The Log of Moira
These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.
As we cruised the mid-Pacific coast of Mexico last year we heard about the lovely town of Zihuatanejo. We looked forward to the visit, but the reality of this town of 35,000 people exceeded our expectations. As we approached the headland leading into the Bay of Zihuatanejo we were encircled by a large pod of dolphins who swam around, under, and in front of the boat, jumping out of the water almost like a competition. Maybe they were simply removing parasites. At night dolphins are often around the boat but we know their presence either by the phosphoresent show that accompanies their movement through the water, or by the snort that they make as they breathe at the surface. It can be quite a surprise to hear a very male (deep) snort on watch….often I look around to see if Larry is up or on the companionway stairs.
The dolphins were a delightful welcome, and we were also welcomed by the cruisers’ net that is on the VHF radio every morning at 8:30am. Interested cruisers share the job of the network. One cruiser hosts the net each morning, going through an agenda of allowing the various cruisers present in the Bay to say good morning and to report on their status, to share events, shopping experiences, equipment needs, problems that come up and how to solve them. As we were coming into the Bay we tuned our radio to the net and were able to check in, hear about activities in the Bay and town, got some information on entering the marina we were bound for, and volunteered to run the net on Tuesday mornings.
Until the early 1970’s, Zihuatanejo was a sleepy fishing village, undiscovered except for the early cruisers who must have found a truly pristine lovely bay and beach. It is still lovely, and has developed considerably around the Bay. Colorful villas and condos traverse the hills surrounding the bay. The deep browns and oranges of Mexico prevail with many thatched roofs and large balconies. At the top of one hill sits a large gray home shaped to resemble the Parthenon. When we asked about this strange site we were told that it belongs to the chief of police for the State of Michoacan, in which Zihuatanejo is located. The official salary of the chief is $400 a month. The large and lovely home was built with “extra income” which came from the chief’s share of fines and fees paid to the various police stations all over the State. … this is mordida at work. The home has been there for many years. Today there are signs in government offices saying “no to mordida.” We have not been asked for bribes.
The town of Zihuatanejo (population 35,000) has developed because of the overall development program of Mexico. FONATUR is the official tourism development entity of Mexico. It sets the master plan for an area and installs the infrastructure. In this case, Mexico decided to develop as a resort the series of bays adjacent to Zihuatanejo called Ixtapa. This process started in the 1970’s. Today the town of Ixtapa is developed with hundreds of hotel rooms, retail to support the tourists, and a large (600 boats) marina. Housing has been built for the workers with luxury housing filling in as demand provides. The infrastructure required included 10 miles of freeways through mountains which separate Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa.
Because of Ixtapa, Zihuatanejo has grown substantially, but it still retains a charming, pleasant feel. Of importance to cruisers is Rick’s Bar, owned by Rick and his Venezuelan wife, Heidi. Rick’s Bar provides resources to cruisers including good junk food, full bar, live music at night, lending library, laundry, ice, help in getting boat work done, Spanish lessons, internet access, and valet service for your dinghy. The bay is generally very calm so a dinghy landing is easy but there is still the issue of how to secure the dinghy on the beach. Rick assigned a local, Nathanial, to be on the beach from 9:00am to 11:00pm to help the cruisers lug their dinghies up the beach and then see to the security of same. The going rate for tips was $2 for the day. On a peak day there were usually 20 to 25 dinghies. Our supposition is that Rick pays Nathanial a minimum wage as well. <Larry: Quite a franchise.>
We anchored off of La Ropa Beach (“the clothes”… from a ship that sank long ago on the coast, whose cargo of Chinese fabrics washed upon the beach) rather than close to the municipal wharf. The water near La Ropa is cleaner than that off of the municipal wharf so that our water maker was usable and the water was wonderful for my afternoon swim.
We celebrated Christmas twice. On Christmas eve we joined 56 other cruisers at Rick’s Bar for a traditional Christmas eve dinner of turkey with all the trimmings. On Christmas Day we joined a group of cruisers in a pot luck dinner as guests of an American who for 35 years has owned the best parcel of land on La Ropa. The American, much to the disgust of the local government, gained control of this parcel way before the town was discovered, and created a lovely palapa restaurant and a house for himself. Nothing fancy. He has several cottages (mostly open air) for rent. He has not been able to leave Mexico for many years on threat of his land being confiscated by the government. But he is gracious to cruisers and allowed us the use of the palapa for our pot luck.
We found two wonderful restaurants. One was near La Ropa, called La Casa Que Canta (the house that sings). The restaurant was a part of the most luxurious hotel in Zihuatanejo, dramatically built into the cliffs between La Ropa and Madera (“wood,” used to have a sawmill) beaches. Not only was the food wonderful but view of the bay was dazzling. The restaurant was recommend by another cruising couple we liked, but what was puzzling was a reference in one of my tour guides that “sophisticated resort wear” was appropriate. Not being sophisticated as to dress (I have a total of two skirts with me) we wondered what we may be getting into. When I made the reservation, the restaurant notified us that gentlemen must wear long pants and shoes, no sandals. Larry grudgingly put on <Larry: his one pair of> nice looking long pants. We piled into the dinghy, and went ashore to Rick’s, where I changed into one of my skirts with pink sandals, thence by taxi to the restaurant. We were fine but glad that we had dressed up. Reverse the process on the way back.
On New Year’s eve we wanted something special and found La Cala (“the cove”) which is a very fine tropical restaurant built into a small cove where you may be no more that 10 feet from the water, with five levels of seating up the side of the cove. It is generally candle lit, but New Year’s Eve called for fireworks all over the bay, and this restaurant chose to participate. Of course we were early…we have not bought into Mexican timing as to lunch and dinner. Normally lunch here (comida) is the big meal of the day and is served between 2pm and 4pm. Then dinner (cena) is served between 8:30 and 11pm. We still like dinner at 7pm, and it is our main meal, so our reservation was for 7pm. Mexicans are very accommodating to their gringo guests, and we were the only guests at that hour. After a cocktail at the bar <Larry: a half bottle of average champagne in Mexico is $85> we sat at our table. During our cocktail and the initial sitting at the table there was a lot of scurrying around, with cutting of palm trees and placing of pipes along the shore for fireworks. The owner of the restaurant came by to apologize, which we said was not necessary because all the activity was really very interesting. But the owner said as a reward for our patience the crew would give us preview of the fire works show. Immediately, a single large firework went off and sprayed the cove with white light cascading down like thousands of diamonds. What an introduction to the New Year!
We spent about two weeks in the marina of Ixtapa because we had planned to leave the boat there and to travel of the island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean to see my sister and her husband. We had a great visit, staying in their lovely time share unit in the resort and traveling about the island. Of particular interest to us was to see the yachts on St. Lucia, many of whom had just arrived as a part of the large rally which crosses the Atlantic from the Azores to St. Lucia. This trip gave us a glimpse of what the Caribbean may be like to cruise…this is part of our plan several years off. The trip to St Lucia was long, requiring an overnight stay in Miami, then a connection thorough Puerto Rico. We were both impressed with Puerto Rico. Not only was the quality of the development of the island high but also it made checking into and out of the United States quick and relatively pleasant.
<Larry: We flew back to Zihuatanejo via Puerto Rico, Miami, and Mexico City. We arranged with our mail forwarding service (Saint Brendan’s Isle) to accumulate a number of parts and items we needed for the boat, including an air compressor and diving regulator we wanted so we could clean Moira’s hull of the inevitable barnacles and such. The airline connections were such that we had an overnight layover in Miami, and we had St. Brendan’s forward the stuff to the hotel we were going to stay in. Everything arrived, somewhat to my surprise, and in the morning we headed on via Mexico City to Zihuatanejo, with rather more baggage than we arrived with. When we got to the airport in Zihua, we encountered, not for the first time, the “red light-green light” system of customs inspection. We pushed the magic button, and this time got the “red light,” which meant that everything got opened and inspected. They were very interested in the compressor (retail $175 from Amazon.COM, well under the declarable, dutiable limit) and not at all interested in the pile of O-rings and plastic parts for the watermaker (retail $800 plus, well over the dutiable limit), so we walked out of there without paying anything. We showed all, and answered all their questions, truthfully. Sometimes you get lucky.>
<Larry: One of the endearing features of the Ixtapa Marina is its resident family of large crocodiles, or cocodrilos in Spanish. They are capable of getting up on the docks to snack on the odd poodle. One of Rick’s partners has a son who is a diver, and who had a close encounter of the painful kind with one of the croc’s in Ixtapa Marina.>
<Larry: Zihuatanejo is a port of call for a number of cruise ships, which arrive with a roar of anchor chain in the early hours of the morning, offload a couple of thousand tourists after breakfast, reload them before dinner, and trundle off at sunset. As we were working our way out of Z-town, a cruise ship was coming to anchor. A few early risers were standing at her railings. We stared at them, and they at us, with mutual incomprehension. We are sometimes asked to summarize what it’s like to go cruising on a small boat. The best I have been able to come up with is that it’s about one third “cruise ship/drinks with little umbrellas” kind of living, one third “Home Improvement” (like the TV show), and one third Two Years Before The Mast (Dana). Read it, if you haven’t.>
When we returned to Ixtapa we were ready to head further south. <Larry: Zihuatanejo is a kind of watershed in the cruising world. Most cruisers turn around and go back up to the Sea of Cortez. We knew that we would be seeing many of our friends there for the last time.> After a short hop to the anchorage at Papanoa, our next destination was Acapulco, an overnight passage away. We had heard that the city was not particularly friendly to cruisers, that the bay was dirty, and the city a replica of Miami. We found that the water in the anchorage was frequently polluted with diesel fuel, and the city (or at least the area by the beach) was high-rise, with some sophisticated architecture. Beyond the beach, the town seemed a pleasant enough place to live with 80-degree temperatures and gentle breezes. I suspect the slums around Mexico City are repeated on the hills outside the main areas of Acapulco, but we did not stay long enough to find out.
We did make time to see the famed cliff divers of Acapulco. <Larry: Look carefully at the photo—there is one in mid-flight.> In a venue on the ocean side of the city, the divers jump off the rocky cliffs of La Quebrada (“the creek”) from a height of 130 feet. We arranged to have lunch at the hotel El Mirador (“the lookout”) which is built into the cliffs above the dive site. The spectacular show is easy to see from the restaurant. The divers have to time their jumps meticulously as there’s only enough water to dive into when at the peak of a swell coming into the cove. At the end of the show, the divers are outside of the restaurant expecting a handsome tip. We did not disappoint them as they had not disappointed us. We did find that the city was friendly to cruisers. Anchoring was accommodated <Larry: though difficult, because the major anchorage area was about 60’ deep> but we found that there were a number of moorings available at $8 a night. As we motored into the mooring area we were met by a Mexican in his dinghy holding out to us a brochure on his services. After reading the brochure which introduced Angel, his wife and their boat as well as all the myriad services they offered to the cruising community, we circled around and rented a mooring from Angel. We ordered a bag of ice, which he delivered within the hour. Later we got our laundry done through his services and were able to find a certain kind of hook Larry needed for our anchor chain through Angel, who knows were all the tiendas (shops) are located.
After Acapulco, we had a two-night passage to Puerto Angel (pronounced “an-HELL”), a small fishing village, then a short day hop to Huatulco, which would be our last port in Mexico. <Larry: See the photo of Puerto Angel. Several hundred of these pangas were drawn up on the beach. Because of the large swell in the bay, the pangueros had developed a technique of landing their craft by revving up to maximum speed, aiming their flat-bottomed craft at the beach, and surfing right up the sand, lifting the prop of the outboard at the last second. Great fun. On the beach at the right of the photo, the pangueros and the local housewives and restaurant owners would gather every morning in a kind of open-air fishmarket, at which the previous night’s catch would be sold. By 10 AM the beach would be empty except for the pangas drawn up on the sand.>
Until 1983, the Huatulco (“wa-TOOL-ko”) area consisted of 22 miles of coastline carved into nine beautiful bays with the Sierra Madre mountains as a back drop. In 1983, FONATUR picked this area to become another Ixtapa. Again, the infrastructure was built to accommodate a marina, 18 hole golf course and a combination of 3, 4, and 5 star hotels clustered around the bays. Four of the bays are protected from all development through the establishment of a national park. Today 60,000 tourists come into Huatulco per year, most through the large, modern airport built by the Mexican government. The goal is to build 16,000 hotel rooms by 2018. They are well on their way today. The small town of Las Crucecitas (“the little crosses”) serves as the retail and restaurant center. It has an excellent Italian restaurant.
From the point of view of the cruiser, this area is a critical juncture because Huatulco is located on the west edge of the Gulf of Tehuantepec, an area of water known for its wind and large seas. Today, weather forecasts are sophisticated enough that predictions can be made for safe crossings, but the sailor must wait in Huatuco for the appropriate time to cross. The reputation of the Gulf is well deserved, since the winds sweeping over the area maintain a yearly average of Force 6 on the Beaufort Scale (34 knots, about 37mph) and a times exceed Force 8 (40 to 50 knots) especially from October to April. In addition to the problems of heavy winds and seas felt over 300 miles offshore, there are strong currents which vary depending on the intensity of the winds. This is a serious area. Most cruisers enjoy sailing in winds under 18 knots, after that sailing becomes considerable work and the force of the wind can cause damage to ship and crew. We were looking for a “weather window” for crossing the Gulf where the winds would either be light and variable or nonexistent in which case we would motor across the 240 miles of the Gulf. We got what I wanted… a window of four days opened and off we went and motored across the Gulf. We had waited about two weeks for this event but several other boats which left with us had waited almost a month for these four days. Of course, the risk here is that the window may close sooner than expected… after all the window is a weather prediction, and certainly not guaranteed.
But before we get to that story let’s go back briefly. During our 2 week stay in Huatulco, we took the time to visit the colonial city of Oaxaca (pronounced “wa-HAH-ka”). Capital of the state of Oaxaca, the city lies 340 miles south east of Mexico City. For us in Huataco, getting to Oaxaca was a 7-1/2 hour trip on a first class bus weaving and swaying back and forth on mountain roads that reminded us of Route One when CalTrans was in despair over it <Larry: if you know of it, more like the Ortega Highway in SoCal.>. We wore seat belts in the bus to stay in the seats as we traversed the mountainsides. Half way there and on the way back the bus stopped at Puerto Salina Cruz, and we got a good look at center of the infamous Gulf of Tehuantepec. We saw it during a perfect calm on the way there, and during a gale on the way back.
Oaxaca is an interesting mix of cultures. The area was once the center of Mixtec and Zapotec civilizations. The Spanish conquered the area in 1533, and their occupation gave the city many beautiful churches, a very definite Spanish flavor with ornate buildings, colonnades, balconies and lovely plazas with large scale trees now over 300 to 400 years old. In fact one of the oldest trees known is El Tule, a gigantic tree over 2000 years old, on the outskirts of Oaxaca. Despite the colonial heritage and feel, the city remains basically Indian at heart. Two of Mexico’s most famous Presidents came from Oaxaca: Benito Juarez and Porfirio Diaz were both Zapotecs.
Oaxaca is a lovely, pedestrian-friendly city. There is the traditional Zocalo, the large main square of most Mexican towns, is situated along the principal pedestrian promenade. <Larry: While we were there, additional streets were being converted into pedestrian boulevards, not without protest from some businesses. The photo is of some live poultry in the great mercado in Oaxaca, patiently waiting to become dinner.> The promenade is shaded by giant laurel trees (look like fig trees) which form a canopy, colorful buildings with arcades, and many sidewalk cafés, with tables three and four deep, doing a brisk business. The people in this part of Mexico love coffee, but even more so they love chocolate. They serve chocolate with milk, usually hot, and it is delicious. At night, the Zocalo and the adjoining streets come alive with live music. Many Indians spread their handicrafts for sale over the sidewalks. There are several beautiful cathedrals, well preserved and in active use. The most remarkable church, Iglesia de Santo Domingo, was built by the Dominicans in 1608, and is considered one of the finest Baroque churches in the western world. Inside, the thirty-foot thick walls are ablaze with gold and polychrome bas-relief. Adjoining the Church is an outstanding museum on the cultures of Oaxaca <Larry: built in the former convent of the Church>, including many artifacts made of gold, silver, jade, turquoise and pearls found in the burial tombs of the nearby archaeological site of Monte Alban. I also especially enjoyed the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Mexican Pre-Hispanic Art. Not only is Tamayo my favorite Hispanic artist, but his collection of pre-Hispanic art is extraordinary. The collection was put together by him over twenty years to protect the art pieces and avoid their removal from Mexico.
As part of our tours around Oaxaca, we were able to see the famous black burnished pottery, and highly imaginative and colorful hand-carved animals. A purple, black and orange colored gecko, handcarved of very light copal wood now has a place of honor on our bulkhead. We were able to visit the ruins of Monte Alban (“white hill”). The Zapotec Indians started occupying this area around 900BC, and eventually abandoned it around 1300AD. They took 300 years to level of top of the mountain creating a large flat building site. Then, without wheels or bronze age tools, they proceeded to build on this mountain top, 1200 feet above the valley, a great central plaza (several football fields long) flanked by large pyramidal temples and more than 150 tombs adorned with mysterious stone carvings about three feet tall, called danzantes (“dancers). The building of the temples and tombs occurred over 300 years. Just think of the extraordinary focus of this culture. For five hundred years the entire society was geared to creating this ceremonial place which also apparently housed the leaders of the society. It is not known why the site was abandoned, but it was later occupied by the Mixtec Indians who used it for burials. Because the Mixtecs were excellent craftsmen, the gold, silver and pearl jewelry and burial masks of turquoise found in the tombs are thought to have come from the Mixtecs, not the original builders, the Zapotecs.
I have reported on the dolphins and whales we have been so fortunate to view and enjoy. While whales show themselves rarely, the dolphins seem friends of boats and often join our cruise, with many of them dancing and jumping around the boat. We have seen flying fish and fish frenzies where thousands of fish break the surface of the water trying to escape predators beneath them. Miles before we entered the waters of Zihuatanejo, we started to see large turtles in the water. The commonest of the turtles in these waters is the Olive Ridley Turtle, which is endangered. <Larry: Endangered? Couldn’t prove it by me. We saw hundreds of them.> When they come onto the beach to lay their eggs the known egg laying areas are protected by armed guards and tourists are not often allowed nearby. We started noticing the turtles because of their white undersides of their necks which show in the ocean waters. They lie on the surface of the water and from time to time raise their white necks, showing themselves. As we sailed south, we often could see twenty or thirty turtles at one time spread out over the water. The further south we got, the greater density of the turtles. <Larry: They float on the surface, the hump of their shells clearly visible if the sea is calm. One cruiser said that it was like sailing through a minefield. Another pointed out that birds often rest upon the turtle’s shell, so frequent a conjunction that he coined a term for the bird-turtle pairing, a “bir-tle,” which I suppose is more decorous than calling it a “tu-rd.” The turtle in the photo carries souvenirs of his last passenger.> It is an amazing sight to see these turtles all over the ocean.
I have been asked frequently by other women about fear and its effect on me as we sail. Fear is a part of my sailing experience but it is not prevalent in all areas. To say the least, if it were prevalent I wouldn’t be sailing. Normal day-to-day sailing in waters that we know or which are reasonably predictable does not lead to fear in me. I have become quite comfortable in Mexican Riviera (from Mazatlán to Zihuatanejo) waters and even have begun to appreciate night sailing one night at a time. Leaving port causes me some anxiety but arriving does not. As we proceeded south of Zihuatanejo my anxiety level increased and I was fearful of crossing the Gulf of Tehuantepec. The Gulf is known for its unpredictable weather conditions. It is an area of frequent gales which start and stop based on weather conditions in the Gulf of Mexico and the southwest Caribbean. While a great deal of research in weather predictions had been developed, nothing is guaranteed or certain. Weather conditions can change quickly in the Gulf and protection from harsh winds is difficult to secure. Once started, it is difficult to come back. There is lots of advice from highly experienced delivery skippers about techniques of crossing but the unknowns are high. The key is to look for a weather window and scoot across a fast as one can go. In considering my level of fear in anticipation of doing this passage, I think it has two causes: anyone who knows me well understands that I am a control freak…. I want to be in control of my environment and what happens in that environment. I do not have a high level of control in sailing because I am still gaining experience. I have very little experience in rough or bad weather which provides even less sense of control relative to the Gulf crossing. More experience will help and I think over time reduce my level of fear. The other element that causes fear is unknown areas. This is countered by my desire to explore areas I am not familiar with and to see new and different vistas. This is a fine combination to think about as we go sailing. The key here is to control fear by understanding it and respecting it. So far I am doing that but it will be somewhat down the road of my sailing experience before I will be able to enjoy long passages and to honestly say I am without fear.
<Larry: Fear is a good thing, if it becomes the spur to preparation, ensuring as best one can that the thing one fears can’t hurt one, too badly. One of the things that Susan has yet to learn is that optimism makes for good crewmembers but poor Captains. Part of preparation is the continuous process of generating alternate plans, or as W.S. Kals wrote, “Leave yourself an out.” If the current plan isn’t working out, but one always has an alternative course of action, can always “pull another rabbit out of the hat,” so to speak, one need not despair. So on night watches, I “breed rabbits.”>
<Larry: At my IBM retirement party in 2003, I received, among other things, a going-away gift of a hand-held GPS (Global Positioning System) navigation receiver. Just like the big ones, it reads out the latitude and longitude of your location from the satellites, allows one to define waypoints (locations of destinations), and will guide one to a waypoint by telling the holder which way to turn and how far to go. We find it very useful when returning by dinghy to Moira at night in a large anchorage. Which one of those hundred or so anchor lights is our home? Simple: before we leave the boat for the evening, ask the GPS “Where am I?” and plant a waypoint there (tell the GPS to remember that location), then when returning, we can ask the GPS how to steer the dinghy to get to that waypoint on the way back. Works like a charm, even when we’re suffering from advanced bottle fatigue.>
<Larry: We rely heavily on our solar panels to keep us in electricity. The panels are mounted on the centerline, near the stern (see our Projects Page for photos). Solar panels don’t like even a little shade—the shadow of a bit of line will reduce the output of a panel by 50%, and the shadow of the mast will shut down the whole farm. While cruising on this coast we have noticed a phenomenon which I have named “solar wind,” because the wind always seems to be coming from the direction of the sun, which means that, if we are at anchor, the bow points at the sun, so the shadow of the mast falls back upon the solar panels. It’s not a conspiracy: due to heating of the sea and land, in the morning the breeze is off the land, usually out of the southeast, and in the afternoon, it’s off the sea, usually out of the west to southwest. Ergo, “solar wind.”>
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