Back to Warm Wisdom Press
We were sitting on deck looking at the sea and the sky, when Barbara called out, "Whale!" I looked up and not fifty yards from Magellan was a large whale swimming along side us and matching our speed.
I was a bit nervous, as whales can and do sink yachts. The advice given to us by Al, Steve, and the SSCA was to turn on the engine at once. No one seems to know why this works, but it does. Wooden boats are the boats most often attacked by whales. Some say that the whaling boats of the last couple-hundred years tended to be wooden boats (steel has been used only during the last fifty years or so), so perhaps the whales have "a thing" against wooden boats as those are the boats that were killing them. I have no idea if this really has anything to do with it, but if so, then the reason the engine works could be related, as the whalers didn't have engines. So the theory is that if you run your engine they don't feel threatened by you.
Within a minute or two there were a number of whales around us. I was scared. Barbara tried to calm me down by telling me they weren't going to hurt us. She told me to just relax and enjoy the experience, but I was extremely nervous anyway.
The first whale, a large male, was apparently a scout. He gave the OK and then the rest of the pod came by to see us. Smallish, juvenile whales came by the side of our boat one by one, rolling on their sides and taking a good look at us. The whales became larger and larger. Then the females came by, and finally the large males.
Even the females were over forty-five feet long. They came very close to us on both sides. Each one took a look, some slowing down to our speed for a more thorough perusal. The males that came by last were enormous. Each whale was, surprisingly, distinct in appearance. Some were black, some gray black, some brownish black, etc. The white markings of each one were substantially different than the others. All of them had barnacles and various other creatures attached to them.
The parade continued for a long time. After the parade was over, they began to play with us. The smaller whales came first, and then in graduated order of size they came one after another. They came directly at us on the surface and then dove under the boat coming up on the other side, missing us by inches. They jumped out of the water, splashing us over and over again. Some came entirely out of the water and spun in the air. Just like the dolphins, they were performing for us. After making a big splash, spin, or leap out of the water, the whale would come by, slow down, and then turn and look at us with his huge eye, observing us.
I was certain that one of these behemoths was going to hit us and send us to the bottom of the ocean. We were sailing in water over two miles deep. The Pacific is not only the largest ocean, it is also the deepest by far and is 90% unexplored. A 60-foot long squid has recently been discovered living in the deep, and marine biologists know that other huge creatures inhabit depths beyond our reach - the Pacific Ocean is over eight miles deep in places. Once a deep-sea submersible, the bathescape Trieste, got that deep in one spot for a few minutes, and came right back up.
Several large whales came alongside of us and, going at our speed, raised themselves out of the water so that their eyes were level with our eyes. They would hang there for what seemed like a minute and look at us. We smiled, waved, and talked to them. Having this enormous eye staring at me with understanding and intelligence was mind-boggling. We were certain that they fully comprehended the situation and were trying to communicate with us. It was exciting and fun, but a little creepy.
This display went on for an hour. We never considered going below to get a camera; we wouldn't have missed a minute of the performance even if we had thought about it, which we didn't.
The Navy says that whales are at the very top of the animal kingdom with respect to production of sounds, sonar abilities, and the depths they can and do regularly dive. They hunt in an organized manner using what is known as a bubble ring. The bubble ring is formed around a school of fish in this manner: The whales take turns. One group goes very deep, much deeper than the fish, and then they come up slowly in a ring around the school. As they get near the fish, they release large amounts of air, which forms a wall of bubbles around the fish and acts just like a fish net. The other whales now go right up the middle of the ring and eat large amounts of fish. It is only recently that this bubble ring activity has been discovered and photographed. Their communication, their organization, and their teamwork is amazing. In addition, they swim deeper than a nuclear submarine can dive. The whales have a clear-cut pecking order and a well-ordered society. They have great intelligence.
The whales, the sky, and the colors of the ocean are far beyond my powers of description. I have never seen a movie or photograph that comes anywhere near to capturing the reality of those whales in their natural habitat. The National Geographic tries to show the whales to the public on its very good TV shows and in its magazine, but it doesn't even come close because photographic media cannot capture the experience as a whole.
We saw many dolphins, a few seals, sea lions, and lots of sea birds. The rest of the journey was enjoyable and uneventful, and a week later we arrived at Cabo. This time we anchored closer in to the city. There was a nice sloop anchored near us, "Saracen," flying an SSCA burgee. We met the owners, Randy and Sharon Douglas, soon after dropping our anchor, and had dinner ashore together. We covered a lot of miles with them and shared many ports and anchorages as they were also going to the South Pacific. Randy had been the CEO of the Northrop Skunkworks, and worked on the first attempts to shoot down an incoming missile with a missile. This project became the Patriot Missile System.
We spent a month in Cabo diving, snorkeling, and picnicking on the remote beaches. We met many other yachties, a few of whom were going to the South Pacific. This was good news as we were going to have friends and support in some very out-of-the-way spots.
Several boats decided to go up into the Gulf of California together for a short cruise. This part of Baja is shielded from the ocean by the land. The water is very calm, quiet, and warm. It is also full of fish and shellfish. The lobsters and crabs are so plentiful that you can walk into waist-deep water along the shore and get enough for dinner in minutes. There is nothing on shore. The few fishing villages are small with little to offer, and it's not the most beautiful place we visited (although some Americans retire there because it is very inexpensive).
After a few anchorages, we decided to go back to Cabo. Another boat was going back as well, and we sailed together. The only problem was that there was no wind. The wind gauge read zero and stayed there. The sails flapped uselessly, doing nothing. In this situation there is very little to do except turn on the "D sail," that is, the diesel engine. So we were motoring south through the calm warm water. Then the motor started to act up. It was missing and coughing and belching smoke. It had never acted this way and something was clearly amiss.
Then the engine quit. We were not in a good position; we couldn't sail due to the lack of wind, and now we were unable to motor. There were large rocks coming out of the water just a couple hundred yards away. The shoreline here was made up of very large rocks dropping directly into the water. And who knew what was under the water that couldn't be seen - probably more rocks which could seriously damage our boat.
I opened the engine compartment and started to examine the engine. I looked and looked, and couldn't find anything wrong. The other yacht, "Christie," which had been motoring along with us called to ask what the problem was and could they help. I wish you could, but I don't see how. I asked them to stand by. They motored slowly in big circles a small distance from us.
I was completely at a loss. We took out the engine manuals and searched them over and over again from cover to cover. We looked at the diagrams and drawings. We went over all the pictures and systems and just couldn't identify the problem. We were at this for many hours.
We had fuel, the fuel filters were clear, and everything looked fine. Finally, Barbara spotted something that looked wrong to her. Shouldn't there be something in this small hole? I looked, and sure enough, there was a very, very small setscrew missing which was allowing air into the engine where there should not be any air. The screw had worked its way loose from vibration of the engine. I searched around and under the engine and could not find this tiny little screw. It was brass and therefore couldn't be recovered with a magnet. It had probably dropped into the bilge, and could be anywhere in there from the bow to stern. Some parts of the bilge are impossible to reach. I put my hand into the water and searched around wherever I could. I spent two hours searching but to no avail.
In the meantime, the current was pushing us into the rocks and there was nothing I could do about it. Christie offered to throw us a line and tow us, but that would present a whole new set of problems. We declined and said we were working on the engine and would accept their offer only if we were just about to hit the rocks. Which looked very possible. The trouble was, it was far from clear that they could pull us away from the rocks with their small outboard engine, and there was a danger of the line fouling.
We searched our spares and hardware supplies, and could not find a replacement screw. This took more hours of time. It was a very fine-threaded and small opening, and we didn't have a spare for it among our numerous stores. I hadn't even realized that this screw existed and did not know why it was there. I still don't. The engine was not going to run unless we could fix this problem.
Barbara then had an idea and told me to hold on. She went and got her nail-polishing kit from the head, the bathroom. She produced an orangewood stick, which is used to push back cuticles, and told me to fashion a screw from it. At first I thought she was crazy, but what the heck, let's give it a try.
I worked on one end with a sharp knife and got the diameter of the wooden stick just slightly larger than the hole itself. I then cut it to about two inches long, and then screwed the piece of wood into the hole as if it were a screw. It worked! It seemed to be firmly in place and secure.
I next had to "bleed" the engine, which is a process you have to do if air somehow gets into the system. When that was done, I watched the engine while Barbara went up into the cockpit to try and turn it on. The engine started almost at once, and ran just fine. We quickly put the transmission in gear and motored out from the now very close rocks. This had been a nerve-wracking bunch of hours. I was upset that there was a part of the engine about which I was totally ignorant. Barbara yelled at me about what kind of diesel school had I gone to and why didn't I know what I was doing. I felt dumb and humbled.
That night I called Al on the ham radio and he mailed me a couple of those little screws. They never arrived due to the inefficiency of the Mexican mails, so he sent them again, and then a third time when they finally did get through. I was getting an idea of what it feels like to await a package in a third world country. It is often impossible to receive a package, and always difficult. We left more than one package in a customs office because they wanted three hundred dollars in duty and taxes on a twenty-dollar part. This is a problem which every yachtie has encountered.
We were back in Cabo at anchor, preparing to go to the mainland of Mexico. We began to plan a two-day sail to Mazatlan, which is a good-sized city with more services than all of Baja put together. They actually have supermarkets and drugstores, which are unheard of on the Baja. We were extremely disappointed when we saw what those places had for sale, but they did offer a few things.
While still in Cabo, several boats got together and decided to go into town to celebrate one of the US holidays, which no one in Mexico has ever heard of. It is strange to celebrate Valentines Day, Mothers Day, Fathers Day, July 4th, Thanksgiving, or any of the American holidays, when the locals have no idea what you are talking about. In some places they are antagonistic about it; they don't want anything American to contaminate their culture, and they have a fear that somehow the 4th of July (or whatever) will become an unwanted fad in their country.
We went to the largest restaurant and bar in Cabo. There were about ten of us around the table. We ordered the usual Mexican starter courses and beer. The owner appeared and brought us complimentary cocktails made up of local spirits. They tasted great. He brought us another round and that was the last any of us can remember about that evening. All of us returned to our boats with no money. The bill for the drinks and meal had cleaned us out of all the cash we had. This was our first experience with "Damiano." It is Mexican liquor which is a liquid drug. It is illegal everywhere in the world except Mexico. Take one drink and you're stoned out of your mind, out of control, and have no memory of what took place. Damiano comes in a glass bottle in the shape of a naked woman. It is cheap and strong and is widely used in Mexico because it is considered liquor and not a drug.
From that time forward we never again drank a mixed drink in a Mexican bar, and we never again took or drank the complimentary cocktail that so many places in the world offer. We all felt physically terrible the next morning on top of feeling bad about losing all our money. It took a day or two for us to fully recover. A couple of guys went to the restaurant to complain, and they were just laughed at by the owners. Within a minute or two of their arrival, the Policia also arrived, and made it clear the yachties would go to jail if they didn't quietly return to their boats. This is normal in many countries; the police get a piece of the action in exchange for their protection.
Similar things have happened to us in other countries. In Egypt I had a gun put to my head by a policeman telling me to pay the outrageous fee the taxi driver wanted or he would shoot me. So I paid over a hundred dollars for a five-dollar ride. In Spain I put gas in my car, which held 40 liters in the tank and the gas station charged me for 80 liters. The police convinced me to pay for 80 liters or go to jail. Some places are worse than others. The SSCA reports the worst places, and you try to avoid those places if you can. Mexico has a bad reputation in this area, and it's worse on the mainland than in Baja.
The only defense against being ripped off is not to engage in business or have a local do anything for you if you can avoid it. When you must interact with the locals, try to deal with a large business. Big cities are usually safer than the boon-docks, but there are no guarantees.
We met a sharp young couple from New York who were sailing around the world. He had his own seat on the New York Stock Exchange. We spent time with them and decided to go to a remote beach for a picnic. There was surf running that day and small waves were crashing on the beach. We had to take our dinghy through the waves and onto the beach. This is always a tricky maneuver; if you don't time the waves just right the wave will swamp the boat with water, in which case you and all your gear and lunch get soaking wet. Or the wave will pick up the dinghy and throw it onto the beach, causing it to land upside down with the dinghy on top of you. The stock trader assured me he was very good at riding in the waves, timing them, and getting safely onto the beach, so we agreed to go for it.
The dinghy was thrown up on the beach and landed on top of us. Barbara landed on her hip and she was badly injured. She had a damaged sciatic nerve and couldn't walk for a couple of weeks. When she finally could hobble around it was with great pain. We tried many medicines to relieve the pain, but nothing worked. She couldn't sleep well due to the pain when she moved or rolled over. We made ourselves a promise never to go onto beaches if there were waves breaking on the beach, no matter how small the waves were, and certainly not for a picnic.
It took Barbara months to get back to normal form after this episode. She couldn't enjoy walking around town or doing much of anything. We had to spend a lot of time on board. I read to Barbara and we did maintenance on Magellan.
We stayed on in Cabo until Barbara was feeling better. When we finally left, we were more than ready to go. We did almost no provisioning as we were going to the mainland where supplies would be more available. We finally left for Mazatlan, and had a nice sail.
The Mazatlan harbor was a large commercial port. There were large fishing boats that go far out to sea to find tuna. There were hundreds of smaller fishing boats. We found the guest docks and checked in. We anchored in the main harbor among the fishing boats, as that was the only choice. We went into town and ate at our favorite restaurant, which we knew about from the cruise ships.
We went shopping for boat hardware. Then we bought some food and headed back to Magellan. We had seen this city many times and it held little interest for us. The supermarkets were large but had very little to offer. After walking around town buying supplies, we were ready to leave Mazatlan. We stayed over night and left early in the morning, continuing south along the coastline. We were not going to go back up north against the current, so once we left a port and went south we were not going to return.
Our next port was Puerto Vallarta, which is a well-visited tourist spot. All the cruise ships visit here. There are many nice hotels and restaurants. Puerto Vallarta is at the center of a large natural bay that itself does not offer much shelter. We had been advised to go to a place known as "the pond." This was an inner harbor and a good, safe anchorage. We found a good spot and dropped our hook. The shores of the pond were under construction with condominiums. There was a club, which we joined as temporary members and we were then able to use their dock, swimming pool, Jacuzzi, and lovely hotel-like facilities.
We stayed for about three weeks in the pond. Almost every other day someone we had met and known in Cabo San Lucas came in and anchored. Our children flew down to spend some time with us. We got them a lovely hotel room and were able to use the hotel's facilities while they were there. The kids came out to Magellan once, just to check it out and see how we were doing. We offered to take them for a sail, which offer they strongly declined. We did all of the tourist things with Dave and Tiff while they were in Puerto Vallarta with us. We had a great time together, and then they flew back to school.
Every time we were in calm water we worked on the boat. We worked on cleaning, polishing, and repairs. There was always a list of things to fix. We did our best to repair everything. Usually it was a lack of parts that prevented us from fixing something. Dave and Tiff brought us suitcases full of things we needed. Since they were coming in as tourists they had no customs hassles about it.
It was amazing how busy we were. There was a busy social life with other yachties, work to be done on the boat, supplies to be found and purchased, and snorkeling, surfing, and swimming. It was now mid-December. We were next going to a small harbor, Chamayla, which is well protected by a series of offshore islands. This was a fishing village and not a tourist spot, although yachties stop there for the local woodcarvings and the warm reception everyone is given.
It was necessary to motor into Chamayla, winding between the small islands. The pilot books tell you to enter only during the daytime. We figured it would take 24 hours to get to Chamayla so we departed mid-morning from Puerto Vallarta. The Christie went along with us. They did not have the radar or sophisticated navigation equipment that we had, so they wanted to tail along with us. We had to avoid many fishing boats and ended up going in a circuitous course, much farther than we had predicted. By the time we arrived at Chamayla it was getting dark. This was a big problem, as we did not want to heave to in the open ocean where there was so much fishing traffic. To heave to you put out two sails, one set properly, and one working against the first one, and they counteract each other and you go nowhere. We would be up on watch and nervous all night if we had to heave to in this place.
The charts and books tell you in big letters not to enter Chamayla in the dark. These documents, however, were all written in the 1800's when no one had radar. It was fascinating to us that almost every chart would have written on it something like "produced in 1823, revised 1867." Almost nothing had been done in the 20th century. You would think they would update the charts with the satellite photographs they now have, but they haven't. The same thing is true of the pilot books, each of which tells you that some navigator wrote it on the ship so and so, on a trip down this coast sometime in the 1800's.
Nonetheless, the charts and pilot books tend to be very accurate. This is amazing considering they were made in vessels with sails only - no engines, no radar, no electronics - and navigated with a sextant. They also did not know the exact location of magnetic north, which we now do, and therefore there was much more guesswork in plotting the course and position. I studied the detailed chart of the area and the depth soundings. There was a deep and fairly wide channel going into the harbor. It was winding, but should be fine. We would navigate and steer by the radar.
We called Christie and told them they should follow us at one hundred yards and watch our running lights. Barbara would stay in VHF communication with them during the entry. They said, let's go. Barbara sat at the radar in the nav station with the VHF microphone in her hand to give directions to Christie. I was at the wheel. We switched to an unused frequency to be undisturbed and headed in. The radar is very accurate, particularly when at a short range. We had it set for one mile, which gives detailed accuracy. You see the smallest in's and out's of the coastline. We motored slowly. Barbara could see Christie on the radar as well as the islands and the coastline. She would shout out directions to me. 10 degrees to the port. Roger. She would then tell Christie going 10 degrees to port now, over. They would answer, roger Magellan, 10 degrees to port, over. It took us an hour to get inside. It was not difficult using the radar. We were confident about our equipment and it came through. We dropped our anchors and went to sleep.
The next morning we woke up to a beautiful place. The harbor was pretty and there were adobe houses along the beach. They were nicer than most we had seen in Mexico and all had large covered verandahs. There were palm trees and greenery unlike the barrenness of Baja California. The small wooden fishing boats were pulled up onto the sand beaches.
We went ashore to explore, have lunch, and look at the local handiwork. The covered patios of the houses were the restaurants. You would eat in someone's house. The mother and older children ran the restaurant. The younger children came by with baskets of things to sell. At first we bought simply because the children were so adorable. They wore homemade clothes and no shoes. They were selling small carvings. Each wooden bird or fish opened and had a small little storage compartment. We saw that the artwork was very good, and each sculpture was different and lovely. We bought many of their offerings and now have them displayed on a shelf in our home. I smile and get a warm feeling when I look at them, reminding me as they do of Chamayla. We love the set of carved ducks the best. Barbara has a collection of ducks in various materials and styles from all around the world, so we bought every duck from every child who had one. They ran home to find more ducks, and we bought them all.
The meal was homemade and wonderful. It consisted of basic Mexican fare, but it was well prepared and served with love. The frijoles, re-fried beans, were the very best we had ever had. We repeated the visit the next day and they made us Chicken Mole as they had the day to prepare it. It was again fabulous, and on top of everything very cheap. We tried to pay them more than they asked and they refused, saying the prices were fair. Barbara managed to convince them to accept some clothes.
It was time to leave Chamayla and the people to their quiet lives. This time we went out during the daytime, but we still carefully watched the radar and stayed in the center of the deep channel. The next anchorage south of Chamayla is a tiny place where the Club Med of Mexico is located. It is not shown on the charts as a city. We only knew of the place from other yachts and the SSCA. The cove was surrounded by mountains, which were very tropical, green and lush. This was the first place we had been that was so tropical. It was very beautiful. The Club Med cottages were set along the beach and they had all of the amenities you could desire. We checked in and had to pay like we were hotel guests, but it was worth it because they had gourmet restaurants. We hadn't been there ten minutes when two people called out our names. They turned out to be old friends from Tarzana. They had come for a vacation and were very happy to see us. We all had a good time reminiscing about the adventures we had enjoyed together in the old days.
After three days we moved on. The Club Med atmosphere was too much like LA and too much like being at the chi-chi resorts we had visited.
We sailed out of this small cove and headed to Manzanillo. We arrived on New Year's Eve at midnight. We celebrated while coming in. Barbara was standing on the bow checking out the place to drop the anchor and looking for objects or anything that might not show up on radar. This is the procedure we always used when anchoring. To drop the anchor was easy as it just required pushing a lever which released the anchor chain, and it paid out by itself. When enough chain had gone out you hit the lever, and it hooked the chain and stopped it. The chain runs through a dogged wheel that matches it exactly. It holds the chain far more securely than a rope that is tied to a cleat.
As we were getting close, Barbara became nervous because she first could hear and then could see a large surf breaking on the beach. She told me we had to stop and anchor here. I thought we were too far out, but it was OK for the one night. We put out all three hundred feet of our anchor chain. The chain is heavy and that much chain is enough to hold the boat even if the anchor doesn't bite into the bottom. When we got up in the morning we laughed at how far out from shore we were and pulled up the anchor and motored in close to the elegant resort of Las Hadas.
We had good information about this resort and its willingness to have yachts anchored out in front. As pretty as the surroundings and tropical jungle are, it is a bit boring looking out to sea from the beach. But when there are a few yachts that you can look at, it improves the scenery greatly. Many of the resorts are therefore happy to have yachts around. Las Hadas is the hotel where the movie "10" was filmed. It has been used for many movies and TV shows, as it is spectacular. The buildings are old Spanish white with red tile roofs. The architecture is wonderful, making it a fairyland setting.
We checked into the hotel at the registration desk and pointed out Magellan to them. They were very happy to have us and charged what amounted to six dollars per day for the use of all the hotel facilities. Rooms go for three hundred dollars per day. We opened an account for meals and drinks and settled in. The only thing the hotel requested was that if special guests wanted to see Magellan we would give them a tour. No problem. Every couple we took onboard turned out to be enjoyable. They were amazed at what we had done and how we lived, and all asked that question of where we pulled into at night when at sea. We started to answer the Pacifica Hilton. As most of the guests were well traveled, we had fun comparing the places we had visited, and discussing our favorite hotels and restaurants in various cities and resorts.
We stayed at Las Hadas for three months. Most of the time we were onboard. When we wanted to socialize we went ashore into the hotel. We met all kinds of people of every profession. It was wonderful. I cooked when I wanted to and we ate delicious meals in the hotel when it suited us. The breakfast spread had every kind of fresh fruit and was spectacular - only the Bel Air Hotel in Los Angeles comes close, but is not as opulent and groaning with goodies as Las Hadas. We met a few people whom we later ran into in Tahiti. One surgeon was so taken with what we were doing that he quit his practice, bought a yacht, and sailed off. We ran into him on his boat on the small island of Raiatea in French Polynesia. He introduced us to his sailing companions and told them that we were the ones who had given him the idea to change his life.
Another huge advantage of Las Hadas was that mail got through. They flew it out to the US with a courier and it was picked up in the US by someone and delivered back to Mexico by courier. So it avoided the Mexican mail system and was reliable. We had parts shipped to us as well as some food items we couldn't otherwise obtain. Yeast was a problem; I had miscalculated how much we would need, and we were running low. The yeast they sell in Mexico is poor quality and often don't work. I had several years' supply sent to us at Las Hadas.
As much as we enjoyed Las Hadas, we were anxious to move along to our primary objective, the South Pacific and its many islands. We were ready to cross the Pacific Ocean. Magellan was as ready as she was ever going to be, and the timing to leave was right.
The months we spent at Las Hadas allowed us time to complete all of our lists of things to do. The only remaining list was fresh produce to put on at the last minute. We selected a date to go.