Sailing the Windy Sea by Barbara Harper
A week ago, a former colleague and friend posted a photo on Facebook of this year’s first snowstorm. From where I’m sitting, that’s pretty hard to believe. Admittedly the snowstorm occurred on Victoria Island in the Arctic Archipelago, where Cathy and I used to work together. It’s been exactly ten years since I last got to witness the tundra turn various shades of gold, red and sienna, but I remember marveling at how, in August, autumn was already evident. Along with the landscape taking on new colors, the days shortened noticeably, mountain peaks became frosted with nighttime snowfall and the air would take on a chill that the sun’s rays couldn’t beat back like it had at the peak of summer.
In Baja, where I live, just below the Tropic of Cancer, variations in weather from one season to the next are not as dramatic as they are in the temperate regions of the planet, let alone the Arctic, where they are at their most extreme on the planet. Nevertheless, the passage of the autumnal equinox marks the transition towards shortening days, cooler nighttime temperatures and eventually to a lessening in the intensity of the sun. Finally, sometime after mid-October seawater temperatures begin to decline.
It’s been four long months since the mercury fell below 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30°C) and many a day when they did not dip below 90. The last couple of mornings, however, when I’ve ventured outside to release the hounds, the quality of the air has changed – it’s got that autumn crispness to it and the moist coolness feels good on my skin. I lift my arms up and let the air envelope as much bare skin as possible. These mornings as I sit on my surfboard waiting for a wave, the air feels incredibly refreshing as it flows through my wet rashguard. It’s down right cold as it whips across the skin on my legs as I and my board rush across the face of a wave. It’s still hard to imagine that in another month, it will feel cold enough to consider wearing a shorty wetsuit (Short legged and made of thinner material than that of a full wetsuit).
As the days wear on though, the daily high temperature still exceeds 95 degrees and the sun’s rays remain intense (it being a only little over two weeks since the equinox). Despite wearing ample, good quality high SPF sunscreen, the skin on my face has been burnt more times in the past three weeks than it has all summer. The concrete block that the garage is constructed of still absorbs the sun’s energy, turning the garage into a little hotbox that I am reluctant to lock a couple of the dogs in overnight.
Other signs of the changing season include the remarkable fact that the water coming out of the taps is no longer scalding hot, but cool like the morning air. At the height of summer, I often have to jump out of the stream of water because it’s too hot, despite the fact that the water heater gets turned off in May. One of the more remarkable signs of winter’s approach came a few days ago when I saw the first Humpback Whale cow with a brand new calf in tow, making their way North up the sea towards their overwintering habitat between El Cardonal and Cabo Pulmo. When I emailed my friend, the whale researcher Urmas Kaldveer, to tell him, he confirmed my suspicion that we were ahead of the normal schedule for female Humpback sightings.
And then, three days ago, midway through my morning session the wind shifted and took on an all together different quality that told me winter was inexorably on its way. It switched from offshore to come from the North and picked up quickly, turning the bay into a mess of wind chop and white caps. It was a stiff, cool wind, unlike summer wind.
The North Wind is a phenomenon in eastern Baja that brings windsurfers and kitesurfers from the world over to play in the waters off her shores. As temperatures in the Rocky Mountains plummet, the wind funnels down the Colorado River to the Delta where it blasts down the path of least resistance, the Sea of Cortez.
Like the roads here, the wind is a blessing and a curse. It can blow 30 knots or more for days on end, throwing sand and dirt everywhere, making gardening and weeding impossible, causing sinus infections and blowing out what would otherwise be perfectly good surf. For wind-sport enthusiasts it creates the right conditions for them to have the time of their lives. It’s the reason I took up kitesurfing in an “If you can’t beat it, join it” moment of clarity.
Despite the North Wind, we currently have two tropical storms, Hurricane Jova and Tropical Storm Irwin, spinning just South of us and a third tropical disturbance further South off the coast of southern Mexico is gaining in strength and organization. Sea temperatures remain in the mid-80s, which means her waters offer little resistance to the movement of storms. Autumn truly is a transitional season – we are experiencing winter and summer weather patterns at the same time!