Pacific Mexico

Looking back on the eleven months of sailing, from Seldovia to Mexico, Hawai’i, and back to Washington, probably some of the most pleasant months were January and February of 2020, spent cruising up and down the pacific coast of Mexico. These were also probably the two months of the trip, besides growing barnacles in Hilo, where Darwind covered the least distance. 

            After leaving the island paradise of Isla Isabel, Darwind and Mamaku sailed in to band eras bay, to the cruiser’s hub of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, which would serve as a sort of base of operations for the next two months of cruising, surfing and preparing for the crossing to French Polynesia. Mamaku needed a new alternator for her engine, and Darwind needed two new battens for her mainsail, so Harry and crew went in search of a mechanic and I set off for the palm-thatched sail loft on the hill above the fancy and very bourgeoisie marina. Over the next week or so, we spent every day ashore exploring the town, discovering the delicious pastries of the local French baker, amazing vegan ice cream up the street, free movies projected on a big outdoor screen at the Marina, and dozens of fellow voyagers working together planning, sharing charts, knowledge, and resources in preparation for the coming of the trade winds and the long downhill run across the pacific.

            Every few days this group of vagabonds would meet to discuss topics ranging from rigging inspections, weather patterns, or provisioning, presided over by the more experienced sailors who had made this several times in the past, and hosted by the local sail loft or yacht club. Hard drives and email chains circled around the fleets inside the marina and those anchored just outside, sharing charts and useful data for the pacific islands as everyone pooled their resources for what would be the first major ocean crossing for most of the boats and crews. Dozens of new friendships formed and groups of 3-6 boats planning to leave at similar times began to form. As amazing as all this was, after a week or two Mamaku and Darwind were starting to grow fuzzy coats below the waterline so we decided to head out and explore to the south, at least as far as Barra de Navidad, a town I remembered as one of my favorites spots in Mexico when Northern Passage made her trip in 2012/13. Also, Harry, Sarah, and Scott were all keen and a little skeptical to see the crocodiles I assured them lived along that part of the coast. 

            Leaving La Cruz in the very early hours of the morning, well before dawn, we slipped out of the anchorage and across the glassy bay under power until the wind started to pick up. However, as we approached Cabo Corrientes (translates to “the cape of currents”) and as the grey dawn slowly sole over the eastern horizon, we were beaten back by several rain squalls with gusty southerly winds. After several hours of intermittent progress, we decided to wait until the winds became more favorable and so turned and had a fast beam reach to Punta de Mita, a famous surf break in the area. Not to let a good thing go to waste, we were soon ashore scouting out the local break, “La Lancha,” and having some fun bodysurfing along the way. Later that afternoon, Harry Scott and I were back in the dinghy with our boards, and we surfed until after the sun went down and we could literally no longer see the waves, the dinghy, or each other in the darkness. 

            Soon the wind turned, and heading out again for Cabo Corrientes, this time in the bright sun, and with a brisk breeze at our backs, we flew down the coast to Punta Ipala, a small fishing village with a tiny cliff-bound anchorage. Interestingly, Mamaku’s and Darwind’s copies of the Charlie’s Charts cruising guide couldn’t seem to agree on this picturesque nook. The only difference between the books was the year it was published, yet one condemned Punta Ipala as unbearably rolly and full of fishing nets and hazards, while the other praised it as a perfectly lovely and protected anchorage. Anchoring in 40 feet of clear water with only a small residual swell wrapping around the point, we were inclined to agree with the more favorable report. Landing on the beach turned out to be fun, as Harry and Scott nearly got run over riding Mamaku’s dinghy into the beach on top of a wave. The tiny fishing town was very picturesque, and after a short hike we were cracking open some warm beers on top of a signal light hundreds of feet over the water and looking out at the sun getting low over the western horizon. The Pacific Ocean was an endless blue that dwarfed a large trawler working its way laboriously north, a seemingly infinite expanse which we were going to try to cross in our tiny boats. 

            On our way back down, we noticed a large shark some local fishermen were filleting on the pier, before heading to the beach for more bodysurfing in the last of the sun. For dinner that night, Harry, Scott and I polished of the last of the Jamaica Mezcal then spent the next 3 or 4 hours attempting to make falafels in Mamaku’s galley. They may have turned out alright, I think.

            The next morning, we set out after dawn to avoid getting caught in any nets or long lines that the fishermen might have set overnight and headed south for Chamela. On this run Darwind was at a significant disadvantage since the post-dawn departure meant that we couldn’t get our usual head start on the faster Mamaku. What we did have was wind, and plenty of it, so as the sun was setting, the lights of Chamela were just coming into view, and Darwind’s anchor dropped into soft sand and mud less than an hour after sunset, while there was still just enough residual light to avoid the rocks and reef at the entrance to the wide bay. 

            In the morning we left the small town for the unpopulated and (to us) much more interesting islands in the south end of the bay. After poking around to find the most sheltered anchorage we eventually settled on one, then packed food, beer, towels, and utensils, and piled into the dinghy headed for a tiny little pocket beach on a neighboring island. There we found plenty of driftwood to make a table, a bar, and firewood for later, so we settled down in our little private slice of paradise. We spent the day swimming, exploring, attempting(unsuccessfully) to climb coconut palms, and playing beach games with drinks in hand. As the sun set, we made a fire and dug into some tacos, then sat around the fire until it died out. Zipping back to the boats through the still night we left a glowing trail of bioluminescence in the prop wash, tracing a bright blue/green line in the wake behind the little dinghy.

            The Plan for the next day was for a fairly long day of sailing down to Tenacatita, the next well-sheltered bay along the coast. Neptune had a different plan; and heading out from behind the islands of Chamela Bay, we were hit with some brisk southerly’s and soon we were beating into a stiff breeze under a menacing grey sky. After a few hours, we were abreast of Bahia Paraiso, a tiny cove unprotected from the north, but a perfect anchorage for these unforcasted south winds. Just after we tacked, I looked back at Mamaku coming up behind us (they were several miles further along when we tacked and so had more distance to backtrack) and noticed a tendril of clouds sneaking down towards the water between the two boats. I called Mamaku on the VHF and they in turn pointed me to a full waterspout that touched down way out on the horizon! The one above us died away as we watched, but we could see half a dozen more funnel clouds forming along the line of the front. Then, to make things even more interesting, a couple of adult humpback whales started breaching about a quarter of away! We scuttled in around a jagged point that was smashing the sea into spray and foam, then anchored in a small rolly cove surrounded by yellow sandstone cliffs which occasionally shot a geyser of sea foam out a blowhole. Here we went ashore to a small pocket beach, and because we had been feeling pretty sedentary on the boats, dedicated the day to exercise - swimming, walking underwater carrying heavy stones, running in the sand, core, and lifting rocks. It was fun, and besides a bit surfing and carrying hundreds of pounds of provisions at a time to the boat, I don’t think I exercised again until landfall on the other side of the pacific.

            Again, we only stayed one night, and in the morning left for a very light-wind day down to Tenacatita. In this protected bay complete with mangrove swamp, there exists a cruising community at anchor, who have held a dinghy raft-up potluck every Friday for decades. Never one to pass up free grub, I gladly jumped into a dinghy with an older couple heading that way. With around 60 boats in the anchorage the raft up was gigantic, and the food was plentiful, diverse and delicious! It turned out that the Super Bowl was actually that Sunday and the couple who picked me up generously offered to pay for my ticket to the nearby resort, which has a special service for sailors every year for the game.

            Although fancy resorts and the Super Bowl aren’t really my style, the buffets were bottomless and full of delicious food, on top of which I met some very friendly and interesting people. Meanwhile it rained a huge amount while we were anchored there in the brackish water by the mouth of the small river, and in one night, Mamaku collected over 100 liters of fresh water off their Bimini cover! On Saturday, I jumped in the dinghy with Harry, Sarah, and Scott for a long trip across the bay to the town of La Manzanilla, where we planned to stock up on some fresh provisions and also where I remembered there being a crocodile sanctuary. As soon as we were on shore I set of with my somewhat skeptical companions to the far side of town, where an increasing number of crocodile statues and artwork culminated in a flimsy chain-link fence, on the other side of which were half a dozen gigantic crocodiles at least 15 feet long and looking every bit like the dinosaurs they are, and occasionally snapping at each other for scraps of fish guts that visitors could buy to feed them.

            As always onwards and southwards, the next stop for our mismatched fleet was Barra de Navidad, probably one of my favorite towns from the Northern Passage trip. The passage around the next point was mostly motoring over a glassy swell, and with her advantage greatly reduced, I was able to beat Mamaku into the shallow mangrove-lined lagoon that makes this town one of the most secure anchorages on the west coast of Mexico. Entering the lagoon, I strayed slightly off the dredged channel and ended up plowing Darwind’s keel through a few feet of soft mud and sand, punching straight through a submerged sandbar. This remains Darwind’s only unintentional grounding, (so far) but as they say, there are only two sailors in the world who have never run aground; one of them never left the harbor, and the other is an atrocious liar. Now I can truthfully say that I fall into neither of those camps.

            In Barra there was practically no surf at the break, but we went out anyway and were able to catch a few crumbly waves on Mamaku’s big longboard. It was also exciting for me, coming full circle, and I very much enjoyed lounging on the beach sharing a “Ballena” or 1 liter bottle of beer with good friends, and remembering the past adventures I had had while learning to surf on that same break almost exactly six years earlier. We sent many hours wandering through the colorful streets being very indecisive about which taco stand to eat at, until we met some locals that Harry and Scott had met previously on a surf expedition up the coast, who showed us the best spot in town. We also spent a hell of a lot of time taking advantage of the beautiful and almost deserted facilities of the amazing luxury hotel across the channel from the town, which seems to be more a haven for sailors than tourists. 

            After only a few days in this nostalgic port the wind showed signs of southerly’s so we hauled up the anchors and headed back north, passing by Tenacatita and heading straight to Chamela. This whole passage was again mostly motoring, and on arriving in Chamela we were hoping to find a gas station to top up our depleted tanks for the next leg around Cabo Corrientes, which would almost certainly be either strong wind from the wrong direction or calms. In the end, this search for fuel sparked one of the most pleasant experiences of the trip for me.

            After landing up the tiny river in Mamaku’s dinghy, we started off down the dusty main road with a colorful assortment of jerry jugs. At one of the first tiendas, a weathered little shop with a low overhanging roof, and shaded by coconut palms along the dirt road, Harry stopped to ask if the gas station on google maps was actually there, an important question to ask in these smaller towns. The owner of the tienda asked a group of workers if any of them knew, then called a friend to see if the guy who runs the gas station was there. He wasn’t. At this point we learned that most people get their gas from Barra de Navidad, which we had just left. Without gas. There was another gas station 15 miles down the road, and the workers offered to give us a ride in their truck to go find out if the further one was open, but we decided that it really wasn’t necessary. We are sailors, we should just suck it up and sail, we thought, and decided to just go for it when the wind was strong and beat upwind the whole way. With the matter decided, now we had nothing to do but sit down and drink beer with the locals until the sun went down. We all bought rounds for each other, and chatted away in broken English and Spanish, although the more beers we drank, the more fluent it seemed we all became! It turned out that our friends were actually a movie set construction crew building a fake pyramid down the road for a film about the Spanish conquest of Mexico. They hailed from all over the country, with yarns to put any sailor to shame. One older engineer even worked on the set of “Titanic” for the sinking scenes, which were filmed in a giant tank on the Baja Peninsula!

            After several rounds of Pacifico’s all around, the shadows of the palm trees were getting long, so Harry, Sarah, Scott, and myself made our excuses and headed off down the sandy road for the dinghy, picking up some fallen coconuts on the side of the road on the way. Warm and fuzzy on the inside, we very carefully pushed off the dinghy and made our way back to our respective boats, to study the wind forecast and pick a date and time to leave, which it turned out was probably 4am the next morning for Darwind, as usual, a few hours before Mamaku. 

            As my alarm went off, I fried a few eggs on tostadas for breakfast, put on a headlamp and started hauling on the anchor chain. With the hook on deck, I made my way to the cockpit and put the idling engine into gear, starting and stopping it engine several times as Darwind slowly poked her nose out around the reef to feel out the breeze. It was calm, so I decided to save my gas and wait for the wind to pick up, and put the helm hard down to bring Darwind around on a tight U-turn. On the way back in, I suddenly saw a buoy to port, then a slight slowing in the forward momentum. I instantly threw the engine into neutral, then killed it for good measure. Peaking over the transom I saw a large bunch of fishing net that having miraculously missed tangling the propeller, slid slowly off the Wind-Vane’s servo and dropped into the black pre-dawn waters. 

            The second attempt, with a good amount of wind and light to see, got us out and well clear of shore, beating into a steadily rising northerly wind. At barely 2 knots of VMG(velocity made good), we crawled up the coastline towards Cabo Corrientes, which had provided such a fun, fast ride going the other direction. Barely more than halfway to Punta Ipala, the sun started to set with Mamaku already far ahead, and entering the harbor at Punta Ipala. Still steadily beating upwind on 3-4 nautical mile tacks, I dealt with a foot-long section of the starboard Jib track, which ripped right out of the deck as I pushed Darwind to her limit, the rail rarely emerging from the churning sea. At 1:00 am, with the wind gusting close to 30knots and Darwind down to a storm staysail and the triple reefed main, we clawed our way past Mamaku, her crew sleeping soundly in their bunks at anchor. As dawn broke, we had only a few more miles to the cape, with a significant lead over Mamaku. After poking out into open water, they headed offshore for some long tacks, while I snuck in within a mile of the coastline to take advantage of a slightly more favorable wind and a very favorable northerly counter-current. Using these and only one short blast on the engine when the wind died in the middle of a tide rip, Darwind and I were able to slingshot ourselves out into the whale-and-boat-studded waters of Banderas Bay. With a brisk breeze and close-to-beam reach directly to La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, I set the genoa and full main, and Darwind leapt across the small residual swell like a backcountry skier transitioning from the uphill slog to downhill turns.

            Meanwhile, on the horizon, the white speck of Mamaku’s sails grew closer and closer, and as the breakwater and dozens of swaying masts of the La Cruz harbor slowly defined themselves, so did the details of Darwind’s much faster pursuer. Less than 45 minutes outside of the anchorage, Mamaku finally caught the Darwind, passing just a couple of boat-lengths to leeward. After dropping the anchor in the middle of the crowded anchorage, under sail and without starting the engine, I collapsed into my bunk completely exhausted, with the sails hastily bunched and tied, and a nightmarish spaghetti of lines in the cockpit: problems better dealt with after a long nap with the boat gently tugging at her bridle, already ready for the next adventure.


            Over the subsequent weeks, we settled into a routine of maintenance, meetings, seminars, supply runs, and general exited preparedness for the crossing to French Polynesia. Intense discussion on everything from radios, provisions, sail maintenance, routes, visas, timing, and emergency scenarios, was heard everywhere. Dozens of sailors ranging from the dirt poor to the extremely wealthy were preparing together for a common goal. Darwind remained in La Cruz, with only the occasional jaunt to Punta De Mita for a surf break, for almost a month, punctuated by a visit from Mom, Dad, and Grandma, come to help with the last of preparations and deliver a long list of gear, spare parts, and supplies in short supply in Mexico. After a massive costco run, darwind was loaded down with close to three months of dry goods, from rice and tortellini to curries, tortillas, and hundreds of tin cans of mushrooms, carrots, green beans, all other varieties of beans, soups, fruit and meals. And I said goodby to my family over dinner on the beach at Punta de Mita. Alone again, I tidied up the last projects, and waited impatiently for a weather window to form. Darwind was among the boast placed to be the very first wave across the pacific. Itching to get underway, Esteban on Volunteer set out, on one of the first days in March, only to get stuck in a calm just offshore for almost a week. Meanwhile, Harry and I were watching what looked to be the perfect spell of northeast winds form, enough to push us into the trades without being becalmed. 

            It was a go, everything pointed to the perfect, stable system of high pressure and north winds. On the same day, we just missed each other criss-crossing town on the public busses, filling out exit papers and creating simultaneous appointments to officially clear out of Mexico on Marth 9th. The next day I went to the local vegetable wholesaler and staggered out with probably over 80 pounds of potatoes, tomatoes, onions, cabbage, mangoes, coconuts, bananas, limes, oranges, peppers, avocados, and anything else that looked tasty. That night I joined forces in Mamaku’s black dinghy for raids into the marina, where they charged exorbitant prices for fresh water which we were not entirely willing to pay. By the time I was staisfied that darwind was ready she had nearly 90 gallons of fresh water on board, 15 gallons of denatured alcohol stove fuel, hundreds of pounds of food both fresh and preserved, and the deck was floating up to 6 inches closer to the water than normal. 

            The morning of the 9th dawned. Everything was stowed perfectly and shipshape, darwind was clean as a whistle. I sealed the beer into the bilge and threw half a joint out the companionway into the last trash bag bound for shore. Shortly after dawn I pulled the anchor up smoothly, motored out past Mamaku as they were securing their own anchor on deck, and raised the genoa to set sail for the customs dock across the bay. Where Mexican customs officers met us on the docks, stamped our passports, shoved us off, wished us a good voyage, and took a picture of us leaving the dock for the official record. One after the other, we nosed out the breakwater, and promptly sailed straight back to our previous anchorage in La Cruz. That evening harry, Sarah, their new crew member Scott, and I convened at the fanciest pizza resuraunt in town, where we shared a pie a nervous conversation, with lots of toasts to “seeing each other on the other side” etc. After that we met up at a bar to watch some live music and meet up with a few other friends planning to leave about one week after us. Finally we returned to our vessels, and I lay on my bunk staring at the ceiling for most of the night. The next morning I woke up, pulled up the anchor, and lashed it on deck, tightly sealing the chain pipe for the next 3,000 nautical miles to, or so I thought, Hiva Oa in the Marquesas islands, on the far side of the world..




  1. Grandma loves reading about your adventure. Much easier than having you tell it orally. Now I can go back and treasure each word whenever I want. Look forward to the next section from Mexico to Hawaii. (Or did I already read that???)


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