Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Photo Montage

No posting today...too many margaritas last night and I have nothing new to say. So instead, a little photo montage:

Dolphins off the bow

Naomi at the Sands pool
Susan, Naomi and Roger in the water taxi:

Roger and Naomi on top of Sea Master restaurant

Pelican taking flight
Barra lagoon at sunrise

And, here's a video of Naomi standing watch and hanging out while the Monitor windvane steers the boat (such a lazy, lazy wife I have!):

Monday, January 26, 2009

Suddenly Susan (is Sailing)

Our story left off with us waiting for my friend Susan to arrive in Manzanillo. Susan and I met when we were both interviewing for a Bosch Foundation fellowship in Germany, circa 2002. She got it, I didn't; but we kept in touch and when she came back from Deutschland we worked together for a couple of years at VentureArchetypes. Good times!

We hung out in Manzanillo for a few days. Manzanillo is a large-ish city, but very chill and mostly off the beaten tourist path. It has a certain vibe that's very cool but hard to explain...unpretentious and's not trying to "be something more aspirational" like many Mexican towns, with the rampant condo / timeshare / indoor mall developments and aggressive sidewalk touts and omnipresent billboards trying to sell a pre-fabricated but very sterile version of an "upscale lifestyle"...(ok, enough ranting, Nathan).

Anyway, we hung out at the Las Hadas resort, where Roger and I fished from the boat a bit, and Susan bravely went for the "Coco Loco". Obviously, this was a questionable choice....see the before & after pics:



I also fed my growing Internet addiction and got caught up with some email and blogging. Finding a reliable WiFi connection is one of the greatest challenges and a perpetual mission, and I've been tempted to hoist the entire computer up the mast. But here is my next-best effort (standing up top of Roger's boat):

Next, we set sail for the 40-miles passage to Tenacatita Bay. We tried a new experiment, with Naomi sailing on Roger's boat and Susan on Hurulu. But 2/3rd the way we took a detour and anchored at Melaque, which was a nice bay absolutely swarming with both Pelicans and Mexicans. I am not making any link or comparison between Pelicans and Mexicans, I'm simply saying the bay was teeming with activity from these two groups. Literally-- the pelicans would spy a school of minnows and swarm there; and, it being Sunday, half of Mexico goes to the beach to drink beer and roll around in the surf. Fun times all around.

We also used Melaque as the 'staging ground' to enter the channel into the lagoon at Barra de Navidad at high tide-- 8 am. The channel is very narrow and if you slip just a few feet out of it, you'll get stuck in mud, so it pays to enter with as much water under the keel as possible.

Thus far, the morning has been spent sitting at a waterfront cafe
eating breakfast and drinking coffee. Susan, ever the active one, has already kayaked, walked around town, and gone swimming at the beach (it's about Noon), while the rest of us have barely had our coffee. More updates later...

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ixtapa to Manzanillo -- Sailing as good as it gets

As ridiculous as it sounds, we decided to take a short break from our extended break. We needed to get some various spare parts and stand on terra firma for a bit, so we flew to Tampa, Florida to spend a few days with Naomi's family. There, we were joined by her brother Dan, his wife Erica and precocious 3-y/o son Austin, and we saw friends Jennifer Garlick and Darren Wilson (congrats on the new baby, Darren!)

While in Tampa we literally absorbed all the things we'd been missing while in Mexico...sushi, chinese food, good beer(chimay, IPAs, etc.), football (how 'bout that Cardinals v. Eagles game?), and movies (we saw the excellent Slum Dog Millionaire and Gran Torino, both highly recommended). With all the food choices, I felt like the proverbial "mid-80s Russian who comes to America and goes to a supermarket and goes crazy with the selection" and we both came back at least a few pounds heavier.

After a long trip back to Marina Ixtapa (involving two flights, 3 cab rides, and a 5 hour bus ride) we got going North for the 200 nautical miles to Manzanillo. We had a bit of an argument about "passage making strategy"...I wanted to sail the whole way through in one shot, whereas Naomi wanted to break up the trip into shorter segments, as we had done on the trip down.

The problem I had with the latter strategy is that the marginal anchorages in between were very rolly and subject to huge's hard to sleep when the boat pitches every which way, and my thought is that it's actually more comfortable to keep going than stop. In other words, the forward motion of the boat makes for more predictable and thus more comfortable motion, whereas at anchor the boat pitches in erratic fashion. Both can be severe, but somehow, for me at least, predictable rolling makes for a better night's sleep.

Anyway, I 'won' the argument (a rare thing) and we decided to go the distance. As luck would have it, this turned out to be a great call, as we had an excellent tail wind for most of the journey, and ran with the Monitor windvane doing much of the steering.

We had also taken the time in Ixtapa to switch our headsail (the jib) from the standard, working sized one to the massive "170". 170 means 170 percent; to illustrate, 100% means the most-aft part of the jib extends all the way to the mast, and thus a 170 goes well past the mast; it's a massive sail, also called a "deck sweeper". Frankly I had a little trepidation to use it, since in SF we would never use a a sail that big for risk of being overpowered and out of control. I guess you could say after a decade of sailing reefed down most of the time, I have a distrust of huge sails.

But this choice ended up working out well as well, and we literally flew up the coast. It was really excellent light air sailing, and our gal Hurulu showed her colors. And amazingly enough, we got in ahead of schedule-- a first for us! We had anticipated a roughly 50 hour sail, but ended up arriving instead about 12 hours early. We were guided into the crowded dark anchorage by our ever-present pals on La Palapa. We hung around with Roger and his very nice and funny friend Sarah at the resort, where the drinks are strong and the pool refreshing.

We also continued our pattern of catching NO fish, but to compensate, this leg was very "dolphin rich"...around sunset on both days we had 20-30 spotted dolphins come and swim along with us for upwards of half our or so. Also, during my 3 am to 6 am shift, I had a dolphin tag along with me and jump 3 feet out of the water at least a half dozen times. Fun stuff, and it breaks up the night passages nicely.

He also lit up the water with phosphoresence. This is something that needs to be seen to be understood. But basically, on moonless nights, when you get away from land and population centers-- basically away from any ambient light source-- it's really really dark. I think we forget how black the night can be, since we're so rarely in true darkness. The phosphorescent light, which looks like a stream of stars, trails behind the boat from the propeller, and it also streaks from any moving object, like my accompanying dolphin. I think I mentioned this in a previous post, but the dolphins swim right at the boat, and since you can only see the bright phosphorescent trail, it looks freakishly like a torpedo headed for the beam. (Perhaps this is enhanced by the delirium of the 3 am watch, but regardless it's a very cool 'special effect').

Getting back to the story, we spent yesterday at the Las Hadas resort hotel, lounging by the poolside. I took a walk over the hills and explored some abandoned/derelict houses with million-dollar views. I've noticed that throughout Mexico, there are a huge number of either half-finished or abandoned mansions and villas, presumably because their owners ran out of money. Kind of fun to explore.

Here in Las Hadas we are now doing a few boat projects and awaiting my good friend Susan, who will accompany us for a few days up to Barra de Navidad and possibly Tenacatita. I'll post again after the always-jovial Susan and I tear up the town...

Friday, January 9, 2009

Z-What: Smell vs Swell

Well, Zihuatenejo was sort of a mixed bag...

It was thrilling to round the corner into the gorgeous bay of Z-Town and drop our hook, knowing it was the 'end of the line'-- as far south as we would sail. We explored the town with its attractive cobblestone streets and gravitated to El Faro, which is a local sailor's bar and hangout, and then retired to our boats and rested.

Then the smell hit us. Raw sewage. Totally overwhelming.

At one point in the evening, Roger candidly asked me if our holding tank had suddenly burst (kind of like an onboard septic tank-- and no, for the record, it hadn't).

Turns out that the town pumps its sewage directly into the bay. We consulted our Lonely Planet guidebook, which says that a recent team of biologists tested Mexican waters, and Zihuatenejo had among the highest level of biological contaminants of the 20 or 30 cities measured.

What a pity! It's an absolutely gorgeous bay, well protected with cool cliffside houses ringing the hillsides. The town itself is friendly, fun, and filled with some great taco stands. Alas, the smell actually woke me up in the middle of the night, and after about 2 nights here, we'd had enough. Landing the dinghy meant getting wet up to the ankles in this stuff, and even the normal little splashes from taking the dinghy in to the beach made us feel filthy (it was probably mostly psychological, but still...)

So, we moved across the bay to Playa La Ropa, and spent a day there. This was much cleaner (people were actually swimming) but here we encountered the "swell" portion of this blog. This beach is exposed to the entrance of the bay, and around sunset, the waves start their dramatic entrance. Hurulu began to pitch and dance on her anchor like one of those $0.25 pony rides outside of K-Mart.

Finally, we did what we should've done much earlier-- we moved about 10 miles north to an island just off Ixtapa called Isla Grande. Together with our continuing buddy-boat La Palapa, and their visiting friend Jan, we had the eastern side of the island all to ourselves. Beautiful, clean waters, gentle breezes, and awesome moonrises.

We spent the last few days pretty much just living off the boats, snorkeling, fishing in the dinghy (nada caught), cleaning the boat bottoms, etc by day and having margs and bbq by night. We also christened "Roger's Internet Cafe" (since Roger's boat has both a WiFi net and great starbucks coffee, we've started to hang out there a lot).

Speaking of BBQ, Roger had this packet of mystery meat in his freezer, which he grilled up one night. I'm a little worried about what it actually is...Mexicans seem to eat just about every part of the animal (look up the translations for Lengua or Cabeza) but I have to say, it was the most delicious BBQ I've had in years-- and I eat a lot of BBQ. Absolutely incredible. It was so good, I made them take a picture of the wrapper so I can track it down again. If you come across it in the ethnic foods section of your local supermarket, I strongly suggest you promptly purchase and eat it-- but don't read the ingredient list.

Today we left our boat in Marina Ixtapa and took a 4-hour bus ride to Acapulco, where we are staying at this very cool hotel called Los Flamingos de Acapulco. It's where the old Hollywood royalty used to hang out, many many years ago.

As a faded SF Chronicle article hanging on the wall puts it, quote, "film legend John Wayne called it his 'secret hideaway' in Mexico: a small hotel draped along the edge of an Acapulco cliff that provides a stunning Pacific panorama. Opened in 1930, Hotel Los Flamingos was serene, secluded, and unpretentious. Wayne liked it so much he rounded up several of his Hollywood cronies and purchased it in 1954." As I write this, I'm staring at a giant, lurid, sepia-toned poster advertising Johnny Weissmuller in the movie, Tarzan and His Mate.

It suits our style well-- very cool, laid back place, a little tattered around the edges. Shabby chic, I suppose you could call it...a place with character. Amazing sunsets, as it's literally built into the cliffside, overlooking the Pacific. They claim to have invented several well-known cocktails, including the "Coco Loco" (1934) and the "Tortuga" (1963).

Did I mention it's pretty cheap? The only issue: during our dinner of seabass ($10) and steak ($12), we had to periodically rise from the table and make threatening gestures at a posse of-- count 'em-- 8 aggressive raccoons, who were interested in sharing our dinner.

Anyway, tomorrow we are heading back to the States for a few days of family time, and to collect various spare parts. After that, we'll continue the march back up the coast on our passage back home, while we figure out the next stage in our life plan. Asta luego!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Barra and Brita

(continuing the thread from the last post, where we sailed in to Tenacatita Bay in the pre-dawn hours...)

After a few brief hours of sleep following our hair-raising passage, we were awakened by the gentle sound of an inflatable dinghy bumping against our topsides. Roger and Tobe of La Palapa had graciously volunteered to pick up my good friend Brita and her pal Kyle from their laguna-side hotel, and on the trip back, they took the "jungle river" tour, so our guests were well entertained while we slept.

It was great to have Brita and Kyle visit us; Brita and I have worked together at VentureArchetypes for three years now, but she recently found a new job, so I was looking forward to a few days on the boat together. We lazed about in the very undeveloped Tenacatita Bay for the day...Naomi jogged, Brita and Kyle swam, I did "boat chores", and then we all got together at a beach palapa for shrimps and beers, then reconvened later on La Palapa (the boat) for lamb skewers and margaritas.

The next day we had no wind, so we motored over to Barra de Navidad. The anchorage is in a protected lagoon, and the entrance is very narrow and shallow-- each day, one or two sailboats get stuck. We made it safely by following a series of waypoints that a dock neighbor had copied for us in La Cruz.

Barra was a real treat, and a highlight of the trip thus far. It has a rich maritime history, as well as very colorful streets and houses (as Tobe put it, "it's like they have a different color pallette here") and nice beaches and great restaurants.

The lagoon was neat, too, and makes for an exceptionally calm anchorage. We took our dinghy in and tied up at the Sands bar. For the next two days, we lounged at the beach or at the Sands' pool, and ate voraciously.

We celebrated New Years here, but this is a problem-- since we're all sailors, we are used to waking before dawn, and in bed pretty early. We found a great rooftop bar and ate rib eyes, but first Naomi conked out, then Tobe, Roger and I ran out of steam and retired to our boats. Only Brita and Kyle were able to stay out partying past midnight (though I did enjoy sitting by myself on the cabin top of Hurulu and watching the fireworks...)

Early the next morning, Naomi and I dinghied into town and picked up pan au chocolate and almond croissants for breakfast on the boats. After another day of relaxing (and recuperating from NYE) around town and around the pool at the Sands Hotel, we carefully threaded our way back out the narrow channel and set sail for Manzanillo.

We treated our guests Kyle and Brita to a few hours of actual sailing on the 25 mile passage, but the winds were very light, so eventually we had to fire up the diesel and motor the rest of the way. Manzanillo is off the beaten tourist track, but it's a handsome bay ringed by cliff-set houses and is a major shipping port. We motored around a punta and dropped anchor in "Hadas", just off the marina.

The rest of the afternoon was spent poolside at the large 5-start Moorish style resort. One of the perks of sailing is that many resorts, for a small fee (or even for free), will let you tie up your dinghy and use their facilities (pools, showers, WiFi, etc.). I don't know exactly why they let ruffian 'yatistas' like us mooch off them so, but perhaps the visual landscape of some anchored sailboats enhances the vista? Who knows, but it's certainly nice.

In the evening we celebrated Kyle's birthday on board La Palapa with champagne and a chocolate cake made by Tobe (she is quite the cook) and retired early.

The next day saw Kyle and Brita depart for a 5-hour bus ride back to the airport, and Naomi and I set off on the long journey to Ixtapa/Zihuatenejo. Not too much to report on this leg of the passage-- it was 3 long hot days of mostly motoring that began early--weighing anchor at 4 am-- and ending late at night in rolly anchorages. The only highlights were being escorted out of one bay in darkness with a pod of dolphins, whose phosphorescence lit up around the boat, and the autopilot and sunshade ("poor man's Bimini") working flawlessly.

After a stop in Isla Grande, where Roger fired up his "hookah"-- basically a floating air compressor that allowed us to dive under the boats and scrub their bottoms-- we made it yesterday afternoon to Zihuatenejo.

This is a charming town and I'm sure I'll have more to report once we've explored it. But it also marks a turning's our last stop, our most southerly destination before we point Hurulu's nose north and make our way back home. This realization hit us just moments after dropping the anchor, and it's both gratifying and a little bit melancholy to reach this juncture, but all good things...

Tenacatita, We're Glad to Meet Ya!

Sailing can sometimes be a very humbling experience-- Mother Nature occasionally hands our as**es to us on a platter. One such instance occurred a few days ago during our passage from Puerto Vallarta to Tenacatita.

We left PV with plans to do an overnighter for the 150-mile trip. Normally, we would've broken it into several stops, but we were late to meet my friend Brita, having hung around PV an extra day to catch up with our friends Matt and Olivia Fix-Chang and their two very inquisitive sons, Ethan (1) and Andrew (3).

Simulated conversation:

Andrew: "What's that?"
Nathan: It's a jib sheet.
Andrew: Why?
Nathan: You pull it to change the angle of the jib
Andrew: Why?
Nathan: To change the air flow around the sail
Andrew: Why?
Nathan: Because if air flows faster on one side than the other, it creates lift which moves the boat forward
Andrew: Why?
Nathan: It's a physics thing, a property of Nature
Andrew: Why?
Nathan: Well, depending on your belief system, either it "just is," or that's the way God made it
Andrew: Why?
Nathan: So he could watch the sailboats go by on his days off
Andrew: Why?

Anyway, we used our new-to-us autopilot ("Otto") to cross Banderas Bay, then motored around Cabo Corrientes. Cabo Corrientes is Spanish for "Current Cape" and it's where several ocean currents meet, creating very mixed, turbulent, confused seas-- or, as a fellow sailor on the dock in La Cruz had warned us, "washing machine seas." As we rounded the cape, the wind picked up a bit and we raised the sails.

As the waves churned around us and tossed Hurulu every which direction, the wind continued to pick up. Before long, it was blasting at what was probably 25-30 knots. We were running downwind, which is usually the most comfortable point of sail for strong winds since the boat's forward speed serves to 'subtract' from the overall apparent wind.

But, with ten and twelve foot seas running behind us-- and occasionally from the side-- it became increasingly harder to keep the boat under control. We risked "broaching", a very nasty occurrence where the force on the sails overcomes the power of the rudder, causing the boat to lose control and violently round up into the wind. It took all the hackles-raising attentiveness I could muster, and all my strength, to keep her under control while she surfed down the waves (indeed, my arms were very sore the next day).

Then, for the first time on our trip, we got "pooped"-- basically, a wave broke over the stern of the boat and flooded the cockpit. This is a pretty unnerving experience, but fortunately the water drained fairly rapidly out the scuppers, and I gave silent thanks to Bill (see previous post), who had wisely insisted we replace the cockpit drain hoses before we left.

Since the sun was setting, and since the boat was increasingly hard to control-- and since it was her birthday-- I took over Naomi's shift and stayed at the helm for close to 6 hours, adrenaline flowing the entire time. I wanted to reef the sails but instead we decided to pull into the next safe harbor, about 20 miles due south, and wait out this weather.

This was the roughest weather we'd thus far experienced on our trip. To be frank, apart from getting soaked periodically, it was fairly exhilarating, as the boat continued to hit new speed records, first 8.6, then 9.2, then 9.5, after which the knotmeter stopped working (it still hasn't come back yet). I sailed for more than an hour at sustained 8.5 knots. Given that the hull speed is around 7, we were getting at least a couple of knots from surfing the waves.

But, as on the SF Bay, such "big weather" is fun for an hour or so--as long as you can duck out behind an island or something, which we couldn't do. Also, at one point, with massive seas behind us, we were visited by a pod of dolphins, who ran alongside, surfing down the waves. Very cool. Visits from these guys always help to brighten the mood and alleviate anxiety.

At long last, we got some relief from the clashing waves, and pulled toward the small harbor called Ipala. Now a new set of tensions arose, because: i) it was a completely dark, moonless night; ii) it was a small cove, already occupied by a few boats; iii) the charts of this area all all 1-2 miles off, so we couldn't rely on our handheld GPS to guide us in; iv) it contained a submerged rock; v) it was reported to have fishing nets near the opening; and, vi) it was also pretty deep, 40-60 feet, which is at the limits of the length of our chain.

When we dropped the anchor and came to a halt, we saw we were just 6-7 feet away from a set of floating nets (if we had run over them, they would have wrapped around our propeller and caused all sorts of trouble). Naomi promptly went to sleep, and I had one of my last Racer 5 IPA beers I'd been saving for such "stressful" days as these. Only one word to describe our sentiment at that point: "whew!"

The next day we woke early to try and make up some distance. The day started calm, and in the first hour of my shift I saw several whales, a whole bunch of dolphins, and a few sea turtles (one of which literally "waved" at us with his flipper as we passed by). Then, much to our dismay, the wind started blowing, but from the South-- the "wrong way", straight in the direction we were trying to go. To make matter worse, the seas were still choppy, this time due to the contrary wind (vs the clashing currents of the day before). However, it was less intense vs. the previous day, and we made slow headway.

It became clear we weren't going to make it in time to meet Brita, so in a brief moment when we got a cell signal, we texted her to get a hotel room. As the day wore on, progress was a grind. After sunset, the seas finally calmed down, and we made the decision to use it as an opportunity to keep plowing ahead (always a tough decision when tired). This turned out to be the right call, and we approached Tenacatita Bay just before sunrise. We actually had to slow it down so as to enter with some light, since it was still moonless. But, as dawn broke, we spotted the familiar Catalina 44 La Palapa, pulled up near them, and promptly passed out, only to be awoken a few hours later with....

(continued next blog)