Monday, February 15, 2010

La Cruz and Puerto Vallarta

My memory of the last 12 days is a bit of a blur save for the excitement of the big blow we were expecting on Thursday. Another trough similar to the one which brought the high winds in the previous week was building and the weather gurus had us all quaking with fear. Almost all the sailboats in the anchorage, including us, checked into the Marina Riviera Nyarit by Wednesday. We spent that afternoon taking everything out of the cockpit, cleaning the decks, tying up all loose covers securely and generally preparing for 60 plus knots of wind.

Malecon in Puerto vallarta

On Thursday, we monitored our electronic barometer closely, took walks along the breakwater watching the clouds gather on the horizon and chatted nervously with other cruisers. And..... NOTHING HAPPENED! In fact we saw blue skies and sunshine in the late afternoon. It was a big sigh of relief for most but an anticlimax nevertheless.

Sculpture on malecon in Puerto Vallarta

We stayed in the marina for 3 days during which Chris fried our starter battery and a house battery. He was attempting to recharge the battery bank and we knew something was wrong when the propane alarm went off. The starter battery was past the point of resuscitation and shorted out, taking one of the house batteries with it, so now we were down to 3 batteries total. With advice from our friend Rob on Blue Moon, Chris removed the 2 dead batteries and re-wired the remaining 3 and they seem to be holding their charge well.

Pillow heads climbing a surreal ladder

The walk to Bucerias, a small town east of La Cruz, to purchase electric wire and other parts to hook up our battery charger was a memorable one. We walked along the beach from our marina to central Bucerias, passing waterfront condos and restaurants, wading in the surf at the base of one hotel. The souvenir stalls around the main square reminded us that we were now in a tourist resort town. The electronic store was closed so we popped into a little “loncheria” to eat comida. When we returned, the tiny door within the main door was open and it was pitch black inside when Chris poked his head in to ask “ es abierto?” ( “ are you open?”). A low voice answered “ Si” and switched on a few lights, revealing the owner, Tony Fernandez, sitting behind a dusty counter surrounded by an Aladdin's cave of all things electronic. Not only did we manage to buy almost everything on our list but Tony gave us a history lesson on the area in between hunting for them. We found out that the Spaniards built their first Manilla Galleon just south of here in Barra de Navidad, Manilla being a trading centre in the Philippines. These galleons brought back spices and porcelain amongst other things to be sent to Spain. To protect them from English and Dutch pirates, the king of Spain ordered canon heavy naval ships to accompany the fleet. Tony's history lesson was later confirmed during our visit to the naval museum in Puerto Vallarta.

Cathedral tower, Puerto Vallarta

Neptune sand sculpture

For Valentine's Day, we took the 16 peso bus to Puerto Vallarta. The malecon was teeming with tourists and souvenir touts but we enjoyed the statuary and views towards La Cruz across Banderas Bay. I found my first vegetarian restaurant in Mexico, Planeta Vegetariano, and we enjoyed their scrumptious buffet lunch and tasted a new drink ( for us anyway ) - sweet oatmeal, a popular Mexican item.

Native dancers - One plays a pipe and then they all leap off and twirl around the pole until the rope unwinds and they reach the ground. Apparently an ancient tradition adapted, I suspect, for tourists

For entertainment, we were fortunate to hear classic and jazz music provided by secondary school bands from California and Salt Lake City. The jazz bands were joined by a celebrity percussionist, Ruben Alvarez, and he soon had us all cha-cha'ing to the latin rhythm. It was an awesome evening.

Excellent Latin jazz and from Salt Lake city

Glendale High School, California band - note the lack of sheet music!

Latin Jazz Band from Salt Lake City

We plan to leave La Cruz, our very rolly anchorage, tomorrow, to head south towards Manzanillo.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Escape from Isla Isabela – out of the frying pan and into the fire.

We had been expecting a south east wind all that day, so were not surprised to be woken at 4 am by a strong wind and lumpy swell rolling into the anchorage. Not wanting to get caught on a lee shore like we did in San Quintin, we immediately raised anchor and sailed for the mainland. Before we left I radioed a less experienced couple on a nearby yacht and suggested they consider leaving, advice which they took (we later heard they made it safely to San Blas). We sailed into head winds and rain squalls for much of the day, finally making landfall at Chacala near supper time. We had hoped to make San Blas but the winds were coming from that quarter, so we resigned ourselves to seeing it on the way back north.

In Chacala, we were hailed by the lovely wooden schooner Tillicum out of Victoria. We chatted with the owner, Russ, on the radio before retiring for the night. He invited us to drop by for coffee the next morning, and invitation it turned out we were not able to take them up on.

At 10 pm, a sudden blast of wind and rain turned Ladybug completely through 180 degrees. The wind had terrific force – we estimate it as at least 50 knots. Occasional blasts of lightning lit up the beach immediately behind us – we were on a lee shore again. The lights of Chacala went out and then came back on, at least providing a landmark for us to judge whether we were dragging. We heard shouts from ahead of us in the bay and saw the schooner Tillicum bearing down on us sideways dragging her anchor. She dragged past and disappeared into the night headed for the breakers on the beach. The swell was now rolling into the bay and breaking waves were lifting our bow at least 6 feet in the air. We thought that Tillicum would be lost if she went ashore in this, but thankfully she reappeared ten minutes later, having managed to work her way off the shore with her engine. Another boat also dragged towards the shore, but surprisingly we remained firmly set, despite having only 100 feet of chain out. With our small engine, it is not likely we could have motored into this wind and swell.

After 20 minutes or half an hour the wind abated and we turned on our engine and used it to ease the tension on the anchor chain so I could remove the nylon snubber line and let out more chain. I kept Ladybug pointed into the swells as best I could while Chris ratcheted in the chain onto our windlass. Once we were better anchored, I made up a bed for us in the V-berth horizontally because the boat was hobby-horsing in the left-over swell so that it was impossible to sleep in the normal position. Even so, it was difficult to get back to sleep after the adreneline rush and with Ladybug doing her best impersonation of an out of control elevator.

We heard later that a similar but much more powerful 'bomb' had hit the anchorage in La Cruz, causing almost every boat in the anchorage (about 30 boats) to drag anchor. Some went ashore or bashed across the reef, but no boats were lost, although there was a lot of damage both from the wind destroying canvas awnings and rolled up sails and from collisions between boats. By the time we arrived in La Cruz, most boats had taken moorage in the marina and were beginning repairs. But we did not know about any of this until later the next day as we approached La Cruz ourselves.

After a somewhat restless night, we sailed our anchor out and headed south for Banderas Bay (the bay of flags). The trough that had been responsible for the crazy blow the night before was still clearly just offshore and we spent the entire day watching evil black squalls bearing down upon us and making literally hundreds of sail and wind vane adjustments to deal with the fluky and constantly changing winds. The winds moved that day through 270 degrees and varied from 0 to 20+ knots. We were sailing along a coast that reminded us of Hawaii with lush forested hillsides and a layer of coconut palms along the water. There were several small towns and resorts in this area, which is close enough to Puerto Vallarta to have fallen under the pall of intense development.

Our engine could not be started due to low battery power, which made the trip much longer than it would have been had we been able to motor through the calms. I was pretty worked up about the black clouds and rain squalls and Chris had to reassure me repeatedly that everything was going to be ok. It turned out that none of the squalls that passed over had much wind in them and we were entering Banderas Bay when the worst of the blackness passed by heading south.

It was nearing sunset as we rounded Punta Mita into Banderas Bay. Because the official charts here are off by miles, I pieced together the various unmarked shoals and rocks that guard this entrance and plotted them on a single page GPS accurate chart that we found in Charly's Charts cruising guide. Even so, it was nerve wracking sailing as we tacked up the gap between the point and the off-lying Tres Marietas islands, watching the sea explode off shoals only a few hundred feet away. To make matters worse, the winds were the strongest we had experienced all day, due to the cape effect. And to top it off, our propane tank ran dry while cooking supper and Chris had to change tanks in the middle of all this tricky navigation and sail adjustments.

We had planned to stop at the anchorage just inside Punta Mita but this looked too rolly, with only three sailboats at anchor bouncing around like corks. None of the boats responded to our requests for information on the VHF radio, so we decided to beat our way into the bay towards La Cruz about 8 miles further. We hailed any boat in La Cruz for information and Mike on Sunshine Lady (whom we had last seen in Peurto Escondido) they told us what had happened the night before, mentioning that the weather forecasters had said a similar 'bomb' could happen again tonight. However we did not want to risk sailing into a marina in the dark without our engine, so decided to take our chances in the anchorage.

We made one slip up in navigation, which would have taken us right across the point that separates La Cruz from the rest of the bay. Fortunately the loom of the point was clearly visible against the lights of the city and we changed course, tacking a half dozen times before reaching La Cruz harbour. It was difficult to locate the anchorage but we were grateful for assistance via the VHF from sailing vessel Scrimshaw, whose blue anchor light guided us into the anchorage.

We dropped the hook around 10 am and were fortunate to enjoy a restful night on the hook. We will be in La Cruz for a couple of weeks to explore the bay, visit Peurto Vallarta, hang out with our friends on Blue Moon, and deal with our low battery issues.

Isla Isabela – Mexico's Galapagos

Isla Isabela is a craggy mile long island with a small panguero fishing village in a bay on its south end. The island was made famous for its abundant underwater life and nesting bird colonies in both Jacques Cousteau and National Geographic television specials. On our first morning, we paddled over to visit with Jacob and Julia on Pisces, a Jason 35 sailboat that is quite similar to our Ladybug II. We had met this younger couple a week earlier in La Paz and they were keen to explore the island with us, having not yet been ashore. We joined them and their friends Naomi and John from Campbell River on the beach. In contrast to the usual cruising crowd, Rani and I were the seniors, with everyone else being 41 or under. Both couples have great blogs, Julia and Jacob's is here and Naomi and John's is here.

We chatted with some pangueros, learning that there is a full time fishing community of less than 50 people here. They also told us that regular tourist boats visit from San Blas about 40 or 50 miles away on the mainland. We later found a log book in which cruisers and tourists had signed their names, recognizing several yachts that had preceded us.
Ashore at the panguero village.
The pebbly beach where we landed is lined by colourful fisherman's shanties, painted green with red painted iron roofs. We left our inflatable kayak beside one hut and struck out on a trail that worked its way past a string of composting toilets overlooking a pond. Overhead hundreds of frigrates circled against a deep blue sky. In a forest of short trees that covers about half the island nest thousands of Magnificent Frigates – mainly black with forked tails. The males have red throat pouches they puff out during breeding season, like a heart worn on a sleeve. The females have white throats and the babies start off life as cute and fluffy white cotton balls, quickly developing into less appealing gawky grey adolescents.

Frigate chick and mother.

As we followed the trail toward the north end of the island, we marveled at how close the nests were to the trail and how little our passing appeared to phase the families. We saw both males and females taking turns to guard the nests, each nest containing only one youngster. We passed by a larger pond and then came out of the forest and onto a rocky promontory overlooking the great north rock around which we had sailed last night in the moonlight. Julia shouted back to us that there were whales off the coast. We could see two pairs of humpbacks working their way along the shore, plumes of spray from their breathing making it easy to locate them. As we turned south and walked along the cliffs toward the rock pinnacles known as the Monas, we could see several more spouts in the distance. The sea must indeed be rich here to support such abundant avian and cetacean life.

Naomi, Rani, Julie, and Jacob hiking the cliff trail. The Monas are in the distance.
All along the path we saw yellow and blue footed boobies, some nesting and others courting. They are comical birds, particularly when they walk, and again they showed little fear of us. Most couples were making quite a racket, whistling and clacking at each other We did our best to avoid the nesting birds but managed to take some good videos and still shots. Chris noted that when they look at you face on, the boobies look like anoerexic owls, with their round faces and similar colouration. We also saw several iguanas sunning themselves on the rocks ranging from half a foot to two or more feet long.

Nesting blue footed booby.
Courting boobies.

Another nesting boobie.
We came to a sand beach across form the Monas where there is located the Norwegian Camp. Here, we met a student from Mexico city, who told us that he and other students from universities in Mexico spend from 6 to 10 weeks in this location, camping out, with supplies arriving periodically from the mainland. They study the boobies, tagging them to understand their breeding habits. I'm not sure why it is called Norwegian?

A student explains how he studies the boobie's breeding habits.

Rani walking past a forest of frigate nests.

Daddy and baby frigate.

Frigate family.
Rani with the Monas behind.

Frigates and Monas.

Courting boobies.
We swam in the surf and snorkeled out to the Mona's, but the visibility and life was not a patch on what we were to see later in our own little bay. After a few mis-steps, we found the trail back to the beach and returned to Ladybug. John dropped by before supper and tossed Chris a handful of shrimp from a huge bag that he had bartered a case of beer for with one of the shrimpers anchored in the bay. Chris cleaned them and quickly sauteed them in olive oil and garlic. He has not been a particularly faithful vegetarian of late.

Sunning iguana.

Male frigate with impressive pouch.

Chris faces off with a booby.

The next day, we slept in late, recovering from our lost sleep on the crossing. We woke up in time to see the spouting of whales in the distance. Even though Chris was feeling headachy, we jumped in the kayak and paddled out into the big ocean swells. About ¼ mile off the bay we came upon a pair of whales – one large and one quite a lot smaller (possibly a mother and calf). Chris maneuvered us to get close enough to film and I used Flip to take some movies. At one point we almost kayaked over the tail of the larger whale, which you can see in the video just below the surface of the sea. Being in the kayak sure gets you close to these awe inspiring animals who did not seem to resent our presence so long as we stayed behind them or well off to the side. We will post a video of this in the next blog entry.
Later, despite a big swell rolling into the bay, we managed to go for a snorkel along the nearby reefs, enjoying the warm water and abundant life. Rani saw a sea snake and another cruiser swam over to tell us he had spotted some barracuda off the point. Dozens of parrot fish and schools of surgeon fish swam between the jagged black rocks that had tumbled from the cliffs and all of us were swept back and forth by a strong surge from the swells. We made a cursory attempt to clean some growth off Ladybugs hull and propellor. The prop and shaft were getting quite encrusted after a few weeks in the warm rich water.
We went ashore around supper time and climbed the other trail that winds up a steep hill overlooking the bay to the lighthouse on the south point. The view from the top was stunning – red banded cliffs lining our little bay, the matching roofs of the panguero huts lit up by the lowering sun, and thousands of birds nesting in the rich greenery of the forests. Overhead the frigates whirled and dived, sometimes locked in an embrace with another bird, (presumably courting?). The entire cliff top was lined with booby nests and baby boobies at various stages of maturity. We returned to Ladybug, Chris paddling back to the beach to give the fisherman the last of our butter, so they could cook some shell fish.

Shrimper fleet in the south

Returning to the boats.
At 4 am the next morning we awoke to wind blowing straight into the anchorage from the south east. More about this later...

Monday, February 8, 2010

Videos of nesting birds and kayaking with whales

A few videos from Isla Isabela

The first shows some boobies nesting on the east coast of the island:

The next shows nesting frigates:

And check out this whale watching video. We got pretty close to a very large humpback, almost paddling over its tail - yikes!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Crossing the Sea to Isla Isabela

My friend Jamie Orr reminds me that this is a sailing trip and maybe I should write a bit about sailing now and again, so here is my annual sailing oriented blog.

Rani enjoying vino while anchored off La Paz.

But first a few last pictures from La Paz – a kayaking trip we made to the Mogote (mo-goat-ay), a peninsula that lies off La Paz, with our friends Marv and Ardy off Odyssey.

Ardy and Marv in the mangroves.

We paddled through a mangrove swamp and saw plenty of wildlife including yellow and black crowned night herons and snowy egrets.

Yellow crowned night heron.

Night heron flying.

Egret strutting its stuff.
The wreck on the beach was that of a trimaran, needing more than a lick of paint to put her back in sailing trim.

Wrecked trimaran.

Dolphins swim by anchored boats off La Paz. The Mogote is behind.

Oh – and a couple more pics of a later trip we did to swim with some whale sharks. In one picture you can see the shark – about 24 feet long (much bigger than the aluminum boat we were in!). The next shot shows Rani swimming to catch up with the shark.

Whale shark

Rani swimming after the shark.

The whale sharks were swimming gently along the Mogote about 500-1000 feet offshore, feeding on plankton. This was an impromptu expedition, again with Marv and Ardy, and none of us had our bathing suits or snorkels. At first no one was keen to jump in and swim with the sharks, but once Rani led the way, we all stripped off to our undies and took turns swimming alongside a shark. One of our more modest friends even jumped in with her skirt on! It was amazing to be so close to such a huge beast, in its own element. Later, a nearby tour boat lent us a pair of goggles and we were able to see the school of yellow fish swimming right in front of the shark and some huge encrustations on the shark's body.

OK – back to sailing...

We left La Paz and spent a couple of days in the islands just to the north before making the crossing to Isla Isabela. The picture below shows Odyssey and Ladybug anchored in the shallow bay of San Gabriel on Espiritu Santo island a couple of days before we left.

Odyssey and Ladybug off Espiritu Santo

We departed Espiritu Santo island early in the morning following a rough and windy night anchored under the sheltering cliffs of Galleta cove. I don't like to run our engine as I would much rather sail, so as soon as we broke the anchor out and secured it to the bow roller, I hoisted the main and instructed Rani to run off across the bay on a close reach. The jib is on a roller furler and is usually easy to unfurl, but today I was distracted with 'instructing' Rani on where to point the boat and managed to roll the sail up instead of unfurling it, resulting in a snarl. We cleared things up after much flapping and criss crossing of the bay under the watchful eye of several sailboats and shaped our course for the San Lorenzo channel that separates La Paz bay from the Sea of Cortez.

As we ran south down to the channel, we could see a pair of humpbacks breaching to port off San Gabriel bay. The wind was from the west and a little behind the beam and I set our wind vane up to do the steering. Rani is the navigator, so she worked out a course that kept us clear of the shoals and rocks that guard both sides of the San Lorenzo channel. Rounding the tip of Espiritu Santo, we swung Ladybug onto an easterly course and jibed the main over to the opposite side from the jib, securing it with a line to prevent it from accidentally swinging back. We ran through the channel with sails on opposite sides, 'wing and wing'. At the entrance to the channel, the wind picked up, as it often does near points of land and we made good time for a half hour pushed along by a 10 knot breeze. We could see two other sail boats in the channel, both under motor, despite a decent breeze. It has always struck me as odd that someone would buy a sailboat and then use it as a motor boat most of the time. This is true of many 'sailors' in the Victoria area but seems to be true everywhere we have traveled.

One of the motoring sailboats hailed us to say hello on the VHF. 'Fire Water' was an Atkins ketch out for a trip to Los Muertos. She was fishing and had up a jib to steady her. We exchanged compliments about the other's boat and sailed past her and into the Cerralvo channel. This channel is usually an area of high winds and we were not disappointed when the wind piped up and swung into the north west behind us. We used our aluminum reaching pole to hold out the jib and put a reef in the main to keep things under control as the wind rose beyond 13 knots (as read on our little hand held anemometer). A small pod of white bellied dolphins shot by between us and Cerralvo Island to port. The wind vane was doing the steering and we had plenty of time to enjoy the scenery – extensive white sand beaches to starboard and the inhospitable craggy shoreline of Cerralvo island on the other side.

By tea time the wind was down and we shook out the reef and poled the job out on the opposite side from the main. Towards night fall we reached Los Meurtos, passing well off the sandy point that marks the northern approach to this bay. To let our friends know where we were, we checked in to the Southbound net on our single side band radio, giving our location and the weather (helpful to other cruisers in the area). Later we talked to Odyssey and Blue Moon using the same frequency on the radio. Blue Moon was near our destination at Isla Isabela and Odyssey was about 60 miles away (having left Los Muertos that morning). A near full moon rose in front of us and around us we could hear the splashes made by manta rays jumping from the water.

We kept four hour watches that night and near dawn I spotted the lights of a sail boat approaching from our rear. The trimaran, Sunday, with Gill and Lexie on board hailed us on our VHF radio and we had a good chat, with Gill passing on some suggestions about anchoring at Isla Isabela and visiting San Blas. The wind continued to be light to moderate from the north and we kept up the main and full jib with the vane doing all the steering. We removed the lock on the stove allowing it to swing in its gimbals for the wind on our aft port quarter and a moderate swell cause Ladybug to roll as she ran down to the south east. Cooking wold otherwise have been a messy affair.

While cleaning the decks with a bucket of sea water, I noticed that there were several tiny jelly-like organisms in the bucket. We dipped the bucket into the sea several times, each time coming up with different type of jellies. All were transparent and tube like with an opening at each end. They each had at least one small black spot (maybe a light sensor?) and what looked like a rudimentary digestive canal. Some were simply tubes about 2-3 centimeters long and others were made up of one or more rounded segments, each with its own dot and inner workings. They propelled themselves around the bucket, clearly taking in water at one end and expelling it at the other - very cool.

The north winds and swells continued that day and the next. We were now out of sight of land and saw little wildlife, except for a bird or two. On the third day out it was clear that we would reach Isla Isabela around midnight if we did not slow her down. We had made better time than I had expected with 100 and 120 mile runs on the first two days. We handed the main and continued to run under a slightly furled poled out jib. Still, we averaged 5 knots and the wind vane had a much easier time of it due to the reduced weather helm. This would bring us to the island early in the morning and we agreed that we would attempt a night entry only if conditions looked favourable and would heave too and wait for dawn otherwise. Rani entered way points on our GPS that would take us around the north tip of the island and allow us to look at the first possible anchorage off the rock pinnacles known as the Monas. If this east anchorage looked suitable we would stay there , otherwise pressing on to the southern anchorage off a fishing village.

The moon rose full that night and we began to see shrimpers working the rich fishing grounds off Isla Isabela. We steered around these boats and began our approach to Isabela, which appeared as a dark outline in the south east with a flashing light at its southern tip. Rounding the off-lying rock at the northern tip, we approached the Monas, but found that there was too much swell to anchor here. We could see the lights on the masts of several sailboats in the southern anchorage. We rounded the south point, being careful to avoid the thundering surf and foaming shoals visible under the bright moon.

We were surprised by the number of boats crowded into this achorage that one guide book says can comfortably hold only a couple of boats. A large motor cruiser was anchored just outside the bay and even though it was 1 am, there was a party in full swing on the after deck. We dropped the hook under motor in 36 feet between the motor yacht and the outermost sail boat. The bottom here is rocky and we dragged backwards for 50 feet before the anchor hooked round a large rock. We had buoyed the anchor with a trip line and orange float because this bay has a reputation as an 'anchor eater'. Leaving the GPS turned on with the anchor drag alarm set we turned in for the night. I remained on the settee bunk ready to act if the anchor should drag. Stay tuned for more on Isabela including some good footage of whales and some great booby (bird!) shots.

Sunrise - first day at Isabela