Sea of Cortez in the time of coronavirus


We’d left the dinghy on the beach and hiked up to a isolated coastal rancho (family farm) to resupply our fresh vegetables. It was 25 miles north of Loreto, far from even any village. Cruisers on the VHF net said the rancho made excellent goat cheese.
A young farmer and his son working there responded with a big smile and “buen dia” as we approached. “No queso. Pero tengo huevos y verduras,” he responded, and then led us past the chicken pens and to his garden. He washed his hands and picked some green onions, tomatoes, the only ripe beet, red and green lettuce, and radishes and washed them for us. For the vegetables and eggs, we paid him 100 pesos (about $4). We packed our bags and we made the “elbow bump” instead of shaking hands before walking down the path to the boat.

Our home for the past seven years has been our 45-foot ketch Maraki, slowly sailing from Lake Michigan via the Hudson River to the Western Caribbean, crossing at Panama and up the Central American coast to Mexico. We’ve been in the Sea of Cortez for a year now, a body of water that lived up to its reputation for diverse flora and fauna, stark rocky islands and shorelines, friendly people and carefree idyllic sailing. Especially stunning is Bahía de Loreto National Park, named by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, almost 800 square miles of protected water and islands mostly barren except in spring, when flowers bloom, trees blossom and even the cactus comes to life.

The islands are uninhabited, except for the largest — Isla del Carmen — where desert bighorn sheep have been transplanted from the Baja mainland after habitat loss threatened to wipe them out, and a caretaker stays with them in a rustic camp, sometimes selling hunting permits to manage the population. The waters of the park teem with fish, and in March the gray, fin and even blue whales are most active. Manta and mobula rays sometimes leap from the water. Not that these waters are even crowded with cruisers, but spring is the busiest time with boats from Mexico and many other countries.

An artisan’s shop in the town of Loreto.

Lucy Knape

Instead, for the past month, we’ve witnessed what a virus can do even in the remote places of the world.

The rancho overlooks a beach that would normally have campers on it for the Easter Week holidays. Typically, Mexicans camp with large family groups, sharing meals and tents, while others have small truck campers but still social gatherings. These campers normally walk up the path to buy from this same rancho. Now, we meet no one on our hike. Only port-a-potties populate the desert beach, officially closed because of the concern over the spread of the virus. The police have closed the dirt roads leading to the water. The beach itself has been taken over by bighorn sheep. Maraki and three other sailboats lay in the anchorage, which in normal times might have a dozen.

Cruising has always involved days of isolation from the general public, finding social community with other boaters mostly at anchorages like this. Even this is now limited to chats from a dinghy, maintaining a safe distance away and not sharing food and drink on board other boats.

Given the scarcity of Internet connections and even cellular service, we’d spent much of February unaware of what was happening globally. We became aware of the virus possibly impacting us in early March. The Mexican government had responded much as the U.S. administration had, slow to jeopardize the economy until only recently when policies were initiated to forbid large gatherings.
Other North and Central American nations had responded earlier by closing their borders. Our news came via SSB net communication and Internet threads about where cruisers could go, as countries from Panama, Guatemala, Galapagos, French Polynesia and eventually all of the Pacific closed their countries’ ports and airports. Many boats — friends of ours — who had provisioned to head west into the Pacific had to revisit those decisions. Some already underway turned around back to Mexico or sailed to their home countries of U.S. and Canada if they had plenty of food, fuel and water on board. We had filled our fuel and water tanks for a two-month duration once we saw how the virus’ effect was trending. Fresh groceries might be a luxury to be stretched until we have none, but our hold contained months of the canned foods and dry goods.

Lucy Knape hiked to a local Baja rancho to buy supplies for Maraki. She was able to purchase eggs and vegetables.

Lucy Knape

Canadians were advised via their consulate to return to Canada ASAP in mid-March, and many left as soon as they could. Our Canadian neighbors want to go home, but they are new to the Sea of Cortez and have a wide trimaran, which can only be hauled out on highest tide in Puerto Peñasco, several hundred miles to the north in the northeast corner of the sea.
Our last trip to a town was March 25 when we went to Loreto, a town of 15,000 when all the tourists are there. We did a quick trip in by dinghy to stop at the grocery and the ATM. We brought hand sanitizer and chose not to wear gloves or masks. My long career as a nurse has trained me to believe that masks are for sick people and gloves are no better than clean hands if you touch all sorts of thing without changing gloves. The cashiers stood behind a newly installed Plexiglas shield, and other employees wiped down carts between uses. Store employees were wearing masks and gloves. All were pleasant and accommodating to us. We were the only people at the checkout, with 10 or fewer people in the store. No alcohol can be sold until the end of end of April as of now. Alcohol is synonymous with partying, and that means large gatherings. Again, Easter Week is party/family gatherings. Churches and outdoor cafes were all closed.

We plan for now to head northward, toward the top of the sea, the least visited portion. In The Log from the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck wrote the following while heading northward from Santa Rosalia: “The great world dropped away very quickly. … Our pace had slowed greatly. When the boat was moving we sat by the hour watching the pale, burned mountains slip by. A playful swordfish, jumping and spinning, absorbed us completely. There was time to observe the tremendous minutiae of the sea.”
Steinbeck captures exactly what we love about cruising and sailing, especially in the Sea of Cortez. The pace slows way down; whales, rays and dolphins play along with us as we move through the water. We snorkel to observe tiny animals in a multitude of habitats. We anchor and watch movements of the sun and moon. Along deserted beaches and trails, our only company comes from birds, lizards and occasionally bighorn sheep. Yet this virus has disrupted some of this peace, adding angst and choices about where we go or where we’re not allowed to go. We heard today of a new government edict for Puerto Peñasco. When we arrive, we will be met by health services before we can come into the port. If allowed in, we have to either be off boat and go to the U.S., or be quarantined on Maraki for two weeks. Of course, all this could change by next week or tomorrow.

—Lucy Knape lives aboard the 45-foot sloop Maraki. Will Van Dorp is a freelance writer in New York City.

By Ocean Navigator