Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Yelapa + (Briefly) Flying the Chute

So, we took a great day sail over to Yelapa and moored there for the night. This is a small cove on the south side of Banderas Bay that was previously only accessible by boat, making it a favorite hangout of gringo hippies from California.

The oft-heard saying goes something like this: "A Palapa in Yelapa Beats a Condo in Redondo..."

Anyway, it was a nice beach and cute town, with a warren of meandering narrow streets clinging to the steep reminded me of some places in Italy's Cinque Terre. But, I have to conclude that Yelapa has "jumped the shark"; whereas it was formerly isolated and a hip little oasis, frequent day trips of tourist-filled pangas from PV have ruined it. The moment we got off the beach, we were hustled for a picture with an iguana on our shoulder, "native" handbags and other tschochkes (probably made in China), and restaurant touts.

The next day we headed back across the bay, initially hugging the dramatic southern coast. Some theorize that Banderas Bay was formerly a volcano, and the southern side is characterized by steep hills that jut dramatically out of the ocean. Very cool.

Our buddy Roger had a couple friends visiting, Sherry and Andrew, so to break things up, I took Andrew on Hurulu and Roger took Naomi and Sherry on Palapa. Andrew has done a lot of sailing and racing, and we decided to attempt a first for Hurulu: flying the spinnaker.

After sitting out in the middle of the bay for close to 5 hours, with zero wind-- literally, we were sailing along at 1 knot--around 1 pm the breeze kicked up. We tacked upwind to give us "sea room" for the (downwind) spinnaker run, and then got in position. Meanwhile, the breeze continued to gain rapidly....under mainsail alone, we were clocking off 6.5 knots, and the wind was ticking up to 20 knots.

Ok, at this point we should have probably just enjoyed our sail, sans-spinnaker, but I really wanted to fly one on Hurulu, and Andrew was as experienced a foredeck crew as we'd ever had aboard. I kept the helm steady with one hand while trying to film our first "chute launch" with the other.

With great suspense, he hoisted the halyard, and...the sail promptly twisted around itself. Andrew spent the next several minutes extending half his body off the boat's bow pulpit, untwisting. Meanwhile, the wind continued to pick up, above 20 kts.

Finally, he got it up! And the boat took off like a race horse. It was a wild ride-- somewhat analogous to strapping an uncontrollable jet pack to the stern-- but our downwind heading was taking us directly into the beach, very fast.

Finally, we had to drop it, and here's where it got a little nuts. The sail twisted again, and the pole swung out to the port side shroud, bending the pole, while the sail promptly dropped in the water and wrapped around the Monitor windvane. While Andrew pulled in the lines, I had to keep the boat from jibing, while also climbing monkey-like onto the Monitor's steel tube framing and unwrapping it.

Eventually we got it all together, back on board and stowed, and to make the most of the great wind, we flew the 170 jib-- and flew the boat! We were clocking off 7.5 knots and chased the (normally much faster) Palapa into the harbor.

Overall, despite the bent pole and a tear in the chute, it was an exciting experience. We're already reviewing the video (which mostly just shows chaos) and playing monday-morning quarterback, hoping to refine our gameplan for next time. Oh yes, there will be a next time!

Sailing Minimalism

We are still here in PV working on boat projects, which is actually pretty fun. As mentioned in my last post, it is both challenging and very rewarding to learn-- often by trial and error-- how to work on boats.

As the old saying goes: "What's the definition of sailing? Fixing expensive things in foreign ports..."

Actually, we are very fortunate in that our boat is very simple (I like to call it "minimalist sailing"). When outfitting our boat, we put most of the $$ into the core rigging, new sails, new anchors, etc...things that make a boat 'go' and 'stop'. Thus, most of our current boat projects are cosmetic, maintenance, or preventative the teak varnish, polishing the decks and stainless, changing the oil in the diesel, etc.

I contrast our work with the daunting tasks that some of our dock neighbors are doing....rebuilding engines, overhauling entire (and very costly electrical systems), fixing esoteric plumbing systems, etc.

Which brings us to another relevant saying: "The likelihood of major systems failure increases exponentially with system complexity." And boy, are some of these boats wit:

They have wicked cool navigation / communication / entertainment systems, all integrated together and talking to one another, with lots of flat panel displays throughout the nav station and cockpit. We have a handheld GPS and some paper charts.

They have $7,000 water maker systems with multi stage filtration and advanced reverse osmosis membranes. We have two built-in water tanks (that we fill with a hose) and two $20 jerry cans.

They have forced-air air conditioning systems. We have two battery operated fans we bought at Target for $5 (and amazingly, have never used, although we have actually loaned them out to one of our fancy-boat friends).

They have high power, generator driven refrigeration and ice-making systems. We have an icebox with a very small cold plate (although we did, in fact, once make a tray of ice during the 31-hour motor-crossing from Baja to Mazatlan). (We also have friends with ice-makers...)

Yes, I admit to sometimes succumbing to "gadget envy." But then again, we both enjoy the exact same sunsets, sandy beaches, and snorkeling. And, while they spend half of their time sitting in a marina, waiting for parts to arrive from the U.S....we are out blasting around the bay at 7.2 knots!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Parental Visits, Bull Fights, and Boat Projects

My parents Mary Lou and Dr. Bruce came down for a week's visit, and to escape their fairly hectic lives (he escaping from the stress of being an emergency room doc, and she of being a grandma to a 2 year old and 6 month old).

They met us here at the beautiful Marina de La Cruz and we went for a really nice afternoon sail. We weren't out more than 10 minutes when our resident whale-spotter Naomi sighted the distinctive spouting action perhaps half a mile ahead. We got closer and saw a few dramatic dives, signified by their huge tails flashing vertical. After that, my Dad and I jumped on a bus and made it downtown just in time for the start of a bull fight...

(Note: sensitive readers may want to stop here.)

Bullfighting is a rather gruesome but fascinating sport...I was particularly keen to see one first-hand, having struggled through about 400 pages on the topic in James Michener's book Mexico. And yes, even though it is quite controversial and rather gory (and almost always ends in the bull's death), I do believe it merits consideration as both art and sport. More on that in a moment; first a brief overview.

A typical bull fight lasts about two hours, and includes four bulls. Each bull fights a matador (aka Torero), and each matador is assisted by picadores on horseback and banderilleros (flagmen) on foot. It starts off with the band playing a rousing tune and the bull being released into the ring, where it runs around very spiritedly and is studied by the matadors for his behavior and ferocity.

Next, the picador-- in our case a very fat man-- enters the arena on horseback. The horse is blindfolded and has protective padding all around his sides and belly. The bull is led to charge the horse, at which point the picador uses a lance to stab around the base of the neck. This helps the matadors determine which way the bull charges with his horns (whether he's a "lefty or righty") and if successful with the pics, the bull will hang his head lower, which makes the matador's ultimate job easier.

Next, the banderilleros enter the ring and encourage the bull to charge; when he does, they dodge aside and place two brightly colored and feathered pics (with sharp points on the end) into the bulls flank. This further tires the bull allows the matador to continue to study his behavior. It's pretty brave stuff, as the bull charges the bandillero (not his cape), and he must dodge at the very last second to place the pics; but it's not nearly as brave as what comes next, in the final stage.

Here, the matador enters alone; it is "mano-a-toro." He uses his red cape to get the bull to charge, and he performs a number of passes, often very close to his body. These passes are judged as a show of his skill and "control" over the bull. Although the bull is charging at the motion of the cape, bulls are smart and eventually learn who is controlling that cape.

Finally, the matador performs a series of passes designed to get the bull into position for the kill. This is where the audience collectively holds its's incredibly tense. The goal is, in theory at least, simple: get the bull to charge, and when he passes close by, place the sword cleanly through the shoulder blades and pierce the heart or aorta. In practice, it's not so simple, as it's a 1300-lb mass of enraged and agile muscle rushing at full force, and the matador must get up and over the sharp horns that annualy kill a few of his peers.

In the four bulls we saw, the first two were average, but the third was excellent. The matador was very graceful and commanding of the bull, and he killed with one clean strike. Literally, the bull dropped on the spot. Gory, but amazing in its skillfullness and mastery.

However the fourth was abysmal...from what I have gleaned from the Michener book, everything that can go wrong did. The picador (the one on the horse) stabbed the bull too deeply, causing too much blood loss (analogous to cheating). The audience booed loudly. Next, the matador missed with his first sword strike and then had a poor placement with the second, far too far back on the flank. His third was no better, and so ultimately they halted the fight and put the bull down. I saw the matador outside the ring after the fight and you could tell he was shamed.

So yes, it's gory and involves death; it's very controversial, and it's probably a dying sport (interest in both Mexico and Spain has been waning in recent decades). But it is really amazing to's like something out of another time (and indeed, it may trace its roots to gladiator games). There are several centuries of culture and history and ritual entwined in the subtleties of the "dance", and you gotta admit-- despite the pink socks, these matadors have serous cajones.

The bull is highly respected (and feared)...occasionally, bull who fight particularly well are released and allowed to live. And while the main objection of critics is that it's torture for the bull, the fight doesn't last long-- 20 minutes perhaps-- and it's a noble way for a noble beast to "go out" vs simply being led to the slaughterhouse. Perhaps I'm anthropomorphosizing (sp?) here, but if I were a bull, it's how I'd want to go...

Anyway, we spent the next few days with my parents eating our way across town...shrimp tacos in Sayulita, German schnitzel in La Crus, lobster on the beach in Bucerias, and mahi mahi in Old Town PV at Daiquiri Dicks. Muy bien!

Now, Naomi and I are plowing through an endless list of 'boat projects', such as: i) revarnishing our wood trim; ii) changing the diesel and tranny oil; iii) fixing a water system leak; iv) installing a new forward hatch (thanks Mom, for sclepping it down here), etc. For me, this stuff is actually forces us to learn new skills, and be carpenter, plumber, mechanic, and more all at once.

And even though it takes me 5x the time it should, it is provides a gratifying sense of accomplishment each time I get something done. For example, yesterday I spent about 5 hours wedged in a 3" x 4" starboard lazarette fixing a plumbing leak, water squirting everywhere. But after several tries, I ultimately got it sealed up, and now water flows from our taps like magic...success!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Buddy Boating Benefits

As many readers know, we have been "buddy boating" with our friends Roger and Tobe on the Catalina 44, La Palapa, off and on, ever since the Ha Ha rally ended. We first cruised up in the islands north of La Paz, and later, we sailed together down the "Gold Coast" between Puerto Vallarta and Zihuatenejo. (The picture above is of our two boats in Paraiso...Hurulu is not ACTUALLY that much smaller than Palapa, it's just further away-- an optical illusion!)

Buddy boating was never really our original plan; we sort of just fell into it, but in a word, it's been awesome. Having another boat to cruise around Mexico with has brought another element to the trip, as well as numerous lesser bennies, among them:

Scout: Since La Palapa is 8 feet longer than Hurulu-- and probably 10 or 12 feet longer at the waterline, which is a primary determinant of overall boat speed-- Roger and Tobe are always well ahead of us and get into each anchorage many hours in advance. While I believe Roger gets a particular level of enjoyment in passing us (e.g. when we leave before him), having them out ahead allows us to know what sort of wind and sea conditions we're about to face-- such as when we rounded the notorious Cabo Corrientes. It's also very useful for anchoring, since Roger will relay his lat/long coordinates to us, and we can just pull up alongside and drop the hook. I've said to Naomi recently that I worry we're getting accustomed to this level of concierge service....?

Big Boat Toys: Although La Palapa is only 8 feet longer overall, it's a massively larger boat; it's only 2 years old, and modern boats are much beamier than older ones, particularly in the stern section, and thus they have vastly larger room for all the toys. And La Palapa has all the toys...watermaker, ice maker, stern mounted showers, a hookah snorkel setup, and all sorts of kitchen and electronic doo-dads for weather, navigation, and entertainment (and did I mention he has video cameras mounted on top of the mast? very cool...)

Roger likes to share his toys, and we like to share his toys with him. A typical evening in anchorage sees us coming over for sunset happy hour (with drinks on ICE, a precious commodity), rinsing off on his stern step, grilling up some meat on his huge Australian-made BBQ, then watching a movie on the flat panel in the salon. When Tobe is in town, it gets even better, as she's a wizard with baked goods. Lest you think we're engaged in a totally parasitical relationship, we do try to contribute as best we can..we bring the movies from Naomi's iPods, we bring the "Controy" necessary for margs, and she's pretty handing in whipping up an accompanying pasta or rice side (and I usually do the dishes).

Amigo-ship: Probably the best benefit of all is simply having some other folks to hang out with. As mentioned previously we've started our Sea-Rebral book club, and we tend to spend a lot of time just sitting around with coffee mugs discussing: i) the world; ii) personality types (are you task oriented or schedule-oriented?); iii) boat projects (Roger is a great sounding board for my proposed McGyver-type fixes for things); and iv) business ideas (I've got a boat-related gadget brewing that I'll disclose to you after I file a provisional patent).

So that's it in a nutshell. As an aside, Roger said that a couple years ago, when they first sailed the Mexican coastline on a much smaller ship, it was them who were sort of taken under the wing of another cruisers it's karmic payback? Probably, and perhaps in a year or two it will be our turn to "mentor" some other couple making their first trip.

Also, I should state that it's very very tempting to continue on with them to the South Pacific (Roger has even promised a mid-ocean meetup to refill our water tanks from his watermaker), but that's currently in the long-shot category (unless this economy keeps imploding). Plus, I think Roger and Tobe need some quality alone-time together, and what better way than to cover 3100 miles of open ocean?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Dolphins and Dance Party (video)

When we went home to Florida in January we bought a nifty little video camera called the "Flip Mino". Since then I have diligently annoyed Naomi and anyone else within visual range by taking hours of footage.

However, it's pretty difficult to upload stuff, due to Mexican bandwidth issues...dropped connections, session timeouts, etc. It literally takes me hours and dozens of tries to upload anything.
Anyway, we are nothing if not persistent, so here are a couple fun videos for your enjoyment!

Dolphins off the bow

This was taken on our north-bound passage to Chamela...some of the friendliest dolphins we've found. Anyone know what specific type they are? The spots should give a clue...

Rod Stewart Dance Party on La Palapa

This impromptu footage was taken in the lagoon at Barra de Navidad when my friend Susan was visiting.

We'll keep trying to upload more. We are back in Marina de La Cruz (near Puerto Vallarta) and will be here for another week or so while my parents visit and we complete our list of "boat tasks". Asta luego...

Monday, February 2, 2009

Mexico's Gold Coast: Careyes, Paraiso, and Chamela

After my friend Susan departed and we left Barra, we spent a few days anchored in the very nice Tenacatita Bay, where we took our dinghy up a jungle river. The dinghy river tour was very cool. This is perhaps mostly a "guy thing"-- what little boy, especially one who grew up in the mountains, didn't dream of exploring exotic tropical jungles by boat as a kid?-- but Naomi seemed to enjoy it as well.

We skimmed the little dinghy around corners and through long stretches of narrow mangrove tunnels-- very fun. At the end, after several miles, the river dumps out in a lagoon where we had excellent breaded shrimp for lunch, then went back the way we came to avoid getting stuck when the tide went out.

Our next little adventure was getting invited to a "potluck dinghy raft up." To our surprise, this is exactly what it sounds like...a bunch of cruisers from different boats each make a hot dish, then pick a spot in the bay and tie all the dinghies together. Very bizarre, but actually pretty fun, and we were also able to trade a bunch of bad books for equally bad but different books.

Speaking of books, Naomi, Roger and I have decided to start our own book club, tentatively titled "Sea-rebral Sailors". The first book we all read was The Godfather, and we discussed at length some odd sub-plots to the mafia tale, such as several detailed chapters dedicated to the surgery to a mafioso's mistress who was "too big down there." Somehow I don't recall that making it into the movies... Next up for discussion is a book we picked up at the dinghy raft up: Star Trek...Assignment: Eternity!

Careyes After departing Tenacatita, we had good wind and set our Monitor windvane up, which did all the steering work (sad to say, our electronic autopilot, "Otto", seems to be having some issues...see the previous post on the never ending search for self-steering systems). Anyway, we were visited by dolphins several times, and they followed us north to a small bay called Careyes, which is a sea turtle breeding area. It's a cute bay, with brightly colored houses clinging to the hillsides, but a tight anchorage with lots of rocks. Also very rolly at night....ugh.

Paraiso Bay
The next day saw us heading a short distance north to a verrrrrry small bay called "Paraiso", spanish for "paradise". This is sort of off the well traveled route and out of the way, and I had some anxiety getting into the narrow bay, which was analogous to entering a fjord. But, once we rounded the corner, we found that it was aptly named-- another little slice of paradise!

We had a tiny beach all to ourselves (for most of the day, anyway, until a panga dropped off two women--one of them topless-- and their 3 dogs). But by late afternoon everyone but us had left, and we set up a small camp under the palm trees and made rum drinks, snorkled, and read. After nightfall, Roger was determined to build a beach bonfire, and he did so. It was a perfect night, with great moonlight and a bunch of dry coconut husks flickering in the fire.

Chamela Bay
The next day we motored a short distance to a bay called Chamela. Along the way, we saw two whales-- the first we have seen in several weeks. Chamela was a nice surprise-- our charts didn't make it look like much, but it's got a nice several-mile-long beach and two islands in the middle, which help block the swells (and thus improved our sleep). It's also almost completely undeveloped, except for a few seafood palapas on the beach. It's always encouraging to find areas that are still untouched--yes, they are definitely still out there!

We dinghied to shore and nearly dumped the dinghy. Dinghy-ing through surf is probably one of the more dangerous aspects of sailing, since catching a breaking wave at the wrong moment can flip the dinghy, sending the outboard (and propeller) flying. As it was, I scraped up my shin, but that's all.

As our boats sat offshore and as we dined on plates of breaded shrimp (80 pesos, or $5.50), fish tacos (30 pesos, or $2) and a fish filet in butter and garlic (50 pesos, or $3.44) , we seriously pondered riding out the economic storm brewing in the US by just 'hanging off the hook' here for awhile. After all, when we began this trip in October, one dollar bought 10 pesos; it now buys close to 14.5 pesos!

In other words, our "cost of living" is now approximately 45% cheaper than it was 3 months ago, and with very few other expenses apart from a little diesel (and of course, the wind is free), how could life get any better?

Actually, as cheap as it is, we are trying diligiently and persistently to lower our costs even further-- by fishing. I have a streak of obsessive compulsive disorder (as my mom used to say, "Nathan, you have a one-track mind") and I'm determined to crack the code of how to catch the elusive mahi mahi. In the meantime, I spend a lot of time around sunset with the very cool Cuban hand line that my father in law Roy brought us. One of these days, I expect to post a pic with us holding a whopper...until then, I'm limited to showing my casting technique.

Ok, that's it for now. We will be passage-making for the next couple of days en route to rounding Cabo Corientes, where we got our butts kicked by the rough weather on the way down...stay tuned!