Bahia de La Ventana. Baja California Sur. Our first steps in the sand of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula after arriving aboard Exit.
We still needed to get further north before our hurricane def-con status could more fully relax.
Nearly every weather system that had developed on the Pacific side since the onset of hurricane season was following a consistent general pattern. After forming off the coast of Panama, it would work north skirting along the Pacific coast until eventually dissolving or drifting back offshore as it approached the Baja peninsula.
And yet, historically, relatively very few hurricanes had actually entered the Sea of Cortez.
There had been no doubt whatsoever; the Pacific coast between Panama and the Gulf of California was Hurricane Highway…which meant we were currently on the off ramp.
Much safer. But not still without some risk of passing traffic.
Regardless, we were momentarily going to pause, exhale, and relax.
For us, passage making aboard a sailboat shares a balance – the highs that accompany the sensory overload of magical experiences coupled with the inevitable exhaustion that results from prolonged heightened vigilance and coping with whatever gets thrown at you.
That escapade, occasionally more of a roller coaster than hoped for but always an adventure, often comes with an emotional hangover attached.
Sometimes doing nothing is the something you really need to clear that fog.
After a couple of days enjoying the sunny beach at Punta Arena de La Ventana, we sailed a relaxing two hours away to Isla Cerralvo, also known as Jacques Cousteau Island.
Not sure of the politics involved in renaming an island. I understand paying tribute to the French oceanographer, honoring him with an island in his name and all. According to infinitely knowledgable Wikipedia, he did call the Sea of Cortez the world’s aquarium which must have resulted in some pretty good press [on an ironic sidenote: it would appear the Sea of Cortez was also an imposed renaming of Gulfo de California but, in this case, I believe Cortez was more of an asshole]. Still, word had it that at least some of the locals were far less appreciative of the island’s renaming than the Cousteau family was. Fair enough.
Despite its apparent exposure, we couldn’t see why the bay we dropped anchor in was not listed as a viable anchorage on any of the charts. In the right conditions, it seemed perfect.
The holding was good. The beach was easily accessible. The uninhabited island was a fascinating study in geological and volcanic formations, mercilessly arid and covered with a feature strangely unique to the mangrove, tropical, and rainforest landscapes we had grown used to – cacti. The water was clear…eighty degrees. Coral. Marine life. Wow.
Outside of the occasional power boat briefly dropping a fishing line nearby, for three days we had the spot to ourselves.
Not having found a cell phone or internet connection for a week, we had been almost completely off the grid since leaving La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. Because our navigation equipment only requires GPS, that made our Iridium Go! the only tie with the outside world. The Iridium is great for uploading weather forecasts and tracking our current position, but can’t handle anything beyond a basic text email for data transfer…nothing more than an emergency contact.
That online detachment can be a giant pain in the butt when you want or need a link to the outside world. However, it can also be a key factor in separating from all the world’s daily background noise; background noise that interferes with one’s ability to focus on the important things that really matter.
There are times when that isolation bubble can help generate moments of pure carefree bliss. However, like everything, it is a pendulum of balance that always has a backswing. Those blissful moments can be very short lived when the isolation bubble gets popped and the outside world comes flooding back in.
As had largely been the case since leaving Costa Rica, our final push for Puerto Vallarta and the Sea of Cortez was a blur of foregoing potential stops in favor of continual forward progress.
Recently, we had begun to notice that the certainty of turtle traffic was giving way to the certainty of cargo ship traffic.
At one point, despite being in three thousand feet of water fifteen miles offshore, we found ourselves surrounded by no less than seven cargo ships, all parking in the middle of the ocean while they awaited their turn loading or unloading ashore.
We had been motoring for five hours after setting out from Marina Ixtapa. Kris was at the helm. Below deck, I was startled as Kris yelled out and threw Exit into an emergency full stop.
Stretched across our path was a fishing longline. Kris had spotted the floating plastic bottle that the line was attached to just as we were on top of it. Standing on deck, I could just see the florescent orange monofilament line running under our hull. We had not crossed completely over it, which would have inevitably resulted in the line getting tangled in our spinning prop.
Exit has a line cutter attached on the propeller which more than likely would have sliced right through it, but then potentially you have a very angry fisherman on your hands. We had heard stories of irate fishermen demanding money for damages – even a first hand account from a family who inadvertently became entangled in a fishing net while underway in their sailboat. They had actually been boarded by the fisherman during the ensuing altercation.
We didn’t see any fishing boats at the moment, but one has to assume they are not far away.
Slowly backing up, our worries were confirmed. Though we had avoided fouling the prop, the longline was hung up on something underneath Exit.
Thankfully, at that moment conditions couldn’t have been much calmer… because I was going for a swim.
A quick inspection revealed that it wasn’t the florescent orange long line that was hung up. Attached to that line were endless smaller clear monofilament lines, each that had numerous hooks attached. One of the hooks had gotten caught somewhere in the centerboard mechanism. I couldn’t get it free.
Easy enough to cut the smaller line. The main line would remain undamaged, and there would only be a handful of small hooks lost. No foul. The effort would probably even be appreciated by the fisherman.
What was concerning was the amount of tension currently on the main longline attached to the hooked lines attached to us. I was quite fearful that, when I cut the hook free from Exit’s centerboard, I could be snagged by one of the other hooks as the longline snapped back. Literally hooked like a fish, I would be still be attached to the longline as it pulled away from Exit.
It did not paint a positive picture as far as potential outcomes. But neither did being boarded by angry men in rubber boots smelling of fish.
With a knife, I sliced through the clear fishing line hooked to our centerboard, holding my body in such a way as to try to create as small of target as possible. The tensioned line shot away with an audible twang. Mercifully, as the undamaged longline disappeared into the blue, I was not hooked to it.
A short time later we were back underway. In the distance, we could now just see the small fishing boat. We were glad we had sorted out our shit and could continue without fear of fallout.
An otherwise uneventful two hundred twenty nautical mile passage brought us to Barra de Navidad at 3:30am, prompting us to drop anchor in Melaque on the far side of the bay, awaiting the light of day to enter the Barra de Navidad lagoon.
By mid-afternoon, we were sitting inside the lagoon with lake-like conditions all around us, blue skies above us, and iced Kraken rum in front of us.
While we more confidently awaited what we hoped would be a bit of sailing wind to continue north, we got some projects done and tried to relax a bit.
However, an intended day of sun, food, drink and relaxation at a nearby resort turned into a stressful and depressing fiasco after a combination of communication failures and differences in interpretation of resort policies between a very pleasant and unconcerned desk clerk and one of his colleagues, an authoritarian and ill-mannered prick who took his pool policing duties ridiculously seriously.
Though one resort Nazi is hardly reason to pick up anchor and leave, a constant awareness in the backs of our minds that, weather-wise, we were sitting on borrowed time the longer we hung out here was, on the other hand, quite motivating.
Five days later, another overnight passage carried us the hundred and fifty miles we needed to travel to reach La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, which shared a bay with Puerto Vallarta.
We expected no wind at all, but by mid-afternoon found ourselves moving along at five knots of speed under power of sails alone with a full genoa and mainsail.
As the light of the day began to fade, the horizon implied that the evening’s sunset could be rather mundane. But sometimes it’s not only the colors that contribute to an unforgettable sunset.
With no earlier hint of its presence, a single dolphin leapt clean out of the water just off Exit’s starboard side.
Immediately after that, we began to see small dots appearing in the distance in every direction. Before we knew it, we were surrounded.
Another magical dolphin experience.
This time, a huge pod that seemed to converge upon us from all different directions…spinner dolphins and they provided quite a show. Not a super-pod. Still, we had never been surrounded by so many at once. Incredible!
Sunrise the following morning was spectacular.
Puerto Vallarta / Cruz de Huanacaxtle:
We were finally at the doorstep of where we needed to be. And though we felt we could breathe a bit easier now, our comfort level would increase dramatically more after we had crossed the threshold and actually entered the Sea of Cortez, or Gulf of California.
And then, within twenty four hours of our arrival, we had our first hostile incident with locals. Returningfrom a dinghy trip ashore to town, we found three locals sitting aboard Exit.
They quickly left as we scrambled aboard.
Fortunately, it appeared they had not taken anything. However, it also appeared that they had left something. Giant runny splatters of pelican shit! On deck. On the solar panels. On the windlass and anchor chain. Everywhere…
That day, our love for pelicans was truly tested. How rude!
Aside from the unprecedented pelican squatting incident, and a few nervous weather moments, we found Cruz de Huanacaxtle to be a perfect location for us to relax a bit.
Wandering about and people watching…
And an incredible view…
Still, we kept reminding ourselves this was only a rest stop.
One week later, we lifted anchor and set out. From La Cruz Huanacaxtle, the door to the Gulf of California was wide open. We left three primary options on the table.
Mazatlan, 175 miles or thirty four hours away; Cabo San Lucas, 285 miles or two and a half days away; La Paz, 365 miles or a bit over three days away.
For slightly less than three days we continued pressing forward, experiencing everything from completely becalmed seas and clear skies to a midnight deluge complete with thirty-three knot winds accompanied by deafening thunder and lightning.
Offshore storms at night can be particularly terrifying. A torrent of rain being pushed sideways into the cockpit by over thirty knot winds in pitch blackness, occasionally punctuated by a distant flash or, even worse, nearby explosion of electricity, combined with the unpredictable and sometimes violent motions of storm seas can make for some rather interesting evenings.
On the other hand, those same seas and skies create unforgettably magical experiences as well.
Sunsets under sail. Alone for as far as you can see in every direction. There’s something indescribable about being the only witnesses to such an unbelievable display of colors in nature. A private show for those fortunate enough to be at that particular location during those fleeting moments.
Sometimes you only think that you’re alone.
Offshore, when you do receive visitors, they are usually unanticipated guests arriving unannounced, but they are almost always welcome.
When we eventually dropped anchor nearly three days later it was 1:25 in the morning. We had just completed a three hundred fifty five nautical mile jaunt across the mouth of the Sea of Cortez, or more properly, the Gulf of California.
We had arrived at the Baja peninsula, not quite a hundred miles north of Cabo San Lucas and less than fifty miles from La Paz.
It had been exactly one month ago, to the day, that we had departed Marina Chiapas, Mexico. In that time, we had travelled one thousand three hundred fifty miles aboard Exit.
Since passing through the Panama Canal six months ago, Exit had made good on nearly three thousand miles of Pacific coastline.
Inside the Gulf of California…finally.
We had made it!
And, though it seemed as though we had found paradise once again, experience told us – things are never simple on a boat…
After our six hundred mile passage, the anchorage at Potosi Petatlan offered a fair weather safe haven to rest but no safe access to land.
Sitting in the cockpit with morning coffee in hand, we watched with amazement as local captains displayed an impressive set of skills, timing, and balls repeatedly landing their power boats on beaches. We would not be attempting any dinghy landings here.
Zihuatanejo, ten miles away, offered the hope of a brief though fun land excursion into town; something we felt we had earned. We picked up anchor and headed there.
Sunsets underway can be surreal, but sunsets at anchor hold their own attraction. More latitude for true relaxation.
In our endeavor to maximize our progress up the Mexican coast and minimize our exposure to potential hurricanes, we had fed over fifty gallons of diesel to our Perkins engine.
For two reasons, we typically try to keep our two hundred gallon fuel tank as close to full as possible. One, it fits into our overall supply for the Apocalypse strategy. Two, with our aluminum tank, an emptier tank equals more condensation, resulting in potential fuel contamination from water and other bio growth (a lesson we learned from a crusty diesel mechanic in Cape Canaveral during a filter clogging / fuel polishing ordeal we experienced after first departing the Chesapeake aboard Exit).
Ninety-nine percent of the time, when fueling up is required, we opt for transport via dinghy with five gallon plastic jugs, fifteen gallons each trip. We rarely are tied to a dock. It increases the workload, but decreases the complication and stress involved in docking the mothership. How we get fuel to the dinghy is almost always an adventure unique to each location.
Our last fuel up had been while Exit was tied to the dock at Marina Chiapas. Ironically enough, we had still needed the dinghy there. Turned out, instead of trying to arrange a taxi that was willing to transport fuel containers and pay for multiple trips to and from the nearest vehicle gas station —- it was much easier taking our dinghy a short distance through the channel to access a set of cement steps making the exact same gas station fuel pumps only a fifty foot walk.
Though we really wanted to explore Zihuatanejo a bit, we ultimately knew our first priority now had to be sorting out what logistics would be involved in getting diesel here. We didn’t know the specifics yet; but experience had taught us it was rarely simple.
A bit of research revealed that, less than five miles away, Marina Ixtapa had a fuel dock that appeared to have pretty straightforward access. We cringed at the idea of a fuel dock ordeal every time; still, this really seemed to make the most sense.
It was less than an hour away, so we decided to suck it up.
When we arrived just outside the channel we immediately noticed a very industrial looking vessel occupying the channel, appearing both to effectively be blocking the channel as well as not moving at all.
We temporarily dropped anchor in fifty feet of water and hailed Marina Ixtapa on the VHF. They informed us that the channel was currently being dredged and access through was limited to before 7am, after 7pm, or between noon and 1pm. The fuel dock was open from 8am-5pm.
It was currently 12:25.
We had just over thirty minutes to lift anchor, navigate through the channel past the dredging boat to the marina fuel dock, tie up, fill up our tank with diesel, pay, cast off the dock, get turned around, and retrace our path back out of the channel past the dredging boat before it resumed work and blocked our escape.
The idea flickered that we could pull it off and then immediately dissolved with the reality of what a silly notion that actually was.
There was no way we would pull that off. We would either be trapped on the fuel dock until after dark, or infuriate the working people on the dredging boat with the delay we would inevitably cause, or initiate some other unforeseen drama in our haste.
The smart decision was to accept the situation, anchor at Isla Ixtapa four miles from where we were (which would allow us to check out that anchorage as well), and return the following day with a full hour to work with at noon.
We learned two important things swinging on the hook that night at Isla Ixtapa.
First was that viable protected anchorages along this section of the coast were going to be a big concern. Despite completely calm conditions, we experienced an excruciating amount of side to side rolling all night long from a relentless swell. In crappy weather, this whole coast would be smashed.
Second, was that another hurricane was hot on our heels. Our Windy forecast predicted it would be about two hundred miles offshore when it passed by Acapulco tomorrow, only fifty miles south of us.
We needed an alternative to anchoring in a bay that was, at best, questionable in the most mild conditions.
There was no way we could be sure of making Puerto Vallarta, which seemed like the best bet for protection ahead of the weather. It was over three hundred miles to the northeast.
First things first. One thing at a time.
In the morning, we returned to where we had anchored outside Marina Ixtapa the day before and waited. At 11:59am Exit was already approaching the channel entrance at three knots. The dredging boat was a bit off to the side, and we easily surfed atop a small roller past it and through the channel.
We tied off to the fuel dock without incident and quickly topped up our diesel. With thirty minutes still to spare before our deadline to be out of the channel, we were able to breathe a sigh of relief after speaking to the marina staff, having learned that there was a slip available for us to sit in during the next couple of days while the latest weather developed. Currently, the hurricane was threatening to pass within one hundred fifty miles of our location.
The available slip was tucked in a very back corner, of course. It was tight, but manageable. Fortunately, we had minimal wind and just a bit of current to cope with. Even more fortunately, Kris was at the helm.
The situation wasn’t perfect. We were back in a marina paying for a slip. But we were now in a much more protected and secure location. This was only going to be for a couple of days…
Sometimes the best choices aren’t the preferable ones. And sometimes imperfect choices come with unanticipated benefits.
Time to check out some of the incredible wall art in town.
Beers on the beach…
Given the alternative — sitting in some exposed anchorage, rolling back and forth in brutal swell, desperately hoping the hurricane eating its way up the Mexican coast isn’t going to land square on top of you — this was Heaven.
…there seemed to be something about everything going down that just reminded us of something….
…though we couldn’t quite put our fingers on it.
We only spent four days at Marina Ixtapa. It was even more quiet than Marina Chiapas had been. More pedestrian walk-by traffic than occupied boats. But it had served its purpose well.
There seemed to be challenge after challenge to getting out.
Explosive weather just outside the marina could prevent us from even wanting to consider departing.
Even if the weather outside decided to cooperate, merely possessing a desire to leave the marina, in and of itself, may not be enough.
The port captain could choose not to open the port due to current conditions in the channel. A red flag flying at the entrance indicates port is closed. No traffic going out. Not your call to make.
In addition, daily tides meant potential currents and waves at the mouth of the channel could limit times at which the channel was navigable…maybe not for a big sport fishing boat, but for our boat things could be very different.
And then there was the dredging schedule. Daily dredging meant the channel was closed to traffic for all but one hour between sunrise and sunset. We knew that before we came in.
Oh ya…and I almost forgot. Crocodiles! Patrolling up and down the alleyways of the marina. Big…and bold.
And then it dawned on us…as one of the whopper-sized crocs floated past Exit. That big, twelve foot long bastard wasn’t just passing by.
It was the night-man.
And it sure seemed…
…as he glanced over at us…
…we may have heard faintly on the breeze…
…“you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
If it required the relative stealth of a breakout, so be it.
The latest hurricane had passed and was headed offshore. The forecasts all predicted, at the most, light and variable winds for a few days. The tide was high and the channel separating us from the ocean was almost flat.
As the first light of day began to pull back the shroud of last night’s darkness, we untied from the dock and departed Marina Ixtapa, silently passing by the dredging boat in the channel. It was 6:58am.