Saturday, March 7, 2009

Back to the Sea - Puerto Vallarta to La Paz

While we have had a wonderfully relaxed cruise south, our pace resulted in not making it as far south as we had originally planned. We left the marina at La Cruz de Huanacaxtle the morning of February 23, rounded Punta de Mita and motor sailed north until the wind filled in the afternoon. We then enjoyed a sunny, warm close reach from south of Guayabitos to Bahia Chacala. We sailed into the verdant cove at Chacala and anchored for the night. Since our plan was to continue on to San Blas, we dispensed with setting a stern anchor and put up with a little rolling for the night.

We pulled the anchor early the next morning for the short hop up to San Blas. Since the wind was light, we hoisted the main and began our motor sail north. It was a humid, hazy morning with a small swell and wind ripples on the surface of the ocean. The whale activity continued to provide us with entertainment. We saw several pods of humpbacks making their way back up north. Seeing one of these huge creatures breech is impressive to us, regardless of the number of times we witness this behavior.

Being early, I put the drag line out and within the hour we were treated to a respectable size dorado. Rather than attempting to fillet it in the galley, I chose to try doing it on the side deck. Fortunately, with the calm seas, it was awkward but it did work. However, the result left the starboard quarter of the boat looking as if a horrendous murder had taken place. Seawater and our deck brush worked for removing most of the mayhem. It wasn’t until we arrived in San Blas did we see what was remaining, decorating the side of the hull. We were able to get two large fillets, each of which was again divided into two, providing us with four delicious meals with fish left over from each sitting. We’re very conservative fishermen, only catching what we can store and eat. This translates into once we catch a fish, our fishing is over until what we have caught is consumed. That was going to be tested in the days ahead, but more on that later.

We arrived at the mouth of the San Blas estuary at 10 a.m., a few hours after mean high tide. Much has been written in the cruising guides about the shifting shoals at the entrance to this channel. We opted to contact Captain Norm Goldie (he and his wife Jan have lived in San Blas for the past 42 years and he has become the unofficial American ambassador to the town) for his help to enter this marked, but notoriously shoaled channel. He graciously offered his help and provided us with instructions over the VHF for proper alignment for entry and then signal mirror targets to steer towards as we progressed into the lagoon. He also contacted the newly opened marina (Singlar) advising them of our arrival.

After settling into our slip at the marina, we made the three-quarter mile stroll into town, passing the old Spanish fort where gold and silver bound for Spain was stored for shipment overland to the Caribbean, where it was then loaded onto Galleons for transport to Spain. Along the way we chatted with Clive, a fellow cruiser from England who cruises the Mexican coast for several months a year on his Norsea 27. For the remainder of each year, he lives and works in Spain.

Upon reaching the town square, we parted company with Clive and Kathie and I did a cursory exploration of the central part of the town. Passing one of the local watering holes, we spied Clive and decided to join him for a cold cerveza. The world being a smaller place than we’d imagined we happened to run into an older brother of one of our old high school mates. He apparently had been living in San Blas for some time and had ended up there after leading a somewhat nefarious life during the 60’s. Unfortunately, he seems to have succumbed to too much drink and wasn’t looking particularly healthy. It was sad to see, as I remember both he and his younger brother as being accomplished junior sailors, growing up in Palo Alto.

Later that evening we had the opportunity to meet Norm and his wife Jan in the town square during the last day of Carnival. They invited us to join them for dinner, but we had to beg off since we had fresh dorado waiting for us at the boat. We agreed to meet them at their house the next morning for coffee and pan dulces. We had a delightful visit with Norm and Jan and two other couples who were vacationing in San Blas for an extended period. Norm proved to be quite a character, living proof that you can take the man out of New York, but you’ll never entirely take New York from the man. Both he and Jan are a wealth of information for both San Blas, as well as the surrounding areas. They’re gracious hosts and have a lovely home with a spectacular garden.

We departed San Blas the morning of February 27, heading back north to Mazatlan. We had found that from Puerto Vallarta up to San Blas, the electronic chart we had for the area was off-set approximately 1.0-1.5nm to the west; our GPS readings placed us closer to the coast than we actually were. The day was sunny and glorious, averaging 10 knots of apparent wind speed and swells that were less than 1 foot. We had a wonderful day of sailing on a close reach, north along the coast. We passed to the east of Isla Isabela and made our way well north of the San Blas shrimping grounds during day light.

The wind was moderating as the afternoon wore on. By 3 p.m. we were doing between 4 and 4.5 knots. At 3:40 p.m. I was at the helm when I happened to look aft and then directly over our stern. Much to my surprise and amazement, we were being followed by a school of yellowfin tuna. There were 20-30 individuals in the 20-25 pound range that were taking turns bumping into and nipping at the rudder. I called Kathie and asked if she was interested in catching one of them. She reminded me we still had dorado in the refrigerator, so we satisfied ourselves with watching the tuna and taking a few photos.

The wind and sea continued to moderate as the evening wore on. By sundown, we were motor sailing once more. The quarter moon and Venus set early in the evening, leaving the star filled heavens, above. By 1 a.m., the sea surface had become so glassy, with the stars in the sky and their reflections on the waters surface, it made it impossible to discern the horizon. It felt as if we were sailing through the stars. We each took turns sleeping in the cockpit while the other kept watch. Except for a lone panga, who only showed a flash light when our course appeared to be bearing down on it, that was the only company we saw in the early morning hours.

By 6:30 a.m. that morning, the sun was rising over the haze covered islands off the coast of Mazatlan. The rays were taking turns jumping out of the water as the sun started to warm the day. At 7:30 a.m. we had changed course to pass astern of the La Paz ferry. We continued to slow our speed during the morning to allow the tide to rise before making our entry into the channel to the marina at the El Cid resort. By 9:00 a.m. we were entering the channel and were in our slip by 9:40. It was good to spend a few days tied to the slip and resting ourselves before our crossing to the Baja peninsula. We took the opportunity to buy a new dip-stick for our marine gear. I had stripped the threads on the nylon cap to the original dip stick when I had checked the transmission oil level just before we had left Chacala. We were fortunate to be able to find a replacement at Total Yacht Works (the Yanmar representative in Mazatlan), even though it had to be cut to length and marked for the proper oil level. The remainder of our short stay we renewed prescriptions, topped off the fuel and water, checked the oil and Racor fuel filter.

Weather reports for the southern crossing had indicated benign conditions for most of the week. We decided to leave with a group of boats leaving the morning of March 3 around the time of high tide. The morning of our departure, we started the engine to allow it to warm, said our good byes to our Canadian neighbors on Dolphin Tales and Optical Illusion, cast off at 9:06 and began heading out of the channel. The dredge was beginning to set up at the channel entrance, between the rock groin along the north and the rocky headland that defines the southern boundary. The entrance is not very wide to begin with, so squeezing between the dredge and the rocky headland we made our way out into the ocean swell.

The engine coughed once just passing the dredge and upon gaining several hundred feet to seaward, the engine died. There was only a breath of breeze out of the north west at 1-knot. We immediately hoisted our main and unfurled the head sail and slowly made sea room with the beach. Once we had gained about a quarter mile from the beach, we began trouble shooting the problem. Upon opening the Racor filter, it was noticed the lid gasket was torn, likely done when I inspected the filter at the dock. Checking the twist-on primary filter, it was noted that it was empty of fuel indicating air in the fuel system. I replaced both the Racor and the primary fuel filter with new along with the Racor lid gasket, refilled all the filter containers with fresh fuel and put the system together again. I opened the air bleed on top of the primary fuel filter and tried manually pumping fuel using the thumb lever on the lift pump. While some air bubbled out of the bleed hole on top of the filter, there was no indications of fuel being pumped. Attempts to start the engine at this point failed. Opening the twist-on primary filter demonstrated a filter still full of fuel. Again opening the bleed screw on the filter and manually activating the fuel pump, there was no evidence of fuel being pumped out of the system.

At this point, I had thoughts that perhaps the fuel pump was not functioning. We tried contacting Total Yacht Works on VHF without success. Subsequently, using the Telcel phone, we were able to speak to Rafael at Total Yacht Works. Among the suggestions offered was that we sail back to Isla Pajaro and anchor for the night and Total Yacht Works would come out the next morning with a new pump or repair the old one. The thought of anchoring securely just off shore without being able to back down on the anchor with our engine did not appeal to us. Instead we chose to follow another of his suggestions and try substituting our outboard bulb pump to replace the questionable fuel pump on the engine.

I undid the fuel line from our outboard motor fuel tank and used it to connect between the fuel pump outlet and the primary fuel filter inlet. Once connected, I primed the system by squeezing the fuel bulb until the line was full of diesel and more was forced through the engines fuel system. If the engines fuel pump was no longer functioning, we'd have to pump the bulb to keep the engine running. We tried starting the engine and it started. We immediately shut it down without further testing. We decided as long as we could run the engine, even if it meant pumping the fuel bulb, we could safely make the crossing and be able to anchor once we made it to Bahia de Los Muertos.

It was after noon and we had been sailing north along the coast of the mainland should we have to return to Mazatlan. Now that we were confident that we had a functioning engine, we tacked away from the coast and began making our way across to Baja.

Fortunately, the wind picked up into the afternoon and soon we were seeing 10 to 12 knots, apparent. The sea state was delightful for a good sail with waves less than a foot. We were able to sail along between 5 and 6 knots during the day. The wind dropped as evening approached and our boat speed was reduced to between 4 and 5 knots. Around 7:30 p.m. we noted a ship approaching from our port quarter. By 8 p.m. we tacked away to avoid a close encounter with the large freighter. Surprisingly, we found ourselves going from depths of over 500 feet to depths of 39 to 40 feet! Once the freighter was clear, we tacked back towards Baja and tested the engine by starting it. To our delight, the engine not only responded by starting, but continued to run without having to hand pump fuel via the squeeze bulb. We furled the jib and began motor sailing, setting our course towards our destination of Bahia Los Muertos.

The sea was flat calm and the stars were visible to the horizon. At 4:30 in the morning another ship was spotted following our course just off our starboard stern. Turning on the radar, the ship was beyond our sixteen mile range. It continued paralleling our course for the next hour and a half until around 6 a.m. it changed course and began following a more northwesterly course, apparently bound for La Paz.

The day turned into a glassy calm motor sail with hardly a trace of wind seen anywhere on the seas surface. We were treated to huge bait balls breaking the surface, that from a distance almost looked like large waves forming out of the dead calm sea. We spied something large floating motionless on the surface. Changing course and circling the object, we found that we had awakened a large bull sea lion from his morning snooze. We only saw one humpback whale on our crossing. Standing on the bow you could see all the small jellyfish just beneath the surface. The most striking observation we made were the number of times we would see dorados swimming at the surface. As we approached, they would swim directly towards the boat, leaving a 'V' shaped wake as their forehead pushed surface water aside as they made their way towards us.

Twenty miles off shore of Los Muertos, the breeze finally began to pick up, but since it was getting late and we wanted to anchor before the moon set we continued to motor sail towards our destination. By 8:10 p.m. we had managed to anchor by moonlight in 34 feet of water off the beach at Los Muertos. We had a glass of wine, a quick dinner and finally went to bed.

Once awake at the quiet anchorage at Los Muertos, at the suggestions of one of the other boats who had made the crossing from Mazatlan, we decided to spend the day relaxing instead of pushing on to La Paz. This would give us time to replace the outboard fuel line that had been jury-rigged to our engine with the original fuel lines, now that we were certain the primary fuel pump was functional. Kathie cleaned the interior of the boat and then I attacked the engine. Once we finished our chores, we settle in to do a little relaxing and reading. We were invited to visit El Cardon, the restaurant that is on the north end of Los Muertos bay by Jim and Bonnie from the sailing vessel Murray Gray.

Jim and Bonnie picked us up in their RIB dingy and we rode into the dingy dock at El Cardon. This was formerly the Giggling Marlin which had been recently been purchased by two former NFL football players and reopened as El Cardon. Kathie and I had been to Los Muertos on several previous occasions but had never gone ashore to see the restaurant. It was well laid out with several outdoor seating areas; one out front in the sun; another on the east side under a Ramada; and, the main seating area under the palapa that covered the large restaurant patio and bar. WiFi was offered, as well as free phone service to both the U.S. and Canada. The view overlooking the bay was as picturesque and spectacular as you could hope for. The four of us sat in our equipilas enjoying cold drinks, the view and casual conversation. After checking weather predictions for the Cerralvo Channel for the following days, we headed back to the dingy dock and off to our respective boats.

We followed through with our plans to leave early the following morning in an effort to make it to Marina de La Paz before the office closed for the day. We weighed anchor at 6:30 a.m., raised the mainsail and began motor sailing out towards the Cerralvo Channel. The wind was very light and for the first part of our trip we had the current in our favor, making 6.8 to 7.2 knots towards San Lorenzo Channel. The waves were small, at one to two feet, and we made good progress up along Cerralvo Island, keeping towards the Baja coast. We made our way between the shoals at San Lorenzo Channel a little after noon and entered the long La Paz harbor channel, making our way to our new slip at Marina de La Paz by around 3 p.m. It felt like we were home again!


mapen said...

Hi Pete and Kathy! I'm glad that you guys are doing well and are enjoying your lives. I can only say, fill with gratitude, thank you for your help and kindness during the time that you let me become part of your family. It was a great honor and a gesture that I would never forget.
In other news, I'm please to tell you that we're expecting a son, to be born on the month of July. I love you guys and hope that in one of your adventures we can see each other again and, eat some fish, have some wine and keep enjoying life.
William(the same puertorrican guy that used to live @ my dad's)

mapen said...

Guys, be on the lookout for the swine influenza. Here's a link from the CDC. I hope you're doing well.

William G.