The Log of Moira
These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.
Moira had been in the Paradise Village Marina since June 1, 2005, and Larry and I returned to her the last week in September. The marina here is very pleasant. The slip we had was in a good location relative to the wind, so we usually got a pleasant afternoon breeze through the boat, certainly sufficient for our cocktail hour, which we start at 4pm. I start dinner around 5:30 and we eat between 6 and 7pm. This allows for cleanup in daylight and then some pleasant time on the deck (my “veranda”) in the cool of the early evening with time to watch the stars.
We had joined the Vallarta Yacht Club, whose clubhouse is located in the marina. The club has a restaurant and bar, and the club staff is friendly and helpful. The club is largely run by the “plankholders”, cruisers who have decided to stay permanently in Puerto Vallarta and who were founding members of the club <Larry: “Plankholders” is a US Navy term, meaning the members of the first crew of a newly commissioned ship. Supposedly, a plankholder has the right to receive a plank of the ship when she is finally decommissioned at the end of her service>. The club is simple and relatively affordable (when we joined, there was a first time payment of $300US and $50 per month while you are in Banderas Bay, for a minimum of 4 months per year). The club provides a convivial environment, a computer room, and a telephone line that has a San Diego number so calling the States is simple and relatively cheap. They provide WiFi with some success, strongest in the club house and marginal out in the marina, though it does vary. <Larry: The club is involved in a number of volunteer efforts, from teaching sailing to local children, to running regattas whose proceeds benefit local charities.> All marina residents have access to showers and a nice pool on the bottom floor of the club house.
We certainly had enough to do. Larry was busy on a number of boat projects, including the nagging issue of the engine and its tendency to overheat for no obvious reason yet understood. We needed to have the boat hauled to have the bottom paint renewed and do several annual jobs below the waterline. I had a great deal of organizing on the boat to do as well as thorough cleaning to prepare to provision the boat for our next long sailing experience. I try to provision for at least thirty days with extra but simple fare if other supplies are needed . On this coast of Mexico, provisioning requires a lot of schlepping but is otherwise undaunting because simple supplies are readily available. While on this coast of Mexico we have done most of our big provisioning loads in Wal-Marts or Mexican supermarkets that would be similar to any US supermarket. While anchorage-hopping along the coast, we get fresh veggies and the odd bottle of tequila or cerveza from the small tiendas in village near each anchorage.
I also wanted to try some Spanish lessons. I was introduced to the University of Guadalajara at Puerto Vallarta by a fellow cruiser . UG offers an intensive Spanish program, with five hours of instruction a day for three weeks. To prepare, I took a week of private Spanish lessons with three hours of instruction every day, and then started the three week course. <Larry: She had to get up at 5:45am to catch the bus in to PV.> Both experiences were wonderful. I can now say that “Hablo un poco de Español”, I can say simple sentences, and I understand a great deal more of written Spanish on billboards, menus and signs. I feel more comfortable but have not broken the barrier of speaking much and become flustered when someone actually answers me in Spanish. I can not understand much spoken Spanish yet, but that will come over time, I hope. I would like to do a month or so of lessons when we get to Guatemala or Ecuador.
In November the season for sailing was just beginning <Larry: see earlier remarks on insurance restrictions>. When we arrived back from our September travels, only 17 boats answered for the morning radio net; now, over 50 boats answered. “The net” is run by volunteer cruisers every morning over their VHF (Very High Frequency) radios <Larry: range, about 20 miles>. It is a vehicle for cruisers to share information on themselves, on their travels, and on the city in which the net is centered. “The net” follows a predictable pattern wherever one is to be found, giving boats the opportunity to check in each morning <Larry: roll call, new arrivals, imminent departures>, to receive information <Larry: local tides and weather, general announcements, lost and found>, and to ask questions of others <Larry: rides or services offered or needed, “where can I find X,” articles for trade>.
We were both feeling that we had had enough of marina life. As more boats checked in, we felt the need to move on. From the perspective of our insurance company the hurricane season was over. Although the Mexican government warns that hurricanes can form in November, there is no history of that on the Pacific coast between Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco. Weather reports looked good and clear for us to leave.
The engine remained an ongoing problem because of its tendency to overheat once we slowed down to anchor or come into a port. We do not really need the engine on passage because we are a sailboat, and it usually did just fine traveling for hours as long as we did not slow it down. We were certainly not prepared to stay on in Puerto Vallarta indefinitely because of it, as the problem seemed to be manageable. Besides, we had expended over $1000US on the problem without a solution in sight. We had been working all summer with a diesel mechanic of long experience in Puerto Vallarta and had also gotten in touch with the manufacturer of the engine, Westerbeke. So far, even though we had replaced most of the moving parts on the engine <Larry: in the cooling system> we had no “smoking gun” which would indicate what the problem was and point to a solution. We figured that we might have some luck with a mechanic in Barra del Navidad, or in Manzanillo, a larger commercial port down the coast.
So on the morning of November 16th we were off on a three-hour leg to the edge of Banderas Bay, a lovely spot to anchor called Punta de Mita. <Larry: It’s common practice among cruisers to “stage up” for a passage in this way. One gets out to a nearby anchorage, changes over from the inert modus vivendi of harbor life to the more vigilant attitude of passagemaking, and makes sure that all the systems, human included, ‘spin up’ and are prepared for the rigors ahead.> Keeping careful watch, Larry checked the engine during the brief trip and noticed that, while the engine was not overheating, coolant was leaking from the expansion tank. This was something we had not noticed before. In the past, we had looked at the engine when the gauges notified us that it was (already) overheating. This observation led to some thought on part of the captain and chief engineer <Larry: Himself>. More on this later.
We stayed overnight at anchor, and then took off the next morning to Chamela. Chamela is an overnight trip of 87 miles, with an expected duration of 22 hours. <Larry: This puts rather too fine a point on the pencil. Different sailing cruisers have different thresholds at which they turn on the engine. Some will power if their speed drops below 5 knots (6 mph). We’re considerably more flexible, which leads to considerably more flexibility when calculating passage durations and therefore arrival times. I like to plan for a dawn arrival, so that we’ve got all the following daylight in hand, if the passage has been slower than hoped for, before we need to turn on the engine to pre-empt an undesirable nighttime arrival. About 20% of all cruising boats illegally show no anchor lights, and another 20% or so show lights so dim they might as well be a canning jar with three fireflies inside. We don’t enter anchorages at night if we can help it.> We settled into our usual watch pattern of three hours on and three hours off, and all the important systems seemed to work. The wind gave us a comfortable sail for half the night with a surprisingly nice land breeze of 8 to 10 knots. The breeze stopped before morning, so we fired up the engine, which performed admirably during the period demanded of it.
The evening gave us two amazing sights: a magnificent iridescent dorado fish that swam past, and a phosphorescent light show. The dorado (“dolphinfish”) showed up in midafternoon. It was too beautiful to try to catch and was ethereal in its aspect as it wandered by the side of the boat. <Larry: It was snacking on a ball of baitfish that was flying-formation with us just under our keel.> The nighttime phosphorescent show in the wake was some kind of plankton, and looked like glowing beachballs being pushed out of the rudder about once a second, brilliant under the water in our wake. The moon was up for our night passage and the stars were stunning in their brightness and variety. Night passages like this are almost enjoyable.
When we arrived in Chamela, there were two other boats there, one of which left soon after <Larry: the benefits of being early on the season. We’ve seen a dozen boats in this anchorage.> While Larry was repairing some minor wear on the mainsail and Susan was cleaning up, the tender (dinghy) of the other boat left in the anchorage pulled up to say hello. The couple from the boat (“Hurrah”) were Californians in their second year of cruising, on their way into the small village close to the anchorage. We agreed to meet for dinner that night at the palapa on the beach and they offered to pick us up in their dinghy. Good deal because we could take a nice long nap after our overnight passage instead of launching our own dinghy <Larry: and we got to see how someone else handles surf landings.> We stayed in Chamela for two nights and then headed on to another one of favorite anchorages, Tenacatita.
When we talk to Mexicans about our travels, most of them recognize Tenacatita. Many have seen it or heard of its expansive lovely beach. It is a very popular anchorage on this coast and usually has 25 to 50 boats swinging to anchor. Part of its attraction is the beach and the pleasant warm water which is conducive to swimming. There are two anchorages, each a small bay within the larger bay of Tenacatita. Cruisers call the first (outer) anchorage “the aquarium” for the tropical fish that swim about its reef, and it is a popular day anchorage for snorkeling. However, it has a beach with rolling, pounding surf which can be hard on the passengers in a dinghy landing. <Larry: Last season while we were in the inner anchorage, a boat in the outer anchorage dragged her anchor and wound up on the beach.> The second (inner) anchorage is much larger and has a gentle wave motion that seldom dumps dinghy passengers, though it has been known to happen. When we arrived this season, there were two other boats at anchor; by the time we left there were no other boats in the anchorage. The last night we were there we were alone in Paradise and it was lovely to enjoy this area alone, at least for one night. We did the famed dinghy ride (the “jungle tour”) for nostalgia's sake and again enjoyed the delicious fish roll which is the specialty of the palapas along the shore of the aquarium. See our past story and photos of Tenacatita and the ride through the mangrove swamp… crocodiles and iguanas. We wanted to be in Zihuatanejo before Christmas so we did not tarry long. We also had hopes that we could secure advice or assistance on our engine’s overheating problem in Barra de Navidad. So off we went “around the corner” <Larry: it’s only about 13 miles from Tenacatita to Barra> arriving in Barra on December 5th.
We had not been able to reach the Marina in Barra on the VHF radio and they do not answer their email so we were delighted to hear via another sail boat calling the marina that there were slips being assigned to sailboats. We expected no trouble because it was early in the season, but Barra is a big sport fishing area so one can not be sure until the marina confirms that they do indeed have slips. Anchoring in Barra is only available in an exposed bay, or in a nearby lagoon which unfortunately has many invasive bugs which happen to like me very much even with DEET smeared all over. Once we were safely in our slip at the marina we checked in with the port captain. This year check-in is relatively simple. The port captain of the area must be “notified” of your presence and there is no longer any payment of money each time you check in and out. Mexico is trying hard to have all check-in's over the radio but in Barra the port captain wanted to see the captain of each boat which entered Barra. The first mate (Susan) went along for the ride. The captain asked to speak to Larry after his administrative staff had looked at our papers and checked us in. You never know what such a summons may mean so Larry went into his office and the first mate waited. The port captain wanted Larry to review the English translation of the new regulations issued for check in to Mexican ports. Larry may a few minor suggestions and the port captain did indeed confirm that he was working out the processes to have check in by radio. What a change… Last year check in typically took a half day and involved the port captain, customs and immigration plus about $16 <Larry: plus a bus ride to the next town to stand in line at the bank, and the bus ride back…easily could be a day’s outing, sometimes more> each time for check in and check out.
The amenities of the Barra marina exceed those of other marinas we have been in so far in Mexico. However it has gotten more expensive. Marinas in popular areas cost any where from 30 to 100 dollars a night. This is the cost during The Season, from November 1 to June 30th. Summer may be as low as 10 to 15 dollars a night if you commit for several months. In Puerto Vallarta we paid about $30 a night but in Barra we were surprised to realize we paid $100 a night for the ten days we stayed. But the perks include a lovely hotel, its expansive pool and spa, a well kept marina, and cable TV at the slip. Yes, Larry got to watch US football and Susan got to watch the US evening news, which is substantially reduced without Peter Jennings and Dan Rather. The French baker is alive and well in Barra. He has relocated into a shop on the Malecon (breakwater) of Barra but still comes in the morning by panga to the boats with a supply of French pastries. Given the early season, the selection was not quite as varied as I remember it being later in the season.
The captain had been thinking daily about the elusive engine problem. He now looked at the engine expansion tank caps (radiator caps, more or less) and noticed that one had developed a hair line crack in its lip. This is the first sign of a “smoking gun” we had seen. So by bus we travel to the village of Melaque, the service center of Barra. After much discussion with the bus driver about the location of the auto stores in Melaque we are dropped off and told to walk up the street a block or so…and we find a very fine auto parts store and get our replacement cap. With a new cap in place we take a practice run with the boat. An hour out toward the ocean and an hour back. Wonders never cease! No overheating at all… The engine is nice and cool just as it should be. What a relief. I really do want to know that the engine will respond when asked to do so. So for a $2.50 part the engine saga seems to be over <Larry: after $500 in parts and $500 in labor>. What’s next? Barra was as far south as we had gone last year, so for now on the territory will be new to us. We were both excited and looking forward to the next port, Manzanillo.
By water, Manzanillo is about 30 nautical miles from Barra. This is a sail of anywhere from 6 to 10 hours depending on the boat’s speed. We plan on a speed of 4 knots, which tends to be a combination of sailing and motoring. By early afternoon we could see the harbor entrance and the colorful houses of the old port area that line the shore and at last the white Moorish shapes of the lovely Hotel Las Hadas (“the faeries”) which graces the hills around Manzanillo Bay. We dropped anchor just outside the swim buoys that protect swimmers of the lovely beach area of the hotel. The entire shoreline is covered with hotels and haciendas arranged vertically on the hills around the bay, alternately brilliantly white and wildly colorful. Lots of bougainvillea and lush greens of palm trees, mangroves and bromeliads. Manzanillo is an important commercial port for the west coast of Mexico. It reminds me of Long Beach with its large port, a growing and vital downtown, and lovely places to live. We saw several container ships, a cruise ship and several gas and oil freighters. Certainly not the size of Long Beach, but busy for this area of the world. The commercial fishing season had started again, and the big fishing boats were returning to the Manzanillo area, with their expansive fish nets that may drag a quarter of the mile behind them. We are getting used to the fishing and shrimp boats that ply the night often with limited lights <Larry: and the unlighted pangas and their 2-3 mile longlines>. However, there is not the ship traffic during the day or at night that I expected. With our experience of dodging the ships in and around the Long Beach and LA harbors we must be used to shipping. Our radar typically gives us notice of bigger ships and we can get out of the way….still the real danger out here are the unlit fiberglass pangas that just do not show up on radar, nor are they easy to spot while under way.
Part of our trek through Manzanillo involved getting our mail. <Larry: Just before we left Puerto Vallarta, I lost my wallet. As part of the standard protective reaction, we immediately cancelled all the credit cards and ATM cards I was carrying. We keep a small stash of pesos on the boat, but it was getting thin, and the replacement cards were supposed to be in this mail shipment.> Before we left the States we hired “Saint Brendan’s Isle,” a firm in Florida (our legal residence) to receive all of our mail, pay our bills, take care of some administrivia such as the annual renewal of the Coast Guard documentation for our boat, and forward the mail to us as we request it. Usually we wait until we will be having a stopover in a marina, and have Saint Brendan’s forward our mail to the marina in care of our boat. If we are not actually staying at a marina it may get more complicated. In Barra de Navidad we were at the marina and asked for our mail to be sent. We used Federal Express but failed to inquire whether they in fact delivered in Barra, even though their Florida office accepted the mail for delivery to that town. Tracking our shipment online we noted that it was stuck in Guadalajara. We called Federal Express and found out that they did not deliver to Barra but would deliver to Manzanillo through their Mexican subsidiary, Multipack. After several more calls to Federal Express, we found that one of our mail packages was at the Multipack office in Manzanillo, which conveniently was located on the main bus route. So we figured we’d sail from Barra down to Manzanillo, hop on the bus, and go pick it up. When we arrived for pick up the clerk gave us one parcel, but assured us that the other package was still in transit. While we were there looking through the mail and trying to connect with Federal Express once more, the clerk looked again through his packages and came from the back of the shop with the second box. So an entire morning and several international phone calls were consumed in retrieving our mail. Patience becomes important in this environment. I find my level of patience has increased a great deal since I started cruising. It is amazing what great adventures in life will do for personality traits that need improving.
From Manzanillo we were going to head toward our next big stop, the twin towns of Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo. We could do the trip in one long sail with three days and two nights (about 200 miles) <Larry: remember, those are 24-hour days> or stop along the coast at a couple of anchorages conveniently located a day’s sailing or less apart.
Much of the collective cruisers’ experience in the Mexican Pacific coast has been documented by Charles and Margo Wood, who published a cruising guide called Charlie’s Charts. His goal was to identify anchorages along this coast, including special cautions, attractions, and cruiser-specific services. Because the government charts of the area are so wretched, he includes many “not for navigation” sketch charts that highlight important features of each anchorage. The anchorages are varied, though. Some are very special and well-protected places to anchor; others are open roadsteads, tend to be rolly, and are secure only in settled weather.
The anchorages between Manzanillo and Zihuatanejo <Larry: indeed, 90% of the anchorages in Pacific Mexico> are in this second category. But the weather forecast was good (as is usual at this time of the year) so we decided to explore these anchorages. <Larry: The worst that would be likely to happen would be that we’d arrive at an anchorage, find it untenable, and have to carry on through the night.> The first anchorage was Cabeza Negra (Black Head or point of rock along the coast). Cabeza Negra turned out to be a very lovely group of private homes with guards on the beach. These appeared to be homes of Mexican families, not the usual gringo community. We stayed overnight and moved on. There were no palapa restaurants on the beach and we got the distinct feeling that the guards would not be welcoming. (In Mexico the beach to high tide is public property, but we are not in any position as visitors to press the matter.) What comes naturally in California is just not acceptable behavior here.
But the next two anchorages were little treasures: Maruata and Caleta de Campos. Both are seaside villages with different audiences. Both of these towns are seaside resorts, Maruata for the state of Coloma (around Manzanillo), and Caleta de Campos for the state of Michoacán. These are towns that support the surrounding area, each providing a kind of miniature metropolis.
Maruata is a unique seaside refuge operated as a turtle sanctuary. Personal watercraft and other power sports are prohibited, reserving the water for swimming and scuba activities. <Larry: Fantastic rock formations make a kind of breakwater in front of the bay, and it is wonderful to explore among them by dinghy or snorkeling. These formations are featured on our Christmas card for this year.> Boats are welcome to anchor and explore the small palapa restaurants on shore. In addition there is a Mexican version of KOA along the shore, where campers can pitch tents under thatched roof structures for $3 dollars per person. In 1998 another Valiant sailboat was cruising in the area sailing about 5 miles off the shore from Maruata when their boat shook badly for no apparent reason. They thought they had hit a whale. Finding no damage they sailed on, only later receiving news that they had experienced a 7.6 earthquake which had destroyed Maruata. It has since been rebuilt with environmental restrictions in place. Another photo of Maruata graces our 2005 Christmas Card.
Caleta de Campos was another delight. It has a small breakwater and a multitude of colorful houses cascading down steep hills. Many water activities are available, and a number of small palapas on the beach serve delicious seafood. We shopped in Caleta de Campos for veggies, corn tortillas and fresh fish. Kids swam out to our boat asking for dulces (sweets) which we had but I was embarrassed by my lack of Spanish. I did try some simple sentences and I did want to talk to these kids but my Spanish epiphany has not yet occurred. More work required here. The swimming was wonderful, a nice breeze occurred every night and the anchorage was comfortable and felt relatively protected. <Larry: While we were anchored in Caleta de Campos, the Mexican Army (Ejercito Mexicana) chose to have a training exercise, I suppose for its amphibious arm. They launched a couple of olive-drab pangas from the beach, and the pangas ran around for a while inside and outside the bay. That night the enlisted men slept on their pangas in the middle of the bay, and the next day, about noon, took the pangas back to the beach and recovered them. They displayed all the seamanship one would expect from any army in the world.>
The next day we made an overnight passage from Caleta de Campos to Zihuatanejo. During the night we passed the oil port of Lázaro Cárdenas, named after the Mexican president who nationalized the oil industry some years ago. The orange glow of the sodium-vapor lights under the vapors of the refineries gave the scene a Dante-esque quality. We had timed our departure from Caleta de Campos to allow for an early morning arrival in Zihuatanejo. It was a delightful morning: we were able to sail, dolphins accompanied us into the beautiful bay, a cruise ship was on our far starboard side bound for an anchorage in the bay, and we were able to listen to the morning cruisers’ “net” as we neared the entrance to the bay. Most major anchorages the size of "Zihua" (the Mexican nickname for this lovely bay and town, cruisers call it “Z-town”) have a morning cruisers’ network on VHF radio to exchange information, including weather news. So as we came in we could talk on the net, get some local knowledge and I even volunteered to help with the “net” during our stay in Zihua.
<Larry: And so we began to integrate ourselves into another pair of communities: a Mexican community, and a community of cruisers. From the “What do you do all day?” file, we have this little story. Refrigeration on a boat, if one chooses to have it, is a wonderful convenience and a considerable burden. Once again, “It’s all about tradeoffs.” It means cold beer, lettuce that crackles, and shopping once a week if one so chooses, rather than daily. It is also the largest energy drain on the boat while at anchor, by far, and one must feed the beast constantly, whether by solar panels, wind generators, running the engine or what have you. We rely heavily on solar panels, which have been poor contributors in the season of the winter solstice.
To the point, refrigeration on a boat is also not maintenance-free. Unlike a home refrigerator, boat refrigeration systems slowly leak coolant (not Freon these days, but ozone-friendly 134A). So once in a while, they must be “topped up.” Doing so requires special hoses, gauges, valves, and a can of said coolant. Our ‘fridge hadn’t reached that point yet, but it is only a matter of time. In the spirit of being ahead of things, I set out on a quest to find and purchase the equipment. The local cruiser’s hangout (Rick’s Bar) had a map of the town, which showed, among many other things, a “refrigeration repair” shop. Sounds promising. No luck: the guy repairs refrigerators, doesn’t sell the tools. So I walked to several nearby ferreterias (hardware stores), asking in my best Spanish, “Hay una tienda donde se venden indicadores y refrigerante para reparar refrigeradores?” or, “Is there a shop where they sell gauges and refrigerant for repairing refrigerators?” I think. Drew a blank at several ferreterias. One guy at a vegetable stand said, in Spanish, “Sure, there’s one about 20 meters from the Pollo Loco” (fried chicken joint). And damned if there wasn’t. Got the refrigerant, got the gauges. Got back to the boat, and the can of refrigerant wouldn’t screw into the relevant hose. Next morning on the cruiser’s net, I asked whether anyone had any experience with refrigeration gauges. Sure enough, that afternoon, I got a call back to come by Privateer, and Bob would have a look at my problem. Bob took one look and said, “Yes, they forgot to sell you one of these adapters,” and he laid a lump of brass in my hand. With the loan of the adapter, I took the dinghy back to shore, walked across town to the refrigeration store, showed them the lump of brass, and purchased the necessary adapter. We’re now prepared for one crisis that is yet to come. Thanks, Privateer Bob.
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