9-21-2014 – Santa Rosalia, Baja California, Mexico

Our summer in the northern Sea has come to a close, and we’re now southbound again. We had some plans that led us to leaving the amazing Bahia de los Angeles a little earlier than most boaters; most leave when the end of hurricane season has arrived. Unfortunately we squeezed that date further than we should have, and we had our closest brush yet with extreme tropical weather when hurricane Odile followed a course that was different than predicted.

Shooting Moon   Mitlan Sunset

Our big project for this summer was to do some carpentry work around the boat, largely in preparation for our journey to Central America this coming year. We have a “wood-pile” on deck that really should be stowed more securely before beginning an ocean passage – and although the coastal travel down to Central America may not be “pure” ocean travel it’s close enough to be worth the effort! Most of this material was purchased four years ago when we came up with the brilliant idea of updating all of the flooring in the boat, and found some beautiful jatoba, aka Brazilian cherry. Somewhere in the process of measuring all of the spaces we made a mistake, perhaps by adding in the fudge factor twice, leaving us with lots of extra. In addition, we later decided not to replace the parquet flooring in the galley because it is actually quite nice and in good shape. We’ve been using the excess for various trim projects around the place, but our intention for this summer was to reduce the wood-pile (by the way, no self-respecting sailboat should have a wood-pile on deck!) by actually installing that wood in various strategic places around the boat, such as the floor 🙂 in the aft head and stateroom. We also wanted to replace the lightweight sliding door into the pilothouse with the sturdy hinged door that we removed from the forward stateroom when we remodeled that area three years ago to accommodate a chain locker, a double bed for guests and a nice storage space for large items like our welder and scuba tanks. This door is one of a matched set of doors that were custom made for this boat’s initial fitting-out, and we have been excited at the idea of being able to reuse it somewhere else on the boat. It has an arched top and it is taller and narrower than the current door, so the work of framing it in is not a trivial project. But we were determined to set our intentions there.

When we passed through Santa Rosalia on our way north two months ago, we tracked down a carpenter to help prepare the flooring boards for this construction project by planing off the factory finish and the grooves on the bottom intended for glue channels. While we were in his shop, we noticed some of the nice cabinetry that he was making. We were also impressed with the quick turnaround and the low price that he charged us for this work. As we left, we got to thinking about how nice it would be to have him build a few cabinet doors for us, to cover open storage in the galley (from removing a 110V ice maker), office (storage for the sewing machines), and both heads – using more of this same excess flooring material. So we’ve been thinking about Carpenter Carlos for over a month now, and decided to ask him to do the difficult work of framing in our main door. We cut short our summer travels by two weeks in order to get this work done, and we began our journey south in early September, more than a month before the end of hurricane season. (Beginning to sense some foreshadowing yet?).

We allowed a full week to get to Santa Rosalia, and hoped to travel slowly and enjoy the pristine anchorages along the way. And we did, for the first two days. There was a prediction of a few days of strong southeasterly winds on Monday and Tuesday, which would be directly on our nose and make for uncomfortable travel. So we thought about which anchorages would work well in these conditions and identified the bay of San Francisquito. We knew that hurricane Odile was brewing down south of the Baja peninsula, and were following its progress closely by checking in on the weather news daily. The forecast was that it would move parallel to the Baja peninsula on the western side, and eventually turn westward as it degenerated. Each day, though, the track seemed a little bit closer to the peninsula. As it turned out, Odile came ashore that same Sunday, slamming into Cabo San Lucas. We considered running back north to the hurricane hole of Puerto Don Juan in BLA, or racing south to Puerto Escondido. The predictions kept suggesting that the system would lose its steam as it hit land, and that by the time it was as far north as we were the winds would be manageable.

Monday morning we heard news that Odile had hit Puerto Escondido and that the storm was pretty intense, so we tucked into the corner that had the best protection from the southeast and laid out our best defense against whatever might come. We executed our fairly new process of setting two anchors on one chain, which would work together to make sure that neither one could drag along the bottom. First we set one anchor (our primary 215 pound Forfjord beast) with about 50 feet of chain while in 25 feet of water. Next we shackled on a 15′ length of chain with our second anchor (an 45 pound Fortress) on the other end and lowered the second anchor using a short line. Then we let out 175′ of chain, and celebrated that we had all of this wonderful new 1/2″ high-test chain to keep us safe. After setting out the chain, we attached two nylon snubbers, each of them attached to the stem fitting at the waterline using a bowline knot to hold firm and a rolling hitch to connect to the chain itself. Once the snubbers were tied onto the chain we let out an additional 35 or 40 feet of chain to make sure that the 25′ and 25′ snubbers could do their job. Finally, we secured a short snubber, perhaps 15′, from a cleat on deck to the chain heading out the hawse-pipe towards the roller halfway down the bowsprit. All three of these snubbers were 1″ 3-strand nylon rope. We also spent a few minutes securing items on deck, including lawn chairs and jerry jugs for fuel, and wrapping some ropes around the sails with sail covers, to make sure that the wind couldn’t catch inside a loose edge and worry things to shreds. And we took down our Mexican courtesy flag. Then we sat tight for the night. There was one other boat in the anchorage with us, and even though we didn’t know them, it gave us some measure of comfort knowing that we had some company. We had another bit of company throughout the night: a few pelicans spent the night on the water in Lungta’s lee, using us as a windbreak against the uncomfortable conditions!

It was a noisy night, with the wind picking up to the 20-25knot range (that would be about 22-27mph for you landlubbers out there 🙂 ), howling through all the rigging and making the wind generators prove their worth. We both kept getting up to check on things, and although everything was generally ship-shape we were still nervous and didn’t sleep very well. The moon is nearing a new moon, so it didn’t come up until quite late, and didn’t offer much light even when it did. Dan observed that “it was a dark and stormy night”. The other boat was anchored fairly near us and seemed to be pretty steady. Its lights helped us to get oriented quickly whenever we would come up to scan the horizon. It rained buckets throughout the night, and we learned of some leaks in various places around the boat, including around several of the windows in the pilothouse and around the place where the masts come through the ceiling. We put out a number of towels on the floors and settees (but buckets were unnecessary), and made mental notes to address these leaks when the weather is less blustery.

When the sun came up, Dan noticed that one of our snubbers had come off during the night but that our other was still in place. But the wind was picking up in intensity and gustiness, swinging us from side to side, and shortly after that we felt a small shock that meant the second snubber had broken. We started the engine and pointed the boat gently into the wind and towards the anchor system, to prevent any sudden pressure from overloading the anchor system. The winds picked up into the mid-30’s (roughly 38-42mph) and even into the 40’s (around 45-50mph). Every 10 minutes or so we’d get a gust in the 50’s (55-60mph), with our highest recorded gust at 55knots (61mph). Our boat is sturdy, no real surprise, and weathered it all just fine.

Late in the morning we were hearing some clunking noises which we determined was coming from the roof of the pilothouse. We were working with the theory that it was the end of the boom for the staysail, when a bigger clunk happened and Dan realized that it was the radar dome. He could see through the skylight that the radar had fallen off of the 4′ tower that it is normally mounted on, and was hanging from its cable. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so, hmmm, nothing, it is pretty laughable. Kathy beat her way through the howling wind and driving rain to survey the situation, and discovered a bolt lying on the roof. All of the motion and vibrations must have jiggled the last bolt free. So she went back inside and retrieved some replacement bolts and wrenches, then braved the stinging rain and raging wind a second time to reassemble the system. Unfortunately the strong winds made the job too difficult to do alone (the size of the dome presented a large face to the strong and gusty wind, the holes needed lining up from underneath, the cable needed coaxing into the shaft of the platform, etc), so she eventually gave up and returned indoors again to retrieve a handful of bungees and cargo straps to temporarily secure things from swinging in the wind and to keep the rain out. Unfortunately she managed to rotate it 180 degrees, making the radar image upside-down for the duration of the storm. Oops! :-p (The next day, after the wind and rain stopped, we put it all back together properly.) Dan stayed at the helm for almost 4 hours (preferring to be there himself over sitting idly by while Kathy took a stint), and was exhausted when the wind finally turned off. Although it wasn’t quite as sudden as a light-switch, it did seem that there was a clear moment when the howling slowed down. Right about then, our neighbor pulled up his anchor and we were shocked to think that they might be leaving, with this big storm just outside our door. They motored around the anchorage and reset their anchor, which had apparently begun dragging along the bottom.

Blustery Day

We felt really fortunate that the worst of the storm hit us during daylight hours; things always seem more manageable when you can see the bigger picture. We were also relieved that the winds never turned to come in from the north, where this anchorage provides little protection. All in all, this was a nerve-wracking experience, but a good learning opportunity for us. We found few areas that we will make some changes and have added another notch to our belt of experiences. We have been lucky that these challenges have been presented to us in steadily increasing order, presenting us with situations that test and build our knowledge, skill and fortitude but do not overwhelm our capabilities.

As we joined in the morning radio nets over the next few days, we heard many reports of boats in La Paz and Puerto Escondido that had failures in their ground tackle system (whether anchor or mooring ball, or tied to a dock). Dozens went aground, several were dismasted, and a few sank when something punched a hole through their hull. Most of the boats that had serious problems like these were unoccupied at the time – when there are people on board, they can address the problems when they are still small before they have snowballed into a real disaster. Unfortunately there are a few stories that ended more tragically. At least one life was lost when a boat went down in La Paz.

We waited a day after the storm passed before venturing out, for the seas to mellow out. Our neighbor was antsy to get going, though, and pulled anchor first thing on Wednesday morning. They motored out of the bay and around the point as we marveled at their chutzpah. Maybe twenty minutes later we saw them return and drop anchor in the southern portion of the anchorage; it was still too rough. We dinghied over to their boat later that day and chatted with them. One of the crew members (there were three on board) had an airline ticket back to Canada the next day that she was anxious to check on. The other two live in La Paz and were interested in hearing whatever news we had about the storm. They didn’t have an SSB radio, so they had no idea that this storm was approaching or how big it was going to be. The English captain described their night’s experiences as “not very jolly”. They were an interesting group, and we enjoyed our conversation with them. One crew member was a herpetologist working for a research institute in La Paz. She was being paid while on this trip, to stop at several of the remote islands and collect rattlesnakes and lizards for comparative studies. We were stymied to think of them catching lizards, so they explained that they use a fishing pole with a piece of yarn tied as a noose. They would slowly lower the loop around the oblivious lizard’s neck and yank it up quickly. It sounds like this technique works equally well on small lightning-fast lizards and on the slower but heavier ones as well. Who knew? The captain is a photographer who specializes in cetaceans. He travels around, frequently diving, in search of whales and dolphins, then takes beautiful photos which are sent to agencies that shop them out for him. On a very irregular basis he receives a check, whenever a newspaper, magazine or even textbook purchases one of his images.

When we did leave on Thursday morning, we had a perfect start to our day. Our anchor came up smoothly, as did all our sails, and we happily sailed towards the morning sun and around the point to resume our southerly travels. We traveled about 75 miles in 32 hours, occasionally firing up the motor when the winds died and the current was pushing us backwards. Most of the time we had perfect winds and reveled in the experience, and a small part of the time we were frustrated at the fickleness of the forces we depend on. 🙂 Several times along the way we passed a lot of debris floating in the lines between tidal currents, lots of branches, plastic bottles and an occasional bit of closed-cell foam like is used to float docks. We always keep an ear open to the sounds of the boat, and at one point we both heard an unfamiliar sound. When we tried to describe it, we decided that it was a fast vibration kind of like a helicopter, but we couldn’t track down the source and it faded away pretty quickly. Later that day we saw a big dust plume coming up from the shore and a helicopter moving nearby. Probably the navy checking on the various settlements in the region. On the morning net, we were asked to keep an eye out for a sailboat that had been last seen the day before the storm traveling slowly in very light winds in the area that we were traveling. We kept our eyes peeled and periodically hailed her on the radio, but did not find anything. Later it was reported that she had gone aground about 10 miles from where we were looking, the boat’s keel was stuck in the sand, but the single-hander woman captain was OK. The cruising community is trying to help her put together a plan to get her boat out on the water again, possibly with the assistance of the Mexican navy or some local pangueros.

Floating Debris

We arrived in Santa Rosalia in the late afternoon, curious to see what the local conditions were like. We quickly dropped anchor and lowered our dinghy, anxious to talk with Carlos the carpenter to see if he could do the work we were hoping to have done.  There were two marinas in this small harbor, one fairly new and government owned, the other older and privately owned. The older one, which has been allowed to decline over the years, with very little money being put into its upkeep, is more conveniently located to the place where we anchor and offers some space to cruisers to park our dinghies when we come ashore (for a small fee). However, we quickly found that the older marina was completely destroyed. All of the docks broke away from the pilings, some of them with boats tied on. Most of the pilings broke off near the waterline. Two boats that were tied to the docks are now wrecks on the nearby shore, and one is sunk right in front of where the ramp used to come down to the docks from street level. The last of these was a beautiful 2-masted schooner that we’ve admired whenever we’ve walked past on our way to/from the dinghy dock. We ran into the owner and talked with him a while. He does not yet know whether he will be able to float the boat, both from a financial and a pragmatic perspective, and is also worried that there may be legal tangles that need to get sorted out before he can even try. It is a very sad situation. We saw a crew trying to pump the water out of another of the grounded boats, but when we returned later it looked like they had given up with no appreciable progress. Dozens of pangas had been pulled out of the water in anticipation of the storm, and the harbor was almost eerily quiet. Today there has been a steady line of boats going back into the water, and the harbor is coming back to life. There is a lot of mud in the streets, evidence of flooding that has largely been bulldozed away again. And we’ve heard that the town’s water supply has been cut off for a few days.

Santa Rosalia Marina

Our good news is that we talked with Carlos today, and brought him out to the boat to show him our projects. He is interested in the work, took lots of notes, and will give us a quote on Monday. So it looks like we will be here for two weeks while lots of work gets done. Then we’ll take a week to head south to Loreto. The plan is for Kathy’s sister Jean to pay us a visit – assuming the airport is opened back up to tourist air traffic in time! We’re keeping our fingers crossed!

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