Sunday, February 24, 2013

Isla Isabella

Bella Vita at Isla Isabella

A Great Visit to Isla Isabella

Blue-footed boobies
After a fairly uneventful crossing from Bahia Los Muertos towards the mainland, we made a stop at the famous Isla Isabel (shown as Isabella on the charts) – sometimes referred to as the “Galapagos of Mexico”.  It’s a very small island about 18 miles off the mainland coast – but about 2/3rds of the way from Muertos to Chacala – which makes it a great place to break up a long crossing when you head directly to Banderas Bay like we did.  Unfortunately it’s also known to eat anchors because of its very rocky bottom – so many cruisers do not risk a stop.  Since we are not going to the real Galapagos, I pretty much insisted that we stop so that I could see the famous blue-footed boobies and the rest of the wildlife said to cover the island. 

King Iguana
In 1981 Isla Isabella was given national park status and in 2003 it was deemed a World Heritage Site – so it is now protected on an international level.  What that translates to is a safe haven for huge quantities of birds, including blue-footed and green-footed boobies, brown boobies, frigate birds, brown pelicans, sooty terns and many other types of seabirds.  As we approached the island we were amazed to see 1000’s of birds circling in the air above the rocks.  After we carefully put down our anchor (and trip line with float!) we started looking around and were stunned to see that every rock and every tree on the island is literally COVERED with birds!  I thought we had seen a lot of birds in other places, but it was nothing compared to this.

Fish Camp at Isabella
Since we arrived at sunset, we had to wait until the next day to go to shore.  There is a small active fishing camp here along with an abandoned research station that is sometimes used as a camp for visiting researchers and eco tours.  Other than that, the island remains fairly untouched and is a huge showcase for the vast bird population.  We landed the dinghy near the fish camp and then basically explored about 80% of the island – which only took about 3 hours as it’s not very big.  

Lots of nesting boobies!
A brown boobie with a new addition!
The boobie population is mostly concentrated in two areas – the tall hill to the west (where the light tower is located) and near Las Monas – the two towering rocks on the east side of the island.  I am not exaggerating when I say that we saw 100’s of boobies!  It was amazing – there were nests every few feet in some areas – all with boobies of various types guarding an egg.  It was so much more than either of us had expected – absolutely stunning.  And since they are protected here, all of the birds are not afraid of people – so you can get within feet of them.  That said – if you do get within about 2-3 feet of the boobies they kind of bark/quack at you and it’s very clear that they would like you to go away.

Female Frigate
At one point we were standing at the top of the west hill below the light tower, just kind of looking around and taking pictures.  There were birds all over the tower and one obviously REALLY wanted us to leave as it took very careful aim and let loose a large amount of bird doo – and scored a DIRECT HIT!  Yes, we were officially christened on the island.  But it was totally worth it to get to see so many nesting boobies of all kinds.

Male Frigate Mating Display
To top it off, there is also EXCELLENT snorkeling to be had here.  We explored the rocks in the southeast portion of the anchorage (about 300 feet from where we anchored) and there were 1000’s of fish of all types and sizes – fantastic!

Watch your step!
All in in, I would highly recommend a stop at this wonderful place if you ever have the chance to go.  It was an incredible experience that was every bit worth the risk of having to deal with a stuck anchor.  Best of all, our anchor pulled right out!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Our Time in La Paz and the Sea of Cortez

Brett on the Malecon in La Paz

We arrived in La Paz in November, just prior to Thanksgiving.  The weather at that time was in the mid-80s and the winds were very light.  Because of various visitors, we knew we would be in the area until late January – which is a long time for us to stay in one place, but we really looked forward to getting to know the area and the people there. 

Beautiful and Interesting Hotel Yeneka
La Paz is an amazing town – there are so many great restaurants to eat in, you hardly know where to start.  During our time there, we probably ate at over 25 restaurants – varying from a small hole in the wall with 2-3 tables, to one of the most expensive steak houses in town (Estancia Uruguaya - where we had one of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten).  Out of all of those restaurants, I can’t think of one that we had a bad meal at and we never got sick or had any issues of the classic “Mexican” variety.  And yes, we ate a LOT of salads!  In fact, the food in La Paz is some of the best I’ve ever eaten – a wonderful mix of flavors and spices that we will greatly miss once we leave. 

Scuptures on the Malecon
The people we met in La Paz are also incredibly friendly and helpful – especially if you try to speak the language.  I only know the basics – but any effort is greatly appreciated and they are very patient and love to help you learn the language.  While there are many people that can speak English (especially the younger people), I think it’s always best to try – even if you are bumbling along.  Plus, if you don’t practice, how will you ever learn?  But so many people speak English it’s easy to forget to practice!

Getting around La Paz is also very easy.  First off, there is an amazing “Malecon” that runs along the water for miles through the city – great for walking with wonderful sculptures about every block.  There are taxis everywhere, plus an excellent system of buses that you can take for just 8 pesos per person around town.  With a little searching you can find pretty much any item you need in La Paz.  We put in countless miles walking around town getting supplies and finding new places to eat or interesting little stores.  By simply wondering around on foot, we found many special places that we would have definitely missed in a car.  That said, if you are not into walking there are several car rental agencies and most of them will even bring the car to you!

If you are a boater, there is a wonderful group of cruisers that live in La Paz over the entire winter (many stay year-round) and they are an invaluable resource if you need help finding a specific item or service.  There is a cruiser’s “Net” that runs on VHF channel 22, Monday thru Saturday, with a different Net host each day (my personal favorite was Gunther on Friday’s).  The net includes announcements for arrivals and departures, for local weather, the local tides, a section for local assistance (where you can ask about anything you need), and a swaps and trades section if you are looking to get rid of something out of your bilge.  Remember that as a non-resident you are not able to sell in Mexico – only to trade “for coconuts”!  There is also a yacht club – Club Cruceros – which hosts a morning coffee hour every day except Sunday.  They also host special events over the course of the year and help raise money for several local worthy causes.  They have a huge DVD lending library that members have access to and it’s only about $10 US to join.

Another Great Hike!
About 2 hours north of La Paz (assuming travel at an average of 6 knots) there are two large islands – Esp√≠ritu Santo and Caleta Partida.  There are many wonderful anchorages on these two islands, all of which are well protected from the north – but almost all of them are exposed to south winds.  There are wind events here called “Coromuels” where strong winds will blow from the south from late afternoon to early the next morning.  These happen more often in the summer, but can still happen in the winter too.  We know, because we’ve been through several and they are not fun! 

So now to the bad part of being in La Paz during the winter – the part that nobody seems to mention in any of the cruising guides and the reason we never got very far north into the Sea, even though we were there for almost THREE MONTHS!  December and January are fairly chilly and we had almost constant “wind events” (i.e. sustained winds over 20 knots).  We had multiple cases where we were stuck at anchor for 3 days in sustained winds from 20-30 knots.  When I say sustained, I mean sustained in the high 20’s to low 30’s for 72 hours with gusts up to 40 knots in our “protected anchorage”.  It was not fun and it was cold!  We also had some terrible experiences out at the islands – one night of 35+ knots all night with 3-4 foot waves causing us to hobby horse all night, another where we spent 3 days/nights in 30+ knots and watched multiple boats dragging – all inside the most protected anchorage. 

Ensenada Grande on a Calm day
I can honestly say that my top 4 worst nights at anchor now all took place in La Paz and the surrounding area – and we’ve been anchoring out all over the Northwest for over 10 years!  While La Paz is a great area, I just wish someone had warned us that December and January were not good months to be there.  That said – when it wasn’t blowing 30 knots the anchorages were absolutely beautiful, with excellent snorkeling, kayaking, paddle boarding, swimming, incredible white sandy beaches and fantastic hikes.  The wildlife is stunning and the fish are abundant.  So my basic advice would be to come – just don’t come for the months of December or January.  Enough said!

Addy & Cyntia - Marina de La Paz
If you plan to bring your boat to La Paz and you don’t have a big budget, there is a huge anchorage area with room for 100’s of boats and the cruisers really look out for each other.  If you want to stay at a dock, there are about 5 different options and prices vary depending on how many days you stay.  Our personal favorite is Marina de La Paz.  The girls (Addy & Cyntia) are incredibly friendly and helpful – even when you are not staying at their marina.  You will find the daily rate at all of the marinas is very expensive – over $100 for a 46’ boat.  However the weekly rate at most of them will drop substantially and the monthly rate is even better.  Over the winter many of the marinas are full, so it is wise to make arrangements prior to the fall if you want a long term slip. 

Charts!  If you are going to cruise this area, you absolutely MUST have the book by Shawn Breeding and Heather Bansmer called the Sea of Cortez, A Cruiser’s Guidebook.  This book has excellent coverage of the Sea with great illustrations of all of the anchorages.  Most important – the illustrations show the depths of the anchorages, which you WILL NOT get from any of the paper charts OR electronic charts.  Let me repeat – none of the electronic charts (at least from Navionics) show anchorage depths.  They only show depths outside of the anchorages – so this book is absolutely necessary for entering anchorages safely. 

View from the top at Ensenada Grande
So!  Knowing what we know now, would we still come to this area?  Without hesitation – we loved La Paz!  What would we do differently?  We would not go during December or January when the weather is too unsettled to be comfortable at anchor.  I have high hopes however that someday we will be able to return to the area during the “true” cruising season (October, November, March or April).  From what we hear, it gets very hot after April and you are at some risk of hurricane season, so plan accordingly! 

We look forward to seeing the friendly, wonderful people of La Paz again someday and thank them all for making our stay there the best that it could be!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Heating Up and Cooling Off - Relationships on Board

It's 3am in the morning and I've just woke up. We're about 36 hours into a two day passage and it's my turn to take watch. But before Brett goes to bed, we need to jibe the boat. We're in light winds (6-9 knots) and we don't have a lot of speed, so we'll need to do it right the first time. Have I mentioned that it's 3am, I've just woken up and it's pitch black out?

We prep for the jibe, get everything in place and are ready to make the switch. I'm at the helm and Brett will crank in the headsail. We go for it and I completely overshoot the turn. Since it's dark and we don't have the chart plotter on (conserving power of course!), I become disorientated and we quickly lose power and thus we lose our steerage. No power (forward motion) equals no ability to steer in the correct direction. I've got the wheel hard over to port, but the boat now has a mind of its own and is turning up into the wind (the opposite of where we want to go). I say to Brett (who is trying to manage flapping sails, the boom and preventer lines) "I've got no steerage and we need to start the engine". He says "Just turn the boat into the right direction" (or a similarly annoying statement). I quickly ascribe to the "he must not of heard me so I'll say it louder" theory of communication and SHOUT that WE HAVE NO STEERING!

Suffice it to say that it was a bit of a fiasco, but in about 10 minutes we got everything safely sorted out. But what remains for me is that when I tried to communicate my situation (no steerage and disorientation with no chartplotter), he came off frustrated and annoyed instead of helpful and confirming - which was what I needed at that scary moment. What he needed was for me to steer the damn boat in the right direction!

So what comes next? For us, it's the post-fiasco play by play review to see how the situation could have been managed better. Sometimes this covers old ground and serves as a communication reminder on certain topics, sometimes it just helps us develop a better process (like deciding to always have the chart plotter on prior to jibbing at night). The past 5 months have brought up MANY of these discussions and reviews as we learn how to communicate within our new cruising lifestyle.

Let's step back in time a little. Back in 2008, when we were getting serious about this trip, we decided (based on all of our research and the cruisers we had talked to) that it would be really important to live on the boat for at least a year prior to departure. It made perfect sense to accustom ourselves to living together in a very tight space (just 245 square feet - yikes!!!) BEFORE the stress of our first long passage. With the economic downturn, we ended up living on the boat for three years before departing and I can honestly say that it was one of the best things we could have done. Not only did we learn every inch of our boat, but we also learned every inch of each other's "hot spots" and "buttons" and how to be honest with each other when something was bugging us instead of just letting it stew. Now that we've been out for 5 months - together 24/7 - day after day after day, that ability to communicate has become VERY important.

Thankfully I am married to one of the sweetest men that has ever lived. He is warm, caring, supportive and has been well schooled in the "if mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy" line of thought. I couldn't have asked for a better partner to take this journey with. But that doesn't mean I don't want to occasionally hit him over the head with my cast iron skillet. And while I am, of course, perfect in every way (HAHAAHAH), I'm sure there are times when he would love to absolutely throw me overboard…

So how do you deal with the rough spots and make sure you're not harboring some long-term grudge based on accumulated frustrations? The key is to always take some time off and cool down before an argument gets too heated. Since we've left, this means being 100% honest with each other when we are upset and communicating how the other person is making us feel. This means a lot of sensitive sentences that go something like this….

"When you say (insert anything annoying) to me, it makes me feel (insert any negative emotion here)."

This is followed by a recap of what happened, the emotions (reasonable or not) that each person felt and then a discussion on how it might be avoided in the future. While it all seems very cliché, I can't tell you how important it is to get it all out - because if you don't, and your mate doesn't know how you feel, then the same thing keeps happening and suddenly we're back to the cast iron skillet again!

But even great communication can't always overcome every problem and sometimes you need to just "suck it up". One of those for me is that when things go haywire during a "boat emergency", Brett goes into total focus-mode on how to fix the problem. Perfect, right? We need to fix the problem after all. But the issue for me is I often don't know what the problem is and he's so focused that he can't even give me a one sentence answer about what is going on - so I'm often left to sit and stew. It makes me crazy to not know what is happening and that he can't even take 10 seconds to tell me - because I might just be able to help him figure out a fix. But over the years and after more "post-emergency discussions" than I care to count, it has become clear to me that this is one thing he is unable to change. This is just how Brett works in an emergency - complete and utter focus to the extent that he barely even knows I'm there - unless it's to bark an order at me. It still makes me absolutely crazy, but I've (grudgingly) come to accept that it's not going to change and that I'm just going to have to accept it. Sometimes that's the way it goes.

So in my opinion, cruising is all about compromise and being completely honest with your mate about what you are thinking and feeling. If you can't share your happiness, your fears, and the things that upset you with the person you've picked to take this journey with, than you are in big trouble! While it's not easy to do (sooooooooo much easier to not rock the boat!), life is infinitely better when the cast iron skillet is only brought out for cooking.

Here's a link to the new Raft-Up website where past articles are organized and there are bios on all of the bloggers - check it out!