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.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Thursday, 29 December 2005, La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, Nayarit, Mexico

(Since our flash stick for some inexplicable reason is not functioning and since we are confined to Vilisar waiting for water to be delivered or the diver to show up – the equivalent ashore of waiting for the plumber-, getting blogs posted has become rather difficult. If we get ashore, where we have not been now for going on four days, then we have to take the laptop ashore. This is risky because there is a lot of surf running, big swells rolling in from the Pacific and refracting around the breakwall into the harbour where we land on the beach. These are combined with the seasonal high tides in December. Although we usually manage things without getting more than the hems on our shorts wet, there is always a risk of getting a good soaking and even of capsizing the boat right at the shore. Apologies to those waiting for a current blog. We have not been totally idle, however: Please know that our brightwork is beginning to look really great.)

The anchorage is thinning out. Every day boats, almost exclusively sailboats, head out for the south after having spent Christmas here. Many had visitors over the Christmas period and many came here in December so they get to a handy airport for holiday flights to family back in Seattle, Chicago, or Los Angeles. We hear the vessels announcing their departure on the morning Cruisers’ Net, we witness them hauling up their anchors and motoring out towards Cabo Corrientes some thirty miles away. From our discussions with other cruisers we know that some will be coming back up here in the spring and then continuing on north to the Sea of Cortés where they will either spend the summer aboard or, putting their boat up on the hard in La Paz or San Carlos, head to cooler climes until the new cruising season begins in the fall. Others like us plan to continue south. Some will go to French Polynesia and beyond; some will head to Central America where Costa Rica is a favourite destination); some will go through the Panama Canal into the Caribbean; and, a few, like us now, will head for Ecuador and/or the Galapagos.

Before he entered the cruising fraternity, Jens thought it was totally exotic and bizarre to be a bluewater cruiser. But once you are surrounded by other cruisers it is just everyday stuff. He is a few illusions poorer: cruising has very little to do with blue waters and white sails and gin & tonic on deck, although all these are part of the scene. I am not sure if that realisation makes cruising more or less interesting for him. We had the same experience of shedding illusions. The education was intensified once we left familiar Canada and the U.S.A. and arrived in Mexico. You and all your cruising companions are “at sea” initially. Everybody is trying to get the know-how and the skills needed to be a bluewater cruiser, to survive in a foreign country, to decide if one really wants to be doing this.

Of course, there has to be a first cruise. For many, it is from Cape Flattery, Washington, or San Diego. If they get beaten up off the Oregon or Baja-California coast, that’s it. Never again! It’s not for nothing that La Paz is sometimes referred to as the graveyard of cruising dreams. Others, like us and many others, have survived some bad moments at sea, swallowed hard a few times, muttered a silent prayer of deliverance, tried to learn from the experience, to adjust our boat gear and/or sailing technique to deal with specific problems, realised that perhaps there’s nothing to go back to anyway, and so just carry on. Time heals all wounds and the frights fade into the background. You find that everyone here has been through something similar or worse and are still sailing. You get used to high waves and noisy winds. You get it figured out. As one experienced cruiser told me, the answer to anxiety is frequently just developing a new skill. Learning to heave to in heavy weather or better anchoring techniques, for example. And having experienced something once, maybe you won’t be so frightened the next time.

The fun parts are easy to deal with. Aside the frightening part, there is the boring parts or the trying parts or the frustrating parts. With a wooden boat, we have a fair bit of maintenance to do to keep Vilisar beautiful and fit. People are forever commenting about how much work a “woodie” must be. But all boats have engines, rigging, sails and hulls that need to be cleaned, waxed, buffed or even repainted. And every recreational fibreglass, steel or aluminium boat that I have ever seen also has at least some and frequently a lot of brightwork that needs varnishing. So non-woodies require a lot of work too. It seems that certain painted or varnished parts of Vilisar need annual attention – especially those portions that the sun can attack directly - and we set aside time now for this when the weather is most suitable. Some parts probably need attention every other year; our wooden mast has held up very well after several Cetol coats in Long Beach 15 months ago so we will wait another year to re-do it.

The sails are taking a beating though.

P.S. (Friday, 30 December 2005) Rode in with Jens and family in their inflatable this morning to get to the net. Kathleen is staying on the boat in hops of getting water delivered or that the diver will show up.

Wednesday, 28 December 2005, La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, Nayarit,

We are slow getting started this morning. I still have the taste of frustration in my mouth from our voyage over to PV yesterday. After the morning net this morning I talk on VHF to Rick and Penny who recommended and introduced us to Pancho, the diver, to tell him that I missed meeting him at PV yesterday. I also talk to Jens on VHF and he agrees to take our four 5-gallon blue water jugs ashore to see if he can get them filled. He calls later from Philo’s Bar in La Cruz to say that Philo has found somebody who will deliver ten bottles to us aboard Vilisar this afternoon. A bit expensive but put into perspective, we decide to go for it. Maybe things are not as bad as they first appeared.

I also ask Philo if there is a local diver who would undertake to clean our hull. After a bit of scouting around he says that he has located somebody locally but he wants $2 per foot. A bit of dickering follows: I tell Philo that we paid $1 a foot of waterline in both Long Beach and San Carlos and that seems to be about the going rate. After a long radio silence Philo comes back to say the diver agrees to do it for $1 per foot plus a one-time charge of Pesos 50. He will b charging us the LOD (length on deck) length rather than waterline but, given Vilisar’s out-hung rudder and steep bow and stern, there is not much difference (Veleda, for example, has a sharp pointy bow and a long overhanging stern; while its LOD is 35 feet, at the waterline there is only about 25 feet). So, we will be paying about Pesos 400 to have Vilisar’s bottom cleaned up. The diver, Philo says, should be there in less than an hour. Then Philo makes a general announcement to “The Fleet” in La Cruz to the effect that a diver is available today on the cruisers’ net and another boat takes him up on the offer. Now, things are really looking up. Things were not so bad after all.

I talk on the radio to Terry of S/V Ishi. We met Gary, her husband, last week. They sailed to Ecuador from Costa Rica last year so we had an interesting discussion about wintering down there. She told us that Bahia de Caráquez was very comfortable and very safe – both physically as an anchorage and from the point of view of personal or property security. Cruisers there were constantly going off to travel in the Andes and the cruiser community mounted an organised security patrol amongst themselves to keep an eye on empty boats. They never experienced any trouble there whatsoever beyond a stolen t-shirt from a dinghy and, of course, there were no hurricanes to worry about. She and a girlfriend also travelled for several weeks throughout the country; they didn’t stint but it came out to only about $25 a day all found for hotels, food, travel and activities like alpine train rides, horseback riding, tours, etc. “It is very cheap and absolutely fascinating,” she said with enthusiasm. This sounds like our kind of destination. They did not get visas or cruising permits beforehand; they just sailed there from Costa Rica and did the paperwork when they got there. She offered to put us in touch by email with cruisers already there who could fill us in on any details we needed. To avoid the Golfo de Tehuantepec gale-force blasts that are funnelled and intensified as they come through the mountains in lower Mexico from the Caribbean to the Pacific, Ischi went 300 miles offshore when sailing to Costa Rico from Puerto Vallarta. They still got hit by a one-day gale. Jumping off for Ecuador or the Galapagos Islands from Acapulco should make it possible to get well offshore.

All this is very encouraging. It makes me want to get going again. If we can get water today and the hull is cleaned we shall be ready to leave to go farther south along the so-called Mexican Riviera after we get last-minute provisions in La Cruz. All the time we shall have Acapulco and Ecuador in our minds.

Jens comes over this morning to get out of Steven’s hair; Steven is doing his high-school homework and, outgoing and energetic as he is, Jens, his dad, is disturbing him. Steven finally complained and Jens decided he ought to get off the boat for a while. Never a bad idea when tensions rise.

Jens is feeling a bit better about cruising now too, although I think if Alice and Steven weren’t in favour of continuing, he would take the first best off for the boat and head back to Victoria. But, they will wait for the end of the month to get their pension cheque and then they will head south too. Maybe we will buddy-boat a little. Now that they have had a chance to recover from their rough handling on the trip down from Canada, they have recovered their esprit. And, while Jens still talks about selling, two sentences later he is talking about moving on and saying out loud that, while things were definitely not as good as he had anticipated when he set sail from Victoria, when he reviews things in his mind, things are also not as bad .

Steven, 14, is home-schooling himself with the help of his parents. He follows the curriculum of his home province, British Columbia, and is in continuous email contact with his own Department of Education teacher back home. Jens says there is never any problem about getting the boy to do his homework and the parents only need to give Steven the quiet he needs to get it done. This does not take very long each day, a few hours at most. There is a lot of time-wasting at a regular school: spare periods, gym, commuting to and fro, extra-curricular activities. He is otherwise free to go ashore with Dad or just goof off. Jens says he misses a couple of his friends in Victoria but otherwise is extremely happy on Veleda.


Kathleen and I spent several hours finishing up the sanding and prepping and then getting on a coat of Cetol on the cabin trim, the handrails, the skylight, the lightboards and the fife rails. In the spring of 2004 I gave all these things several Cetol coats in Long Beach as well as enhanced UV protection by finishing off with a gloss coat of Cetol. The intense Mexican sun and the nearly daily salt water we throw on the decks and cabin have taken their toll. The brightwork looks dull and lifeless. Just from the constant use of the boat, things like tying fenders to the handrails, the brightwork becomes chipped as well. We are having perfect painting weather. By midday the temperatures are in the high seventies and there is a good breeze. It is fun to be outside and wielding a paint brush, even given the fact that the fresh paint makes the rest of the boat look even worse.

Our topside (i.e. the white-painted portion between the waterline and the decks) looks very dreary indeed. For one, the dinghy bangs against it and chips the paint; for another, the water we dump on the painted-cedar decks to keep them tight eventually causes rust-like stains where they run off under the caprails. The colour is the same as the stain on the topsides just above the anti-fouling paint where the tropical seawater laps against the hull and leaves a very unsightly line of green growth. We wonder if it appears to viewers as a lack of maintenance. In fact, it comes about because we are taking care to keep lots of salt water on the decks.

The acrylic non-skid porch paint that I got from Ron and Heather aboard M/V Despite Alimony (sic) back in Long Beach has generally worked well. But it has tended to lift in a few places. This may be because the paint underneath had not been sanded enough. Without non-skid surfaces (basically fine sand added to the paint), trying to do anything on a wet foredeck is very treacherous indeed. I know because I have been out there before I applied non-skid and it was like ice-skating.

The trouble with starting to paint is that you soon have to empty the lazarette storage hold to get what you need. However, as long as one does not bite off too much for one day, it is possible to sand and paint some every day here in Mexico even if one is moving.

Late afternoon

The diver has never shown up. Philo said on the radio that the diver was going to go home and get his gear and head right out. He had several boats to do thanks to Philo’s efforts on his behalf. Never did hear back from Philo. We’ll try again tomorrow. Of course, the waterman never showed up either. Things are never as good or bad as they first appear. I guess we should just shrug and say, “This is Mexico!” At least we had a satisfying day doing brightwork. And Jens has just come by to invite us over to Veleda after we finish eating our omelette and home-fries.

Tuesday, 27 December 2005, La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, Nayarit, Mexico

We are supposed to be at the Pemex fuel dock in Marina Vallarta by 1300 to meet Pancho, the diver who is going to scrub our hull of the disgusting accretion of slime and barnacles. Last night we calculated 2½ hours to cover the roughly nine miles using the engine. We get started on schedule at 1030 but we can never seem to get going faster than about 2.5 knots. Perhaps it is the barnacles underneath that are slowing us down. Even the smallest amount of growth on the underwater portions of a vessel can have a very large impact on speed and fuel efficiency. If the prop is also coated, which is also usually the case, one is really slowed down. It is rapidly clear that we are not going to be meeting Pancho on time. Not long after we start we are overtaken by Cetacean and we ask Ron and Judy to leave a message at the fuel dock for Pancho to say that we are on the way but will likely be two hours late. We chug along in the warm sunshine wondering why we are so slow; Kathleen says that it’s as if we are trying to make headway in honey.

About 1430 we finally enter the channel into the Marina Vallarta. It is narrow and lined with yachts. The fuel dock involves a tricky to turn in a tight space. Kathleen does a terrific job of shoehorning Vilisar into the dock only for us to be told that we have to move to another part of the dock, a floating pier that is even trickier to get into. When we finally tie up we ask if Pancho is around. “Oh, he waited about twenty minutes and then left.” I guess he had other commitments. We have no way of reaching him.

As we start to fuel up, we ask about water. “No water here,” says the attendant. “And you don’t want to drink the tap water here anyway. You have to buy bottled water and we don’t have any here either. And by the way, you can’t stay here at the fuel dock; we need the space.” After a long discussion we engage a very dark and muscular young man named “Chapis” to whisk Kathleen away in his motorised panga a store near the water to pick up bottled water. As they leave I wonder if Kathleen will throw up cruising and run off with Chapis. I return to putting diesel fuel into the tank.

The attendants relent a little and pull Vilisar ahead out of the way of the growing pandemonium around the fuel dock. The day’s fishing is over and the sports fishermen are refuelling before putting their boats away. The channel is only about two boat lengths wide and the fishermen are trying to grab parking space at the dock, cutting each other off and leaving no room for anyone else to get in or out. Meanwhile Chapis returns Kathleen to the dock and manages to squeeze his panga in beside Vilisar. Unfortunately, they have only managed after much negotiating and figuring to find four bottles of water. We pour them into the port tank and pay Chapis for his efforts. This has turned into rather expensive water. Maybe we should just fill the tank with beer.

Getting out of the dock is a task. While we are waiting for the trawler blocking us to finish refuelling a fishing boat crashes into a sailboat. There is an argument. Right in front of our spot there must be five or six boats jostling for the next refuelling spot. We just start backing out with the dock attendant guiding the dinghy so we don’t back over the painter. Compared to a motor vessel or a fin-keel, Vilisar is very unmanoeuvrable in tight spots and going astern is always a big problem. After several efforts backing and forwarding, we finally get back into the channel heading out.

So, we have refuelled, picked up twenty gallons of luxury water, and still do not have the bottom cleaned. As we come out of the channel, we ask two guys on a boat “Puerto Securidad” written on the side and tied to a green buoy if we can anchor at the side of the channel. “After ten o’clock at night,” one of them says. So that is not going to be an option. We keep on out into Banderas Bay to find a light breeze blowing. Hoping to pick up a bit more speed for the return to La Cruz, I get busy getting all the sail covers off, the halyards rigged, and the sails hoisted. Motorsailing close hauled, that gets us up to over 4 knots, a quite respectable speed for old “Barnacle Vilisar”. The afternoon is well advanced and even if the wind holds we are only going to be able to squeak into the anchorage just before dark about two hours hence.

We are a bit drained and frustrated after our day-trip to Marina Vallarta. It was awful in there. The hectic activity, the frustration at getting anything completed satisfactorily, even the refuelling. As always, being the new guy in a place means you have no experience with local conditions and you wind up paying through the nose. For budget cruisers this can be a little scary. Seeing the people cavorting on the hotel beaches all along the coast made me think about giving up cruising, travelling by bus or airplane to places we wanted to see.

With the sails set and the boat on a gentle reach back to La Cruz, we gather ourselves again and begin to see the brighter side of things. Nothing irrevocable has occurred, no damage done or anyone injured. We still have a little cash to get us by and nothing is forever.

The wind dies shortly before sunset, the big red sun diving through some light cloud into the western sea. I pull in all the sails. They are already wet from the dew. We are still doing 3 knots, which means either that we have a little current in our favour or the movement of the boat has polished the prop and rudder a little bit.

It is, however, thoroughly dark as we approach La Cruz. There are lights along the coast and Kathleen is confused by them. I go on deck from the cabin and try to get my night vision. I have made note in my mind of the various lights around the coast so I am fairly well oriented. With the 50x7 binoculars you can really make out a lot more than with the naked eye at night. I spot the sailboats at anchor only some of which have anchor lights switched on. But I can make them out in the dark. As we get in close to them Kathleen becomes very apprehensive and wants to anchor way out. But, for a long time, the depth sounder is getting no reading below sixty feet. Not only do I not want to have to row into shore from way out, I do not want to have to pull up the anchor from a great depth if I can avoid it. While she feels she is blind in the dark, I believe I can see well enough. We have a little battle but I insist we go slowly forward on the engine with me standing on the foredeck using binoculars to see and the flashlight to give Kathleen directions for the helm.

I begin to recognise our old neighbours in the anchorage and we turn to circle behind S/V Veleda and, through the binoculars I even see somebody sitting in their cockpit, Jens or Steven. We move forward of them and drop the hook in about 25 feet of water and long, oily swells. We are almost back in exactly our old spot. Kathleen is still a bit angered that I insisted on going in so close at night. I would probably never go into a strange harbour or anchorage at night. But I am familiar with La Cruz now. All’s well that ends well. After a couple of hot dogs and something to drink, it is nearly time to get to bed.

Tuesday, 27 December 2005, La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, Nayarit, Mexico

As we prepare to depart from La Cruz in the next couple of days, we take a day to travel by bus back into Puerto Vallarta to take a look at the Old Town and possibly hook up with a friend-of-a-friend. We also want to test our headphones to see if they will work on another computer. They refused to work on our laptop and one or two others around here.

“Old Town” PV is on the far side of the river from the Church of the Virgin of Guadalupe where we had witnessed the processions and services when we first arrived two weeks ago. The town was made famous (or infamous) when John Houston came to this sleepy fishing village to film Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana with Richard Burton and Ava Gardner. Our boy Richard was having a torrid affair with Elizabeth Taylor and she followed him here so he wouldn’t get the wandering eye, I guess. Eventually Taylor built a house cum love nest in PV. That was the end of the sleepy village; it turned into a cosmopolitan beach and hotel centre. Tourism – hotels, charter flights, rented flats, time shares, the works - is not only PV’s main enterprise. It is its only enterprise. We think the Old Town might be interesting to see before leaving. It isn’t. The beach is lined with thatched palapas, swarming with trinket salesmen, and tiled with scorched sunbathers; the streets, on the other hand, are lined with over-priced-trinket stalls, fast-talking time-share pimps, and of course, sunburned tourists.

There are quite a few internet cafes but they are over-priced. At last we find a reasonable one and check our email. We also do a little net surfing about places to head for in Ecuador (Anyone interested should start with Jimmy Cornell’s, which is designed with bluewater cruisers in mind.) More importantly, we try calling Kathleen’s parents in Catonsville, Maryland. That works fine so we try calling my Mum in Dallas, Texas. She lives in a nursing home and is generally never in her room when we are trying to reach her. By some sort of miracle she happens to be near the phone at midday and we have a wonderful chat. After her bout of hospitalisation she sounds her old self and it is wonderful to hear her. I was very relieved to finally get hold of her. We have not been able to reach her since we last saw her in person at her 90th birthday celebration in Dallas on 31 July.

The news about Ecuador is promising. It confirms that the climate from May to November is dry and temperate. Marina Santa Lucia near Salinas is quite new and has reasonable rates. It also has haulout facilities and is secure enough to leave one’s vessel there to travel inland. Entry and exit fees for Ecuador are minimal and the US dollar is now the official currency. But there are two flies in the ointment: tourist visas are limited to only three months (though it appears they can easily be extended). Second, you cannot get a cruising permit for the Galapagos Islands from Ecuador itself. It either has to be granted outside of the country by an Ecuadorian consulate or one simply clears Ecuador for the Marquesas and make an “emergency stop” in Wreck Bay where one will be granted a 72-hour pass. In fact, if we leave Mexico from Acapulco it is 500 Nm closer to sail first to the Galapagos before sailing on to Ecuador. All this needs more work.

We get to chatting with the young Mexican woman in charge of the shop and show her how to use SKYPE for calling. Before leaving, we also ask her where we can find a good lunch – bueno pero menos caro. Without hesitation she tells us to head for Comida Economica Dianita about five blocks away. “Muy bueno y non caro.” There we find a small room with about six white plastic tables. We are placed at a table with a Mexican diner named Manuel who runs a rent-a-car outlet in town. For Pesos 40 (about US$ 4) we have a large two-course comida corrida (daily special) that allows a choice of three starters (Kathleen has Crema de Verdura; I have Lentil Soup. Both are great) and eight main dishes (Kathleen has Bistec estufado –stuffed beef- and I have Machacho Ranchero – it looks in fact like the same beef but is shredded and covered in a tomato sauce: again, both are great). We are also given a picture of iced Jamaica as part of the price, Jamaica a common non-alcoholic drink in Mexico made from hibiscus blossoms.

That girl at the internet café sure knew what she was talking about. Not only is the food delicious, we also learn a few things about Mexican etiquette from Manuel such as whether it is permissible to join a stranger at a table if the restaurant is already full (Por favor, puedo sentarme?) The whole thing is fun and we feel again like we are in contact with Mexico.

Before leaving town we take a walk through the park on the island in the river. It is shady but full of souvenir stalls or cafes. It is a nice little oasis, however, from the traffic noise and, where we entered, was reached by a swinging (and I mean swinging) footbridge. Stopping to look down into the river we saw three huge iguanas on a sloping tree on the far bank about fifty feet away. The two little ones are about 18 inches long. The third has great yellow spines down its back and very large wattles hanging below its chin, which it wagged ferociously from time to time. In case you ever get stuck for a menu idea, you should know that iguanas can be eaten for their meat. But I think it was not just the fact that we had recently had a delicious lunch that made the idea less than attractive.

Having finished our business in town, we drift back along the Malecón and catch a local bus out to the bus-transfer centre in front of Wal-Mart. After darting in for provisions, we squeeze into the crowded Punta de Mita bus bound for La Cruz. We are drowsy from our lunch and our walk, glad that we have reached our parents by phone, and happy that we will be back aboard Vilisar before dark.

Getting off the bus we bump into another cruising couple, Ron and Judy off S/V Cetacean, Portland, Oregon. In the few blocks down to the beach we make a fast cruiser-acquaintanceship and invite them to come over to Vilisar to sample the cold beer we have just brought from town. The day fades out with a couple of hours of chat with a very nice couple.

Monday, 26 December 2005, La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, Nayarit, Mexico

Our Christmas Day at anchor in La Cruz started off as nearly every day aboard with slow coffee-drinking. Today there is some desultory discussion about plans for the day and about cruising in springtime to Ecuador. The swells are low and the skies clear so I got another coat of Cetol on the port lightboard. A few more coats and I shall mount it again with the port light. Eventually, we wrap our little white-elephant gifts, get into our goin’-ashore duds and push off to row ashore in the dinghy. We land this time relatively dry and pull the dinghy well up above high-water mark and walk up to the internet café.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Sunday, 18 December 2005

Firming up Ecuador

The more we think about it the more we like the idea of sailing offshore come spring to Ecuador. We have been talking to other cruisers and doing some research on the web.

Ecuador may lie smack on the Equator but its climate in the northern summer is much more temperate than that of coastal Central America or Mexico. I am not sure why that should be but apparently it is so. We talked to Gary aboard S/V Ischi who has cruised there. Letters and articles in Latitude 38, a San-Francisco sailing magazine with contributions from the sailors and cruisers themselves around the world reflect that Ecuador is also safe, very inexpensive, and the local people are very friendly. Bahia de Caráquez, about three hours by bus from Guayaquil, is reportedly a good base for leaving the boat and travelling inland into the high country of the Andes. The disadvantages are that Caráquez, Manta (the main tuna-fishing port), and Quayaquil (Ecuador’s largest port and biggest city) lack amenities and support services such haul-out facilities, spare parts, marine services (sailmakers, riggers, small engine mechanics, etc.) geared to a sail-boating public. Colour it “remote” on your charts.

As the idea of a cruise to South America begins to take a place in our minds, however, we find we like the idea more and more. The remoteness appeals to us as does the chance to visit a country before it becomes too far up the learning curve as a “destination” for cruisers and charter sailors. Curiously, back when we were still new in Long Beach, California, Kathleen was in some preliminary discussions with an association in Ecuador was looking for someone who could run workshops on German choral music for Ecuadorian choirs. In the end they did not get the funding. But maybe now we could re-establish the contact and make something out of that. Travelling around the countryside by bus and making music would be a great way to make friends and see the region. As interesting as tourist travel on our own might be, this approach would be so much more interesting and promising and would leave a circle of friends and acquaintances around Ecuador.

Taking a step closer to getting to Ecuador, therefore, we ask around on the Banderas Bay Cruisers Net to see if anyone has the appropriate charts that they are willing to part with or that we can copy. Our charts only go as far as Panama and some of the coast of Columbia. Original charts are, of course, of better paper quality, they are in colour and, if they are new, they are up-to-date. If we are lucky we might actually locate charts to copy that have been kept current with Notices to Mariners. Up-to-date is a “could have”; we voyaged all the way to Alaska and back with photocopied charts that were by no means current. You had to be more careful to keep photocopies from getting damp as the printing would smudge and the paper become soggy. We kept whichever chart we were using at any moment in a large plastic sleeve while it was in use and especially if it was going to be out on deck.

Back in Victoria, British Columbia, we had some good fortune to meet the Captain and Second Officer of Bold Endurance, a cable-laying ship berthed locally to serve the Pacific for the laying of new cables or for repairing existing ones). To keep their insurance valid such commercial ships are required to keep all charts current with Notices to Mariners and to have the latest editions of all charts and all Pilots (in this case British Admiralty Pilots for each sector of the world). The Second Officer was the navigator and spent ten minutes daily up-dating charts. I asked him what they did with the old charts and Pilots; he said that they just throw them away. The upshot was that we wound up with a free lunch on board and a huge stack of Pilots and charts. Of course, they weren’t always the charts and books we needed and certainly not a complete set. But I love the fact that we have original charts and blue hard-cover Admiralty books stashed all around the boat: South China Sea; Gulf of Aden; Approaches to Hong Kong Harbour; etc.

When we started asking around for Alaska and Northern B.C. charts in the spring of 2001, we learned that Larry Fay on M/V Pelican Point in Mystery Bay across from Port Townsend had just put together the complete set for an Alaska voyage. Surely he would lend them to us for copying. This was a lucky break for us since he had spent quite a while getting a complete set together. New charts cost somewhere upwards of US$ 20 a piece nowadays. If you buy commercially-copied charts from Bellingham Charts I think they charge about US$ 5 per chart but they are at least the latest edition and all up-to-date with the latest Notices to Mariners. At a commercial printer in Port Townsend with a large copying machine (most copy shops cannot handle anything beyond A3 or legal size so you need to find a shop that does copying for businesses) the price per sheet was US$ 3. Since we were duplicating 100 charts and were willing to give the shop lots of time to do the work, they dropped the price to US$ 2 per chart. At the end of our British-Columbia days in August 2003, we gave them all away to Shane Williams, the young man who helped us build our Chameleon dinghy up on Denman Island near Chemainus.

Once you start asking around you get the most interesting surprises. We learn from the morning cruisers net on Thursday that there is a free local chart-lending service. Soon we are in touch with Rick and Penny of S/V Mai Tardis II. Rick and Penny also have a flat in Pitillal, once a separate town but now essentially a suburb of PV. We arrange to call on them on Thursday afternoon.

The bus trip into town in a modern and comfortable vehicle goes past Bucerias, Nuevo Vallarta, and the aerodrome. It is direct and takes about 45 minutes. In town there is a major transfer point along the waterfront where the cruiseships tie up and where just opposite there is a Wal-Mart and a Sam’s Club. Rick has given us detailed directions via VHF but we have brought our handheld radio so we can page him when we get there.

Like many municipal busses in Mexico, the one we transfer to in town is a converted school bus, with plastic and metal seats. The springs are very stiff so that, even over the cobbled or paved streets (i.e. interlocking paving stones), it seems like we have gone off the road. When we get to parts of the route that are not even paved - one mountainous section for example running straight up a hill through a residential neighbourhood– you feel like you may have actually left the planet. Aside from the rattling and the noise, of course, there is plenty of dust blowing in through the windows once we go off the pavement. Actually, even when we are on pavement or actual cobblestones there are frequently billows of the fine grey stuff coming in at you. The other thing I notice is of course the large number of little children. But this is common everywhere in Mexico. The nice part is to see how affectionate the fathers are with their little ones.

We are soon chatting and exchanging personal details with Rick and Penny in their third-floor flat in a modern white apartment building. Both of them are boaters; in fact at present they have two boats in the marina though, from what I can glean, they do not sail that much any more. Rick is seriously interested in astronomy and spends a lot of time photographing celestial bodies, completing math to predict or plot them, writing up his findings and corresponding with other amateur astronomers. He shows us some interesting photographs and we actually go up on the flat roof to look at the sunset and to see Venus in the late-afternoon sky.

In between, while this is going on we are also selecting charts from the library that we will take for copying. Since we already have charts down to Panama and parts of the Columbia coast, we pick the charts that will get us to Ecuador, to the Galapagos, and on across the South Pacific to New Zealand. The library is well-stocked and we could have had charts to go around the world including SE Asia, Africa, Europe, etc., if we had wanted them. We decide, however, to limit our copying efforts for cost reasons to getting us as far as New Zealand. We even waive copying charts, for example, of Papua New Guinea, Bismarck Archipelago, and the Solomon islands guessing that we shall be able to get these in New Zealand or somewhere else along the way.

Getting them actually copied is only difficult because of the to-ing and fro-ing required on the busses. Rick has recommended a shop near the Marina Vallarta and has even called to negotiate a good price for us. But the day has waned before we can select all the charts and the printers are closed. Coming back the next morning, we go first to Rick and Penny’s house, then on to the copy shop. When we arrive around 1300 at Kroma Digital Impressiones (Plaza Iguana local 20, Marina Vallarta. Msn messenger: they tell us that the charts will be ready by 1800 that day. Great! One less day-long trip into PV.

When we get back from the marine hardware store, however, they are unfortunately not ready. Apparently the high humidity both in the atmosphere and in the paper charts themselves has made it difficult to make top-quality copies; the manager points out some blank spots on the paper to us. She goes on to say that they will have to run them all through the machine again to dry them. Disappointed that they are not going to be ready but pleased that they are taking such good care of them, we start making connections on the local busses to get back to the transfer point at in front of Wal-Mart where we can catch the Punta de Mita bus that will let us down at La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. It is dark by the time we get there and we launch the dinghy in the surf and row back out to Vilisar at anchor. We are worn out from the noise, the vibrations, the dust, and the general pollution in Puerto Vallarta. And that town is better than most!

We are loath to start into town on Saturday but reason that the shop might be closed on Sunday. Stopping by the smithy in La Cruz where I had taken the bronze turnbuckle a few days ago to be freed up from corrosion, we hop a bus full of tourists and locals on the way to town. The charts are all ready and they are just calculating the bill when we arrive at Kroma Digital. I experience a small frisson when it comes to just under Pesos 900 (approx. US$ 90) altogether. This is even cheaper than I expected and the lady has thrown in a 10-percent discount as well. Not only have they been they painstaking in their work, they are cheap too. Off we go to deliver the originals back to Rick and Penny and then home feeling very chuffed indeed. In fact we make it back before dark so are able to see the beautiful coastline coming back from PV for the first time in daylight.

Today (Sunday) is to be a “boat day”, i.e. we’re staying aboard. We have some cleaning up to do, I want to catch up on my blog, and we intend to move Vilisar over closer to the harbour so we don’t have to row so far, and so we have a better chance of picking up an unsecured wi-fi site from the boat. And then of course at some point we shall have to file away the new charts. It appears that a bit of water has got into the large chart drawer in the navigation table - either during cooking operations at the galley stove right next to it or because water has dripped in from the deck above. Perhaps I shall buy some white plastic water pipe with cap ends and store the not-yet-needed charts in a tube in the forecastle.

Tuesday, 20 December 2005

Our “boat day” turns out to be a “project day”. Now, that’s not too bad in principle. But it is not quite how I had planned my Lazy Sunday. Or Monday, either for that matter!

I actually do get quite a few little projects done. I re-rig everything for fastening the staysail boom to the bow by experimenting with various shackles and padeyes and other fasteners. At least I don’t have to return the stuff I bought and I think I have a pretty good system now. At least it won’t stress the forestay turnbuckle’s screw-in head to the point that it breaks off again flush with the turnbuckle, thus ruining even the body of the turnbuckle for further use. Later, I repair a 12-volt plug and fixed up a torn-out wire on a solar panel.

The major job of the day, however, turns out to be putting hardwood slides under the drawer runners of the navigation table. The table is located to starboard next to the galley stove just as you come down the companionway ladder. I assume Joe May built this nav table when he rebuilt the cabin interior some fifteen years ago. And a magnificent piece of carpentry it is too. The top and front are, I believe, teakwood like most of the cabin trim. There is a full-width drawer for charts and there are three pairs of pullout drawers underneath. Consider that, besides a few little knife drawers in the galley, these six drawers of varying horizontal depth (they slide back as far as the boat’s stringers; the top drawer is therefore the longest and the bottom the shortest) are the only drawers aboard Vilisar and you will not be surprised to hear that they are crammed full of every imaginable item from tools to office supplies to playing cards to cruising guides to CD’s and electronics. As a matter of fact the drawers have over the years become so heavy that:

It is at least one reason why Vilisar habitually leans somewhat to starboard when at rest; and,
Why the weight of the drawers on the runners has worn deep gouges into the wooden slides supporting them.

As the drawers have sunk over time deeper and deeper into the wood, the drawers have begun to jam and stick. This problem is by no means new; in fact, it has been around for a few years. In 2003 I actually used an electric circular saw to slit up thin pieces of purpleheart and yellow cedar that I intended “at some point” to slide in under the individual runners. The time has apparently arrived though it was not on my plan for today.

Kathleen calls to me to come below; one of the drawers, the heaviest one of the lot, has jammed and she cannot get it either to open or to close. I lie down on the cabin sole to inspect them. I see that I should long ago have carried out my repairs. Oh well, today’s a Lazy Sunday. I’ll just glue up one side each of two lengths of the pre-cut thin purpleheart strips that I have been carrying around ( and moving around) in the lazarette for years and slip them in on either side of the drawer and Bob’s your uncle.

I dig out my small tool bag, the 3M 5200 Quick Cure Sealant/Adhesive and get ready. Unfortunately, this top drawer will not come out so the repairs have to be done in situ. I pull out the next drawer and look at the bottom and the supports. They too are very worn. I check all the drawers and realise that this Lazy Sunday will be the day that the three-year-old project will be completed, that the cabin will be in turmoil by the time I am well into the project, that given the cramped nature of the work (boats!) I shall be thankful for the weight I have lost since returning to the boat last autumn, and that I shall nevertheless be rather stiff tonight.

Soon I have Kathleen coating slats of wood with adhesive and I am inserting them under the drawers. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I am continually re-doing the job until my frustration boils up and I begin to swear and make loud plans to jump ship. After several hours of work at an angle reminiscent of a 16-degree Yogi, the job is at last done and I can start cleaning up. Unfortunately, there is white adhesive stuck to various people and things. Fortunately, paint thinner cleans it up easily.

Collapsed on the settee with a can of beer as the sun sets on my Lazy Sunday, I contemplate the smoothly-sliding drawers. There was a time even a couple of years ago when such a project might have completely overwhelmed me. Now upkeep problems like this just annoy me and spoil my lazy Sunday. At least nowadays I can usually devise a solution and execute it. Of course, it also makes me realise that, physically, I am getting a little less limber nowadays. I laugh when I recall that Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “When I was young all my muscles were supple - except one. Now that I am older all my muscles are stiff - except one.” We practise sliding the drawers in and out for the sheer pleasure of it.

Fox´s Cafe
Tuesday, 20 December 2005

We head into town early to visit Fox’s Café where we can get a cup of coffee and buy a good cinnamon roll while using his wifi connection. The owner originates from Lake-of-the-Woods, Ontario, but lived for a long time in Steinbach, near Winnipeg, Manitoba. He was surprised to hear that I had been stationed as a young artillery officer in the royal Canadian Horse Artillery in Winnipeg’s Fort Osborne Barracks back in the 1960’s. Steinbach is a prairie town whose inhabitants are largely Mennonites. The town has also made itself into a centre for used car sales for the metropolitan area.

Fox’s café is a thatched palapa in front of his house. He has only been open three weeks; he started when cruisers needed a place to plug in their computers and get a cup of coffee. Now he is in business. A major 600-slip marina is in construction at present. When it is completed it is likely to radically change the sleepy charm of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle though it ought to be good for jobs. I hope it will be good for Fox too.

Our main job on the net today is to see if we can buy a new battery for the laptop. I check out the “Buy Now” prices on EBay (US$ 50) but wonder how I can get the item delivered to Mexico. The alternative is to buy one on EBay in Germany (price € 50) and have Kathy bring it back with her from there in February. Finally, Fox gives me an email address in PV for a guy who might be able to help us locate on here in town.

We trot around the village to the various Ferrerias (iron mongers/hardware stores) in search of a few good-quality stainless steel washers. No deal. Have to go back to Zaragosa’s in PV. I do buy a length of 4-inch plastic water pipe as well as two caps to fit over the end. We intend to store un-needed charts in this and hang it inside the forepeak cabin.

Wednesday, 21 December 2005

I have been worrying about how badly fouled our bottom has become after only five months. We have a heavy coating of barnacles that will have to come off. I talked to Jack of S/V Mandan, a gorgeous Lyle Hess design made of Port Orford cedar; it’s the same family though perhaps larger than S/V’s Serrafyn and Taresin owned by Lyn and Larry Pardey. Jack careened Mandan on the beach at Bahia Don Juan in the northern half of the Sea of Cortés last summer and had pictures to show us. A few weeks before him when we were there we had contemplated doing that too but declined because it was too hot, I felt too old to brave heavy work in the heat, and we were basically chicken. We wound up spending four or five hundred dollars for a haulout in San Carlos. Jack used exactly the same sloughing paint (Hempel) that we used though he did add tin. His bottom looks perfect while ours is ready for another haulout!

By international agreement bottom paints no longer contain tributyltin self-polishing co-polymer (TBC SPC) because it does not break down in the water over short periods, tends to leach into the water and becomes a killer in plant and pelagic life. Now no bottom paint contains TBC SPC any longer but they do carry much higher doses of copper, which is supposed to be much safer because it breaks down much faster. Paint manufacturers also add biocides to the paint but with an eco-friendly spin.

This does not mean that the newer paints are not under attack as well. TBC SPC or copper, if commercial shipping or navies cannot find effective anti-fouling treatment they will have much higher petroleum consumption, also an ecological consideration, as well as more frequent haul-outs and paintings. We cruisers play no role in all this, of course. We are too insignificant in the great scheme of things. But we have the same problems: how to keep the bottom smooth; how to avoid more frequent haulout and painting costs; and, how to avoid unnecessary and increasingly-expensive fuel consumption. For reference, the cost of a hauling 35-foot Vilisar at San Carlos’ Marina Seca last July including four days in the work yard where we did the scraping ourselves and where we applied three gallons of Hempel ablative paint (US$ 135 per gallon in La Paz) cost us close to US$ 1,000.

Now, I could buy a new face mask and a set of weights, don my flippers and go over the side myself. I would probably need a wetsuit, however, as the water temperatures are getting rather chilly for sustained work submerged. In San Carlos and Long Beach there were plenty of divers; they charge about the same in both places: a dollar per foot of waterline. So much for “cheap” in Mexico. (We found San Carlos more expensive than Long Beach in almost everything. We hope that the new marinas not only in San Carlos and Guaymas as well as up and down the Mexican coast will put some downward pressure on prices.)

I have seen lots of panga fishermen around La Cruz but I have yet to see a panga with a compressor and divers aboard. Had I done so, I might just have hailed one of them going by and asked them to do the job. So now I am scouting. My enquiry on the morning cruisers’ net brought now replies so I called Rick of S/V Mai Tardis II, from whom we got the charts. He says there are divers around the marinas and he spoke highly of Pancho, the man who does his boats. He will talk to him today and see if he gets out to La Cruz at all.

Getting the bottom cleaned, however, is only part of the problem. How long can I go with cleanings before we have to repaint? What does a haulout cost around here? The tidal differences even now at the winter-solstice (today) extremes are still not very big. Aside from Jack on Mandan, I don’t suppose there are many boaters around here who have attempted a careening. We have heard that tidal differences are much bigger in Costa Rica. I wonder what Ecuador is like.

My quest for replacement Compaq Presario 900 (laptop) batteries has not gotten very far. The best bet so far seems to be Office Depot in Puerto Vallarta. We’re going in tomorrow to run some errands. We’ll give it a try.


The weather is wrong for Christmas. There’s nobody to remind us that there are only so-and-so shopping days left till Christmas. Without TV and radio, without newspaper advertising we are blissfully almost unaware that Christmas is coming. More seriously, there is no Christmas music, no intense rehearsing for Advent/Christmas/Epiphany Lessons & Carols, no major work to be got up for Christmas Eve services. We are expecting no visitors this year (Andrew, Antonia and William will be spending Christmas with their mother in Mississippi) and we are not planning to be with relatives and family ourselves.

But do not for a moment think that we are totally unaware of the season however. There are in fact a number of ways we can celebrate Christmas here. With no kids aboard, we thought about doing absolutely nothing by way of celebration. Alternatively, several cruiser-oriented restaurants are getting up a dinner. Yesterday, therefore, Kathleen put our names down on a list for a very loosely-organised Christmas lunch over at Fox’s Café (see above). Fox himself is putting up a turkey and a ham and the participants, maybe four dozen cruisers, will bring side dishes.

This I think will be a lot cheaper and “funner” than signing up for an expensive turkey dinner, which is what is happening at the marinas in PV. Over there, as in most marinas down here, there are ongoing charitable activities to raise money for Mexican orphanages, scholarships and other activities such as music. The initiators, bless them, are constantly organising “events” including flea markets, lunches, dinners, regattas and the like to raise money. More power to ‘em. But the prices are too dear for us. We love Fox’s and I think this will be fun.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, Nayarit, Mexico; Tuesday, 13 December 2005

Each year on December 12 all Mexico celebrates the anniversary of the manifestation of the Virgin Mary to a poor peasant named Juan in 1521. In the region of Puerto Vallarta the fiesta covers the ten days leading up to the actual anniversary. Day and night there are processions that always end at the church, cathedral or, in Puerto Vallarta, at the church-shrine for the Mexican Virgin.

We are anchored in the open roadstead at La Cruz de Huanacaxtle across Banderas Bay from Puerto Vallarta and a 45-minute bus ride away. I was on deck in the early hours of the morning before dawn and could see and hear individual fireworks across the water. In fact, we were to learn that the eve of 12 December is the real high point of the season. Nothing loathe, we catch the local bus into town on the late morning.

First however we have to figure out how to get the dinghy safely ashore. The sea is calm but the tides are now at their high point for the season and slow greasy swells come into Bandera Bay from the Pacific ten miles away. They look harmless and they generally are. But they even seem to get in behind the rock breakwall. There are no dinghy docks or any floating docks at all at present, though a marina is in the early stages of construction. Fishing pangas line the beach and are, as usual, either pulled well up on the beach or tethered a bit off the sandy beach.

We head for an empty stretch of beach behind the breakwall; no doubt it is empty because the fishermen know that it is tricky. As we approach it we get into about six inches of water and the oars start hitting bottom. I thrash away. The same wave breaking over the sandy underwater portion that will whisk you to shore will also try to turn your boat and roll you and, if that fails, drag you immediately back out far enough you to sink up to your waist when you attempt to step out of the dinghy. We make it in one go, getting feet wet and splashing our go-to-town duds. Kathy is wearing long trousers and rolling them up only partially saves them from a dousing. We drag the dinghy up the sloping beach to above the high-water mark and make it fast on something.

I am walking barefoot since my cheap sandals that I have been wearing non-stop since Long Beach have finally given up the ghost. I am taking tennis shoes and socks to wear to town but my feet are still too wet and sandy to pull them on. We run into our “neighbours”, Bill and his wife (unfortunately I’ve already forgotten her name) from S/V Mita Huutuu (Finnish name) who are just dragging their inflatable up along the beach. They have been cruising the Mexican/Latin American coast for six years now and are able to give us some advice and direct us to the bus stop. By the time the bus arrives, I am dressed and ready to boogie.

The bus takes us in past Nuevo Vallarta, past miles and miles of resort hotels until we reach the older part of Puerto Vallarta. The city streets have been blocked off so the busses let us off sooner than expected. We find an internet café and complete our business and then head into town.

At the church to the Virgin of Guadalupe, there are crowds of people and the church is full of people and flowers, with streams of Mexican people coming up the central aisle, often with flowers in their hands, to pay their homage at the altar while the pews, arranged in squares around the church, are filled with people just looking. Many are Mexicans but a lot are clearly tourists like us. As we walk up the uphill short block from the main square to the steps up into the church, I see several people go down on their knees and begin to approach that last block, the steps and the aisle to the altar on their knees, their lips moving in what I assume is prayer. Later, one is being assisted by two women, one on each side, helping him to move forward for he seems exhausted. Two other men are doing this and later while I am sitting in the church observing I see two young and one older woman also working their way up the aisle on their knees. On their knees at the back of the church I see two slightly-built young men, clearly of strong Indios extraction, reverently on their knees and praying. vallarta 2

I wander off into the traffic-free side streets. Puerto Vallarta was once just a tiny fishing village. Tourists started coming in the mid-1950’s and, after John Houston filmed Night of the Iguana here with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor while the two were having a torrid love affair, being followed in detail by the boulevard press worldwide, the place began to boom. Local tours take you to the house the Elizabeth Taylor built and to other trophy houses of the idle rich. Otherwise, PV is just an overgrown beach resort. Although beaches themselves belong to nobody, the beaches anywhere near town are monopolised by towering hotels and condominiums and the building boom is still in progress. The town is clearly a lot more “with it” than, say, sleepy San Blas or even Mazatlán. But those two places at least have a little more than just tourism. That’s all there is in the economy of Puerto Vallarta. Well, maybe the Virgin of Guadalupe contributes something.

The side streets are full of the typical and enticing open-air cooking stalls along with tables selling homemade cookies or flan (basically egg custard; a national dish in Mexico). I try out some tacos and buy a bag of homemade sugar cookies. Kathleen goes off to find a washroom and in the process meets an interesting Mexican lady.

There is a little typed programme pasted on a window at the city hall on the plaza. Apparently there were processions all night right through till late morning of today. The afternoon is quiet but at 1700 there is a Santa Missa being celebrated at the shrine followed by more processions.

We stake out a corner where we can get a good view. The street is lined with people who have laid out little rugs to sit on the curbs. The bells of the church begin to ring and a group of about forty young people led by a few guitar players come around the corner and up into the church singing the while. From their T-shirts I glean that they are the parish’s Youth for Christ or similar group.

We wait outside for the mass to finish. At 1800 the first group comes along. It consists of about twenty young girls with huge Mayan-looking headdresses and short whispy skirts. They are barefoot and stop occasionally to do a dance routine to a drumbeat. Unfortunately, down the street behind them come the staff of the Capitania de Puerto (Port Captain) are the Professores, i.e. the teachers who have a pickup truck with loudspeakers jacked up so loud that you can barely hear the dancers, drums.

The people in the processions are all singing the same rather boring five-note campfire-sounding song in adoration of the “Mexican Virgin”. The song itself is so depressingly dull and has so few words that I am amazed to see the teachers all with song-sheets in their hands. Apparently badly prepared for their appearance but still the loudest on the block! Back down the street we see farther dance groups. The procession is quite slow because the dancers stop to do routines before turning the corner and moving on up into the church. It is hard to imagine that the whole procession will make it into the church either during the time we have left before we have to catch the last bus back to La Cruz or even that the church is big enough to hold them all at once. I assume that they make it to the altar and are then funnelled back out the side doors again.

About 1930 we start walking back against the flow of the parade, seeing and hearing other processors and musical groups including a drum and bugle corp and other Mayan dancing groups. At one point we come across all the fire trucks and ambulances processing while their emergency lights are flashing and all their sirens, bells and Martin Horns are blaring. I guess the staff and representatives of every walk of life are expected to put up a contingent in honour of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

In Mexico, the streets seem to come alive at night. Where there was a parking lot, suddenly there are twenty open-air kitchens serving everything from carne asada (roast meat) and mariscos (seafood) to corn on the cob to fruit drinks and even hamburguesas y hot dogs. Many first-time visitors to the country shy away from these stands. But we have nearly always had good experience eating there. Americans want food that is totally sterile so they can feel safe, food untouched by human hands. We have found that the more hands that have touched the food the better it seems to taste. Of course, we are careful about eating raw foods and always wash fruit and vegetables and we usually drink bottled drinks. But otherwise we just get in the swing of things. So far, so good.

The bus sweeps us back out past the hotel district to the bus transfer point in front of the huge Wal Mart and Sam’s Club plaza. In between busses I have a chance to dash in and buy a pair of cheap synthetic sandals suitable for wear on the beach or the boat. While they have dozens and dozens of flip-flops, they have only one style of actual sandals; they are black, the pair I buy has a tag on them that says they are Size 6, the shoes themselves say they are Size 7 and I normally wear a Size 9½. Go figure.

We arrive back in La Cruz and launch our dinghy into the surf in the moonlight. The deck of the boat is dripping with dew as it is every night. I wonder how I am likely to be able to get things dry enough for painting in the weeks ahead as we go below with our groceries and packages. Interesting day.

Monday, December 12, 2005

La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, Nayarit, Mexico; 12 December 2005

After a quiet night at anchor, we wake to the normal marine haze layer but with the sunshine trying to break through and, a couple of hours after sunrise, a freshening breeze coming over the isthmus. We see Ryan from S/V Godspeed out for his daily constitutional, lying on his newly-acquired surfboard and paddling along. He comes over and we chat for half an hour or so about what’s available ashore here and about our various cruising plans.

By the time he leaves the wind looks propitious and we decide to get cracking for La Cruz. Ryan told us that they had been there but went back to Punta de Mita because there were too many boats at anchor there and “red tide” as well. But it is twenty minutes shorter for the bus ride into Puerto Vallarta and we want to observe the Guadalupe fiesta, check our emails and buy some provisions.

I start winching in the 20 fathoms of anchor chain I laid out last night; it’s not possible to pull it in by hand since the wind is making the chain come up to the boat at a 45 ° angle. By winching slowly but steadily, I use the catenary of the chain to assist moving the boat forward towards the anchor. By the time I have recovered and stowed below some 10 fathoms, Kathy is in the cockpit and getting things ready there (unlash the tiller, stow loose items, get the GPS and depth sounder switched on and the engine ready to start in an emergency.

With the main already up but sheeted very loosely, we inch forward until we are directly over the anchor. At this point we back the mainsail a little, drive the boat slowly forward to break out the anchor and, this done, I switch to “arm power” to pull the anchor up the twenty feet still left, signal to Kathleen that the anchor’s aweigh, give a final heave to bring the anchor shaft up over the bow roller and lash it down to prevent it working its way overboard while we are sailing. Kathleen puts us over on a port tack and we begin to pick up speed. Now, this is more like it! Actual sailing! The waters ahead of us to the east into Banderas Bay and around the point about seven or eight miles in the distance toward La Cruz are rippled with signs of wind.

Kathleen as usual takes the first tiller watch. She is forced first to deal with fluky winds coming off the land; as soon as we leave the flat Punta de Mita, the winds start shifting around the mountain on shore. So instead of being on a broad reach we are close hauled and the boat has slowed considerably. We sheet in and head farther out from shore hoping to get a cleaner breeze. But no deal. Within the hour the wind has died to nearly nothing and is so light as to make it almost impossible to go to windward. The eight-mile voyage is threatening to take eight hours.

We finally give in and turn on the engine. This is really frustrating. It’s not that we love the wild and woolly winds-and-wave-surfing. But it would certainly be nice to have a sail instead of having to run our engine. It gets hot and it’s noisy, not to mention that diesel fuel costs money. Of course, I guess, so do sails. But when we are motorsailing our sails are up anyway, fully exposed to the UV rays and therefore deteriorating even though they are not much use to us except to steady the boat in swells.

I decide to drop the drifter since it is backing against the forestay and will be chafing. Aha! This is my chance to try out the re-configured downhaul that I rigged yesterday. Darn. That doesn’t work either; the first half of the sail drops of its own weight but there is still half of the sail still up and the downhaul doesn’t seem to be budging it. Back to the drawing boards. I go forward to the bowsprit and haul the sail down by hand and lash it down with a sail gasket.

An hour or so later we come around the point in La Cruz Bay. There are at least twenty cruising boats anchored off in tidy rows off the breakwall into the panga harbour. We park ourselves in twenty feet of reddish water and put out twenty fathoms of chain again before cracking a Pacifio, my reward for sweating it with the sails. I have learned enough about myself that if we do not immediately put on the sail covers, rig the awning while we are settling the boat, it will either not get done at all or I will find it hard to get started. The dinghy is launched and tied to the side as well.

We are not going ashore today even though it is only mid-afternoon. But tomorrow we shall head to Puerto Vallarta by bus. And anyway, we are in the final stages of our canasta Meisterschaft; Kathleen is up three rounds to two. Maybe I can lull her into a stupor with a fish chowder using the remaining two or three pounds of mackerel and five or six spuds we have left.

Punta de Mita, Nayarit, Mexico; Sunday, 11 December 2005

The gentle rolling continued through the night. Everything was secured below and aloft and we are used to it. When we got up shortly after daylight, we decided that, although there was no wind, the chances of getting any wind were low anyway. We might as well get started. By 0900 we are chugging out of Chacala bound at last for Banderas Bay. Specifically we were going to round the first point into the bay today and drop anchor behind Punta de Mita. By Sunday we want to be in Santa Cruz Bay a little farther along so we can take the bus into Puerto Vallarta to see any celebrations connected with the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The day begins with grey marine haze but brightens a bit. But no wind. We motorsail along on glassy swells again until about 1400 when a bit of wind comes up and the waves begin to build. At the angle we are motorsailing we are rolling a bit but at least we are picking up some speed with the wind on the quarter. There is still however too little wind to allow us to make Punta de Mita by nightfall by sailing alone and there is no other anchorage in between. And anyway, we have the point already in sight, close enough to see the trees on the flat point and the huge swell breaking on the reef extending out to the south.

About an hour before we drop anchor, Kathleen catches a 31-inch Sierra Mackerel, a beautifully sleek fish with sharp teeth and lines of golden spots on its blue-tinged silvery skin. The pole almost leaps overboard when the fish strikes, Kathleen catching it just in time (on her arm!). With the engine still running at full the drag is enormous. This will tend to drown a fish but it makes it more difficult to bring it in. I come on deck, cut the revs back and, when Kathleen has the fish alongside, I lift the line, plop the fish onto the deck and fall upon it with the fish knife, sliding the blade into the gills to cut the jugular vein. Of course it flops around some more, splashing blood and allowing the hook to fall out of its mouth. I secure it on the lifeline so it won’t hook me instead and wait for the fish to expire fully. Kathleen watches out of the corner of her eye with an expression like she has just found a pork chop at the synagogue’s annual picnic. She can’t deal with this part of fishing; the catching and reeling in, yes; the eating, yes too. But not the killing. I won’t get into a discussion about the moral aspects of this; they are, shall we say, complex. Since we are now approaching Punta de Mita, I decide to leave fish cleaning until we are at anchor.

The cruising guides and the charts warn of a long reef sticking out from the point and two sets of semi-submerged rocks. But we had overheard a VHF discussion one morning in Mazatlán about the exact position of these rocks, several participants arguing that the coordinates in Charlie's Charts are incorrect. Someone had accurate ones issued by the marina in Puerto Vallarta. Fortunately Kathleen wrote the various co-ordinates down. Now we can see the reef clearly but not the rocks until suddenly, at a distance of about half a mile, we see a long and high breaker appear in the normal wave pattern, foaming and boiling and rising high at about ten o’clock off our port bow. This is the only visual indicator we are ever to get. We bear off immediately to the south and watch the various co-ordinates tick off on the GPS until are sure that we have passed safely. As we turn to round the point at a distance the wind has picked up and we are now motorsailing at about 6 knots.

The bay behind Punta de Mita is very broad, has wonderful beaches and, near the village, is lined with apartment buildings. Over near the point there is a golf course and expensive housing. Clearly this is not going to remote. The guide says there are some tiendas, etc. but we have decided to stay the night only and push on the final 8 Nm to another and smaller cove that is closer to Puerto Vallarta (known amongst cruisers here as PV).

There are already about nine sailboats at anchor and one large motor yacht. We spot Portia’s S/V Geneffa, Ryan’s S/V Godspeed, and DeMerit’s S/V Bingo. We douse the sails while motoring forward towards shore until we have passed all but one boat and drop the anchor in 24 feet (4 fathoms) of water. There is a breeze here and all the boats are pointing at the beach. But there is no fetch and therefore no waves although farther to the right waves coming around the point crash on the beach. Even though the anchor grabs in the sandy bottom, I let out 20 fathoms of chain so I can sleep at night.

We have hardly settled the boat for the night and I have received a can of Pacifico in my fist when I notice that Bingo’s inflatable dinghy has somehow got loose from where it is tied at the stern of the main boat and is now heading downwind and out to sea at a surprisingly fast clip. It would take at a minimum fifteen minutes to launch our dinghy parts from the foredeck, bolt them together and row after the inflatable so I yodel and call out Bingo’s name as loud as I can hoping the crew will hear me at the several hundred metres distance. A head pops up through the forward hatch and I shout and point to their dinghy. The head withdraws and a moment later a surfboard is launched from the stern, a body jumps overboard and onto the board and start paddling to catch up with the dinghy. Eventually he gets aboard it, just about the time a motorised dinghy arrives on the scene from one of the other boats. All’s well that ends well, though I think I have earned a free beer.

The rest of the evening is spent preparing the fish, first cleaning and cutting fillets. I am getting to be a dab hand at this and it is done in no time. For dinner I steam two large sweet potatoes in the pressure cooker and when they are done, I heat the Teflon pan for five minutes and sear large chunks of mackerel until they are brown on the outside and light pink inside. With fresh lime juice the taste is sensational. The last piece gets left for breakfast when we make tacos with chopped up mackerel with plenty of lime juice. The second half of the fish still represents about 5 pounds of meat and will be turned into smoked fish chowder for tomorrow’s main meal.

Kathleen beats me in canasta again.

Chacala, Nayarit, Mexico; Saturday, 10 December 2005

The trip down to Chacala from San Blas was almost totally uneventful. We have come to expect either very light winds with a northerly component or no wind at all. We always get the mainsail up to reduce the rolling for the Pacific swells are always present to a degree. About 1230 a breeze came up and we hoisted the drifter and staysail as well. Within the hour the breeze had died again and we were once more left motorsailing along with the mainsail in what was basically a wonderful day. Just not a real sailing day.

Humpback whales

The only interest along the 35 Nm route is a herd (flock, gaggle, flight?) of humpback whales that we first see blowing ahead of us in the distance but which eventually cross our bow from port to starboard at a distance of about 100 yards. They are cruising along peacefully feeding and, unless there is a dolphin mixed in there somewhere, there is at least one young one with the group.

Humpbacks are the whales that put on the fabulous shows of springing out of the water and crashing back after a one and one-half gainer, an Immelmann Roll and a wave whilst singing haunting Judy Collins’ songs. We don’t see or hear any of this, however. In fact, although they are awesomely close, until they are right beside us we see only their blow-spray, and their tails and humpbacks as they surface. These characteristics and their very dark-to-black colour are enough, though, for us to be able to identify them using the sketches in the cruising guide. Finally, as they pass so close to us one of the adults raises its whole fore-body out of the water so that we see its head and stove-bolt-encrusted head and jaws.

Off they swim in a densely-packed group. They seem almost to be touching each other. When last seen they are headed straight to a panga fisherman about half a mile away. No doubt he is used to whales in his fishing area. But if I saw these monsters heading right toward me I might start rowing. Even though we saw whales up close in Alaska, these giants are impressive. This is the closest I think that we have ever been to them

Just before 1500 we identify the point of land with the gantry-tower lighthouse and head into shore. As Chacala Cove opens to us we see six sailboats already at anchor including S/V Adios (Ray and Jane) along with S/V Alaii Hoa (spelling; Alexander and Sue) whom we met in Isla Isabel. S/V Che Bella out of San Diego is also there; we met briefly in Puerto Escondido last spring just as we arrived. Of the six boats, only one has a dinghy tied to its side; on the west end of the long, curving sandy beach however, there are five inflatable dinghies pulled up above the surf.

The cove is delightful and the first fully tropical-looking place we have seen. Everywhere there are palm trees. Even the high hills are covered with them because it is a coconut plantation. At the beach level the palms are very tall. With the exception of the sandy beach and the houses, everything is lushly green. A concrete panga dock is just under the point at the west end of the bay under the lighthouse.

The beach is lined cheek by jowl with palm-thatched palapas, some of them quite big, one of them even with thatched dormer windows inserted in the roof. Clearly this is a beach community. But it is by no means as shabby and uninteresting as, say, San Carlos. It is small and a little remote. There are a few dozen houses in the village, most of them moderate-sized holiday houses or apartment buildings. There are of course, the usual few trophy houses and these are dotted along the coast to the southeast as well. Only one or two of them are complete eyesores, fortunately.

We are not planning to go ashore, this being simply a stop on the way to Puerto Vallarta. The view from the boat is probably better than the view from the plastic chairs in the palapas. We set the anchor in about 25 feet of water amongst the other sailboats. I notice that they are all facing into the light swells and then notice that they all have stern anchors out to keep them from rolling. In normal circumstances I might consider doing this too. But the swells are slow and not very high as they are refracted around the point. I decide to try it without a stern anchor.

We continue our canasta tournament but, after being shellacked in the first two rounds I reckon it is time for a nap. For dinner we eat the BBQ chicken that we had bought in San Blas and open the bottle of “wine” that Laila left us as a farewell gift before she left on the La Paz-Tompolobampo ferry. A Baja California speciality (an area not particularly noted for its wine-growing), it tasted, shall we say, interesting; more like a Kräuterlikör than a wine. We enjoyed it anyway. Beer is the main drink in Mexico or, aboard S/V Vilisar, “B-Light” sugar-free, kool-aid-type drinks. So it is a change at least. The evening is spent reading.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico, 08 December 2005

We arrived safely in San Blas overnight from Isla Isabel. I will post more info when I have time. It's still nice and warm and a lot more tropical here than in Baja California or Sonora!

Anyone intrerested in photographs of Vilisar in British Columbia in 2002 should go to for pctures taken by Albert Pang.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Saturday, 03 December 2005

Kathleen is usually quicker to get her mind around leaving and pushing on to the next destination. I find it harder to break away. I wonder if this is because I am getting older and not as keen to rough it any more. I know that it is definitely safer and less challenged in a snug harbour. Feeling responsible for all the systems on board, I imagine all the things that can go wrong.

That said however, I contemplate this next overnight sea passage southeast down the coast for the first time ever with some sense of equanimity. For one thing, I feet a certain sense of achievement with having completed most of the boat projects I had planned for our stay in Mazatlán. These projects are sometimes frustrating. On the other hand, I no longer expect anything to do with a cruising boat to happen quickly. I now schedule no less than one full day for each project, am not surprised if it takes longer, and count myself fortunate if things go smoothly and can be completed quickly.

Getting the staysail repaired was a breeze and turned out cheaper than I expected. Getting the VHF radio looked after yesterday was happened totally by chance and went without a hitch; it didn’t even cost much. The two 12-volt, deep-cycle batteries seem to have taken on new life now; their rehabilitation took less than fifteen hours and cost under ten dollars. Changing the oil filter was the most demanding and frustrating but turned out in the end to work just fine. I even slushed part of the parcelled and served, galvanised rigging last week. In the course of all this we met some interesting cruisers, two very interesting musicians (Gordon Campbell and Jock, the jazz musician), and some very nice Mexicans and we were able to tank up on some music. So, after 16 days in the shadow of the El Faro (the lighthouse) in the old harbour, we complete our stowing, pile the dinghy on the foredeck, scrub her down, and plan to put to sea about noon on Saturday.

Unfortunately, there has been no wind all morning. About eleven a small zephyr picks up from west-southwest. It smells of sailing. Actually it smells of the sewage plant behind Club Náutico but we have come to see that as a sign of good sailing. While we are getting the dinghy split apart and stowed on the foredeck an inflatable dinghy powered by an outboard pulls away from a recently arrived sailboat called Royal Treat out of Malmö, Sweden, and heads towards us. Aboard are, we discover, Anders, a Swede who has been living in California, and his step-daughter Patricia (her mother is still back on the yacht). Anders is an avid and accomplished sailor and, providing his new family is still keen after their first voyage, is planning to sail to French Polynesia and on to Australia in the spring. During our chat he lets drop that, as he was leaving La Paz yesterday, all the newly-arrived cruisers from the Baja Ha Ha Rally were abuzz about 40 or 45-knot Santa Ana winds due to come through there and here on Saturday (tonight). About twenty boats took off to get to Mazatlán before the blow. Nervous, we are at first a little inclined to stick it out in Mazatlán. But that would mean hanging around for another three or four days. The weather forecast originated with Dan on S/V Summer Passage, (or as I call him “Sainted Don of Summer Sausage”. “Don” is a legend amongst Baja and Mexico cruisers because he has been providing detailed meteorological forecasts for the cruising fleet for years now. He comes on at least two ham or Single-sideband nets and gives his forecasts personally.

We discuss things a little. The Mazatlán Cruisers Net is at least honest enough not to bother with any weather at all since most of the boats are not going anywhere anyway and the ones who are going to sail somewhere have SSB or Ham radio. We would too except our little Grundig died and the new one SSB receiver we bought is still in the box in Tucson, Arizona, whence it was to be delivered to us in San Carlos by acquaintances. We finally gave up waiting and went to sea.

As I understand it, Santa Ana winds are strong northerlies blowing down from the deserts into the Sea of Cortés; they lose their punch farther south than the so-called “southern crossing” of the Sea, i.e. La Paz to Mazatlán.

I am for getting started right away since, if a blow is coming, the initial stages will be weaker with winds in the 15-25 knot range. They will be blowing from behind us as we head SSE or SE down the coast some 85 miles to Isla Isabel and San Blas. If the anchorage at Isabel turns out not to be suitable, we need only push on a further 45 miles to San Blas where there is good shelter. These are the kind of decisions we are regularly faced with. The problem with meteorological forecasts, as everyone knows, is that they are notoriously unreliable. We checked the marine weather on the internet before leaving and saw no sign of trouble. “Don” apparently thinks otherwise but his forecast are now two days old and we have seen nothing yet of Santa-Ana winds. We decide to go. If the weather turns bad we can always heave to, run under bare poles or lie a-hull. Two or three years ago we would have stayed snug in harbour; now we have more confidence about the boat and about ourselves.

For my part, I based my decision on incoming northerlies. It is only after we are motorsailing along about an hour out of Mazatlán that Kathleen says she understood that the strong winds would be southerly and not northerly and that the anchorage at Isla Isabel would be open to the south and therefore totally unsuitable. Whoops! Well, we shall see.

As we discuss this little bone of contention, the Pacific is very calm and there is next to no wind at all. Back to the north the sky is hazy with pollution from Mazatlán electricity-generating plant and alto-cirrus clouds are spreading in from the west and southwest. At sea level in that direction everything is under an umbrella of dirty haze. Except for the lack of sailing wind, it is otherwise a perfect day to be on the water: the air temperature is about 80 ° F; there is a very light SW wind if any at all; the sun is shining but it is not too hot; we have all sail up though we removed the drifter and double-reefed the main to make it easier to run downwind and use the Cap Horn windvane steering. We lunch on crackers and cheese in the cockpit and set the watch-keeping schedule before I go below to write (Kathleen takes the 1800-2100 and midnight-0300 shifts). The engine with its new oil filter is purring along and the boat is rocking very gently. The total distance to Isla Isabel as the frigate bird flies is 85 Nm. It will take us about 24 hours at the speed we are motorsailing. I am reading And the Sea Will Tell by Vincent Bugliosi, a true-crime story of two couples who met on a tropical atoll a thousand miles south of Hawaii; one couple was murdered. The author was the defence attorney for the young woman who was accused of being the accomplice to her murderer husband. Grizzly but fascinating not least because it is about boats and cruisers. If we get some wind and the windvane steering works, I should be able to devote some hours tonight to finishing the book.

Sunday, 04 December 2005

Overnight to Isla Isabel

Not only do the Santa Ana winds never show up, there is basically no wind whatsoever. We motor the whole way. Since our Cap Horn only works with wind and we have still to rig a mount for the reconditioned Navico 5500 tiller pilot, we are condemned to sit in the cockpit during the watch. Aside of course from the tediousness of getting up at midnight or three in the morning, this night turns out to be much less onerous than others we have experienced. For one, the air is balmy and warm; coming on deck I slip into my fleece trousers and jacket but soon find I can take them off and enjoy the tropical temperatures. What very little bit of wind there is follows us and is therefore not cold. For another, the sea is so calm that it is possible to lash the tiller using shock cord and the helmsman can read a book. The tiller still has to be adjusted every half page or so and you can go below to get a snack or a glass of something to drink without the boat yawing off course. Unfortunately, you cannot stand watch from the main cabin as you can with the windvane steering.

The sunset is a fabulous Technicolor show as the sun sinks plops below the horizon and lights up the bottom of the mares tales and mackerel scales filling in from the Pacific to the west of us. There is a sliver of a moon but it sinks an hour or so after the sun and the sky is abandoned to the stars. Kathleen has prepared a bean stew in the pressure cooker and we eat several bowls of it on deck before I go off watch to read on the starboard settee.

I switch on the running and steaming lights and check the engine for oil leaks. I see a small dribble dark fluid, which I mop up and hope that it is not a precursor of anything at all. Having earlier poured a dose of degreasing fluid into the bilge I now pump the water out.

We have been regularly getting a large amount of water in the bilge when we have been travelling. At first, I thought it might mean that the packing gland around the propeller shaft where it passes through the hull might need to be tightened. Then I wonder if the dry desert heat of Baja California and Sonora has perhaps dried out the planking and, with the stress of sailing, the planks are opening a little and letting in water. Kathleen thinks there is a leak somewhere in the drinking water plumbing and that we are normally losing a large part of our fresh water supply when we heel over. Throughout the night I make periodic checks. But there is no more oil and no need to pump any more bilge water. That at least confirms my handiwork with the oil filter and perhaps eliminates the packing-gland suspect. But of course, we are not heeling tonight so the plumbing or stressed planking could still be the source of the problem.

The 0300 watch is a drag despite the balmy weather. During the 2100 watch I spotted a sailboat off to the right that appeared to be going the opposite direction and now I see one several miles ahead of us. We seem to be gaining on it until we get to within a mile or so when it suddenly speeds up and by dawn is hull-down over the horizon. It always stays right ahead of us so I assume it too is heading for Isla Isabel. As we were leaving Mazatlán there were some twelve or fifteen shrimpers all dragging their gear back and forth almost in formations about five to ten miles out. I motored right through them and am glad that they are out of our way now that it is dark. I pray we shall not run into any more of them; it’s not that they are in any way invisible. In fact they are lit up like Christmas trees. But you are not sure just what kind of fishing operations are going on and how much distance you need to keep. Shrimpers, for example, simply drag their two sled on outstretched booms and haul them up from time to time to harvest whatever they find. Purse-seiners, on the other hand, use a large tender to carry the end of the net purse way out in an arch while the mother vessel if steaming full speed ahead. When the tender brings the net back around to the mother ship, the purse is then closed and the nets hauled in. These boats need a lot of room. We encounter no more fishing vessels, however, and do not run into any drift lines either; these are synthetic cords with hundreds of large baited hooks. The lines are buoyed with more-or-less invisible plastic coke bottles and the lines can stretch for miles. The panga fishermen set several lines and come back in a day or two to glean the fish. We inadvertently ran into three of these drift lines crossing from Baja to Guaymas last spring and had to reach over the side with a kitchen blade and cut them. It was impossible to sail over them and impossible to find a way around them.

The only thing we see along the way was plenty of bioluminescence, sometimes bright spots here and there on the surface (Portia says the sea was full of jellyfish on her voyage here) and sometimes in large less intense barrels of light below the surface, which are probably large fish or dolphins.

Twilight zone

Red sky in the morning; sailors take warning
Red sky at night; sailors delight.

But what does a sailor do when the sky is red both at sunset and sunrise?

The sun came up in just as much glorious colour as it went down last night. This has been our frequent experience here in the south. Our solution is just to keep going. As the sun comes over the horizon and I go off watch, we still have twenty miles to go to reach Isla Isabel. We can see it now with the naked eye. We should be there by mid-morning.

While I was waiting for the end of my seemingly endless dogwatch, I had time to recall the different types of sunrises and sunsets. Astronomers and weathermen refer to both as twilight. There are three steps:

Ø Sunset takes place when the lip of the sun disappears out of sight to the naked eye below the horizon;
Ø Nautical Twilight lasts until the 52 navigational constellations are visible to the naked eye;
Ø Astronomical Twilight extends until it is possible to photograph the stars.

In the morning the line up is reversed. Depending upon where you are on the earth, the time between each stage is something like 20 to 30 minutes. While I was waiting for the sun to rise this morning I was able to detect each stage.

We ran into Portia aboard S/V Genoveffa. She left Mazatlán the day before us thinking it might take her twelve hours to reach here. There was so little wind that she took 28 hours, arriving after dark and heaving to south of the island until morning.

We head around the island to the south anchorage and, after one unsuccessful attempt to set the anchor finally shut off the engine after 22 hours of motoring over calm seas.

We both turn in to catch up on our sleep. The sky is cloudy and grey for the first time that I can recall. Maybe we shall get a blow after all although for the moment all is calm. The anchorage is spectacular because Isla Isabel is famous as a bird rookery. Jacques Cousteau apparently made a film based on this island alone. We are too tired today. But tomorrow we shall launch the dinghy and go ashore for a few hours before leaving for San Blas. We want to be able to telephone with my daughter Antonia on her 16th birthday (December 6).

Test Quiz

Who actually thought up the concept of longitude and latitude? I was curious about this myself and researched it on the net one day in Mazatlán. Stay tuned for the amazing answer. The person with the correct answer wins a free subscription to this blog!

Monday, 05 December 2005

I am awake early and see the dawn again while I am making and then drinking my coffee in the cockpit. There is no wind and the Pacific swells coming in are gentle and long. Every couple of minutes a swell rolls across the reef astern of us near the entrance to the anchorage – the anchorage is enveloped though not in any way encircled by two points of land rather like lobster arms. I can see the bottom in the crystal clear water; I see that we are anchored over round rocks, which explains why the anchor was having trouble setting last night. I wonder if we shall have trouble getting the anchor back up later when it comes time to leave. I look around the horizon and see not only Portia’s boat, Geneffa, but Bingo, Adios and another boat with a Hawaiian -sounding name. Farther out is Beaufort, a very large private motor yacht. Portia I guess decided to stay on for another night to party a bit with the young guys on Bingo.

After coffee, we launch the dinghy. The more we practise it the faster and easier it gets. Launching it – basically throwing the individual parts over the lifelines on the foredeck and then bolting them together at the side of the boat - is always easier than recovering the dinghy and stowing it in pieces on foredeck. But we are determined not to let this minor consideration stop us from using the dinghy and enjoying our stay in various coves, bays and harbours. After all, lots of other boats have to inflate their dinghy to use it or deflate it and fold it all up again when they are ready to put to sea. This time it takes us about 15 minutes.

Since Portia had asked us last night if we are going to launch the dingy and go ashore, I row out to ask her if she wants a lift in. We are going to walk across the island before it gets too hot. She is stretched out fetchingly in a string bikini on her cabin roof having just had a swim. She was feeling a little thick-headed from too much to drink. She has an appointment with the guys of Bingo to scuba dive this morning and walk the island this afternoon. We row by and the guys amend their plans to come ashore with us. I am sure the attraction is Portia but, all ashore at last, we meet DeMeritt (sic), the co-skipper, Scott and Ben. The other co-skipper is arriving soon at Puerta Vallarta and then the four of them are planning to sail to Ecuador, the Galapagos Archipelago and on to Australia. Scott is going along for the ride but has to be in Queensland for August when his masters programme in, I think, environmental management, begins.

The path across the island is groomed and well-marked. It begins behind the fishermen’s huts and white-metal outhouses and leads us uphill on prepared steps. After that, although most of the loose rocks have been removed, the path narrows and reminds a lot of the horse paths at Rancho el Nogal. At the same time, the height differences are nothing like those at the ranch. The highest point on the whole island is only about 250 feet and the island is less than a mile long. We soon come across a small, stagnant lake, the crater of the extinct volcano. Up and down small hills, we pass stands of corn, banana palm and cocoa as well as a rock-lined well. But there is not farming any more here. The path is mostly shaded and the almost dark.

Isla Isabel is noted for its bird life and everywhere we look we see birds nesting. The Magnificent Frigates seem to lay their eggs on the confluence of several leafy branches; there does not seem to be anything beyond the most rudimentary stick structure. The white-breasted female sits on the eggs while the male, all in black, sits next to her. The branches appear flimsy but are clearly strong enough to hold both of the big birds with their long beaks with a hook on the end. We frequently walk right under the nesting birds without disturbing them. Perhaps they know that they are in a bird sanctuary here in this national park. As we walk we here what sounds like a woodpecker at work, something like the ratta-tat-tat of a snare drum. In fact, as we pass beneath one frigate we hear it purring loudly; it has a huge red puffed-up pouch or bag under its chin. The book says these are males showing off in order to get a mate. In the air above the trees and all along the coasts of this island there are thousands of birds, most of them Magnificent Frigates and boobies of one sort or another.

Frigates have the longest wingspan in proportion to their body size of any bird on the planet. They spend long hours over the sea but never land on the water, picking up their food as they skim low over the waves. When we passed the dozen or more shrimpers on the way out of Mazatlán yesterday, I noticed that the rigging on each and every one of them was filled with frigates birds. We saw our first frigates between San Diego and Ensenada and they will surely be accompanying us through the tropics.

The island is a haven too for yellow-footed and blue-footed boobies. I personally cannot tell one from the other because their feet are not visible when they fly past. At the north end of the island we spotted what we think is a masked booby with a white woolly cap around its head and under its chin like an old granny. It was nesting on the ground and did not seem to mind us coming quite close. There were plenty of nests or nesting places, i.e. not really nests at all, all around the rocks. Where there were trees – banyans, and the like – the frigates nested in the branches. I reckon that these birds have no natural predators on the island. We did see iguanas of about a foot in length but we only saw them near the fishermen’s shacks where they were waiting for fish offal. Like Ireland, there are apparently no snakes on Isla Isabel either. Perhaps the feral cats brought here by fishermen could be predators but they too live well off the fish guts at the beach.

It is noon by the time we finish our walking tour. On the way back out in the dinghy we stop to yak with Ray and Jane on S/V Adios, Channel Islands, California. They have been down here for a year or so and spent last summer on Baja in Bahia de los Angeles where we sailed with William and Antonia last summer. They are drifting around enjoying life on the boat. They are experienced sailors and have sailed in Fiji and French Polynesia. They are also very sociable and good-natured. While we were talking another couple arrived from the neighbouring boat (S/V … ); Alexander was born in Brazil of German parents and lived for several years in Germany before being sent by his company to California. He met his wife, Sue, there; today was her birthday. After a little more chat, a beer or two and some peanuts, we rowed the last 100 yards back over to Vilisar.

We have decided to leave at about sundown. The winds have been getting stronger all morning and we might be able to make San Blas by morning, find a wi-fi connection and call Antonia on St. Nicholas Day, her birthday. While Kathleen dozes, I do a couple of little jobs around the boat including, finally removing the lazy jacks which have been attached for several years now only to the boom but not fastened to the mast. I got sick of the mainsail head flopping over when I loosen the main halyard and jamming up in the lazy jacks every time we want to drop the sail at sea. The lazy jacks are meant to keep the mainsail from spreading out of control over the cabin roof when the sail comes down. But the other problem just mentioned offsets that benefit in my eyes. Perhaps our next sail will have a Dutchman system.

Tuesday, 06 December 2005

Isla Isabel to San Blas

After working around the boat and dozing all afternoon, we both snoozed away the evening. We briefly contemplated beginning another round of canasta; my game has got a lot better since last summer when the kids were here but I did not fancy playing tonight.

The alarm goes off at midnight and we groggily climb on deck to ready Vilisar for sailing. We loaded the dinghy on the foredeck just at dusk; that particular operation is now going much faster and smoother.

Since on arrival here the anchor was dragging across a stony bottom until it caught up on something, I was somewhat apprehensive that the Bruce anchor might be lodged in a big crevice. If we could not get it up tonight, we would just wait until morning and ask Ray to dive on it; he is a so-called “free diver” meaning he goes to twenty or thirty feet without any scuba gear.

The engine comes alive and, with its chug-chugging interrupts the breezy midnight silence of the anchorage. It is really dark although, after a few minutes on the deck I begin to get my night vision. There are several other boats anchored about but only a few of them have anchor lights on. I try to pock out any others with a flashlight but cannot spot any. Portia’s S/V Genoveffa was anchored farther out and too far to pick up with the light; either she has left, as she thought she might around 2200, or she is sleeping and has no anchor light burning. The stars look watery tonight and the sky is partly overcast. In the gloom, we shall just have to feel our way out of the anchorage between the boats and the point of land where we can hear loudly and see weakly the Pacific swells crashing over the reef and resounding in the caves.

Giving hand signals from the foredeck to the helmsman is difficult in the dark. Kathleen keeps a flashlight aimed at me but it is sometimes necessary to shout back over the noise of the engine. I have to keep a small LED flashlight in my mouth so I can see the anchor chain as I pull it up with both hands. We are both grumpy in the dark and things occasionally start getting testy. Damn! I shall have to apologise later! Why didn’t I turn on the deck light?

To my relief, the anchor comes up without problems. I put off tying it down until we are out past the other boats. I flash the torch around us and light glints off reflector tape or white hulls. When we are well clear I go forward, tie down the anchor and hoist the two head sails. We then play with the Cap Horn windvane steering and have it steering the boat at a bearing of 100 ° magnetic at the first go. The breeze is light and there are only gentle ocean swells to contend with. Although we are going less than 2 knots, we decide that we will just let Cap Horn sail it for us.

I stay on deck in the mild moist night air to make sure the mechanical pilot is going to stick to it. Kathleen will take the 0300 watch and goes below and back to sleep on the settee. Soon I go below to finish reading my book on the starboard settee. It’s the usual watchkeeping with a windvane steering. Every 15 minutes I go above and scan the horizon and check that we are still on course. Our motion through the water is very quiet, the head sails occasionally collapse for lack of wind and rustle their skirts at me. I see the lights back on Isla Isabel for a long time and then I see the occasional light ahead of us. Shrimpers, no doubt. When Kathleen comes on watch, I rig the leecloth and get my head down on the port settee for a few hours of shuteye.

When I come on deck at 0600, Kathleen tells me that the deck block that I had stropped so beautifully a few weeks ago has worn through and the staysail is flapping out to leeward. I go forward and tie it to the starboard pinrail. The breeze is very weak and, in the dawn grey, the sea is oily. We still have 29 Nm to go to the waypoint off San Blas harbour and our speed is a very modest 1.3 to 1.5 knots. At this rate we will have to spend another night standing off the harbour, a not very enticing prospect. We put up the main but it just flops around. We finally give in and switch on the Lister. This brings our speed up to 4 knots.

I decide to leave the mainsail up to steady us from rolling and to douse the Yankee and staysail since they are contributing nothing and are brushing constantly against the mast stays. I untie the staysail boom from the pinrail. As I go to move it amidships, it feels suddenly heavy and unwieldy. I go forward to check. The staysail is hanked to the forestay, i.e. the galvanised iron wire that runs from the spreaders to the bow of the boat (the jibstay runs from the top of the mast to the forward end of the bobstay.) The staysail boom is attached at the bottom of the forestay by a shackle. The adjustable bronze turnbuckle that fastens the forestay to the bow has sheered off and the forestay is no longer connected to anything at all. What I have is a pile of sail and a small wooden boom and a wire running up to the spreaders.

It is close to 0700 and light enough for me to see. I scan up to the masthead fearing the worst. I am afraid the parting of the stay will allow the mast to sag and that, in the worst circumstances, we could be dis-masted. Thank goodness there are only gentle swells and no wind. The mast does not move, the jibstay holding quite well. I clean up the “wreckage” and lash the staysail boom and sail to the cabin handrails and go back to sit in the cockpit for a few minutes before going below to make coffee.

While the Lister pushes us across the glassy swells, Kathleen and I discuss annual maintenance. This is the third bronze turnbuckle that has had to be replaced. Brion Toss replaced two whilst tuning the rig in Port Townsend a few of years ago (2002), one at the base of a port shroud and the opposite end of the very turnbuckle that has sheered again. There are nine turnbuckles altogether. Perhaps as an act of preventive maintenance we should just replace them all. I get the Toplicht catalogue out; this is a German mail-order company for equipment for traditional boats. As such it is more likely to have the bronze that I need and, if we have enough money, I can order it for Kathleen to pick up when she goes to Germany to work in January/February. The prices are a bit daunting, however. Maybe I can find another cheaper source on the internet or even some good used ones.

This opens up the possibility of a complete overhaul of the rigging including slushing the whole galvanised rigging using a bosun’s chair when the stay and shrouds are loosened and hanging down beside the mast, replacing all the old turnbuckles, and other related bronze hardware and replacing the chains that make up the bobstay, the bobstay shrouds and the boomkin shrouds. These are badly corroded from the salt water and I had planned to replace them using some of the excess anchor chain that I have stowed under the cabin sole.

It has now been 31 years since George Friend launched Vilisar in Victoria in 1974. The sails are tired, the engine, though still very reliable, is no longer the youngest and, apparently, the rigging needs some attention. This brings up the matter of money of course and we get into a discussion about how tight our finances are. So what else is new? It all works out somehow.

Test quiz answer

Ptolemy of Alexandria conceived of the idea of dividing his world map into sectors based upon celestial constellations. He laid out a grid for the eastern end of the Mediterranean as this was the portion of the world about which he had the most data.