Thursday, March 11, 2010

San Blas Ramble

Passage: Isla Isabela to San Blas

Travel time: 10.5 hours (1 hr engine to recharge batteries)

Average speed: 4.1 knots

Approximate mileage: 43.5 nautical miles

At 0715, March 6th, the morning of departure from Isla Isabela, Chris was on Tao listening intently to the weather forecast from Don Anderson on the Amigo Net for the roughly 45-mile journey to San Blas, Nayarit. His weather sources correlated well which hopefully meant another beautiful sunny day with 20 knots of wind building from the NW. Plume and then Estrella powered out of the anchorage early to ensure reaching the destination by nightfall. Waiting for wind, Chris on Tao and Ryan and Kristina on Caramelo were left comfortably rolling in the island’s southern cove. Chris had prepared Tao the night previously for an early departure, but the wind remained light after his preferred departure time, so he fired up Yannie, weighed anchor, and made his way slowly out of the rocky cove. At last, the first consistent breezes piped up from the north at around 0900 local, and he was able to shut off the engine and set sail SE out towards the San Blas waypoint.

Chris felt sadness while watching Isabela slide out of view astern of Tao, but he held tight to his goal of reaching Punta de Mita and Banderas Bay by mid-to-late March. Although the main attraction for Chris is the surf, the Bay is also reputed to be good sailing and full of places to explore. And above all, recent news that Shawn had finally booked her flight down to Puerto Vallarta in early April set Chris’s plans in stone for the journey south. Chris has sorely missed Shawn’s company and partnership onboard Tao, and is very much looking forward to her visit.

San Blas was an intermediate layover point on the journey south. It was a place that Chris had heard was great to visit, but not to stay. Not for the local atmosphere or the bad anchorage, because both of these things were reported exceptional, but for the bugs. A large estuary and mangrove forest surrounds San Blas, creating perfect breeding grounds for the little beasts. Yes, mosquitoes swarmed around, but it’s the no-see-ums that really present problems. These little buggers have no problem passing directly through most normal sized mosquito mesh. To top things off, the entrance to the estuary where the best anchorage is found requires some tricky maneuvering as the surf surges in along the silt and sand shoals that build up all around the southwestern jetty. A safe entrance depended greatly on the position of the shifting shoals, tide, swell, and wind direction. (In fact, a controversial expatriate now living in San Blas has taken advantage of this and charges cruisers for his assistance upon entering. Several other cruisers have rebelled against the status quo and have provided a map with printed waypoints so that entry can be undertaken without assistance. A considerable amount of heated drama still remains concerning this situation.)

Chris put these thoughts out of his head as Tao slowly sailed away from Isabela, close-hauled in a very light NE, veering breeze, making it difficult to maintain course towards San Blas. Around 1100, the wind completely died and Tao was left rolling around in the left over slop, still 27-miles from the destination. An hour later, Chris started Yannie and began to make way at 5 knots under power. By 1330, wavelets were lapping against Tao’s hull and 5 knots of wind was blowing from the NW. Chris turned the engine off and again set sail. The wind quickly built to a solid 10-17 knots and Tao was flying downwind occasionally exceeding 7 knots. The miles were ticking by, and Chris maintained faith that he would enter San Blas before the sun set. He frequently checked in with Caramelo, who were still within VHF range. While approaching San Blas, he saw numerous whales breaching; one launched itself out of the water so close to Tao, that he thought that he might have to alter course. Luckily, the whales passed in the opposite direction without incident.

On final approach to San Blas, friends Jody and Russ from s/v Smokin’ Blues radioed Chris and Caramelo with helpful waypoints for safe entry to the estuary. Just around the corner from the entrance to San Blas estuary lies Matenchen Bay, the backup destination if navigating into the estuary were to prove too problematic. As luck would have it, the swell was small, the tide was high enough, and the sun was still out when Caramelo and Tao entered between the large shoals creating what looked like an incredible surf break (Chris later found out that it indeed is a popular surf break, especially during the summer months when swell rolls in from southern hemisphere storms). Motoring into the flat calm waters of the estuary was a welcome break from the roll out at Isla Isabela. Tao had made it to San Blas just before sunset and was happy to set the anchor in a calm safe anchorage.

Crocodiles, Mangroves, and No-See-Ums

The morning after his arrival, Chris awoke to a brilliant sunrise over the current sailing fleet (Plume, Estrella, Caramelo, Smokin’ Blues, and Tao) at anchor. All was calm except for daily swing in the current, in on the rising and out on the falling tides. The hot shower and internet at the Singlar Marina located a short dinghy ride away were luxurious. Daytime shore excursions revealed that San Blas was an important Spanish supply depot for cargo ships making their way north and south along the Mexican coast and beyond. Our fleet visited a large fort atop the closest and highest hill, complete with canons and old church structure surrounded by old banana tree plantations. The cobble streets were full of rounded rock so large, Chris had sore ankles after a day of walking. Luckily, due to the incessant bugs during the evening and morning hours, prices for goods and services in San Blas have not been inflated by tourism. Several good 10 peso taco stands set up around the main square were visited for lunch and dinner and labor for boat work in the yard is purported to be the most reasonable in Mexico.

The large and extensive San Blas estuary is full of sinuous waterways weaving through thick mangroves, providing an amazing habitat for unique species of birds, crocodiles, fish, and iguanas. At 0630 on March 8th, our sailing fleet all hopped on a panga for a half day tour up into the mangroves, to a crocodile zoo, and to a fresh water spring. The pangero (or panga driver) was very knowledgeable about the local ecosystem, providing answers to all of our questions about what we were seeing. It was a peaceful morning boat ride, in which we observed a ton of wildlife
throughout, but crocodiles in all stages of development from egg to mature adult were the main attraction.

Water from the fresh water spring is pumped up and out to the municipalities of San Blas and Tepic. What remains creates a crystal clear fenced in natural pool with just the right temperature to refresh us during the afternoon siesta in the sun (no crocs!).

Ball and Chain

In addition to providing easy access to San Blas, the calm anchorage in the estuary allowed Chris to complete several boat projects that had been awaiting his full attention. As with homeownership, boatownership comes at a price; constant vigilance and maintenance. However, unlike a house, most boats have not been maintained to explicit codes or standards, and the infrastructure for maintaining and repairing boats isn’t nearly as exhaustive and ubiquitous as that for land homes. As a result, most boats and their systems have been put together according to the whim of their owners, which tends to result in poor and unprofessional project execution, and requires any new owner to carefully study and familiarize oneself with the idiosyncrasies of each item onboard. Only with the complete knowledge of how all systems are put together and work will a boat owner know what to do when a problem arises, undoubtedly far from help and in a rolling, raucous sea. Thus, intimate knowledge of a boat is a matter of safety and survival, not just a matter of interest or a hobby. Finally, and most importantly, our boat is under the constant onslaught of salt, water, and sun, a highly corrosive combination to every material imaginable. Although Shawn and Chris have both admittedly struggled with this continuous responsibility, we have both also found ways to enjoy what we view as a once in a lifetime experience and have integrated the boat chores as part of the adventure.

What follows is a short list of the repairs and upgrades Chris accomplished over approximately 35-40 hours sprinkled over the two week period spent in San Blas. This list is not complete list, nor is it out of the ordinary. It is an example of the constant efforts put toward making our cruising dream a reality.

1.) Re-torqued the head bolts and checked valve clearances on the Yanmar; it had been run over 20 hours. Chris successfully borrowed one of the only torque wrenches in town from the local mechanics shop for a negotiated price of two cold “Ballenas” (extra large bottles of beer) and luckily completed the job in one afternoon.

2.) Installed a Link 20 battery monitor with shunt and an 800 watt inverter; purchased the previous summer, it is nice to be able to power the dust buster without the noise of the generator. The new battery monitor is mesmerizing, and Chris has often caught himself having just spent 15 minutes or more sitting and staring at a screen that continuously scrolls statistics about power consumption and replenishment onboard.

3.)Maintenance of “SeaHor”, Tao’s 2HP outboard, which has been acting up. First Chris changed the spark plug, which made a difference for approximately 1-hr run time, after which the engine wouldn’t start easily anymore. Second, he pulled apart and cleaned the carburetor which only slightly improved things. Next, he took the fly wheel off to inspect all the electrical connections and the agneto. Ultimately, the connections within the spark plug wire needed to be redone. While pulling apart the engine, Chris managed to strip one of the bolt holes in the cylinder head. Nothing a little more time, some trusty 3M 5200, and a heli-coil donated by Caramelo didn’t fix. Chris is now researching the possibility that the fuel he has may be contaminated in some way. He’s trying a new filtered batch as an experiment. Now, she runs but still takes a little TLC to get started. One night, in frustration, Chris pulled the starter handle “rather aggressively” and managed to break the plastic handle in half. His relationship with the outboard is definitely tenuous because he now has his eyes set on upgrading to a 2-stroke 15 for long range surf expeditions and general exploration. Shawn believes Chris has hurt SeaHor’s feelings and is planning to treat her well when she returns.

4.) Galley fan rebuild; our multi-directional, 3-speed, timer fan has not been working. After carefully pulling the fan apart, Chris discovered that several items on the fan’s brain, a motherboard of sorts, needed to be re-soldered.

5.) LPG system leak test; a regular maintenance item that hadn’t been completed in more than a month. No problems there…yet.

6.) Cabin top fiberglass chafe; Over time the movement of the traveler lines has worn holes into the cabin top, the starboard side wore completely through the ½ inch fiberglass and created a small hole for water ingress into the inner cavity. Using a vice, hack saw, dremel tool, and a metal file, Chris produced two custom pieces of stainless steel rub strake for chafe protection which he then affixed to the cabin top with 3M’s 5200.

And it doesn’t end there…Chris spent a morning sawing and re-glueing the outer fitting of Tao’s aluminum whisker pole that had buckled under off-angle load. Now the surfboard rack looks like it’s putting holes into the fiberglass longboard… More projects reveal themselves daily, and the list of “to do” items never seems to diminish. Sometimes the list can grow so overwhelming that it’s important to stop, reflect, and recognize how much has actually been accomplished instead of focusing every ounce of energy on what hasn’t. Little reminders like this allow us to enjoy ourselves along the way as we continue forward.

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