4-8-2015 – Huatulco, Oaxaca, Mexico

Keith and Wayne returned to Lungta after 4 weeks in the freezing Massachusetts weather, and it was good to see them again. Although Keith really wanted to take the local combi-van into town from the airport, they had enough luggage that it made more sense to take a taxi. We were all surprised that the taxi cost significantly more from the airport into town than the other way: something like $30US vs. $12! But there was no helping it; we’d loaded them down with too much necessary “stuff” to maintain our lifestyle. 🙂 Dan and Keith took the luggage to Lungta (since we weren’t sure the dinghy would gracefully handle 4 people plus more than 200lbs of luggage!) and then returned to the beach landing spot for a stroll into town and lunch at our new favorite restaurant. El Buen Sazon is a very inexpensive place that we stumbled on a few days earlier which seemed to be off the radar for gringos but well-frequented by the locals: always a good sign! They also have a diverse and more interesting menu than most places. After we returned home, we staged an unpacking event that rivaled many Christmas mornings throughout the States. Wayne and Keith spent nearly an hour pulling things out of every corner of half a dozen bags, some of them expected (because we’d ordered them ourselves, or at least requested them), and some of them thoughtful surprises (because they’re that kind of people). We may not be stocked for life, but we are certainly full for now.

We stayed in Zihuatanejo another week – longer than originally planned because the delivery of our mainsail was delayed. It was disappointing to watch several of our friends leave before us, but the new mainsail was worth the trouble. The old sail that was replaced is one of the original sails, made nearly 50 years ago. It is definitely not a “production” sail, and we wanted to be sure to have a quality job done by a well-respected sailmaker, so we ordered the sail before we left La Cruz from Tony Morelli who has recently set up shop there. We had originally ordered the sail to have two layers of UV-protection on the edge, one a white UV-resistant dacron and the other a burgundy Sunbrella to accent the rest of the boat. Unfortunately, at the last minute he found he was unable to get the Sunbrella fabric, so we will have to add that ourselves down the road. It was exciting to pull down the old sail for the last time and raise the new one. It’s clearly new: clean white fabric, crisp and flat when unfurled – as opposed to the old sail which was dingy and quite baggy after way too many years on the job. The new materials available meant that he could sew in a pre-tensioned Dyneema cord for the furling “backbone” instead of requiring the original steel cable. It packaged up much more compactly than the old sail, and was much easier to transport via dinghy. We’re talking about using that old one for a sun shade for the forward deck.

Brand New Sail  Flying the New Mainsail

After we cleaned our hull and installed our mainsail, we departed enthusiastically. We had a wonderful string of great days of sailing, with only a few stops along the way. This passage is the first multi-day sail that Wayne and Keith have had, and we were all curious to see how it worked out for them. We happened upon a delightful stretch of weather that allowed us to glide along hour after hour, aided by a favorable current of a knot or two. The wind would build up over the course of the day, gaining speed and also building waves, then glass off in the middle of the night. We left Zihuatanejo with a half-moon overhead, and arrived in Huatulco under a full moon.

We breezed past the first couple of anchoring possibilities when we realized that we could either stop at dusk but arrive in Acapulco in the middle of the night the following day or sail through the night and arrive in mid-afternoon. It’s almost always easier to set anchor in an unfamiliar location when the sun is out and you can see any obstacles. Since this is the first time Wayne and Keith have sailed through the night, it is way too early to ask them to alternate the nighttime watches with us. So to begin with we have been pairing up for the shifts so they can see what a night watch feels like. It’s been fun to have some company during those sometimes lonely hours – but we also look forward to splitting the night watch 4 ways instead of 2. Our current watch scheme is 12 hours total, from 7:30 in the evening, just after sunset, to 7:30 in the morning, shortly after sunrise. We do two shifts of 4 hours, then 2 shifts of 2 hours, but often the person doing the second 4 hour shift chooses to continue into the next 2 hour shift, allowing the first to sleep for 6 hours total. After a couple of nights of “shadowing” us, Keith and Wayne paired up for a 4 hour shift on a night when Kathy and Dan each did a solo watch. The next step will be to divide the night into 4 3-hour shifts, which means that everyone will get a full-night’s allotment of sleep, although not necessarily in one stretch.

We spent three days in Acapulco. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but Acapulco is a really big city perched on the cliffs around a nearly enclosed bay. The bay is well-used, and there were not many places available for small private sailboats to anchor. There was a big car carrier anchored off one beach and another at a cruise ship dock – they apparently move a lot of cars through Acapulco! Fortunately for us, the folks who left before us had already figured out the lay of the land, so we just needed to find out where they were anchored and join them. The water was surprisingly clear and sparkling, and the hills twinkled at night. There were about 8 cruiser boats in Acapulco at the time we were there, and one night a potluck was organized on the dock of a marina where a couple of the boats were staying. We all enjoyed getting to meet each other and exchange histories and plans. Most of these boats are heading to El Salvador like us, although a couple are continuing on to Ecuador this year.

Acapulco Hills  Acapulco Skyline

Our first day in town we visited a tall ship called the Cuauhtemoc – see if you can pronounce that name! It comes from a significant historical figure, I believe he was a ruler of one of the indigenous peoples. The ship is owned by the Mexican Navy, which apparently does a big tour every year. This year they are preparing for a trip through the Panama Canal and across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea. The ship was docked at the cruise ship dock for a few days and open to the public. We talked with a couple of crew members, who universally seemed happy and willing to talk with curious members of the public – especially those who live on a big sailboat! 🙂 We were told that they had 250 crew, and we sure saw a lot of busy bees polishing all the stainless and brass fittings and working in the galley. We also were invited for cocktails one evening on a really fancy yacht, when the crew stopped by looking for some cruising guides. This 96′ sailboat had spectacular living quarters, marble countertops, artwork in lighted alcoves, a pristine engine room, and power everything, including winches. It was interesting to see how “the other half” lives. Oddly, though, they admitted to only sailing about 10% of the time.  Go figure…

Cuauhtemoc

We visited a few of the top tourist attractions, with a slight dose of self-consciousness. 🙂 We walked to the old Spanish fort, but then balked at the modest price of admission and settled for a chat with the guard at the door. That turned out to be fascinating! The star-shaped fort was built in the 1500’s (long before America’s Pentagon!), to help stave off the pirates that were raiding the local fleet. The building was destroyed by an earthquake in the mid-1700’s and rebuilt shortly afterwards, so although the fort we saw is quite old, it is not the one that actually defended the town when it was most in need! There are a number of these forts around the world, wherever Spain had colonized, and Wayne and Keith had visited a similar one in the Philippines. It turned out that there was a strong connection between Acapulco and the Philippines, which they discussed. The guard also told us about the founding legend of the city, which was a story of star-crossed lovers similar to Romeo and Juliet. The boy’s name was Acapetl, which means “reeds”, and the girl’s was (something like) Nahuatl, which means “snow”. When the families prevented them from getting together, the boy cried tears which brought up some reeds that were later destroyed by a snowstorm that resulted from her grief. Or something like that… The name Acapulco means “Place of the Reeds” or “Place of the Destroyed Reeds”, depending on who
you ask. 🙂

The most famous of Acapulco’s tourist attractions is the cliff diving show. 4 times a day half a dozen young men swim up to the base of a 60 or 80 foot cliff, climb to the top, and then one by one dive back into the churning waters below. The cliffs are fairly vertical, but not quite, so the divers must jump out several feet from their perch. Most of the shows are
at night, so the nearby restaurant has floodlights to make it visible – and the deep shadows make it even more dramatic. You can view the show either from a table at the restaurant (with an admission fee of $150MXN/$10US per person) or from a viewing platform lower down and a bit closer to the action (admission fee of $40MXN/$2.75US person). There are also lots of other “spending opportunities” at the lower platform, including tips to the divers who are still dripping as they come back out of the water, photo from previous shows and jewelry. Apparently the divers are largely from an extended family, and there were also some younger boys, around 8-10 years old, practicing lower down on the cliffs. The show has been going on for decades; Wayne remembered watching Wide World of Sports programs in the 70’s. Although highly touristic, we definitely had to admit that the feat was impressive. Who first decided that it was a good idea to jump from these cliffs? What were they thinking!?  Can you find the three swimmers, three climbers and two tacky shrines in the photo below?

Climbing Cliff Divers

In addition to the standard tourist activities, we enjoyed strolling around the huge market. We wandered into a building that had lots of lunch counters that were serving many hungry locals and very few gringos. This was just what we were seeking! We had a wonderful meal at a shop just big enough to hold a cookstove and the proprietress. As we meandered through this part of town, it was extremely clear to us that this city has a strong dividing line between the haves and have nots. There are luxurious homes built out on the hills around the bay, and hovels above the stands in the market with “for sale” signs and a fresh coat of paint – but no windows, and running water seems unlikely.

Markets Galore

Another day we found a beach-side palapa restaurant with wi-fi and watched a team of mostly young men hauling in on a fishing net which had been deployed by a panga. Two groups of 4-6 men pulled in on each end of the net, each one cycling to the front of the line when there was room at the water’s edge for another. Most of them had something like a small hammock slung around one shoulder that tied onto the rope, so that they could lean into it and exert more force more easily. After about 15 or 20 minutes of pulling in on the ropes, the actual net came to the shore, and then the part with fish in it finally came out. Then a crowd of women, older men, and even children swooped in and helped sort the fish for sale. There were probably in the neighborhood of 100 fish flopping around on the beach! Some of the sorters would grab 5 or 6 fish by the tail in each hand and walk them to the surf to rinse off the accumulated sand, then walk across the beach to their processing stations for sale. As this catch wrapped up, a second round began, capturing the fish that had escaped from the first net. We were fascinated!

Hauling in the Nets  Hauling out the Catch

Then we were ready to go. We pulled anchor mid-morning and sailed out of the harbor. But we didn’t go far. There’s another cove just a few miles south of Acapulco called Puerto Marquez. We’d heard that this was closer to the big provisioning places (CostCo, Sam’s Club, Walmart & Home Depot) – you can take the people out of the States, but you can’t
take the acquisitive urge out of the people. 🙂  We were surprised to see that it was more of a vibrant beach community than an overdeveloped shopping district. Instead of topping off our provisioning we ended up spending a day and a half people-watching and soaking in the culture. We spent some time sitting in the courtyard of a market, mostly watching the vendors tidy their shops while waiting for the occasional visitor and the vendors’ children playing underfoot with tops, balloons, and whatever else caught their eye. The children were gentle with one another, and there were lots of endearing smiles exchanged all around. After lunch in a beachside palapa we went for a swim, mostly just splashing in the waves amidst the Saturday afternoon crowd. Semana Santa, the Holy Week of Easter and the biggest holiday time in the Mexican calendar, was just beginning, and the beach was getting full. Although many Mexicans don’t know how to swim, they still love to roll around on the sand at the water’s edge or just sit under an umbrella while their children jump delightedly whenever a wave rolls in. We again left mid-day, this time prepared for a longer passage.

We spent 4 days – and nights – underway to Huatulco, mostly in lovely moderate winds and gentle seas albeit with a large but long swell. The last couple of days we had slower winds and dealt with the perennial issue of impatience. 🙂 Along the way we trolled a couple of fishing lines, and caught several fish. We enjoyed a sierra and a dorado on different days, and discarded a couple of jacks because we know that the meat is not the tastiest. Early one morning, Kathy woke to Dan’s voice calling from on deck. One of our lines had caught a turtle by the scruff of the neck and he needed help setting the big guy loose. Before long, all 4 of us were working at pulling it in, pausing occasionally when the turtle surfaced and needed to take a breath. Keith cut his finger when the swivel on the line came up, and we put gloves on afterwards. But not much later the line broke and the turtle swam away with our cedar plug on the back of his neck – I’ll bet there are no other turtles in the area with such “bling”! We saw *lots* of turtles during this stretch of our travels,
and Wayne was frequently heard calling “cowabunga!” as he tried to snap the perfect photo of a turtle making a sweeping turn. We also had a number of visits from pods of dolphins, the most dramatic of which occurred early one morning as Dan and Keith were on watch. These spinner dolphins hung around for more than half an hour and put on a dramatic show, swooping under the bowsprit and twirling quickly as they leapt 5 feet out of the water!

Turtle!

We arrived in Huatulco at the perfect time of day, mid-morning, giving us time to check out a couple of the small bays to choose one that suited us. We spent our first night in Bahia Cacaluta, nearly losing the dinghy when we left it on the beach but underestimated the size of the waves trying to pull it out to sea. Fortunately our small anchor dragged along the beach enough to keep it near shore, and the worst we had to deal with was a significant bailing job! We did, however, enjoy the stroll along the beach before that little vignette. 🙂 We were surprised at the number of boats visiting the bay, and also at how they all left as night approached. Later we remembered that it was still Semana Santa, and the Huatulco region was a major destination for Mexicans wanting to celebrate at the beach.

Wayne & Keith in Cacalute  Bahia Cacaluta

We visited another bay, Bahia Maguey, a couple of days later and saw the busiest scene yet – hundreds of tourists, possibly even thousands. There were dozens of party boats coming in and out of this bay, which is just a mile away from the central town. There were jet skis, banana floats being towed behind speed boats, and kids playing on giant blow-up toys depicting sharks, turtles, and gators – oh, my! In the late afternoon, the pangas and party boats started to carry passengers away from the beach. We watched load after load of tourists ferry out to the biggest boats and head back to Bahia Santa Cruz where the town is located. After most of the tourists had left and we were starting to think about heading back home, we noticed that Lungta was pitching badly and realized that it would be a very uncomfortable night. We decided to rush back to Bahia Santa Cruz ourselves, just before sunset, because this bay is aimed in a different direction than all the other bays and more protected from waves coming from the east. We prepared hastily and pulled the anchor quickly. We weren’t able to bring the dinghy on deck as we would have liked, so we nervously towed it along behind us, and kept glancing back every few minutes to make sure that the line was still intact. We took a few big waves over the bow, causing water to cascade all along the length of the decks. This was the first experience of even slightly rough conditions that Wayne and Keith had seen, and they did great. It took us close to an hour to get around the point, and during this time we heard numerous items down below come crashing to the floor. All of the counter tops cleared themselves, and a few cabinet doors opened up and disgorged their contents. It was pretty stressful hearing all of the noises and not really knowing what had happened. After we arrived in calm waters and dropped anchor again, we found that only a couple of items broke – although we had lots of things to return to their intended places (and continued work to eliminate clutter from our lives!).

We’ve determined that the cause of these turbulent conditions was probably a smallish gale in the Gulf of Tehuantepec, a region just east of here that is well known for strong winds and waves. The isthmus between the two American continents gets quite narrow in this area and also quite shallow, which means that it’s a natural gap for winds to funnel between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. This time of year it is fairly common for there to be high pressure systems in the Caribbean while there are low pressure systems on the other side, and the winds howl through this pass, creating extreme conditions in a relatively small region. Nowadays boaters know to check the weather and watch for a window of time where the conditions are conducive to a safe passage. We are waiting in Huatulco for just that window. But Huatulco is close enough that it catches some of the fringes of those waves, and that is probably what we experienced on the evening of Easter Sunday. This experience makes us that much more determined to make sure we choose a good window for our Tehuantepec crossing!  It’s looking like tomorrow might be the day, so the next time we post we should be on the other side of that milestone…

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