[041229; 2202 UTC; Isla Pasavera, Bahia Chamela, Jalisco, Mexico;
19º 33.54’ N/105º 06.63' W]
When we last left you we were planning to leave La Paz to travel to the Banderas Bay (Puerto Vallarta) area for Thanksgiving and to reunite with Leslie’s family. We set our goal to leave with eight days for the passage of 400 miles so that we could arrive well ahead of Peter and Eleanor’s flight into Puerto Vallarta.
Leaving La Paz on Saturday, November 13, 2004, just after finishing our morning SSB (single sideband radio) volunteer net control duties, we experienced bright clear sunny skies and the forecasted SW wind. This wind, combined with an ebbing tide to create a swift current that pushed us up the narrow channel and around the El Mogote shoal and out of the bay. About ten miles north of La Paz there’s a passage between Isla Espiritu Santo and the mainland called the San Lorenzo channel. Reefs and shoal water extend into it from both shores and the narrowing of the channel and the shape of the landmasses can result in choppy water. Luckily for us this day, the ebbing tide and winds were synchronous and we breezed through and thought ourselves quite smart for departing when we did. As is frequently the case with sailing, as soon as we began to think we would settle into our rightful downwind sail, our favorable winds died and we were left to either drift and wallow, or motor sail. We chose the latter and continued east to round the north end of Isla Cerralvo and out into open water as soon as possible. The alternate route which follows the Cerralvo Channel south looked at first blush to be the more direct route but since the tide was sure to turn and create current against our route before we transited the channel, it would actually slow our progress if we selected this alternative.
Just after rounding Isla Cerralvo and turning SSE, darkness fell swiftly due to rapidly thickening cloud cover. At this point SW winds picked up again and continued to rise and create what we like to call “spirited” sailing conditions with steep seas to about six feet. The night was DARK; no lights, no moon and thick cloud cover giving a feeling that everything was close, like being shut in a dark closet with a brisk cool wind blowing. Nearby to our west was Isla Cerralvo and for awhile our passage required diligent navigation as we beat off its coastline while keeping a sharp lookout on our course and our safety using our radar as our “night eyes”. After months of benign sailing and little night-sailing, these conditions engendered a bit of adrenalin in both of us.
Sometime around 0030 (“Oh dark 30” in cruiser jargon) we saw a large vessel approaching on an intersecting course. After watching for a short period of time, we radioed them to ask their course as it appeared they might pass too close to us. The English speaking captain or crewmember on duty came back identifying the vessel as a ferry between Mazatlan and La Paz and gave us his course and speed. We reciprocated with ours. We were under full sail and in heavy seas and under international rules had the right of way, though we were sure we didn’t have to remind this professional of this fact. After a brief and cordial exchange, we were assured not to worry, that the vessel would avoid us, though it still passed so uncomfortably close to our stern that we disengaged “Bud”, our wind vane steering, and hand steered until the vessel passed by.
The passage was mostly marked by brisk winds at or forward of our beam, known as “beating” into the wind. Sailing with winds forward of beam are, on the whole, much less comfortable than sailing with winds aft of the beam. This is because the apparent wind is amplified by the speed of the boat through the water and the boat is tilted, or heeled, at an angle away from the wind. The moving boat also confronts waves with its bow rather than riding with the waves as they sweep under the boat on a “downwind” sail. Comfort and speed can be optimized though on any point of sail and, on this passage, we decided to experiment with flying our storm trysail rather than our mainsail. Normally this tiny sail is used under extreme storm conditions, but since we’d never flown this sail except at the dock we thought it might be a good idea to practice with this little beauty. During this first stormy night, our sail plan consisted of our headsail (genoa) reefed to about 50% of its size, our reliable staysail and our trysail. This plan allowed us to nearly reach hull speed with little heel while enjoying a ride comfortable enough to cook, sleep, etc.
Characterizing our entire passage was much unsettled weather to our south, east and north. In fact, as we traveled we could see storms, complete with lightning, come and go, including a couple of whoppers that seem to pound our destination. Carina seemed though to have an energy that parted these storm clouds as we traveled. Our only truly inclement “weather” was a brief shower while experiencing a couple of hours of calm about half way across. Unfortunately, this rain and complete calm also coincided with our putting up our cruising spinnaker in an attempt to get moving under light winds. Defeated and with an enormous, damp sail on deck, we fired up our engine and motored for awhile, something we try to avoid.
Finally, during our last full day at sea, the skies cleared once again and normal winter northwest winds returned to send us flying towards our destination. Our last night at sea we passed the length of a series of islands called the Islas Tres Marias (actually there are four islands, but who’s counting?). Vessels are advised to remain at least twenty miles off the entire archipelago as it is a penal colony where (reportedly) the prisoners roam free and the guards are locked up (for their protection). A vessel new to cruising Mexico somehow missed this fact and dropped anchor in a lovely cove near one of the islands about the same time as we were passing by. They were quickly joined by heavily-armed military officials who instructed them to relocate to the site of the prison administration. As far as we know the vessel and its crew suffered nothing greater than embarrassment over the incidence.
This last night at sea and on our final approach to Banderas Bay, we passed over a broad flat sea mount where water depths rose from 12,000 feet to approximately 400 feet. Occupying this small area was a virtual “school” of bright, almost gaily-lit fishing vessels which seemed to part magically as we passed though. These guys are actually quite adept at avoiding other vessels (presumably to protect their nets) even though, as “fishing vessels under restricted in their ability to maneuver”, they had the right of way. So, on November 17th, almost four days to the hour, we entered Banderas Bay and announced our arrival to “Jim”, the net controller, on the locally-managed Picante Net, the person to whom we had been reporting our positions during our trip. Jim is the commodore of the local Vallarta Yacht Club and is a warm, welcoming voice every morning, plus a source of much local information and a great help to cruisers such as ourselves.
On approach to the Rio Ameca estuary which is about 15 miles east of where you enter the bay at Punta de Mita, we radioed the marina and received our slip assignment and motored past the mega yachts (Nicholas Cage has a boat named Weston here) up the channel amongst the crocodiles (really!) into our slip at the far north end of the marina. While most boats were clustered near the office and hotel, we actually wanted to be further up the estuary for better radio reception, breezes and a good brisk walk every day. There were still many empty slips in the marina during this period and since we were for quite awhile the last occupied boat, we became known as the mayors of Tepic (a city about 50 miles north). Unfortunately for us, a mansion sitting about 150 feet away across the channel was sold the first week of our stay. To celebrate in joyous Mexican style, the owners threw a grand celebration party complete with a sound system that blared music and ersatz music (bad karaoke) until 5:40 a.m.
Our family arrived on schedule and checked into the resort adjacent to us, bringing with them a long list of “must-haves” we couldn’t obtain here in Mexico. One small carry-on bag was almost entirely filled with 20 yards of material we’d purchased to re-upholster our main salon cushions that had suffered significantly during our voyage. We had a wonderful time with Les’ folks, sharing the sights, riding the local busses on cobblestone streets; admiring and sometimes negotiating for lovely crafts and just visiting while we watched the waves pound the long beach from the shade of our own little palapa (small palm-roofed structure). Thanksgiving turned out to be a subdued affair with a small dinner of rock-cornish game hens done on the boat at dockside though we savored our good fortune to be healthy, happy and together in this lovely country.
One specific piece of Mexican artwork that Mom and Dad wanted to bring back to their home in Connecticut was a talavera (a type of pottery) sink and matching tiles for an upcoming bathroom renovation. The specific shop we brought them to see was a huge family-run affair we’d visited ourselves a few times and just a few days before, had worked with cute, vivacious, college-aged daughter Alejandra to commission a personal gift for friends. When you enter this shop you are almost overcome by the vibrant colors and immense selection of pottery lining the walls, floors, shelving and stairways. Here you can climb the stairs to the second floor and quietly observe the artists at their work and the giant kilns for firing. The overwhelming variety and unique handcrafted nature of each and every item in the shop unfortunately made the selection of the sink difficult. The sales person this day, Ramon, in fact became amused by us and ended up becoming quite devilish and teasing during the hours we were there to make the final selection of a bright turquoise beauty with four enormous stylish fish gracing the bowl. (On a side note, the largest handcrafted sink in this shop was $850 pesos or about $77 USD. A similar sink was later spotted in a shop in Connecticut for $911 USD!)
While waiting for the final sink selection by Leslie’s family, we ventured down the street to Beverly’s Institute of Beauty (belleza) where gratis haircuts (corte de pelo) are offered. You enter by passing by a booth selling tickets (boletes) and climb the modest staircase to the second floor. Here we were told “una momento por favor” and asked to sit on a bench overlooking the street below. Unfortunately after sitting for nearly a half an hour we came to realize no one was available and the receptionist was too shy or polite to tell us. With our limited Spanish we learned that una momento meant probably Thursday morning three days later! We did return on Thursday and the school was a flurry of activity this day with women learning braiding, hair coloring, styling, etc. on mannequins.. The woman (really a girl) who cut Leslie’s hair seemed terrified and even after being shown how to cut in order to create texture, would stop cutting this way, or at all, as soon as the maestra (teacher) walked away to attend to other students. Though Leslie tried to give her confidence the cutting was going ok, with a not-quite completed cut, the student brushed her off, took off the drape and smiled. Not wishing to scare her more, Leslie pressed a tip into her hand, thanked her and departed.
Our stay at Paradise Village turned out to be much longer than we’d planned, though there seems to be a pattern emerging when we revisit civilization in the form of a marina. We made many new friends, socialized a bit, participated in a huge fundraising event and worked feverishly on boat projects requiring electrical power or space to spread out. One particularly exciting new discovery near Puerto Vallarta was a modest palapa–type restaurant, Las Carmelita’s, located about 1500 feet on a jungle hillside overlooking the city. To visit this restaurant we took a bus to the downtown area and then hired a taxi. Climbing into the hills on a cobblestone road towards an area of town called Terra Noble, you turn off into the private road to the restaurant and are met by a gate and a greeter with a radio. He asks for $50 pesos per person; this amount is later taken off your restaurant tab. Once this is paid, he radios to the top of the hill to prevent any vehicles from coming down. This is necessary since the washboard dirt road is too narrow for two vehicles and is marked by many sharp turns with little to stop a fall except jungle. The road climbs for nearly a mile before you enter through a wall of brick with an arched opening for vehicles and a couple for large wooden doors. This grand gate seems out of place with the modest restaurant you find behind it. Open decks with plastic tables covered with bright Mexican blankets are built out over the jungle to enhance the view to the city and sea below. Venturing behind the palapa bar out to the back you find a brick walkway along a wire fence and precipice to the jungle below leading to the outdoor kitchen and modest stucco and tile building housing the baños (bathrooms). A horse, a couple of perros (dogs) and chickens roam about the grounds. The fare is strictly simple and modest. Pescado de orden was whole huachinango (red snapper) done as you like (Leslie had it grilled “a la diabla””), while the fish filet was mahi mahi. Ribs are popular at $85 pesos for a belly-full.
Dining out is rare for us but this place prompted a repeat visit with other friends and yet another ding in our budget. One reason we stayed so long in the Banderas Bay area was that we were determined to participate in the annual Great Chili Cookoff (click the bold purple lettering for photos) that raises money to enhance the facilities at a school for special needs children in nearby Bucerias. This year a computer room and computers were targeted for purchase. Jim of the Picante Net was organizing the event and as soon as we expressed an interest (we’d seen pictures and heard tales of other years’ fun), he continued to sell us on the idea. Early on while thinking about participating, we knew we’d need a good team and facilities to pull it off. Friends we’d met in the spring live locally in a condominium and are members of the sponsoring yacht club, so they were the first recruits. Following Jim and Jane of Anticipation, came Mai of Dulce Vita, Judy of Paradiso and Robert of Echo. The event involves not only chili tasting but abundance libations, folk dancing by local children and a visit from Santa Claus. Sixteen teams participated, eight groups of amateurs and eight representing restaurants. A popular restaurant in Bucerias was recruited and was enthusiastic as long as someone could explain to them exactly what chili was! (This is real Mexico, not New Mexico!) Each team comes up with a theme, decorates to the theme, cooks at least five gallons of chili and has to compete for tasters’ tickets during the three and a half hour sampling period. Our theme was “Godfather’s Chili”; Philip and Jane were the cooking team (Philip’s recipe), Jim was operations and Leslie, Judy, Mai and Robert were marketing. Our booth was decorated with gaudy red/green plastic table coverings, a cement “boot” as a ticket receptacle and other paraphernalia associated with the Mafia (Chianti, a rustic wooden and string rosary, a votive candle. etc.) and included a sign that said “Your ticket here and no one gets hurt. Capese?”) Our costumes were black t-shirts decorated with sparkling paint to look like tuxedos. We all carried small holsters with (squirt) guns. We actually made six gallons of chili with homemade Italian sausage (an old DiNuovo family recipe) garnished with fresh mozzarella, parsley and fresh basil. Our chili was good (!) and it took about a week and just under $200 (a cost the team split) to put our entry together. We won by a comfortable margin with our great food (we had one customer who came back eight times) though we are convinced our margin was tipped by the fact we sent Leslie, Robert and Mai into the crowds “selling” chili from trays rather than waiting for customers to find their way to our table through the mobs of revelers. The event raised nearly $7000 for the kids and was a great way to meet people and give back a little to the communities that are so warm and generous to us cruisers.
Mai Dolce was one of the members of our Chili Cookoff team and through Mai we had the wonderful opportunity to spend an afternoon and have dinner with a family on a farm in nearby Mezcales. Mai is of Vietnamese ethnicity and a Vietnamese friend of hers exports jack fruits abroad specifically for Asian markets. Through her friend, Mai met and has become close to the family supplying the jack fruit. Jack fruit are large oblong (sometimes a foot long and nine inches in diameter), green and warty but the flesh is orange and arranged in segments, similar to an orange, though dense and rubbery. Inside are large golf-ball sized bean-shaped seeds that are surrounded by a white sticky membrane. The flesh is very sweet and tastes a bit like a combination of banana and bubblegum. Seeds are roasted or dried and ground as an additive for coffee.
Leonardo and Carmen who own the jack fruit farm were one of the “first families” of Mezcales, homesteading ejido lands redistributed after the revolution. To get to the farm, we turned off the main highway onto a secondary highway amongst fields and many fruit stands with stacks of pineapple and an abundance of fresh farm produce, then onto a graded dirt road, and finally over a steep berm through the orchard of jack fruit and some mango and into the yard filled with friendly dogs, chickens, a semi-tame but wild whistling duck, pens of doves (palomas) and one sleepy old horse. The homestead is two stories and clearly built as the family grew and money allowed or various materials were available. Along a lintel sat numerous Mayan-style sculptures approximately three feet high carved of grey stone, a product of artistic brother Jose who would also join us for lunch. Shy Leonardo and lovely, warm Carmen presided over the lunch cooked over a wood fire in the yard, swept clean and barren of vegetation. Before lunch, brothers Silvino, Vicente and unmarried sister Alma Rosa showed us around including the orchard of trees with jack fruit hanging down and seeming completely out of proportion to the small 15 foot trees; their trunks no bigger than six inches in diameter. Later Silvino and Vicente’s wives and children would also join us. Though many in the family spoke no English, Silvino and Vicente did and were anxious that everyone communicate and share experiences. Before we left the family showed us a book prepared and presented to the first families of Mezcales which showed photos of Leonardo and Carmen and all of the siblings we were meeting as they were in the 1970s! They described to us the many changes going on in their lives, the pressure to sell their family farmland for homes and the struggle to keep their children in school and away from television and video games. We felt fortunate to be able to understand their lives more completely and as the sun began to get low in the sky (these folks have no electricity – when the sun sets and the house gets dark, they go to bed), we knew we needed to depart but not before hugs were exchanged all around.
Another wonderful warm event that characterized our stay in Banderas Bay was the intimate, ocean-front wedding of our friends, Chris and Sahika (pronounced Shy-Kah) of the vessel Comfort Zone. As the sun was setting over the Pacific, Sahika walked barefoot up a palm mat-lined “aisle” escorted by her father and her daughter, dressed in a beautiful white-on-white embroidered dress with full skirt. She passed through the small crowd while a musician played songs on a native woodwind instrument. A justice of the peace arrived a bit late, so Sahika went back and walked towards the front a second time. The ceremony was read in Spanish and then interpreted by a hotel employee, Chris was called “Michael” a couple of times but they were married still, complete with six signed copies of the license and six sets of their fingerprints.
We join you now from an anchorage nearly 100 miles south of Puerto Vallarta where we arrived yesterday after an overnight passage. Our desire to spend Christmas at Barra de Navidad (further south) was overshadowed by the first serious gastrointestinal bug either of us have acquired. In this instance it was Philip whose pain and cramping were the source of great worry by a friend who is a physician and, coincidentally, also a microbiologist. So instead of leaving before the holiday we cast off the dock lines and moved to an anchorage off the village of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle to remain near medical facilities should the bug turn out to be something more serious. We stayed here in this last spring prior to moving north into the Sea and liked the small town ambience with proximity to the city. In La Cruz there’s an active fishing community and an active social scene. Central to the latter is a palapa bar up the hill from the bay run by an ex-patriot and musician named Philo. He invests quite a bit of energy into the community and even coordinates Christmas presents for 350 local children. On Christmas day Philip was feeling sufficiently better that we attended Philo’s Christmas potluck and music jam (Philo buys the turkey). It was a fun event filled with friends new and old, abundant food, good rockin’ music and even some dancing.
Riding at anchor with the boat gently rocking in the swell and the wind singing in the rigging had perhaps the appropriate therapeutic effect on both of us and by Monday we were ready to move on. Pulling up our anchor before the sun rose, we sailed off towards (the much feared) Cabo Corrientes and points south. A full day later just after sunrise we dropped anchor again here at Isla Pasavera in Bahia Chamela after an uneventful passage with light winds. This is the type of place you dream about when you read cruising magazines; your own anchorage in 10-13 feet of water that looks like a well cared-for pool. Small, stout, desert-camouflage-colored puffer fish buzzing about the bottom below look clear in the early and late day when the sun is low. Last night we enjoyed inky dark calm waters with a brilliant three dimensional show of phosphorescence with points of bright light showing depth and a gentle, for and aft surging of the water below. The effect was mesmerizing.
The island to our north is mostly low and rocky but is characterized by hundreds of giant cactus each with dozens of branches of equal length that emanate from a single stem. Unfortunately we don’t know what they are called. Giant frigate birds and our friends, the blue-footed boobies, fill the sky with their beauty and haunting calls and perch on the cactus. Amongst the reefs around the islands near us is an abundance of sea life. To our east about a mile is a long beach, a few small hotels and low hills. What struck us after many hours of trying to understand what was different here is that the hills appear barren. Upon closer inspection (and observation of leaves in the water), it appears that this area has an abundance of deciduous trees which, due to the angle of the sun at this time of the year, are probably without leaves. This is pure speculation from afar though.
Our plan at this moment is to leave tomorrow and venture only about 30 miles south to Bahia Tenacatita to hopefully find an appropriate beach front palapa and a few friends to give Philip a proper celebration for his big six-oh birthday on Friday.
With love and best wishes for “una prospero año” from sus amigos del velero Carina,
Leslie & Philip con el gato y el jefe, Jake
Lying Isla Pasavera, Bahia Chamela, Jalisco, Mexico