It was just three days’ sailing and motor-sailing, and we encountered three significant problems. But as any seasoned cruising sailor will tell you, this was just a typical sailing voyage.
We’d been talking about sailing from San Carlos to Puerto Vallarta for nearly a year. Originally we hoped to get there in March 2016, but I suffered a shoulder injury that kept us from sailing for a few months. After a blissful – but hot – summer in the Sea of Cortez, visiting Loreto and Puerto Escondido, Balandra and Ballandra, La Paz and Caleta Partida, we were back in San Carlos readying for the trip south to Puerto Vallarta and beyond.
To prepare for another year or two in the water, Ingenium (and its owners, us) spent a month “on the hard”, mariner-speak for in the boat-yard, beefing up the supports beneath the engine to provide a more solid base and reduce shaking and vibrations. We also did a few minor fixes on the bottom, repainting it a brilliant blue. With the work finally complete, we re-splashed and looked for the next weather window to head south.
Captain John had plotted a route that would keep us 10 – 20 nautical miles offshore and we planned to do a straight run – no stopping to anchor – all the way to La Cruz, which is the nearest anchorage at Puerto Vallarta. We had the food all planned so we could stay nourished without cooking, and prepared to take 3-hour shifts at the helm while the other got a little shut-eye.
Problem 1 – Motor
Departure day was perfect for getting underway. Cobalt blue skies, light winds and low swells. The wind was too light to sail, so we were motoring for most of the first 24 hours. In a tricky bit of diesel foreshadowing, we heard the first little hiccup from the engine at about the 8-hour mark. Just a little drop in power and RPMs, then a return to normal. We carried on.
It happened two or three more times on day two. It turns out that in removing and replacing the motor while we fixed new stainless steel encasing for our 6″x 6″ wooden struts that hold the motor mounts, one piece of metal got bent and was touching a rubber fuel hose. With the motor running for several hours, that piece of metal heated up enough to melt the hose, causing us to lose fuel pressure and introducing air into the system.
John figured out the problem, and he repaired the ailing fuel hose by wrapping it with SOS or Rescue Tape. When it happened again he also replaced a fuel filter. Each time he bled the lines to remove all air.
Winds Pick Up
These stoppages slowed us down enough that higher winds that were coming down the Sea of Cortez AFTER us, in fact, CAUGHT UP to us. Which in itself was not a problem, because sailing requires the wind, and when we can sail we can save on gas through not running the motor, yadda yadda. And not running the motor was just what we needed.
So on day three, we took advantage of about 10-15 knot winds from the north, almost directly behind us, and we hoisted both the main and headsails and shut off the motor. We veered from our course to head further out into the Sea of Cortez so we could avoid accidental jibes from a run. The seas were really picking up too. The 8-9′ swells were the biggest we’d experienced yet, but they weren’t causing us any real trouble. At least not yet.
Problem 2 – Seasickness
John is prone to motion sickness, but it’s not usually a problem when he’s at the helm… or at the wheel when driving a car. He wasn’t interested in food or coffee at all starting in the early morning of day three. Herbal remedies and wrist pressure bands didn’t seem to help, but the winds and seas were making for high concentration sailing. We kept going.
When the sun was starting to set on that third day, we were still sailing, agog at the ginormous waves that were reaching above the tops of our lifelines. We were both tired, running on very little sleep in the last 48-72 hours. We knew that the winds and the seas were not going to let up – our speed and direction meant we were keeping up with the forecast track – and I began to suggest we needed a different plan for the coming overnight.
I’m still not proficient enough or sufficiently healed with my shoulder injury to man the helm under sail in these conditions. I’m fine in light winds and motoring. But in these conditions, John would have needed to be at the helm ALL THE TIME. And he was feeling increasingly seasick. We decided to bring the sails down, turn the motor back on, and turn in closer to shore where the winds were a bit lighter so that we could safely keep going, under autopilot as necessary, overnight.
Sails Come Down
So, the sails came down. We started the motor. But, the engine fix John did the last time we had it running didn’t stick, and we couldn’t maintain power. So John, now in full-blown motion-sickness hell, our sails down and no running motor, was hunched over below in the engine room, with diesel fuel and fumes and heavy rocking and rolling. He became very sick. Violently ill.
He would undo a valve, then bend over a towel on the floor and puke, turn back to tighten a valve, then back to the towel to puke. He’d stand up to ask me to start the motor, and turn to the sink to puke. All the while I was at the helm trying to keep the boat from being broadside to the waves. Which worked most of the time. But we had, for the first time ever, a wave crash over the side into the cockpit. I have to say that freaked me out just a bit.
We abandoned the idea of getting the motor running in these conditions and put the headsail back up so that at least we’d have some forward momentum. Despite the fact John was heaving and retching seconds earlier, he ventured out onto the bobbing and ducking bow to raise the jib. [Nope, we do not have a roller furler.] By this point, I’d been manually manning the helm almost non-stop for six hours, and my neck and shoulders were screaming. I needed a break. John needed a break.
Problem 3 – Autopilot
I wanted to engage auto-pilot. John warned that auto-pilot wasn’t great in these sea conditions and we’d be risking burning out the autopilot motor. I was convinced that turning on autopilot was the only thing that would get us safely through the night. And it was at this point we agreed to stop at Mazatlan before heading on to Puerto Vallarta.
Mazatlan was about 20 nautical miles away and we figured we’d arrive in about 6 hours, or just after midnite. To catch the wind and get up some speed, we were not on a direct line to Mazatlan, which added both distance and time.
A few hours later the autopilot began making grating noises with each correction. We smelled something burning and there was white smoke coming out of the engine room. We feared we had indeed burned out the autopilot.
So. We had no motor, no autopilot, we were closer to shore and the wind was easing up (but not the seas). Mazatlan was still miles away. We managed to take turns at the helm, crawling in the last 5 nautical miles because by 3am the winds had almost died completely… and we had the hook down at 6:30 am on day four.
So, here we are in Mazatlan, where we didn’t expect to be! We took a full day to rest and recover, and nearly a week to diagnose and repair the engine problems. We’ll do without the autopilot until we get to PV and can either find someone to rebuild it or replace it. Are we discouraged? Absolutely not! We fully understand and accept that this is part of the package. The sunrises, sunsets, snorkelling, swimming and sea life come at a cost. Next time out on a typical sailing voyage? We’ll practice heaving to and both get some sleep.