Cruising the Pacific part 2: Mexico to New Zealand

By: Steve Raea, Photography by: Steve Raea, Cherie Leonard, Stacey Smith

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Having re-joined his yacht in Mexico at Christmas, Trade-A-Boat editor Steve Raea takes his novice holiday crew for a shakedown in the Sea of Cortez and finds himself land-locked for his troubles.

Cruising the Pacific part 2: Mexico to New Zealand
Cruising from Mexico to New Zealand. Just another day in the office really.

I should have realised things were becoming a bit uncomfortable on-board when the girls asked quietly if I would mind digging out the life jackets and explaining how to fit and inflate them.

We were 50, perhaps 60, miles into a 200-mile crossing of the Sea of Cortez and beating against the prevailing northwesterly blowing down from San Felipe near the Colorado River Delta south of the US border.

Usually benign, the Sea of Cortez separates Mexico's Baja California Sur from the Mexican mainland. This is a long and narrow waterway that runs north to south for about 1000 miles until it reaches Cabo San Lucas and spills out into the open waters of the eastern Pacific Ocean.

The Sea of Cortez is known for its diverse marine life and is a world-class destination for whale watching, with many species attracted to the warm Cortez waters during the Mexican winter. So thick with whales and whale sharks is the sea between Mazatlan and La Paz that they're almost a hazard for cruising sailors. We'd seen plenty in the first few hours of our crossing. There wasn't a breath of wind to begin with and clear blue skies - perfect whale watching weather. Crewmembers Stacey and Cherie squealed with delight each time a whale breached near the yacht.

A necessary evil

But soon, with night falling rapidly and 30 knots of breeze on our nose and building, the squealing was reserved for each time the yacht leapt out of one swell and landed with a sickening crash on the back of another. It was certainly disconcerting for the uninitiated.

I explained as best I could that this was a necessary evil when sailing to windward - against the wind - and while we could bear off and sail at a more comfortable angle to the seas, our ETA would blow out accordingly and only prolong their agony.

This rhetoric worked for about an hour, but as the last of the sun sank below the horizon and the reality of a night banging and crashing at sea became more real I recognised there was an element of real fright creeping into my crew.

Neither Cherie nor Stacey had ever sailed beyond the horizon before, and despite their stoicism I sensed a mutiny somewhere down the track unless I made things better.

After a brief discussion where I posed a scenario that had us putting about and sailing back to Mazatlan with the wind on our back and the boat relatively level - and flying to La Paz - there was once again a chorus of squeals of delight.

Deflated as I felt, I pushed the helm down, brought the boat through the wind and put her on a reciprocal heading back to Mazatlan. Our boat speed climbed from six to nine knots as the single-reefed mainsail and headsail filled to the wind and we surfed off on a three-metre swell.

My crew's relief was palpable and the call went out for happy hour. But there were no takers this evening, which was highly irregular. I pulled out the life jackets and harnesses for the girls and resigned myself to a long stretch at the wheel.

A building sea

Eventually the lights of Mazatlan popped up on the distant horizon. Getting the boat back across the narrow bar that leads up a short river to the marina was out of the question. Against all forecasts, the wind had continued to increase throughout the night and was now howling nicely.

The seas built too as the water shoaled beneath the keel to less than 25 feet. I'd sailed into Mazatlan's Old Harbor last time I was here about five years previously, and I had a faint recollection that the entrance was narrow but well lit with leads.

Now, about two miles out from the harbor entrance, it was time to tackle bringing down the mainsail. Normally this wouldn't be an issue. I'd swing the boat round into the wind, fire up the engine, and motor forward on the auto-pilot while I did the job.

My problem was the auto-pilot had thrown its toys about an hour after we turned around at sea. With the wind square and fresh the probability of a gybe was too great to ask the girls to steer so I could investigate the problem. Plus, I hadn't I let on that the pilot was down out of courtesy for the girls' well-being. But now I needed help.

Free fall

A mile out from the entrance to Old Harbor I called the girls on deck and explained I needed a volunteer to steer the yacht directly into the wind while I went forward to bring the sail down. Apprehensive but resigned, Cherie volunteered to take the wheel while Stacey agreed to pull in reef lines from the cockpit to help keep the sail under some sort of control as it came down the mast.

We started the engine and turned the yacht around into the wind. The mainsail flapped and cracked like a mad thing as I hauled in on the mainsheet. The true wind speed and size of the sea that had built became apparent as we climbed up and over the swell and raced down the back side of the seas.

Cherie did her best to hold the bow to weather but kept falling off, which filled the main and pushed the yacht beam on. The boat would then roll on her beam-ends accompanied by the now familiar chorus of squeals. A quick description of keels and the laws of physics made little difference to the crew's wellbeing. I assured them that they'd see the sun tomorrow and that we were only 20 minutes away from a calm harbor and a stiff vodka. All we had to do was wrestle the sail down. I put the boat back into the eye of the wind and gave the engine plenty of fuel. I stayed with Cherie long enough for her to get her bearings before once again easing away the mainsail halyard.

I clambered like a cheap drunk forward to the mast, wrestled the sail down and tied a crude lashing around the boom. It wasn't pretty but it was effective. Just as I was returning to the cockpit the boat leapt out of a swell and went into free fall. The crash was sickening but the squeal from the cockpit was bloodcurdling.The crew had had enough. I'd had enough. There had been no mention of this sort of malarkey in any of the cruising guides I had on board. With no sail the boat rolled like a bastard as we motored towards the entrance in the quartering seas. Our stowing below was found wanting as items were tossed from lockers and cupboards alike.

Eventually I found the leads and pointed the boat toward the sanctuary of the harbor, and within minutes we passed through the breakwater, found calm water and dropped the anchor. The girls were ecstatic and giddy with relief. Even I have to admit to being relieved. It hadn't been pleasant. After a quick tidy up below the vodka came topsides and we drank our way into the morning.

Old Harbor

A commercial port, Mazatlan Old Harbor is no tourist destination. The water is mud brown and the stench of raw sewage is unmistakable, but everything about the harbor is real. The local Mexican fishermen run around night and day in their traditional panga long boats, most of them unlit. There are few yachts that anchor here. Those that do are hippie budget cruisers on broken down yachts, but their stories are nearly always the most interesting.

The winds that blew us into Old Harbor kept up for three days, closing the entrance to the yacht marina 10 miles north, so we sat around on the boat watching the local shipping come and go until we could up anchor and resume our spot at the marina. What should have been a two day passage to La Paz had taken five days and we were less than 10 miles from where we had started. But the girls felt like they'd achieved a circumnavigation and had a story to dine out on. For Stacey - AKA Captain Starswell - her three-week Mexican adventure had come to an end and, while not making it to the Baja, she had no regrets as she boarded her flight to LA and onwards to Auckland.

Cherie, however, figured that because she'd conquered her fears at sea there was little else that would scare her again. She proved it by booking herself into a local dentist for remedial work that would be prohibitive back home.

The diagnosis was as long as it was complicated, requiring multiple root canals, crowns, caps, a plate, veneers - specialist this and specialist that. What was supposed to be a quick in and out is now running at 10 days and counting.

This has meant being land-locked in the marina, which only has a limited half-life regardless of the comforts of home, so we booked a return flight to La Paz for four days between appointments. This time the shoe was on the other foot - the single-engine Cessna forcing me to confront my fear of flying in anything less than a jumbo.

We bumped our way through the 90-minute flight and, like the Wright brothers, I kissed terra firma when our pilot finally put the bug smasher down on the other side.

La Paz

La Paz, pop. 250,000, is my favourite Baja destination and this trip was my third. It's more traditional than Mazatlan and less of a tourist haunt. The streets are narrow and paved and the architecture old and interesting.

We checked into a cheap hotel overlooking the malecón (esplanade), which was great by day with views over the yacht harbor and distant islands but not so good by night. The Mexicans love to party, but not before about 11pm. Come midnight, the streets are alive with live music that blares from the most unlikely sources.

Sleep was not an option, so we bar-crawled our way through town for two nights before surrendering and relocating to a traditional Mexican B&B three blocks away where we were adopted by a local cat that lived in our bathroom sink.

La Paz has often been described as the black hole of the Baja because many cruising yachties arrive and never leave. The marinas are full of aging American sailors living off their pensions. The upshot is they're prone to selling bits and bobs off their boats to cover the rent and I was able to pick up a second hand SSB high frequency radio for a song.

After four days of fish tacos, tequila, Mexican mariachi, and dusty streets, it was time to head back to Mazatlan for Cherie's highly anticipated appointment with a periodontist.

So here we wait for the last of the surgery before finally throwing off our lines and clear out for points south. Our next destination is Chacala, a small roadstead anchorage and village about 150m down the mainland coast. From there it's off to San Blas, one of Mexico's oldest ports, before sailing the last 50 miles to Puerto Vallarta and La Cruz.

A large commercial and tourist city, Puerto Vallarta is the ideal place to make final preparations to the boat before jumping off for the Marquesas Islands, 3000 miles west across the North Pacific in late April.

This time around I've had far more success press-ganging a crew from New Zealand and will be joined by two offshore Auckland yachties who will sail as far as Tahiti before jumping ship. But that's still some way down the track, leaving plenty of time for adventure and misadventure alike.

Check out the rest of Steve's adventure:

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