Considering a sailing adventure to Mexico? Just look at how engrossed that guy is in the book! Grab a copy of the Unauthorized Guide to Sailing in Mexico, and you too can find yourself sitting on a Mexican dock with an oversized (but very attractive) hat.

Unauthorized Guide to Sailing in Mexico


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Entries in safety (6)

Aug282015 - hopefully helping out one day

I'm in the unfortunate position of having some decent knowledge of what it's like to be on the receiving end of a complicated search and rescue operation. 

It's sort like being punched in the face. You basically want to avoid it as much as you can, but there is something to be said for knowing what it feels like. And if that knowledge can help someone else, then maybe the damage you took ultimately helped out in aggregate. 

I built because I wanted to bone up on my MVC and Azure skills. And if you're going to build something, you might as well aim to be helpful in the process.

So what does it do?

0.5) It's free, just to get that out of the way.

1) MyHikePlan lets you file a backcountry plan. When you head off into the middle of nowhere, it's a good idea to write down where you're going. But more than that, if you ask search and rescue (SAR) professionals, they'd like to know more. They want to know what your skills are. What any medical problems might be you started with. They want to know what type of weather and conditions you were expecting, as those are directly tied to how you prepared yourself. They want to know, in your words, what you were thinking.

2) If you're late coming back from a trip, a simple one-pager is emailed to your emergency contacts with instructions on how to notify proper authorities. And that one-pager is perfect for printing off and handing to everyone from chopper pilots to ground search teams. 

3) You can tweak it all from your mobile phone, so if you want to make some adjustments to your route or alert settings, you can do that right up until the last minute.

Example one-pager for SAR teams.I've been slowly adjusting the site, getting little bits and pieces of information from the search and rescue community and plugging in suggestions as I can.

Normally this information is handed over to a friend, but there are some subtle breakdowns that can happen with that. For starters, there's no clear format with required information when giving info to a friend. 

More broadly, it's not your friend's responsibility to ensure SAR teams have the info they need: it's yours. You need to pick a clear photo of yourself. You need to describe your route in your words. You need to describe your existing medical situation. 

Think back to the "telephone game" in grade school. While you or a loved one is dropping further into hypothermia, hours are wasted patching together and passing along information that should have been compiled in advance with nothing lost in translation between you and the people on their way help you out.

And before anyone asks, I registered ... that one's up next. 


the safety of mexico for a cruising sailor

A typical cartel raid. Military grade weapons, armor, and uniforms.I received an email the other day from someone who, understandably, is worried about going to Mexico in light of the violence and crime that is so widely reported. Anyone traveling to Mexico probably, hopefully, has at least asked themselves "is it safe?".

An excerpt of the email is below, and as always any identifiable info has been removed to protect the innocent, less their friends and contemporaries know that they associate with me:

I am actually planning on heading down south as I too have a Hans Christian 36 :)  I am planning on doing Mexico and want to surf Baja and eat lobsters down there, but was getting a lot of grief from family about it being so unsafe these days... I almost decided to bypass Mexico and go to Hawaii, missing out on Baja altogether.

Then I found your blog and looked at the great photos and thought Mexico is still safe - just look these people are totally doing it!

Please, if you have a little time, please give me your opinion of the overall safety there now.

When we lived in San Diego some South Korean friends were at our boat for dinner and expressed how they were not going to Los Angeles because of the violence there: they had seen the homeless man who was set on fire and burned to death, they had heard the gangster rap music of the 90's, they had seen the movies, and they knew the drive-by attack rates.

Charlotte and I tried to explain to them that there are many people living quite safely in Los Angeles and that they were really far off in their threat assessment. Personally I'm much more worried about getting into a car accident driving back and forth from San Diego to Los Angeles than I am ending up in the crossfire of a gang war. But people as a rule generally have terrible skills at identifying and prioritizing risk, usually magnifying the unknown threats and minimizing those they have already come to terms with.

Cartels have hired young women to work as assassins because people are less suspicious of them.To answer your question, dear reader, the reality of narco cartels in Mexico is multifaceted, nuanced, and quite far from the typical US image of the situation. To be fair, it's also pretty far from Mexico's image of the situation.

First and foremost, the number of your typical-westerner-bystanders being involved in cartel violence is quite low. These are not gangs as much as businesses, and nearly everything they do is fueled by the desire to protect and expand their revenue. The ballpark income of Mexican cartels is $64 billion dollars annually: these are not motorcycle meth gangs in leather jackets.

Before I came to live in America's southerly neighbor I definitely had the (egregiously wrong) paternalistic view of Mexico where whatever they built could never be as good as what America has done and whatever their problems are it's nothing that some Predator drones and a few DEVGRU guys couldn't wipe out. This is simply untrue and anyone who thinks along these lines does not understand the depth or breadth of narco trafficking. 

Ending up in the crosshairs of a cartel can happen in a number of ways: you could be a politician, a rival cartel member, a business operating in controlled territory, or even simply someone with skills a cartel has deemed helpful and wants to employ. But the odds of that happening to you as a barely-Spanish-speaking tourist on a boat is remarkably slim. The reality is that you (and I) have little to offer them in terms of benefit or threat. Note that when looking up "American citizens killed in Mexico", you will be wading into the sea of Mexican-American nationals. The twin daughters of the world's most powerful narco cartel are in fact Americans, born in Los Angeles: immeadiatly after they returned to Mexico so now you tell me, are they Mexican cartel affiliates, American citizens, or do they exist in some nebulous in between?

Cartel murders are often public, with signs informing would-be rivals to think twice.There are places you can go, most of which aren't on the Pacific coast (or on any coast) that will crank up your odds of problems. If you emailed and said you were going to backpack through the trafficking corridors of Durango and then set up a drug rehab clinic in Juaraz, yeah: there's a decent chance you're going to end up in a bag before the year is out.

But to provide a parallel in the United States, there's a difference between working in the San Diego golf course industry versus being in San Bernadino county creating bulk pseudoephedrine: both of those paths set you at wildly different courses of running into a rather violence prone set of individuals. To the untrained eye however, someone might simply see the entire state of California as dangerous because if you can get into trouble making a meth precursor then surely maintaining the putting greens in La Jolla is equally as terrifying. 

One of my favorite books on the subject of Mexican narco cartels is Ted Carpenter's The Fire Next Door: Mexico's Drug Violence and the Danger to America. That sets up a pretty good base of knowledge for understanding the violence spurring aspect of the Mexican-American "head hunting" campaign where rather than introduce systemic solutions to narcotics trafficking, the current enforcement model targets cartel senior leadership (a.k.a. "king pins").

These senior cartel leaders generally are the least violent (of very violent people), and when they are removed from power intense fighting follows in their wake: lieutenants fight each other for control, splinter groups form, and rival cartels smell blood in the water and move in to capitalize on perceived weakness. This is precisely what happened in Tijuana with the decapitated Tijuana Cartel, and in Juarez with the also aptly named Juarez Cartel. In both instances the violence spikes were directly tied to the fall of the senior leadership.

The headhunting enforcement model is roughly akin to hoping that by killing the CEO of Coca Cola and Pepsi, you will thereby stop people from making and drinking soda. Undoubtedly the supply will be disrupted temporarily, but a lower supply and maintained demand only causes prices to soar and bolder actions by those who can manufacturer and sell. But people don't like nuance, and voters generally root for the guy who managed to put a bruised up "drug kingpin" in front of the cameras with a pile of narcotics and gold plated weapons on the table in front of him, flanked by scary soldiers in ski-masks.

Why this matters and why you should be aware of it, dear reader, is because traveling through Baja and the Nayarit area, you're going to be smack dab in the Sinaloa Cartel's operating range. The Sinaloa cartel is the largest narcotics organization in the world and easily the most powerful in Mexico. Formerly the Pacific Cartel, it controls the territory these days that a typical Mexico-Pacific sailor will encounter from Ensenada to Puerto Vallarta. 

So with all the corpses dangling from bridges and faces sewn onto soccer balls and kicked into government buildings, here's a less ghoulish tale that shows some nuance. 

Every Wednesday there is a market here in sleepy La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, and there is always the pirated movie stand. $20 pesos for a movie, buy 5 and get your sixth for free. Last year I picked up Shrek, Act of Valor, and some other titles from the stand and walked away. One of the kids working there chased after me and hauled me back, explaining that I hadn't picked my sixth free movie and that he still owed me one. Even better, he said if any of them didn't play to make sure I brought them back next week for a refund or exchange.

I bring this up because my money, and the money of everyone who's purchased a pirated movie in Mexico, goes directly into the coffers of the area's predominant narco cartel. The police don't turn a blind eye to pirate movies because they like Toy Story 3 and want others to get it at a fair price, these illegal markets exist (and are operated with terrific customer service) because of the powerful cartel influences. The cartel gets its cut and as a result the pirate movie vendor doesn't have competition in that area and doesn't get hassled by the local police. 

Narco trafficking is a major aspect of Mexico: you simply cannot have a conversation about business or politics without the subject being brought up. In some places the effect is obvious, in others the impact is more subtle. It's incredibly naive for anyone to imagine they are immune to the footprint of cartels, but likewise it's Chicken Little-ish to think you personally are that relevant to a cartel or that the razor thin chance of ending up in a cross fire, which can happen in Kansas City as well, is anything more than distantly remote. 

The take away points I would offer up, and I wrote this in my book as well (cough cough), are:

  • Be careful if you buy drugs. Lots of people buy weed in Mexico, and honestly the cartels are there to sell and make money not to hassle or endanger their customers. But the local shit-head taxi driver you ask might try to fleece you for some cash before he takes you to his connection. If you want to score some weed, make friends with a local first. 
  • Until you know areas well, stick with remote villages or well trodden areas of cities that have a defined gringo footprint (La Paz, Puerto Vallarta, Turtle Bay, Loreto, Los Cabos, Mazatlan, etc). 
  • Don't get caught with drugs in Mexico. It's actually not as illegal as people think: most states have legalized minor posession but the Mexican military has wide latitude and the local municipal police can still hassle you. There is quite a bit of distance, especially on the mainland, between what's on the books and what happens in the street.
  • Lookout for enforcement actions that rattle cartel leadership. If El Chapo Guzman were ever caught or killed (and we were in a Sinaloa area) we wouldn't leave town instantly but I'd be much more alert and avoid sketchy situations than I otherwise might.
  • Read some books on the subject and familiarize yourself with the patterns, targets, periphery, and cycles of narco violence. 

Mexico is neither safe or dangerous, and it is obtuse to oversimplify such a complex country into those definitions. Your safety and experiences are entirely dependent on where you are and the choices you make. With a bit of light reading (that is actually pretty interesting), staying up on the news, and having a genuine interest in learning about the situation you can make the danger of Mexico be as remote as that of your own home town.



we're transmitting AIS, i know you're mad jelly

That's right, Rebel Heart is now a leg up on the average sailing boat in that we now are broadcasting an AIS signal. Plenty of nerdy boat owners have had this technology for years now, and it's been required on larger vessels for almost a decade.

So yes, I am gloating. I am lavishing in the joy of appearing on, just like the "real" ships.

In large part I'm celebrating because in nearly all other regards we're not all that electronically sophisticated. We have a klunky radar, no chart plotter, a simple handheld GPS, paper charts, manual plotting tools, current celestial almanacs, and a sextant. 

I've really been happy with our Standard Horizon 2150 VHF radio with built in AIS receiver. After a few thousand miles I've grown to appreciate AIS technology:


  • You'll spot big ships long before they arrive on radar or are in visual range. It depends on your antenna height (and the other vessels'), but in general ~25 miles is normal.
  • Unlike radar, you don't need to hunt and peck through the readout to see what's clutter and what's a vessel.
  • Because you spot ships so much earlier, and when transmitting they spot you earlier, very minor course corrections can be made to provide sufficient passing room.
  • It's not ubiquitous by any means, but it is getting more popular. 
  • Also unlike radar, it requires much less operator interaction.
  • Radar alarms are notoriously sketchy and suspect as where AIS proximity alarms are more much more straight forward.
  • Knowing that a freighter is ten miles away doesn't really matter. Knowing that it's on a collision course, or even something a little too close for comfort, is the important information. Being able to identify that from many of the vessels you'll cross paths with is invaluable. 

Like everything else on a boat, it's not a panacea. There is no piece of gear that removes the risk of collision, but there are some that lower it, and AIS is definitely in that category. Because the Standard Horizon 2150 already has an AIS receiver display, all I wanted was a simple black box transmitter. Defender had the Comnav X2 on closeout so I snagged it when we were back in the USA. Rather than run an additional antenna I went with the new and quite fancy Vesper Marine SP160 splitter. Really low loss, actively powered, provides an AM/FM antenna outlet, and when powered down the VHF still runs through (as does AIS reception since the VHF displays that too).

For any vessels transitting around Baja, the cruise ships and ferries will probably be the spookiest things you encounter as they roll around at 20 knots, crisscrossing through the Sea of Cortez and up the Pacific side of the peninsula. Even if you don't want to go through the hassle of a transmitter you might want to give some serious consideration to an AIS receiver. 


and sometimes north american paternalism is dead on

Great way to drown at sea.From the "thank god I'm not on that death trap" file...

Sitting in the Mazatlan anchorage this morning we watched this coffin-of-the-sea head out past the breakwaters, overloaded with families who are under the false impression that they are safe aboard this "vessel". 

Lacking in PFD's (life jackets), equipped with two life rings and no life rafts, what will have these people returning safe to the dock is simply the odds that on a calm day like today you can get away with carelessness. 

But the ocean doesn't suffer fools for very long. In what seemed like a personal reminder to me, two years ago the Mexican sport fishing vessel Erik capsized and spilled all its passengers into the Sea of Cortez. Floating for twelve hours no one on shore knew there was a problem until the first survivors crawled up onto the beach.

So, United States Coast Guard, with all your laws and regulation, I love you.


double check that ground tackle

I'd like to sit here and judge this sailor for his lack of seamanship which caused his boat to end up on the rocky beach, getting ripped to shreds by pounding swell before the port captain ordered a backhoe to come and break it apart and haul it to the dump. Indeed, there are some basic steps that should have been followed that were not, but a seamanship is about getting all the steps right all the time and there are an awful lot of steps. 

Regardless, seeing the boat on the beach as the seas gently ripped it apart was chilling. Seeing him on the beach, selling his worldly possessions so he could scrape up enough money to leave town was even harder. 

Double check that ground tackle. Don't leave anything to chance. If the engine packs in or the head stops working you won't be having a lot of fun, but if you can't stop the boat and keep it stopped that's a whole different ball game.



well at least we all have fear in common

I'm writing this after having a great conversation with my friend and fellow captain Lance Botthof, who, for the record, is a much better captain than I am.

I heard a saying once that the ocean has no friends or enemies, just consequences. Normally being on (or under) the water is a calm, placid, and often down right boring affair. But when the consequences show up you are staring down the barrel of a very serious gun. A gun that, like the saying goes, has no favorites and makes no quarter. It's far stronger than you, you have no ability to influence it, and it will be here long after you are gone.

Most of us that have been around the water remember that first moment of panic, and probably there are several memories. The time when water flooded into your boat. The time when you smashed up topsides in a docking disaster. A friend of mine remembers taking a nap, coming back on deck and finding his long time sailing partner gone, the autopilot chugging away in an empty cockpit. A half finished soda still sat in a drink holder.

My friend yesterday told me of scuba diving two weeks ago, working to clear a friend's malfunction, and now he himself was running low on air and started having equipment failures of his own. The primal fear of drowning under the ocean is something few of us forget.

That gut tightening fear blocks out every other thought from your mind, focuses your attention like a laser, and leaves you feeling powerless as it renders your cognitive skills useless. With a brain still wired to crank adrenaline and run from an attacking bear, our natural stress response is somewhat lacking in this fantastic modern age. 

But that fear, that thing that hobbles our efforts and hamstrings our initiative, is also the thing that binds us together. We might disguise our fear and I suppose some people truly can convince themselves that it isn't there anymore. But rest assured fellow scaredy-cats: we and the over confident ones are of the same DNA. Fear is as much a part of our lives as love and friendship, although sadly for many it's too large a share. 

But acknowledging that fear, being honest about it, and treating it as a part of life that we must work through is part of the puzzle. It connects us to one another and, fittingly enough, makes us all a little less afraid.

Thanks for being a standup skipper to know, Lance.