Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Isla Isabela

Landing on south end of Isla Isabela
Off our stern quarter was a submerged rock the size of a football field and the surge was creating huge whirlpools of cascading water, a very scary item so close to the boat.  On the other quarter was another reef field, quiet for now.  We managed to squeeze Traveler into this marginal southern anchorage and after testing the safety of the location for a couple of hours we decided to head to shore to see the sights.

Blue Footed Boobies
Isla Isabela is called the Galapagos of Mexico.  About 20 miles off the coast, this island is so isolated that the local bird population has no predators and no fear of humans.  The island is a breeding ground for frigate birds and blue-footed boobies.  Iguanas sun themselves along with the lizards.  We had to watch our step to keep from crunching these little crocs under our Keens.   Hiking up the sparse trail we soon found ourselves in a low bush land where each little tree was full of nesting frigate birds.  The males were puffing out their bright red throats, the females protecting their little fuzzy babies.  Further uphill we came to the Booby hatchery.  These cute little guys with their bright blue or yellow feet were marching around doing their mating dance or sitting on a ground nest keeping their eggs warm.  The trail went right through the crowd of birds and we did our best to stay out of everyone’s way.  Too close and we’d get a squawk.  But everyone stayed put.  There was no panic. They had no fear of us.  

Any other place like this would have restrictions, hours, guides, and lots of rules and regulations.  Here, you are free to wander so wander we did.  We heard that the government cut the budget for management of this island and there was some volunteer activity but mostly what we saw were fishermen and a few workers clearing foliage.  Eventually the trail petered out and we did a little bush whacking.  But everywhere, everywhere you looked there were nesting birds, mostly boobies and frigates. 
Roosting Frigate birds with Traveler anchored offshore

Pelicans mobbed the local fishermen who have a camp there and gulls and terns were massed in great numbers.  The white-tailed tropic bird sailed around the steep cliff sides with that wonderful long tail.  We made our way down a cliff to the western beach of pumice and coral and watched the waves crashing in from the west, then we bashed our way back to the anchorage.
Dad Frigate (note red inflatable throat) protecting the nest.

Being so close to all that wildlife and having them show no fear was an amazing experience.  We came away pretty elated about what he had experienced.  Back aboard Traveler, the reef looked even closer and our anchor chain had started wrapping itself around some rocks so we decided to up anchor and move around to a more comfortable place.  We had tied a big red float to the head of the anchor and thought we’d have to use it to get the anchor up but we messed with it for a little while and it came up free and we were on our way.  Around the corner, to the east side of the island next to Mona Mayor and Mona Menor we found a good spot and dropped the hook with a safety float and settled in to watch the sun set.  In the shadow of the boat, schools of fish gathered.  The smell of guano permeated the air.  
Birds, birds, everywhere!

On the back deck, wine in hand, we watched humpback whales splashing about.  One big guy kept smacking his huge tail on the water over and over.  We’d see the tail strike the water, see the spray, then hear the loud crack.  I counted 20 in a row for this one big male.  Nice.

Early to bed, we slept well and got up at 4:00 AM for our run back to the mainland.  Standing on the back deck in darkness we could hear a whale breathing in and out with a loud scratching sound like rubber on rock.  It was so very close.  

The anchor came up easily and we stole out of the anchorage and pointed the bow southeast steering by the stars.   Red sun at sunrise greeted us as birds fought for perch rights on the bow pulpit.  Wind built finally and we sailed for a while then finished off the day with the engine again as we found our anchorage in the beautiful quiet town of Chacala.   We’ve got three days to get to La Cruz where Mary and Ezrah will meet us at the Marina Riviera Nayarit dinghy dock.  Our trip these last days has been wonderful, just what we had been hoping for in this stage of our journey.  We are both healthy and in great spirits, enjoying the wonderful coast of Pacific Mexico.
The lovely bay at Chacala. Can you spot Traveler with her green hull?

The approach to Isla Isabela

On the 21st of January we spent the day getting the boat ready for cruising in open waters.  After saying our goodbyes to our dock mates and fellow prisoners of Marina Mazatlan and receiving our checkout papers from the office, we negotiated our way out to Deer Island, just off the gold zone of Mazatlan.  There we spent a roily night at anchor along with a handful of other boats.  The southern anchorage, Stone Island, was closed for overnight use as was the old harbor because there had been a couple of recent incidents of dinghies and outboards being stolen.  Thus the Deer Island anchorage was our only option in the Mazatlan area.
Artwork on the Mazatlan Malicon

An aside about the dinghy theft:  We have heard occasionally about people getting their dinghy stolen, or the outboard engine.  Or maybe someone came aboard and tried to steal something out of the cabin and a knife was involved.  When these incidents happen, the cruising community, which is pretty close knit, spreads the word and whatever harbor or anchorage was involved becomes a topic of discussion on the radio nets and folks just stop going there.  Little did the petty thief know that his actions would take away the lucrative trade with the cruising community.  In Mazatlan a few years back some folks from a cruise ship got robbed at knife point while out in the city on an excursion.  The news circulated and soon the cruise ship lines discontinued all their stops in Mazatlan.  Now back up north in the U.S. or Canada, petty thefts happen all the time and that does not stop the tourists, but down here, the mere wisp of trouble sets us running for the hills.  Sorry to get off on that tangent…… but…   
Obligatory sunset photo

We were in no hurry to leave the next morning because the trip to Isla Isabela would take 24 hours more or less and we didn’t want to approach the island until the sun was over the horizon.  After a big breakfast we motored out and soon caught a light northwesterly which worked wonderfully with the big nylon gennaker headsail.  We sailed through a beautiful sunny day, taking turns at watch.  Connie devised a watch schedule that we wanted to test on this overnight trip. 
Breakfast just off Deer Island
It works like this:
SV           CB
9-11       11-1       2 hour shifts
1-4          4-7         3 hour shifts
7-11       11-3       4 hour shifts
3-6          6-9          2 hour shifts

However, we changed the watch schedule somewhat when circumstances kept us from sleeping.  At sunset we were doing very well with the gennaker so we left it up and I went down for a nap.  At 7:00 PM as I came on watch the wind was getting stronger and we knew we had to douse the lightweight sail and run out the heavier headsail.  But first we bolted down some cold dinner of chicken and potato salad.  By this time the seas were rough and we had a tough time of it, wrestling the gennaker down in the dark.  The boat went sideways to the swell and we were tossing violently as Connie and I held on for dear life struggling with the lines. We finally got the sail tamed and the Genoa unfurled.  Then with the boat clanking around we methodically went through all the lines and halyards securing them tight, as well as the spinnaker pole which was banging on the mast.  Lesson learned…. Again:   Change down the headsail before sundown and secure everything. Don’t wait until it is dark.  Also, get the engine on and slowly run downwind under autopilot to keep the boat steady while doing sail changes. 

After all that action we were exhausted.  Connie went down below and cleaned up the mess as everything on the navigation desk had gone flying to the floor.  After this we were both feeling nauseous.  Connie collapsed on the settee and I hung my head over the rail for a while fighting to keep my dinner down and the boat did its active jig downwind in the leftover seas. 

The “jig” as I call it is the motion of the boat which can be gentle or violent.  When you first start off on a trip you might be alarmed at how much the boat moves around.  This is a 30,000 pound ship.  How can it be tossed around like a dinghy?  But tossed around it is and at first it seems pretty extreme.  But you eventually get used to it and when the violent tossing settles down to moderate tossing you think you are on easy street.  Newcomers aboard get a little freaked at the amount of movement but after a few days the crazy up and down and side to side action becomes normal and everyone settles in.  You don’t set a cup down and expect it to be there when you reach for it again.

Back to the story….
By 11:00 PM Connie came on deck looking a little green and I suggested she go below until she could actually claim some shut eye.  By then the wind had dropped but not the sea, so we started the engine and motored.  This calmed the boat somewhat and Connie was able to catch some sleep.  She came back up at about 12:30 AM to take her shift and I went forward to the Vee and crashed.  Later on Connie said that Traveler passed another sailboat coming from the other direction and the two skippers flashed their flash lights at each other in greeting.  Aside from that, the sea was empty.  At 4:30 AM Connie shook me awake saying that it was time for me to come up deck because she was hallucinating that ships were coming at us.  She had the radar on which showed nothing.  So I took my shift and Connie went below for some much needed sleep.  

Mona Menor islet off Isla Isabela
Halfway through my shift the wind came up and I switched off the engine, rolled out the genoa and we had a beautiful sail into the glow of sunrise to the southeast.  Just before sunup a legion of hundreds of frigate birds approached from the south getting an early morning start on their feeding.  They had left their families on Isla Isabela and were flying forth to bring back breakfast for the baby chick.  At 8:00 AM I woke Connie as Isla Isabela was directly off our starboard beam.  Two gorgeous skyscraper rocks defended the eastern side of the island, Mona Mayor and Mona Menor.  White with guano they gleamed in the sunlight. We jibed around and found the southern anchorage dropping the hook in 30 feet of water on a rocky bottom.  After breakfast I napped and at about 11:00 we blew up the two inflatable kayaks and headed ashore for what was to be a fantastic nature viewing experience.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Lure of the Dock

After a raucous few days at sea one yearns for a stable platform from which to cook, sleep, cipher, shit and work on projects.  The boat has been jumping around for days, never a dull moment, never a still moment.  We are shedding pounds and exercising those abdominal muscles even in our sleep.  One hand for the ship and one hand for yourself is the watch phrase of the day as cups jump off tables, pencils slide off the navigation station, and everything loose seeks the lowest part of the boat till there is a jumble of flotsam surging around the cabin sole.  What can bring order to this chaos?  Where can we find stillness?  Why the marina, of course, the dock.
Marina Mazatlan

Happily we sail towards the harbor, early morning grins on our faces, thinking about future showers, internet access, a seaside bistro, and long walks on hard land.  We negotiate the rocky breakwater, the lurking dredge and find ourselves in a Disneyland of moored boats.  All sizes and styles.  Big white motor cruisers towering overhead, little pontoon water taxis full of tourists, sport fishermen carving wakes as they try to keep their boat speed down, and sailing vessels of all sizes taking their time negotiating the docks without the benefit of bow thrusters or adequate horsepower.  
We radio ahead for the slip number, find it in the myriad of white fiberglass boats, and toss our bow lines to the executioners waiting.  They snug us in and we are caught in the web of the marina, lured in by the siren song of the dock.  All smiles, everyone is so darn pleasant.  They’ve got smiles on their faces as they stick in the knife and drag you down, down into the life at the dock.  
An euphoria of sorts settles in as you shed your fatigue from built up days at sea.  Crack a beer, grab a towel and get that long hot shower.  Take the relatively happy and healthy sea going craft that is your boat and put it on life support at the dock.  Plug in the power, connect the water, crank up the internet, tie lines stern, bow, beam, and spring.  Let down your guard by bringing in the jack lines and opening up the lifeline gates. Open all the hatches and settle into dock side life.
Well meaning dock dwellers invite you to happy hour.  Friends coach you as to how to get to Mega Mart, Costco, Sams, the evil Walmart, and the most dreaded money pit, the marine store.  Take the bus, it’s only 10 pesos, grab a taxi, it’s only 200 pesos.  Look at this sale on booze, and don’t you want this tee shirt?   Out comes the list of projects put on hold and before you know it you are knee deep in expensive boat projects involving stainless steel, hard to find electronics, and new tools, always new tools.  
Advice is in plenty supply.  Dock folks love to talk about projects and they can be a wealth of knowledge so it is only prudent to ask, comment, and listen.  However after a few days turn into a few weeks and the projects only grow larger you realize that you have been the victim of what we used to call back in the office, “mission creep”.  While we are cleaning out the cockpit locker we might as well tie those wires together, and while we are at it, let’s pull out that old wiring and we’ll find a vent hose needing replacement and that will take a couple of trips to Home Depot and the marine store.  Meanwhile, we’ve got to provision so we’d better go to various big box stores to see who has the best deal on red wine.  
Around and around it goes and you realize that many of these people at the dock don’t have plans to actually ever leave the dock.  They have cars now, and cell phones, and favorite Wednesday afternoon happy hours, and every Friday night English language movies at the Cineplex.  Their boats start to accumulate things on the deck until getting from stem to stern entails getting off the boat, onto the dock, then back on the boat.   Many boats, when they get to the dock, take much of the carefully stowed sails, bikes, fuel cans, tarpaulins, inflatable kayaks, and project related stuff and put in on the cabin top or the side decks so they can have more room inside.  As time goes by it becomes more difficult to imagine where all this stuff will go inside the boat when it comes time to leave again. So leaving gets postponed until the project is done or the junk is sold at the next swap meet.  
Swap meets:  another insidious slow-me-down-and-keep-us-at-the-dock ploy.  You tear your boat apart to get at that old radio or awning or rusty tool out from under the floor where you stashed it last season.  Then you drag your crap to the swap meet ashore and try to peddle it off to one of your friends.  But then you see all this perfectly good stuff that you could use on your next project and you end up spending more than you made and bring back more cubic feet of stuff that you liberated from your bilge that morning.  Just put it on the deck and deal with it later.  Isn’t it happy hour yet?
At the dock, you can tell the serious cruisers, the ones who will be leaving in just a few days.  Their boats don’t get much deck clutter and the crew seems to busily buzz around the decks fixing things and loading fuel, water, and supplies.  Sure they will do some socializing and make some trips to the store but the focus stays on the vessel and with luck, they can soon visit the marina office and pay the master a ransom fee to free the boat from the dock.  When that day comes, be it a few days or a few weeks, it is a happy day.  You crank up the diesel engine, and remove the life support lines, tubes, and cables.  Take off the sail covers and get the ship in fighting order, ready to face wind and waves.  Once you are free from the dock and the boat starts jumping around (like she is supposed to) you can take comfort knowing that money has stopped flowing from your wallet and you are again an independent entity on the high seas.  
The dock, we love her so, but we can’t wait to get away from her grasp.  

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Everyone knows Traveler

There is traveler, on the right with her dink.  She's getting reacquainted with her old Mazatlan buddies.
Pulling into Marina Mazatlan the boat seemed to slip into the slip like she was putting her foot into a well-worn shoe.   The lines leapt to the cleats and settled in nicely.  I noticed the waterline settled slightly and there was a soft sigh from the hull as the little fish started cleaning the through-hull fittings of their algae. Schools of fish congregated as the word got out that there was a fresh boat in the marina, chock full of exotic vegetable matter from LaPaz and beyond.  
Dennis showing Scott how to work the autopilot.

The brackish water in the estuary supports a different set of flora and fauna than the intensely salty liquid of the Sea of Cortez.  An equilibrium of sorts was in the making now aided by small fish and microorganisms.   
On the human side, we were welcomed also.  Not only we but she, the boat that is Traveler.  A woman walked down the dock, paused, and said, “I know this boat.  Wasn’t this Joan and Dennis Hadley’s boat?”  

I approached Ruben, the diver who cleans boat bottoms, and asked him if he’d give Traveler a scrape.  When I went to point out the boat he replied, “I know what boat you are on. That’s Traveler.  I’ve cleaned her bottom many times.”  And then he told me about the owner before the Hadleys and how he lived on land locally for a while and kept the boat right here in Marina Mazatlan.  

Tacking the headsail
A kiwi walked down the dock, paused and said, “ I know this boat.  I almost bought her in San Diego a few years back.”    In a couple of anchorages we’ve had people comment that they thought they’d know this boat before we owned it.   Yes, Traveler is a well know traveler of these west coast waters and we are only her current caretakers.   

We when we bought her, I felt that Dennis and Joan accepted our offer partly because we pledged to take her south from California and continue her journey traveling the warm Mexican Pacific waters.  “She’s itching to head south.  I can’t take her so she needs new owners who will.”  said Dennis.

So when the winds get up and the seas get rough we take comfort knowing that the boat has been there and done that before and it is only we who are anxious.