Answers to questions we've been asked
02 February 2010 | San Blas, Nayarit, MX
To follow up on my 1/28 post, "What is cruising, anyway?" I thought it might be fun to address some of the more specific questions we've received.
Do you have electricity?
We do have a limited amount of electricity on the boat at any time, which is stored in a large battery bank. Because we have systems that depend on electricity, such as the refrigerator and freezer, we are very conscious on our energy conservation. Another large energy draw are our computers, so we take advantage of any off-boat usage options whenever we find them, such as working in coffee shops.
We also use LED lights extensively, as these draw a fraction of the amps conventional bulbs do.
There are many different ways boats use to generate their electricity, some of which are more environmentally impactful than others. They include generators, running the boat's engine to charge the batteries, wind or water-driven generators, and solar panels.
It's not uncommon for boats to use a combination of these, as we do. On Exit Strategy, we have two 130 watt solar panels, and augment our needs by running the engine for an hour or so when necessary, maybe every three of four days if the weather is cloudy. We always take full advantage of the times when we are motoring due to lack of wind, when you'll find every electronic device on the boat plugged in for charging. To reduce both our carbon footprint and to save on the fuel expense we will be installing one more solar panel and a wind generator in the future.
When we're in a marina, we give the boat's DC system and inverter a break and use the AC shore power.
Do you ever get to get off your boat?
Yes, we are often off our boat when at anchorage, enjoying the town, biking or hiking. We use a dinghy, or tender, to go between the boat and shore. Because much of the fishing in Mexico is done from small fishing boats, many of the towns have docks we can tie our dinghies up to. Otherwise, we have to do a beach landing through the surf. So far we've been lucky doing this and not dumped the dinghy, but we've watched others do it. It's always great for a laugh once you verify everyone is okay. We always carry our computers and other valuables in a water-tight case when beach landing due to this possibility.
We actually have two tenders. One is an inflatable, which is a popular type of dinghy. Because it's a little small, we use the inflatable with our 2hp outboard for short hops and when there isn't much current. When things are a bit rougher, or when we need to haul more people and stuff or go longer distances, we use our Porta-Bote with either the 2hp or an 8hp outboard. The Porta-Bote, which is made of a somewhat flexible plastic, is pretty cool, as it folds up to be about the size of a surfboard for easy stowage. It's also economical as it moves just as well with the 8hp outboard as most inflatables do with a 15hp engine.
While the Porta-Bote is too cumbersome to keep set-up on deck, we do keep the inflatable dingy blown up when we're sailing to act as a life raft if we should ever find the need for one.
Do you ever see other people?
We've been lucky a couple of time to get an anchorage to ourselves, but more often we share the anchorage with two or more boats. Of course, the more popular the spot the more boats! We frequently see Mexican fishermen in their ubiquitous pangas, a small utility boat, that was originally designed by an American who built a marina in La Paz.
While on the water, we may see a sail or two on the horizon on any given day. Occasionally a boat will come close enough for us to wave hello.
How do you communicate with other cruisers?
For local communications, using a VHF radio is the most common way to communicate. There is a "hailing channel" that everybody stays tuned to. When you want to call someone, you say their boat name, then say your boat name. Once that boat answers, you move to a different channel to have your conversation.
Unlike the telephone "party line" I grew up with, the airwaves are considered public, and it's not at all uncommon to have other folks listen in on your conversations. Thusly, folks often chose to use alternative means to hold private conversations (although I must admit sometimes its rather fun to listen to the teen-age sweethearts saying goodnight to each other).
For longer range communication of hundreds and even thousands of miles, cruisers use SSB (single side band) radios.
Some folks use ham, amateur radio networks, which require a FCC license to broadcast but are available for all to listen to.
There are daily "nets" that serve many of the anchorages, marinas and geographic areas. Nets are an organized way of dispersing information to a group of people as well serve to keep track of cruisers by way of boat check-ins (check-ins include boat coordinates in nets serving off-shore cruisers). There is generally one or more net "controllers" for each net who have taken responsibility to moderate the net, with the cruisers being active participants. Common topics are medical/emergency traffic, weather and tides, upcoming local activities and events, Q&A on local goods and services needed, and items needed or for trade.
How do you cook?
We have a two-burner propane stove with oven and a BBQ on the stern of the boat. The stove is gimbaled so it stays level when the boat is heeled over (leaning) when we are under sail. I did, however, learn that the gimbaling can sometimes hinder more than it helps, as evidenced by a beautiful fresh-caught yellow fin tuna flying out of the stove and splattering all over the floor. Now when we are underway in rough seas we limit ourselves to stovetop cooking, as there are clamps on it that keep the pots in place.
I must admit that we also carry a microwave for the unforeseen need to defrost some meat and while in the marina. It doesn't get used often.
One big challenge for me is that the oven is tiny, so I have had to learn to "cook small". That and limited refrigerator space means I don't often get to cook extra for leftovers.
How do you do your shopping?
Except in very large towns, where you will find large chain grocery stores similar to those in the States, shopping can be an all-day experience. This is because most of the stores specialize in a single type of item or a limited number of product lines, as I can imagine it was when my grandmother was a child. There is the carniceria (for meats), the pescaderia (for fish), the grocer, a shop that sells styrofoam items such as plates and cups, the bakery, and such. Going to the municipal mercado (market) helps, as it provides a location where most these individual vendors can congregate.
When we shop, both Dave and I will carry our large backpacks and bring along a rolling cart when road conditions allow (many smaller towns have cobblestone roads using round river rocks). We know we're done when we can't carry anymore... and that's when I generally like to throw in one last papaya.
We've found incredible savings when sticking with these smaller stores in comparison to the Super Walmart, Sam's Club, Mega and the Mexican equivalents. Purchasing locally produced items also keeps cost down.
Can you find the same food as in the US?
We've found more of our favorites in the larger big-box type stores than in the local shops and markets. However, with a little flexibility and creativity we've overcome some of the toughest hurdles (yes, gumbo with napoli - which is cactus pad - is just as yummy as it is with okra!). In some other instances we've just done without and don't miss it at all.
But, really, when in Rome... We've pretty much shifted our dietary habits to what's available locally. I've always loved tacos!
The meats here are beyond compare to those we found in the US, and less than half the cost. I recently bought a kilo (2.2 lbs) of completely fat-free freshly butchered pork tenderloin for 75 pesos (about $6.00). I got a half-kilo of freshly ground lean beef (they ground it as I waited) for 30 pesos. Mmmm, that made an incredible hamburger!
Where do you get your water?
We have a 265 gallon water tank on our boat, which we use for "house water" we get from a marina. Because it is not considered potable (although the locals drink it), we use this water for things like washing dishes, clothes and bathing. One of the drivers for a marina stay is running out of our house water, so like electricity, we conserve wherever we can, and reuse when possible. When we have access to a water spigot to refill our solar showers used for bathing and dishes we can make the tank water last a long time, when we don't we can go three to four weeks on that 265 gallons.
We purchase large jugs of drinking water, like those used for water coolers in the States. We do have a water filter - yet to be installed - that can filter the marina water enough to make it drinkable. That's Dave's next project : )
Some boats have "water makers", which are reverse osmosis systems, to make drinking water by removing the salt while at sea or in clean, tide-flushed bay waters. A water maker is one of the items high on our wish list, and a must-have before we head to the south Pacific.
Does it cost money to anchor? Can you anchor anywhere?
So far it hasn't cost us anything to anchor out, however I have heard of one place in the Sea of Cortez that charges a nominal fee.
From my experience, we have been able to anchor anywhere where the conditions are right (depth, sea floor composition, sea state, etc.). So far the only restrictions we've found is that anchoring in a shipping channel is rather frowned upon and may net a call from the Port Captain or an annoyed horn blast from a passing ship. (this sounds to me like one of those Darwin Awards things...)
What do you do with your garbage and other waste?
Disposal of waste is one of those tricky things. Lawfully, we can do one thing but our environmental consciousness demands something else.
Although we can dump various things offshore depending on our distance from shore, we store all of our non-organic household waste to be disposed of when we make landfall or go to a marina. When we are offshore or in a well-flushed bay we do drop stuff like vegetable and meat scraps overboard - and are often rewarded by a school of fish eagerly consuming our donations.
Mexico, like most countries, does not have the same biowaste management regulations and facilities as we have in the US. Boats in the US are required to have holding tanks similar to those in RVs, and all marinas have pump-out facilities. Mexico doesn't have these restrictions or facilities. Thusly, we use our holding tank when we are in marinas and are near shore, but lacking pump out facilities, are forced to empty it when we go offshore (far offshore...). We don't like this one bit, but there's not much we can do about it.
How do you bathe?
Since water is in short supply on board we are sometimes "a guest" of someone in the marina and use those facilities. Typically though, we bathe on the boat, either in the head or in the cockpit when we're sandy and have privacy. If we know it's going to be a while before we can refill our water tanks we will wash in salt water and rinse in fresh.
What do you do when there is no wind?
There are a couple of things we can do when there is no wind when we're sailing. If we are in no hurry or our arrival time is not restricted by a daylight requirement (as it can be dangerous to go into some anchorages in the dark) we will trim the sails the best we can and bob along until the wind picks back up. This is a great time for catching up on reading. If we are on a schedule, that means turning on the engine and motoring. This is a last resort option.
Are you worried about pirates?
This is our most frequently asked question. Dave's take on piracy is that there are more pirates running boatyards in California than are sailing the seven seas. For me, I feel safer in Mexican waters than I did walking to and from the Oakland BART station when I was working.
Truly, with the exception of some areas, such as the approaches to the Suez Canal - where there are documented instances of piracy against yachts - and the Straights of Malacca - where there is ongoing piracy against commercial vessels - piracy occurs in small isolated pockets. When an act of piracy occurs, the word is quickly spread and most cruisers will avoid those areas; those who don't heed the warnings enter knowing the risks.
It's important that people keep in perspective that piracy is simply robbery, and robbery happens all over the world.
How do you find your way?
We use several different methods to navigate. When we are planning a trip, we will refer to a paper chart and make a tentative plan based on the depth and current sea and winds conditions. This plan that gets more finely tuned once we turn on the chart plotter.
The chart plotter, our primary means of navigation under way, is a graphical map display that uses a GPS to track our position. We can zoom in to look at map details or zoom out to look at the big picture (such as "when do we need to make a course correction to avoid that island?"). We can even set a way point (destination) on the chart plotter and the GPS and autopilot together will take us to that location (but straight through that island if we're not paying attention!). Additionally, we can overlay a radar image on the chart to verify our position relative to the map display. This is especially important to use when sailing at night or near the shore as many of the maps used for this program were charted in the 1800s... and things have changed. For example, our chart plotter shows our current position over a mile inland - smack dab in the middle of San Blas! Relying on the chart plotter alone, especially in Mexico can lead to some pretty nasty navigational errors.
While underway, we record our GPS coordinates once an hour in our ship's log in case anything goes awry with the chart plotter or GPS. That way we know where we were not long ago if we need to switch to a handheld GPS for continued course tracking. Additionally, we'll verify the GPS stated position by comparing the paper map to visible landforms.
Unfortunately neither of us knows celestial navigation, a skill I intend to learn when we cross the south Pacific. Many cruisers don't do celestial navigation, relying on more modern methods, but we feel it's important to know just to have it in the "tool chest".
Do you have any other questions?
If you have any other questions just send a comment with your question and we'll append the answer to this blogpost!