Update # 13 – Manzanillo to Ixtapa / Zihuatenejo

Ixtapa [17 40.051N 101 37.054W]

You may recall that at the end of my last update I mentioned that we were hoping to leave Manzanillo on Sunday, but that we had been advised by the weather router to relax until Tuesday. When I first set up our account with the weather router, he asked about my style of cruising. Specifically, he wanted guidance as to the weather threshold that I considered “too much”. I replied that I never wanted to be in a hurry, and that I would always rather wait for a smoother ride than go out and get beaten up. This said, the forecast wasn’t really that bad, and we really wanted to go –so, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of ignoring my weather router.

I don’t know why, but we didn’t “click” with Manzanillo. It’s a beautiful city, and I think we never really gave it a chance. We were focused on Ixtapa, and I think we had mentally written off Manzanillo as nothing more than a place to stop on our way south. Two days was enough. We wanted to get rolling.

That isn’t to say we didn’t enjoy our time in Manzanillo. From our anchorage in front of the Las Hadas marina, we had easy access to two large bays. The larger bay, in front of the little town of Santiago had the more popular anchorage, and in my opinion, the better beach. The sand is “hard pack” and good for walking. We walked almost the entirety of both beaches, stopping for lunch on the beach at Santiago at a disappointing beach-front restaurant. With only a couple of exceptions, there didn’t seem to be a lot of huge beach front hotels. Manzanillo doesn’t seem to be quite as “tourist-centric” as other resort towns, like Cabo or Puerto Vallarta, and most of the people on the beach were locals. I guess it could be argued that this was our chance to see a “real” Mexican town, but we live half the year in Mexico, so a desire to discover an “unspoiled” Mexican town is not our top priority.

Saturday night was Roberta’s birthday. We decided it was a special occasion and told Roberta she could pick any restaurant. Roberta wanted Italian food, and we found a really nice Italian restaurant on the beach “Portofino”.


Over dinner we made the decision to start for Ixtapa/Zihuatenejo the next morning. This would mean a 22 hour run. We discussed how we would allocate the shifts and who the teams would be. Our guests, Dean and Ingrid, have a Nordhavn 55, and know what they are doing, so we decided Roberta and I could be a team, and Dean/Ingrid would be a team. I normally like to run four hour two-person shifts. After debating all the pros and cons, we decided it was a silly discussion, because it was too short of a voyage. Everyone was going to want to be awake all day, and also for arrival. All we needed to really think about was the eight hours of night. We decided Roberta and I would run from 10pm to 2am, and Dean/Ingrid would take 2am to 6am, with everyone on deck for arrival.

I made a last call to Bob the weather router, and the forecast was unchanged. Given that I had a high-speed internet connection I also consulted every weather service I could think of. Overall, our run didn’t look bad. The outlook was for 6-8 foot seas from behind us, with 15-25 knot winds, also behind us. I mentioned to Dean that I’ve had problems in the past with following seas. The auto pilot tends to over steer, and the boat zig-zags much more than it should. Dean showed me some settings in the stabilizers for adjusting to different sea states, and we read through the manual to the auto pilot, trying to find any adjustments that might be relevant.

Departure went as smooth as a departure can go.

We ran with the flopper stoppers out, but the “fish” sitting on deck

Underway, the seas were as expected. This was a pleasant surprise. We had a calmer forecast coming south from Puerto Vallarta, and were negatively surprised by 15 foot seas. The auto pilot had no problem with these seas. Once in a while we would get pushed around a bit, but for the most part we ran straight, and FAST. I ran at 1350 rpm, which usually gives me 9 knots of speed. We left at 11:30 am, based on my projection of 8.5 knot average speed. I had expected the following seas to slow us down (because of the zig-zagging). On the run south from Puerto Vallarta, in 15 foot seas, we averaged under 7.5 knots. Instead of running slower, we were being pushed along. We had a 15 knot tail-wind, and apparently a current going the right direction. The maximum speed of the boat is 10.6 knots, but I was looking at speeds consistently at or over 10 knots, and for a while we were running at 11.4 knots!

I do hourly engine room checks. On Sans Souci we have a Simon monitoring system which is constantly monitoring 200+ different points on the boat. Theoretically, if something isn’t right I’ll know it immediately. That said, I’ve been around computers too long to really trust them. There is no replacement for standing in the engine room, using all your senses. Dean wanted me to walk him through what I do on an engine room check. I look under the engines for any oil spots or fuel. I lift the floorboards in a few places to see if anything is in the bilge. I look at the belts for any wobbling. I look at the oil level on the hydraulic tank. I look at the bolts on the big steering arm to verify they look right. I use the temperature gun to shoot several things; the shafts, the transmission, the hydraulic cooling tank. I usually look at the valves for the fuel system, just to see if it looks like fuel is coming from where it should. I sniff the air for anything that smells different – in particular the odor of something burning. This sounds like a lot, but engine room checks are typically 5 minutes or less. I noticed that Dean has more of a tendency to touch things himself, whereas I rely on the heat gun.

On our first engine room check I did notice that the temperature on the port transmission was at 190 degrees, whereas the starboard was at 150 degrees. Generally there is a 20 degree or less difference in the temperatures. I didn’t like this discrepancy and couldn’t account for it. I expect some difference in temperature between the two engines, because one is usually working slightly harder than the other. Here’s why: There is a hydraulic system on the boat that provides power to the stabilizers, thrusters, windlasses and more. For those not familiar with hydraulic systems, it is a simple concept: there is a loop of hydraulic fluid that runs around the boat. At the back of the main engine is a “PTO” (Power Take Off) that is a hydraulic pump that keeps the hydraulic fluid flowing. If something, like the thrusters, need power, they just open a valve, which lets the hydraulic fluid turn an impeller, causing the thrusters to spin. While under way, the hydraulic system is normally used only for powering the stabilizers. Pumping the fluid requires horsepower, and I have the option to use the hydraulic pump (PTO) on either, or both, engines. When at low speed or while I am using the hydraulic system for more than just the stabilizers I tend to run both pumps. In this case, I was running the PTO on only the port engine, so I just swapped to running the PTO on the starboard engine, and then monitored the temperatures.

After swapping the PTOs, the port transmission did fall back to 150 degrees, and the starboard transmission heated up to 170 degrees. Life was good again. My current thinking is that there was never a problem. Remember, I mentioned that we were in reasonably high following seas. The stabilizers were working harder than usual to keep the boat on track. The seas did drop to 4-6 foot after the first six hours of our passage, so perhaps I was seeing nothing more than a higher-than-usual temperature associated with the heavier load. Perhaps the right answer would have been to just turn on both PTOs.

On a different topic… and, perhaps someone reading this knows the answer to this one. My Nobletec navigation software is showing extra “targets” which I’m not sure what are. Here’s a picture:

What are those things labeled as “Base Stations?”

At 5pm, a little over five hours into our run, I was at the helm, while Dean was down doing an engine room check, and the girls were napping, when I heard a strange broadcast on the radio. “…Yankee { … unintelligible …} this is the Mexican Navy … We are declaring an emergency ….” This was repeated several times, about once every few minutes. Dean was doing one of his first engine room checks alone, so he was being particularly diligent. I wanted him back on deck to see if he could make more sense of what I was hearing than I could. It sounded far away, and there wasn’t one other boat on the radar, even when zoomed out to 24 miles, so I was fairly sure they weren’t talking to us. It just didn’t make sense that the Mexican Navy would be broadcasting in English, and that word “Yankee” was bugging me. I was 99.9% sure that it was just something being spelled phonetically, but the other .01% was the worrisome part. When Dean came back up he was able to hear the broadcast a couple times. It was softer and we apparently were moving away from wherever it was coming from. It sounded to him like someone in distress calling FOR the Mexican Navy, whereas I was positive I had heard them identify themselves as the Mexican Navy. In any event, it was nowhere near us and irrelevant, other than to remind me that we really were in the middle of nowhere, and very alone.

Ingrid resting in the “Pilot berth” at the back of the pilot house on our moonless ride

Sans Souci has two radars, and I normally run with both active, on different ranges. On this run, I made the decision to try running with the night vision, and give up one of the two radars. We were running close enough to shore that there could be pangas around fishing. The seas were rough enough that a little panga could easily be missed on the radar. Given that it was pitch black out the window the night vision actually was kind of comforting. In it we could see the waves, and at least for me, it was reassuring to see them.

During the passage, we saw almost no other boats. One boat did pass us going north, and we think it was a sailboat running without lights, because it was running at only about 4.5 knots, but we were never sure. We passed a couple of non-moving, but well lit objects that we couldn’t identify. Our best guess was that these were oil drilling platforms, although they could have just been ships sitting still for some reason. Overall, it was an uneventful run.

Roberta and I were scheduled to sleep from 2am to 6am, but with the increased speed, I thought we were going to arrive early, so I set my clock for 5am. As predicted, when I reached the helm at 5:30am we were already approaching Ixtapa, nearly four hours ahead of schedule. None of us wanted to tangle with anchoring the boat in the dark, and I had assumed we could slow down – but, we were too close for that. Thus, I made a U-turn and headed back to sea.

We needed to burn off nearly 1.5 hours to arrive in daylight!

Our first view of Ixtapa, with an exhausted Ken at the controls


We anchored just off Isla Grande, a small island in front of Ixtapa. The island is nothing but palapa restaurant after palapa restaurant. The anchorage was small, with quite a bit of swell.

One embarrassing story from the morning “net” … Each morning at 9am on channel 22, there is a moderated radio chat amongst all the “cruisers” (boats in the area – primarily sail boats). It is very informative, and a good way to meet the fellow cruisers. There is always a section of the discussion where individual cruisers can seek the assistance of others. I decided I’d ask a question – “I’ve noticed that the only wireless internet signal here is from the Melia Hotel and the Club Med, and both are password protected. Has anyone gone to the front desk at either hotel to see if they can get a password for access?” I thought this was a reasonable question. After about 30 seconds of no response, I just said “OK – thank you anyhow.” At that point someone jumped in with “Hey. Stop thinking about internet, and start enjoying life at anchor.” The best I could think of to say was a feeble, and perhaps poor-taste, attempt at humor: “Sorry, but some of us have to work for a living.” The moderator wisely moved on. My response was not entirely in jest. I have worked hard to set up our lives so that we can cruise six months a year or more. Our bill-paying is automated, and people have long ago given up on sending us anything via post-office mail. I receive lots of documents via fax, which is automatically forwarded as email. For a combination of personal and business reasons I really need access to a high speed internet connection once a week. I can usually work around it, when that just isn’t possible, but it isn’t easy.

We decided to go check out one of the palapas for lunch, and approached the beach on the tender, but the surf was too high, and we had to give up. This turned out not to be a problem, in that a water taxi followed us back to the boat, and then delivered us to shore. The water taxi dock was a good five feet above water level. The surge had the water taxi ricocheting off the wall while three locals tried to hold it in place and help us off the boat. Once ashore we hiked restaurant to restaurant looking for a good place for lunch and “hanging out.” A vender from each restaurant chased us as we walked. As we were walking we walked past a central massage area. There were at least six people getting side by side massages. I guess that is part of what one does here (not me!). We finally chose the restaurant with the least annoying “sales person” and proceeded to have the worst meal of the trip. Isla Grande is probably a very nice place, but we were off to a bad start.

Back aboard Sans Souci we decided we had seen enough of Isla Grande, and wanted to take the tender to the marina to see what the entrance looked like. Elsa, the harbormaster, sent an email saying I could only enter the marina between 12:30 and 1:30pm, or after 5:30pm, due to dredging. Another boater had mentioned to me having to “surf a wave” into the Ixtapa marina. Apparently a sand bar forms at the entrance to the marina, and the shallow entrance needs frequent dredging. Before approaching the marina with Sans Souci I wanted to see it from the tender.

The run via tender from Isla Grande to the marina was only 3 miles, but it was a LONG 3 miles. The wind came up unexpectedly, and we were caught in the tender in very confused seas. I wanted to turn back, but realistically, we had gone too far. We had to just do what we could to stay safe.

When we arrived at the marina entrance, I could see waves breaking on both sides of the entrance, and a swell going into the entrance. I was reluctant to attempt entering the marina, but in we went. The entrance channel to the marina is only a quarter mile long, but felt longer. I had asked for, and received, permission to enter on the tender while dredging was active. The “wave” at the entrance represented no problem for the tender, but navigating around the dredge put me into water only a couple feet deep. I was worried about how Sans Souci, with its 7 foot draft would do.

Once through the entrance, the water was dead-calm. The turbulent world outside was forgotten immediately. Instead we found ourselves in a beautiful modern marina, surrounded by a wide variety of fantastic looking restaurants, marine stores, convenience stores, etc. We had planned a couple more nights at anchor, but almost immediately everyone said “Let’s move the boat here tomorrow!” We took the tender to the fuel dock, filled it, and then started walking to the harbormaster’s office.

As we were walking we passed a “No swimming” sign, with a drawing of a crocodile. A few moments later, we saw a crocodile swimming amongst the boats! I asked about the crocodiles and heard several different stories ranging from “Don’t worry,” to “Keep your dog off the dock or it will be eaten.” I’m not sure what the truth is, but we’ll be carrying Shelby until we do.

The marina staff was amazing. Elsa, the harbor master was incredible to work with. She arranged for us to arrive in the marina earlier than our reservation, offered to help track down a rental car, gave restaurant reservations, and then when I mentioned our insane tender ride to the marina, she suggested we park the tender in front of her office overnight, and take a water taxi back to the boat. It took us less than a second to say “yes”. I asked about the channel depth coming into the marina, and Elsa said that the channel was dredged to 8’ at low tide. This would work just fine for Sans Souci.

It was a sad evening on Sans Souci, because we knew this was our last night at anchor for nearly two weeks. We will be at Marina Ixtapa until March 1st, when we begin the next leg of our journey south.

Entering the marina with Sans Souci was anti-climactic. The seas had calmed, and I was able to sit at the entrance and watch two other boats enter before trying myself. There was still a swell coming into the marina that I had to “surf” but aside from needing to do some quick steering as I entered the channel, this was a non-issue. In a few minutes we were inside the marina and all was well. We had had a tougher time entering on the tender than on Sans Souci!

Our first day in the marina was a rough one. We’ve been fighting problems with our shore power converter on Sans Souci (the “Atlas” system) and I spent the day on the phone with Atlas as they walked me through swapping in various spares, without success. The final result was that an Atlas technician is going to have to fly here. Dean (our guest) took on another challenge while I was battling the Atlas. Sans Souci was refusing to connect to the marina’s wifi, and we couldn’t figure if it was a hardware or software issue. I suspected it was a bad wire. While I was messing with the Atlas, Dean traced wires and resolved the problem.

By dinner time we were ready for a little luxury. Both Roberta and I made the comment that the marina had a very European feel, and I mean that in a good way. There are a lot of large expensive power boats here, and the marina is lined with nice restaurants. We had the best meal of our trip thus far, and as you can see above – so did Shelby (our dog). The people at the next table seemed quite unhappy that Shelby was admitted to the restaurant, but Shelby didn’t seem to mind. Over dinner, our guests, Dean and Ingrid, commented a bit on how this trip has compared to cruising they did last year in the Sea of Cortez (the area between the northern coast of mainland Mexico and Baja). We’ve had nothing but good experiences: Calm warm weather, nice marinas, great restaurants, good anchorages, etc. They said that once they were north of La Paz, there was essentially nothing but high winds and desert landscape. They almost rejected our invitation to come along with us, based on their experience in the Sea of Cortez, but would now be back. That’s it for this update. Your email follows….

Thank you,

Ken Williams Sans Souci,

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Credits     |     Video produced by: Rock Steady Media     |     Teletype photo: Arnold Reinhold     |     PDP-11 photo: Trammell Hudson