Magic Log #14: Makemo

Somewhere on the 500 mile passage from Nuku Hiva to the Tuamotus, I had a dream about our destination. I had only ever been to an atoll once before, on a one day dive trip in Belize. That was a long time ago now, but the neon blue water, sand, palm trees, and sharks swimming about in the shallows left an indelible imprint in my memory. The dream I had took me back to that time, and I imagined anchoring Magic in crystal clear water, then diving down and finding myself surrounded by coral heads and teeming fish. It seemed like such a fantasy, and I tried to put it away in my head — along with all my other high hopes for these islands — so I wouldn’t be disappointed when I was ultimately confronted with reality.

It’s still hard for me to believe, but all my dreams about the Tuamotus came true. The atoll we made landfall at, Makemo, is a paradise. It’s not perfect, but for us and what we want to do on our boat the highs are so high and the lows are so minimal that every day we spent there was a joy. While we had originally only planned on a week or two, we ended up staying a month.

We had a very pleasant time on the passage. After leaving Anaho Bay in calm conditions we made our way around the east side of Nuku Hiva. At the northeast corner of the island several bottlenose dolphins visited the boat for a little while, and soon after a nice breeze came in and we started sailing. Soon after we passed dramatic spires on Ua Pou, the last island we would see until Makemo.

We spent five days sailing to Makemo. This was a pretty slow pace for us; entrance into the atolls is controlled by the tides and while we thought about arriving earlier, it would need to be a full 25 hours earlier and require us to maintain a fast pace throughout the passage with little room for error or we would miss our entrance window. The extra time made for a great, lazy sail; we didn’t need to worry about our speed, and even had to slow down the last night as we approached Makemo, reducing our sail area until we were only making three knots. We were close hauled most of the way but things were comfortable, with squalls becoming less frequent and the weather clearing up as we got further away from the equator. On the first day I caught a couple nice tuna — 15 and 30 pounds or so — which gave us plenty of meat so I stopped fishing the rest of the way (we froze half of the larger tuna, which still tasted great after thawing so in the future we might just keep fishing and fill up the freezer). That same afternoon a booby visited the boat and landed on the solar panels. The rest of the day it preened and stared at us with its beady alien eyes, and then it spent the night there, roosting with its head tucked into its feathers and getting up to stare at me and make clucking noises when I went out into the cockpit.

In the morning the booby flew off, and for the next four days we sailed along uneventfully. At first light on the last day we were 12 miles or so from the east pass on Makemo. We started motoring in on both engines, but the starboard engine overheated and we continued on just the port engine (the overheating was due to a coolant leak, since fixed; I keep getting more and more appreciation for having two independent engines, though). We were planning on entering around slack at high water, and were still a couple hours early, but as we got close we looked into the pass and it didn’t seem too snarly, so we continued on in. From when we started entering the pass to when we anchored and snorkeled around the boat was a magical experience. Turquoise shallows surrounded by deep blue water, breaking waves, palm trees, it was like a postcard. We motored around a few charted bommies — coral heads that grow from the bottom of the lagoon up to just below the surface — and anchored near the west side of the pass, with a few other boats nearby and a town on shore. We got in the water right away and found 100′ visibility, groups of fishes in midwater, and a bottom covered with small limestone and coral heads. The water was a little cooler than the Marquesas but felt great. After relaxing on the boat we went out snorkeling at three nearby bommies. This first taste of sea life in the Tuamotus was wonderful, lots and lots of fish around and some good coral near the surface. One bommie had several white tip and a few black tip sharks patrolling around, staying away from us but pretty much always in view. Upon returning to the boat we were exhausted from the passage and the flurry of activity afterwards, so we went to bed early and got a good 10 hours of sleep.

We felt great the next morning, and after breakfast went diving at a bommie close to the anchorage. This was a neat dive, lots of limestone formations in 30-40′ of water. Not much coral but there were a fair number of fish and several sharks. We came back to the boat and a little while later went out again, heading to a beach on the other side of the pass to walk around for a while. This beach was stunningly beautiful, palm trees and clear, blue water. As we walked along we admired large coral heads in the shallows, saw a shark pass by just feet from shore, and watched a couple of hermit crabs trying to evict a third one from its shell.

We continued to explore the area around the town. We were particularly interested in the pass which we used to enter the atoll: these are supposed to have the best diving in the area. At first we checked out the pass by snorkel, heading to the entrance while it was flooding strongly and then floating in on the dinghy. Huge fields of healthy coral filled our view as we zoomed by, watching fish sheltering from the current and occasional sharks roaming around. Within minutes we were more than a third of a mile inside the lagoon, after which we got back in the dinghy and went out for another run. We did this over and over, checking out different parts of the pass and seeing which areas had the most life.

The next day I went out by myself to try to dive the pass around slack. The current was still ebbing very strongly as I got to the pass so I went ashore and hung out for half an hour or so, after which the tide seemed to be slowing down so I went in. The current was still extremely fast, at least four knots in places. I started in about 30′ of water and had a hectic first few minutes zooming over the coral and trying to get things under control, before I got spat out into the main channel and deeper water. I slowed down a little but was still going fast, looking around at a few fish and sharks but after a few more minutes I was out of the lagoon entirely. After finishing the dive I wanted to come back in and wait until closer to slack, but I saw a mooring ball on the wall outside the pass and decided to dive there instead. This was a wonderful dive: a sloping wall was covered with some of the best coral I’d ever seen, lots of fish and a few big shoals, several sharks, tremendous visibility of 150′ or more, and easy navigation. Even with the strong ebb there was very little current, as this spot was in a big backeddy. It seemed like the perfect place for a mellow reef dive.

The next day we both left to dive at the mooring with Dan and Kristy, the crew from a boat, Te Poe Rava, who we knew from La Paz and had just arrived the previous day. We were hoping for a gentle ebb but the flood had already started; there was a little current at the start of the dive, which increased more and more as we continued. Lisa and I stayed near the mooring in shallower water, making our way upcurrent and then drifting back and finishing the dive early as the current got to be too much. Despite this trouble we had a great time. Dan and Kristy finished their tanks by floating in through the pass, and reported seeing lots of sharks and other critters. This inspired me and late in the flood I went back to the pass with Lisa. The current was considerably less than when we snorkeled here a couple days earlier; we did another snorkel through the pass then I tethered myself to the dinghy and went diving while Lisa snorkeled at the surface. I had a nice time in the outer parts of the pass floating past the coral and fish. Further in I floated through a part of the pass that we’d ignored previously, and we came across an amazing scene. A large shoal of bigeye scad was down near the bottom, frantically swimming around with dozens of gray reef sharks and several huge dogtooth tuna in the mix. After passing the bigeye scad there was a large school of bigeyes (not related to bigeye scad, though both do have rather large eyes). I tried to swim upcurrent to stay with these fish, but dragging the dinghy was too hard and I floated past them within a few minutes and ended the dive. Lisa had been watching all of this from the surface by snorkel, and was just as excited by this experience; we wanted to spend a lot more time with these animals.

All of these scenes were clustered within one square mile surrounding the anchorage. With a town to explore and reprovision at, and decent WiFi at the boat, we weren’t eager to move on. We spent another two and a half weeks in this anchorage, getting to know the area more and more, building up our comfort zones by diving almost every day, and sometimes twice a day, at either the outer wall or the pass itself.

Initially we focused on the outer wall; I dove here with Lisa five times, and twice more solo. While the coral continued onwards well past the mooring ball (I hope and presume it surrounds the entire atoll, though haven’t seen enough to be sure), we only ever dove around the mooring, since it was so convenient and never got boring. After the early hiccups I got better at timing our dives, and we never had to deal with much adverse current again here. We got used to seeing the reef’s regulars — a big school of barracuda was usually around, and quite often there were schools of snapper, rainbow runners, parrotfish. Smaller fish could consistently be seen in the same place; Dascyllus in certain coral heads, a bannerfish that always seemed to be hanging out beneath the same piece of coral. I started to get an understanding of the reef as a community, an underwater metropolis where many of the fish have permanent homes or preferred places to make it through their days. I continued to be amazed by the conditions here. On my second solo dive I went down to 130′, watching the wall continue dropping into the abyss and then looking all the way back up to the clearly visible waves at the surface. So many sights stick in my memory: an octopus we found which came out to peer at us, parrotfish spawning in the shallows and leaving the water milky with egg and sperm, regular sharks cruising over the reef and occasionally a huge napoleon wrasse. Easily one of the best places I’ve ever dived.

Diving in the pass took longer to figure out, but was even more spectacular. While the rest of the pass was great, we were really interested in the group of scad, sharks, and tuna. I dove with this menagerie five times with Lisa, three more solo, and we did drift snorkels over them several times too. At first things were a little rocky; we had trouble timing the tides right or locating the animals, and drift diving together was new to us. We quickly got things sorted out, though, and started being able to dive with them reliably. The best dive was one where we dropped right in on the sharks right around slack. Right from the start we were surrounded, with some clusters of over a dozen sharks all right next to each other. There was no current, and we got to hang out with them for twenty minutes. The main highlight was a bigeye scad with a torn up back that came swimming right up to me, panicking, before taking off. A grouper chased after it and bit at the wounds on its back, then another fish started chasing it too, then a shark arrived and that was the end of the scad. The current turned during the dive and started carrying us away from the sharks. We passed through the bigeyes, some of which were trying to predate on sharp nosed puffers. There were still sharks around, and this was nice, but eventually we drifted past them, the reef petered out, and we surfaced. It was rainy with poor visibility, wind and wind-against-tide waves, but we didn’t care and felt great on the ride back to Magic.

It was especially interesting to see these fish hanging out in roughly the same place all the time. I suppose the scad never fled, even though there were so many predators around, because there was so much food for them being flushed in by the tide. The pass has such a concentration of nutrients that all manner of fish congregate there to feed.

On days when we weren’t diving the outer wall or the pass, we would often dive one of the bommies near the anchorage. These never offered up huge surprises, but we would usually see sharks and lots of fish and interesting macro life — pipefishes, striped shrimp, scallops, many clams of all different colors.

Even the anchorage was great to check out. We loved seeing the school of unicornfish that hung out under the boat, with their ridiculous horns and love for any food scraps that went overboard. One evening I did a night dive from the boat, heading off with a reel to wander around, seeing several morays, lots of urchins, sleepy unicornfishes and other critters.

We were probably at the anchorage a week before we even went into the neighboring town, but this was a cool place too. Flat concrete roads made for great biking and skateboarding, and wandering around and seeing all the happy residents walking or biking made for a relaxed time. Provisions at the stores were meager, but we found some fresh vegetables and some basil bushes growing near the wharf which Lisa was very excited to harvest from.

The town and pass area had even more activities on offer. We did some more beach hiking, and I started hiking out to the point on the opposite side of the pass from the town. There was a wave here that looked good, and I started studying it and went out to try surfing it once. The waves were breaking close to the rocks and I never did get a ride. Later on during our stay there were some northerly swells which generated breaking waves further out, but these were double overhead and after cracking a rib while surfing on Nuku Hiva I was more concerned than normal about my mortality.

I never really knew what to expect from surfing in the Tuamotus, though I’ve heard about waves at other passes which I want to check out. I did expect a lot from kiteboarding here. During the first week and a half there was very little wind, and while this made for great and easy diving conditions I was wondering if the kiting was going to be a bust, too. Fortunately, the wind did eventually fill in and for most of the rest of our stay there was always a breeze. I got in ten days of kiting while we were in the atoll, and there were a couple additional days with good wind where I had equipment issues and didn’t go out.

Kiting at Makemo took some adjustments from Mexico. By and large these were positive changes, but only with some preparation. Because the winds here are tradewinds rather than sea breezes, the wind blows all day and night and is generally weaker. I was glad I’m able to kite in wind speeds down to 11 or 12 knots, and want even more than before to get proficient with a foil board so I can more easily stay upwind in light air. There was some stronger wind, but only one day where it was consistently above 20 knots (this was also the cloudiest and squalliest day we had during our stay, I think a cold front was passing through). With the reduced fetch there were never large waves like La Ventana gets, and at the town I would go to a large bommie / shoal area next to the pass and skim around in flat water in the lee, zipping past coral heads in the electric blue water. It was downright wonderful, another scene from my dreams. I eventually got brave enough to kite over the coral itself, riding around in six inches of water and watching fish fleeing below me. Then I got too brave, tried a toeside turn over the coral, and fell off the board. I didn’t want to walk on the coral to avoid damaging it (and because I had bare feet) so body dragged off the shoal, back to the board, then back off the shoal, in the process scraping my legs up quite a bit. I returned to the boat, blood running down my shins, but continued heading out on later days and having a great time.

The hardest part of kiting here is just getting the kite launched. At first I checked out some of the beaches on the opposite side of the pass, but the palm trees would soak up the wind and it wasn’t strong enough to launch on these steep, narrow, gravel beaches. The first time I successfully got out was from a boat ramp next to the town wharf. I was there with the crew from another boat, Black Watch, and we managed to set up our kites in a spot that just large enough and get out. This was a hassle and wouldn’t help me kite at other anchorages we would visit, so I started redeveloping skills for kiting off the boat. The last time I tried this was two years ago when we were in La Ventana, and we had so many problems with it that we’d sworn it off. That was a while ago, though, and since then I’ve matured a lot and have gotten a lot better at safely handling the kite. We decided to give it another shot. I tried to be careful and diligent in getting the kite in the air, but the first time I tried I spent over an hour and ended with the kite still on the water and a big hairball of lines in my hand. I stuck to it and continued making improvements, and am now able to usually get the kite launched without much of a fuss. One day I never was able to get out. At first I set up the kite, watched it invert, then farted around to try to get that fixed, only for lines on the bar to tangle and force me to release the kite from the boat and fetch it with the dinghy. I tried again, but got delayed after a footstrap on the board broke and it floated to shore. After retrieving the board I launched the kite, watched it do a death loop (due to a snagged line), then released the safety (depowering the kite) and gave up for the day. I clearly still don’t have this launching-from-the-boat thing dialed in, but have more ideas for improvements and want to get a rock solid system in place.

While this was all handled safely it still wore away at me, and later in the day while untangling a different line I had a mini-meltdown and was unable to think straight. After this and a similar episode later in our stay we talked and decided that I just need to let things like this go when I get frustrated. With all my emotional improvements over the past two years I am sometimes still fragile, and kiting in particular has a way to get under my skin. Being in such a wonderful place with such a wonderful woman is a transcendant experience, and I can’t let my quirks get in the way of our enjoyment.

The most surprising thing about our time at Makemo was all the socializing we did. In Mexico we’d never talked to other boats all that much except when we were in La Paz or ran into boats we knew from La Paz. In Nuku Hiva we knew a few other boats, but Makemo took it a step up. There was almost always someone we knew in the anchorage, and many evenings for dinner we either had people come to our boat or went over to theirs. Te Poe Rava and Black Watch came through early on, and later we spent time with Tumbleweed and Mambala. We spent the most time with a few boats that arrived when we’d already been at the atoll for nearly three weeks. Shindig and Pangaea are boats whose crews we met at our planning meetings in La Paz, and whose email updates we followed on their way across the ocean. They are kiters, and we talked about that and launching from the boat and went for a big group snorkel in the pass with several other boats joining.

Some strong winds appeared in the forecast, and we all decided to head to the east end of the atoll, where we would have protection from the winds and hopefully be able to kite off of a sand beach which Rob, on Shindig, had heard about. So one morning we left with Shindig, Pangaea, and a fourth boat, Alcyone, and motored into strong winds, past numerous bommies coming up to the surface (easy to spot in the good sunlight we had, fortunately) for ten miles to a positively gorgeous anchorage. We were in 20′ of water, with fine white sand and scattered coral heads beneath us. We were close to a long palm tree lined beach with a few shacks inland, while to the south the palm trees ended and waves crashed on the awash reefs that form much of the atoll’s boundary. We all stayed here for a week, dubbing the spot Camp Makemo with its assortment of activities on offer: hikes ashore, snorkeling, diving, kiting, and several potlucks aboard the different boats.

Hiking ashore was pretty good. I went ashore with Lisa the first afternoon and we walked along the coral beach before making our way to the outside to watch waves breaking on a bouldery coastline. I did a couple walks here later, and Lisa did several with folks from the other boats, but for me the best hike was on the reef to our south. One afternoon we dinghied over and anchored in knee deep water on the flat limestone. A strong current was running over the reef and into the lagoon, water that had piled up from waves breaking on the outer edge. We made our way closer to the edge of the atoll, and started seeing a lot of fish sheltering behind small boulders, and one blacktip shark. We got pretty close to the breakers, looking up and down the edge of the atoll; such a unique and alien place.

I was surprised by how good the diving was just under the boat. Several times we did short dives visiting these coral heads, seeing the same fish each time — resident groupers, butterflyfishes, wrasses, dascyllus and so forth. The coral heads started looking less like rocks and more like villages, a downsized version of the huge coralscapes we had seen earlier on the outer wall. These animals need a place to live and make it through their days, and the coral provides one. Seeing and understanding a little bit of the ecology here was striking, and a new experience for me after all the diving I’ve done in the past.

Snorkeling in the area was great, too, and we checked out a lot of different areas. At first I was surprised by how much there was to see in what seemed an obscure and isolated part of the atoll, but I think there’s just enough nutrients being pushed in by the waves that life is able to flourish here.

We dived or snorkeled every day, but the main activity for me at camp was kiting. There was, indeed, a great beach for launching here, fine sand and no trees around. I kited from this beach several times, as did the crews of Shindig and Pangaea. There was a large shoal area in front, and I had tons of fun heading up and down it, dodging coral heads, seeing wildlife including a turtle, eagle ray, several sharks. The whole area was gorgeous and easy to ride around in. One especially beautiful feature was a pool, 30′-40′ deep, of blue water surrounded by shallows. One morning I used this as a sort of kiddie pool and set up my foil board nearby, using the pool to practice in without having to worry about getting blown out into the lagoon. The caution was fortunate, as one time after crashing the kite a connector popped open and it deflated, leaving me unable to ride but able to tie my gear off to a rock and walk/wade/swim back to the dinghy.

The great launching beach was tide dependent, underwater all but a few hours each day. I wanted to kite more, and close to the end of our time at camp I tried to launch from a nearby beach, which was coral gravel with some small pieces of rubble. The kite caught on a bit of rubble, blowing an 8 inch hole in it. I tried to repair it that night, patching the internal bladder and sewing some ripstop tape over the tears in the leading edge itself. Later I tried to fly this, and the repair promptly failed (the ripstop tape was too lightweight), ending my kiting at camp. I’m not sure there’s much of a lesson to be gathered from this that I didn’t already know, but it does reinforce the need to get a good system for kiting from the boat in place.

Over our time at camp we also got to know the folks who were living ashore here, four guys harvesting copra (coconut meat) from the palms. One afternoon while we were all at our boats they came by to give us some coconuts and palm hearts, and play music for us, which was really nice. The next day Lisa went ashore with everyone else and hiked for hours with one of them, David, while I was on the boat obsessed with some repair issues. I was sorry I missed this hike, but the next day — our last day at camp — we went ashore with Mike and Katie from Pangaea, and were invited in to talk to them for a while, drinking beer and having a good time. We left to go hiking, came back and talked to them a while longer, then had to head to our boat and leave the camp. It’s hard for me to personally relate to the work these guys are doing, but they seemed really happy and living peacefully, and it was great to see them enjoying life on the atoll as much as we do.

We left camp and motored for two hours back to the town anchorage. The winds built along the way, with grey weather and challenging conditions on arrival. The first time we anchored we ended up too close to a neighboring boat, and on trying to move the anchor chain kept getting snagged on all the limestone formations on the bottom. I dove down to clear it, raised the anchor, moved the boat, then dove again to help Pangaea clear their anchor, as they’d also ended up too close to another boat. (It’s not a huge anchorage, and when we first arrived only had a few boats, but as our stay progressed it slowly got more crowded.) We wanted to leave the atoll for our next destination, but the next day was pretty gross and windy so we waited and I kited some more. The following day, June 2nd, began with nice weather. I dove down and raised the anchor with a lift bag to avoid more drama, then we headed out the pass.

Our time at Makemo was amazing. In many ways it was my dreams and hopes about what these atolls are like that carried me into the cruising lifestyle, down to Mexico, then across the Pacific. Seeing this place in the flesh, and having arrived with the knowledge, skills, tools, and toys to enjoy it so thoroughly is incredibly satisfying.

Posted in Cruising 2017, Kiteboarding, Sailing, SCUBA Diving, Snorkeling | Comments Off on Magic Log #14: Makemo

Magic Log #13: Nuku Hiva

We were tired and exhilarated after the three week crossing from Mexico. Taiohae Bay was unlike any place we had taken Magic, a beautiful bay with jungle on all sides and a fairly busy town at its back. With a population of 1700, the town is the largest in the Marquesas and larger than anywhere in the next archipelago, the Tuamotus; one would need to travel 800 miles and pass by hundreds of islands before reaching a larger city at Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia on Tahiti.

We spent about three weeks on Nuku Hiva. Before arriving we didn’t expect that much from the Marquesas and mainly planned on reprovisioning and quickly moving on. In the end, we really loved our time here, and despite some downsides — rain, bugs — it was an intense and invigorating experience, and one that I’m still absorbing.

After a few hours at anchor to rest, we got the dinghy ready and headed into town. Getting onto shore was a head scratcher after so many days at sea; there was a concrete wharf offering some protection from the swell, with several powerboats tied up bow and stern with lines just under the surface leading out to buoys, forming a little maze. Along the wharf were several tires suspended on rusty, eaten out chains; a lot of dinghys were tied up to these, so we tied up too, and climbed up the tires to get onto the wharf and onto dry land. We walked along the waterfront, watching the beach breaking surf and enjoying the flowering trees, and perused a few grocery stores. It felt very different and nice to be on shore. After a while we came back to the boat and relaxed the rest of the evening. It was especially great to finally get a full night’s sleep with Lisa again.

Over the next few days we started adjusting to the new climate here. We’d dealt with a lot of rain on the passage but the rain at the island was another step up. There was strong rain every day. Usually this didn’t affect things too much, as it would only rain for a couple hours and often just during the night, but it’s certainly different from Mexico and we had to make some changes in reaction. The second day at anchor I fixed several leaks we’d found in the deck, after which the boat stayed pretty dry on the inside. A larger, ongoing concern was that we had to be diligent about keeping clothes, towels, and other fabric items hung up to dry; we’d developed a habit of keeping this stuff in piles out in the cockpit, which is a recipe for mold in this climate and had to be broken. A positive side to the rain was we were able to collect lots of water for showers and rinsing things; we’d never done this before, but without much effort we figured out how to direct water from our sunshades into some bins and buckets we had. During our time on Nuku Hiva we saw a couple of squalls which gave us 30 gallons of water this way in less than an hour.

At the same time, we got used to life in town. Checking into the country went smoothly; we used Yacht Services Nuku Hiva, whose proprietor, Kevin, was very helpful and gave us a lot of information about the town and island. We spent time at the main cruiser hangout, a cafe near the wharf. Mostly, though, we relaxed on the boat.

I was eager to go diving; this area was completely new to me and I wanted to see what it was like. Two days after arriving I felt pretty recovered and went out while Lisa was in town using the internet. I found a nice looking spot near the mouth of the bay, inside the east sentinel (the east and west sentinels are small, steep-to islands framing the bay’s entrance). I had a great dive, seeing lots of new fish and some familiar fish, plus a manta ray. The coral and visibility were pretty good, and the warm water was wonderful. I was comfortable the entire dive in a thin wetsuit top (the year round warm water here was a big reason we made the crossing; we have to wear a lot of neoprene when diving in the Sea of Cortez in winter or spring).

On the way back from the dive I saw several mantas at the surface in the middle of the bay, not far from the anchorage. I returned to the boat, cleaned up, picked up Lisa, and had lunch. After that we went out to look for the mantas, finding them in about the same place. Lisa went snorkeling first and started squealing with delight. There were dozens of manta rays, probably fifty in total, swooping around and feeding in the murky water. Even in the dinghy, I watched them pass under me one after another. After Lisa swam with them for a little while, we went back to the boat to get the camera gear, then I swam with them for a bit, then she went again. This was an awesome experience, more intense than anything we had seen at San Benedicto, and on top of this it was a complete surprise; we had heard of mantas at these islands but not like this. While we didn’t see this many mantas again in the bay, we saw groups of several individuals pretty regularly here and at other anchorages on Nuku Hiva. The rest of the day we just kind of soaked in the high of the snorkeling.

Seeing mantas while running the dinghy is one thing, but after the disaster last year at San Benedicto (see here) I have mixed feelings about seeing them while diving from an unmanned boat. I probably should have done this before even getting in the water, but after seeing the manta while diving I got to work on building a hopefully manta-proof anchor. Back in the US last fall I bought some 1/2″ PVC pipe, cut it into 5′ sections, and brought it down to the boat. Now 6 months later, I pulled an old halyard through these sections, with a stopper knot every 10′ to keep them from sliding around too much. My plan was to use this as the anchor rode — the PVC pipe is there to keep mantas from getting tangled in the line — and, after descending, to tie the anchor into a piece of structure on the bottom so that a manta couldn’t simply snag the rode and swim away with the dinghy.

After preparing the anchor I went out again to the same spot as the previous day to try out the new system. The anchoring went smoothly, and I didn’t see any mantas on the dive, but there were other nice sights, in particular an amazing octopus. It was just moving out in the open along the reef, and after seeing me retreated to a small rock formation. It didn’t have a good hole to squeeze into here, and I followed it from one side of the rock to another. It was a remarkable camouflage artist; in an instant it would disguise as a rock, with a mottled color and many ridgelines forming along its skin, and in another instant the ridgelines melted back into smooth, brown skin as it slinked away. I figured out later that this was a Day Octopus, which are diurnal and need to quickly hide as they roam around the reef in search of food.

Before arriving in the Marquesas Lisa had not been too interested in diving here, reading reports about murky, shark filled waters. After the first two dives I did she wanted to head out too, so the next day we did. Conditions were still pretty good, but the surge was a little off putting and we headed back to the dinghy early. At the surface we spotted several mantas nearby, and I went for a short dive with them.

We had been in Taiohae Bay for nearly a week at this point and were itching to go out and explore more of the island. I had another chance to dive before we left, and with smooth conditions out on the ocean I went to a more exposed spot, on the outside of the west sentinel. Anchoring in a narrow channel between the sentinel and a detached rock, I descended to 70′ and found an octopus clutching the anchor. They have a fondness for shiny things, and while this was pretty funny I shooed it away so I could set the anchor and go exploring. This was a great dive, probably the best I did on Nuku Hiva. Several sharks, a close up look at a turtle, clear water, and a spectacular sheer wall covered in fish rounded out the sights.

Soon after getting back from the dive we headed out for Daniel’s Bay, four miles to the west, to see a very different set of attractions. The bay was incredibly beautiful, maybe the prettiest place we’ve ever taken Magic. After rounding a corner we anchored near the mouth of the bay, beneath a 2000′ valley wall, green and ringed with spires and ridges and several tall, thin waterfalls in the distance, like silver ribbons. One waterfall on this wall, Vaipo Falls, is the tallest waterfall in French Polynesia and one of the tallest in the world, and was our main destination here.

The next morning we took the dinghy ashore on the beach at the base of the valley. We started walking up a dirt doubletrack past hundreds of fruit trees and a few houses, talked to a few residents, and paid a local, Paul, $20 for access to the hiking trail here and for some fruit after the hike. The round trip hike to the falls took about five hours, and was a great and varied experience. We had good weather on the hike to the falls, heading into the jungle, across the valley’s river a couple times, and past many ruins — stone foundations and pathways, evidence of the much larger community that occupied this valley just a few hundred years ago. After paralleling the river for a while we got some views of the falls, and we then followed a side drainage beneath huge walls to a pool at the base of the waterfall’s lowest drop. We swam up as close as we could to the falls, enjoying the cool water and the wildness of the place. As we started heading back the weather opened up, raining hard for about half the rest of the hike. The rain was warm and quite pleasant to just walk around in with no protection, and the valley became enshrouded in mist and had a very different feeling to it. We didn’t see anyone on the hike after leaving the village.

After resting at the boat for a bit, we returned to the beach to paddle surf and boogie board in the puny waves. Paul came by, I put a bunch of bananas and a bag of limes on my paddleboard and headed around the waves to put them in the dinghy. Later we hung the banana bunch at the back of the boat; they started ripening the next day and for the next week we had as many bananas as we could pick and eat.

I went out solo for a dive the next morning, outside Daniel’s Bay near point Temokomoko. I anchored in 70′ and checked out the steep walls in the area, which had little coral but lots of fish. The highlights were a few sharks and two octopus side by side in a crack. At first I just saw one of them. After watching and petting it a little I noticed what looked like a detached tentacle nearby. I touched it, and it immediately latched onto my hand and started pulling it into the crack. I had to brace on a rock to pull my hand out, and in the process managed to brush my stomach against another rock and get stung, leaving a five inch welt. The octopus around here mean business; I think the second one was using its tentacle as a lure for fish, or maybe it was just a jerk.

Our outboard was giving some trouble when I went out diving, dying a few times at lower speeds, but I managed to make it back to Magic alright. After resting a bit we wanted to go out and snorkel, but the outboard was still acting up. I installed a new carburetor we had onboard, and it seemed to be fine (the old carburetor gave us a lot of trouble last season after being fed varnished fuel and getting a saltwater bath; we’d had it repaired but it seemed to be back to its old tricks and I didn’t want to repeat our experience from last season). We went out, staying near some fringing reefs inside the bay. We saw several sea turtles, but the water was too murky for good snorkeling. We explored outside the bay and still didn’t find a good site, so we headed back and went ashore in the eastern lobe of Daniel’s Bay, hiking around and looking at the plethora of crabs making their homes in the sand, mud, and trees along a small stream.

We returned to Taiohae Bay the next day, as we needed internet access for a few more days. While staying there we tried diving a couple of times, but the swell had increased dramatically and most places had poor visibility and too much surge. I got in one dive by myself, which was mediocre except at the beginning. After descending I looked around for a rock to tie the dinghy too, only to see what looked like a rock swimming towards me. It was a huge stingray, 5′ across, which glided gently by. As soon as it left, two mantas showed up. One passed me and then headed right for the anchor line. Visions of the accident last year flashed in my eyes, but the ray saw the line in time, reared up to dodge it, and swam away (another advantage of using PVC is that it is bright white and wider than the three strand nylon inside it, making it more visible).

We had made reservations earlier to rent a car from Kevin, and spent a day touring the island, a reprieve from the swell. It was fun being the passenger (the car had a stick shift, and Lisa had to drive) and really interesting seeing the rest of the island. Generally good concrete roads twisted around through the jungle with lots of great views of the ocean and coastline. We stopped at a couple of sites with ruins, one of which was quite extensive and had some interesting petroglyphs and a magnificent banyan tree. We went up to the north coast first, came back to Taiohae bay for lunch, then went most of the way to the airport at the northwest end of the island, turning around after we climbed into the clouds and ran out of views. The upper elevation stuff in the later part of the day was especially interesting, this part of the island has very different flora with lots of conifers and tree ferns.

After returning the car we again had nothing to do in the bay. We left the next afternoon for Bahie Controleur, a few miles to the east. I was interested in diving here, but I mostly wanted to surf. We’d seen one promising break in the western lobe on the drive, and heard about a good longboard break in the middle lobe. We anchored in the western lobe, alone except for some goats and pigs along the shoreline. I went paddlesurfing a bit nearby, and checked out the much nicer break in the middle lobe by dinghy, but it was too late in the day to try surfing there.

The next morning I left a little after first light, excited for my first good surfing opportunity in over two years. I had lots of fun for about an hour in the mellow, waist-chest high surf, and then as I was finishing a ride I fell off on the wrong side — the beach side — of the board. The breaking wave drove the board into my chest. I doubled over in pain and gasped for breath as I walked in to the beach (my leash had broken earlier in the session and I didn’t have the board anymore). After resting for a bit I felt better and tried surfing again, getting another ride but it was hard to paddle with my discomfort. I went back to the dinghy and returned to Magic to rest; a few hours later I was having a lot of trouble moving (presumably my tissues were inflamed as my body started to heal). It seemed that I had probably cracked a rib, and the only sensible thing would be to forget surfing (especially unfortunate, as I’d wanted to take Lisa to the break), rest, and recover.

We spent two more nights at the anchorage. I enjoyed the scenery, played videogames, and slept. The first afternoon Lisa had some fun kayaking around the boat and enjoying the company of a few resident manta rays, but otherwise she relaxed as well. It was a fun time, and I quickly started healing.

Our next destination was, again, Taiohae Bay. In La Paz we became familiar with the concept of a cruising vortex, a place that has enough services, supplies, and a social scene that it is difficult to leave. Taiohae Bay is definitely one of these vortexes, and I was getting desperate to escape its clutches. We made plans to stay just a couple more days, finish up provisioning for the next stage of the trip, and use the internet for the last time for a while. We also had time for one more dive. The swell had come down and we went out together, finding a nice spot with little surge, decent visibility, and great coral and fish. It was really nice to do a mellow dive with Lisa, something that had been missing from our trip so far.

There was one more destination we wanted to visit before leaving Nuku Hiva. We had been hearing about Anaho Bay for weeks. This bay is on the north side of the island, protected from the swell, and it had built up in our minds into a kind of Shangri-la, a spot with calm, clear water, and a coral reef ideal for diving. We left Taiohae in the morning for the five hour trip to Anaho, finding decent but unsettled conditions. About halfway there a group of melon-headed whales (a kind of dolphin) followed us on and off for about an hour, very cool. Conditions were pleasant as we approached Anaho Bay, and I hooked and then landed a nice tuna, maybe fifteen pounds — the second largest fish I’ve ever caught, but it seemed tiny compared to the one we caught at the end of our passage. As we entered Anaho we saw some rain activity at the back of the bay, and as we got halfway in we were hit by a wall of wind and pelting rain. Visibility was shot and we could barely see the sides of the bay, so we quickly decided to back off and wait in the outer parts of the bay for the weather to pass. The heavy weather continued for about half an hour, and it was a relief when we finally got in, anchored, and had a wonderful fish burrito lunch.

Rain and squalls continued until the next morning. As things abated we went out in the dinghy to look for a good spot to snorkel or dive, but with all the sediment in the water it was hopeless. We returned to the boat pretty morose, sick of the gray weather and feeling like Anaho was a bust. Eventually we tried to salvage things by going to shore and exploring. There is a small village in the bay, very laid back and remote; it is only reachable by boat and trail, and the main ways of getting around are by foot and horse.

The tide was out and exposed a gigantic tide pool, hundreds of feet wide and half a mile long. This was a tremendous amount of fun to pick our way through, by far the best tide pool I’ve ever explored. Early on I was watching a school of moorish idols flashing black and yellow in the knee deep water when I noticed a suspicious animal swimming away. I followed it and confirmed it was an octopus as it tried to camouflage on the bottom. I caught it — getting repeatedly sprayed with ink in the process — and carried it to shallower water so that Lisa could enjoy it for a while. It was fascinating to watch as it picked its way along the bottom, probing with its long tentacles for any place it could get away from the giants towering over it. After ten minutes I carried it back to where I found it and watched as it swam off and found a place to hide.

We also saw a good sized moray in the tide pool, many smaller eels, lots of juvenile fish and crabs, and some larger parrotfish and pufferfish. Exploring the tide pool was a great and completely unexpected experience, and reminded us that we shouldn’t hold onto our preconceptions too strongly when seeing a new place.

After a night of rain, we woke up in the morning to calm conditions. I did a few last minute boat projects, then we left for the 500 mile passage to the Tuamotus.

Posted in Cruising 2017, Sailing, SCUBA Diving, Snorkeling, Surfing | Comments Off on Magic Log #13: Nuku Hiva

Magic Log #12: La Paz to Nuku Hiva

Nuku Hiva is an island in the Marquesas, the northeasternmost group in French Polynesia and one of a couple places where most boats make landfall after crossing from the west coast of North America. On March 16 we set out for Nuku Hiva from La Paz. After leaving around noon we stopped a few hours later at Puerto Ballandra, one of our favorite anchorages in the area. We needed to decompress from all the work preparing the boat, and especially the last minute engine problems. We had a nice, relaxing afternoon and got a full night’s sleep, our last for a while. The next morning we left at 6am for the 150 mile trip to Cabo, running both engines the whole way to test them as much as we could. We got to use the sails a little and deal with headwinds a little, but most of the trip was calm. In the afternoon, when we were about a third of the way there, we encountered a humpback whale that kept slapping its tail over and over, quite a display.

After motoring through the night we arrived in Cabo the next morning around 9am. After anchoring, Lisa hailed a water taxi, who took us in to fill jerry cans with fuel and to drop us off on the beach to go shopping. We spent an hour at Costco to do our final provisioning, returned to the boat on another water taxi, spent a couple hours relaxing and putting things away, and then finally left in the early afternoon.

As soon as we got past the point sheltering Cabo the wind came up. The route to the Marquesas is southwest, but these winds were west and we had to head south to make much progress. After a few hours the winds started bending back behind us and by the next morning we were on a direct course for Nuku Hiva. We would sail continuously for the next ten days, covering about 1400 miles and more than half the distance.

Before researching this trip I thought of this crossing as being pretty uniform, just a big empty ocean that you sail across with the wind behind you. This was, broadly, our experience, but there were some finer details that needed planning. All the sailing we did early on was in the northern tradewind belt, the band of consistent northeast winds that starts around the Tropic of Cancer and stretches down towards the equator. As you approach the equator you encounter the Intertropical Convergence Zone, or ITCZ, the mixture of calm and unsettled, squally weather that divides the northern and southern trades. The location of the ITCZ varies, but we hit it around 6 degrees north. After passing through it we were in the southern trades, which are supposed to have consistent southeast winds but were kind of weak as we passed through. The rest of the way to Nuku Hiva we had a mixture of great sailing, calm weather, and squalls.

Up to this point, the longest passage we had done was three days; we expected this one to take at least three weeks, and going on such a long trip takes some adjusting. We started on a watch schedule where I would be on watch in the evening until midnight, Lisa would take over until 4am, then I would take over until she woke up. This worked pretty well but we still felt sleep deprived, would nap during the day and never felt fully awake and alert. I had kind of expected to be able to sleep pretty well on passage out on the ocean, but this didn’t quite happen; while there were almost no other boats around to watch for, the winds needed frequent monitoring and later in the trip we had to watch for squalls at night.

We settled into a pattern where I would handle the sails and Lisa would take care of cooking and cleanup. Much of the day we were both able to relax and recharge; the stress of the sailing made it hard to concentrate on other things for much of the passage, but later on as we got used to things I started doing some work and Lisa painted a series of beautiful watercolors.

Working with the sails was a lot of fun. While Magic is putatively a sailboat, in Mexico we only got to sail intermittently; the Sea of Cortez isn’t all that windy when northers aren’t rolling through, and we didn’t spend much time sailing in the northers (except for our trip south around Thanksgiving of 2015, which had lots of great wind). On this passage I was working with the sails every day, and they were always up. In the end we sailed over 70% of the distance to Nuku Hiva, motor sailing the rest of the way. The wind direction changed slowly, turning about 180 degrees over the course of two weeks. We were on a starboard tack the first few days, then the wind came from directly behind and we used a tradewind rig (twin headsails with no mainsail) for several days. As we got closer to the equator the wind continued to shift onto a port tack and stayed there the rest of the trip. Most of the sail work was necessary to manage the amount of power we had; while the wind didn’t shift it did vary quite a bit in strength, and multiple times per day I would need to reef the sails (reducing their area and power), shake out a reef (getting that area and power back), or deploy or douse the spinnaker (a giant free flying sail used in lighter winds). Most days I would also patrol the boat looking for chafe points; lines under tension that are rubbing against other things will be damaged pretty quickly.

We didn’t have problems with chafe, except for a core shot reefing line early on in the trip, but we did have some other sail related carnage. All of this revolved around the whisker poles — aluminum poles, 15′ long on our boat, that are used to hold sails out and away from the boat, and that make managing a tradewind rig or the spinnaker a lot easier. When we got Magic I didn’t know how to use the poles, and it took years of failed attempts before I finally did some research and experimented to develop a reasonable technique. That technique showed its flaws early on in the passage. Early in the trip, one afternoon a line on one of the poles broke, and I had to drop the sail it was supporting and bring the pole back to the cockpit to repair it. That same night another line attached to the same pole broke, and I had to go forward and rig a new, beefier line to get the pole back in position. This worked for several days, but then the pole itself snapped in half. This was during one of the first squalls we encountered and some of the strongest winds of the trip, and I had to go forward — in the middle of the night, in a rainstorm — to wrestle down the free flying jib the pole was supporting, which had gotten around the forestay and was flapping around violently, and to get it back into the cockpit with Lisa’s help. This went pretty well, though, and the rain was warm and refreshing.

Before starting the trip, I was pretty concerned when reading about all the squalls in the part of the world we would be sailing to. We’d never seen squalls in Mexico, except for a monstrous one in the fall of 2014 that generated winds over 40 knots and the most intense seas I’ve ever seen (being anchored right off a lee shore didn’t help matters, either). So I may have been expecting to see more squalls like that one on the passage, but nothing we encountered even came close. As we neared the ITCZ we started seeing squalls, and would continue to see them every day for the rest of the trip, most often at night but sometimes throughout the day as well. We could easily see them on the radar; most would pass by miles away but we needed to watch for ones that would pass over us and require us to reduce sail and close hatches. All the squalls had rain, and most of them had increased winds in front of them and reduced winds behind them. The latter was the most annoying thing about the squalls; after one passed over us we could bob around without much wind for more than an hour. (Squalls form when warm, moist air rises, the moisture condenses, and the air sinks back down, bringing air flow that radiates outwards from the base and adds to or subtracts from the underlying wind.) Before the trip I’d been paranoid about lightning from the squalls, but we only ever saw a couple of flashes.

As we entered the ITCZ we finally started motoring. The forecast was pretty inconsistent about its size and position and we wanted to move through it as quickly as possible. After less than a day we were past it but winds were light so we continued motoring. The following afternoon, after I started up the engine I noticed the tachometer and alternator weren’t working so I looked in the engine room to find a lot of foul smelling smoke. The temperature alarm on the engine went off and I shut it down and used the other engine instead. It’s pretty disconcerting to have engine problems in the middle of the ocean, and I’m always glad to have two engines. Thinking about the symptoms I was pretty sure it was a problem with the V belt, and sure enough when I looked at the engine the next morning the belt had torn (creating the smoke) after a bolt connecting the alternator to the engine sheared. Dealing with this bolt was a gigantic headache; the rest of the bolt was still in a little tang and I could not get it to budge with penetrating oil, heat, or easy-outs. After breaking off an easy-out in the bolt I managed to drill a hole all the way through the bolt, and then broke the drill bit off too. I used a dremel to cut off the back of the tang and expose the hole the bolt was in; this let me clear the drill bit and start drilling the hole out using larger bits. After breaking several bits I finally got the hole out to 1/4″ (from its original 3/8″) and called it good, installing a new and smaller bolt and getting the engine running again. This procedure took up most of my time over seven hours, spending ten or fifteen minutes at a time in the engine room and then coming out, dripping with sweat, to cool off, hydrate, and plan the next steps.

Fortunately, this was the only problem we had with the engines on the entire crossing. Despite all the headaches it caused, I’m glad we did all the maintenance work on the engines before leaving, as problems with the injectors or especially the saildrives might not have been repairable at sea. After leaving the ITCZ we alternated motoring with sailing for the next several days as we continued southwest. Winds were frequently light and the squalls continued so we didn’t want to carry a lot of sail, but several times there was a nice wind all day and great sailing. We motored across the equator, having a nice little party with champagne and hors d’oeurves, and then passed through a second convergence zone with yet more squally weather.

I’m used to a fairly fast pace of life, and being isolated on the boat for three weeks with limited tasks to do was definitely different. It was great spending so much time with Lisa, we got along really well and even just hanging out with her was lots of fun. We only saw one boat the entire time mid ocean; all other boats we saw in person or on the radar were within a couple hundred miles of Cabo. There were birds around pretty regularly near shore as well, and while birds did visit the boat mid ocean we would only see one or a few at a time, ducking through the waves or flying past. The first half of the trip had many flying fish, which would frequently scatter at the boat’s approach and skim near the surface of the water for a hundred feet or more; several times Lisa and I rescued fish that flew into the cockpit while we were on watch, and each morning I would patrol the decks to look for corpses to toss overboard.

Early in the trip we caught a few bonito to eat but after getting far enough from shore that stopped. When we got within about five hundred miles of Nuku Hiva the fish started biting again. I caught a small, tasty bonito and lost quite a few lures with our lightweight tackle (I meant to get burlier stuff before we left La Paz but it didn’t happen). In one especially stupid incident I brought a beautiful tuna up to the boat, only for the leader to break when I tried to lift it out of the water by hand (instead of with a gaffing hook). I was a little inebriated at the time, and have vowed from now on to stop and think before doing something new or complicated in such a state. The trip wasn’t quite over, though, and the fish kept biting. The next evening I finally boated a nice tuna, about thirty pounds and enough fillets for six or seven meals for us.

This was the evening before we were due to make landfall. After spending an hour dealing with the fish we relaxed on deck until sunset, enjoying the smooth sailing, beautiful clouds, and great temperatures. In the middle of the night strong winds came and more squalls set up around us (with some lightning this time), but we’d seen enough of these by now that we weren’t too worried. Dawn came, the wind died, and we motored the rest of the way as Nuku Hiva came into view. Steep green cliffsides, lush valleys, and a rich scent of the earth greeted us as we made our way to the south side of the island and into Baie de Taiohae, the site of the main anchorage and town on the island, and where we needed to go to check into the country. We had been at sea for 21 days, and the island was stunningly beautiful.

As excited as I am to be in French Polynesia after a decade of dreaming, this crossing was a fun and interesting experience and a good opportunity for reflection. I’ll look forward to other long passages in the future.

Posted in Cruising 2017, Sailing | Comments Off on Magic Log #12: La Paz to Nuku Hiva

Magic Log #11: Preparing to Cross

For over a decade now I’ve wanted to sail to the South Pacific. Lisa came by this dream more recently but is also really excited by it. A few weeks ago we left Mexico for the 2600 mile crossing to the Marquesas. Now that we’ve arrived, we plan to spend three months in French Polynesia, leave the boat on the hard in Raiataea and return to the US in July. We’ll see where things go from there in future years.

We had a long list of projects to do for bringing the boat into as good a running condition as could be managed. We would be spending three or more weeks on the crossing and needed to be able to deal with any problems completely on our own. In addition, we hope to keep the boat in the south pacific for several years and getting parts there is complicated, time consuming and expensive. Planning out these projects, getting supplies for doing them, and actually doing them all took a lot of time, and preparing for this trip was a dominant feature of my life for half a year.

Starting in early September we spent a month in Salt Lake, looking for a house but also buying a large mound of equipment and supplies to bring down to the boat. In mid October we packed our van full of this stuff and drove down to the marina in San Carlos we’d kept the boat at over the summer. We spent a week there recommissioning the boat, after which Lisa returned to the US to close on the house, and I sailed down to La Paz. After a week apart, Lisa flew down and we met up in La Paz for a couple weeks of projects and a little cruising. We left the boat in La Paz for two months over the holidays, during which time I bought another, smaller mound of equipment for the boat. Returning to Mexico in mid-January gave us two months on the boat for remaining projects and preparations. The pace wasn’t too hectic but with a few hours a day over this much time the commitment built up.

Many of the boat projects were small things, a mixture of improvements to make the boat easier to live on and various maintenance tasks. Several projects were pretty substantial, the first of which I managed to get out of the way early on. Pretty much since we bought the boat (and probably beforehand, really) the port engine’s fuel tank leaked, about a gallon every couple of weeks. This diesel ended up in the engine room’s bilge, and I would keep having to go into the engine room and pump it into a jerry can for later disposal at a marina. This got old, especially after returning to the boat in the fall of 2015 and finding nearly twenty gallons of diesel in the bilge, coming up almost to the engine itself.

It took so long to get this fixed because for a while I was just stumped by how to do it. Once a fuel tank starts leaking it can’t really be repaired, and I didn’t know how to get the tank out of the boat (or a new one in) for replacement. Bringing it back through the engine room’s opening wouldn’t work as the opening was too small, and bringing it forward into the berth it was adjacent to would require removing lots of cabinetry. I thought about cutting up the old fuel tank in situ and then building a new fiberglass tank in its place, or cutting off the top of the old fuel tank and putting a bladder into the space, but both of these ideas seemed pretty desperate. Finally, last spring I realized that by cutting out a section of the bunk adjacent to the engine room I would have just enough room to lift the fuel tank up and out of the engine room. In the final days of the season I did this and measured the tank’s dimensions. Later in the summer I had a replacement tank fabricated, and we drove down to San Carlos with it.

In San Carlos we finished removing the old fuel tank from the boat, lowered the new one into the engine room, glassed it in place, repaired the cutout by grinding the edges of the hole to a bevel and glassing the removed piece back in, and finally reconnected the plumbing and started the engine up. This is the biggest project I have done on Magic, and it felt great to get it done in a timely fashion and without any big surprises or other issues. Lisa had already returned to the US at this point, so with two working engines I headed on down to La Paz to meet her there, sailing about half the 250 mile distance.

The largest remaining project for the boat was to haul it out of the water and service the two saildrives — the legs sticking out the bottom of the boat which the propellers are attached to, and which have gearing to transfer power from the transmission to the propellers. These are supposed to be serviced every seven years to replace various seals and gaskets that keep water from getting into the leg or the engine room itself, and we wanted to get this done while we still had access to all the people we knew and other resources in La Paz.

On return to the boat in January we started arranging for the haulout so we could get this done, but I guess I procrastinated on this as we didn’t haul out until nearly a month later. The yard employees would be putting new bottom paint on, while I worked with our mechanic, Colin, to get the drives off the boat so he could service them. This was a lot of work by itself: the transmissions and engines had to be separated, which meant the engines had to be removed from their mounts and slid forward, and owing to some non-removable bolts in the engine mounts we had to drill holes in the berths above the engines, lift the engines up using a spanish windlass (pretty neat and a new one for me, by inserting a piece of wood in a loop of rope and twisting it around you can generate a lot of force) and set them down on some wooden spacers we made to fit over the bolts. After getting the transmission separated it could be lifted into the cockpit along with the saildrive. We separated the transmission and the drives, Colin serviced them, and then I reassembled them, which took almost two hours per drive, owing to some new seals being installed (which I wanted to be sure wouldn’t leak) and a small pile of bolts with complicated installation and torque requirements. Getting the transmissions reconnected to the engine was somewhat maddening — a spline coming out of the transmission has to be exactly lined up with the engine before the two will mate — but with a lot of work by Colin we finally got them back together and got everything ready to go. In total we were only out of the water for a few days, but the pace of the work going on was pretty hectic.

After launching it felt great to be back in the water. We worked on other projects and also went out for a couple short cruises to make sure the drives were behaving well.

After the second cruise, I found that water had penetrated into one of the drives: the oil on the dipstick had turned a creamy off-white color with the emulsion, like chocolate milk. My heart sank immediately; I hoped it was something simple like a loose drain plug, and hopped in the water, cranked down on the plug, and changed the oil and ran the engine in gear a couple times. Each time the creamy oil came back after a few hours, and it was clear we needed to haul out again to fix this problem. Colin thought the problem was probably with the propeller shafts, which he’d looked at when servicing the drives and thought needed rebuilding (this would have taken several days, which I didn’t want to take the time for). Making things even harder was that we were running short on time — only about a week and a half remained until our planned departure date.

The most expedient solution, it seemed, was to order new propeller shafts and have them shipped overnight to San Diego. I flew up to San Diego, spent a couple nights in a hotel, went shopping in the incredible concentration of chandleries around Shelter Island (hearkening back to my 2012 trip through here on Grand Illusion), picked up the shafts and flew back to Mexico. All to avoid the, uh, unpredictable amount of time it can take for shipments to Mexico to arrive at their destination. An hour after getting back to La Paz we hauled out again, and the boat sat in the crane’s straps overnight while we removed the shaft assemblies, installed the new shafts (which Colin did at his shop), and reassembled everything. After launching we went to our spot in the marina and ran the engines in gear for nearly twenty hours each over the next few days to wear in the new shafts and check for leaks. Thankfully the watery oil did not reappear, and it seemed like we would be good to go for our departure.

Alas, our engine troubles were not over. I realized kind of late during preparation that we ought to have our engines’ injectors and valve clearances checked. After getting back in the water Colin came by and adjusted the valves (which were pretty far off from where they should be), removed the injectors and took them to a local shop to check their opening pressure. Out of the six injectors, three were seized open (they would constantly dribble fuel into the cylinders) and the others were in marginal condition; we had five spare injectors and tested these, too, but they weren’t in great shape either. Next began what felt to me like a never ending loop of installing injectors, fuel return piping, fuel supply piping, testing, then removing all this stuff to change out a problematic injector or fix a fuel leak. We got the port engine running well, but while working on the starboard engine I managed to crack some of the piping so that running the engine would spray fuel everywhere. Fixing this properly required high temperature soldering that I didn’t know how to do, and which Colin went back to his shop to take care of. Reinstalling the piping required bending it, though, and it had to go back to the shop two more times to fix cracks in the solder before everything was ok. At long last we had two functioning engines again, which were indeed running a lot smoother than before this work began.

What I find most interesting here is that the work which caused all these late breaking problems was basic engine maintenance; the engines were running alright before any of this began. While it is of course important to do this work, a big lesson for me is to never treat engine work as routine, except oil and filter changes I guess. Beyond that, I also have to recognize that with as much time as it took, our preparation for this trip was still pretty compressed and I shouldn’t be surprised by the stress that results.

We left La Paz just a couple hours after the engine work finished, and planned to use the 150 mile trip to Cabo to test all this work more thoroughly. In the end we were only two days behind our original schedule and would not be squeezed for time on our way to the Marquesas. It felt wonderful to get off the dock and start our trip.

Posted in Cruising 2016, Cruising 2017, Sailing | Comments Off on Magic Log #11: Preparing to Cross

Skiing Again

We moved around a lot last summer. After spending a continuous six months on the boat, we returned to Arizona a little before Memorial Day, rested a few days, flew to New Jersey for a few days, drove around Arizona and Utah for a couple weeks, flew to London for a week (just myself, for work), flew to Alaska for a month, drove around Utah and Idaho for a few weeks, then drove around Colorado for a month before finally settling in place in Utah in early September.

Some of this traveling was really great, but a lot was less happy-go-lucky road trip and more just plain exhausting. We spent too much time staying in hotels in urban areas, and the van was hard to live in. It had too much stuff in it, like a life raft we’d brought up from Mexico to have serviced and, later in the summer, some large things pulled from storage in Boise.

This sort of living wore away at us pretty quickly, and early in the summer we realized we needed a new strategy. In particular, we needed a home base, a place of our own. There were several reasons for this. We could store excess equipment and things there, to declutter the van while we were on the road. We could spend time there to relax and prepare when transitioning between the boat and a land based lifestyle (shopping for things for the boat can take weeks). We could stay there in the winter. We spent the previous two winters on the boat, but we are planning to sail to French Polynesia this spring and spend the next few years sailing the south pacific during the austral (southern hemisphere) winter, when hurricane danger is low; this means we’ll be back in the US during the boreal (northern hemisphere) winter. While there are van travel options in warmer climates during the winter (we especially want to continue to spend time in Mexico), we didn’t want to flee the cold weather entirely. I missed being around snow, and I especially missed skiing.

We had a couple of questions to deal with. Where should this home base be located, and what sort of place should it be? This wasn’t the first time we’d looked for property; the previous summer we had looked around a bit in Durango and Bend, but found both markets pretty overheated. In the end, the only really good option we saw was Salt Lake City. The great mountains nearby and the many friends we have in the area were the main advantages, but logistically it’s also nice to have a well connected airport and to be reasonably close to the areas we love in southern Utah and Colorado.

Finding a suitable home proved to be more challenging. Our main requirement was that it needed to make money for us. For over a decade now Lisa has owned a duplex in Boise, which she has arranged to be a nice and steady source of income that asks very little of our time. We wanted to do something similar in Salt Lake, but found the market to be hot enough that it was hard to find properties we liked that would make good investments.

On our first attempt we went to Salt Lake for a week and quickly went under contract on a fourplex. After some more traveling back and forth to the city we eventually backed away after seeing how many problems it had and how much time these would require to fix (example problems included meth contamination in some units and a rat infestation; this was in a nice neighborhood, too!). As that deal fell apart we were in Colorado having fun, and after a month away from the city we headed back to stay for a month and focus on finding a nicer place. This strategy went better. We were in an apartment just a few minutes walk from Liberty Park, one of the largest parks in Salt Lake. We went on many walks in the park, enjoying the atmosphere and attractions, especially a large aviary and duck pond. It was really nice having this little bit of nature in an urban environment, and we decided we wanted our home base to be close to this park too. This limited our options a lot, but we found a house we both really liked that was across a thoroughfare from the park. With an attractive facade, good views of the park, a nice interior layout, and a huge two story detached garage for storage and projects, it was just right for us.

We figured that with some remodeling the house would be an appealing rental on AirBnB, and we could block out dates that we wanted the house for our own use. If AirBnB didn’t work out for whatever reason, the house was legally a duplex and by adding a second kitchen we could convert it into one and have a more traditional rental situation.

We closed on the house on Halloween. We had both gone down to the boat in San Carlos a week earlier, and Lisa flew up to Salt Lake for the closing while I sailed down to La Paz. After a couple weeks together in La Paz we flew back up to spend the holidays in the US and to work on the house. Lisa designed a new kitchen, planned a small renovation of one of the bathrooms, and listed out a lot of smaller projects to fix things up. For several weeks the house was torn up and Lisa spent her days managing the people working on the house — taking the role of a general contractor, as we didn’t have one. She was awesome at this and was able to get all this work done on a very compressed schedule. I didn’t help much at all, except for building some porch railings towards the end of the project. Instead, I went skiing a lot.

At this point I hadn’t skiied at all for nearly three years, and hadn’t done any backcountry skiing for nearly four. In late November, just days after arriving in town, it started snowing, and I went to USA Bowl, a fairly mellow south facing slope across from Solitude Resort. After skinning up nearly two thousand vertical feet I skiied several laps on the upper slopes of the bowl before returning to the car. It was wonderful.

Over the next month and a half I skiied in the cottonwoods backcountry over twenty times. I got into a rhythm: wake up at six, get to the trailhead by seven, skin and ski for five hours or so, get home by one (this let me avoid traffic in the canyons, even on weekend powder days, and be out in the cooler temperatures of the morning, when snow conditions are generally better and skinning is more pleasant). I was usually solo, and the experience became almost meditative, giving me a chance to focus and to dissociate from the hectic scrambling of much of the previous six months. A few days I went out with Lisa, but she was usually too busy with renovations; next winter we want to do a lot of low key resort skiing and backcountry touring together.

Living just half an hour away let me enjoy this skiing and still have an urban lifestyle, with plenty of time to work and shop, and to return each day to a nice warm house. It was very different, and much nicer, than the winter I spent here in my popup trailer in 2012/2013, and I’m still fascinated by the juxtaposition of this amazing winter terrain and the sprawling metropolis below. I’m looking forward to seeing more of these mountains in future winters, and especially in doing so with Lisa.

Posted in Skiing | Comments Off on Skiing Again

Magic Log #10: La Paz to San Carlos

After leaving La Paz, we had more than a month left in Mexico before we needed to return to the US near the end of May. This would give us a lot of time to explore the Sea of Cortez; despite spending half of the previous two years in Mexico, we had still only seen a fraction of what the sea has on offer. May is a great time to see the sea, with no hurricanes or northers and nice temperatures. Water temperatures are colder and visibility is worse than in the fall, but diving conditions are still good.

After veering towards depression in La Paz I was pretty worried about how this trip would go. In the end, though, our trip north was some of best time we’ve had on the boat. We saw lots of great stuff, got along together really well, and for the most part everything just moved along smoothly.

Our first stop was at Puerto Ballandra, fifteen miles north of La Paz, a spot we’d been to several times before but not for a while. I needed some time to unwind from La Paz, and a few days at an easy, familiar spot seemed just right. We went snorkeling, did a very shallow dive, paddleboarded in the mangroves and along the coast north of the bay, all really fun. A couple nights the Corumuel winds built and I went out kiting in the morning, trying the hydrofoil board and making some real progress (well, going from being a total disaster to getting up on the foil for short distances before crashing; as hard as it is to learn kiteboarding, learning to foil is even harder.)

We motored and sailed thirty five miles north to Isla San Jose, an island we had passed many times before but had never stopped at. The south end of the island has some of the most extensive mangroves in the Sea of Cortez, and we anchored nearby for a couple days. We crossed through the mangroves by dinghy, which was nice but not spectacular — in close there were a lot of no-see-ums, which made it pretty hard to do much exploration of side passages. Some hiking on the beach, too, but mostly just relaxing.

Seven miles off the east side of Isla San Jose is Las Animas, a small rocky island. I’d been interested in coming here since first hearing about it on a dive trip in 2008, and we finally had a good opportunity to visit. After motoring in calm seas for a few hours we arrived and anchored on the southwest side of the island, in a cove framed by a couple of detached rocks. Very deep, we were in 90′ of water just a few hundred feet from the island. I dove on the anchor and found a steeply sloping sand bottom, which seemed like it would provide decent holding given the calm forecast.

Back on the boat, I was getting excited about how wild this place was. Lots of birds, fish under the boat, great visibility — around 80′, some of the best we’d ever seen in the sea — and several jumping swordfish nearby (which I’d never seen before). Lisa was concerned about how close we were to the island and wanted to wait before getting in the water, so I went out in the kayak for a dive. Conditions at the detached rock were fantastic, with lots of fish and coral, a lobster out in the open, just a healthy and vibrant ecosystem.

Soon after getting back to the boat I went out snorkeling with Lisa, dragging the dinghy through the water as we checked out another set of detached rocks at the north end of Las Animas. There was more great fish life here, and after a couple minutes a small turtle showed up, which was fascinating to watch as it kept swimming and diving around us, paying us little mind. After snorkeling we went paddleboarding around the cove, looking at the birds and fish and wonderful scenery. It was getting late, and we decided to stay the night and dive together the next morning. Unfortunately, after sunset winds came up from the north, pushing us towards the island and making for a restless night. Things were still sloppy in the morning, so we pulled the hook and moved on.

The wind died not long after leaving Las Animas, and we motored twelve miles to Isla San Diego, a small island just north of Isla San Jose. Conditions were still calm after anchoring and we headed out to go diving. There is an expansive shoal off the southwest end of the island which leads out to a detached rock. We had heard there was good diving in this area, and after looking around a bit we dropped in at a random spot near the shoal. This was mediocre, so we surfaced after a couple minutes and headed to the rock itself.

The rock southwest of San Diego has spectacular diving. Dropping to 20-30′ on all sides, quite a few fish were congregating around it, and the north side had huge amounts of well developed cup corals, beautiful colors. On top of this, there is an amazing cave packed with fish and coral. With light coming in from the three entrances this is an incredible, sublime place, the best cave I can remember seeing while diving. During our first dive I went and explored the cave by myself, and then we came back the next day and spent an entire dive checking out the entrances and swimming through the cave together.

After two days at Isla San Diego we left before dawn to continue heading north. Or, tried to leave. The anchor refused to come up, and felt like it was snagged on a rock. This happened to me back in 2008 on Grand Illusion at Santa Cruz island in southern California, and it was a big deal then to freedive down to 30′ and free the anchor. Now we had a compressor, though, so even though it was night and we were in 40′ of water it was pretty simple to dive down, free the chain from the rock it was wrapped around, then get on our way. In mid morning we arrived at Bahia Agua Verde, a very popular bay in the sea we had just seen briefly in 2014 but had not been back to. The anchorage was not as crowded now, and after finding a nice spot we headed out for a dive. Roca Solitaria — a tall and pointy detached rock on the north side of the bay — is the main dive site here, but after getting in we found terrible visibility, a rude shock after the diving we had been doing previously. The dive was still alright, with some nudibranchs and corals, but we weren’t interested in repeating it.

Fortunately, there are a lot of other things to do at Agua Verde. We paddleboarded around the boat, went snorkeling at some rocks nearby, walked the beach to look at the crabs skittering around, and went on a neat hike to a marshy area with lots of palm trees. What’s most special about Agua Verde, though, is the bay’s town. Separated from the main highway by a long dirt road, the town is pretty sleepy, some fishermen and, uniquely, a goat dairy. Almost anytime we looked around the bay from Magic we could see goats foraging high on the hillsides, and eventually we went ashore and walked into town to get some cheese from the dairy, watching all the animals — goats, chickens, dogs, a mature male turkey — wandering around freely. I didn’t reflect on it much at the time, but this is a side of Mexico we don’t get to see or appreciate very often.

Our next stop was Bahia Candeleros, a spot we keep coming back to. The diving at the Candeleros never gets boring, and we found good conditions over several dives at these islets. A lot of siphonophores in the water, but visibility wasn’t bad and everywhere we went we found good fish life and great corals. We stayed for several days and got to unwind a bit. Every day we went ashore to jog on the beach, and we spent a bit of time eating at the resort in the bay and talking to some friends from La Paz who were anchored nearby. One day the wind built and I tried kiteboarding, but conditions were gusty and I abandoned the attempt pretty quickly. It’s interesting that if the wind is strong but turbulent then the kite still won’t get the lift it needs.

We continued moving north, spending a night at Isla Danzante, another favorite spot. We went diving together, did some paddleboarding, the usual stuff. There were quite a few mobula rays jumping in the anchorage, and a couple times we saw a large school of them near the boat, but we weren’t able to get in the water and snorkel with them before they moved on.

Conditions were calm, and we needed to reprovision, so we headed north and anchored off of Loreto. This is an open roadstead anchorage, but has a good sand bottom and we weren’t worried. We took the dinghy into the harbor, walked around, went shopping, got groceries. A nice, charming town. We didn’t dally, though, and headed to Isla Coronados for the night, six miles north. We had passed by this island several times before but had never stopped here. We anchored off the south end of the island, which was alright but not that pretty. The next day we went diving at the southeast end of the island, which was alright — boring topography but some good invertebrate life, and Lisa caught a glimpse of a large school of mobulas coasting by.

One of the main attractions of Isla Coronados is the hiking. The island is dominated by a volcanic cone, and the terrain is pretty mellow. We went ashore inside of where we were anchored, hiked up onto the bluff and connected with a trail running north. This connected with another trail leading to the top of the volcano; Lisa was concerned about the time and turned back about halfway up, while I pressed on and got some good views from the summit. Back at the beach Lisa came in the dinghy to pick me up, while I watched mobulas jumping almost continuously, sometimes three or four at a time. The further north we were going the more mobulas we were seeing, which was exciting — they migrate around the sea throughout the year, and we were catching up with them.

Our next stop north was San Juanico, a very pretty, quiet bay popular with sailors. We’d never been here before, and I’d heard the diving was good here and wanted to check it out. Alas, our dinghy was giving us problems. I could start the motor but it would die quickly, and pretty soon it refused to start at all. The area I wanted to dive was over a mile away so we abandoned that goal, and just rowed in to shore to do some hiking. This was nice, and the anchorage was very pretty, but I was frustrated with the dinghy motor and after one night we continued north.

Not too far north of San Juanico is Punta Pulpito, the furthest north we had ever been previously on the Baja side of the Sea of Cortez. Forty miles further north is Bahia Concepcion, a long and narrow bay that is one of the largest in the sea. I’d wanted to come here for a long long time, and we finally had a chance. Our first stop was Punta Santo Domingo, out at the mouth of the bay. I wanted to dive at nearby Punta Concepcion, but I needed to get the motor working before we could try that out. I started tinkering and after removing the carburetor and getting some gunk out of it the motor seemed to be working alright, and we went diving.

From the start of the dive it was clear we weren’t in the southern Sea of Cortez anymore. There wasn’t any coral, and a lot of algae and grasses were sticking to the rocks. Still, it was very good diving. Several friendly angelfish swam up to us at the start of the dive, and shadowed us for much of the remainder. Fish life was good, some new species, and we found a lot of nudibranchs feeding on the algae. The next day we went out again, and on the way to the dive site had an amazing encounter with the mobula rays. We spotted some of them jumping, diverted course and found a huge school of hundreds of rays swimming below the surface. We snorkeled with them a bit, but they were moving fast and were hard to keep up with.

While the dinghy’s motor behaved for our dives at Santo Domingo, it started acting up again afterwards in much the same way as before. I eventually realized that the gas we were using was pretty heavily varnished. Back in February we bought forty gallons of gas for our Revillagigedos trip, but used less than half of it (I really didn’t want to run out of gas at the islands; the boat’s main engines are diesels so we didn’t need the gas for propulsion, but the dinghy, compressor, and generator all run on gas and if we ran out early we would have needed to return to Cabo). Now, over three months later, we still hadn’t gone through all of the gas, and after that much time in the sun it went bad.

The town of Mulege wasn’t too far away, so we motored over and anchored in front of town. I rowed the dinghy to shore, walked a mile to a gas station, filled up a five gallon jerry can, carried it back to the dinghy, then rowed back out to Magic into the wind. Yeesh. The dinghy motor ran better with the new gas, but still had problems. After several failed attempts at cleaning the carburetor, I took it apart as best as I could and soaked everything in pure simple green for a while. This did the trick and the motor didn’t give us any more problems for the rest of the season. Several lessons learned here, though.

We next headed south into Bahia Concepcion proper. The most popular area in the bay is Bahia Coyote, about halfway down on the west side. Bahia Coyote is a pretty cool place, only three miles across but packed with several islands, half a dozen nice beaches and some smaller coves. We anchored off a beach at the far northern end and stayed for a few days.

What impressed me the most about Bahia Coyote was all the bird life at its islands, which are steep-to and a good refuge. At the island closest to us there were several unfledged seagull chicks near the waterline, hopping around a bit and generally ignoring us. We saw a vulture that was interested in two of the chicks, which ticked off their parents to no end; they kept swooping by the vulture to try to drive it away, hitting it rather violently a couple of times. A couple islands further out were home to several nesting ospreys, and we saw plenty of the usual Sea of Cortez birds — pelicans, gulls, terns, cormorants and such.

Snorkeling at the islands was good, the paddleboarding was excellent, and the beaches in the bay were all nice. I was feeling pretty lazy, but Lisa prodded me to get out and mount expeditions in search of hot springs our guidebook claimed were at various points in the bay. We eventually found two: a shallow, hot pool in some mangroves near our boat, and a developed tub in the next cove down. Underwhelming, but fun to look for.

We headed north, stopping off of Mulege briefly for more gas (more long walks) and continuing on to anchor off the south end of Isla San Marcos, twenty five miles further up the coast. This is kind of an ugly island (the south end is a large open pit gypsum mine), but we stayed a few days and did several excellent dives at a nearby detached rock. The waters around this rock are shallow — 25′ or less — but there was a healthy fish population and lots of interesting life. Particular favorites were the abundant stingrays, I would constantly see them hiding in the sand or swimming around or forming piles of up to a dozen individuals. We also saw a slipper lobster (a bizarre creature, the first in Mexico I’ve seen), an octopus, and some other neat stuff over the course of the dives.

There was one last place we wanted to stop at before crossing the sea to San Carlos. Isla Tortuga is an island twenty miles to the northeast of San Marcos, cliffs on all sides, no good anchorage and not much information available for cruising sailors. It is supposed to have great diving, though, and we left for it in the morning. Unfortunately, pretty quickly after leaving San Marcos the wind picked up to twenty knots or so, and with such marginal conditions we bailed out on Isla Tortuga. We sailed past the island towards San Carlos, making it about halfway across the sea before motoring the rest of the way, arriving an hour after dark.

We anchored in Bahia Algodones, a favorite anchorage from last season, and started work on decommissioning the boat. Conditions were pretty mellow, though one afternoon the wind came up and I went to the beach with Lisa to go kiting. Alas, a few minutes after starting to get the kite ready I noticed that the dinghy had slipped back into the water and was now rapidly drifting across the bay. I got into the water and started swimming after the dinghy, but got exhausted without closing much of the gap and returned to shore. The dinghy was drifting parallel to the beach, so I walked / ran down the coast to get even with it, then started swimming again, then got exhausted again and swam back to shore again. The dinghy was about halfway down the bay now and drifting towards some rocks along the shore (not good). I headed down the beach yet again to get as close to the rocks as I could, but before I got too far someone came by on a jetski and recovered the dinghy — Lisa had talked to him and described our predicament. I was super grateful, and waded out to get the dinghy and motor back to where I’d landed it earlier. Pretty embarrassing, but no harm done and more lessons learned.

Anyways, with the dinghy further up the beach and the anchor deployed (normally we take the dinghy up above the high tide line, but its wheels were broken) I went out kiting and had a blast. I didn’t try to foil, but used a directional board and was switching my stance reliably and comfortably. The kite and board just felt right and easy to manage, and between the steady wind and the warm water and the beautiful scenery everything felt great, and I spent hours out on the water. Lisa was enjoying the scene at the Soggy Peso beach bar, where we spent so much time a year and a half ago, and after kiting we had dinner there.

Wind like this in May is unseasonable, and though I hoped it would come up again it never did. After another day at anchor we moved into nearby Marina Real, finished decommissioning the boat, and returned to the US.

Posted in Cruising 2016, Kiteboarding, Sailing, SCUBA Diving, Snorkeling | Comments Off on Magic Log #10: La Paz to San Carlos

Magic Log #9: Cabo to La Paz

After three weeks at Isla San Benedicto, returning to Cabo left me feeling like, well, a fish out of water. So much bustling civilization. Our plan at this point was to stay in the cape area through March and April, surfing, kiteboarding, diving, and working on our now substantial backlog of boat projects in La Paz. The San Benedicto trip had been so intense for me that I felt I needed time to unwind, and we left Cabo pretty quickly to head to Los Frailes, where we had spent such an enjoyable day a month prior.

We anchored right off the beach south of the main anchorage, and spent about a week. Each morning I left in the dinghy to go surfing at points to the south. I’d been craving some good surfing for months. Back in January, after northers came through La Paz I would go out to paddle surf the puny leftover waves, but this was pretty unsatisfying. Now at Los Frailes I found a nice swell and had a great time at the small breaks nearby. The swell gradually petered out as the week went on and towards the end I was getting pretty desperate, but it was still nice to scratch this itch.

Besides the surfing, things at Los Frailes were pretty relaxed. We did some jogging ashore, and a couple dives at Los Frailes proper, with poor visibility. One time we went into the nearby Cabo Pulmo marine park and did a pretty good dive, though I apparently misread the regulations on the park’s website — private diving is not allowed anywhere in the park — and we were chased off afterwards by a ranger.

We left Los Frailes at night and motored sixty miles north to Isla Cerralvo, offshore from La Ventana. Since last season we had wanted to check this island out and now was a great opportunity. We anchored near the south end in a broad, thirty foot deep sandy area. The water was clear and we looked over the side and saw a vast field of thousands of garden eels below. These eels dig burrows in high current areas and spend their time plucking plankton from the water moving by. We went diving with them to get a closer look, but they went into their burrows when we got within ten feet, and stayed put. I got an idea to rig a GoPro and leave it in the water near their burrows. After collecting footage for an hour I dove back down to retrieve it, and we found that the eels quickly accepted the camera and got back to their busy lives. I’m really interested in the idea of planting cameras at suitable places on reefs to get footage of their inhabitants, though I’m still experimenting with good ways of doing this. Lisa’s account of our garden eel encounter is here.

While staying at Cerralvo we did several proper dives. Off the south end of the island is Roca Montana, kind of a broad shallow shoal with lots of great coral and small fish and invertebrate life (no large fish to speak of, though, the rock was being hammered by fishing boats the entire time we were in the area). Inshore of our anchorage was more good diving, mixed coral heads and sand and a nice area for snorkeling and paddleboarding as well.

After a few days we moved on to La Ventana itself, anchoring close to town but away from the shore. After a few days of calm conditions we had several good days of wind for kiting. I started off where I left off in La Paz back in January, working on gybing a directional board — riding without my feet in straps and switching my stance on the board while turning. After a couple sessions of floundering I had a breakthrough and worked out a technique for gybing fairly reliably, though I still needed a lot more time on the water to get it dialed in.

The good wind stopped and for several days there was a gentle sea breeze in the afternoon, usually around 11 or 12 knots. For my kite and board I need 13 knots to ride, and I started going stir crazy. There were a few dozen very skilled riders buzzing around in these winds, all using hydrofoil boards and foil kites — there was some sort of a race series taking place in town — and a few other folks riding hydrofoil boards with inflatable kites. I was very jealous. I’d read before how hydrofoil boards are the best way to enjoy these light wind days, but hadn’t seen it up close and so stark as this. At the end of our time in La Ventana last year I bought a hydrofoil along with the directional board, but wanted to learn the directional board first and after over a year had never even assembled the foil. It now loomed as the next big step to take with the sport.

The long afternoons with light wind left me and Lisa without much to do. We went for a few hikes ashore, spotting a good variety of birds on a great trail south of town, but after a couple weeks in La Ventana it was time to move on. Some friends from Colorado, the Brooks family, were visiting La Ribera, forty miles back towards the cape, for several days. We stopped at Cerralvo for some more diving and then headed south to visit them.

The Brooks family was renting a house on the beach, which we anchored out in front of. We had a great time visiting them, doing a couple excursions to Cabo Pulmo — a nice snorkel/hike at the south end of the bay, and a decent snorkeling trip with a local dive operator — and other activities. I did some kiting as well, and after one session the wind waves had built up pretty big and lumpy, breaking strongly both on the beach and on some bars lying just offshore. We were going to have dinner at the Brooks family’s house that night, which was concerning as we would need to get back to the boat afterwards. I hoped the waves would sit down after the wind died in the late afternoon, but after a great dinner and some drinks and coming down to the beach with a handheld spotlight in pitch darkness, the waves seemed even more intimidating. We decided to try to get out to Magic anyways.

We pushed the dinghy out through the waves, but with their size and without being able to see them well, several broke onto the dinghy and in our faces. We couldn’t get the motor started quickly, so aborted and retreated back to the beach. After a few minutes of resting and pumping water out of the dinghy we tried again, got past the surf zone and back to the boat. I don’t think there was much real danger here, but this was the scariest and most stressful thing we did the entire cruising season, and we won’t be repeating it.

The waves gradually diminished over the next couple days and we got back to having fun. The Brooks family returned to the US and we returned north, stopping again at Cerralvo for a night before leaving in the morning for a delightful sail to Playa Bonanza, at the southeast end of Espiritu Santo. For the first time ever we set up two headsails on spinnaker poles, and with the mainsail up as well had a lot of canvas out, cruising along smoothly in the calm seas.

We spent a couple nights at Playa Bonanza. The first morning a reasonably strong Corumuel wind built which I tried to go kiting in, taking out the hydrofoil board for the first time (well, besides one time in La Ventana when I tried and barely got off the beach before aborting). After some floundering — as soon as I got up on the board it would climb out of the water and I would crash — and dealing with gusts I managed to get the bar and lines tangled and had to self rescue, pulling myself to the kite, lying on top of it and slowly sailing/drifting back to the beach. Not an auspicious start to the foil.

Corumuels usually die mid-morning, and by the afternoon the sea was calm. The main reason we were at Bonanza was that one of the premiere dives in the area, the wreck of the Salvatierra, was just a few miles away. The Salvatierra was a ferry that hit a rock and sank in 1976; I dove there on a trip in 2008 but had not been back. Lisa was feeling sick so I headed to the wreck by myself in the dinghy and went exploring. Diving here was a lot of fun, great fish life all over the wreck, some nice partially enclosed areas to check out, recognizable debris of civilization like overturned tanker trucks and such. The next day Lisa was still feeling sick, so we headed south in Magic, stopping so I could dive again at the wreck before we continued on to La Paz.

Lisa arranged for us to stay at Marina de La Paz for two and a half weeks. We were here for two main reasons. First, we needed to work on our backlog of boat projects to do. Second, after spending two months away from La Paz Lisa wanted to reconnect with friends and decompress from the sailing.

I spent most of my time in La Paz working on the boat. A couple larger projects — building a fiberglass box for the compressor (now affectionately nicknamed ‘Lumpy’), remodeling and installing new shelves in one of the walk-in closets — were mixed in with a variety of smaller repair jobs. Things went alright at first, but as time went by I kept feeling worse and worse. I wasn’t seeing much of Lisa and was getting lonely, and wasn’t getting out to do sports or have much fun (other than a couple great kiting sessions later on, and some snorkeling with the whale sharks). My mind was getting jumbled and I was very sensitive to any perceived slights. We talked about things, deciding to spend more time together when we get into similar situations. I did feel better, but by the end of our stay I was pretty desperate to leave.

Posted in Cruising 2016, Kiteboarding, Sailing, SCUBA Diving, Snorkeling, Surfing | Comments Off on Magic Log #9: Cabo to La Paz

Magic Log #8: Isla San Benedicto

On February 5, Lisa and I, along with our guests, my mom, Sue, and her husband, Tim, left Cabo San Lucas to head for Isla San Benedicto, 220 nautical miles to the south and the northernmost island in the Revillagigedos archipelago. We reached the island two days later, spent seventeen days there, then returned over two days, arriving back in Cabo on February 25. It was an amazing, challenging trip.

Traveling to the Revillagigedos was a dream of mine for a long time. Tracing the origins of this dream, I was a hardcore diver for the first few years of graduate school, and in the mid aughts did a lot of solo rebreather diving off a kayak in advanced areas in California and the northwest (Big Sur, Arena Rock, Deception and Browning passes, Cape Flattery, some others). When I bought Grand Illusion in late 2006, it was in part to have a dive platform that could get me to places out of reach of the kayak — the Farallones, Schmieder bank, offshore seamounts like Cobb and Bowie. Looking back this seems pretty insane to me, especially the latter seamounts, and I never did dive off Grand Illusion at any of these spots (though I did come close at North Farallon, arriving at the rock in prime conditions but backing away from diving). My interest in this sort of diving pretty much died, and for several years I hardly did any diving at all. The dream didn’t quite die, though, and was reborn in an interest in diving at remote volcanic islands in the east pacific. Besides the Revillagigedos, there is Cocos, Malpelo, and the Galapagos. Unlike the areas I considered in the past, all these islands are frequented by diving liveaboards, and are reputed to have some of the best diving in the world, particularly for big pelagic animals like manta rays and sharks. The Revillagigedos are geographically convenient to the areas I spent time at in Mexico, and they have a reasonable hands-off permit system, so they became the destination I was most interested in.

In early 2014, when Lisa and I first came to Mexico together, we became friends with our neighbors at Marina de La Paz, Jack and Leanne. They had sailed to San Benedicto a while back and dove with the mantas there. They raved about their trip, and talking to them gave us a lot of information about staying there, making the island seem more real, the idea of traveling there in our own boat more plausible. As time went on it seemed that we wouldn’t have time to go there before leaving for the South Pacific, but after pushing back that departure to 2017 we suddenly had an entire extra season in Mexico we could structure around a trip to the island.

Before staying at San Benedicto, first we had to get there. We were leaving Cabo close to the end of a norther, and were able to sail the first two thirds of the way down, good sized following seas but very comfortable. The wind slacked as we got away from the peninsula and we motored the rest of the way to the island, overall a nice and relaxed 48 hour passage. Along the way we picked up two vagrant birds, the first times that has ever happened to me. Only a few hours after leaving Cabo a female yellow-rumped warbler showed up on the deck. Cautious and tired at first, the bird quickly lost all fear of us and would hop around next to us, even on us as she moved around the boat. Lisa named her Puff, and after getting some water from the herb garden she made her way into the boat and systematically explored all the rooms. After that night Puff disappeared; her corpse turned up in a spare room after the trip, which was sad but what can you do?

The second vagrant was in worse shape. During the second night a petrel (a small seabird) somehow made its way into our sink, and did not have the strength to get back out. After spending the night there, I moved it to a shallow dish in the cockpit, and after ten minutes it got up, waddled over to the edge of the boat and fell off the side.

The island was in sight now and we approached the north end, then motored down the east side of the island and found our way to the anchorage at the south end. Coming in was like entering a new world; the north half of the island is all cliffs, with many birds flying around including some we never see in Baja, like tropicbirds and masked boobies. In the background was the large cinder cone that comprises the south half of the island, steep volcanic tuff with a low lying lava field protruding to the east.

As we rounded the south end of the island I got a brief jolt back to reality, seeing two large diving liveaboards already in the anchorage. We made our way past them and dropped our hook off a small beach in the northwest part of the anchorage.

I dove down the anchor chain and found the bottom was sandy, with great holding. This was a relief, we had been wondering about how much we would be able to trust the bottom here. A bit later I left with Sue and Tim for our first dive, next to the lava flow framing the east side of the anchorage. We found lots of fish here, with many new species exciting me, some coral, mediocre visibility (30 feet), no big animals besides a small squadron of white tip reef sharks we crossed paths with.

I finished with mixed feelings about the quality of the dive, but these were erased when I got back to Magic. A manta ray was swimming around our boat, and several more were visible a few hundred yards away. This is the first time I had ever seen a manta, and even watching from a boat they are amazing animals. The ray was at least twelve feet across, gently flapping through the water, its dorsal fin and wings breaking the surface. Lisa got ready to snorkel and jumped in the water, spending a few minutes with the ray before retreating when a shark showed up.

Also at Magic was the captain of the Vagabundo, another private boat that had just arrived in the anchorage. A couple and their two children had also sailed down from Cabo, and were also planning to spend a couple weeks at the island. They had been to the island before a while back, and knew a lot about the island and where to go diving. We started making plans to visit dive sites together; having two dinghies and two groups of divers at a site is great for both added safety and easier logistics.

The next day I went diving again with Sue and Tim at a different site, the Canyon. This had been recommended by the Vagabundos and was also where the liveaboards were doing their diving. Just south of the anchorage is a large rocky area, mostly in the 50′-60′ range but dropping off much deeper to the southeast. We found a pinnacle whose top was at 15′ or so and started the dive from there. A big school of bluefin trevally was right on the pinnacle, and after admiring them a few minutes we started off to the south. About ten minutes later we noticed a manta ray cruising in the water column, 10′-20′ off the bottom. This being the first time I had seen one underwater, I stared in awe. The size of the animal and its slow, graceful movements lent it an air of majesty, and yet its overall appearance was almost comical, its mouth nearly a third the width of its body, with eyes on the side of its head and horns (modified pectoral fins) channeling food into its mouth. It was always swimming around, but there was no need to follow it; it would repeatedly swim to the edge of visibility, then circle around and closely pass by us. This went on for twenty minutes or so, with a second manta briefly appearing, and then we returned to the dinghy.

Back at Magic, Lisa was very interested in diving, but was concerned about the sharks we had been seeing. While we hadn’t seen anything except harmless white tip reef sharks while diving, there was another type of shark we weren’t familiar with which we would almost always see near the boat. We thought these were silky sharks, which according to our ID book are usually non threatening but can sometimes be dangerous. Lisa had never been diving with sharks before, and before doing so she wanted to snorkel with them first. We both got in the water, found the shark near the boat and stayed with it a while. It would lazily circle the boat over and over, keeping an eye on us but being pretty wary, keeping its distance and moving away if we approached it. We confirmed the shark was a silky, and Lisa was comfortable being with it, so we went for a nice dive at the Canyon, seeing a lot of lobsters and fish but no mantas.

The weather had been steadily improving since we arrived at the island, and the next day Lisa and I left Magic in the dinghy and headed three miles up the west side of the island. We were going with the Vagabundos to the Boiler, a small pinnacle that reaches up from 120′ of water to within 15′ of the surface. This is the premiere dive site on San Benedicto, and there were already a couple diving liveaboards anchored nearby. We found the top of the pinnacle, anchored, and started down. From beginning to end, this was a mind blowing dive. As we descended I looked down and saw the huge black back of a manta, which looked like a small airplane as it slowly swam around, framed by the bubbles of a dozen divers in the background. We continued down the line to the anchor, checked it was secure, then descended the pinnacle to the same depth as the manta, 60′ or so. The pinnacle was covered with animals. Lobsters in every crack, several free swimming morays, many white tip reef sharks cruising, clouds of big and small fish. A yellowfin tuna swam by, bigger than either of us, eyeing us briefly before taking off like a rocket along the pinnacle. We left the pinnacle and spent most of the dive in the orbit of the manta, watching it cruise around and keep looping back towards us, as the one at the Canyon had done. A second manta came by at a shallower depth, which we watched for a few minutes, but we were running low on air and returned to the dinghy.

Heading to the Boiler had consumed most of the day, and we only had enough time to do another dive at the Canyon in the afternoon. The next morning I headed back to the Boiler with Sue and Tim. For an extra measure of safety we would keep someone in the dinghy at all times, so after anchoring I started down the pinnacle solo. The dive the previous day did not leave me with a good understanding of the pinnacle’s topography, and I did more exploring. I was interested in how feasible it would be to anchor Magic near the pinnacle, and after heading down to the base of the pinnacle at 120′, found a mixed rock and sand bottom that would provide good holding. I slowly came up from there, spotting a galapagos shark (similar to the silky sharks we had been seeing, except larger), and several white tips in a cave. A short ridgeline extended from the east side of the pinnacle, and coming up to this ridge I spotted a few mantas swimming around. There were no other divers in the water, and swimming around among these mantas and watching them was great. After a while I circled the rest of the way around the pinnacle and finished the dive.

In the interim the Vagabundos had arrived in their dinghy, and I waited in our dinghy while everyone else went diving. When they finished we started back towards Magic together, and about half way back the Vagabundos spotted some activity near the island and we all went in to check things out. There were at least a dozen mantas crowded into a small area, feeding at the surface and breaking the water with their wings and short dorsal fins. I went snorkeling, watching them pass under and beside me over and over again, just feet away. It was amazing.

After snorkeling with the mantas we returned to Magic and soon afterwards headed out for a second dive at the Canyon. Almost as soon as we descended we saw a manta swimming around, which made a few passes and then, as I was watching, caught our dinghy’s anchor line between its horns. It reared back, lifting the anchor off the ground and wrapping the line around one of its horns, then took off in a panic, out of sight into the green water. Leaving Tim and Sue, I shot to the surface and saw the dinghy being dragged away. One of the boats off the Rocio del Mar (a diving liveaboard which had just anchored) was already on the way over, and I caught the pilot’s attention and came aboard. I took off my dive gear, we drove over to the dinghy, and I hopped in. The dinghy was flooded with water, and while I struggled to untie the anchor line the manta seemed to be trying to dive deeply, pulling the tubes at the front of the dinghy underwater, completely flooding it and sending its contents floating away. I couldn’t untie the anchor line, and didn’t have a knife to cut it, so after a couple minutes I gave up, got out of the dinghy, and was picked back up by the Rocio del Mar’s boat. The manta stopped trying to dive and came up near the surface; I put my dive gear back on and was dropped off at the dinghy again. I pulled my way down the anchor line to see if I could untangle it from the manta. The line was going down the manta’s back, around a horn, then across its back before trailing down to the anchor suspended in the water. Without a knife and without taking tension off the line there wasn’t any way I could untangle it, and I surfaced and was picked up yet again by the Rocio del Mar’s boat.

At this point I lost all agency in what was going on. We headed to the Rocio del Mar, and waited while the captain and a crew member put dive gear on and prepared to come with us. After fifteen or twenty minutes they were ready, and we headed towards the dinghy. In the meantime the manta had been dragging it away from the island, and was maybe a mile out. Tim and Sue had gone out with one of the Vagabundos in their dinghy, and when we arrived we found they had just cut the anchor line. This was a problem — we didn’t know where the manta was, and if it was still tangled in the rest of the line and the anchor then it could get caught on a reef somewhere and die. The dinghy was just floating there, still full of water, and there was a manta swimming nearby. The captain and crew member got in the water, saw that the manta did not have any line on it, and — thinking this was the wrong manta — looked around a bit more before giving up the search. The gear that had floated off the dinghy was rounded up, and we were dropped off near Magic, returning to the boat with the outboard still (miraculously) working fine.

I headed with Lisa into our bedroom and collapsed. The whole experience had been thoroughly horrible, and now I felt like I was quite possibly responsible for the death of one of these magnificent animals. I spent the rest of the day turning the accident over in my head, and in the night finally managed to piece something together. I believe the manta that was hanging out near the dinghy after the anchor line was cut was the same manta that had been tangled in the line. This manta was much farther from shore than any other manta we saw the entire trip, and it seems like too much of a coincidence that there just happened to be another manta right there, right then. Given the weight of the anchor and how little tangling there was, the line should have slipped off the manta after being cut away from the dinghy, and the manta, exhausted, would stay around to recover.

How could this have happened? I’m supposed to be an experienced diver and should know how to mitigate or prevent this sort of accident. I’d heard of animals getting tangled in fishing gear, but never in a boat’s anchor line. This apparently happens to mantas with some regularity, however. Another private boat we talked to later had a similar accident on a trip to San Benedicto, I’ve heard about it happening to some of the commercial liveaboards, and later in the trip I saw a manta at the Boiler with what looked like fresh injuries from a rope that had been wrapped around its horn (this was a different manta from the one tangled in our anchor). I’ve written a companion piece here that has ideas about preventing mantas from getting tangled in lines. Ultimately, this was not something that my diving in California and the northwest could have prepared me for, and this was a loud warning that the diving here and at the other far flung places we’ll visit is a different game.

The next day I started to feel better but didn’t want to dive. After my experience snorkeling with the mantas, Lisa wanted to see them for herself, so we went out in the dinghy to look around. After a bit of searching we found a large dispersed group, and Lisa and Sue went snorkeling while I drove the dinghy. They had a great time, and even watching them from the dinghy was a captivating experience, such huge animals swimming around, one in particular doing somersaults over and over just under the surface.

We did some more diving at the Canyon, but were mainly interested in getting back to the Boiler. After a day or two we took Magic up and anchored it in the sand near the pinnacle, among a couple liveaboards already there. I had a great first dive with my mom, with two or three mantas at a time circling us almost the entire dive, and two dolphins buzzing us at the very end. Tim and Sue did a second dive together, then I dove with Lisa, though we aborted pretty early due to the current.

A heavy swell started the next day which would close out the Boiler and severely limit our options for several days. We continued to dive at the Canyon, still seeing mantas, and one day we went with the Vagabundos to dive at a new spot far up the island’s east side. There was still a fair amount of swell here, and horrible visiblity, but good life, several turtles and lots of lobsters and sharks and so forth. Staying on the boat started getting dull, and one time I went out on a paddleboard to try surfing the break at the south end of the island, which I had been watching since we first arrived. This was a stupid idea and when I got in close and saw the size and unpredictability of the waves I quickly backed off and returned to Magic to resume waiting.

After a few days the swell started to come back down, accompanied by a long period of light winds. The Vagabundos took the opportunity to head back to Cabo, while we headed to the Boiler with Magic. There were no other boats around, and after anchoring at a spot I felt was sufficiently far from the pinnacle, I went in the dinghy to find the top of it. After searching fruitlessly for 15 minutes I had no idea what was going on; the previous times we’d been to the Boiler I’d gotten and later used a GPS waypoint for its summit, but now, with a different device (the one I used earlier had died) there was no sign of the pinnacle. We went back to Magic and then noticed that the pinnacle was less than one hundred feet away, and our anchor was hooked right to the side of it. What’s more, some waves were peaking and breaking on top of it. After some discussion we pulled the anchor (kind of scary) and retreated.

While far less dramatic than the earlier accident, this again shined a spotlight on my incompetence. When anchoring I had noticed the peaking waves but had ignored them, thinking the pinnacle was several hundred feet away. I was using the GPS as a crutch and was ignoring what was going on around me, a mistake I should have been able to avoid making.

The swell continued to come down and a couple days later we made another attempt at the Boiler. We anchored Magic well away from the pinnacle (for real this time), watched the pinnacle a while without seeing breaking waves, then started diving. I was planning to do the second dive solo, with Lisa waiting to watch conditions and hoping to join me later in the day. As I started to get ready for the dive she noticed the boat had swung quite a bit since we arrived, with a shift in the wind. Given the amount of chain we had out I felt the swing was alright and didn’t indicate the anchor was dragging, but left without really explaining this so that I could get in before the divers from a liveaboard that had just arrived. It was extremely selfish behavior on my part, and after finishing the dive I found that Lisa had been worried about the boat the entire time. We headed back to the south anchorage, things feeling like they were fraying. I had never behaved this way around Lisa before; she had wanted to dive again at the Boiler more than anything, and I had deprived her of that chance.

Rather than leave the island in anger we tried to find a way to repair things. The next morning was calm, and I went out in the dinghy with Lisa to look for mantas. We found several close together near some cliffs a mile west of the anchorage. Lisa had a great time, and a couple hours later Tim took us out so we could try diving with them. We found a few again closer to the boat and we went in, diving about 15′ down and finding the mantas to be very friendly, circling around us as we watched. A few silky sharks got interested in us, with one passing between me and Lisa which I chased after to bop on the tail with my camera. It left, but the others were still hanging around, so we ended the dive pretty quickly. Still, it was a great time and things felt good as we got back to the boat.

The day stayed calm, and in the afternoon I left to kayak around the island, an excursion I’d wanted to do since we first arrived at the island. This went smoothly, letting me get a closer look at the sheer cliffs, several hundred feet high, which run all around the northern half of the island. Lots of tropicbirds here, though they kept their distance from me. On the northwest part of the island I had a chance to explore among the steep sided islets inshore of the Boiler, and checked out the bay to the south of these islets, which seemed a great place to anchor overnight in calm conditions.

We weren’t sure if we would be able to go back to the Boiler. The swell was forecast to start building again, and we were planning to leave before it would come back down. Fortunately, though, the calm conditions continued to hold, and the next morning we decided to give the Boiler another try. A liveaboard was anchored right next to the pinnacle, which was very reassuring, and we anchored nearby. Lisa was keen on diving, and the two of us headed in first, and had an amazing time. There were no other divers in the water, and It was just the two of us on the pinnacle, surrounded by all the incredible life and spending most of the dive with several mantas. It took a while, but spending so much time with these animals over two weeks, seeing them nearly every day, left a deep impression in me. I’d never before been around an animal that had such genuine curiosity about people, even though it clearly had nothing to gain from spending time with them. Mantas are intelligent animals, and it’s a wonderful thing for them to share this island with us.

We all did several more dives in the morning and afternoon, arriving back at the south anchorage near sunset. It was a thoroughly great day. Afterwards the swell and wind both started to build. We had a couple good days diving at the Canyon and some great snorkeling with mantas near the anchorage, but as the wind tapered and the swell continued to build it seemed like the right time to leave the island. We uneventfully motored north for a little over 48 hours to return to Cabo and end the trip.

Posted in Cruising 2016, SCUBA Diving, Sea Kayaking, Snorkeling | Comments Off on Magic Log #8: Isla San Benedicto

Private boat diving at Isla San Benedicto

Isla San Benedicto, in the Revillagigedos group, is an amazing little island that offers some truly unforgettable diving. In February 2016 my wife and I, along with two guests, sailed our boat to the island and spent 2.5 weeks there; here is a detailed writeup of the trip. This was our first time in the Revillagigedos, and this post contains some information for anyone considering a similar trip.

– Benedicto is 220 nm from Cabo, pretty much downwind in the prevailing weather. Socorro is another 30 miles, and several other islands are further afield. We only visited Benedicto, though plan to return next year and see more of the archipelago. Visiting these islands requires a permit from SEMARNAT. We got our permit through Eco Naviera in La Paz, and other agencies can provide them as well. Our permit allowed us to stay at Benedicto for 20 days, and we paid one hundred dollars, in addition to the cost for national park passes (the same ones needed to visit Espiritu Santo).

– The island is three miles long, and the main anchorage is at the south end. The bottom varies across the anchorage, but in the northwestern part we had a sand bottom and good holding. Depending on conditions quite a bit of swell can enter the anchorage, but in our catamaran it was always comfortable. There is an anchorage on the east side of the island, though we never saw anyone there; it is far from the best diving and is exposed to the sometimes substantial wind swell coming from northers in the Sea of Cortez. We also investigated an anchorage halfway up the west side of the island, but never had an opportunity to use it. This is exposed to the pacific swell and has deeper water than the main anchorage, but in calm conditions would provide convenient access to the Boiler dive site.

– Take extreme care anchoring dinghys in areas with mantas. Manta rays are huge animals, up to 25′ across, and have eyes on the sides of their head and can’t see what is between their horns and about to enter their mouths. A few days after we arrived a manta got tangled in our dinghy’s anchor line while we were diving. Dealing with this was a horrible experience. Something similar happened to another boat in the anchorage on a previous trip, and it apparently happens to the commercial liveaboards sometimes — even if the operator is live boating their dinghys, some use buoys to mark dive sites. The best solution to this problem is clearly to not anchor the dinghy but to live boat it instead. We had four people aboard so were able to do this the rest of the trip, but if this isn’t an option I’ve included some thoughts on anchoring among mantas at the end of this post.

– We did almost all our diving at three sites on the island. The best is the Boiler, a pinnacle off the northwest portion of the island with a least depth of 15′ or so, dropping quickly to 120′ on all sides. The top of the Boiler is at 19N 19.800′ 110W 48.834′ (WGS84). Heavier swells break on the Boiler, which could have catastrophic results if it swamped or flipped a dinghy. Such swells were coming in about half the days we were on the island. The second dive site is the Canyon, near the main anchorage. This is a fairly large area which we didn’t explore all that well; we did most of our dives here starting at a small pinnacle with least depth of 15′ or so, whose top is at 19N 17.808′ 110W 48.427′. This pinnacle drops away to 60′ or so on all sides, quickly falling to much deeper water to the southeast. The third dive site is less of a spot and more of an area; we would dinghy around looking for groups of mantas at the surface, and then go diving or snorkeling with them. We would usually find them somewhere either close to the main anchorage or along the southwest coast of the island. We never saw commercial operators doing this, but it led to some of our best encounters with the mantas.

– There are a lot of critters at the island to see, but the stars are the manta rays. We saw rays nearly every day; they were always at the Boiler, often at the Canyon, and could usually be found by looking for them at the surface in the dinghy. They are amazing animals, sometimes playful and genuinely interested in divers, circling around and around to look at us. Besides mantas, there are a lot of white tip sharks on the reefs, which are fearful of divers, and many silky sharks in the top 20′ or so of the water column, which are usually wary of divers but sometimes got interested in us and caused us to abort one of our dives. Otherwise we saw dolphins, tuna, and many smaller fish and lobsters on the healthy reefs. Visibility ranged from 30′ to 60′, generally best at the Boiler.

– Few private boats visit these islands; the first week a family was in the anchorage with us, and for a few days a couple stopped by on their way back from Socorro. On the other hand, there are many liveaboards here. Most of the time there would be one or two liveaboards in the anchorage with us, and on every day where the Boiler was suitable for diving there would be at least one and usually two or three liveaboards anchored there. While this detracts from the island’s wild feeling and makes it tricky to dive the Boiler without running into a horde of other divers, the liveaboards provide an extra layer of safety and security that was quite welcome in this advanced, remote area.

Anchoring with Mantas

When the manta got tangled in our anchor line, I was underwater watching it happen. The line came between the manta’s horns and it reared up instinctively, catching the line, lifting the anchor off the bottom, and twisting the line around one of its horns as it took off in a panic, dragging the dinghy behind it, anchor dangling in the water. While we recovered the dinghy and the manta was alright, I want to do what I can to keep this from happening again to us or to other visitors. So to that end, here are some ideas about how to harden a dinghy anchor against mantas.

We heard later about tying strings to the dinghy’s anchor line every few feet, so that when the dinghy is anchored the strings sink down or float up and make the anchor line more visible to mantas. While doing this could help, this wouldn’t work for all angles of approach and doesn’t address the underlying problem, so I don’t feel this is enough on its own.

One reason the manta got tangled in our line was the lightness of the line — our rode was a typical nylon line with several feet of chain and an anchor at the end. I would be shocked if a manta could get tangled in or dislodge the primary rode on a private boat or liveaboard, especially an all chain rode. The line/chain would be too heavy and the manta, in rearing up, would not catch it and would be able to get away (mantas can only swim forward, but they frequently do cartwheels and other acrobatic maneuvers while feeding and traveling). Using a heavy all chain rode for a small dinghy seems pretty extreme and awkward to handle, but it should prevent tangling.

An alternative to chain that would weigh much less and should be easier to handle would be to run an ordinary nylon line through four foot sections of PVC pipe, with figure eight knots on the line between each pipe section so the pipes could not slide around. The line would still articulate and could be packaged up like a bundle of sticks, but it would be impossible for a manta to get tangled in it.

Tangling, however, is not the only issue. If the manta snags the anchor line it can just take off with the dinghy and anchor, even if it isn’t tangled. If you get back to the dinghy, start it, and motor out in front of the manta then the line will come off, but if you don’t have another dinghy or boat nearby to help you are in for a swim. Securing the anchor to the bottom by tying in to a boulder etc. would prevent this from happening.

I haven’t tried any of these ideas, as for the rest of the trip we used a live boat. The next time we visit these islands we will have an anchor that is ready for the mantas, however.

Posted in Cruising 2016, Sailing, SCUBA Diving | Comments Off on Private boat diving at Isla San Benedicto

Magic Log #7: Guaymas to Cabo

In mid October Lisa and I drove our van to Guaymas to drop gear and food and so forth off at Magic, and do some recommissioning. We still had commitments in the US, though, and after a few days drove back. On November 10 we left our van in storage in Tucson, took a bus to Guaymas, and began the season. We had flexible plans for the next several months, with one main exception. In February we were planning on sailing to Isla San Benedicto in the Revillagigedos, a volcanic island 250 miles south of Cabo and home to some of the best diving in the world. We wanted to spend a few weeks there, and both ourselves and the boat needed to be ready for the trip.

Things got off to a slightly bumpy start. When we came down in October everything on the boat had looked good, but when we came down in November we found our outboard had been stolen in the interim. The outboard had been locked to the stern, and in October I had installed the blocks used to raise and lower it. Doing this apparently made things just easy enough for the thieves. This wasn’t a huge loss; the outboard was about 15 years old, and while a well cared for motor will last much longer it was still a piece of equipment we had thought about replacing before leaving for the South Pacific. The marina staff found us a Yamaha dealer in town, and a few days later we had a new and more powerful outboard delivered.

A couple of mechanical gremlins presented themselves as we continued recommissioning. The windlass motor was not working, and after putting the boat in the water the starboard engine would not start. We anchored the boat using the port engine and operating the windlass manually. I diagnosed the starboard engine issue as a bad starter solenoid, and figured out how to bypass the solenoid with a screwdriver and start the engine, but didn’t do anything else to fix these problems. We finished recommissioning and waited for our new outboard to be delivered. We were hoping after this point to head to San Carlos and spend some time at the anchorages there we enjoy so much, but the weather was unsettled — rain, lightning, some gale force winds — so we hung out in Guaymas a few more days and relaxed.

After about a week in Guaymas the weather improved and we had a great sail across the sea to Isla Carmen, averaging a steady clip of six knots. We anchored in Puerto Ballandra and spent several very relaxing days. We went for a few dives, did some paddleboarding and kayaking together, and had hunting needlefish and other predators swarm around the boat one night. It was great to be back on the boat and enjoying the water.

While in Ballandra we started getting concerned about a storm forming south of Cabo that was projected to become a hurricane. It was late November at this point, and hurricanes this time of year are extremely rare. The storm did not look like it would pass near us, but we decided to head to Puerto Escondido, a very well protected anchorage sixteen miles to the south. We left Ballandra the day before Thanksgiving, planning to spend a day at Isla Danzante before heading the rest of the way to Escondido.

On the way out of Ballandra, the port engine overheated. All season long (and most of the last season) it hadn’t been making much water, though the flow seemed adequate to keep the engine cooled. Now the engine’s temperature was quickly spiking and we weren’t able to use it. We started the starboard engine and got the rest of the way to Danzante, but I was dealing with a lot of stress over all the broken things on the boat and how things just kept getting worse. Our next major destination was La Paz, and I started referring to it as Shangri-La Paz with its promises of boat parts and mechanics and other resources.

Anyhow, Danzante was a nice place to spend a day. Lisa wanted to relax so I went diving at a rock near the island’s north end which has a nice wall.

The next morning we traveled the few remaining miles to Puerto Escondido and picked up a mooring to wait out the hurricane on. Lisa had been online and found out that two friends of ours from Utah, Carol and Greg, were just a couple miles away. This was a nice surprise; we knew they were in Baja for a kayaking trip from Loreto to La Paz and had been planning to meet them when they arrived in La Paz, but we were not expecting to see them so soon. They kayaked over to the boat a few hours after we got our mooring and spent the night, and the next day — still waiting out the hurricane, which wasn’t expected to affect us so far north — we went for a really neat hike up a flowing canyon a few miles from town.

The next day all threat from the hurricane had passed, but a norther was starting to pipe up in the sea which would generate strong winds for several days. Carol and Greg decided to stay aboard for another day as we sailed south. This started out mellow but later on the wind built and was nearly 20 knots as we rounded Punta San Marte and anchored. Magic was beam to the swell and the rolling was uncomfortable for everyone, so I put a kayak in the water and set a stern anchor. I left the kayak tied to the boat overnight, and the next morning it was gone, after a poorly tied, tail-less bowline (originating from when we purchased the boat, I swear!) unraveled. We launched the dinghy and looked around some nearby beaches, but no sign of it.

Even if it had been sighted on a beach, getting to it would have been a tall order, with large waves from the norther crashing down in all but the most protected spots. Carol and Greg had been thinking earlier about resuming their kayak trip here, but given the conditions and forecast that wasn’t really a viable option, and they stayed on the boat as we sailed all day to Isla San Francisco, arriving an hour or so after dark and shining a spotlight around the anchorage to watch for unlit boats. The next day would be the windiest of the norther, so we stayed put and went hiking and snorkeling.

We sailed a half day to Bahia San Gabriel, one of our favorite anchorages near the south end of Espiritu Santo. We went ashore and hiked, and later on went snorkeling. Before snorkeling we noticed a pelican nearby which was struggling in the water. There wasn’t anything we could do, and we left it there to die. Afterwards Greg paddled over and pulled a huge chub from its mouth. Between this fish and two the next morning which were given to us by some fishermen (their motor broke down, they spent the night in the anchorage, and Lisa gave them coffee in the morning) we were set for a while.

The next afternoon we traveled the rest of the way to La Paz, sailing part of the way. All in all, we sailed nearly 90% of the distance south from Guaymas, an unprecedented degree of sailing for us and a huge amount of fun. Carol and Greg left the next morning to continue their trip, while we would remain in the area for nearly two months, until the end of January. All told, we would spend about five weeks in La Paz and, over the course of three trips, three weeks at Espiritu Santo.

We quickly settled back in to life in La Paz. Lisa spent a lot of time with friends in town, going to her Zumba class most days. I spent most of my time holed up in the boat, working, but did do a few boat projects — getting the starboard engine into good working order, fixing some leaks in the dinghy, some odds and ends.

After a week and a half in La Paz we had a nice window to head to Espiritu Santo, so motored north to Bahia Candeleros. This is a very pretty anchorage which we hadn’t been to since just after purchasing the boat, and we’d been interested in diving here. We did a few dives on the island in the center of the anchorage, finding some nice dense schools of grunts. With strong winds from a norther we didn’t have much else to do, but after a few days the winds slacked and we went to Ensenada Grande, another favorite anchorage, for some paddleboarding and diving. After a day and a half the winds picked back up, and we left for a fast, rowdy sail back to La Paz.

Back in La Paz it was well into December, and after spending Christmas with friends in town we left again for Espiritu Santo, staying out about two weeks and using the rest of our time off work during the holidays to see more remote parts of the group. After a day in Bahia San Gabriel we headed further north, stopping to dive at the Fang Ming, a wreck that was scuttled to make a dive site two decades ago. This was an adventurous dive for us, deep and exposed but with lots of fish around and mellow conditions. With the windlass still broken we hauled the chain up manually from 75′, which went OK but was time consuming and reinforced the need to fix the windlass.

From the Fang Ming we headed to Caleta Partida, one of the most popular anchorages on Espiritu Santo and a spot we had never been to before. This anchorage is sandwiched between the two islands in the group and is sheltered from almost all directions. It seemed a good place to wait out the next norther, whose arrival was imminent.

While entering the anchorage we noticed multiple schools of mobula rays swimming around at the surface. We frequently see these rays jumping in the distance but had never had an opportunity to watch them up close. After anchoring we set out in the dinghy and both went snorkeling, swimming among the rays as they made way for us and cruised around feeding on the plankton. This was a wonderful experience; seeing how gentle and agile the mobula rays were got us excited for our trip to San Benedicto, which is frequented by much larger manta rays.

We stayed at Caleta Partida for four days. Despite the gusty intermittent wind we were able to get out each day to snorkel and dive at a wash rock to the west of the anchorage. To the west of this rock is a ridgeline submerged close to the surface, lots of fish and nooks and crannies to explore.

The norther eventually subsided and we had a few days of very calm weather in the forecast. From Caleta Partida we headed to El Embudo, a pretty and exposed anchorage just a mile from the sea lion colony at Los Islotes. We wanted to get more experience diving with the sea lions here. This started out great; we were in shallow water with lots of fish and good coral and terrain, clearly a cut above the diving we had been doing previously on Espiritu Santo. The sea lions came by a few times but didn’t pester us. Early in the third dive a sea lion started bothering Lisa, while I was twenty feet away in a tunnel photographing another sea lion. Lisa surfaced, I followed and we swam back to the dinghy. We had talked a few days earlier about me heading deep into tunnels; I had gone further in than I should have and she wasn’t able to signal me to come back to her. This was a wakeup call for me to not be so blase around these animals when I’m with Lisa, and we resolved to do better with hand signals and with sticking together.

We motored south to San Gabriel, and were promptly chased out by park rangers — apparently some idiot anchored on one of the coral reefs in the bay, so now anchoring is not allowed anywhere in San Gabriel, including the many sandy portions — so we headed to Ensenada de la Dispensa, a smaller bay just to the south. After a brief stay we went to Ensenada de La Raza to wait out yet another norther, doing some mediocre diving on Isla Gallo and some hiking ashore. I used a closeup lens on my underwater camera for the first time and found that the friendly and ubiquitous Sergeant Majors have creepy, human-like teeth.

We headed back to La Paz, in large part to get the boat’s mechanical problems under control. The port engine was still overheating, and the windlass was still broken. Our trip to the Revillagigedos was only a few weeks away, and the condition of the boat was stressing Lisa out a lot and was causing us to fight. I finally sat down with the windlass and did a couple hours of troubleshooting. The problem seemed to be an internal short in the motor — when removed and attached directly to our battery bank the motor was sluggish and got incredibly hot after just a few seconds, while the brushes looked fine. I ordered a replacement motor to my mom and her husband, who would be flying down to sail with us to the Revillagigedos.

The saga of the port engine’s raw water circuit is more interesting, and was certainly instructive for me. As noted earlier, for much of the last season the engine’s raw water production was pretty low, but the engine’s temperature seemed ok so we ignored the issue. After the engine overheated in Puerto Ballandra we didn’t use it again until La Paz. Trying there, I could get it to make water but it would keep climbing in temperature and get too hot after half an hour. Long ago I had looked over all parts of the raw water circuit I could access, and things seemed good. I thought the problem was with the saildrive leg — there is a long passage between where the water enters intakes on the leg and where it reaches the engine compartment itself, which could potentially get clogged and can’t be accessed without hauling the boat out of the water and taking apart the saildrive. While out at Espiritu Santo we bypassed the saildrive leg by running a hose to a bucket of water in the cockpit, and the engine made a normal amount of water. I thought this confirmed my hypothesis, and since we didn’t want to haul out before our trip we made plans to bypass the saildrive on the trip if the starboard engine failed, and wait until the fall to fix the problem for good.

Lisa wasn’t very satisfied with this plan, so we contacted a mechanic in La Paz, Colin, who we had talked to when we purchased Magic. After talking to Colin for a bit, he removed the raw water pump to bench test it, finding it was not forming a tight seal and was likely underperforming. After having the pump shaved down at a machine shop to improve the seal, he visited the boat again, reinstalled the pump, and flushed the saildrive with a muriatic acid solution to attack any clogs in there. The engine now made water just fine, which was almost a miracle to me. This was the first time we had a mechanic look at the boat since purchasing it, but I clearly need to be less stubborn about talking to them when facing difficult problems. Lisa and I have worked out a protocol for when exactly we should go and consult a mechanic, though we haven’t yet had a chance to try it out.

Meanwhile, we were spending a lot of time in La Paz. In the past I got pretty restless spending much time in the anchorage, but now I found a new outlet: kiteboarding. I’d been curious about kiting in La Paz in the past, but the town’s waterfront is a bad place for it, with a narrow beach, inconsistent wind and lots of people. In December I started taking the dinghy to the Mogote, a quiet sandspit with some mangroves across the bay from La Paz, a mile from the anchorage. On windy days it blows here pretty consistently, and I found it a great spot for kiteboarding; depending on where I was relative to the spit, I could either be in a protected spot with no waves, in the shoals out in front of town, or in bigger, surfable waves breaking on the outside. A much better variety than La Ventana, and almost no other kites or windsurfers out there, though there can be a lot of boat traffic and in the event of a problem you get blown back to town rather than to where you started. With all the northers in December and January I was able to get out about half the days, and towards the end started practicing with my directional board and reversing my stance during gybe turns (still a work in progress).

Late in January a friend from Utah, Everett, came to visit us for several days. The forecast for the trip was good, so we headed to Ensenada de la Dispensa on Espiritu Santo, hoping to see more of this new anchorage than we had earlier. This turned out to be a great little spot, with lots of coral and fish while snorkeling, a large and interesting shoal area, and some mangroves we were able to take paddleboards back in and explore. We also went over to San Gabriel in the dinghy to check out the frigate birds there, do some hiking and (very briefly) kiteboarding. A relaxed trip, lots of fun.

The day after Everett left, we departed La Paz and started towards Cabo. After 24 hours of motoring we reached Los Frailes and spent a night. I hadn’t been here since 2012 when I inadvertently dodged Hurricane Paul, and coming back was a treat. The weather and water were both warmer than around La Paz, and the water was much clearer. We did an amazing dive in a shoal of tens of thousands of Bigeye Trevally, the fish so thick they formed a solid wall and blocked out the sun below them. Afterwards we did some paddleboarding, but the next morning we needed to leave for Cabo and we resolved to return later in the season.

The wind came up not long after leaving Los Frailes and we sailed most of the way to Cabo, seeing several whale breaches and other activity but otherwise uneventful. In the afternoon we arrived, anchored in front of the hotels on the beach and relaxed. I didn’t expect to like Cabo; I’d heard the anchorage was precarious, crowded, and very rolly with the boat traffic and swells. This is in some respects all true, but I still enjoyed the anchorage. We anchored bow and stern to reduce the motion from the wind swells coming off a raging norther in the sea, enjoyed seeing the fish under the boat, even enjoyed taking the dinghy to the town’s marina and walking around the touristy areas. Our guests arrived and we did extensive reprovisioning at the nearby Costco and Walmart, the town’s water taxis making this a breeze compared to doing it in La Paz. We installed the new windlass motor and the boat was now mechanically sound, for the first time in over a year. We left for the Revillagigedos two days after our guests arrived, on February 5.

Posted in Cruising 2015, Cruising 2016, Kiteboarding, Sailing, SCUBA Diving, Snorkeling | Comments Off on Magic Log #7: Guaymas to Cabo