Thursday, December 23, 2010

Overland Travel in Baja California - Tips on Driving in Mexico

After an extended stay in San Diego and an enjoyable Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday, we're anxious to return to our boat in La Paz. We'll be driving our truck from San Diego to La Paz, which will give us a car for provisioning and side trips while cruising in the Sea of Cortez.

Travel in Mexico is easy for most cruisers, once they make their first port of entry. Most of us have researched the requirements for travel by private boat in Mexico long before we departed. However, based on concerns expressed by friends and questions posed in various newsletters, it might be helpful to some if we document our preparations and experiences while traveling overland, by car, back to La Paz.

Just as it is of primary importance when cruising, the mechanical soundness of our mode of transportation is the first order of business. We will have the truck (a 2003 Ford Ranger) serviced and the oil and filter changed before our trip to La Paz. The tires are not new, but still have a healthy tread depth, so we won't be getting new tires prior to leaving. The spare is a full size tire, is new and is inflated. The battery is original equipment and if the truck were an automatic I would consider replacing it, just to be on the safe side.

I normally carry jumper cables, a 20' x 4" nylon tow strap, a folding entrenchment tool (folding shovel),
at least one flashlight and basic tools for simple repairs. We won't be doing any off-road travel this trip, so these basic items may be a little overkill for normal highway travel. In addition to clothes and supplies we'll carry to the boat, we always carry extra drinking water, snacks and paper towels.

In years past, when we were doing off-road exploration of Baja, we'd
also carry extra fuel and camping gear. More recently, we found carrying extra fuel cans is discouraged by Mexican Customs and Immigration (we suspect the reason is to discourage the potential for refueling aircraft used in smuggling operations on remote landing strips in Baja). Pemex stations are fairly abundant along the highway in Baja. One of the longest stretches without a Pemex station is probably between El Rosario and Guerrero Negro (the Pemex at Catavina, about 80 miles south of El Rosario may be open), which is a distance close to 200 miles. In a pinch, we've found that some of the small stores and restaurants along this longer stretch may have gas for sale in 5-gallon cans, but don't count on this. The take home message is to top off your tank when you have the opportunity.

Car insurance is a must. Liability auto insurance for Mexico can be obtained on-line or purchased at the border before crossing into Mexico. We have found paying for yearly insurance on the car is less expensive than paying for multiple shorter coverage intervals. In addition to the insurance, you will also be given phone numbers for legal representation should you be involved in a mishap.

Mexican laws find their origins in Napoleonic law, and unlike the English based laws we're familiar with, you're technically considered guilty (or more accurately, not innocent) until proven innocent. Even in relatively simple accidents, fault is not assigned until after investigations have been completed. It's prudent to carry Mexican insurance and have access to legal representation while driving in Mexico.

After all these admonitions regarding insurance, you'll find driving in most of Baja simple and safe as long as it is done during daylight hours. The roadbeds may be narrow and often without a shoulder to pull off onto, but once south of Ensenada traffic thins out significantly and is nearly non-existent south of El Rosario. Do follow the speed limits in towns and be especially attentive to stop signs. Avoid the temptation of following the locals practice of rolling through stop signs, but always come to a complete stop before proceeding.

Last, but not least, bring your passport or passport identification card with
you before going into Mexico. You'll likely need it to secure your tourist permit (FMM, or short term, non-immigrant visa) which is generally issued for 180-days from the date of issuance. You will need your passport for U.S. Customs when re-entering the United States. In addition to the FMM, there is also a long-term, non-immigrant visa (FM3) which is renewable and allows for stays longer than the 180-day limit set by the FMM (the FM3 allows for a years stay and may be renewed yearly for a total of five years). There is additional paperwork and documentation required for the FM3 application and is issued by the Mexican consulate.

Stop at your first port of entry and apply for your FMM. This will require you to fill out a short information form at the Mexican customs office and then pay a fee at the National Bank (Banamex). The bank receipt will be taken back to customs where your paperwork will be stamped and processed. Depending on the amount of business being processed, the time required for completion may be as short as 45-minutes, but may take longer. Be patient and courteous, there can be substantial fines involved if you forgo this process at your port-of-entry and enter the country illegally.

At the port of entry in Tijuana, the Immigration offices (IMN) and bank are located to the right, as you drive across the border from San Ysidro. Park in the inspection area and proceed to the IMN office, where you will be given the paperwork to fill out. The bank where you must pay your fee (~$20 U.S.) is located in the same complex as the IMN office only a few doors away. Pay your fee at the bank and return to IMN with your bank receipt. The processing of your FMM application will be completed and you'll be on your way.

Recently (Nov. 2010), I was told that a criminal check will be run on your passport in Mexico City and this may add some time while you wait for your paperwork to be finalized. Once all is completed, you will be given a copy of your FMM and can leave. It is advised that you keep your FMM with you at all times while visiting Mexico.

Our next entry will be the log of our road trip south from Tijuana, Baja California to La Paz, Baja California Sur. I hope this has helped answer some of the questions for any of you who might be contemplating a road trip to Mexico. If you are, be safe, patient and friendly and enjoy your adventures in Mexico.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Reflections

Having delivered the boat back to Mexico and, now, spending the holidays at home in San Diego has given me time to follow-up on other cruisers, via their blogs. Revisiting the latest adventures of friends we've met while cruising, as well as others we haven't met but have shared a kinship through cruising, gives me pause to consider how fortunate we all have been.

One common thread we all share is the support of our mates and families. I know that I am guilty of not telling my wife how much she has given to make my cruising dreams a reality and how much that means to me. I could never have done it without her support and encouragement. From cajoling me to buy our boat, to tending to the often tedious task of provisioning for our journeys, to putting up with my own foibles and insecurities when undertaking new challenges, her love, support and, most of all, patience have always embraced me. I can't imagine a better partner to share life's journey. Forgive me for not expressing my love and appreciation to you as selflessly as you have to me.

I'm envious of all those of you who have had the wisdom and courage to share your cruising dream with your children. I marvel at those who have. Contemporary families on s/v Just A Minute, s/v Don Quixote (Toast Floats), s/v Third Day, s/v Whatcha Gonna Do and s/v Endurance (to name a few) by allowing their children the freedom of a family adventure, have imbued in them a sense of wonder, responsibility and respect for the world around them that they otherwise may not have had. It's a wonderful gift to be able to share with your children.

The cruisers with families also comprise a subset of the larger group of people who recognized the advantage of undertaking a sailing adventure when they are still young, fit and capable of surviving by their wits. Windtraveler (s/v Rasmus), s/v Ocean Girl, s/v Sea Biscuit, and S/V Rebel Heart represent a few of these people who have chosen to live life rather than be paralyzed by the future.

I can barely wait until we return to our boat and continue our adventure. Meeting other cruisers and people in the communities we visit is a large part of the joy for me. I am very fortunate for this opportunity in life!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Fire Safety

During our delivery of Citla to La Paz in November, we witnessed the horrific fire aboard Ker-Tidou, a Privilege 495 catamaran. If there is any silver lining to this tragedy, it is that it occurred in an anchorage (as opposed to off-shore) and the owner escaped without serious injury.

We are not certain what led to this fire, but the pangero on the Gordo Jr. fuel boat indicated
that he heard it was a burst propane line. Since the fire seemed to start inside the cabin and grew within minutes from a small plume of smoke to an all encompassing inferno, we guessed the flexible hose between the bulkhead and the stove may have been the cause. Given the wear on this connection due to the movement of gimbaled stoves, along with possible chafe, it seems reasonable that this may have been the culprit.

Since we didn't hear a distinct "explosion" near the start of the fire, we
assumed this wasn't due to a propane leak that occurred over time into the boat, but rather a spontaneous leak that had an ignition source near by. It may have been something as innocent as heating water for morning tea. Once ignited, the propane would have acted like a blow torch spewing fire out of a whipping hose end. Without being able to shut down the on-board solenoid valve to the tank, the fire would continue to grow and spread.

Whatever the cause, this incident reminded us not to become complacent about the use of our stove and oven and to review proper safety precautions when using it. Fortunately, Citla has a number of redundancies when it comes to propane safety. In addition to a proper propane locker with a solenoid shut off at the tank, there is also an emergency propane shut off switch, which controls a secondary solenoid before the propane enters the stove. This switch is located on our aft bulkhead, in the galley, within easy reach of the person at the stove. The last safety device on Citla is a propane sensor installed directly under the Force 10 stove. The indicator and alarm for this sensor is located directly next to the emergency shut off switch.When both solenoids are switched "on", we allow a few more moments before starting the stove to insure we have the continuous green light indicating the absence of free propane around the stove.


These mechanical safety devices, while important, should be viewed as contingencies in case individual attentiveness fails. Routine inspection of the hose and connections should be made regularly. In addition to this routine maintenance, discipline in operation of the stove must be followed. While we used to shut off the valve at the tank after each usage, when we were cruising for months we only shut off the propane at the tank during long passages or when we'd leave the boat for a period of time. Otherwise, we'd leave the valve open and put our trust in the redundant solenoids and propane sensor to keep us safe at anchor or in a marina. When operating the stove, we only leave the solenoids on while cooking; as soon as the flame is out, we shut down both the emergency shut-off as well as the main solenoid valve at the tank (this switch is located on our main electrical panel).

As an additional precaution, whoever is cooking is obligated to maintain watch in the galley as long as the propane is on. From a safety perspective, it is unacceptable to leave the stove unattended while it is in-use or ready for use. The emergency switch is useless if there is no one present to use it.

While the fire in Tortugas was horrible and left us sickened, it did serve as a reminder to review our own practices when it comes to safety aboard.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Back in La Paz

We left San Diego, heading south from channel buoy #4 at 12:20pm,
Tuesday, November 2nd. For the next eight days, we made one seven hour overnight stop at Bahia de Tortugas to pick up more fuel and two more overnight anchorages at Los Frailes and Ensenada de Los Muertos before arriving at Marina de La Paz at around 15:30 on Wednesday, November 10th. Traveling a little more than 1,000nm in eight days left all of us a bit punchy for the first few days after arrival.

The trip was uneventful, as far as the weather went, but our seven hour
stay in Tortugas was punctuated with a horrific fire aboard a large cruising catamaran that took about 40 minutes to burn to the water line. There was an apparent failure of a propane hose that began the conflagration and all we could do was gape in horror, 200 yards astern of the burning cat, hoping that none of the crew were trapped aboard. Thankfully, the single-hand sailor doing the delivery escaped the fire and was treated at the medical facility at Tortugas.

This was essentially a delivery mission to get Citla to La Paz. With the able help of my nephew, Peter, and Alicia, our friend from our sister-ship, Tumbleweed ('82 Cal 39 MRK III),
we were able to make the trip in short order. While we experienced large swells the first three days in, the period between swells was long enough to make the 10-12 foot rollers manageable. We had very little in the way of wind for almost the entire trip. A majority of the time found us motor sailing. We were treated to wild life along the way, including whales and a number of different species of dolphins. We did manage to catch one skipjack tuna south of Bahia Magdalena.

Our luck with fishing changed once we entered the San Lorenzo channel, separating the Cerralvo channel from Bahia La Paz.
Within 30 minutes, Peter had hooked a bull dorado that I estimated to be approaching 40" in length as it jumped several times after being hooked, flashing its' green, yellow and blue body colors as it fought to get free. We rolled in the jib and centered the main in an effort to slow the boat while the dorado continued to strip out line from Peter's reel. As the fish appeared to be weakening, it made a run parallel to the boat, easily closing the distance from over 50 yards off the stern to being perpendicular to the boat in a few short seconds. It then turned towards the boat and made a run. The line slightly slackened and the dorado slipped the hook and was gone.

We barely managed to have the adrenaline rush of the hook-up subside and get the boat back into trim when the second fish hit the lure. This time, the fish ripped line off the reel as if the drag was off. Rather than coming to the surface, the fish sounded and continued to take line with it. In under two minutes this denizen had also managed to shake the hook-up. The best we could determine, judging by its behavior we had probably managed to hook into either a large tuna or possibly a marlin.

Both bait and dorado were visible during the remaining trip into the City of La Paz, our fishing was over,
along with the long ocean passage from San Diego. We side tied to the outside dock, astern of the 120' motor yacht, Tully, and finally were able to step ashore after being out for eight days. What was even more exciting, after checking into the marina, we all headed for hot showers followed by the best margaritas served at the Dock Cafe in the marina. We were all exhausted, but pleased to be clean and having the night watches over for the time being.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Best Laid Plans Require Contingencies Especially for Bone Heads

The past several days have been particularly hectic. A few of the loose ends have been tied up. Our Mexican fishing licenses have been secured and we installed new AGM house and starter batteries (two deep cycle 12V 4D's and one 12v group 27).

Upon vigorous sea trial testing of our Raymarine ST4000 Plus wheel autopilot it gave periods of shuddering response when large course changes were demanded. Upon removing the unit from the wheel and taking it apart, the two-year old drive belt showed signs of wear, which would account for this type of response. Unfortunately, Raymarine does not provide reliable support for their autopilots either due to the fact that they have been purchased by Flir or because a newer model was introduced several years ago. In any case, the drive belts for the older models are not available through Raymarine.

Several days of searching the Internet, calling suppliers and going to local marine stores in San Diego yielded no results. Fortunately, there are several industrial supply houses in town and I went to these as a last resort. While Graingers and McMaster supply were very helpful in giving direction, they could not cross reference the belt in question. Motion Industries could tool up to make a lot of these belts for us but would require at least two weeks before they could be manufactured and a minimum lot size would have to be purchased. A final stop at Kaman Industries in Barrio Logan proved to be a success. They identified the belt as being metric and were able to cross reference it. I ordered five belts from Kaman that would arrive in San Diego on Monday, November 1st (our planned departure date). To counteract the effects of a one day delay in departure, the cost of belts from Kaman will come in at about half the cost charged by Raymarine (when they did support this autopilot). Not a sterling recommendation for Raymarine. Here is where the bone head takes over.

I noticed the two belt wheels adjacent to the drive motor on the inner control head for the autopilot did not turn smoothly. Being a cautiously circumspect individual, I considered all the possible methods for lubricating said wheels. Given that the construction of this older model control head is a composite of a couple of different polymers and stainless steel, I had reservations about using petroleum based lubricants fearful that there may be some incompatibilities with one or more of the polymers. Years ago, I had purchased a small tube of graphite that I used to lubricate our house locks. I searched the dark recesses of the garage shelves and found a small dirty tube, smeared with what appeared to be graphite. Thinking myself as quite clever to have considered all my options and come up with an elegant solution, I opened the tube of "graphite" and proceeded to apply it liberally around the stainless steel hubs of each of the two belt wheels. Satisfied, I left the control head on the bench and went into the house to get ready for dinner.

The following afternoon Kevin Young, an old work colleague and sailing friend, came over to the house to help load the boat with provisions. Noticing the control head outer ring in the dining room, the conversation turned to autopilots and I recounted my tirade regarding the idiocy of Raymarine for not supporting their older models. I went on to recount the time spent finding a suitable replacement belt. We then retired to the garage to begin loading our provisions from the garage to the truck so we could haul it all down to the marina.

Kevin spied the inner ring to the autopilot control head on the garage bench and was examining it to understand how it functioned. Walking up, I proudly pointed out that, in addition to the bad belt, the two belt wheels were not working as smoothly as designed but I had successfully addressed the problem by lubing them with graphite. Kevin went to spin the wheels only to discover they were frozen solid in place. In disbelief, I confirmed what was already obvious; the wheels were now unyielding posts. I snatched the tube from the shelf, put on my reading glasses, wiped off the black muck from the tube and in the light of day with the garage door open discovered the "graphite" I used to lube the wheels with was a tube of black Loctite. I'm still not certain what was worse, the shattering of my ego over such a bone headed error or the realization that I had just guaranteed the purchase of a replacement autopilot. It turned out to be an expensive contingency that included the purchase of five drive belts that I no longer need. Hopefully I can recoup a small fraction of the autopilot cost by selling the drive belts on Craigslist.

The last change in plans involves our crew. Captain Morgan (Ted, not the flavored rum) has concerns about his dear old pooch, Hina. She's not been doing well and Ted was reluctant to leave her for weeks on end. She's definitely Ted's dog and follows him wherever he goes. The bond is heartwarming to witness and Ted's attachment to his dog, who he's had since a puppy, is equally as touching. His decision to stay close to his aging companion is understandable. While we'll miss his presence on the sail south, we're sure Hina would miss him more had he decided to make the trip.

Given the crew size will be three, we may also find it necessary to modify our plan of sailing straight through to La Paz from San Diego. We'll discuss sailing plans when the crew is all together in San Diego to see if we might make stops along the way. We'll also have the advantage of looking at a seven day extended forecast for the coast of Baja. As of today, while swells are predicted to be large (~12') for part of the trip, the weather window looks promising.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On the Cusp of Sailing South

It seems preparations for this years trip south has been harried compared to 2008. Perhaps it is because we have a better understanding of what works and what we needed to change. For me, it's also been a case of not having a regular paycheck coming in since Kathie retired in '08. As a result, we've becoming more attuned to cash flow and the negative influence preparing a boat for a cruise impacts that aspect of living in retirement. So much to do and time is fading! Thankfully, even though Kathie will be foregoing the 800nm trip down the outside of Baja (Pacific coast) this year, she has been as enthusiastic and helpful as ever in getting the boat prepared for the trip. Perhaps she's just anxious to get rid of me for a couple of weeks while I'm sailing!

Travel plans have been set for my nephew, Peter (aka, P2) and we visited with our friends, Ted and Alicia (from S/V Tumbleweed; '82 Cal39 MRK III), in Madera when we traveled up to Santa Rosa last week. It seems all is a go for the first of November. Now, if only the boat were ready.

Again, thanks almost exclusively to my wonderful wife, the provisioning and meal planning has been mostly completed. All that remains is the last minute purchase of fresh fruit and vegetables and then to pack it all away on the boat. We're planning on a 7-10 day trip from San Diego to La Paz, so provisioning for a crew of four does take some planing.

The next step is to move everything from the garage onto the boat and stow it all away so we're ready to sail. With my nephew having to take time off for work and Ted and Alicia depending on the kindness of friends to take care of their two cats, Elvis and Flea Bag, along with their dear old dog, Hina, during their absence, everyone is in agreement on making it a non-stop (the Gods and weather willing) sail all the way from San Diego to La Paz. Getting to La Paz without stop overs would allow for more time to be spent in La Paz, itself. Ted and Alicia want to check on their boat and P2 would like to revisit some of his old haunts from his previous time with us during the summer of 2009.

Ready or not, we'll be leaving in five days! In this photo is only a partial load that has to be stowed.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Boat Haul-Out Prior to Departure

It's been two years and several thousand miles since we had the boat
hauled, that and the fact that we want to check the prop-shaft and rudder post, it's time. We've been putting this off nearly since we arrived back from Mexico last July (2009). Besides trying to control our cash flow, we felt the bottom job should be done shortly before heading south again. Here we are at Driscoll's Boat Works on Shelter Island Drive.

Among the projects we hope to complete entail an out-of-water hull survey. This is to fulfill insurance requirements for our cruising policy for Mexico. We had an in-water survey done shortly after our return to San Diego that was required when we switched back to our lower cost Boat US insurance. Since we're heading back to Mexico and may be further south than 20 degrees north and intend to stay for more than 4 months, switching insurance carriers is necessary once again.

While the boat is out in the yard we'll have the bottom pressure washed and painted; the rudder dropped for inspection of the rudder post and for any signs of excessive play; pull the prop-shaft to insure it is true; check the cutlass bearing; align the engine to the prop-shaft; install a new pack-less shaft seal; and, put it all back together again and re-launch. I'll also wax the hull while it is out of the water and accessible.

It's now over a week and Citla is still in the yard, sans rudder. The survey
was done. A new stainless propeller shaft was fabricated and installed with a new pack-less shaft seal and new cutlass bearing. The engine alignment was checked. The hull was waxed and the bottom painted. A joint on one of the stanchion supports was re-welded. There was essentially no fore and aft play in the rudder, but some lateral play was noted. The rudder was dropped from the boat and the problem was corrected inserting an upper and lower bushing in the rudder post tube.

One note of interest, while the rudder was out we had a few days of unusually hot weather for San Diego, if this may have contributed to what we observed on the rudder is not certain. Apparently, the rudder was stored on its' side and when it came time to reinstall and paint it there were two areas where the foil had lost its shape and collapsed under the fiberglass. Both deformations were on the starboard side of the rudder; one towards the leading edge about 8" down from the top of the rudder and the other was on the bottom edge of the foil, covering an area of approximately 6" high by 10" long. It appeared that the underlying foam body may have had voids and in the heat the overlying fiberglass was drawn in, almost as if by a vacuum, leaving these hollow areas. The size of these deformations shouldn't perceptively effect the boats performance (the turbulence generated by the large three bladed prop is a greater contributor than the voids in the rudder foil). When the boat is hauled for hurricane season in Mexico, we'll strip the bottom paint off the affected rudder areas and fill these indentations with micro-fill and reshape the foil.

Since the relaunch from Driscoll's, ipe weather boards were installed on both port and starboard side decks to accommodate four 5-gallon diesel cans, each. These include stainless webbing anchors
and custom fitted 1" nylon webbing with quick releases included for each container. The weather boards were secured to two adjoining stanchions with a pair of stainless U-bolts at each end of the board. The inboard end of the U-bolts made use of double machine nuts to lock each leg of the U-bolt, with the outside of the pair a castle or acorn nut to provide a smooth, non-snagging finish. While not a permanent installation, it will provide far more security than the set-up that was used on our last trip to Mexico. During our bash north from the last trip, all the cans had to be secured from time to time, due to the constant and sometimes violent motion heading into wind and waves.

Since the boat haul-out and concurrent survey, we have also secured our new cruising insurance policy through American Marine Insurance Services who served as the broker to our new Markel American Insurance Company policy. The new policy covers the boat from Point Conception, California to Acapulco, Mexico, not more than 200 miles from shore. It was one of the few brokers contacted that provided west coast coverage and proved to be less expensive than the coverage offered through Blue Water Yachts, the company we used previously.

It's unfortunate that Boat US doesn't offer a more expansive insurance rider for Mexico. What they do offer is four month coverage, no further south than Puerto Vallarta. I'm unfamiliar with their hurricane season limits, but I would guess the southern limit would be no further south than Punta Banda (south of Ensenada). Because of the limitations on both the duration and range of the coverage, we had to drop this insurance for our Mexico sailing. Every time insurance is changed, usually there is a requirement to provide a current boat survey, which adds another $300 to $400 to the change. With regard to boat insurance, all that remains is to secure Mexican liability insurance. This can be done on line and is relatively inexpensive insurance to carry.

All that remains is to replace our wet-cell batteries that we purchased in Cabo San Lucas, with new AGM house and starter batteries (two 4D house and one group 27 starter battery). We will also secure Mexican fishing licenses for ourselves and the crew here in San Diego at the Conapesca office on Fifth Avenue. Then it is a matter of provisioning the boat; reinstalling the Furuno GPS (new lithium battery installed); getting a new Mexican courtesy flag; topping off the water and fuel tanks; and, securing the extra diesel jugs on the side decks. We hope to depart the port of San Diego the first week of November, 2010.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Whale Watching Road Trip

The boat is still in San Diego and we're still in the house. In January, Ted and Alicia, from the sailing vessel Tumbleweed (a 1982 Cal 39 MRK III) who we met on the 2008 Baja-ha-ha and were neighbors with for a time in Marina de La Paz, stopped by to visit on their way back to La Paz. They had put their boat on the hard at the Singular yard in Fidapaz while they were gone for the summer. During their visit, we had mentioned that we might go down to Guerrero Negro to do some whale watching at Ojo de Liebre. Once they saw our pictures from the trip we made there from five years ago, they decided to drive up from La Paz in February to meet us there and experience this type of whale watching for themselves. A date was picked and plans were made to hook up in Guerrero Negro.

We left on February 17 with plans to meet the crew from the S/V Tumbleweed on the 18th in Guerrero Negro. It took the better part of two hours to obtain our tourist permits at the border in Tijuana. We got there by 9 a.m. but ended up behind a tour bus which required processing about 30 passports, causing the delay for us.

Then once away from Migracion, we headed south along the toll road to Ensenada. We encountered our first detour at Playas de Tijuana. Traffic was detoured into town and since we've never been to this barrio before, we decided to drive around and take a look. It turns out this area is a very nice neighborhood and one we'll likely come back to explore. We did find out that there is only one way into and out of las playas after we had driven to the extreme south end of town. Then it was back on the road on onto Ensenada.

The drive continued to be uneventful but more congested once reaching Ensenada. We made a quick stop at the Calimax supermercado south of town to pick up some limes, rum and bakery goods. Off again on the road south.

Once south of Maneadero, traffic thinned out significantly and the hillsides of Baja were more reminiscent on Ireland than Mexico. Due to the El Nino rain storms, all the hillsides and valleys were covered in spectacular shades of green.Continuing south, with the sun out and hardly any traffic, the miles evaporated. We did notice the damage to the bridge just north of San Vincente and were required to detour beside the bridge that crosses the arroyo just north of Vincente Guerrero. We reached San Quintin a little after 2 p.m., filled the truck with gas at the Pemex next to the Los Pinos tomato processing plant and decided to stay the night. We continued down the road to the Desert Inn Hotel (the former La Pinta in San Quintin) and took a second story room overlooking the beach.

Early the next morning we were back on the road south. It was a clear, sunshine filled day with very little traffic on the road. The drive between El Rosario and Catavina is one of our favorites. The landscape quickly fills with Boojum trees, Cardon cactus, Elephant trees and bolder fields. The blue sky is crystal clear and the visibility is unlimited. We drove for miles without seeing another car pass in the opposite direction. It captures some of the desolate beauty that epitomized the pre-highway Baja peninsula.

We pulled off of the road just before noon and drove to a quiet spot to enjoy a picnic lunch in the desert. Save for the periodic sound of birds, all was quiet and peaceful. The sun was high in the sky and the temperature was in the mid-seventies. After having a light snack, we took the opportunity to wander around and take in the natural grottoes and hidden gardens tucked among the boulders that surrounded our picnic site. Then it was back to the road, continuing to head south to our designated rendezvous in Guerrero Negro with our friends driving north from La Paz.

Late in that afternoon, we arrived in the little salt mining town of Guerrero Negro. It is located on the Pacific coast of Baja California in the state of Baja California Sur. The town owes its' existence to the worlds largest commercial, evaporative salt works. The evaporation ponds are fed from the waters of the large bay of Ojo de Liebre, or eye of the rabbit. It's more infamously known as Scammon's Lagoon, where, in the mid-1800's the whaling captain, Charles Scammon, harvested the eastern Pacific herd of Gray whales. During nearly a decade and a half of whaling, the herd was reduced from 20-30 thousand individuals down to around four thousand. Thanks to the cessation of commercial whaling along the eastern Pacific and conservation management of their habitat, their numbers have rebounded and they are no longer on the brink of extinction.

Once in town, we found our friends, Ted and Alicia, along with their two friends, Kim and Kim. The motel where they were staying was full, so we found another motel just around the corner that had a room available. The accommodations were sparse, but comfortable and clean. After settling in, we walked back to our friends motel and enjoyed a few cold cervezas and shared stories, while basking in the late afternoon sunshine. From there, we walked out to the main street and headed east for three blocks until we arrived at Mano de Leon restaurant. Besides several more rounds of cervezas and a few margaritas we indulged in a sea food feast of several dozen, locally harvested oysters on the half-shell along with what seemed to be an unending supply of giant sea scallops (also locally harvested) prepared in several different ways. Fully sated and feeling little pain, we wandered back to our respective motel rooms in the dark of night.

The following morning, we formed our two car caravan and drove south of town, through the salt works property to a whale watching campground at the edge of the backwaters of the Lagoon. The six of us were fortunate enough to hire a guide and a panga to take us out in search of Eschrichtius robustus or the gray whale. As in our previous visit four years prior, it wasn't long before we seemed to be surrounded by gray's wherever we looked. Some sleeping at the surface, others spy-hopping and occasionally we'd be surprised by some doing a succession of breaches. Radio contact to our guide from another pangero, told of the location of a group of 'friendly's' and we made our way to them. Drifting in neutral, towards the second panga, we could see, what appeared to be, several yearlings surrounding the boat. As we drifted closer, a couple of these whales came over to investigate the new boat on scene. video

The whales natural curiosity is obvious as the deliberately either spy-hop right next to the boat to get a look inside or as they glide along the gunnel, with their turned slightly to the side to allow their eye to peer up at the faces hanging over the side of the boat, looking down. I'm not sure about the whales, but I can say for the people, there isn't a face in the crowd, young or old, on either boat that doesn't have a huge smile permanently affixed to their faces. The beauty, grace and wonder of these enormous creatures engender a joyful delirium that is shared by all who participate in this inter-species communion.

The three hour trip was over all too soon. To disengage from the whales the guide has to carefully engage the boat in reverse and slowly pull away from the mini-pod. Once clear, we're speeding through the enormous lagoon and back to the dock. For the entire return trip the smiles remain as we continue to observe a countless number of whales being themselves in their summer calving grounds.

We spent one more night in Guerrero Negro enjoying another sumptuous seafood feast and then meeting for coffee early the next morning before we headed back north towards San Diego. Ted, Alicia, Kim and Kim spent one more day at the lagoon before they, too, headed south to La Paz and their boat Tumbleweed.