Saturday, August 14, 2010

genesis of a crazy idea - Guymas Mexico November 2009

Main Street Saturday night in Guymas: a Sea of Cortez adventure Nov 2009

My friend Steve had just purchased a sailboat down in Mexico and invited me to come down after Thanksgiving 2009 and help him launch and learn. He had done a lot of sailing as crew on other boats, I had done a lot of sailing on little boats. We figured that between the two of us we might be able to add up to one half-assed sailor. Sort of.

His boat was in San Carlos Mexico, about 250 miles south of Tucson on the Sea of Cortez (AKA Gulf of California). Baja is over yonder, about 80 miles to the west, protecting San Carlos from the swells and storms off the Pacific, but the Sea of Cortez is still very “big water” to me, after sailing on Jordanelle lake my whole life.

San Carlos is a beautiful small harbor town for yachters and sport fishermen. The twin rock pinnacles of Tetas de Cabras (“Teats of the Goat”) tower over the bay. It is a small town, only a few shops and open air taquerrias, a small boat shop, art galleries, a real estate office, but overall pretty quiet with lots of norte americano money. It is a luxury town that only north americans can afford. Houses on the bay cost half a million at least. Mexicans work there, but live in very small houses inland.

Guymas was more “Mexican”, bustling with the old traditional seaport with big ocean going ships that come in and out and several shrimping fleets, a town square with bigger-than-life statues of famous statesmen, businesses, big stores, a small airport. Sport fishing used to be HUGE here, but seems to have died out. Not sure of all the facts why, but the fishing grounds are not as lush as they once were.

Neither town is really infected at all with the mass tourism of so many other places. No McDonalds, no Gap, no Megaplex theater. The movie Catch 22 was filmed here back in the 60s. I preferred Guymas over San Carlos, since it seemed more like “real” Mexico (whatever that is. I wonder if the Mexican residents wished it were more “real” like Chicago or Los Angeles...)

I actually went there once as a kid with our boy scout troop. We mowed lawns and earned money and spent a week there. I have a little chunk of coral that sits on my bathroom vanity from that very beach where they filmed the movie. At a church dance in Guymas I fell in love with a girl named Gloria who spoke no English. I spoke no Spanish. Our relationship consisted of one dance and one conversation “Mi nombre es Kyle, como se nombre?” ( “My name is Kyle, what is your name?”) When I returned to find her, 35 years later, I was heartbroken to find that she had not waited for me and had moved on with her life.

Steve bought this boat from a friend of ours who had bought a bigger boat and was leaving for the south pacific. It is a Balboa 27 named Harmony 27. (the “27” was to differentiate her from another boat named Harmony already there. Never saw that one though.) She is a sloop rig, with a single mast, main sail and a jib. There is a ton (literally, about 2000 lbs) of lead ballast in a shallow draft keel, with a steel plate swing-keel that can be raised or lowered as needed to sail into shallow waters. It was rigged with the same sail pattern as my little 15 foot dinghy Sirocco back home, but obviously much bigger and much more complicated than any boat I had ever been on before. Steve had sailed several other boats even larger and more complicated, but we had a very steep learning curve to learn this particular boat. Fortunately, the weather conditions that week were very calm and forgiving for learning.

It was a simple boat but very comfortable. Small V-berth “stateroom” in the forward part for the captain, and I slept on the couch in the “living room” . Portapotty, sink, stove, all we needed for comfortable living. We hung a solar shower (black plastic bag with a hose) from the mast to clean up with. Steve had installed a solar panel to power a few lights and a portable refrigerator, so we had cold beer. Both Steve and I were used to roughing it on cold mountains in small tents so this was total luxury, even without a Jacuzzi.

Steve had gone down there earlier with his truck full of gear to take possession of the boat before the other guy left town. I came down to join him a few days later. Flights do come in there but are very expensive (“Muy caro”) so I flew to Phoenix and caught the bus from there to Guymas. An 8 bus hour ride, but the bus was a regular long distance rig built for comfort. Air conditioning, reclining seats, and in flight movies. In Spanish of course…… The bus ride was a big part of the joy of the trip for me, as I got to see the scenery and every little town along the way and met many nice people as they got on and off along the way. A few spoke English and I was working on my Spanish (in case I ran into Gloria again…) so I got along fine and had a grand time. Steve met me at the bus terminal in his truck and we moved onto Harmony that night.

The next day we visited our friends that sold Steve the boat, Gene and Gloria (different Gloria..) and Zig, all from Salt Lake. Gene and Gloria had bought a 44 foot luxury yacht, “Pincoya” and were getting ready to sail for the south pacific. We took Harmony out for a spin and had a blast. Winds were pretty strong but she was a good solid boat and very forgiving of our learning curve.

We had a little work to do on the boat before we sailed out for the week. Nothing big, installing the solar panels and refrigerator, installing an auto pilot, provisioning with food and fresh water, but everything takes longer than you ever expect, and we had to scrounge for parts. Like a chunk of wood 2x4 from a dumpster, and short chunk of pipe to rig an extension to the arm of the autopilot. We spent a few days doing that stuff, and were ready to sail by Monday.

We had about 5 days to be out, and our plan was to sail up the coast, poking our nose into every little bay along the way. And there a lot of little bays there. 43 possible places to anchor in the next 70 miles, according to the chart. After the first 5 miles, the signs of civilization ceased and it seemed like total wilderness. This is Sonoran desert at its most stark. Don’t let all the beautiful water fool you. On shore this is the harshest desert on the planet. High rocky peaks and ridges cut by deep steep canyons, saguaro cactus, salt brush, creosote, an occasional palm tree in the deepest darkest of the canyons. A critter’s gotta be tough to live here. And humans ain’t! Beyond the small harbor towns the coastline was largely un-inhabited

We saw very few other boats out. Odd, I thought. There are at least 300 sailboats in the San Carlos area, but we never saw more than 3 out at a time. Sure, it was a bit past the most popular season, but I think they were all waiting on repairs of some sort or another. It seems that spare parts are hard to some by down there, and mail is very unreliable, so it could take a month to get a package, if you ever get it at all. Seeing all the sailers not sailing, waiting for repairs, reinforced my resolve to never own a fancy boat. I have always thought that the simpler the better. Small, simple, cheap. Easy to fix with nothing fancy to break. They say the time you spend sailing a boat in is inverse proportion to it’s length. I saw that starkly in very sad reality at San Carlos.

The weather was clear and sunny for the most part, but a bit unseasonably cool. Days in the low 70s, lows at night in the 50s. it felt balmy to me though, just coming from a blizzard in Salt Lake, but the locals had pulled out their winter jackets and wooly mufflers. We had rain one night, but it cleared and warmed as the week went along.

The first day of our 5 day odyssey we sailed around a bit in the main bay and dropped anchor in a beautiful little nearby bay called Martini Cove. Surrounded by steep cliffs, birds of every sort flying around. My favorites are always the pelicans. They are so fun to watch. They fly in squadrons of 5-10 birds, skimming the waves, flying so low that their wing tips sometimes touch the water, and as they approach a swell, they curl the squadron one by one up and over the swell. Very cool to watch. When feeding (which is most of the time), they will hover 20-30 feet above the water, spot a fish, tuck their wings and drop straight down into a nose dive, hit the water with a big splash and come up with the fish. I am embarrassed to admit it but I once sat for hours doing nothing but watching pelicans fish and never got tired of it.

We saw a crested caracara on the cliffs above us. This is a raptor very much like an osprey, mostly white, dark markings, with a black crest on its white head. Very beautiful and only seen in Mexico, I think.

It was a bit stormy that night, with rain and wind, but there was a beautiful double rainbow over the cliffs to the East. “Rainbow at night, Sailors delight” the old timers say. I have heard from experts that many of those old weather sayings are usually pretty accurate, and sure enough the next several days were gorgeous. Something about with the sun setting in the west, shining through clouds already passed on to the east of us making rainbows that evening. Or something like that.

The next day was pretty calm so we motored north a dozen miles along the coast. We passed abandon old fishing resorts, popular back when there were more fish. The winds picked up pretty strong as we approached our goal, Bahia (bay) de San Pedro and bucking it was a bit of a challenge, so we were glad to duck into the bay quickly. This is a very well-protected lagoon, with rocky shores hooking around us almost in a complete circle, with a long pebble beach running for 2-3 miles in between. There was a camp of local fisherman on shore. They had a small tent set up but most were napping right on the beach. They had a fire going and cooking some sort of meal. They waved, we waved. After a while, towards evening, they all loaded up into a small panga (open skiff-like fishing boat that is very popular there) and took off, leaving the tent. We didn’t see them again. We think the shrimp boats work at night and these fellows may have been sleeping the day on the beach, and took off at evening to report for duty on their ship. Visiting their campsite later, I noticed big stacks of small “conch-looking” shells in and around the fire pit. They were about 2-3 inched across, mostly roundish with spiney protuberances along the bottom edge, colored white on the bottom with speckled earth tones across the top. I’m sure that was what they were cooking, but I have never seen shells like that before. The next day we snorkeled in that bay for hours and never saw one in the water. I’m not sure where they were getting them from, maybe the shrimp nets dredge them up from the bottom out deep, but it looked like they had eaten a whole ton of them.

A big shrimp boat pulled into the bay later. It was a huge old ship, rusty red and all work looking. Nothing festive, or leisure or shiny about that boat. Just work. There were thousands of birds flocking about, roosting on the cables and shrouds. They must have enjoyed a feast of shrimping leftovers.

The next day, we weighed anchor and sailed west to Isla San Pedro. This is a big rock island about 8 miles off shore. The winds were perfect and we sailed briskly. Steve tossed out the fishing gear and caught more fish for dinner. There is nowhere to anchor anywhere on the island, as the water is hundreds of feet deep right up near shore, and no beaches. The rocky cliffs come right down to the water and straight on down, down, down. We circled the island, about a mile wide and 3 miles long, listening to the sea lions bark and roar. They were hard to see, as they were mixed in with the boulders at the base of the cliffs but we could sure hear them!. The cliffs were dark basalt rock but stained bright white by the millions of birds roosting there over millions of years. Steve and I are rock climbers and we guessed that there would be no possible way to climb up those guano stained cliffs.

Sailing the big Balboa 27 was so much different from my little 15 foot Sirocco dinghy back home. Same sloop rig and rudder, but the “feel” was so much heavier and ponderous. With Sirocco I sail with the main sheet in one hand and the tiller in the other, ready at a moment to tweak either one to adjust to a sudden gust. My body weight, too, had to be an integral part of the “ballast”. Every tack required shifting of my body weight to properly trim the overall kit. Slow action there would result in a wild heeling over and probable capsize. With this boat, with a ton of ballast in the keel, and 3 tons overall, we tried to keep the main sail trimmed to control the heel at an efficient angle, but didn’t feel like we had to have the sheet in hand every moment, and moving around didn’t seem to have much effect to her trim. Very odd sensation. I could even sit comfortably on the lee side without feeling like she was going over. I am sure in harsher conditions we would need to be more careful, but in the 15 knot winds we were in, it just didn’t seem like a problem. She had a roller furler jib so it was pretty easy to adjust the size of the jib that we had out. The main sail had 3 sets of jiffy reefing, witch created a lot of lines to deal with and keep untangled. I know people single-hand boats like this, but it seemed like a real handful for that one hand….practice, practice, practice eh?

That evening we were back in Bahia San Pedro with the shrimps boat but no men camped on shore this day. Another sailboat, Safiyah, joined us in the bay and we chatted with one of them. Nice talkative fellow with a long white beard. They were from Florida and it sounded like they spent a lot of time on their boat down here.

The next morning we snorkeled all up and down the rocky shores. Very interesting sea life, with fish of every type: sea stars, coral, some spiny looking critters I was not sure what they were. Sort of lobsterish, but not. Maybe sort of “shrimpish” Much larger than any shrimp I have ever eaten, it was at least 6 inches long. I was pleased at how clean the water and shoreline was. Many places I have seen in Mexico are strewn with washed up litter, but this seemed like a pristine wilderness.

Living on a small boat for several days, for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised how comfortable it was. Even with 2 of us, I never felt cramped or claustrophobic. We lived simply, ate simply, spent the evenings barbequing fish we just caught, enjoying a few shots of tequila straight from the bottle, watching the sun go down. I played my guitar for hours, working on some new songs I never seemed to have time to learn back home. At night the boat rocked and rolled to the swells rolling into the bay. Sometimes it seemed like it rolled much more than the size of the swells would have caused. Never really uncomfortable, but interesting to notice the effect. We read a lot. Never bothered to fire up the iPod, and never missed the TV or radio. Not even NPR.

Steve was a good sailing companion. I hadn’t known him all that well before this, but we got along great. We had similar dispositions and reactions to things like cooking, messes, fixing and rigging things. He was a very analytical thinker and tinkerer (a very handy skill on a boat!) , a quick learner and determined to master sailing, but still conservative enough not to kill himself (and me) in the process. My age, (50) he has been mostly retired for quite a while and when he isn’t sailing he is wandering around the world in his big tall 4x4 live-aboard van.

Mornings were briskly cool. Sitting in the cockpit with a cup of coffee, watching the sunrise over the cliffs, a jacket felt very nice. Once the sun came up, though, jackets and caps peeled off and we were warm for the day.

The next day we sailed back down south to spend the night anchored in Bahia Algdones. There is a small resort and an open beach bar there, but it was still very quiet. Only 1 other boat, no one on the beach. I decided I wanted to paddle the inflatable ducky kayak into the famous Soggy Peso cantina for a token beer while Steve made ceviche (fish cooked cold in fresh-squeezed lime juice. Delish!) The ducky was solid and easy to paddle, but as I hit the beach I mis-managed a killer 4" wave and the angle of the beach, and I capsized and rolled down into the water for a full immersion amphibious landing. The fisherman at the bar had a great laugh at my expense. I walked up the beach dripping wet and said "I hear you take soggy pesos here" and they said, "I'll bet you have some!"

The next day we ended our little journey back at San Carlos. I had to catch my bus back north the next evening. We bummed around town, visiting with other boaters about their boats, went to a swap meet and an artsy fair on the boardwalk and such. I went to a bar on shore that night and Steve propped the dock gate open for me, but some well meaning security-minded person, thinking only of our safety, slammed it shut so when I came back to the boat later, I had to rock climb along the old masonry sea wall to get past the gate to get to our dock. It wasn’t hard, and it wasn’t far, but at night, in sandals, after a few beers, above the blackest water I can imagine, it was the boldest solo climb of my career.

One of the hi-lights of the week was the 2 hours we spent wandering Guymas Main street before I had to catch my bus. It was just so very cool! Guymas families out on Main street on a Saturday night. Moms and dads and kids and grandparents, all out for the evening. It seemed that were a lot of shoe stores (ladies) , pharmacies, and toy stores. Steve got a blade shave from a classic barber shop. Saturday night, and the barbershop was a hoppin place! Out on the street next door, there were a bunch of teenage boys playing drums to some soundtrack, making a ton of noise and having a ball. I dropped a 20 peso bill ( about a buck and a half) on the youngest-looking kid’s drum and he beamed as if he were Elvis. We danced with them all as we walked by and for just a moment, I felt like maybe I had lived there once in a former life. What a cool place. Main Street Saturday night in Guymas.

I left Steve there in San Carlos to keep sailing for another few weeks. My bus ride home was a “red eye”, launching at 8:00 PM. We rode all night, and reached Phoenix by daylight where I caught my flight back home. Landed in another blizzard in Salt Lake. Now I know why people retire to someplace warm. Maybe, just maybe, it would be possible to retire early, live “on the cheap” on a sailboat in Guymas. Sip your morning coffee watching the sun come up from the cockpit of a simple boat. Eat a fish you just caught. Get a shave on main street on a Saturday night. Maybe.