Escape From Mazatlan
Recently, on social media, I saw a photo of a sailboat at anchor in a pristine tropical bay, with the caption: I want a life I don't need a vacation from. Grammatical challenges aside, I had to laugh. You know how many of the cruising stories are about the many benefits, epic destinations, or how-to pieces? This is not one of those. This is about another reality of the voyaging life. This story is about one of those days that makes you wonder why you live this crazy life, one that devolves into a smattering of profanity and earnest assertions that boats are dumb.
After three months, four visits from family and friends, major illness, a total engine rebuild, and several previous attempts to leave, we were finally getting out of Mazatlan. Don't get me wrong, we love Mazatlan. We were practically Mazatlecos! Our friend Mario is fond of saying, “Mazatlan loves you!” (He'd been saying that since December.) Ahh, but I digress. So there we were, the weather window wide open, nearly full moon, our 'new' Perkins 4108 was purring, and we were beyond excited to continue our adventure. We had been looking forward to visiting Isla Isabel for months. We said goodbye to Noj's parents on his birthday, the 10th of March. We checked out with the Capitania de Puerto, all paperwork stamped and signed. We provisioned with a couple of large bags of fruits and vegetables. We re-bedded our skylight that we pulled out to hoist the motor and stowed the dinghy on the foredeck. We made the Ardea shipshape for offshore sailing… and then Noj said he wasn't feeling well.
Oh, deja vu! This happened in December, the first time we attempted to leave Mazatlan, but this time he had a raging fever. I gave him medication and sent him to bed. By morning his fever had broken and he felt like we were okay to leave. He slept most of the day, but was confident we were okay to go. We pulled up the anchor just as the breeze died. I had a moment where I had a bad feeling about leaving, but dismissed it quickly... we need to run the engine in order to make water, so we would do just that until the breeze filled in. It actually seemed fortuitous. We left the port, all excited: This was IT. We made it out of Mazatlan! I was thrilled to take the helm, so happy to be back out on the open ocean. Noj went below to start the watermaker, only to find that a piece attached to the high pressure gauge had broken, rendering it incapable of doing its job. We quickly assessed our water stores, came up with a plan for water use, and pressed on, undaunted by this turn of events. Noj went back to bed to prepare for the late shift. I set the lines out to fish, feeling excited and hopeful and hungry for grilled tuna!
The sunset was spectacular. There is a feeling I get when I am alone in the cockpit for sunrise or sunset on the open sea that is a singular pleasure. It is not an easy feeling to make words about. Blissed out, I turned on the running and steaming lights and settled in for the night passage. We made it 21.9 miles.
The engine started making a strange revving noise. I immediately put it into neutral to further assess the sound, which brought Noj bounding up the companionway. With the full crew assembled, the engine promptly quit. I set the Ardea sailing downwind (the breeze was a sporty 4kts) while Noj went below to assess the engine troubles. He thought there might be some air in the system, and set about bleeding the lines. I came down to help out by pushing a lever on the fuel pump when I saw rivulets of water streaming out of “that part that has the little dome thing on it” (my description to Noj). His expression became quite grave and he said, “Turn the boat around.”
The breeze had filled in a little, with a steady 5-6kts. The Ardea goes to weather like a champ, and we were moving along at 5 or more knots of boat speed. Noj came up later with the bad news: the intake manifold had salt water in it. For those of you not intimately familiar with diesel engines, that is the part that sucks the air in to mix with the diesel prior to heading to the pistons for combustion. Any water mixing with the fuel is a bad thing. Salt water is potentially catastrophic. I promptly cried. The engine, obstinately ignoring my tears, remained quietly unmoved.
We enjoyed a beautiful sail, watching the nearly-full moon rise, and marveling at the dolphins playing in the moonlight and the mobula rays flopping about. Noj took another nap, while I alternated between sorrowful rumination and laughing at our ridiculously fateful attempts to leave Mazatlan. I was feeling quite soothed by the guiding light of our beloved El Faro (the lighthouse), which is placed on the top of a hill (our daily destination hike). Then the breeze shut off.
At this point I had had quite enough and I needed to sleep. Noj assured me he was feeling well enough, and took the helm at 0130 or so. Between the the sails banging around and fretting about Noj's health, sleep was slow in coming. Noj took the sails down and I went below for some much-needed rest while we bobbed about. At around 4:30 I was awakened by a lovely sound... breeze! Noj set the sails and we continued our journey back to Mazatlan. I drifted off to sleep and awoke at around 6:00 to the lovely pastels of a pre-dawn sky and dying breeze. We were 3 miles out. We were tantalizingly close! As our speed dropped to 2 kts, we slowly drifted to meet the massive fog bank that was filling in. Mazatlan is one of the largest commercial ports in Mexico, and we knew that at least two ferries and likely a cruise ship would be entering the port in the next hour or so. Now ensconced in dense fog, I called in to the Traffico Maritimo to request permission to enter the port, letting them know we had no motor and were under sail. There was no commercial traffic to be seen on the AIS, and things looked good to enter.
Then the breeze waned further, and was getting a bit squirrelly as we approached the El Faro hill. Fortunately, the tide was incoming. Unfortunately, it was at max flood and there was lots of swirling at the entrance. I was energetically (not freaking out at all, really) bringing the sails in and urging Noj to head up as we drifted toward the breakwater. I was calmly informed that there was no more 'up' to be had. A lone fisherman stood out on the end of the breakwater, and our eyes met – mine fearful and his helpless to render assistance. Noj remained calm and guided us into the port, depth gauge dropping, and narrowly missing the breakwater. As we glided in toward our anchoring spot, fog lifting, I rolled up the genoa, then took the helm. Noj went forward to drop the anchor and I came out to drop the main. We shared a high five about surviving another drama aboard the Ardea and set about getting the dinghy into the water. The relief at being safely anchored soon gave way to feelings of dejection and defeat as we headed to shore to get a message to our mechanic.
I looked back at the Ardea bobbing in that calm tropical port, a backdrop of palm trees swaying in the light breeze, and I thought, “We need a vacation”.
As it turned out, the motor troubles were twofold. Firstly, we found that it wasn't getting quite enough fuel after we added the dual Racor filters during the rebuild. This is what caused the strange revving noise and subsequent stall. We added a secondary lifting pump prior to the Racors and solved that quickly. Secondly, we discovered that the previous owner had plugged the syphon break hose, which caused the seawater to flood the motor when it shut off. We had rebuilt the raw water pump and suspect that its prior leak had been acting as the syphon break. We removed the plug on the syphon break, thinking that it was solved. Unfortunately, it took two more floodings and much anguish before we fully sorted the issue! Once again we had the opportunity to marvel at the ingenuity of the people of Mexico to create miscellaneous bits for the water maker and a syphon break that would work for our boat. On April Fools' day (most propitious, no?), we finally escaped Mazatlan, and enjoyed several magical days on Isla Isabel.