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 Because this is outdated technology that is no longer serviced or fact, the company was acquired and no longer really exists...BUT, our boat is set up for this particular unit).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!