Striking rust brown sandstone hills rise steeply around the north and south sides of this ancient caldera which has subsided back into the sea. A white sand beach protrudes from Isla Partida to form the eastern part of the circle. A complementary rocky protrusion from Isla Espiritu Santo housing the park ranger’s cabin pairs with the slip of land from Partida to form a channel between the two islands. To the west, the bay opens to the Sea of Cortez with a view of the mainland Baha ridges in the distance.
I hear the laughing of gulls, and the splashes in the northern part of the bay from pelicans dive bombing into the water. Jumping fish splash, and a turtle pops its head up from time to time, and I swear I can hear him take a breath before submerging again. Tens of small black and white diving birds repeatedly dive in unison, sometimes making it appear that a school of rays or jumping fish are coming at us. Black vultures with small red heads circle high up near the glowing cliffs and also scavenge on the beach.
There is an unoccupied fish camp with a half dozen shacks on one side of the beach. A shrine at one end also supported the channel light.
This was our setting for our first three day weekend at anchor after arriving back in La Paz. We could not have asked for a more magical setting that embodies the reason we came to Mexico.
The days were warm and sunny, and after our first evening the winds were quite calm. We moved in closer to the beach and the southern side of the cove after our first night. This moved us close enough to hear a faint bleating, which really sounded like a goat to me. Periodically through the day on Saturday I scanned the hillside with binoculars but never saw a moving life form. During happy hour, a mewling whiny animal sound started, much more frequently. It affected me the same way a crying baby does – I just wanted to make it stop! It was getting dark so I couldn’t see anything, and fortunately we went into the cabin for dinner as it cools considerably after the sun sets. I was relieved not to hear what sounded like a dying animal through the portholes while I was trying to sleep. The next day I didn’t hear anything. Larry didn’t think an animal could be dead on land as we would certainly see a horde of vultures circling.
As we were finishing our morning routine, the marine park ranger pulled up in his panga to check whether we had renewed our annual park pass – Pasaporte de La Conservacion – which helps funds protection of these islands and is required to anchor and go ashore. It sounded to me like they had a registry of boats that previously had passes and they had a record of us from last year, but they didn’t have a record that we had just renewed. Espiritu Santo and Partida are within the Golfo de California Biosphere Reserve. The Sea of Cortez holds a number of marine parks.
I asked the ranger whether there were animals on shore, trying to describe what I had heard in my broken Spanish. He said there are goats on the islands, non-native pests that need to be removed as they are eating all the vegetation. Just like in Olympic National Park in the US. And sure enough, at cocktail hour we saw a family of goats on shore. And later, we saw and heard the annoying baby goat who had lagged behind as the adults walked down the shore, crying for them to wait for him. He looked quite healthy, which explained the lack of vultures.
We kayaked around much of the bay, explored the beach and the unoccupied fish camp. I loved the dramatic rocky landscape, and how I could watch through the clear water to see fish going about their business. It felt great to get my kayaking muscles working again after so long away. At times we were the only boat in the bay. Occasional panga tour boats flew through the channel between the islands, and each night there were one or two catamarans anchored across the bay from us, but no one ever joined us on the beach or out kayaking.
Today (Friday, 1/15) we got underway aboard Miss Miranda for the first time since March 25, 2020. We worked our way through all of the system checks at the dock and were finally ready for a real-world test. The weekend weather was shaping up nicely, with N winds of 10-15 for Friday and calm conditions through Monday.
We waited for the outboard guy to bring back our Tohatsu 3.5 hp engine for the small dinghy. He serviced it and found it to be completely gummed up with bad fuel, in spite of our having used fuel stabilizer. He also checked the big engine, and we concluded that the problem was the same. Bad, old fuel. Oh well, at least we know what the issue is.
Our first hiccup was before we left the dock. We started up all systems, including the wing engine and were rearranging dock lines when I noticed that there was no water flow from the stabilizer cooling pump outlet (yes, the one I just replaced). A quick check in the engine room showed both input and output through hulls were open and the pump appeared to be running. I concluded that the pump must have lost it’s prime, and because (unfortunately) it shares an intake through hull with the the wing engine, I wondered if by starting the wing engine first, the cooling water pump somehow lost it’s prime… maybe couldn’t pull enough water? So, shut the wing engine down, opened the priming valve on the pump (too much) and got a nice little geyser of water as I struggled to get the bolt back in place. Once that was done, I restarted the pump, and sure enough, water was flowing. We elected not to run the wing… trying to keep things simple.
Once out of the marina we headed North on the 20 mile run to the the Islands of Espiritu Santo and Partida, on what was a beautiful afternoon. The boat was running well, no problems at all, until I noticed a mysterious spike in the AC power demand. That is unusual because there are really only three things that use AC power when underway… the refrigerator, the freezer, and the stabilizer water pump. After a few minutes the power draw decreased. I began to suspect the freezer. More on that later.
There were only two other boats in the anchorage and we picked a spot midway between them, dropping the anchor in about 18 feet of water. Unfortunately, it did not want to set… catching, then dragging as we slowly backed down. Eventually we got a very solid set, though a little farther from shore than we would have liked. One of the guidebooks indicated that anchoring could be a challenge because of sand over rock, and that seemed to be spot on in our case. Of course, the wind started to come up just as we got set, a solid 15 knots gusting regularly to 20+. Eventually it died down, but knew I would have a fitful night’s sleep worrying about our set.
We enjoyed a beautiful sunset, a nice cocktail, and good dinner. It was utterly quiet, save for the lapping of the waves against the hull. Above was a beautiful, clear, dark, star-filled sky, and below a phosphorescent show in the water around the boat. This is what we have been looking forward to.
Before turning in, I noticed another spike in power consumption. This time we were able to confirm that it was the Sub Zero freezer. We thought the freezer died in Mazatlan last year, but apparently it had runout of refrigerant. After a refill it seemed to be running fine at the dock in La Paz. My suspicion is that it does indeed have a coolant leak and the compressor must run constantly to maintain temperature. Anyway, we emptied it of critical items and will get it looked at when we return to La Paz.
The next morning, we pulled up the anchor and moved to the South side of the bay, nearer to the passage to the other side and the fish camp. The water was clear enough to see the anchor on the bottom turn over and start to dig in as we slowly backed down. This time we got a very good set first time, and here we would stay for the rest of the weekend.
Finally, a systems gripe. We have an Iridium GO, which is an inexpensive, slow satellite data device that we use to get weather info when we are out of cell range. It worked just fine last year, but when we reactivated it this year, it was having problems. After endless tinkering and back and forth with PredictWind support, it started working… for a couple of days. Now that we need it…. nope. Very annoying, considering how much we are spending for the service and the PredictWind software subscription.
Gwen will have her own take and many more photos from Caleta Partida in a separate post later this week.
Boat projects can sometimes be fun and satisfying (OK, at least satisfying).
There are three conditions that must be met for this to be the case.
Having the right parts on hand
Having the right tools on hand
Having the project be in a (relatively) accessible location
In my experience, the confluence of these three factors, which I call the triple play, is very rare. Well, yesterday it happened.
The project at hand was replacement of the sea water pump for the stabilizer heat exchanger. The stabilizers are powered by a hydraulic pump running from the main engine, and the fluid moves the fins. This fluid is at high pressure and gets hot, so it needs to be cooled. On our boat this is by means of a heat exchanger that is cooled by seawater. A 120V pump circulates this water, and it runs all the time that the boat is underway. If the pump dies, no more water circulation, and soon, no more stabilizers, which will shut down when the fluid gets too hot. So it is a pretty important piece of equipment, and it is one of those single points of failure… there is no backup pump installed.
I have been suspicious of the pump for a while. It runs pretty hot, and in fact, part of underway engine room checklist is checking the temperature of that pump. For that reason, I bought a spare pump before we came down to Mexico. I did not install it, however, following my new “ain’t broke don’t fix” rule. Well, coming back to the boat I discovered that it now is broke, so its gotta be fixed.
Getting the old pump out was pretty easy. It was clear that the line from the pump to the heat exchanger needed to be changed, but as it happened, I had some spare hose of the proper size and almost exact length. One small complication was that the new pump has the motor control unit mounted on top of the motor instead of the side. In the picture you can see the unit on the old pump on the left side of the motor. That makes it easier to access the mounts, but interferes with the 90 deg elbow for the water output, seen in the middle of the picture.
Putting the new pump in was straightforward save for running the hose. I had to angle the elbow off the centerline in order to get the hose and clamps attached and then had to make sure it didn’t rub against the side of the compartment. Of course, the mounts were laid out differently from the old pump, so I had to drill new holes, and it was a bit of a tight fit getting the screws in. After it was mounted I just had to wire it up to AC power. Once installed, all I had to do was open the through hulls for the inlet and outlet and prime the pump – a simple matter of loosening the bolt to the left of the elbow until a little bit of water flowed out. A quick test confirmed that we had good water flow. Success!
I was surprised when finished to find that the job had taken most of the day – about 5 hours or so. Things just take a long time on a boat, due to a combination of tight spaces and rummaging for various tools and parts. When it all comes together, though, it sure is satisfying!
I had a little bit of apprehension this morning. The plan was to start the main engine… after sitting for 9 months. I primed the fuel system, Gwen pulled off the stack cover, and I turned the key… YES, it fired right up!!
We all need some distracting reading away from the news of the day, so here’s an update on stuff we are finding as we reopen the boat.
We know the temperatures here were around 100 for a few months during the summer time, and the humidity was quite low. Despite the record number of hurricanes this year, none of them hit this area at hurricane strength. The boat was looked after by some local boat watchers, but we still had some interesting findings. All of our canvas and screens were intact and in place, with the exception that the dingy cover had blown off and was hanging by a bungee cord, and the cover on the spotlight looked like it got burnt!
I have been pleased to find that all my galley preparations have meant that we did not return to a bug infestation – one of my big fears. I had tossed anything open, sealed stuff with my vacuum sealer and cleaned out the fridge and freezer – no mold in there either! The weirdest thing I found was that the tips of my rubber gloves were all melted away into a sticky goo.
Inside, the boat was covered in a thick layer of dust which I have been working through, and along the way we discovered that tools with rechargeable batteries, like our small vacuum, are all dead.
We have been spending much of the day, after having a good breakfast and relaxed wake up with coffee, working on our extensive task list. In the afternoon we are settling into a routine of siesta after late lunch, then walking the marina to get some exercise. The temperature is just lovely at mid-70s during the day, with a good breeze that can get stiff at times. In the evenings we enjoy the sunset, a beverage, and watching the birds.
This will be our typical day for the month of January as we work through a bunch of tasks, get the muffler replaced which is scheduled for late in the month, and watch the weather.
After a largely sleepless night at an airport hotel near SeaTac, we got up at 4am and headed into the airport for our 7am flight to Los Cabos.
The flight was about 25% full and had more than it’s share of people who, a year into the pandemic, were playing dumb about how to wear a mask. The Alaska flight attendants were diligent and persistent in reminding them how to do it.
We arrived into sunshine and 70 degrees which was a WONDERFUL change from the chilly monsoon and gale we left behind in Washington.
Customs and immigration were no problem this time for us – breezed through and got the green light so no check of our bags!
We then picked up our rental car, and finally removed our safety gear with relief. 25 minutes later we were at Marina Puerto Los Cabos, where we stayed last year, and picked up our mountain of parts that our friends Kevin and Alison so graciously schlepped for us.
Hopefully these are parts that will ensure we never need them.
Two and half hours later after an easy drive up the toll road, passing Todos Santos, many cacti and numerous police cars, we arrived at Marina CostaBaja and Miss Miranda!
Larry unlocked the door and we proceeded to open windows, unload our massive amount of stuff and get our drinking water and heads operational. Now on to some dinner!
After a crazy, unprecedented 9 months back in the USA we are preparing to return to La Paz and Miss Miranda. We have booked the flight on Alaska Airlines for January 3rd, and have arranged a one way rental car from the San Jose Del Cabo airport to Marina CostaBaja. We arranged to to ship a bunch of spare parts to the boat, kindly warehoused in San Diego by Ken and Christy, CUBAR buddies on Varnebank (thank you!) and to be delivered by Kevin and Alison on Red Rover (thank you!). In fact, Kevin and Alison may still be in Cabo by the time we arrive, so we will likely swing by for a parts pickup on the way from the airport.
We will keep the rental car in La Paz for an extra day to do a big provisioning run out to the Soriana. Hopefully we’ll be able to stock up enough there to avoid many other stops as we travel around the Sea of Cortez.
We thought long and hard about our return to Mexico, out of concern for our health as well as not wanting to impose a health burden on the people of Mexico. We do not want to come across as ugly Americans living it up on our fancy yacht oblivious to the daily suffering of those who are less fortunate.
The United States and Mexico are very similar in how poorly the virus situation has been managed, with rampant spread and full to overflowing hospitals in many areas. Gwen has studied the situation and feels that our biggest area of exposure, and of exposing others, is getting to the boat which we are doing by flying and by car, so we have a plan. We hope that in returning to Mexico and following a strict set of precautions we will cause little additional burden and will bring some much needed spending into the area.
We have and will use N95 masks and face shields for the flight, interactions with the car rental and shopping. We feel that flights are reasonably safe, provided that we wear masks for the entire time. Airports, we think, are less safe, so we will try to minimize time and maximize distance. Provisioning is going to be no more or less safe than going to the grocery store here. For work on the boat, we will provide masks and sanitation equipment and do everything possible to ensure safety for us and the workers.
As we had before, we have medical evacuation insurance. These companies now have clauses specifying how things are handled if one contracts COVID and they do have ability to extract ill people with COVID, but that is something that we need to avoid at all costs. One thing many do not realize is that if you are being taken back to the US by a medical evacuation service, they first have to ensure a hospital agrees to take you. Currently, many US hospitals are at disaster levels and are not even accepting regional transfers, much less international ones, so one cannot count on this being possible. Gwen has also upgraded our medical supplies to be able to cover even more medical issues that could arise, so hopefully we won’t need to seek any other type of medical care.
Finally, we are going to be explicit about monitoring our interactions by keeping a log of any contacts with people and will be strict about distancing and mask wearing. Once we get Miss Miranda ready to go and leave the Marina, we are likely to go weeks without any close contact with people, though we hope to encounter plenty of whale sharks, dolphins, turtles, fish and birds! It will be a very different experience from last year where we explored a lot of communities, dined out in restaurants and socialized with lots of people, but we are very happy to be able to experience the joys of solitude and nature.
We have been poring over our third copy (other ones are on the boat) of Anacortes neighbors Shawn Breeding and Heather Bansmer’s guide to the Sea of Cortez. Theirs is by far the most complete guide, including chartlets of the anchorages, which is critically important for an area in which the official charts are notoriously inaccurate. We used their guide to the Pacific Coast of Mexico last season, as well as electronic versions of their charts on an iPad-based chartplotter app called INavX. The charts were much better than the ones we had on our PC based navigation systems. The guidebooks also included a downloadable set of GPS waypoints identifying navigational approaches, hazards and preferred anchorages. Very useful for us, and absolutely required for any cruisers planning to visit Mexico. This year, fellow N50 owners and Pacific-crossing veterans Ron and Nancy recommended another super helpful piece of charting software. This one is called ChartAid and it allows you to grab aerial photos from Google or Bing maps and add them as overlays to Coastal Explorer (our primary PC-based navigation system). Ron and Nancy used this for the poorly-charted Pacific Islands and atolls they visited and are also using it for the Sea of Cortez.
The image on the left above shows a chartlet from Shawn and Heather’s guide (they actually did all the dpth soundings listed on the chart). The image on the top right shows the same area as represented on a C-Map chart (the only charts of the area available via Coastal Explorer), while the bottom right image shows a satellite photo imported into Coastal Explorer. Obviously, we are happy to have both the chartlets and the Sat Photos. By the way, the C-Map charts cost $250, while the ChartAid program was $99 and the charts from Sea of Cortez: A Cruiser’s Guidebook were $29.
So, we’ve been looking through the guidebook, identifying interesting spots and then grabbing nice, hi-res satellite photos. Our plan, at the moment, is to stick to the southern half of the Sea between La Paz and roughly Mulege or possibly as far North as Santa Rosalia, following more-or-less what Shawn and Heather call the “Classics” Itinerary. From that area, it is a pretty short run across the Sea to San Carlos and Guaymas on the mainland side, so we’re thinking about spending a couple of weeks over there. So far our longest run would be about 75 NM from the Mulege area to San Carlos, with most other distances between anchorages less than 30 miles. Sounds like some pretty laid back cruising.
We have been told that winters in the Sea of Cortez can be challenging. The main weather feature is Northers, which are 2-3 day periods of sustained strong North winds that result when High pressure systems develop in the Great Basin of the US. Because the Sea has so much fetch, large, steep, dangerous waves can form in these conditions. The key with Northers, we’re told, is to be in a secure anchorage that has good northerly protection, which is called out in the guide. We’ve also heard that it can be cold in the Sea in winter, but I guess one’s definition of cold depends on where you are from. Here is what we found comparing January weather for Anacortes and La Paz
Anacortes: Daily high temperatures increase by 2°F, from 45°F to 47°F, rarely falling below 36°F or exceeding 54°F. Daily low temperatures are around 38°F, rarely falling below 27°F or exceeding 46°F. The chance of a wet day over the course of January is gradually decreasing, starting the month at 48% and ending it at 45%. La Paz: Daily high temperatures are around 75°F, rarely falling below 69°F or exceeding 82°F. Daily low temperatures are around 53°F, rarely falling below 47°F or exceeding 59°F. The chance of a wet day over the course of January is essentially constant, remaining around 5% throughout.
Put another way, January in La Paz is slightly warmer than summer in Anacortes! We’ll take it. Now it is true that the water temperature in the Sea of Cortez goes down significantly in the winter, but at 69deg, still a bit warmer than the frigid waters of the Pacific Northwest.
There is, of course, a never ending list of projects to look forward to when we return to the boat. The big one is left over from last spring, when we finally got a replacement Racor fuel filter manifold, but left before we could install it. We hope that replacing the filter manifold (listen to me furiously knocking on all the wood I can find) will finally resolve our air in the fuel line problem.
One non-project (knocking on wood again) may be the Subzero drawer freezer. Last spring the freezer died (while nearly full) in Mazatlan, and we didn’t have a chance to diagnose the problem before leaving. As I was compiling a parts list this fall I wondered what might have caused the freezer to fail, and was planning to buy all of the replaceable components, just in case. Our boat watcher had his refrigeration tech check out the freezer and it turns out that it simply lost it’s refrigerant charge. Once filled up it seems to be working fine. A good thing, too, as Gwen is planning to fill it.
A major project that we have decided to take on is replacing the dry stack muffler, which we were told back in 2019 was a rusted hulk in desparate need of replacement. We didn’t have time to get the work done before heading to Mexico, so we took a chance on it. Lately, we’ve heard too many stories on the Nordhavn Owners Group about mufflers disintegrating underway, so it is time to get the job done. The problem is that there is no way to remove the muffler without cutting away a significant amount of fiberglass to gain access. Evidently, the idea of “design for serviceability” was not a thing when Miss Miranda was built. The good news is that 1) Many other N50 owners have taken on the job, and I even have a pictures of the recent work from on N50 sister ship Les Voguer (thanks, James!) 2) The muffler is still available from the manufacturer along with all of the other parts needed, including the insulation blanket. Now I just need to find someone in La Paz competent to do the work, and I have a couple of good leads so far.
I’m sure that other things will come up, as one might expect after leaving the boat for more than six months. I think/hope we will be better prepared for issues that might arise than we were last season.
Return to the Pacific Northwest
While we have note decided on the precise timing, we will definitely bring Miss Miranda back up the Pacific Coast and home to Anacortes by the end of summer 2021. We look forward to exploring the Sea of Cortez, and have thoroughly enjoyed our cruising adventures in Mexico, but realized that there is plenty of cruising to do closer to home.