The Vilisar Times

The life and times of Ronald and Kathleen and our voyages aboard S/V Vilisar, a 34.5-foot wooden Wm-Atkin-designed sailing cutter launched in Victoria, BC, Canada, in 1974. Since we moved aboard in 2001 Vilisar has been to Alaska, British Columbia, California, Mexico, The Galapagos and mainland Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

In transit at Mazatlán, Sinaloa, Mexico. Tuesday, 29 November 2005

A culture weekend

Ever since arriving in Mazatlán we have been keeping an eye open for cultural opportunities. On our first day ashore in town here (Friday, 18 November), we dropped into the Municipal Arts Academy and were given some tips about upcoming events. That very evening we attended a free open-air symphony concert at Olas Altas (High Waves), a beach not far from the Plazuela Machado. We sat in a neat fish restaurant eating mariscos and occasionally dancing with the other people to the raucus and brassy but rhythmic Musica Sinaloense. The conductor of the televised concert bore the strangely un-Latin-sounding name of Gordon Campbell.

Last Saturday (26 November) we procured tickets for a “Stars of Tomorrow” concert. The tickets said the concert begins at 2000 but there is a “Galleria” at 1830. We assume this means an art show. Arriving in the best clothing our spare boating wardrobe allows (a clean pair of long cargo trousers rates as formal goin’-ashore clothing), we feel rather as if we had been dropped into a film set. For one thing, the Teatro Angela Peralta next to the Plazuela Machado is a modest-sized European-style theatre with three levels of wedding-cake-type balconies around the three sides. The theatre was probably never highly elaborate but the restorers have done a great job with paint to give an elegant yet cozy feeling.

Second, in the foyer there is a modest crowd of almost exclusively Americans in a wide a variety of warm-climate attire from shorts and trainers to long dresses and elegant shoes. Waiters in white jackets are weaving through the crowd offering (pleasant) red wine along with (soggy) crackers covered in (the normal tasteless) Mexican cheese. In no time we have plastic cups of wine in our hands and are standing around feeling like we have crashed somebody else’s party; we try to look like we belong. Eventually a man in a white dinner jacket comes up to “schmooze” (as he calls it) with us. He is formally attired because he is to be the MC for the evening. The whole event and the reception is being sponsored by Amigos de Mexico, a foundation set up by his late foster father, a wealthy construction engineer, to further the arts. Two dancer-choreographers, two singers and three instrumentalists are to compete for money. Clearly the American influence is at work: it has to be a competition for prize money and there has to be fund-raising-related “schmoozing” event. I note that, although the photographer of the works on display in the foyer (a series of underwater photographs of naked or semi-clothed women) is present and is to be one of the judges, there do not seem to be many artistes or even Mexicans at the ball. We could have been in Idaho.

After the MC drifts off to “work the room”, we are approached by a short man in his late fifties wearing a beige jacket over a tie-less yellow shirt. His name, as we discover, is Gordon Campbell. Attentive readers will recall that he was the conductor of the open-air symphony concert. Our conversation is interesting for several reasons but mainly for some insights into music in the Mexican provinces. Gordon Campbell is present because he is also one of the judges.

Before the event begins however, he tells us that the orchestra that he founded some four years ago in Culiacan, a much bigger city than Mazatlán situated about two and one-half hours north of here, will be giving a concert there on the next day, Sunday. He generously offers us a ride in his car; if we are at the Machado at 0700 he would take us with him.

To be fair, the contestants are not fantastic though we are more than pleased to see them on stage and hear them perform. The two young women dancers are interesting and the marimba player, who is the grand champion, is very good. But they are all conservatory students and therefore still have a long way to go. Unfortunately, the standard did not make us hope for much in Culiacan the next day.

But, up for an adventure and up before dawn, we are right on time as Maestro Campbell pulls up in his car. Once out of town we drive north on excellent toll roads. Our route lies parallel to the sea and on occasion we can glimpse if off to the left in the distance. Far away to the right across a wide expanse of flat, ploughed land we can see the blues and purples of the Sierra Madres running from north to south. The air is clear, sweet even, like the air in parts of Italy. Most of the fields are ploughed and awaiting planting but we did see some fields with low shrubs of some sort, possibly jalapeño or bell peppers. While farther north in Sonora there is a great deal of grain farming, this appears to be an area devoted to truck farming, i.e. vegetables. The whole operation is done in huge agricultural units and irrigated with water from the Sierras coming from huge reservoirs.

This prosperous agricultural activity contributes, I am sure, to the fact that Culiacan, although it is not even mentioned in our Mexico guidebook, is a prosperous and pleasant town of somewhere between 50,000 and 500,000. I believe it is also the capital of the State of Sinaloa. Unlike, say, La Paz or Guaymas, the cars look mostly late model, the streets appear to be all paved and there is a pleasant, busy air about the place.

Gordon is to be rehearsing his choirs and orchestra for three hours starting at 1100 in the Teatro Pablo de Villavicienca, part of what looks to be a new arts centre. The concert that evening is at 1800 and is intended as a benefit for work with autistic children. Unfortunately, Gordon has no more free tickets. We decide to attend the rehearsal and think carefully about whether we can afford $50 to go to the main event and be able still to get the bus back to Mazatlán.

Before and after the rehearsal we have a chance to look around the old part of the city with its colonial-style, white municipal palace and typical mid-19th Century Spanish-style cathedral. We also get some breakfast at the mercado; Mexican markets always have lots of fast-food snack bars where you sit on wooden stools at a counter while the cooks chop and fry in front you. The emphasis is on tacos and such but you can also get sandwiches and sometimes sopas (stews or soups).

Back at the rehearsal hall we are surprised to find an orchestra of some sixty people, an adult choir of the same number and eventually a children’s choir of about thirty. We note that Mexican children’s choirs seem to be no different than elsewhere; if you mix boys and girls in one choir the boys don’t stick around. There were only five boys in this choir.

Furthermore, whereas in all the choirs I have sung with in Germany the predominant hair colour was grey or white (at least among the men; the women all dyed their hair), there is in this choir not a single grey-haired person. I judge the oldest person here to be fifty at the most. By far the largest number of singers is in their twenties and thirties. Sometimes, tenors for example, the singers have a less-than-rounded or balanced sound. But sometimes their sound is excellent. Gordon rehearses choruses from Nebucco, Carmen, Freischutz, Lohengrin, Polevetzian Dances (spelling) by Borodin and are obviously well prepared. The children sing the opening chorus from Carmen.

When the orchestra starts playing the overture to Lohengrin I almost levitate for excitement. The theatre is not large so the sound is powerful. Gordon Campbell is not a highly demonstrative conductor. But that orchestra was totally under control, very precise, very disciplined, and they were putting out great vibrations. Quite a number of the instrumentalists, the brass, for example, are Americans and, in fact, we met one young violinist from Toronto. There were a few young-elderly players. But most of them were in their thirties, I should judge. Wagner, von Weber, Borodin, Bizet - lots of big romantic sounds.

The three-hour rehearsal is extremely professionally run and ends right on time at 1400. We had already decided that we would not be able to afford to stay on for the concert and that we would look around some more before catching a bus back to Mazatlán from the Terminal Central in the early evening. The ride takes three hours and costs Peso 150 each. So we said our goodbyes to Gordon and head out, thankful that we had had the opportunity to attend.

We are also interested to hear about music in Mexico. Gordon is originally from the Midwest U.S.A. but spent time teaching music in Argentina as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960’s. After playing in a professional brass ensemble in North Carolina, he was offered a job as a horn player with the symphony orchestra in Mexico City. From there, he found his way to various other cities and finally founded an orchestra in Culiacan. From this beginning he went on to find a conductor for the choirs and has built it up within a very short time. Clearly he has a talent for building.

I am reminded that human capital is as important in music as in farming. Cuauhtémoc, where the Mennonites brought special farming skills to an arid mountain valley, blooms compared to the surrounding Mexican farms and ranches. Israel has made the desert bloom. The farms we saw on the way to Culiacan required a lot of investment and know-how.

Similarly, Mexico is very short of musicians, teachers, conductors and even listeners and appreciators of good music. Some human capital has to be brought in if music is to get off the ground. Like many states in the U.S.A., there is essentially no music offered in the schools. So everything has to be done privately although in some cases the states and provinces will assist financially. The important thing is the people. Even more than, say, in banking and financial where it is also important, the quality of the product is in the individuals, not the equipment or the buildings, important as they might also be. It takes a huge investment of time and energy to become an instrumentalist or a singer. There have to be appreciative listeners; children who learn an instrument or sing grow up to be concert-goers and CD-buyers.

From somewhere money has to be found to pay at least the teachers, organisers and leaders. Germany devotes huge amounts of tax money to conservatories, orchestras, operas, etc. and there are radio stations devoted entirely to classical music. Other countries are also active. The U.S.A. raises a lot of money privately although the governments play a big role in providing conservatories, etc. The rest is commercial. Mexico is weak here so any effort at all bears fruit fairly quickly even though making it important in the lives of Mexicans is surely a long an uphill battle. But the Arts Academy in Mazatlán looked encouraging and Gordon Campbell’s efforts in Culiacan have been fantastic. We hope they go on to even bigger and better things. Next weekend the choir and orchestra is doing Beethoven’s Choral Symphony. Great!

Acid and oil

Eddy is the Bosun of the Club Nautico. He is very helpful as an interface between cruisers like us who are new here and speak little Spanish and expert tradesmen and sources of parts. When we decide not to use the city water to fill up our tanks, he picks up the agua purificado in 5-gallon bottles and delivers them to the dock. When I say I am having battery problems, he arranges for the son of a friend of his to come to the dock and pick up my batteries. We are wondering if they will even take a full charge. But Hermano Madrigale (great name), about twenty-five years of age, takes the two 12-volt batteries that we bought in Redondo in September 2003 and basically have used only since coming to Mexico in February, dumps out the old acid, fills them with new, and then charges the batteries overnight. In his opinion, he says, they are probably all right for a couple of more years. It is heavy work lifting them out of the Vilisar into the dinghy, rowing them ashore and then managing the whole process in reverse. But those batteries feel a lot lighter today when I heard that we will probably not have to buy new ones. I am also very thankful to Joe and Bill Wiggins for re-positioning the batteries and main switches to under the companionway ladder. I have lifted batteries out of that old spot behind the Lister engine and installed new ones and I never want to have to do that again. Now I don’t.

That leaves the problem of continuing oil loss. I suspected that I am losing oil around the banjo fittings of the oil filter. I cannot see the filter in operation because the air bag that carries the hot air away from the air-cooled engine to the outside blocks my view when we are moving. But the absorbent pads that I place to catch drips there seem to be saturated at the end of a trip.

Today I did what I should have done long ago: run the engine without the air bag. Within seconds of starting I see black oil oozing in large amounts out of the top of the oil filter canister and pouring down into the bilge. Now I know what the deal is. I shall change the oil filter and tighten the gaskets all round. That will save me the money for a mechanic and the cost of topping up oil constantly. In the background, however, it is good to know that Victor, the local diesel mechanic, is familiar with Lister engines and Eddy knows of several sources in town for Lister parts.

We are planning to leave for points south in a day or two. But we are much better situated here to get help and parts than we shall be in Puerta Vallarta where the anchorages are apparently quite a way from the city. We shall get these things taken care of and leave probably on Wednesday or Thursday.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Mazatlán, Sinaloa, Mexico, Saturday, 26 November 2005

Winter weather in Mexico

For those of you suffering through the early stages of winter in the Northeastern or Midwestern U.S.A. or in Canada, let me tell you that it is no picnic here either. Yesterday, for example, I am awakened by the sound of distant thunder. When I stick my head out of the hatch around 0600 a light drizzle has already begun. A watery sun is trying to get up into the overcast sky from behind a rocky promontory to the east of the harbour entrance. I start coffee. A few minutes later the rain begins to pelt down and, since the skylight tends to leak in heavy rain, I leap to find the canvas cover. Quite unusually for life aboard a sailboat, although we have not used the cover for eons, I am able to lay my hands on it instantaneously. I dash outside to pull it on, straighten up one or two things on deck to make sure that a strong gust will not blow them overboard, and return wet to the cabin below. Did I say that the temperature is around 70°F?

The rain lasts for an hour or so. It is more like a tropical storm with the winds switching around 180° as the squall passes through. I see people out on their boats checking gear and anchors. Water pours from the awning in a waterfall. When it finally ends and the sun comes out weakly illuminating a sky full of big cumulus clouds, the ones inland and to the east tinted orange by the pollution emitted from the electricity generating plant about ten miles away (Mexican power plants are notorious for their pollution).

I have promised to check my emails this morning at 0930 to see if I have been given a translating job. I have to bail out the dinghy and try to dry things up a bit. I row off leaving Kathleen alone on the boat. There is no wi-fi in this harbour and I have to head into town to find a place to download the text and where I can sit to work on the translation. I am sprinkled by rain but make it to shore without a soaking and with only the normal “dinghy butt”.

I only write this to let you all know that we are not completely without “weather” here. We talked to a girl working at a restaurant at the Machado, for example. She says that, last year, it got really cold on Christmas Eve; it dropped down to 8° C (about 46° F) overnight. “Frio!” she said energetically and hugged herself to keep warm at the remembrance. We asked her when the coldest part of the year would be? She looks at us incredulously and exclaims, “Right now!”

We find the weather here is definitely cooler than on Baja. We attribute this to the cool and moist Pacific air masses that are now arriving without interference by the mountains making up the spine of the Baja Peninsula. The Pacific waters off the coast here are also colder than in the Sea of Cortés. Daytime temperatures are in the low-80’s (F.) and high-60’s at night. I wear shorts, t-shirt, straw hat and sandals going to town and next to nothing on board. At night I sleep under a sheet or a light fleece blanket. Winds are generally weak and have a northerly component.

It’s a struggle but I think we can handle it. The only complaint really is at the dampness. Relative humidity is high and, at night, the dew is extremely heavy. On the first day we went ashore to arrive back about 2000, we had left open the skylight and hatches for ventilation. By the time we arrived back aboard everything inside was damp and clammy. We have learned to close things up more when leaving the boat and otherwise we have just learned to grin and bear it.

Shopping at the mercado

We both enjoy shopping at the mercado, the covered municipal market in town. I have memories of visiting border towns like Matamores and Reynosa around 1959; the stench and the flies at the market made me nearly vomit. I approached Mexican markets with a large degree of scepticism.

But, here in Mazatlán, today’s market is quite different. Although not luxurious in appearance, it is spacious and spotlessly clean. Not a housefly in sight. Without exception, every meat, poultry and fishmonger has refrigerated counters for displaying their wares and the products look great. If I put Frankfurt’s Kleinmarkthalle at 10 a scale of 1 to 10, I would give Mazatlán mercado an 8 or above.

After checking into the internet café to find that I was not getting any translating work after all, I walk over past the cathedral to the mercado. I pick up a one-pound block of lightly-smoked tuna, atun ahumado, that we have tried before and found to be delicious on crackers or bits of tortilla. I have been thinking about making a smoked-fish chowder. Having some on board is anyway a good way to store fish at sea when we have no refrigeration; it’s equivalent to having smoked or dried meat.

It is early afternoon and the market is busy. I drift around checking the stalls until I arrive eventually at the butcher from whom I bought some meat yesterday that I wanted to cook tonight. I bought it on sight and then was unsure just what cut of beef I had acquired. In a somewhat difficult technical discussion about cuts of meat, I then finally learn that what I have would be better used for a sopa, i.e. a stew or a soup. He points out various other cuts and we discuss cooking methods. I learn a few new words but am somewhat overwhelmed. I resolve to buy a Mexican cookbook in Spanish as a means of furthering my language education. At another stall I buy some chicken breasts and head for the bus stop outside.

A “Morelos” or “Toreos/Palya Sur” bus costs only Pesos 4.20 and will drop me right in front of Club Náutico. One comes along almost immediately. That’s the great thing about public transport in Mexico: the camions are cheap, clean, frequent and friendly.

Back on the boat, Kathleen has been busy cleaning the topsides and down below, and baking several loaves of oat bread. The sun is warm by now, the boat is well dried off and we decide to take lunch in the cockpit under the awning and play canasta. I have successfully lobbied against keeping written score until, now that I am better at the game, I have some chance to avoid total humiliation at Kathleen’s skilled card-sharking hands.

Solar power

It is amazing how a slight amount of haze in the sky or overcast heavens can cut the output of the solar panels. Were I keen, I could keep both 55-watt solid panels aimed more-or-less directly at the sun at all times by moving them around the deck. Of course, I could never leave the boat. This all gets tedious, however, since you have to be after it all the time. Not to mention that the sharp edges of the solar panels scratch or score the paint and varnish-work and, strapped on the cabin roof at sea, become a worry if it gets rough. So far there has never been a problem at sea but I am always a bit nervous about them.

In San Carlos, therefore, I bought two stainless-steel brackets from another boater who had moved his solar panels to the roof of his newly-constructed pilot house with the intention of mounting at least one panel permanently to the lifelines portsides next to the cockpit. Here it is out of the way and, using a length of wood, I can tip the otherwise hanging panels up to a horizontal position the better to catch the sun. The other panel will be mounted opposite on the starboard side when I get two more brackets made.

With one panel mounted, the days now lasting only about ten hours, and the skies sometimes a bit hazy, I find I am however not able to keep the batteries charged up. I talked about this to Carl and Julie of S/V Journey out of San Francisco, a very nice couple who have been here for the last few days and left yesterday for Puerta Vallarta. Carl has a 34-foot “Islander” and carries about 350 watts of solar-generating capacity permanently mounted over the aft end of his vessel, runs a TV and refrigerator and probably any number of other electrical or electronic items. I have no idea where on Vilisar we could even put such a spread of solar panels. But at least Carl does not have to worry about keeping the panels aimed at the sun for efficiency; he always has enough of them in the right spot, I guess.

The solar power issue is only one aspect of the electricity supply issue aboard. The engine alternator does not seem to put out enough power at present and likely the voltage regulator needs to be set higher to allow the batteries to get more energy. In addition, we still have not done anything about replacing the old batteries. This is a financial issue at present; a new Group 24 battery will cost about Pesos 1500 (ca. US$ 150) which we don’t have to spare at the moment. It would be handier to get it here in Mazatlán where things are more readily available physically to where the boat is anchored. On the other hand, we always seem to be able to get the boat started when we need to and we only use the computer during the daylight hours when there is lots of solar power flowing through the batteries into the laptop. I guess it will have to wait.

Another item I wanted to have dealt with here in Mazatlán is that the engine is losing oil at a higher rate than it used ever to do. I don’t think it is leaking it into the cylinders since there is no blue smoke coming out of the exhaust. I know it leaks a little around the oil filter banjo fittings but I am afraid it might be leaking elsewhere too. Everyone recommends Victor Gambrosa around here as a top diesel mechanic. I have simply not been able to get in touch with him. We didn’t use the engine much on the way over here and do not intend to do so going farther south. But still, I should like to have it taken care of. Perhaps I can get in there and fix the leak around the oil filter. Yuck! Hate doing this.

Once we have picked up the repaired staysail on Monday, done a laundry and tanked up with bottled drinking water, we shall probably take off for Isla Isabela, San Blas and Puerta Vallarta on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

(U.S.) Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, 24 November 2005

Yesterday was a quiet day on the boat. I got out the Yankee with the torn leech and spent several hours repairing it using patches made from an old sail and gluing the patches on with 3M 5200 sealant. It seemed to work so well for the mainsail patch last summer and it looks pretty good in this case too. I let it cure overnight, dry this morning in the somewhat weak sunlight, then bag the sail and drop it down the forehatch for storage. It will be our backup jibsail.

The rest of the morning today I spend taking off the two headsails (the other jibsail) and painting the standing rigging as far up as I can reach from the deck using flat-black Rustoleum-brand rust paint. In the old days sailors would coat the rigging with Stockholm (pine) tar to prevent rusting. That’s why sailors are called “tars” and why Queen Elizabeth ordered that, unlike their soldier cousins who touch an open hand to helmet or hat, British sailors salute with the blackened palm of the hand turned down.

Brion Toss, author of The Rigger’s Apprentice, suggests using a fifty-fifty mixture of asphalt-based “net dip” and black enamel paint- especially in the tropics where tar would tend to be even messier than normal. I have used that recipe and it works fine. Last year I experimented to a limited extent with Rustoleum anti-rust paint and it seemed to hold up better than anything so far.

All of Vilisar’s standing rigging is galvanised iron wire. Except for the job and forestays and except for the mast-top shrouds from the spreaders to the masthead, all the standing rigging is also parcelled and served, meaning that the grooves of the wire are first filled with small string and then the whole wire is wrapped in what looks like black fisherman’s twine. This is done by stretching the wire horizontally to the ground, hooking a special twine-dispensing mallet over the wire and swinging the wire in circles like a skipping rope in order to move the mallet down the length of the wire while it pays out twine from the spool. The final step is to slush the rigging at regular intervals so prevent rust.

When Brion Toss, author of the rigger’s Bible called The Rigger’s Apprentice, inspected our rig before going offshore in 2003, he took one look at Vilisar’s galvanised rigging and said,

“I have two pieces of bad news for you. First, you are going to have to replace the whole standing rigging before it’s 100 years old. And, second, it’s a little loose and you should tune it up.”

“Well, I’ll take care of the first one when the time comes if you take care of the other today,” I said.

Brion Toss reckons that stainless steel wire has an average useful life of about ten years and galvanised rigging will last forever if it is taken care of. Galvanised wire is also cheaper though the initial investment for the rig might be higher if you hire someone to do the work. Nevertheless it will last more-or-less forever.

The jibstay (running from masthead to bowsprit) and the forestay (running from the spreaders to the bow), as I said, are not parcelled and served; it would be pointless since the headsails have to be hoisted up and down and the hanks would soon wear through the twine. Nevertheless, along with the parcelled and served portions, the bare wire on the headsail stays has to be “slushed” occasionally. You can really tell when slushing is past due since the white sails tend to pick up rust stains.

It is quite a task to slush the rig. How, for example, does one reach the upper portions of the shrouds or back and forestays? Unless the wires are loosened off and left to hang down from the masthead so that someone in a bosun’s chair can slush them as he is being hauled up or down – this approach would require a lot of loosening and subsequent re-tuning of the standing rigging as well as a lot of hauling – it is almost impossible to slush the rig completely.

In Comox, British Columbia, at the end of our Alaska voyage in 2002, we took Vilisar in the early dawn and at low tide to the fixed Government Dock. With a small roller attached to the end of our boat hook, I stood on top of the dock and painted the rigging first on one side and, after swinging the boat around, then the other side. The only part I missed was a few yards at the top of the backstay because the tide came up and I could no longer reach it.

Our headsails now have a lot of rust stain and, with the staysail away at the sailmakers, I take the opportunity to strip off the other headsails (I have been hanking the drifter on above the yankee) and get to work painting the bare wire. With the paint can out, the disposable-rubber gloves already on and the sponge paintbrush already dipped, I just keep right on going after the headsail stays are done. I slush all the standing rigging as far up as I can reach from the deck (about six feet or more by standing on the cabin roof). I also do the parcelled and served wire shrouds that give the bowsprit lateral support and a few other things here and there as well.

The UV has really played the devil with everything this past summer and, when I complete these touch-up jobs, it really makes the rest of the paint and varnish-work look shabby. That’s the problem with painting just one or two things! When Kathleen travels to Germany for a month at the end of January, I guess I had better do the annual refit. Better to do it in the “cool” of a Mexican winter than go through another summer.

Kathleen has been giving the interior a lot of tender loving care too. She has been washing down the white painted surfaces and applying weekly coats of lemon oil to the dark woods. At some point the white will have to be repainted. But, given all the taping off that will be required, this will take place some time in the future. Digging around under the galley sink we find an impregnated cloth in a Ziploc bag; it really shines up the lamps and galley equipment.

By noon, we were both tired of cleaning. Over a snack we decided to head into town this afternoon, perhaps visiting the art museum (“not to be missed”, says our guidebook) before hitting the internet café at the machado.

Today is Thanksgiving Day in the U.S.A. and the American cruisers have organised a turkey dinner up at Marina Mazatlán. It is rather expensive though the proceeds do go to a charity run by the long-term cruiser-residents. Instead we will buy some chicken and do our own dinner back aboard Vilisar.

The sailmaker; Mapping the Oil Motive
Wednesday, 23 November 2005

The sailmaker

Celia and Roger invite us over to their trimaran, St. Briged, for morning coffee and to listen to the cruiser net yesterday (our VHF radio is acting up again and won’t switch channels). They are a lively pair from the Pacific Northwest of the U.S.A. that we first met in Ensenada. Real budget cruisers, they are taking plenty of time to wend their way south. Celia also gave us a method of making coffee without a French press coffee pot: she uses a little, fine-mesh, handheld plastic colander with a paper filter inserted. (I tried it this morning and it works fine though how stable it will be at sea is still to be discovered.)

I had already stripped the staysail and had it ready in the dinghy to take ashore with us and on up to Marina Mazatlán where, late morning, we are to meet Mike Walden on S/V Destiny Dream. He is the local, and according to him, the only sailmaker for miles around. The bus takes us up the beach road past the Old Town and on up through the “Zona Dorado” (Golden Zone).

“Zona Dorado” is real-estate-speak for a closely-packed, high-rise hotel strip (that includes the requisite bars, restaurants, discos, souvenir cum T-shirt shops, etc). It caters to Americans and Canadians on package tours. Quite large and well established, it could be anywhere. Definitely not our thing.

Marina Mazatlán is way out in a flat marsh. Construction is going on all around including trophy houses and up-market apartment buildings. When he came down on his sailboat a few years ago, heading off to Mexico after throwing over a sailmaker’s job in a loft near Santa Barbara, Mike found there was nothing here but the marina. But it was still more expensive to live in Mexico than he had anticipated so he went back to his trade. As an indication of price inflation, he told us that the initial little houses being built around there were being sold a few years ago for about $ 30,000. The asking prices are now up over a half a million dollars for the same pieces of property. He does his work on the dock next to his boat. He got his FM3 Permanent Visa without too much problem but, when he tried to get a Work Permit, it took a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, the local canvas workers being opposed to him. He eventually got the work permit by pointing out that there are no sailmakers whatsoever in Mazatlán. He just has to be very careful not to do canvas work. Now that he can refer canvas business (dodgers, awnings, etc.) to the Mexican shops, they are a little more tolerant of him. Mike calls himself “Captain CurMudgeon” on his business card but he doesn’t seem to live up to it. From our point of view, the hardest part about his existence would be living in the marina; it’s as boring and uninteresting as any hotel strip and, full of Norteamericanos, it’s a long way from Mexico.

He promised to have our staysail done by Monday and we discussed repairs to the ties binding the mainsail to the little track cars on the mainmast and its boom. “Reckon 8 minutes per tie, 9 minutes if I have to cut them off and multiply that by the number of ties. I charge $ 45 an hour.”

We took a different camion back into town to the machado where we hit the internet café for an hour or so. Before heading over to the mercado to get some fresh meat and veggies, we also spent Pesos 150 (ca. US$ 15) each on tickets for a Stars of Tomorrow gala on Saturday evening at the Angela Peralta Theatre. This will be a good opportunity even just to see the inside of the renovated 19th Century theatre.

Back at the Club Náutico we ran into Julie and Carl, newly arrived via Cabo San Lucas (S/V …., San Francisco), and Portia from (S/V Geneffa, Hawaii). She is the owner/skipper and has one crewman with her. Mid-twenties, she grew up on a sailboat in Hawaii though I don’t think she had made long passages until she sailed down to Mexico after buying the boat in San Francisco. Her engine is giving her trouble but she does her own engine, electrical and sail work. I am trying to get hold of Victor, the local diesel mechanic, to see if he can tell me why I am losing so much oil. She got Victor in to tell her if she was doing the right thing in repairing her engine.

Mapping the Oil Motive

I often browse into Tom Paine for informative analyses and opinion about world events. I thought this article by Michael T. Klare analysing the oil motive behind the unprovoked U.S. aggression on Iraq was quite interesting. The discussion at the time was about WMD’s, links to terrorism, etc. But the implementers and the justifiers of the war steered away from the topic of oil though surely everyone knows that it was really about oil. You would have to be in serious denial not to know it was and is all about oil.

The conclusions drawn by Professor Klare are totally in line with the predictions made before the invasion of Iraq by British and American, Italian, Spanish, Saudi Arabian, Kuwaiti, and other troops: there are no WMD’s; far from bringing order and democracy, an invasion will destabalise Iraq and the whole of the Middle East to the benefit mainly of Shi-ite Iran; the turmoil Iraq following an American-led occupation will reduce the amount of oil available to the world and drive prices up.

Mapping the Oil Motive by Michael T. Klare. March 18, 2005

The Bush administration has publicly advanced a number of reasons for going to war in Iraq, from WMDs to the Iraqi people's need for liberation. Michael Klare reviews the evidence that securing America's source of oil was a decisive factor in the White House's decision to invade—and looks at whether the administration succeeded.

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Petroleum Dependency (Metropolitan Books)

What role did oil play in the U.S. decision to invade Iraq? If oil did play a significant role, what, exactly, did President Bush and his associates hope to accomplish in this regard? To what degree did they succeed? These are questions that will no doubt occupy analysts for many years to come, but that can and should be answered now—as the American people debate the validity of the invasion and Bush administration gears up for a possible war against Iran under circumstances very similar to those prevailing in Iraq in early 2003.
In addressing these questions, it should be noted that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a matter of choice, not of necessity. The United States did not act in response to an aggressive move by a hostile power directed against this country or one of its allies, but rather employed force on its own volition to advance (what the administration viewed as) U.S. national interests. This means that we cannot identify a precipitating action for war, but instead must examine the calculus of costs and benefits that persuaded President Bush to invade Iraq at that particular moment. On one side of this ledger were the disincentives to war: the loss of American lives, the expenditure of vast sums of money and the alienation of America’s allies. To outweigh these negatives, and opt for war, would require powerful incentives. But what were they? This is the question that has so bedeviled pundits and analysts since the onset of combat.

It is highly doubtful that any one factor tipped the balance toward invasion. A war of choice is rarely precipitated by a single objective, but rather stems from a combination of contributing factors. In this case, many come to mind: legitimate concern over Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction; an inclination to demonstrate the effectiveness of the administration’s “pre-emptive” war doctrine; increased security for Israel; the promotion of democracy in the Middle East; U.S. domination of the Persian Gulf region; and a thirst for Iraqi oil. All of these, and possibly others, are likely to have figured to some degree in the president’s decision to invade. What is difficult is to ascertain is how these factors were ranked in the administration’s calculus; what we can do, however, is to put them into some sort of context, to show how they formed an overpowering nexus of motives that outweighed the disincentives to war. And here, oil proves essential.

The starting point for such an assessment is the locale for this war: the Persian Gulf region, home to two-thirds of the world’s known oil reserves. For more than 40 years, U.S. foreign policy has been guided by America’s growing dependence on oil supplies from the Middle East. Embraced by both Republicans and Democrats, this policy is known as the Carter doctrine because it was articulated most clearly by President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Presidents Reagan, Bush 41 and Clinton have all acted under the banner of the Carter Doctrine: supporting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), opposing Iraq by liberating Kuwait in 1991, imposing sanctions and no-fly zones between 1991 and 2003. As I described in the December issue of
The Progressive, Bush and the neocons used the banner of the war on terror after 9/11 to massively expand American capacity to employ force in the pursuit of global oil reserves.

Setting the Stage for War

When George W. Bush entered the White House in February 2001, Iraq was still under sanctions, and Saddam Hussein remained in power. At this point, Bush ordered two major reviews of American policy: an assessment of the effectiveness of sanctions by then Secretary of State Colin Powell, and a review if U.S. energy policy by Vice President Dick Cheney. Although prompted by separate concerns—the survival of Saddam Hussein in one case, persistent energy shortages in the other—these two reviews both focused attention on developments in the Persian Gulf and together set the stage for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The first review, completed at some point in the late spring, concluded that sanctions had not only failed in their intended purpose of unseating Hussein, but had also strengthened his position by making it appear that the United States was victimizing the poor and downtrodden population of Iraq. To make matters worse, Hussein appeared to be using the United Nation’s “oil for food” program to accumulate funds for the acquisition of arms and illicit weapons technology.

The second review, released as the National Energy Policy on May 17, 2001, also described a worrisome situation: domestic oil production in the United States was in irreversible decline at a time of soaring energy demand, and so the nation was becoming increasingly dependent on imported energy. But while expressing concern over the dangers inherent in this situation, the authors of the report concluded that the United States had no choice but to increase its reliance on imports in order to fuel the nation’s cars and factories. And because so much of the world’s remaining untapped petroleum lay in the Persian Gulf area, U.S. energy policy would have to concentrate on gaining greater access to these supplies. “By any estimation, Middle East oil producers will remain central to world oil security,” the NEP affirmed. Hence, “The Gulf will be a primary focus of U.S. international energy policy.

The NEP also made it clear that the existing oil infrastructure in the Persian Gulf was inadequate to produce the much higher levels of oil that would be needed to satisfy projected U.S. and international requirements in the years ahead. According to the 2001 edition of the Department of Energy’s International Energy Outlook, the Gulf countries would have to nearly double their combined output, from approximately 24 million barrel per day (mbd) to 45 million barrels, in order to meet anticipated world demand in 2020—a Herculean task that exceeded the capacities of many of the region’s prevailing regimes, including those in Iran and Iraq. Only if U.S. firms were allowed to come in and take over production in these Gulf countries, the NEP hinted, would it be possible to quench the world’s insatiable thirst for oil.

The two reviews thus reached several complementary conclusions: the sanctions regime was in disarray; Hussein continued to pose a threat to Persian Gulf security; the United States needed more Persian Gulf oil; and ways had to be found to insert U.S. oil firms into the region. How, then, to reconcile all of these concerns? In the end, only one option promised to secure all of these objectives: the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein and his replacement by a regime disposed to satisfy U.S. energy objectives. And so, in late 2001 or early 2002, the administration decided to invade Iraq.

That these various factors were intertwined in the administration’s thinking is clearly evident from the most important speech given by Vice President Dick Cheney on the reasons for war, in an address before the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Aug. 25, 2002. “Should all [of Hussein’s WMD] ambitions be realized, the implications would be enormous,” he declared. “Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror and a set atop 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world’s energy supplies, directly threaten America’s friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail.” From this perspective, inaction was unthinkable.

Hands In the Honeypot

Having decided to eliminate Hussein, the Bush administration set out to ensure that any successor regime would be predisposed to satisfy U.S. energy objectives. Ahmad Chalabi, a former Iraqi banker who was being groomed by the Department of Defense to serve as Iraq’s future ruler, was encouraged to meet with representatives U.S. energy firms and arrange for their participation in the postwar rehabilitation of Iraq’s oil infrastructure. “American companies will have a big shot at Iraqi oil,” he promised after one such meeting. Meanwhile, the Working Group on Oil and Energy—a collection of expatriate Iraqi oil experts assembled by the Department of State—developed plans for the privatization of Iraq’s state-owned oil company and its acquisition by foreign firms. And, to ensure that none of Iraq’s oil assets would be damaged by Saddam Hussein loyalists, the Pentagon assembled a special force to seize Iraqi oilfields at the very onset of hostilities.
And so the Bush administration went to war confidently, believing that it would both eliminate a major threat to Persian Gulf stability and ensure a substantial American role in the exploitation of Iraq’s prolific oil fields. All was set for this favorable outcome in April 2003, when triumphant American forces occupied the Oil Ministry headquarters in downtown Baghdad, blithely ignoring the rampant looting taking place in surrounding areas. But now, two years later, the situation appears far less promising. We return, then, to our final question: To what extent did the administration achieve its intended objectives in Iraq?

Mission Accomplished?

Certainly, Saddam Hussein has been removed from office, and his ability to wreak havoc in the Gulf has been eliminated. The Iraqi National Oil Company (INOC) is now in the hands of American-installed technocrats, and some progress has been made toward restoring production to prewar levels. But it is scarcely apparent that the Persian Gulf is more secure than it was two years ago, or that America’s ambitious oil objectives will ever be realized. By failing to deploy sufficient numbers of ground troops in Iraq and imposing a modicum of civic order, the United States squandered its initial advantage and opened the space for a virulent insurgency and the emergence of ethnic and religious factionalism. This, in turn, has curtailed Iraq’s oil output and threatened to tear the INOC apart.

Looking at Iraq today, one can see several powerful impediments to the accomplishment of U.S. objectives:

* The insurgency has crippled Iraq’s capacity to export more oil. When U.S. forces first entered Baghdad in April 2003, U.S. officials confidently spoke of boosting Iraq’s prewar production of 2.5 million barrels per day to 3 mbd in 2004 and 5-6 mbd by the end of this decade. Today, because of persistent sabotage of pipelines and refineries, Iraq is producing less oil than it did before the war—about 2 mbd. In northern Iraq, insurgents have repeatedly bombed the main export pipeline to Turkey, taking it out of operation for months at a time; in the south, saboteurs have periodically crippled key pipelines and loading platforms, curtailing exports by sea. The United States has spent billions of dollars to repair these facilities and to enhance security along the pipeline routes, all to no avail. According to a recent report in Oil and Gas Journal , Iraqi output is expected to remain below prewar levels in 2005 and to begin a slow recovery in 2006—but only if the security situation has improved by then. And no one is willing to predict when, if ever, the country will reach the fabled level of 6 million barrels per day.

* Ethnic and religious antagonism between Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites threatens to dismember the INOC . When invading Iraq, the Bush administration assumed that a U.S.-installed government under Ahmad Chalabi would unify the country and quickly restore central government authority. Now, the country is split into three more or less autonomous regions: a self-governing Kurdish enclave in the north; the beleaguered “Sunni Triangle” in the center; and the clerical-dominated Shiite zone in the south. Rather than bridge these divisions, the recent elections—widely touted as a victory for democracy—have tended to strengthen the forces of dissolution. Each community is jockeying for political and economic advantage, with Iraq’s oil reserves as the major prize. The Kurds, with one-fourth of the seats in the new national assembly, are demanding control over the Northern Oil Company (the INOC’s northern affiliate in Kirkuk) as the price for their participation in any future federal system; the Shiites, for their part, seek control over the Southern Oil Company in Basra; and many Sunnis, seeing themselves excluded from the possible division of Iraq’s oil wealth, appear inclined to support the continuing insurgency. Under these circumstances, foreign oil companies are reluctant to invest in any major projects in Iraq, preferring to wait until the insurgency has been brought under control and the future status of the INOC has been decided—steps that may take years to accomplish.

* Insurgency and ethnic factionalism in Iraq threaten to destabilize the entire Persian Gulf region. By invading Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration sought to bring greater security to the Gulf area and thereby ensure the safe production of oil. But while the removal of Hussein has eliminated one serious threat to Gulf security, the ensuing insurgency and ethnic disorder have introduced a whole new array of dangers. By demonstrating a capacity to stand up to American military might and inflict significant U.S. casualties, the insurgents have emboldened Islamic jihadists in neighboring countries. The resurgence of violent extremism in Saudi Arabia has been particularly striking, with a series of major terrorist strikes in Riyadh and in the oil centers of Khobar and Yanbu. Meanwhile, the various armed bands in Iraq appear to be receiving financial aid from other countries, Iran in the case of the Shiite militias and Saudi Arabia in the case of the Sunnis. And Turkey, with a large and restive Kurdish population of its own, has hinted at full-scale military intervention in northern Iraq if the Kurds establish an autonomous nation in that area. Given these developments, it is very hard to argue that the Gulf is more secure today than it was in March 2003, before the war began.

When all is said and done, therefore, it appears that the U.S. incursion into Iraq—begun with such high expectations two years ago—has largely failed to achieve its intended purposes. No weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq, so the invasion cannot be said to have eliminated a potential WMD threat. The danger posed by terrorism is no less severe now than it was in 2003, and in some cases has grown stronger. It is true that democracy has made some inroads in Iraq, but it is not at all evident that elections will produce a stable, unified state. And it is clear that Iraq is in no position to quench America’s voracious thirst for petroleum.

This assessment has obvious implications for many key aspects of U.S. foreign policy. For one thing, it casts considerable doubt on the utility of pre-emptive military action as a tool for promoting stability in unsettled regions like the Middle East—a conclusion that deserves close attention as we move closer to a possible war with Iran. Many aspects of U.S. policy for postwar “nation building” also need to be re-examined. But what is most evident is that the administration’s strategy of using military force to achieve its energy objectives in the Middle East is hopelessly flawed. Despite all the loss of human life, it appears highly unlikely that the major Gulf producers will achieve the 85 percent increase in daily petroleum output deemed essential to meet U.S. and international oil requirements in 2020, and so we should expect recurring oil shortages and price increases. Only by diminishing our day-to-day consumption of petroleum and demilitarizing our foreign energy policy can we hope to reduce our exposure to costly oil-supply disruptions in the Middle East and lower the risk of further bloodshed.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Monday, 21 November 2005

Tired this morning. It’s not like we just completed a long voyage and are happy to be in port. Nope. I’m tired from and of shopping. This city living is tough.

We head into shore yesterday with the intention of buying a French press-coffee pot to replace the one that was shattered on the way across from La Paz along with a few other sundries. We also aim to take in a movie. (On shore at the Club we admire the huge marlin that someone has landed; according to the posting for the tournament, this one is 217 pounds, a real giant. That fisherman is going to be taking home some real prize money. We are told that the fish is actually sold to a fisher buyer.) We catch a bus that takes us up the beach roads to Sabalo where the newer parts of Mazatlán are and where the malls and big-box stores live.

We have forgotten that 20 November is a national holiday in Mexico. OK, so it was Sunday anyway. In Mexico the mercado and the bigger stores are always open anyway on Sundays. But smaller shops are closed and, as we pass the stadium, a huge crowd of families is dispersing. There are many teenage boys in ill-fitting and unfashionable band uniforms and carrying instruments and teenage girls in tight-fitting, very fashionable gymnastic clothing and carrying themselves to attract attention. A lot of these kids are at the mall later.

Our first stop was to be an internet café at the mall. It is closed. We then decide to hit the movies here while the matinee prices are still in effect. There seems to be only three movies playing in all of Mazatlán at present: Harry Potter; Harry Potter; and, Harry Potter. They are dubbed in Spanish. In addition there is Chicken Little (in Spanish) and the Revenge of Zorro (in Spanish now or in English if you fancied waiting around till 2135). We give up on the movies here and promise to look elsewhere.

The next stop is to buy a new memory stick since the one I have seems to be damaged. Upstairs in a very nice Mexican department store we find a young man who not only speaks quite good English but is very helpful. Since according to him, too, the old stick is damaged, we simply buy a new 128 MB stick for about $35.

In the course of talking with him we ask him why 20 November is a national holiday. Is it to celebrate the defeat of the French occupiers? (No. That is celebrated on Cinco de Mayo.) Was it Independence Day, then? (No, that’s celebrated on 16 September.) He didn’t know. He asked his colleagues and only one of them had any idea.

The story behind it as follows: Francisco Madero, a wealthy liberal from Coahila, campaigned in 1910 for the presidency against the Porfirio Díaz, who became president (read “dictator”) in 1876 and ruled for 33 years. Madera’s chances of winning, however, were so good that Díaz had him jailed during the campaign. When he was released on 20 November he called for the people to rise up in revolution. Armed forces under Francisco “Pancho” Villa took Ciudad Juarez and Díaz resigned. Madera was elected president a year later in November 1911. Madera was still unable to contain the factional fighting, which was basically between his own brand of liberalism and more left-wing efforts led by Emiliano Zapata aimed at redistributing the haciendas of the rich to the peons. The factionalism opened the way for conservatives to bring Madera down, have him executed and replaced with another dictator, Huerta. This fragmented the country even more. Somewhat uncoordinated but bitter revolutions were going on all over Mexico: led by Obregon in Sonora, Carranza in Coahila, and Villa in Chihuahua. Zapata was also fighting the government. After years of pillaging and plundering across the country, Huerta’s forces were defeated and he was forced to resign in 1913. The unsettled, confused and violent period lasted some 10 years and set Mexico’s economic development back decades.

OK, so the man’s colleague didn’t know all that; I got it out of a book. Since all the big stores are open today, though, I asked the man, in his late twenties, what he would be doing today if he hadn’t had to work. “Oh, go to the beach, I guess.” A lot of his fellow citizens went shopping, however.

I am still determined to get a coffee pot and pair of flip flops for the showers and cheap sandals if I can find them. We go outside and flag down one of the open-air taxis that are typical for Mazatlán. Many are pickup trucks with upholstered benches in the rear and a colourful canvas tops. Ours was a white five-seater designed to fit on a VW chassis. For Pesos 20, which we negotiate in advance, he drives us the several miles to Wal Mart and discusses life on a boat with us. This is all in Spanish and, although a struggle, we have a good time. Wal Mart is exactly like a Wal Mart in the U.S.A. It is full of customers and, compared to downtown stores, has a range of goods that is overwhelming. I feel like a citizen of the DDR when the Wall came down and permitted visits to West Germany. I find flip flops but it appears that the “winter” range of shoes is on sale now. I shall have to find them at the mercado, where I saw them the day before.

We buy some groceries and catch a bus for the mile over to the Soriana’s. I don’t know who is behind this chain, but it is nationwide and big. Everywhere they have signs on their goods comparing their lower price with that of Wal Mart’s. So at least one chain that is not waiting to be bulldozed by Wal Mart. Of course, Soriana’s is about as much like Wal Mart as you can get.

There is a Cineplex next door. Harry Potter, Harry Potter, Revenge of Zorro, Harry Potter (all in Spanish with no English subtitles). You get the picture. We give up on the movies.

We catch a bus back down to the other end of town to the boat. We are totally wiped out from tramping those endless aisles of consumer temptations. We haven’t taken in a movie, haven’t found a coffee pot anywhere, have bought no sandals, didn’t get any of the other items we were looking for except the flash stick, and our feet hurt.
Sunday, November 20, 2005

Drinking tea

I spent Saturday morning writing and drinking tea. Yes, tea. The first cup of coffee of the day, especially if it is strong and early, is one of life’s real pleasures. The day never really starts for me without it. Used to automatic coffee-filtering machines and the excellent German coffees before we moved onto Vilisar, we first experimented aboard with a percolator. I remember these from the house where I grew up; the aroma would reach upstairs and draw you down irresistibly to the breakfast table. It was years before I actually tasted coffee and, when I did, it was a terrible let-down. Like beer, dry wine and Cuban cigars and unlike sweet wines and soda pop, a taste for coffee has to be acquired. The percolator now too was a let-down. The constant boiling scorches the coffee and makes it bitter.

I researched the making of coffee. I went back to basics. What I did, actually, was to read up on coffee in the new Joy of Cooking that Kathleen’s mother Kathleen sent us. While tea has to be made piping hot, the water used for making coffee should be taken off the boil for 15 seconds before it is poured over the grounds if the best flavour is to be brought out. Of the various methods described, the one best suited to life on a simple sailing boat is the plunger pot, sometimes called a French press, a name that conjures up anything but a coffee pot. Choose dark-roasted beans and grind them coarsely. Place two teaspoons for each 6 ounces of water in the bottom of the pot. Wait the required 15 seconds before pouring the boiling water into the pot. Wrap the pot to keep the coffee warm while it steeps. Wait five minutes before pushing the plunger down. As an added note, the French-press method retains the highest amount of caffeine. Ah, delicious with cream and sugar.

We bought our first press pot at Swain’s Hardware in Port Townsend, Washington, and used it until we got to Long Beach, California. One day I was rinsing it off with at the dock with a hose when the filter element came off the top and plopped into the waters of the harbour leaving me with a stupid look on my face and holding the glass pot. Kathleen’s sister Vickere came to the rescue with a new one from the recesses of her kitchen cupboards. We have been happily using this pot since then. We offer up daily blessings for its cheering usefulness. Unfortunately - and I seem to be using that particular interjection in this log more often than I might have wanted – whilst making dawn brew at sea on the crossing from La Paz, the boat rolled and the coffee pot crashed to the cabin floor in a mass of glass shards around my bare feet. Later I was in a sense glad to have got rid of a glass: should the boat one day roll on us in a storm, broken glass would create a dangerous mess belowdecks. It caused me to wonder about other glass hazards. The only one that was obvious was the glass globes on the petroleum lamps. They would have to be removed and stowed in a storm, I guess. For the moment, not only was there a mess to clean up, we were now to be without coffee. I have been making tea since.

Fahrt ins Blaue

So, I spend most of Saturday morning writing and drinking tea. Late in the morning we decide to go into town, take the local bus – destination “Morelos” - from in front of Club Náutico to the end of the line and back into the centre of town. Then we would try to get tickets for that evening’s performance of Swan Lake at the old theatre near the Machado.

While we are getting ready, we hear an “ahoy” and look out through the hatch to see Celia and Roger on their trimaran St. Briged, Seattle. We met them first in Ensenada and saw them recently in La Paz. They were full of stories about storms on their crossing when we went by on the way ashore, agreeing to meet on Sunday to catch up.

The bus costs Pesos 0.42 and the Mercedes bus took us from our end of town on an hour’s drive through the old city centre out to big-box land, at first along broad boulevards and avenues lined with palms and other trees, later through dusty side streets.

In commercial terms it was exactly the same as most American and increasingly most European cities; endless strip developments. Most of the shops, workshops and eateries, however, are basically outdoors. The climate is neither so warm that there is need to enclose everything for air-conditioning purposes – in fact you almost never see window a/c units here the way you do in Guaymas or Chihuahua - nor so cold that heating is required to work, sell or eat. There are not many parking lots, - I guess there are not as many cars per capita as in the U.S.A. - so the shops are not set back from the street behind endless miles of asphalt. Much of it looks squalid. The city streets are heavily travelled and the dust and exhaust is bad.

At one point we come across a cluster of big boxes: Wal Mart; Sorianas; Leys, Coppel del Mar; Elektra. It’s always the same ones. Around the retailers are the fast food joints: McDonald’s; Kentucky Fried Chicken; Burger King; Dominoes Pizza. It’s always the same ones. These are seriously big shopping malls, the biggest appears to be Sorianas. We are keeping an eye out for cinemas from the bus as it careens down the avenues, each traffic light a Le Mans start of city busses; we are determined to get to the flicks a few times before sailing on south from Mazatlán.

Farther out, the busses spread out into the residential suburbs. While all the main roads are paved, nearly all the side streets are not. Only a few even have proper gravel though rock for crushing must be the most common Mexican natural resource. The dust is penetrating and I shove the windows closed in a vain attempt to breathe clear air. All the parked cars, all the trees and shrubs, all the houses are coated in dust.

The houses are small, often no more than the width of a garage, and all joined together. It is rare to the point of non-existing to see a free-standing house of any size. Nearly all are one-storey but clearly everyone is planning one day to build up and some have already begun. Self-help is the method and concrete and thin brick are the materials. Sinaloans seem to like bright colours and the houses are painted, often luridly. There is very little street parking of cars; if you own a vehicle, you have a parking spot as part of our house. Unless you are very poor, your entrance way, your windows and your car-park are invariably contained within iron bars.

The bus winds up and down back streets until it finally comes to a huge coffee-roasting plant. Here it turns around and the driver points us to the “Morelos Express” bus parked ahead of him. We make a dash for it.

The bus driver is a young man who has his wife and three or four-year-old boy with him at the front of the bus, and whose driving area is plastered with votive decals of Jesus, the Sacred Heart and the Virgin Mary, to name but a few. Clearly he was taking no chances but St. Christopher was noticeably absent. He greets us with a toothy smile. “Tres minutos!” he tells us. Off we go, slowly back through the dusty streets and much more rapidly through the rushing traffic on the bigger streets. Our driver carries on a conversation with his wife and child while he shifts through the gears, opens the doors, takes money, issues tickets and makes change all the way back to town. The trip back definitely feels faster.

The Mexican people are not only friendly and courteous they are also go-getting and hard-working. Their shops and houses are always well-organised and clean. It’s the public places that seem so squalid and dirty. This indicates to my mind a great failure of public administration. If anyone wants to see what a lack of good government can do, come to Mexico. I say lack of government because, although there is plenty of bureaucracy, plenty of laws, it is not aimed in the right direction. The tax system is unjust and skewered to the rich and the administration and courts are corrupt. Galbraith wrote about America compared to Europe that Americans had private opulence and public squalor. In Mexico this is writ large. How much effort would it take to start laying the dust in suburban streets and cleaning the boulevards and avenues? How much effort would it require to put up a few readable street signs?

With a farewell “Gracias!” we leap off in a rush of indecision at the public market downtown. We need some groceries and, more importantly, it is now about 1600 and we are both hungry. There are always inexpensive snack bars at the mercado. In no time we are parked on high wooden stools in front of a stand where three ladies grill tacos, quesadillas and hamburgesas and sell cheeses, eggs and various other items. It is late in the day and the market is actually shutting down. But there are still lots of greengrocers, butchers, and other merchants around. I wonder around looking while my meal is being prepared. The Mercado here is large and generously proportioned. Everything is clean and the produce looks great.

Satiated, we head for an internet café to spend a few hours catching up with our emails, checking our bank accounts, and dealing with nasty letters from my ex-wife. Things never change.

Kathleen makes a dash to the theatre a few blocks away to see about tickets for Swan Lake. She returns to say that there are indeed a few tickets left but only the most expensive ones. These are only the equivalent of about $ 30 each but we don’t have that kind of money if we expect to eat this month and she takes a pass. We decide to walk around to hear Jock playing at Pedro y Lola and then walk home later.

Cathedral and Machado on Saturday night

Walking past the cathedral we hear loud trumpets and mariachi guitars. The courtyard in front of the church is in tumult, full of people in party clothes. One bridal pair has just come out of the church, another is just about to march down the aisle. We make a beeline for the side door and see the bride coming down the aisle flanked by her mother and father; the bridegroom waits at the front with his parents. There is a handover and the couple move to the steps of the altar where there are several white-draped prie-dieu and a white clad priest await them. The procession has been accompanied by Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” from Midsummernight’s Dream in a rendition made for second-year piano students and badly played at that. If the playing isn’t good, at least the organ is terrible, weak of lungs and boring in tone.

We go back outside to watch the first couple being serenaded by the mariachis until they get in their car and drive off leaving family and friends behind them to chat and laugh. We move off on foot through the palm-tree lined plaza, heading for the Machado only a few blocks away.

The place is packed. It is basically old Mazatlán living room, or perhaps better, Mazatlán dining room for the two long sides of the square are cheek by jowl with outdoor restaurants. Every second one has a singer or an instrumentalist outside and at the one nearest the Municipal Academy of the Arts is Pedro y Lola and there we spot Jock playing sax or flute along with a lady playing drums and a man playing the guitar. They sound really cool together doing American jazz favourites in a very sophisticated style. There is no need to take a seat; we just stand on a curb nearby after waving to Jock and listen for twenty minutes or so. Then, when it appears he is winding down, we move off to look at other places. It is after nine at night and the square is full of adults and children. Nearly every outside table is occupied. I see no children at the dining tables but there are two long tables near the Arts Academy where there must be twenty or thirty children painting in oils using small palettes and brushes. There are a couple of adults to supervise. Great idea.

Tired from our day of land travel, we decide to walk home through the darkened streets. For some reason, although there might actually be lamp posts, many streets have no lighting at all. There are plenty of people about though, kids kicking a football, for example. As we walk along one street we can hear what sounds like two blaring trumpets and a snare drum being played around the next corner. Looking down into the darkened street we see five boys of about 12 years of age trying to make a parade. One trumpeter can actually play a few notes but the other is the quintessential Johnny One-Note. The snare drummer produces irregular but good ruffles. The group are in a rough formation and are parading towards our corner. They keep breaking up either from lack of discipline, disagreement about what to play or how to play it, or from a general chaotic disposition. It is like a side scene from the staging of a romantic opera. We move on but we hear them behind us. I suspect that this is a form of play organised by one boy, a future conductor no doubt.

We cross a busy traffic street and plunge into another darkened side-street. Although also all joined together, from the look of these houses this is obviously a more affluent neighbourhood. The houses here are larger and there is more wrought iron and more marble, two things the well-to-do in Mexico apply liberally as a form of conspicuous consumption. Suddenly we hear the sound of a boys choir coming from the upstairs of one of the houses. They are singing “Tochter Zion”, the Advent carol based on a melody from Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabeus. This takes us completely by surprise. Of all the things we might have expected this was not one of them.

We stand on the boulevard for a while, listening and singing softly along, trying to reckon who might be playing this on their CD player at this time and in this place. As we walk on we talk about the various choirs where Kathleen has sung, conducted or played the organ over the years, especially Christ the King in Frankfurt, St. James in Los Angeles and St Luke in Evanston. At one time, Kathleen says, hearing music like that would have made her very homesick. Now, however, as much as she enjoys music, she has a much better idea of who she is, what she can do, and what she wants to be doing. As much as she loves the music and sometimes thinks she ought to get back to it, she is content, as she says, to be bumming around on a sailboat seeing the world for a while longer.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Thursday, 17 November 2005

By last night, our third night on the crossing, our third night with disturbed sleep and discomfort, we are both becoming stretched and short-tempered, easily annoyed by any troubles aboard.

Instead of dropping at sunset on the second day as we expected, the wind that came up while we were playing canasta on the evening of Day II, continues all night and all the next day. By now we are the middle of the Sea of Cortés and the northerly winds have the whole length of the Sea to build up wind waves before reaching us; an 800-mile fetch. The waves are frothy, large and noisy. Even if the wind dies down now, it will take some time for the waters to become calmer.

As the afternoon progresses I say that we should get started earlier today to trim the boat for night running. I want to avoid doing the deck work in the dark, which is nearly total by 1800, and the work always seems to take longer than expected. I also want to make sure that the windvane is going to be doing the steering tonight, that we can stand our individual watches from the settees belowdecks.

The mainsail is dropped and furled to the boom. Then, putting the helm over so that the wind is behind us, I pole out the staysail to port and leave the red drifter to starboard hoping this will balance the boat and make the windvane happier about steering. It doesn’t work. The boat wants constantly to head up into the wind and the vane has not got enough power to overcome this. Clearly the boat is not properly balanced. That leaves as an alternative sailing under the staysail alone. But, with a headsail up we may be rolling across the waves. The motion is very uncomfortable.

We decide simply to run downwind basically “under bare poles". This is an old and proven storm tactic. Although we are not in storm conditions it will be interesting to see if the boat will actually sail in 15-knot winds without any canvas to power it. We drop the staysail and turn the boat so it is running, - with no sails up at all - straight downwind with the waves rolling up behind us and passing underneath us to continue their voyage to the Pacific. The windvane is set up and works like a charm! Our speed is still 3.5 knots, admittedly down from the 5 knots we had with the main up, but still very decent for night running. The bow wants to yaw off course a bit and we experience quite a bit of rolling at each extreme of the yaw before the vane brings the boat back on course.

Dipping into my bag of tricks, I dig up an idea I once read about but have never tried. An additional storm tactic when running downwind is to raise a small headsail, in our case the staysail, and sheet it in as flat and tight as possible amidships. The sail offers no surface to the wind unless the bow turns to port or starboard. In that case the small sail forward helps turn the boat back downwind. This works like a charm and there is almost no deviation whatsoever from our course now. Down below, it is so calm that it is almost possible to forget that we are actually sailing.

For dinner we polish off the leftover bean dish with tomato sauce added. Delicious! We agree on watches and remind ourselves to keep checking the compass either on deck or in the cabin for deviation from our course; the wind could change in the night. Our downwind course is actually taking us slightly away from a direct approach to Mazatlán but, well-rested, we intend to make it up easily in the morning (Day IV).

Before getting some sleep, I go on deck to check the horizon for ships and to admire the full moon ahead of us. There are a couple of lights in the far distance; one is clearly a cruise ship passing across our front. As I look forward to the staysail working away quietly in the moonlight, I see a strange shadow and decide more out of curiosity to go forward for a look. Just as I reach the shrouds I hear a loud tear and the staysail rips from the leech forward about three-quarters of the way up. I cannot in the dim light tell if the stitching has pulled out or the cloth has torn. Johnny-on-the-Spot, I loosen the halyard from its cleat on the mast and drop the sail onto the foredeck. The boat is still moving downwind but begins again to yaw more extensively and to roll at the extremes.

This is very dispiriting. We were always agreed that our little staysail was the best of the lot and useful as well. Now it is useless. I am not instead about to sheet in the Yankee amidships to keep running under bare poles. The jib and the drifter are not cut as flat as the staysail. So, if I did, we would essentially be sailing downwind at about 5 or 6 knots again. We have already tried that and the vane does not deal with it well.

I am frustrated and annoyed and perhaps I infected Kathleen as well. We have both had it with Vilisar, with sailing, with boats, and with the sea in general. Just one more thing gone wrong! Now we are either be going to lying a-hull or sailing. Staying at the helm all night is not high on our “To Do” list.

So lying a-hull it is to be. Lying a-hull is another storm tactic whereby you lash the helm and just go below, get into your berth, and let the boat take care of itself. Of course, it is going to be bumpy and rolly again tonight. “Get me off this boat!” I shout into the wind. Finally down below, Kathleen loses it completely while trying to struggle out of the sleeves of her windbreaker. She lets out a primeval and very loud scream before dropping unto the starboard settee to sleep. A few minutes later from behind the leecloths, which she has managed to locate during the day, she apologises for losing her cool. It hasn’t bothered me a bit since I myself have been cursing away on deck fighting sails and dealing with the frustrations of a sailboat. She drops off to sleep almost immediately, her eyes covered by sleeping blinders.

The night of course is long and the three-hour watches are interminable. The bumping and splashing of waves on the hull is uncomfortable but tolerable. At least, however, we can read in the berth and only have to brave the rolling every fifteen minutes to scan the horizon.

The morning of Day IV dawns red. The moon first fades out in the sky and then disappears below the horizon, a pale copy of its former self. By 0600 we have the mainsail and drifter rigged again and we are running along close-hauled at about 4-5 knots, the windvane unaccountably this morning agreeing to end its strike. I head back to bed after making coffee while Kathleen stays on deck to read. Mazatlán is now only about 25-30 Nm away and still out of sight in the marine haze. The breeze is just right. The world is back in order.

The day runs without a hitch. It is definitely cooler here than in the Sea of Cortés. Is it because the water is more Pacific? Or are we getting more Pacific winds as we come out of the lee of Baja? In the early morning there is some cloud cover and marine haze; the former dissipates before noon. But the sunny day remains a little cooler than we are used to.

With the windvane working and the sails drawing so well, Vilisar is cruising along at about 4 or 5 knots making for Mazatlán out of sight in the distance. I go below to catch up on my Scott Turow novel and my sleep. The cabin is reasonable tidy considering we have been at sea for a few days.

Early in the afternoon Kathleen announces that she can see land clearly and even some tall buildings. There are plenty of sports-fishing boats out and not a few shrimpers. We get our fishing pole out and the lure out behind us. You never know! At some point in the afternoon the pole begins to jump and is almost pulled overboard. Just as I dive to grab it the line goes slack. When we reel it in the lure, the lead and all are gone. Must have been a big one! We rig the line again but we get no more bites.

By about 1530 we are rounding up in the shelter of Isla Crestón with its lighthouse, El Faro, on top. It stands guard over the harbour entrance. The lighthouse itself is 157 metres above sea level and can be seen for 390 miles at sea. Given that it a strange harbour and given the boating activity all around us, I have decided to use the engine. Our sail dousing has to be done with regard for the several other boats around us, pangas, fishing boats, a long-liner coming into the harbour, a shrimper on the way out. The drifter as usual lands in the water and has to be fished out.

Sails down, we chug along carefully into the harbour. Just inside to the left is the old harbour of Mazatlán. Like San Diego, the harbour is a very long inlet running inland for some miles, though I am sure San Diego is much bigger. There are a lot of sports-fishing runabouts in the inner corners and a lot of catamaran party boats strewn about the harbour. Along the shore are boatyards with big shrimpers up on the marine skids. There are about eight or ten sailboats at anchor. Some of them have cruisers aboard. We drop anchor in about ten feet of dirty water near the schooner Patricia Belle out of Seattle, real beauty of probably 60 feet in length. I set the sentinel. We are here. By 1930 we are both in bed and asleep.

Friday, 18 November 2005
After three nights and four days non-stop since Isla Cerralvo or six days and five nights from La Paz (we anchored three times), we are tired though no longer dispirited. We have learned to accept the fact that life on a boat can be intensely frustrating at times. We are even learning to recognise the symptoms of sleep deprivation and understand why it is used as a torture technique.

We intended to make the voyage without using the engine once we had rounded the cape north of La Paz and would have favourable winds. In fact we did use it for a total of forty-five minutes and, for the moment this seems acceptable to us. With the windvane steering, we are much happier and life for a short-handed crew becomes tolerable. When we have to steer for days, life is a bore.

A sea voyage soon brings out the weaknesses in the vessel. Our reefing system is still somewhat daunting and if I knew what to do about it I would take care of it. But I don’t. So we will have to take more precautions. That means getting the sail down earlier or reefing it in advance when we know that we will be running. Inspecting the staysail this morning by daylight, I see that a seam has pulled out. I also notice that other seams are beginning to weaken too. We could get out the sewing machine and try to repair it ourselves. But, here in Mazatlán, I shall try to find a sail loft and have it go over everything to be absolutely sure. (I can repair the torn jib from last week myself.) I shall also see if I can get him to repair the ties to the mast and boom slide slide-cars. They are looking very old and one or two have already parted. The tropical sun has been hard on our sails. But they were old already and will probably need to be replaced before we try a Pacific crossing.

Except that recovering it is a bit of a job, the good news is that, not only is the red colour very distinguishing, the drifter has proven itself really useful. The most wind we have had, I suppose, has been about 20 knots. Normally we get only 5-10 knots of wind. This is perfect for the drifter.

I am reminded once again to finally get a functioning downhaul for the jib and drifter. Going out on the bowsprit in a pitching sea is no fun, exhausting and dangerous to boot. There is an article in one of Lyn and Larry Pardey’s books that describes a system that I shall try.

All things considered, our deep-cycle batteries served us quite well on this trip. And this despite the fact that we were not running the engine. The solar panels kept things charged up enough that, during the daylight hours, I could even charge up the computer. Nevertheless, we need to replace the house bank.

A result of the weak deep-cycle batteries was that our flashlight and other small batteries could never be charged up very high and consequently we were constantly threatened with having our GPS die on us. We made it but we shall buy some ready-charged ones and get our house batteries replaced.

Kathleen complained again on this trip that the cockpit is too wide for her to brace herself if she needs to pull on the tiller. She wants a foot-brace. She is also not happy about the fact that I took off the coaming just forward of the cockpit; I did it so we could use the cockpit and bridge for sleeping in the summer. When the weather is rough, however, the coaming has a handhold that she can use to brace herself. And if I were to add a better handhold on either side of the cockpit she would feel that much safer as well.

We did a good job of stowing for the voyage and we managed to live just fine considering everything. Kathleen prepared a big bean stew which, in permutations, lasted us a few days. Believe it or not, the last of it actually wound up in the Chinese stir-fry that I made when we arrived in Mazatlán last night. It was good to have things like hot dogs and other precooked things aboard. At first I am not hungry on a voyage and Kathleen is often a little seasick for a few days. Quick finger foods are good. A constant cheer is coffee for us both. The day has not really begun till we have had it. Unfortunately, I carelessly left our glass plunger-type coffee pot on the companionway ladder. Down it went in a million pieces when the boat rolled again. So, no coffee till we can get a new one. Maybe we can get one with a built-in thermos. That would at least be unbreakable. A bigger one would be better too. (This morning we are drinking black tea; the first taste reminded me immediately of England when I was a post-graduate student. I think I lived on it there.) Kathleen doesn’t eat sugar, but having biscuits, crackers, cheese and other snacks helps in the galley too. We stocked up on some beer before leaving La Paz but only I drank one can of it on the voyage.

We are not sure about how long we should stay in Mazatlán. Quien sabe? Maybe a week. Our next stop will be Isla Isabela, some eighty-five miles to the south. Maybe. We’ll see.

Wednesday, 16 November 2005


The weak winds we experienced for most of yesterday lulls us into a false sense of how easy the crossing will be. The windvane is working and, although the winds are picking up somewhat in the late afternoon, we do not pay much attention to the benign weather as the Cap Horn is handling the steering. It is really much nicer when you do not have to concentrate for hours on that aspect of sailing.

As night falls we prepare our simple meal and play a few rounds of canasta, something we have been doing on this trip. The fact that Kathleen is shellacking me in every hand keeps me from thinking of the weather. Kathleen sticks her head out of the hatch after every hand to check for shipping or other hazards. When we finally put the cards away, I too have a look as well. I am surprised at how fast we are now going. We are carrying all our sail including the drifter and, when I check the GPS, I see that the vessel has rounded up more into the wind. We are now bearing to the northeast when we ought to be bearing south-southeast. Vilisar is rushing along in the moonlit darkness at about 6 knots, high speed for her. The speed seems even greater because we are now close-hauled and have the wind on our faces. Whereas a few hours ago the surface of the sea was covered with small waves and the occasional tiny unprepossessing whitecap and while we were beginning to realise that the trip was going to take three days, now the seas seem to have grown much larger and nearly all of the waves, rolling towards us row after row, carry long horizontal connecting streaks of white foam. Even allowing for the fact that darkness and night magnify fears and threats, it is clearly time to get some sail off her.

We slip into our footwear and head on deck, Kathleen to the cockpit. She slips the windvane off and steers Vilisar back to her original course by hand. At that bearing the boat starts to roll. I wonder to myself why the windvane steering has taken Vilisar so far up into the wind: maybe the wind direction actually changed somewhat. Or the boat is over-canvassed and the powerful mainsail has twisted the boat’s direction around the mast’s axis and therefore more into the weather.

We discuss what to do and decide to get the mainsail down and run under headsails. First I drop the staysail so I can work without being beaten by the boom. At the command, we come up into the wind, the two remaining sails begin to flap and the foredeck begins to get very unstable. Kathleen pulls in the mainsail sheet until the boom is over the gallows and I let the halyard go, the boom crashes onto the gallows and I climb onto the cabin roof with a handful of ties, pull down the half of the sail that never wants to come down of its own free will, and eventually get the sail smothered and tied up to the boom.

We go back on our course and try to set the windvane steering again. But at the bearing we want we are rolling so badly that the vane cannot handle the yaws. Our speed is also now down to about 1.5 knots. We have the alternatives of running before the wind with the windvane doing the steering, or heaving to for the night and accepting some drift, likely in the right direction. We decide upon the latter. Unfortunately, without the main, the boat will now not fully come up into the wind and getting the big red drifter down is very exciting indeed. The wind tries to drive it back up the jibstay and I have to move forward to the bowsprit to pull it down. I curse myself for not having the downhaul already rigged, a project I have experimented with several times in vain but now think I may have a good solution. Because of its size and the difficulty of getting the boat to head up, the bulky sail trails in the water. Eventually, I haul it in and tie it down on the foredeck.

This done, I hoist the staysail again, thinking we can run under this alone. But we are only doing about half a knot. It’s just simpler to heave to, we agree, and stand watch from below. I go forward and, when Kathleen shoves the tiller over to starboard, I tie the clew of the staysail to the port pin rail, effectively backing it to the wind. Suddenly we stop moving and everything quiets down. When properly hove to, the bow should be pointing at an angle of about 45 ° to the wives. We are closer to being sideways to the waves. We begin to roll, a noisy and sickening roll as we go below to test things out.

The waves are smacking us and from time to time we are thrown suddenly about. This is like our nights on the Pacific coming down from Cape
Flattery in August of 2003 except that the waves are by no means so large or so vicious. The starboard settee is to leeward and it is possible to lie there without be catapulted out onto the floor. The port settee, however, is treacherous. Lying there you have to hang on for fear a wave will unexpectedly have you airborne. It is not comfortable but it is tolerable. The watchkeeper gets the “upper” berth and the sleeper gets the safer “lower”. It is not only bouncy here below in the cabin, it is noisy as we are shaken and rattled and rolled. The one good thing that we can say is that things are very well stowed below. We need to find places for one or two things and I go around the galley to pad things that are excessively noisy. What we really need now, however, are leecloths at least for the port settee. Without a leecloth it means hanging on all night by your fingernails, not something designed to shorten the three-hour watch. With it you can wedge yourself in with cushions and be secure and read a book. You need only get up every fifteen or twenty minutes to scan then horizon by sticking one’s head out of the main hatch. Kathleen searches in the forecastle. She swears she saw the leecloths only a few days ago. But now, like so many things on a small boat, they have disappeared. She is hampered by the fact that the rechargeable nickel methyl-hydrate batteries only keep a charge for a very few minutes (this has to do with our weak deep cycle batteries, I think). We shall have to wait until morning now to look.

The night crawls on. I do kind of get used to the bumping and rattling and, off watch, am only too happy to give up the port “upper” and fall into a deep sleep on the “lower” when I reach my rest time. While on watch and hanging on, I think about how the sails should be configured for heaving to. Clearly we have not yet got it right. Given that the mainmast is a little farther aft on a cutter rig like ours, we might in fact manage to heave to properly using a reefed-in mainsail only. If not, I can always easily hoist the staysail and back it to windward. If needs be, I can even reef down the staysail to better balance the boat.

The real issue is that Vilisar’s mainsail is very difficult to reef. It has two reefing lines. But the boom gooseneck goes up about 18 inches on a bronze slide when the sail is hoisted. This is an older system; the idea was that, when going to windward, the tack could be pulled down and the luff thus tightened the better to beat to windward. There is no means of actually pulling the gooseneck down on Vilisar so I assume it was not used very much. All this is critical when you de-power the main and drop the sail so the reefs can be tucked in. At that point the gooseneck slides back down and it is almost impossible to get it back up when hoisting the reefed sail again.

My approach now is to bring the vessel up into the wind, drop boom and mainsail onto the boom gallows and work on reefing from there. I envy those boats that can reef in easily at all points of sail without being required to head up. On the other hand, these vessels usually have much shorter booms than Vilisar so it is not so difficult. Off the wind, the aft end of our boom is a long way outboard from the boat deck; I like to put on an extra tie-down around the leach reefing grommets and can only reach these grommets if the boom is inboard.

I don’t why I didn’t think of it before starting. The mainsail could have been left double-reefed. With quartering winds then the main would not be making the headsails, the boat would be much better balanced and Cap Horn could take over more of the steering.

After a long night, sunrise and moonset (full moon) are roughly at the same time again. I am awake but dally in bed and then get up in the still heavily rolling boat. I am determined to have my coffee before we start out again and I put the water on and add grounds to the plunger coffee pot. Not infrequently, the inside of the cabin after a rough night at sea can look like a bombsite. But this morning it doesn’t look too bad. We drink our leisurely coffee all the while trying not to scald ourselves as we bounce. I feel better for the drink and a quick wash at the sink.

By eight o’clock we are back out on deck. It is easy to get under way from a hove-to position. Untie the staysail so it is no longer backed, untie the helm so it can be moved and off you go. The waves are just as big as last night but not so scary in the daylight. Eventually we also get the mainsail up. Since we are doing 5 knots anyway in nearly following winds, we decide to forget about the drifter or Yankee. I wish we had reefed the mainsail, though. That would put more following air on the headsails whilst using the main. As it is, although we are getting good speeds, the boat is not balanced and the windvane cannot hold it on course. We therefore take turns steering in the bright sunshine and napping down below when off watch.

At one point I swear I see a whale blow almost dead ahead of us about a mile. But we never spot the whale. A sparrow flutters around us and lands on the lifeline near the foredeck. It looks tired; perhaps it has been blown out to sea. It takes off again after twenty minutes. A pair of grey-tawny small birds rather like doves comes by and inspects our spreaders. I cannot tell if they have talons but their beaks are either parrot-like or similar to birds of prey. I try looking them up but cannot find them in the book. I am reminded that I wish we had a book about marine mammals on board. In our voyaging, we encounter so many dolphins, porpoises, and whales of all sorts but are never sure about identification.

The distance from our anchorage at Isla Cerralvo to the harbour light at Mazatlán is just under 200 Nm according to the GPS. About 1330 today we break the 100-mile mark. Our speeds all day have been 4 and 5 knots. We shall soon have to decide what to do tonight: heave to, keep hand steering or set the sails so the windvane does the work. I’m for reefing the mainsail when we get it down and setting headsails to cover ground, however little, during the night.

Tuesday, 15 November 2005

November’s full moon is already low to the east and sending a shaft of white light towards us out of a dark-blue sky even as the sun sinks into the haze to the west lighting the sky with reds and oranges. Cloudless, the western sky is a palette of nuanced colours that tonight take a long time to fade out.

Kathleen heats up the bean stew she made earlier in the day and, ravenously hungry after our first day out on the Sea, we wolf down the food along with a beer as we watch the colour show to east and west. By 1800 there is only a faint glow in the west and the moon has taken possession of the night sky.

We discuss our farewells to Baja and then set the night watches. With only about 11 hours of daylight, the nights are now much longer even this far south than they were last spring. We don’t usually have official watches during the day. But, at night, somebody has to be awake and on the lookout for ships that might run us down. With the windvane steering functioning, no one actually has to have a hand on the tiller. In fact, no one even has to stay in the cockpit as long as the horizon is scanned every 15-20 minutes. We generally do three-hour watches even though the time can sure be slow in the middle of the night. But anything shorter does not allow anyone to get any deep sleep. I draw 2100 to midnight and 0300 to 0600. I sit with Kathleen for a while on deck to talk before going below to read.

The winds that only picked up after 0900 have already dropped by dark. Before going below we drop the main and staysails for night-time running and put Vilisar on a slightly more southerly course. With the wind so light, the main would start slatting. This sounds like cannon fire down below. The big red drifter, on the other hand, will pull us more downwind and give us more peace and quiet for sleeping. The drifter might slat a bit but it will do so quietly. With the new course and the night winds, we are only doing 1.5 – 2 knots. Twelve hours of running at this speed will only mean 24 Nm gained. So even if we are not strictly on course, we shall not have lost much.

Oh, the first night at sea! My first off-watch I use for reading because I am not yet sleepy. On watch between 2100 and midnight, the time seems to pass quickly enough but I slept fitfully after midnight thanks to the motion of the boat and various noises outside. That dog watch from 0300 to 0600! I can hardly keep my eyes open. I struggle. I get up every five minutes to check the horizon. The outside temperature is delightful and I hardly need any clothing.

We were overtaken by a sailboat that passed us a mile to the south around midnight just as I was coming on watch. When I saw their red port light and high white steaming light, they were still many miles behind us. I switched on our running lights that I had been switching off to save our minimal battery reserves and turned them off again when they were nearly out of sight over the horizon. Through the binoculars it was clear that the sailboat was motoring; no hanging about in less-than-optimum winds for these guys. We bob along at between 1.5 and 1.8 knots.

I come up to scan the deck in an attempt to keep awake. To my surprise I see a large ship straight ahead of us. I drop down the companionway and switch on the running lights, wishing we had some charged up flashlight batteries to shine onto the mainsail. Through the binoculars I can only see the ship’s red port light so I guess she is steering straight for us after all. But she is going to pass us fairly close to port. I keep an eye on her. Suddenly she switches on all of her deck lights and keeps approaching. As she passes me, she blinks them once and then switches them off. I see her ever farther away when I come up for my quarter-hourly scans.

I switch the running lights off again and go back to musing about the moon and the sea and our time in Baja. The book I am reading is really interesting and thought-provoking (The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy by Christopher Lasch) but it is too heavy for this early hour. And, anyway, my eyes are burning from yesterday’s sun and wind.

Six o’clock finally rolls around. I switch on the red light over the navigation table and enter the coordinates, distances, bearing and speed into the logbook and deliberately disturb Kathleen’s sleep. She gets up immediately and I do the handover quickly, strip off and stretch out on the starboard settee for some shuteye. Before I do I watch the moon set and wait for a few minutes to look at the bright orange eastern sky.

An hour later I get up, grumpy and frustrated. The first night at sea is like the first night on a camping trip. You wonder what on earth you are doing here when you could be in a warm bed at home. Except this is our home and I know what to expect. Neverthless, I want a coffee badly. I put the water on to boil and splash water out of the galley tap into my face.

What a long, slow night we had. By late afternoon yesterday, our ongoing average speed for the trip to Mazatlán was up to over 4 knots. After twenty-four hours we have drifted off south of our rhumb line and our average for the trip is down to under 3 knots. The day starts with very little wind and gets no better during the day. By 1300 we are still doing only 2.5 knots and the running average is now only 2.3 knots. At this rate we will need three or four days to get to Mazatlán. The temptation to start the engine is almost overpowering. But we have decided not to use the engine just to cover ground on this trip. We might use it to get into and out of a port or in an emergency, but we have sworn to sail this one completely. If you can’t change the wind you should change your attitude to time. And anyway, what’s the rush? Why was that guy motoring fast through the night last night? We shall just learn to enjoy this and make use of the time.

The first item on the agenda is the Cap Horn windvane steering. Once we set a course, the boat yaws across some 50 degrees meaning that the sails are nearly always set wrong for the bearing we are on. I go below and dig out the user manual. Oho! There is a little bungee-cord thingy on the vane that should prevent yawing. In fact, going down wind in light winds, it is essential to tighten this up. I climb out on the lazarette deck and fiddle with it. It seems to work. Another stunning success by Captain Ronnie, Boy Spot-Welding King of the World, Captain Epoxy!

Then we start to wonder if our Garmin 76Map GPS is on the blink. The bearing is always about 30° off from the binnacle compass. The charts tell us that magnetic variation in the region should be only about 10 °. We check the binnacle compass against two other magnetic compasses on board; they agree with each other. We then dig out our reserve GPS and it agrees with the first one. So, the GPS’s agree with each other and the compasses agree amongst themselves. But compasses and GPS’s don’t agree with each other. Either George W. Bush has started another war and the U.S. military have scrambled the GPS satellites to frustrate would-be “attackers”, or the magnetic variation around here is a lot bigger than the chart says. I guess we can live with all this but it is strange.

I go forward in the afternoon to the foredeck to read. My eye falls on a deck-level block for the staysail sheet and suspect that it is wearing through and should soon be replaced. As the thought forms, the block gives way and the staysail boom flies free to leeward. I jump up and pull it back in, an easy thing to do in these light winds. I slip off the block and run the sheet itself through the padeye on the deck. I go below to get the big roll of black fisherman twine, pliers, electrician’s tape and a knife. I also find in a drawer the other block that I have meaning to repair, and set to work on them both. The sun on my back feels warm but not hot. There is a gentle but refreshing breeze. The boat is splashing along only very slightly heeled over. It might not be a fast trip but this is a perfect day and I remind myself to enjoy it consciously. I do this so successfully that I splice both blocks upside down and have to do them both again. Attitude is all! I regard it as practice.

Monday, 14 November 2005

We were both awake before 0700 as the sun began to peep through the portholes. In the night the boat had turned and was now facing toward the other point though it was still parallel to the beach. There was no wind initially but a three or three and one-half knot current was running along the beach. We decided to drink our coffee in peace and wait to see if the wind would fill in enough to let us overcome the current that was running against us.

To kill some time, we tried measuring the strength of the current by using a makeshift log. In the old days, sailors would drop a “log” from the taffrail and pay out a line with knots in it. The number of knots that ran out within a certain time indicated the speed in “knots”. This morning Kathleen dropped a tissue off the bowsprit while I timed how long it took to drift to the stern of the boat: 90 seconds. Assuming that the boat is 40 feet long we could calculate the speed of the current using the following formula: 40/90 = 6000/X. The result was just over 3 knots. Just to be sure I dropped a banana peel from the bowsprit while Kathleen timed it. The result was very close to being the same. We could make up a little schedule to keep in the navigation table with seconds and speeds. (At sea we don’t bother since the GPS will give us the speed over the ground; it can’t give us the speed of the water going by us when we are anchored, though.)

Finally, about 0800 we drain our coffee cups and put away the breakfast cereal bowls, pull up the anchor and hoist our pirate-like red drifter. This sail is becoming quite useful. The wind is beginning to pick up from the direction of La Paz and soon we are moving over a smooth sea at about 2.5 knots. The wind remains weak and fluky until we clear the lighthouse at the point about 1000. At first the waters are very confused with currents converging and winds coming around both sides of the island. Our speed drops to 1.5 knots for a while until we are well out into the northerly wind coming down the eastern side of the island. Then we start putting up sails and put Vilisar on a nice reach. There are whitecaps and the waves are running at about 2 feet. At this angle we are bouncing around quite a bit.

We begin to play with the Cap Horn windvane steering. The last time we used it was rounding Cabo Falso last March. It worked really well all the way from Ensenada over the six days of non-stop sailing. In the night after passing Cabo San Lucas’ lights, I noticed that, although I was adjusting for direction – we changed from southeast to northeast to head up into the Sea of Cortés – Vilisar suddenly started sailing off to the south. This was particularly uninteresting at the time since she started heading toward a cruise ship. Of course, the wind in the Sea was different from the wind on the Pacific Coast. Moreover, the night wind dropped to nothing and soon we were slatting around in the dark. I disengaged the windvane steering and hauled in the sails. We were both very exhausted from the long trip and, apparently, we were going nowhere before daylight at the earliest. Leaving the running lights on, I went below and slept the two or three hours until dawn.

It takes us now a few tries to get the windvane set. At first it is yawing terribly and wanting to head up into the wind. We tried to balance the boat before we set about engaging the windvane steering but I assume the big mainsail is tending to overpower the headsails. I let out a bit on the main sheet and tighten the staysail inboard somewhat. That helps though we are pinching too far above the rhumb line over the next hour or two. This in normal times is no great inconvenience since it gives one a lot of room to manoeuvre later. But in this case it is too much. Sailing a reach today is also fairly uncomfortable and bumpy. We adjust the vane to take us more off the wind and the ride immediately becomes more tolerable.

Kathleen is feeling her normal first-day weak stomach and chooses to stay on deck. I head below and curl up on the leeward bunk for some reading, some writing and some snoozing. Occasionally I go out to check out course or when I here an unusual noise. About mid-afternoon we lay the boat on a course that is more of a broad reach and drop the staysail that on the one hand is masking the drifter and on the other being masked by the main. The weight of the staysail’s wooden club foot causes the sail to collapse unless there is plenty of breeze.

By 1600 Baja has nearly completely disappeared into the haze astern of us. As we were leaving the anchorage this morning we heard and saw a number of sailboats motoring up towards La Paz and a big white and modern motor cruiser speeding along at a minimum of fifteen knots; his fuel bill just for this trip would be greater than ours has been for the last four years! There were also a few sports and panga fishermen out a couple of miles; we actually saw one pull in a Dorado as we went by. Coming up the channel we saw the truck ferry heading for port too. Now however, although we can hear VHF traffic both with La Paz and Mazatlán, there is nary a vessel to be seen. We own the Sea of Cortés.

Sunday, 13 November 2005

Canal San Lorenzo

We are up early and steaming out of Playa Pichilingue by 0800. We want to catch a good tide and get started while the waters are still calm.

As we round the Isla Lobos the swells are already carrying whitecaps and coming straight at us again. I guess nothing calmed down last night at all. Nevertheless, we get up the main and headsails and pitch and plough toward the mid-channel marker buoy, some five miles away and way out in the channel. San Lorenzo is known to be tricky. It is mostly shoal and the actual passable channel is only one-third of the three-mile width. We can see the large buoy ahead of us and assume it to be the green southern buoy. But at first we cannot spot the northern buoy. We watch as, first, a large cabin cruiser coming towards us passes to the north of the buoy and, later, the ferry from Topolobampo steams in and passes north of the buoy as well. This gives us a little more confidence. By scanning with the binoculars we finally pick out the red northern buoy over near the island. As we pass the green buoy we have about 35 feet of water under us. When we approached La Paz last spring we had the same problem finding the right buoy and at one point soundings were down to ten feet before we finally got into the right channel.

Once past the green channel marker, we turn from a course straight into the waves and wind and bear more easterly. In a few minutes we cut the engine and are doing 3.5 knots on a reach with only staysail and mainsail. The winds are stronger now and we are taking some water under the lee rail so I slacken the mainsail sheet and the boat sits up straighter. Vilisar certainly loves a little wind, though. She is steaming along nicely.

After another hour we reach the eastern end of the channel and turn to the southeast. Mazatlán is 210 Nm away on that course. But Cerralvo Island is in between a few miles away. We had intended to anchor in Bahia de los Muertos tonight. After consulting the cruising guide (Baja Boater’s Guide by Jack Williams, on loan to us from Bob and Rita Valine of S/V Ritana in Powell River), we decide to anchor on the south end of Cerralvo Island. It is as good a jumping off place for our Sea of Cortés crossing as Muertos.

Isla Cerralvo

The afternoon passes slowly. We have mid-70’s temperatures. Kathleen is feeling a little woozy and goes below to snooze. First she treats us to a glass of suero (electrolytes); maybe that will make us both feel better. At first the wind begins to drop. But as we coast down the western side of the island, they become funnelled along the mountains making up the spine of the island and we are doing 7 knots downwind under drifter and mainsail. This is perhaps more speed than I should like with a light-wind sail like the drifter. But it seems to be holding up well. I shall wait till we are under Punta Gorda to take in sail.

As we round the point the wind intensifies as it comes onto our port beam and the sea feels very choppy. The cruising guide says that, although it is windy at the SE point of the island, about half-way along the southern coast one can tuck in close to the beach. It is basically an open roadstead but we should find good holding and calmer seas.

Under the lee, we round up with the engine running to take in the headsails and get ready to anchor. All headsails tend to be a handful when the wind is on the nose; lots of flapping and noise and wind. When I let go of the halyard, it does not want to come down, the wind trying to push the sail back up the stay. I throw myself at it cursing it furiously while I haul it down and smother it with a line. The staysail, no doubt in mortal fear of one of my tongue-lashing, comes down meekly. I praise it for its cooperation.

We chug along the short coast and try one or two spots. The water is so clear here that, at 40 feet depth, one can clearly see the sandy bottom. As we move along the shore, I notice that the waves refracting around Punta Gorda are becoming smaller though the wind is still noticeable. I am dissatisfied with the first place when I see little whitecaps on the beach. A bit farther along we head in towards the tiny beach and find twenty feet of draught about thirty boat-lengths from the shore. I let out lots of chain and, when it starts rising out of the water as the vessel reverses, it grabs at first go. I give Kathy the throat-cutting sign that we use for shutting down the engine. I always feel very exposed on these open anchorages. But Californians live with them if they ever sail anywhere but Catalina Island where everyone has to pay to tie up to buoy in a boat-parking lot. I observe that, over toward the beach right here the water is very calm while farther out, two or three hundred yards perhaps, the whitecaps are definitely larger, indicating that there is more wind there. I guess we’ll be all right. I put out the sentinel.

The boat stays pointed at the light wind and although we feel some waves, it is minimal. I guess we are home for the night. While Kathleen makes up a bean stew for our crossing, I start rigging the jack lines for our Sea of Cortés crossing. I also do some securing of deck items, check our halyards and sheets for chafe, check that the CQR anchor and the dinghy are made completely immoveable. I also put out the solar-powered anchor light and check that our running lights are operational. The whole time I watch how Vilisar is behaving at anchor. She is like a lamb. When I look over the side I see the anchor chain clearly as it snakes along into oblivion parallel to the beach on the white sandy bottom.

Farewell to Baja

While I am working I keep looking over towards the Baja coast where the sun is getting ready to set behind the mountains. They stand in row after row, in blues and purples. Some high cloud is blowing in from the Pacific, Coromuel wind, likely. There is a lot of haze and perhaps even smoke around the valleys and the peaks stick out above it. The sun eventually slips behind the largest of the mountains and turns the bottoms of the mares-tails into fiery feathers that reach about as far as mid-channel. Above the island to the east-northeast, the just-past-full moon is up and, when I turn from soaking up the sunset, the beach is a white glowing strip. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I can even see the refracted moonlight on the sandy bottom beneath the boat and the occasional dark fish swimming by.

Technically, I guess, by anchoring at Isla Cerralvo we have already left Baja though not the Sea of Cortés. Soon we shall no more be seeing the sun setting behind mountain ranges but dropping instead into the sea. I recall how Baja and the Sea of Cortés were like a mantra or magical words for would-be cruisers in Washington and British Columbia. George Friend, who built Vilisar back in the early seventies, had always wanted to sail here and even built this boat to do so. He was 89, I think, when we visited him in Sidney and in very poor health. For one reason or another he never made it and now he never will. But we have spent eight months here minus the two months up at the rancho. It took us quite a while to get used to the desert scenery; at first we were totally bored by it after the Coastal Range splendours of British Columbia, the Gulf Islands and the San Juans. But now we had adjusted our perception and could easily see the beauty that many others see.

What we never did get used to was the intense heat and humidity in the middle part of the Sea of Cortés. May and June were hot but tolerable. Thereafter we suffered. Other cruisers have told us that San Carlos is a very bad place to spend the summer. It may be relatively hurricane-proof. But the humidity and the electrical storms are too much. We went to San Carlos certainly because it is hurricane proof. By convenient long-distance bus, just as importantly, we could pick up the visiting children from Tucson Airport. Since it became almost too hot to sail anywhere and since anchorages with southerly protection on the mainland of Sonora are not numerous, we tended not to undertake longer voyages though we did make one crossing with William and Antonia to Bahia de los Angeles on the Baja Peninsula. The winds being what they were, we ended up motoring all the way back to Guaymas/San Carlos.

Finding an “out” became extremely important. I was seriously ready to sell the boat and do something else than just sit, sweat and vegetate in Bahia San Carlos. Despite the “crapshoot” of leaving Vilisar on a mooring buoy during the hurricane season, the two months away from the heat and humidity got us away from the intolerable weather. It also proved to be a thoroughly interesting thing to have done. We shall definitely do something like that again next summer. Maybe we shall even go back to Rancho el Nogal.

Saturday, 12 November 2005

Our original goal for the first night was Puerto Ballandra, not far from the exit from the harbour. But when we finally pull out of the fuel dock and into the open waters, the northerlies have built up two-foot, closely-spaced waves. We have to pitch straight into them and our speed drops to a couple of knots. I go below to close the ports so we don’t get salt spray below. The forward hatch is only open a crack and we brought the dinghy aboard before we left this morning so that it covers it well.

But ploughing to windward is tiresome and Ballandra will take us another hour and one-half at least. If we stop somewhere now we should have the tide on our side in the morning and calmer winds and seas.

We do a quick reconnaissance and opt to put into Playa Pichilingue. Bahia Pichilingue is the main ferry terminal now for La Paz. There is good north-wind protection. A well-frequented highway comes over the hill to the terminal bringing cars and loud trucks but, where we are anchored, the traffic is half a mile away and barely audible. A 60-foot white, steel shrimp boat is anchored on the north side near the boat-launching ramp, one or two other cabin cruisers are anchored in the bay, and a detachment of the Mexican Army is set up on the beach. Their two fast outboard motorboats, flashing police lights and all, are rafted up in front of their bivouac. We stop a couple of hundred yards from the shrimper and drop the hook in twenty feet of water. The north wind can still be felt coming down the gulch by the beach. But there is no fetch and we rest at calm all night. We are both tired and decide not to play canasta tonight. By 2100 we are tucked up in bed. We finally left La Paz again.

Friday, 11 November 2005

I spent most of yesterday with the laptop at the internet café on the Malecón just opposite where the boat is anchored. They let you sit there all day and use your own computer or one of their units. The café is never really full but there is a general coming and going, mostly boaters, but also a lot of other tourists as well. At one point I met two German couples from Nuremburg who were touring in Mexico. Kathleen meanwhile went off to the mercado for last-minute provisioning. Before we went ashore, Celia and Roger of S/V St. Brigid come by for a chinwag. In the evening we meet Greg and Jill of S/V Guenevere for a meal and an ice-cream cone before saying good-byes again.

We return by dinghy to Vilisar with the plan to leave at noon on Friday after picking up some CD ROMs that Greg is making for us and after refuelling at Marina de la Paz. On the one hand, the bus ride to a Ley supermarket took us through a new part of town for us and way out to the suburbs, which we had not expected. We really did not need to go there except that Ley, one of the major food retailing chains in Mexico, carries a private-label brand of beer that is sold at half the price of other beers and we wanted to stock up. On the other hand, not only were they sold out of the inexpensive beer – the shelves were actually bare – we were quite late getting back to the vessel. The afternoon north winds were already blowing into the harbour and the tide was flooding. Vilisar is a plucky ship but at a disadvantage with her small engine when she has to buck wind, waves, and currents. Oh well, what’s another day to cruisers? We shall use the time to finish stowing and to complete a few little jobs around the boat before venturing out to sea. Kathleen heads for the forecastle and is soon asleep. I putter. At least we would not be in conflict with the old adage about never starting a voyage on Friday; it brings bad luck. So, I guess we are safe now.

It was nice to have had dinner last night with Jill and Greg of S/V Guenevere. They lived on their 27-foot double-ender for quite a few years in San Francisco Bay. Jill, I think, worked for West Marine at their head office and Greg worked in the defence industry and spent a lot of time overseas probably making extra bucks so they could start their voyaging all the sooner.

Guenevere is a very small fibreglass boat, a Nor’easter 27, I think. But, not only have Jill and Greg made her into a comfortable and seaworthy home, Guenevere can be trailered as well. This makes their itineraries very flexible indeed. Greg is very skilled at keeping his vessel in shape and even contributes articles to sailing magazines like Good Old Boat. They have also, wisely, we think, adopted a policy of spending part of the year somewhere else other than in the tropical or desert heat of Mexico and Central America.

We first met them in Ensenada last February when we were all waiting for northerlies to bear us south to Cabo Falso. The wait lasted two weeks and we had time to get to know them. Claude and Aida aboard S/V Magic Dragon, Frank and Denise aboard S/V Cursail, and Greg and Jill aboard S/V Guenevere all left Ensenada the same day (24Feb05) as S/V Vilisar with Ronald and Kathleen aboard, only Magic Dragon and Cursail kept together. They passed us under power outside Ensenada after we had already set all sail and turned off our engine. We saw Guenevere in the far distance against the backdrop of the harbour but never ran into them again until we had been in La Paz for several weeks last spring.

Saturday, 12 November 2005

Friday was so frittered away that we put off leaving for today. It is definitely time to go, though. La Paz is nice but we spent a month here last spring and have seen all we want to see of it. Not surprisingly, it’s the same people around as then, the same opinionated old Americans running the Cruiser Net in the morning. We have our coffee. The tide turns and we get up the anchor, wave and shout goodbye to Jack on S/V Dream Catcher anchored nearby and motor off.

We expected that the winds would be more from the east in the morning and that, with a favourable ebb tide, we should be able to sail right down the channel and out. But the winds stayed from the north all night too and are still blowing into the harbour. There are swells coming at us and lines of breakers along the sand spit running north from the Mogote. We motor it.

Refuelling and Diesel fuel consumption

Before leaving La Paz for Mazatlán, we decide however to top off the fuel tanks. They are still half full but, although we are determined to make the crossing under sail (or at least after we motor into the north wind around to the east side of the La Paz peninsula), one never knows when a full tank of fuel might come in handy. And anyway, it prevents moisture from accumulating over time in the tanks, sinking to the bottom, and there becoming a fertile spot for marine algae to grow. (Our fuel filters were very clean and moisture-free when we last changed them in Long Beach, CA. but we sure would not like to have to deal with polishing the tanks or gumming up the engine with algae.)

We intend to tank up at Marina de la Paz and actually motor over there about 1000. Unfortunately, the fuel dock is totally blocked by a big yacht (M/V Nautilus Express), which is refuelling (and judging by its size is going to be quite a few hours doing so), and M/V Pacific Song, a trawler, that was using the dock for overnight parking. We make a quick stop at one of the empty berths, pick up the CD-ROMs that Greg has made and left for us at the marina office, get Pedro the Carpenter to saw a piece of oak in two that I have on board and need for mounting the binnacle compass, say another farewell and bon voyage to Greg and Jill, and then leave “immediately”.

We could go into Marina Palmira to refuel but instead we call ahead to Marina Costa Baja, a brand-new, nearly-empty marina just at the exit from the harbour. They have a Pemex fuel dock there. The people are very helpful and friendly though everything looks rather somnolent around there. There are about a dozen, mostly very big and expensive motor yachts in the slips. Their price is cheaper here too than at the other fuel docks although there is some calculating to do. The selling price at the pump is Peso 5.07 per litre but there is a Peso 1.00 per litre “service charge” added on bringing the total to Peso 6.07. It is rather difficult to get an explanation in Spanish and English, or at least one that we can understand. But apparently this is Pemex’ way of calculating. The other fuel docks (Marina de la Paz and Marina Palmira) are private while Marina Costa Baja has Pemex (state-owned monopoly). The private marinas simply include the service charge in the end price, says Pemex. The Costa Baja attendants maintain that their Pemex price is lower overall even with the servicio than the private ones. So much for market forces driving the prices down.

Not only is Marina Costa Baja very new and clean, there are two attendants at the dock as well as a security guy. When we pull in they pull a floating pollution barrier around the outside of the vessel until we have finished refuelling, the first time we have seen that anywhere in over four years of cruising. Very conscientious; San Carlos has a Pemex dock too but they don’t do anything like that.

The refuelling operation gets us thinking about fuel prices and how much we have spent on diesel fuel in the four years and some months that we have been aboard Vilisar. Once we get into it, we get out the old maintenance and fuel logs and develop the following table :

S/V Vilisar
Diesel Fuel Consumption Analysis




US Gallons (US $)

Price / US Gallon
(US $)
Total Price Paid (incl. taxes, etc.)
(US $)

Port Townsend, WA
Port Townsend, WA
Port Townsend, WA
Port Townsend, WA
Sequim, WA
Port Hardy, B.C., Canada
(north tip of Vancouver Island)
Hartley Bay, B.C., Canada
(south of Prince Rupert, B.C.)
Juneau, AK
Sitka, AK
Comox, B.C., Canada
Port Townsend, WA
Port Townsend, WA
Neah Bay, WA
Sausalito, CA
Long Beach, CA
San Diego, CA
Ensenada, BCN, Mexico
La Paz (MLP), BCS. Mexico
San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico
La Paz (Costa Baja), Mexico



Total no. of months (actual travel end-Aug 01 - mid-Nov 05
Total number of occasions diesel purchased
20 x
Total number of US gallons purchased
783.51 gals.
Highest price per US Gallon (San Diego, CA. Feb05)
$ 2.45
Lowest price per US Gallon (Pt. Townsend, WA. Dec01)
$ 1.00
Mean Price per US gallon [(2.45-1.00/2)+1.00 =]
$ 1.715
Average price [$1,187.28/783.51 US Gals.]
$ 1.52
Average number of US gallons used per month of travel
[783.54 Gals. / 27 =]
29.02 gals.
The numbers reflect a rising price for fuel. Canadian prices for diesel were higher than in the U.S.A. Mexico is now the cheapest but diesel is more expensive in Mexico now than it was in the U.S.A. back in 2001 and 2002. San Diego last winter (Feb 05) was unbelievably expensive and so was Long Beach. Just shows you how much you can save by not paying road taxes for marine fuel! We did more motoring in 2002 than since; going to Alaska involves a lot of engine hours. We also sometimes used diesel fuel to fire our on-board furnace in winter in Canada, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest of the U.S.A.

Clearly, compared to a power boat, for example, Vilisar is not a big user of diesel fuel. We can bunker about 75-80 US gallons in two tanks but we try not to let the levels get too low although that often depends upon how cash-rich we are. In Sequim and Port Townsend in the early years we let the levels get very low. I am surprised we never actually ever ran out; the diesel furnace was burning about a gallon a day in the winter and one could easily get low.

Of the 51 months since we moved aboard in August 2001, we have spent a good portion not actually travelling. I include in this “down time” the six months we lived aboard in Victoria in the winter of 2002/2003, the sixteen months we braved a 66-degree winters in Long Beach while we stopped to freshen the cruising kitty, and the nearly two months we spent at Rancho el Nogal last summer. Of course, we were not actually moving at all times even during the remaining 27 months but, if we anchored or moored or docked somewhere, it was with the understanding that we were only there temporarily.

Clearly the price of diesel fuel has rocketed in the period since we took to the voyaging life. We could hardly recall that we paid a dollar a gallon at the fuel dock in Port Townsend at year-end 2001. That’s no surprise to anyone, of course, though it is hard to understand why San Diego should be so outstandingly expensive. It’s not remote like Hartley Bay, B.C. and there is lots of demand around there. Some fuel retailer has a great location, I guess, or some other sort of advantage. Fortunately, we used most of our diesel in the early period when we were using the on-board diesel furnace more (at the moment the stove pipes and the Charlie Noble are removed and stored in the anchor locker forward, I hope until we reach New Zealand) and motoring through British Columbia to Alaska, etc. Whenever we went offshore (e.g. Cape Flattery to Long Beach or Long Beach to La Paz), we used much less fuel and used our sails and our windvane steering much more. Whatever our intentions, we find that coastal cruising in protected waters such as the Inside Passage, Puget Sound, Straits of Georgia, or the Sea of Cortés means light winds and a lots of motoring. You do not expect to stand off or keep sailing at night and the winds are so unreliable and weak that you have to throw on the iron genoa just to make your anchorage.

Mexican diesel prices are consistently below US levels. I think this is a national economic strategy by the Mexican government. Pemex is the state-owned petroleum monopoly. Petroleum was deliberately left out of NAFTA negotiations because the Mexican government wanted to be able to keep it “public” and to use this resource to further economic development.

So far, in the 27 months, we have been using about one US gallon of diesel a day. This average I think will fall as we move farther and farther south and as we make longer bluewater passages, i.e. where we are using the furnace less and the sails more.