Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Devil's Backbone

Warning:  Content change in progress.  The paragraphs to follow contain not a whit of nautical reference but are land based in content.  If you want to read about boats or boating I suggest you follow the links here and here.  Otherwise, proceed with caution.

The Osuna Clan, heavy drinkers all.
Sixteen days living twelve feet above the concrete sea of the Fonatur yard start to take their toll on captain and crew.  Mutinies were at hand and the captain agreed to some inland exploration by car.  We started with a road trip out to the Los Osuna distillery where they convert the famous blue agave plant into a fine Tequilla like liquor.  We took Highway 15 (Libre is the free road) north of town to the 11Km marker and turned right, running the gauntlet of soldiers monitoring the smuggling route to Culican.  Then we left the seaside lowlands and climbed into the low hills.  At 14 Km we turned down a dirt road leading to the Osuna distillery.

My beautiful wife sampling the Reposado
Luis Daniel Limon Haro guided us around the small complex where the Osuna family have been brewing the blue agave for 130 years.  They don’t call it Tequila because the distillery is in the Mexican state of Sinaola and not Jalisco.  If the plant is in Jalisco it is Tequilla. If the plant is in any other state of Mexico it cannot be called Tequilla.  This is much like the word “Champagne.”  The heart of the agave plant, looking much like a huge artichoke heart, is chopped out and tossed into a below ground, rock lined, roaster.  This underground pot can hold hundreds of agave hearts. After roasting, the mix is fermented and distilled twice before going into the bottle (Blanco) or the oak casks (Madero, Reposado 11 months, or very fine Anejo, 18 months) .  We tasted the Madero.  Curiously, the Anejo cannot be purchased in Mexico as this top-of-the-line liquor is only sold in the United States. 

Luis showed us how to savor the flavor using a brandy snifter.  Then later, shaded by a huge Huaxacocle tree, we sipped the blue agave, taking shot after shot till Connie and Ezrah got just a little too high.  We bought a bottle of the Reposado for further sampling later.  Ezrah climbed a tree then we drove home.  As promised, the 100 percent blue agave left no hangover or ill effects as Connie and Ezrah testified to later. 
Note the alcohol legs

As Ezrah was really jones’n to get up into some more hills before his flight on Monday, we started planning another trip.  Let’s see, we can go north towards Culican for a flat hot trip, or head south toward Tepic for a different flat, hot trip, or we can head east up into the mountains toward Durango where it will be cooler.  I started doing investigation on the internet about the mountainous area serviced by highway 40 .  I came up with nothing.  No references to hiking, camping, hot springs, hotels, etc..  Curious.  I could tell it was some beautiful mountain country but no tourist attractions could I find.

On my second attempt the next evening I found references to a road named the Devil’s Backbone or in Spanish,  El espinazo del diablo.  This twisty winding road goes 2400 meters high over some serious terrain.  Highway 40 is the only road between Mazatlan and the city of Durango, that is until recently when the federal government decided to dump 20 billion pesos into an amazing feat of construction that will cut the drive time between Mazatlan and Durango by six hours.  And it will cut out the Devils Backbone route for those who want to go fast.  But the route is unfinished and we had the pleasure of driving this crazy old route up and over the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain chain.

Lunchtime roadside with small monument.
We left in the early morning and found our way out to highway 40.  One of the first things we noticed was the large number of roadside memorial markers honoring people who died in accidents.  It seemed that every significant curve had one or two deaths to mark the way. 
Large roadside monument
Some of the monuments were small some, monumental.  As the only highway connecting the coast with the interior in this area, there was plenty of trucking running down the highway.  With the hairpin turns the big tractor trailers had a hard time of it.  And so there are many signs saying, “Busque vehĂ­culos invadiendo su carri” or Look for vehicles invading your lane.   And invade they did.  On turns we’d slow down, get way to the right and watch for trucks.  All of a sudden there would be one and he’d be half way into our lane!  We’d put a wheel in the gravel and come to a halt, waving to the driver as he muscled his rig around the sharp turn with his cab way to his right and his back trailer tire inches from our driver’s side mirror.  We called these guys the Lane invaders. 
Lane Invader

Pulling over for a break we looked 15 miles across the canyon and saw the new highway, a series of tunnels connected with a series of bridges.  Draw a straight line through this amazing terrain and that’s what it will be, tunnel, bridge, tunnel, bridge.  One of these bridges is a suspension bridge 403 meters or 1,322 feet tall. This, the Baluarte Bicentennial Bridge, will be the second tallest suspension bridge on the planet.  When doing my research on this area I kept coming across U.S. State department warnings about this area of the country, citing drug gang activity. 

The new highway with suspension bridge.
Evidently sometimes at night the bad guys throw up impromptu road blocks on the highway to extort money from travelers.  The country is extremely rugged and mountainous making it difficult for the Federales to keep a presence there.  In addition, when we found Mexican press releases about the new highway they noted that a prime benefit of the road is that it will open up the state of Durango to safer, economic development, fighting drug activity with economic growth.  And this is where we were headed. At least it was daytime and a little bit safer than at night. 

The mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental
Our cabin
We made our way six hours into the mountains traversing the Devil’s Backbone and popping out on top of a pine wooded plateau at 2,580 meters (8,465 feet) above sea level and into the little town of El Salto.  I had found a single reference to one hotel in town and some cabins just outside of town so we went in search of the cabins.  Driving through El Salto the place looked a little rough as is to be expected for a town reliant on logging and a resident military base.  We saw lots of guys in pickup trucks.  We drove through the narrow streets of the town center then turned east towards mile marker 86 where we found an old gate at Paraiso de la Sierra Madres.   A young boy opened the old iron gate and motioned us through.  We asked about cabins and he pointed down towards the end of a dusty road. 

Gas for the stove
A long time ago someone turned this little valley into a development of small resort homes.  Rustic A-Frame houses and adobe block structures stood on large lots.  Making our way to the road’s end we crossed a dry dike and saw some cabins.  After we pulled up, the caretaker came out with his tool belt on and motioned us to one of the cabins.  We struck a deal that Connie and Ezrah thought was too dear but I was just relieved to find a safe and quiet place to spend the night.  After a rest and a short hike we drove back to town to buy some drinking water and have a meal. 

El Salto - not a tourist town
We found a place in town where we had some whole fried fish and talked to the young man serving us about hiking and hot springs.  He offered to take us to the hot springs but it would have to be at night. The deal got too complicated and we didn’t want to drive at night.  Everyone we met said not to drive at night.  So we tipped the guy and left. On the way to the car a middle aged man in a pickup shouted some harsh words to us which I didn’t understand and we realized that everyone was just staring at us. No smiles, just stares.  And when we drove by the little hotel, the only hotel in town, the road was full of pickup trucks with guys sitting in the back drinking beer and glaring at us.  At this time I got a case of what I call the “I gotta get outta here’s.”  I guess we stood out, a tall thin woman in short shorts, a young man with long curly hair, and a tall funny looking gringo with a pony tail and nylon shorts.

Ezrah next to his fire
We were glad we had the place in the country that evening and really enjoyed making a fire in the fireplace and reveling in the cool mountain air.  I slept like crap, probably because we were at 8500 feet and because I had a cold coming on strong.  The next day we drove back to Mazatlan, watching for the lane invaders, stopping along the way for a little hike and arriving on the coast to the 90 degree heat of the lowlands and the late afternoon traffic.  We collapsed aboard Traveler, glad to be home but sad that we’d be losing Ezrah in two day’s time.

Connie next to Ezrah's fire
Lessons learned?  Just because the topography on the map looks wonderful does not mean that it is a place for tourists, or hiking, or for strange gringos to enjoy the countryside like a walk in the park. 

Big nose... big feet.
Postscript# 1 :  Ezrah flew back to the rat race of Olympia and is presently road tripping across the U.S.A. with his father and sister to visit grandparents in Michigan.  He’s wearing a Mexican serape and has a bottle of Muy Picante hot sauce in his backpack.
The one who knows all
Postscript# 2 :  Connie and Scott, in the face of 90 degree heat and a four week wait for parts, etc. are planning a road trip to the states starting next week.  We’ll be visiting family in Arizona, Tennessee, and Illinois and stopping by to see friends wherever we can find them along the way.  In a month or so, we’ll come back to Mazatlan to re- launch our fully functional sailing vessel into the 100 degree mosquito infested waters of the Mazatlan estuary and marina complex.  Please come join us. No, Just kidding.  We’ll batten down the hatches, double tie the mooring lines, then head by car to the Pacific Northwest to bask in the welcoming bosoms of our friends and followers.  Come fall it is Pacific Mexico, part duex.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Technical Update

Traveler under cover.  Shhh
Some of my Seattle boat friends are freaking out on my behalf as they figure out that Traveler is not only on the hard (pulled out of the water) in Mazatlan but that her engine has been removed.  I guess it's time to fess up and let our readers know just how deep in the doo doo we have gotten ourselves.

Remember that little hole in the hull from back in Puerto Vallarta?  My quickie patch job held just fine but we knew that it was only a temporary fix and we should head toward a respectable boat yard pretty soon.  Our friends Marco and Naida had some work down on their swift and sexy Passport 40 at Total Yacht Works in Mazatlan, Sinaloa so we headed north to Mazatlan to talk to the "Bob".  Marco had gone around and around with Bob Buchanan and Rafa Serrano getting his Passport re-powered and having bottom work done.  I say "around and around" because my good friend Marco is very particular about how things are done and he just couldn't keep himself out of the business of fixing the boat.  So daily, or sometimes multiple times a day, he'd go harass Bob about every big, and little, detail.  This pestering and pressuring and posturing and prevaricating between the two very similar but totally opposite men eventually fostered a good relationship between them and everyone is now happy.  
The Bob

So we went to see "the Bob".  And when we told Bob that Marco sent us he said that he'd have to charge us double.  No, not really.  And I digress.  

Once at the beautiful Fonatur marina and boat yard we brought Bob to the boat and he had a look at our electrical charging system and scupper issues.  When I opened up the engine compartment he said, "That's a lot of oil in the bilge... but then it IS a Perkins."  Perkins engines are famous for having leaking seals and burning oil and being loud as hell. But they run forever.  Even crippled, they run forever.  Bob had me start the engine and he put his hand over the oil filler cap.  When I revved it up he felt pressure on his hand.. not good.  Then when he removed his hand, dirty oil flew up into his face.  "Yup, back pressure." he said.   "You've got a lot of oil coming out of this engine.  It's coming out the valve cover, fuel pump, filler cap, and breather.  Could be a stuck valve, or maybe a problem with the rings."

My heart sank.  Bob shrugged in his casual way and gave me a half smile as if to say, "No need to worry. It's no big deal.  We can fix this."  We talked some more and I realized the magic of Bob. Step by step, day by day, we'd eventually set Traveler to rights.  Nothing is too bad, every problem is solvable, don't worry, and yes, be happy.  Just like the song.

Once we got Marco on the plane back to LA, Bob had more free time and we started digging in on some boat projects.  We had a two week wait to get into the yard so the Traveler crew had time to prepare.  I spent the time mapping out the electrical system spending hours on my belly with my hands in the bowels tracing wires.  I was able to identify and document every wire coming to and from the engine, the instrument panel, the charging systems, and the batteries.  It was an enlightening experience and it made me feel more at peace with the boat.  
Traveler uncovered

Once we were hauled out into the yard, the real brains behind the team, Rafa Serrano, did a pressure test on the engine.  "She's gotta come out." he said.  The Perkins needed a rebuild, that's IF there is enough left (tolerance-wise) to do a rebuild.  Otherwise we'd be looking at a re-power with a new Yanmar or Beta.  Rafa disconnected everything on the engine and one afternoon he popped it out of the boat with the help of a come-a-long and a crane truck.  See his picture in our last blog here. 

After disassembling the engine he sent the crank shaft off to be reconditioned and we are now hoping for the best... that the crank has enough life in it for the rebuild to continue.  If not, well then we'll find another crank shaft.  But we are not going to re-power.  And that is good because Marco wants me to go with the Beta and Bob wants me to go with the Yanmar and I certainly don't want those two going at it for my benefit.

Meanwhile, back in the yard I got to run may hand over the velvet flanks of the second love of my life. Traveler glistened fresh from the wash down and as I reached up and sweep my hand across her bottom and felt all those lovely blisters.  Then with the late afternoon diffused light they became all the more apparent as Bob and I observed them in relief.  How many?  A hundred?  Bob shrugged and gave me that little smile.  "We can fix this. We'll do a bottom peel, fix the blisters, and put on a barrier coat."

Today we have a crew of three workers who are just finishing up their second day scraping and grinding.  Dust settles on everything.  We have all the windows tightly shut.  It is an oven inside.  That's why I'm sitting here in the lounge writing a blog.  I'm waiting for the crew to finish up for the day then they'll rinse off the boat and I'll open the hatches and try to get it cool inside before the mosquitoes come out to play.  We will all drink cold beer.  They will have Pacifico Light, in the can.  I will have a Pacifico Ballena.
This one is sexier

Not the picture Perkins uses on his Plenty of Fish profile.
So let's see, we have an engine rebuild and a bottom peel, quite impressive.  I'll raise you that fiberglass repair on the cracked scupper.  What's that Bob?  You wanna wiggle something?  Let's wiggle the rudder.  Notice how it seems loose there at the point where the shaft enters the hull?  The bearings must be bad.  No Problem.  We'll drop the rudder, remove the bearings and replace them.  While we are at it, we'll check the cutlass bearing and prop shaft.  It's easy.  Simple.

Now we need some icing on the cake!  Let's pick something that is significant but not overwhelming. 

On the trip north from Bandaras Bay the transmission jumped out of gear a couple of times.  Could be a problem there.  So Rafa opened up the Hurth transmission and found nothing but chaos inside.  Broken teeth, worn clutches, snapped rings, a lost screwdriver.  Time for a new transmission.

  And now everything seems complete.  There is not one significant system on Traveler that we have not touched.

Petra, Connie, Ez, and Bruce noting the standing headroom
Just for kicks, the next day we took the dinghy over to another dock to see a Passport 45 ketch that Bruce Raymaker at Total Yacht Sales wanted to show us.  We brought along our friends Petra and Hans from the schooner Lifee P. Baker.  What a wonderful boat.  Much like Traveler (same designer) but a few extra feet longer, center cockpit, aft cabin, and an extra mast on the back deck.  Not sure what that's for. 

Once we got back to our messy, pock ridden, dusty boat Connie, Ezrah, and I talked about it and decided that we like Traveler just fine.  I'm sorry I was tempted, honey.  Bigger is not necessarily better.

The days roll by one after another like an infinite string of pearls.  We have our tea in the morning, our beer in the afternoon, and spend our evenings playing cards or watching a movie.  I'm replacing wiring, thru-hull valves, and fixing everything I can find that needs fixing.  Connie is fixing things like crazy, and cleaning, and sewing covers for everything on the boat.  Ezrah, realizing that we are going to be living in the yard for quite some time, is making his exit plans.  For me, I'm happy right here with Connie, Rafa, and the Bob.