Thursday, April 10, 2014


Fool's Castle in Marina Chiapas
It was wonderful to sleep soundly without having to get up and drive every four hours.  We spent our first morning in Chiapas checking into the marina.  Customs and immigration had come to our boat the evening we arrived and were very polite and efficient.  The Mexican government does not accept color copies, so Enrique, the harbormaster, had to make black and white copies of our documents, even though we had copies to give him.  Apparently, the color copies are so good, government employees get confused as to which ones are the originals.  To avoid this, they only accept black and white copies.  Scott also dove into the engine compartment and removed the broken starter.

About noon, the mechanic arrived.  He opened up the starter and discovered that it contained nothing but chunks of mangled metal.  We needed a new starter.  He assured us that he could find us one or get it rebuilt somehow.  He wanted the money to pay for the starter up front.  We had given all our pesos to our rescuers the day before, so the mechanic took us back to Tapachula with him so that we could go to the ATM.  Tapachula is quite a distance from the marina and a taxi ride costs about 200 pesos each way including tip.  We drove 10 kilometers just to get to the port and customs station and then another 15 minutes or so to get to town.  Our way passed through many orchards of huge, stately mango trees.  Coffee, corn, cane, cocoa and bananas were also grown locally. 

We were stopped by a police roadblock, possibly because the mechanic was transporting gringos, but maybe just because his rattletrap old Nissan Sentra ran like a race car (which I took to be a good sign.)  The mechanic had lost his registration.  He had a temporary copy, but the police didn’t want to accept it at first.  After much discussion, we were finally allowed to enter the city.

Church of the Light of the World
Tapachula is an important city for the state of Chiapas due to its importance in trade with Central America.  The metropolitan area has a population of about 300K people.  It looked like any, large, bustling, second world city – crowded, slightly down at heels, and not very attractive.  The prettiest thing we saw was a church with copper colored onion domes.  It looked like an orthodox church, but apparently was not.  The traffic was terrible due to road construction.  We hadn’t been in a large city for a long time, which made it seem all the more unpleasant.  Our mechanic friend took us to my bank.  I gave him 3,000 pesos to shop for a starter and then he took us back to the edge of town and dropped us off where the big box stores were.  As much as we might have preferred better ambiance, it was very handy to find Home Depot, AutoZone and Walmart.  We were able to buy some corrugated hose to replace our collapsed vacuum hose, fly swatters (ours died during the battle with the bees), ice trays (our new freezer works so well that we can hoard ice to use during passages), insecticide to kill the bees and some beverages and fresh produce.  Pineapples are very cheap in Chiapas, although they are actually grown on the gulf coast of Mexico.  At 5.90 pesos per kilo, they cost less than a dollar apiece.

Waiting for Enrique in the Walmart Parking Lot
Enrique was supposed to pick us up at 4:00 on his way back from siesta, so we had time to grab a late lunch from the food court in the (blessedly air conditioned) shopping mall.  We ate at a stand called TacoTorro.  I was a bit annoyed when Scott ordered the TacoTorro con Queso, which at 80 pesos was the most expensive thing on the menu.  Fortunately, I didn’t order anything because, when the food came, it turned out to be a large meal for two people.  Suddenly the 80 pesos was a fantastic value.  We were served a large platter filled with chunks of chicken, al pastor, chorizo, peppers, onions and cheese and also a hefty basket of tortillas.  Even Scott couldn’t have eaten it by himself.  Neither of us wanted dinner later.  We finished just in time to hurry over to the taxi stand where we were supposed to meet Enrique.  We waited for him for 45 minutes and then ended up taking a taxi back to the marina.  Enrique had forgotten to collect us.

We could hear cold beer calling us on the taxi ride home.  We spent the rest of the evening relaxing and enjoying the showers and internet.  Once again, our new antenna worked like a champ and we could watch Breaking Bad on Netflix.

10" Fan
We spent Wednesday waiting for the mechanic to return with our new starter.  I scrubbed and oiled the aft deck.  Scott napped.  I installed the formerly battery operated 10 inch fans that Scott had converted to work with the 12 volt system.  While they did not oscillate or even swivel, they moved much more air than the 6 inch ones we bought in San Diego and had much more robust switches.  Two out of three of the small ones had already failed.  Our vacuum hose had collapsed, so we replaced it with some 1.25” plastic conduit that we bought at Home Depot.  It worked fine, but whistled horrifically.  It was a better didgeridoo than a vacuum hose.

I got up early on Thursday to run.  There were no big hills to climb, so I ran further than usual, about 7 km.  I ran to the nearby village of Playa Linda.  While I usually consider Mexico a second world country, Playa Linda was pretty third world.  There were lots of loose, scrawny dogs and families eating breakfast under palm thatched shelters. The villagers lived on the inland side of the street. The beachfront properties were mostly large compounds with pools and shade structures, with or without houses, that all seemed to be vacant and available for rent.  All the restaurants, other than family owned palapas, were closed.  I wondered if this area was more prosperous before the revolution a decade or so ago.  According to Wikipedia, most of the visitors to this area come from Guatemala.  Puerto Chiapas is only 15 km from the border.

None of the cruising guides or websites describing Puerto Chiapas mentioned public transportation, but it turned out that there were collectivos that ran between Playa Linda and Tapachula and passed right by the marina.  It was possible to cross the highway, flag down the next passing van saying “Tapachula – Puerto Chiapas” and get an economical ride for the 35km to Tapachula.

Staying hydrated and keeping one’s electrolytes in balance is difficult in southern Mexico, especially if one exercises strenuously.  Runners planning on passing this way should be advised to bring electrolyte tablets with them.  They are not readily available in Mexico.  We suffered terrible leg and foot cramps at night.  Scott had them even though he didn’t exercise.  Eating a lot of bananas and drinking a big glass of Gatorade before bed helped, but I wasn’t crazy about consuming all that sugar. 

Dr. Seuss Tree in Marina Chiapas
We passed a lazy morning, anxiously waiting for the mechanic.  We were going to be late getting to El Salvador and Ingemar would have to wait for us there.  No one was sure what was happening, but there was a rumor that the mechanic couldn’t find a new starter, so was looking for parts to rebuild ours.  Scott opened up the engine room and determined that the original connectors from the autopilot were leaking.  He arranged for us to go into town with Enrique, the harbormaster, when he went home for lunch.  On the way to Tapachula, Enrique pointed out teak trees growing alongside the road.  They are not particularly attractive trees, but I had been wondering what type of trees they were because they had leaves the size of dinner plates.

I asked Enrique for his version on the civil unrest in Chiapas early in the century.  He explained that the Mexican government had been ignoring Chiapas for years.  The infrastructure was crumbling and there was no opportunity for the people there.  The revolution was apparently successful because the government has been investing in infrastructure for Chiapas and it is now growing.  Everywhere we went, we saw signs saying how many millions of pesos had been invested in the local roads or other public works.  It seemed pretty peaceful.  We didn’t see any more police presence than in other parts of Mexico, which was rather surprising, given our proximity to the border.  I saw more police roadblocks in Playa del Carmen.

Enrique dropped us off at Walmart and we crossed the highway to the Home Depot to buy new fittings for the autopilot and a supply of wire and stainless steel nuts for future emergencies.  We bought some new solar lights to replace the ones we had destroyed.  Solar garden lights are very handy for lighting the cockpit while cruising, but it is important to get the kind with on and off switches so that you can turn them off to: A) Save the light for when you really need it and B) Turn them off when you are sailing and want to preserve your night vision.  I strapped some irrigation risers to our stanchions to make holders for the lights, a trick I learned while visiting my friends Sam and Susie when they were cruising in the Sea of Cortez.  After the Home Depot we made another trip to AutoZone to buy heater hose and hose clamps and then went to the mall to use the ATM and get TacoTorro to go for dinner.  The cashier remembered my name from the last time we were there.  This time, Enrique remembered to come back for us.  He arrived just as we walked up to the curb.

Friday, we finally got news that our starter would be ready the following morning.  Scott spent the day working on the autopilot while I scrubbed and oiled the teak on the foredeck and worked on sewing the last window screen.  Ingemar arrived in Bahia del Sol and called us to tell us he was there.  I emailed the El Salvador Rally organizers and asked them to keep an eye out for him.

Saturday, I got up at six and went for another run to Playa Linda.  The town was much busier on a Saturday than during the week, probably because everyone was home.  All the roadside chicken stands had their fires started to make coals for roasting the chickens.  Seemingly everyone in the town was out in the street, walking slowly towards the center of town.  It looked like a zombie apocalypse.  I was quite curious as to where they were all going, but it did not appear that there was a single destination.  Like me, everyone was just out, taking a walk before it got hot.  I ran a little further than I had on Thursday and eventually came to the public beach access.  I crossed over to the beach to take a look.  The beach was extremely wide and flat, but not groomed like the beaches in Huatulco.  The sand was a dirty gray color and was interrupted by patches of grass and the occasional palm tree.  If one were looking for cheap beachfront property, Chiapas would be the place.  Unfortunately, Americans would never be allowed to buy property this close to both the coast and the border.  That is probably why all the beachfront villas looked run down and unoccupied.

When I got back to the boat, I took a shower and then stowed as many items as possible so that we could be ready to go later.  I entered the waypoints for the next leg of our journey into my GPS.  Finally, about 11:00, our starter arrived.  Scott put it in and then went to the office to see about checking out.  The marina usually takes care of the check-out process for the port captain, but cannot do so on the weekend when the port captain’s office is closed.  We would have to hire an agent.  Enrique called the agent, but no one answered.  I had to wait in the office, in case they called back, while Scott went back to work on the boat.  Enrique left for the day at 1:00, but Memo continued to try to find an agent for us.  Eventually, we ascertained that even the opportunity to earn a quick couple of hundred bucks wasn’t enough to get an agent to come out on the weekend.  We would be stuck until Monday morning.  Poor Ingemar was stuck in El Salvador without us.  Bill and Jean, the organizers of the El Salvador Rally, tracked him down and took him out to dinner.

Home Depot in Tapachula
Since we had a couple of days to kill, Memo gave us a ride into Tapachula so that we could buy more hydraulic parts.  In his attempt to stop a leak, Scott had crushed one of the compression fittings in the steering system.  We went back to the Home Depot.  By this, our third visit, their one (sort of) English speaking clerk greeted us like old friends.  He always did his best to help us, even though they usually didn’t have what we were seeking.  He and I had a good time trying to speak each other’s languages.  Scott prefers flare connections to compression ones because they are more secure and not as leak prone, but they are always tough to find.  To make it even tougher, our boat has metric fittings, which never quite mate with the American ones.  While we had the tools to flare copper tubing, the existing tubing was slightly smaller and wouldn’t stay put in the tool well enough to apply the pressure necessary to create the flare.  We ended up buying a selection of compression fittings so that Scott could replace everything back to the valve.

Food Court at the Mall in Tapachula
Since we were planning to take the bus home, we were free to relax a bit while we were in Tapachula.  After Home Depot, we crossed the road to the shopping mall.  While Tapachula is generally very second world, the mall is quite modern.  Like most malls in Mexico, it is anchored by a Walmart.  It was Saturday and many of the good families of Tapachula were at the mall, enjoying the air conditioning.  It was packed.  The mall management knows that families come to the mall for entertainment and they do their best to amuse the children.  There is a little train that circles the mall for the kids to ride and also a variety of kid’s electric cars they can drive.  We joined the throng at the food court and ordered a pizza from Domino’s, which Scott had been craving.  We got the Mexican variety, which was topped with chorizo, ground beef, onions and jalapenos.   After our meal, we stopped at the Walmart to stock up on meat and produce, since we would not be arriving in El Salvador for an extra couple of days.

We dashed across the highway, carrying all our groceries, to catch a collectivo back to the marina.  While I have seen numerous “Tapachula-Puerto Chiapas” vans passing the marina, the one we caught, despite my having specifically asked the driver if he went to the marina, did not go there.  The van was packed, but it was air conditioned and comfortable, even though I rode most of the 35km perched on a luxuriously padded, small, round stool and had to get up every time someone needed to get in or out.  Scott got the front seat, since he just wouldn’t fit in the back with the rest of us.  We were dropped off in Puerto Chiapas.  The port was a very busy place.  There were a lot of shops and food stalls and it seemed like people were going there to hang out on a Saturday night.  We grabbed a battered taxi with a driver who drove us the rather long way to the marina for a mere 30 pesos and then acted surprised when I gave him a tip.  It had cost us 200 pesos when we took a taxi back from the Walmart.  This time, we made it for a total of 60.  It would have been only 40 if we had taken the right van.  If you are taking a van from Tapachula to the marina, play it safe and get one that says “Zona Naval.”  The navy base is about a mile past the marina.

Sunday, Scott had a difficult time waking up and didn’t get started until about 3:00 when I bribed him with the promise of cocktails at Baos Restaurant if he got his work done in time.  I spent the day working on lengthening our mosquito net so that we could use it with our shade structure.  It occurred to me that the new flag halyard I had placed at the top of the mizzen would make a dandy mosquito net halyard.  The mosquito net had a circumference of about 35 feet.  First, I needed to cut the many yards of mosquito net I had left in half lengthwise and then I sewed the two pieces together end to end.  Fortunately, what would be the bottom had a selvedge, so I was saved from having to hem that.  Still, the net was so fragile and prone to raveling that I had to hem all 35 feet of the top before I could attempt to attach it to the existing tent.  I hemmed the ends and started on the top.  Despite working on it all day, I only managed to complete about 20% of it before Scott finished repairing the hydraulic leak and was ready to take me up on my offer of cocktails.

Baos restaurant is a very pleasant, open air structure that gets a cool breeze.  The only downside to it is that it tends to be buggy.  This time, we were prepared and used mosquito repellent.  I couldn’t see leaving Mexico without having one last margarita.  Scott tried to order a hurricane, but failed.  Despite their looking up the ingredients on the internet, what arrived were two tall glasses of green fruit juice on ice (How do you get green from pineapple juice and grenadine?) and two shot glasses of rum.  Scott mixed things together as best he could and was at least satisfied with the alcohol content.  My margarita was perfect.  I found it safest to stick to beer, micheladas and margaritas in Mexico.  I had avoided ordering ceviche for five months because Scott doesn’t like even cooked fish, but I couldn’t see leaving the country without at least one plate of the delectable stuff.  I ordered ceviche and some nachos for Scott.  Despite his distaste for raw fish, he found the dorado quite delicious and scarfed his share.  It really was excellent.  What I had intended to be a snack turned out to be our dinner.  We ate and watched the sun set.  It was a fine farewell to Chiapas and the country of Mexico.

I felt quite conflicted about leaving Mexico.  While I was excited about visiting new places, I felt some trepidation about leaving Mexico, which was familiar and where I felt so at home.  Everyone told me that the best was yet to come but, being the one in charge of dealing with all things foreign, I had my reservations.

Port Captain's Office in Puerto Chiapas
We were at the marina office at 9:00 when they opened on Monday.  Enrique packed us in his truck and drove us to the port authority, where I had to pay my landing fee of 76 pesos.  Then he drove us to the airport so that immigration could check stamp our passports and check us out of Mexico.  From there, he drove us all the way to the opposite side of the harbor to visit the port captain.  Since checking out of Mexico will involve at least three separate offices, I highly recommend doing it in Chiapas where the marina staff will shuttle you around for free, do all the talking, and make it very efficient. Doing all of that by taxi could have been a nightmare.  We waited for quite some time at the port captain’s office, but finally we received our international zarpe (certificate saying we were checked out of Mexico) and were free to go.  We ran into the customs official at the port captain’s office, so he met us back at the boat.  By the time I had settled up with Enrique, Scott and the officials were almost done.

Fuel Pier in Puerto Chiapas
Once the officials decided we weren’t smuggling priceless antiques out of Mexico or illegally sold any of our belongings, we were free to go.  Scott untied the lines and I backed the boat out of the slip, almost like I knew what I was doing.  Fool’s castle only backs easily if you are trying to go to the left and, of course, we needed to go to the right.  The wind was helping, however, and blew the bow in the direction we wished to go.  We slipped smoothly out of the marina and headed up the channel.  Before we could leave, we still had to make a stop at the fuel pier to fill our tanks for the journey to El Salvador.  The fuel pier in Puerto Chiapas is designed for large commercial vessels, not private sailboats.  It is a fixed concrete pier.  When the tide was low, it was a long way up to the dock.  We raised our fenders so that they hung from the deck and overlapped the rub rail.  Between the fenders and the tires strung from the concrete pier, we avoided grinding a hole in our hull.  We waited for them to put a smaller nozzle on the hose and then took on 400 liters of fuel.  Fool’s Castle has two 400 liter fuel tanks.  We had emptied one of them on our way to Chiapas, which was what had caused the motor to stall in the first place.  Once the tank was full, I had to climb up on the dock in order to pay.  I had to step up on our railing and let the attendant pull me up on the dock.  To me, that was scarier than climbing the mast of sailing though big waves.  Coming back was slightly easier, since I was able to step down onto one of the tires and then across to our rail and back onto the boat.  We finally left Puerto Chiapas at 12:30.

Motoring East
Winds were light so we motored off towards Guatemala at six knots.    We crossed into Guatemalan waters about three in the afternoon.  I struck the Mexican flag and raised the Guatemalan colors.  We had to give Guatemala a wide berth because our insurance did not allow us to stop there.  We didn’t want to run into their coast guard and be forced to check in there.  Enrique told us that they only patrolled for about 10 miles out, so we stayed 15 miles off the coast in order to avoid official boats and pangas trailing long lines.  The autopilot was working fine and everything went smoothly until just after dawn.  At 6 am, I was sailing nearly due east, straight into the sun, and couldn’t see a thing.  I noticed a couple of pangas, so shut down the autopilot and took the helm to steer wide around them.  We were 18 miles off shore, but I still managed to get tangled in a fisherman’s long line.  I couldn’t see the 2 liter coke bottles he was using as floats because I was blinded by the rising sun.  I immediately turned around, hoping the line would slip free, but we remained tangled.  I slowed down and the engine died.  We sat still while the panga full of fishermen approached the boat and cut the line free.  They were very nice about the whole thing but, after they freed the line, they once again reset it across our path.

Meanwhile, we were again adrift with an engine that refused to start.  Scott woke up and set to work on the engine while I set the headsail and tried to get enough way on to steer.  Somehow, I managed to steer between two of the floats and cross the line where it dipped down to its lowest point without snagging it again.  We sailed off towards El Salvador at two knots in the light morning breeze.  Little shearwaters swooped around the boat, cackling and trying to land on the foredeck without much success.  Turtles were everywhere.  I feared that we were going to have to drift to El Salvador as we had to Chiapas, but Scott got the motor started after about an hour and we were once again on schedule to make it to Bahia del Sol in time to cross the bar at hide tide on Wednesday morning.  The starter relay was acting flaky, as it had on other occasions.

Scott at the Helm
The rest of the morning and afternoon were uneventful.  Scott saw a baby dolphin.  I saw a jumping bill fish and another panga that I managed to avoid.  We passed an endless parade of turtles heading west as we motored east.  Scott had rolled up the headsail when the wind died, but I rolled it out again about 2:00 when a west wind picked up.  That gave us another couple of knots of speed and I was able to slow down the motor, although I was careful not to kill it.  At a about 2:30, we passed into El Salvador’s waters and altered course to gradually approach the shore.  I exchanged the Guatemalan courtesy flag for the Salvadoran one.  By 4:00, we could see East Rocks off Punta Remedios, although we still couldn’t see the mainland.

I went to bed at midnight and all was calm.  In fact, it had been so warm that I used the cover of darkness to sail in just my underwear and life vest.  At 1 am, Scott pounded on the floor to call me up on deck immediately.  A gale had blown up and the shackle securing the clew of the mainsail to the outhaul car had come loose.  The main was billowing free, attached only by the outhaul line.  The wind was blowing about 35 knots when I ran out onto the foredeck in my underpants to try to furl the main.  Unfortunately our main furling line, which has a tendency to override at the best of times, was very difficult to furl when flapping freely in the wind.  It got so snarled that I had to drive while Scott wrestled it free.  Eventually, we got the main rolled up and I was able to go back to bed.  No sooner had I drifted off, however, than Scott called me to close the hatches on the foredeck because water was coming in.  The wind continued to build and I had to get up again an hour later to close all the remaining hatches.  Water was then coming in over the cabin top.

Dawn Over El Salvador
We had slowed the motor, since we were making good time, but had to rev it back up to six knots when the voltage dropped too low.  I took the helm again at 4 am and we arrived at the entrance to Bahia del Sol about 4:30 am.  We need a high tide to get over the bar into the bay and knew that the high tide was about ten in the morning.  The wind was now gusting to 40 or 50 knots.  Since the wind was coming from the land, Scott had steered us close to shore to avoid having to deal with large waves.  Being close to shore in the dark, after the moon had set, made me nervous, but I sailed back and forth along the shore between the mouth of the bay and some lightless pangas that were fishing a couple of miles west of there until it got light enough to dodge the fishermen.  Once I could see, I could go further west, although it was windier up there, so I still mostly did laps in the same place until Scott took over at eight.  At least the wind was cool.  For the first time in months, I had been comfortable sailing in a long sleeved shirt.

Following the Pilot Over the Bar
Breakers On the Bar
We managed to raise Ingemar on the radio about 7:30 and he arranged for the pilot boat to come and meet us at 9:30.  Bill, one of the organizers of the El Salvador Rally, came out with the pilot and talked to us on the radio.  The wind was still blowing hard.  We were very concerned that the pilot would refuse to come out, but he did not fail us.  There were some temporary marks set to show us where to meet the pilot boat.  We waited until he approached us.  Bill talked us into position and then said, “Follow the pilot boat at full throttle.”  We gunned it and steamed full speed ahead at the waves over the bar.  To our right, where there was a shoal, the waves were breaking and the wind was blowing the tops right off of the breakers.  It was wild.  We came within a few inches of the bottom at the bottom of the troughs.  Finally, Bill came on the radio to tell us we were over the bar and welcome us to El Salvador.

Bahia del Sol Slips
                                                                                                          Our adventure was not over yet.  We still had to dock in that tearing gale.  It was no less windy inside the bay than outside.  The Hotel Bahia del Sol has one long wooden dock with a few slips on either side.  Calling it a marina is an exaggeration.  There are also some moorings in the bay and an anchorage a bit further in.  Bill and the pilot had gone ahead to find us a spot.  When we got there, they had a spot for us on the end tie where we could turn into the wind and park behind our friends’ boat, Pegasus.  We were still moving fast, but Scott stopped the boat easily once we turned into that wind.  We halted a few feet from the dock and then blew gently into place.  It seemed like everyone from the rally was there to meet us (or watch us crash.)  We may have been three weeks late arriving, but we made a spectacular entrance.  The hotel bartender brought us welcome drinks.  The port captain and immigration had offices right in the hotel, so it didn’t take long to check in, pay our $30 port fee, get our passports stamped, pay $10 each for our tourist cards, and check in to the marina.  For $15/week, we signed up to use the hotel facilities (showers, pool, etc.) and get a 30% discount on food and drink at their restaurants.  We arrived before check out time, so we took advantage of Ingemar’s room to shower and then settled down for a well-deserved nap.  The howling wind ventilated the boat very well and it was almost cool.

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