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Unauthorized Guide to Sailing in Mexico


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Entries in underway (25)


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. 


puerto escondido to la paz

We had actually decided to leave Puerto Escondido (Spanish for "a goat's filthy asshole") two weeks ago. We got as far as Candeleros, 7nm south, but Hurricane Manuel headed our way so back to Puerto Escondido we ran. When we finally dried off from that we put our metaphoric foot down: we're done with Puerto Escondido. We bought whatever miserable provisions we could: stale bread, paper towels, and Red Bull. We spent two days prepping the boat for passage making mode and away we went.

Sunrise on the Sea of Cortez. Single reefed main, heading south.

I was pretty happy with my planning on this one. Diesel usage in the Sea of Cortez is normally a huge joke. The joke is you motor around all day and then get blown out of an anchorage at night. But on I saw a pretty good window of steady N-NE winds in the 10-20 knot range and combined with Charlotte wanting to put some miles between us and Puerto Escondido we punched it.

In the end, we managed the whole affair in two rather straight forward days. Twenty four hours, sailing through the night, then dropped into Isla Partida for some rest the second night. Woke up this morning, motored down to La Paz, and clinked our margarita glasses together to a safe and speedy passage. The total diesel consumption was somewhere around 4 gallons: a joke in these parts.

Moonrise over the Sierra de la Giganta.

Ever since single handing the Pacific side of Baja I've grown to favor the longer and more offshore routes. Granted, "offshore" is a relative term in a Sea that's barely two hundred miles across in some places. But in the middle of the Sea you get steadier winds, less refracted waves, and less of the current-induced choppiness that can be common in places such as the San Jose Channel. 

I've done and will continue to do night time gybes between islands in the dark, hoping that your plotting skills are dead accurate otherwise a rocky cliff is in your future. But if I can avoid that by going around something, even if it adds a few miles, count me in. Two hours spent with white knuckles in the middle of the night versus three hours relaxed listening to some MP3's of This American Life while sipping tea: which would you pick?

Cora with the Hydrovane in the background.We managed to knock out just over 100 nautical miles (of a ~130 nm run) without running the engine which is a miracle on the Sea of Cortez. Even better, we hauled ass. This was really my first time putting the Hydrovane through it's paces and I've got to tell you: I'm impressed. If there was enough wind to sail, the Hydrovane could steer. Even better it doesn't use a single electron of electricity and is built like a tank. Note to self: trying to pull into a marina with the rudder down is like walking around your friend's apartment holding a 20' long pole. The reduction in steerage response is dramatic in close quarter maneuvering so typical in a marina. We had a cross wind and cross current (opposing each other), but still, I'll be popping that sucker off before we take up another slip.

Our plan is to sit tight here, wait out Hurricane Raymond who hopefully doesn't come up this way, and haul butt down the 4-5 day passage to La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. 


we're not ready to leave, and that's fine


We were in Bahia de Banderas last winter and a sailing family we met was leaving to cross the Pacific that day. They were completely non-chalant, one might even say bored. They shrugged, "Yeah, I think we need to get some milk at the store," they looked at each other, "maybe leave after that?"

They were crossing 4,000 miles of open ocean on a small sailboat and had the stress level normally exhibited when making a ham sandwich.

Alas, I am not that person. At least not yet. It has gotten easier to get moving though. With each untie of the docklines, each push out of the slip, each weighing of anchor, the process gets slightly more normal. 

People ask us: "Are you ready?"

There is a qualifier in the definition of ready that is fully prepared. So tell me, how exactly does one become "fully prepared" to go to sea?

Spoiler: they don't.

My thoughts on the matter, truthfully, is that if you feel you are fully prepared to head offshore in a sailboat then you simply haven't run enough scenarios through your head on the multitude of things that can go wrong.

Oh you have a life raft. What if it doesn't inflate? Oh you have an EPIRB. What if it doesn't transmit? Oh you have a satellite phone. What if the SIM card goes bad? Oh you have your ship's rudder and an auxiliary rudder. What if they both break because a whale smashes into them then jumps into the air, shits on your head, and whale-laughs as it swims away from your drowning ass?

No, there is no "ready". You simply do the best you can and hope you're not singing this tune.

For any other sailor out there freaking out about casting off for some distant lands across the high seas, don't sweat it. Because if you suck and are a danger to yourself, you don't even know you are, because you'd have to be smarter than you currently are to realize your lowly station.

Well, we're leaving in the morning. Adios!


getting through the night watch

Call it the balls watch, the graveyard shift, mid watch, or whatever else you like: it involves you trying to stay relatively awake and alert in the middle of the night for hours on end. The non-sailor might think you can stare at the blanket of stars overhead, or gaze out into the black emptiness. Indeed you can. And about fifteen minutes later you'll find yourself in the cockpit wondering what the hell you're going to do with the next four hours of your life as you struggle to stay awake-ish.

  • WNYC's Radio Labs. A well executed and thought provoking podcast of which over 60 one-hour segments are available for free online. That's 60 hours, which if you burned through four hours a day would last you over two weeks. The only bummer is you'll need to download them individually. 
  • Amazon Kindle and a ziplock bag. You don't always need the ziplock bag but it helps to have one ready to go in the event of spray or dew. If your Kindle doesn't have a built-in light make sure you use a headlamp with a dim enough power mode that it doesn't illuminate the whole cockpit. As a shameless plug why not grab my book on sailing and living in Mexico. There are a lot of sailors floating around with a lot of pirated books. 
  • 35 hours of This American Life podcasts. For $30 it's a little expensive but it's money well spent in my opinion. Armed with this and the WNYC Radio Lab stuff you can keep yourself occupied for a month's worth of night watches. 
  • LibriVox. There are a lot of other audio books out there and LibriVox certainly doesn't have the most popular recent titles but it's free, relatively easy to use, and does contain over five thousand titles. If you poke around you'll find books ranging from the mind blowing Paradise Lost to the original sailing penman Joshua Slocum.
  • Your VHF. One night underway I randomly hailed Tuna Helper which I only saw on my AIS receiver. Cracking a few jokes at three in the morning and bidding farewell I was surprised to run into them the following day when I dropped anchor. They invited me over for dinner which consisted of the fish they had caught that same day. In short, make friends on the radio. The other guy probably is just as bored as you are. As a bonus, you probably will score some valuable information if you're new to the area.

For those of you already far afield in distant countries these items might be hard to come by.  But if you still have lots of electricity, good bandwidth, and reliable ground shipping you might want to consider queuing up a lot of digital distractions. 

Good luck, and if you see Rebel Heart out there on the AIS (MMSI: 367541130) say hello.


rebel heart video from the sea of cortez

Some various video clips edited together and put to AWOL Nation's "Kill Your Heroes" (which is figurative advice I think a lot of people might want to consider). Still getting the hang of the new Countour after ditching the GoPro (terrible product, terrible service, more expensive).



we la paz'atively arrived

Charlotte and Cora reading up on the channel entrance.We left Bahia de Muertos and motored up the flats to Balandra. Spending the night there we learned it's somewhat like a bipolar friend. When things are good, it's great. But when things are bad, it's a nightmare.

I had heard that the Corumel winds described as a "nice cool breeze at nights to cool the La Paz area down". What we did not expect was from 6pm to 10am to have 20-30 knots howling at us with jagged rocks 100' to leeward. 

Since then the Corumels have been more subdued, but they can start anytime before or after sunset and can be weak or pack a nasty punch. A protip for anyone headed to La Paz: don't get lazy with your ground tackle and don't leave anything out at night that can blow away.

La Paz water is mill pond flat.The water so far in La Paz has been mill pond flat. The Pacific swells don't get up this high but again the Corumels with their wind and chop are waiting for you at night time. Plus, La Paz "harbor" itself has a ~3-4 knot tidal speed so the apparently flat conditions don't necessarily translate to benign, especially when you tack on that La Paz is sitting happily in the hurricane belt.

We've only been in La Paz for a few days so I'm reserving judgement, but it's definitely more boat friendly than mainland Mexico. Our galley freshwater pump broke the day after we dropped anchor and we were able to find a replacement within a couple of hours: completely unheard of for the majority of Mexico. In fact I can honestly say that Lopez Marine in La Paz might be the only store in Mexico that sells those products and much else.

Fishing: it's what you do in Baja.So after three weeks of beating up ourselves and our boat there are some things that need to get addressed here in port.

Everything from dentists visits for the family to engine oil changes for the boat, it's time to take care of ourselves and of the boat that has taken such good care of us. 

Plus, we get to check out this La Paz'atively cool city, meet new friends, and hopefully catch up with some old ones as well as they trickle in from the jungle-heat of the mainland. 


made it (back) across the sea of cortez

We're sitting in Muertos Cove, maybe 60 miles south of La Paz. It took just about two days to get across the Sea of Cortez and in an awesome twist of fate we were able to beam reach (sail) across at about 5 knots in reasonable comfort. 

There's a south swell rolling into the anchorage here but we're going to brave the chop and take the dinghy to the single restaurant on the beach. 


pit stop in mazatlan

On approach to Mazatlan, five miles out.We were offshore motoring in glass conditions offshore of the Mexican mainland and needed to make the decision: make a left towards Baja ~300 miles away with our 30 gallons of fuel onboard, or head into Mazatlan for fuel and water.

The Sea of Cortez usually has two wind states: mirror flat or howling out of the north west. So when you want to go north west (our direction) you either have to beat to windward (which sucks) or wait for the glass and motor across. I'm bummed we stopped but at the same time it will be nice to arrive in Baja with our senses and not be bone dry in water and fuel needing to race into a marina.

Rebel Heart is the top of the three sailboats there on the top right.

We dropped the hook in Mazatlan's "old port" municipal anchorage. It's a rather packed in anchorage and there are commercial vessels that need to get in and out (not just through the main channel) so I spent an extra few minutes of motoring around to pick a spot that hopefully wouldn't have a barge howling at us in the wee hours of the morning because we were blocking its path.

Cora and I split from the boat early to drop off laundry and reconnoiter. It's a military strategy that I find works equally well in the yachting world: at a new landfall, send an advance party out to conduct a basic survey and understand the lay of the land before you make a lot of decisions. 

Cora, at the El Faro lighthouse in Mazatlan. Mazatlan apparently boasts the world's second highest lighthouse and my awesome little 2 3/4 year old daughter walked the entire way up by herself, and back down again, thank you very much. So if you ever feel winded going up there just realize a toddler did it with less fuss: that's motivation ladies and gentlemen.

We're planning on leaving Friday, although we were also planning on being in the middle of the Sea of Cortez today. Tomorrow we're meeting up with some friends to go check out Mazatlan's aquarium


anchored in matanchen bay, san blas, nayarit, mexico

Rebel Heart anchored in Matanchen BayWe left La Cruz de Huanacaxtle the morning of Tuesday April 16th, 2013 and motored the couple of hours over to Punta Mita which represents the northern point of Banderas Bay.

We spent a rolly night at Punta Mita and I got a nasty sunburn while surfing, but it was still really nice to get out into the lineup and surf my pier (a.k.a. 12' 6" stand up board). 

We motored the twelve or so hours to San Blas which was okay but not exactly "living the dream" since it's loud, diesel isn't cheap, and we had swells on our beam most of the time.

Unable to enter the sand bar riddled entrance to the town's main bay, we anchored in nearby Bahia de Matanchen which so far has been pretty, flat, and shallow: terrific.

We're hanging out here in San Blas waiting on weather which if you've read any of our blog posts is a pretty constant theme. Sailing around with a family is difficult even in complimentary conditions. Add in contrary seas and it's down right unbearable.

Charlotte and local surf heroToday we went into the actual town of San Blas to do a reconnoiter, shocked at how far fifty pesos will take you in a cab. In San Diego the meter starts for the same amount of money that will get you around here for twenty minutes.

We needed to find a place to do laundry, somewhere to dump our trash, an ATM machine, and produce. All exciting stuff, I know.

Between Charlotte and I we probably have half a dozen medical problems all currently acting up so we're not exactly operating at one hundred percent. But the weather is nice, we have provisions, the boat is floating, and we can do movie night tonight on the boat.

Rebel Heart is one of three boats in the bay here. Our dinghy on the beach.Hopefully tomorrow we can have a better time in town and get out of our sunburn-newborn-broken-foot-head-cold-other-ailments funk.

We also got the pro-tip on burning coconut husks to keep the mosquitoes and jejenes at bay (or out of the bay, as it were) so I'll report in more about that tonight.

If you're interested in reading more about San Blas, check this article out.




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.