Have I told you that I’m in love? Well, of course, I’m still in love with my husband of 20 years (most of the time), but another love affair has been ongoing, unbeknownst to me, for almost as long; about as long as we’ve had da boat actually, which is almost 18 years. I just didn’t know how much it meant to me until recently.
His name is Pancho. He’s our second mate. He’s our autopilot. We’ve heard horror stories of fellow sailors losing their autopilot on multi-week passages while crossing the Pacific or even on two-day passages crossing the Sea of Cortez. Total nightmare. Non-sailors may not appreciate the importance of a reliable autopilot and the difficulty of hand-steering for hours and hours on end without good sleep or a good meal and especially in rough seas. It’s kind of like being able to switch drivers on a cross-country road trip; without having someone along side who can spell you when your lids get heavy, or it’s pouring down rain, the trip can seem twice as long and even a bit more dangerous. Hand-steering for long distances in variable conditions is exhausting, both mentally and physically, to the point of psychic breaks and break-ups of relationships and marriages. Lucky for us, we haven’t experienced this particular kind of strife aboard Free Luff. And hopefully, we won’t. (True to form, before we left San Diego, we purchased a spare autopilot ram, just in case of a mechanical failure.) Pancho is a critical crew member, no matter the distance we’re trying to cover or the time we anticipate being out at sea.
When Rand and I were preparing our loved ones for our departure from San Diego (which began years before we actually left), we spent a lot of time trying to allay the fears some had about the time we would be spending at sea. What not everyone realized then, and still now, is that we’re at sea a minuscule percentage of the time out here. More often than not, we’re drifting around the arc of our anchor, enjoying a beautiful Mexican landscape, swimming and snorkeling, and playing with friends, or, in Rand’s case, working. When we are at sea, because we’re changing our backyard, we can usually still see the coastline. The furthest offshore we go is typically about 10-15 miles, unless we’re crossing between the mainland and the Baja Peninsula, or taking longer hops between anchorages. It was during two of our longer passages this season that I decided to write a blog post about what exactly we face while out at sea – because what we experienced most recently were two totally disparate sets of circumstances, environmental conditions, and attitudes of the crew – except for Pancho, who was steadfast in his resolve to keep us on course.
First, a little about passage-making. It requires planning. Even taking short little jaunts, for instance, between Tenacatita Bay and Barra de Navidad, which is roughly 10 nautical miles (nm), warrants having some inkling of what we’re in for weather-wise; how much wind is out there, where is it supposed to come from, what direction and how big is the swell, what’s the tide doing, etc. To do this, we subscribe to PredictWind, which is a company that provides wind and marine forecasts based on four different models. For shorter trips, like the 10-miler, we take a gander at the most up-to-date models and will generally determine what time of day we should leave before there’s likely to be too much wind or not enough. For longer passages, like the back-to-back overnights we did from Isla Ixtapa to Caleta de Campos, then Caleta to Manzanillo Bay, then the 3-day crossing from Mazatlán on the mainland to Bahía Candeleros on the Baja side, we start scouring the models a few days in advance and bring in new data roughly every 12 hours, utilize the weather routing part of the application that helps identify, based on forecasted wind speed and direction, the quickest and most comfortable routes; it even calculates the amount of time expected at each point of sail. It’s an essential and handy tool. However, over the years, we have found that the forecasts can be significantly, well, to put it lightly, inaccurate. We know this. We’ve KNOWN this. We’ve known this for so long that we automatically add at least 5 kts to every forecast. I mean, they are, after all, models, and weather conditions can be very localized.
Now for the unexpectedly brutal passage (Isla Ixtapa to Las Hadas in Manzanillo Bay): After a wonderful 10-days in Zihuatanejo, it was time to start making our way back towards Barra de Navidad (for some almond croissants), Bahia de Banderas (for doctors appointments that we ended up canceling) and, eventually, the Sea of Cortez (for storm season). Typically, there is a shift in wind direction during the spring, with the predominant direction being favorable for going north – that is to say, the winds are a bit more southy. But at the time we were making plans, the models weren’t showing much south for days on end, so we decided we needed to just go for it and plan on sailing close to the wind. So, that’s what we did, and boy, did we.
We performed maintenance inspections on the engines and our personal flotation devices (PFDs), battery tested the personal locator beacons and man-overboard devices tucked in our PFDs, prepared some rice and beans and pasta for the overnights, set the jack lines, and off we went. Our first passage was from Isla Ixtapa, just NW of Zihua, to Caleta de Campos, a distance of about 65 nm. Because we’re a slow boat – that is, we sail most of the time, and even when we motor, our little 18-horsepower Yanmars don’t push us along very spritely – we planned to make these 65-ish nm overnight. We departed Isla Ixtapa around 8:30 AM, and the first 7 hours were glorious. The water was flat, the breeze was perfect and from a direction that kept us pretty close to our rhumb line. Then, well, as things do, they changed. The wind shifted toward the waypoint and ramped up quickly, so we shortened sail and settled in for a long night of beating to windward.
I’ll just say right now that we rely heavily on Pancho. Virtually every time we’re underway, we engage him, no matter how long or short the passage. And he is always compliant and never argues. He does, on occasion, go on little wingers or disengages without our permission (smoke break?), but we’re typically notified by an alarm, a sudden shift in momentum, or by the sails luffing. He doesn’t do it on purpose. We’ve not identified any correlation between times when he misbehaves with wind conditions or sea state, or system voltage, or anything really, so it is somewhat troubling. These transgressions don’t happen too often, and so far, haven’t resulted in any catastrophes, thankfully. And Pancho performed perfectly on this brutal passage, even as the sea state continued to build into steep, short-period wind waves, causing Free Luff to buck and bash, clawing for every mile toward the destination.
Generally, we keep a pretty loose watch schedule, that is to say, we don’t set a schedule. Instead, each of us stays on watch until we’re sleepy or conditions warrant having two people on deck (e.g., reefing or shaking out a reef, or a prop gets entangled in fishing gear, etc.). So, we split watches accordingly through the night. We ate dinner while bashing onward, with sea water splashing over the deck, making FL a salty gal. We shortened sail again in the middle of the night, as the breeze was not abating.
Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, the winds died down and we shook out the reefs, but the seas remained lumpy and the current was counter to our direction, stuffing our velocity made good to less than 1 kt. Twenty-eight hours later, we arrived in Caleta de Campos, relieved to have the anchor down and a full day of rest ahead of us before doing it all again the next day to Las Hadas, which turned out to the be bigger bummer of the back to back overnights.
Anchor up at 6 AM, wind was quite light, but we still managed to sail out of the anchorage, barely making a couple knots of boat speed. We had a rough schedule to try to make it around Punta San Telmo by 5 PM, because the forecast was calling for a stiff breeze from a new direction, and it would make our evening sail much more pleasant if we could just round that little point. Throughout the morning, we were bystanders as the winds shifted from the north to the southeast, then the southwest; we sailed, we motor-sailed, we sailed, Pancho kept us on track. Around noon, while we had pretty good wind, we weren’t going to make it, so we rolled up the genny and motor-sailed toward Telmo. And wouldn’t you know it, the current was once again against us.
By 4:30 PM, the stiff breeze was upon us, but it had shifted, so we double reefed the main, and started pounding our way toward the point. Six hours later, we were short-tacking against 15-20 kts of breeze coupled with 1.3 kts of counter current, and we were barely making it around San Telmo! By now, we were constantly taking water over the bows, our nerves were getting frazzled, we were hungry and sleepy, but unable to relax because of the conditions. One thing I should mention is how loud it can be when in the throes of high winds in a riled-up seaway. The wind is screaming in your ears, the boat is creaking and cracking (not literally) and pounding into the waves, and on a cat, anyway, the bitch-slapping under the bridge deck can be sudden and startling. You just want things to mellow, to get quiet, to relent.
Four hours later, 2 AM, the breeze had mellowed, but it left behind a cranky, wind-affected sea. We were still 50 nm from Manzanillo Bay. Because of the sea state, and not enough wind to keep the sails full, the main was slatting/slamming back and forth, so we doused it completely. It became a motor-fest, which is our least favorite thing, and we slogged our way to Las Hadas to the thrum of one engine. Finally, 32 hours from our start, we dropped the anchor in a placid little nook off of the resort at about 2:30 PM, and contemplated the frivolous use of our precious fresh water stores to clean the salt off of Free Luff. I resisted, knowing that within a day or two, we would be fueling up in Barra and could take advantage of water at the fuel dock to flood the deck.
It’s not often that we experience passages where we look at each other and say, “yuck, let’s not do that again.” These two overnights were the worst in recent memory, but we did make the decision to move when the forecasts were not favorable. And of course, when you add the 5 kts (or 10+ kts) to that forecast, we should have known it would be a miserable slog. But throughout, Pancho showed up. It is his constant companionship and (almost consummate) reliability that has finally made me realize how much I love him and don’t want to live without him. Granted, because of his minor flaws mentioned above, we typically remain close to the helm when underway and on watch. But we have been known to watch movies or play cribbage on occasion, leaving Free Luff in his capable hands.
This love affair was etched in stone when we sailed direct from Mazatlán on the mainland coast across the Sea of Cortez to Bahía de Candeleros on the Baja Peninsula – a 300 nm crossing, our longest straight shot since leaving San Diego in 2016. We’d just spent a week at Marina Maz, where we exerted excessive energy working on projects that required power tools (e.g., sanding cork and waxing the hulls). It was there that we could take advantage of electricity and water to get Free Luff ship shape before crossing to the Baja side for the summer storm season. This time, we’d been checking for weather windows, and when a two-day window that seemed too good to be true popped up (showing favorable sailing breezes through the night – what?!), we made haste with final preparations and busted a move.
We made a fresh batch of granola and big vat of pasta while leaving the marina, secured the jack lines while exiting the channel, and within a half-mile of the Mazatlán coast, the engines were off and the sails were set. We were underway, with Pancho at the helm and us sitting at the cockpit table with our coffee and a game of cribbage. It was 10:20 AM, and we had about 298 nm to go. The sky was grey, offering a much appreciated reprieve from the Mexican sun. Things were looking promising. Plus, we knew we’d have a nearly full moon to guide us on our journey. There’s really nothing like sailing under a full moon. The sparkling glint off the sea surface, the sound of the water gurgling along the hulls, the flash of bioluminescent dolphins, the feel of the wind on your face, the boat balanced and humming along – pretty darn magical.
Evening on the first night rolled around and a pesky skip jack played the line (we released it), and then it was time to reef. The breeze was increasing, and unfortunately, putting us beam-to the chop, but we were still on the rhumb line, mostly comfortable, and most importantly, hauling ass. We gybed during the pre-dawn hours to seek a more comfortable point of sail, but not long afterwards, gybed back for the better angle, and surprisingly, a more comfortable ride. Things are always changing.
Morning on the second day brought a frigate mackerel (we released it), and 8 kts of ground speed. We were screaming. Our 24-hr tally was 122 nm made good – that is, we were right on course. Later that afternoon, the winds eased and fell behind us a bit, setting up just the right conditions for a spinnaker ride. As night fell, we went back to our trusty white sails (we don’t like flying the spinnaker at night, especially with only one person on watch), and continued to make good progress in consistent wind and a little bit of wind chop. Just another peaceful sail under the light of the moon.
After an uneventful, albeit a bit chilly, night, the breeze finally gave up. By now we’d been on the water for about 45 hours, ticked off 220 nm, and had hadn’t wasted any dinosaur juice. We were feeling pretty darn good about our progress. There was no cursing, no water over the bows, and hardly any tacking or gybing. Yeah, pretty dreamy. But we had a ways to go, so with the rising sun and the expiration of 15 minutes into the 10-minute rule (in which we wait 10 minutes after the wind collapses to fire up one or both engines), the starboard engine came alive to keep us going. And yes, Pancho was right there with us, still carrying the bulk of the weight.
By mid-morning, at the first hint of a fresh breeze, the drifter was set and staying relatively full. This only three hours after firing up starboard. We were sailing again. The day was filled with finicky wind and a few back-and-forths between the drifter and the genny. But the bottom line is that it was quiet and we were moving. Rand had the first evening watch and ate his share of the last of the pasta, and when I came on about midnight, I ate the very last of it (thank goodness), and looked forward to something different for dinner in the coming days.
Did I mention how screwed up the eating and sleeping schedule gets on passages? Sleep is generally broken up into 3-4 hour naps. Eating happens opportunistically – when the seas are calm, and when you’re awake, even if it is 1 or 3 AM. Food is often in the form of snacks, unless you plan ahead and make something that can be easily served and shoved down the gullet. So, even on this, a magical crossing, our bodies still feel out-of-sorts because we’re off our eating and sleeping game.
Anyway, sometime around 6 AM on the last day of the crossing, I was niggled awake by the sweet smell of freshly baked banana bread that Rand had made during his 3-6 AM watch. Seriously, who does that? Randy, that’s who. And that just goes to show you how perfectly almost perfect this crossing was. We were still a handful of miles from our destination when, unfortunately, the wind died and we were forced to use engine power – but there was banana bread, coffee, and cribbage. Four hours later, almost exactly 72 hours after we left Mazatlán, we had the anchor down in Bahía Candeleros, checked in on the world on the interwebs, and crawled into bed for a quick nap with smirks on our faces after pulling off the biggest sailing coup in our history of sailing.
It’s simply amazing how different passages can be. I’m sure we’ll be telling these stories long after we’ve stopped cruising, but the one common denominator is Pancho. Without him, sailing wouldn’t be nearly as stress-free, watches would probably be shorter, and we’d definitely be a bit more picky about picking our weather windows. With Pancho around, our lives are infinitely simpler and happier. It’s taken a long time, but I’m finally unafraid to admit my love affair with Pancho. There, I said it. I love Pancho. But Rand understands; he doesn’t feel threatened. Because he loves Pancho, too.