Sailing the Sea of Cortez: Finding Fish & Losing Steering!

Sailing the Sea of Cortez: Finding Fish & Losing Steering!

And we’re outa here! Starlink mobile priority is on and we will be updating periodically throughout the approximately 600-mile, nonstop journey to La Cruz.

It was a very quiet and slow sail through the afternoon and through that first night.


Rolly Sea of Cortez
Rolly Sea of Cortez

Dec 14/2023, 06:35

Position: 26° 49.727N 110° 38.982W
Heading: 170° T
Wind: NW 14 Kn T
Point of Sail: Dead Down Wind
Seas: Rolly as Fuck!

We had the line out, our big green hoochie on, and we hooked into a small Dorado. We threw that one back and tried for something bigger. After couple more hours of leisurely sailing, just in time to make it onto the dinner menu, and right when the wind piped up from 15 to 25 knots we hooked into this one. She was hard to pull in because of the speed we were doing but definite worth it.

Dec 14/2023, 18:00

Position: 26° 18.030N 110° 02.171W
Wind: NW, 18-23 Kn
SOG: 5+ Kn
Seas: 2+ Metres
Heading: 162° T

Fully reefed in lively seas, caught two Dorado, threw one back. Fish Tacos on the Fly by Wendi. Awesome!


Though we had lazily wandered into day number two it would be the last of any serenity we would see.

The seas were steady all through the night and though the average wind speed was around 20 knots, we saw gusts up to the high twenties pretty regularly.


Dec 15/2023, 06:40

Makeshift Emergency Tiller
Hove to with Emergency Tiller

Position: 25° 20.973N 109° 39.089W
Wind: NW, 25 Kn T
SOG: 5 Kn
Seas: 2-3 Metres
UPDATE: Hove to – No steering

The relief of daylight was shattered as we sailed into the area offshore of Topolobampo, 30 miles from shore. As the sun came up the autopilot was handling the point of sail and the seas quite handily.

The tides at that time were changing only twice per day, meaning we’d had a favourable tide for the past approximately 12 hours and were coming into an opposing tide that would be with us for the entire day.

The seas had grown large and steep due to the wind over tide conditions. According to the Windy app, we were expecting seas of at least 2 metres. That looked pretty accurate but there were fairly regular sets of three waves coming frequently which were much larger. Our estimate of those was three metres if the regular ones were two metres.

Shortly After Sunrise:

It was 06:40 when I decided to do my morning update of our trip. Wendi was already below in the cabin cleaning up the seawater that was coming through the leaky chainplates, so I asked her to turn on the Starlink. We were sailing nicely at 5 knots under a double-reefed main and just a small bit of Genoa. While in the aft cabin turning the internet on, Wendi discovered oil spilled on the cabin sole.

Meanwhile, in the cockpit, the autopilot began to lose control so I took over the helm. Steering by hand I could feel that there was something wrong. I checked the hydraulic oil and there was none on the dipstick.

I went down to the aft cabin to find the leak. I was on my hands and knees trying to see which compartment under the bed the oil was coming from. The hydraulic steering system is the only possible source of oil in the aft cabin and it spans two separate compartments.
After skating across the oil-soaked cabin sole on my hands and knees, propelled by a roll of the boat, and subsequently breaking the door to the paint cabinet with my head, we started to try to heave to, but with a nearly unresponsive steering system, this proved impossible in those conditions.

We did a quick search for the one-litre hydraulic fluid that I had bought earlier in the year but could not immediately find it.

Hove To
Our slick hove to

I rigged up a 1/2” drive breaker bar and socket on the top of the rudder post as an emergency tiller, using a length of stainless steel tubing for leverage. With me on the tiller, down in the aft-cabin, and with Wendi’s eyes in the cockpit, we managed to get Cosmic Debris hove to. This calmed things down enough that we were able to find the leak and the bottle of hydraulic oil and top up the helm pump.

Leaky Hydraulic Cylinder
The Leaky Hydraulic Cylinder

Thanks to communication via Starlink to friends on shore in La Paz who alerted the Port Captain and Marina Palmira (Topolobampo) of our situation, they were standing by.

At that point of our journey, we were directly offshore of Topolobampo and the only choice we had was to cut 90° across those large, steep seas to get into port. I decided to run under motor power and steer by hand in hopes of steering less and timing waves to avoid a knockdown. Wendi started the engine and checked for water at the exhaust – there was none. This was a recent, and odd, development with the engine and was not a surprise.

I disconnected the exhaust water outlet at the anti-siphon valve and started the engine to prime the raw water pump. A few minutes later, we had “Garth” up and running with water flowing.

Despite my best efforts to time the waves, we were tipped on our ear several times over the day, thankfully with no catastrophic consequences.

Entering the channel to Topolobampo
Topolobampo Channel makers

We finally reached the entrance to the channel into Topolobampo just before dark and were anchored in a small sheltered cove shortly after dark.

We slept long and hard that night.


Dec 16/2023, After Lunch

Position: 25° 34.300N 109° 09.493W

The following afternoon I called for the Port Captain on VHF 16 but to no avail. Finally, the captain of an inbound ship responded to my radio check call and invited me to follow him in. We motored the rest of the way in towards town following the ship until reaching the secondary channel that leads up to Marina Palmira.

The main channel we had followed from the open sea was very well-marked. The Navionics charts we have on our Chartplotter do not show any markers in the secondary channel but do show a dredged channel that is undoubtedly subject to shifting bottom.

Navionics charts on the Chartplotter
Navionics Chart

As we were starting up what I believed (or was hoping) to be the secondary channel we began to slow and Garth began to labour – we were running into soft mud

After everything we’d been through in the past day and a half, this was not a good feeling. Then I remembered that we were 5 hours into the ebb tide that would last another 7 hours. I began backing and our starboard prop walk finally showed its worth and as we slowly backed out, it brought our bow around until we were pointing toward the main channel. I put it back into forward gear and with wide open throttle our speed slowly increased until we were finally free.

Navionics Boating App Chart
Navionics Boating App Chart

To add insult to injury, as we circled out into the main channel and came around to look back toward the marina, we spotted some markers in the distance. These would be the markers that do not appear on the Navionics charts that I paid $200 for.

I grabbed my iPhone and opened the Navionics Boating App and lo and behold, the charts that I paid $20 for, from the same damned company, show the markers and they’re fairly accurate.

As we passed the last set of markers and approached the marina we lost all steering again. As I was trying to steer to port, the rudder would return to starboard. We had no choice but to drop the anchor inside the navigable channel. We launched the dinghy and headed for the marina.

One last contributing factor to running aground is the DST800 transducer from Airmar. After 10 years and 3 different transducers, we still have the same intermittent (un)reliability problem. Another post for another time.

Thanks for tuning in!

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Captain Clown Boy / Wonder Woman

SAILING INFIDEL: Def. An unbeliever, heathen, pagan, heretic, agnostic, atheist, non-theist, freethinker, libertine, dissenter, or nonconformist of the sailing variety

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