Pirates and Pacifico
From Great Outdoor Store
Pirates and Pacifico
This trip started out in a boat yard in La Paz, Mexico. Jeff and I met our friends Tim, Brandi, Bryan, and Ali there for Christmas with the intention of sailing across the Sea of Cortez to Mazatlán. Tim and Brandi would fly back home from Mazatlán and the rest of us would sail to Puerto Vallarta and then fly home. Oblivion was on the hard in the boat yard but we stayed on her anyway. When a boat is “on the hard” it’s being stored on land and it’s balanced on its keel. The deck is about 9 feet above the ground. Being up that high gave us a great view of the harbor and all of the marina around us. One afternoon we watched a family on a mega yacht take their Christmas photos dressed as the Nativity scene. It was a fairly strange juxtaposition. Our boat was put into the water the following morning. We motored over to a marina, filled the tanks and set sail the next day.
The mega yacht as viewed from Oblivion on the hard (up on stilts)
The sail across the Sea of Cortez is always a mixed bag. The winds and the waves never seem to be favorable which make for a pretty terrible sail. This time it was also cold and rainy off and on. I vividly remember Brandi saying to Jeff, “I’m never doing this again.” Jeff agreed and then for some reason cut up a rope ladder that he’d always hated and threw it overboard. We arrived in Mazatlán with the sunrise and sailed into a deserted Old Town Harbor.
The first time Jeff and I sailed into the Old Harbor in Mazatlán it was so crowded with other sailboats that we had a hard time finding a spot to drop our anchor. When we returned to that same harbor a few years later we were surprised to discover only two other sailboats moored there. The once lively harbor was deserted and even more rundown than before but we decided to stay there because it was close to Old Town and far away from the touristy Golden Zone. Our sail across the Sea of Cortez had resulted in a broken alternator. Boat repairs were a recurring problem ever since we had almost sank the boat in the slip in Puerto Vallarta (that’s a story for another time)—but we knew where to find the mechanics in Mazatlán and they were by Old Town.
Tim and Brandi stayed for a few more days before heading home, Bryan and Ali got on a bus to Puerto Vallarta (where they flew home from) and Jeff and I stayed to get the boat back in working order. Our Spanish for boat repairs was top notch. After everyone had left, Jeff and I took an afternoon to walk the boat parts to the mechanic. On our way back to the harbor we stopped for groceries at the corner tienda, got in our dinghy (a small boat that gets you from the dock to your boat) 'Robin 1' and headed back to Oblivion.
We noticed that the two other boats had left, leaving only us and the dilapidated half sunk boats in the harbor. There was definitely a weird, abandoned feeling about the place. We got back on the boat just as the sun was setting and hoisted the dinghy up onto the deck. In the years since we had been in Mazatlán the petty crime had dramatically increased. This led to cruise ships avoiding the town, which only compounded the situation. We had heard stories of people getting their dinghy stolen—not for the boat but for the small outboard motor attached to it. In most places we would leave the dinghy in the water on a line attached to the boat without thinking twice about it. Because of the desolate nature of the harbor we decided to put it up on the deck. Jeff was starting to catch my cold so he turned in early, opting to sleep on the settee. I sat up and played solitaire on the computer for a while and then went to sleep in our cabin.
I had just fallen asleep when I heard footsteps on the deck. Jeff is deaf in one ear, so he didn’t hear anything at first. I yelled at him that there were people up top. He scrambled up the stairs and I could hear him yelling at people to get off the boat. By the time I grabbed the one million lumens spotlight and got up top the small fishing vessel (panga) was pulling away from our boat and heading towards the channel opening to the Sea of Cortez. My adrenaline was pumping. I yelled to Jeff, “I can’t believe they took our dinghy!” “Did you see them?” and “Where are you?!”
I could hear Jeff but I didn’t realize his voice was coming from the boat that was motoring away from ours. I could hear him yelling at them, “Just take me back to my boat!” I pointed the flashlight at them and could see their silhouettes in the moonlight, our dinghy propped into their panga. There was no wind so I could hear them yelling at each other over the sound of their outboard. They got about 40 ft away from our boat and then kicked it into high gear. The panga sped away across the harbor towards an inlet that was miles long.
I had no idea where Jeff was, I had no dinghy to get to shore, and Oblivion was not operational. As I was contemplating what I was going to do, I kept searching the water for signs of the panga. It was during one of those sweeps that I found Jeff about 30 feet from the boat, swimming back towards me. From the time I heard the footsteps on the deck to the time I saw Jeff swimming back, about 15 minutes had passed. He was able to swim back to the boat, but didn’t have a way to get into it. (Remember, Jeff had thrown the rope ladder overboard.)
Oblivion is a canoe stern, so we always stood in the dinghy to get into the boat. I threw him a life preserver so he could rest and muster up the strength to do a pull-up off the transom and heave himself into the boat.
I asked him why they had taken him and he confessed:
They didn’t take me. I jumped in their boat to grab our dinghy and they just took off with me.
This was also when I noticed he had done all of this wearing only his boxers.
In the heat of the moment, I guess you never know how you are going to react. In those few seconds, Jeff realized that without our dinghy, we were stranded on our boat, so, like James Bond, he jumped to save it. The boat that he jumped into had two adult males and two male teenagers in it. They were fisherman judging by the large fishing knives they wielded, and their English was about as good as Jeff’s very limited Spanish. Jeff was trying to negotiate getting out dinghy back, they were trying to get Jeff off their boat. Finally, one of the adults started making stabbing gestures at Jeff; the other adult knew that was a bad idea and kicked Jeff in the head into the water (very unlike James Bond). That’s when I saw the boat speed off. Jeff was fortunate that it was slack tide. When the tide is going out of the harbor, it moves at 4 knots. He would not have been able to swim against that and would have been carried out beyond the seawall into the open ocean.
After we counted our lucky stars, Jeff went to sleep. I was amped and couldn’t get back to sleep. I got on the VHF and called the Harbor Master (who didn’t answer) and the woke up the entire sailor’s network over in the Golden Zone. The next day a boat pulled into old harbor. They let us borrow an old wood dinghy which smelled of pelican poop and had a shark bite out of it—but it worked to get us to shore. We picked up our boat parts, filed a police report (again, a whole different adventure!), and fixed Oblivion.
Shortly after we turned on the engine to see if everything was operational, we heard a distress call over the VHF. Someone with a British accent was trying to get into the harbor with a blown mainsail and no engine. (Their passage across the Sea of Cortez was a bit worse than ours!) After my experience the night before, I knew they weren’t going to get any help from the harbor master—so we pulled up anchor to give them a tow. This is the story of how we met Nick, which is also a story for another time.
The events of that night didn’t sour our opinion of Mexico or Mazatlán. In fact, we went back a few years later to a completely revitalized town. We never did get Robin 1 back. I’m sure the fishermen that liberated her from us used the outboard to provide food for their families, or at least that’s what I’d like to think.
Mazatlán is home to Pacifico beer. Pacifico’s label is of an anchor set against the backdrop of El Faro in the Old Harbor. The anchor is exactly where we were when we got robbed by pirates.