Update #2 – Cabo to Puerto Vallarta

Greetings all!

I apologize for being slow sending this update. It has been a struggle to get email working here in Puerto Vallarta. I’ve got it going now….

The first leg of our voyage went very smoothly for the most part. I am proud to report that we have successfully arrived in Puerto Vallarta after making the 300 nautical mile passage from Cabo San Lucas Mexico.

We had estimated the cruising time at 33 hours, based on an average of 9 knots cruise speed. This meant we had to leave at 5am, so that we could arrive at 2pm the following day. It is important to arrive before dark, so that we wouldn’t be trying to enter port or drop anchor at night. Unfortunately, this meant leaving our departure port in the darkness. To make this easy we moved the boat to the fuel dock during daylight, so that we were already positioned just in front of the harbor entrance, ready for departure.

Roberta’s parents (my in-laws), John and Nova, are traveling with us for the first week or two. Some of you may remember that they traveled with us for the final leg of our Atlantic crossing. They are fun to travel with, and love nothing more than dancing. They were even dancing on the bow of Sans Souci as we pulled into Gibraltar.

Our departure went smoothly. It was a little tricky, in that we were in total blackness, and there are some turns required to exit the harbor. I tried using the night vision camera, but it required me to be inside the boat, and I wanted to drive from outside where I could see better. Instead, we tried the spot light. Roberta stayed inside the boat and worked the spot light while I drove the boat from outside, shouting at her where to point the beam. This worked well. She kept the beam trained on the walls I was trying to avoid, and in 10 minutes or so, we were out in the open sea.

Sunrise, just after departure

When running overnight, we assign “watches”. With only four people on board, this meant two two-person teams; Roberta and her mom, and me and her dad. Each team would take turns every four hours driving the boat. I require two person teams, so that one person can “drive” the boat while the other acts as the “gofer” (go for this, go for that). When one team is on the duty, the other team can sleep. Neither of Roberta’s parents know anything about driving the boat, which means that it is really just Roberta and I doing the shifts, with her parents doing “gofer duty”. During my shift, I did have to leave John (Roberta’s dad) at the helm while I would do engine rooms checks, which was always a little nerve racking. If I was in the engine room and something came up, he would need a way to contact me. We experimented with him honking the horn, but I couldn’t hear it in the engine room. I then showed him how to drop the throttles. The change in the engine rpm would be my clue to rush back to the helm. My hope is that he’ll never actually have to do this, in that our rule is that Roberta or I wait until nothing is on the radar before doing our hourly engine room check.

Around noon, 60 miles out to sea, my engine room check did spot a problem. I have a little temperature gun I use to check the temperature of various things in the engine room. I’m just looking for anything that seems wrong. The gun is great – I can just point it at anything from several feet away, and immediately know the temperature. I check the shaft bearings, the transmissions, the hydraulic system, and even the walls of the engine room itself.

The port side shaft seal, where the main prop shaft exits the boat, was reading 145 degrees, versus 85 degrees on the starboard (right) side. I’ve read about tightening and loosening shaft seals, but have never tightened or loosened one personally. For those who are not familiar with the shaft seals, also known as a stuffing box, I’ll do my best to give a brief explanation…

In order to avoid water leaking in around the prop shaft, wax-soaked rope is squeezed in between the prop shaft and the hull of the boat. This rope (or, stuffing) acts as a shield to keep water out. If the rope is too loosely stuffed, water can pour into the boat, and if it is too tightly packed there can be friction between the shaft and the packing material. The heat I was observing was telling me that the packing was too tight, and that unless I could loosen it up, the packing material would soon wear away, and I’d have water pouring in.

Loosening the shaft seal is very simple for a trained mechanic, but very difficult for a software developer (like myself). I slowed the boat to a crawl, and called Jeff, a captain in Seattle who works on my boat. He explained how to loosen the bolts, and use a rubber hammer to loosen things up.

Roberta had heard the boat slow, and woke up to come see what was up. I asked her to come help “loosen the shaft seal”. She looked about as excited as I was. With my father in law driving the boat, at about 2 knots, Roberta and I entered the engine room. I thought about shutting down the motors, but the seas were rough enough that I didn’t really want to be drifting, and with no way to easily lock the shaft, the shaft was going to be spinning one way or the other.

The “tough to get to” brass thing in the center of this photo is the stuffing box. There are two nuts on a bolt on each side of it. The outer nut is for purposes of locking the inner one. As you can see, getting to the nuts is not easy. Knowing that touching the spinning shaft could have disastrous consequences, and that John was upstairs alone, weren’t making it any easier. I loosened the locking nut, and backed off the inner nuts several turns. I then hammered with the rubber hammer, waited a few minutes and checked the temperature. 135 degrees. Progress, but not done. I then loosened some more, and now the temp was at 110 degrees. I decided to tighten down the nuts and see what would happen over time. Tightening down meant Roberta and I together, so that she could work one wrench, while I worked the other. When next I measured the shaft, we were down to 82 degrees, and we had water dripping into the boat. I thought about tightening it back up, but decided that it was better dealt with in port, and that I could accept some dripping during the balance of our journey.

The weather was very acceptable for the passage. For most of the trip we had 15 knot winds from the port side. Waves were perhaps 3 to 4 feet, with some white caps. Inside the boat, we felt almost no motion. Because of the constant beam sea the stabilizers had to work hard. I was very impressed with how well they handled the seas.

Here are a few pictures from the passage:

Roberta at the helm


Roberta’s Mom, assisting Roberta. As you can see, we drink a lot of coffee!

We had a full moon for most of the passage


John at the helm




For most of the passage, we saw no one. At times, I had to convince myself the radar was working. We would set it on 32 mile range, and not see a single blip. To prove it was working, I would put it out to 96 mile range, and see land, and then feel a little better.

My biggest problem was getting to sleep. When Roberta is driving, I am supposed to be sleeping, and visa versa. On a long passage, my system adjusts, and I fall into a rhythm. This passage was too short to really fall into a rhythm. I couldn’t seem to relax. I did make an honest effort, but sleep was clearly not part of the plan.

As we approached Puerto Vallarta, there was one area where things got interesting. There are some prison islands, we passed south of, called “Las Marias”. From the cruising guide I know that these are used as a prison, and that I should not get close. It is somewhat amusing to look these islands up different places. On my paper charts, there is this notation:

CAUTION: Las Marias are reported three miles further east, and Isla Isabella farther SW than shows on this chart. The reported positions cannot be reconciled with existing hydrography.

Notice there is no mention of staying clear of the islands. On Nobeltec it does mention that they are a prison colony and says to “keep well clear in order to avoid detention by Mexican authorities”. How far exactly is “well clear?” The cruising guide quantifies it a bit more, and says “stay 20 miles away.”

Given the uncertainty as to the location of the islands, and the fuzziness of how far to stay away, I decided to pass 30 miles south of them. Apparently others had the same idea. We were suddenly surrounded by cruise ships and freighters. One ship the “golden princess”, was obviously on the same waypoints as us. I asked him to change course, and give us some room, but we still passed within a mile of each other.

Our arrival into Puerto Vallarta was more complicated than it should have been. The city of Puerto Vallarta is situated at the back of a wide bay called “Banderas Bay”. At the north end of the entrance to the bay there are rocks that poke out for at least five miles, some of which are charted , and some of which aren’t. Rather than take a chance, I routed us to the center of the bay, which should have deep water and be safe. I had been warned that the charts are off by several miles, and wanted to take no chances.

I can now confirm that the charts are indeed off by miles. The combination of no sleep, incorrect charts, and rocks near the surface, had me highly focused on the radar. I was using the radar to compute the distance to different points on land, and using these distances to help me determine where I was on the charts. For instance, I could measure (on the radar) my distance from the northern entry to the bay, and the southern entrance to the bay and then use this to locate myself on the chart. I felt proud of myself for figuring this out, but then unhappy when the charts indicated the depth should be 2,600 feet, and it was only 480 feet. I was never able to correctly match up the depths on the chart with my position as computed using radar. I was 99.9999% certain that I was miles from the rocks, but that other .0001% was worrying me. I doubt I ever came within 5 miles of the rocks, but it was quite unsettling to not know my location.

Speaking of which, once inside the bay, I had only a vague idea where our marina was located. It is a new marina, called Marina Riviera Nayarit, located about 20 miles north of Puerto Vallarta. It opened only last month, and isn’t on any charts. The inaccurate charts, high winds in the bay, lack of sleep, and uncertainty about my location were making it tough to find the marina. Making things worse, I was within a few miles of where I thought it should be, and they weren’t responding on the radio. Finally in frustration I said on the radio, on channel 16, “This is Sans Souci, if anyone knows what channel Marina Nayarit is monitoring, please tell me.” Back came the response “This is the Nordhavn 46 Jenny. We can help you.” Yay!!!. Jenny was anchored at the entrance to the marina. After asking the GPS coordinates I asked about the wind. It was only 5 knots at the entrance to the marina. That was much better than the 15-20 knots in the center of the bay. Thank you to David Schramm on Jenny! In speaking with David later, he is also going south to the Panama Canal. I’m sure we’ll run into each other many times during the trip.

The entrance to the marina is a popular anchorage. There were perhaps 50 sailboats, and a couple power boats I had to zigzag through to reach the marina entrance. The marina entrance is virtually touching the beach, and there was a large yellow catamaran parked just in front. No problem though, we maneuvered around it and entered the marina. It’s a huge, beautiful, new, marina, which has been open less than a month. It is still under construction, but coming along nicely. Clearly someone is spending a LOT of money. Most of the slips are in place, but for now, at least 2/3rds are empty. The marina finally responded on the radio, and gave me my pick of parking places (slips). I asked about depth and was told that the marina is 12’ deep. I’m not positive this is true, as we were throwing up lots of mud on our way to the slip.

Here’s something that I found interesting: Similar to the anchorage in front, 99% of the boats inside the marina are sailboats. I’m accustomed to the marinas in Cabo where the opposite is true. In Cabo the marina would have been packed with sport fishers, with only a few trawlers or sailboats. I’m not sure why….

We did see one very interesting trawler – another Nordhavn, a 76’ called Spirit of Ulysses. We have seen this particular Nordhavn a few times before. It was built in Taiwan at the same time as our boat. I toured it there, and found it a very interesting design. It is a “forward pilot house” Nordhavn 76. As far as I know it is the only one like this. Richard Maven, the owner, gave me a tour in Taiwan, and I remember really liking the layout. There is a HUGE walkway in the bilge, where he has placed all his pumps and equipment, for incredibly simple access. We were in commissioning at the same time in Dana Point, and he went north at the same time as us, and then we both wound up back in Dana Point together, and now discovered each other again at a remote marina in Mexico. He is also headed to the Panama Canal, but on a tighter schedule than us. He left this morning headed south to Barra, where we’ll be next. One thing which completely has me stumped: There is a tender sitting next to his former slip labeled “T/T Spirit of Ulysses”. It can’t be a coincidence, can it? Hopefully he didn’t forget something…

There has been a lot of discussion in the Mexico press of a “ladder” of marinas which would open up this region to more boating. Many of us who have lived in Mexico for years have had our doubts about if it would really happen or not. After seeing the new marina at Puerto Los Cabos, and now the new marina here in Puerto Vallarta, it is sinking in that Mexico is serious about encouraging nautical tourism. Very cool!

There is one minor annoyance though: While checking in at the harbor master’s office, the harbor master asked if I had been to see the Port Captain yet. I said “Huh? – I thought there was no need to do that anymore.” In the old days Mexico made all boats clear in and out of every port. This was a major pain in the tail, and made boating in Mexico miserable. I’ve read many articles saying this practice was abandoned last year, and in Cabo I’ve moved between Cabo, San Jose and La Paz freely. Apparently no one on the mainland agrees that the rules have changed. At the port captain’s office I asked again why I had to clear in and out of the marina. He said “It is the law.” The process was fast and painless, so it wasn’t a big deal, but it was a surprise. I get to do this at every marina as we move south. Argh.

Behind the marina is the town of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. It’s a small little Mexican town, with dirt roads, that is going through enormous growth. It’s the same thing we’ve seen in Baja. American tourists are buying condos, homes and timeshares, at an amazing pace. In Cabo we actually have negative unemployment. I suspect the same may be true here. I spoke with a restaurant owner tonight who said that this town had perhaps 30 people when she moved here, and now there are new developments being built virtually everywhere on the beach. It’s an interesting little town. In some ways it still feels very much like a small mexico town, but there are obvious signs of growth, with all of the construction. We have found several excellent restaurants, and wish we had more time to stay here longer. It’s a great location, with Puerto Vallarta an easy drive in one direction, and Punta Mita just down the road the other direction. Our goal for the next few days is to drive around and explore all we can.

That’s it for this update. If you missed my prior update, and want to read it, you can find it at: http://www.kensblog.com/aspx/m/357395

Also: If you want to email me (at: kenw @ seanet.com) PLEASE do not include my own blog update. The internet is slow and often expensive here. Shorter is better….

Thank you!

-Ken Williams
Sans Souci, www.kensblog.com

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