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.