The 544-mile trek from Barra de Navidad to our current berth in Marina Chahué in Huatulto, has been full of great sailing, fast currents, and plenty of sea life. This has all been new territory for us, since the furthest south we’d gone in previous years was to Barra.
Our first leg was an easy overnight sail from Barra to Isla Grande, just north of Ixtapa and south of the big shipping harbor of Lazaro Cardenas. All had been going perfectly, with enough wind to sail by, a gentle swell pushing us along, and lots of dolphins. Then as we were about to motor sail across the shipping lanes between an incoming and outgoing freighter, we caught a long line that was held up with nearly invisible coke bottles on each end. Drat! We quickly put the engine in idle and rolled up the sail, and Marty jumped in the water to investigate. Yep, we had plenty of bright red poly propylene line wrapped tightly around the propeller and shaft. With a knife and lots of dives, Marty was able to free the prop from the mess and we were soon on our way.
We set the hook a few hours later in the anchorage by Isla Grande, the little island just north of Ixtapa. We loved it there and spent 4 days enjoying the picturesque anchorage. During the day tourists are shuttled to the island via cute little ferries to enjoy the protected swimming beach and colorful restaurants. Jet skiers buzz around and pangas tow screaming kids on bananas through the anchorage just to make sure the cruisers are awake. There are five or six palapa restaurants on the beach that serve fresh seafood and cold beer. The best part is that everything closes up at around 5:00pm; the tourists hop on the last ferry back to Ixtapa, the restaurant staff all pile into a panga for the ride home, and the cruisers enjoy a final round of tequila, complements of Juan who has lived here and run the beach side restaurants since his father started them many years ago. When the sun goes down, the beach goes dark, and silence descends. Nice.
We spent our days swimming and snorkeling, and our afternoons enjoying cold beverages and warm conversations under the palapas with the other cruisers, while sinking our toes in the sand. It doesn’t get much better! Isla Grande is definitely on our list of places to return to; however, it was soon time to think about weighing anchor and heading for Zihuatenejo. Supplies were running short, we were nearly out of pesos, and the time to head south was approaching.
We pulled anchor around 10am and made the two-hour trek to Zihuatenejo Bay – a much busier place than Isla Grande! The bay was chock full of cruising boats, so we had to anchor out in the swell, but it was bearable. We put the dinghy down and headed to town to figure out the lay of the land. First stop, el banco! With pesos in our pockets once again we could arrange for the local cruiser concierge, Ismael and Hilda, to bring us fuel in the morning. With that chore taken care of, it was time to find dinner! There were plenty of choices in the area where we were, so we sat down with our toes in the sand, Happy Dance in sight, and waited for our camarones to arrive. Yum!
The original plan was to stay a few days in Zihuat, but it felt like a big city to us after so many days anchored out and in small towns. After checking the weather, we decided that we had a good window to get to Huatulco before another Tehuantepec gale started blowing. After our fuel arrived in three heavy jerry cans (50 liters each), we fueled up, returned the jerry cans, and raised anchor around noon, planning to arrive in Acapulco the following morning.
The afternoon winds were just piping up so that we were able to put out the sails, turn off the engine, and enjoy the sound of Happy Dance splashing her way south. The dolphins joined us for a while and we even saw a lone Orca swimming north!
That night after the moon had gone down we were running about four miles offshore just north of Acapulco when a larger vessel on the radar that had been just sitting offshore near the town, suddenly started heading toward us at a fast rate. As it approached we could see their navigation lights and knew it was heading straight for us before it altered course at the last-minute to line up on our stern. We were sailing with only our head-sail, making an easy five knots, with only our navigation lights showing. We could hear the deep rumble of the mystery ship’s engines, so we figured (and hoped) it was a Navy vessel, but we couldn’t see the outline in the moonless dark. It hung back a few hundred yards, just idling behind us for a while, then it suddenly put engines all ahead full, charged alongside our port side, crossed our bow and ran down our starboard side heading off north into the distance at full speed. After we’d recovered from nearly getting swamped by his large wake, we wondered what the h*&ll that was all about! We hoped for the best, that it was simply a Navy vessel monitoring the coast, but it was weird having him buzz us so close! Another story for the books..ha.
One thing we didn’t factor into our time and distance routing was the north-south off shore current that was running 1-2 knots, pushing us along at an average of 7+ knots. Generally, we plan our routes at a speed of 5.5nm/hr so that we have wiggle room before and after our scheduled time at a destination to be sure we arrive in daylight. As I say, we weren’t counting on such a great push from the current. We were also able to sail most of the way so that our fuel supply was pretty much untouched by the time we approached Acapulco in the dark around 6:00am.
We hadn’t planned on spending much time in Acapulco anyway, so it was an easy decision after checking the weather to pass by Acapulco toward Huatulco. Based on the distance remaining, we estimated that we would arrive in Huatulco about 46 hours later, or two more long nights at sea, but decided that was preferable than waiting for enough light to drop anchor in Acapulco.
The wind and current were still in our favor and Happy Dance was jitterbugging along under sail on a flat sea at an average of over 7 knots. Later that afternoon when the peak winds were blowing, we were reaching 8.4 knots in the gusts; fun! As the seas built with the afternoon winds, we were starting to get a bit of a squirrely ride running downwind, so we reefed slightly to balance the boat and relieve the auto-pilot from having to work so hard against the weather helm. With single reefs in both the main and Genoa we were still making over 7.5 knots with a flat boat and a following sea. Lovely!
When you’re making long passages it’s easy to get caught up in watching the world go by, focusing on waves or sea birds, or as on this trip; counting turtles! Marty started counting one morning as the sun came up and we were soon obsessed with it. The first day we saw 52 turtles, and on the second day we passed by 110 turtles, most of them with birds resting on their backs. We challenge our cruiser buddies to top that count! We also saw dozens of dolphins and a herd of humpbacks. The trifecta once again, yay!
Our speed over ground had pretty much constantly exceeded our planning speed so that on the second day of the trek we found ourselves within range of an anchorage by that afternoon. We adjusted course slightly to stay closer to shore, and at around 3:00pm we were at our GPS mark for the turn into Puerto Angel. From our guidebooks and charts we felt this would be a good overnight spot, out of the swell and wind and with enough room to catch some sleep before the final push to the Bahias de Huatulco. No go. We pulled into the narrow rocky entrance and saw immediately that the anchorage was not as advertised! The photo in our guidebook shows this lovely calm anchorage with plenty of room between the beach and the rocks. Well, reality wasn’t quite the same. The tide was extremely low, panga moorings choked all anchor space and the swell rolling in was crashing on the steep beach just past the pangas. The tiny two-lobed bay was full of sea-foam from the breakers and there wasn’t an inch to spare for the tired crew of Happy Dance. A quick 180 degree turn, and we were on our way once again.
There were only three hours until dusk which limited our decisions a bit. Thankfully the tide had just turned so that the current switched around again to push us along at 7 knots to the next anchorage that was about 16 miles away. After two days and nights at sea, those last three hours seemed to take forever, and we were a bit nervous as to what we’d do if the next anchorage wasn’t suitable.
Luck was with us though, and as we pulled around the southern point between Puerto Angel and the Bahias de Huatulco, the wind and swell both subsided as we pulled under the lee of the headland. The sailing guide and chart both mark the entrance to Jicaral Cove by calling out the “white cone shaped rock”, where you should make the turn into the somewhat hidden entrance; argh! So we picked out the whitest, most cone shaped rock and plotted our GPS turn accordingly. With waves crashing on the rocks on both sides of the entrance sending up huge plumes of white foam, we crept into the bay. Phew! Marty on the bow turned around to give me the thumbs up and we proceeded to find a place in the tiny bay to drop the hook. There really wasn’t much choice since there was a reef on each side and a section of the beach buoyed off, so we soon had the anchor set, engine off, and smiles on our tired faces as the sun set and darkness descended. Needless to say, we slept quite well!
The next day we were delighted to wake up to a calm anchorage, empty beach and beautiful rock formations all around. The books say the bay is surrounded by “jungle covered hills”, but maybe that is more evident in the spring. At the moment most of the trees are bare, so it doesn’t look too much like the tropical jungle we expected. It’s beautiful though!
We decided to spend another night in our quiet little refuge, so I spent the morning snorkeling over some beautiful coral and exploring the empty beach. It was quite a surprise later when at around 11am the tourists showed up! First came the pangas who set up umbrellas and tables along the shore, then came the bigger fishing boats to drop their guests off for a walk on the beach. Then came two big tour boats that anchored nearly on top of us and unloaded their guests by panga, to either snorkel the protected coral reefs, or go sit under an umbrella on the beach. It was quite entertaining to listen to the hubbub, and even funnier when it all vanished in a couple of hours and we were alone again!
Another good sleep and we were off again in the morning for one more night at anchor before the weather started turning fowl. We soon found ourselves in a bay called Chachaqual rising and lowering on a 2-3’ swell in front of a steep beach, 36’ above our anchor dug deep into the fine white sand. Ragged rocks and coral reefs bordered each end of the bay, making for picturesque white froth as the swell rolled across. Once again, colorful umbrellas were lined up on shore in the morning, ready for the tour boats to arrive. It seems to be the schedule here in these bays, quiet in the morning, full of people for a couple hours before the afternoon winds pipe up, then quiet and empty once again. We enjoyed Chachaqual Beach; a lovely last stop before we went into the marina in Huatulco.
As we made our way the next morning for the final 6 miles to the marina, the wind decided to pipe up and the waves were crashing on the rocks in Huatulco Bay. This coast is definitely a rugged one, and our charts leave a bit to be desired. We picked our way in, keeping well off the islands centered in the middle of the bay, and found the entrance to the marina easily. Giving me the jitters was that the tide was out, the channel narrow, and we didn’t have any idea of where they were going to put us once we entered the marina. With the wind up it’s always a bit nerve-wracking to go into unfamiliar tight spaces.
We made it through the entrance with a foot or so to spare under the keel, and soon saw the local dock hands gesturing to us to make a wide swing around the dock to come in on the other side. It turned out to be an easy docking and thankfully we didn’t rub any paint off the keel, and we were soon tied securely to the dock. Ahhhh.
From our brief tour into town yesterday we can see that Huatulco is much different from the towns on the Baja, and that we’ll definitely enjoy it here. There is a gale building in the Tehuantepec, so it seems that we’ll have a few days to learn more about this new spot!
There you have it; Barra to Huatulco with the happy dancing crew of Happy Dance. As usual she has taken very good care of us and we’re very happy to be exploring new places, new waters, meeting new friends, and counting more turtles!