All things change. And, not everything old is always new again.
Club Nautico and El Fondeadero are the ghosts of cruising past. No tale of cruising Mexico’s West Coast or visiting Mazatlan in a boat with sails is complete without a pilgrimage and homage to our past.
In the 50s and 60s–when it was new– pretty women in swirling halter-dresses à danced and spun seductively across the shiny new dance floor; Martini glasses were filled over and over again at the bar, and music from the North filled the anchorage in the twilight. Marilyn Monroe
Now, when you look across the circular dance floor and realize it is still mopped, swept, and kept shiny, you sense that distant past … cruisers dancing, drinking, and idling away the hours in soft chairs and chaise lounges sitting next to tile topped tables that looked out onto a well protected, secure anchorage just inside the mouth of Mazatlan Harbor.
And today, you can see your own boat moving gently at anchor just off the small boat launch and dingy dock.
The dance floor was in a club called, appropriately enough, El Fondeadero (the Anchorage).
The few remaining palms sway in the afternoon and evening winds. And, the world’s second highest functioning lighthouse pulses warmly across the waves and waters south of this Mexican city of 500,000.
A little more than 20 years ago, someone (developers/government) got the idea of dredging out marinas and a island north of the city in what is now the Golden Zone well north of the beautiful Malecon beach walk. The well-to-do, the American snowbirds, the upper-middle class Mexicans of Mazatlan, and, of course, the ‘cruising community’ all moved away from the slow-moving south end to the upscale, condo-infested, mall-developed, nearly Norte Americano, golf-course-wrapped north end. The Gold Zone.
Estuaries were shaped, dredged, drained, and channeled to make an artificial island with a bridge and moat, and four marinas within paddling distance of each other. Marina Mazatlan, Isla Marina, Fonatur, and the new El Cid Marina. The amenities range from ‘more money-than-brains’ (El Cid), to ‘I got Mine’ (Marina Mazatlan), the government wants some of the action too (Fonatur), and, of course, the less popular Isla Marina where all you get is non-potable water, electricity, internet, garbage, and security. Additionally, all of these are ‘gated communities’, as are most marinas in Mexico that cater to American boaters.
Interestingly, there is also a public boat launch, and dozens of kid-towing power boats with long yellow inflatable hot dogs designed to drag kids–little and big– all over the waters off the Malecon.
This is the face of Mazatlan’s cruising NOW.
The face of Mazatlan’s cruising PAST is gaunter, less accommodating, hungrier, and closer to the Mexico filled with Mexicans.
On the south end at either Club Nautico or the Stone Island Anchorage, you have to actually talk with the Puerto Capitán and the Traffic Control center for the harbor entrance and waterway.
Here there be cruise ships!
Here, there be the Baja Ferries.
And, there are a host of large commercial fishing boats, the omnipresent pangas, evening Island Tours, and my favorite tour boat of all time ‘the Titanik’.
Only a few boats remain at anchor in the anchor field off Club Nautico. Most without lights, electricity, and signs of life– save the occasional dingy paddled to shore by the white bearded skinny old guys who, like ghosts, haunt the bathrooms, and dingy docks that were. Who knows? Maybe, once upon a time, they danced as well.
Their boats are old, too.
But just because you’re old does not mean you’re not beautiful. Beauty is timeless.
This is a Thistle.
It is the boat on which the Ingrid 38 design is based. Everyone liked this Atkins-Archer design, but thought is was too small. It is a 32’1″ long cutter. Flush-decked but still obviously of the same lineage as our Spiritus. I had read of them, but never seen one in real life.
There are also usually several cruisers anchored temporarily, intending to eventually head south, north, or nowhere.
Outside the entrance to the harbor, and a few hundred yards to the east on the other side of the jetty that connects Goat island to the mainland forming the entrance to the harbor, is Isla de la Piedras (Island of the Stones) which most think is the small island but actually is the larger headland/small mountain in front of the anchorage.
Here, is great snorkeling, and a wonderful sand bottom that sets an anchor effortlessly. Well- protected from all swells except from due south, it is a pleasant and peaceful anchorage. It is usually empty. You need to notify the Port Captain when you are anchored there. Some have indicated it is closed to anchoring out. That is incorrect.
Club Nautico continues to provide minimal support to cruisers. Its luster gone, paint peeling, water of questionable quality, and fuel pumps empty and silent, it is a pale shadow of its former self.
We are not the first to note with sadness its slow decline into obscurity. It is mentioned in Shawn and Heather’s popular guide to the West Coast of Mexico and here in another sailing blog.
There is still a person who watches the gate, sometimes, during the day and helps if he can. There is still a manager who has an office upstairs in the old building. He can get you bottled water, and arrange for someone to take you to get fuel ( by taxi). He also takes your 50 pesos for day-use which includes the dingy dock and boat launch. It also includes the password to the ‘wi-fi’ which is a household router with a range of perhaps a hundred feet. There is a bare, open-to-the-wind room for you to sit with your computer and use the wi-fi.
The anchorage is free. We asked the Port Captain if we needed to pay a day fee, and he scratched his head and answered in great English, that if so “he didn’t know how much it should be and he was the Port Captain.”
No one in his office knew how to fill out or had a copy of a check-in or check-out form. Again, times change, as he explained all check-ins and check-outs were handled by the marinas at the north end of town.
You do still need to check in by radio with the Port Captain’s Office when using the anchorages or entering the harbor. This, they are serious about because the harbor is busy.
The anchorage is open to winds from the North West (prevailing) but some shelter is provided by the breakwater and buildings and headland so your boat will move with tides (very gently) and with wind. The harbor has no wind waves. Wakes from the larger boats are not a problem as the anchorage is well off to the side of the shipping channel.
If you walk out the rusty front gate, you can turn left and climb the light house hill/mountain for a spectacular view of the harbor and entrance and anchorage. If you turn right, and wait a few minutes, the bus called Toreo will come by and take you all over Mazatlan for 10 pesos. Remember, all bus route are circular so if you get lost or on the wrong bus, just ride it back to where you started out and try another. This is the only bus serving that end of town all the way to the lighthouse. It takes you downtown to the Cathedral, Municipal Mercado, past the Port Captain’s office, and past Revolution Park. At the Mercado (Market) you can switch to another bus that will take you any place that this one doesn’t. It goes as far north as the marinas … nice.
You only need to know about four bus routes to get around all over Mazatlan.
If you get back to the Club Nautico at or near dark, the scene is even more surreal as the lights for the dance floor are often on … no dancers but small dust devils.
The lights up the side of the lighthouse hill are lit in yellow and the voices of hikers can sometimes be heard descending in the dark as their tiny flashlights flicker across the trail.
When the evening winds pick up a little, the masts of the few remaining sailboats moan like a flute laying on a table with the wind blowing across it, changing pitch as it rolls back and forth. A melody out of chaos and not intent. The past speaking, whispering, moaning, keening not to be forgotten.
And, then the wind dies and the song is gone.
All is silent, but the small wavelets lapping at the anchored hulls.
The small shrimp clicking against the hull of our boat in the dark.
I reach out and flick on the anchor light … sighing as it maybe the only one. And maybe one of the last!
It is a small pin-point reminder, in the dark anchorage, of all that once was …
I lay there in the dark of the v-berth next to Carolyn and smile. ‘Spiritus’ also means ‘Ghost’.
You can start either a fist fight or a great discussion by bringing up the issue of filtering fuel before it goes into your fuel tank on a sailboat. This issue arises in discussion of cruising Mexico.
There is no discussion of dissent about whether fuel is filtered as most engines have at least two filters. Most contain an inline filter near the fuel pump that filters water and debris and most if not all have added Racor system that boaters swear by and at.
The Racor is usually at least a two micron filter with a clear class bowl for fuel inspection.
I will admit that until last week I have never pre-filtered fuel. Never had any signs of the need to. I have once used a pump to get rid of sediment and water at bottom of a tank of diesel after it set for a year and a half.
But, if you read of the approach to Mazatlan by Spiritus on New Year’s Eve, you will remember we had some engine problems related to power loss and RPM slowdown. We solved them temporarily by switching to another tank of fuel.
In the search for a cause, I narrowed it down, after we were in harbor, to the use of fuel from a yellow Jerry can of fuel on our deck. I kept it for uses like priming the Racor if it gets low. I finally put together the string of events leading up to our rough running power loss and figured out that I had just primed/topped off the single stage Racor with fuel from that container.
We recently, in a dock swap meet at Marina La Cruz, picked up a Baja fuel filter for about 200 pesos or approximately $17.00 USD. Never had a chance to use it, as we had not added fuel in our recent travels towards La Paz on the Baja peninsula.
I decided to try it out when we added 10 gallons to the rear fuel tank on the boat. Great fuel a couple of drops of water and just a few small pieces of dirt (probably from our canister).
The I tried to add the remainder of the fuel in my yellow fuel container. This is the one I used that night. Surprise of surprises. It stopped filtering fuel and backed up after about a gallon. Odd, I thought. So I disassembled the filter. The entire cup at the bottom, the Teflon water trap was full.
It was full of water. I know this because when I poured it overboard there was almost zero film so no measurable diesel.
This was an epiphany moment in two ways. First, this is the fuel I used to prime the Racor. Second, wow, the Baja fuel filter actually works.
The unit had three filters, two for debris and a final filter for water. There is much discussion about how and if it works.
See discussions below for a hint of the info floating around the discussion groups.
I am not a scientist but a few tests showed it works. I had contaminated fuel. It stopped the contamination from getting into my tanks.
I now use it to test five gallons of fuel before I put larger quantities into the tanks. I love it. But, there is almost no info on what to do with it once you are finished filtering the fuel. You have a few ounces of diesel to deal with and the screens that hold diesel and the smell of diesel.
I hate leaky things SO, I cleaned it.
Cleaning the Baja Filter after use.
Here is how I did it.
(1) Get a bucket of fresh water. (2) add a small amount of bio degradable soap (Axion in Mexico, or Green in the US) and stir into water. (3) Disassemble the filter into its five component parts (filter housing, spacer, and three filters) while remembering the order they came out. (4) Take each filter and immerse and pull thru water in the bucket backwards to its normal flow. This frees any or most debris and cleans the filter of diesel. (5) Use a paper towel to wipe down filter rings and spacer and aluminum funnel/filter housing.
The next steps are the most important.
(6) Refill bucket with fresh water. (7) Rinse all filters in clean water with no soap. (8) Test Teflon filter for water capture. I love this part. When you used the soap, you may have noticed that water ran freely thru the filter. Now, when you have it rinsed, you will notice it once more stops water flow. You can simply scoop a filter full of water and watch as it just sits there in the filter.
Don’t you love science. So for your science project, repeat what I have done.
Now air dry. We place ours under the dodger which is always a little warm. When dry, reassemble the funnel/filter assembly. Put caps back on. No smell. No leakage. Store where ever you want.
Unlike the highways on New Year’s Eve, the sea off the Coast of Mexico is uncrowded. We did not see a boat all night.
Facing a 10-15 knot head wind in our face all day after we left Chacala, about 30 miles north of La Cruz. We resorted to the secret sailing weapon every cruiser has and that every day sailor refuses to use.
There is a little discussed, sail-of-last-resort, called, cryptically, the ‘iron-jennaker’ or ‘iron jenny’. I never really understood its value ’till we started cruising. We owned Spiritus for three years when we left Oregon and headed south. We used those three years to get familiar with Spiritus by sailing three days a week for half of each year. I sailed her so much that my last pay raise in business consisted of a day a week off, for 26 weeks a year, to go sailing (Wednesdays). It was equivalent to a 10 % raise.
Took the owner of the company almost two months to approve the raise. Win …. win!
Anyway, the iron jenny is also called the diesel engine. Used in day sailing to get the boat away from and back to the docks, it is extensively used in cruising to get you where you are going. We have a simple code … ‘well more like a guideline than a rule’ to steal a turn of phrase from Pirates of the Caribbean. Any speed sustained under sail of 3 knots or less is justification for using the engine. Who ever is driving the boat does not have to use the engine if they want to sail but they can. This usually occurs when fighting a head wind or in light winds too low to move the boat enough to have steerage. We also still use it to get in and out of slips in a marina.
It was about midnight thirty in the morning and we were letting Ripley steer the boat under engines when I discovered, in my hourly check of the engine, that we had an air leak into the Racor unit. Left unaddressed, that will progress to air in the fuel lines and engine shutdown with the need to bleed off the air … not much fun in the dark (or even in the light).
We shut off the engine and added a few ounces of fuel to the Racor to get rid of the air and re tightened the cover on the filter housing. We still were about 35 miles or so south of Mazatlan and four hours ’till first light.
Seas were getting bumpier (sailing technical term) and we were getting low on fuel because the headwinds had been eating away at our progress and increasing our fuel consumption. We would have about 4-6 gallons in the main fuel tank at dawn with about 9 or so more miles to go when the sun broke the horizon.
We would not have even worried in calmer seas and less wind but bumpier seas means that the fuel in the bottom of the tank is getting agitated, shaken, and filled with bubbles … none of this makes an engine happy.
I also know that we have never entered the breakwater to the marinas in Mazatlan. The entrance can be difficult in mediocre wind and swell conditions.
All of this is going thru my head as I lay down and Carolyn takes over the watch. I was just about to nod off when we heard a pop or metallic snap and the engine started making a horrible freaking sound. I can wake up fast … I mean really fast. Have Carolyn cut the engine RPM. Yikes, sound gets worse …. I am thinking cylinder liner … ring … engine failure noise …. not good.
Ok, increase the RPM …. engine stops making screeching noises. Sound is rotational. Open engine room door ….LOOK AROUND … these are all rapid diagnostic skills you develop owning a boat with a 35-year-old engine.
We are also rapidly setting a plan B in place. Mizzen sail is ready and uncovered. Furler is unlocked from cleat. We can sail if we have too …. just not in the direction we want to go.
Let me clarify this point. We are headed NW. If we sail, the best direction is SE where we just came from. West is open ocean. East 10 miles or so is the coast of Mexico which has no harbor near us. We are 30 miles or so south of our destination. We are 70 miles north of our last anchorage and 100 miles from La Cruz, he closest downwind place where a mechanic can work on our engine. We can also get into the anchorage there in almost any kind of weather.
But, we don’t want to go back where we just sailed all day and part of the night to get away from.
Look closer at engine. No smoke. No oil under oil pan. Engine is running smoothly just screeching. uh oh … fly-wheel cover is vibrating. Slow engine .. yep .. one of the three brackets that holds the cover over the engines flywheel has broken. Good news is I have fixed one of these before. Bad news is it is not the same one … this one is behind flywheel where I cannot get to it under way. If I lift it with my hand, noise abates.
The fix … shoe laces. That is right, two shoe laces tied to parts of engine and engine room keep it from falling off. At least, that was our hope as we applied the quick fix and crossed our fingers.
We can now do 1300 RPM and hold 5 knots without any noise. The concern … if another of the brackets breaks … the flywheel may become a projectile inside the engine room. But, I cannot take it off underway because several unidentified things are grounded to it. And, it has a fuse box for the engine mounted on top of it … nice, huh?
We decide to continue with the makeshift repair. About 4 am, Carolyn finally gets a chance to go to bed. But before she can fall asleep, the engine starts to slow down. I have not reduced throttle so “not good” again. I look down and, no surprise, she is up. She heard the change in RPM. I yell down over the sound of the wind and tell her to hit the switch for the electric fuel pump. We have a fuel pump that is used to fuel the Dickerson diesel space heater that draws on diesel from the boats fuel tanks to head the cabin. It has an accidental side function. If you turn it on with the fuel lever to the stove closed, it pressurizes the engine fuel line. It acts like a real fuel pump. This is very useful when clearing air from fuel lines and rarely for forcing the engine to accept fuel when there is problem. Well, there was a problem. When she hit the switch and turned it on, the engine rRPM climbed back to normal and stabilized. We are all happy BUT you shouldn’t have to use it like that. So,I have her take over the helm and I dive down the companionway to get to the engine room. We have two mostly empty fuel tanks. I switch tanks to see it is fuel. And, turn off the pump. The engine continues to run smoothly. Hmmm?
So, for the next four hours I get to drive the boat … no one sleeps … and we decide, as light breaks, to slip into the Stone Island Anchorage just outside Mazatlan’s commercial harbor and nine miles south of the marina entrance breakwater.
We come in on a prayer and a pair of shoelaces. But, we come in!
Happy New Year, Spiritus!
If they want to … Garmin GPS chart-plotters with map chips are actually accurate when Garmin spends the time and effort to make them so.
If you read this blog, you already know of my frustrations with Garmin chart plotters and Mexico. (HINT: I think they should give every person who had a GARMIN unit with a map chip for Mexico their money back for the Unit and the chip since they are clearly not capable of properly displaying the coasts of Mexico).
BUT, in fairness, we just discovered by accident that some parts of the Mexican coastline are displayed in wonderful detail. We are currently in Stone Island anchorage, just to the east of the main entrance to the commercial harbor of Mazatlan.
In the image below taken from an Ipad map application based on Google Earth maps … we are the small blue dot.
Now compare that to the map from my GARMIN GPS and tadaaaaaa … what a pleasant surprise. Look at the detail that most users expect when they call up a map on a chart plotter.
We discovered this little gold mine by accident …. we were looking for the GPS map for the entrance to Marina Mazatlan … guess what .. no detail and impossible to use to find the marina entrance. Our need was compounded by tiredness after coming up the coast of Mexico from La Cruz over the last three days to find safe harbor in the face of growing winds and an oncoming wind event in the Sea of Cortez just short of our destination. We were 28 hours of sailing in OK but not great conditions, and really needed to find a rest place. It was still three hours to Marina Mazatlan.
By accident as we moved the cursor up the coast near Mazatlan we hit the “detail” map of ‘Mazatlan’ or at least of the part around the commercial harbor. It is an accident of geography that Stone Island anchorage is shown.
We anchored right on top of the little anchor symbol. The depth was as predicted including the deeper channel as we approached. All marker bouys were placed as shown. Sweet.
The level of detail is so good that for the first time in almost a year I was able to use the GPS as intended and visually navigate the boat with one eye on the chart and one on the corresponding landmarks. What luxury! The only smile my chart plotter has gotten since we left La Paz (where the charts are very good).
Now I am wiping that smile off my face … shame on you GARMIN for not providing adequate charts for Mexico’s west coast. Now I know you can! Now we all know you can!