Cruising the Pacific part 3: Mexico to New Zealand

By: Steve Raea , Photography by: Steve Raea

mexico to nz The humble ‘panga’ is the mainstay of the Mexican fishing fleet. It’s not uncommon to find these open boats fishing up to 100 miles offshore mexico to nz
mexico to nz Red ensign: the NZ flag is a rare sight in Mexican waters and largely unrecognised by American and Canadian cruisers mexico to nz
mexico to nz Cherie and Steve have no trouble adjusting to the nuisances of Mexican happy hour mexico to nz
mexico to nz Anti-fouling is God-awful but a necessary evil as Steve hooks into the hull of Nereid mexico to nz
mexico to nz Mexican standoff: the Mexican Federal Police routinely set up random road stops. If they want to check your boot, you’d better let them mexico to nz

Trade-A-Boat editor Steve Raea and crew sail south from Mazatlan to Banderas Bay and get serious about final preparations for the annual 3000-mile Pacific Puddle Jump.

Cruising the Pacific part 3: Mexico to New Zealand
A stitch in time

One thing I've learnt when preparing for offshore is to listen to any nagging doubts washing about your brain and to act on them. Years ago, preparing for an offshore race from Auckland to Fiji, I had nagging doubts about the integrity of the yacht's rigging. It looked fine and had done a good job of keeping the rig in place, so the task of replacing it kept getting moved down the to-do list as the race start approached. Needless to say, the rigging didn't get a look in and four days into the race the mast fell over the side of the boat.   That was the end of our race, of course, and a very expensive lesson in preparing for sea.

A similar thing happened when preparing for my first Trans-Pacific crossing in Alnilam, the Robertson 35 I'd purchased in San Diego in 2006 and sailed home the following season. I had a nagging doubt about the integrity of the rudder bearings and had put dropping the rudder on my list of things to do. Again, the task kept dropping off the list and it was eventually overlooked. My failure to act on my own intuition came back to bite me hard when the rudder shaft seized nearly 600 miles west of Mexico.
Over the course of two days we were able to free the shaft by pumping grease through an improvised gland, but the experience of hanging by my ankles in the aft lazarette hour after hour in a following sea is not one I'd want to repeat.

Thus, the nagging doubts I've harboured for some months about the integrity of the thru-hull fittings on this current yacht got the better of me just as we were preparing to set sail south. Despite having had weeks to deal with this while my dearly beloved sat in a dentist's chair in Mazatlan, I'd avoided the job - and the expense of being hauled - telling myself they'd last the distance back to New Zealand.

I knew I was kidding myself. They probably would last but the nagging doubt would kill me. A day out from our scheduled Sunday departure I called the boat yard at the marina and arranged to haul the yacht the next morning. The yard assured me they had replacement thru-hull fittings and the expertise to extract and replace them quickly. All going well, they'd drop me back in the water the following morning.

Up and away

Having your boat hauled by a travel lift is reasonably straight forward, but here in Mexico it's something of a cause célèbre: everyone wants a part of the action and to complete the paperwork alone is a task in itself.

The attractive young Mexican woman at the travel lift office had me perform a half marathon returning to and from the boat for paperwork I never would have thought necessary for a simple haul out. Passports (mine and crew), ship's registration documents, copy of deleted US registry, insurance papers, temporary import permit  - and that was just for starters. She then required photos of the yacht, port side, starboard side and below the waterline. Gawping great gasps of air, I politely asked why all this was necessary. She smiled a knowing smile and said only that it was.

The next morning at the appointed hour I moved the boat around with the assistance of my new-found Australian friend Johnny and his Australian blue heeler attack dog, Billy. Billy is all class when he's not biting Mexicans, but Johnny has a mouth on him just begging to be stuffed with a fender.

As we eased the boat under the 100-tonne travel lift, I looked up at the lift operator and almost had a turn. The face peering down at me was the same pretty Mexican senorita from the office. She smiled at us in her knowing way and began hauling us out with the precision of a surgeon. Apparently, our nearly eight feet of draft was a challenge calling for the utmost precision from the most highly-skilled operator.

Skilled she was, but I was thankful we were not being charged by the hour as the lift took a total of thre and a half hours start to finish. Unfortunately, the Mexican lunch hour fell towards the end of the operation, and the boat sat in the slings for the duration. Any chance of splashing the next morning evaporated before my eyes.

This was another salient reminder of the machinations of 'Mexico time' and nothing would be achieved by beating my chest, so we resigned ourselves to an extended stay in Mazatlan. Things, however, went rapidly downhill from there. The yacht's thru-hulls are a metric size and those stocked by the yard were imperial, catering for the dinosaur American fleet. This meant further delay.

Rather than merely sit and wait for the parts, I decided to make myself thoroughly miserable by attacking the two most unpleasant jobs on the boat - the antifouling and the heads. The heads had never worked properly - just ask my dearly beloved - and the antifouling applied the previous season had been all but scraped away by my overzealous boat boy during the previous summer season.

Big bang theory         

With the toilets in a thousand pieces and toxic antifouling dust swirling all around us, we decided to check in to a cheap bungalow in the heart of town. The silver lining was being in town for the spectacular opening cadenza of the annual Mazatlan carnival.

This is a fireworks display unlike any other I have seen. Staged in the historic downtown area of Mazatlan with its high cliffs dropping vertically to the sea, the area is a natural amphitheatre, amplifying many times the thunderous boom of fireworks.

The opening fireworks display and street party is the biggest event of the year and draws in hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and tourists. This year's event was no different. A ticket to the main party area - a two-kilometre stretch of foreshore lined with stages, eateries and stalls -  costs 30 pesos (about NZ$3).

Gaining access to the event, however, is a sideshow all of its own, with men separated from women as you approach the main gates. From here you're herded down a line of about 50 heavily-armed Federal police who aren't shy with a body frisk. Their sub-machine and sawn-off shotguns ensure complete compliance. These boys mean business and they're here for a reason.

Once inside the compound the true size of the crowd becomes apparent and, according to TV, this year's opening fireworks display drew in over 300,000 people. Imagine spilling out of the gates of Eden Park after a rugby  test with fifty thousand fans. Now double  that … and double it again … and throw in another hundred thousand people and you've got a party.

Just moving about is like being swept along by a strong current, unsure of where, or even when, you'll pull free. It's not for everyone but the atmosphere is electric and alive with a cacophony of every kind of music pumping from stages two-storeys high.

Nothing happens early in Mexico and it was 11.30pm when, suddenly, the street and stage lights flickered twice and died. In the next moment you could feel your breath being sucked from your lungs by the explosion of fireworks. Seconds later the skies erupted  in a sea of spectacular colour. The battle  had begun.

Set off from opposite sides of a long crescent beach, the display is a reenactment of an historic battle, each battalion fighting for supremacy through the choreography of fireworks. The display lasted a full 30 minutes and culminated in a grand finale easily rivaling New Year's Eve fireworks on Sydney Harbour.

Night watch

Back at the marina, work on the hardstand progressed steadily if not quickly and we were finally lowered back into the water seven days to the hour of coming out. The delay had eaten into our sailing plans and meant a non-stop sail from Mazatlan to Puerto Vallarta in order for Cherie, my partner, to make her flight back to New Zealand.

Being just over 200 miles, the sail south to Banderas Bay would take us past Isla Isobella, a world-class bird sanctuary, and the roadstead anchorages of San Blas and Chacala, both of which I visited during my first Mexico cruise.

San Blas is an historic town, once a major centre of Spanish domination of the west coast of the Americas. It was in San Blas the Spaniards built the vessels used for exploring the west coast of North America. Some of the town's history is preserved in its old buildings and cathedral, but today it's a sleepy, quaint village and home to the indigenous Huichol Indians who come down from the mountains to trade handicrafts.

There is now a full service marina in San Blas but few cruising yachts stay long, chased off by the ferocious mosquito-like 'no-see-um' insects coming out at dawn and dusk, making life miserable for the unprepared. So small they're invisible, the 'no-see-ums' rip flesh using their teeth and these bites often become infected. Having been mauled by these insects once, I'd rather take my chances with a shark.

With no option to avoid a night sail, we departed Mazatlan mid-morning and enjoyed an excellent fast downwind sail all day and into the early part of the evening, then the wind dropped away to nothing. We motored all night and through till late morning when we picked up a very light thermal breeze off the coast. We ghosted the last 20 miles to Punta de Mita at the northern tip of Banderas Bay and dropped the anchor.

Adventure playground

Banderas Bay (Bay of Flags) is the largest bay on the west coast of Mexico. The bay runs inland by more than 15 miles and it is open to the Pacific Ocean. Punta de Mita is low-lying and marks the northern tip while, 20 miles across, Cabo (cape) Corrientes is high and windswept. The bay is a major tourist destination and a cruising hub with a choice of four full-service marinas spread across La Cruz, Nuevo (new) Vallarta and Puerto Vallarta. Each year, dozens of yachts assemble in the bay for the annual 'puddle jump' - the 3000-mile rally across the Pacific to the Marquesas Islands and points south west.

The bay is also the venue for the annual Banderas Bay Regatta, the largest sailing race-week in Mexico, which kicks off in late March and runs for a week. It's part of the reason why we've chosen to base ourselves here until we jump off for the Marquesas in late April.

With the conveniences of a major city, Puerto Vallarta is the ideal place to provision for the crossing, but with city life comes city prices and a city pace that takes some getting used to. Marinas are expensive and good anchorages are few, but the deep waters of the bay provide excellent sailing and sea life. It is here humpback whales come to calve and the bay literally teems with breaching whales, dolphins, turtles and the lure of big game fish.

Back to work

Alone on the boat for the next six weeks till crew fly in, it's back to work I go, completing the never ending list of jobs that haunt me in the waking hours. There's the SSB radio to install, the water-maker to re-commission, secondary pumps to fit and a myriad of other odd jobs lining two foolscap pages in the ship's log.

Check out the rest of Steve's adventure:

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