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Article describing the December 2001 passage of the s/v Elysium from San Diego, California to Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico.  Author Chris Stockard.

The Voyage of the Elysium – Oceanside, CA to Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico

Elysium is a Tayana 37 owned by Joe Cottingham, recently of Juneau.  After 14 years in Juneau, Joe has determined to move the boat to Mexico where he will live aboard about 6 months of the year.  The other six months he will spend with his family in Juneau, and on the road with his daughter’s soccer teams.

 I joined Joe in Oceanside, California in the first week of December 2001 to help him make the final leg of his delivery.  The route would take us from Oceanside, just North of San Diego, along the length of the Baja Peninsula and across the mouth of the Sea of Cortez to Nuevo Vallarta.

 Since this was a delivery, our plan was to move as far as possible, as fast as possible, with as few stops as possible.  Stops in Mexico become problematic because of requirements to check in and out of every port with the local Port Captain, a long and bureaucratic process.  Our hope was that we could slip into Bahia Tortuga (Turtle Bay) about 400 miles from San Diego for fuel without bothering to do any of the bureaucratic process.  

Before starting we had to install a replacement refrigeration system in Elysium and purchase the food for our passage.  We also had to wait for a storm system with predicted high winds to pass through San Diego before heading south.  Tuesday December 4th offered clear weather with a moderate breeze to help us along South as we motorsailed out of Oceanside.  By nightfall we were approaching the Mexican border and noticing the continued heavy presence of Navy and Coast Guard ships and aircraft.  The winds built a bit from the Northwest and we enjoyed fast sailing through the bright moonlit night.

Since there were only two of us aboard we had to stand watch and watch all night.  We found that three hour watches from 6pm to 6am and then a looser daytime schedule seemed to work fine.  Sometime during the day each of us would get a couple of hour nap to add to the 4-5 hours we managed between watches at night.  The strong winds of the preceding day’s storm had built up 4-8 foot swells that stayed with us until we were well south.  On top of those swells, the NW winds also build up some shorter chop, which meant we had a ‘lively’ ride for the first couple of days. 

 As evening came on the pleasant daytime temperature dropped rapidly so that by midnight the on-watch crew was wearing polypro long underwear, sweaters, hats and gloves as well as full foul weather gear to counter the wind chill.  Each night as we worked our way further south we removed at least one layer, so that by the final night crossing the Sea of Cortez we were wearing only shorts and a long sleeved shirt and remaining perfectly comfortable.  What a difference a thousand miles can make!

We were also treated to visits from many types of marine life.  In the rough conditions of the second night one could occasionally hear what sounded like pitter-pattering on the water near the boat.  While we never determined exactly what the noise was, we found fresh squids on deck in the morning.  We also saw lots of dolphin, including a group that rode our bow wave on night leaving phosphorescent tunnels through the water showing where they had been.  Every evening there was some phosphorescence in our wake, some nights very bright, and others fainter and short lived.  We also passed close by several turtles swimming along on the surface, and were visited many times by frigate birds. 

At about midnight on the third evening we reached Bahia Tortuga, which we entered using radar and the PC charts and GPS.  We got into the harbor without difficulty shortly after moonrise and set out to anchor near the boats moored in front of town.  In the darkness, Joe slipped and his hand was drawn into the anchor chain.  Although we quickly got the pressure off, he had badly torn the skin on knuckled and the back of his hand, and ripped out some nearly healed stitches in his arm from an earlier injury.  Lots of blood, but fortunately no disabling or deep injuries.  After bandaging the wounded, we gratefully collapsed into our bunks for an uninterrupted night’s sleep!

Up early the next morning we were able to see the sere landscape surrounding Bahia Tortuga.  Since our object was to get fuel and get out we quickly moved to the neighborhood of the fuel dock where we prepared to wait our turn.  Jorge came by in his panga and offered to transport fuel by barrel to us (for a highly inflated price) if we did not wish to wait for our chance to anchor and back into the dock for fuel direct from the pump.  We opted for the immediate delivery of expensive fuel. 

   After fueling, we headed right back out to sea, setting a course that would take us offshore past Bahia Magdalena to Cabo San Lucas and then direct to Bahia Banderas and Nuevo Vallarta.  With his many bandages, Joe looked a bit like the mummy, especially since every time he worked around the boat he would shed them and need rebandaging.  The good weather continued along with moderate northerly winds so we quickly got back into the rhythm of our watches.  Since we really didn’t want to stop again for fuel we reduced our engine rpm when we motorsailed for maximum economy.  We enjoyed nice weather and the sunrise as we passed Bahia Magdalena.

 I should mention here that in addition to Joe’s numerous cuts and abrasions, Chris was suffering from his chronic bad back.  During sail changes we would probably remind passing vessels of the Mummy and the Hunchback.  Like a bad movie, Joe worked the sails with his bandages flapping in the breeze as they inevitably came undone while Chris crab-walking around the deck like a bad character actor.  Between the two of us we could have put together nearly one health sailor!

After two more days at sea Cabo Falco, and then Cabo San Lucas came in to view.  Suddenly we saw lots of other boat traffic including charter fishing boats and even the Sky Princess (a common sight in Juneau during the summer).

 Some who have traveled before with Joe may have heard of his standard provisioning: bread, peanut butter, and lunchmeat.  Since his crew was unwilling to subject himself to such an extreme hardship diet, we took full advantage of the newly installed refrigeration to stock both fresh and prepared foods.  Chris took on most of the cooking duties and most days produced at least coffee and English muffins for breakfast and at least one hot meal each day.  Despite his usual habits Joe seemed to appreciate the fare.

As we headed southeast across the mouth of the Sea of Cortez we expected that we would enjoy clear skies and a reliable Northerly wind to speed us on our way.  We were especially looking forward to the clear skies because moonrise was coming so late that it was no longer providing much light in the nights.  Instead of clear skies, we got increasing overcast and winds from nearly where we were headed.  Fortunately the winds remained fairly light, so didn’t slow us too much, although we had had to motorsail continuously to make good progress.  As night fell, so did deep darkness.  Even after ones eyes had adjusted to the darkness, the night was almost totally black, at least until about 2 in the morning when the clouds began to light up with lightening flashing deep inside them.  The clouds were quite spectacular and uncommon for the time of year and location.  

For several days we had commented at times that the autopilot seemed to wander a lot from its assigned course, but that it always managed to get back to where it was heading.  At least it did until the second day past Cabo.  That morning we noted increasing problems and kept fiddling with the sails trying to balance the boat better to make the steering work.  During one sail change we realized that we could no longer steer the boat!  Although turning the wheel would cause minor course changes, we couldn’t actually turn into or away from the wind.  Fairly quickly we determined that the wheel steering was slipping so we rigged the emergency tiller and started steering by hand when we found the wind vane inoperative.  Although the tiller required a lot of grunting and groaning, it was a nice change to actually be able to steer Elysium again.  Fortunately the steering failed only about 4 hours from the mouth of Banderas Bay.  We arrived in the Bay shortly after nightfall and were able to find our way into the Anchorage under Punta Mita by radar.  In Banderas Bay the electronic and paper charts are of limited use since they are all between ½ and 1½ miles off on actual position.  These grossly inaccurate charts make GPS navigation useful only for very general guidance.  Although still a dry landscape, the Mexican mainland was much greener than the Baja had been.

 In the morning we were greeted by the prospect of emptying the lazarette of all the gear to get to the steering gear.  As anyone who has cruised knows, on a boat every possible space is packed with gear that must be moved whenever work needs to be done.  After the required amount of grunting and lifting the cockpit was filled with the displaced contents of the lazarette.  With the stores removed, Joe disappeared into the locker and after a couple of hours of grunting banging had tightened up the connection of the steering quadrant to the rudderpost and restored normal steering.

   Heading away from Punta Mita we immediately noted the new ease of steering and improved autopilot function!  The last 18 miles went quickly and we located the entrance channel to Nuevo Vallarta without much mystery (remember, the charts are off by a mile  or so).  The entrance is known for its shoaling bottom, and the dredge working in the channel was confirmation of the truth of this.  We slipped through the entrance in water only a little over 6 feet deep.  Once inside, the water was comfortably deep and we got tied up and settled into the Paradise Resort Marina. 

 Paradise Resort represented quite a change from the last time Joe was in Nuevo Vallarta.  Lo those  many years before there had been a small public marina with room for 20-30 cruisers.  Now the public marina has expanded considerably, and the resort side has a marina filled with many 60-80 foot power and sail yachts, as well as numerous relatively prosperous smaller cruising boats.  The marina is adjacent to the resort with its three hotel buildings, 5 restaurants, ZOO, and numerous pools.  Close by are condo blocks and a large mall and supermarket.  Not quite the laid back out of the way spot remembered by Joe.  He spent much of  the time walking about shaking his head like Alice fallen down the rabbit hole.

 By the time we were tied up were told it was too late to begin the clearance process, so we left that until the morning.  Bright and early Joe rowed the dinghy over to the Port Captain’s office arriving about 9:30.  He was immediately told that the Port Captain wouldn’t be in until 9:00?  Turns out that the Port Captain operates on time one hour later than the surrounding area.  Go figure.  After returning from the Port Captain we hired a taxi to take us into Puerto Vallarta to the immigration office.  Naturally one can’t just go to the office.  Instead one has to visit the office and get the appropriate forms, get them stamped and then take them to the bank where fees are paid.  Then it’s back to the immigration office for the issuance of the visa.  Not too bad by Central American standards, but pretty amazing for us nortamericanos.  Then by cab back to the marina and Joe back to the Port Captain with his bank receipts and our visas to finish the check in process.  Only 4 hours total, so not bad!  All just in time for Chris to use that hard earned visa to leave for home the following day.