Friday, May 10, 2013

Northern reach – and return South

At last post we were in Santa Rosalia, and here we are a month later back in La Paz. That’s about 300 miles round trip in a little over five weeks. Not breakneck pace, but it would be easy to spend multiple months and seasons covering this playground and still discover new sites. There have been many beautiful, dramatic and interesting stops including whale watching and touring the copper mine on a second stay back at Santa Rosalia (more on that below). We have also had our share of dynamic weather to keep us listening to the forecasts and opting to scurry to a safe anchorage or stay longer in a harbor when we might otherwise have moved on.

We had “planned” to take these last 3 weeks to lazily cruise back to La Paz, visiting and revisiting places we had rushed by on the way north. Now we know why they say that the biggest mistake a sailor can make is to make “plans.” Most recently, our track was determined by wind alone when a mechanical failure (the transmission again!) brought us back to the dock in La Paz by way of a 72-hour sail, staying off-shore, near the center of the sea to avoid drifting into land when the wind died (as it often did). We limped into a slip at Marina Palmira, which feels like our home here in La Paz, with our forward propulsion provided by our little 8-horse outboard bolted to the swim step on the transom. Very resourceful.

We feel relief to be safely tied to a pier, but a little disappointed that we were not able to make all the stops we had hoped to on the way back south. We have motivation to attack the problem of the tranny, getting it done for good. We are hopeful that the 3 weeks ahead is enough time to make it happen, along with the other preparations on our list to ready for the crossing to Hawaii. We still feel grateful to wake up each morning to sunshine and the sights and sounds of Mexico – a walk on the Malecon, a chance to practice Spanish with the friendly marina staff, the Baja sunset over the breakwater while we eat in the cockpit.

Early morning departure from Santa Rosalia -- goodbye to recent cruising buddies -- we'll see you down the road.

Here are the highlights of our latest memories:

Departing from the comfort and constant comradeship of a marina and friends at Santa Rosalia, we decided to test the waters a little further north in the Sea of Cortez. The next anchorage with good protection was 78 miles, which meant up at 4 am and depart at 5, giving us plenty of time to arrive at Bahia San Francisquito before dark. Now that daylight savings time has started in Mexico, our sunlight hours are about 6am to 8pm - noticeably longer. We had a beautiful sunrise and brisk sail, but with some confused seas. Lanham’s least favorite condition – being constantly knocked about and unable to make efficient headway. Occasional radio check-ins with a friend, Curtis, single-handing on his 46’ Hylas, Aurora, told us he was experiencing the same seas and had had to take down his jib when he discovered a tear in one of the seams. He still beat us into the bay by about an hour and had dinner going for us all as we set the anchor.
Solar Wind and Aurora -- the only boats north
in San Francisquito

Each place that we have stopped has had its own unique rock formations and hues, desert flora, bird and sea life. San Francisquito (which we began calling San Fran-mosquito because it rolls off the tongue better) was no exception. The mountain valley and arroyo at the head of the bay was scattered with lacy sculpted sandstone cliffs and caves begging to be explored on foot.

The water, a much colder 60 F. according to our boat’s thermometer, was the typical two-tone blue distinguishing the shallows from the 20’depth that we were anchored in (ha, that used to BE the shallows!).  A ride in the dinghy led to the amazing discovery of hundreds of manta rays cruising the smooth sandy bottom – their black and silver diamond shaped bodies skittering in flight under the still water.

The water looked less than pristine for swimming; all around the boat and along the tide line were scattered the dead and dying bodies of some sort of orange shrimp. They were all 2 inches long, looking a lot like crayfish, more exoskeleton than meat. Those that were alive swam adeptly by pulling all their legs in and out breaststroke style. But there were way more carcasses piled up than swimmers – just one of nature’s mysteries.

We were again glad to have our Sail-rite sewing machine on board and dinghied it over to Curtis’s boat in the morning for an on deck repair of his jib. Worked great, and good practice for us – we hope we can always do it under such calm conditions. It takes at least two people to fold and hold the bulk of the sailcloth out of the way and would be a much greater challenge in high winds or seas.

We explored the sandstone caves, walked the beach, dinghied into a tiny bay that was an outpost for a couple trailer homes and the Mexican navy and spent a total of 4 days in this bay, waiting out big winds, but completely secure on our anchor. We actually did reset the anchor once, and on pulling it found it was covered with seaweed. Our new policy is to check and reset the anchor every couple of days if we are going to be staying through a strong wind forecast.

Desert in bloom
While there is another third of the sea further north than San Francisquito, we had a real sense of remoteness in this location. It was away from Highway 1, and there were very few settlements for miles and miles along the shore. In 4 days we saw no other cruisers (Aurora headed across to the mainland to pick up family) and only one fishing boat pulled in to wait out the afternoon 35 kt winds. When the wind kicked up at night so did the coyotes howling on shore. It was quite the concert, under a sky peppered with stars. Lanham aptly described it as looking like someone had spilled talcum powder on black velvet.
Even though everyday is sunny in Mexico, weather is still the great “decider.” Being on the water and dependent on wind speed and direction, weather factors continue to be a major topic of consideration any time we are thinking of leaving the dock. We have experienced the “elefantes”, squirrelly and strong localized winds that are associated with clouds shaped like elephants’ trunks, pouring over the Montana de la Gigante. In addition, since spring has arrived we have prepared for and experienced the  “coromuels,” evening southwesterlies that blow warm 30+ kts in the evening or through the night. Coromuels are caused by the cooler air from the Pacific traveling over the low Baja Peninsula and meeting the warmer water and thus lower air pressure over the Sea of Cortez. Looking at the forecasted wind direction is a big part of choosing an anchorage. Many bays are only comfortable in a northerly, or a southerly, with the “wrong” direction leaving you exposed to a rolly night or worse, a leeward shore which could keep us awake, making sure we don’t drag into shallows. So it stays interesting, and there is plenty to talk over when we start thinking about moving or when choosing our night’s stop.

One of the anchorages we passed by -- on Isla San Marco, they mine and load gypsum -- which is the dust you see.

As we got further north in the Sea of Cortez we also began to see much larger tidal ranges and so the need to “watch the tides and currents” when planning passages through the channels between islands. We tried to do our homework, and talked to lots of people about where to get tide tables and schedules. No one had definitive answers and unlike most of Puget Sound it seems not as straight forward as two highs and two lows a day. It seems instead to go one direction all day and the other the next. We are loath to find ourselves motoring “against” a current that cuts our speed over ground by a knot or two. And of course we will happily get up really early to catch a current going our way – feels like free fuel to pick up that extra knot or two. We think that the water that gets caught up in the northern end of the sea creates it’s own tidal currents, swirling around and not emptying regularly… but what do we know? Not wanting to mess around with more extreme tides and currents, and having had our “alone” time up north, we decided to return south to Santa Rosalia when the weather let up. By the way, we fished for hours both directions and caught only seaweed – too cold we guess.

Playing Tourists
enjoying Food and Friends:
Checking out the Museo Boleo (historical mining museum) at Santa Rosalia

We spent another week thoroughly enjoying Santa Rosalia, while getting a few boat projects done and doing more sightseeing. Here a a few of our favorite shots and some of the terrific people we enjoyed:
From the history museum   -- a good view of the port

Mexican preschoolers are obsessed with Disney
Here is a Jardin de Ninos to delight any kindergartener.
Old, but immaculate

The "old" minding facility -- reminds us of Gasworks Park in Seattle.
No regulations - you are free to wander -- and climb?
A home on the hilltop in Santa Rosalia -- with its niche

We walked the town with Eric and Christine,
from the sailboat, Indara. Their home in Gig Harbor, WA
Lanham and "the guys" helped out the marina staff one morning with repositioning the dock ramp

Out and about town with Pepeh (Lanham's teaching him to shake hands)

Eating again, with John and Deb, Pepeh's mom and dad, from ScotFree, eh
-- home port, Vancouver, BC, eh!

Melinda took a late afternoon walk up the hill to the cemetery 
                  Colorful kid's socks drying on the line.Amid the clear poverty in parts of any Mexican town,
clean laundry -- and well-cared for children are the norm.

Back at Santa Rosalia, our friends had scheduled two terrific local experiences and we were happy to join in. On a Monday morning at 8 am, 10 of us were picked up by a van run by the EcoTour outfit in San Ignacio, an inland town about an hour away. We enjoyed the main street and seeing the very early Spanish mission (built with indigenous slave labor) in San Ignacio and then continued on another hour over very rough dirt road to the west side of the Baja Peninsula.

The mission at San Ignacio

The painted red lines were applied to make the
building stones look bigger

Inside the cathedral
Our "gang" (the motley cruisers) in the shady San Ignacio central square
and a sweet looking hotel on main street

Back in the van that took us off-road to the lagoon

San Ignacio is a true desert oasis -- with a camp ground along the river lined with palms

Along the road, we passed over salt flats. Fresh water evaporates leaving the salt and red colored soil.
Ignacio Lagoon is a breeding ground and nursery for Grey Whales. We heard there were currently 53 moms and babies still conducting swimming lessons in the lagoon – and we just might get a good view of them. We’ve “seen” plenty of whales on this trip – it’s exciting, we grab the camera and click away, but they are mostly bumps or splashes on the horizon and if you blink you miss them. This was something else!

Hearing about the ecology of the lagoon before going out to find whales
An osprey on his roost

The overnight facilities -- solar powered cabins and composting toilets
Mounds of shells from the giant-sized scallops harvested in the bay
Off we go
We started with a little talk at the palapa-covered lodge, at the end of the road. It was explained that the pangas stayed in a very small area of the lagoon so the whales could come close or swim away from the boats at any time. The boats never approached the whales, but might travel slowly parallel to them and if the whales approached we might be able to touch them. We piled into two pangas with expert drivers/guides and once we got into the south end of the lagoon, the whales did indeed find us!

Surely that's a smile!
For an hour and a half we slowly cruised the waters, marveling at their displays -- breeching, spouting, and coming up a foot from the gunnels of the boat to let us reach out and rub their soft (yes, soft and squishy!) grey heads or bellies. They all swam in pairs – moms and young ones. The babies seemed to be the less shy or more curious. The moms were often very close, sometimes pushing the babies to the surface, other times staying just a ways off, like supervising at the playground. Both young and old had barnacles, or algae, or critters of some kind growing on their hide, making an interesting texture and pattern. Nothing catching we hoped.

Curtis's mom, Jeanie, 85, as enthusiastic as the rest of us
It was hard to stop grinning and marveling at their size, power, and peaceful nature. Apparently, the viewing season ends mid-April, when the mothers and babies migrate north to Alaska for the cooler summer water. There were several tourist operations in this rather desolate remote stretch of the western Baja coast. Several, including the one we went with had small solar powered cabins or yurts for overnight accommodations. Before leaving we were served a delicious lunch of fresh seafood. Giant scallops were the specialty of the bay. It was good to see the local people blending their traditional economic livelihood with an environmentally sensitive tourist business.

The very next day, we were up early again, for a morning tour of Santa Rosalia’s giant new mining operation located on the outskirts of the old town. We met our guide and driver at the Minera Boleo office, walking distance from the marina. They did not speak English, so we again appreciated our cruiser friend, Deb’s, translation ability.
Motley cruisers group again, ready to hit the mines outside Santa Rosalia
Our tour guides and driver
Earlier we had seen the historical museum in the town and read about the French mining company that had made its wealth in copper and left its print on the town. There are stories of the terrible working conditions and labor unrest that resulted. They closed for good about 20 years ago and the Mexican’s had gone back to fishing and harvesting octopus for their livelihood. We heard that over-fishing was drying up the economy until five years ago, when a joint venture between Canadian and Korean companies started construction on a new mining operation. It is now about two-thirds complete, and will be mining copper as well as magnesium and obsidian.
Rescued cactus "22,297"

Each rescued cacti is numbered
Signs in English, Spanish and Korean
We saw the camp where the workers are housed, fed, and entertained. We saw one of the green houses where they bring specimens of the 8 different kinds of cacti that are endangered and nurture them until they are relocated.

And we saw the amazing grading of the entire mountainscape, the construction of the processing vats, the conveyor belt that will move the minerals through the process, and the beginning of the 5,000 meter dock where cargo ships will be loaded. One of the weird facts is that once they are operational they only expect to stay profitable and open for 25 years, then phase three is to return the landscape to its original setting. At the moment, the mine project is good for the town and for employment – down the road, we wonder?

Solar Wind in the truly beautiful Bahia Concepcion (at Santispac)

So, having had our marine biology experience and our social studies/geology lesson we had a couple more great meals with friends, including the weekend only special, roasted chicken and pork carnitas, at a favorite restaurant. Provisioning with a full chicken and a kilo of pulled pork, we had another early morning departure and a full day of sailing, returning to Santispac in Bahia Concepcion.

L's favorite way to end a day or christen a new anchorage -
A dive from the boat and a warm water rinse.

Lanham is doing a bottom scrub in the
chillier water -- his head has rubbed off some
of your bottom paint

Birds of many feathers hang out together here in the Sea.
We have even seen perfect V-formations made up of
multiple species -- pelicans, gulls, and boobies
Santispac is where we had spent Easter, but now we were facing a quiet beach san the holiday hoopla and crowds. Again, we waited out some big wind, enjoyed the swimming and got the bottom of the boat scrubbed, went to shore the third day there and borrowed our friend Swagman’s truck for a trip to Hotel Serenidad.

Hotel Serenidad -- a quaint fly-in hotel
We LOVED the sign advising pilots how to "take OOF"

The "Duke" among other famous visitors spent time at this bar. We hope to come back -- anyone want to fly in with us?
Above the beach at Santispac -- a future building site for us???

We delivered his truck from its beach parking spot to some Americans with a home up on the hill. We enjoyed meeting a couple in this pretty cool little Gringo enclave, and had sweet dreams about buying one of the lots for sale up there… dream on. We’ll have to go home and think about it.

Expect the Unexpected
As we motored south, about 10 miles out into the Sea of Cortez, our trip was drastically altered. Forward gear on the transmission quite suddenly stopped propelling us forward. The engine sounded fine, neutral and reverse did their job, but forward wasn’t getting us anywhere. The wind was just coming up and … well, we ARE a sailboat. And from that moment on we had the experience of true reliance on wind and patience to make our way. As we mulled over our options, going back did not seem like much use, and there were no larger ports that would have repair facilities until we got to La Paz. So sail (and flap and drift) we did.

We went to sleep here -- after 22 hours to "sail" 45 nm
The first easy sure anchorage was about 45 miles (8 or fewer hours with the motor). While we had some bouts of nice strong breeze, it was all on the nose, so it added many miles to tack back and forth staying as close to the wind as possible. As it got dark, we realized that with our current speed and course we should plan to sail through the night, and try to anchor at sun up to rest. We did, doing fine on our 2-3 hour watch schedule, but sitting through several wee morning hours of dead calm. About 4 am, just as the full moon set and it got really dark, we arrived at the bay that we thought would be easy and calm to anchor. Using a GPS anchoring point from our chart, we motored backwards over a mile to get to our chosen spot, aware of rocks on one side and not sure of the depths on the other. The wind came up once and we abandoned the idea, when it died again, we re-backed over our tracks. By 6 am, 22 hours after leaving our last anchorage, we had the hook down, the sun came up, and we went to sleep. Looking at the transmission could wait until after our naps.

After satisfying (or disappointing) ourselves that it was not some simple problem, like a line around the prop, a slipping cable, or an adjustment on the transmission linkage, (Lanham dove on the prop, got out the manual and readjusted linkage, etc) we decided to catch the afternoon’s building breeze and sail on through the next night, leaving after 12 hours rest. We must add, that it was very reassuring to have friends “out there” and to have radio contact set up. We had a regular SSB radio chat time set up at 9 am and 7 pm and talked morning and evening with our buddies still behind in Santa Rosalia. They readily offered to change their plans and come meet us to try to facilitate getting back to La Paz. We declined, but know without a doubt that they were there for us if we could have used the help. We were actually feeling safe and sound, and enjoying the practice in true sailoring.
This is the type of fishing buoy that we needed to be on the lookout for.
This one passed within two feet of our stern. Without a motor is is a much bigger deal
to navigate around obstacles of all kinds.
We sailed another 72 hours straight, staying out from the islands and coast about 20 miles. We stopped 4 more nights once we were down in the islands closer to La Paz (Isla San Francisco, Ensenada Grande, Cabaza de Mechudo, and Bahia Gallina). Looking back, these last few nights were restful.
When the wind was not cooperating we just gave up on trying to make distance and stopped early to swim, cook, and soak it up (suck it up too, our worry about the transmission fix that would have to be postponed another day). We got better at backing in, and even got experience in dropping and pulling anchor under sail.
Water yoga -- no better way to relieve the stress
Taking a break from the boat -- our kayaks have continued to get leakier
but we still love them

Walking the dirt road at Cabeza de Mechudo
where Lanham almost stepped on this diamond-backed rattler in his tevas.
Back on board and heading to La Paz how ever fast (or slow) the wind would take us.
The dramatic Sierra Giganta mountain range.

Two days from La Paz, while “underway,” but actually drifting backwards on molasses flat water,
Lanham got busy with his tape measurer, jigsaw, drill, screw gun, and 3 old pieces of plywood. (Never ask, why you are bringing extra wood scraps). He fashioned a platform for the outboard, screwed to the swim step.

With a few adjustments to height and angle we were able to motor forward at 3.5 knots. We just needed to watch our gas consumption and make sure we had plenty for the channel into La Paz and to navigate into a slip.

Wah-Lah... we are moving forward

 For our last couple miles we got a boost from friend Curtis in his dinghy with 15-horse engine, but the little outboard did its job moving around the marina. Lanham says he meant to make a bracket before we left Seattle. It’s not as pretty as that one would have been, but it worked. It will of course live in the bilge for future emergencies (just to assure that it’s never needed again.)

What next?

Our first week back here in the marina was spent investigating the mind-boggling possibilities of replacing or repairing the transmission in 3 weeks time. We pursued the possible purchase of a new BMW engine that happens to be here in La Paz, for the purpose of trading out transmissions and having it shipped to Seattle for future use. That was ruled that out when we found the transmission gear ratio didn’t match ours. We had calls and emails into shops in Cabo, Florida, and Seattle. After 4 days of negotiating and putting it together we are now happy with our plan. We hope to receive parts within a few days to have a mechanic we’ve located here rebuild our current trans, again. AND, to be safe we are having a new transmission (meets specs but slightly lighter duty) brought from Seattle with our friend and Hawaii crewmember, Marcus. Which ever gets here and installed first will be the one that takes us to Hawaii, and we will hopefully have a back-up for the trip.

While we wait, oh so patiently and try to think oh so positively, we are staying BUSY, getting the boat as prepped as possible. Yesterday was mast day – Lanham was aloft for about 5 hours, inspecting, lubing, cleaning, waxing. Melinda worked on deck polish and ran the L up and down on the halyard. Today was sail day – we both worked on some stitching and reinforcing of both sails. (We carry a spare main, a smaller spare jib, and 3 different storm sails, plus our light air asymmetrical spinnaker). The two sails we have on now will be the best for the broad reach we expect to have for most of the 2,000 miles of trade winds to Hawaii. Tomorrow we will polish stainless and lubricate the deck hardware. We have a master list including provisioning and topping off equipment. Plenty to do while we wait in our slip to install a new transmission!!!

Including.... a trip to "The SHACK" a cruisers' hangout here in La Paz. It fits the budget and has lots of character, even if it's far from "authentic mexico."

The scene here at Marina Palmira is quite different than it was in February and March. It’s only about a third full; many people are cruising north in the islands, or heading to hurricane holes or boatyards to be hauled out for the summer. It’s quiet and by mid-day it is heating up – mid 90’s without much breeze. The mosquitoes come out right after dark, so we come inside with our bug screens on the hatches. We look forward to a few more excursions into town, but with our departure date of June 21st in sight we are pretty focused on the next chapter. Stay tuned, we will post once more before we push off!

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