New Solar Panels

Power management on a cruising sailboat is a pretty important and sometimes frustrating topic. Since purchasing Juniper we’ve done what we can to reduce our energy usage (e.g. replaced all cabin lighting with LED, etc), but our primary issue has been generating enough power to replenish our batteries each night. We have a wind generator that is fantastic when there’s > 15 knots of wind. The problem is that there’s very little wind here in Baja and Pacific Mexico.

That takes us to solar which should be great since we do have tons and tons of sunlight. Juniper came with two well-used 80 watt solar panels, and that’s not nearly enough. At anchor, we usually have to run the engine at least an hour each day to make enough power.

With Viv flying back to the states for a month earlier this year and Sam being sick, we knew we’d be in La Cruz for a while.  We decided it would be a good time to upgrade our solar. Ordering the panels out of Querétaro City, refurbishing the wiring, and getting the solar panel mounts made and installed took a lot longer than we wanted it to, but we’re really happy with the outcome. We now have a total of 300 watts of solar, which still isn’t enough to support our electricity needs should really help.

Eight Bells for Sam

Sam, our Sailing Kitty, passed away peacefully on Saturday, April 14th. He was 15 years old. Sam was a beloved companion and crew. A world-traveler, a purr monster, a lap cat, a good kitty, our friend, and dearly loved, Sam will be greatly missed.

Eight bells* for Sam, our little friend. You’ll always be in our hearts.

*The practice of using bells stems from the days of the sailing ships. Sailors couldn’t afford to have their own time pieces and relied on the ship’s bells to tell time. The ship’s boy kept time by using a half-hour glass. Each time the sand ran out, he would turn the glass over and ring the appropriate number of bells. Each ship “watch” is four hours, or eight bells, in length.

The tradition of Eight Bells pays respect to deceased mariners and signifies that a sailor’s “watch” is over. Source

Waiting in La Cruz

Spending time in La Cruz hasn’t only been about eating churros. We’ve been here 1) waiting for the weather to shift so that we can go back north to the Sea of Cortez 2) doing some boat work while we wait, and 3) tending to our ailing sailing kitty, Sam.

In the winter and early spring months, cruisers in Mexico tend to do a few things, depending on their plans. Some cruisers stop here in Banderas Bay and continue south, often to Panama. Others do the Pacific Puddle Jump to French Polynesia, and some wait for the weather to shift and go north into the Sea of Cortez. We’re in the latter camp this year, awaiting the shift in winds to sail up north.

Scott went up the mast a few times. First to wash and grease our mainsail track to make it easier to bring our mainsail up and down. Next, he went up and changed our spreader lights from amp-hogging  incandescents to energy-saving LEDs and they’re very nice and bright.  Finally, Scott went up to the very top of the mast to bring down our wind instrument to test it out, confirm that it indeed died on us, and then went back up with a new one. 

We had workers from Marvel Boat Services waxing the topsides and hull and had them give Juniper two coats of varnish. We do not recommend them. They did a very sloppy job on the varnish, left a lot of ripples and holidays, and spilled varnish on Juniper and didn’t properly clean it up. I had to redo our starboard cockpit combing because there were so many ripples. 

In between eating tacos and churros, we fixed our wash down pump, serviced our outboard, cleaned out our food lockers (and rediscovered booze we bought back in SF), defrosted and added new refrigerant to our freezer/refrigerator, and now we need professional help with our next two projects:  installing our new solar panels, and fixing our electric winch. We might have to punt on these projects as the company that works on these things here in La Cruz is slammed.

At this point in April, the weather has shifted, but the main reason we haven’t yet left La Cruz is because Sam is very ill. When we were back in Miami for the summer he was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism and he was prescribed medication to manage the disease. Unfortunately, the medication – which is the most popular kind used for treating hyperthyroidism in cats – has some really nasty side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, lethargy, inappetence and Sam has suffered from all of these. Since the summer, he’s lost a lot of weight and since February, he lost even more. It’s been a daily struggle to get Sam to eat food, and we had a smorgasbord going, but what flavors he liked one moment he disliked the next until it reached a point where he stopped eating entirely. Cats can’t go more than a few days without eating and over the Easter weekend, we were pretty certain we were going to lose him. Sam’s condition has since stabilized, but he has not recovered. I’ve been syringe-feeding Sam, because otherwise he won’t eat, and we’re taking it day by day and hoping that he gets well, but his prognosis isn’t very good. Thankfully, there’s a vet in La Cruz and we’ve been taking Sam there once or twice a week for bloodwork, subcutaneous fluids, and exams.

Scott and I have been in crisis mode for a while now, and the mood on Juniper has been pretty subdued. We’re keeping busy with projects, but it’s really heartbreaking to do all we can and see Sam’s health decline. We’re all hoping for a turnaround.

Here’s a cute picture of Sam going cross-eyed for food, from December, just to not end on such a sad note:

La Cruz has the best churros

We’ve walked by this guy making churros over a dozen times and never pulled the trigger but, after a nice dinner with our friends from SV Ingenium, we stopped instead of passing him by and we’re so glad we did! We all just kind of went bonkers after the first bite.

He’s on Calle Langosta, next to the Kiosko, and he’s there in the evenings until 10pm, every day of the week,  I believe. Churros are a legitimately good reason to visit La Cruz!

Mazatlan to La Cruz

The forecast for our passage to La Cruz from Mazatlan called for it to be a wind-filled sailing adventure but aside from a brief moment outside of Mazatlan, it turned out to be one long motor slog through dead calm waters. Not ideal, but it ended up working out because whatever hesitation Scott and I had about running the motor for extended periods of time vanished after 30 hours of motor sailing.

As we left Mazatlan, we were behind SV Full and By and followed by SV Shannon’s Spirit. They were buddy-boating and we were right in between them. We all ended up sticking together the entire passage with Full and By taking the lead at times and Shannon’s Spirit a good distance behind us. It was our first time being close to other boats for a passage, and it was helpful as Full and By repeatedly hailed us to warn of fishing lines they’ve spotted.

The only hitch in all of this was a strong diesel smell a few miles outside of La Cruz. Upon our arrival we found a cracked fuel line spraying a light mist. We had a spare on board so it was easy to replace.

We’ve been here at the La Cruz anchorage since December 12th. We went to the Festival of Guadalupe and spent Christmas with Paul and Judy (former cruisers who’ve settled in Puerto Vallarta), SV Due West, and SV Windcharmer. New Year’s Eve we spent with SV Ingenium and their family and SV Tigress II.

There’s plenty of marine life here in the anchorage. At night, we often hear whale songs (and sometimes, it’s loud enough to wake us up!), and we have a beautiful Dorado fish (aka Mahi Mahi) who likes to swim around Juniper.

For Heidi’s birthday, we went whale watching and hiked up to a waterfall. We had the most incredible whale watching experience when two humpback whales came over to our panga, and just dove all around, watching us and seeming to want the boat to play with them. It was awe inspiring to be so close to these creatures, and such an adrenaline rush when the whales burst out of the water!

We initially planned to leave La Cruz for points south after the new year, but we’re upgrading our solar panels instead. This is our first experience cruising during the winter (we were at the marina all winter last year) and our combined 160 watt solar can’t meet our energy demands, small as it is. So we’re sticking around and upgrading solar vs going south to Tenecatitia and Barra de Navidad. While we’d like to check those anchorages out, better solar would really help us out with our longer term plans.

Sunrise in La Cruz

Delays in Mazatlan

We’re suffering a bit of a delay here in Mazatlan, some of it is the boat yard and some of it us. We were anticipating being out of here by Thanksgiving but it looks like we’ll be lucky if we’re out of here by Christmas.

In kitty news, when we were in Miami we found out that Sam  has hyperthyroidism and needs to take medication for the rest of his kitty life. Unbeknownst to us, his initial dosage was pretty high and he became lethargic and uninterested in eating which gave us quite a scare! We took him to a local vet here in Mazatlan and we’ve adjusted his dosage and he seems to be doing better. Hopefully Sam will be sailing with us for years to come.

Sam at the vet

In the meantime, we’ve:

  • Gone up the mast a few times to inspect the rigging,  wash and grease the mainsail track, repair some deteriorated leather on the rigging, and replace our spreader lights. Unfortunately the screws for the lights are frozen to the spreaders so we’re going to wait to fix that when we have the mast pulled next year.
  • Rigged jib back onto the roller furler (we’re leaving staysail off for repairs when we reach La Cruz)
  • Removed the sunshades from the porthole windows and screwed in the screens
  • Inflated and tested the dinghy for leaks. 3 years in and it’s still good!
  • Ran the outboard (it had been sitting idle for six months)
  • Multiple dingy trips to the fuel dock to top off our tanks and filled our jerry cans with diesel and gasoline.
  • Ran the engine at the dock to further test the prop shaft work we had done over the summer. So far, no leaks!

Active Marine came by last week to ground the prop (there was some electricity discharging from the boat and as a symptom, our zincs were wearing out way faster than they should) and in doing so discovered they made an error in rewiring that resulted in our starter battery being tapped the entire summer and is now completely drained and dead. That sucks.

We still need to:

  • Buy and replace our starter battery
  • Finish re-varnishing the cap rail where the varnish lifted at the scarf joints (Active Marine is doing this but we’ll probably finish up ourselves as it’s taking too long)
  • Replace a broken mainsail car
  • Wash and put away our hurricane lines (oversized docklines we use for storing the boat over the summer)
  • Remove and store the AC
  • Re-install our dodger windows
  • Fill our tanks with drinking water
  • Provision
  • Wash the boat

This time last year: Cruising without refrigeration.

Back in Mazatlan and back on Juniper

After three months away from Mazatlan and Juniper, we returned to find the boat in pretty good shape here at Marina Mazatlan. No mildew, thanks to a small dehumidifier we set up prior to leaving (to which Scott attached a hose to auto-drain into the sink). We discovered some minor issues that we’ll need to take care of such as:

  • Our battery monitor died and needs replacing.
  • The varnish has begun to peel at the joints on both toe rails so we’ll need to have that area sanded down and revarnished (covered under warranty).
  • The head needs to be rebuilt. We did this a couple of years ago and it’s about as unpleasant as you might expect.
  • Replacing a slide on our mainsail.  We won’t be able to raise the sail otherwise.
  • Go up the mast and replace our spreader lights. One went out last year during Hurricane Newton and rather than fix it we’re replacing both of them with LED lights.

Once that’s all sorted we’ll be heading south to some of the places we’ve already been (Matanchen, Chacala, Banderas Bay) and to some we haven’t (Barra de Navidad, Tenacatita).

But first we’re going to test out the major work that we had done by motoring over to Stone Island here in Mazatlan. If everything works well, we’ll anchor out and head south. If not, we’ll head back into the marina for more work.

We’re both a little hesitant about our first passage and want to test out the engine to make sure that it’s working properly. Last thing we want is another issue in the middle of nowhere. We’re chomping at the bit to get out of Mazatlan and we’re really excited to begin cruising again!

Killing time in Mazatlan

It’s been eight weeks since we were towed into Mazatlan and put Juniper on the hard. We have lots of work being done to the boat at Active Marine, including:

  • Replacing the stern tube, cutlass bearing, prop shaft, shaft seal, engine mounts and both aft mounting feet (the main reason we’re here)
  • Replace the engine stop solenoid
  • Servicing our Lighthouse 1501 windlass
  • Replacing the engine room insulation
  • Revarnishing all exterior wood (we’ve neglected this badly since leaving SF)
  • New bottom paint

While Scott did a parts run to San Diego at the end of April, we’re still waiting on one crucial part that should be here later this week (the stern tube). In the meantime, Juniper is getting eight coats of varnish and her bottom painted.

It’s off-season here in Mazatlan and the local net stopped meeting every day and shifted to a Monday, Wednesday, Saturday schedule. Looking out over the balcony towards the marina, traffic in and out of slips has come to a stop and the boats are all prepped for summer storage. Scott and I haven’t met anyone while here, so we’ve been hanging out by ourselves.

I spent most of May going to physical therapy three days a week due to a shoulder impingement. I’ve also spent time reading all of the hard copy books I packed on Juniper so that I can donate them to the marina library and gain precious boat space back. Scott’s been enjoying uninterrupted and fast wifi and working on software projects (more on that in another post down the road). We both have been enjoying regular hot showers, a washer/dryer, regular access to fresh produce, plenty of home cooked meals, and popcorn and a movie either on the sofa or at the “platinum” movie theatre nearby.

We’ve checked out a few restaurants here in Mazatlan and explored Old Town, which we really like. We’ve done most of the touristy things except for visiting El Faro and the aquarium, which we need to get around to doing before it gets exceptionally hot and humid. We’re making the best out of being here. Mazatlan isn’t a bad place, but it’s hard when you’re stuck in a city that you didn’t intend on spending so much time in. We’re really looking forward to Juniper getting back in the water and moving on.

One year ago: La Paz.

Juniper on the hard

When David and Ernesto from Active Marine came by Juniper to see what was going on, they told us we were pretty lucky. With the bellows of our PSS shaft seal melted and seemingly hanging on by a thread, it appeared that melted rubber and a damaged cutlass bearing was keeping water from steadily streaming into the boat. Then David, who was in our engine room, yells out to us, “your motor mount’s broken, man! Your motor mount’s broken!”

With David in the engine room looking at the engine from the rear and me, Scott, and Ernesto in the cabin looking at the engine from the front, he points it out to us. We couldn’t see it at first, and we were both looking at David skeptically. Then we see it, a piece of metal just snapped in two, looking completely rusted out. For the past two days Scott and I have been staring at prop shaft seal, where all the smoke had been coming from. We didn’t bother to look anywhere else.

Our engine sits on four motor mounts: two in the front and two in the back. The two in the back have “feet” that attach to the motor mount and one of those feet is what actually snapped in two.  A little bit about motor mounts. In a car or in a boat, a motor, or engine mount, is the part that holds the engine to the body, in our case to the body of the boat. Our engine and transmission are bolted together and held in place by four mounts. When they’re good, they also help keep noise and vibrations to a minimum. The rumblings we’ve been hearing on our last passage, the vibrations and the increase in engine noise were all signs that we were having issues with our motor mounts but we didn’t know to check them.

There’s some hustling as David and Ernesto start moving around, pointing their phone flashlights at the engine. “And the bolt on this motor mount has sheared off. ” They are both clearly surprised. A rush of words in Spanish, followed by Ernesto on his hands and knees taking pictures. “Wait, the bolts have sheared off on all the other motor mounts too! Your engine isn’t attached to anything on the boat! Your engine could have just walked right on out and into your cabin!”

We look and see that except for the mount with the broken “foot”, the other bolts on the other three mounts are positioned next to each other. That’s now how it’s supposed to be. The bolts should be just one piece but they sheared off and our engine has moved forward towards the cabin. It’s also the reason why Juniper wasn’t flooded with water. As the engine moved forward it pulled the propeller forward into the boat thus blocking any significant water from getting in.  We all just silently take that in for a moment and Scott and I have our “holy shit” moment. “You guys are lucky, man,” David breaks the silence. We nervously laugh.

Why did one of them break? David thinks it was exposure to salt water, directly and indirectly. Indirectly? Yes, indirectly by having salt water in our bilge. The salt water heats up and releases salt into the bilge, finding its way to weak points such as our motor mounts, which are made out of iron and thus vulnerable to rust. When one broke, the engine began to move, putting stress on the other three motor mounts shearing off the bolts. As the engine started to move, the alignment of our shaft changed, which created friction on our shaft, shaft seal, and cutlass bearing. The reason that our engine room didn’t go up in flames is because salt water was putting out the fire.

How long did this whole thing take? How quickly did it go from the mount breaking , engine shifting, and damage-causing friction? We don’t know exactly when the motor mount broke and when the other mounts sheared off. We can guess that each time we heard deeper rumblings, a breakdown was happening.

The following day, David coordinates to have Juniper lifted out of the water. Over the next two weeks, we come to learn that our cutlass bearing was ground down to dust, the fiberglass tubing that the shaft goes through was burned and needs replacement, and our propeller shaft was ground down a bit, but not enough to warrant a complete replacement. Scott coordinates with the yard on which parts can be shipped and which ones to pick up in San Diego, and we take advantage of us being on the hard to get our varnish done and our bottom painted. We’ll likely be here for a few more weeks as our fiberglass tubing is a custom order, and there’s a lot of work to do.

In the meantime, we’ve got ourselves an AirBnB around the corner from the boatyard and we’re making the best out of this situation. At the very least, Sam is pleased that he’s no longer on the water!

Sam enjoying the AirBnB

One year ago: La Paz

Matanchen to Mazatlan – Emergency at Sea

Our last night in Matanchen Bay was really nice. We grilled pizza and enjoyed a mostly still night in the anchorage followed by an early morning rise to prep for the overnight sail to Mazatlan and the Stone Island anchorage.

We raised anchor and as we motored past the entrance to San Blas we heard and felt a slight shift in engine sound. I brought it up to Scott but we didn’t know what it was and it eventually went away.

Sam just loves going upwind.

We found some wind and sailed, mostly close-hauled, which kept us a little heeled over and making for a not so fun sail, but better to sail than to motor! But, like it does sometimes, the wind died in the evening and we motored through the night and early morning. Throughout both of our watches, we had moments were we heard rumbling and knocking, and we both questioned whether the engine seemed louder than normal, but we kept on going as the engine seemed to be alright.

Piedra Blanca del Mar

Sunset as we approached Isla Isabel. We’d tack towards Mazatlan a few minutes later.

At 6:00am I took over. We were only a several hours away from Mazatlan. While Scott slept down below, I kept a watch for boats and buoys. We passed several buoys out about 25 miles out from Mazatlan, sets of three buoys tied together, sometimes with palm fronds and coke bottles to help keep them afloat. The engine was running at 2800 RPM, as it had been for several hours now. I began to hear subtle shifts in sound from the engine, deep rumblings. We heard some rumblings earlier too, but the engine seemed fine. I checked the temperatures and they were normal so I didn’t wake Scott up to point out yet more rumbling.

Early Saturday morning, before things went awry.

A little before 9am, I made myself some tea. Twenty or so minutes later I smelled something burning and ran down the stairs, thinking I left a burner on. I did not. As I walked back to the companionway to go upstairs, the smell got stronger, which meant it was coming from the engine so I woke Scott up.

We couldn’t easily turn off the engine because our stop button, which is in the cockpit, was broken. Instead, we have to go into our quarter berth, open up a side door and, with a long flat-head screwdriver, stick our hand in the engine compartment and push down engine stop solenoid arm to turn it off (Note: we thought the stop button was a convenience not a safety issue. We were wrong!) This time though when Scott opened up that compartment, a bunch of smoke poured out. We stopped the engine and when enough smoke cleared and we saw that our PSS shaft seal had melted. The shaft seal is what keeps water from coming into the boat through the hole that the propeller goes through. Kind of important! Did one of those buoys get caught in our prop and cause this? Did all that rumbling lead to this? We’d have to wait until we were safely at a marina to investigate. In the meantime, the amount of water coming into the boat was easily managed by our bilge pump, so we were not in immediate danger of sinking.

We were 23 miles out from Mazatlan. We had no way of using the engine and we had no wind to sail, and no way to maneuver into a marina slip. We had no cell phone service and we were too far out to use our vhf radio. We used our satellite phone to email our friends Kirk and Heidi on SV Due West for help and they stepped up big time. They called the marinas in Mazatlan for help, hounded the port captain to line up a tow, got us a slip at a marina, and coordinated these efforts and checked in with us repeatedly during the ten hours we were stuck out at sea in this condition. We cannot begin to express our gratitude and sincere thanks to Heidi and Kirk for all their help!

Getting towed to Mazatlan

It was unclear to us exactly how the tow boat was going to get us into the slip at Marina El Cid. For the past hour I had visions of Juniper getting slingshotted into the slip and guess what? That’s exactly what happened! The tow boat pulled up on the tow lines, passed the slip, and swung us towards the slip and we were going pretty fast. Thankfully the slip we were aimed at was 1) large and 2) at a diagonal so we were able to get alongside the dock where I jumped off and quickly tied us up with zero damage. It was a ballsy move, one bordering on insanity, and while I was laughing at the execution and their resourcefulness, Scott was annoyed by the risk.

It was 7pm. We now wait for Monday to start the process of getting Juniper out of the water and fixed up.

Juniper made it to Mazatlan. Crew is exhausted.

One year ago: Bahia de los Muertos.