Sunday, April 22, 2018

Day 693 to 696 of the Third Voyage: In which I have to ask, “How many times must you get hit by a boom before it knocks some sense into you?”

I’m not a sailor. I didn’t grow up around boats or spend that much time in or around the water. I didn’t get on my first sailboat till the Captain bought a 16’ Razor and took me out on Lake Washington. That first outing lasted a grand total of 15 minutes. We headed out, he went to tack, the boom hit me square upside the head, and before he could tell me to duck, it swung back around and hit me square upside the other side of my head. I demanded he take me back to shore. It was six years before I stepped foot on another boat.

Where am I going with this? Strap on your life vest, this here’s quite a story…

We left Puerto Chiapas at 4:00 pm on April 14th with an anticipated travel time of 42 hours. The timing had to be perfect as the only way to get to Bahia del Sol in the Estero Jaltepeque in El Salvador is via a very nasty bar. Editor’s Note:  In this case, a “nasty bar” does not denote a sketchy watering hole where you might get your ass kicked. Here, it refers to a large sandy obstruction between two bodies of water. Of course, you can also get your assed kicked there too.  At any rate, it’s only “open” during slack tide and it requires the assistance of a pilot boat that guides you over the bar via radio instructions. Our window was between 3:15 and 3:45 pm on the 16th so, barring any (ahem) complications, we had planned to be near the mouth of the bar that morning where we would anchor for a few hours and wait for the pilot.

The first 30 or so hours were 90% awesome. There wasn’t any wind, but the seas were smooth, the skies were clear, and the engine was purring. The night watches went off without a hitch, and the Deck Boss did her first-ever solo shift the following morning so that the Captain and I could get a few more hours of sleep. The only part of the journey that wasn’t so awesome, was that neither the Captain nor I could stomach any food. Maybe it was nerves or maybe we got into some bad shrimp at lunch, but he had zero appetite and I couldn’t keep anything down.

A few hours before dawn on the morning of the 16th, the engine began to do that old ditty of rev down/rev up only this time it added a new refrain of rev down/rev up/rev down/die. We tried keeping it at a lower RPM; it would die. We tried switching the fuel tanks; it would die. We tried polishing the fuel; it would die. We tried switching out the Racor filters; it would die. The Captain even tried installing a secondary fuel pump, but I think you can guess the outcome. We finally gave up on the engine. All we could do now was hope we could keep some wind in our sails, but as the old adage goes (and apparently it only applies when things are crappy), “Be careful what you wish for.”
Pictured: Our first glimpse of El Salvador right before we wished we hadn’t wished for anything.

Just as the sun was rising and the coast of El Salvador came into view for the first time, our steady winds of 6-8 mph steadily increased to sustained winds of between 25 and 30 with massive gusts that sent the needle over 40, and our flat seas suddenly turned into 8’ rolly waves that pressed right up on our bow, slowing our speed, and pushing us off course. It required constant trimming and constant correcting. In addition, we were taking water over the bow and into the cockpit, because there’s nothing like a face full of salt water to remind you who’s in charge out there.

This went on for a couple of hours and then as quickly as it had come up, it went away. A couple hours after that and it was all gone—no wind, no waves, not even a current to help us along. And that’s how we found ourselves about 18 miles from the anchorage, racing along at a blistering 1.5 knots. With only four hours till our bar crossing appointment with the pilot, it was becoming very apparent that we would miss our window. Now by this time, the engine had been caput for about eight hours, and even though we were trying to conserve power by shutting off all non-essential items, the house batteries—without the engine to charge them—were starting to get low. No problem. The generator can charge them! So we went to start the generator and instead of that comforting rumble we normally hear when it comes to life, we got, “click, click, click” instead. Because of course—OF COURSE!—the 12-volt starter battery had not charged up properly when we were last plugged into shore power and was obviously not drawing enough power from our solar panels to make up for it. And here’s the stupid part…whoever installed this thing in the first place (not us), thought it would be a good idea to have this one battery not only start the generator, but run all the sailing instruments as well. So we immediately started turning off all pseudo-essential items to save the house batteries and as many 12-volt items as we could to keep the instruments going. So, let’s recap…no engine, no generator, waning batteries. Oh…and the Captain’s lack of appetite has, by this time, crossed over into liquids as well, so now he’s fatigued, cramping up, and exhibiting other signs of dehydration. It didn’t help that he also spending copious amounts of the time in the engine room/sauna. In the meantime, I’m still throwing up everything I eat, including the anti-nausea pills, and this has caused the “hurling domino affect” and now the Deck Boss is spending quality time hunched over the head.

We got on the VHF to try and raise anybody at Bahia del Sol but must have been out of range because we couldn’t hear anything. Luckily, another sailboat, S/V Illusion, had broken down in the anchorage just outside the bar (okay, so… lucky for us, not for them.) and they were able to relay our messages to the organizers of the El Salvador Rally. Within 45 minutes, Bill arrived in a panga with Steven, a fellow cruiser/nurse, to do a wellness check and bring us some cold water, juice, and charged-up VHFs. Unfortunately, we were still about 14 miles from shore, too far out for the panga to tow us in. Bill and Steven suggested that the Deck Boss might go back with them to Bahia and I jokingly replied, “No, she wants to go down with the ship.” Editor’s Note: Remind me to keep my mouth shut. I think we put on a brave face, but it was a sad sight seeing them go. Bill had suggested that we hip tie the dinghy and use that as our “motor” so that’s exactly what the Captain and I set about doing once they were gone. And for about an hour and a half, as we chugged along at 2.8 knots with our little dinghy deftly propelling our 66,000 lb. beast through the water, we were hopeful that we might make the anchorage sometime before midnight and maybe even get some sleep. By this time, our battery bank was extremely low, so we shut off absolutely everything except for the sailing instruments, autopilot, and navigation/steaming lights to conserve as much power as we could.
Pictured: Our brave little dinghy powering us through water.
Not Pictured: The knife it had stowed under the seat in case it had to save itself.

And then of course—OF COURSE!—the wind came up, and up, and up some more. And with the wind came waves and the dinghy started to get caught up in the side swell. And when it threatened to flip up onto its side, we untied it and secured it via a line to trail behind us. At this point, with the sun setting, the wind and waves picking up, and us in the precarious position of being pushed toward an unfamiliar shore to anchor in the dark sans motor, we decided our best option was to just sail through the night and try again when it was light. We pointed the bow south and off we went. By this time, it was pitch black out, the wind was howling, and the boat—which was getting hotter and stuffier by the minute down below—was pitching back and forth. It was a bumpy, uncomfortable ride. Then, one hour in, we saw on the charts that we were coming up on some shoals. We would have to tack and tack hard. The Captain asked me if I wanted to steer or handle lines, and since I always tend to oversteer when I’m nervous, opted for the latter. So I knelt behind the two winches (we were rocking too hard to stand) and got ready to release the one line and start cranking on the other. And we started the tack. But instead of the sail moving smoothly from starboard to port—and the boat moving with it—everything suddenly stalled at the halfway mark and the sail started to flap wildly, then fold over on itself, and the Captain tried cranking the wheel as hard as he could and that’s when he realized…we had no steering. The whole boat started to heel heavily to starboard. He quickly went aft and manhandled the lines to get the jib back into place and us upright. So here we were…no engine, no generator, no steering, no lights or electricity down below, it’s blowing like stink, and we have no idea how we’re going to turn around. We had skirted this group of shoals via the bad tack but now we were headed out to sea (aka nowhere) and had no idea what lay ahead. We decided it might be time to call for help. We tried to raise Bahia del Sol on the VHF but were too far out. We tried to raise the El Salvadoran Navy (if there is such a thing) but got nothing. The Captain sent me below to apprise the Deck Boss of the situation and get the flare gun while he checked the EPIRB. If we came up on more shoals and had no way to steer clear­, we needed to be prepared for the worst.

And as I was pulling the ditch bag out of the wet locker, checking the flare gun, and readying Otter’s life vest and Edgrrr’s carrier, a weird feeling took over. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t even slightly panicked. Instead, I was concerned as to what would happen to Raven if the situation did ultimately call for a rescue. Would they try to tow her? Would they sink her? Or would they just let her drift out to sea? Never having been in this situation, I didn’t know the protocol and the thought of abandoning her really depressed me. Because even after all the problems we’ve had with Raven—and they’ve been considerable—she’s part of the family. Not just a home, or a mode of transportation, but an actual member of the family. Like a living, breathing thing. Granted, she’s the relative that you don’t talk about at family reunions because she’s always in and out of rehab and just can’t quite get her shit together, but you’d never begrudge including her on the Christmas card. In short, she may be a hot mess, but she’s our hot mess. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to let anybody sink her or send her off to die. There had to be another way.

I went back up on deck to talk to the Captain about it and found him laying down on the cockpit cushions, as if about to take a nap. In truth, I was taken aback—I was expecting a sense of urgency and a lot of running around, but instead it was like time had slowed down and maybe this was all a dream after all. In actual fact though, he had tweaked his back during the disastrous tack because why just have a dead engine, a dead generator, dead steering, dying batteries, and dehydration when you can add some acute back pain to the deal? But I think lying down, looking at the stars, and trying to ignore the spasms gave him some time to think, and by ultimately disregarding what didn’t work and instead focusing on what did work, he came up with a plan. Namely, we would continue on our current course as best we could using whatever influence the autopilot still had over the rudder and just hope that if we had to tack or gybe, that we’d be able to do it in five to ten click increments. (As it turned out, we did have to execute one gybe to get us turned around and heading north and a couple of “pseudo” tacks to keep us in the wind. They were sloppy—but successful.) Needless to say, it was a long night. The Captain and I, both dog tired by this point, set 10-minute timers so we could keep an eye on our course, sails, and any obstructions. And although the wind did finally quiet down around one in the morning, what followed was unsettling in its own way. Namely, without the usual background hum of electric lights and gadgets, the boat was so silent that you could hear every creak and groan and feel the mast shudder with every movement of the boat. I’m pretty sure we were all thinking the same thing—that perhaps the mast was getting ready to fail too, because why not?—but no one dared to say it aloud.

At dawn—nine hours after we lost steerage and 24 hours after we lost the engine—we found ourselves in pretty much the exact same spot—14 miles out from the bar entrance—where Bill and Steven had met up with us in the panga the day before. We hobbled along—averaging about 2 knots—and thought of doing another hip tie with the dinghy but we were too far out and didn’t know if we’d have enough gas. That, and we were too scared to look behind us and see if we still had a dinghy left. Editor’s Note: We did. But the line had become so frayed in all the ruckus that one or two more good waves would have snapped it in half. Why it didn’t is anybody’s guess. Maybe it’s waiting to go when the mast does?

But ultimately, we did make it to the anchorage and as soon as we hit 40’ of water, let the anchor fly. With only enough electricity to run one thing at a time, I would pause the windlass long enough for the Captain to use the bow thruster to keep us in place, and thus it went until we had enough chain out. When it came time to back down on the anchor, the Captain tried the wheel as he was leaning on the thruster, and the steering answered. Apparently, whatever had caused it to seize up in the night—most likely an air bubble in the hydraulic hoses—had worked its way out. Either that, or it felt sorry for us. Wish the engine, the generator, and the batteries felt the same.

Now here’s where the story gets good. And by good, I don’t mean things got worse. This time, I mean some good stuff actually happened. It turns out that all those distress calls we’d been sending were getting through, it’s just that nobody was able to get through to us. (That, and apparently there is no El Salvadoran Navy.) So by the time we finally hobbled into the anchorage, our friends in the Bahia cruising community had already lined up a mechanic, a portable generator, water, ice, and cheeseburgers and dispatched them all via panga to meet us. While fellow cruisers Eric and Greg helped us prepare for the bar crossing, Willy the mechanic and his crew worked on the engine. After about 30 minutes, he was able to identify our primary problem. Two of the bolts in our bleeder valves were stripped of their threads and that in turn had caused a massive vapor lock. This wasn’t something that could be repaired right off so as a quick fix, they got our engine going by feeding it diesel directly from a barrel, bypassing our fuel system altogether. It was enough to get us over the bar, and that’s all that mattered.

As for the bar? The crossing itself turned out to be uneventful, yet it was extremely meaningful. We were all in the cockpit when we went over the bar—even Edgrrr—and I must admit I got a little choked up. This had undoubtedly been the most difficult journey we had undertaken thus far, but we made it through as a crew, as a family. No one panicked, no one dropped the ball, no one even raised their voice or got snippy. We worked together as a proper crew should. And despite everything that happened, Raven did her job—she got us here in one piece even as she herself was broken. It was, I felt, a huge accomplishment. And when we got into the marina, there were probably 20 people waiting to cheer us in. It was overwhelming. It was humbling. It was a total rollercoaster of emotions. If I hadn’t had to go immediately to Customs and Immigration, I’m pretty sure I would have locked myself in the head and cried.

That was a few days ago, and I’m still somewhat numb from the experience. We’re almost caught up on our sleep; we’re eating again; God knows we’re drinking again; and that which was stowed is being unstowed. We’re here for at least six months. Got to get the engine fixed. Got to get the generator fixed. Got to sort out our batteries. Got to sort out our future. But this experience has given me a lot to think about. When I got double-tapped by that boom 20-odd years ago, I learned one very valuable lesson. Sailing can be painful, uncomfortable, and certainly dangerous. Perhaps other, more experienced sailors would have thought our little “adventure” a minor one; but for us, it was a huge deal—our first real foray into “here there be monsters” territory where the hard choices must be made. But I don’t think we did anything wrong, and I don’t think we needlessly put ourselves in jeopardy. We will do some things differently next time—extra communications, for one—but we’ll get back out. And maybe it will be better. And maybe it will be worse. But sometimes there’s not a lot you can do about it, except hold fast and see where the boat takes you. Because inevitably that boom is going to knock you senseless, and the best you can do is duck before it comes back around. And if it gets to be too much, there’s no shame in heading back to shore.

Postscript:  I realize that this was one of my more serious posts. In an effort to lighten things up a bit, here's some sophomoric humor:

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Day 679 to 692 of the Third Voyage: In which we spend our last two weeks in Mexico…assuming we can get out of Mexico.

Upon our arrival in Puerto Chiapas, it was time to bid ABS Brian an “au revoir” which is apropos for someone born in Quebec as well as a classier way of saying, “See ya later, alligator!” We will see him again because he is now officially part of the Raven crew (he’s on the Meet the Crew Page and everything!) and will join us on the next leg of the adventure when we leave El Salvador for points further south. This is, of course, contingent on us reaching El Salvador. But we are hopeful. Because truth be told, had it not been him, there’s a good possibility that we would have turned around and gone back to Barra. His sound guidance and staunch optimism during the typical Raven parade of problems, gave us the boost of confidence we needed to get this voyage back on track.

After a while, crocodile!

The day before he left, we thought it might be nice to find a beach front restaurant where we could dip our toes in the surf, imbibe in some local seafood and cold libations, and give Brian a proper send off. Unfortunately, it was Semana Santa (aka the week before Easter and a major holiday when EVERYONE in Mexico heads to the beaches, and those who don’t, go the week after) and the whole area was wall-to-wall with humanity. The marina manager got us a day pass into one of the oceanside hotels that, despite being a lovely ocean-front property with a very nice palapa restaurant, was unfortunately suffering from a bad case of “Too many guests and none of our waitstaff showed up” as evidenced by one lone server trying to juggle ten tables and failing miserably. Given that he was wearing what looked awfully like a bellhop uniform, we surmised that he was recruited out of the lobby when they found themselves short staffed. Luckily for us and the 40 or so other thirsty/starving patrons, he was eventually joined by a woman who was most likely making beds and cleaning bathrooms about thirty minutes prior and a random teenager who probably got bored and wanted to ditch the folks for a while. The beer was warm, the food was “meh”, and the whole ordeal lasted way longer than it should have. By the time lunch was over and we headed out to the beach, it was late afternoon which meant the sand was about 280 degrees, the surf was breaking higher than a small semi, and the riptide was strong enough to drag said semi out to sea. Not quite the send-off we were hoping for, but we did rectify the situation by going to Baos later that evening. Baos is a high-end restaurant on the marina property that serves fancy food such as grilled fish propped up to make it look like it’s still swimming, prawns (with heads still attached) arranged in a little stack like they’re playing rugby, and in a strange case of “seriously?” the first (and only) time we’ve seen New England clam chowder on a menu in Mexico (although it was quite good.) Unfortunately, it all comes at near-gringo prices, but we’ve been scabbing their Internet the whole time we’ve been here, so I guess that makes us about even.

The next day, ABS Brian left for Puerto Vallarta and the Captain went with him because in return for six weeks of his time to help us get this three-ring circus south, the Captain offered to help him paint his deck and do a few projects on his boat. So naturally, once the Captain was on the other side of the country, everything went haywire. It started quite suddenly when a very loud, very insistent, beeping-type sound erupted from the control panel accompanied by a flashing red, “I mean business” light right above the toggle that says, “Bilge Pump 1” on it. As the shot glass was still in place over the switch, I knew this was not Edgrrr’s doing (see Day 566-596 of the Third Voyage)this was the real deal. The bilge had filled up enough to trigger the second lever. Editor’s Note: When you look into the infinite blackness that is our bilge, you can see three levers that look kind of like foot pedals (well…hopefully you can see three levers.) When water in the bilge hits the bottom lever, it activates Bilge Pump 2 and releases everything via a through-hole on the port side—standard stuff. If the water rises high enough to active the second lever—Bilge Pump 2—it spews out of a hole about half-way up the freeboard on the starboard side—not so standard. Now if the water rises enough to reach the top lever, I’m not sure but I think the boat shoves a bucket at you and tells you to start bailing.

Now here’s the thing about our bilge. If you’ve kept up on the blog, you’ll know that we we’ve been having some “mechanical challenges” of late (and no, these are different from the “mechanical challenges” we had last year albeit similar to the ones the year before that and in any case should not be confused with our electrical, plumbing, and standard equipment “challenges”… unless you think this is about the transmission in which case, yes, these are the same “challenges”.) But back to the bilge: the transmission had leaked/ejected/vomited a lot of oil in the past couple of months and it had nowhere to go but into the bilge. And as we’ve been at anchor for most of that time, we have not been able to address it (i.e. get down in there to pump it out into large buckets for disposal) so it’s pretty mucky. So when Bilge Pump 1 went off, it blurted all that inky, yucky mess out the starboard hole all down the side of the boat and all over the dock. And still the alarm was going off, so I called the Captain who instructed me to go into the engine room, find the wires that attach to the bilge pump, and jiggle them around. Now what he failed to mention was that jiggling the wires would cause the bilge pump to go off which is quite disconcerting when you’re precariously balanced over engines, transmissions, water pumps, hoses, and all manner of scary looking things and suddenly this hunk of metal jumps up, rumbles, and makes the loudest racket you’ve ever heard. Heart attack number one, but the incessant beeping did stop. Next order of business was to clean up the oil before it stained everything and/or became an environmental hazard. So I got out the scrub brushes, the dishwashing liquid, the bilge cleaner, and everything else I could think of and went to get the hose, which was currently attached to our deck-wash system. What anyone failed to mention was that the deck-wash system had not been turned off so when I went to remove the hose, the pressure caused it to pop out and I took the full force of the water right in the kisser. Wasn’t expecting that, thus heart attack number two. I called the Captain to find out how to turn it off and consequently ended up on my belly on the wet deck reaching far into the anchor locker to access the world’s worst-placed faucet. I finally got the hose, threw it onto the dock, and went to attach it to the dock-side water. That’s when I turned around and found that Otter had followed me down, trekked through the sludge, and was now running all over the boat leaving inky paw prints in his wake. Heart attack number three. Two hours later and the mess was gone. An hour after that and so were two White Russians and an entire bag of Snickers. I continued to have problems with the bilge the entire time the Captain was gone. And then of course—OF COURSE!—as soon as he got back, the bilge fell silent. I suspect he thinks I may have made the whole thing up. I’m also beginning to suspect the boat is gaslighting me.

At any rate, while the Captain was gone, the Deck Boss and I got the lay of the land. Marina Chiapas is very nice—only a few years old—and, despite having sustained some damage from the tsunamis caused by last year’s earthquakes, is in excellent condition. Easily one of the nicer marinas we’ve been in. It’s also kind of an anomaly in that the rest of the area is very rural. The primary industry is agriculture as opposed to tourism so there aren’t a lot of gringos around and the tourists that do flock to the beaches and the handful of ocean-side hotels are locals and Guatemalans. The marina was obviously built to not only attract the pleasure boat traffic entering/leaving the country, but also to complement the new cruise ship dock they have built in an effort to bring in more tourism dollars. Until then, the area is very much working Mexico—a nice change from the ports up north.

There’s also a pronounced navy presence here—both marine and aviation. It’s to be expected given that we’re only 15 miles from the Guatemalan border and that Mexico has a (cough) slight problem with the trafficking of illegal drugs and weapons. Therefore, all boats that enter the port are subject to a search before you’re even allowed to get off your vessel—regardless if you’re coming from the north or the south. They arrive in the marina—mostly by panga, but sometimes by bad-ass 4x4 truck—and descend upon your boat en masse. One guy guards the Navy vessel, two guys with automatic rifles take point around your boat, two guys search your boat with a sniffer dog, and one guy handles the paperwork. They’re quick, efficient, and they’re deadly serious. But they’re also quite genial and will smile warmly, even as their fingers remain on their triggers at all time. We will get to go through this again when we leave. But we don’t mind. They’re fighting a losing battle—the majority of military-grade weapons are smuggled in via the Guatemalan border, but most of the resources to fight the cartels are sent up north—so whatever we can do to make their job a little easier is really the only way to show them a little appreciation for what has to be one of the more suckier jobs on the planet.
Gracias, Amigo!
If there was a drawback to Marina Chiapas, it’s that it’s quite a hike to civilization. The nearest town is Puerto Madero, over 5 miles away; the nearest city is Tapachula, about 20 miles away. There are local taxis, but they won’t go further than Puerto Madero (necessitating a change of taxi to continue further), the drivers are very “business-like” (a more diplomatic way of saying “abrupt”), and some will try to take advantage of the tourists. We made the colossal mistake of not verifying the price with one driver before taking a taxi to Puerto Madero and he tried to charge us 300 pesos for what is normally an 80-peso trip. To add insult to injury, he stopped for gas on the way there. The Tapachula taxi drivers are a little more accommodating and much more personable, although the ones going into the city don’t like to make the trip until their car is full. The Deck Boss and I had to wait a good 20 minutes in the afternoon heat until our driver could wrangle a third passenger. And even then, we stopped to pick up a fourth person along the way.

Pictured: One of the “nicer” local taxis. He didn’t have to stop for gas. That sweet, sweet spoiler gives him at least an extra one to two miles per gallon.

The best way to get around—as in most places in Mexico—is via collectivo. We used them all the time in Nayarit, but nothing prepared us for the Chiapas drivers. They weave and bob and pass through traffic at 110 mph (or maybe it was only 95—it’s hard to tell when the speedometer is broken. And they’re ALL broken.  Needle fatigue I’m guessing.) Up north, we were in one that cut through parking lots, the collectivos here simply cut through oncoming traffic. It’s not for the faint of heart. Nor for someone who doesn’t like “togetherness” because the vans may be designed to hold 12, but we counted no less than 18 people on two separate occasions. One collectivo posted a sign admonishing people not to stand on the seats. Apparently, this guy realized that he could fit more people by stacking them in like firewood and therefore save the upholstery. On slower days, drivers will employ a wrangler who hangs out the side window, calls out destinations, and tries to cajole/cram more people in. The good ones have eagle vision as evidenced by the day we pulled off the highway and travelled a quarter mile up a dirt road to pick up two people who by that time had no choice but to get on. On our last trip into Tapachula, the Captain and I found ourselves in the unenviable position of being in the last row in the back corner. When we finally got to our stop, half the van had to be unloaded so we could get off. But I guess it’s nice that there are so many people on board, in the event one of these things crashes, we’re all packed in so tight we’d either act as one collective airbag or we’d just bounce. Editor’s Note: I would have taken a photo but it’s hard to do when your arms are pinned to your sides and you’re preparing for lightspeed.

The Captain spent about a week in PV and when he returned we did some provisioning, brought on someone to check out the transmission, and found a refrigeration guy because—horror of all first-world horrors—the ice maker quit working. But I think we’re ready to go. We spent our requisite day checking out of the country which was the reverse of checking in to the country except everything was spread out. In Ensenada, everything is under one roof. Here, the marina office helps you assemble your paperwork then it’s off to Customs, then a drive to Immigration, then to the APIS to pay a Port Captain fee (cash only, no credit cards accepted), and finally to the Port Captain’s office where we had to pay our Zarpe fee (credit cards only, no cash accepted.) Editor’s Note: Big shout out to Memo at Marina Chiapas who drove us everywhere and took us through all the procedures. It turned what can be an all-day affair into a half day.

And that brings us to right now. With all our paperwork in order, the only thing left is for our final inspection by the navy and the sniffer dog. After that, we have 15 minutes to get out. The navy will be keeping an eye on us—making sure we turn south toward the border instead of north back to Barra. I guess we have no choice now. But this is what we signed up for and, let’s face it, there’s a whole new world of shit breaking down out there! El Salvador, here we come!
Pictured:  Chicken Consommé. I ordered this in a restaurant once expecting broth, but this is what I got. I think it sums up Mexico…it’s much more than I expected, but in a good way.

RIP to David Moore—an old friend of the Deck Boss, an enthusiastic sailor, and an original Ravennaire. Before we took off, he gave us some books on engine repair. It’s like he knew what would happen or something.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Day 666 to 678 of the Third Voyage: In which we travel 499 miles without any problems and an additional 89 miles with what may or may not be a problem, but overall, we’re feeling pretty good. And we think the boat might be possessed.

Remember how I said that we were leaving Zihuatanejo on March 18th even if we had severe hangovers from our sea trial victory dinner? Apparently, I don’t know us very well because we totally couldn’t leave the next day due to severe hangovers. It was the consensus of ¾ of the crew (aka the ones who have now forsworn margaritas for a while) that it was in our best interest to only venture out when rested and in full control of our faculties. The rest of the crew (aka the one that stuck to beer) acquiesced to our decision based on the fact that she’s not sure which button starts the engine.

And so it was that we set out on the 19th at 2:30 in the afternoon with plans to arrive at the anchorage at Bahia de Puerto Marques the following morning. But not without one near disaster. While hoisting the outboard motor up to the deck, the strap used to attach it to the hoist gave way. It was the “Oh, shit!” heard round the harbor as we all screamed in unison, causing panga drivers to stop and look, flocks of birds to take to the skies, and all roosters within a three-mile radius to start a frantic chorus of cock-a-doodle-do. Had it not been for the quick actions of the Captain and ABS Brian, it would have gone plunging into the bay and sunk straight to the bottom. With hearts firmly in throats, we finished stowing the outboard and dinghy, hauled up the anchor, and headed out of the harbor. I am happy to report that we had extremely calm seas. As there was no wind, we motored the entire way—a solid 16 hours. The temperature held; the pressure held. When it became apparent that we were making too good of time and risked hitting the anchorage at three in the morning, we throttled way back and coasted along outside the bay until first light. We passed Acapulco just as the sun was coming up and whereas we had toyed with the idea of stopping there, opted instead to anchor in the next bay over. Mainly because we wanted to keep moving while everything was working, but also because we only have ABS Brian until Puerto Chiapas or April 1st, whichever comes first. And we really, really want him with us on the dreaded Tehuantepec leg.  We couldn’t afford to be sucked into Acapulco and besides, we’d already experienced the big draw—namely the famous cliff divers. The Deck Boss saw them when she visited Acapulco in the late 1940’s and figured the show probably hadn’t changed much since then as there’s not too many ways to dive off a cliff, and the Captain and I have been to Casa Bonita in Denver. Editor’s Note: If you’re from Colorado, no explanation is necessary. If you aren’t from Colorado, just picture a fabricated Mexican village (complete with adobe facades, marketplace, palm trees and waterfalls) throw in some roaming mariachi bands, add games and arcades, garnish with mediocre food (be sure to put more cheese in the furnishings than on the burritos), and put the whole thing in a strip mall. It’s fantastic. And they have cliff divers.

We spent that day and most of the next reveling in the sensation that we were at an anchorage and there wasn’t much to do except sit back and relax. Nothing needed fixing. Nothing was acting up. We didn’t need to do any provisioning. And there wasn’t any sightseeing to be done as Bahia de Puerto Marques is a big bay surrounded by lots of ritzy resorts. It was kind of nice knowing that the only order of business was to launch the dinghy to get the dogs to shore. Fun Dinghy Tip! If you’ve already been to shore in the dinghy and are aware that the beach drops off sharply, it’s always a good idea to let the next person know! Especially before they hop out expecting the water to be at calf level and end up getting dunked up to their armpits instead. Just saying.

We set out late afternoon on the second day for the 240 nm trip to Huatulco—a good 34 hours away—and even though the wind was gusting pretty good and the water was choppy leaving the bay, by the time we turned south, everything was calm again. And I’m happy to report that we had no problems with the engine or the transmission and enjoyed fairly calm seas. I say “fairly calm” because we did get caught in a big swell on our approach to Huatulco in the wee hours of the morning which kept the boat swaying side to side with a little bow to stern thrown in for good measure. Not ideal conditions for doing anything down below but, aside from the person on watch, the rest of us were sleeping—or trying to sleep—at this point. I say “trying to sleep” because it’s kind of hard to sleep when it’s 95° in your cabin (and no, I REALLY wish I was making that one up) and the boat is rolling around.  The Captain had just came off of his shift, and I was three hours off of mine, and we’re dozing like you do when it’s hot, humid, and the bed is suddenly way too small for two people when there was a loud CRASH accompanied by a high-pitched “MEOWR” and Edgrrr came tumbling through the hatch over our bed bringing the whole screen with him. And that’s when we decided that maybe it’s time he went on a diet.

In the past six months, the vet had tactfully observed that he was “well fed”, our dock mates referred to him as “that larger cat”, and one of our mechanics called him “chunky”. But I think it was when the electrician pointed at him, laughed, and said, “Garfield!” that we realized that maybe he was a tad on the hefty side. That and he was starting to leave a swath of dusted floor in his wake because his belly tends to drag on the ground.
“When I lays, I splays.”

But I digress. We arrived in Bahia de Huatulco early in the morning and found a berth at Marina Chahue to wait for our weather window across Tehuantepec. We didn’t have to wait long—two nights only—and mid-morning on the third day, we moved out into Bahia Tangolunda to relax at anchor before a planned 2:00 am departure. This is when something very odd happened. That afternoon, we went to turn on the generator and first it was fine, then it started clunking loudly, then it sputtered and died. We checked the oil, the temperature, the connections, etc. Everything checked out, but each time we turned it on, it would immediately shudder to a halt. That’s when the Captain noticed that the two fuel valves were closed. And upon opening them, he noticed that there were two additional fuel valves behind those and they were closed, too. Now this is where it gets weird. We never touched these valves—didn’t even know two of them existed. And whereas it’s possible that our mechanic in Zihua closed them while working on the engine, it doesn’t explain how we were able to run the generator for at least 24 hours over a four-day period without any fuel whatsoever. The reservoir pan isn’t that big and there’s no way that much fuel could have still been in the hoses. We’re at a loss.

But there was no time to dwell on that as the Gulf of Tehuantepec lay ahead of us. If you look at a map of Mexico, you’ll see where the country starts to taper as it gets closer to Central America. At its most narrow point—where the Gulf of Mexico is a mere 124 miles from the Pacific Ocean—is the Isthmus of Tehauntepec (an isthmus being a cool word to describe a narrow piece of land that gets clobbered by the weather systems of two bodies of water) and here can be found its infamous gulf. Why infamous? Because this is where most Pacific hurricanes are formed. And when hurricanes aren’t in season, it still likes to whip up mighty gales that stretch out for hundreds of miles and move really, really fast. At the very least, you want a three-day window of predicted calm before setting out, and even then all the cruising guides stress a “one foot on the beach” strategy in which you literally hug the shore line at about 60 to 100 yards off so you can hunker down in case of a T-Peck. In other words, it’s not to be taken lightly and, I must admit, has always been a source of concern for us given our constant parade of mechanical maladies. Which is why we consider ourselves incredibly fortunate to have had a five-day window and were pleasantly surprised at how calm it was throughout the entire 238-mile trip. The highest seas we experienced were maybe two and a half feet and the strongest winds we felt were 14-18 mph—easily some of the most serene conditions we’ve encountered yet. So much so, that we got a little saucy and ventured about 15-20 miles offshore to cut down on our travel time. We even got some fishing in.
Behold the mighty T-Peck Tuna!  

In short, we were finally starting to relax—starting to get the hang of this “nothing going wrong” vibe that had long eluded us. But all good things must ultimately come to an end and ours ended around 11:35 pm on the second night—only a little over halfway across—when the Captain uttered those dreaded words, “Does it smell like burning rubber to you?”
No. Only the aroma of crushed dreams and bitter disappointment. And the tang of cat poop. I think Edgrrr is compensating for his smaller meal portions by eating the upholstery.  

Whereas the engine was cool enough, the transmission was clocking in at over 300 degrees and spurting oil everywhere. It was all the Captain could do to get the dip stick out without incurring third degree burns. A regular funnel would have melted, so he fashioned one out of aluminum foil and managed to get some more oil into the tranny.

So now what do we do? We were afraid to shut off the engine for fear of not having gears when we turned it back on. There was no wind to sail anyway. There were no other boats around. No one showing up on the AIS. There was no cell service. The VHF was quiet. Nothing was stirring except the awareness that we really were all alone out in the middle of nowhere. All we could do was hunker down and ride it out. And at daybreak, when a little wind came up, we took a chance and shut off the engine. Which of course meant that the wind immediately died, leaving us hurtling along at a soul-sucking 1.5 knots. After a while, the Captain added more oil to the tranny and we fired up the engine. And we had gears. And the tranny kept to a stable temperature. And this is when the Captain had a weird epiphany. The dip stick/lid had come off way too easily. They go on with a great deal of torque because the tranny must create a pressure seal for everything to work. He had checked and topped off the oil in the tranny before we left Bahia de Puerto Marques and the dip stick/lid had been tight as a drum. How was it so loose now? It didn’t make sense, but it did account for the tranny losing pressure. And the spewing oil was localized to that area. Could it really have rattled loose while in transit? We’re at a loss.

But we ultimately made it to Puerto Chiapas, and under our own steam. And that’s where we are now. Fifteen miles from the Mexico/Guatemala border; Bahia del Sol in El Salvador just another 215 nm beyond that. Despite whatever did or did not transpire with the generator and the transmission, we’re still feeling pretty confident about our chances of making El Salvador sometime this year. But then something really weird happened. It was our first night at the marina—dog tired after 34 hours at sea—and the Captain and I are awakened at 2:00 in the morning because there is water all over the bed. Not just a little water. A lot of water. Neither one of us had water by the bedside. It wasn’t pee. It wasn’t drool. It wasn’t coming from the hatch. The headliner wasn’t even damp. We couldn’t and still can’t explain it. We’re at a loss.

Are we just weirdly unlucky? Is it the ghost of our old transmission come back to haunt us? Is it the Curse of the Cliff Divers? Did we pick up a poltergeist along the way? 
Or is someone just really pissed off about being put on a diet?

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Day 653 to 665 of the Third Voyage: In which we’re trying to take it all in stride, but it’s kind of hard when that stride is more of a severe limp.

When the average cruiser goes to Zihua, they anchor comfortably, spend countless hours exploring the town and nearby beaches, sample the many restaurants, and maybe go on an excursion or two. And when they go this time of year—during Guitar Fest—they will probably take in some live concerts as well. The average cruiser is also inevitably fixing something at one time or another. It’s just part of the gig. I’m beginning to think that the difference between us and the average cruiser is that not only are we always fixing something, we’re fixing a lot of somethings all at once, and one of those somethings is such a major something that it brings the whole journey to a screeching halt. We’ve been out to sea for almost three years now and I would wager we’ve only been “cruising” maybe six weeks of that.

We don’t anchor comfortably—we come in hot without any gears and just hope we can throw down enough chain to keep us from swinging into next year. “Exploring” is wandering through the barrio, trying to locate a welder. And the most recent excursion we’ve been on was to the local AutoZone trying to track down oil filters and temperature gauges. We do like to hit the restaurants however. It’s a great opportunity to get off the boat, clear your head, and drink copious amounts of alcohol to steel yourself for whatever has gone wrong on the boat while you were eating. Editor’s Note: In the evenings, while hanging out on the aft deck, we did get to enjoy some of Guitar Fest as well—at least what we could hear over the sound of the generator. We would have turned it off, but it was so nice to know that SOMETHING was still working.

I guess what I’m leading up to is that this is getting old. In fact, I’m pretty sure it died somewhere along the way and we’ve just been flogging its reanimated corpse.

After limping back into Zihua, the days flew by in a blur of mechanics, welders, and more shit going wrong. The mechanic came out and worked on the transmission. The next day, the new stanchion was picked up and installed. The day after that, the new brackets for the dinghy wheels were completed, picked up, and installed. The mechanic came back the next day and replaced the oil cooler with a new one we had on board. That same day, we lost water pressure and what did come out was dark brown and kind of chunky. The Captain replaced the filter on the water pump, switched tanks, and re-primed the system. The next morning, we had 20 10-gallon water bottles delivered; fuel was delivered in jerry cans that afternoon. That night our anchor light quit working. Later that night, I had a bout of stomach flu and spent all night in the head blowing it out both ends, delaying our intended departure the following day.  While I recouped, the anchor light was replaced, yet the anchor light still refused to work. The steaming lights are being used until we figure out what’s wrong. But finally—FINALLY—it was departure day! It was calm seas and light winds and the anchorage at Bahia Papanoa—a mere 39 miles away—was beckoning. So we raised up the anchor, made our way out of the bay, set a course south, and one hour in—one FREAKIN hour in—and the transmission temperature shot up past 220 degrees. So we throttled way back and turned around. There was no wind, so sails were useless. All we could do was hope that the transmission had enough oil and oomph to get us back to Zihua. Needless to say, it was a very quiet trip back. But make it back we did, and with just enough gears to anchor. And then the navy hailed us over the VHF. Earlier, we had called Memo asking if he could line up a panga in case we needed a tow. Said panga had tried to hail us over the VHF, but for whatever reason, they could not hear us. So the navy apparently took that as a bad sign and hailed us believing we were in trouble. We tried to tell them we were okay, that we were safely anchored in the harbor, but they insisted on our coordinates which we duly gave them. Five minutes later, and they came blazing out in their spiffy go-fast boat and did the usual navy routine of circling us two or three times while a crew member video recorded all the action. I could sense that they were a little disappointed that it wasn’t a bona fide search and rescue, but at the same time really jazzed to be out in the go-fast boat. They took our information and gave us their direct phone number to call in case we ever found ourselves in need of searching and rescuing and as quickly as they arrived, they were gone.
We suspect they zoomed around the bay at top speed doing some “searching” before having to go back and finish their paperwork.

The next week was another blur of mechanics and welders. Why the welders again? Because we discovered that the wooden block on the rail—the one we attach our outboard motor to while underway—had developed a huge crack and was all ready to give way, probably with the outboard still attached. And with our luck, it would give way overboard rather than onto the deck. So the Captain and ABS Brian engineered a metal bracket to go over it and contracted with the welder to fabricate it, thus earning them “Repeat Customer of the Month” status having most likely paid his rent for the rest of the year. In the meantime, our mechanic repaired the transmission and out we went for a sea trial only to have the damn thing overheat and blow its back seals again at around the 20-minute mark. Once again it was a slow and quiet trip back to the anchorage. We were all thinking of contingency plans because long-term anchoring will make major engine repairs rather difficult. We were wondering how do we get to a marina of any kind without gears; can we get into the Ixtapa marina even though it’s shallow and full of crocodiles; how do we convince the Mexican navy that we need some search and rescuing all the way back to the boatyard in La Cruz? And our poor mechanic has that look on his face that we’ve seen plenty of times before. Specifically, he has started to take this personally. If you’ve been following the blog, you know that we’ve left a lot of highly capable mechanics adrift in our wake—all taken to task by our transmission. But this was something new. This was—for all intents and purposes—a new transmission. It had been carefully stored in the dark recesses under the v-berth since it was last rebuilt in San Diego. Why would it blow the same seals as the previous tranny? It didn’t make sense. It had to be something else. Something in the cooling we suspected. So our mechanic took the offending parts away along with the new oil cooler we had him install. Two days later and he thinks he’s found the problem—a bad oil pump and some incorrectly placed seals in the tranny. He reinstalled everything and we went out for a sea trial. The temperature held. The pressure held. We increased the RPMs. The temperature went up slightly, but not exceedingly so—just what was to be expected. We decreased the RPMs and the temperature decreased as well—something it has never done. Before, when it was hot; it stayed hot.

Could this be the answer we’ve been waiting for? Could this be the last of our transmission problems? Do we owe our transmission(s) an apology? Should we have been burning an effigy of the oil pump all these years as well? Only time will tell, and sooner rather than later as we plan to leave tomorrow (even if we have crippling hangovers from the victory dinner we’re planning tonight.)

And not a minute too soon. Zihua is a nice place, but I wouldn’t want to spend more than a few days here. And we’re going on three weeks. I mean, it’s a nice place. And beyond the cleaned-up touristy part, it starts turning into a proper Mexican town complete with a very large public market with vendors of everything from carne, bread, and fruit to purveyors of household goods, tools, personal items, and clothes. It was a lot like what we found in Barra only much bigger and all crammed under one roof. You can pretty much find anything. Apart from paper towels. In my best Spanglish, I would ask for “toallas de papel” and they kept handing me toilet paper at which point I resorted to pointing at my rear and saying, “No para bano. Para limpiar.” And after they quit laughing, would send me away empty-handed. In hindsight, perhaps it wasn’t stomach flu after all. Maybe I was hexed by an old woman who didn’t appreciate my NSFW pantomime.

Aside from the market, we hit a few of the restaurants. None exactly stood out, and I’m beginning to suspect many of them used raicilla (a Mexican moonshine that’s used in lieu of tequila) in their margaritas and perhaps that accounted for my ills (because it couldn’t possibly be quantity, it must be quality, right?) We did have one opportunity to take a taxi through the hillside communities bordering the bay and they’re as swank as much as most of Zihua is poor. But that’s kind of the dichotomy we see in Mexico—a lot of hardscrabble neighborhoods bordering areas of large, gated homes and upmarket condos. Few people say it aloud, but the consensus seems to be there are gringo/cartel/politician parts of town and then there’s everyone else. But I digress.

I think what kind of killed Zihua for me was our mooring situation. This is the longest we’ve ever been at anchor. And whereas it does have its charms, it does get a little old when you have to dinghy to shore every time you want/need off the boat. And we used the dinghy a lot. The dogs went to shore twice a day. The mechanics had to be dinghied to and from, sometimes more than once if a part is needed. Memo had to be dinghied in so he could dive the bottom and clear us of barnacles. The welder was dinghied in at least once to look at our stanchion set up. Dinner in town? Get in the dinghy. Market? Get in the dinghy. Trip to AutoZone? Get in the dinghy. Trip to Sam’s Club to procure a new AC unit when ours died? Get in the dinghy, but then bribe one of the beach pangas to bring us back with the thing because we didn’t think it would appreciate a dinghy ride. After a while, you don’t even want to go shore again (at least I didn’t.) Although I must say that here in Zihua they have a nice set-up. There’s a group of guys who hang out at the beach (they may even live there—we’re not sure) and when they’re not playing cards and getting stoned, they help guide you up on the beach, watch your dinghy while you’re gone, and then help you get back out. It’s stellar service for a 10-20-peso tip and makes the frequent shore trips much more bearable. Editor’s Note: Yes, we did get the Deck Boss back in the dinghy and I’m happy to report that there have been no further mishaps. On a related note, ABS Brian did fall out of the dinghy and into the water while trying to secure it to the ladder. So once again, Edgrrr is the only member of the crew not to have fallen into the drink.

I would be remiss to mention that we did go on one true excursion. ABS Brian loves the Shawshank Redemption. If you’re familiar with the movie, you may recall the Zihua connection. If you’re not familiar with the movie, here’s your spoiler alert: Tim Robbins escapes from the aforementioned prison and makes his way to Zihua where he’s last seen restoring an old fishing boat. And if you do see the movie and you’ve never been to Zihua, here’s another spoiler alert: the beach scene in the movie was shot in the Virgin Islands. I don’t think they planned that, I’m sure the boat just broke down in transit to Mexico and they went with it. At any rate, to capitalize on the movie, there is a Shawshank Redemption Restaurant, so we set out to find it and procure a t-shirt. Spoiler Alert: We did find it, and it’s not worth the t-shirt. It’s a small place facing the street in a modern-ish building in a quiet part of town. So there’s no beach (Virgin or otherwise), no real ambiance, and nothing particularly “Mexican, “Maine”, or even “Hollywood” about it. They have a couple of blown-up stills from the movie—neither one extremely poignant (unless a picture of Guard #2 is particularly noteworthy)—and bars in lieu of a front wall along with one of those mugshot signs you can hold up in front of you for a picture so all your friends know you were booked on suspicion of being cheesy. Editor’s Note: Such was the underwhelming nature of the place that when it was suggested that we take a picture with the mugshot sign, the overwhelming answer was, “No. That’s okay.” I’ve got to say, that even in a country where copyrights are merely suggestions, this one is a huge missed opportunity. Zihua has no shortage of dingy brick buildings with bars (real bars) in lieu of front walls that most likely did house criminals at one point in their history. You could easily take one of those, furnish it in early Attica, throw up some Rita Hayworth posters, and serve chipped beef and frijoles on tin plates. Dessert would be flan with a rock hammer in it. You wouldn’t even have to update the bathroom—just advertise it as a real-life “sewer escape” experience. I guarantee, the line to get in would be around the block. But until then, I guess this one will have to do.
Then there's this work on art. The only part of the restaurant that really says, “criminal”.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Day 646 to 652 of the Third Voyage: In which if it’s always darkest just before the dawn, then this must be the longest F$%!! night of our lives.

Holy Merde. Where to begin? I guess the best place is just before we left the anchorage at Las Hadas. The Captain went below into the engine room to check fluids and as he was stretched out over the engine block to get to the generator, the boat did a bounce and he bounced with it and came down on his ribs on the side of the engine housing. The ribs that have twice been broken in the past. Surely THAT won’t come back to haunt him, will it? Of course not!

We brought up the anchor and headed over to the fuel dock in the Las Hadas marina. I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but Las Hadas means “The Fairies” in Spanish. I think this is very apropos because they must be snorting a lot of pixie dust to think it’s okay to charge what they do for diesel—easily the most expensive we’ve seen in Mexico. Editor’s Note: We had planned to top off in Barra, except that a 130’ mega yacht got there first and not only proceeded to drain them dry but then decided to just squat there while the crew did some boat work. I guess when you’ve just spent the equivalent of the GDP of Ghana on fuel, you do feel entitled to a little free rent before you head into the marina to fork over the equivalent of the GDP of Bolivia on moorage. But back to Las Hadas…it’s my feeling that if you’re going to charge premium prices for fuel, you could at least put some of the profit back into the infrastructure. The “dock” was made up of this spongy, almost plastic-like material that seemed too lightweight to withstand any real strain, let alone support a cleat with a large boat attached to it. It bobbed around furiously and only sort of stayed in place via steel rods attached to the seawall. And they placed it right across from the marina entrance so as to get maximum swell. We got tied up as best we could, but during the fueling process, one person would have to hold the pump handle still while two others struggled to keep the boat in close because the outgoing swell would want to drive it out a good two to three feet. I must admit, the whole thing was kind of comical and I totally would have gotten a picture had not the likelihood of a diesel spill and as well as getting bucked into the water been part of the equation. With full tanks and empty wallets, we headed out around 4:00 pm. The plan was to journey through the night and arrive at the anchorage at Caleta de Campos the next morning. That was the plan. And we all know how Raven plans work out.

Our first hint that we should have turned around, gone back to the anchorage, and started over the next day was when the wind came up while we were at the fuel dock. We brought in the lines and fenders as we headed out into the bay—a little windy, but not too terrible. Within ten minutes we were bucking big waves and taking water over the bow and I’m down below frantically securing hatches and getting a face full of water for my efforts. But I guess I deserved it, because I naively believed the weather forecasts when they called for “calm seas” and other such bullshit so I left open a couple of hatches to combat the stifling heat below decks. Mental note: From now on, assume all weather reports are bullshit and plan for tempest regardless.

We really hoped that things would smooth out once we got out of the bay and, technically speaking, it did. Zero winds, little waves. The problem? Monster swell. It would pick up the entire boat, tilt it over to one side about 35-40 degrees, swing the stern out, bring us up and over, tilt the other way about 25 degrees and settle roughly into a trough for a few minutes before repeating the process. Things were getting flung all over the boat—even the stuff that was tied down (such as the Deck Boss)—and made for a very uncomfortable voyage. The kind where at about four hours in, you’ve started mentally fleshing out the “Boat for Sale” ad while wondering if there will be anything left of the boat to sell. But whereas the boat could handle it, the engine thought otherwise and sometime around 3:00 in the morning, decided to overheat again. Normally we would have shut off the engine and raised the sails, but with no wind that wasn’t an option, so the decision was made to throttle back and find a speed that the engine could hang with and thus we found ourselves once again slinking through the night, hoping the engine wouldn’t die, and hanging on for dear life as we spun through the swells—feeling not unlike the proverbial turd in the toilet bowl.

Somehow, we found ourselves near Caleta de Campos ahead of schedule—by about two hours—and had to make a quick decision…do we throttle way back and/or wander around in the ocean in order to hit the anchorage during daylight hours or do we push on to Zihuatanejo, our next major port of call? We weighed the pros and cons. If we decided to stop, we’d probably have to bob around for a couple of hours waiting for the sun to come up before heading in to the anchorage—it being unfamiliar and all. That’s a con. But once there, we’d be out of the swell. That’s a pro. Well, MAYBE out of the swell. Because if the swell extends into the anchorage, it’ll be more of the same. That’s a con. But if there is no swell, we can get a break from the bouncing. That’s a pro. And put the boat back together. Another pro. But what if the swell and/or the weather in general is even bigger when we head out the next day to Zihuatanejo? That’s a big con. But here we can maybe get some sleep. That’s another pro. And maybe get a beer. Big pro! But even as the pros added up, it came down to one of my favorite adages, “You can endure anything if you know it’s going to end.”  So, we figured if we were already miserable, why not go ahead and continue to be miserable for another nine to ten hours because at least we know it’ll end in Zihuatanejo. Plus, I should have my boat ad completed by then.

I would be remiss to mention that the swell did eventually die down around seven in the morning and that we had glassy waters all the way to Zihua. I would also be remiss to say that we gave a damn because by this time we were tired, banged-up, demoralized, and thoroughly disgusted with our whole situation. The Deck Boss was one big bruise, the dog was sick, the cat was pissed, the Captain was not only suffering the vestiges of chikungunya but could barely stand up straight as his ribs hurt so bad, and because things couldn’t get any more stupid, I had developed an eye infection and there was now a bloated prune where my right eye should have been. If it hadn’t been for the unwavering optimism and encouragement of ABS Brian, I’m fairly certain we would have turned the boat around and headed back to Barra. But onward we plugged, till at last Zihua was in sight.

Okay, faithful Ravennaires, stop me if you’ve heard this one before:  We pulled into the harbor at Zihua, sidled into the main anchorage, prepared to drop the anchor and…no gears! Yup! It’s everyone’s favorite moldy oldy…the transmission!  Once again, it appeared to have blown its back seal meaning that once the gears were disengaged (i.e. bringing them into neutral to slow our speed and ready the boat for anchoring) they wouldn’t go back into gear (i.e. making it quite difficult to steer and thus avoid hitting the other boats in the anchorage.) So after a split second of WTF-ing, we dropped the anchor as fast as we could and hoped that a) it would hold, b) it would hold us far enough away from the other boats, and c) barring either of those options, it would just drag us all to the bottom and put us out of our misery.

Remember during the last blog post when I interrupted the narrative for a special edition of NOW WHAT? Well, here we go again. As we’re sitting on the back deck discussing our options (and yes, drinking and wallowing—it’s what we seem to do best anymore), it came our attention that one of the stanchions had broken off at the base—one that helps to carry the weight of the davits, the dinghy, the outboard, the solar panels, and the satellite dome. And no, not the one that broke last time and which we had fixed. No, this was the OTHER one. Because apparently misery loves company, and since bad luck likes to travel around in threes, we searched around and sure enough found some additional structural issues (because in our case, bad luck likes to travel around in fours, fives, and sixes as well.)

It was at this point that the Raven crew pretty much decided to call it a day. And I don’t mean fall into bed in a drunken stupor. I mean we decided that maybe we weren’t cut out for the cruising life—that we were “destination” people and not “journey” people, if you know what I mean—and that we should just limp our way back to Barra, negotiate a long-term moorage rate, and figure out what we wanted to do. Maybe that would entail living aboard but travelling via more traditional methods. Or maybe becoming lubbers again. Or maybe we would start our own sailing rally, the Raven Rally, wherein we would stay put and everyone else would come to us. We would live vicariously through other cruisers and host large parties where the rum punch would be served up cold in the burned-up husk of our transmission. I think the back seals would make great coasters.

By the next morning, we were still resolved to go back to Barra, although we were entertaining reasons as to why we shouldn’t as a courtesy to ABS Brian who was just as resolved to keep us moving forward. Editor’s Note: I have mentioned that he hasn’t read the blog, right? By mid-morning, the Captain had procured the services of Memo, one of a couple of go-to guys here in Zihua who got our broken stanchion into the hands of a welder by noon, and by mid-afternoon had lined up a mechanic. Editor’s Note: We made a pact that if the transmission ever let us down again, we would finally swap it out with the refurbished one. Technically this is something we could do ourselves, having become quite adept at removing/installing transmissions, but with the Captain’s sprained ribs causing him great pain, we opted to hire this one out. Plus, it’s like 180° degrees down there.

Feeling a little bit better about things, we went into Zihua to have lunch. Now I’ve never been here before, but I can see the allure. It’s muy tranquillo and quite charming. Lots of pedestrian walkways, lots of little artisanal shops, lots of restaurants. This is “old town” Zihua. And whereas it does feel a little fabricated in parts—sanitized for the touristas as it were—it’s quite a magical place and, like all Mexican towns, comes alive at night with street vendors, musicians, exhibitions, and lots and lots of lights.

Editor’s Note: Beyond the tourist zone is the bustling Zihua/Ixtapa metro area of about 105,000 people. All the big box stores are here as are a host of supermarkets, banks, department stores, services of every kind, etc. etc. Unfortunately, cartel violence plagues parts of the city, but as Memo told us, “Gringos are the safest people in all of Mexico.” I mention this because I know a lot of people that refuse to travel to Mexico because they think it’s lawless and violent. Mexico definitely has its problems—as all countries do—but unless you’re putting yourself in danger—going to areas of known violence, frequenting certain establishments, seeking out illicit entertainment,’re quite safe. The only malfeasance we’ve encountered in our nearly two years here came from a taxi driver who charged us 600 pesos for what should have been a 220-peso trip.

But I digress. We had a nice lunch, met some fellow cruisers for some margaritas, and after considerable conversation thought that maybe we should keep to the plan and keep heading south. And then we set out to retrieve the dinghy for the trip back to the boat. We got the Deck Boss in the dinghy and proceeded to push it into the surf and that’s when one of the dinghy wheel brackets bent and sent the entire thing careening to one side, sending the DB sprawling. It took considerable effort to get her unstuck. Once off the beach, we found that the waves had come up a bit and that, combined with the wake caused by heavy panga traffic, meant that there was considerable chop upon approaching the boat. Between the bouncing of the boat and the bouncing of the dinghy, the DB had a helluva time negotiating the accommodation ladder and proceeded to pull all the muscles that hadn’t already been pulled in the launching debacle. Upon finally getting on board, she declared that she would never again set foot in the dinghy.

The negotiations on how many beers she will require to rescind her ban are ongoing.
But that and a broken dinghy wheel were not our only worries, for while we were gone, our anchor lost it’s hold and we had dragged dangerously close to a neighboring boat. After a few moments of WTF-ing, we decided to turn over the engine and see if we had any gears left at all, and luckily had enough juice to move us forward about 30 feet before conking out again. We reset the anchor, called it good, and decided to head back to Barra as soon as we were able.
And thus began the great vacillation…
The mechanic is blowing us off:  Going back to Barra
The mechanic will definitely be here tomorrow:  Going south
The existing dinghy wheel can’t be fixed:  Going back to Barra
The welder was able to fabricate an entirely new dinghy wheel bracket: Going south
The key to the outboard went missing; the entire boat was tossed looking for it:  Going back to Barra
The key to the outboard was found in someone’s pocket:  Going south
The generator is not charging the batteries:  Going back to Barra
If you want the generator to charge the batteries, it helps to turn on the breaker:  Going south
I think I’ve gone blind in one eye:  Going back to Barra
Oh wait, no, it’s just the ointment: Going south

And so on and so forth.  But with the steady encouragement of ABS Brian, we came to realize that despite all the equipment malfunctions, all the crappy crossings, and the unreasonable amount of bad luck, the boat was still floating, everyone was (more or less) healthy, and that despite all the setbacks we have had an incredible journey thus far. We’ve logged almost 5,000 sea miles to get to this point. Maybe it’s too soon to give up. Maybe we owe it to ourselves to see if we can get just a little farther. Maybe we will finally hit our stride.
Okay…I guess we’re going south again. Or maybe back to Barra.
This statue is of Jose Azueta, a famous Mexican war hero, firing his machine gun into the harbor. As you can see, he obviously owned a boat, too.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Day 638 to 645 of the Third Voyage: In which…seriously? We can’t even make it 50 miles before something goes wrong? Seriously?

We left two days after the engine was fixed, and a day after the jib furler was repaired. Primarily because we were anxious to get going, but also to avoid Jose.

Jose washes boats at the marina in La Cruz and he does an excellent job. But when your “turf” only covers four of the eleven docks and many of the boats are larger yachts with their own crews, the pickings can be slim. So what he lacks in inventory, he makes up for in frequency. He showed up at our boat about ten minutes after we arrived and offered to not only wash the hull and topsides, but take everything off the decks and wash them, too. We negotiated a price and he showed up with his crew (i.e. his kids) a couple of hours later and did a bang-up job. He then offered to come out a few days later and wash it again. We explained that that wouldn’t be necessary as we were about to go into the yard. And no, we really didn’t think we needed to “look good” in the slings because we were going there to have work done, not enter a beauty pageant. And no, leaving the dinghy behind so you can wash it every day is not something we’re interested in. A week later, we splashed down, worked out the airlock problem, and got back into a slip. Jose was at the dock waiting for us to arrange our next washing. Fine. After all, we were dirty from being in the yard. Two hours later, he showed up with his crew (i.e. his other kids) and gave us a thorough washing, after which he upsold us into having the stainless polished. Fine. The next day he arrived with his crew (i.e. nieces and nephews) to clean and polish all the stainless. He then asked when he should return to wash the boat. We’re sorry, Jose, but the boat is still pretty clean from when you washed it yesterday. Not to be deterred, he showed up every morning after to ask if we were ready to be washed again. And when that didn’t work, he started showing up every afternoon as well. One morning we told him we were leaving that afternoon and wouldn’t be back. And no, we didn't need it washed right before we left. And no, Jose, whereas we do appreciate your offer to wash our boat from a panga as we’re heading out, we don’t think that will be necessary. We’re really sorry, Jose. We’re leaving, and we won’t be back. Eight hours later and we were back, as was Jose. We tried to explain that we were turning and burning—that as soon as the mechanic and electrician were done, we were out of there, and didn’t have time for a wash. Fine, he said. The morning on our day of departure, he stopped by to wish us a good voyage before adding that he would be back that afternoon in case we changed our minds about washing the boat. A couple of hours later, we shoved off—about 45 minutes earlier than planned. I’m pretty sure it’s because the Captain spotted Jose walking down the dock and wanted to get the hell out of dodge before he showed up at the boat to announce that he would be waiting for us in Barra with a soap brush.

So off we headed toward Barra, with plans to round Cabo Corrientes late afternoon/early evening. The forecast had called for 20 mph winds and small seas, so of course—OF COURSE! —we got little wind and big seas. Let the rockin’ and rollin’ begin. But that turned out to be the least of our worries. Around 9:00 pm, the engine started to overheat and the oil pressure began to drop so we turned it off, hoisted the jib, and headed a little further offshore to keep us off the lee. This worked fine for about an hour, but then what little wind we did have became so fickle that it required constant adjustments and corrections on our part to keep the sail from luffing. Editor’s Note: Luffing is when the sail loses wind, gets saggy in the middle, and then flaps around wildly doing absolutely nothing to propel the boat forward and making an incredible racket in the meantime. Not being a very competent sailor, my instructions were to watch the dial that showed a forward-facing outline of a boat with a needle indicating which direction the wind was coming from. If the needle got below 90, I was to steer five clicks to the left until the needle moved. If the needle went over 120, it was five clicks to the right. After two solid hours of staring at the dial and making constant adjustments, my head hurt, my back ached, and I couldn’t understand what people saw in this whole sailing thing.

During the Captain’s watch, we lost what little wind we had so he decided to turn on the engine and see what happened. He found that if he kept it just slightly above idle, the temperature and oil pressure would be stable; anything more and the temperature would shoot up. So that’s how we found ourselves creeping through the darkness at a blistering 2.5 knots. When the sun came up, we put up the stay sail and managed another half knot. After a while, we started to increase the throttle a little bit at a time until finally we were able to get it up to 1400 rpm with the temperature holding steady. We decided our best course of action at this point was to duck into the anchorage in Chamela and give the diesel a rest.

At this point, I’m going to take a break in the action for a special edition of Now What? Because when you’re trying to troubleshoot engine problems, of course you want to be worrying about the structural integrity of your stern. In this case, one of our stanchions had broken loose. Normally, this is not a huge deal—we’ve had broken stanchions before (see Day 20 of the First Voyage)—except that this stanchion helped to carry the weight of the davits, the dinghy, the outboard, the solar panels, and the satellite dome. If it failed completely, the load on the remaining stanchions and braces would increase, and if one of those decided to go, we could theoretically lose the davits, the dinghy, the outboard, the solar panels, and the satellite dome. As a temporary fix, the busted stanchion was lashed to the ones next to it in a bid to keep it from giving way altogether.  

And we’re back.  The next morning, with fingers crossed, we went to start the engine and…nothing happened. We immediately assumed it was something major because why wouldn’t it be? We pulled all the stuff off out of the engine room to get clear access to the diesel. We then checked the oil, the filters, the coolant, etc. and figured it must be the solenoid because of course that’s the ONE solenoid for which we don’t have a spare. Just when we’re about to pull everything out from under the v-berth to see if the solenoid off the old generator would work, the Captain suddenly had the bright idea to check and make sure that both gear stations are in the neutral position (we have one in the cockpit and one in the pilothouse.) One of them wasn’t. We put it in neutral, turned the key, and the engine turned over first time. Given our history of equipment failures, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve become accustomed to thinking that there are no easy fixes­—that the solution will be just as big as the problem. I think that’s a better rationalization of what transpired. At least it sounds better than “brain fart”.
Pictured: The engine room. All those tool bags and parts bins on top must be removed before we can access the engine. Each one weighs a ton. We’re going to start calling this the 24-Hour Fitness Room and hang signs that say, “Feel the Burn”, “Lift with the Knees”, and “Please wipe off the equipment when you’re done”.

I am pleased to report that the journey from Chamela to Barra was pleasantly uneventful—the engine purred along nicely and at its usual RPM—which made it that much nicer to be “home” because really, it does feel like home. Which is why we resolved not to spend more than a few days there because any more and we wouldn’t want to leave. Upon arriving at the marina, we immediately buttoned up the boat and headed to Pipi’s where we spent a lost afternoon amid chicken wings, burritos, four rounds of drinks, and two additional rounds “en la casa”. The next day we set to work addressing our problems. The Captain and Able-Bodied Seaman (ABS) Brian did a thorough inspection and it was determined that there was probably some residual oil still mixed in with the diesel from the problem before the last problem in which the engine totally died and that the engine just had to work through it (hmmm…that’s almost a metaphor for life really.) The stanchion turned out to be an easy fix as well. We contacted the guy who retrofitted the accommodation ladder and he came out via water taxi, assessed the situation, removed the broken stanchion, took it back to his shop, and returned three hours later with a new stanchion. He charged us all of 350 pesos or around $18 USD. Viva la Mexico!

We stayed one extra day to go to the market in Melaque for some extra provisioning and then set out the next day for Manzanillo. Once again, I am happy to report a smooth journey. Having resolved not to go back to Bahia de Santiago—the sight of the infamous dinghy dumping--we are now anchored outside of the Las Hadas resort. The engine seems fine, most systems seem to be working, the generator is doing it’s thing. We are questioning the integrity of our inverter, however, but have decided to not worry it until there is actually something to worry about. Unfortunately, the Captain is having a chikungunya relapse. Joint pain, slight fever, nausea, and general malaise have taken the place of swimming, exploring, and general vegging. While he’s recuperating, ABS Brian and I have been making twice daily dinghy runs to take Otter and his dog, Zoe, to shore. So far, there have been no dinghy mishaps although today I did smash my little toe on a big rock and then step on a sticker bush for good measure. Because seriously…how could I not? 
Pictured: Las Hadas Resort. It’s where they filmed the movie “10”. 
Not pictured: The beach that Bo Derek runs down in that one famous scene. That was filmed in Bahia de Santiago on the other side of the hill. Fun fact: She was actually running from the killer wave that dumped her dinghy. They used early-generation CGI to digitally remove the look of terror on her face.