sailing homepage : trip reports : 6: zihua to la paz : zihua sailfest

Jan 30-Feb 4: Zihuatanejo Sailing Festival por los ninos (for the kids), joined by Will's parents, reprovisioning and shopping, sailing parade, and enjoying beautiful Zihua

We awoke at 5:45AM sharp when a gigantic cruise ship quietly arrived in our little anchorage and dropped it's anchor and chain with a roar. We knew that cruise ships liked Ixtapa, but I guess they're now spending some quality time at Zihuatanejo. It's a boost to the local economy for sure, but we yachties like to feel special - and it's hard to do that when 2000-3000 tourists arrive at the same place at the same time.

We haven't seen cruise ships anchoring out before, usually they have an established port behind a breakwater, but in this case they anchored in the middle of the bay and shuttled everyone to/from shore in their diesel-powered dual-hull lifeboats. Pretty cool operation when you think about it: the ships travel through the night, arrive in the early morning, disgorge everyone for five- to seven-hour shore visits, and leave before dark for the next port.

Cruise ship shuttle


Crowd of touristas

We joined the torrent of touristas flooding into Zihua via our trusty gas-powered monohull lifeboat (Purpeat), parking him next to the 20- or 30-odd other dinghies on the main beach. The sailing festival was getting ready to begin, and lots of people were already congregating at Rick's Bar, a gringo hangout and title sponsor of the charitable event.

Dinghy-strewn beach


Pelicans everywhere!

We had a relaxing day exploring Zihua. It's a nice town, the tourist area is all cobblestone streets, brightly painted buildings, and as many restaurants and bars as there are trinket stores. We always enjoy walking around and exploring, and we always try to find and explore the dirt-road neighbourhoods where the locals live and eat.

We registered for sailfest, had a few beers, met some sailing friends, and frittered away the afternoon. We couldn't stay for long though, we had an evening engagement with dinner and a movie back on the boat. Ahh, it's a cruiser's life.

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On the way back we found ourselves surrounded by pelicans; we wonder if Hitchcock had this kind of inspiration for The Birds.

The next day, Wednesday the 31st of January, was the first day of Zihuatanejo's SailFest - a five-day fundraiser benefiting a charity started by cruisers. Money raised by SailFest is contributed directly to "Por Los Ninos" (for the kids), which uses the funds to build and improve local area schools for the poorest children.

Many of the families who have relocated to Zihua for work are unable to afford the costs of sending their children to state-run schools. Education in Mexico is supposed to be free for K-6, but the cost of books and uniforms, and a $30 registration fee, is often too much for families with monthly incomes less than US$150. Families often only earn US$4.50 a day. Most of the parents are poorly educated, live in run-down shacks without running water or electricity, and have no options to improve their lot in life.

Por Los Ninos educates the poor and indiginous children of Zihuatanejo at no cost to the families involved. The schools are bilingual, English and Spanish, and offer an escape from poverty. With their language skills, the kids become able to work at high paying restaurants and tourist shops, and are able to stay close to home to help their families. How can you go wrong with this sort of charity? It has truly a noble cause.

To promote awareness, and also to help motivate the fundraising efforts, we spent the day touring three school sites. A group of US RVers the area volunteered their pick-up trucks, and we all piled in the huge beds. First we traveled to the current school site. It was a mess. The school was built by the community on land that couldn't otherwise be developed. The three buildings are made of corrugated iron and wood, held together by chicken wire and few nails.

Fifteen people per truck!


The existing school site

Before the cruising community started Por Los Ninos, the school didn't have electricity, running water, or a connection to the sewer system. Can you believe that? No water or bathrooms?! The charity installed two concrete buildings, one with bathrooms and the other with a small kitchen, and otherwise improved the existing school in previous years.

Even though the school had been improved, it was still pretty shocking. The buildings were built on a cliff, stairs between them consisted of rocks, and the shacks didn't look like they would be able to withstand the summer storms. Still, it's better than nothing!

Kids coming out of class


I miss school

We milled around and talked to the teachers, who were paid so little - even by Mexican standards - that they were basically volunteering their time. One recently graduated from teacher's college in Mexico City at the top of his class. All were professional, earnest, and you could tell they were there because they wanted to make a difference. We talked to some of the children, but most were too shy to converse with us.

Cruiser's learning about the school


Kids enjoying their lunch

The strangest thing about the school, built on a rocky hillside in the middle of a shantytown, was the million-dollar view. It must be hard enough to try to learn something when you can't go to the bathroom or wash your hands, but try doing that with such a clear view of the gorgeous bay! Maybe the view of the cruise ships and sailboats help motivate everyone, maybe it rubs salt in the wound of inequality.

Million-dollar view


The cafeteria

Another school building


The 'wiring' feeding the school and local neighbourhood

Next we traveled to the site of the new school Por Los Ninos is hoping to build. The land was officially donated by the City of Zihuatanejo, the building permits had been secured, and the locals had already cleared the brush and shrub (with the help of a huge digger, of course).

The charity had already built a storage shed, and the locals were so concerned about people stealing materials (or the entire shed), parents of the kids attending the schools have volunteered to take turns sleeping at the new school site until construction is complete. Lorenzo, one of the leading forces in Por Los Ninos, was very clear in describing how much the local community needed and supported our efforts.

The final stop on our tour was at the original school Por Los Ninos had been involved with. I unfortunately didn't take any pictures of the school (duh), but I got a lot of the happy-looking kids who mobbed us as soon as we arrived. Take my word for it: the school was great, with real stairs, real buildings, a garden, an outdoor basketball court, and a dormatory for kids who live too far from the school to bus in every day.

This school is often toured by other teachers and principals for ideas of how to improve their own schools. It also hosts teacher conferences every year. One of the most interesting things about the school was that the kids were learning Spanish, English and the indigenous language of the area. Zihuatanejo was known as Cihuaulan in pre-colonial times and was populated with the Toltec, Olmec, and Aztec throughout history. The areas around Zihua are composed mainly of indiginous groups who are overwhelmingly poor and struggling to keep their identity intact.

Future school location


What cuties

More cuties


Yep, they do learnin' too

I haven't seen anything like this before, especially with such background information about the community, and I certainly appreciate what a few hundred motivated cruisers can accomplish in just a few years. Sara has been involved in low-income education through her time with AmeriCorps, but we were both amazed and awestruck at the conditions and response.

It had been an eye-opening experience, but all the do-goodery was exhausting. By the time we left the third site and headed back into town, I was ready for a low-cost cervesa brought to my table with the minimal amount of service overhead.

The essence of Mexico

We had a nice dinner, walked around and explored more, and got back to the boat surprisingly late. Sleep came quickly, visions of concrete buildings and school uniforms dancing in our dreams. Well, I actually dreamed about the fish that must be inevitably squashed by cruise-ship anchors, but I'm sure Sara thought about the kids.

Thursday we scrubbed cleaned the boat, brought our laundry in to shore, and otherwise prepared for my parents to arrive. Ann and John were going to join us for almost two weeks, flying in to Zihuatanejo and departing from Puerto Vallarta. We were both looking forward to seeing them, but we were a little anxious about how they were going to handle the long trip north in such a small space.

I guess we also spent Thursday celebrating the end of our honeymoon. It had been a fantastic month of sailing by ourselves, but news of our dinero deficit (and decision to turn around at Zihuatanejo) had made it to our friends and family who wanted to join us on Wanderlust. Our schedule had filled up almost completely: the next eight weeks will have us hosting six different people!

Weaving a wool rug


Enjoying the last of our honeymoon

We had a great dinner and then drinks at a couple of cool bars in town.

She's a catch, eh?


Exotic nightlife

Friday morning we did some last-minute internet ordering, loading Sara's friend Mari down with parts to bring with her when she meets us in PV two weeks, and I quickly ran to the lavenderia to get our laundry. One problem: someone else had picked up (and paid for) our laundry. Crap!

The girls at the lavenderia found the receipt for the guy who had our bags. They also said that a man dropped the laundry off, but a woman with a big cart picked it up. Okay, this makes sense, she was picking up laundry for two and got the wrong "William". There was another William in the book; it all makes sense. I picked up and paid for his laundry.

There was just enough time to get back to the boat, call the guy who had our laundry, discover his wife had misunderstood and they hadn't meant to pick up more than just his, receive a call from the other "William" who wanted his laundry back, change, and leave for the airport.

This isn't our laundry


Quick! To the airport!

We got to the airport just in time to see the flight my parents were supposed to be on file out of the arrivals gate. Yep, they weren't onboard. Okay, we expected they might not have made the 1hr transition in Mexico City, and we stay put waiting for the next flight a few hours later.

We must be getting used to 'Mexico time': we were totally prepared. We both had brought books, we weren't fazed by the delay at all, and it was relaxing, not hurried or frantic. When they finally arrived we encountered just one more wrench in our plans - the bag full of stuff we had asked them to bring us didn't make the Mexico City connection either. Drats.

We filled out the forms and fled the airport before we became perminant fixtures. Funny thing about the airport: the taxi guys have a union! If you want to catch a cab, it's $28. No bargaining, no negotiations, just $28. Well, that's messed up, 'cause our cab from Zihua had cost just $8.

While Sara and I were waiting, we sat with a group of cabbies who were talking and joking with us in broken Spanglish. After collecting the parents we swung by, told them we were going to stand on the road outside the airport and catch a cab back to Zihua for $10. Lots of drama ensued, but of course they would rather earn $10 than sit around bullshitting, and before we finished the 200ft walk there was a car waiting for us. Hahaha!

Sara is a bit fiesty


My parents arrive!

I dinghied my parent's luggage back to Wanderlust while they did a little light shopping with Sara. Ann loves the big floppy sunhats, but doesn't like to pack them, so the first order of business was to find a new one! I talked to Laundry William, arranged the swap the next day on the beach, packed some flares and headlamps, and dinghied back. We found a great restaurant and enjoyed an extravagant dinner.

My mother, the hat lover


Salsa made at our table, mmm...

We couldn't have timed things better. On the way back to the boat we met up with a group of SailFest'ers who had rafted up their dinghies to the Port Captain's boat in the middle of the bay. We were going to shoot off some flares! I've been dreaming about this since we bought our first 25mm rockets. I had brought a bag full of pyrotechnics, and was just a little excited!

To my disappointment the flare shoot-off was a totally controlled event, with one person at a time announcing the brand, type, and year of the flare over the VHF radio before igniting it. Furthermore, the organizers didn't want people shooting off too many flares, so they were limiting the number of shots per person. Nooooooooo!

The flare shootin' raftup


1976 handheld with wooden handle

I managed to get three of our rockets into the parade: a non-expired 12-guage 6-second red arial flare, which fired nicely, a non-expired pull-tab 6-second red arial flare, which failed (!!!!), and a 1976 handheld flare with a German grenade-style wooden handle!

When I announced the 1976 flare, everyone laughed. They stopped laughing when that thing kicked to life on the second strike! It burned super bright, and even holding it underwater wouldn't put it out! It was very cool, we all learned a lot - the pull-tab rocket flares are useless, hold hand-held flares WAY outside the boat (they drip burning blobs of goo), remember to fire flares downwind - and it was as much fun as it sounds.

We went back to Wanderlust, the first time Ann and John have seen her since they helped us scrape varnish from the old wood in June (right after we bought her)! We unloaded everything, went downstairs to get acquainted with the boat again, and promptly returned topsides so my parents wouldn't barf everywhere.

At this point we were anchored off the beach at the far end of the bay away from Zihua. We wanted to stay there because the water was purported to be cleaner, the nights quieter, etc, but the swell rolls into this area of the bay all day. It's a little better when anchored bow and stern, pointing into the waves, but it wasn't great. We fed our sick new crewmembers some seasickness pills and we all stayed up talking until the drugs kicked in.

Ann fighting the urge to purge


Look at those hats!

Sometime in the middle of the night the rocking motion got worse and worse. Ann called out from the cabin to make sure everything was okay, and I gave her a half-asleep "yeah yeah". The rocking really was bad! I finally climbed out of the hatch above our bedroom and realized our stern anchor had come unhooked, we had turned into the wind, beam to the swell, and we were rolling wildly back and forth!

Oops. Yeah yeah indeed. We couldn't ignore the situation even if we could stand the rocking, because all the boats around us were anchored with both bow and stern hooks. If we swung only from our bow hook, it was possible we could kiss another boat sometime in the night. I woke everyone up and explained that we needed to move. What a way to start their first night at sea!

Sara and I hauled up the stern anchor (the big Danforth hadn't had enough scope to set well), the bow anchor, and motored us closer to Zihua inside the protection of the bay. Everyone closer to shore was only using one anchor, and the swell was so much reduced we were wondering why we didn't stay there the whole time. Our Bruce hooked in solid on the first try - it almost always does - and a short hour after discovering the problem we were all back in bed.

The next day we skipped the SailFest dinghy treasure hunt and instead went to a supermarket to provision the boat for the next week and a half. It's always fun to reprovision, we usually spend a few hours and overload the cart; this time we were smart, we took two carts.

What a monster receipt


That's a lot of food

We like the bustling neighbourhood open-air mercados, where you can buy fresh produce, eggs that have never been refrigerated, and any number of different veggies, but for reprovisioning nothing beats the convenience of an American-style super-mercado. When we're picking up produce or just one or two small things, we prefer the community market. I wonder how long local farmers, butchers, and other vendors will stand the competition.

These guys OWN Zihua


They don't move unless you charge them

Sara and I took everything back to Wanderlust while Ann and John explored Zihua further. Doing things this way is a necessity - the dinghy just can't carry four people and groceries for four weeks! We met back up on the beach an hour later and discovered we were all in foul moods from being so hungry. Good timing - the SailFest Chili Cookoff was just about to begin.

We participated in 'judging' 20 different chilis made by cruisers, local restaurants, and some from the local community. Almost all were amazing. I'll be frank: all except one were better than good, and that one sucked so bad I had to spit out a mouthful and pour away the rest. Nonetheless, I started stealing chili tasting tickets from my parents and Sara, and ate until I had a belly-ache. Our spirits perked right back up with some food in our tummies.

That's a lot of cervesa


Auction at Rick's Bar

We perused the auction items at Rick's Bar - putting two bids on a beautiful print of a colourful rooster - before heading back to the boat. John has introduced us to Bridge, and we muddled our way through a game, trying to learn the bidding conventions so we wouldn't need to table-talk so much. "Got any diamonds?" isn't a legit Bridge question before bidding!

The next day, Sunday the 4th of February, was the last day of SailFest. We had signed up to take a paying couple with us on the sail parade. I found out too late they would be paying Por Los Ninos, not us. I guess it's for a good cause, but I was still irritated.

Before they arrived, John and I gave the bottom of the boat a thorough cleaning. The warmer water seems to encourage different sea critters to attach themselves to everything, and even though we had only been sitting still for a week there was still new barnacles and slimy green furry growth everywhere.

Scrubbing the bottom


Will at the helm

Our guests arrived and we were pleasantly surprised to discover they were also sailors, and very nice to boot! We had a great time sailing out of the bay and milling around with the other boats. We turned off the engine and enjoyed the light breeze, sailing in and out of the other groups of boats.

It turns out we must have missed the skippers briefing, because we had no idea what we were supposed to do. While everyone else was forming up and motoring in circles, we were sailing between groups having fun. When everyone was queueing up and motoring at 4 knots, we were sailing between boats at 5.5 knots. I guess we were the bad boys of the sail parade. We got a few bad looks, but it was worth it - our paying guests were happy.

Sara helms and entertains


Queueing up at Zihua

Long line of yachts


The committee boat

We eventually dropped the jib, joined the line, and motored along with everyone else. We went through the Zihua anchorage, outside the bay, over to Ixtapa, and back. In Ixtapa the Port Captain setup his boat as the end marker, and I think we were the only ones to pass him under sail (we were at the end of the line, so no one minded when we cracked off and sailed past).

The winds were light leaving Ixtapa, and were totally gone an hour later. There wasn't even enough wind to fill our light spinnaker! On with the motor, back to Zihua for the wrap-up dinner. It was conveniently located right beside our anchorage.

Dinner on the beach, right beside our anchorage!



Hundreds of hungry cruisers


MMMmmm.. burgers!

The dinner was catered by four different restaurants, so everyone had their choice of burgers, ribs, italian, or mexican food. We got one plate from each host, and then bought two more tickets the food was so good. We met up with our parade guests again and shared several beers while sitting and talking.

Sharing a beer moment


This guy contributed $20k!

The awards presentation wrapped up dinner with the announcement that SailFest had raised something like US$80,000. Unbelievable. Lorenzo indicated construction on the new site would start on Wednesday (how's that for beauocratic efficiency?), and would be finished three or four weeks later! There was a lot of applause.

Again the unmitigated goodness of the event was giving me a headache. We had to leave. Oh, plus it was superbowl time. Sara and I hopped in the dinghy and zoomed off at the earliest opportunity (someone was still speaking, but they were a bit player), leaving Ann and John to swim back to Wanderlust.

The superbowl game was great, Sara's wild cheers almost got us in a bar fight, many beers were consumed, the kids would have a nice new school, and everyone was happy. It's enough to make you feel ill, isn't it?