Considering a sailing adventure to Mexico? Just look at how engrossed that guy is in the book! Grab a copy of the Unauthorized Guide to Sailing in Mexico, and you too can find yourself sitting on a Mexican dock with an oversized (but very attractive) hat.

Unauthorized Guide to Sailing in Mexico


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Entries in seamanship (3)


four days at sea later, we're back in la cruz

We spent the last four days and three nights underway, about 25% of that motoring across the typically flat Sea of Cortez, and the other 75% bouncing around at or near hull speed whilst double reefed with terrific force 3-6 conditions. For one evening in particular things got a little beefy, but we have a heavy cutter and with the mainsail double reefed and the staysail on its boom, the boat rarely ever feels over powered. Still, it's weird to see 7.4 knots for a Hans Christian 36.

Double reefed, Hydrovane steering, flag flapping, ripping long before the weather really started up.

One really weird thing that blew my mind were the two encounters with upper tonnage commercial ships. In both cases I saw them on AIS early enough, and they saw me as well (visually, on radar, and via our AIS transponder). Normally in an open seaway things are a bit clearer: you're generally moving on one heading as is the other vessel, so potential collisions are spotted early. 

But in narrow bisecting channels that curve and look like spaghetti noodles piled onto the chart, AIS isn't smart enough to do the math that you're going to be making a turn in a few minutes (to avoid shoal waters, for example) as is the other vessel. 

Both times I contacted the bridge via the VHF and politely explained that we were a sailing vessel with limited options for maneuvering, and acknowledged they are probably restricted in their options because of the channel depth. It was blowing pretty good, I had two preventers rigged, and the wind vane was in the water: yes I can officially state that it would have been a pain in the ass to move out of their way. But I also know, because hey, I paid attention in captain school, I was intersecting a channel that they were crossing: we needed to figure out a mutually beneficial solution to our problem.

Closer than most of us want to get.

Both deck officers were more than polite and shot our stern. The captain of the Mazatlan Star in fact [figuratively] ran into us again a day later and hit me up on the VHF just to chit chat and say hello. As a footnote, if you ever run into a good merchant captain out there, consider taking the time to send an email or make a phone call to the company that they work for. These are men and women with jobs, and the good ones should be aknowledged more. 

I don't know if I'll ever get used to really long passages. I enjoy them much more these days, in large part because we have the boat (and ourselves) much more dialed in. The self steering systems work well. With paper navigation and a windvane we eliminate two of the always-on power consumers on many sail boats: the autopilot and chartplotter-electronics-suite. Charlotte's a good cook and has dialed in more and more recipes underway that make use of what provisions we might have, don't require a ton of cleanup, and doesn't sentence anyone to long stays in the galley doing prep work.

My navigation and weather skills are definitely better than they were, and my ability to balance the boat and keep her as comfortable as possible in a bucking seaway is improving. All of these little steps: from changing out incandescent light bulbs to LED, all the way to a balanced sail plan to avoid over ruddering constitute a base that doesn't eliminate problems, but has certainly freed us up to concentrate on other ones. 

Sunrise on the Pacific, just south of the Sea of Cortez.We're safely back in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, and even within two hours of being on the mainland we were clinking glasses and getting hugs from friends we made last year. In less than an evening we were welcomed back by numerous people, invited to a local birthday party Saturday night where a lady has been dying for us to try her posole, and I hugged our old cabby Oscar that almost caused Lyra to be born in the back of a van.

And with that, the Sea of Cortez is now officially behind us. 


sleeping for a solo watchstander

Eric on night watch. Click to enlarge.A lot of my non-sailing friends ask the simple question: "What do you do at night when you need to go to sleep?"

The short answer is that you indeed are sleeping. The vessel keeps on going, being steered by some mechanism of self steering. COLREGS, the international agreement that nearly all nations have signed up with, is quite clear that a human being must at all times be watching what the boat is doing (a lookout). That being said, every time a solo sailor leaves shore, including much lauded races and round-the-world events, it's pretty obvious that person isn't going to stay awake for their entire journey.


My whole watchstanding approach is focused on getting sleep. Sleep deprivation makes you stupid, stupid makes mistakes that can be downright deadly, and at minimum you're not going to have any fun. Finding a way to get enough sleep while still being able to do your job is crucial. Fortunately a bunch of smart guys learned about the power nap, which is anything from 5-30 minutes. Any longer than 30 minutes and you fall into deep sleep, making wake ups much harder. Doing this long term is called polyphasic sleep, which can actually be maintained for years, although don't expect to adapt to it quickly.

Wake Up On Intervals

Fitting the napping schedule well, the typical radar range available is 24 miles, going with 20 to be a little pessimistic. If you are going 10 knots dead on to a vessel making 25 knots, the closure speed is 35knots. Which means they can be out of range (21 miles away) and right up on you in just about a half an hour. In open sea it's rare for a vessel to faster than 25 knots, and it's certainly rare for a typical sailboat to be traveling at 10 knots. Further, it's even rarer for both vessels to truly be on a dead-on collision course. 

A general rule for me is 20 minutes. If I have clear radar, no visual contacts, nothing on AIS, and I'm not around any shipping or other known sources of frequent traffic, I will sleep. My wrist watch is set for twenty minutes, and I sleep in the cockpit. As soon as it beeps and wakes me up, eyes first go to the horizon for a sweep, then off to the electronics. Rinse and repeat all night long.

Contact Sweeps

The more you know, the better. Your goal is to ensure that *nothing* is around. If vessels are in range, stay awake until you are completely clear. A contact sweep can be done by:

- Scanning the horizon, night and day, with binoculars. Don't be lazy and just eyeball. The binoculars will bring out shapes and lights that you otherwise won't see.
- Scan the radar. Set the gain low enough to pick up small objects.
- Check the AIS contacts on an AIS receiver. Often, this will provide contacts long before they arrive visually and gives you the added benefit of seeing potential collision situations long in advance.

Stay Awake When You Need To

If other vessels are around, especially in anything even resembling crossing or overtaking, do not nod off. This is why it's important to sleep when you can: there will be times when you cannot. Read a book, stand up, do a nav plot, make some coffee, clean up lines, practice your knots. Stay awake. One reason I always focus on getting enough sleep is because it's the only way you'll manage to stay awake when needed.

You May Be A Single Hander Without Knowing It

On a small crew it's very easy for one person to be left as the only available watchstander. Illness and injury can strike at any moment and you very well might end up needing to solo the boat for days or even weeks by yourself while someone else recovers or rests.







courtesy flag size

Notice, if you can, the tiny American courtesy flag flown on the starboard spreader. Click to enlarge.Study the books all you like, but you'll find no hard and fast rules relating to courtesy flags. When a vessel visits a foreign land, such as the French Canadian vessel pictured left, it needs to fly the host nation's flag on its starboard spreader. This vessel is in the United States, so it needs to fly the United States flag (also known as the ensign).

Similar to the difficulty of establishing what's courteous and what isn't in normal society, the same is true for this piece of flag etiquette and as such there are no hard and fast rules, other than the basics like ensuring it's the right flag, and that you only fly it after completing quarantine procedures.

Looking at the cocktail napkin sized courtesy flag pictured, tattered and worn, do you feel that vessel is being "courteous"? Can you even identify that it's an American flag?

Money certainly isn't the issue. As evidenced by composite sails, high end rigging, and an obvious bit of pride shown by the vessel's own ensign. Several chandleries exist within walking distance with ample stock for low prices.

As an American when I walk past this boat I don't think the owner is a jerk, but rather someone who just decided that displaying his host nation's flag properly is not important. It's a formality for him, and he either didn't think or doesn't care about the way his "just enough" mentality is received by others.

When you equip your own vessel with a courtesy flag, take a minute and think about the message it sends to citizens of that nation when you arrive. Do you present them a clean, attractive, and proud version of their national ensign? Something that if it was your own flag, you would be proud to see? Or is it one step away from entering service as an oil rag?

If you are traveling to a foreign country it's probably to enjoy the experience to some extent. Starting off on the right foot doesn't cost much, and is purely a reflection of your own desire to be respectful to your host nation.