Friday, March 24, 2017

The Zen (Not) of Passage-Making North

Old 1700 Church in San Blas
We spent the last week travelling 400 nm or so north from La Cruz on the mainland to La Paz on the Baja Peninsula.  While the passage seemed to take forever, it was about as good a passage as we could hope for when travelling north against the wind.  

We broke the passage into 3 sections: 

Leg One: A long day sail up to the town of San Blas, 60 nm north of La Cruz

We arrived at the river mouth at about 9pm and so had to negotiate the river bar and very shallow depths in the dark.  Our plan was to follow our old track on the chart plotter from when were where last there in December/January.  Unfortunately it appears that in the last 2 months the Navy had moved one of the channel buoys… you guessed it, to directly onto the path of our old track!  This caused a few moments of hysterics while I yelled at Gary to turn hard to starboard and he resolutely continued on the ‘track’.  The mounting panic in my voice obviously had an effect as he did finally turn to starboard… and we cleared the buoy by about 2 feet.   

Blue-footed Booby
In San Blas we spent a day touring the old fort and learning about the history of the town.  Apparently at one time it was the biggest port for the Spanish navy in Mexico.  Hard to believe when you see it now…  We then had dinner with 10 other Cruising boats all staying at the marina.  We met a lot of new and interesting people.

Leg Two:  A long day sail out to Isla Isabel, 40 nm NW of San Blas 

We spent the morning motoring in calm seas while dodging long lines.  The winds then blew between 7 and 13 knots all afternoon from the exact direction we were trying to go, but we had a beautiful sail almost all the way there.  We had to turn on the motor for the last 2 miles as the island seemed to have a force field around it.  No matter what tack we were on, we kept getting headed away from the island… Thank god for Myrtle (our trusty diesel engine).  Upon arrival, Gary jumped in the water to survey the bottom for a sandy spot to anchor (the bottom tends to be mostly anchor-eating rock piles and so some reconnaissance was required).  We had the hook down and set just as the sun went down. 

Baby Boobies at Isla Isabel
The next day I went to shore to check out the birds and lizards (Gary had a cold and needed to rest).  When we were here in December the frigate birds and boobies were all sitting on nests.  Now all the eggs had hatched and there were hundreds of fluffy white baby birds.  What is so amazing about Isla Isabel is that you can get within feet of the birds without them being afraid.  It was wonderful. 

In the afternoon I coaxed Gary into the water for what will probably be our last warm water snorkel of the year.  The visibility was incredible and we were rewarded by swimming with literally hundreds of fish and one turtle. 
Twin Boobies

The only downside to the island was the seas and swell.  Isla Isabel has 2 very exposed anchorages and so is susceptible to the whims of the ocean.  Conditions were extremely calm during our time there, but a slight SW swell made it uncomfortable, to say the least.  We kept joking that is was like we were already on passage!  Still worth the stop though.
Baby Frigate bird

Leg Three:  Isla Isabel to La Paz, 310 nm

As going north in strong winds is very difficult because of the short, choppy seas that you have to beat into, we agreed to do the passage in calm conditions.  This weather window was as calm as it ever gets.  There had been no systems in the Sea of Cortez for over a week, and there was no big ocean swell coming into the area.  Most of the boats travelling north chose this week to do the crossing.  We knew it was going to be a light air passage, but we agreed to sail whenever we could make over 3 knots per hour, and to motor the rest of the time. 

We left Isla Isabel and immediately put up the sails as there was a bit of wind.  Unfortunately the wind was directly on the nose… But, we sailed anyway and slowly tacked our way up towards Mazatlan.  I think Gary was hoping to sail the entire way to La Paz, but after 13 hours of sailing that day and only moving 25 nm in the correct direction towards La Paz (out of 310 nm), it soon became clear that it was going to take us a lifetime to actually sail there. 

I’m all about progress on a passage.  Yes, I try to be Zen about it - after all, we take our house with us when we sail and so have everything that we need to live.  But I just can’t get past not making way towards our destination.  So I guess I need to work on the Zen-thing… 

Pod of Pantropical Dolphins on Passage
Anyway, we turned on the motor and gave Myrtle a workout.  Conditions were bouncy in the evening, caused by seas left over by the afternoon winds, and then mellowed out to mill-pond-calm by morning.  Day 2 was much the same as day 1, but we only sailed for 7 hours in the afternoon (which got us another 10nm closer to La Paz).  Day 3 had no wind at all.  The sea was flat, flat, flat.  It was so flat that we actually transferred fuel from our jerry cans to the diesel tank while underway.  We were so bored that I actually agreed to play a game...

We had originally planned on stopping at an anchorage called Muertos, about 60 nm south of La Paz, but as we were going to get there after dark and we now had enough diesel in the tank to make it, we decided to keep going overnight all the way to La Paz.  We actually had a great sail up Cerralvo Channel and added another 20nm of sailing towards our destination.  We arrived in La Paz by 8am. 

Overall the passage took 72 hours.  48 hours of them were under power (contributing to 240nm towards our destination) and 24 were under sail (contributing to 55nm towards our destination).  We basically used an entire tank of fuel to get us from La Cruz to La Paz.  Unheard of for us.  Gary is horrified over what this does to our sailing/motoring numbers this year, but I’m just happy we got here in 3 days versus 10.  Three days was definitely long enough.

We are now in La Paz, anchored in our usual spot off of the main marina.  We must be back in the Sea as the water temperature is down to 21oC, we’ve had to put on sweaters during the day, and it is blowing like hell (yup, a Norther). 

We will be in La Paz for 10 days or so finishing up some boat projects (like the stack pack for the mainsail we started sewing last year).  We will leave La Paz April 1st and sail with some friends from Vancouver who have rented a catamaran for a week.  We will then continue north up towards Guaymas and put the boat to bed by the end of April.  Hopefully we’ll start to see some southerly winds by the time we have to head north.  Fingers crossed.  Myrtle could use a break.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Perfect Combination...

...Warm Weather, Warm Seas and Gentle Winds

Part One:

After a cold and windy season in the Sea of Cortez last year we decided to travel south in search of warmer weather and warmer seas.  I’m happy to announce that we have been successful in our quest and have spent the last 3 months on the Mexican mainland coast between San Blas and Manzanillo. 

We arrived in the area mid-December, and after a quick trip to La Cruz (near Puerto Vallarta) to visit friends, headed up to the town of San Blas.  We spent a week working on the boat and exploring this lovely little Mexican town.  While we were there I convinced Gary to do an inland river to tour to see the crocodiles that populate the area.  The tour did not disappoint!  We saw several baby crocs as well as a couple of the big boys.  The tour turned around at a crocodile reserve where you could get up close and personal with your favourite croc with nothing but a chain link fence between you and the beast.  You could even pet them if you wished…

We left the boat at the marina in San Blas and flew home to Vancouver for a cold, snowy Christmas.  Gary returned in early January, while I suffered through the horrendous weather in the Pacific NW for another month.  I was certainly happy to return to the boat at the end of January!

Barra de Navidad from the Hotel/Marina
Gary single-handed the boat down to PV, then tortured his cousin Karen with several tough passages 150nm south to Barra de Navidad.  Flight schedules (me arriving, Karen leaving) meant they had to sail south through several days of strong southerly winds.  Normally this is just an uncomfortable point of sail (my least favourite), but unfortunately the hatch in the salon got left open one of the days… and the bilge pump switch got jammed in the “off” position… and so there was a bit of a water disaster below decks.   Luckily they discovered the issue fairly quickly and so there was no major damage to any of the systems (thank god for lithium batteries), but there were a lot of things to rinse out and dry (ie, the salon cushion, all our log books, all our guidebooks, the lithium batteries etc).  Luckily the sunshine is hot and dry in this climate, so we had the boat back to normal in a couple of weeks.

Hotel Attached to the Marina in Barra
I met up with Gary in a town called Barra de Navidad.  It is a wonderful place just north of Manzanillo.  It is the only completely protected anchorage on the mainland Mexican coast.  In addition, it has a fabulous marina attached to a world class hotel.  As the two halves of the town are located on either side of the lagoon, there is a flotilla of water taxis that service the area.  While they are there primarily to take the locals from one part of town to another, they will also take the Cruisers into town or back to the boat for a very reasonable fee (about $1 per trip).  Very convenient!  We split our time between the calm lagoon anchorage and the marina, where we enjoyed the pool facilities to their max.  It was expensive, but worth it!  

One of the best things about Barra is the French Baker who sells his goodies from his panga 5 days a week.  He visits both the marina and the anchorage, which was both a good and bad thing, as we ate way too many chocolate croissants while we were there!  
Chocolate Croissants, Anyone?

My friend Libby joined us for a week in early February.   We enjoyed the marina for a few days and then sailed up to a bay called Tenacatita, about 15nm north of Barra.  We put Libby to work doing some boat jobs (thanks for the anchor chain splice and winch cleaning Libby!) but also spent a few days snorkeling and enjoying the beach.  We survived several surf landings and didn’t manage to break her this year (except for a slightly damaged toe).  At some point she'll forgive Gary for the long walk into Colimilla when we could have taken a water taxi...

We decided Barra would be our turn-around point for the year.   We spent about a week back in Tenacatita after Libby left enjoying the daily routine of surf landing the dinghy to get to shore, walking the beach, playing bocce and hanging out at the palapa restaurant on the beach with all the other Cruisers.  

Then a big up-welling from the ocean brought in a nasty algae bloom and dropped the water temperature by 4oC.  Clearly it was time to start heading north back to the Sea of Cortez.

Part Two:  The Slow Trip North Begins

Blow Hole in Paraiso
We left Tenacatita during a period of unsettled weather.   Strong southerly winds, huge seas and thunderstorms were forecast.  While everyone headed south back to Barra for protection from the ‘storm’, we of course went north.   Luckily the ‘storm’ didn’t end up traveling as far south as originally predicted and so we were able to spend 2 nights in a ‘calm weather only’ anchorage called Paraiso.  

Gary and Karen had stopped in this anchorage on one of their awful sails south the month before, and had spent a very uncomfortable night in this very tight spot with 2 other boats.  They also had our famous ‘no water through the engine’ issue on the way into the bay and so had to sail-to-anchor as the conditions were too rough to attempt to fix the issue in the open ocean.  Now, this anchorage is small.  When we entered the bay under very calm conditions I was worried we wouldn’t have enough room to turn the boat around without running into the rock reefs on either side of the bay.  Needless to say I felt pretty sick looking at Gary and Karen's sail track from the previous month on our chart plotter...  It is a testament to Gary’s good sailing skills that they and Sear Rover made it into the anchorage unscathed!

Sea Foam in Paraiso
Despite the presence of a small hotel on the beach, the anchorage has a very remote feeling to it.  It is fairly open to the swell and so the waves tend to crash on the rocks surrounding the bay and on the beach.  As we were the only boat in the bay we were able to set a stern anchor to keep us pointed into the swell at all times.  As a result, we spent 2 pretty comfortable days exploring the area.  We kayaked and snorkeled, enjoyed a wonderful sunset and watched the bioluminescence in the water, as well as a lightening storm off in the distance. 
We felt like we were the only people on the coast (which we pretty much were as everyone else was in Barra or in Puerto Vallarta).  It was quite magical.
Unsettled Weather in Paraiso

Dinner on the Beach in Perula
From Paraiso we moved on to a bay called Chamela, the last anchorage before you have to round Cabo Corrientes.  Being a Cape, Corrientes tends to have big winds and uncomfortable seas associated with it.  We liked Chamela so much we ended up spending a week there.  We made daily trips into the town of Perula for ice cream, despite the dinghy surf landing it required.   We almost flipped the dinghy upside down on several occasions, but luckily only managed to either fill the dinghy with water or get very, very wet.  All in all it was pretty fun.

Hungry Hermits
As conditions were calm we spent one day anchored in a set of islands in the bay with the crews of Kialoa (Tanya) and Seadra (Ed).  Kayaking around the island with Tanya, dinner on the beach, watching thousands of hermit crabs pick apart a tortilla chip, and seeing an octopus while snorkeling were the highlights.  What an amazing place. 

All too soon it was time to head north back up to Puerto Vallarta.  For once we managed to pick the right weather window and had a good upwind sail almost all the way to Cabo Corrientes.  We even heard whales calling through the hull!  The conditions couldn’t have been more calm going around the notorious Cape at midnight.  It was like glass.  The wind then picked up enough to enable us to sail up Banderas Bay.  We arrived and anchored in La Cruz at dawn.

We’ve been based in La Cruz for the last 2 weeks.  My sister rented a condo in nearby Bucerias and invited my parents down for the week so we hung out with them and did boat jobs (never ending).  As La Cruz is a pretty rolly anchorage, especially in the afternoon, we’ve been treating ourselves to a week in the marina.  It made it much easier to get the family on board.  We are now just waiting for some repair work on our genoa to be completed (hopefully on tomorrow??), and we will start the long trek north back up to La Paz and then Guaymas.  Only 750 nm to go!  

Impressions of Mainland Mexico:

Despite being lovely and warm, with predictable afternoon winds and calm nights, the mainland Mexican coast is a challenging place to Cruise.  Unlike the Sea of Cortez, there are very few truly protected anchorages.  Most anchorages are fully open to the Pacific Ocean.  This makes for some absolutely stunning beaches, but means the anchorages are rolly and going to shore requires a surf landing in the dinghy.  At anchor, the boat never stops moving.  While this motion doesn’t bother me, it drives Gary bananas.   After a horrendous January battling contrary winds and rolly seas, Gary was pretty much done with this coast.  Luckily a few weeks of calm seas in Barra de Navidad, plus improvements to our “flopper stoppers” (which do just that – stop the boat from flopping from side-to-side at anchor) have helped to change his perspective and he has grown to like it here as much as I do.  The weather helps too.

We used to think that all the sailors that came to this coast for the winter were ‘wussy’ and that we were the tough ones by staying in the Sea of Cortez all season.  While the Sea of Cortez certainly has its challenges, travelling 900nm south and then 900nm north again 3 months later isn’t that easy either, as we are now discovering.   

Overall, we are both glad we made the effort to come to this coast.  It has been a really rewarding trip.  We will certainly miss the warm water, sunshine and easy lifestyle next year when we leave Mexico for waters further afield...