Going Off-Grid

Posted by John

During our Sunday afternoon at Lupe’s restaurant in San Evaristo we had discovered the village Wi-Fi password written on a piece of wood nailed to the wall among all of the photographs, children’s art work, memorabilia, fish skeletons, maps, knickknacks, bird feathers, seashells, boat cards (business cards for retired people who are now travelling about by boat), pennants, posters and calendars. Everyone immediately took out their smart phones and tried to connect. It worked. Once that fact had been established, the phones went back in the bags and we all returned to the moment before the interruption. It was time for dessert.

Being able to get onto the internet briefly in San Evaristo assured us that the world was still there, if a little unsettled. But that’s about all we got. We were only able to get a few minutes of access before the connection quit and we got nothing but error messages concerning an “upstream client satellite link.” Maybe we broke it. We kept trying. Maybe, we thought, it would work again on Monday. It did not.

We had now gone several days without internet or phone service. We didn’t know it yet, but we were going to go for several more.

We were staying in San Evaristo ‘til Tuesday if the winds let up, then we’d continue north up the Baja side of the Sea of Cortez toward Puerto Escondido. Geary’s Weather is broadcast on the Sonrisa net every morning at 7:45. He talks for 15 minutes, giving a full report and three-day forecast for the Baja peninsula, the Sea of Cortez, and the entire mainland Mexican Pacific coast. He also briefly reports on the Pacific Northwest and California (so everybody knows what’s going on at home). It’s not the best way to evaluate the weather, but right now he’s the easiest, most reliable information we have available.

Tuesday morning, part way through his broadcast, Geary realized he was using old data. He apologized, and that was that. Someone else came on with fill-in weather, but we ended up not getting a clear idea of what was happening. At 8:00 Joe from Slainte called on the VHF and suggested we should go as we’d planned. We were making an eight hour run to Agua Verde, a stop over on the way to Escondido. We pulled the anchor and left almost immediately.

It was a long, uncomfortable slog to Agua Verde, bashing through steep, short-period waves of four to six feet in height. Sometimes you’ll be going along okay, then there’s a big hole in the water and the boat falls in. Then the boat climbs its way back out. A little bit later, you’ll do it again. It’s like that, really. Somehow, even though the boat’s doing all the work you get tired.

Agua Verde is on the north side of a large point with impressive, rocky terrain, surface breaking reefs, and sheer cliffs dropping into the water. Slainte was ahead of us and anchored behind the rocks and reef protecting the north cove, along with a large fishing trawler that was already there. We nosed into the middle of the south cove, not sure how quickly it became shallow. The chart said the depth soundings were made by the USS Ranger in 1881. We were concerned that the south cove was wide open to the sea on the north side, but at the moment, the winds were fairly quiet and the water was calm inside the bay. Mostly, it was that we were there, the anchor was down, and we were tired.

During the night (of course) the wind came up again and soon thereafter the waves came. The waves continued to get bigger and bigger. Sometime in the early morning before daylight, Joe called us on the radio to discuss plans. We made the decision to leave at first light (before Geary’s weather report) and push on to Puerto Escondido, trying to arrive by midday Wednesday. The last good (now stale) forecast received (two days prior) had said that the winds would dramatically increase at Escondido on Wednesday afternoon and so we wanted to be there before then—just in case the report was still accurate. These wind forecasts are generally made by computer models. The models require accurate input data on current conditions in order to project out into the future. As Cliff Mass (University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences) has said in his blog, more quality data points entered into the model means a better quality forecast. I suspect that there just aren’t as many high quality weather reporting stations in this area as there are in a place like Seattle. But, it was the only forecast we had.

By daylight, the waves coming into the bay were so big that our bowsprit would strike the water surface and we were taking a fair amount of spray onto the anchor windlass. We’ve learned from experience that salt spray into the windlass clutch is not a good thing. We keep it covered while underway now, but we’d never had waves like this in an anchorage before, and it had been left uncovered. Also, I had never gone up on the bow and tried to raise the anchor in waves this big. Being on a lee shore was a concern as well, since the wind and waves were pushing us toward the beach. So, with all those worries (my daughter says I worry too much about such things), we wanted to get the anchor up and the boat moving forward in one smooth operation without any screw-ups.

In my “no margin for error” effort to raise the anchor I managed to get it jammed crooked and stuck in the bowsprit. It was really stuck and wouldn’t budge, but with the deck beneath my feet plunging out from under me over each wave crest, there wasn’t anything I could do about it now. We’d have to figure something out before we anchored in Puerto Escondido. Or maybe, we’d heard, they were making everybody rent a mooring buoy there now. If that was the case, we wouldn’t need the anchor and we’d have plenty of opportunity to work on it once we got there.

We made it out past all the rocks and into the clear. The waves were bigger than the day before. After a short time Joe got on the radio and said that his GPS ground speed was too slow in these seas to make Escondido on time and they were turning back to Agua Verde. As they turned around, we heard they took a wave into the cockpit. With the stuck anchor and rough night we’d had, we didn’t want to go back to where we had just left. But a few seconds later we realized that we really had no choice. If we kept going, and the going was too slow, we’d risk getting there too late, possibly after dark, and might even have to try to grab a mooring in 30 knot winds. The trawler that had been hogging so much space in the north cove had departed during the night, so maybe we could get in there with Slainte.

We found that the better protection of the north cove was nothing like the wild night we’d had in the south cove. It took our giant screwdriver being used as a pry bar, but we got the anchor unstuck and down. We heard from Geary’s report that the wind was forecast to stay up, and even get stronger, with bigger seas, until Sunday. The one thing we knew for sure, was that Agua Verde was even further off the grid than San Evaristo.

Our first attempt to leave Agua Verde was slightly dramatic and decidedly not worth it.
The north cove was definitely the nicer place to be. We rocked some when the wind gusts topped 30 knots for two days, but otherwise it was an interesting and unique place.
Mysticeti and Slainte anchored at Agua Verde.
Having come to accept the desert scenery as a kind of painted backdrop of constantly changing colors, but little movement of any kind, we were quite surprised one evening to see and hear several goats grazing on the steep slopes of the pyramid shaped hill behind the boat. The next afternoon they were close enough to be identified as Nubians and made us miss the goats we used to have at home.
Those white things in this photo by Robyn are goats way up there on the rocks.
The main community of Agua Verde is located in the green valley behind the beach toward the right of this photo. The surf on the beach is often too much for a dinghy landing.
At low tide the shoreline can be walked from the north cove, around the point, to the main beach and a tiny store.
Once finding the store and making purchases, you only have to walk the beach back, scramble over the rocks around the point, get back in the dinghy and go back out to the boat.

We ended up staying in Agua Verde for a full week. Then, like a switch had been flipped, the wind and waves went back to normal. We departed and continued north to Puerto Escondido. We were sure that this would mean a return back to civilization and onto the grid, but—not so fast. The Wi-Fi, when it works, doesn’t reach us out in the bay. And the cell phone only connects when standing on the upper deck of the marina building and holding the phone in a certain position.

The white sailboat just visible in the center is inside Puerto Escondido. Mysticeti is out of view behind the hill in this photo taken from a moving car on the Baja Highway.
Of course, if you’re going to go off for a ride in the car, you really don’t know what kind of party your kid is having at home.