Nada Ha Ha Leg 1

The Nada Ha Ha starts with the longest leg of the entire passage to Cabo. The fleet left San Diego on the morning of November 2nd and is expected in Bahia Santa Maria on either November 4th or 5th. At 350 nautical miles, this would be the longest single passage Kristin and I have completed together either double-handed or with crew. I have to admit we were a bit nervous about how we would fare at sea for 3 nights in a row, but the weather report looked good and we knew that with the radio support of the Nada fleet always there this would be the perfect opportunity to get a double-handed multi-night passage under our belts.

Consistent with the ongoing theme of our travels south so far, the Nada started in San Diego with (what else) thick fog. We followed Talion out of San Diego Bay as we still had a visual on her but we could see a few other Nada boats on AIS. Because of the fog rather than gathering at a starting line to depart together, all of the boats departing from San Diego simply made their own way out of the bay and turned south toward Mexico at their own rate. Many other boats had departed days earlier and headed to Ensenada just across the border to take care of their customs paperwork and left from there. We departed from San Diego and planned to figure out the checkin process along with a few other boats.

Nada Ha Ha burgee

Mexico bound

Crossing the US/Mexico border we followed La Dansuese for quite a while on the inside of the Coronado islands and saw Gladiator briefly on AIS as they headed outside further offshore presumably to find favorable wind.

Fishing boat off of Coronado Islands
Fishing boat off of Coronado Islands

We headed on a course directly south which took us further and further offshore as the land receded away to the east until we were about 45 miles offshore. There we found favorable winds on a broad reach that allowed us to set sail and rig the Monitor windvane to steer the boat. The windvane is one of my favorite apparatuses on Sonrisa. It’s an entirely mechanical way to automatically steer the boat called a servo-pendulum mechanism. Basically a windvane paddle is set to the desired angle of the wind. When the wind veers in relation to the paddle it turns a small rudder that hangs off the back of the boat on a swinging shaft (like a pendulum). The water pressure on the turned rudder pulls the shaft to make the pendulum swing to one side with significant force. This force is then transferred to the steering wheel via attached lines to turn the boat’s main rudder to steer back toward the desired wind angle. Once it is adjusted correctly and the sails are trimmed so that the boat is balanced (eg. the boat isn’t pulling against the rudder too hard to maintain course) the result is magical. The boat seems to take on a life of it’s own as it silently steers itself to maintain a course relative to the wind. It’s one of my favorite things to watch at work.

Our first night watch we decided on 3-hour watches. I had the 6 pm to 9 pm and midnight to 3 am watches and Kristin had the 9 pm to midnight and 3 am to 6 am watches. This schedule proved manageable for us as each of us has 2 relatively short watches to get through the night. After the first watch I’m looking forward to a few hours of sleep and am consoled that I only have one more watch until morning.

The second day we had favorable winds offshore and sailed for the entire day under partly cloudy skies. This was finally the kind of prolonged sailing we had hoped for the entire journey so far.

sails set on a broad reach

Each morning while underway the Nada fleet does a radio checkin via single side band radio (SSB). This is a marine version of a HAM radio which allows radio communication over long distances. Each morning Patsy from Talion would do a roll-call and each boat would report their position, conditions and any interesting happenings onboard such as catching dorado and tuna or whale sightings.

The second night at sea was a bit more challenging. The wind got light and was directly behind us which is a pretty inefficient point of sail for our current suit of sails. We turned on the motor again and motorsailed through the second night. Probably partly because of our excitement and partly because of the new-ness of the watch schedule we realized we were falling behind on sleep.

moonlight at sea

The third day we made a point to get some naps during the day when it was easy for the other person to keep watch during the daylight, giving some comfort to the person off-watch to truly fall asleep for a few hours. Again we motored in light dead-downwind conditions for a good portion of the day. As the winds piped up in the afternoon we were able to set sail again and switch back over to the windvane to steer.

The Autopilot Incident

As the sun set over the Pacific the winds once again moderated and as I was starting my watch I decided to switch back over to motoring which also required switching back over to the electric autopilot from the windvane (the windvane only works under sail). As I engaged the electric autopilot I heard a familiar sickening “snap” which I immediately knew meant that the autopilot belt broke.

Normally this would mean that we simply forgo the autopilot and hand-steer all night until we can stop to fix the autopilot. However, when you are double-handing and already tired the notion of hand-steering for 9 to 12 hours isn’t very appealing. Unfortunately the way the electric autopilot mounts to the steering wheel means that to replace the belt, you have to remove the steering wheel. Not an easy task when you’re underway.

Just as Kristin was turning in for her off-watch I called her back up on deck.

“We have a problem, the autopilot belt broke. The good news is that I have a spare, the bad news is I have to take the steering wheel off to replace it.”

“What do we do?” Kristin asked nervously.

“Well, the way I see it we have 3 options. Option one is to get the sails up again and hope that there’s enough wind to keep the windvane steering, but my guess is that will be slow-going with a lot of flogging sails and we will probably have to hand-steer anyway to prevent a gybe. Option two is to just hand-steer the rest of the way to Turtle Bay, which isn’t too bad but is going to be tiring. Option three is we replace the belt.”

“But you said you have to remove the wheel to do that.”

“That’s right, so here’s what we’re going to do. We will break out the emergency tiller and attach that to the rudder. You’ll use that to steer the boat while I remove the steering wheel, take the cover off the autopilot, replace the belt and put it all back together. It’s about time we tried out the emergency tiller, and we’ll know if it’s going to work before I take off the wheel. Besides, the conditions are pretty calm, otherwise we’d just sail, so it’s pretty low-risk.”

“Ok, where’s the tiller?”

Kristin went below and retrieved the heavy teak and chromed bronze emergency tiller from the v-berth as I unscrewed the deck plate above the rudder post. I plugged the tiller into the top of the rudder and tried steering, watching the wheel respond to the push and pull of the tiller from the rudder post.

“This is going to work. Remember, this is like our old boat, you push the tiller left to go right and right to go left. Here.” I said, handing Kristin the tiller.

“Oof, this is heavy.”

“Yeah, you kind of have to lean into it.” I replied.

As Kristin kept Sonrisa pointed in the right direction, I removed the locknut on the steering wheel and with a single sharp pull on the wheel had it off the binnacle and in my hands. I’ve had the wheel off many times before, but it was still a bit unreal to have it off underway.

Carefully pulling the key from the shaft and putting it in my pocket (absolutely do not lose that!) I started in on the small allen-head screws for the autopilot housing. As the housing loosened I pulled the outer cover off and fished the broken belt out. I’ve replaced this belt before and each time getting it back together is a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. The belt fits tightly in the circular housing that covers the unit, but also has to be looped around the motor shaft. The difficulty is that as you put the cover back in place, you lost the ability to hold the rather stiff belt in place and it tends to slip off the rollers for the motor. It can be frustrating when working on it at the dock in daylight, let alone underway in the dark 40+ miles offshore.

It took 3 tries to get the belt in place and the cover back on, but persistence paid off and I got it back together and the wheel back on. I gave Kristin a high-five for keeping her cool and successfully steering the boat with the tiller while I worked and we were never so grateful to hear the electric chatter of the autopilot come back to life that night.

Bahia Tortugas (Turtle Bay)

Around 3 am we arrive in Turtle Bay. As Patsy had described the bay has a large opening with a light at the north and south ends. It also helped that there was ample moonlight and no fog so visibility was fairly good. The biggest concern here was running over a lobster pot and getting the line tangled in the propellor. We’ve heard of plenty of others who have snagged lobster pot lines and we wanted to avoid that if at all possible.

As we approached the bay we were greeted by a large group of dolphins who swam alongside Sonrisa for maybe a mile before we entered the bay. We could barely make out their bodies under the moonlit water but we could hear their breathing and see their splashes and their occasional leaps over the waves.

“It’s like a new-age postcard come to life — leaping dolphins in the moonlight!” Kristin exclaimed.

As we entered the bay Kristin stationed herself on the bow with a spotlight and scanned the water for lobster pots. She found plenty of them at the entrance to the bay and several more scattered through the anchorage, but we were able to miss them all.

Navigating over toward the anchor lights of the rest of the Nada fleet, we found a spot in 30 feet of water and finally dropped anchor. With no small sense of satisfaction we had completed our longest-yet passage double-handed, arrived in our first anchorage in Mexico, and settled in for what was probably the best night’s sleep we’ve ever had.

Entrance to Turtle Bay with seagulls flying by
sunrise on Turtle Bay
sunrise on Turtle Bay with sailboats