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Mazatlan to La Paz

Posted on Monday Apr 25, 2005

Words (1677)

A little background info first. We've tried to leave Mazatlan several
times and been forced back due to problems. This time, we were
determined to leave no matter what. What follows is our ridiculous
account of how we were blocked at every turn. In fact I'm still amazed
that after traveling 6000+ miles, mistakes are still easy to make.

Whoa, what a crossing it was. We left Marina Mazatlan at 11am to find
the dredge people blocking the entrance. We stopped at El Cid (a marina
by the entrance), but there was no way to make our next destination
before dark, if we had to wait until the usual time of 2:30pm for them to
finish. About 10 minutes after we called the El Cid harbor master to
check on the status, the dredge operators moved
the equipment to the side of the channel and called it done for the day.
So we went for it. There was no wind, and the seas were supposed to be
calm. As we were approaching the corner, we saw a large tumble of white
water pouring down the channel between breakwaters - hmmm, that didn't
seem quite right. Then as the entrance came into view, we saw the
second wave as it peeled towards the entrance. It broke on the outer
breakwater then continued to pipeline across the entrance. Sherrell
ducked down in the cockpit and I took over the helm. The large wave
refracted off the other side of the breakwater, making the entrance a
choppy white foaming mess. Since there is no way to turn around in this
narrow entrance, I floored it and prepared to try to get the bow into
the breakers. As we approached the end of the breakwater, a third wave
rose up peeling like the best right I've ever seen, and crashed mightily
across the entrance - Sherrell promptly let out a blood curdling scream
that I'm sure could be heard back in Marina Mazatlan. I floored it even
more, hoping to make it out between waves. Luckily, that was the last
of the set, and as we exited, we found the seas surprisingly calm.
Sherrell was sure that between the dredge and the breaking waves at the
entrance, it was a message. But after so many attempts to leave
Mazatlan, we weren't about to give up.

Maybe we should have. We motored all night into a bouncy headwind of
about 10-15 knots. We tried to hit Altata, a small uncharted harbor
about 100 miles north of Mazatlan, on the mainland. Not many people go
to Altata because it is not in any of the guide books, and like
everything in Mexico, it isn't charted. The town is a nice half-way
point up the coast, so it would make a great spot to rest for the night.
As we started approaching from about 4 miles out we saw the ideal surf
spot, long peeling break, PERFECT for surfing! Absolutely perfect! The
problem was, somewhere in there was the entrance. We were following
someone else's waypoints from 2002 that were our only guide through the
breakers and into the channel. We also had a hand drawn chart someone
had made, but none of this inspires confidence when you see monster
breaking waves. We followed the waypoints and it took us in the
direction of where a large 150' steel ship was milling around. Perhaps
they were surveying for dredging. Surely, the ship was in the channel.
We continued.

As we approached the ship, we saw breaking waves on each side of it, and
we wondered if there was any way to get by it. As we got about 800 feet
from the ship, it abruptly turned out towards the sea (and us), and
FLOORED its engines, spewing whitewater out the back with its massive
props. We were momentarily stunned, but then we felt our boat start to
rise quickly. We rose about 6 feet and watched the wave grow larger and
steeper as it continued past us towards the ship, which was now heading
full speed at us. The wave curled and broke right over the ship's bow
(about 18 feet above the water). Sherrell was screaming to turn around
which I promptly did with the ship hot on our tail. We climbed two
other waves before making back out into deeper water.

At that point I said, forget this. Let's cross the sea and head for
Isla Partida. We tried to contact a boat we knew was anchored inside of
Altata, but someone else answered who had left there the previous day.
We told him what happened and that the entrance looked impassable for a
slow boat. He gave us another entrance waypoint and assured us that it
would look scary, but would be quite fine. I didn't want to do it, but
after some discussion, a night at anchor sounded better than another
night crossing the sea, so we decided to give it a try. We approached
this waypoint, and we could see pangas fishing ahead of us, most likely
in the channel. As we got closer, we suddenly started to rise again.
This time though, I didn't hesitate, I swung the boat around on the top
of another 6 foot swell. Sherrell watched it after we turned around,
and it appeared not to break on the path where we were headed, although
it broke heavily to either side. However it was too close for us, and
too risky. The pangas could outrun a breaker, not us.

So we turned out towards Isla Partida. The boat in the anchorage called
us later and asked how things were going. We told him a brief version
of the events and that we decided to hell with Altata. He quizzed us on
the details and then promptly told us what we did wrong, by not
identifying the inner entrance buoy and then heading straight for it at
030 M. Uh, huh, right, I thought. The next day when he left, we heard
over the radio that they got hit with a large wave, but managed to make
it out. The conditions for that entrance were just not safe. We heard
later from others that it could be a dangerous entrance with a southerly
swell, and you can guess the direction swell was coming when we tried to
enter it. Another day with different weather, it's probably fine.

That wasn't the end of our fun though. With no wind, we had to motor
through the night. At 10am the next morning, when we were about 20
miles from Isla Partida, we started to put up the main to catch the
slight breeze that started when the engine suddenly stopped. Fantastic!

So I got the main up (so we could keep moving at a blazing 1.3 knots)
and Sherrell took the helm as I started looking for the problem. It
appeared the filters were quite clogged, so I swapped them out for a
fresh one (both the primary and the secondary) then bled the air out of
the engine. It ran for about 5 minutes before dieing again. I went
below figuring I didn't get all the air out. That's when I discovered
we were actually out of fuel.

Impossible! I disconnected the fuel intake line, and blew into it, and
there was hardly any back pressure, and only a slight gurgle sound in
the tank. The impossible was suddenly a reality. We should have had
almost 20 gallons left in the tank (that's about another 200 miles of
range), but we were bone dry. Fortunately, we still had another 9
gallons in some spare cans on the deck.

Before messing with refilling the tank and bleeding the engine again, we
had to try to get the boat moving faster under sail. We put up the
spinnaker and crept along at 1.5 to 2.0 knots in the light air. I
filled the tank with our 9 gallons and bled the engine again.
Theoretically, it was enough fuel to get us into Isla Partida, easily,
and probably to La Paz.

So we sailed onwards for another 30 minutes, but there was no way to
make the anchorage before dark. Since the charts are off by several
miles in some places, we didn't dare try entering without daylight. So
we turned on the engine. It died again a few minutes later. I bled it
again. It died again. I bled the air for several minutes again, and we
tried it again and it kept running - for now.

We anxiously motored towards Isla Partida, a popular cruising
destination that I knew we could bum fuel off someone if we needed it.
We just had to get there. Luckily, the wind picked up and we were able
to sail again. So we sailed for a ways, until we rounded the tip of the
island, then we motored safely into the anchorage with 3 other boats.

It was a beautiful anchorage with crystal clear aquamarine colored
water. We were exhausted and grateful to have made it. Of course,
that's not the end of it.

Every night (all three of them) we were deprived of much needed sleep,
when the "Elefante" winds kicked up during the night. To make it worse,
the wind would continue to blow from the south making it difficult to
try to sail to La Paz the following morning. So we bought 5 gallons of
fuel off another boat to be prepared to motor south to La Paz. We felt
much safer with the extra fuel, because when the strong southerly wasn't
blowing, there was no wind. And as it turned out we had to motor the 29
miles down to La Paz.

We got our first solid night of sleep last night, and our spirits are
much better. As for the "Case of the Missing Fuel" we think we must
have used more than expected during the several times we tested our new
autopilot, and the time when we tried to leave Mazatlan for the first
time. That coupled with perhaps not getting the tank 100% full because
of a problem with the tank vent must have thrown off our fuel
calculations by almost 20 gallons.

On the plus side, we didn't put our boat up on the beach; we didn't have
to spend days trying to sail into an anchorage because we did eek out
enough fuel from out spare cans; and we eventually got to sleep. Oh,
and we had fun in Isla Partida, swimming and hiking. And as an added
bonus, the directional antenna I made in San Diego can pickup wireless
stations from somewhere on shore, so we have internet access from the

Now we have to get ready for Sherrell's Mom's visit, and plan our trip
north from here.

Best Wishes,
Eric & Sherrell