Adios, California! (February 4th, 2023)
Our last month in California was pretty action packed. A quick recap for those of you just joining us: We escaped Morro Bay after experiencing horrendous weather and fixing our diesel engine, arrived in Ventura where we ran around like chickens with our heads cut off, made it to Catalina where we discovered our Starlink (that I rely on for work) was busted. On the map Mexico was only a few hundred miles away, but at times throughout the month it felt like it was unreachable.
“What are you working on?” Chris asked from across the cockpit. The sun bathed us in her warm rays as our autopilot kept us on our southbound course, our sails full with a seven knot breeze. I was typing away on new articles, responding to emails, and adding podcasts to my “listen later” list since Starlink was back in action, all thanks to our friends. Avocet was pointed south towards Mexico and damn, did it feel good.
It was a long day full of fair winds and dolphins playing in our wakes that faded into a night of darkness and motoring. I found the low rumble of the Perkins to be a somewhat cathartic reminder of perseverance since it was only a month prior we were faced with the possibility of having to repower entirely and further delay our Mexico plans. No longer did I view the sound as a nuisance, but rather as reassurance that everything is (and was going to be) okay.
I took the first watch, nesting comfortably into our beanbag that fit oh-so well in our cockpit footwell while I waited for the stars to paint the sky. Avocet Avocet Avocet, Kessel Peter’s voice came through the VHF repeater in our cockpit. Kessel had been behind us until they tapped out on sailing, turning their engine on a few hours before we doused our asymmetrical. I could faintly see their stern light off our bow as the jagged shape of California’s unwavering coastline contrasted with the fluid sea. Are you seeing the sky right now? Peter asked, not knowing I had already beat him to the star party. The sky glistened like diamonds as I did my best to identify my new reoccuring night watch buddy in the cosmos; Orion himself.
It was 23:15, two hours into my four hour watch when I checked the chart and saw that we crossed the imaginary line that separates California from Mexico. Tears streamed down my face as I uncontrollably sobbed. I could feel the stress I was carrying melt into the sea as the years, months and days leading up to this moment all flooded my mind as an overwhelming sense of gratitude settled deep within me. Almost as if on cue, dolphins returned to our wake, playing in the bioluminescence despite the sound of the engine. Cleo popped her head out of the companionway letting out a single meow before hopping onto my blanketed lap and settling into a very deep sleep, a good sign since, before cruising, she used get sea sick and not want anything to do with the outside world. When Chris relieved me from my watch he discovered me looking all too comfortable with my cockpit nest and cat, enthralled with the night sky. Before I retired below deck I was sure to point out a few constellations in addition to my watch debrief.
My wife is something special, I know that much. When I woke up from my sleep to see her stargazing with Cleo I felt thankful for a gentle sea state that brought them comfort during their watch. Marissa was sure I had snacks and water before going to bed, Cleo trailing behind her like a midnight shadow. It was just me, the sea, the stars and Olivia who had also just taken her first watch aboard Kessel. I wish I could say my watch was as uneventful as Marissa’s, but Poseidon saved the action for me.
It was around 2:00 am off Tijuana when we came upon a fishing fleet; twelve boats to carefully navigate through, all trawling in various directions with 300’ leads behind them. Not to mention, they weren’t lit to spec (if even lit at all) and didn’t show up on AIS adding another level of intrigue to their course. Avocet Avocet Avocet, Kessel Olivia’s voice came through the VHF. What do towing lights look like? After answering her question, she relayed that there was a partially submerged 200 foot barge that was lit by a singular red flashing light on the outskirts of the fishing fleet. If it weren’t for the full moon, Kessel would have made contact and if it weren’t for Olivia’s relay, we may have as well. That was when I truly felt like we had made it over the border; oh Mexico, what wonders will you hold for us?
4:00 am on the dot, I thought Chris was rather punctual when it came to going off watch but after hearing about his hectic night I didn’t blame him for wanting to sleep. “What’s that smell?” I asked as he shimmied out of his foulies. “Trash” he said, not a further explanation given before throwing himself into our bed. It was interesting to see how Chris set up the cockpit for his watch; the bean bag nestled behind the helm, water bottles sporadically placed with evidence of snacks left about – not that the scene from my watch looks much different, but I prefer the “nesting” method; all the things I need in one central location. I rearranged the cockpit to my liking then settled in to watch the sunrise with Cleo, who had stretched off her slumber and stared out over the horizon with her yellow eyes as wide as can be. If only I could read her mind.
“There’s Ensenada,” Chris pointed from the companion way. His eyes looked tired, but his smile showed nothing but excitement. He had been asleep for 3 hours, and despite having another hour of “off watch” he decided to make us some breakfast and join Cleo and I outside. The closer we got to Ensenada the more alive the radio became with chatter from fishermen. Despite reading countless articles, blog posts, and listening to tales from those who have done it – I didn’t entirely know what to expect from this new country. I reeled in my anxiety that likes to get the best of me with negative thoughts, and focused on how exciting it was to not know what was ahead. After all, at this point I was great at finding the silver lining in our misadventures and assured myself that if we stumbled into another one that it would all be alright… and it was.
48 Hours to Leave the Country – WHAT?
Our friends guided us into the slip alongside Kessel, their dog Ginger was quick to greet us with sloppy wet kisses. We only had an hour to check in to the marina and Mexican customs, so left the boat in the condition she arrived in and made our way to the office. Checking into the marina was fairly straight forward and afterwards our group was escorted to customs by marina staff. That service alone was the very reason why we chose Marina Coral over Baja Naval. Although it is the more expensive berthing option, Marina Coral helped us through the tedious check-in process… and helped us navigate around our expired TIP.
All vessels checking into Mexico need to obtain a temporary import permit (TIP) that you can get online or in person. When we bought Avocet, the broker assured us that Avocet’s TIP had been expired, which led us to believe we were all good to apply for a new one. However, we were unaware that “expired” and “canceled” were two very different things. When we tried to get our TIP online we kept running into an error code that said we needed to mail in the application and money, but knowing the Mexican postal system is unreliable at best we decided to figure it out in person upon arrival. The entire check in process was going smoothly (thanks to our check in binder), until it came to the TIP. The agent shook her head behind the counter, whispering to our Marina Coral escort, Franky (name changed for privacy reasons). He then turned to us and explained we had 48 hours to leave the country.
Essentially what had happened is that Avocet’s previous owner never checked out of Mexico before crossing the border, and didn’t cancel the TIP… probably because he had intentions of sailing back but, sadly, never did before he passed away. During the sale of Avocet, he was in very poor health leaving his daughter and close friends to handle Avocet; the TIP likely slipping between the cracks. To satisfy the Mexican government, we needed to provide a document showing the Previous Owners exit from Mexico and arrival in the States, and the Bill of Sale would not do. I called Avocet’s past two marinas trying to get a lease contract with previous owners name, but it was a dead end. I even reached out to his daughter on Instagram who still keeps up with our journey to see if she had any paperwork laying around, sadly, another dead end. The clock was ticking and Franky suggested we all go back to the marina to see if Previous Owner was in their system to provide some sort of proof of exit, but in reality he had a solution hiding up his sleeve.
The customs office was behind us as we made our way back to the marina in the van. Peter was doing what he did best and jumped into “fixer” mode calling all his contacts since he had a similar issue with his TIP on Kessel. That’s when Franky’s eyes locked with ours through the vans rearview mirror. “We can fix this, but it’s going to cost you” he said. Of course, in Mexico (and most places) problems can always be erased for the right price. Bracing to be met with a thousand plus dollar fix-it, we were shocked to find our solution would only cost the amount of a new visa – $30.
The plan was that Chris would “leave” the country with Avocet and return to San Diego, thus receiving the document stating Avocet left the country, which would allow us to apply for a new TIP under our name upon his “reentry”. After the weekend we had a new TIP and the confidence to continue sailing south along the Mexican coastline – but first we were going to explore what Ensenada had to offer, starting with a nice long celebratory soak in the marina hot tub.
Brave New World
The only times I have ever been to Ensenada was aboard cruise ships; three times as a kid with my family, then once with Chris on our honeymoon. Experiencing it as a cruiser was an entirely different experience. There was no one to present perfectly curated itineraries, tell us where to eat, or what to see – it was up to us to navigate this new city with our minimal Spanish and our own two feet. During the TIP debacle, Chris treated Franky to lunch at wherever his favorite taco place was as a thank you and to find where the locals eat in a sea of tourist trap palapas. The tacos were so amazing that Chris suggested we make a trip back the next day to put his review to the test. I wish we could remember the name of the place, because it really was that good!
Unfortunately Olivia had to stay behind on Kessel to work, but Peter, Chris and I were game for adventure and hungry for tacos. It was Franky’s day off, but he still came into work to drive us to customs for a couple more signatures then drop us off at the taco place. He said he had to go home to his daughter but wouldn’t mind picking us up in his personal car afterwards – what a guy! We assured him it wasn’t necessary and that we were looking forward to the walk. With that we went our separate ways and ordered muchos tacos de carne asada for breakfast, followed by fish tacos for lunch a few hours later and a churro for early dessert.
Ensenada was officially “founded” in 1542, but this really denotes when the area was discovered by the Spanish (Quechan- or Yuman-speaking peoples had lived here for thousands of years). It remained little more than a village until gold was discovered nearby in 1872. Ensenada was then developed as a mining port, and was designated capital of Baja California in 1882 – the modern city was planned and developed by the British-owned Mexican Land & Colonization Co in subsequent decades. Devastated by the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), Ensenada lost its capital status in 1915 and remained a backwater until tourism took off in the 1950s. The annual Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race began in 1948 (Humphrey Bogart took part in the first race), while the famous Baja 1000 motor race started in Ensenada in 1962 (the Baja 500 followed in 1969).
Ensenada is one of Mexico’s most atmospheric ports with great wine and superb seafood – or at least I’m told since I have never enjoyed seafood. Ironic, I know. Like many port towns, Ensenada is tourist-centric which means there is an influx of petty theft and general pestering from beach side restaurants and vendors but if you keep your street smarts and don’t go looking for trouble you won’t find it. Due to the American tourist influence, English is spoken virtually everywhere but we still recommend doing your best to communicate in Spanish out of respect. We quickly realized our spanish was worse than we thought, but had google translate downloaded to our phones to help connect the dots. I really wish I had taken Spanish instead of French in college!
The streets were bright and colorful, alive with music and cruise ship tourists. After exchanging our USD for Pesos we began our walk back to the marina, taking the long way through the fish market, along the Malecón and beneath the large Mexican flag that painted the sky. I was pinching myself to make sure it wasn’t a dream; we were really here. We really made it. Back in the marina we enjoyed another soak in the hot tub, a long hot water shower in the clean marina facilities and dinner aboard Kessel complete with card games.
Projects Don’t Pause South of the Border
…although we had really wished that they did. Back in Morro Bay Avocet got a nasty gash from rubbing against the dock during a big blow. It had been a sore subject aboard for weeks and Chris promised me he would fix it once in Mexico, so on our last day in the slip I pulled out the supplies and saw to it he kept his promise.
It was a fairly quick fix, not perfect, but would definitely cover the spot to the untrained eye which is all I really cared about. Chris and I didn’t spend 5 years working on Avocet to have her look so rugged in the first season of cruising! We wanted her to earn her battle wounds the way we would our swallows, not get bested by a dock. In between coats of awlgrip, Chris checked in on Peter who was entertaining his friend Dan who had driven from Penasco to pick up one of Peter’s outboards – this little tidbit will be poetically ironic in the next blog post, so hang tight.
I was deep cleaning Avocet’s interior, preparing her for our longest passage yet when Olivia knocked on the hull. “Do you know how to get diesel out of fabric?” she asked. A funny question, but I responded nonetheless with “baking soda and vinegar, grease-cutting detergent, Listerine, or ammonia should do the trick” she thanked me and went on her way. A few moments later she knocked again asking if I could help her get diesel out of their mattress. “Your mattress?” I asked, she smiled and nodded, leading me to the chaos. Chris, Dan and Peter were all tucked into the aft cabin of Kessel which you could smell from down the dock. Diesel fumes filled the cabin as the boys desperately tried to contain the mess and fix the core issue.
After investigation, they uncovered that the breather hose for the diesel tanks, which allows the tanks to vent, was obstructed so when Peter was filling the tanks it built enough pressure to create a siphon through the vent hose which was unfortunately placed above their bed. Tools were everywhere, fans were blasting and every portlight and hatch was open. Ginger was laying atop one of the piles, unbothered by the current state of chaos. Olivia and I maneuvered the mattress off the boat, stripped it of its cover and started cleaning out the diesel. “Can I stay on your boat tonight?” she asked, and it was an absolute yes. Cleo was thrilled to have a cuddle buddy in the quarter berth.
Southbound Once More
Our time in Ensenada was short, sweet, expensive, and full of surprises – from our TIP debacle to Peter’s diesel project. Olivia and I took Ginger for a quick walk to soak up our last moments on land for the next five days, which would be our longest passage yet. We were first to leave the slip, giving Peter all the room necessary to maneuver their bowsprit through the narrow fairway. Sails were up by 1:00 as we put the breakwater behind us, Kessel’s tanbark sails soon decorating the seascape off our stern. Our course was set for Bahia Santa Maria, where we would endure even more misadventures with our beloved pals aboard Kessel, but until then it was just Chris, Cleo and I for the next five days and boy was it eventful… but I’ll save the details for the next post.
Thank you, dear reader, for being here and supporting my writing. Every read, share and like really helps! Feel free to ask questions in the comments below, we are happy to answer. Sending love, warmth and fair winds from Isla Isabel, Nayarit.
Marissa (and Chris and Cleo)