Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Mexico (2013-2014)

On November 5th, after a few weeks in El Salvador, we left Bahia del Sol for the next leg north.  Earlier that morning, we cleared out at the customs and immigration offices on-site and walked to the beach to check out the breakers in front of the estuary.  They were big and steep, which made us a bit apprehensive, but it was low tide, and we wouldn’t be leaving until high tide late that afternoon. 

On the way into the estuary, we had surfed down several decent size waves.  It wasn’t so bad going with the waves, but going the opposite direction, it would have been rough.  Fortunately, by the time high tide rolled around at 3 pm and we followed our pilot boat out, the swell had died down considerably.  The waves were around five feet, but well-spaced and not really breaking, so it was actually less exciting than coming in.  We followed the instructions from the pilot boat and before we knew it, the sand bar was behind us, and we set our course for Puerto Madero, Mexico, 250 miles away.

For most of the trip, winds were from the west at 5 knots, so we motor-sailed with just the main up.  The current was against us, so our speed was slow at 4 knots, but it was a relatively pleasant passage as most of the nightly thunderstorms missed us.  We neared Puerto Madero early on November 8th, and the sun rose just was we entered the harbor.  Saviah coasted into a slip at Marina Chiapas, happy to be back in Mexico.

The marina staff was very welcoming and called the Navy, who arrived an hour later to do their paperwork and quick inspection.  We then checked in with the marina office, where the manager Enrique handled the rest of our clearance paperwork and even drove us to the airport later that afternoon to complete our immigration clearance. 

Chiapas is the most southern state in Mexico, and Puerto Madero is a great place to enter the country for northbound vessels.  The clearance process is easy, thanks to the marina’s help, and it is a great spot to wait for weather before tackling a potentially difficult next leg, which involves crossing the Gulf of Tehuantepec.  The Tehuantepec is known for its blustery winds and dangerous sea state.  From October to April, the gulf regularly has violent gales, referred to as Tehuantepecers.  These are strong north winds that blow in from the Gulf of Mexico and funnel through the Chivela Pass, intensifying as they reach the Pacific.  These strong winds reach hundreds of miles offshore, and create big, steep seas as they blow over the shallow gulf waters.

We downloaded weather forecasts daily, looking for the next available window.  We debated about doing some more land travel, as there are many sites to see in Chiapas, including several large Mayan ruins and some colonial cities that we had heard good things about.  We wanted to head north as soon as weather permitted, and decided it was better to hang around the boat to be ready.  So we caught up on a few boat projects and did a lot of provisioning as well.

Although the nearest town is 30 miles away, the marina manager, Enrique, gave us a ride in during his trip home for lunch just about every day.  There was a Super Walmart in town, and it had been a long time since we’ve been in a store with so much to choose from.  It was nice to have so many options for meals again, and we stocked up.  There was also a Home Depot nearby where we made one of our best purchases ever, a box fan.  The heat here was almost unbearable, and the mosquitoes were really bad at night.  Nights aboard Saviah were sweltering until we mounted the fan in the forward hatch.  Even with all the mosquito netting up, the fan provided a good breeze through the boat, and it made a world of difference. 

After a week in Chiapas, the 50-60 knot winds in the Tehuantepec died down, and the weather forecast showed a two-day window to cross in almost flat calm conditions.  It was time to move on, so we checked out with the marina, had our departure inspection from the Navy, and set off on the 245 mile passage to the Bahias de Huatulco early on November 16th.

There are two strategies for crossing the gulf, depending on the weather forecast.  One strategy is to sail a direct course across when you have a solid forecast for at least two days of calm conditions.  The other is the “one foot on the beach” method, which is the more commonly used strategy when there is uncertainty about the weather.  This option would have us sail along the 30 foot contour line, except to clear a few headlands with shoals extending further offshore.  By doing this, it increases the mileage, but if the wind starts to blow you can stay in relatively flat waters.  It also means that we would be sailing VERY close to shore at night, where there are unlit hazards to deal with, especially fishing nets.  

There was still a little uncertainty in the forecast, so we decided to do a modified one foot on the beach approach.  Our course kept us about five miles offshore, and we monitored the weather continually, ready to alter course for shore at the first sign of strong winds.  Since we were sailing so close to shore, we were able to get 3G service on our cell phone and download weather forecasts.  This was a first, and it made the passage a lot less stressful.  The winds were benign throughout the passage, and we had a favorable current for much of the trip as well.  We arrived at Bahias de Huatulco earlier than expected and hove to for five hours until the sky began to lighten. 

We decided to stop for fuel and rest and pulled into Marina Chauhue near Santa Cruz, just as the sun rose.  After a couple days, we were off again for the 355 mile trip to Zihuatanejo.  This three-day trip was an easy motor-sail in light winds, and we again arrived at night and hove-to for about five hours to wait for the sun to come up. 

Years ago, Zihuatanejo was a sleepy fishing village.  In the 70’s, the government decided to build a modern tourist resort town in Ixtapa, about three miles away.  Since then, Zihuatanejo has grown rapidly, and now tourism is by far the largest industry.  It has still managed to keep a traditional small town feel, and is built around a very well protected bay that is a popular stop for cruisers.  We dropped the anchor in front of Playa Principal, the beach in front of the town center.

We spent several days anchored in the bay and exploring the town.  We walked to the central Mercado just about every day for fresh veggies.  Like most of these markets, a wide variety of meats hang from hooks in the warm air.  It is hard to imagine getting used to that smell.  There were also restaurants in the market with really good cheap food, especially the chile rellenos, which we kept coming back for. 

Central Mercado
After five days, we were running low on water and anxious to do a few projects that required shore power, so we moved up the coast to the marina at the touristy town of Ixtapa.  The marina there is a little unusual in that there are crocodiles swimming around the fairways.  Several crocodiles swam by Saviah just about every day, and it was a little nerve-wracking walking up the docks, just a foot above the water, knowing that these crocs could easily get up there.  However, the only warnings we received were not to swim in the water.  So far, no incidents with crocs taking people off the docks here like they do in Australia.

Marina Ixtapa, crocodile swimming behind Saviah
We didn’t care much for Ixtapa, which was just rows of hotels and shopping centers, but it was a nice place to do some cleaning and small maintenance jobs.  After several days, it was time for a change of scenery, which we found at Isla Grande, just a few miles offshore.  We motored around to the north side of the island and dropped the hook.  It was clear water and a sand bottom, so we went for a quick swim and did some cleaning on the hull and the prop, which was past due.  Then we rowed to shore for some lunch before heading back to the marina that afternoon.

Isla Grande
For months, we had been looking forward to a visit from our friends, who would be arriving that afternoon, so we buttoned up Saviah and took a cab back into Zihuatanejo.  Eric and Chris flew in from Seattle and Vermont and had rented a nice condo overlooking the bay for a long weekend.  We spent the next few days hanging out with them and playing tourist.

We did a fishing trip that left early one morning, dragging lines behind a small fishing boat.  We basically just hung out on the boat taking in the scenery, and they would hand us the fishing rod if there was a bite.  After a couple hours, we had three tuna, so we stopped for a snorkel, before our guides took us to a palapa on the beach where they cooked up the fish for us.   We even took turns doing a parasailing trip back in the bay (all except Andrew). 

As always, the time flew by, and we were bidding our friends goodbye.  It was a great long weekend, and always lifts our spirits to see good friends.  With our vacation time over, we shifted focus to the next leg of our voyage.  The weather along this part of mainland Mexico is generally mild, dominated by the daily land and sea breezes, so we didn’t have to wait long for a window.  In the wee hours of December 10th, we set off on the 190 mile trip north and spent one uneventful night at sea before arriving in Manzanillo the next afternoon.

The anchorage here has been a very popular stop for cruisers over the years, because it is right in front of the large Las Hadas resort.  They have a dinghy dock there and for years charged only $2 per day to tie up, and you got to use the resort facilities as well.  Unfortunately, they just increased the price to around $15/day.  We spent the morning walking around town and the afternoon hanging around the resort pool.  One day was enough for us in Manzanillo, and the next morning we weighed anchor to head further north. 

Our next stop up the coast was Bahia Tenacatita.  It was another motorboat ride for all but the last five miles, which we were able to sail in the 15 knot NW winds.  There were six other boats in the anchorage, and we found a nice spot in 15 feet to anchor.  This was a good place to wait for a weather window for the next hop to La Cruz, 135 miles away.  Although the weather is generally benign along this coast, the next leg involved rounding Cabo Corrientes, the point marking the southern end of Bahia de Banderas.  Like all prominent high points that extend into prevailing winds, this cape accelerates the winds and often has confused seas generated by the strong currents flowing around it.  The general rule of thumb is to round these capes in the early morning hours before sunrise to avoid the rougher conditions in late afternoon.

Despite growing tired of motoring, we watched the weather hoping for a window of calm in which to make this transit.  We liked the anchorage here, as it was a quite protected bay with all sorts of marine life in the water.  We were starting to get a little anxious to keep moving though as we had booked flights back to the US for Christmas.  After three nights, we had a window that was less than ideal, but the best we would likely have for the next week, and we decided to go for it.

If we had known what lay ahead, we probably would have opted to stay in the anchorage for a few more days.  Conditions started off comfortable with NW winds at 5-8 knots and calm seas.  Nine hours later, the wind increased to 15-20, gusting 25, with the seas building to 4-6 feet from both the NW and NE.  Saviah bashed along in the rough short period waves until we finally backed off the throttle a little to help with the motion.  We still had 50 miles to go before we were around Cabo Corrientes, and it was going to be a long night.

Throughout the night, the winds shifted between NE and NW, but wind speed stayed at 15-20, gusting 25.  On a downwind course, 4-6 foot seas would be no big deal, but these mixed up and short period waves made Saviah pound, pitch, and heave in the most uncomfortable motion we’ve ever experienced.  Hand-steering and keeping watch was miserable, so we switched every hour in an attempt to stay rested.  What made it even more frustrating was that we were only making 2 -3 knots.

Finally we rounded the cape around 7 am, and conditions gradually moderated until we were motoring in flat calm, having a hard time even keeping the main full.  The last 20 miles across Banderas Bay to La Cruz were sunny and pleasant, no trace of the nasty conditions from just a few hours earlier.  We saw whale after whale on our way, and breathed a big sigh of relief as we approached the marina.  The last time we were here was two years and eight months earlier, when we left Mexico for the sail across the Pacific Ocean.  Since then we have sailed over 28,000 miles, visiting 25 countries along the way.  We tied up in the marina and celebrated officially completing a circumnavigation.   

We arrived in La Cruz almost a week before our flights back to the US.  Our time was spent cleaning and preparing Saviah for a month long stay in the marina, while we were away.  We had lots of laundry to do as well.  After our last bash to windward, we found that most of our clothes in the v-birth were soaked, and it was time to get our foul weather gear out again and clean off the mold.  They would be needed soon as the weather was getting colder with each passage north. 

We also needed to weigh our options for the last leg back to Seattle.  The predominant winds blow from the northwest, all the way back up the coast.  We wouldn’t want to bash against them, but we could hop slowly up the coast, waiting for calm conditions before motoring from port to port.  This would involve many stops along the way and very little sailing.  On the positive side, there are many places that we would like to see all along the coast, and since our plan isn’t to return to Seattle until the beginning of summer, we would have time to wait for the right weather windows. 

The other option would be to sail out to Hawaii and then northeast to Seattle.  This would involve only two long passages, the first would probably be pleasant, but the second half would be cold with less predictable weather.  It would also be more than double the miles, although spending a month or two in Hawaii would not be such a bad thing.  We would need a new genoa as well for this option since ours blew out in the Caribbean, and there would be a lot of downwind miles to Hawaii. 

There would be time to research and weigh our options over the next month as we visited our families back home.  On December 23rd, we flew back to the states, making the usual stops in Texas and New Mexico and enjoyed spending time with our families again. 

We returned to Saviah in mid-January and by that point had decided to get back to Seattle via a coastal hop rather than going to Hawaii.  With this plan, patience is the name of the game, waiting for the right window and then being prepared to leave again when the next one opened.  We did end up finding a genoa when Di ran into Mike at PV Sailing and found that he had several used sails that would work for Saviah.  He gave us a really good price on one, and we took down our small heavy jib and put up the genoa, hoping we would have the opportunity to use it on the way back home. 

Our next leg was the 290 miles from La Cruz to Cabo San Lucas, and after waiting for about a week, had a pleasant two day trip with very light winds and calm seas.  We arrived just in time to tie up the boat, take a quick shower and find a place to watch the Super Bowl.  Go Seahawks!

Our plan was to continue on our way whenever we could, spending as little time in Cabo as possible.  Unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate, and we ended up spending five days there.  We decided to make the best of it and did a daily hike out to the beautiful beaches and massive rocks on the point at the south end of the bay.  The snorkeling here is nice, too, but the warm tropical waters are apparently behind us, because it is now really cold.  We braved the frigid water a few times since it would likely be our last snorkel for a while.

Since there are no anchorages between Cabo and Bahia Magdalena (commonly known as Mag Bay), we had to tackle the next 175 mile stretch in one leg.  We had read that hugging the coast for the first day keeps you out of the larger seas, so we planned to give this a try.  The forecast showed two days of calm, so we set out on February 7th before dawn.

The forecast was right, and we enjoyed a nice trip motor-sailing in the NW 5 knot winds.  Once we reached Cabo Tosca about 15 miles from the entrance to Mag Bay, the wind died altogether.  Gray whales and dolphins escorted us the rest of the way in, with even more whales inside the bay than outside.  We dropped the anchor in about 12 feet, just barely in the lee of Punta Belcher, where there was one other sailboat. 

Shortly after we dropped the hook, the other boat, Bright Water, hailed us.  Nancy invited us over for drinks, and we gladly accepted.  Taking a shower before going over seemed like the right thing to do, and we found that the water here is even colder.  We will have to be really desperate before taking another outdoor saltwater shower. 

We had a great time chatting with Nancy and Phil, who were heading south, but had ventured back north to Mag Bay to see the whales again.  As we later learned, these two had taken their children on a great adventure in the Caribbean, and have written a book about their travels.  We spent several nights swapping stories, and had a great time hanging out with them.

Mag Bay turned out to be a nice three day stop for us.  The bay was filled with gray whales, breaching all the time, and there was some good walking along the beaches and in the nearby hills.  We were on the other side of the bay from the small town of Puerto San Carlos, with nothing around except a small fish camp, so it was quiet. 

After three nights in Mag Bay, the forecast showed what looked like an unusually long period of calm weather.  Possibly as many as five days in a row would begin the following morning.  We decided to make the 20 mile sail to Bahia Santa Maria that afternoon, which is on the outside of Mag Bay.  We spent the night at anchor there to give us a head start the next morning when the sun came up.  On February 12th we headed out, hoping to at least make it to Turtle Bay, 260 miles to the northwest, where we could take on fuel. 

There was no wind at all the first day, and the seas died down until they were nearly flat.  With only slightly more wind the following day, we continued to put more hours on our engine, but were thankful for the otherwise comfortable conditions.  By 8:30 am on February 14th, we pulled into Turtle Bay to take on fuel.  This is a nice protected anchorage and a good spot to rest and wait for weather, but the window looked like it would hold for another couple days.  So after we filled up our fuel tank, we headed further north.   Bahia San Quintin was 183 miles away, and we hoped to make it there in 36 hours.

As we left Turtle Bay, gray whales were again our companions.  We saw hundreds of these massive creatures on our way up the coast.  Apparently there are over 20,000 of them that travel between Alaska and Baja California Sur.  They leave in October and it takes two to three months to get down to the Baja peninsula, where the females give birth and nurse in the warmer water, before heading back north again.  The annual round trip is 10 – 14 thousand miles.  It is amazing to see these animals up close, but not too close since they get up to 50 feet long. 

Our course from Turtle Bay took us by Cedros Island as daylight faded and the full moon rose.  Conditions were calm until we reached the north end of Cedros, and the winds kicked up to NW 15.  It was a rough ride for most of the night, and by the early morning hours a dense fog rolled in, reducing our visibility to less than 100 yards.  It’s quite unnerving to be sailing blind in the fog, especially without radar. 

Since the person on watch was standing and constantly looking around, which can be tiring after a while, we started alternating one hour on and one hour off.  Around noon, the fog cleared and we had a few hours of sunshine, but we could see another massive fog bank up ahead and knew we were not in the clear yet.  This fog enveloped us and was even worse than before, and we couldn’t get to San Quintin fast enough.  The calm weather was forecast to continue for at least another day, and we wanted to keep going, but the fog was so bad we could hardly see the bow of the boat. 

Finally, around midnight, we started our slow approach to San Quintin.  The bay is quite large with plenty of room for anchoring, and the approach is clear of hazards.  We inched our way forward to the recommended anchorage, and dropped the hook when our depth got to about 18 feet.  It was eerily quiet when we killed the engine, and we let out a huge sigh of relief to have arrived without incident.

The next morning, we woke early to more fog, and our discussions turned to the weather.  The forecast looked good for making Ensenada, only 110 miles away, and after that it would be blowing hard for the next five or six days.  A few hours later the fog lifted, and we could see the shore for the first time, and it was surprising to see how far out we were.  We didn’t like the idea of making this leg in the fog, but we also didn’t want to be stuck here for another week, so we decided to keep going.

We motor-sailed along in the 5 knot westerly winds for most of the day.  Around sunset, the fog made its appearance, but was not as thick as the previous night.  This time we saw lights from other boats, for brief periods of time, and then the fog would become very dense, and they would disappear again.  It was truly terrifying to proceed in these conditions, knowing there were other boats nearby.  We took turns steering and keeping a look out every hour, by far one of our most stressful watch-keeping nights of the journey.

Finally around 6 am, the fog began to lift, and visibility improved.  By the time we got to Ensenada, it was a clear and sunny day.  We entered the harbor and got a slip at the Baja Naval Marina.  It was a relief to have the long trip up the Baja coast behind us.  Other than the fog, we were fairly lucky with the weather.  It only took us 11 days to make the 750 miles from Cabo San Lucas to Ensenada, and we only had to spend four nights in port to avoid head winds.  We weren’t sure how long we would be in Ensenada, which is only 60 miles from San Diego.  This would be our last stop in Mexico and the place we would clear out of the country. 

Our next priority was to have the boat hauled out for bottom paint and several other projects that needed to be done out of the water.  We also had been shopping for boat insurance for a while.  We haven’t had hull coverage since leaving Seattle because coverage for going offshore made it cost prohibitive.  Since we were now just coastal hopping up the coast of the US, the quotes we received were reasonable again.  But first we had to have the boat inspected by a surveyor, something that would need to be done out of the water. 

We were planning on doing all of this in San Diego, but discovered that it was significantly cheaper across the border in Mexico.  We found we liked Ensenada, the boatyard was very close to downtown, and they had showers at the boatyard, so we could live aboard.  This would save us even more money, so we decided to haul out here instead.  We were also able to find a surveyor from San Diego that was willing to drive down for the inspection.

As always, when you haul out, there is some problem that you don’t foresee.  In our case, the cutlass bearing, was worn down a bit, and we were able to grab the propeller shaft and move it around a little bit.  It wasn’t a big job to have it replaced, but one downside to doing the work in Mexico is that it is often difficult to get specialty boat parts.  Someone at the boatyard makes the drive up to San Diego a couple times a week to pick up parts, but this process usually means more days in the yard.  Especially, when they forget to pick up your part on Thursday and then aren’t going back up until the next Tuesday. 

So we ended up staying a little longer in the yard than we wanted.  It wasn’t too bad though, as we kept busy working on stuff that had been put off for a while.  Andrew did lots of sanding, varnishing, and polishing, taking advantage of the dry climate and sunshine.  It was also time to address some sources of water intrusion.  He took care of patching a few leaks in the teak decks and rebedded our portlight screws and chainplates that had also started to leak.  The boatyard had to do all work below the water line, so we had them remove and fiberglass over three thru hulls that we no longer needed with a single saltwater intake system that Andrew plumbed.  Di cleaned the interior from top to bottom, and sifted through every cubby to pull out any items we no longer needed and hoped to sell to other cruisers while in San Diego.  Our survey went well and the only issues were expired fire extinguishers and flares which we could replace once we got back to the US.  This allowed us to get insurance again, which was a big relief.

After eight days in the yard, Saviah went back into the water on March 12th, and we rushed around to the various offices to check out of the country.  That evening, about an hour before the sun went down, we motored out of the bay and started the 60 mile trip up to San Diego.