Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Huatulco to Chiapas - Conquering the Tehuantepec

The Gulf of Tehuantepec forms a huge bay where winds created by pressure systems in the Gulf of Mexico funnel across the lowlands and build in velocity until they reach the Pacific Ocean. Once on the pacific side of the land mass there lays a small gap at Salina Cruz. This gap forms a venturi which accelerates the winds creating blows in excess of 70 kts and nightmarish conditions for boats traveling this coastline. The key to a successful crossing of the Tehuantepec is to closely monitor the weather windows, go after a system has passed and do your crossing very quickly. Most windows last a little over 48 hours. The other key to success is to keep one foot on shore….this is a scary option for sailors as we view the shore as a dangerous place, a place to be avoided in transit. The rational for sticking close to shore (within a mile) is it shelters you from the huge short period breaking waves that develop a little further off. The winds will still be gale force but the water is relatively flat as the land mass prevents fetch.

We monitored our “weather window” along with about 10 other boats in the marina. The weather was looking promising over the next few days so we decided to leave on a Tuesday morning which would put us into Chiapas in the morning on Thursday. Our friends on Kia Ora decided to do the same. A large ketch decided to leave the afternoon before us, riding the remnants of the blow. Several others opted to wait one additional day. We had a group of power boats also heading south at about 8 kts that were about 6 miles or more ahead of us. They had left earlier the morning of our departure. We had light winds of around 6-10 kts and the seas began to build into short period chop as we rounded the first point off Huatulco. We were motoring bare poled as we had been told and read that it was too risky to try and sail as the winds can develop to gale force within minutes. We were about 3 miles off to avoid known rocks and shoals. The seas continued confused and winds continued to blow into the mid teens. It was uncomfortable but not worrisome. As we approached Bahia de Bamba we were losing daylight. The power boats called us on the VHF to report gale force winds nearing Salina Cruz and heavy seas. They were a few miles off and heading to shore for protection. Paul and I decided to stay close in as we would be in Salina Cruz in the dark. We would rely on radar to help define the breakwater and help with buoys and moored boats. We also had our AIS to supplement radar. Salina Cruz is a major port for southern Mexico. It can be as busy as Los Angeles or Seattle. In addition to heavy traffic they also have a large shrimper fleet to watch out for. The plan was to stay off the breakwater but transit inside the mooring field for the tankers. As we rounded the last point the winds were 25 with gusts to 35. The water was flat with some minimal slap upon the hull. We both stood watch until we cleared all the heavy traffic. The most challenging was to identify the slow moving targets observed on radar, as their steaming lights were often hidden among all the shore lights and moored vessels. With the wind it seemed like everything was in movement. We passed through the heavy traffic area and started to rotate watch for the rest of the night. The winds continued until morning and the top gust was 40 kts. The seas were eerily flat. The distance from shore was approximately 1 mile. There are no obstacles to navigation along this section of coast and the depth was around 40- 60ft. The following morning we set our course to Chiapas staying about 3-5 miles off. When we arrived in Chiapas the new marina was a welcome sight. It is beautiful. The staff was answering the VHF (wow! This hardly ever happens in Mexico) and was on the dock to help with the lines. As soon as we tied up the Capitania and the Mexican Naval staff was boarding to check our papers and boat documents. They are more formal here with transiting vessel protocol as it is a stone throw from the border of Guatemala. The process was quick and the staff accepted hot coffee once the check in was complete. We will need to go thru the same process and inspection before acquiring our internatinal Zarpe when we get ready to leave.

An interesting note on the rest of the boats that left before and after us: The ketch that left the afternoon before us encountered heavy gale force winds and heavy seas as he was outside the mooring field when he passed Salina Cruz. The winds were so strong and seas so heavy he had to run with it. He did not have the power to make his way into protected waters. He arrived in Chiapas 24 hours after we did with sail damage. The power boaters continued on to Panama. The boats that left a day after us had no wind and clam seas the entire passage.

The marina is less then 2 years old. It is much protected, clean and the staffs are GREAT!!! The shore bathrooms and showers are like a spa. Nice change from Huatulco’s outdoor open air showers. We arranged a tour with some of the other cruisers on Sunday. Arturo took us to his cousin’s farm where the family has a lovely restaurant, lots of vegetation and most interesting cacao trees. The family is Mayan and they make their own chocolate the traditional Mayan way. Most families in this region do the same, each having their own special little recipe. We were treated to a fabulous breakfast, traditional tamal in banana leaf. Better than anything I have eaten this season. We walked the property and went thru the entire process of opening seed pods taken from the trunks of the cacao trees; we roasted the pods on a camal over a wood fire, husked the seeds by hand, ground them using a matate and finally mixed the slurry into some water to drink thick delicious chocolate. It is not sweet as there is no sugar added. It had the taste of rich cocoa and flavor of the nut, smoke and minerals. It is fabulous. This is the way it has been done by the Mayan people since the beginning of time.

Mayan cayoco, otherwise known as a canoe, at the
entrance to the chocolate farm.
Janet roasting cacao beans under the watchful eye
of the chocolate maestra.
The maestra approved as Janet used the matate to
grind and prepare the beans.
Just add water for a delicious cup of hot chocolate.
Janet once again demonstrated her culinary skills as she
mixed the chocolate with the water, but of
course under the careful scrutiny of the maestra.
Once we had our fill of chocolate, we headed for the
Mayan ruins just up the road at Izapa.  It was a really
hot day so the umbrella was a nice touch to help
keep us cool.  It worked, sort of.
At one point a gust of wind almost took Paul to flight.
The Mayans were really into pyramids.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Passagemaking - Zihuatenejo to Huatulco

We headed out of Zihuatenejo mid-afternoon.  This would be a three day passage with a stop in Acapulco for fuel and a short rest before proceeding on to Huatulco, yet another two days journey. Our departure was timed to arrive in Acapulco at day break the next day.

The wind was up so we hoisted the main before even pulling anchor.  As soon as we cleared the last boat in the anchorage we killed the motor and unfurled the jib.  It took two tacks to get us out of the bay and on our heading East.  Yes, we were now going almost due East.  It seems a bit strange and still feels like were heading south.  The wind stayed up all afternoon, blowing at about 12 knots on our beam.  It was a wonderful afternoon of sailing.  Just after sunset the wind dropped and we fired up the motor for the balance of the run into Acapulco.

We arrived in Acapulco just after sun rise and made our way into the bay.  It was quite a shock to see all of the high rise hotels and condos lining the beach that runs around the entire inner bay.  The fuel dock was at the private yacht club on the far north west corner of the bay.  When we arrived there was a large motor yacht taking up the entire fuel dock.  We had no choice but to hold off and hover until space was available.  An hour later they finally pulled forward and made just enough room for us to pull in.  Before we were able to take on fuel (we only needed 10 gallons), I had to go up to the marina office with all of our documentation, passports, etc.  I had to fill out a long form with all of the boat information and then sign a 5 page contract.  It was way over the top for the amount of fuel we needed, but just another one of those strange things they seem to always do down here.

Once we had fuel on board we headed across the bay to Puerto Marques where we planned to drop the hook and get about 3 - 4 hours of sleep before pressing on.  We found a really nice spot in front of a large resort and a really nice beach.  Once we were satisfied that the anchor was set we both collapsed for several hours of much needed rest.  Paul woke up first and made plans for a swim.  We needed to knock some of the gunk from being at anchor in Zihuatenejo off the bottom and to check our speed transducer to see why we weren't getting a speed indication on our instruments.  It turned out that sea growth had accumulated around the speed transducer paddle and a simple cleaning was all it took.  Rested and the bottom job complete, we were ready to leave for Huatulco.

Once again, the winds were up, so we hoisted the main before pulling the anchor and as soon as we rounded the point we killed the engine and unfurled the jib.  It was another wonderful day of sailing in light to moderate wind and calm seas.  Our friends on sv Kia Ora, who decided not to stop in Acapulco for fuel so left Zihuatenejo later in the evening of the day we departed, had just passed by Acapulco Bay.  After making radio contact, we ended up sailing the rest of the trip with them within several miles of Talos IV.  It is always good to know that there is someone else out there, just in case.

We sailed and motored depending on the wind conditions and finally arrived in Huatulco at just passed sun up on our third day of the passage.  We worked our way into the bay staying clear of the large reef and breaking waves that protected the entrance to the marina.  Once inside the marina staff was on hand in force to help both boats into our slips.  We had arrived at Marina Chahue and Huatulco.  This would be our home for the next few days to a week as we wait for a weather window to cross the Gulf of Tehuantepec.

Tia always keeps a close watch as we pull into any port.
And is always the first to yell "Land ho!" 
We were entertained by these guys in Puerto Marques.
They hook a long hose to the back of the jet ski and
turn a platform into a flying machine.  As the one guy
throttles the jet ski, the other guy goes flying into the air.
sv Kia Ora just before entering Marina Chahue in Huatulco.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Zihuatanejo and other ramblings

I realize as I write this post that the title really doesn't apply to most of the content, but I had to start somewhere.  We both are finding it more difficult to make the daily or even weekly posts that we managed to do last year.  We first thought that we weren't as enthused because much of the area covered this year was a repeat of last year, but here we are in Zihuatanejo, a totally new and exciting place for us and still no blog posts.  Until now.

We arrived here in Z-Town two weeks ago and we are heading south tomorrow.  We've had a great time here.  We are anchored in the main bay with about 25 other boats.  The dinghy ride into town is only about two short minutes.  I don't even bother putting the dinghy wheels up, but opt to simply let them drag in the water below the keel of the dinghy.  At shore there are a couple of guys, Jesus and Alphonso, that meet you as you come up to the beach.  For a small ten pesos tip they assist with getting the dinghy out of the water and rolled up above the high water line on the beach.  While your gone they provide security to ensure that your dinghy is still there when you return.  And, when you do return, no matter what hour, they assist with getting it back into the water and give you a good push off into the surf.  Essentially they are dinghy valets.  Such a deal.

Once in town, there is a wonderful malecon full of restaurants, bars and shops.  We of course went directly to El Cafecito, the best coffee and espresso in Zihuatanejo, and quickly made friends with the owner and staff.  From that point on they know our drink and would automatically bring it to the table when we arrived.  During the heat of the day it can be fairly quiet in town, but as the sun sets, the town comes to life.  There are all kinds of taco stands and various other eating options that simply appear from nowhere.  We loved it.  But by about 10 PM, unlike most other Mexican towns, the city settles down and becomes very quite for the evening.

We managed to make it up to the old mercado just about everyday to buy a few things and eat at Irma's Fonda, our favorite lunch spot.  The mercado is the best we've seen.  They have everything from hardware to fruits and vegetables to fresh squeezed juice, fresh meat and fish, delicious baked goods and of course the fondas.  Near the mercado are numerous other businesses where you could find just about anything you needed.

Any discussion about our stay in Zihuatanejo would not be complete without talking about the Super Bowl.  We of course began searching out the best place in town to watch the game almost from the first trip into town.  Our search ended with us watching the game right at the end of the municipal pier in a second floor restaurant and bar overlooking the bay.  What a wonderful spot to see our home town team simply crush the Denver Broncos.  It is great to see the Seattle Seahawks take it all the way.  It's been a long time coming.

A short narrative of some of our shore adventures:

We mentioned earlier in the narrative about the fondas. Fondas are lunch counters run by the ladies. The food is generally of local flavor, cheap and prepared much like you would find in a Mexican home. The kitchen is open to view, the seating is at a counter and everyone finds room on the bench for lunch. The prices range from 18 pesos for a beer to 60 pesos for a platter of fish, fajitas or a combination of any Mexican specialty items. Beans and rice are included. The fonda usually has one lady making corn tortillas by hand. always delicious. Our favorite fonda was like eating at home. The ladies recognize you, engage in conversation and make sure you are well fed. Cost for a killer lunch for two is 100 pesos for us. That's around $8.00 USD and includes the beer.

We took the bus with some friends on a day outing to explore the other side of the bay at Ixtapa. The town was nothing more than a planned community of condos, big hotels and resorts. The marina was pretty deserted. They have a beautiful beach which was great for walking but nowhere to stop in for a beverage or lunch. All the resorts have guards at the beach entrance and the use of facilities are for guests of that resort only. Very strange and unwelcoming if you are a visiting cruiser. We didn't stay long and were very happy with our decision to anchor off z-town. The next bus adventure was to a small working town called Petatlan. This town was written up for three special things. They have a huge church by Mexico standards. It is said that the location was visited by holy spirit (s) and thus the church is very special in the overall scheme of things. The church was lovely and the business of selling prayer candles was going strong. The other two attractions are the cabrito tamales and gold jewelry manufacture. We could not find a tamale stand but did ask a policeman whom appeared to like his food where we could go for the best cabrito. He pointed the way to a taco stand on a side street. It was thumping! We ordered a taco each....after the long bus ride we felt we needed something to make the journey worthwhile! The cabrito was good but one was enough. Finally we walked down the street and viewed way too many storefronts selling gold jewelry. Julie and Ken pleaded to go back to Z-town. We agreed, practically running to the bus and jumped on. It was an interesting outing but we were less than excited by the rewards. 

To recover from the Petalan experience Julie suggested a trip to a Park Bio. We took a cab the following day. The cab driver tried to take us to the wrong place but we realized when he got to the hiway and had him turn around. The park was well marked with signage once we got on the right road. It turned out to be a wonderful day of relaxation. A French Canadian woman and her Mexican husband have turned their 10 acres of land into an oasis. There are many areas developed to house local animals of the region including insects, snakes, birds of prey, water reptiles and water fowl and mammals. The animals all are well kept and interact with her to an amazing degree. It is not the kind of place where you see exploited animals in poor health. The most fascinating of information was about the insects and spiders. I was very impressed by the time our 90 minute walkabout was finished. After the tour we had lunch at the restaurant and she showed us a room you can rent at their villa. It was very luxurious. They have an infinity pool which overlooks the bay of Zihautanejo. She supplies the towels and visitors are encouraged to spend the rest of the day at the pool relaxing. I felt like we were at the 4Seasons in Punta Mita. The only thing missing was the cabana boy spritzing us with Evian water.

We are now provisioned and ready to depart tomorrow at high noon.  The plan is to make an overnight run to Acapulco (about 20 hours), where we will stop for fuel only and then motor around to Puerto Marques, just to the south.  A quick overnight there and then on to Huatulco, yet another two days and nights further south.  We will wait out the Tehuantepec winds there before heading direct to El Salvador. I'm sure we'll have much to say about that when the time comes.

But before we go there, there is still much to say about getting from Barra de Navidad, our last blog post, to Zihuatanejo.

We had a great stay in Barra (about a week).  We were mostly anchored off in the lagoon, but spent our last two nights at the marina.  Barra is a great town.  Water taxis pick you up at your boat or from the marina and ferry you into town.  Again, our favorite spot was La Brueja, yes another coffee shop. Janets's cousin lives in Barra and we connected with them for dinner one night.  Dictating the timing of our departure south was the Seahawk vs SF 49er game.  We watched the game at one of the local restaurants with a crowd of Seahawks fans.  It was great fun.

After leaving Barra, we headed about 20 miles south to Santiago Bay where we spent three nights.  One day we caught a bus into Manzanillo and spent the afternoon touring the town.  Not much to say really. The city is home to Mexico's largest port facility so it is very industrialized with lots of container ships coming and going and containers stacked everywhere.

We then motored across the bay to Las Hadas, a large, up scale resort with a wonderful beach and small anchorage.  Other than the pool at the resort, which you had to pay $200 MXP to tie up your dinghy to use, there really isn't much to say.  Because of the cost of landing the dinghy we felt somewhat trapped.  On our second night they set up a huge stage and the rumor was that Gloria Trevi, one of the top Latin American singers was to play a concert that night.  The stage was facing out toward the water and it appeared to be a corporate event of some sort.  We decided it was time to go and pulled anchor at about 8 PM to make the two night passage to Zihuatenejo.  Friends from sv Nekko who were anchored next to us said that we didn't miss much.

The passage was uneventful and you now know the whole story.

Zihuatanejo  has been a great stopover!

The resort at the marina in Barra de Navidad.  You can
just see Talos IV's bow in the foreground.
The sign says "Closed, out surfing".  Not what you want
to see on the door of your favorite coffee shop first
thing in the morning.
Tia enjoying the cool morning air.
Janet keeping watch as we rounded the corner into
Santiago Bay.
The beach at Santiago.
The Manzanillo malecon.  Paul is dwarfed by the
size of the artwork.
Paul always has to be in charge.
We're pretty sure the pilot boats they use today to
guide the freighters in are a bit larger than this.
Manzanillo Harbor is a busy place.
The Las Hadas resort from the deck of Talos IV at
anchor in the bay.
We really wanted to get our monies worth for
the dinghy landing so we took a stroll
up through the resort.
Janet posing for a photo op.
The beach at Zihuatenejo.
The Navy base at Zihuatenejo.
The old mercado.  They had everything you needed to
A $45 MXP lunch of chille rellenos, beans and rice at
Irma's Fonda in the mercado.
Janet enjoying a swim in the pool at Parque Bio overlooking
the Zihuatenejo Bay.  If you look closely you can
see Talos IV anchored right about in the middle.
This hawk just couldn't get enough head scratching.
Parque Bio was a wonderful visit.