Side Tie Party On Cedros Island

Cedros Island Side-Tie

“A morbid fatigue and an uneasy exhaustion overwhelmed me. I felt incapable of making any decision but clung to the thought that no matter how bad things became, there was no reason to suppose we couldn’t handle it.” – Ernesto Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries

Monday, April 2, 2012, 8:30AM

Two Saturdays ago, St. Patrick’s Day, we were still essentially stranded on Cedros Island. The relief at being inside a set of breakwaters overwhelmed any sense of urgency we may have felt about our malfunctioning engine, and we began to enjoy ourselves. We wandered back up to Chito’s shop (again, closed), and stopped in with another mechanic to see if he had any solenoids/starter motors handy. He did, but sadly they would not fit our delightfully specific Volvo Penta. No matter, Salvador Sanchez (the mechanic) gave us a ride in his car back to the harbour and we spent the rest of the day on the boat.

We predicted, correctly, that we would not accomplish much on Sunday. The inhabitants of Isla Cedros take siestas, weekends and holidays seriously – few, if any, businesses are open during those sacred hours and we figured that all the auto parts stores and mechanic shops would have their doors uncompromisingly closed.

Instead of searching for help, we decided to have another attempt at removing the solenoid, a process that had proven uncharacteristically difficult back in San Diego due to the fasteners being frozen. Of course, those stupid flat-head screws would not budge, so, as a last ditch effort, we took our drill and attempted to drill them out. Two broken cobalt bits later and the solenoid was still attached to the starter motor. Unbelievable.

We decided to remove ourselves from the situation before those screws destroyed every single tool we owned and went to the store. There, we met the nice man who, on all three occasions we’ve encountered him, has been wearing a tan shirt and matching slacks. I can’t remember his name. He told us where to find the internet cafe and a little cove about thirty minutes down the beach that was tranquil, calm, perfect for (his words) getting high.

So we wandered down the beach, following the line of trash that washes up at high tide. Eventually we found the little oasis and it was amazing – we even discovered a bouldering problem that I christened ‘Wash your feet.’ It was one of those days that surprises you – despite the extenuating circumstances and an uncertain future, we had a spectacular time. It takes a certain strength to do this – enjoy yourself while your master plan rips itself completely to shreds – but the adventure only truly begins when things start to go wrong.


Tip: Easier Than it Looks

The next day, Monday, we wandered back to Chito’s workshop to see if he could help us in any way. We we unsure whether it was our starter motor or our solenoid that was the problem – however it didn’t really matter at that point because we couldn’t get either off the damn engine.

Luckily, the man who we assume is the port captain happened to be driving by and stopped to find out if we’d made any progress. He gave us a ride up to Chito’s shop. It was the third time we had come up the ‘main street’ to Chito’s mechanic shop and, for the third time, we were faced with a cold, closed, corrugated metal door. Cerrado. Again.

Upon seeing the closed workshop, the port captain proceeded to make a sharp u-turn and informed us that we were headed to Chito’s house. Apparently, it was Benito Juarez Day, and most businesses were closed.

We pulled up to Chito’s house honking the horn, and his incredibly kind face popped out the door, immediately making us feel terrible for disturbing whatever celebrations were required for Benito Juarez Day.

“Los Americanos!” He smiled, and after some discussion, agreed to meet us back at the harbour at two o’clock to see if he could offer any assistance. And, at 2 on the dot, he pulled up in his car to tackle our unrelenting Volvo Penta.

At this point, we parted ways – I figured that my presence was not entirely needed; I spoke no Spanish and if Michael and Chito couldn’t loosen the fasteners with their bear paws then I didn’t stand a chance. So I went to the internet cafe (which was closed, of course), and then I went and sat on the beach for an hour or so while, unknown to me, Michael was having a pretty epic day.

After some shenanigans, Chito and Michael were finally able to remove the starter/solenoid as a unit. Although the screws holding the solenoid in were frozen solid, they were able to move the bolts connecting the starter motor to the engine with a 19mm torque wrench. Once they had gotten it off, Chito took Michael to a fellow mechanic in order to remove the solenoid. When they were pulling into his workshop, Chito quickly informed Michael that although his friend was possibly the best man in town at taking things apart, he was also ‘lost in drugs.’

It took a blow torch, a hammer, and a chisel to finally loosen those fasteners, which the mechanic accomplished while simultaneously eating a snickers bar. Michael’s delight at the development quickly turned to horror as the mechanic began to disassemble the starter motor as well. He made a disgusted sound as he took out the guts.

“There should be four brushes,” he explained, in Spanish, “two are gone and these two -” he placed his thumbs on our two remaining brushes, applied some pressure and snapped them off – “are shot. You have to go to Ensenada.”

Michael could do nothing but stare, shocked, at the forlorn pieces of our broken starter motor – all the hope that had filled him a second ago was completely gone. Eventually he looked up at Chito and the mechanic, who were joking about sailing north to Ensenada, and, defeated, asked if there was anything he could use to carry all the pieces home.

We met back on Azul and, depressed, Michael laid out the pieces of the starter motor in front of me; he had carried them back to the boat wrapped up in a green, oil-stained t-shirt.

The question wasn’t whether we were going to go north or south – beating into wind and waves back to Ensenada would have been too much of an undertaking – we were going south. The question was how far?

We would be able to fix the motor in Cabo, there was little doubt about that, and both Debbie and Ron were planning on us being in Cabo by the end of the week. It seemed like the best option would be to head for Cabo (about 500 nautical miles away), however there was a lot of pressure on us to make it to Cabo quickly and if, for some reason, we didn’t make it in time to see the parents – even if we made it at a later date – we would feel like we had failed. Maybe the best option would be to head for Turtle Bay, fix our starter motor one way or another, cut our losses, and head back to San Diego.

Either way, that night we knew we needed some liquor so we rowed ashore. As we pulled our dinghy up the trash-strewn beach and tied it to a random angled iron pole, a man called down from the ledge above, in Spanish:

“How’s your engine?”

I laughed and Michael shook his head, sadly.

“Completely fucked.”

We climbed around and up onto the ledge to speak to these new friends face to face. After explaining our trials of the previous week and the subsequent disassembling of the starter motor, one of the men, Arturro, impatiently shook his head.

“You guys need to see my friend Ricky, Ricky Oberto.”

Ricardo Oberto Sanchez is the only diesel mechanic on Cedros Island and lived in the town of Salineras, a few miles south west of Cedros Village.

Eyebrows raised, Michael and I exchanged a look.

“Ok, maybe tomorrow…”

“No,” Arturro insisted, “right now.”

Twenty minutes later we were sitting in a beaten-up SUV with the pieces of our starter motor wrapped tightly in the same greasy green shirt. Manuel, the other guy on the ledge, was driving, Arturro was in the passenger seat, we were in the backseat and Manuel’s young son was flopping around in the trunk.

Not only do fish get ground into fertilizer on Cedros Island, an incredible amount of salt comes from Guerrero Negro to be refined – because of this south Cedros Island has huge salt mountains that are either pre-refinement or post-refinement, I’m not sure – regardless, you can see these blindingly white mountains for miles when out to sea, up close they are even more awe-inspiring. The town of Salineras sits next to these stunning piles and its inhabitants primarily work in the refining industry.

After asking a couple of locals we managed to track down Ricardo’s house, which, despite its modest exterior, was the nicest house we’d seen so far in Cedros – a flat screen TV was switched off as Ricardo got up and made his way to the door. Introductions were made and Michael hesitantly opened the green shirt and laid the parts of our starter motor bare for Ricardo to see. Nodding, he surveyed the mess.

“Come back around noon,” he said, in Spanish, “I’ll see what I can do.”

And that was that. Hope.

Needless to say we were in high spirits on the car ride home, and despite the language barrier we were even having a conversation with Arturro and Manuel.

The next day we ambled back to Arturro’s house; we were relatively certain he had offered to come with us again today. No one was home, however, so we went to Manuel’s house. We knocked hesitantly, wondering whether we had misunderstood our closing conversation the previous night. Our suspicions were confirmed – the whole family was watching TV.

We quickly backtracked, apologized for inconveniencing them and started to head back into town. Turns out they needed to go to the other side of the island anyway, and Manuel’s chica (wife?) insisted that it would be no problem to take us to Salineras. So we all piled in – Manuel the driver, his chica in the passenger seat holding his youngest son, us in the backseat and his other son in the trunk, as usual.

We got to Salineras, found Ricky’s house again and, amazingly, our starter motor/solenoid ensemble was completely put back together. Ricardo indicated that he’d done his best to fix the starter motor but even if he’d fixed it it probably would only start a few more times. The broken solenoid, however, he had a solution for – we could bypass our broken terminal with another solenoid switch. He told us he’d come by the harbour at 2 o’clock to explain the bypass.

On our way back to Cedros Village, Manuel swung by the dump to pick up a shovel and a pickaxe. He put them in the trunk and we were on our way… until the back tire went flat. Watching Manuel and Michael try, in vain to pump up the tire with a bicycle pump made me flashback briefly to when Michael’s Ford Escape’s front tire sprung a leak. No matter where I took the car, no one would let me replace just the one tire because of the difference in tread – they all wanted me to replace all four. I finally found a place that would let me replace just the front two – but watching Manuel  give in to the inevitable, pop off the tire and replace it with one in the trunk I was struck by the ostentatiousness of it all. One tire goes and we replace all four? Where do they all go? Do they wash up on Cedros Island?

We made it back to Cedros Village and at 2 o’clockish Ricardo’s truck pulled up next to the pier. After explaining how to bypass our broken terminal, Ricardo took us to the auto parts store to make sure we got the right solenoid. It was, of course, closed, so he offered to wait with us. Amazed at his generosity (he hadn’t accepted a dime from us for any services rendered so far) we assured him that we got it from here, exchanged numbers, and he went on his way.

The next day, Wednesday, we put everything together, turned the key and ‘click’ – nothing. The decision was made right then. We had exhausted Cedros Island’s resources and we had to sail to Cabo. Without an engine. 500 miles.

The hardest thing I have ever done was pull up our anchor and sail out of the Cedros Island breakwaters. The actual sail itself wasn’t hard – in fact parts of it were damn near enjoyable – but pulling up the anchor and committing to a journey that seemed so long, so hard and so daunting was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

We left the harbour in great style – zooming along at 5 knots – then we drew level with the bottom of Cedros Island, turned our nose into the Keller Channel and the wind died. Brutal. There’s nothing to describe it. Worse – the sea was choppy.

We waited and the wind picked up again from the SE (?), then died. We were crawling, desperate to get out from under the island and into the fabled 15 – 20 knot NW winds. Since we were at the mercy of the currents, we were also creeping ever closer to Isla Natividad, famous for an excellent break that expert surfers worldwide seek out. Not really where you want to be on a boat.

Fortunately, the wind picked up and since it was bending around the island it was on our nose as we pointed SW. After the agonizing last couple of hours it was exhilarating to be moving at speed again and I put her on a close haul to give Isla Natividad a wide berth.

After a short time I heard a gentle clicking noise. Michael, who was in the cabin, heard it too and quickly came on deck to see what was going on.

The anchor was secured to the bow roller but the rode and chain had been piled neatly on the foredeck and, in all the excitement of pulling out of the harbour under said we had forgotten to pull it through the deck pipe and into the anchor locker. Since the boat was now heeled over on a starboard tack the anchor chain had slowly – click, click – found its way overboard and we were now dragging 50ft of chain and 60 plus feet of line.

We probably should have hove-to to pull it in, but I was desperate to clear Isla Nativdad before nightfall – it was getting dark and the winds and current were setting us right onto the island. So I stayed on a close haul/close reach as Michael ventured onto the foredeck and began to pull our main anchor rode back in. It was then that the winds began to pick up even more (it being early evening) and we began to take water over the bow.

It was hilarious watching Michael heroically pull in another few feet and then get drenched as Azul’s bow crashed into another wave. I think I was laughing up until the point a wave came into the cockpit and hit me square in the face – I was drenched then too.

Eventually, Michael pulled in the entire anchor warp and we shortened sail and finally were able to bear off around Isla Natividad and point SE toward Cabo. We figured that we’d had such an epic experience going through the Keller Channel that the rest of the journey was going to be a piece of cake.

Thursday night we lost our broken whisker pole overboard. We fashioned another out of the boat hook but quickly discovered the joys of broad reaching.

Friday morning we were completely becalmed. Took down the headsail and did some of the nicest drifting we’ve done to date. Six nautical miles in six hours – and this only because of the cold California current. Wind picked up from the SW at noonish and swung around to the NW by evening. Played the wind shifts on alternating broad reaches.

Sunday, midnight, my shift. We’d been rocketing along all day – there was just a little too much wind. I stayed in the cabin all night and got seasick because the boat’s motion was getting more nauseating the closer we got to Cabo. I laid down in the loveseat and every now and then a wave hit the boat and she rocked enough to make me feel a little weightless and I nearly got thrown to the floor. Every time it happened I told myself to move to a less dangerous spot but I was too tired to actually do it. Michael woke up and as I was in the midst of describing my recent battles with gravity, a particularly large wave caught the boat and I finally got thrown to the floor. It was funny at the time.

Monday morning and we finally saw the arches of Cabo. Though exciting, I reminded Michael we were still hours away and he called me a debbie downer. He made coffee and his good mood wore off on me and we sung songs to pass the time.

The seas get confused close to Cabo and our autohelm, Austin Powers, who had done an excellent job steering the entire journey, started being unable to point and I took the helm. I almost immediately began to panic when I saw how much wind there was and how steep the waves were, so I made the decision to shorten sail. Once we got through the ordeal of dropping the genoa, raising the storm jib and reefing the main (I may have overreacted), the conditions, of course, began to improve. Typical.

Suddenly, there were boats everywhere – more than we’d seen in five days. They were all huddled together and as we passed them we were stunned to realize that they were boxing in a whale (?!) for the delight of boatloads of tourists. Do they know what whales are capable of?

We rounded the point and the madness became more pronounced – we’d had no other company for days and I had used my last razor back in Ensenada so I had a substantial amount of hair on both my legs and my armpits and we were being circled by staring white people on jet skis. Surreal.

Exhausted, but running on a boatload of adrenaline, we anchored, launched the dinghy and rowed into shore. I jumped in about halfway to shore – I couldn’t help myself – the water was just too damn blue and it was HOT in Cabo san Lucas. Michael quickly followed. So instead of gracefully landing our dinghy through the surf, the dinghy landed itself and our bodies followed. Debbie and John were there on the beach and let me tell you – a surf landing beats the arrivals gate at an airport any day – I was elated, absolutely ecstatic to see them standing there – the past five days forgotten in the instant of reunion. And how cool is this – Debbie and John watched us sail around the arch and tack back and forth to anchor.

I doubt I will ever be as excited to be in Cabo San Lucas again.