Jessica Zevalkink and Luke Yeates set free in the Sea of Cortez as they discover the wonders of cruising Mexico with their newly restored yacht and new baby
The earth inhales. A treeless desert fevers under a rising sun, breathing the cool air that rests at sea. In the evening the earth exhales, its warm breath accelerates down the mountain sides, returning it to the sea.
The Coromuel winds frequent the southern half of the Sea of Cortez in late spring. We prepare for them every evening by setting our anchor tactically, for the gentle exhalations are quick to become 25 knots. Aboard our steel ship, I feel safe, Alekona seemingly uninterrupted by nature’s local phenomenons. Inside lies the entirety of my world, our four month old son Otis.
While Alekona floats steady, Otis grows. The landscape surrounding us looks Martian and the sea bright green. The Baja coastline has beautiful knuckles in which we can routinely find secure anchorages, and the further south we explore the more natural cavities we find.
In early May we’re late in the cruising season and the further we sail the more becalmed we become. But wind or no wind, this exploration is what we’ve been working towards all year. We light up when we find anything over 8 knots and favour night passages over day, avoiding the fierce heat.
Delighted in knowing that our 22 ton steel ship will even budge with less than 10 knots of breeze, we look forward to the Coromuel winds when they blow through.
My husband, Luke, and I became curious about metal sailboats after admitting to the simultaneous thrill we shared sailing through iceberg alley from Newfoundland to England in 2017. Our first iceberg encounter, aboard a fibreglass classic with no radar, shook me to my core with both terror and curiosity. We returned to the US via the Caribbean and, after an entire lap of the Atlantic, all we could talk about was ice.
As a result we began a search for a vessel suitable for higher latitudes. We put in an offer and bought our 1983 Endurance 44 in January 2020. Alekona was built in Auckland, New Zealand, and spent her life cruising the South Pacific and Hawaii before winding up in California.
She had all the potential in the world to sail where only the wild ones go. We invested in her with great ambition and a desire to sail a lap of the Americas via Cape Horn and the savage North West Passage.
Alekona waited patiently in San Fransisco Bay while the world shut down. She waited while we raised the funds to begin preparations for our first journey, and for me to grow with our first child.
While the world hid in their homes we took physical and financial risks in bringing our dreams to fruition. We carved out blocks of time to begin the structural work to Alekona’s keel, melting, cutting, and welding steel where rust had damaged the deepest. We prioritised everything below the waterline and focused only on making sure she was safe to sail. We’d wait to shine the bells and sound the whistles.
One year after the purchase of Alekona and back in Michigan, we had a boy named Otis. The goals Luke and I shared stood strong prior to starting a family and Otis did not change our desire to attain them, he simply changed the course and pace in which we may achieve them.
Six weeks later we packed up the car and drove west towards the Pacific. After a demanding month at the dock in San Fransisco I’d learned to finesse feeding an eight-week-old while sourcing parts and working on our old Isuzu diesel. Luke persisted on deck, mounting the Hydrovane, sealing ports and chasing rust as we worked towards a departure.
South from San Francisco
West coast folk insisted we mustn’t miss the Sea of Cortez. “The sea life…” they said. “The fishing. The best sailing in the world,” they said. “You can’t go broke in Mexico!” In the end we listened. The decision to sail downwind towards warmer water versus our original idea to head north for Alaska was a painless one, and we began our passage from San Fransisco into the Sea of Cortez with our new-old boat and our very new boy.
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I bewildered myself by looking forward to night watch for the first time in my life. It took 10 years of sailing to feel the shift from anxiety to enthusiasm for sailing into the darkness.
Night watch has become the only hours I am alone – and being alone tastes delicious. No matter how tired I am, the need to put all my energy into managing Alekona’s needs reminds me that I am capable of being more than a mother on this voyage. When everyone is awake, maternal tendencies override all other tasks and my focus never strays from Otis’s needs.
Occasionally boat and boy require me at the same time and I have a brief discussion with myself about whom to tend to first. Luke and I communicate around the clock about what needs doing and when. Unsurprisingly, my gut reaction is to reach for Otis first, while his is for Alekona, and in retrospect that division of labour surely was the safest. Sleep? What’s that?
Wide-eyed, my mind and body are already trained to being awake at peculiar hours. I snack for calories not for flavour and sip on concentrated coffee.
Happy and at peace in the darkness I adjust the Hydrovane towards Cabo San Lucas. We begin a soft curve around the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula and I can’t see a thing aside from occasional white water and the glow of tourism. With a lively 7.5 knots of ground speed and 13 knots of wind at our back, the boat sails upright with admirable posture and stays dry. She moves politely through the Pacific Ocean.
After two large downwind hops parallel to Baja we tuck into San José del Cabo, at the bottom edge of the peninsula. The temperature noticeably rises as we turn the corner and the winds lose their consistency.
Before we even reach the Sea of Cortez the midday heat leaks through the cracks of our navy blue, steel hull. We’ve covered all the ports with rags and towels and have four fans moving air.
Our cat, Tato, is stretched across Otis’s berth, which we have turned into a cave. Luke and his boy lay side by side, napping. Maybe if none of us move, the heat won’t see us? I lay down in slow motion, testing my Jurassic Park theory but the heat still knows we’re here.
I put Otis in his kangaroo pouch and we walk in search of breeze. At the rocks placed to carve out a harbour entrance, local families swim. I drop my things, remove my dress and strip Oti down. Holding on tight, we wade into the sea. The children’s smiles take up their entire faces as they welcome me into the water. They want to touch his toes and know his name. When no one is looking, I let tears roll down my cheeks because I had no idea how incredible it would feel to take my baby into the sea for the first time.
Around the peninsular
As we turn north into the Sea, all the things the west coast sailors told us about began to manifest. At anchor in Los Frailes I find all I ever wanted; to feel free and to feel primitive, to lay bare in the wild coves of the Cortez and feel weightless in a marinated sea of salt. All I wanted was this time alone with my family, for long enough to not be distracted by the things that make us forget to be grateful.
At the beach restaurant in Ensenada de Muertos we find ice cold beer and other travellers. We sip on tequila in the shade, eat the spicy local delicacies, and sweat. We look back at Alekona and discuss how much we have learned over the first 1,000 miles it took us to sail here.
We discuss sail handling and ways we can improve. Our mainsheet arrangement isn’t working and the lead to our roller furling has far too much friction. The leisure furl booms require finesse to reef and we talk through how we can be more efficient. We strategise the safest way to board our tiny dinghy with Otis and surf ashore where the swells are lightly dumping. We bicker about our dream of Cape Horn and debate its realities.
In La Paz we splurge on a marina and write long lists. We buy an air conditioner from a taxi driver and spend an afternoon locked inside. The desperation for a cooler night’s sleep seems worth any amount of money. We later find ourselves wandering the aisles of Home Depot and Walmart in search of everything that needs fixing and provisioning for our next leg.
In the naked hills of Isla Partida we find a treasure chest of flora and fauna. We walk with goats, get stung by bees and play with crabs. We argue with flying bugs, swim with shoals of bait fish and pray for wind.
In the pitch black we put on our snorkel masks and swim inside a globe of phosphorescent glitter. No matter how delicately we swim or how little movement we make, we create fireworks of luminescence. While Oti is fast asleep we swim laps around Alekona and play like children. It’s a night we’ll remember until the end of time.
Around every corner we find more golden memories; every time we drop the anchor it sinks kindly into soft sand and we rest as well as you can with a swiftly growing boy. We’re grateful for listening to all of the things ‘they said’ about the Sea of Cortez.
From island to island we work our way north in light, shifty air. Back on night watch, the peaks of Isla San José float on the surface and the navigation light of Isla Las Animas tells me where we are, which is in the middle of nowhere but close to somewhere. The wind lifts, the local winds brew and I roll out the headsail, estimating in the dark how far to sheet it in.
We hold steady, leaving a blazing road of neon at the trailing edge of the rudder. Cloud cover blacks out the stars to windward. I shuffle forward in 25 knots to reef the main, but I’m not fast enough and for the first time I can actually feel this ship is overpowered. I wake Luke with immediacy in my voice and take the helm to turn us closer to the wind while he struggles to roll the main into the boom furler.
After we have Alekona settled she smashes through a beamy chop just uncomfortable enough for me to ask Luke to take over. I go below to collect Oti and hold him tightly in my berth until the morning. He never wakes and I never sleep.
I live now in a space where the exposure of, and the protection of, Otis, will always tug me in opposite directions. The relationship between a desire for adventure and momma bear intuition is intricate.
What the Sea of Cortéz has shown us is an exquisite colour palette and removed us from familiarity. It’s provided a playground of weather patterns, becalmed one moment and overpowered the next. The landscape’s symmetry is interrupted by an ancient volcano, the afternoon silence broken by flying Mobula rays and skipjack tunas on our lure. Aboard our steel ship I feel safer now within her frame than I did before, outside of it.
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