When boating is good, it is very good, but when things go wrong they can sometimes go very wrong. This is a trip report about a trip to the islands north of La Paz Mexico, which ended poorly. I almost did not write this trip report, but things do go wrong in boating, and it wouldn’t be right to just describe the good times, and sweep the rest beneath the carpet.
Roberta and I share ownership of an Ocean Yachts 48’ Sportfisher with three neighbors. We keep it moored in Los Cabos Mexico, and have a local captain, Ramon, who runs it for us. The vast majority of the time, it is used for day-trips fishing in the Cabo area. From time to time, we use it for brief snorkeling trips around the bay.
It was my idea to take the boat cruising, a detail which I’m sure Roberta will remind me of from time to time. It has been a two year process getting our new boat, and I’ve been itchy to get back out on the water. I wanted to go someplace which offered great anchoring possibilities, and the islands just north of La Paz seemed perfect for a quick trip. La Paz is 150 miles north of Cabo, and I figured Ramon could run the boat up, we’d then send him home and Roberta and I would spend a few days exploring.
My first challenge began at the marina office in La Paz. The Ocean 48 is an American flagged vessel, and the marina advised us we needed a temporary import permit. I explained that the boat had been in Mexico since last October, and had been registered with the marina and the port captain in Cabo. The lady at the marina office explained that if we were stopped by the local equivalent of the coast guard for some reason, and didn’t have a temporary import permit, the boat could be impounded. This got my attention. She went on to explain that it was a simple 5 minute process, costing very little.
- Trip #1 – Ramon and I set out for the local customs office, at the ferry terminal, a “short” 25 minutes each-way away. Bad news. They close at 2pm, and we had arrived at 2:30pm. I told Ramon to go back to Cabo, and I’d deal with it the next day.
- Trip #2 – I drove over again, arriving as they opened, at 9am. Unfortunately, the first document the customs agent wanted was my immigration document. As a frequent visitor to Mexico I have an annual Visa, called an FM-2. My FM-2 is at my lawyers for renewal, so I had brought along a copy. After much pleading, this was accepted. He then asked for the VIN number (Vehicle ID Number) for the boat, and I explained that boats don’t have VIN numbers, they have HIN numbers (Hull Identification Numbers), and that he already had mine. He said I needed to go back to the boat and find the VIN number. So, back to the boat I went. After crawling every inch of the boat, I called the manufacturer, who reaffirmed what I already knew – – boats use HIN numbers, and I already had it.
- Trip #3 – For this next trip back to customs, I dragged along Roberta, who speaks decent Spanish. The previous agent was gone, and the first thing the new one did was to say that nothing could be done without my original FM-2. I repeated my pleading, with no success, including saying that “the other agent” had already agreed to accept a copy. When I gave up, Roberta decided to take a stab at it. She can be quite persuasive and finally convinced the customs agent to call the other agent, who acknowledged that he had agreed to accept my photocopied FM-2. Agent #2 never asked about the Hull identification number. Instead he asked for the serial numbers on the motors. No amount of pleading would move us past this. Back to the boat we went.
- Trip #4 – An hour later we were back in the counter. Agent #2 said I should give him 20 minutes. 10 minutes later he said we had another problem. The boat was registered to a US corporation, not to me. Roberta explained in Spanish that I was an owner in the corporation, and he said that I needed a letter from the corporation. I asked if I could borrow a pen and paper, and promptly wrote a letter from me, to me, authorizing import. Success! Or, so I thought until the agent asked for fifty dollars. I offered this amount in pesos, and he refused them! He said he could only accept payment in US dollars. The Mexican customs agent was really going to send me back into town, to a bank, to convert pesos to dollars! After being stumped, for a few minutes, I asked if he could accept credit card. That worked, and I was finally underway with a TEN YEAR temporary import permit. Yay!
Roberta & Shelby enjoying the cruise
From La Paz, we cruised about 15 miles north to Isla Partida, dropping anchor between that island, and the larger Isla Espiritu Santo to the south.
The short trip north couldn’t have gone smoother. Because we were off to a late start, I bypassed the urge to explore all the little coves along Espiritu Santo and decided to focus on getting to anchor. We chose to anchor between the islands simply because of a handwritten quote in “Charlie’s Charts of Baja” saying that anchoring anywhere further south was too exposed to the swell and wind.
Overall, anchoring was uneventful. Our only disappointment was that the bay was overly crowded. All of the good anchoring spots were taken, and we had to anchor farther out, and deeper, than I wanted, in fifty-seven feet of water. Unfortunately, the boat had only 200 feet of chain, followed by another 100 feet of rope, which I discovered the hard way was hopelessly tangled. Rather than sort it out, I convinced myself that 200’ of chain, in a well protected anchorage, was plenty. Even the chain was difficult to drop. It snagged every 30-40 feet requiring frequent trips to the chain locker to sort things out. Given that the boat is ordinarily used only for fishing and shallow snorkeling, I suspect this was the first time in a very long time, if ever, that the chain had been fully extended.
This was followed by barbecuing some incredible arrachera, and a very comfortable night. Life was good.
The next morning, we decided to explore the islands, in search of someplace shallower, and less crowded, to drop anchor. As we exited the bay, an alarm went off, and I noticed that the port-side transmission was overheating. Crap. I immediately shut down the engine, and phoned Ramon. He said he had never had a problem, and couldn’t imagine what it might be. After checking the transmission oil, and feeling the transmission (which didn’t seem to be overheating), I decided to start the engine back up. All seemed fine.
We decided to enter the next bay, “Ensenada Grande” and drop anchor, so that I could investigate further what had happened. On entry, there were once again more boats than we wanted, but it seemed perfect overall. Several pristine looking white-sand beaches. As I was weaving amongst the boats, I dropped the engine into neutral to slow down, and to my total surprise, the boat wouldn’t slow! I threw the throttles into reverse and both engines quit. Given that we were in a crowded anchorage moving at a good pace, this was not a good thing. I decided to restart just the starboard engine, and get the heck out of there. This worked, but not before I had given quite a scare to some anchored boats.
What now? I headed back for deeper water, running on the single engine, to see what was happening. I was quickly able to determine the problem. The port engine was stuck in gear. Another call to Ramon. Followed by a somewhat spirited debate between Roberta and I over whether or not to just head back to La Paz. The final decision: we had one good engine, and great anchoring nearby. We would drop anchor for the night, and meet Ramon in La Paz the next day.
Anchoring turned out to be trickier than I thought. The boat was uncontrollable in reverse. The rudder seemed to have no effect. Any attempt to backup meant immediately moving the stern to port. Thus we decided to anchor farther out, once again in deeper water than I liked. I also discovered that I had no ability to really tug down on the anchor to set it. We did what we could, but were happy that no wind was in the projection.
That’s when the real fun began…
No sooner had we dropped the anchor, than the generator quit. I was suddenly reminded of the pre-trip briefing with Ramon, wherein I had asked Ramon about the batteries, filters, fuel levels, oil levels, etc. To my surprise, he mentioned that there was only one battery bank. The main engines and the generator did not have separate isolated start batteries. I made a mental note to ask the partners if we should fix this. The thought crossed my mind that it might be a really great time to end the trip, but decided I should try to get the generator going before making a decision.
Calling Ramon was impossible. From inside the cove my cell phone wouldn’t work, and I doubted he would have any ideas for me. Attempts to restart the generator weren’t accomplishing anything. It sounded to me like it wasn’t getting fuel. This started a long search for fuel filters. No luck. (Note: we have since discovered that they were under a hidden compartment on the staircase). As I was considering giving up, the generator started! This was a great relief. Particularly because: during my time in the engine room the wind had risen dramatically. The boat had no wind indicator, but I was guessing it as over 20 knots. On a strange boat, with one engine, I wasn’t looking forward to returning to port. Even the usual fun of being at anchor was diminished. The high wind was mucking up our ability to swim over to the beach, and it was making things a might chilly. Oh well.. the barbecue was working, and even a bad day at anchor isn’t all that bad.
Our expectation was that the wind would drop as the evening wore on. No such luck. Instead it increased to 30 knots or more. This wouldn’t have been a big deal with a properly set anchor, or had I anchored in shallower water (I was now in thirty-seven foot of water), or even if I had anchored like everyone else, tighter in the cove for greater protection. Suddenly, the idea of dragging anchor in the dark, with a wall behind us, was sounding distinctly possible.
There was only one thing to do: sit anchor watch. Roberta and I decided that we would divide the responsibility. We would take turns throughout the night, on one hour shifts. If the anchor dragged, we would do our best to start the mains and relieve pressure on the anchor. I thought about pulling anchor and heading out to deeper water, and perhaps should have done that, but the idea of pulling anchor in high wind, on a moonless night, wasn’t very appealing. From where we were anchored, I calculated that we would have adequate time to react prior to bumping into anything.
Our one hour watches worked well. I started the radar, and was monitoring our location throughout the night, as well as watching the lights on surrounding boats. We didn’t seem to be moving an inch.
At 4:30am our boredom ended, when the generator coughed to a stop. All effort to restart it went unrewarded. I decided to kill all power except the anchor light, and wait until daylight. I didn’t like killing the radar, but power had to be preserved. The wind seemed a bit lighter, and my assumption was that if we were going to drag anchor, we would already have done so.
As 7am rolled around, and daylight with it, I realized that we were much closer to the wall than I had realized. My guess is that we were within 50 to 75 yards of shore.
The winds had dropped to around 10 knots, so I wasn’t unduly concerned, but there was no guarantee that they weren’t coming back. A scary thought: were we this close throughout the night? I didn’t like that thought. It was a good time to take another stab at the getting the generator rolling. Still no luck. This made it a good time to restart the starboard main engine. To my horror, it cranked slowly and didn’t want to start. How could that happen with only three hours of anchor light usage! On my second attempt, the starboard engine complained, and then came to life. After pondering for a few seconds what life would have been like had the engine not restarted, and the wind picked back up, I understood profoundly why isolated start batteries are a very good idea.
Roberta and I alternated in our opinions as to whether we had in fact dragged or not. Perhaps it was nothing more than the chain having straightened. We both agreed that enough hints had been dropped. Our voyage had reached its end.
We pulled anchor, without incident, and headed back to port. I decided to run on both engines. Even though stuck in gear, I believed that it would cause less damage to the port transmission to run it, than to have the port shaft freewheeling. I ran slow at 11 knots, and called Ramon to Panga out to the boat and meet us prior to entering port. Ramon knows this particular boat better than I, and if one of us were going to try to enter port on a single engine, I preferred it be him. Ramon quickly discovered what I had. It was impossible to stop the boat turning to port while in reverse. He did successfully back the boat into the slip, but it was a long and difficult process. We collected quite an audience.
It is too soon to say what went wrong with the transmission. I spoke to Ramon briefly this morning, and he felt that it was nothing serious, just a sending unit of some sort. Hopefully that’s all it is. As to the generator, Ramon was able to quickly get it going again. Had I been able to call him, he could have told me. The plunger on the throttle was being restrained by a hose that was trapped between the plunger and the generator cover. This doesn’t explain why it quit, but explains why it had difficulty starting.
After a trip like this, I like to relive it, until I understand what went wrong, with a goal of preventing such an occurrence in the future.
After hours of second-guessing myself, there are some things I did right, and some things I would do differently. I did have Ramon walk me through every system, and felt I had a thorough briefing before I took over the boat. When the transmission failed, we recognized our limited maneuverability and anchored safely away from other boats. Mechanical problems do happen, and should be expected. On the negative side, I was lured in by the positive weather report, and wish I had taken more time to set the anchor, and to untangle the rope. Probably the biggest mistake was not firing the main engine immediately when the generator failed at 4:30am, and just leaving it running. I didn’t do this because diesel engines don’t really like running for long periods at idle with no load. The focus should always be on safety, not on pleasing a diesel engine. If I had it to do over again, I’d idle it up to 1,000 RPM and waited for daylight to arrive.
The good news is that my Nordhavn arrives in a few weeks. I’ll have redundant anchors, with 300 pound anchors, and plenty of chain. Redundant generators, plus bow and stern thrusters to assist getting into port should I lose an engine. I’ll also have isolated batteries and a large house bank. Lastly, it will be a boat that I know every inch of. I can’t fault this boat for having a mechanical failure, although having problems with two of the three diesel engines on board, and then getting a surprise wind, certainly wasn’t fun.
Overall, all ended well, and I’m presumably a better boater for it. The nicest thing: whereas I am generally not a fan of having crew for a boat, it WAS awfully nice to hand the keys over to Ramon and say “all yours.”
– Ken Williams