Or, The Top Fifteen Essential Nonessentials for Sailing in Mexico
Oleada has now sailed over 2100 nautical miles, and Josh and I were talking about the things that have made our lives infinitely better along the way. Not the obvious stuff (good sails, reliable rigging and engine,) but more like the things we didn’t realize would be so great before we left. I thought I would make a list of a few things that might help sailors (or any travelers) stay (a little more) sane on a boat if you’re thinking of heading to warmer climes in Latin America.
- The bimini.
I am grateful for shade over the cockpit EVERY DAY. EVERY. DAY. Josh built the bimini from scratch in La Paz, purchasing and bending the pipe himself, then sewing the sunbrella fabric based on the vague but useful instructions of a canvas book we have on the boat. I doesn’t exactly match the dodger, but miraculously, we found the same color, just a few shades darker, at a store on the edge of La Paz. Someday, we will make side curtains from it (we have seen other boats that have nice mesh ones,) but for now we hang sarongs using clothes pins from whatever side to block the sun for coffee time in the morning, or when we’re underway.
Important to note the crucial nonessential that we used to make this: our sewing machine!
- Flopper Stopper.
This ingenious, simple device hangs off the boom (provided the boom is well-supported) into at least 10 feet of water and keeps the boat from rocking side to side. It provides the counter force for rocking in the swell with doors that close when the boat pulls up and open when it releases, lessening the rolling motion of the boat. This thing has probably saved me from descending into insanity—it makes rolly anchorages places where we can (possibly) sleep.
Our friends Jon and Shannon aboard Prism texted us when they were partway down the Baja Pacific coast and told us we had better not leave without one, they were using theirs every night. We use ours 90% of the nights out here (and the other 10% of the time we just forget to put it out, because anchorages inevitably roll at some point in the night.) You can make your own or buy a shiny new one for around $200. Viva el flopper stopper!
- Comfortable cockpit chairs.
Okay, I admit to threatening to throw these things overboard more than a few times on our sail south—they always seemed to be in the way of whatever winch or cleat I need to use. However, they provided us with comfort underway, or while enjoying a beverage outside for sunrise or sunset. They can even be collapsed flat to sleep on in the cockpit. We don’t have cockpit cushions, but even if we did, we spend most of our time sitting on the cockpit combing (the high edge that surrounds the cockpit) to keep an eye on the water. We also bring them up to the cabin top to sit in the shade when we are underway with the autopilot on.
No list of mine would be complete without a nod to our desalinator. When it’s hot in the middle of the night, getting up to rinse off with fresh water is really, really nice. It also means that we can stay away from a dock for a long time. I can even do laundry (in a bucket, works great!) We don’t have to worry about getting to and from specific places for fresh water, and in this way, it keeps us safer and out of the way of weather.
- 12 volt fans.
We would have melted long ago if not for our three-speed Caframo “Bora” fans. They draw almost no amperage from our 12-volt system and move air in the crucial places: the bed, the head, and the galley. We have five total, and we will add two more (one more in the v-berth and one more in the salon) as soon as we can get them to Mexico.
- Bug Screens.
Ideally, ones made with fine mesh like on a tent, to keep out the biting bugs even smaller than mosquitoes. We ended up making screens after an overly exciting invasion of bees at Los Gatos. Although I learned I have a talent for catching bees in a jar, I don’t need to relive dozens of bees crawling in through the tiny gap in our companionway hatch, especially when the other person on board is allergic! We used screen material from one of those temporary screen curtains that would hang in a doorway, extra sturdy 3M Velcro, and sewed the two together (again, using our industrial sewing machine.) We now keep all mosquitoes and bees at bay!
Note: we had screen material and the Velcro already on board. Don’t underestimate the amount of random stuff that will come in handy. I have often lamented all of Josh’s ‘extra’ scraps and tools—until we need them!
- Culturelle (prebiotic AND probiotic) and Grapefruit seed extract.
Even with some amount of caution, both Josh and I end up having days where we can’t be more than a few feet from a toilet. This can carry on for a week if you don’t do something about it. Hence the Culturelle. It’s not only a probiotic, which adds helpful bacteria to fight those your gut can’t handle, but also a prebiotic. A prebiotic is a food that contains inulin, which supports your naturally occurring intestinal flora and fauna. Therefore, the positive effects remain in your gut even after you stop taking it (as opposed to a probiotic, which is awesome but leaves your system.) I would venture to say this product has changed my life.
Another intestinal trick for us: grapefruit seed extract. We have the liquid and pill form, and this always seems to help within a few hours. I haven’t found either of these things in Mexico. However, you can eat foods with inulin (asparagus, bananas, chicory, leeks…) And regular probiotics are available at any pharmacy: you can even get chewable grape flavor from Farmacia Similares. People also like the Sinuberase brand.
- Satellite phone and / or SSB radio.
I really did not think we needed a satellite phone, but this has been a great way to keep ICWA and our families informed and have remote access to weather info. We mainly use it to text. We also use it for email, and to download low-resolution weather data (called GRIB files) and forecasts from NOAA. It’s GREAT peace of mind for not only our families, but for us. The phone ultimately means we can stay remote for longer periods of time—for example, while cruising the Sea of Cortez in hurricane season. Do I need this? No. Is it nice to stay in touch with my mom? YES! Is it nice to know we have a portable communication device we can use anywhere in the world away from the boat? YES!
We have become huge fans of our SSB (single side band radio) as well, for both daily weather reports and for the sense of community it brings us when we hear other sailboats checking in from around the sea.
- The Wirie (a wireless signal booster.)
If we can pick up an internet connection on shore, this device makes it possible to connect to the world from the boat. This cannot be underrated for a person, like me, who is writing about people, places, and science, and wants to learn more about specific topics as I write. It also means we can check the weather and send emails without burning through cell phone data or sat phone minutes. In San Juanico and Bahía de Los Angeles, we didn’t have cell service but wanted to stay for an extended period. We were able to pick up an internet signal and check in with the world for emails and weather forecasts.
Sailing is active—but not that active. Aside from yoga in the cabin (I cut a yoga mat to fit in the salon), I need a way to get more exercise. The paddleboards let Josh and I go exploring, and Uly loves to ride on them with us. We can see down into the water from above, too, making it a great way to observe nature, like whale sharks, without a motor. When it gets windy, we just drop to our knees or chests to paddle. We can paddle from the boat to snorkel—this brings us delicious grouper for dinner. Finally, we have boards with shape and rocker, which means they serve as surfboards (even on big boat wakes.)
They fit easily on the rails, and we rarely launch the dinghy—which consequently serves as an excellent sun/moon blocker for v-berth sleeping and as a shady dog house on the foredeck for Uly.
- TWO (or more) Cruiser’s Guides.
I mean, c’mon, the Shawn Breeding and Heather Bansmer Sea of Cortez cruising guidebook is a WORK OF ART. Even the kids of Agua Verde were spellbound looking at it. We spend hours reading it and learning about the places we will visit. This isn’t just technical information, but interesting, well-researched facts about the landscape and natural and cultural history. We also have Captain Rains’ guide, which, while possibly less accurate, has saved us by listing waypoints and info for more off-the-beaten-track places. I nearly cried with gratitude for her list of anchorages along the northern mainland coast when we needed to get out of 12 hours of lightning storms—anchorages that went unlisted in the other guide and we would have never found in the dark. Heather and Shawn cater to the cruiser with their beautiful maps, while 25 years of Pacific boat deliveries gives Captain Rains the edge for all the little gunk holes.
The most crucial note, though: our Garmin charts are laughably horrendous for the Sea of Cortez. They just can’t be trusted; for example, the chart shows that we ran over an island in Bahía Concepción (we didn’t.) It’s not specific to Garmin: we have heard that charts for the Sea are miles off for most. So the book has become invaluable to us for navigating anchorages. Some things have changed since they published it (beaches have washed away, many restaurants are gone and new stores have popped up,) so I hope they will make updated guides, but both are fantastic and practical.
- The Boat Galley Cookbook.
I was going to write “A Practical Cookbook” but then realized how dependent I am on this specific book by Carolyn Shearlock and Jan Irons. Ever since I got my hands on a copy, life has been better. This book is full of helpful tips (how to hydrate beans with minimal cooking using a thermos, excellent substitution suggestions) and easy recipes (hummus, no cook energy bars, tortilla soup, even five kinds of barbecue sauce!) It’s so accessible that it has made me a (gasp!) traditional yeast bread baker! Pizza on a boat, people. REAL pizza. Finally, it’s written with the knowledge of how difficult it can be to get access to simple stuff when you are cruising. I started by following the recipes, but it gave me the confidence to start mixing and substituting on my own as well.
- High quality snorkel gear (mask, fins, and weights.)
Having a nice mask and long fins makes snorkeling, freediving, and spear fishing WAY MORE FUN. I didn’t know how much easier it would be to stay underwater and check out the diversity on the reefs and rocks until I used my long fins. It’s also safer when you can power through the water and see where you are going. Plus I could keep up with a whaleshark! Good gear saves us money too: it’s crucial for harvesting dinner from the sea. Probably thanks in large part to warm water from El Niño, we have been skunked trolling behind the boat this summer. But we can dive the shoreline and find plenty of grouper, cabrilla, and sand bass in places where we can’t safely bring the sailboat or even the dinghy.
- Spanish language.
Speaking even a little bit of Spanish will get you a long way in Mexico—food, directions, discounts, safety, local/secret knowledge, and a lot of laughter. The amazing thing about Mexico is that they don’t care if your Spanish is awful—you will get complimented just by using it.
It wasn’t painless for me to learn Spanish; languages do not come easily or naturally to me. Chatting with people has been the best way for me to improve. But you can start before you arrive. You can use the Duolingo phone app, among others. Books with exercises, like Nissenberg, can help the visually inclined. Community college courses (or senior centers) are usually inexpensive and flexible. Two weeks of classes at somewhere like Se Habla La Paz will get you miles ahead as well. Then go use it. Because I speak Spanish, I have learned so much more about the people and places we visit—not to mention made friends in a short period of time.
A tip: have a few questions that you ask people wherever you go (Do you live here? Were you born here? Do you like it here? Is it different nowadays?) And know a few of the common questions you will receive (Where are you coming from? Where are you from? Do you have kids? [this is hilariously common for us] What’s your dog’s name?) This will get you started.
- Your pet!
The benefits of pet ownership seem to increase ten-fold when you are at sea. The people we have meet who have their dog(s) or cat(s) are just so happy to be sharing their space with a four-legged furry creature that can bring endless entertainment, comfort, and joy. And their pets are some of the best cared for I have ever met.
For us, Uly makes us laugh all the time—even when we are tired and grumpy. He might have a few quirks (like a deep love of rolling in bird poop, or jumping off the boat when he hears a loud noise), but he’s an excellent snorkeling companion (this is amazingly true), snuggler, and ambassador to adults, kids, and other dogs. Dogs also have the EXCELLENT additional benefit of ensuring that you will get off the boat and go to shore at least twice a day (you might be amazed to see that some people do not leave their boat for weeks.) But most of all, he grounds us and helps us enjoy the amazing ocean around us. Plus he gets to have a GREAT life.
No pet? No problem—Mexico has PLENTY who are in need of good home! We just met a couple who adopted a dog from the streets in Mexico—and there was never a happier dog. He’s gentle and LOVES to be patted. The Mexicans at the marina joke that Guero (the dog) has a life like a Mexican telenovela, a perfect soap opera Cinderella story.
Remember, nothing on this list is essential! In addition, this list is specific for us. But everything on it has either made us safer, healthier, happier, or all three. Sailing is neither a smooth cruise over dolphin-clogged waters nor an endless lonely beatdown from the weather—sometimes it can be either, but usually it’s somewhere in between. These things above have made the journey that much better for us.
Anyone out there have other favorites (like out friend Marc on the Cal 39 Aquarius recommended a cold spray bottle with a little mint essential oil for a refreshing spritz)? Leave them in the comments!