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What's a few hazards...

by Diane Cherry 30 Jun 2019 21:00 PDT
The worst of the issues was catching drift nets © Diane Cherry

So much can be said for a cruise from one bay to another as to whether it is pleasant and uneventful or challenging and difficult. Planning and weather forecasts will be factors, but not necessarily all-defining ones. In fact the angle of view; before the trip is begun; while under way; daytime, nighttime and of course once the next destination has been reached, will often make it seem as if there are totally different realities being experienced and remembered. Things often seem better once the sun comes up and once you drop anchor.

Originally our intention was to stay in Mazatlan a week or possibly two, but as time passed we found more and more enjoyment exploring the many areas of the city. We had to be in Guaymas to haul out for the summer months, and we booked a tentative date for a haul out with the understanding that it be flexible based on how the trip north unfolded. Weather or a lack of willingness to leave, or tides and moon phase creating more extreme tides, are all reasons to delay. Our departure was delayed by dredging work, and was then a little hairy due to the channel's shallowness and strong current. I wondered if this was an omen of a very challenging cruise ahead.

We pointed north and before long darkness set in, but the full moon made for most of the night not being ink black. The distance between Mazatlan and Topolobampo is about 200 nautical miles. We would never have assumed it would take five nights and three hours short of five days to finally anchor there. The winds were such that the entire trip was "going to weather". The currents were harsh and at times, with engine working hard, we were making less than 2 knots. We experienced more than ever before, big differences between set course and course over ground. The story of our passage was told in the jagged line of our track.

We were able to sail or motor sail and make reasonable headway north, then lose much of it on the next tack. The ride was rough, progress slow and sleep was usually in one hour stints, with a few 2 or 2 1/2 hour sleeps snuck in. Things kept breaking, hoses came loose and the engine raw water strainers clogged with algae growth, causing the engine to heat up. The clutch on the main sail mast came loose and required tightening. The furler refused to run smoothly, the sail tangled and one of the eyes that directs the furling line broke. All of these issues were resolved under way. The often rough conditions made for a very tired crew, and trying to compensate for the constant movement made muscles ache.

The worst of the issues was catching drift nets, not one night but two! The first night the fishermen came along side in their panga and helped to untangle the net. They ended up with one of our red fender buoys, but that seemed insignificant after the ordeal of trying to clear the net. In both incidents the nets were caught not in the propeller, but between the bottom of the rudder and the skeg. At one point, with the wind and current pushing us and being held by one net, we had to run the engine to avoid yet more nets. It was a huge stroke of luck that the net never got caught in the propeller.

The second night was far worse. We thought we had only a small portion of net behind us, but realized we were basically "anchored" by it. We had no idea just how much line we had caught until morning. It was kind of amusing to see the sea lion behind the boat, as if he was expecting some dinner from the net. David reached a National Geographic ship on the VHF, but they said they were too far away to assist. There was no real urgency to our situation. We had hit the net during David's down time and since we knew it would have to wait til daylight, he went back to try and rest and I monitored our location to make sure we were not heading anywhere worse than where we were. After some time, I realized we were not moving much. We were about ten nautical miles offshore and the anchor light was on so I also went for a rest.

When the sun came up, we heard the voices of fishermen pulling their catch from yet another net. Although anchored by the net, we had slowly drifted a couple of miles. The fishermen did not understand much of what we said, so I got out a translation book, which seemed to amuse them. I am pretty sure I heard a little English amongst their laughter, saying that I was "like a girl". I had to smile.

We needed some kind of hook and line to grab the net (we had already lost one of the fenders to the fishermen who helped remove the previous net, plus our rigging knife and nearly lost our boat hook). Finally, I found something inherited from a friend's boat that I realized might be of use: a thing we never quite figured out the purpose of but had kept just in case. We managed to hook the net and put its line on one of our secondary winches and cleat it above the water. We waited until the nearby fishermen had hauled their nets and catch before pulling the line aboard. The winching in of the net went quite smoothly and we managed to get it all on board. We then launched our dinghy and, armed with kitchen scissors, I went to the stern and cut away as much net as I could reach and cut the line so the float on it would not obstruct the line being pulled between the skeg and rudder. I was thrilled with just how easily this was accomplished with only a couple of light bumps of my head on the hull. The sea state had cooperated and the dinghy was not tossed about wildly. As far as we could tell, we managed to pull all of the net, line and buoys aboard our boat.

We bunched up and stuffed the net into our helm cover. The fishermen were done with their work and came alongside to see if we were okay. We offered them the net and a couple of them jumped aboard and dumped the net into their boat, along with their neatly folded net and five or six marlins that appeared larger than me. What a relief to not have a fishy-smelling net onboard until we got somewhere to dispose of it, and hopefully it is being repurposed.

The last night was uneventful, but the two of us were pretty exhausted by this point. There was, however, nothing to do but continue to our destination. In the morning, we noticed a Coast Guard boat nearing us. The crew include both Coast Guard and military. There was quite a language barrier, but it seemed the National Geographic boat had passed along our predicament. We were asked a few questions about what had happened and if it was now resolved. The Coast Guard boat came alongside and one member boarded to check our paperwork. They could not have been more professional, polite and courteous. They provided us with a satellite phone to contact a Coast Guard official who spoke English, and we were asked if we needed anything at all. Our paperwork was in order, so the Coast Guard left and we were on our way. It was a reassurance that there is so much help on the water from so many sources.

When we arrived at the entrance to the well-marked channel into Topolobampo, it was still a little unnerving to be entering a new, unknown place and we were anxious to anchor and rest. Part way into the channel, a large ship was heading out so we slowed, pulled aside and waited for it to pass. After pretty much three hours, we arrived at a spot where we could anchor. We were a little surprised that other than pangas, there was not a single other boat anchored anywhere in the bay. We spent a lot of hours sleeping through the afternoon, evening and night, trying to catch up on our rest. The next morning, the Harbour Master came alongside and told us we were not anchored in the correct area and we had to move. He pointed to where we could anchor, advised us the bottom was small rocks and we needed to take care in setting the anchor. He also pointed out we were not flying our Canadian flag (it had been damaged in the net incident and we had not pulled out the new one). We pulled the 150 feet of 3/8? chain we had out (with our manual windlass), moved and in a shallower area dropped 125 feet of chain. We could not get the anchor to set, pulled it again, moved to another location and dropped the same 125 feet of chain. That time it set.

The cruise from Mazatlan to Topolobampo was long, challenging and exhausting. We also had some amazing sailing, both daytime and nighttime, and when coming along the channel, we had a greeting party of several dancing and performing seals, followed by a pod of dolphins.

This article has been provided by the courtesy of Bluewater Cruising Association.

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