Attempting a Sea of Cortez Crossing … he says … she says
This particular “adventure” occurred in early February of this year.
We have crossed the Sea of Cortez before with a crippled boat; so crossing in a healthy boat should not a be a problem. Right?
Sometimes, it ain’t necessarily so!
The Sea of Cortez or as the US NOAA likes to term it, the Gulf of California, is not a place to be casual about. It is generally a ‘relatively’ calm, predictable body of water. That is what makes it so popular. But, it has its little quirks. Winds are one of them.
Knowing this, we left from Mazatlan to cross back to Baja with intentions of returning to La Paz for part of the Winter 2014/Spring 2015 sailing season in Mexico.
Boat was in good repair. And we watched for the appropriate weather window. Finally, we got it.
Predicted 10-12 knots on our beam all the way across the Sea from the North to Northeast. Sweet! Swells from the SSW at 3-5 feet( abeam but at intervals of 20 seconds –so widely spaced). Should not be a problem.
We did our weather prep, as described in the article earlier about “Guessing the Weather Along Mexico’s West Coast”. Lots of checks and double checks.
Early morning 9:00 am high tide at Marina Mazatlan and the dredge (which frequently sits in the middle of the channel) wasn’t blocking the channel yet …. sweet! An open shot to the Sea. Off we go.
Beautiful, uneventful day-sailing, motor-sailing, or plain cruising the entire day. Same into the early evening …. wind picks up a little and moved to the Northwest … kind of in-our-face, but still 6-8 knots. Motor on, so we are now motor sailing into the wind.
Dusk approaches and the wind isn’t dying but ‘freshening’–such an interesting term. Means we decide to drop main, furl the jib-genoa, and take in the mizzen. Now, motor only. Still making good headway. 5 knots average per hour, in progress.
This crossing is to Los Frailles, so it is about 160 miles. Late evening and almost midnight we are literally 79 miles or nearly exactly halfway there.
Wind picks up . . . 18 knots then 20, then you can hear it in the masthead … so now it is above 25 knots. This is not predicted and it’s in our face … we are now making 2-3 knots headway. Slow going! 80 miles to go.
That is 40 hours, if you are slow at math. We are now 16 hours in, and still have 40 hours to go. We planned a 36 hour crossing. Hey, we’re cruising.
Thunk …. or rather THUNK … in the dark. Carolyn’s head pops up. “What was that?” At the time we thought we might have hit a sea turtle, because we’d been seeing them all afternoon. Check the boat’s maneuverability … no problems. Can’t see anything near prop … hard to see, but can’t see any problems.
Felt the thunk in the tiller attached to the rudder.
Half an hour later in the slightly heavier seas … the tiller pilot suddenly snaps … Our auto-pilot, affectionately named Ripley, looses her head literally as the small plastic attaching-head snaps in half … no pilot. Harsher sea state … still not a big problem.
About an hour later … I’m manning the helm letting Carolyn get some sleep since the weird noise and the loss of the tiller pilot. And the boat is requiring a little more upper-body strength to manage smoothly. It is nearly Carolyn’s shift anyway.
She routinely does a midnight to 4-5 am while I sleep.
Engine misses. Hmmm …. Carolyn’s awake immediately … her head pops up in the hatch like a prairie dog … “What was that ?”
“Take over for a sec …”
Sputter …. sputter …. check Racor …. air ….
Stop engine, while she tries to keep the boat steady with no engine or sails.
Crack open Racor and top-off with fuel. Restart …. running smooth … no problem ….. take a deep breath. Ok?
15 minutes later … sputter sputter …. Racor looks good. Switch to other tank … sputter. Cough ….. big sighhhhhh.
Silence. My favorite part of sailing is when you cut the engines and boat falls silent except for the sound of waves against the hull as you sail forward on sails-only.
Unfortunately, that is not what’s happening. We are now tossing in moderate seas .. so much, that working in the engine room is getting hazardous. Picture being tossed about against large metallic objects … like engines, desalination pumps, thru hulls, and . . . Use your imagination.
I head up topside and we put out a minimal amount of sail on the furler. So we can maneuver … though at this point, downwind only.
We add a mizzen sail furled, in order to get full control of the boat. We turn towards the wind … 1-2 knots anywhere near our original heading. Not good.
Carolyn swears at this point that, as we turned with the wind and the tiller became a bit harder to handle, I started saying “I love you” way too much. As a married person of forty-three years, I wasn’t aware it’s even possible to say that too much.
However, my dear wife pointed out that–considering the silence of the boat, noise of the wind, the fact that she was tossed from the berth to the Saloon floor, and the fact I was so quiet except for my all too frequent litany of “I love you” — made her think perhaps–just maybe– we were in some little bit of danger.
“Is everything okay?” she queries.
“Are you sure?”
“Are you going to be able to restart the engine?” she probes. This question is asked calmly and rather stoically. She needs information, so she can start considering options–it’s just her way.
“I don’t know,” I tell her honestly. “I don’t know for sure what is wrong with it, and I can’t work on it in these seas and winds.”
Long pause …
“Can I take over the rudder so you can look again?”
“I don’t think you can steer here like this. I’m having to really work to hold course.”
Longer pause …
“Are we in trouble?”
“Are we in danger?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
I am leaving out some of the “I love you”s for story-telling convenience.
“What do we need to do …?” she asks from the companionway ladder in tossing seas.
“I think we need to turn around.”
“Okay.” Simple answer and resolute.
At this point, several decisions get made in less than a couple of minutes. We turn downwind. We adjust a reverse course. A guess initially. Pick a line in the waves that, although they are across the other beam now … we aren’t bashing them or rolling wildly back and forth … just climbing and settling– though quite frequently.
Interval of the waves has shortened.
With part of a jib and a reefed mizzen, we are now doing almost 8 knots back towards Mazatlan versus headway of 1-2 knots if we’d tried for Baja. 10 hours back or 40 forward?
We quickly decide that, in Los Frailles, there’s no mechanical help of assistance other than that which another boat might provide. So none. But, back in Mazatlan, we have available everything you need to repair a boat.
We decide that, though the sailing was more challenging than the motor cruising had been, it is actually much faster and the boat is “easier” to control. We are actually able to sail faster than the swells so it feels like a much longer interval than it is.
We’re getting closer and closer to dawn. So, we’ve now been sailing for about 24 hours. Near dawn–7a.m. or so … maybe a few minutes later. Ten hours more or less to 5-6 pm, if we average 5 knots– which is the approximation I always work from.
Dawn. Winds are lessening. Boat is easier to control, but slowing to about 3.5-4 knots. Still no chance to work on the engine. Beautiful–but tired morning.
By about 10 am … I return the boat to Carolyn’s control after we make sure she’s confident she can handle the sea state well.
Sleep. After 4 hours or so. I can think better. Boat is moving 4 knots or so. On return-course. I take the helm back and we have lunch.
We decide to head for the south harbor of Mazatlan– not the marinas– because, without an engine, we cannot navigate the entrance and channel of the Marinas safely. South harbor should be relatively straightforward even with just sail, because we can slip into Stone Island anchorage under sail if we have to.
We also know that the charts for that area are both accurate and highly detailed. A definite plus compared to the fact that the marinas’ entrance and location is not charted in our Garmin chart plotter at all.
“Do you want to take another look at the engine?” she inquires.
“Yes, cause I really want to have the ability to enter the harbor, even if there is an outgoing tide. You okay with the rudder and sailing her for a bit?”
“I love you.”
I head below … brace open the engine room and start diagnostics. Racor is full and no air is visible. Manual fuel pump on the engine is working. Fuel tanks have adequate fuel. Switch to main fuel tank. Hand-prime engine.
Try start … no start. Turns, but does not fire.
Hmmm …. retrace fuel to fuel pump. Vent … air? Check line to injectors …. more air?
Okay? Bleed … bleed.
Cross fingers. This is always a by-the-book critical step with an older boat.
“Okay, we’re going to try to start her. I love you, wife.”
Turn starter … cranks easily. Fires and stalls. Try again. Fires. Runs. Sputter … flip on electric back up fuel pump. Runs.
Sputter … cut electric pump… smooths out.
” Carolyn, put it in neutral and increase RPMs.” Still smooth.
“Idle her and put her in gear. I love you.”
Slows to idle and still smooth …. clicks into gear and still smooth.
“Don’t change anything. I will be right up”
Shut engine room. And back to cockpit. It is about 3 in the afternoon …. winds are now light … boat is moving at about 3 knots … and we have engine back.
“Okay. Give her some throttle and let’s see if she’ll run.”
Half an hour later and still running … a big sigh.
This time I hear the words from her … “Oh, Harper, I love you.”
We are now motor sailing … push her back up to 6 knots in the setting sun. We need to make sure all is well before sunset, because we will be getting back about twilight.
It is getting dark as we near the entrance to the South Harbor of Mazatlan. The Baja Ferry is just leaving. This a busy fishing port and while we wait for her to clear the entrance, night falls. It’s dark before moon rise, lots of boats in and out. Radar is your friend, as distancing in the dark is quite difficult without radar. We pick our way in among the outgoing boats. We are tired, but cannot afford to be sloppy in our seamanship.
It is just after full dark when we motor into the anchorage next to Club Nautico and Carolyn drops anchor.
It is definitely time for a beer.
(The following is an email, which Carolyn sent to our family and friends later in the week.)
Good Morning–And I do mean GOOD…………..
Well, it was epic, tried to go to La Paz on Tuesday morning–forecast: perfect weather…..Bah, meteorologists what do they know???????????
We left under a beautiful sky; and, by nightfall, we had a full moon, motor running good, and as Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce once said, “The peace treaty negotiations were going swimmingly, until the massacre.”
I got up around 5 a.m. Tuesday morning–checked email, weather, and stowed away all the breakables, which we leave out around the cabin while we’re in port. Made coffee and got Russ up for breakfast. Left at 8:30 in the morning. Ate supper just before sunset out on deck, with the auto-pilot running the boat….By 7:30 p.m., I go down to sleep until midnight,when I usually get up to spell Russ at the tiller for 4 hours………Wind comes up way too fast–and seas 3-5 feet–Russ not worried—Ripley’s driving the boat….
I lay down and something–probably a sea turtle– hit the boat………..Ker-whap! Get up. Russ and I look for damage…..Sea turtles are rather large…We find nothing and motor is okay……..Back to bunk….30 minutes later, I hear topside, “Well, WTF!”
Ripley’s steering arm has broken….. so, no help with driving the boat. Okay, drive the boat on motor and cope.
Then….at 2 a.m.,the motor stopped running……….Seas now 5-7 feet. Wind a lousy 27 with gusts of 35………
Raise the mizzen sail and roll out the furler……….
The coup de grâce was the onset of my very first bout of sea sickness! As you know, I am both philosophically and constitutionally opposed to retching….It makes me sick to my stomach, so I just don’t do it….or so I thought. It’s certainly every bit as awful as I remember from my childhood.
No motor, bad seas, and a wife who’s no help at all……….Great……..
We were exactly half-way to La Paz (80 miles)…Options: Continue–(first two anchorages we will reach are small bays, consisting of a couple of restaurants and three bars on the coast of Baja–no help there, if we can’t fix the boat……..) or return to Matzalan: (we can get help with motor). Major conundrum at both places: arrival in the dark (except for the moon) and anchoring without a motor can be very problematical……….
Capt. Russ makes the decision to return….If we get to calmer seas, with the advent of morning we can try to fix the motor……..The notion of help available, assuming we get any place, is the tie-breaker.
I go downstairs and generally am miserable–but I start taking Bonine (similar to Dramamine)..and finally by 6 a.m. can, at least, pitch around in the cabin without tossing my cookies………..
Russ is cold, tired, wet, and definitely worn out……….
Finally at two Wednesday afternoon–30 miles from Mazatlan– we had a sea state that was still pitching, but manageable enough that I could go topside and give Russ some time to look at the motor…………….20 minutes later, his hope was that our problem was air in the fuel line…………..Answer: Bleed the lines and prime the Racor filter with more fuel.
40 minutes later…and 6 attempts….we finally got her to start……….Yippee……….
Soooo…we were back at Mazatlan’s south commercial anchorage at 8 p.m Wednesday…..in the dark (the moon at least gave us a visual outline of the many rocks and small islands, which surround the entrance. Lots of ferries, fishing trawlers, and the occasional cruise ship to avoid … dropped anchor… I set the hook.
Supper consisted of pepper jack cheese wrapped in a tortilla, and Russ fell asleep talking to me…………
Spent the night in the Club Nautico anchorage and the next day. Finally, got up here to the marina about 10 this morning………..Now we recoup and figure out what to do next–….both of us are too tired to have the brains right now for any responsible decision-making.
The Sailing Academy of Hard Knocks
This is one of those non-online courses in sailing. We considered this experience a free (meaning: it all turned out okay) 40-hour sailing seminar on decision-making and improvisational sailing.
It certainly was an adventure. (Incidentally, Carolyn hates the word “Adventure.” As far as she’s concerned, the real meaning of the word simply implies that absolutely everything that can go wrong did go wrong; but, nobody died).
Anyway . . .
You don’t always end up where you were headed. It is still all good sailing.
We talked a little about whether or not we could’ve have fixed the engine in Los Frailles … The answer in retrospect … “yes, probably”. Weighing the certainty of Mazatlan with the possibility of Los Frailles, we chose to be careful sailors … too many possible failures. Even if safely to Los Frailles … we would’ve still needed to know that we could get to La Paz thru the Cerralvo straight and the San Lorenzo channel north of La Paz where the wind is usually from the NNE or NNW in your face.
We chose to not risk the boat on possibilities, when she was fully capable of returning to where we started.
We stayed a day in Mazatlan’s Club Nautico anchorage checking out the engines and filter system and took her back to the north marinas two days later.
We found that we had thrown a shaft zinc which was the thunk. We had broken the neck on the tiller pilot. And the fuel we added to top-off the Racor was contaminated with water … add the air problem and. . . Taa-Dahh! …Time to turn around and run with the wind.
Lesson one. Don’t tell your wife how much you love her … or at least don’t keep telling her when you both are under stress. It is apparently okay to tell someone that after the danger is over.
Lesson two ... Don’t always stick to the plan … Be flexible.
Lesson three …. Have a plan B …C … D …
Lesson four …. Trust the boat … she wants to see you safely “there”. And/or “back again”
This picture is slightly blurry, that is what it looked like to me as we pulled into Mazatlan, so tired I cold barely see straight.