Jun 27, 2013

Altata, Bay of Sailing Pangas

Where's your will to be weird?
Jim Morrison

Sand dollar attached to seaweed or Seaweed attached to sand dollar?
Afternoon winds led us out of Mazatlán.  After only a couple hours of sailing, and even though we are not quite there yet, we feel like we are back in the Sea of Cortez.  The air is crystal clear, humidity is bearable once more, shooting stars and bioluminescence abound, and Pacific influenced swells as well as maritime traffic are diminishing. 

It was after much trepidation and preparedness that we finally came to visit the Bay of Altata about 100 miles up the coast.  Technically, it should probably be called a lagoon for it is separated from the ocean by a narrow spit of sand covered with a few mangroves.  It once had three mouths for access in/out but only the one at the far south of the bay remains open.   

What we didn't get to see (not fishing season) - pictures from s/v Albion
We had heard you can observe small pangas pull nets while sailing (the old Chinese way) rather than using motors.  They are fitted with bamboo poles and sails made of whatever light material can be found.  The locals believe motors scare away the shrimp and that this is a more efficient way to catch them.  From the account of the few sailors who have visited, it seems it works quite well.  Pangas are notorious for being loud and fast so seeing those under sail would have been a blast.  Unfortunately the shrimp season is only from September through March so we didn’t get to see them.  We thought perhaps they used the pangas this way for other types of fishing off-shrimp-season but it’s not the case.  All that remains are long gray bamboo poles propped against many of the homes in the village of nearly 2,000 people, ready for use next season.
We thought long and hard about coming here, the bay is very long (11 miles from the mouth to the anchorage where we stayed) and the entrance can be fairly dangerous.  With no motor, it could be a difficult undertaking if the winds do not cooperate.  There is not much room to maneuver in the shallow slim channel. As sailors, we thought it would be nice to see like-minded people.  It came as no shock that the fishermen were NOT surprised to see us sail into the bay since they are used to doing the same; everywhere else we go we are seen as unusual but not here.

Google picture is from 2011.  Since then the middle mouth is closed.  
Notice the crashers on left side of south entrance
The narrow entrance is lined on both sides by very high waves hitting shallow bottom.  The waves are so big that even the Google view from 13.5 miles up shows their white patterns guarding the left of the bay’s mouth.  To give you a sense of perspective, at that level, you cannot make out homes, but only major roadways.  Seen from a distance at sea level, all you discern is a white line of interconnecting waves crashing on the beach.  Heard from a distance is the thunder of all the commotion created by the water.  At first, one cannot locate a break between all these waves.  Even when the opening of the bay is finally located, you are surrounded by refractive waves from the larger crashers on each side.  You have to be very careful not to be hit sideways by one of the waves or it could mean damages to the boat, the ego, etc.  

We had the right wind and even though the Sea was not calm (usually isn’t when there is wind…) we proceeded cautiously to the entrance.  We heard a story about a boat from Brazil (a catamaran we met in the Sea last season) who tried the same entrance earlier this year with no luck.  The buoy he was looking for had moved north of the entrance by two kilometers!  Where they thought they were safe was actually one of the worst locations for crashing waves and high surf.  They battled the breakers all night long until they were given better verbal coaching, at dawn, on how to come in…
We had instructions and waypoints from a couple of boats that had visited earlier.  Even then one has to use extreme caution for the sandbars constantly move with the surfs, storms, rain, or as experienced by the Catamaran the buoys may be missing or moved.

As we approached the two entrance buoys, fishermen returning home in a pangas slowed right down and stayed to our right nearly all the way (1.5 miles) into the calm waters of the bay.  Not sure if they were trying to see how we would do or if they were there to show us the way in or if they waited to see if we needed help.  When they saw we had passed the tumultuous zone they sped ahead and we never saw them again.
Once in and protected from the waves, we now had the job of watching the depth sounder for 11 miles while also watching the angle of the wind to our sails and our direction.  These 11 miles go by very fast because you are so busy with so many details at once, yet they go by very slow because you just want to make it there without hitting bottom or snagging a net.  In general we saw anywhere from 11 to 36 feet.

Even with all our careful preparation, we entered one of our waypoints incorrectly and nearly hit bottom about halfway in where one of the opening used to be.  The depth sounder showed 30 feet becoming 5’6” in less than 10 seconds so we had to act fast.  This was the only time we needed to use the electric motor to help turn ourselves out of there before getting stuck.   Of course in the heat of the moment, we were quick to blame the sailors who gave us ‘bad’ information until we realized we were at fault!  When later we had time to kayak around with the depth meter to check out the bay we realized that once you hit about 12-14 feet deep, it suddenly shallows up to 5-6 feet.  The channel has steep walls at that level.  You have to think and be fast.
We have to admit that two years ago we would’ve thought coming here absolutely crazy.  Last year we would’ve thought maybe if we had a boat with a big motor.  This year we thought, let’s see if we can give it a go.  If it looks too difficult, we’ll just turn around.  It’s nice to know we have learned a lot in our 20 months of sailing.  We have better skills, techniques, knowledge, and confidence. 

Town at dusk.  Old pier in forward.
We anchored where the guidebook suggested but did not like the feel of the place. The whole area is under construction.  They are building a new malecón so it made it impossible to land our kayaks to take walks with Nikki.  We moved only ¼ mile up the next morning and have felt better ever since.  We have come to trust our instincts when it comes to stuff like that.  With the constant construction, the boat would have been covered with dirt and dust (we arrived on a Sunday without construction and had no idea what it would be like during the week). 

The locals, and even the Port Captain, do not recommend the first anchorage; they all recommend the second one.  The guidebook we used was dated. Few people come here, making it hard to find current information.  The locals say there is a fight over the building of this malecón.  It doesn’t seem to make sense to take away the beaches and build a road and sidewalk lined with rocks.  It’s not very dinghy or kayak commuter friendly.  It’s not even swimmer friendly.  When asked exactly what is being built, none of the locals agree.  No one seems to be in charge.  Some say it will be for the fishermen, some say it will be for the maritime tourists, some say there will be a marina, and others say there will not be.  I guess until it is finished, no one knows for sure.

As a point of reference, there is an average of 5-6 boats that come here in a year…  There are a hundred boats that do the Puddle Jump (Pacific Crossing) during that same period of time, just to give you an idea of how remote and unknown this place is (not to diminish in any way what these puddle jumpers accomplish!).  When we met the pilot who can guide you into the bay if needed (Carlos Torres of the restaurant Mi Charlie).  He told us that in all his years as a pilot (he was born here while in a boat, his first wash was with the bay’s water), he has NEVER seen someone sail in like we did.  We feel it’s quite an accomplishment (or foolishness if we can’t find a way to get out)….  His face couldn’t hide the surprise when he talked about watching us sail in.  He has seen many boats sail in the Sea of Cortez but never in the bay.  Carlos also likes to joke that only people with ‘cojones’ (with balls) come here.

Moon, clouds, mast...
Unlike all other beach towns, we haven’t seen any palapa restaurants along the beach; they are all real brick and mortar buildings, not temporary like palm leaf covered palapas.  Another thing of note is that we have yet to see the ever present taxis or ‘lavanderias’ anywhere in town.  Finally, most buildings are complete; no rebar sticking up awaiting a second floor, or another archway, etc.  We think this shows a good economy if everyone has their own transportation and washing machine, and completed houses.  There are no hotels and only a few condos/apartments.  It is definitely family based.
At our new anchorage, we are next to a pier that is used by the locals to go fishing, diving, swimming, playing music, showing off acrobatics, sunbathing, taking pictures, singing, embracing while watching a sunset, parading dogs, or picnicking.  It is always bustling with activities and laughter.  We leave our kayaks where the pier reached the road.  On one occasion, a small boy insisted that he ‘valets’ our kayaks in and out of the water.  He was so full of energy and excitement, we couldn’t refuse.  Once we took Nikki’s life vest off, he tried it on but of course the vest from a 12.5 pound dog won’t fit a small boy of perhaps 8.  Even with the language difference, there is no real barrier when it comes to kids communicating with us.  We usually eventually figure it out and get good laughs out of each encounter.  It seems like kids here do not spend much time in front of TV or computers.  They are all out here playing, exploring, playing tricks, just being kids.  Many are with their parents who also take time to be out of doors.  It’s refreshing to see that.  On another occasion, we came back to see that one of our kayaks was being used as a floating toy by three local boys.  They didn’t mean anything bad by it – just intrigued.  The kayak was full of water and mud but that was easily fixable. 
Kayaking back to Déjàlà, an elderly lady is swimming and wants to know about our travels.  She is amazed we have come this far, have been gone this long, and plan on doing more.  She tells us she’s never been further than Mazatlán (a couple hours’ drive from here).  So far, everyone we have encountered here is very friendly and curious.  They do not see a lot of foreigners and want to know more about us. 

Rusty doorway to beach home

The beach is lined with homes that come in all shapes and sizes, from shacks to mansions, from ultramodern to Moorish, from garish to subdued, from shocking neon to muted natural colors, from rusting and molding or from shambles to shiny and new.  Most of these homes are second dwellings to the wealthier folks of Culiacán (the capital city of this state).  What is amazing though is that even with multimillion dollar homes surrounding the bay, there is only one paved road in town.  Only the main road in is paved, all others are just sandy streets.  It keeps things very dusty.  The bay in front of these homes is so shallow that their boat dock may be 300 feet away from shore…  One crafty person actually dug a channel so he could bring his boat closer to his home – now that’s industrious and probably needs constant upkeep.

We can hear a train in the background.  It has been ages since we’ve heard one.  Turns out, it’s the local bus or party catamaran horns! 

As sailors, we’ve always been somewhat of an oddity to the Mexicans but here definitely takes the cake.  Pangas actually take people off the beach just to come by our boat so they can take videos or pictures to add to their Facebook pages.   It’s becoming quite hilarious.  We have started, jokingly, asking for ‘propina’ (tips) for them to take videos or photos.  They do this unabashedly and are very forward about it, something I cannot bring myself to do.  I try never to intrude when taking pictures but maybe that’s what they ‘paid’ for when taking their tour of the bay – who knows!  Even a small airplane came by the boat a couple of times flying very low and very close.

Small plane flew nearby a couple of times
Carlos, the pilot (not of the plane but of the bay) came by to say hello and that he was a little chagrined we didn’t come eat at his restaurant yet.  We told him we would the next day.  We had heard he had been looking for saffron and had been unsuccessful at finding some.  I offered him saffron and he couldn’t quite figure out how we knew he needed some – he was curious and happy at the same time.  He finally figured that communication between fellow sailors is quite extensive – s/v Albion had written about that on their blog.  The invitation to a special dinner for us became even more open.  He also offered us to drive around to see the area.

Carlos (Charlie) enjoying some fresh ceviche and tostadas
We have met a few people like Carlos since being in Mexico.  They are the ambassadors of small towns.  They truly want us to have a great experience here.  They are proud to share their traditions, food, etc.  They go out of their way to help us in whatever capacity they can.  I’m hoping, one day, if we ever settle down, to be an ambassador and help people visiting. It makes a huge difference in the way one views a country, their people.  In Carlos’ case, he also likes to practice his already very decent English.  We ended up having his excellent specialty dinner accompanied by ChimiCharlies (instead of ChimiChangas) stuffed with marsh shrimp.  The next day we came by just to do some Internet and he ‘forced’ us to eat some fresh ceviche and tostadas.  It was delicious and refreshing.  He wouldn’t take money for any of this. 
That evening, he took us to what they used to call Nuevo Altata but now call Isla de Cortez.  Calling it an Isla (island) makes it more appealing to the rich folks who buy homes there.  We cannot visit for everything is guarded.  It even costs money to go to the beach!  The place has no soul and is very badly designed.  There are very few people here – it is like a deserted area.  They tried building a hotel but miscalculated the height of the tides and it started being under water at certain high tides so the project was abandoned and is an eyesore on the beach.  A shark also killed one of the lifeguards so no one swims there anymore.  Take me back to the small village any time.
Carlos had just come back from throwing ashes of an older couple into the bay.  The wife had died three years prior but her wish was to have her ashes dispersed in the bay at the same time as her husband’s.  Since he just passed away they were finally able to complete her wish and reunite them. 
Blooming cactus - ants busy on bloom
We keep watching the weather for a good wind window to get out of here.  Possibly 1-3 days from now.  We keep our options open.  We also have to be mindful that the rainy season will be upon this side of the Sea of Cortez soon so we’ll have to head west to the other side of the Sea where it will be dry.  So far all nights have been very quiet so we are getting good rest although we had one day with 22 knot winds.  That morning we decided to cross the bay and go to what looked like a sand dune ¾ miles away.  On the way out we only had 12 knot wind which seemed to be the usual over the last 3 days we had been here.  That wind usually dies off a little and clocks around so we thought it would be great paddling back.  Instead we got 22 knot winds and higher waves.  All of us (Nikki too) were in for a good shower once ‘home’.  To kayak the whole bay would take days.  It is immense.  We could stay here a long time to explore everything.

Carlos’ wife Raquel told us June 24th is the ‘official’ date for the beginning of the rain.  On the longest day (or shortest night) of the year (6/20) we were awoken by thunder and lightning.  Heavy rain started to pour – we probably had 2-3” that night.  It did a great job of cleaning the boat but also indicated it’s time for us to move on.  It’s unnerving to be surrounded by lightning with all the electronics we have onboard. 
We have been asked to speak to the Tourism Board in Mazatlán about the missing entrance buoy being a hazard to sailors like us.  They want us to email more details to help them ratify this situation.  They seemed willing to keep the entrance to the bay safe for everyone. 
Water in the bay is at 87.8°F, very warm for this time of year.  Of the whole summer spent in the Sea last year we never saw this type of temperature until the very end of summer.  Getting wet while kayaking is not a hardship (except for Nikki!).  She needs to be rinsed off each time so she doesn’t ingest too much salt. 

Nasty goat-heads and lone seashell find their way on sole of shoes when walking the desert - ouch!
Nikki doesn't stand a chance.
Each place in Mexico has its own charm.  Everything seems so regionalized.  We really enjoyed our time here but it’s time to head out.
We had to break up our way out of the bay in two sections.  On the first day, we waited for the normal afternoon winds to get us out to the mouth of the bay.  We had a wonderful one hour and 45 minutes, 9.5 mile, sail and anchored for the night.  During the off-season, there is a ‘guardian’ shrimp boat at the entrance of each bay.  The folks onboard ensure that no one enters the bay to steal shrimp.  That boat was our only neighbor for the night.
Evening panga coming by to take pictures
Sunset with soon to be full moon - Day after thunderstorm 
Morning visitors
We watched the last of the pangas return home from their long and tiring day of fishing.  Some disappear in the mangroves.  It goes so fast it’s just like watching a light being turned off.  One suddenly appears from nowhere and comes tearing towards us.  It is filled with an extended family.  They came all the way to see us, take our pictures (or video), and then turn around and go back home just as quickly!  We were their entertainment for the night.

The next morning, as soon as the ESE winds came up, we pulled up anchor and fought the incoming tidal current of anywhere between 1.5 and 3.0 knots to get to the open sea.  Even without a motor, it was feasible; you just had to time it right with the winds.  Being able to break it up made it manageable.  After being in the bay for nearly a week, we noticed a predictable pattern of afternoon winds and morning winds that we knew we could work with.  It would probably have been better to go out with the tide but the winds just wouldn’t cooperate at the right time. 

Another family filled panga came by to bid us farewell and take pictures.  At least we are cheap distraction and food for stories back home. 

We finallyare on our way to Topolobampo with wonderful winds.  At 10 miles off shore we still only have 100 feet of water under the keel.  No wonder this is a great area for shrimp.  It is shallow forever.  We are being cautious however and head 20 miles off shore just to be safe.   

Twins in front of new sign painted by Richard Lopez
They are the grandchildren of Charlie.
Sign is for 1970 family restaurant Las Olas one door down from Mi Charlie

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