Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Where the Whakaari?

                                                     2015 - 2016 Where the Whakaari?

I hardly know where to start, how to get up to date with these blogs, how to summarize all that's happened over the months since my last post on May 2015.
Making a long story short seems easiest, so here's a paragraph or three that brings me to the present, and later I'll put some detail into the various destinations.
This narrative picks up at the time when I climbed Colima during an eruption of Fuego.

Once I reached La Cruz in the Bay of Banderras, my sailing project had to take a back seat as other commitments and opportunities intervened.
The first of these was a fabulous month in Prince William Sound with Lizzie, Llew and Allison aboard "Seal" a purpose built high latitudes sailing boat owned by Hamish and Kate who have spent many years exploring the Antarctic and Arctic waters, notably skippering Skip Novak's "Pelagic". They instructed us on the unique characteristics of remote high latitude sailing, as we climbed and skied wherever we could.
Somewhere in Prince William Sound, Alaska on our Remote Sailing Workshop

Before leaving Mexico I spent some time in the Sea of Cortez, dealing with leaking fuel line and injector issues, then left Whakaari in La Paz to go to Llew and Alli's wedding in Colorado and some climbing in the Rockies.

The Baja Bash followed, Carol crewing for me again from Cabo, which was an easy fun sail accompanied by thousands of dolphins. The weather was unusually in our favour, even allowing some spinnaker sailing, soaking up the sun, and never donning the foulies!
Leaving the boat in Ensenada I joined Lizzie, Llew and Alli and a bunch of other kiwi friends on an amazing African journey, focused on climbing Kilimanjaro, communing with gorillas and chimps , and experiencing the wildebeest migrations in the Serengeti and Masai Mara.
Finally, at the summit of the worlds tallest free-standing volcano

On my return I went to Oregon for some climbing in the Cascades, (definitely worthy of a separate blog.) before returning to Ensenada and bringing Whakaari further north.
Entering the USA at San Diego, the boat then threw her toys out of the cot and I struggled to make much progress north, constantly dealing with issues aboard. I had to return to San Francisco from my attempt to reach Canada, and found out my father had died suddenly, so I returned to NZ for his funeral. My best choice afterwards was to winter the boat in SF and do some work to pay for repairs and replenish funds. I did manage some skiing in Aspen, staying with my friend Jackie, and sharing Xmas with Alli's family in Breckenridge.

2016 brought more positive progress, and in late February I did a very fast run up the California/Oregon/Washington coast riding a SW front to Victoria BC with Dick Sutton aboard as crew, who had sailed this passage several times and was blown away by our rapid time of one week!

Whakaari spent another month alone in Silva Bay, Gabriola in the Gulf Islands while I returned to NZ for the film premier of our amazing experiences in Africa "Into Africa", a New Zealand "wedding celebration" for Llew and Alli in Charleston, and interring my fathers ashes.
Alec my brother in law 'piping Alli and Llew in', at Frith and Petes home in Charleston, NZ

Before returning to the boat I resolved to slow my intentions for making more north, and take the opportunity to spend the rest of 2016 cruising BC's famous sailing grounds. In fact I ended up cruising the Inside Passage and surrounding areas three times, taking a different route each time with regular changes in crew which included my brother Iain and his wife Sara and Jackson their 2 year old son; Lizzie, Llew and his best mate Matt Coles;  and of course Carol who generously gave me a base and many good friends on Gabriola that made it all possible, and very enjoyable.

with Lizzie, Llew and Matt at the floating Kutz Lodge

Llew and I climbed Garibaldi near Whistler, my chosen BC volcano, again a story worthy of its own blog.
A final highlight of BC cruising was our visit to Khutzeymateen Inlet where the Grizzly Bear viewing was sublime. Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Santuary

With Lizzie staying aboard we cleared out of Canada and entered Alaska at Ketchikan, taking in some very impressive scenery, cultural sites and wildlife as we explored Wrangell Narrows, Sawyers Arm tidewater glaciers and the region's myriad bays and inlets en route to Juneau.

Grizzly mother and two of her three cubs
Leaving Lizzie at Juneau to return home, I made my way north to Haines. (Near Skagway and the Klondike) to settle Whakaari in for the northern winter, where she sits now, having been lovingly cared for by Scott Pearce who operates a Boat Watch business in this tiny Alaskan village.

Very soon I will be back aboard, preparing the boat for the big adventure of crossing the Gulf of Alaska to explore the Aleutians and across the Bering Sea to Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia then hopefully to Hokkaido, Japan before the northern winter once again sets in. With a strong crew coming together, we plan to spend as much time as possible exploring and climbing ashore, one particular objective being an ascent of Mt Cleveland in the Island of Four Volcanoes.
The Islands of Four Volcanoes
There are many stories to tell, many images to share, so watch this space - I am truly appreciative of people's patience looking for new blogs, and being supportive of this stuttering but committing project of mine.

I must down to the sea again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife...
extract from "Sea Fever" by John Mansfield

Friday, May 29, 2015

Mexico, and the Colima Climb

Getting back underway, both with sailing and volcano excursions, was so revitalizing, I was on a roll to Mexico and keen to put some miles on the log and go climbing again.
The first challenge however was to safely cross the dreaded Gulf of Tehuantepec, where gap winds funnel across the narrow belt of land separating the Caribbean and the Pacific generating full blown storm conditions that have taken many boats and their crew to Davey Jones' locker. 

The safest strategy is called "one foot on the shore" staying just outside the surf all the way round the edge of the gulf, but many southbound skippers choose the rhumb line straight across from Huatulco to Chiapas. If going north this is a bolder course to take, but if the weather window is there, an easier sail than pushing against wind and current around the shore.
Everyone I'd met had their stories of good and bad crossings, and there were some horror stories, including reports of recently drowned solo sailors and boats being sandblasted by the gap winds even though they were hundreds of miles west of the gulf.

Without exception everyone also recommended Enrique who manages the Chiapas Marina as a weather window guru. He apparently gets it right every time.
I had barely tied up at Chiapas when a window was due, and Enrique was (reluctantly) advising me that if I didn't want to wait at least another 8 days I should get myself in position now. (It's a full day sailing from Chiapas to where you first encounter gap winds so if it's a small window you need to get out there and ready to make the jump as soon as the winds ease.)

So after clearing in, and taking a taxi to the customs authorities back on the
Nicaraguan/Mexico border to obtain a TIP ( temporary import permit) for Whakaari, I was busily refueling and preparing to meet the infamous T-pecker.

Happily I chose to take some time out and have dinner with a newly wed couple from BC who were
on an extended
 sailing honeymoon - they're so much fun!

Twenty four hours later as the sun sets I'm putting two reefs in the main and locking everything down, brewing up some soups and coffee for the thermos, as I close on the gap wind area, the windspeed steadily rising and the sea state building.

By 0200 hrs Whakaari has a bone in her mouth, the rail is occasionally under, and we're cracking along at 8-9 knots.
By 0600 hrs I've shaken out both reefs, under full headsail, maintaining 6-7 knots and praising Enrique for another good call!
The winds die out but the time flows along nicely and I make landfall in the wee small hours in Bahia Conejo. The 250 nm took 46 hours, so no records broken but a fun run, easy conditions, with magnificent starry nights and many turtles just floating about. I saw only one other boat making the crossing, a catamaran heading south, but they didn't have their radio on.
The only issue was the auto pilot twice turning me back 180 degrees while I was trying to get some shuteye - it's like a stubborn horse, reluctant to head out but give it half a chance and it'll turn for home in a shot!
Over the next few days I skipped along the Central Mexican Coast, picking the eyes out of a fabulous cruising area that North American boaters return to year in year out to explore at a much more leisurely pace than I. Some of the highlights - Huatulco National Park's golden sands & turtle nesting beaches, Acupulco and cliff divers,

Escondido and its "Mexican Pipeline", Puerto Angel's panga cluttered bay with Tuna season in full swing, and of course Zihuatenajo, a fabulous mix of old and new that I would come to know better, but after a volcano climbing excursion inland.
In Mexico there are some 40 significant volcanoes, with a huge range in elevation, thermal activity and difficulty of the climb, the highest being Pico de Orizaba at 18,620'
Several are closed as they are currently erupting, or have been for some time and considered dangerous in particular Popocatepeti (17,800') though I heard of several undercover ascents

My crew for the next sailing segment, Carol a Canadian who escapes to Mexico during the northern winter and lives in Barra de Navidad suggested I consider climbing Colima (12,630') which is close to Barra and would give us a chance to meet up before being committed to sharing a 40' boat and no simpatico.

Colima is a dual volcanic complex locally called "Fire and Ice" - Fuego (Fire) is currently active and closed to visitors, and Nevado (Ice) tho quiet now is potentially active but open to hike and climb. There are some technical routes on this 4,000m volcano and the close proximity to its active twin presented the possibility of some great views! Sounds like a plan!

After the chicken buses of my last inland trips, Mexico's long haul buses were luxury, often complete with onboard toilets, 110v power outlets at your seat, wifi and movies, and as there's plenty of competition they're not expensive. The terminals range from swanky departure lounge style to noisy food-stall pavements, but always with helpful staff, no hassling from vendors, a secure luggage system, and I had many fun interactions with local travellers.

Carol was house sitting a friends place that was a tropical retreat, and she gave me the Cook's tour of her second home town, and introduced me to her friends there. We met up with Judy and Bill of "Moontide" at Grand Bay as they headed south. Carol had crewed for them also.

I met so many Canadians in Barra, just like all the other places I'd visited along this idyllic coast, I hope whoever left BC last turned the lights out!

A recent storm had ripped out some of the beach access points and the expat Canuks held a fundraiser while I was there, with traditional Mexican fare, silent auctions and a funky local band.

But I needed to go find "Fire and Ice", so onto another bus, packing my camping & hiking gear, crampons & ice axe and I headed inland.
The last leg involved another chicken bus, complete with animals this time, and I jumped off where the dirt road starts its ascent to La Joya and the Colima national park HQ. A long steep 17 km through coffee fincas, then tall oak and spruce stands, and finally native forest (the only place in the world with Abies colomensis forests. I walked most of it, getting a lift for the last 4-5 km with a bombadero (firefighters) truck delivering water. I happily threw my pack in the back by the tank and assailed the driver with my Spanglish. When we got to the gate my pack was soaked - Doh!
A short two klicks to the campsite and I was setting up just on dark, as the temps plummet. A fire becomes top priority, and thanks to the logging operations (to remove exotics planted into the native forest years ago) there's an endless supply of firewood. The logging crew is also camped nearby (no down sleeping bags, MSR stove etc, for them, just the clothes they're wearing and
some meat cooked on sticks) so they have an impressive bonfire to keep their large crew warm. The jokes and singing went late into the night.
By 4 am I'm ready to get moving, surprised how cold it was at only 3000m asl, but not before stirring the fire up again, and finding a place to stash my camping gear.
The trail is kinda marked, but you have to be focused, especially walking by headlamp. The compass was well used. For two hours it's just a creek bed, then forest changes to a unique forest and alpine tussock mix before suddenly arriving at bush line, and it's all ash, rock and snow. At 7am, sunrise, I'm climbing the east flank above the transmitter towers, heading towards a snow-filled couloir that looks to lead onto a spine and the summit. It's a technical route apparently but the going was pretty good.
Before gaining the summit I'd passed three permanent anchors, and I wasn't using a rope or protection, so they must guide people without climbing experience this way.

Just as I crested the spine, with only 200 m to the summit, Fuego erupted! I felt and then heard it, and had to check myself, to not hurry the last few moves so I was able to see it.
For me that was one of those "pay dirt" moments, a validation of all that I'd planned to achieve on this escapade. I was right here, in the moment, the effort was being paid back in spades - It was challenging, exhilarating and so rewarding!

I stayed nearly two hours on the summit of Nevado de Colima, as Fuego just kept pumping, and the 360 degree views were mesmerizing. Researchers turned up in a helicopter, getting as close as they dared to Fuego, so that provided some extra entertainment.
Two other climbers were supposed to be on Colima as well. They camped in a different location to me but I thought we would meet up,somewhere on the mountain but I didn't see them until I was almost back on the flat lands.
Descending I almost took a major fall. I was taking a shortcut to an ash scree below so I could glissade down, but a rock crumbled under my boot, and to avoid being pitched forward and over a 50 meter bluff beyond the ledge I had to take the drop leaning my weight ( and pack ) backwards so the impact when I'd dropped only 2 metres onto the ledge below went straight up thru my left leg. It felt like I'd broken something, but the pain subsided quickly and I could move freely. So much so I glissaded the entire ash and snow section right to the bush line.
The walk out was enjoyable and I felt very pleased with myself.
The logging chief had offered me a ride down the 17 km access road if I waited for him at Park HQ, which of course I did, resting aching legs, brewing up in the shade of an Abies and writing up the day. He and I managed to converse on the drive down, and it was like being back in a forestry truck, smells and sap of Pine on everything, 2 stroke fuel and chainsaws in the back, a Forester and a Timber man pointing out only things we could appreciate. He loved to drive as close to the edge as possible so,I could look down on the forest canopy and the gorges far below.
Back in Cuidad Guzman, I'm looking forward to celebrating at a cafe before the long and involved bus trips back to Ixtapa where Whakaari is no doubt feeling neglected. But everybody is so helpful and the buses are so frequent, I find myself on a bus without a break. The views of "Fire and Ice" from the road, of ash clouds still spreading out across the country and coloring the sunset like you wouldn't believe, was a nice way to finish a very long day (oh, and I did
manage to get two cold beers and some snacks at the terminal to take aboard😅 )

Friday, April 10, 2015

Guatemala and El Salvador

My eventual escape from Costa Rica was a fast sail across Golfo de Papagayo but only after sitting out a gale in the protected anchorage of Bahia Santa Alena. Four yachts weathered the gusts, waiting for the winds to ease and head north or south. The morning I chose to leave I was delayed an hour searching for my SUP which had been ripped away from the boat and blown across the bay. I found it wedged in the mangroves as if wanting no part of my journey.

8.9 knots under double reefed main

 With two reefs in the main and a pocket handkerchief of a headsail, Whakaari charged across the gulf at 8-9 knots, shaking off the foaming seas, rounding up occasionally in gusts of 35 knots plus, settling nicely to her work. The first of two notorious gap winds was an exhilarating but confident sail.
By midday I'd shaken out one reef and set both headsails, and we were passing Nicaragua's San Juan del Sur (a popular surf beach crowded with Aussies), on our way to the gulf of Fonseca, where three countries meet - Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador.
At sunset we were still charging along on a reach under full sail, and I had made the decision to carry on direct to Bahia del Sol, El Salvador and wait off the bar til morning for a pilot.
Three countries in one day! The line of volcanoes along their coastlines an impressive sight, especially at dusk and dawn. Absolutely fantastic sailing!

Passing over the bar was my first hazardous encounter with potential grounding since the "Costa Rica Incident" and I don't mind admitting I was very anxious. Happily it was all over quickly and I was being welcomed at Bahia del Sol Marina with a rum cocktail and the easiest most enjoyable "clearing in" process ever.
The cruisers there were all gearing up for the El Salvador cruisers rally, and in fine form. I was welcomed like an old friend. There I met people who had shared in a similar experience of protracted repairs in Quepos, was put in contact with crew for going north that worked out exceptionally well, and given endless invaluable advice for cruising in North America. One expat, Lou, opened his home to cruisers every Sunday afternoon for pot luck BYO drinks and dinner, where we watched the Superbowl final.
However my focus was to notch up some volcanoes, so I very quickly headed out on a "chicken bus" to San Salvador, and boarded a coach to Guatemala.
In one day I made it to Antigua, the delightful World Heritage listed city near Guatemala City populated with expats, touristas, Catholic monasteries & churches, and surrounded by impressive volcanic peaks.
Fuego and Acetenango from a plaza in Antigua

Monastery Ruins
Above the catacombs

OX Expeditions offered overnight hikes on Acetenango and that was the closest I would be able to get to Volcan Fuego, currently very active and providing impressive displays.
Acetenango is Central America's third highest volcano at 3976m (13,044') and last erupted in 1972.
Twelve of us hiked up to base camp at 3400 m asl and enjoyed some stunning ash eruptions and lava flows from the time we arrived at 4 pm right through the night and again during our sunrise summit of Acetenango.

Into Cloud Forest again

Tussock and Pines at sub-alpine altitude!

Even though it was an arduous climb with moderately heavy packs, our group clicked early, making the overnight hike a social time esp. around the fire at night with songs, stories and wine. I chose to sleep under the stars to see as many pyroclastic flows as possible, and tho there was a layer of ice on my bag at dawn and regular breaks in my sleep with every rumble it was totally worth it. I was to hear two days later that this activity was just a warm up - Fuego erupted on February 7 as I was returning to El Salvador, pushing ash plumes 5000' above the summit, ash falling on Guatemala City, and closing the international airport.


I must have got some rest as in the morning as the final climb to the summit was easy, and I even took part in the crater rim run and earned a free t-shirt. Second fastest in the group, not bad for an old guy, huh?

Acetenango Summit at Sunrise

While in Antigua I also hiked around the flanks of Pacaya as a warm up to the overnite hike, visited a couple of monastery ruins and soaked up views of Volcan Agua that dominates the city.

Great Coffee!


(Antigua's climate is so consistently benign that priests of old chose it over all others and resulted in many churches being built there. However most have been destroyed by the equally consistent earthquakes)
Dragging myself away from this cultural oasis, I took another chicken bus out and returned to El Salvador, making my way toward Santa Ana.
My run of luck with public transport was out by now, and my rudimentary Spanish not up to the task. I found myself out of light, hitching a quiet road alone in a region of dubious integrity. I got on a crowded bus and stayed on it till reaching a major town where I could get a room for the night. Of course that place was nowhere near my destination and I would need a new route in the morning. It turned out to be Sonsonate, a down at heel town boasting the highest stats for murder, prostitution and drug cartel activity in the whole country!
At dawn I'm out of the filthy hotel like a shot, scouring the bus terminal for a bus to Santa Ana. The one I chose dropped me at a junction high in the Parque National Cerro Verde above Lago Coatepeque, a stunning lake in a massive caldera, 12 km short of my destination, with only 2 hours to get to the meeting point for the volcano hike.

Frozen icecreams on a hot day, n
o ice in his carry box just paper!

After walking the first 4 kms I was picked up by a young enthusiastic couple going to a election campaign at the Park's campground. We drove past many coffee pickers, chatting about El Salvador politics until the car broke down 2 kms short of the park entrance. In the end I made it in time to join the day's tour. It is illegal to climb Volcan de Santa Ana without a park guide and an armed guard, and they leave at 11 am sharp.
The group was large, with many El Salvadorians, as it was a Sunday. We paid two dollars each on three separate occasions to park staff and land owners as the trail made its way upward, and in two hours reached the crater rim, a height gain of only 900 metres. It was my first experience of buying an ice-cream from a vendor on a crater rim! You have to be enterprising in this poor country.
The Santa Ana Volcano, or Ilamatepec, is a large cinder cone. At 2,381 metres above sea level, it is the highest volcano in the country. It last erupted in 2005, forcing the evacuation of villages and killing two people. The crater is a set of nested calderas and contains an impressive lake similar in color to the glacial lakes back home.

During this hike I met a Romanian traveller who only hiked and climbed volcanoes for his vacations! He was wealth of knowledge about Central American volcanology.

My return to Whakaari on anchor at Bahia del Sol was delayed a day as I missed the last bus out of San Salvador while buying provisions. So, another $7.50 room, cleaner but still of dubious reputation (no mirror in the bathroom but plenty round the king size bed) and lots of comings and goings!
All was well on my return, and I was looking forward to another Sunday session with the cruisers, but my body decided I needed a rest and I slept through til the evening, meeting everyone coming back from Lou's as I belatedly headed up river in my dinghy with a hastily made pasta dish. I was sorry to miss that occasion as I wanted to pick people's brains about points north to Mexico.
I cleared out of El Salvador the next day and crossed the bar early Tuesday morning in the company of Steve and Trish on Kuyima, they heading sound, me turning north to Chiapas, Mexico, and my next challenge, the Tehuantepec gap wind.

Volcan Pacaya Hike -
The volanic ash is so fine it
floats up when  you walk,
so a bandana is a great filter.

Toasting Marshmallows in cooling lava

Preparing to leave Bahia Del Sol at dawn