Passage to Atlata/Mazatlan

We departed Topolobampo on the evening of Christmas Day bound for the 124 mile passage to the next port south on the mainland side of Mexico – Altata. Since once again this was a passage that would take more than the 12-ish hours of available daylight, we opted to depart before dark, motor or sail through the night, and arrive in Altata the next day, probably around mid-morning. Like Topolombampo, Atlata lies many miles inside a protected estuary with a single narrow, shallow passage to the ocean. The guide book warned of potential breaking waves at the entrance (surf), so it could be a tricky entrance depending on the conditions.

nautical chart showing course from Topolobampo to Altata

We cleared out of the port of Topolobampo at the marina office (a Mexican formality when moving from port to port) in the afternoon to leave plenty of time to negotiate the winding channel back out to sea before dark.

Greg on the foredeck preparing to hoist sail as the sun sets in the background over the Sea of Cortez
Departing Topolobampo at sunset

Once we passed the last channel marker, we turned south and caught the remnants of the afternoon thermal winds and sailed downwind for a few hours.

Kristin at the helm at sunset

Before long the winds died again and we were back to motoring through the night. On a positive note motoring at night allows us to unreservedly run all of our navigation gear and radar (whether we need it or not) as well as charge all of our devices while the powerful 120 amp alternator cranks out more electricity than we need.

The course to Altata was a straight line which contrasted with the arc of the mainland took us nicely approximately 12 miles offshore before gradually coming back inshore at Atlata. Kristin and I took our usual 3 hour shifts and by 10 AM Saturday morning we were preparing to make the turn toward the entrance to Altata.

“I don’t see it, do you?” Kristin asked, squinting at the shoreline off our port side. We were approaching the mark on the chartplotter where we had planned to make our turn to come back inshore toward the entrance.

“No. I don’t see it either,” I replied as I joined Kristin at the wheel and studied the plotter and our multiple electronic charts. “I’ll take us in a bit closer and maybe it will become apparent where the pass is,” I said as we transferred control of the helm.

As we approached the entrance from the west, all we could see was a solid white line of breaking surf that started far to our left and extended well past where the chart indicates the entrance lies. I slowed Sonrisa to 1/2 cruising speed (about 3.5 knots) and studied the breaking waves in the distance while keeping an eye on the depth gauge as we approached the shallow shoreline.

I lined Sonrisa up on our exact plotted course to double-check our bearing to the entrance and studied the breaking waves between the pass and us. I could see that directly in front of the pass the bar was piling up breaking waves over the shallow entrance. The tide was ebbing which only made it even more likely that the bar crossing would be rough. In the distance directly on our course I watched as two waves from opposing directions crashed together, sending a white plume directly up skyward.

“I don’t like it.” Kristin said worriedly.

“Yeah, I don’t like it either. I don’t see any gap in the waves to indicate deeper water or a safe place to cross. Let’s circle back around to the south a bit and see if we see anything from there. Sometimes you just need to approach from a different angle.”

We found the safe water channel marker and used that again to line up an approach to the entrance.

“Nope. I’m still not seeing it. We’re arriving on an ebb tide which isn’t good for bar crossings. It could be hours before the tide changes and the breakers settle down.”

“What should we do?” Kristin asked with the slightest hint of worry in her voice.

“Well, we could circle around out here for a few hours, maybe try to fish, see if it calms down. Or just press on to Mazatlan.”

“How far to Mazatlan?”

“Same as what we just did. It’s 124 miles from Topolobampo to Altata and 122 miles from Altata to Mazatlan, but since we didn’t go up the 14 mile channel to Altata, it’s a bit less than that now,” I said, zooming out on the chartplotter and pulling up our next route to Mazatlan to confirm.

“Will we arrive at a decent time?”

I did some quick math and confirmed, “Yes, it’s another overnight, but we should arrive after sunrise tomorrow. We can take our time even. It’s a nice day and we’re starting to get some fair winds.”

“Let’s go to Mazatlan!” Kristin declared.

“Mazatlan it is,” I affirmed, steering our new course for the next leg.

nautical chart showing course from Altata to Mazatlan
Altata to Mazatlan showing plotted course in blue and steered-to-wind course in brown

Again I was struck by the change in attitude that has developed on these passages. Once again we perceived ‘danger’ ashore and ‘comfort’ at sea. Perhaps it’s partly because we know and trust Sonrisa to keep us safe at sea but I can imagine our past selves agonizing over not being able to make it into port or worse yet attempting something unsafe in order to get into said port.

Before getting too far from Altata and its cell tower I called ahead to Marina El Cid to get a slip assignment so that we knew where we would be landing when we arrived. They confirmed our slip number and told us to call on 16 when we arrive for help with the lines.

Taking advantage of the daylight hours at sea I switched on our watermaker to fill the tanks while we were underway. Now that we are in some more remote ports, the water at the dock is often not potable, costs extra, or both. We made some water on the trip down from San Diego, but the quality was just passable. It tasted fine, actually better than the dockside water in San Diego, but the salinity tester showed around 500 ppm. In La Paz I was able to get a new reverse-osmosis membrane for our unit which improved the water quality to under 100 ppm which is as good or better than bottled water. Our old Spectra produces around 15 gallons per hour but only consumes 9 amps of 12v electricity to do it, so we can run the watermaker all day if needed to fill our two 75 gallon tanks.

Once I got the watermaker started, we put the fishing lines back out even though catching a fish was starting to feel like an exercise in futility. By 2 PM the winds had filled, allowing us to shut off the motor and enjoy some lazy downwind sailing under crystal clear blue skies.

mainsail set in light wind conditions

The winds remained steady all day and since we had plenty of time to still arrive during daylight, we just kicked back and let Sonrisa run all day long. Once the sails were set I rigged the windvane to keep us on a deep reach/run so that we didn’t have to think about gybing for a long time.

Since we hadn’t planned on a second consecutive night at sea, Kristin and I took turns during the day to get in some strategic naps to make sure we’d be fresh for our night watches.

As the night progressed the wind shifted from the northwest to more of a northerly direction, which our windvane dutifully followed to keep our sails full. By 1:00 AM it was obviously time for a gybe. Mazatlan was to the southeast but Sonrisa was now heading due south. We brought the mainsail over and sailed for a bit longer in the diminishing wind until we were barely making 3 knots. We engaged the engine and started making our way inshore toward Mazatlan.

By early morning on Sunday we were approaching the marina entrance at Mazatlan. Mazatlan actually has two ports. The main shipping and ferry terminal port is right in the old town district of Mazatlan, but the small boat marinas are located in a separate harbor about 6 miles north of town.

fog bank off Sonrisa's bow approaching Mazatlan

By 9 AM we were approaching Mazatlan, but as we came in from offshore we ran into a dense fog bank that clung to the coast.

“Sailing vessel approaching Mazatlan, sailing vessel approaching Mazatlan…” Kristin heard the VHF crackle to life with an American woman’s voice.”

“Greg, I think someone is calling us.” Kristin yelled down the companionway to me from the helm.

“Well, answer it.” I called back, knowing full well that she wouldn’t. Kristin still had not overcome her shyness on the radio.

“No, you do it!” she yelled back.

“This is Sonrisa, go ahead.” I called back from the radio station at the navigation table in the cabin, having not heard the name of the boat calling us.

“Yeah, I see you’re coming in on our AIS. We’re thinking of heading out and are wondering how thick the fog is out there,” the woman replied.

Staring out the porthole to confirm I replied, “Yeah, I’d say it’s about a quarter mile. Not great but we’ve seem much worse. Can you see how it is at the entrance?” I replied.

“It’s lifting a bit in here. Should be ok by the time you arrive. Just watch for the pangas coming and going,” she answered. “They don’t show up on AIS.”

“Ok thanks. Sonrisa out.”

We are no stranger to fog, but with the radar and AIS on and enough visibility to avoid lobster pots we proceeded toward the harbor. By the time we arrived the fog had lifted and we could clearly see the entrance.

I tried hailing the marina on the VHF radio on 16, but probably because it was still early on a Sunday morning I didn’t get a response.

“Well, we already have a slip assignment, I say we just go in and see if we can find it.” I said as I put the VHF mic back in its holder at the helm. “According to the guide the marina entrance at Mazatlan is yet another very narrow, shallow entrance which is constantly shoaling up. There is a dredge there that seems to be constantly in use and frequently blocking the channel. I’ll bet the dredge isn’t working on a Sunday.” I had also read accounts of at least one boat that lost steerage in the channel in rough conditions and was tossed onto the rock breakwater wall on the port side of the channel and lost.

As we started into the channel entrance, we were confronted with what appeared to be a small field of lobster pot buoys strewn across the harbor entrance. They were all small floats of various colors and mixed in with some bleach-bottle floats.

“Who would put their lobster pots directly in front of the entrance?” Kristin fumed.

Slowing Sonrisa, I started turning to starboard away from the imposing rock wall and away from the first float when a fishing panga leaving the channel passed us and did a 180 turn, calling back to us in Spanish and waving.

“I think he’s guiding us back over toward the wall. Those must be shoal markers!” Kristin exclaimed.

The panga raced in front of us, waving us through the invisibly winding channel keeping us off the shoals.

“Gracias! Gracias!” We both called back with genuine appreciation as the panga turned to exit the harbor again once we were safely inside.

“De nada!” We heard the fisherman call back.

Once safely inside the harbor, we motored past the docks at El Cid Marina looking for where our slip might be. One reality of arriving at unfamiliar marinas is that no two marinas have the quite the same numbering convention for their slips. About the only commonality is that it will be a combination of letters and numbers to identify the dock and the berth on that dock.

From the main fairway that connects the various marinas within the harbor, we could see that the fairway and slips were quite tight. This is a challenge for Sonrisa to turn with her full keel and lack of side thrusters. We circled around the harbor and estuary, being careful to stay in the deeper (12-feet) portions of the channel.

“I think we’ve arrived in Florida,” I commented to Kristin. “It’s like the everglades in here with the shallow estuaries and the lush vegetation. I’ll bet there’s crocodiles in there.”

Moon rise over marina with green trees in the background

“Crocodiles? Oh great. One more thing to worry about.” Kristin was only now seeming to relinquish her fear of sharks in the water only to have it replaced with a new fear.

Finally, sharply at 10:00, the marina offices opened and promptly helped us into our slip. It was a good thing too as there was less than two feet to spare between Sonrisa and her neighboring boat.

Once Sonrisa was securely tied up and I had processed all of our arrival paperwork at the marina, we were ready to explore our new home for a few days – Mazatlan. We were disappointed that we missed Altata, but very excited to check out this new destination.

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