Jun 29, 2013

Topolobampo, Shallow Bottoms and Crabs

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority,
It is time to pause and reflect.
Mark Twain 

Nikki finally free to roam on a nice beach
After a splendid sail lit by a full moon we are in Topolobampo, further up the mainland side of the Sea of Cortez. 
Although having a full moon makes it easier to see what is happening on Déjàlà, it makes it more difficult to spot the lights of approaching vessels.  Darkness is best to see the red, green, and white of vessels traveling the same waters.  We had to keep a more watchful eye.  For 2-3 hours in the morning, dolphins followed us, playing in our wake.  Turtles were floating by as well – back to more marine life around us.  We sailed nearly 125 miles in 24 hours, a very swift trip for us. 

Got an idea?
Entering Topolobampo, we knew our information about safe, deep channels and where to anchor in this bay was very dated, so we were a bit, apprehensive.  We also knew friends who needed to be pulled out after hitting bottom, not adding to our confidence level much.

The first anchorage we tried based on a cruiser’s guidebook, turned out to be nothing we could attempt.  Where the cruiser’s guidebook said there should be 25 feet of water we only found between 5 and 8 feet!  Not enough for a good night’s sleep at anchor.  With an incoming tide, the current kept pushing us further into the bay (i.e.: into the shallower section) so we had to motor out of there for a little while until we saw at least 8 feet under the keel again…  Sigh of relief!  Shallow bays like this one and Altata’s have constantly changing underwater sand bar patterns.  It seems that the information about these places is only good for 3-6 months.  One good storm and all bets are off.

Chelelo, our guardian shrimp boat
Chelelo left, us (tiny dot) right...
We decided to cross the main shipping channel and try the other side of the bay.  We noticed a guardian shrimp boat anchored over there and know they draw about 8 feet so we were hopeful we would also find enough water under the keel to be safe.  Under sail, we inched our way since we had no idea what would be there.  49’, 48’, 44’, 43’, 42’, 35’, 34’, and 33’ – the bottom seemed to move up slowly and incrementally so it lulled us into thinking we had more room to go until suddenly we went from 22’ to 5’ in a split second.  Time to take the sail down and motor out of there!  Brown mud is mixing with the water at the back of Déjàlà while photons are being used furiously to get us out.  We are dragging in the mud bottom, finally making an offer of bottom paint to Neptune, our first time in 20 months.  As sailors will tell you:  it’s not if you’ll touch bottom but when.  Well – we finally did it.  It was scary but overall we are unscathed – hitting bottom when it is soft mud or sand is not so dire.

Sand worms at low tide
When the adrenaline rush finally abates, we are happy to be near a beautiful 2 mile sandy beach with large sand dunes on the sea side.  Frankly, we had thought about turning around and not staying here after two close calls but eventually came to our senses.  We made it this far, we may as well visit, learn, and enjoy. 

So happy!!!!!!!
Nikki chasing, chasing, chasing...
Crab hiding, hiding, hiding...
We went to shore to explore and Nikki was in puppy HEAVEN.  She can chase crabs until she is completely tired out.  She goes for almost two hours and drinks nearly a liter of salty water in the process.  She doesn’t give up easily.  Over the 3 days we spend there she catches over 18 crabs of various sizes.  Some she manages to kill, others not.  She is wicked.  We’ve never seen her like this before.  The crunching sounds when she does manage to make a kill are scary.  All that bottled up energy of being where there were no good places to run around on! 

Mike in his element, climbing... a sand dune
We enjoy the large sand dunes.  They are disturbed only by the tracks of crabs and other small critters.  No one has walked these dunes for quite a while.  We get beautiful views of the Sea, the bay, and the lighthouse from here.  Nikki stays on the beach relaxing in a cooling puddle, tongue hanging out, trying to catch her breath after all the excitement…

The gentleman working on the guardian shrimp boat comes by to say hello.  He is accompanied by a driver and 4-5 Marines.  We thought we were going to be searched or boarded but all they wanted to say was that they were there if we needed anything, and the purpose of their protective mission…  Very nice people and it made us feel especially safe to be anchored near armed Marines watching the bay.  No one would notice our boat.

Lighthouse we are kayaking and hiking to
View to north, on our way to the lighthouse
On the second day and despite fairly high winds (15-17 knots), we find the energy to kayak nearly 4 miles (round trip) to visit the Topolobampo lighthouse.  It is about 300 feet high and they built a steep sidewalk with stairs in sections to access it.  A dock is located at the bottom.  We leave our kayaks there and go exploring up the mountain where we eventually meet Joel who is the lighthouse-keeper for the day.  Four men rotate to do this job.  Joel works Mondays and Thursdays.  The place is immaculate, especially by Mexican standards.  All the equipment is in great working order and they are planting fruit trees, collect rain water, and are seemingly very energy conscious.  Coming back is quick with winds at our backs.  We should rig up small sails for the kayaks…
Steep sidewalk and stairs to lighthouse
Joel offers us two mangoes and water.  As we said many times before Mexicans have so little yet they always offer a lot…  Supplies are carried up via a lift motorized by an old Lister diesel engine, the smaller stuff, they bring up when walking up to work.  They are brought to/from work by panga and walk from there – what a commute hey?  We chat for a while, watch the beautiful panorama, then head back down.  Where else do you still find lighthouses that have caretakers?  All the ones back home are computerized… 

Marie-France in her element, looking at plants
The seemingly dead tree above is covered with beautiful purple flowers
The weather forecast speaks of large swells coming up this way thanks to far away hurricane Cosme south and west of here.  We decide to head to the marina for a few days while the swells diminish.  It will give us time to visit the other side of Topolobampo, its town of nearly 6,000 people. 

Mike, Nikki between sand dunes and breakers.
Sand dune looking north
Sand dunes
Some have compared Topolobampo to Greece but the only place where the comparison fits is that there is water surrounded by desert mountains, some islands, and houses built one on top of the other on steep mountain sides.  Don’t expect white houses, mules/donkeys, clean streets, or blue waters – this is a blue collar town (somewhat like Santa Rosalia on the Baja side) in a lagoon!  A large thermo electric power plant spews smoke in the air 24/7 and large cargo vessels move petroleum, cars, steel, cement, salt, minerals, fertilizers, and agricultural (corn mostly) grains.  Fishing is a way of life and anything to do with that hires a lot of willing hands. 

Lines of trucks full of corn to load up large shipping vessel - seen through chain-link fencing
Thousands and thousands of bobtail trucks full of corn stream by to fill one of the 32 ton cargo ships.  It will take that many truck-fulls and several days/weeks to fill it up. Trains also come to the port.  It is a very busy place.

Narrow alleys of Topolobampo

We meander on one of the hills layered with homes.  There is only one street to the top of the hill leading to the church and a school.  The rest of the homes are reachable only by tiny sidewalks or primitive concrete trails usually following drainage pipes or electrical conduits.  It is like a maze to walk around never knowing if you are in someone’s yard, at the end of a trail, or on track. 

Church in need of repairs - Like so many others
In front of the town's Virgin... Once in a while one has to pose
Thankfully everyone is friendly and dogs leave us alone or it could feel a little intimidating to be in such close proximity of these homes.  It feels a little like intruding in their lives.  The homes are so close together that no one seems to own yards.  We watch one man carry a large bottle of propane down to where a vehicle waits.  It makes us wonder just how they bring anything large in and out of here: air conditioners, building materials, furniture, groceries, all have to be carted through these small trails, too small for even motorcycles, etc…

Laundry bordered by Nopal cactus (edible ones)
One more trip to town to get groceries.  We see women sitting at card tables on the side of the road under the welcome shade of a large tree, drinking beer and playing a game similar to bingo but with pictures instead of numbers and letters.  Taxi drivers are fixing fishing nets while waiting for a customer.  A grandfather is biking with two granddaughters aboard, one in a plastic milk crate in the back, the other on the handlebars.  Seemingly not loaded enough already he also carries a 5 gallon bucket in his right hand.  He weaves in and out of the traffic.  I fear for the girls.  

Old fishing nets are made into hammocks and every available tree has at least one hanging from its lower branches.  People spend the hot afternoons in them: mother with sleepy child, an elderly watching traffic go by, clam vendors waiting for customers, kids relaxing before heading back to school in the late afternoon, men waiting to get back to work.  Few people are in their homes where it is too hot; they prefer to stay out of doors.

We notice lightning one more time, the monsoon season is decidedly approaching, time for us to head west to the Baja side of the Sea.  This time however, the rain doesn’t make it here but across the Sea, our fellow sailors over there got wet!   Interesting that we saw the buildup of the storm but they got the rain from it.

We do a little bit of varnishing while we wait to head out.  It is definitely needed – the sun is extremely harsh, the upkeep is a little more than we had expected. 

Old US school buses turned into city buses...
Clever Boat Name:  Happy Ours

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