The Ghosts of Sailing Past … Club Nautico and the south anchorages of Mazatlan
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’.