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MARCH, 2010

Jacaranda Passage Note #38: Part 2: Socorro Island, Revillagigedos Island group













A Whale of a Time in the Revillagigedos - Socorro Island


This is a follow up to our Part I note from our trip in the Revillagigedo Islands.


On the morning of January 7, we left San Benedicto Island and headed south to Socorro Island after Lady Lexi cut Hopalong's chain and freed them from the rock. We had a beautiful sail to the south side of the island, accompanied by an acrobatic show of jumping dolphins at sunset as we passed Cabo Pearce. We anchored just after dark at Binner's Cove, guided by the anchor lights of Masquerade, Hopalong, and a sport fisher. Binners is a shallow anchorage (40) and all sand - a real rarity in these islands.


The next day was bright and sunny - the warmest one we had so far - and we snorkeled the beautiful shallow reef at the head of the cove in the morning, seeing turtles, eels, white tipped reef sharks, and plenty of colorful reef fish - while we waited for the Mexican Navy to arrive to check us in. Since there were three of us they said they would come over to Binners to do the formalities instead of moving us around to the other side of the peninsula to Navy Cove.


That afternoon, the wooden panga carrying two uniformed officers and 6 rifle-toting men in fatigues and flack jackets pulled alongside each sailboat in succession: one man with a rifle stepped aboard and waited on deck while the two officers sat in the cockpit and checked our paperwork to see that it was in order and that we had our permits. Satisfied that all was well, after a little small talk, they left.


Interestingly, Cirque reported that the day after their initial check-in at Binners Cove, the Navy returned and asked to see the contents of their freezer - looking for fish or lobsters which are illegal to catch. They must have looked like shady characters!


After a few days at Binners Cove, we moved further north up the west side of the island to explore a new anchorage Spirit Quest and Ambar had told us about called The Aquarium. Anchoring in 90 feet of water, the area, marked as the Alberca (Swimming Pool) on our Mexican Chart, was a series of pools tucked into the mainland of Socorro, surrounded by a few small outer rock islands with several pinnacled reefs dotted about on the inside. We could see how easily this could be a wonderful dive site under optimal conditions, but the huge swells rolling in over the reefs, the surginess, and the poor water visibility made our exploration rather mediocre. Still we did see lobster and turtles, and Chuck saw some octopus and eels, especially near the inner pinnacles as opposed to the outer point of the small island. We swam east around the corner to the inner wall that was surprisingly uninteresting. As the afternoon wore on, the sea swells began to increase, making our open roadstead too rolly for comfort. It was time to leave. We decided to head for the better protection afforded by the next anchorage north - Graysons Cove, our old haunt where we stayed so much of the time last year with Beach House. Masquerade, who had moved to the Aquarium with us, had difficulty raising their anchor, tripping their windlass breaker numerous times. They decided to return to the safety of Binners Cove, where Hopalong would remain the rest of the trip, content to stay put in the unobstructed sandy bottom with a huge amount of rode out.

We thought we would feel comfortable back in familiar territory at Graysons in 45 feet of water but the anchor chain growled and popped ceaselessly the first night, with everyone elses anchor troubles making us more paranoid than usual. The next day Linda snorkeled the small anchorage to survey and locate the two narrow fingers of sandy, clear bottom that we knew existed from last year. We re-anchored and repositioned ourselves in one of the fingers and buoyed the second finger for Masquerade to anchor in. At this point we were all gun-shy about getting our anchors wrapped. Masquerade came up the next morning and anchored in the spot Linda had marked with the big X that said anchor here. We spent four days here together, sidled up very cozily about a boat length apart. We watched the swells breaking on a nearby rock formation called Old Man in the Sea on our charts, but, try as we might, just couldn't see the old man; John renamed it Chicken Butt Rock but I tell you, the rest of us couldn't see that either.


Hopalong departed Socorro and headed to Barra de Navidad on the mainland and a few days later Masquerade left for Puerto Vallarta.

Punta Tosca in the Whale Nursery

We moved up to Punta Tosca, one of the best dive sites we explored last year when we would dingy 20 minutes from Grayson Cove, snorkel for a few hours, and then dingy back. Unfortunately we couldnt return as often as we would have liked because of our limited fuel capacity. Envious of the commercial dive boats that stayed by the point, we thought it was just too deep for us to anchor. How elated we were when Spirit Quest and Ambar gave us the coordinates for a lava free spot in 100 feet of water that gave us the confidence to feel secure there - even though 100 is very deep for us. The continuing forecasts called for strong winds and big swells of 17-20 to pound the island but, tucked in behind Punta Tosca, we rolled around but were comfortable. Well lets put that into perspective.. we couldnt have done it without our trusty flopper stopper (an essential device that, when hung from a pole and thrown overboard, dampens the boats rolling and makes life worthwhile). Made by Mr. Scully for us 25 years ago, it died 3 times this trip. But we just kept adding pieces to resurrect it and threw it back in - what a difference it made to our livability in these kinds of conditions!!


Punta Tosca was also a whale nursery.....and we spent three glorious weeks observing the development of a baby humpback whale just yards from the deck. Soon after we anchored, a humpback mom moved in with a calf just days old. We watched in awe as Mom would swim by the boat lifting the baby to the waters surface on her flipper to breathe. We could see the dorsal fin of the baby was still folded over and creased from being in the womb - a telltale sign that it was a newborn. For the following few weeks we watched our mom and baby interact every day, and they seemed to be very comfortable with us being there. Little by little Mom taught the baby to tail slap, fin wave, breach and do all those things whales need to know - and our observations kept us occupied. The baby grew rapidly and soon swam next to, rather than on top of, the moms body.


Little by little, she took the calf further afield from the nursery to teach him to dive deep and give him the experience he needed to make the long distance migration north to the summer feeding grounds off of Canada. We often were busy below in the cabin when we would hear the whoosh of loud exhales next to us, and run out on deck to see the pair swimming around the boat. We listened to the baby and mom calling to each other thru the hull of the boat. They were not singing as the male humpbacks are known to do but were vocalizing back and forth, sounding rather like a low pitched elephants trumpet, answered by a high pitched call. Linda spent many hours with her head down on the cabin sole and her ear against the hull enabling her to hear them more clearly. We would lie in bed at night and all of a sudden would hear them, saying to each other, Ahhh the whales are back! Such an incredibly intimate connection over a good period of time with these amazing animals made our hearts sing!!! How privileged we felt!!!

We dove the reefs around Punta Tosca and were joined by the Lexi boys - Dave and Cory, two hard-core divers from the sailboat Lady Lexi. They dove many of the areas around the island and we always received first hand reports as we viewed the photos and movies from each days adventures. It was great to have them as neighbors and we shared many evening meals (Cory was a gourmet chef) and dive lies with them. They had numerous encounters with hammerhead sharks, dolphins and giant manta rays and some great video and still footage.


We moved further around the island to Cabo Henslow for a few days where we anchored in a 45 sandy spot. Here there was a lagoon and one of the few sandy beaches on the island. In fact it is a turtle nesting site and on our brief excursion we spotted a few carapaces. Along the shore of the lagoon toward the north entrance was a huge vertical blowhole like a chimney that would shoot spray 150 or more into the air. The sound it made was like an air compressor gone loco!

From Cabo Henslow we moved back to Punta Tosca and anchored in our old spot (actually Ambars spot). Lady Lexi returned from Roca Partida where they showed us a photo of a gigantic lobster that they called Lobzilla; it was so big across that you would have trouble getting your hand on it. The photo showed Lobzilla sharing a hole with a large moray eel!

A few days later Lady Lexi departed for Puerto Vallarta and we were left on our own. Our Mom and baby whale were still there and occasionally another adult female whale would come in for a short time to buddy with the pair. But when a male humpback moved in too close, Mom would rush out and start breaching and tail slapping, driving the male away.


Now we were at the six-week mark of our 8-week planned stay. The water visibility had cleared up somewhat but was still not great (45 on a good day) and the surge and swells were becoming increasingly annoying. Our provisions were holding out just fine and Linda had the bread making down to a fine art producing fresh bread every few days. We started looking for a good weather window to sail back to Puerto Vallarta a little earlier than planned. We had been trading emails with Stan the weatherman in Santiago Bay for the past week. We brought the dinghy onboard and generally got the boat put together to do the sail back to the mainland. Not quite finding the perfect weather window we continued to snorkel and swim from the boat....and bid a wistful adieu to our whales who were on increasing longer trips away from the nursery.

"Permit Cancelled"


About this time, we noticed three vessels out on the distant horizon speeding around each other like big jetskis. A look through the binoculars revealed three large inflatable ribs manned by a small platoon of navy guys. That afternoon a large antique helicopter (WWII vintage?) buzzed us overhead. The next day, one of the inflatable ribs came over to us and the Mexican naval officer in charge, surprised at our presence, asked us what we were doing there. "We have a permit to be here, we've checked in with your armada, and its valid for 2 more weeks", we answered. He reviewed our paperwork and made a radio call to the base; that afternoon the officer who had originally checked us in arrived in an old wooden panga and informed us that "Sorry, you have to leave right now because we have closed the island - we are doing military exercises and all permits have been canceled, even for the large commercial dive boats". Luckily we had already prepared Jacaranda to leave. But not today - the weather isn't good for us, we half-lied, so we will leave tomorrow - on Saturday. We didn't tell him that we adhere to the old sailing superstition that it is bad luck to leave on a Friday.


Anyway, Saturday morning dawned with a weather report from Stan that said we might want to be out of Socorro by Tuesday or Wednesday since there was a forecasted low expected to develop over the islands. Dons report (from Summer Passage radio) did not mention any disturbed weather and called for moderate north breezes. Cautiously, we worked our way around the NW side of Socorro Island mindful that the charts we were using had NO soundings (water depth) marked and the water we were sailing in was not surveyed. I felt that by Tuesday, we would be at anchor or close to the mainland should this bad weather develop. My, how things didnt shape up the way I expected! Time to pay the piper for all the good sailing we have had this past year.


As soon as we cleared the island we started sailing slowly close-hauled (wind toward the front of the boat) and made reasonable progress although we were not able to make enough northing to lay Puerto Vallarta. So we decided we would try for anyplace we could get into, Chamela, Tennacatia or Barra. Sunday evening we started seeing a bank of dark clouds to the south of us and the wind became more easterly and increasing. Squalls with rain bands started to sweep through and the barometer dropped 4 point in 4 hours. We spoke with Don after his weather report that lightly touched on a possible trough forming and mentioned our conditions. That got his attention and his report the next morning was much more detailed and forecasted drafty conditions with rain to continue. His report started to now line up with the other weather reports we were getting through the SSB.


On we slogged, sometimes able to lay Acapulco as the wind was now a noserly (on the nose). Monday the conditions continued to worsen - we were experiencing continuous squalls with rain and lightening. The trough was now deeply developed and stretching from SW to NE and that put our course almost parallel to the weather system with us right in the middle of it. Not much we could do at this time but try to keep the boat moving - reefing when the squalls hit us, shaking out a reef as the winds eased.


Monday evenings forecast from Don was even worse - 40-45 knots easterly with heavy rain as the trough continued to slowly move across us. We were now about 60 miles from Barra de Navidad and had continuous rain squalls showing up on the radar for the past 24 hours. Linda called us the squall magnet as anytime we saw a red blob on the radar it seemed to always change course and come right over the top of us. Kind of like the Peanuts character Pigpen, who always traveled with a cloud over his head. We had now reefed and unreefed the main and jib probably 25 times since leaving Socorro in an attempt to keep us moving and on our feet as the squalls bumped the wind speed up.

As the wind started to intensify (now 40 knots) and come directly from the way we wanted to go, we were not making much forward progress, fighting the increasingly large waves as well. So we decided to heave to (park or stop the boat with the main backed) and Jacaranda seemed to settle into a comfortable position, albeit with all hell breaking loose around us!!! We would have to wait another day to get those almond croissants from the French Baker in Barra! By midnight there was pounding, stinging rain accompanied by menacing lightning bolts that lit the sky like daylight all around us. All we could do was hope we would be spared a direct strike that would fry our electronics - an expensive act of nature indeed ----hope that is, and put our computers, camera and hand held GPS in the oven to try to protect them (the oven functions like a Faraday cage). The seas had continued to build with the wind and now were running about 15 feet. We seemed to be ok despite the storm - until an hour later..... at 1 a.m. the boat was lifted up high out of the water by a very large swell and then suddenly dropped down on her side at almost a 70 degree angle, putting the leeward deck into the water. Everything inside the boat that was on the starboard side came flying across. What a shambles!!! A glass container holding a candle broke as it hit the floor, vegetables and fruit rolled around, beads littered the rug, books and papers scattered everywhere, all interspersed with the shards of glass. The cockpit was a jumble of lines and cushions and the spray clothes were flapping in the wind. The dodger had a slight tear where a fastener ripped out. A full 2 ½ gallon sun shower that was laying on the cockpit seat was swept overboard..


The wind was now blowing a steady 45 knots, gusting to 50. I hadnt seen conditions like this since I was in the southern ocean! And Linda now claimed she was no longer a heavy weather virgin. Within minutes of this excitement the wind abated a little and then shifted to the WNW with rain coming down sideways. What a radical wind shift! Now the seas really started to get confused with the large easterly swell crossing with the WNW wind waves. The only good news out of all of this was that we were now able to start sailing again .....and head towards Barra. We dropped the main completely and rolled out a small bit of jib. Within an hour the wind had calmed down into the mid 20s and started to move back into a NE component. The rain eased a bit as we came out of this large squall.

Barra de Navidad

We finally arrived in the lagoon in Barra de Navidad mid-morning and anchored in its protected calm waters. For the first time in almost 7 weeks the boat was sitting completely still. Like last time coming from the Revillageigedos, it was a strange feeling and a readjustment to be back in civilization with lots of radio chatter, friends coming by to say hello, and anchored boats surrounding us. I was exhausted by the four days of our journey (last year it took us three with no incident) and by 6 p.m. I was out like a light. That night in an unseasonable deluge it rained 6 inches, giving us a fresh water wash down. Linda was able to collect the rain water to top off our water tanks and fill buckets for laundry. I slept through the downpour and awoke to a bright sunny morning without a trace of breeze.....AND to the French Baker.


It has been very strange weather this winter - typically it is dry with not a drop of rain. Yet our experience is only one story .......I think youll find the account of the weather bomb that hit La Cruz in Banderas Bay from friends on Just a Minute VERY interesting. Just page down a little on their blog to get to their story... I dont know - I think we may have been better off at sea during these blows after all instead of at anchor.......

........and this was just a taste of bad weather we would experience this weird winter - our next post will describe the next front that we found ourselves sailing through a few weeks later.

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