1-8-2012 – Isla Isabel, Mexico

After Los Frailes, we crossed the Sea of Cortez to Mazatlan, on the Pacific Coast of Mexico.  When we first left, the wind was still cooling off from a strong Norther, and it was on the brisk side for us.  However, it died off midafternoon and never recovered.  It might not have been too bad, except that the seas were still pretty steep from the previous week of intense wind, so we were wallowing around uncomfortably.  We broke our intention to sail “all the time” in favor of sailing whenever there’s enough wind to allow us to steer the boat instead of just bobbing along aimlessly.  Although we traveled for about 40 hours, there’s relatively little to report. 

The biggest event was that our starter failed on us *again*.  It’s been misbehaving sporadically, and in several different ways.  The worst is when it starts the engine, but doesn’t retract, causing a terrible growling noise as the main engine turns the starter’s pinion gear many times faster than it should.  This has happened 3 times to date, and the way we deal with it is to turn the engine off as quickly as possible, remove the starter, bang on the extended pinion gear with a hammer until it retracts, and then reinstall the starter.  🙂  We’ve gotten pretty good at removing and installing the starter, but it still takes a little less than an hour each way.  And it’s greasy work, not exactly what we had hoped to be doing with our day – any day!  The second time it happened, we tried adding grease in case it was sticking because it was dry.  This time we decided that we shouldn’t trust the starter any more until we had it fixed professionally.  So after we got it going again, we motored the rest of the way into Mazatlan, arriving just after dark (definitely not the ideal time of day to arrive in an unfamiliar anchorage!).  We found a nice spot to drop our anchor and fell into bed!

The next morning we hit the town.  With half a million residents, Mazatlan is the biggest city we’ve been in since San Diego.  We were confident that we could find some of the less typical items that had accumulated on our list.  The most important, of course, was a starter specialist.  We networked around a bit and found a shop that was recommended: Toloza’s in the northern part of Old Town.  Once again we had a challenging time communicating our situation, but we muddled through.  He poked at it a bit, trying to understand our complaint, then said to come back in a couple of hours.  So we strolled around the neighborhood and sat on a nearby beach, watching some gymnasts practice cartwheels and flip-flops on a gentle slope.  When we returned to the Auto Electric shop and asked what the problem had been, he said that he’d greased the shaft that wouldn’t retract.  Then he charged us $30 – what a deal!  We got it back to the boat and installed, and now we’re crossing our fingers that it’s really fixed this time!  While in Mazatlan, we also found a shop where we could purchase some belts for our engine, and some plumbing parts that we needed to repair a couple of small leaks, one under the bathroom sink and the other in the cooling system for the exhaust.  We stopped in the Municipal Market a few times – it’s a huge building divided into dozens of small shops/stands mostly selling fresh produce, but a few with meats, dry goods, and fast food.  We really enjoyed this market.  The mounds of fruits and vegetables were colorful and enticing, and the prices were great.  Also, the language skills required to ask the price and respond appropriately are now within our grasp, when we can get them to slow down a little.  🙂

We decided to move on, so that we can spend a week or so in the Puerto Vallarta area before hosting our first international visitors: Kathy’s mom Marilyn, brother Andy and his girlfriend Susan.  We left first thing Thursday morning, expecting to take about 40 hours on a straight shot to Puerto Vallarta.  We had a wonderful day of sailing, including an amazing night where dolphins appeared magically around 3am to play in our bow-wake.  They were larger than the ones we’ve seen before, probably bottle-nosed dolphins.  They were visible in the light of the nearly-full moon, but also because their owns wakes were illuminated by bioluminescent plankton, making them look like meteors streaking back and forth across our path.  We both came out on deck and went out to the tip of the pulpit to watch them under our feet.  There were four or maybe five, and their trajectories would entwine as they criss-crossed and took turns in the wake.  One of them was a lot smaller, perhaps a baby or juvenile.  Each one would cross in front of the boat, twirl around back and forth a couple of times, and then shoot out the side to make room for the next and to take a big breath.  They probably stayed with the boat for 45 minutes, but they will stay in our hearts for many years to come.


As we made our way south, we realized that Isla Isabela was directly on our path, and we couldn’t resist stopping for just one day.  This tiny volcanic island is sometimes called the Galapagos of Mexico, because it’s a nesting wonderland for several different species of birds which are not afraid of humans because there aren’t any predators here that they need to grow up fearful of.  There are also prehistoric looking iguanas lurking beside rocks and scurrying across grassy patches (they do seem to be more easily spooked).  We chose to anchor on the island’s east side, near some dramatic rocky islets known as Las Monas (which are apparently dress-making mannequins).  We noticed hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of birds circling over the island, looking somewhat like a swarm of gnats.  After a short nap we dinghied to the beach and went for a wonderful hike.  A biologist (student) came up to us and explained that the south beach would have been a better place to come ashore, but not to worry this time.  He and who-knows-how-many others are collecting data on the habits of the nesting birds.  They have set up blinds to hide in while watching the birds, and they have numbered many nests to help them identify them.  He pointed out a trail that went around the corner and then across the center of the island to the south end.  It was well-used and clearly marked with blue ribbons in the low trees.  Along the way we saw hundreds of blue-footed boobies with nests on the ground.  Some of the birds were sitting on nests, some were standing nearby.  They have long beaks and striking yellow eyes, but most notably they have robin’s egg blue feet!  Coincidentally the color was similar to Kathy’s Crocs – but we didn’t stop to compare notes on shops.  They would snap their beaks to indicate when we were getting too close, and make a sound like a cross between a kazoo and a breathy whine.  We tried not to upset too many of them, though.  They seemed to be comfortable until we got within about 6 feet.  Many of them were nesting directly on the trail so we often had to walk within a foot or two.  They acted a little pissed-off, but they never moved. Our guidebook tells us that there are also brown boobies here (which have lime green feet) of which we saw a few, and red-footed boobies but we didn’t see any of these.


The trail wound its way uphill, and into a low but open forest in which there were thousands of frigate birds nesting just overhead.  Many of them appeared to still be courting, but a few had nests with fuzzy fledgling chicks inside.  The males of this species have a fleshy sack on the front of their neck which they can inflate like a big red balloon.  They hold it on display for a minute or so with their wings outstretched.  We don’t know if this is territorial or to attract the girls, but it’s quite dramatic.  From the boat, we could see the hillside was dotted with red balloons.  These dark birds have a distinctive profile when they fly overhead; the leading edge of their wings has a pronounced convex curve to the point of their elbow and their tail is either spread out into a two-pronged fork or held tight into a very narrow point.  They soar way high overhead in all of the ports we’ve stopped in here in tropical Mexico.  Several times we’ve had one or more hitchhike on the spring-stay connecting the tops of our two masts.


We made our way up a set of crude concrete steps to the top of the ridge and back down into the caldera of the ancient volcano.  At the bottom is a large lake, named Lago Crater.  Many of you reading this will have already visited Oregon’s Crater Lake.  Like many natural features, they both leave you feeling small and privileged to live on this amazing planet!  The trail wound down to the island’s south point, where there are some derelict buildings intended for visitors to this World Heritage Site. Though derelict, the buildings were inhabited by numerous iguanas that were comfortable until we got within about 3 feet of them. As we headed back to our dinghy, we were conscious of all the sounds of the forest.  It was full of sounds, including screeching, quacking, chirping – it sounded almost like a Hollywood caricature of a jungle.  But it was light and airy, quite friendly seeming.


We got back to our dinghy *just* in time.  The tide had been going out, and we had to drag it back down to the water a couple of feet.  Then when we got it in the water, there were lots of rocks that it kept getting wedged between.  The rocks seemed to come in bands which were separated by just less than the length of the dinghy, so that just as we’d free ourselves from one set we’d become encumbered by the next.  There were probably 4 bands like this.  The waves were breaking over the rocks (and us) and we were scared that we’d never clear the last set because the water level was still going down.  We pushed and rowed and pried and shoved, and eventually made it past the last band of rocks – whew!  Dan got the wheels up and the engine started and away we went, back to the boat.  We were hot and tired, so we decided to take a quick dip in the water.  This was our first leisurely swim off the boat since we left Portland, and it was *delicious*.  We really only splashed around near the boat, but it qualifies as a swim to start with.  🙂

The next morning, bright and early, we left Isla Isabel towards Banderas Bay.  We had a truly wonderful sailing day, and we had a number of whale, dolphin and turtle sightings along the way.  We’ve anchored in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle (La Cruz, to those in the know), and we expect to be in this area for the next several weeks.  So that’s it for now.  Sunny skies to all of you, and please stay in touch.

>> Kathy & Dan

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2 Responses to 1-8-2012 – Isla Isabel, Mexico

  1. Rodney says:

    Hey guys,

    I’m getting real serious about a visit if the offer’s still open. I’m trying to combine a visit with my mom in Guadalajara and with you guys, probably for a few days each. Work sucks (they just laid off almost 100 engineers / technicians in WV), and I really need a break.


  2. tim says:

    Hi Kathy and Dan,

    Tim and I met you at Los Frailes near Cabo Pulmo during our Christmas holidays and have been having fun following your adventures. Tim is “full on” dreaming about sailing and spending lots of time looking for good deals on boats while I am away at work … THANKS!! 🙂 Looking forward to reading your next blog.
    Wendy (Alberta)

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