Thursday, March 31, 2011

Banderas Bay Regatta

Our Banderas Bay Regatta began with moving from the marina in La Cruz 5 miles down the bay to be closer to the center of the action in Nuevo Vallarta. The “Sirocco” race team had secured a slip in the Paradise Village Marina and rented a nearby condo to help house guest crew from the States and provide a gathering place for crew relaxation and meals between events. With Paradise Village filled to capacity, we moored in nearby Marina Nuevo Vallarta which was just a short dinghy ride across the estuary. On our first night there, our group took two dinghies up the estuary, passing many signs
warning that it was a “crocodile zone”, to the Fahita Republic Restaurant for a wonderful meal. We were introduced to James and Patti who had flown from California to help out as crew. The next day, we helped with removing hundreds of pounds of cruising gear and supplies from “Sirocco” so as to make her more race-ready. While the guys shuttled loads of gear to the condo for temporary storage, the ladies made a shopping run to Costco and returned with a week’s worth of food and drink for the 11 person race crew. The day before the races were to start, we sailed out for a few hours of practice and Anne and I were quickly impressed by the boat’s performance and the talents of the crew that have raced together many time before. Mark was assigned the position of mainsail trimmer and Anne that of “sewer rat” or, more politically correct, “squirrel”. While Mark adjusted the tension and angle of the boat’s main sail with each change in course, Anne scampered about as movable ballast and took her position below deck each time a spinnaker (large, light-weight sail) was hosted or dropped. Dousing a spinnaker involves a coordinated effort and the “squirrel” pulls in the sail’s fabric from below deck as quickly as possible like an animal socking-away seeds for the winter. Crew member James, just 17 years old and already a sailing prodigy, moved quickly around “Sirocco’s” cockpit tweaking this and that to maximize the boat’s performance and giving Mark tips as to getting the most power from the main sail. The day concluded with laughter, story telling and a delicious BBQ at the condo.

The regatta consisted of 3 days of racing and race one went well for “Sirocco” as we finished in 2nd place in the class containing the fastest boats. All aboard were pleased and the group shared a warm evening together back at the condo.

The next morning began with news via the internet of Japan’s terrible earthquake and a possible tsumani being forecast for our area. A short while later, word came in via our VHF radio that tidal surge in our area could reach 6 feet in height. This started a scramble by boaters to put out to sea where deeper water would offer protection. The matter became even more surreal when word began coming in that the Banderas Bay port captains had closed all of the harbors to both inbound and outbound traffic. As incredulous as it sounded, we were being told that we faced as much as a $5,000 fine if we violated the closure orders. Before long though, the order was clarified to apply only to commercial vessels and the mass exodus began. Within an hour, the bay was filled with about 150 boats sailing back and forth while monitoring their radios for news of the tsunami’s affects. We were relieved to hear that even though the harbors were experiencing rapid and reversing changes in water depth and significant currents in the narrow entrances, most of the marinas were fairing well. An exception was in the marina in La Cruz where a large section of floating, concrete dock was swept away from it’s supporting pilings. Fortunately, no boats were attached to it at the time. To everyone’s surprise, the surges continued all afternoon and into the evening. By sunset we chose to anchor safely offshore (with about 150 other boats) as the currents in the harbor entrances were still considered treacherous. As darkness fell, we found ourselves amidst a galaxy of boats’ anchor lights enjoying the last of the day’s warm, northwesterly breezes.

With swell conditions much improved the next morning, we returned to our slip in the marina and compared notes with the few boaters that had, for whatever reason, remained in port. All felt fortunate that the tsumani had not delivered the full punch that was forecast.

Race two of the regatta was scheduled the day of the tsumani so organizers canceled it and concluded the event the following day. Our crew put in a good effort but fell short of our first race performance. After the race, the team made trip after trip between the condo and the boat returning and reinstalling the many items that had be off-loaded for the race. Before long, “Sirocco” was back in full “cruising mode”. We would later learn though that we had placed third in the regatta’s final results, quite respectable for a boat equipped for cruising.

The next day, we returned to the marina in La Cruz where we would leave “Blue Rodeo” for a few days while we flew home to visit family, do our taxes and have dental and dermatologist check-ups. The short, 5 mile run back to La Cruz was made more interesting as we towed another vessel with engine starter problems. Our friends Howard and Lynn were unable to leave the marina the day the tsunami was forecast when, at the last minute, their engine failed to start. With a little synchronized maneuvering in the harbor, we were able to pass them a towing line and help them across the bay where mechanical assistance could more easily be found. Fortunately, the sea conditions were flat with light winds and their boat, “Swift Current”, tracked effortlessly behind ours as we made the crossing.

Barra de Navidad and Points North

Our return to Barra de Navidad was special in a number of ways. The tricky entrance to the lagoon there demands precise navigation and anchoring there without running aground always produces a sense of relief and accomplishment. Finding many familiar boats there was fun as was catching-up with the news from our sailing friends that are cruising this area. Also, the small town of Barra de Navidad remains one of our favorites for it’s mix of friendly people, quaint little restaurants and music venues. The waters of the protected lagoon are normally as tranquil as a swimming pool and convenient water taxi service to town is available for a modest fee. There is even a local French baker that delivers warm, chocolate croissants, fresh baguettes and other temptations to anchored boats every morning.

After a few days there, we were anxious to head a little further up the coast to beautiful Tenecatita, home of “Chippy” the anchor chain scratching dolphin. After leaving the lagoon we sailed the nine miles to Tenecatita but were very disappointed to find the waters there affected by a “red tide”. This phenomenon can occur along coastal waters when an unusual number of microscopic maine organisms “bloom” in such quantity that they turn the water the color of tomato soup. Aside from the rather disgusting appearance, the water’s dissolved oxygen balance is so disrupted that it becomes toxic to many fish. While generally not a problem in open ocean waters, this can be quite serious in small harbors where dead fish can be seen floating to the surface. In addition to the red tide, Tenecatita was experiencing an influx of small, stinging jellyfish that made the water even less appealing. Without even dropping our anchor, we turned the boat back toward Barra and pulled into the tiny cove of Cuastecomate where we found clear, clean water conditions. We were soon joined in the anchorage by our friends Steve and Pam of the catamaran “Barramundi” and before long, we were sharing stories over an evening meal at a shoreside palapa restaurant. The next day, we, along with Steve and Pam hiked the road from our little bay over the hill to the town of Melaque. We all enjoyed lunch at one on the many beachfront restaurants and sampled a well stocked market, featuring many US products, that is popular place for cruisers and shore-based vacationers to satisfy cravings for food that they haven’t seen since leaving the States. Later that day, we took the opportunity to clean “Blue Rodeo’s” bottom and propellor. We are amazed at how quickly hard barnacle grow will attach to unpainted areas like the prop and shaft and to a lesser degree to the areas painted with anti-fowling paint. Mark used a 50’ hose and regulator attached to a scuba tank on board the boat while Anne snorkeled along the waterline. After 1 1/2 hours, the bottom was smooth once again but we were both feeling a little sea sick from the combined motion of the water and the boat.

The next day, we were joined by friends Mark and Lorrie who arrived from points south aboard their boat “Thor”. Plans were made for yet another reunion back in the Barra lagoon. While away from Barra, a strong afternoon wind combined with a very low tide produced some excitement as several boats drug anchor and ended up aground. Fortunately, due to the lagoon’s soft mud bottom and the help of other cruisers, the boats we soon re-anchored or stabilized until the rising tide would float them free. When we returned the next day, we were entertained by many stories of the wild afternoon.

Before long, it was time for us to head toward Puerto Vallarta where we had been offered crew positions in the 19th annual Banderas Bay Regatta aboard “Sirocco”, a J130 owned by friends Lee and Cathy from Oceanside California. Our departure strategy involved timing our trip around Cabo Corrientes in the early morning hours when the winds and currents would be most comfortable. We left the Barra lagoon in the morning and motor sailed to the Chamela Bay where we anchored in the late afternoon for a few hours rest. After dinner and a nap, we readied ourselves in the darkness and again set out toward the open sea. Our plan worked well and, although we found head winds in the mid teens and short, steep seas approaching the cape, we made it safely back to La Cruz (in Banderas Bay) by early afternoon the next day. We would later learn that others that had departed a few days before us had met with miserably rough conditions and even suffered some damage to their boats.

Returning to La Cruz felt like another homecoming and, as we settled into a marina slip for the first time in months, we were pleased to see a beehive of activity in the harbor as a large number of cruisers preparing for their South Pacific crossings had congregated and were making final pre-departure preparations. Soon, we were sharing their excitement and looking ahead to our own crossing in March of 2012.

Friday, March 11, 2011


As we begin this blog, we are sailing back and forth across Banderas Bay just a few miles from the city of Puerto Vallarta. It’s a beautiful, sunny day with a steady 10 knot breeze blowing from the west. Although the conditions make for a pleasant day of sailing, we are out on the water not for pleasure but to avoid surge and possible wave action caused by the tsunami that resulted from yesterday’s magnitude 8.9 earthquake in Japan. We are accompanied by about 100 other boats from the small harbors along this part of the Mexican coast and will remain safely offshore until the danger passes. Mark awoke this morning at about 6:30 am and got our first news of the earthquake via the internet. He searched various websites and found the general warning issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. Even though we are many thousands of miles from the earthquake’s center, we knew that the energy generated by the quake could produce serious surges in our location. Cruising sailors share general information each morning on a radio “net” and Mark tuned up the radio as chatter began about a possible tsunami hitting our area. Soon, the radio channel was alive with forecasts, reports and a discussion of safety tactics. To complicate matters, the annual Banderas Bay Regatta (sailboat race) is taking place this week and the local marinas are full of participating boats. In fact, we are crewing aboard a sleek and fast J-130 called “Sirocco” owned by our cruising friends Lee & Cathy from Oceanside California. With the help of 8 other crew members, Lee drove the boat to an exciting second place finish in yesterday’s first race of the regatta. After nearly 20 miles of racing, we finished just 50 seconds behind the winning boat. As we wait for a series of surges and currents in the harbors to subside, we will take a few minutes recap our adventures since our last blog entry.

While in Zihuatanejo last month, participating in the annual Sailfest fundraiser, we were joined by friends Carol and Amy who flew in from Seattle for a short visit. They were quickly adopted by our large group of cruising friends and crewed aboard “Blue Rodeo” for one of the Sailfest’s signature events, a race that allows contributors to sail aboard cruiser”s boats. In addition to Carol and Amy, our friends Henry and Janice were aboard as well as two contributors from Winnipeg, Canada. Both gentlemen were experienced sailors so Mark shared time at the helm with them. Wind conditions were very light throughout the race which gave our whole crew an opportunity to strategize and adjust sails in search of an extra fraction of a knot of boat speed. At one point during the race, we were treated to the best display of whale acrobatics that we have seen this season. Just a short distance away, several huge humpbacks hurled themselves skyward twisting and flipping before crashing down and sending spray high into the air. It happened so close to us that we could almost feel the concussion of the impact when their bodies slammed back into the water. Our race finished on a thrilling note as we fought for position with one of our competitors. Our boats were just inches apart as we crossed the finish line and although we tried every trick in the book to sneak ahead, they managed to cross just a few feet ahead of us. Everyone aboard was thrilled and elated by the adrenaline rush from our close finish.

Evenings during the festival were spent enjoying local restaurants and listening to entertainment scheduled for the fundraiser. Before long, Carol and Amy’s short visit came to a close and, as they prepared to fly back to the chilly Pacific Northwest, we hosted 5 more contributing guests on a day-long boat parade and trip to one of the beautiful islands off the neighboring town of Ixtapa. Once at the island, Mark shuttled everyone ashore for a delicious lunch on a sandy beach before our late afternoon return sail to Zihuatanejo. The event was a rousing success and a significant amount of money was raised to support local schools. Mark, however, announced at the conclusion of the parade day that having a number of non-boating strangers aboard was exhausting and that he had no intentions of exploring a second career as a charter boat captain.

After two wonderful weeks in Zihuatanejo, it was time to point “Blue Rodeo” north and begin the trek up toward the Sea of Cortez where we plan to spend the spring and early summer. After so many months of traveling south, it felt a little strange to be heading north but we were looking forward with eager anticipation to the stark beauty, deserted anchorages and crystal clear water that we expect to find north of La Paz.

Our first stop on our journey north would be one of our favorites, the lagoon at Barra de Navidad. Hoping to save fuel, we were determined to sail as much of the 200 mile distance as possible. Once we were underway we felt such exhilaration at again being out at sea. Our time spent anchored near Zihuatanejo was wonderful but seeing our sails filled and the breeze steadily propelling “Blue Rodeo” toward our destination made us feel so very alive and feeling fortunate to be having this adventure.

In our next installment we will recap our return to Barre de Navidad and on to Puerto Vallarta. As we conclude this post, we are safely anchored off the little town of La Cruz with at least 100 other boats. With the local marinas and ports still being affected by strong surge from Japan’s earthquake’s tsunami, the port captains here have closed all of the harbors until tomorrow. The anchorage here is peaceful though and the mast- head lights of the many boats around us look like the stars in the Milky Way.