white, black, and orange hues — would change color as the sun moved through its long arc. The striations were oddly squid-like — ever adapting to new conditions by changing color. Melpómene Cove is protected from all directions except from the southeast. For the most part, the wind and seas are predominately northwesterly in this area, and so the cove’s southeast orientation provides a relatively mellow, open-ocean roadstead.
The sapphire-blue water that occupies this anchorage is crystalline. Even at a depth of 50 feet, we could clearly see our anchor chain laid out on the ocean floor and the CQR’s flukes, mostly buried. The seawater was so translucent, that we could spot arrays of orange fish and yellow fish and sea grass and the ripples in the sandy bottom, all without the aid of a diving mask. When we inspected the seawater filter, after running our reverse-osmosis watermaker, we could find no visible signs of sediment buildup, no visible algae, no discoloration; saltwater pollution was not part of the calculus in Melpómene Cove.
Melpómene Cove is certainly one of our treasured, isolated anchorages in the northeast Pacific. Guadalupe fur seals and Northern elephant seals are scattered on the rocky shoreline of the anchorage. They make wild sounds during the day and through the night, too. Their sounds have a broad range and are similar to the vocalizations of other creatures that we typically associate, with say, a jungle environment. We heard screams and growls and howls — like those of a charging elephant or a howling ape. The cove is a virtual surround sound of nature. It is a natural amphitheater. Sounds are amplified and redirected across the water by high volcanic cliffs. In actuality, Melpómene Cove is closer to an open-sea roadstead. Yet it is a fine anchorage for a cruising boat, some 200 miles offshore (when the weather cooperates). It feels primitive, it looks primitive, it sounds primitive — it is primitive and there are few places left that are quite like it.
What with solar and wind power to offset our energy requirements, the opportunity to barter for fresh lobster, and the protection the cove offered Anna, we were happy to be situated where we were. On the one or two occasions that we crossed paths with the few people who inhabited this island and fished its waters, we had very friendly, warm exchanges.
The terrain and its inhabitants
Isla de Guadalupe — 29° 02’ N, 118° 17’ W — is about 20 miles long, seven miles wide, and as Sailing Directions states: “… very radar conspicuous.” And it should be — as out of the blue, an island appears, an island that consists of a chain of high volcanic mountain ridges reaching approximately 4,250 feet high at the northern end. In the north there are fertile valleys and trees, a terrain inhabited, primarily, by wild goats. The southern part of the island, by contrast, is barren. The shores are high, bold and rugged, and there is a lack of suitable, convenient landing sites — as we were to find out. Inland, there is only a rough, winding, switchback dirt path connecting the southern end of the island to the fishing village on the west side. Without the benefit of the military truck, which resides at the south end military encampment, it is an arduous all-day hike. The small detachment of Mexican Navy men on the island make the run to deliver supplies to the fishing village, on occasion. However, the truck was gone and unavailable for us to hitch a ride to the isolated village.
About 15 people inhabit the island, year round, but during the fishing season, from September to June each year, about 30 families of the fishing cooperative — Abuloneros y Langosteros (Abalone and Lobster Fishermen of Guadalupe Island) — increase the population to roughly 90. These are small-boat fishermen — pangueros — and their families, which include about 25 children. These families live in Campo Oeste (West Camp), which consists of 15 simple, pastel-colored buildings of blue, pink, yellow, and green. The buildings are located on the edge of a barren, mountainous west coast landscape. They are set back from the ocean within an indentation that offers modest protection from the strong winds and relentless swells that whip the island during winter.
Attempt to visit the schoolhouse
One of the panga fishermen who we had traded with told us that the island has a small classroom in the fishing village, on the rougher windward coast, and that we might be able to anchor off the village to visit the schoolhouse and deliver materials that we had brought with us for just such an outpost. Since we did not want to leave Anna unattended, in an open rolling roadstead for the two days that we figured it would take to hike the long, unfamiliar round trip, we made the decision to try and sail around the southern end of the island and then head the boat towards the village, eight nautical miles to the north. If we managed to anchor off the isolated village, in the small indentation, then we would be able to dinghy in to the landing and deliver the supplies.
This strategy held promise, but in actuality, it turned out to be a difficult drive, into short steep wave sets, which reduced our speed through the water to less than 2 knots at times. It would take a few hours, under sail, to make the village at that velocity. We finally arrived, but the weather had stirred up the anchorage. It became too rough for an overnight stay: we abandoned our plan to anchor there overnight. We would need to find an alternative for delivering our supplies to the schoolhouse. Moorage off the exposed west side of the island was better suited to a panga, which could make a beach landing, if need be; our full-keeled cutter had far different requirements. And so, we made the decision to retreat to the south and east and broad-reached back to the protection of Melpómene Cove, on the leeward side of the island, which took just one-third the time of the northbound leg.
Later, while visiting the mainland, we shipped a parcel of school supplies to the fishing village. But not before spending a lot of time at the post office, trying to figure out what the postal code was for Isla de Guadalupe — an island that was remote enough, that even the postmaster had a hard time tracking it down. The schoolhouse would eventually receive our parcel, but when it would arrive and how it would ultimately be transported to the classroom were questions that could not be answered with any certainty. We could only guess that on the next Navy shipment to the island — the delivery of fresh water for the small encampment — our supplies would somehow arrive, too.
The fragile link to the mainland
As we sailed past the village, on our way back to the leeward side of the island, we noticed one large wind generator that probably provided a bare minimum of electrical power to all the families or possibly the electricity to run a shortwave radio. We also noticed a 3,000-foot long, dirt airstrip, on the edge of the village near the base of a high volcanic slope. We were told that supplies from the mainland are dropped here — if somewhat sporadically.
The small Mexican Ministry of the Navy encampment, on the south end of the island, maintains a remote meteorological center and surveillance outpost. Exactly what they are surveilling, in the midst of nowhere, is unclear, but when sailing past the landmark we could easily surveil it. The site has large, whitewashed rocks set into the side of a hill which proudly spell out the name of the encampment. Besides the military vessel that brings fresh water to the island, a visiting military physician provides medical service. You would not want to be seriously sick or injured, however, at Isla de Guadalupe. The island has a fragile link to the world beyond its rugged shoreline.
From extinction to a biosphere reserve
Today, Isla de Guadalupe is designated a biosphere reserve. On the higher, fertile northern end of the island, feral goats that Russian whalers and sealers introduced to the island in the early nineteenth century, still roam. The goats subsequently caused the extinction of many interesting species of plants and, in turn, the disappearance of a few varieties of birds which fed on plants. In contrast to the disappearance of plants, the waters of the island are home to healthy populations of Northern elephant seals and Guadalupe fur seals — it is a pinniped sanctuary and it attracts a profusion of Great White sharks.
For small-boat fishermen, life can be hard here in the stormy winter months when most precipitation occurs, often with strong northwest winds and cyclones. Fishing for lobster on a rough day, while working from an open 15-foot-long wooden panga on remote open-ocean waters populated with Great White sharks takes courage. It can be a harsh realm. There are no services on the island and there is no cash-economy. The pangueros fish for lobster, shark, and abalone for long, long hours each day, regardless of the weather.
A non-cash economy
Visiting boats are rare occurrences on Isla de Guadalupe and pangueros trade with visiting boats for commodities that are limited in supply. Shortly after we arrived at the southeastern end of the island, at Melpómene Cove, we had the good luck of a visit by a panguero who wanted to trade his lobster catch. We told him that we could give him one bottle of red wine, two cans of chicken, and a couple of chocolate bars for one or two of his lobsters. As we emerged from belowdecks with the goods, we found not one or two lobsters, but eight crawling around our deck. He was a very generous panguero, and we asked him to accept our appreciation as we handed him a variety of extra D-cell and AA-cell batteries that we had on board — and that put a handsome grin on his face. We ate lobster for breakfast, lunch and dinner over the course of the next few days.
Popular trading items for lobster or prawn include: Coca-Cola (root beer, as we learned in one of our attempts at trading, was apparently no substitute for the “real thing”), beer, whiskey, fresh water, tobacco, candy, cookies, T-shirts, and basic school supplies such as paper, pencils and erasers. These are simply commodities not readily available on an isolated island — an island with a non-cash economy.
We departed Isla de Guadalupe about a week after we had landed at Melpómene Cove. After sailing in a south by east direction for three days and two nights, the entrance to Bahía de Tortugas — a large, naturally-protected bay on the Baja peninsula, where Baja California Norte transitions to Baja California Sur — appeared, out of the blue, just as Isla de Guadalupe appeared, out of the blue, a week earlier. We took the long way to get to Turtle Bay, but it turned out to be the rewarding way.
On the passage to Turtle Bay, we tied 100 feet of parachute cord (1/8-inch nylon line) to a bungee cord (surgical tubing) and attached a colorful squid lure. We tied one end of this simple rig to a stern cleat and ran the balance of the line off the stern quarter while under sail. A clothespin attached between the bungee cord and the fishing line would release to make a snapping sound when a fish hit. It alerted us, by snapping, four times along the way. We caught four tuna — cooked one up for dinner and released the other three.
Panga fishermen and those fishing off the shoreline, always, it seemed, used hand lines. While the pangueros would drop their hand lines off the side of their boats, the fishermen at the shoreline would cast off from the beach or reef, bolero-style, by swinging a line — which had a rock attached to it for weight — around their heads, three times, then tossing the balance of the line into the sea. After a quick hard jerk, to set the hook, they would inevitably haul in their catch — hand over hand. After seeing how these fishermen worked, using their hand lines, exclusively, to catch fish, we began to rely on hand lines, too. It works very well and is a simple and bulletproof technique. More important, as we adopted their style of fishing, we noticed something: for some people, time and modern technology have hardly changed a thing.
Rich Ian-Frese and his wife Cat voyage in the Pacific aboard their Tayana 37, Anna.