Sunday, March 1, 2015

Passage Making - What's It Like?

Connie and Scott are today (February 23, 2015) in the quaint little sea side town of Chacala, Nayarit, Mexico.  Chacala is the town name, Nayarit is the state.  We are here along with nine other out of country boats, all cutters, sloops, or ketches, no powerboats.  Here in the south-facing bay seventeen fishing pangas are moored tightly together off a concrete landing and one little sport catamaran bounces off a buoy.   The foreign boats, all oceangoing vessels, are mostly anchored fore and aft with the bow pointing south towards the open Pacific Ocean, except for two boats which have only a bow anchor down and thus swing around during the night when the sea breeze switches to a land breeze.  Because the swell is constant from the south, south west these boats roll vigorously for a few hours during wind direction changes. 

This is something I'll get back to later at the end of this little story but for now I thought I'd describe for you land lubbers how we got here and more specifically what it is like to do a seven day transit down the Sea of Cortez.  The following description could be any multi-day transit on an ocean going sailing vessel.  Multiply the days in transit by four and you have an ocean crossing such as from Mexico to Hawaii, absent of course of the anchoring for the night part.

Many people think that sailing down a sea is a yachtsman's dream full of smooth seas, dolphins frolicking off the bow, cocktails on the poop deck, and crisp white sails snapping sharply in the wind and perhaps that is the case when you have a hired crew and a million dollar boat.  But for us, we are a crew of two and what must be done must be done by Connie or by Scott, mostly by Connie.

After months of pulling our hair out trying to get our dear Traveler's engine properly aligned we finally were able to "git er done" and leave town on a Monday.  We could have left on Friday when the job was finished but no sailor leaves port on a Friday. Nothing superstitious about that!  The marina office was closed on the weekend as Carnaval was wrapping up so we decided to stay until Monday pay our bill and turn in the gate key at the Fonatur Marina.  Monday morning we walked to town for some last minute provisions of fresh fruit and vegetables.  Then we unplugged the power cord and stowed it, wrapped up the water hose, removed the awning, put the rudder on the wind vane, and hoisted the dinghy on deck.  Everything below had to be stowed carefully so that violent motion could not set it free.  Having completed these chores we were free to leave.  It was just after noon.

Our friends Scott and Jared on Reisender escaped the Fonatur dock minutes before us so we followed them out of the bay passing the navy dock and the large ship moorings.  We motored into the south wind and set a course of 162 degrees for Isla Espiritu Santos 210 miles away.  Most people leaving Guaymas head west and cross over the Sea of Cortez doing an overnight trip to an anchorage on the east coast of the Baja Peninsula. This trip is about 85 nautical miles and can be done in one overnight segment. Then they work their way south hopping from bay to bay splitting the trip into day long segments so they can sleep at night securely anchored.  Being so late in the year, we wanted to get south fast, so we planned some long distance runs, the first being from Guaymas to Playa Bonanza on Espiritu Santos.  We also wanted to do some longer runs to get more experience with the routine as we are planning to cross the Pacific in April, a 22 to 30 day sailing.

Whenever we do an overnight crossing we rig jack lines that run from the bow of the boat down both the port and starboard decks to the stern.  At night, rule #1 is that nobody goes from down below to the cockpit without wearing a life vest and a harness that is attached via a tether to a secure point in the
cockpit.  Rule #2 is that (at night) nobody goes up on the side deck or forward without being clipped into the jack line and additionally does not go out of the cockpit without a second crew member looking on. 

In the daytime the conditions of the sea determine if we need to be wearing a vest or be clipped in for safety.  If it is flat, we don't worry.  If the boat is bouncing around then certainly, we put on the vest and clip in whenever we go outside of the cockpit.

Rule #3 is a rather unfortunate rule we have for overnight passages.  We don't drink alcohol for the duration of the trip.  Maybe on a longer passage with more than two crew members we could loosen up this rule but for now we have it.  For myself, I always notice that the first night out, right around sunset I have an urge to have a glass of wine and I find myself cursing Rule #3.  Habits are strong.

Throughout the first afternoon we varied the RPMs of the new engine so as to break it in properly.  On leaving Guaymas the engine hour meter read ten hours.  As soon as we got out of harbor we turned on the mechanical auto pilot to keep the boat on course.  We had warmed up leftovers for dinner then decided on the watch shifts.  I'd take the 10:00 to 02:00 shift and Connie would do the 02:00 to 06:00 shift. I napped a little after dinner then came on deck at 10:00.  Connie went below and tried to sleep up in the vee berth where the engine noise is not so loud.  Not being used to being awake after 10:00 I got out the Ipod and put in the ear buds so the music would keep me awake.  I placed cushions on the rear cockpit seat and covered them with some cotton Mexican blankets so I'd be comfortable.  Then with the music of Cuba in my ears I settled in for my four hour shift.  I set the alarm (my favorite alarm is a barking dog) for fifteen minutes.

Connie:  6:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Scott:   10:00 PM - 02:00 AM
Connie 02:00 AM - 06:00 AM
Scott   06:00 AM -  10:00 AM

When the dog barked, I stood up in the cockpit and did a slow 360 degree examination of the horizon looking for boats and lights, thus following Rule #4. Every hour or so I went below and recorded our latitude and longitude and plotted our course on the chart.  The AIS readout tells me about nearby ships and if one was seen, I'd check to see how close we'd pass and keep an eye on it until it receded into the night. Four hours later I saw Connie rummaging around below making herself some hot tea.  She came on deck at 2:15 and I relinquished the watch to her, going below and climbing into the vee berth to try to sleep. 

For the next four hours Connie drank hot chocolate, ate a power bar, looked at the stars, did some stretches, thought about how much she loves her husband, watched the phosphorescence off the bow and listened to the music that is always playing in her head.  She also made regular notes on the chart and log and watched visually and via AIS for ships.  Connie says that if it is calm enough and if there is moon light she plays the ukulele and sings.  I slept a few hours after laying there for way too long listening to the engine and the drive train.  I woke up with the light and stumbled out of bed to see a sleepy Connie sitting upright in the cockpit watching the moon rise. She went below and I had the morning watch which I held until she got up and made breakfast. 

We were on day two now and both were slightly sleep deprived. Fortunately for us, the start of our transit was in fairly calm conditions so our bodies had a slow introduction to boat movement.  Eventually it got rougher and the boat started pitching, rolling, heeling, and yawing but by that time the risk of seasickness was slim as we had time to ease into it gradually.  I remember coming out of Mazatlan once after being relatively still for two weeks.  We headed right into monster swells with the boat pitching like crazy.  Everyone felt nauseous right off the bat.   Cookies were tossed.

Having no wind, we continued to motor and since the motor was running I decided to use that extra electricity and flush out the water maker and make some water.  This took a few hours as I had to de-pickle the system first because it had been in storage for the last six months.  Soon we had water filling the tanks. We took turns trying to nap and thankfully were able to hoist the Genoa at 3:30 PM when a northerly breeze finally filled in. Ahh, silence.  As the wind picked up I switched off the wheel mounted auto pilot and switched on the below deck autopilot and found that it would not keep a course.  Clearly there was a problem there that I'd have to figure out later.  We had enough wind for the wind vane to do the steering so we got that rigged and let it drive the boat until the wind died just after midnight when we had to roll up the sail, turn on the engine, and engage the auto pilot.  We switched shifts that second evening with Connie taking the 10:00 to 2:00 and me taking the 2:00 to 6:00.  Again, I heard the dog bark every fifteen minutes. There was very little traffic out there in the middle of the Sea of Cortez.  We were rummy and sleep deprived.

Scott:       6:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Connie:   10:00 PM - 02:00 AM
Scott      02:00 AM - 06:00 AM
Connie   06:00 AM -  10:00 AM

We hoisted the jib and main at 07:30 AM and had light wind conditions that built throughout the day as we approached Isla Espiritu Santos.  By late afternoon we turned into the bay with a brisk breeze and four foot seas.  We dropped the main and furled the Genoa then slowed the boat as Connie prepared the anchor.  She dropped the hook and set it in 25 feet on a sandy bottom. By this time we were exhausted having had no more than four hours of sleep at a time.  Neither of us sleep well with the engine on or when the boat has lively action.  We made an easy dinner then went to bed, relishing the quiet.  It is so good to be in a calm boat with no engine running.

Fifty one hours of motoring and sailing had taken us from Guaymas to Isla Espiritu Santos, just east of La Paz on the Baja side of the Sea of Cortez.   We covered 210 nautical miles averaging four knots.  Our first leg of the journey was over.  Geeze, how are we going to do this for 20 some days?

At sea, we get our weather information by tuning the single side band radio to 39680 for the Sonrisa net at 07:30.  One of the first things the net controller does is take reports from vessels underway.  Now that I have my general license I check in with my call sign, give my position and sea state and let our buddies know where we are.  It's great to listen to friends we've met over the years and know where they are in the 800 or so miles of the Pacific Mexico cruising grounds.   So I've added that to the to-do list: be up and listening every morning from 07:30 to 08:00. 

On the Sonrisa net, Gary the weatherman comes on at a quarter to the hour and gives a nicely detailed forecast for all the crossings and major anchorages.  So far, Gary had given us the green light to head south.  We'd find light to moderate conditions for the next couple of days.

Day three we got up with the first light and headed south.  Motoring through the first half of the day we found wind in the afternoon and hoisted the Genaker, a lightweight nylon sail.  The sail served us quite well as we headed down the Cerralvo Channel.  We read and played music until we reached Punta Arena de la Ventana where the wind and current were mixing it up creating a confused sea state.  With the boat bouncing around erratically the Genaker was trying to wrap itself around the forestay so we doused it successfully, turned on the engine and motored for a couple of hours into the protected bay at Muertos.  Hang on tight!

We'd been watching a sail in the distance gradually catching up to us for the last four hours and as we made our approach that sailboat was rapidly closing the distance.  Connie was on the bow with the anchor ready while I selected a spot I thought was a respectable distance from some fisherman mooring balls and yet still in the wind protection of a cliff face.   The nimrod in the other sailboat came in hot on our tail and cut us off, zooming ahead and dropping his anchor with a big splash right in the middle of all the mooring balls.  Connie looked over the mere 30 yards of water between us and him with her palms turned up saying, " What?... Really.  You are going to anchor there?"  We were the only two boats in the bay.  A quarter mile of anchorage stretched out to our port side.  Fuming, I turned Traveler around and moved down the beach to give us all some breathing room.  This has happened to me multiple times in my sailing career and still to this day I don't understand it.  The boat first in takes his mooring spot then the next boat in line takes his.. makes sense to me.

Once we got everything secured and had a glass of wine and cursed that bad sailboat captain some more boats came in and we watched them space themselves around the anchorage until we had six boats nestled in for the night.  A light quick dinner then a movie on the laptop did the trick and we slept deep and long.  Second leg completed and we were getting caught up on sleep.

Friday morning we left with the sun and watched the other boats disperse into the sea.  As we had 46 nautical miles to go that day we had to keep our speed up so we did the usual, motoring through the calm morning hours then catching some wind to finish out the day.  We arrived in Bahia Los Frailes just before sunset.  When doing day hops like this we don't keep any set watch schedule, we just swap times at the helm as it suits us, trying to take a nap during the day, do some reading, and cook meals.  It's an easy pattern, much easier than the overnight trips.

Saturday morning we had planned on staying over in Frailes for an extra day to take a break from sailing and motoring.  However after listening to the weather report on the single side band, we knew that we should get south and away from a strong north wind that was due the next day on this part of the coast.   Motoring out we set the course of 106 degrees into the autopilot and started our two night run to Isla Isabel.  We varied the engine speed and motored on throughout the day and night, taking our four hour shifts into the darkness until the dawn.

The next day, just before sundown we caught a nice northwest breeze and set the delicate genaker sail.  Connie got the wind vane pilot going and we breezed right along.  Checking the engine hours I realized that I should have done the initial engine oil and transmission fluid changes required after 50 hours so we set about changing out those fluids.  The sea was rolling and the sun was setting as we juggled hot oil and hand pumps and wrenches to get everything changed.  We didn't spill much and made a slight mess but felt proud that we completed it all without mishap while the genaker pulled us ever so nicely south.

Again we did four hour shifts with the barking dog, the exercises, the reading, charting, and horizon scanning.  At 4:00 AM Connie woke me up. We had arrived just off Isla Isabel, two hours before sunrise.  My bad planning had us there too early to find an anchoring spot.  Once I woke up I was able to use published way points on the GPS to get close to the island to have a look.  We saw multiple boats in the small anchorage and decided we'd better just press on as the seas were too active to just heave to for a couple of hours.  Connie went to bed and I took Traveler south into the rising sun waking her up at 10:00 with my shouts of "Fish On!"   We got the pacific bonito on board and I cut into it to check the meat thinking it might be a skip jack.  But it turned out to be some nice looking meat so we filleted the unfortunate being and turned the head and guts out to the sea birds.  All around us we could see the fishing fleet.

A few hours later we realized that Isla Isabel had given us some presents as we passed in the night.  We'd picked up thousands of gnats and mosquitoes.  We spent a couple of hours massacring the bugs, driving them out of the dark recesses of the cockpit and down below.  Now the fiberglass in the cockpit is dotted with death.  We made the turn into Chacala at 4:30 PM sailing slowly and found an anchoring spot among eight other boats. 

When first we came to Chacala two years ago we dropped only the bow anchor and had a very rough night of it and so a learning experience had ensued. Now we knew we'd need to have a hook down bow and stern.  Connie set the bow anchor well and I tried to back down on it towards the beach pointing the bow towards the incoming swell.  However, Traveler had a mind of her own and insisted on backing more westerly, perhaps because there was a current running across the beach.  We set the stern anchor and found that we'd not set the two far enough apart and the angle was all wrong.  Then the stern anchor rode got under the wind vane rudder threatening to snap it off.  We pulled both anchors up and tried again.  After the second set I still didn't like the angle so we launched the dinghy and I rowed out to the stern anchor, pulled it aboard and ferried it to a better position.  Sundown found us hot, sweaty and exhausted but successfully anchored at Chacala. That evening we watched as the two boats without stern anchors swung around with the dying wind and got beam on to the swell, their masts swinging wildly from side to side.

We'd made it to the Mexican Pacific coast, a seven day trip of 567 nautical miles.  Sleep deprived, tired, and hungry we celebrated with a bottle of wine and slept deeply to awaken in a paradise of palm trees, sandy beaches, and palapa restaurants lining the shore. 

As I publish this piece we are in La Cruz, a day's sail south from Chacala.  This is a good place to provision and take care of the ever present to-do list.  

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I love that gorgeous sunset. Thanks so much for sharing your experience.