Gail was the first person ever to join us on a night passage. Adventurous and eager to experience one of the quintessential aspects of our cruising adventure, she was excited to get off the dock and to depart Mazatlán. Two days after Christmas, we exited Estero Sábalo in the late afternoon and raised our sails as we rounded the northern tip of Isla Pájaros. Seas were mild, and winds were light, providing just enough wind to keep our sails full.
Our destination was Isla Isabela, a small island situated between Mazatlán and Banderas Bay, some 18 miles off the coast of Pacific Mexico. Our curiosity about the island dubbed “The Galapagos of Mexico” had been piqued by s/v Serenity, a couple whose blog we follow. They had informed us that they would “cluck their tongues at us” if we didn’t make the stop. It had been one of their favorite places on their adventure from Oregon to Panama. Not fond of tongue-cluckings and hoping we’d adore the remote paradise as much as they did, we immediately scrawled it into our ever-evolving must-see list.
Our respective watches were pleasantly uneventful, and Gail’s enthusiasm about the experience added to the jovial tone of the passage. She awoke and crawled from the aft cabin to keep Neil company in the cockpit during the wee hours before dawn. Swells built during the early hours of the day, but the winds persisted and our whisker pole helped support our headsail. We continued to cover ground, making a slow but steady 3.5 knots under sail. As the sun began to climb into the sky, our island destination came into view, barely distinguishable from the midmorning blues of the sea and the sky.Anchoring obstacles
The hazards of anchoring at Isla Isabela are well-documented, with one guidebook suggesting the island had gobbled up more anchors than any other gunk hole in Mexico! Several hours before we arrived, we overheard two boats discussing their adverse experiences anchoring that very morning. One mariner had attempted without success to set his hook three times. His anchor fouled on the final try and was reportedly saved only by the assistance of a fellow boater who snorkeled down to free the chain and hook. He had decided not to press his luck further and abandoned the idea of exploring Isla Isabela. The boat on the other side of the conversation followed suit. Trepidation about anchoring amongst perilous volcanic rocks ultimately did not dissuade us; we needed to survey the anchorage for ourselves.
Of the two anchorages available on Isla Isabela, we selected the southerly bay, which provides better protection from prevailing northerly winds and ocean swell. We were the third boat to tuck into the snug anchorage and were met with unsolicited kindness, a quality that is almost archetypal among the cruising community. Snorkelers from m/v Andante were in the water inspecting the hazardous volcanic sea floor, searching for a sandy spot where we might drop our anchor. Success! We set our hook on the first try.An island alive
Secured in the anchorage and nearly 100 miles away from the intense hubbub of busy Mazatlán, a tranquility descended over The Red Thread. The three of us spent two days on Isla Isabela marveling at the colorful world above and below the sea. We hiked, standup paddleboarded, and snorkeled.
We beached Miss Sassy (i.e., our dinghy) at the base of the small fish camp on the beach and wandered below the canopy of trees whose branches were drooped beneath the weight of dozens of frigate birds. We stared in wonder as males drummed their large, red gular pouches, an ancient dance aimed at enticing a prospective mate. All the while, oversized iguanas ambled through the grass and sunned themselves on lava rocks. Tiny neon lizards and larger, wiry ones with black spots darted across the trails, the only critters on the island who seemed to be in much of a hurry. Together, we summited the southwestern bluff of the island. Neil and I gazed down at our boat, our home, tethered to her anchor in the precarious but protective embrace of a volcanic reef. We had arrived at a living image of the fantasies we’d conjured up in our minds when we were in Elliott Bay Marina, dreaming and scheming about severing our dock lines.
The few chicks that had hatched were awkward in their woolly, snow white attire. It was well above 80° Farenheit, and they appeared to be wearing winter parkas!
Blue-footed boobies, with their icy eyes and frenzied song, were fewer. Unlike their generally unassuming cousins, the blue-footed boobies hopped and danced when we came too near. From the apex of the bluff, we could see whale spouts on the other side of the island, further evidence of the rich sea life that sustains the tiny island and its many unique inhabitants.
Our activities were simple and satisfying during our days at Isla Isabela. I made my mom’s tasty no-bake cookies, a perfect recipe for a sweet when the prospect of cranking up the oven in an already sweltering boat is unbearable. Gail read a book and soaked up as much sun as her vitamin-D vacation would offer, while Neil snorkeled to find a good spot for a newly arriving boat to anchor. We watched a mother humpback and her calf surface repeatedly in unison just outside the bay.
Three panga fishermen showed off their assortment of bait fish as they prepared to head to sea to set their lines. One grinning fisherman shook the carcass of a sea snake at us, chuckling, perhaps in amusement of the revulsion pasted across our faces. In exchange for three of my mom’s cookies, they shared a few fish hooks and more than a generous helping of squid mantel they recommended we use as bait.During our final evening, we enjoyed the company of our friends on s/v Sarita. Jude had crafted delicious homemade tuna sushi rolls, which we devoured. Dusk fell and thousands of exotic birds peppered the orange sky. In the distance we heard the sound of whale spouts.
Point of departure: Mazatlán, Mexico – 12/27/14
Point of arrival: Isla Isabela, Mexico – 12/28/14
Distance traveled: 105 nautical miles
Total time: 20.5 hours
Engine roaring: 1 hours
Sails soaring: 19.5 hours
Average speed: 5.1 knots
Jessie’s musings: Our experience at Isla Isabela is truly best captured in the photos. It was difficult for me to find words for a place so interesting, strange, and beautiful. Isla Isabela was a destination that aroused all of my senses…the sounds of the birds, the vistas of the island, the smells of the sea, and the feeling of the water on my skin. Reconnecting with our friends on s/v Sarita was as refreshing as the time we spent exploring the water, and introducing Gail to our new life was an experience I truly treasure.
Neil’s reflections: Isla Isabela is like stepping onto the set of a Jurassic Park movie. There is an abandoned research center that is overrun with lizards, birds, and fishermen. The frigate birds look like the descendants of pterodactyls, and the whole environment is a juxtaposition of lush greenery and large volcanic bluffs. This was my favorite stop so far. Having my mom along for the trip was incredible as our night sail was amazingly calm. When she commented on how rolly it felt to her, Jessie and I both laughed a little…it was perhaps the quietest passage we’ve had yet. The beauty of having mom along was that we got to see the experience through her eyes, making clear just how well we’ve adjusted to life at sea.