Spinnaker Sailing and Running Aground

After three amazing days and three miserably rolly nights anchored off Isla Isabel, we were ready to continue our voyage south. We woke early to take advantage of the favorable winds and said goodbye to our 40,000 new bird friends to make the 40 mile sail south to San Blas.

Southern Anchorage at Isla Isabel.

We waited for the two other boats to leave first that day incase they needed help getting up their anchors. The rocky bottom in the southern anchorage is known to eat anchors, sometimes requiring a diver to untangle the chain from the rocks. After Elisabeth and Halcyon were up and out of the anchorage, we raised our anchor and were almost immediately able to set the asymmetrical spinnaker. We had 7-10 knots of wind which was perfect for a downwind spinnaker run all the way to San Blas.

Rachel and I consider ourselves still very new to sailing and are by no means racers, every time we get to fly the spinnaker it’s a little celebration! When the sail is hoisted and I lift the sock (thing that holds our sail closed) to expose the big blue sail to the wind, I am always a little nervous. But, as the canvas fills with wind and it balloons out I feel like a little kid at Christmas opening a present! 

Caught another crevalle jack.
Halcyon approaching the bar at San Blas.

As we neared the marina we radioed Halcyon to discuss the bar crossing. We wanted to double-check the tides and swell before approaching the shallow entrance into the estuary. The San Blas marina is located in the estuary and the river mouth tends to fill with sediment from upstream, creating a sand bar. Halcyon edged their way in and we followed them at a distance incase they needed to back out if it got too shallow. After two or three failed attempts to find a deep enough passage over the bar, a large fishing boat came barreling by, obviously knowing his way in, we followed as close to his route as possible. It got very shallow, but once past the entrance jetties it opened back up and we had plenty of water bellow the keel. 

A ponga from the marina came out to meet us once we had made it into the estuary to guide us through the narrow channel up to the marina’s docks. As we approached our slip, Rachel went forward to throw the guys our bow line. I usually come into the docks pretty slow, as my motto is “slow is pro”, but suddenly, just as Agape entered the slip she stopped moving. 

Rachel turned back yelling, “We still have ten feet, keep going forward.”, thinking I had already put the boat into neutral.

“I am in forward!” I replied. Realizing we had stopped moving, I putting the boat into neutral and walked forward.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING? Keep going forward.” Rachel said with a look of bewilderment on her face, probably thinking, “Why is he leaving the helm while we are still ten feet from the dock!”. 

I informed her and the staff that we were stuck in the mud and that we wouldn’t be able to get further into the slip. I had never run aground or been stuck in the mud before, and at that moment I was feeling slightly embarrassed and was a little worried for the boat. The marina staff said we could try a deeper slip near the end of the docks closer to the main channel.

Back at the helm, I throttled up in reverse to pull Agape out of the mud. Mr. Perkins did not disappoint and easily backed us out. As I backed out away from the slip to give myself room to turn, Rachel and the dock guys start yelling at me to stop because it was shallow. Momentarily I thought, “Ya no kidding, I just backed out of the mud!”, and just at that second as I was putting Agape into forward, I felt the rudder start to move. Unbeknownst to me there was another sandbar right behind me and as I was backing into it, rudder first. The mud was starting to press against the rudder, pushing it to the side. As soon as I felt the wheel turn, I knew what was happening. I throttled up in forward, momentarily asking Mr. Perkins for all he had to stop our backward motion and keep any damage from happening to the rudder. Once again the engine did not fail me and with a little puff of black smoke Agape was moving forward. Throttling down we pulled into the end slip with only 0.5 feet under the keel. I am by no means an expert helmsman, and not the best at docking to begin with, so I consider myself lucky to have not done any damage to rudder or our boat. Luckily the bottom was soft and silty mud!

Stuck in the mud and discussing our options.

It’s situations like these that I am thankful for having this style boat. Agape is a strong boat that we don’t have to worry about lightly touching muddy or sandy bottom. Yes, we absolutely try to avoid grounding at all costs. In fact this was our first time “running aground”, and I knew at the time we didn’t need to freak out because we could calmly and safely get her back off again without fear of our keel bolts failing or ripping out. Rudders can be a boat’s weak point, but with Agape’s massive skeg and beefy rudder supports and steering gear we have a little extra insurance in that area as well.

Now safely tied up to the dock we could relax and look forward to exploring San Blas!!!!!!

Isla Isabel

As sun rose after a very rough 18 hour night passage, we could see Isla Isabel coming into view. The crew was exhausted after a long night of being seasick, the swell period had been a sort 4 seconds, with steep breaking waves off our stern. It felt like being in a washing machine all night. As we neared the island, frigate birds began to soar high above us, gliding effortlessly with their seven foot wingspans.

Fresh catch.

Just offshore our fishing reel begun buzzing, we had landed a fish, and by the sound of it a BIG one! It fought like crazy, even breaking the tip off our pole. We were hoping for a large tuna as we had been craving sushi for the last two months, but as it reached the surface we recognized it as a crevalle jack. We bled the fish as we entered the southern anchorage, dropping the hook behind an extensive reef extending off the tip of the island.

I’m still amazed we got away poop free.
Photo by John Guillote
Exploring the island’s trails with the crew.

Isla Isabel is an isolated volcanic island lying approximately 18 miles off the mainland coast of Mexico, and 40 miles northwest of San Blas. The island has been nicknamed the “Galapagos of Mexico,” due to its enormous population of nesting birds, thousands of resident iguanas and spectacular underwater scenery.  The island became a National Park and deemed a World Heritage Site, resulting in international and national protection, creating a beautiful sanctuary for these animals.

Photo by John Guillote
Photo by John Guillote
Agape rockin and a rollin.
In search of the islands best view.
Blue footed boobies!

We spent the next three days hiking and exploring the island, above and below the water. Walking the trails that crisscrossed the island’s interior, ridge tops and remote beaches, we had to be careful where we stepped as there were iguanas piled on top of one another. We saw nesting frigate birds, brown noodles and blue footed boobies, male and female both protecting their eggs and young. Our favorite hike lead us along the cliff face of the southern anchorage, from the top we had a 360 degree view of the island, including the stunning Lago Crater, an ancient caldera now filled with water.

Josh caught checkin out the boobies.
Bird’s-eye view.
Photo by John Guillote
Sunset from the cliffs.
Photo by John Guillote
Photo by John Guillote
Photo by John Guillote

It was amazing to be in a place where the animals are so blissfully unaware and unafraid of humans. It was like stepping back into time, into a wild place!

Photo by John Guillote
Photo by John Guillote

Crossing the Sea of Cortez and Mazatlan

We finally broke free of Baja!!!! The weather was supposed to lighten up for three days before the next system came thundering down the coast and we would use this opening to make our 162nm trip across the Sea of Cortez. The trip was to take about 30 hours.

Like the last great exodus of Los Frailes, all the boats were up and moving bright and early. Shameless, Lutra, and Agape all had our anchors up and were underway within just a couple of minutes of each other. Agape would be heading east across the sea while the other two made their way north to La Paz, we kept in radio contact for as long as we could until the distance was two much for the VHF.

The wind was light but we were able to sail for most of the day, seeing more turtles than I thought even existed. We continually had to change course to not run into them, but after the 20th time we just held our heading and hoped that they would get out of the way. Almost all of them did, we did hear one little thump and a turtle surf the bow wake away from the boat. Don’t worry, under sail at 4 knots the turtle probably didn’t even notice it, or so we hope. We saw tons of seals and grey whales, even hooked up with a large marlin that jumped out of the water with impressive strength breaking the 100lb test hand line in less than a second!

With intermittent showers and a great sunset the rest of the trip across was pretty mellow and we made great time.

In the morning as we arrived in Mazatlan, Agape found herself surrounded by tons of whales coming closer than ever before! It was great to smell the lush green land coming into view after being in a desert for the last month.  We texted back and forth with our friends on S/V Ardea about where to anchor and how to ask permission in Spanish to enter the harbor. A couple of minutes later we were lowering our anchor behind the protection of the harbor’s breakwaters.

After our 30 hour crossing we were happy to finally step foot on mainland Mexico!!! Mazatlan is a large commercial port, as well as a tourist destination. We chose to go into Club Nautico first, a small cruiser friendly anchorage just inside of the commercial port. It’s a great little spot close to downtown with a good swimming beach and snorkeling nearby.

Sewage treatment plant upwind of the anchorage.

Club Nautico seems like the type of place that would have been packed thirty years ago when Mazatlan was seeing its first tourists. Now though, with the newer marinas just north and the larger sport fishing charters moving in, the club has been left to mostly fend for itself. Even thought the place is falling apart and has a reputation for being a little sketchy, it’s easily overlooked because of how friendly and inviting the locals are that work, play, and learn around the anchorage. The one thing that could not be over looked though was the smell! Every afternoon and throughout the evening, as the winds clocked around and built, they would carry the stench of the sewage treatment plant across the street and into the anchorage. Some nights it was pretty brutal! But it was free to anchor and only 50 pesos to tie the dingy up to the dock to use their wifi and freezing showers.

There were dozens of cats that would hang around the docks waiting for the fishermen to clean their days catch.

We enjoyed our time there getting to know the two other boats in the anchorage, S/V Ardea (back from Turtle Bay) and an awesome old salt named Rodger on S/V Tropic Tramp. 

Tropic Tramp and Ardea anchored nearby.
Roger and I hanging out on deck while Rachel climbed the rat lines.

Six days later we’d had our fill of the sights and smells of Old Town Mazatlan. With Rachel flying back to the states for twelve days of work, we decided to pull Agape into one of the harbors to the north, and after two weeks on anchor Agape needed a good bath. We choose El Cid Marina because of the ease of access to provisioning, good marine stores, and reputable fabricators…….

Grocery day at the local market.

OK, we really choose El Cid because of the hot tub! We heard they had two or three pools, a gym, hot tub, restaurant, and wifi on the docks.

After a simi-stressful entrance to the marina, past the dredge taking up half the already narrow fairway and over the bar we made our way to the dock. I don’t know if I am the only boater or not, but after not docking for a week or two I get nervous. Maybe I’ll always be nervous pulling into dock?!?!

The marina/hotel’s docks turned out to be a little different from I had originally though they’d be. I was really looking forward to hanging out with and absorbing knowledge from a marina full of other like-minded cruisers, but unfortunately there weren’t many other cruisers there at the time, so I ended up spending most of my time working on the boat or working out. One day I kayaked out to the islands just off the coast of Mazatlan and circumnavigated them both. I polished stainless, SUP’ed out for a 7 mile paddle of the estuary, waxed the floors, ran to the beach to do long run, swim, runs and worked on lots of little projects around the boat…. you get the idea I was just trying to pass time until Rachel got back.

Dirty fuel filters.

One of my projects was to change the fuel filters and inspect the fuel tanks. It got messy! We had some growth in the starboard tank and it took all day, as well as Rachel’s bottle brush, four Racor fuel filters and 9 hours of polishing the fuel to get the tank and our fuel clean.

Clean fuel is not something to be taken lightly. When I turn on Mr. Perkins, I want him to run and keep running till I say so and so far his only requests have been clean fuel and a boat load of oil!

After 11 days in the marina, I had racked up quite a bill and with Rachel and our friend Ashley coming down soon I headed out of the marina and back to the sweet-smelling anchorage of Club Nautico.

And who should be anchored there along with S/V Ardea and Tropic Tramp, but John and Becca from S/V Halcyon! Once again without my wife to care for me, I was wasting away. Starving, scared and alone I sought companionship on their boat and was cared for and fed for the next two days. I’d like to think that I’d be fine on my own for weeks at a time and find no large difference in my happiness, but it’s always nice to have community, and I took advantage of being back with familiar faces.

Group paddle.

After Rachel and Ashley arrived safely, team Agape was once again strolling the streets of Mazatlan exploring old churches, the town square and walking the malecon.

Mazatlan is defiantly worth a visit, it’s defiantly a tourist town but the history, art, and architecture of the older buildings warrant long walks around town to take in the sights.

We all enjoyed the time we had together, celebrating POTUS’s inauguration, potlucks, and late night discussions about future plans, knowing that when the weather was right Halcyon and Agape would be saying goodbye for now to the other two boats to continue on to Isla Isabel.


San Jose Del Cabo & Los Frailes

December 20

I probably looked like a stray animal, hungry, lonely and disoriented, after spending every day with Rachel the last couple of months and now on my own, I had forgotten how to fend for myself in this new strange world of Mexico. Alone and starving I wandered the docks looking for a friendly face to care of me….. Ok maybe it wasn’t so bad, truth be told I flew back to Mexico three days before Rachel because she had work in San Fransisco. Sure, the boat had limited food, and I was missing my companion but there were stores all around me and a couple of great restaurants.

Nevertheless that is probably what I looked like when I met our dock neighbors John and Becca on S/V Halcyon. At the time I had no idea how much we had in common and how these two would influence us over the next few weeks and months. At the time we were planning on heading up into the Sea of Cortez and they would head south to Panama. This didn’t stop them from taking me in and inviting me to hang out with them while Rachel was gone.

December 22

Rachel flew back to Mexico but got a direct flight into La Paz on the other side of the Baja Peninsula. Flights there were cheaper and at the time of arranging the ticket we thought that we would have already made it into La Paz. So, I got a rental car and drove over to pick her up. It’s amazing how quickly and easily you can see a vast amount of Mexico by car when compared to traveling by boat. After collecting my wife and having a little snack on the malecon (boardwalk) we headed back to Los Cabos to get the boat ready to move again.

It usually doesn’t take that long to get the boat ready to go after it’s been sitting for a week, just lots of little things. The marina was especially dusty so it was mostly just cleaning and topping off the water tanks.

December 24th

We woke up early with the intention of hitting the fuel dock before we left the marina but apparently that is also when all the fishing charters are getting fuel before they go out for the day. So we circled in a crowded fareway waiting for chance to slip in, and right as we started to pull up the fuel dock, the guy waved us off informing us that he couldn’t fuel us because the National Geographic Charter boat was coming in for fuel and it would take all day to fuel the boat!!!!

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It looks small from a distance but the blue and white boat is the nat geo charter boat.

So off to Los Frailes…
It is only a 30 mile trip from San Jose del Cabo to Los Frailes, but it can be a tough one. The wind wraps around the southern tip of Baja and the swells begin to build into large, short interval periods as they have had 600nm to build down the sea. Now meeting the Pacific it causes them to build and provide a bumpy ride for boaters heading north. We had already had a taste of what it could be like, hence the early departure.

Our trip this time was really nice, we had enough wind to motor sail and even kill the engine for a couple of hours and after seeing a ton of sea life we arrived at anchor just inside of S/V Halcyon a little after 1:00pm.

Our first day in Los Frailes was amazing!!!! The anchorage sits just south of a national park and one of the better dive sites in Baja, Pulmo Reef (Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park).  As a Christmas Eve present the ocean gave us great snorkeling right off the boat. The life that flourishes in the protected reefs of Cabo Pulmo overflows into the surrounding waters and the rocky point making up the northern part of the anchorage has an abundance of life with normally good to fair visibility. We spent all day in the water and playing on the beach!

That night We had Phil, a single handed sailor (sailing alone, he has both hands) on S/V Lutra over to celebrate Christmas Eve and play Bananagrams. The next day though Rachel wasn’t feeling 100% and ended up having her first bout of food poisoning. Bummer to feel “poopy” on Christmas!!! We had a mellow day just hanging around the boat and got ready for what could be a bumpy ride north the next day, and boy was it ever.

December 26th

The four boats that spent Christmas in the anchorage, Lutra, Shameless, a Hans Christian 54 and ourselves all left within 10 minutes of each other and rounded the point. The Hans was pushing up right over the reef hugging the coast and with its large diesel pushing was making fair progress though dangerously shallow waters. Shameless, Lutra and Agape headed out pointing as high as we could and it seemed to be working fine. As we started making our way out further from the protection of land the swells grew and grew into quick steep waves. We all pushed on making a couple of tacks as to not get too far offshore. As we discussed the conditions on the radio it was fun to see how everyone was feeling and experiencing these conditions. Finally though, after our fourth tack we realized we would only be able to making 2 knots in the direction we wanted to go, and it was a rough two knots. At that rate it would take us all day to get to our intended stop of Marina Cabo, a still under construction private marina between us and Muertos about 24 miles away.

Rachel and I were considering turning back to just hunker down when Agape punched through another swell and crashed down into the face of the next. As the wave crashed over the bow I watched my surfboards heave under the pressure and threaten to abandon ship!!!!

Lutra bashing north.

“Thats it we are turning around!!!!” I made the call, radioed the other boats and told them that we would return to the anchorage and wait for better weather. At the time we had been bashing north for just over 3 hours, and it took 1 to get back into the anchorage and drop the hook. Lutra and Shameless eventually ended up turning back as well. The Hans continued on and ended up getting turned away from the marina since they were full and had to continue north through the night making slow progress.

Our decision sentenced us to another week stuck in Los Frailes in 25-35 knot winds…

After the first night and making sure our anchor stayed put we felt comfortable getting off the boat and exploring a little. Rachel, Phil, and I walked/hitched our way into the town of Cabo Pulmo about 7km away. Turns out the couple giving us a ride lived in Channel Islands and knew Rachel’s dad through kiteboarding. The town is very small and really only sustained from the diving that goes on there.

After some exploring and a little lunch we felt we had seen the town and hitched a ride back to Frailes with a another couple we had met earlier that day down on the beach, thats is how small the town is.

We would wait out the rest of the week in the anchorage, snorkeling everyday, because even though its blowing a stink above water the fish have no idea. It was also a good chance to clean the bottom of the boat and catch up on some couple time as well.

Next up Mazatlan!!!