Topolobampo Bound

With Christmas break upon us, it was time to finally head south to warmer waters. This meant crossing the Sea of Cortez to the mainland side and turning south for the next major cruisers hangout – Banderas Bay.

From La Paz there are several typical routes to head south. Probably the most common one is to backtrack toward Cabo to Los Frailes then cross the approximately 180 nautical mile sea directly east to Mazatlan. Those in a hurry would go to Los Frailes, then jump approximately 320 nautical miles to the south east directly to Banderas Bay. Since we are double-handing and want to minimize our consecutive nights at sea, we decided to take the scenic route and head north from La Paz, visit Isla Partida one more time, then continue to Isla San Francisco where we would cross the sea to Topolobampo where the crossing is less than 100 miles, then continue south to Altata, Mazatlan, Isla Isabel and finally Banderas Bay.

I had been keeping an eye on the weather for the last week and it appeared that it would be increasingly calm through Wednesday then the northerlies would return abruptly on Thursday. We really wanted to get across to the mainland before the winds piped up again. We would have a quiet Christmas in Topolobampo where there should be good enough cell coverage for FaceTime calls home to family.

Chart showing route from La Paz to Topolobampo

We bid farewell to La Paz at noon on December 21st, shortly after returning from our epic whale shark tour. As I turned in our marina keys I’ll admit I was a bit hesitant to say “hasta luego” to this place that had become so comfortable and familiar.

With some mustered determination we tossed the docklines and pointed Sonrisa’s bow north toward Isla Partida. Leaving the La Paz canal the familiar feeling of anxious excitement for the adventures ahead seeped in again. It did feel good to be underway.

Red and white striped rectangular lighthouse and oil storage facility
“Hasta luego” to the rectangular lighthouse leaving La Paz
Baja ferry
The La Paz ferry will arrive in Mazatlan long before we do

It was an easy 1/2 day motoring against light northerly winds to Isla Partida. We anchored at Ensenada Grande and were once again rewarded with gorgeous crystal clear waters and a beautiful quiet anchorage we practically had to ourselves.

Bright blue green water with rocky shore in the background
Bright blue green water with rocky shore in the background

Once the anchor was set for the night, Kristin went about making her matzo ball soup. She had never made it before, but before we left Emeryville one of her most loved clients gave her two boxes of the mix and given that it was Chanukah she thought she should give it a go. Kristin loves to follow recipe directions and she always has great results. This time was no exception. Since I have nothing to compare it to I can honestly say it was the best matzo ball soup I’ve ever had! It was good.

bowl of matzo ball soup

The next leg to Isla San Franciso was to be quite short at only 20 miles, so we took advantage of our time and got a good long night’s sleep and a lazy morning at anchor. Kristin made her famous blueberry pancakes and we luxuriated as the sun warmed the deck.

Isla San Francisco

It wasn’t until noon when the anchor was up and we were underway again. As expected there were very light winds from the north so it was another day of motoring up to Isla San Francisco.

Isla San Francisco is a small island to the north of La Paz which is most known for its nearly perfect semicircular bay and beach. The expanse of beach is quite nice and the bay is protected in all directions except the south, but other than that I found it slightly less desirable than the islands where we had just been. For one, in the protected islands of Isla Espiritu Santo, jet skis and other similar personal watercraft are prohibited so it was a bit jarring to be buzzed at the anchorage by obnoxious jet skiers. Plus, maybe for the same reason, the anchorage was much busier than the protected islands with boats coming and going to the beach throughout the day. Nevertheless these were minor annoyances in an otherwise spectacular anchorage.

Our stop at Isla San Francisco was just a rest stop and staging for the jump across the Sea of Cortez.

Crossing the Sea of Cortez

It’s always easier to leave an anchorage after dark than it is to arrive. Topolobampo lies at the end of a 14 mile channel with shallow shoals all around it. While it’s well marked, the series red and green flashing light markers would be exceedingly difficult to decipher after dark if you’ve never been there before. We wanted plenty of wiggle room in our arrival time to get there with plenty of daylight.

After an early dinner and a few hours nap, we were up again at 8:30 pm and raising anchor to head across the sea.

Our typical night watch schedule is 3-on, 3-off which is the best we can manage double-handed. 2 hour watches are not long enough for the off watch person to get enough rest and 4 hour watches are a bit long for the person standing watch to stay alert. I typically take the 6 pm to 9 pm and the midnight to 3 am watches and Kristin does 9 pm to midnight and 3 am to 6 am. Since we were getting underway at what would be Kristin’s first watch, we decided to swap so that I could get us out of the islands and into open water on the first watch.

moonlight reflecting on the water

The weather report held and we were treated to calm, moonlight seas for an easy motor across the sea.

As I was finishing my second watch just before dawn I noticed that we were approaching San Ignacio Farallon – a barren island approximately 10 miles out from the first channel marker for Topolobampo. Doing some quick math I confirmed that I’d be back on watch before we got to the channel.

Kristin already wrapped up in her foulies poked her head up the companionway.

“All good?” Kristin asked. This is usually how our change of watches start. The person coming off watch reports anything they had to deal with such as altering course to avoid a ship, lobster pots, etc. and anything that’s coming up that the next person should keep an eye on (again, mostly ships on the AIS).

“All good. There’s an island coming up on your watch, but I’ll be back on before we arrive at the channel entrance.”

“Island?” Kristin asked worriedly.

“Yeah, San Ignacio Farallon,” I said, zooming in on the chartplotter to show her, “but we’ve got plenty of room. The island will be a mile off our port side.”

When we’ve been more than 50 miles offshore and typically sail at least 3 to 5 miles offshore, a mile sounds really close. How quickly we’ve adapted to the sense of open water being safe and land being dangerous! I forget the exact quote or who said it but it’s something like, “It’s not the ocean that I fear, but the sharp bits around the edges.”

“It will be daylight before we get there. Just holler if it doesn’t look right to you.” I tried to reassure her as she zoomed and scrolled around on the chartplotter. “Remember you can use the whistle or the horn to wake me up if you don’t like what you see.”

“Alright,” Kristin said unconvincingly.

I went below and stripped off my foulie jacket and bibs. On night watches I like to wear something underneath my foulies that is comfortable to sleep in to reduce the amount of changing needed between watches. In cooler weather I like to wear fleece pants and pullover, in warmer weather a soft t-shirt and shorts. If the seas are the least bit rough, we’ll sleep in the main cabin rather than our v-berth in the bow as there’s much less motion there than the bow. Although it was calm enough to sleep in the v-berth I curled up in our Pretty Rugged faux fur blanket in the main cabin and promptly fell fast asleep.

“Greg! Greg! This doesn’t look right!” Kristin yelled as I startled awake.

I stumbled up the companionway just in my fleece and blinked hard to try to shake off my sleep and let my brain catch up to what was going on.

“The chart shows the island, but there’s a whole chain of them and we’re heading right for them!” Kristin anxiously said, pointing to the brightening horizon to the east where the sun was just about to rise.

Still groggy, and blinking to try to focus, I checked the chartplotter and turned to the bright orange glow of the horizon to the east. Sure enough there was the island we were expecting, a black silhouette on the horizon slightly to our port side. But then there were a half dozen other silhouettes extending directly across our bow. I looked down at the chart plotter again. One island. Looked at the horizon again. Many islands. I can feel my brain trying to wake up and understand what is going on, but it felt like being in that half-sleep state where illogical things seem perfectly explainable, but once you’re awake you can’t explain them.

“What is going on?” I thought to myself. “Is our GPS completely off and we are not where we think we are?” I stared hard at the horizon again then laughed out loud.

“What is it?” Kristin asked increasingly worried that I didn’t yet have an explanation.

sunrise showing island and tops of mountains on the horizon
Look closely to see the “islands” on the horizon

“It’s kind of cool. It’s an illusion of the horizon.” I explained. Pointing to the larger island on the left, I explained, “See that big one there. Thats the island. All the rest of those? Those are the mountain tops on the mainland beyond the horizon. Since they are all black silhouettes against the sunrise they all look the same. Kind of cool, huh? It’s like our first real landfall.”

“Those are on the mainland?” Kristin asked as she went through the same mental gymnastics to understand what she was seeing.

“Yup, getting close.”

“Oh my gosh. I was really worried,” Kristin exhaled.

“Proof that the earth is round! We’re still a couple of hours from the channel. All good now?” I asked hoping to be able to get back to sleep.

“All good.” Kristin said relieved.

As we approached the channel markers for Topolobampo we could see that there was a fair bit of shipping traffic coming and going from the port. A couple of ships were anchored just outside the channel and we were on a close angle with a ship that was approaching from the southwest of us. We also listened to the navigation chatter in both English and Spanish on the VHF as ship captains called for pilot boats and cleared in with the port captain.

We slowed to let the approaching ship pass in front of us for the narrow channel and I sorted through the Translate app as well as my Spanish for Cruisers book to assemble the sentences I’d use to call the port captain.

I’m still unsure if it’s the same protocol everywhere, but you’re supposed to call the port captain on channel 16 when arriving into an official port. He will ask a few questions, typically the name of the boat, where you’re coming from, how many people are on board, and whether you’re staying at the marina or anchoring. I assembled the phrases the best I could, grabbed the mic, took a deep breath and said, “Capitánia de puerto, Capitánia de puerto, Capitánia de puerto. Este el velero Sonrisa que llega desde La Paz. Dos personas a bordo. Nos quedaremos en la marina. Permiso entrada por favor.”

The radio crackled and the port captain answered in very fast Spanish that I could only catch a few words of. I did clearly hear “adelante, adelante” which the Translate app says means “come ahead” which either means that it’s ok to enter or he wants us to respond. “Gracias.” I replied, figuring that was the wrong response he’d let me know.


After 2.5 hours of motoring up the winding 14 mile channel through the shallow estuary of Bahia de Topolobampo we finally arrived at the marina. Or at least we thought we did. We saw a small marina full of large sportfishing boats and assumed it was Marina Palmira and started circling outside the fairway looking for a place to land. Kristin was on the bow as we sized up some vacant slips and roped-off end ties. Nothing looked promising. Finally as we were approaching a slip to just tie up and figure our where we were actually supposed to be a man on the dock shouted and waved toward the end of the pier. Kristin had a broken English exchange with him and reported back that the Marina Palmira is around the corner.

Circling out of our approach, we rounded the corner to find a few dozen easily accessible slips tucked in close to the shore and someone from the marina waving us in for one of the easiest landings we’ve made.

Besides the local industries of shipping, fishing and the ferry run to La Paz, the main attraction in Topolobampo is its proximity to the Copper Canyon Train which winds it’s way from Topolobampo to Chihuahua through a scenic canyon that is four times larger than the Grand Canyon. Kristin and I discussed it and decided that we didn’t want to risk exposure to COVID on a long train ride and overnight stay at a hotel. This is one of those instances where we are taking more of a reconnaissance approach to our travels and making a list of things we’ll do next time post-pandemic.

We made the best of it and walked the relatively short Malecon and explored the small town.

Malecon sign of Topolobampo
status of mermaid swimming with a dolphin
larger fishing boats in the marina
fishing panga boats tied to the shore
small wood building with a "Guiber" logo
Greg and Kristin standing in front of the Guiber shack with a low overhang

Continuing our tradition from La Paz, we hunted for our favorite street art. I would say that while like La Paz the art was an abstract celebration of nature and history, Topolobampo art was more psychedelic and edgy.

Mural on brick wall with stairs making it appear to be a ship being attacked by an octopus
Mural of psychedelic faces of four-eyed woman, blue skin woman with striped hair, cat, toucan, ghost with bolero hat and boy with baseball cap
Mural with a fish and a bird and dozens of eyes in the backgroud with the words "There is an eye that sees and another that feels" - Harumi Nazato

Christmas Eve arrived and suddenly Kristin was taken up in the Christmas Spirit.

“Darn it, we have to have some decorations,” Kristin grumbled as she she rummaged through the cabin lockers. “Here’s the LED light string my sister left.”

“Ok,” I chimed in, glancing around at what else could qualify as a Christmas decoration. “Here, use the candle jar. And here’s a lay”

We quickly assembled our centerpiece. Kristin stood back to admire it with pride.

“There. Now it’s Christmas.” Kristin declared.

Greg and Kristin sitting at the table with the Christmas centerpiece lit

On Christmas Day we spent most of the day on FaceTime with family. It was really strange to be in such a quiet and remote place for Christmas and we certainly missed being with friends and family. This was one of those times when our self-imposed isolation caught up to us and we longed to be with our family again. In that way our experience was the same as many others this Christmas.

At 4 pm later that same day, we bid hasta luego to Topolobampo and cast off again for get an early start for the next 124 mile passage to the next port south – Altata – or so we thought.

Sunset over the bay with hills in the background
Sunset on Bahia Topolobampo

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