#36—Acapulco Repairs & Returning to Costa Rica
Our return to Andanté started Monday evening October 31st when our friends Brad and Lolly Murray drove us from San Diego across the border to Tijuana. Although we wanted to drive down in daylight, the last-minute details of packing virtually all of our earthly belongings into boxes for transfer into storage delayed our departure. We had been packing our stuff from morning until late at night for the previous 12-days, although it seemed like 12-years. As I said to our friends Joel and Danna, the final 1% of the packing project was a very large 1%. Even when I thought that everything was done, like the Energizer Bunny, the stuff just kept coming and coming.
Monday afternoon left the final details to Johnson Storage and Moving, including locking the apartments and turning the keys into the apartment manager. We never had the opportunity to do a final check to see if everything made it out of the apartments into the wooden storage vaults. Although I had great intentions of inventorying which box numbers went into which vaults, all of this fell by the wayside because we simply ran out of time.
In addition to the stuff that went into long-term storage, some stuff went to Becky's dad. Some stuff went to our friends Danna and Joel. Some stuff went to our friends Lolly and Brad. Lots of stuff got tossed. There was some frozen stuff in the freezer that's probably still there. Hopefully the new tenants enjoyed those bread sticks, if they overlooked the freezer-burn. We gave away a lot of stuff. And we now realize that some of the important stuff we need is buried somewhere within 200 boxes spread throughout six large wooden vaults, and that the probability of finding that stuff is something like 1 in 328,723roughly the equivalent to finding your favorite TV show on a 128-channel cable network.
Instead, we had to think about how to fit a subset of our stuff onto a boat within seven cabinets, three drawers, and two hanging lockers.
The short of it is that I never want to buy anything again in my life. Except for maybe some boat parts. The first day back in Acapulco, on the other hand, Becky had already bought two T-shirts, two pair of shorts, and one of the most unattractive plastic bottle openers I have ever seen. (But I shouldn't say that because we already gave it away to ... you know who you are.)
But I digress. The four of us stayed at the Grand Hotel Tijuana, which was sort of grand. We had a wonderfully fun dinner at Los Arcos Restaurant (Boulevard Salinas No. 1000), and turned in before midnight in anticipation of the 5:00 a.m. alarm. Brad and Lolly dropped us at the recently renovated Tijuana Airport with two duffels, a gray nylon case that expanded to the size of a body bag, one large cardboard box, and a small 140 pound wooden crate containing a gel-cell battery for the boat.
The Aeromexico counter person asked me what was in the crate. "Engine parts," I responded. Which is true. Sort of. Had I told them it was a large battery with dangerous acid that could have spilled and leaked through the fuselage of the aircraft, they would not have so graciously offered to carry it. As it turns out, I think they got a fair deal because the charge for the battery's extra-weight ($400) cost twice as much as the original purchase price ($200). When you add the cost of the wooden crate ($80), you get a $200 battery delivered to your boat in Acapulco for a total of about $700. I deal with things like this by forgetting about them as quickly as possible.
Our Aeromexico flight transferred in Guadalajara. From the waiting room we watched baggage handlers learn about physicsspecifically the relationship between gravity and massas four of them eventually managed to lift the battery crate from the runway up into the cargo hold. It's amazing how clearly body language communicates; even from a distance.
We arrived in Acapulco on Aeromexico flight # 2122 from Guadalajara. The two duffels, body bag, cardboard box, and lead-weight crate required a dedicated $50 Ford Explorer for the trip from the airport to the Acapulco Yacht Club.
Around 16:00 we reunited with Dan and Debi. Sadly, we learned that the two of them are separating. Debi plans to return to Seattle where she will pursue her writing. We will miss her company, friendship, sailing expertise, and enthusiasm. The good news is that Dan will continue to sail with us, after a brief intermission to handle necessary affairs.
I never explained the reason we returned to Acapulco. Last any of us knew, Andanté was in Costa Rica. The story isn't a long one. You may recall in log #31 that we discovered a leak on the aft edge of the keel. We repaired it at that time, and thought the repair had been adequate. But it wasn't. The fiberglass repair didn't hold, and eventually broke into an even larger crack, which let in even more water.
Although we searched for haul-out facilities in Central America, we couldn't find any that met our requirements (tools, materials, labor, hotel, and restaurant). So, while Becky and I were getting married, Dan and Debi sailed Andanté north from Costa Rica. During the return voyage they ran into a submerged long line, which fouled the prop and killed the engine just as the seas built to six feet and winds approached 50-knots. An exhausting return trip.
To ensure we did not repeat past mistakes, we enlisted the advice and expertise of Hallberg-Rassy, who loaned us Mikael Wald. Mikael has been with Hallberg-Rassy for about 20 years, and does occasional troubleshooting for customers around the world.
I Lost My Swede
Mikael, scheduled to arrive on Wednesday November 1st, never arrived. Never having been loaned a Swede before, I felt very disturbed to have lost him. His flight was scheduled to arrive around 14:30. We thought he would arrive at the yacht club before 17:00. When he didn't show up, we thought that he might arrive at the hotel later in the evening.
Wednesday evening I telephoned Hallberg-Rassy with the disturbing news that I had lost Mikael, and requested any timely news on his whereabouts, should they happen to know.
Thursday morning we received a fax from HR indicating that his flight from Houston had been overbooked, and that he had been bumped. He was scheduled to arrive on the same flight Thursday afternoonone day later . We elicited the support of Ricardo Mondragón (father) and Ricardo Mondragón (son) for the airport trip. (You may recall from log #30 that I donated a video camera to Ricardo Sr. and his family.)
Swede Found. Tools Lost.
We stood in the arrival area with a paper sign that read "Mikael Wald." Thinking that almost every single male that passed through the doors looked Swedish (OK, not the Japanese guys), we held our sign up for everyone to see. Although he arrived without incident, his tools had not.
On Friday Mikael's tools arrived, requiring another trip to the airport. His tool kitactually a suitcasecontained compressor driven air tools designed to make short work of the fiber glass drilling and routing.
Friday evening, after dinner at the Boca Chica Hotel, we were passing through the open air lobby, returning to our rooms, when I stopped to pet Kenai, the hotel owner's dog who slept placidly on the floor of the foyer. Kenai is a large, aging, wolf-like dog that I had handled previously on several occasionswithout incident. This time, however, I must have hit a nerve. In an instant he growled and attacked, clamping his jaw firmly on my forearm. Before I knew what happened, it was all over. From my vantage point on the floor of the foyer, I semiconsciously noticed that the hotel's night clerk responded to my emergency with the enthusiasm of clipping his toenails. Seven puncture wounds later, I was visited by the neighborhood doctor, who bandaged the wound and prescribed, among other things, an injection in my tush. For three nights in a row. I humbly learned the literal meaning of turning the other cheek.
On Saturday the 4th I began the search for an air compressor to drive Mikael's tools. I called several rental businesses, with no success.
On Sunday Ricardo Jr. called to say that his father had found a compressor at a tire-changing business located near their home. The compressor turned out to be an ancient and quite large device of Mexican origin that required a flatbed tow truck and three men to deliver it. Given that it was the only compressor that we could find for rent, I agreed to the rental terms, which I will not restate here, lest you think I am the world's worst negotiator.
The compressor's electrical connection consisted of three black wires with exposed twisted copper on each end. Through Ricardo, I inquired as to which wires were positive, negative, and ground. The proprietor and ownera very large man with the sense of humor equal to that of his compressorresponded that it didn't make any difference how the wires were connected. Knowing that this was the wrong answer, I asked the question again, only to receive the same answer.
That afternoon, after the compressor was delivered to the yacht club, we connected Mikael's air tools to the fitting and threw the electrical switch. The device worked up to the point of smoking, and then shut itself off. That evening I called Ricardo Jr. to inform him that the compressor didn't work, and that I wanted to return it for a full refund.
Early next morning Ricardo Jr. and Sr. were on-site with an electrician fixing two problems. First, they discovered that the nearby 220 volt outlet needed to be brought up to spec; it wasn't delivering enough power. Second, I had wired the three black wiresthe ones that didn't make any difference how they were connectedincorrectly. The reverse polarity was causing the motor to run backwards, which created smoke. With proper voltage and polarity, the large old compressor chugged along without a hitch, enough for Mikael to complete his work over the next 10 days.
On Saturday the 11th we arranged to return the compressor. I accompanied the return delivery because I had left a sizable deposit and expected a refund. The humorless proprietor, who reminded me of Jabba the Hut, wore a white shirt, gray slacks, and white shoes that had long since lost their luster on the concrete floor of his tire shop. Jabba the Hut was a shrewd businessman. I know this because he informed me that he was a shrewd businessman. He would not tear-up our handwritten rental terms-of-agreement after the transaction was completed. Neither would he provide me with a receipt for the rental. And he would not allow me to shoot a photo of him standing next to the compressor. Mexican businessmen are not to be taken advantage of in such ways.
Plumbing Repairs in the Seaway
On December 1st, hull repair completed, we left Acapulco. In addition to working on the hull, we installed new navigation instruments, a refurbished radar system, and a new GPS (Global Positioning System) unit and antenna. The older GPs system came with the Autohelm wind, speed, and depth instruments. The previous GPs tracked eight satellites, and only sequentially. The new system, a small handheld Garmin GPs, is about two inches wide, five inches long, and an inch deep. It contains a database with a map of the world. With its external antenna, it tracks up to 12 satellites simultaneously. Because the US government turned selective differential off on the GPs, it's accurate to within about 30 feet.
About 12 hours south of Acapulco, as I turned the overboard valve in our head, the valve handle twisted off in my hand. I was left staring at the handle stem in my right hand, and a small hole in the wall on the left. We had to stop the engine so that I could crawl into the engine room where the plumbing is located. I loosened the holding tank drain valve so that I could pull the entire pipe and valve system out from the walljust to be able to get access to the valve. The holding tank contained some residual effluent. As I worked upside down in the 100 degree engine room, the liquid ran down my arm, across my shoulder, and into my hair. This is boating at its best.
The handle stem disintegrated at the base where the metal corroded. In order to fix it, I had to reach into a narrow slot with a needle nose pliers and pull out the corroded tab that had broken off inside. Then, with a large screwdriver, I turned the valve into the open/overboard position. These simple tasks required about three hours. I wouldn't have been able to make this repair if Dan hadn't known how all of the parts were assembled. Dan knows his stuff.
HuatulcoWatching the Weather; Sparing with Immigration
Two days and 232 miles later we arrived in Huatulco, Mexico, on Sunday December 3rd at 2:00 in the morning. As we anchored in the small bay, the beach-side disco was in full swing with music blaring. As if the music wasn't loud enough, the disco's DJ occasionally yelled into the PA system. The crowd screamed in reply. This went on until dawn, when the early Monday morning sun finally drove them back to work.
Silence is an anathema in Mexico. It is an emptiness to be filled with as much noise as possible from any source: blaring music, loud horns, shouting and yelling. Even Mexican cats and dogs meow and bark with mucho gusto.
Huatulco is important for cruisers because it's the jump-off point for the Gulf of Tehuantepec. Log #31 on our web site discusses why the weather in the Gulf of Tehuantepec is so forceful; it acts as a pressure valve for the Gulf of Mexico as the wind from the Caribbean funnels across. To select the best crossing time we use a weather fax. Our weather information comes from weather faxes sent out by the US Coast Guard and Navy over single sideband radio frequencies, which is similar to HAM radio frequencies. A cord from the radio plugs into the computer, and software draws the fax pictures on screen. We can save faxes to disk, or delete them after viewinga significant improvement over the older dedicated fax units which required you to store rolls and rolls of thermal paper. Although some think the paper fax system is more reliable.
The weather reporting system provides different types of information: isobar pressure maps, wind and wave forecast maps, and even satellite photos. The 12-hour, 24-hour, and 36-hour wind/wave forecasts are the most useful for us; they allow us to compare images over time to determine how the weather is evolving.
We intended to make Huatulco a quick stopless than 24-hours. But as we started pulling weather charts, we discovered that gale force winds and 15 to 17-foot seas prevailed in the Gulf. So we ended up staying in Huatulco for five days, waiting for the weather to break. Each day the Coast Guard weather station out of New Orleans predicted more gale force winds. Finally, the forecasts showed that the gale would cease Friday morning December 8th. We made plans to depart on the evening of Thursday the 7th.
Because we planned on sailing past Puerto Madero, Mexico's southernmost Pacific port, it was necessary to clear out of the country with immigration. Wednesday morning the 6th I provided the port captain's office with our crew list. The crew list is necessary to obtain our zarpa, the travel documents that allow us to leave one port and check into another. Because our next stop was going to be El Salvador, our crew list required a stamp from Mexican immigration. Due to the fact that two boats were checking out that day, us and fellow cruisers Bob and Elaine Jans from On-the-Way, the immigration people drove out from the airport to the harbor.
Immigration asked us to submit our tourist visaa small sheet of paper that gives you permission to stay in the country. The first problem started when I explainedin my perfectly understandable fluent Mexican Spanishthat neither Becky nor I had tourist visas. You may recall that we drove across the border in Tijuana, which does not require a visa, and then took a domestic flight from Tijuana to Acapulco. Rather than getting into a discussion about NAFTA, I simply explained that we were all amigos, and that no visa is required when you visit your friends across the Tijuana border. At that point, we were anything but amigos with the two immigration officers. We were an official problem.
Next came Dan. After a few weeks in Seattle Dan had flown into Puerto Vallarta to visit with his friend Dwayne. Immigration in PV had given Dan his paper visa, and dated the visa for only ten days. The visa that Dan handed over had expired a month earlier. Our two immigration guys were perturbed by such blatantly criminal activity, and everything stopped while the officer in charge left to call his boss at the airport. Upon returning five minutes later, he announced that we would all require new visas, at a cost of $18 each. In addition, Dan's expired visa required a fine of $180. Total cost for the privilege of visiting tourist-friendly and NAFTA neighbor Huatulco was approximately $235.
We all piled into their van for a trip across town. During this time the main conversation between the two immigration hombres was about "lunch." They parked the van street-side and left us sittingbakingin the hot van while they conferred with the head man at immigration. They returned with new visa applications, and we filled them out sitting in the oven-van.
Next they drove us to an office supply store where I had to buy receipt forms; necessary to document our new visa payments and the fine. This struck me as similar to taking a trip to the gun store to buy your own ammunition on your execution day. We all lined up across the glass counter at the office supply store while the officer in charge instructed us, line-by-line, on how to fill out the forms, while the store owner dozed in the heat from her chair behind the counter.
Forms completed, they next drove us to the bank where we paid for our visas and fines. Because of problems with graft and skimming, all official payments are now made directly to the bank. With all forms and payments completed, we filed out of the bank and walked toward the van, expecting a ride back to the marina. "No," came the official reply, as they waved us off to a passing taxi. Had I maintained my presence of mind, I should have asked them then and there to stamp our crew listwhich the officer had in his hands. But I left my mind on the back seat of the van. Consequently, the next morning required a taxi ride to the airport to obtain an immigration stamp on our crew list.
At the airport immigration office I met a another official who demanded that I submit our nonexistent visas. All I had, of course, were receipts from the previous day. As I tried to explain the sequence of fines and receipts, the man behind the counter kept demanding that I tender three visas. My Spanish language skillsmore sign language than wordswas not helping to move the ball forward.
Just as I expected him to haul me into the back room with the two-way mirror, the officer from the previous day walked in. I produced our crew list and an expectant puppy-dog smile. Words flew between the two immigration guys. Even my taxi driver got involved; he watched the unfolding events with a rapt fascination underscored by the idea that he could walk out of the inquisition at any moment and leave me behind.
Much to my relief, the familiar officer retrieved his official stamp and began pounding in quadruplet. He handed me the documents only to snatch them back just beyond my grasp. He went into the back room and checked our names on Mexican immigration's most wanted list. Next he went off to the photocopy room, and then finally returned with documents in hand. When I received the stamped crew list, I picked up my digital camera and asked for a photo. "No," was the official answer. I think they cover this word in the first lesson on the first day of immigration class.
Even with these slight immigration problems, after visiting La Paz, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo, and Acapulco, I would, on my next vacation to Mexico, forsake all of these and fly to Huatulco. While all of the previous cities have hordes of tourists, taxis, and pollution, Huatulco only receives about 250,000 tourists a year. About 25% of these are from the US, another 20-25% from Europe, and the remainder from other parts of Mexico. It has modern hotels, cooler temperatures, and the town is clean and well-kept. It's seven large beaches equal anything further north.
Back at the boat we topped off our fuel and water, and departed at 17:00 on Thursday 12/7. The timing of our passage across the Tehuantepec turned out to be perfect. Although we experienced some 30-knot winds, the seas were a relatively flat 3-4 feet.
El Salvador: Barillas Marina and San Salvador
The five day, 528-mile passage from Huatulco to El Salvador was amazingly placid; like sailing on a lake. We arrived at the Pacific Ocean entrance to Barillas Marina at about 1:30 in the morning. The two hour trip up the mangrove-lined estuary normally requires a panga escort to negotiate the tricky sandbars at the entrance. However, the last time we were there Dan recorded a track on our computer charting software. He loaded the trackthe digital equivalent of dropping bread crumbsand we followed it in past the whitewater breaking surf 100 yards on either side of the boat. We arrived at the marina and tied up to a mooring buoy at 3:38 a.m. on December the 12th. A shotgun armed guard arrived in a kayak to welcome us.
As mentioned in log #33, Barillas Marina is a new and modern cruiser's oasis on the coast of El Salvador, offering shelter, fuel, food, laundry, and even e-mail. We were originally boat #51. With this arrival, they had lost count. But this time we witnessed the completion of the swimming pool.
On Wednesday December 13 we decided to take a quick excursion into San SalvadorEl Salvador's capitol and largest city. I have three distinct impressions of San Salvador: 1) more armed security guardswith shotguns, rifles, and automatic weaponsthan any place I have ever been. 2) more antipersonnel barbed wire lining walls and rooftops than any place I have ever been, 3) whenever you asked a local what you should see in San Salvador, they paused, thought hard, but could not come up with an answer. Everyone we met, however, was extremely friendly.
We stayed at the Myers House Hotelactually a bed and breakfastowned by a cousin of Juan Wright, the owner of Barillas Marina. From there we visited the Zona Rosa, a shopping and restaurant district; El Arbol del Dios, a gallery for one of El Salvador's more famous artists; and La Ventana, a coffee house near the national university.
While walking through San Salvador's central markets, a loud, steady, mournful wailing unexpectedly startled us. Searching for the source of the grief, we found a woman in a cleanly pressed pink dress, walking through the crowd, weeping and groaning. She walked in a distraught, trance-like state, balancing a small pink casket on her heada lone, one-woman funeral procession trudging to her child's grave site. The crowd parted at her approach, but no one spoke. Some people stopped and stared. Many ignored her as they shuttered their stalls for the lunch hour and went about their daily business. This poignant event deeply impressed us.
A two-hour return bus trip, from San Salvador to Barillas Marina, deposited us at a thatched-roof bus stop on the main road. While we waited for the marina's van to arrive, we watched a man in his twenties, with a large machete in-hand, slowly limp across the busy highway toward the bus stop. We cleared a seat for him on the roughhewn stick bench, and asked him what happened. At a party the previous night, another reveler ... pulled a gun and shot him in the leg. We weren't sure if the shooting was premeditated or accidental. (My instincts told me not to ask many questions of a wounded man carrying a machete). When the van arrived, he sat in the back seat and grimaced at every bump and pothole. He exited at an interim stop on the way to the marina, and hobbled off down a dusty road.
We departed El Salvador on Friday December 15, and sailed the final 212 miles to Costa Rica. Dan remained on Andanté while we returned to San Diego for Christmas and the New Year.
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