A short Mexico story




It was Thanksgiving morning, Portland was cold, 45 degrees and drizzly, grey and very chilly for your basic Southern Californian.  I suffer in the winter anyway, never quite warm enough.


The telephone rang, it was our friend Bo on the other end of the line, not much of a line today but still it was a contact.  “Hey buddy’ would you like to come to Mexico”, after a short pause and a glance outside, “sure”, I replied, “When”.  “As soon as possible”. He stated, to which I said “I will be leaving here on Saturday, but must check in at the prison on Monday, to get my retired ID card.”  “Then we will head out” .   “okay”, he replied, “I’ll call you on Monday.”


Saturday, after a wonderful Thanksgiving with my sister and mother, wife, 2 nephews and a girl friend, as well as a friend, and an excellent visit we headed south with the plan to make Vallejo, California on Sunday so that we could wrap up business there on Monday, then drive to San Diego.


We traveled south on 5 for a period but the coast is always prettier so in Eugene we turned west and went over to highway 1 and continued south.  The trip south was fun and relaxing, stopping in Bandon, Oregon to look at a large mast in the bay, good time for a rest stop anyway.  We then drove on to Eureka, California, where we had dinner with our good friends Ross and Debbie.  We also stayed there for the night.  Sunday morning we visit Ross’s boat and had coffee with them.  What a beautiful vessel, very classic lines.  Again we had a great visit. 


Monday found us in Vacaville where I dropped Ann at the laundry mat, and visited the prison where I had worked for 27 years.  I was there only to pick up my retired ID card and turn in my regular card.  I also visited the local market to create a package for our son in law, Kelsey, and ship it off.  Isn’t it strange how the package costs less to create than it does to ship.  I found myself remembering when I had shipped my first package to Iraq, for our son, I had made the mistake of sending 2 pound bags of jelly beans, known as belly flops in the package.  It seems they arrived as 1 large square jelly bean of varying flavors, because of the heat.  This accomplished I collected Ann and headed south towards San Diego.


Tuesday found us locking our truck up behind the Catholic Church in Old Town San Diego, having been informed that this was probably the best place to leave it, and have a chance that it wouldn’t be towed.  We gathered our gear, having packed our foulies, a radio, gps, a copy of Charlie’s Charts and some clothes as well as some filters for the fuel system of the boat we were to meat in Turtle Bay.  Walking to the Tijuana Trolley we headed south again towards the Mexican border. 


Bo had informed us that we should take the ABC bus company to Vizcaino and a shuttle to Turtle Bay, Bahia de Tortugas, sounds simple huh.


And it was quite simple, quite simply one of the strangest rides we had ever attempted.  Once we had cleared customs at the border and gotten a 7 day visa, we headed for the bus station. ABC Transporte, one of the three major bus lines in Baja, California.  With broken English we negotiated a bus to Ensenada, and from Ensenada to Vizcaino, here we had little time to spare as the bus loaded almost immediately.  The highway to Ensenada was modern smooth and in all ways much like you find north of the border in California. 


While on the bus we met Jorge and Carlos, Jorge was a disabled American GI, living near Ensenada, and was a wealth of information on traveling in Mexico.  Carlos, a flooring salesman from Ensenada, selling all over Northern Baja.  When we arrived in Ensenada, we accepted a ride from Carlos and his wife, downtown to a money changer where we got 13.25 pesos to the dollar as opposed to the 10 that most people find in Tijuana and other villages in Baja.  Carlos also showed as a fine restaurant to eat at.  So armed with a fistful of pesos, a couple margaritas for Ann and cervasas for me with a good steak in our belly, we caught a cab back to the bus station to await the bus for Vizcaino.


In contrast to the road from Tijuana to Ensenada, the road from Ensenada to Vizcaino is two lanes wide, sort of, mostly paved, sort of and that line in the middle is a suggestion, sort of.  Taxi drivers in the states must train in a bus in Mexico, the bus may have a speed limit, and the road creates most of them.  The drivers navigate down the middle of the road while not being approached by another vehicle, which depending on size determines right-of-way, when not in the middle; the ditch is as good as the road.  An old American classic movie was playing on the DVD player in Spanish with Spanish subtitles, while the driver’s stereo played and he sang at the top of his voice his favorite songs.  The bus had no heat and it being a cold night, Ann and I curled up together as best we could.  When it really got cold the driver wiped the windscreen with his hand to clear the fog.


When coming into a village or town, there are no speed limits just about 2 miles of speed bumps to slow you down,  Throughout the night we traveled south at this pace, stopping only twice for restroom and stretch breaks.  At most restrooms we found in Mexico, the restroom was free but the toilet paper costs 3 pesos.  We arrived in this manner finally in Vizcaino tired, cold and dusty at 4:00 in the morning, at a bus stop of four walls, cement floor and open tin roof, about 25 foot square.  Next to a restaurant comprised of approximately 40 foot square cement floor, red cinder block ½ walls topped by sliding glass windows and covered by a hut style roof, the kind with a center post and a circular series of logs all thatched with palm fronds.  Here we discovered that the van to Bahia de Tortugas would leave a 10:00 but we needed to secure our seats now. 


Here in Vizcaino we met a salesman from Mexico   City that was traveling to Bahia de Tortugas with a companion, this gentlemen spoke some English and therefore we could again gather information about the local area.  After a breakfast, that was deplorable, we waited for approximately 5 hours for the west bound “van”.  As the sun appeared we discovered we were truly at a stage stop, a gas station, the restaurant, the bus stop and a motel connected to the bus station, sort of.  The hotel was interesting in that it appeared to be under construction, as it appeared to continually under construction, a few rooms connected, painted red, topped by a couple rooms obviously built at a different time, painted green.  All attached to more rooms under construction.  In the courtyard there was a tree, a chicken coup, a shed and a dog shelter housing a mother and handful of pups,  chicks, chickens and a mangled bandy rooster wandered about.  There were the obligatory lame dog and his side kick running about, observing all, but not belonging anywhere.


At 10:00 the “van” arrived, it was a mid 80’s ¾ ton, 9  passenger van that had seen many, many miles, bent on all four corners and sporting an enormous roof rack.  The driver stacked luggage on the roof rack and netted it down, all the seats taken the floor space was taken up with a case of cheese, and a milk crate of tortillas.  Off we rattled at a breakneck speed of about 45 miles per hour on what started out to be a fine two lane road, which ended in about 300 feet, where it degraded into a fine 1 and ½ lane paved surface, sort of.  The paved surface lasted at least another 20 miles, before it transition into a 1 lane dirt and gravel graded road, which deteriated at intervals when washes or low spots were transversed.  Thus we rattled along for about 2 hours, passing no structures just dirt and rock and the occasional sad looking bushy treelike thing.


After a couple hours traveling this way, we rounded a bend in the road and discovered a hacienda, bougainvillea covered an entrance way, as we entered the front of the hacienda through a wide veranda, to the left was a small dining room where the senora sold snack foods and drinks, restrooms were in a small courtyard and garden off the dining room.  The cheese and tortillas, as well as some boxes from the roof rack were offloaded at the hacienda.  Here in the middle of no where the driver collected his fees, 400 pesos for Ann and me to travel to Bahia de Tortugas, which is only about 20.00 dollars each, not expensive by any stretch of the imagination.  However, I did notice that all other passengers on this “van” paid 125 pesos each, aw the price of not understanding the language better.  I think on my next trip to Mexico I’ll be better prepared to listen to the people, maybe not quick to speak up, but listen carefully.


The journey from the stage stop took a decidedly rougher route as the road deteriated into not much more than a couple of ruts to follow through the canyon and up the hills as the elevation increased, but just as I settled in to the idea that there was going to be at least two more hours of this stage ride, the local transportation authority threw us a curve and presented us with a nice”?”, new,  paved road, sort of.  More like macadam laid directly on the graded gravel, but it was smoother and almost two lanes wide.  This remained such until we got to the village of Bahia de Tortugas, where everything turned back to dirt and snaked in between all of the houses.  The driver delivered each passenger to their respective destinations, dropping us at the top of the hill above “Turtle Bay”.  It was about 78 degrees, sunny and warm, dusty and dry feeling.


Lifting our gear to my shoulder, we walked down through the village toward the bay, there to find our friend Bo enjoying cold cerveza, and waiting for his lunch in Enrique’s’ Cantina.  So we ordered some bisteca, cerveza and a margarita for Ann, probably the worst margarita she’s ever imbibed.  So after a meal, that was not what I would consider an epicurean delight, and a beer, we dragged our gear across the beach to a red inflatable dinghy that was beached near the pier.


Once aboard the boat a 1986 34 foot Hunter that had seen better days and was in need of some serious maintenance, we stowed our gear and began to survey the problem.   The problem as I understood it was that the fuel had gelatinized from the amount of algae that was in the tanks.  Diesel fuel will grow algae from the salt air that is trapped in a tank for a long period of time.  The only method to clear this problem up is to clean the tanks by hand, or to replace them.  While the delivery captain had had the local mechanic remove and clean the tank out, however this apparently had not resolved the problem and he was without replacement filters.  Our reason for coming to Mexico was at hand so I pulled a new filter from my pack and installed it, and we started the engine.  It ran fine, sounded a little rough but appeared to be ready at this point.  Easy Fix!

Bo and I took the dinghy ashore to collect provisions and get ready to leave Bahia de Tortugas for Ensenada, this evening.  He wanted out of here in the worst way, having been stuck for 10 days and missing Thanksgiving with his family.  Some part of this plan did not seem as if it was the brightest and best.  But within a few hours we were ready to make our first attempt, and Bo’s sixth attempt to leave Turtle Bay.  We napped throughout the afternoon and when it was time to weigh anchor, I discovered that we were being held in place by a 13 pound Danforth anchor on about 20 feet of 5/16ths chain and a 3/8’s 3 strand rode, the chain was attached to the anchor with 2 master padlocks in place of a shackle.  The boat ran well and drove well as we left Turtle Bay in our wake and headed north, this last about 1 hour before the engine gagged and died.  My first thought was to put up the sails and continue on while I work on the engine, but I discovered at that time we had a headsail, and a torn mainsail that had been duct taped to repair it.  Well, our captain decided against continuing North and chose to return to Turtle Bay.  So under headsail alone with little wind we headed South again towards the bay, and as always happens at these times the wind died just before the entrance to the bay.  I found it interesting that the fishing boats were lined up to see who would get to tow us in, 3000 pesos later, we learned from our captain that this had occurred a number of previous times.

Morning found us tearing the fuel system apart, only to discover that the fuel system was once again gelled, and our captain started telling me more of the things he knew about this problem.  He had removed a few pieces of plastic from the fuel system and there were threads of material in the filter.  After some discussion we decided to abandon the old fuel system and start over.  So, we took some quick measurements and went ashore again in search of parts and a visit to the local internet café to get a cable with some money from the boat’s owner to pay for them.  We acquired a 20 gallon jerry can and 4 meters of fuel line, and returned to the boat to try again.  Thus far on board in a variety of cans, barrels and jugs we had the capacity for 75 gallons of fuel. We drilled a hole in the cap of the first 20 gallon jug which we had wedged into a corner of the cockpit, lashing all the other containers on the rails.  Through this hole we pushed fuel line to just above the bottom of the container, we then ran the hose across the back of a cockpit seat and through an open hatch, then down the bulkhead and through an access port into the engine room and connected it directly to the fuel filter module, which we removed from it’s difficult to service location and had remounted in a more convenient location.  After having shipped on board the last of the fuel, so that we were now carrying 75 gallons, we once again pulled up the anchor and headed to sea.

This time the engine ran poorly for about the first twenty minutes but after that period the engine, smoothed out and ran increasingly better for the next few hours.  It then ran the rest of the trip north just like it was new out of the box. 

The first night out of Turtle Bay was cold, windless and bumpy, not large seas just bumpy and unsettled.  We set three hour watches and pointed towards Isla Natividad and beyond to Cedros.  We talked and motored along at about 6 knots, hoping this plan would work.  Bo, our captain stayed on edge until we reached the shores of Cedros Island, there he declared that this was as far north as he had made it previously and he was feeling pretty good about it.  Our captain seldom got more than ½ or ¾ of a mile offshore, but we pressed on to the north with the engine actually settling down to push the boat along at 7 or 7 ½ knots using the GPS figures.  It seems that the knot meter was very inaccurate, reading 3.7 knots maximum, and the compass had been frozen in place when leaving Cabo San Lucas, so it worked but was suspect, it’s light selectively blinked off and on indiscriminately, a circumstance that upset our skipper greatly.  We had a barely operative radio, glad I brought my handheld, a handheld gps that was older and didn’t collect sightings always, again glad I brought my handheld.  At least we had good charts, no radar, no life raft, no EPIRB, oh well we can always run for cover.  During the first night, while I was on watch, a piece fell from the mast head, it appeared to be an older style head board shackle, where exactly it fell from was unclear.  Our watches were set by our captain, shared by just he and myself, Ann was not included in the schedule for reasons only Bo knew.  By the middle of the next day I had worked Ann into the watch schedule standing watch during mealtimes, often called the dog watches and watches throughout the day.  While speaking of our watches, I should relate that this was the only time that our captain’s habits bothered me, in point of fact annoyed the hell out of me.  For those that know me, it should come as no surprise that I acted as ships cook; therefore my watches had to be set around feeding the crew.  In example, on our first full day at sea, my watch was to start at 1800, therefore, I went below at about 1400 to take a nap, but awoke at 1600, washed my face and hands, partially dressed, prepared some dinner for the crew, ate quickly, dressed in my foulies and promptly showed up at the helm at 1740, fully ready to stand my watch 1800 to 2100.  Our captain promptly went below and ate his meal, stripped off his foulies and fell asleep.  At 2100 he awoke, washed up, sat at the table, staring and the charts, made himself something to eat and promptly showed up on deck by 2140, at this time he chose to siphon fuel from tank to tank, taking the wheel at approximately 2200, (10:00 pm).  As I went below our captain called out, “I’ll see you at midnight.”  So now after 2 hours off watch, I dressed and returned to the deck, taking the helm at midnight, while our captain went below, to return at 3:00, where again awoke, stared at the charts, made himself some food, dressed, siphoned fuel and screwed around for the first hour of his watch.  This watch advantage continued throughout the rest of the trip, as I grew increasingly resentful of his disrespectfully creative use of the clock.

The first night passed uneventfully as we continued northward, the little Yanmar diesel engine ran smoother and smoother throughout the night.  Dawn found us North of Cedros, under a grey marine layer, ripping along at 7 knots in calm seas without a breath of wind.   As the day warmed we followed the coastline, never more than about 3 miles offshore.  We had been dragging the dinghy from a tether so we hove too for a short time and shipped it on board, this improved our speed.  We charted our progress and motored north, throughout the day an un broken shoreline and not very picturesque.  The sun did come out and in the afternoon we were visit by the largest pod of porpoises that I had ever seen, there must have been at least 100 porpoises feeding on the surface all around us.  They were jumping, breaching and feeding everywhere you looked, but they didn’t seem interested in our bow wave.  Maybe it was because this light of boat didn’t make a significant enough bow wave to entice them, or maybe just a porpoise social comment.  The rest of the day past without incident or comment, we continued to siphon fuel from can to can and plow northward.

The second night set clear, cool and calm, with the seas flat enough to ski, and the stars came out to light the sky.  As I stood my watch I gloried in the majesty of the sky, with stars from horizon to horizon unbroken and unfettered by the light pollution you experience on shore, in point of fact the ocean was so calm that it mirrored the stars.  I found myself no longer driving by the coastline or following a suspect number from a compass that was unproven and could switch off indiscriminately, instead splitting the constellation of Bootes with our mast and sailing into a sea of stars, no longer conscious of the seas, this vessel, or my connection with terra. 

Each of my watches on this night, ended prematurely for me and I found myself lingering on deck to prolong the encounter, with the night sky, and loathe for the dawn that I knew would inevitably be coming all too soon.

The morning dawned overcast and clouded, the stars having been blanketed by the marine layer early in the dawn. I prepared a quick breakfast of eggs, bacon and bread, along with coffee and tea for the crew, fixed our position to be just south of Ensenada, our course was still northerly.  The engine continued to purr as we pushed on, the weather overcast, but the seas were flat.  That was a good thing because I wasn’t entirely sure how well this boat would go to sea if the opposite were true.  Late in the morning we spied Isla Todos Santos and Cape Banda, the entrance to Ensenada.

As the evening closed in we could see the lights of Rosarito, and knew we would soon be back in California, having accomplished our mission in fairly good time and with little troubles.  Our captain continued to run close to the shore, as the sun set and the fog tried to push in we spotted lights to our port side, which after some discussion we identified as the lights of the gambling boats out of Tijauna beach or San Diego.  We should have been on the outside of those ships, between them and the Coronado Islands.  About 1900 or 7 pm Ann was watching forward and pointed out large shadows on the water, we found ourselves dodging the mooring balls that held these ships fast when they are tethered to the shore.  These steel globes are easily 15 foot across, are chained to the bottom and would hurt us badly if we struck one. 

Soon we crossed the border and were in US waters and heading for the entrance to San   Diego Bay.  It was after nine PM when we tied to the customs dock, on Shelter Island, San Diego, California, USA the first land that we had touched since leaving Bahia de Tortugas, BC, Mexico.  The trip leaving Turtle Bay, 27 degrees 40 minutes North latitude, to San Diego, 32 degrees 42 minutes north latitude in just over 50 hours, 302 miles, a very good average speed for a small boat.  We used the after hours phone to call the customs agents, who after 45 minutes or so showed up to process us back into the country.  We had only been out of the country 1 week, but Bo had been gone 15 days on this delivery.  The customs agents thoroughly searched the boat and checked our passports, finding nothing, with the exception of 1 hardboiled egg, that concerned them greatly, “you know how dangerous those itinerate eggs can be, smuggling themselves into a fully ‘homeland security’ protected society.

We rented a hotel room in the nearby Bahia Hotel with the plan that we would shower, get some rest and press on in the morning, leaving Ann in San Diego to drive our truck north to Oxnard and meet Bo and me there.  Bo went to the hotel room to shower while Ann and I went in search of our truck, which we had left behind the Catholic Church in Old Town, San Diego.  Finding the truck, waiting for us we returned to the hotel to get our showers and some rest.  Bo returned to the boat to sleep and Ann and I slept in the hotel.

I awoke at about 03:00 and walked to the boat, to continue our trip, after waking our captain and taking out all that trash he conveniently stacked on the dock for me, we untied from the public dock and motored silently out from behind Shelter Island and headed towards Point Loma.  Our captain turned immediately north as soon as we cleared the point, I argued that being in this close would be problematic due to the kelp beds and that we should go out to at least a 100 foot of water prior to turning north.  Not 15 minutes outside of San Diego bay Bo went below and began to clean up the cabin some, during this time I drove us towards the northwest to avoid the majority of the kelp beds that I knew existed in this area of the coast.  When Bo returned to the deck he questioned the idea of being this far offshore and wanted to go in closer, I explained the kelp was thick enough to capture a boat and it would be difficult for us to motor through it.   No, he decided he would run up the coast inside the kelp.  So he took the helm and immediately turned north eastward through the kelp with the idea of being in close.  It took us hours  to get through the kelp, as it would stop the boat dead in the water when the prop filled up with the stuff, and we worked it loose by reversing the prop long enough to untangle the kelp and move again forward.  During this battle with the kelp I went below to use the head and discovered our captain had oiled the cabin sole or floor, to make things pretty.  I discovered this at about 30 miles an hour as I passed the head in a slide that a big leaguer would be proud of.  When I returned to the deck I questioned what kind of genius would oil the cabin sole 10 minutes out to sea, to which our captain laughed raucously.  Thereafter we spent hours going northward 50 yards of shore, dodging lobster pot buoys and kelp, often being caught up in the kelp, and having to stop the engine, reverse the propeller to clear it, and allowing the surge to push us shoreward in hopes of clearing the kelp.  Later in the morning as the sun rose in the sky we found ourselves dodging surfers along the beaches in Del Mar, Encinitas and Carlsbad.  During this time I argued with Bo that I was not interested in walking ashore and the 13 pound anchor and ½ inch anchor rode was insufficient to hold us in the California surf, while effecting repairs if a problem did occur.  But Bo was adamant about staying inside the kelp and therefore drove the boat along the coast no much more than 50 yards offshore often in 12 or 13 feet of water. 

We pulled in to Oceanside to refuel, Bo having agreed we should run outside the kelp at least until we got closer to Catalina Island.  But, immediately after refueling he decided again that we would run inside the kelp, so I informed him that running inside the kelp is unsafe, especially with a tired crew, tired boat with many problems and the surf building at the fore of a small front that was coming in at this time.  If we were going to run inside we should stay the night in Oceanside, rest and await the passage of the front, before continuing.  At least we should agree to stop in Dana Point to sleep the night through then leave early to get through the L.A. area during the daylight as this is a very busy channel.  Bo decided no, he would head on now and take his chances, as he was antsy to get home. 

I explained to Bo that if he wanted to continue without due rest, waiting for the weather and running inside he could do so without me and I would go ashore here in Oceanside.

So having collected my gear and stepped ashore in Oceanside, I pushed the boat away from the dock and watched as Bo left the marina and headed northward.  The dock master allowed me the use of his phone and I called Ann to meet me in Oceanside, as I had left the boat.  Not a full 20 minutes later here comes Bo motoring into the marina,  extolling some obvious fuel problem, that wasn’t so obvious, and where he proceeded to try and entice me to continue north with him as we could surely make it together.  Failing this he again left the marina and headed northward alone.

Ann picked me up in Oceanside and we returned to our own boat waiting for us in the San Francisco Bay, later to learn that Bo had gone 14 miles north to Dana Point where he tied to the guest dock and slept through the night.  Leaving Dana Point he ran outside the kelp and found himself motoring past Port Hueneme and into Oxnard marina to complete the voyage.

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