Saturday, December 27, 2008

Crossing to the Mainland

Winter has set in at La Paz. The water and air temperatures have cooled, albeit comfortably. The northers are difficult to ignore and while we still enjoy La Paz and all it has to offer, time has come to think about moving on to new places and warmer climates. I suspect we will settle on making a series of short sails, sailing back to Ensenada de Los Muertos and then on back to Los Frailes to shorten our sail to the mainland.

Kathie has made good use of her time here, taking intensive language classes for the last four weeks. While she's been in class I've been sanding, varnishing and waxing the boat. I still have to look at the auto-pilot to see if it can be programed to minimize its' wandering around the set course. Then we have to sit down with the cruising guide and charts to determine where we will be going and work out a loose schedule.

We had originally planned to leave on January 14, but by the time we did our last provisioning run, topped off the fuel and water tanks, dropped off our loaned Vanagon at Casa Margaritas, performed a final yard watering and house check it was well past noon when we walked back to the boat. Already well into our Mexican adventure, we implemented our back-up plan: Manana.

Just after peak high tide on January 15th, we left our slip in Marina de La Paz heading towards our first nights anchorage back at Ensenada de Los Muertos. It was an upwind tack to reach the San Lorenzo Channel just off Playa de Tecolote. The wind and wave action were both increasing as we approached the channel and into the Cerralvo Channel. Just through the San Lorenzo Channel we observed two frigate birds swooping down to the waters surface between the waves. A moment later, one of them emerged struggling to gain altitude having an 18" long sea snake dangling from its beak. We've read that La Paz Bay is the northern most boundary for these poisonous reptiles, but this was our first eye witness to their existence.

By the time we arrived at Los Muertos it was dark on a moonless night. We made our way through a small fleet of anchored boats (a few without anchor lights, which made seeing them difficult until they were within 50 yards or less)and made our way towards the beach. Fortunately, someone in a truck far down the beach made a U-turn and the headlights briefly illuminated the length of the beach and helped us find the western boundary of the bay. We anchored in 30 feet of water just off the beach.

The following morning, we weighed anchor and hoisted the mainsail at the gentlemanly hour just before 9 a.m. It was a beautiful downwind motor sail under sunny skies. We wanted to maintain boat speed to be able to reach our next anchorage at Los Frailes before dark. By the afternoon we were able to sail at a broad reach making between 6.7 and 7.3 knots of boat speed. The wind freshened as the day went on. By the time we reached our jibe point south of Pulmo reef the apparent wind was blowing between 16 and 18 knots. We entered the south end of Los Frailes bay making between 7.5 and 8 knots of boat speed. White caps filled all but 200 feet of the northern end of the bay. We doused the sails and made our way to within 100 feet of the beach, at the western most point where the rocky headland that forms Los Frailes and set our anchor in 35 feet over sand.

We were out of the turbulent white caps but still subjected to the constant wind which, during the five days we sheltered there, was gusting well over 20 knots. The seas offshore looked too nasty to make our jump, so we stayed put waiting for a drop in the northern. The timing turned out to be fortuitous since the second day there Peter came down with a cold and sore throat. We're not certain where he picked it up, but think it may have been his exposure on Skype cam to Hans just before leaving La Paz! We spent time enjoying the antics of the pelicans, who stopped by to visit and watch us and the spectacular show put on by the leaping rays. Small rays, about two feet across, would jump by ones, twos and even threes, flapping their pectoral fins as they would clear the waters surface by as much as four to five feet.

By late evening on the 19th, winds were moderating. We decided our weather window was opening so at 4 a.m. on the 20th, we pulled anchor, almost sailed onto the beach (a story for another time), and started our crossing of the Sea to Mazatlan. The first couple of predawn hours were calm with a light breeze and three foot cross seas. As the day progressed, the winds built to 15 to 17 knots with the cresting cross seas running at 5 to 7 feet. We were making over 7 knots of boat speed, even after our ever anxiety filled mainsail reefing exercise (more often than not, performed later than prudent).

At 60 nautical miles off the coast of Baja, the winds began to moderate between 9 and 12 knots and the seas were no longer cresting and were running 3 to 4 feet. By the time we had reached the midway point in the crossing (~80nm)the wind and the waves were both laying down and it became an enjoyable beam reach with reefed main (not wanting to take a chance!) and full head sail. Peter took a cockpit sun-shower while we sailed along at over 6 knots of boat speed.

Commercial boat traffic was light. We changed course to pass well behind a south bound freighter around 2 p.m. We passed about 2nm in front of a north bound tanker just after a beautiful green flash sunset. Around 1:30 a.m. we were joined for a couple of miles by an unidentified species of whale. It swam leisurely along our port side, about 50 yards off, breathing at regular intervals without sounding. There was no moon out so we couldn't identify it. It left large neon green slicks of bioluminecense each time it left the surface. We think it was interested in all the strange noises emanating from the boat as we sailed on.

It wasn't until we were within 60nm of the mainland coast did we begin to encounter commercial fishing boats. Most of these were purse seiners that we saw in the early morning hours. Being just after midnight on a moonless sea, none were observed fishing. The easiest to avoid were those that had all their deck lights lit traveling in slow circles. We assumed most, if not all the crew were sleeping, with the idea of operating in this manner they were visible from a long distance off and easily avoided.

There was one seiner we encountered that was virtually unlit, save for some of the smallest, least bright navigation lights we've seen. It was following an erratic course, meandering without pattern, that led us to believe if anyone were on the helm they were dozing off to sleep. Besides lighting our mainsail with our flashlight to increase our visibility, we finally resorted to starting our engine to motor sail away from this wandering hazard.

We reached the coast just southwest of Islas Pajaros just after 8 a.m. the morning of the 21st. Since neither the paper chart (corrected in 1984) nor our electronic chart showed the presence of the marinas at El Cid and Mazatlan (both located off a man made channel about 9 miles north of the old harbor entrance) between Rains Mexican Boating Guide and doing our own bumbling coastal reconnoitering we located the entrance and made our approach. Fortunately for us, a diving panga, entering the channel before us, helped guide us through the narrow entrance in a moderate swell. It was near mean low water for the day, and the channel depth, while adequate for our draft, promoted near surfing conditions making the negotiation of the narrow dog-legged entrance by a slow sailboat somewhat exciting.

We arrived at our assigned dock at 11:30 a.m. and finished checking in with the Harbor Masters office just after 2 p.m. We walked around the hotel grounds, checking out the pools and beaches and taking a different view of the entrance channel before getting cleaned up and going into the old part of town to wander and explore. We had dinner at a marisco's restaurant just across from the malecon before heading back to the boat. We took advantage of the hotel amenities by enjoying a long soak in one of the hot tubs and a short swim in the pool. We're beginning to think we're not real hard core cruisers! We're glad to have finally made it across and into the 'tropics'.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

La Paz

There's a saying among the expats and natives here in La Paz that once you visit, you'll be back. I know for us, that has been true. There is something very earthy and charming about this other city by the bay.

While Bahia de La Paz is showing the effects of population growth over the past 36 years (pre-highway), it's still the jewel of the city front, with the broad Malecon serving as its setting. Palm trees, public art and wrought iron benches further enhance this public promenade. Whether it's during the Corumel cooled summer evenings or on a brisk winter night, the sunsets from the Malecon are spectacular sights to behold.

Across the street from the two-mile stretch of the Malecon, the city of La Paz marches up the hills from it's tree shaded beginnings, to the hustle of the downtown and to the tranquility of the town square nestled between the Mision de Nuestra Senora del Pilar de La Paz Airapi and the Teatro Juarez.
Sprinkled in between shops and restaurants are cozy little casas, as well as lush gardens hiding some of the larger homes. Culinary choices range from street vendors to white-linen elegant dining. Sushi, Chinese, French, Italian, traditional Mexican and outstanding seafood fare all can be found in town.

No Mexican city would be complete without its colorful and abundant traditional mercados. There are two in downtown La Paz, each located within a block of one another. There is the Madero Market which, in addition to fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and seafood carries shoes, clothes, guitars and toys. The Mercado Nicolas Bravo supplements its fresh fare with a variety of counter eateries, where you can enjoy anything from fresh juice to hearty menudo and other more traditional Mexican dishes. These are the original mainstay grocery shopping centers of old Mexico, predating Conosupo, CCC, Soriana and certainly the Wal-Mart snd Sam's Club stores of today. Prices in the mercados are low, quality is generally high, selection is good and usually reflects the local growing seasons. It's an experience that travelers to La Paz should not miss, whether you plan to shop or not.

The people of La Paz form the real treasure of this City. They're friendly, honest and helpful. With the population growth over the years, and the influx of mainland workers for developments, such as the one on El Mogote, and the weak economy, there has been a rise in petty theft and crime. La Paz still continues to be a very safe city to visit, where people will go out of their way to help you.

Christmas brings another dimension to the city. Church bells being rung during the mornings and evenings. A week prior to Christmas week there is the celebration of Nuestra Dama de Guadalupe, culminating in a fiesta at the church on Cinco de Febrero with singing, music and food. During the week leading up to Christmas all the shops around the central plaza and down the hill towards 16 de Septembre, set up tents on the streets and display their goods. The only traffic allowed on these blocks is pedestrian. Food, clothes, toys, sporting goods, jewelery, watches and furniture are all represented within these few blocks of shopping.

Noche Buena or Christmas Eve, is punctuated with church bells and fireworks. For the sailing community, there is a potluck gathering at Club Cruceros, at Marina de La Paz, and everyone brings an appetizer or desert to share. It's open to the entire cruising community of La Paz. This year, over 100 cruisers were in attendance. Being the neophytes that we are, we're often in awe of the cruising resumes of some of the neighbors we have the opportunity to meet.

A Swiss couple from Washington, who have their Mason 43 side tied in front of our slip is but one example. Peter and Denise are currently sailing their third sailboat on an open ended cruise. They're considering either a trip to Europe or onto Australia. Their previous cruising experiences include Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii, and Australia. Their sailing experience is but one example of the people in attendance.

Christmas dawned quietly for us. We slept in until 07:30. We wished each other a Merry Christmas, Kathie made a pot of coffee and we settled in to listen to the 08:00 La Paz cruisers net. The sky is clear blue and sunny with just a whisper of a breeze. The day should develop into a quiet, warm desert day. Our plans include having Christmas dinner at Club Marlin just north of town and otherwise having a quiet, peaceful day together.

We'll be picking up Christine Seisun and her college friends from the airport Saturday afternoon. We'll be relinquishing both the Vanagon and Casa Margaritas. We will also have to begin making plans for our Gulf crossing and picking a good weather window to make our escape from the lovely city of La Paz. Provisioning, filling our propane tank, water tanks and fuel cans will need to be done as we prepare to depart. We will begin sending SPOT messages after we leave the marina and may have to anchor out to wait for a good weather window to start our crossing.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Thanksgiving in La Paz

Making routine blog entries is almost as hard as leaving La Paz. We arrived here in early November and, pressured by the marina to set a departure date, decided to be conservative and chose January 15th, 2009. We did plan to have Thanksgiving here with family and friends, but now we'll be celebrating Christmas and New Years, as well.

La Paz is the capital of Baja California Sur and was founded in 1535 by Hernado Cortez. It wasn't until 1720 that the village gained a permanent foothold,after the Jesuit missionaries colonized the area and constructed the Nuestra Senora del Pliar de la Paz mission.In its early days, La Paz was famous for its pearls. While the pearl industry is just a memory in its history, the city remains a pearl unto itself. With the square in front of the Mission and remnants of colonial architecture splashed throughout the town it has a charm and character that is unique.

Hans arrived in La Paz for fishing, a week ahead of the kids. Andrew, Chantal, Sean (Chantal's beau) and Nicole all flew in a week before Thanksgiving.
They were originally scheduled to stay in the hotel Los Arcos, but that hotel was shut down due to a strike (and remains closed a week before Christmas). Thanks to David Jones, the owner of the sports fishing business where Hans was staying, we were able to get rooms for them at La Perla, down the Malecon from Los Arcos. The Seisun family (Dennis, Verena, Christine and Daniel) also flew down for the Thanksgiving day holidays.

Dennis and Verena Seisun generously offered their casa on Las Margaritas in the La Posada neighborhood and the use of their Vanagon. We made good use of their car to restock Citla upon arrival in La Paz. It was also nice to be able to do a couple of loads of laundry at their house (it went a long way towards improving the environment on board!).

We spent the week taking in as much as we could of La Paz and the surrounding beaches. There was way too much to see and far too little time to take it all in. Andrew and Sean did their best to critique the town's ability to serve a good margarita. While their survey was not all inclusive, the verdict at the end of the week was that the Dock Cafe at Marina de La Paz pours one of the most potent margaritas they sampled. Nicole's Spanish proved invaluable to all of us during our week of adventures and misadventures. She made quite an impression with the representative from the Secretary of Tourist board in La Paz!


We had a delicious Thanksgiving day feast with the family (minus Danica)at David Jones's house with his gracious wife Jane, their extended family and the many people who work with him in his fishing business. Two deep fried turkeys, pulled pork, mashed potatoes, yams, salads, string beans, cranberry sauce and all the trimmings found us too full to enjoy the enormous desert spread put on after dinner.
We left saited and happy to have been able to share this holiday with others.

The week went by way too quickly. There was so much to see and so little time to do everything we'd like in the limited time the kids were here. We did have an opportunity to anchor for the day at Caleta Lobos, where we enjoyed an afternoon of swiming, eating fresh ceviche and enjoying cold cervezas. The only members missing this excursion were Hans (he was out fishing) and Daniel (who was at casa Las Margaritas doing homework).

The Saturday after Thanksgiving came all too fast and we said our good-byes to the kids in front of La Perla Hotel as they boarded a taxi for their flight out. Sunday was Hans's flight home. Monday afternoon, we drove the Seisun's out to the airport in the Vanagon and found ourselves suddenly alone, without family or friends in La Paz. While we missed them all terribly, we agreed that life could be much worse.