Adventure Adrift and Isla Isabel or How I Met a Washingtonian, an Australian, and a bunch of Boobies

This is an unfinished blog post I wrote in 2018 after my amazing adventure, but only just got around to publishing now at the end of 2022……

I arrived at the Aeropuerto de Puerto Vallarta on Saturday January 27, 2018. I was excited about arriving in a new country, but VERY nervous about finding my way to another town and finding the marina knowing very little Spanish. I got several hundred pesos out of the ATM (which only dispensed $100 peso notes) and found the bridge across the road, waited about 15 minutes, and then jumped on the Punta Mita bus to La Cruz. I said to the bus driver, “La Paz?”

He gave me a blank, almost startled stare and I searched my brain for the right word. “La Cruz?”

Aaah. “Veintiuno.”

I threw a cien peso note at him, got another bemused and startled look, and went to sit down. Once I got settled, I went through plastic bag full of money that the woman on the plane had forced on me, pulled out two ten peso coins and a one peso coin. I made my way back up to the driver and said, “Veintiuno?”

He again looked startled, and nodded. I handed him the pesos, and he handed me back the note, looking relieved. I was worried about missing my stop, but the tracker on my phone worked really well, so I could tell which town I was going through. Additionally, in Bucerías some other Americanos got on, and I heard one say loudly, “La Cruz!”, so I decided to get off when they did. I managed to find my way to the La Cruz marina and texted Hillary.

Maybe I should back up a little.


Bob and I have been watching several YouTube sailing channels for the past few years, one of which is Adventure Adrift – a couple who sailed south from Portland in 2016. In about mid-January they posted a video asking for a volunteer to help them crew for about two weeks on trip from the Puerto Vallarta area across the up the Pacific side of the Baja peninsula to Bahía Magdalena with a side trip to Isla Isabel.

Isla Isabel is a small volcanic island about 15 miles off the coast of mainland México. It was made a Parque National de México in 1980 and is known as México’s Galapagos because it is a breeding and nesting area for thousands of sea birds including blue-footed boobies, brown boobies, red-footed boobies, and magnificent frigate birds, as well as being home to several species of iguanas, lizards, and snakes.

Bahía Magdalena, among other things, is a winter calving and breeding area for grey whales.

We watched the video and I said that it would be an awesome trip. Bob looked at me and said, “You should send them an email!”

I said, “No. I’m not doing something like this without you.”

“But you would learn so much! And you could see if you think Scat could make that trip!”

We argued for a bit, and the idea of blue-footed boobies and grey whales won out, so I sent an email to Hillary and Ty. I waited several days and got an email from them asking if I would be available for a Skype call. It was a bit surreal actually talking to them! The next day I got a very nice email saying they had chosen someone else for this trip.

My reaction was major relief. I’m a fairly extreme introvert (I know a lot of people would disagree), and the thought of going alone to another country and living for two weeks with two strangers was actually very very stressful for me.

The next Wednesday, I was driving up to Truckee for a meeting, and I got an email from Hillary – the person they had selected had backed out. They knew it was short notice, but they were planning on leaving on Sunday and would I be able to catch a flight to Puerto Vallarta on Saturday. I pulled the car over at the Donner Pass rest area and called Bob. I said, “Let me check the flight prices, but I think I have to do this.” He agreed. I sent an email back to Hillary at lunch saying I would buy tickets that evening. I would be flying in to Puerto Vallarta, and out of Loreto – having to take a bus from Puerto Vallarta to La Cruz, where Varuna was anchored, and two from Puerto San Carlos in Magdalena Bay to get to Loreto on the Baja peninsula to leave.

After a somewhat blurry couple of days, I found myself on a plane to México. I was seated next to an elderly couple who happened to belong to the Puerto Vallarta Yacht Club. They each ordered two drinks at the beginning of the flight, and were pretty much three sheets to the wind by the time we were landing, having had three each total. They were extremely nice and when they found out I was taking a bus from the airport, they insisted on giving me all the Mexican change they had. They also kept trying to get me to change my plans and stay in Puerto Vallarta so they could show me around. I politely declined and stuck with my original plan, which was how I ended up on the Punta Mita bus with a plastic bag full of change.

Hillary and Ty met me at the panga dock and we motored in their dinghy, Arjuna, back to their boat, S/V (Sailing Vessel) Varuna. It was really surreal actually meeting them in person, after watching their videos for so long. We dumped off my backpack, talked for a while, and they gave me a tour of Varuna, which would be my home for the next couple of weeks. More about Varuna later. We motored Arjuna back into the Marina to the dinghy dock and met up with another sailing couple – Cliff and Giselle on S/V Sedna. Giselle has recently started a really interesting podcast called Why We Spin Yarns. Check it out! We ate delicious flan out of the back of a van and walked up into town to eat delicious street tacos at a little taqueria called Tacos on the Street. We came back and went to sleep in a slightly rolling anchorage. I slept really well. I had to get up (as usual) in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and couldn’t find the light switch. Luckily Varuna has the exact same toilet as Scat, so I knew how to work it in the dark. When I started pumping it out, it glowed brightly – the bioluminescence in the toilet lit up the room! It was oddly magical. If I had found the light, I would never have seen it.

The next day (Jan 28) we hauled anchor, went into the marina and fueled up,

and then went across the marina to pick up some water. The potable water comes in big 5 gallon jugs, so Ty and Hillary decanted about 13 bottles and filled up. They have recently installed a water maker on board, but filling up when you can is never a bad idea. Ty took Varuna back out and anchored while Hillary went into town to find a cabbage (apparently cabbages keep way better than other vegetables), and I wandered around the marina to the Sunday market going on along the other side of the marina. It was kind of similar to most farmer’s markets in the States, actually, with more skulls and reptiles.

It was similar to farmer’s markets in the USA. With more skulls.

There was even a sushi stand.

I met up with Hillary and Ty, we had lunch at the market (I had lamb empanadas), we got in Arjuna and Ty rowed us back to Varuna. They hoisted anchor, raised the sails, and we were away on our adventure!

Sedna was accompanying us to Isla Isabel. Sedna is a beautiful 1985 Hans Christian 38T,

and as Ty noted, especially from a distance, she looks like a pirate ship with her tanbark sails.

The first night we did 2 hour watches, and I set my alarm incorrectly, so Ty had to wake me up when it was time for my first watch. I felt like a flake :-/ I was a bit nervous that they were entrusting their boat (and their lives) to me. The winds were 15 to 18 knots and gusting over 20, and we were flying along. As soon as Ty went below to sleep, a white light showed up on our port bow. I got really nervous and almost went and woke Ty up. Then I remembered Hillary mentioning that the pangas don’t seem to have regular boat lights, just big white ones high up in the air. This light didn’t seem to be moving, so I just kept an eye on it as we sailed past. I saw quite a few pangas throughout the night – at one point we sailed past four. I was really relieved when Hillary came and took over. I slept for four hours and the I was up for my next shift.

2022 Update: Below are just notes I made but never fleshed out

Bob had used his trip as an excuse to buy a Garmin InReach, which would would track my journey and could also be used to send texts. It turned out to be a lifeline for both me and Bob.

Long lines – caught one with the fishing lure so Hillary did a quick heave-to while we unhooked it.

Varuna is a good, solid 1982 cutter-rigged Pearson 367, which is only 10 feet longer than Scat, but that 10 feet makes a huge difference size-wise. She is cutter rigged, which means she has two headsails and a main sail. She also has a really pretty asymmetrical spinnaker, which didn’t get used on this voyage. During overnight sailing Ty and Hillary rigged lee cloths, so we didn’t fall out of bed. We shared accommodations – during night watches, two people slept in the bunks, while one was on watch.

2022 update: Below are photos and videos from Isla Isabel

Cruise from Vallejo to……Benicia!

So last week a couple of weeks ago several weeks crap er… sometime back in April, we decided that we’d had enough with fixing and replacing boat parts, and wanted a change of scenery so we decided to sail out of Vallejo and around the corner and stay in the Benicia Marina for a night.  Vallejo and Benicia are adjacent towns, but it is actually about an eight mile sail out of the Mare Island Strait, up the Carquinez Strait, and around into the Benicia Marina. The wind was light and variable, heavy on the variable.  At one point, our wind vane at the top of the mast was actually spinning. ​

Bob and I have a ​​thing about Quonset huts…apparently.  Mare Island has what could be termed a shit-ton of Quonset huts.

​​Sailing Selfie.  We also really should be paid for our West Marine advertisements.

​​into the Carquinez Strait watching carefully for large, fast moving shipsIMG_0754

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​and under the Carquinez Bridge.

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Lucca Bar and Grill – awesome drinks
When we finally got to Benicia and docked in a tiny slip, I felt I needed a drink.  Or two. Then we had a really nice dinner at Mai Thai.

The next day, we had to wait for the tide to come in, so we wandered over to a car show that was going on along 1st Street.

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Huh. When I was in the Benicia High School Panther Band, we sold beef jerky strips and band candles to raise money. They’ve come a long way.

The wind was not only light and variable on the way back, it and the current were against us, so we motored back to Vallejo.  When we arrived back at our slip, I decided to back Scat in.  As we were coming into the slip, I was looking backwards and felt the boat rock as Bob hopped off.  I said, “Could you…(my ears registered a splash, but my brain didn’t catch up) (quickly looked around – no Bob)..Did you fall in???”

The next probably 30 seconds were a blur of trying to stop the boat and not let the bow or stern hit the dock, and more importantly not hitting Bob with the prop or squishing him against the dock with an 8,500 lb boat.  I failed at not hitting the dock, but managed to avoid Bob, and came to a stop diagonally in the slip with Bob muscling her off the dock.  Whew.  As the boat stopped moving and I cut the engine, I heard a PSSSSHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH sound.  From Bob’s perspective he heard the PSSSSSSSSHHHHHHHHHHHHH overlaid with RIP RIP RIP RIP RIP as his PFD inflated around his head and the Velcro holding it closed all ripped open.  I started laughing, partly from relief, but it was also pretty funny.​

​Lessons learned:  Step off the boat – no leaping.  If the boat isn’t close enough, come around and try again.  Also?  We’re not spring chickens anymore.

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They cost $35 to re-arm, but hey!  They work!  As long as you can keep your head above water for 30 seconds.

Name Change – Sort of…

Documented!!

 

During the survey
Years ago, when we first saw Scat, we really didn’t like her name. We figured that if we ever bought her, that would be the first thing to go (turns out the first thing to go would be the marine toilet, but that’s another story).  By the time we actually got her, the name had kind of grown on us, but we still asked friends and family if they could think of a better one for a cat-rigged boat. There were some good suggestions, but we had to make a decision quickly since we were documenting her with the United States Coast Guard instead of the California Department of Motor Vehicles and ended up sticking with Scat.

The Coast Guard has some fairly strict requirements for the name on a boat: The name and hailing port for a recreational vessel must be displayed together on a clearly visible exterior part to the boat (for a commercial vessel, they must be on the stern, with the name again on each side of the bow unless the vessel is square hulled – it gets quite complicated).  All letters in the name must be at least 4 inches tall and the letters of the hailing port must be at least three inches. Once the Coast Guard processes the application, they assign the vessel a unique number which remains with the boat for the rest of it’s “life” no matter how it is registered by future owners.

§ 67.121 Official number marking requirement.  The official number of the vessel, preceded by the abbreviation “NO.” must be marked in block-type Arabic numerals not less than three inches in height on some clearly visible interior structural part of the hull. The number must be permanently affixed to the vessel so that alteration, removal, or replacement would be obvious. If the official number is on a separate plate, the plate must be fastened in such a manner that its removal would normally cause some scarring of or damage to the surrounding hull area.

Although we applied as soon as we bought Scat (before we even moved her from Alameda in September), we didn’t get the official documentation until January.  Bob tracked the progress for months.  Finding a “clearly visible interior structural part of the hull” that allowed for a fairly long number “not less than three inches in height” was not as easy as you might think on a 26 foot boat.  We settled on an area just behind our companionway steps in front of the engine.

Bob wanted to get stencils, but I insisted my printing would be good enough. He seemed dubious. I lay on my stomach and printed with an erasable pen, measuring to ensure each character was three inches. Then it was Bob’s turn to lie on his stomach and trace my lettering with a dremel drill. Then I got back down and filled it in with a sharpie. Not bad, if I do say so myself! We make a pretty good team.

Next came new lettering on the transom. We had designed and ordered the decals from BoatU.S. back in September, but it had either been raining or we had had other boat projects (there are ALWAYS boat projects) while we were there, so we didn’t actually get to it until a couple of weeks ago.

Removing old lettering
We found that a plastic razor blade and a carefully used heat gun work well for old decal removal without harming the gelcoat finish.  The heat gun has actually been one of the most used tools on the boat.  We’ve also used it when we replaced the toilet and to heat-shrink quite a few electrical connections.  Removing the bolted-on transom ladder steps involved me becoming a bilge rat while Bob tried not to drop them as they came off.  Once we got the old letters off, we washed, buffed, polished, and rewashed the entire transom.

Getting closer
When we filled out the documentation paperwork, we didn’t know where we would be keeping Scat!, so we put our hailing port as Placerville.  We decided her name needed some pizazz so we added an exclamation point.

Unfortunately, you can still see the shadow of the previous lettering even with all the buffing.  If you look really really really closely, you can still see the shadow of her original name – Catbernet.  We reinstalled the ladder rungs and took a look.  At this point she was finally completely legal.  She just needed one more thing.  Actually 9 more things.

And closer
Done!

Basic Keelboat (ASA 101)

Sailing the San Joaquin!

Although we’ve both sailed before, we decided that we needed a bit more experience to sail confidently along the coast, so we looked into taking the American Sailing Association (ASA) Beginning Coastal Cruising class.  To do this we had to take the prerequisite – Basic Keelboat.  We did some research and settled on the Delta Sailing School located in…the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (the second link is to a post in my other mostly defunct blog, Chimaera Contemplations – which includes a photo of the now infamous Oroville Dam, which will never look like that again).

The class was two adjacent weekends, and a half hour closer from Scat than Placerville, so we left after work on Friday and drove down to the Vallejo Marina.  We had to get up bright and early the next morning and head into the Delta.  The farther into the Delta we got, the worse the roads got and we eventually turned onto one that was mostly patches and potholes.  At the end of it, we drove up onto the levee holding back the waters from Seven Mile Slough and the San Joaquin River.  The school turned out to be a tiny floating one-room schoolhouse in a slip in a marina.  It was the perfect size for an instructor and four students.  There we met George and Tomás, the other students, and Alan the owner/instructor.

After an hour or so of instruction,  we went out and started getting acquainted with Hog Wild, the Capri 22 that we would be sailing for the next two weekends.  Bob and I kept being distracted by the huge flocks of snow and Ross geese and smaller flocks of brant and Canada geese that were noisily landing and taking off from Twitchell Island across the slough.  We practiced motoring and docking the boat until lunch.  After lunch, we motored out of Seven Mile Slough and hoisted the sails.  It was a fairly windy day, and we had quite a bit of fun zipping around in the San Joaquin River.

Keeping track of our ASA classes

The next day we arrived to gusty winds and torrential rain.  We held off sailing and spent the morning in the classroom.  The wind and rain died down by the afternoon, so we went out to practice more spirited sailing. George tried to kill us all weekend – he kept narrowly avoiding accidental jibes because he would turn the tiller the wrong way, and at one point he had Hog Wild’s rail so far under the water that Alan’s seat got soaked. 

The next weekend was the complete opposite.  Light winds, sunny and warm.  For much of the weekend we floated around carried more by the current than by the wind.  We did occasionally have enough wind to practice man overboard drills.  If you ever come sailing with us and fall overboard, stay calm and don’t worry as the boat sails away into the distance.  We will come around and get you eventually.  Probably…

We did it!

One of the other things we learned is that Bob is a knot savant.  Actually, I think Bob already knew this. Being an ex-Girl Scout, I was also fairly familiar with knots, so we were both able to help the less knot-savvy Tomás and George.  Among the many other things we went over in class were navigational rules, navigational aids, and points of sail.  All in all it was a very informative and fun class!  We’re really looking forward to the Basic Coastal Cruising class in May!

Test Sail

With a boat, things are never that easy

Making an offer on a boat without test sail and a marine survey is not wise.  After the sellers had accepted our offer, we scheduled the test sail and survey on adjacent dates, made a mini-vacation out of it, and stayed overnight at the  Waterfront Hotel in Jack London Square in Oakland.  We drove down and met our boat broker, Elvis, who had brought Mike with him to help out.  Mike had actually had a little experience sailing a Nonsuch.  He also ended up being the “muscle” as the huge sail can be a bit of a bear to raise – especially since, as we found out pretty quickly, the main winch needs some servicing…  it goes backwards as well as forwards.  Elvis motored the boat out of the maze that is Grand Marina and into the Oakland Inner Harbor Channel between Alameda Island and Oakland.  Once Mike had the sail up, Elvis said, “So who’s going to be captain?” 

 “ME!! I squeaked.”  

“Well get on over here and take the helm!”  

I scrambled over (it is a small cockpit) and grabbed wheel in a death grip.

  

There was a nice breeze, and Scat! heeled over and took off!  She was amazingly sensitive to any touch – far more than I had expected.  With gentle coaching from Elvis, we tacked back and forth in the narrow channel, tried a controlled jibe, which ended up not-so-controlled, and decided to turn around when an enormous container ship looked as though it was headed our way.  It was awesome.  We then fired up the engine and put her through some more paces.  She turns on a dime.  As far as we were concerned, she passed with flying colours.  Elvis then took the helm, and motored us around into the slightly dilapidated dock where the survey would be performed the next day.  

Bob leaped off and Elvis and I gasped as the dock rocked precariously.

Then, giddy with excitement, we made our way to Jack London Square for a night out on the town.  Well, ok, dinner and an early night.  We had to get up early to meet Elvis and Richard, the surveyor. 

View of the Oakland Ferry Terminal from our hotel room balcony

King Tides and Flash Floods

We had several inches of rain last Thursday.  Not something we’ve had very often here in California recently.  I got a text from Bob while I was in a meeting – There’s almost a 7 foot tide behind Scat! right now! (High tide us usually a little over 5 feet).  At about the same time, some people in the meeting got messages that our Napa office was closing due to flash flood warnings.  Scat! is docked in Vallejo on the Napa River.  When I got out of the meeting I called him, and the conversation went something like this:

Me: There’s flash flooding in Napa right now.

Bob:  I’m going to go down and check on Scat!

Bob was in Sacramento – about an hour’s drive away from Scat! on a good day. I was about half an hour farther away.

Me:  YOU’RE NOT GOING WITHOUT ME!!  AND I HAVE THE JEEP!  (Looking at the giant green, yellow and red Doppler radar blob over Napa and Vallejo) You’re DEFINITELY not going in the Veloster.  And what can we do when we get there, anyway? We can’t take her out. We might not even be able to get out to her.  We could only watch.

Bob: WE CAN CRY!

We got off the phone and I decided to call the Marina to see if there was anything terrible happening.  I left a message and got an almost immediate call back from the VERY excited harbor master.  I told her I was a nervous new boat owner, and was wondering how things were going down there.  She said that water had come within a foot from the top of the sea wall and the Promenade, but things were ok after the King Tide and that they had checked all the docks to make sure all the boats were ok.  Several buildings had flooded, and roof was leaking in her building, but the boats were all ok.  That was the important part. Whew!  We decided to go home to our cozy cottage instead.  

Love at first sight

We had been dreaming about sailing a few years ago when Bob saw an ad in Yachtworld for a 26 foot Nonsuch Ultra sailboat for sale in Alameda. He did a bit of research on Nonsuch boats, mentioned it to me, and asked it I wanted to go and look at it. I said, “Why not?” so we called the broker and headed down to Alameda the next day. We had been aboard other boats, both larger and smaller, but this one just seemed to suit us to a ‘T’ (note the Three Men in a Boat reference?). It was love at first sight for both of us.

This didn’t just come out of the blue. I grew up in a sailing family (my father’s family used to vacation on the Norfolk Broads) and read Swallows and Amazons over and over. I had a major crush on Horatio Hornblower well before he was played by Ioan Gruffudd, and read all the novels in chronological order – no easy task, since they weren’t written in chronological order (CS Forester wrote the first three, and then did prequels, sequels, and filled in the gaps between 1937 and 1967). When I was about seven and we lived in upstate New York, my father built a Mirror dinghy in the basement. We sailed this 11 foot boat as a family. That dinghy is still in my parent’s garage, albeit a little worse for wear since my father accidentally ran into it with his tractor. My mother wants to give it a Viking funeral. When My son, William, was about 10, I bought an elderly Coronado 15 with which we and the dog, Charlie, had quite a few adventures, and I really learned a lot about sailing.

Bob and his parents owned an O’Day 22 when I first knew him which they sailed on a nearby lake. Bob’s dad and grandfather had been into boating, and Bob became interested in sailboats while living in Juneau, Alaska along the inside passage. Bob always likes an adventure, and sailing seemed like a great adventure. He also became a Jimmy Buffet Parrot Head at that time, which is probably related.

This particular boat was owned by a couple who were going their separate ways. Although Bob and I absolutely loved this boat (but not really the name – Scat) we had one tiny problem. We couldn’t afford it, and we weren’t in the right place in our lives to actually buy a boat. It was the only Nonsuch 26 Ultra for sale on the west coast, but it was still WAY overpriced compared to any other Nonsuch 26 in the world. We loved it, but we came home and watched it on Yachtworld over the next couple of years hoping the price would drop. The price did drop slowly by a couple of thousand dollars every so often, but then one day Scat just went off the market. We figured that someone had finally purchased this quirky sailboat, and we were very sad to say the least. We occasionally looked for it on Yachtworld and over the years eventually gave up on the idea of owning a boat. We even moved in into a little cottage in the foothills and farther away from the ocean.

Then a couple of months ago, we were sitting in our cottage (that we love) and Bob said, ” Huh.  There’s a Nonsuch 26 Ultra  for sale in Alameda.  I wonder if it’s the same one?”  We thought it *might* be the same boat, but we thought the chances were fairly low.  This one was significantly cheaper, but still priced a little high.  Then a week later the price dropped again.  I said, “We’ve got to go and at least look.” We called up the broker (a different one), and met him down in Alameda.  We hopped into his car and he drove us around to…the same marina.  It was eerily familiar.  We walked out to the same dock and same slip and there was Scat just a little more weathered than the last time we’d seen her.  We gave her a really good look this time, took the leap, and made an offer.  We couldn’t lose her again.

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Same boat, same slip, just slightly older and more weathered