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.

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