Saturday, December 27, 2008

Running on Auto

When we tell our fellow cruisers that we've covered nearly 3000 nautical miles since leaving San Francisco without a working autopilot, they usually picture themselves doing such a thing, which is then followed by a shudder. Comments such as "I wouldn't have made this trip without an autopilot" and "I've hand-steered 1% of the time, while my autopilot handled the other 99%" are common.

It's not that we didn't want to sail with an autopilot. But fate has conspired against us:

Autopilot #1: Came with the boat, and it was a Navico wp4000. But, when we plugged it in it would chirp for a split second then....nada. Nothing at all. I tried to remedy this by giving some extra sails we had to a guy on craigslist, who was an electrical engineer and promised to take a look at it. After a month and a half or so, we'd heard nothing, so I asked him to send it back, which he did. It now sits buried in our starboard lazarette, somewhat mocking us.

Autopilot #2: Using a voltmeter and my extremely primitive electrical skills, I was able to determine that some previous owner had inexplicitly crossed the positive/negative wires at the female plug. Thus, it's likely that we were frying #1 each time we plugged it in. So, I got on eBay and way overpaid in an auction for another wp4000. (Why eBay, you may ask? Because this is outdated technology that is no longer serviced or fact, the company was acquired and no longer really exists...BUT, our boat is set up for this particular unit).

When I received the unit from the eBay sell, I plugged it in and it chirped happily. Success! Or so we thought. We didn't actually rig it up until we were halfway down the California coast, at which time we learned that while the control unit worked (the "chirp"), the gears in the drive unit were shot.

After a few nasty email exchanges with the seller, I 'escalated' this to a 'claim' on eBay/PayPal. This is somewhat analogous to a legal trial, where we both presented our sides of the story for 'judgment' by eBay. (His argument, by the way, was that it was sold 'as-is' and it had been almost a month since the purchase was consummated). As we sailed out of San Diego at the start of the Ha Ha, I got an email on my blackberry that I had won the case-- but had to ship the unit back within 10 days. This necessitated starting leg 3 of the Ha Ha race early to get to Cabo in time to ship it...and also cost a small fortune in shipping fees. But we got our money back.

Which brings us to....

Autopilot #3: To make a long story longer, we took a gamble and purchased another autopilot on eBay, a wp5000, and had it shipped to my home in Colorado where I visited for Christmas. I sort of smuggled it into Mexico (technically I thing you're supposed to pay import duties on this stuff)

Yesterday, Roger of La Palapa came over to help install it. It took all of Roger's technical skills (engineering degrees from MIT and Stanford) to rig up a system. While he baked in the hot Mexican sun, my role was to keep the beer on ice and periodically supply a fresh one.

At around 3 pm, December 26th, we took it for a test drive. The first time we pushed the "Set" button, the boat did a complete and immediate 180 degree turn, heading right into a fleet of anchored boats. Fortunately, the fix was simple-- we had the unit installed backwards.

So, with fingers crossed, hoping that the third try's the charm, we now join the world of "autopilot sailors" and are greatly looking forward to it. Hopefully this will give us more free time to...practice Spanish? Ponder the mysteries of the universe? Come up with solutions for world peace? Who knows. I'll let you know how it goes on our passage to Barra de Navidad...

Thursday, December 25, 2008

What's the Point of This Anyway?

I sometimes wonder-- and am occasionally asked by friends-- why in the world we would leave our work, the comforts of home, and our 'stimulating' San Francisco lifestyle to go live 2000+ miles from home in a foreign country in a tiny 31-year-old boat ? In short, why would we take a "sabbatical"? (click on image for larger view)

The first reason is rather fuzzy and is simply to take a break, or as the Germans call it, a "pause" (pronounced "pow-sah" and carrying slightly deeper and weightier connotations than our English word of the same spelling).

I think it is very healthy to occasionally step off the continue with this cliche, life goes so fast, and somehow the treadmill seems to have started accelerating right after college graduation (and continues to accelerate) . Taking a pause in this manner helps to slow things my father in law Roy puts it, "sometimes it's necessary to stop and smell the roses". It's healthy to actively make time to appreciate the sunsets, have longer and more in-depth conversations, get to know friends and family better, etc. Otherwise, what's the point?

Taking a sabbatical also allows time for introspection and it's corollary, putting things in perspective. This is almost impossible to do when working a 60-hour-a-week job and filling every other waking hour with socializing, paying bills, planning the weekend, recuperating from the weekend, etc.

Deep-tissue reflection of this nature is much easier when disconnected from excessive stimuli and surrounded by nothing but sky, stars, and 150 miles of open blue water; in fact, it is almost forced upon you by the zen-like state of keeping a compass heading for a 35-hour passage.

Such reflection is intrinsically healthy, but not always easy. Although we've yet to have any major epiphanies on this trip, the life-analysis that accompanies a pause can occasionally spur dramatic changes in careers, mindset, attitudes, goals, etc. I've taken two other extended breaks, one right before college and one right before b-school, and both instances set me off on a revised (and improved) path through life.

Anyway, the other major reason (or more accurately, the set of reasons) for taking a sabbatical is much more American, much more goal-driven. They are:

1. To become awesome sailors
2. To learn Spanish
3. To get healthy

I would say we have made incremental-- but not major-- improvements in our sailing ability. Sailing out here is much like sailing in the SF Bay, but with less wind and a lot fewer layers of clothing. I would say we've improved a lot of ancillary skills, such as anchoring, docking, navigation, safety, and my favorite, diesel motor maintenance. We've also gotten pretty good at piloting the dinghy.

As for learning Spanish, we are doing an "ok" job. It is very easy to remain almost wholly in the insular cruising community, which is mostly Americans (with a few Canucks and Euros thrown in for good measure); dreams of immersing ourselves with the the Mexican people and their culture have been elusive. However, I have been pretty diligent about playing my "Spanish In a Week" CDs most mornings. Though falsely-advertised, they are very good. Naomi has passable Spanish from prior studies, and we are now able to do pretty well with the Mexican bus drivers.

We've done much better with the third explicit goal of getting healthy (although as of this writing we're just coming back from gut-busting holidays in the States, and about to head to our friends on La Palapa for a roast duck Christmas dinner). We've both gotten into reasonably trim shape, we have golden-but-not-burnt suntans, and are benefitting from lots of fresh air, exercise, and pretty simple food. However, we still have a few bad habits we're wrestling with, and like most sailors, tend to drink like sailors.

So that's the "why" in a nutshell. It's worth mentioning that sailing is just one method for taking a pause, and all of the above could just as well be accomplished biking across Spain or climbing mountains or something. sure is nice when the wind kicks up and the seas are flat, when we hoist the mainsail and jib and turn off the diesel, and the only sound is the bow of our 31-year-old Hurulu slicing through the azul water....

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Friends, Family, Dolphins & Ponies

Hello from Boulder, Colorado where I'm visiting my family and freezing my tail off. It's a shocking 11 degrees here-- quite a change from the near-perfect temperatures (in the low 80s) of Puerto Vallarta, where I awoke yesterday.

Since it's obviously too cold to make my fingers write an actual blog post, I'll borrow a trick from the TV networks and put up a few "re-runs". Actually, these are just a few photos that didn't make it up earlier.

First up, from two days ago: we had some visitors from SF: Dan, Tommy and Kate. We went out for a day sail and had nice winds for about an hour. A good time was had by all!
Once the breeze died down, we motored back and were followed at length by this friendly (and LARGE) dolphin, who rode our bow wake for over an hour.

Last week, it was the Zells (my in-laws) who were our guests for a day-sail out of PV:
And a few days before that, we were in the beach town of Sayulita for the best fish tacos and some hot beach / pony action:

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Rockin' it in Bahia de Banderas

'Hola from Bahia de Banderas, translated as "Bay of Flags"! In anticipation, Naomi has been flying her freak flag all week now, and is feeling right at home. ;->

To affix a geographic location to this post, Banderas Bay is about halfway down the pacific side of the mexican riviera, and is anchored by the city of Puerto Vallarta. I've been to PV twice before, and my impressions were rather mixed, undoubtedly colored by the experiences: the first time was on a motorcycle, right after graduating high school, but my companion and I were so poor we stayed in a true Mexican "roach hotel"; the second time was with some buddies on a spring break trip, but we ran into a little drunken "trouble" and had to pay off the local law enforcement to avoid a true Mexican "roach jail"...undoubtedly many times worse than the hotels.

Must be that the third time's a charm, or maybe it's because PV is a sailor's dream, but we are enjoying the area this time 'round. To start off with, we are seeing an incredible abundance of wildlife.

For example, on the day-long, 40 nMi sail from Chacala, we saw:

+A massive whale that jumped completely out of the water. This occurred in totally flat water, and about 300 yards from our starboard bow...needless to say, it caused a bit of a heart palpitation, but was just incredible to see that much flesh suddenly rise from the sea. He did not do it again, and thus I caught no photos, so I'm using a stock pic for 'effect'.

+A baby dolphin learning to play. This little guy was about 3 feet long and would repeatedly plant his nose down and kick up his tail, almost like a child trying to do a handstand in a pool. Adorable.

+Flying manta rays: Particularly around dusk, we occsionally see manta rays jump from the water, and they often execute either a flip or a few full flaps of their wings mid-air. What's cool is that they usually do it a couple times in a row, so we can get all hands on deck and see it happen again (something harder to do with the elusive whales, who perform once then dive away...yet I am using a stock photo, as I didn't catch the manta's show on film!)

After reaching the Bay, which is roughly 20 x 10 sq. miles, we anchored a few days at the north end, near a small town called La Cruz de Huaxnnn....some long and un-spellable name. This is a cool spot that is just now developing a marine infrastructure. In fact, the recently-completed marina where we docked our dinghy was probably only 15% occupied. While there, we also took the bus to a surf town called Sayulita, which was much fun. We were here 3 years ago for the wedding of our friends Rebecca and Seth, and it has changed very little.

After that, Naomi's parents came to visit for a few days and we stayed at Paradise Village Resort and Marina...nice! But, despite being in 'paradise' we had a few rough days...first, we took the Zells out for some fishing, and although we saw many whales, we caught nothing but a bird. This was NOT pleasant. We reeled him in, as we would a fish, then I got in the dinghy and hauled him aboard. I spent the next 45 minutes holding his beak shut (so he couldn't nip me) while fiddling with the pliers to remove the fish hooks, which had lodged in his breast, lip, ankle, and feet. Unbelievably, when I got them all out he flew away, and there wasn't that much blood-- meaning the wounds were not very deep. Hopefully, he can make a full recovery.

Afterwards, Naomi's mom started feeling ill, and it became progressively worse-- a case of some pretty bad heat stroke and dehydration. She spent the night in the hospital with an IV, and then they flew home. We feel bad we didn't show them a better time, but we did get in some great meals together!

Ok, we are now close to two months into our trip, and time for a little reflection. Some comments/questions/observations:
  • Escapism is good for the soul, but makes for a rough transition back to reality... I mean, dang Brandy, is the world outside our floating bubble really THAT bad? It is certainly a luxury to disconnect and be mostly offline for a bit. But man, what a shock when we finally do pick up a newspaper or otherwise catch the headlines...multi-billion dollar bailouts of key US industries, 5- and 6-digit layoff announcements, forecasts of prolonged and 'nuclear winter' economic slumps ahead,'s really depressing. Probably more so than it should be, and I think two magnifying factors are at work here: i) things are pretty bad, probably worse than average; and, ii) when bombarded with news media every day, we become desensitized, but when you disconnect for awhile, you lose such "media calluses". In other words, when you read one paper a month, it has significantly greater impact.
  • Sailing is to the retired set what backpacking is to the post-college crowd. While anchoring in La Cruz, we went to this local cruisers' hangout called Philos. Here, you can take hot showers, do Internet, play pool and have a few drinks while socializing with other cruisers. It struck me how much the whole environment was like many of the backpacker hostels and hangouts we've been to, particularly in asia and south america. Although the average age is more in the 50's or 60's vs. 20's and early 30's, the vibe is the same. These folks are generally pretty great...they relay weather forecasts, invite us over for sunset happy hours, and lend a hand when needed. In addition, sailing attracts some of the most interesting people on the planet-- those who march to the beat of their own drums. It makes for fascinating conversation.
  • But...sometimes marinas are like floating trailer parks. We stayed a few nights in a marina called Nueva Vallarta, and here it dawned on me (somewhat more depressingly) that the marina scene is occasionally like an expensive RV park. A few years ago, when driving in the Florida Keys and having no place to stay, Naomi and I camped at an trailer park, which was absolutely awful. All these people from the Northeast had come down for the winter, and were crammed in (and literally hanging out of) their tin boxes. It was like a holding area for retirees trying to stay warm while forestalling the reaper. The marina scene occasionally feels like that, but with fiberglass tubes in place of tin boxes. Some 'marina rats' seem to just 'hang out' on their boats all day, 3 feet away from their neighbor, and wait for cocktail hour to begin. It seems strange to us, because as soon as our boat is tied up somewhere, we're off with backpacks to explore the town. But, different strokes...
Ok, that's enough for now. We moved locations yesterday and are now docked in Marina Vallarta, which is the oldest marina in PV and a very cool scene....the moment we got Hurulu tied up we felt the vibe, and it was refreshing. It's got "character" in the best sense of the word. We are going to hole up here until post-Christmas, when our beloved friend and colleague Brita will join us for a sail down to Barra de Navidad. Until then, asta luego!

Monday, December 8, 2008

A Tiny Slice of Paradise

Greetings from Chacala! ...a tiny slice of paradise on Mexico's west coast.

Our story left off with us departing Mazatlan in the afternoon for an overnight sail to Isla Isabella. We enjoyed Mazatlan-- especially the outdoor restaurants in the Machado plaza in the old part of town-- but weren't too happy with our anchoring situation. We were staying in the port, and paying $3 a day to drop our hook and use the dinghy dock and shower facilities of "Club Nautico".

Sounds nice, right? Well, the port is downwind of a sewer treatment plant, and "Club Nautico" has definitely seen better probably hit its zenith around 1962 and has been steadily eroding since then. For example, the showers...the stalls had crisp red and blue sailing burgee tiles inlaid in the wall-- evidence of better times--but we needed to wear flip flops at all times because, as Naomi puts it, "you didn't want to drop anything in there". It was good to put it behind us, lest we bring home a new strain of foot fungus or something.

Anyway, after the overnighter we were treated to a great sunrise (see pic) and made our way to Isabella. This small island is a nature preserve and breeding ground of the blue-footed booby. As we got closer to the island, the skies above it appeared to be in motion...probably several thousand birds all circling over the peak, which was visually cool albeit vaguely unsettling and reminiscent of a few scenes from Alfred Hitcock's movie, The Birds. A few tried to land on our windvane and radar tower-- they were quite aggressive, actually-- but blasting the air horn and making threatening jabs with the gaff hook finally did the trick.

When we arrived, we were a little concerned to find the wind coming from the southeast instead of the (usual) north, turning the rocky shore into a lee shore. For non-sailors, I should point out that this is a bad thing...if the boat drags anchor or drifts, there is a good chance of ending up on the rocks. However, we were tired and there was another boat there, so we dropped the hook.

After two tries at anchoring, we finally stopped the boat and I dove in to check the anchor's set. To my dismay, the Delta was sitting upright on a patch of sand, and the rode (chain) was wrapping itself around some big coral blocks. As I noticed this, I also noticed the other boat, a catamaran, trying to leave but having a hell of a time getting their anchor back up...clearly, they had spent the night there and in the meantime their anchor had gotten itself into all kinds of trouble on the underwater rocks and coral heads.

So, we realized we had to keep moving, and pronto. This is one of the unpleasant realities of cruising...after sailing for any extended period, you're exhausted and just want to stop and get some rest, but sometimes you simply have to push on, either because the anchorage is foul (as in our case), or a weather front is moving in, or whatever. No rest for the wicked.

Our choices were either San Blas or Chacala as next ports-of-call. Neither was ideal: San Blas was closer, but the narrow estuary generally requires a pilot or panga guide. Chacala was farther-- 54 miles or so-- which doesn't sound that bad, but at an average speed of 5 knots or so it was at least 11 or so hours away. Since we'd arrive at dark at either place, we chose Chacala.

Along the way, I caught a tasty Bonito and was able to gaff him and get him up on deck without waking my sleeping beauty, with minimal fuss. THis was a first, since our previous fishing succcesses usually involved a lot of chaos, commotion, and splattering blood. Apparently we're learning a few things.

As night fell and we finally approached Chacala, we motored into the tiny bay and made a few passes then dropped the Delta. Our technique was a little rough around the edges, since all the other boats were using both bow and stern anchors and pointing out to the sea, whereas we were too tired to accomplish this 'intermediate' level of anchoring in the middle of the night, and dropped just a bow anchor, which had us bow-to-bow with all the other boats. Not bristol seamanlike form, but we did get up every couple hours to check for dragging. I fried up my Bonito on the bbq and hit the sack.

In the morning, we were amply rewarded for our perseverance...we awoke to find this idyllic little cove, a nice beach lined with palm trees, and a few restaurants and palapas. Chacala is truly a little sliver of 'topical paradise'and the type of spot that cruisers dream's the reason we're all out here, spending ridculous sums of money on diesel and boat stuff and braving wind, waves, whales, and sunburn. Finding such spots every so often satisfies the drive and justifies the unpleasantries.

The reason it's such an idyll is that apparently, some gringo hippies moved here in the '70's and worked quite successfully with the locals to prevent major (over) development. However, it is 'being discovered', and there are some fancy houses sprouting up, but for now it's mostly just fishermen and beach front restaurants that sell cold Coronas and awesome platters of shrimp for about $5.

We've been here 2 days, and will probably stay another, then make our way further south to rendezvous with Naomi's parents in Puerto Vallarta for a little civilization and updates on 'what the heck is happening in the rest of the world'. Until then...asta luego!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

La Riviera de Mehico

Greetings from Mazatlan!

We got in yesterday after a 33-hour crossing of the Sea of Cortez. It was pretty uneventful, and we motored almost the entire way, having waited out some big weather at a nice anchorage in Los Frailes Bay, on the Baja side.

Actually, 'waiting it out' was a minor but gratifying the absence of any cell signal or Internet access, we hoisted the antenna for our "YachtBoy" single sideband radio receiver halfway up the mast, and were successfully able to receive a morning weather forecast from a guy in southern California. Based on this, we made the decision to stay put, and as such, we dodged the 30 knot winds (and accompanying massive waves) that would have made the crossing a nightmare.

While waiting out the wind, we spent some time back at Cabo Pulmo, a marine reserve that I wrote about previously. We hiked inland, then back along a magnificent untouched beach, about 7 miles total. For most of the time, were were the ONLY persons there. It is truly a special place, but I do worry about the rumors of development popping up. But hey-- if you can't beat 'em, then join 'em, right? Anyone want to go in on a beachfront parcel with me? (I tried to talk Naomi into this, but being the practical one in our marriage, she was lukewarm to the idea).

Prior to that, we had a fantastic Thanksgiving with our new friends Roger and Tobe on their boat
La Palapa. These kids did it up right...they butterflied a turkey and cooked it on the grill, and we had garlic mashers, stuffing, pecan and pumpkin pie, etc....the entire works. Keep in mind, this all occurred at a tiny anchorage on a remote island a few hours north of La Paz. Very cool. With Roger and Tobe (and their friend Shawna), we also explored an island called "Los Islotes" which is a rookery for seals, vultures, and other aquatic animals. We dinghied into some caves.

Now, here in Mazatlan, we anchored in an area just off the "Centro" or old part of town (in other words, away from the tourist area). We had a bit of reverse culture shock with the noise, traffic, hustle and bustle after so much time in quiet island anchorages, but it was starting to get cold in the sea of cortez, so this leg of our trip represents a new chapter as we cruise south, down the "Mexican Riviera".

Next up, we are going to head south, en route to PV, stopping at a little village on the coast called Cachala, and possibly another town called San Blas. I am particularly interested to check out San Blas...when I was 18, just after high school, I took a motorcycle trip down the coast of Mexico to Acapulco. I wandered into San Blas and ended up liking it so much, I rented a casa there for a was a highlight of the trip. I've curious to se how it's changed over the years.

Until then...asta luego!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

San Francisco to Isla San Francisco

There must be an unwritten rule that states that any place named "San Francisco" is, by definition, a really cool place. Check out the pics below, taken at Isla San Francisco, where we spent the past couple of days hiking, snorkeling, and relaxing (clicking on the image brings up a larger version)
So, to catch you up with the story thus far, we left La Paz under clear skies on the 18th of November, and cruised between the islands north of La Paz. Once again the Sea of Cortez continues to overwhelm with beauty and bountiful sea life.

Our first stop was Bahia San Gabriel on Espiritu Island, where we anchored for the night. While there, we tried to hike across the island but were stymied by the intense desert heat and millions of hostile little prickers covering the ground that painfully dug into our feet. (Note to Naomi's Mom: we were not wearing our Keens, otherwise we might have had better luck!)

The next day we had good wind and zipped up the channel to a beautiful crescent-shaped cove in Isla San Francisco, shown at the top of this blog entry. This is a small island 44 nautical miles from La Paz and surrounded by the dramatic Sierra de la Giganta mountain range that literally springs from the sea and creates dramatic sunrise/sunset photo opps. We hiked across the steep range overlooking the bay, and were circled by ravens, hawks and what appeared to be vultures, all riding the upwelling drafts.

Our next port of call was a small fishing village called San Evaristo (population: 20 Indian familes) where we intended to buy some fresh fish for the grill. En route, we caught a nice Bonito and based on this luck, decided to turn around and head south again.

(Note to Dad: we had been having no success fishing with a cedar plug on our new hand-line, until I decided to switch lures to the one we used on the coast of Baja...within ten minutes of this switch, we had the Bonito in the cockpit and proceeded to filet ourselves a nice dinner. We now call the plug you brought our "magic lure")!We used our new gaff-hook to bring the fish aboard, carved off a few tasty portions, and cleaned up the bloody mess, then pointed Hurulu back south and motored through exceedingly calm seas. The sky was overcast-- the first since entering Mexico-- and we welcomed the relief from the intense Baja sun.Shortly after, Naomi shouted out "WHALE" and we saw a pod of 6 to 8 just off the starboard bow. We slowed the motor and ran parallel to them for a bit, trying to capture them on film (Editors note: whales are hard to photograph as you never know when they will surface).

Just as we thought all the fun was done, we saw another pod of whales-- this time, at least 20 to 30-- heading straight for us. We killed the motor and watched as they cruised by on both sides of the boat within spitting distance. Once again, we grew alarmed they would hit us, as we were directly in the path of the entire pod. Check out the video titled "How NOT To Whale Watch" for a few of our more embarrassing moments (Warning to sensitive ears: yes, we seem to have developed a tendency to swear like sailors!)

NB's Blair-Witch-Style Whale Video:

Finally, when an estimated 40-60 whales had finally passed us by, we fired up the trusty Yanmar diesel and continued south back to Isla Espiritu. We dropped the anchor in a small cove that we had all to ourselves called Ensenada de la Raza, but after I dove on the anchor, I found it was not digging in to the bottom---we had to keep moving, back to the familiar Bahia San Gabriel.

Once stationary, anchored in about 18 feet of turqouise water, we opened a few Coronas and grilled up our Bonito at sunset, half with butter and garlic and the other half marinated in Soy Vey. Muy delicioso!

Which brings us back to the present, tied dockside once again in La Paz. While it's fun to have real showers then stroll the seaside malecon eating choco-crunch helado, I'd much rather be back at a remote anchorage where we have the silence and stars all to ourselves.

In short, the Sea of Cortez is truly a special is hostile, harsh, and mysterious, yet it is teeming with life both day and favorite activity while anchored is to simply sit on the bow under the quarter moon and just listen to the sea.

It's so much fun because the sea is very much alive...mammals are constantly surfacing and breathing around the boat, and fish are frequently jumping out of the water for reasons known only to them. Gulls are omnipresent with their dramatic dive-bombs in search of a meal, and even here in the marina there is a goose named Lucy who was apparently cast off from her gaggle in a storm and never left...she makes the rounds of the boat in search of a snack, and sqwaks loudly if you don't comply.

And despite the harsh, empty seas and islands, it's a healthy place to spend some time. We're both developing a nice glow (despite constant use of SPF 50+), and with days spent swimming, snorkeling, pulling up anchor by hand (a great upper body workout), a little fresh fish here and there, amazing sunset cocktail hours, and a lot of sleep in a gently rocking boat, we're both in the best shape of our lives.

The only downside? We miss our dog Finney (thanks again Ali, Cooper, and the Skaggs for taking care of him) and we miss our family and friends (but they all have an open invite-- come sail away with us!)

Ok, enough for now. Tomorrow we leave again for the islands and will join our new friends from the boat La Palapa for an island Thanksgiving. After that, we will make the rather long crossing over to Mazatlan and points further south. Asta luego!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Aguacate Muy Gigante

Just a brief one today, as we're casting off the docklines and heading up to some islands north of La Paz.

This was a fun discovery at the local avocado nearly as big as my head!

Asta luego!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Viva La Paz!

A quick update on our trip...

After the awards ceremony, parties, etc, we left the hubbub and fracas of Cabo and headed up the Sea or Cortez for a couple days of sailing en route to La Paz. Our first stop was a very chill little bay called "Los Frailes" which took us the better part of an entire day/evening to get to. We again anchored successfully in the dark and passed out.

The next day, we fired up the dinghy and outboard and cruised around the corner a few miles to a bay called Pulmos for some snorkeling and R&R. This was a very cool, very chill bay, almost empty save for a few hardy souls who had arrived by 4x4, and was recently designated as a national marine sanctuary. As we laid out the sarong on the sand and had a PB&J picnic, we had one of those moments where we looked at each other and wordlessly shared the sentiment of "yeah, this is what we came here for...this is what it's all about."

Note to adventurous readers: if you need serenity and a place to get away from it all, this is the place to do it, and you should do it now. Apparently developers have their eyes on this area, and unless the economy continues its freefall, in a few years this will likely be covered in condos or at a minimum, hotels. At the moment however, it's just empty sand, great reefs for snorkeling, and a few palapas on the beach. Perfectamente.

Our next day had us sailing up to "Ensenada de los Muertos", where we dropped anchor and again passed out early. The following day turned out to be the real action. After rounding the protective headlands of Muertos, we were faced with monstrous 10-12 foot swells and 20+ knots of wind. We needed to sail upwind through this mess.

I took the first shift, and was enjoying bashing over the waves so much I stayed at the helm for about 6 hours. I got into a rhythm of turning the boat into a swell, then pivoting at the top, analogous to the way a mogul skier pivots on top of a bump.

Eventually Naomi relieved me and I laid down on the floor of the cabin to rest. The winds and seas continued to build and each time we launched over a particularly big wave, it sounded like the boat was exploding, and of course my boat-hypochondria-worry-angst was in high gear with each foreign sound.

Day turned to night and the wind and waves continued unabated. The VHF radio chatter at this time was interesting, as other boats making the same passage were having various engine problems, etc. Eeeee-ven-tu-al-ly, we got some wave protection when we entered the lee of Isla Espiritu, but after trying to reach an anchorage, we realized we had to keep sailing on, toward a small bay called Balandras. Finally, we reached it, dropped the hook, and got some rest.

After such a wild day--which started at 5:30 am and didn't end until midnight, or roughly 18 hours of "bashing" (and being bashed), it was rewarding to wake up in this beautiful little cove. We snorkeled around El Hongo ('mushroom rock') and made pancakes for breakfast, then set off for Palmira Marina in La Paz, a short 12 miles away.

Which brings us up to the present. We spent all day yesterday cleaning the massive salt deposits off of Hurulu-- owning a boat is basically a constant battle against corrosion, rust, mold, etc.-- and then Roger, a friend and fellow Ha-ha-er on the boat La Palapa, came by at sunset for margaritas, grilling steaks, and a few rounds of Yahtzee (Roger won).

A few observations:

+Anchoring in daylight is for wimps: We are feeling very proud of ourselves given that every time we've anchored this boat--save for one time in bahia santa maria-- it has been in the dark. However, this bravado was quickly humbled when we pulled into our slip at the marina and nearly took out two very large concrete posts.

+Our fellow cruisers seem to like to motor a lot: We get a lot of kudos from fellow boaters when they learn we sailed the entire way here. Apparently, most just motor North from Cabo, into the prevailing winds and seas. This is perplexing to me, given that most sailboats are pretty poor powerboats. We can go a lot faster under sail than we can with the diesel, even if it means zig-zagging in long, broad tacks. Or perhaps they just have more powerful motors?

+Manta rays are cool: We saw no dolphins or whales this trip, but during a particularly hectic moment, a manta ray flew 6 feet out of the water, flipped twice, and landed back in the drink. Was this for fun, or was he escaping a predator? Who knows, but pretty exciting to see.

+The Maltese Falcon is following us: Ok, given that it sails at like 24 knots and we average about 5, technically I suppose we're following them. The maltese falcon, in case you are unawares, is the world's largest sailing yacht at 289 feet, owned by VC Tom Perkins. When we left our slip in sausalito on October 15, we motored right past it en route to the GG Bridge. Then, off the coast of Baja, we saw a large white shape which turned out to be the Falcon as it got near. Naomi even radioed them and flirted a bit. Finally, as we pulled into La Paz, it was anchored just outside the channel. Apparently Tom has a submarine on it that he's going to use to follow the migrating!

Ok, that's it for now....time to go polish some chrome and stainless steel.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Cabo Wabo!

We made it!!!

Let me repeat that, because even as I write this, it still seems somewhat unreal: "We made it!!!"

At exactly 9:32 am on November 6th, we crossed an imaginary finish line running between latitude 25 degrees, 52 minutes north by longitude 110 degrees, 08 minutes west.

In a word? Awesome. A few quick stats:

  • Miles covered since leaving San Francisco: 1350
  • Number of fish caught: 2
  • Number of fish eaten: 1
  • Cases of seasickness ending in an overboard fish lunch: 0

To pick up where we last left off, we departed San Diego in the early morning hours on October 27th for the start of Leg One of the 15th Annual Baja Haha "Cruisin to the Cape" sailboat rally. On board our vessel Hurulu was me Nathan (Captain), Naomi (Skipper and Navigadore), my brother in law Cyril Vidergar and my father Dr. Bruce.

The race began at 9 am under cool, misty, and foggy conditions as approximately 160 boats all jockeyed to cross the starting line simultaneously. We kept pace with a 40 footer for a couple of hours, which was fun (a primary determinant of boat speed is boat length, in that longer = it's encouraging to go "as fast" as a longer boat). We had 350 miles to go to reach the first stop, Bahia de Tortugas (Turtle Bay).

By mid day, the pack had thinned out considerably, as faster boats pulled ahead and as particpants chose different routes. We opted to head well offshore on the theory that the wind dies down closer to the coast.

By nightfall, the winds had quiteted down most everywhere, and the fog started to roll in. With 160 boats all zigzagging down the coast in pea soup conditions, this elicited #1 in a series of mild anxiety attacks by my dad, who quite honestly stated, "Nathan, I think I'm in over my head." (Editor's note: by the end of the trip, he was a seasoned, salty sailor.)

To be fair, it is rather disorienting to be cruising along in the fog, in a moonless (read: pitch black) night, with only 10-15 feet of visibility. But once you're in this situation, really the only thing you can do is to stay calm, be alert and vigilant, and keep moving...which is exactly what we did. By dawn, conditions had lightened and we were again on our way.

Over the next two days, things took a slow and casual pace, as the wind often died completely and the seas turned to glass. It's actually pretty cool to be 100 miles out of sight of land in perfectly calm seas...the ubiquitousness of the color BLUE is calming and beautiful. But alas, we were in a race to reach Turtle Bay, so we turned on the motor.

Motoring in a sailboat is, frankly, pretty boring. Sailboats are designed to sail, which makes them rather poor motorboats. So, we steamed along at 4-5 knots (roughly, about 6 miles per hour, or a brisk walking pace) for the next 2 days. Eventually we reached Turtle Bay at 2:30 in the morning, and I am thrilled to report that the team of Beckord, Beckord, and Vidergar executed a flawless anchoring (which amazingly, was the first time we had EVER anchored this boat!!!) We then all slept for about 14 hours, exhausted.

Turtle Bay is kind of cool in it's own "coyote ugly" kind of way, with about 1000 residents and about 1000 pounds of dust covering every car, shack, sign and fencepost in the area. The Ha Ha crew hosted a party on the beach, which was ok, but nothing too thrilling.

After a day and a half, we were back on the high seas and headed for a small bay called Bahia Santa Maria. This was around 250 miles south by southeast. Again, we headed out to sea, both to avoid the 160 other boaters, and to pick up some favorable winds.

Wind we wanted, and damnit if it wasn't wind that we got. After the "Dead Calm" conditions of Leg One, we were blasted for 3 days straight. Don't get me wrong-- this is FUN, and we had a definite advantage over SoCal boaters, since we are used to the constant 20+ knots of wind on SF Bay. However, when sailing SF Bay, we can rip around Angel Island then safely tuck back into Sausalito Yacht Harbor and go out to a nice dinner, out here-- 80+ miles from land--- when the seas kick up to 14 feet and the wind hits 22 knots there is no place to go. The only option is to ride it out, even if it lasts for days.

My personal highlight of the trip was during the last portion of Leg Two. We each had two three-hour shifts per day. Mine was 3-6, meaning I did an afternoon shift and a very early morning shift. During my 3 am shift, we jibed and turned the boat East into a dead-on beam reach. It's worth stating that the fastest and most efficient point of sail on a boat is a beam reach, where the boat is roughly perpendicular to the wind, and the sails are flaked out about 45 degrees to the side.

During those early hours, from 3 to 6 am, I had my first authentic bonding experience with Hurulu. She absolutely FLEW over the waves, at sustained blasts of 8.2 knots...all the while taking in stride the large swells and breaking waves hitting her astern.

Anyway, once dawn broke and Naomi took over her shift, things calmed a bit, until we were all jolted awake with shouts of "WHALES!!!!" We were being trailed by an entire pod of huge whales, species unknown, but these guys were nearly as big as our boat.

The most exciting (and terrifying) moment was when a huge whale was headed directly across our path. We were going 7 knots and he was probably doing the same...we are about 14,000 pounds and he is probably several thousand as well...not a happy thing. I started blasting the horn and he must have dove under our boat. I still wonder-- what in the hell happens when you hit a whale? Certainly, neither party fares well.

Eventualy we reached Bahia Santa Maria and dropped the hook (aka anchor). This is a beautiful, desolate spot on earth, and the next day we enjoyed a great party on a bluff overlooking the bay. Due to a rather annoying dispute with the vendor of a faulty autopilot (long story), we opted to leave early for the final leg-- onward to Cabo.

At about 150 miles, Leg Three was the shortest of them all, and we continued to have good wind. Again we headed offshore, sailed south and east, then BLASTED due east to round Cabo Falso and then the famours Cabo "Arch", after which we dropped anchor near the marina.

Which brings us to the present. As I write this, I'm sipping a 7&7 and we are about to head out to the Awards Cermony. Tomorrow morning, our crew (dad and cyril) head back to USA and Naomi and I will take Hurulu up to La Paz for a while. I hope to update this again from there.

Ok, to finish up, a few comments and observations:

+Flying fish are freaks of nature: flying fish are bizarre critters. Every so often you see what looks like a bird flying along the ocean surface-- until it disappears back down into the ocean. What bizarre God-joke or darwinnian force created a fish that wants to fly? (mind you, these guys are not just jumping out of the h20-- they can flutter along for several hundred yards or so)

+Flying fish are annoying-- as fascinating as they are, they are also a real nuisance. The reason? They fly up onto the boat at the most inopportune time, and then die. The other thing is, they absolutely STINK. Really. Really stinky. And they shed there scales all over the place. After my 8.2 knot 3 am sail, the next morning they we had something like 5 flying fish lying dead on the decks.

+Flying fish can be funny-- as long as the joke's not on me. Cyril was sleeping in the cabin when a flying fish flew through the companionway and landed on his chest. He felt something wet and slippery and warm and thought the boat had sprung a leak. Then the leak started to shed it's scales all over him and stink up his shirt. Not fun for him, but still...pretty funny.

+Dolphins are freaks of nature, but I absolutely freakin' love 'em. So, just like flying fish are fish that want to be birds, dolphins are mammals that want to be fish. which would normally also make them freaks of nature, if it weren't for th efact that they are SOO darn COOL. They visit our boat almost every day, and they "play around with us"...they swim under the boat and surface, and cruise along with us for awhile. Also, one of the coolest moments is when we saw roughly 150 dolphins all jumping out of the water at the same time. I kid you not. I took some grainy video of it, but there was a whole pod (school? swarm? gaggle?) of them diving and flopping together. I think they were stirring up a school of fish or something-- not sure, but very cool to watch.

+I still can't believe we almost hit a whale-- there must be 8 billion square miles of open ocean on this planet, but somehow we came within 5-6 feet of hitting a masive whale. Heading dead on into the path of an oncoming 6000 lb piece of flesh is one of those moments of decision that the sailing books don't really prepare you for...can he see us? hear us? sense us? We heard anecdotally of a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy that hit a whale, and it was a big bloody mess...not the kind of thing I would wish on anyone.

+Fishing can't be this easy-- During the trip down, we wanted to fish. Now, I know next to nothing about fishing, so I tasked my brother Brian and my dad to figure out what we needed in terms of gear, poles, tackle, etc. During Leg two, we decided to break out the pole and give it a go. My dad and cyril found a lure, carefully studied the knots book to tie it to the pole, and started to drop it overboard. I kid you not-- no less that 3 seconds after the lure hit the water, we had a Yellowtail hooked, and I could see other fish following it. We let out less than 6 feet of line. We got it up on board, hit it with a hammer, fileted it, and marinated it in Soy Vey. A few hours later, we gorged on an amazing meal. I am REALLY stoked to be fishing on this trip.

+And finally, the "crew of Hurulu" was awesome...Cyril rocked our world by being so helpful, and his Eagle Scout training came in handy numerous times. My Dad became a skilled salty sailor by the end of the trip, and said he's ready to "do it again". Naomi was par excellence on the navigation front, as well as adept at handling the boat in heavy weather. Did I mention she looks outstanding in a bikini as well?

Ok, I need to get to the awards cermony pronto. Best, Nathan

(Postscript: we came in 2nd in our division! Woo hoo, go Hurulu!)

(PS-- Shout out to Andrea!)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Finding Our Sea Legs

As Naomi posted, we successfully made it to San Diego! It's been something of a blur...the days prior to setting sail were frantic and frenetic, filled with packing all non-sailing vestiges of our life into a 5x7 storage unit, tearfully handing off the dog, freezing our credit, transferring funds, and about 2,342,321 other trivial but necessary tasks.

We had a brief moment to catch our breath on October 14th when many good friends came out to a little bon voyage sunset happy hour, most bearing either a mix CD or a bottle of s
ome sort (underscoring the well-established connection between sailing and drinking).

Finally, on Wed the 15th at the ripe early hour of 5 am we cast off the dock lines, motored past Tom Perkin's Maltese Falcon (roughly the length of 8 Hurulus) and cruised under the GG Bridge. With the sun just starting to rise over the City, we enjoyed a symbolic, serene, and picture-perfect moment (somehow sans pictures).

Anyway, a few random observations:

  • The central California coast is really empty: It’s amazing that in a state this crowded, the coast between SF and Pt. Conception is almost completely empty. We sailed for about 2 days without seeing another human. You get a sense of this when driving Highway 1, but the effect is magnified when 20 miles off the coast. If you ever want to truly ‘get away from it all’, get in a small boat and head west.
  • SoCal is much more beautiful from the sea: After tying up in Santa Barbara Harbor for a nice rest, Brian took a train home and Naomi and I sailed amongst the islands of SoCal for another 3 days. Despite the presence of roughly 10 million souls due east of us, passing through the islands we saw maybe 5 other boats. The islands themselves are rugged and beautiful, and we’re hoping to spend some time at each on the way back up.
  • Being captain is hard work: Since I have the most experience, I am defacto captain of the ship. Mainly, this means worrying about things…how the sails are set, what the oddball clanking noise means, whether the diesel fuel filters are doing their job. It’s exhausting work, and it makes it rather hard to fully relax, but “Captain” does have a nice ring to it…if only I had a proper Captain’s hat.
  • Bill was worth his weight in gold: we hired a guy named Bill to do lot of prep work on Hurulu before our departure, and his efforts became apparent as soon as we were out at sea. Any boat—but especially a 30 y/o boat—is a complex piece of equipment, but he literally went through it bow-to-stern. The only equipment issues we had were a failed winch and a broken lifeline, both of which were easily repaired.
  • Our Coast is Guarded by kids: Coming into San Diego at 3 am, a boat suddenly zoomed out of nowhere and within minutes we had 3 teens on board making sure our fire extinguishers were up to date and that no Mexican immigrants were hiding in our head (bathroom). We were exhausted and delirious and it was altogether a surreal moment, but we passed their exam with flying colors.
  • Dolphins are really cool: Several times on the trip, we were joined by pods of dolphins who would suddenly circle the boat and surface on all sides, then dive and zip underneath. They would do it day and night….why they do it I don’t know, but needless to say it’s very cool, and it breaks up some of the monotony of being on the ocean.

Ok, that’s it for now. We are presently in the process of provisioning the boat for our next leg of the journey, to Cabo and points beyond…stay tuned!