Travels on Feb. 8:
San Blas is a pinnacle of past and present: First, before the United Sates declared its independence, before our country was born, San Blas was a town giving birth to California. It was from here that Padre Junipero Serra began the establishment of the missions on the West Coast of America. As a matter of detail, March 12, 1768 was the date of his voyage from San Blas. First he traveled to Baja California to take over the missions located there, after the Jesuits were expelled from Mexico. The very next year, he built the first mission in San Diego, Alta California, as it was known in those days.
San Blas was the key port on the pacific coast of Mexico for the maritime commerce during the years of Spanish domination. Exploration and occupation of the West Coast, out of San Blas, went all the way to Canada (Nootka) in an attempt to establish forts to thwart English and Russian attempts to settle the Northwest Territories. To the south, ships from here expanded the Spanish Empire to places such as Manzanillo and Acapulco. It was to San Blas that the fortunes in gold and silver were brought and stored. Later, as a shipload was accumulated, the valuable cargo was moved cross-country to the Gulf Coast to be loaded on the galleons for transport to Spain. Asia, particularly the Philippines, was part of the empire developed from San Blas.
The port of San Blas was complete with shipyards, docks and important people. The glory of the Spanish Empire radiated from this unique corner of the Mexican State of Nayarit. It enjoyed that place in history for over a century, until 1873.
Less than 10 years later, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his last poem, "The Bells of San Blas" . . . he died 12 days later.
For the last few decades, cruisers have remembered San Blas as the place with the worst no-see-um problem; the place with the most difficult channel entrance; the place with an American, named Norman Goldie, helping cruisers enter and enjoy this wonderful cruising gem.
We have walked to every ruin of this corner of the Old Spanish Empire. We have anchored where the ancient mariners rested, repaired and provisioned their sailing ships. We have wondered what lives were like in those times, standing on the ground those people stood on.
We have gone to the church ruins on the bluff above the port and sat under the belfry where those infamous bells, of which Longfellow wrote his last prose, used to hang . . . and read his poem out loud to each other.
We have combated the no-see-ums, safely navigated the shoals of the San Blas estuary and met the one of the cruiser-icons of Mexico.
Now I will share the events as they unfolded during our stay . . .
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Early on the morning after Loup de Mer arrived and burned the late-night oil with us, we learned we were going to be led into the estuary by a third boat, Komfy. This boat had navigated the channel several times before. Norm Goldie (VHF call sign, Jama), usually guides boats in. Just as an example of the impossible navigation problem that exists here, recent instructions were to pass #5, green channel buoy to starboard! For those of you who are aware of boating's rules of the road, the rule is red-right-returning, green is ALWAYS on the left. Gemini had told us about this unique advice for safe entrance. Frankly, I refused to follow the advice and planned to stay in Mantanchen Bay. But on that Tuesday morning, I was the third boat in the group and would be able to watch two others before me. Also, Jama changed his advice the night before, allowing us to leave #5 to port. I was much happier.
Unfortunately, our battery problem was back. I radioed ahead that Nanjo was going to stop to disconnect the battery and come in on the house bank. Unfortunately the cabling didn't allow that, so I just "paralleled" the two banks. I needed to have a reliable motoring configuration in this channel. The entrance wasn't any shallower than the Barra lagoon in Navidad, but we didn't have any visual guides other than following the next boat. Nancy was on the helm, of course, as she is the "good luck" navigator. All went well and we anchored in 11 feet of water, on the side the main channel, across from the dinghy landing - "Roberto here".
We put Nanjo in the "moored" configuration, solar panels out and the dink over the side, and had lunch. Then it was off to check in with the Port Captain. The landing at Roberto's is small, a beach area about 30' wide. There's enough room for 6 dinks, then you tie up behind the first row, sometimes being afloat at high tide. Roberto is a gangly 16-year-old. He filled our water bottles, took our garbage, and helped pull the dink in and get us afloat. As we got to know him, he taught us a little more Spanish each day, joked with us and acted like any other teenage boy. One day he was Michael Jackson, the next Rambo. One day he would use the outboard key and lanyard as a mock-telephone, the next he was showing us on a map where he was born. The cruisers paid him 10 pesos, sometimes a little more, for watching the dinks and doing the other services. He makes excellent money, considering the minimum wage is 30 pesos a day. He is very proud and has a lot of respect from his friends.
Although San Blas is a Port-of-Entry, the Port Captain provides all entrance and departure functions. Customs and Immigration used to have offices close by, but now are located an hour's bus ride away, in Tepic, the state capitol. When vessels plan to exit Mexican waters, bound for other countries, the Port Captain facilitates the paperwork for the cruisers. But we just wanted to stay for a couple of weeks before heading to Mazatlan. We were checked in and out at the same time, saving an extra trip. To pay port fees, though, we were given an official deposit slip and went to the bank to deposit the fees directly into the appropriate account, returning to the Port Office with the deposit receipt for $1.30usd.
The trip to the bank led us through the center of town. We found the locations of the tiendas, farmacias, panaderias and lavanderias. Fresh, still warm bolillos were found at . . . right, the pan-store (panaderia). But after getting our papers back from the Port Captain, we headed back to Nanjo to install netting on the major hatches and two holed-screens. We didn't want to repeat the sweatbox experience we had last November in Tenacatita. Loup de Mer (Marsha) had extra netting, which she gave to us. I cut a piece for each of the overhead hatches, several inches wider than actual size. Then I cut a piece of cord, inserting a section of elastic cord, to create a compressing ring to hold the outside of the netting to the hatch. It worked great, although we can't close the hatches with the net installed. No problema! We wanted the hatches open day and night since the temperature stayed in the 80's (inside the boat) most of the days. Nanjo was closed up at 1600 that first afternoon- those gnasty gnats were already gnipping me.
The San Blas Net is morning and evening, 0800 and 1700. The last bit of info on the evening Net is the location of that night's cruiser's get-together, dinner for most. We had dinner aboard though. After doing the dishes, we slathered on the deet-free repellent and headed to town.
The streets of San Blas are cobbled with river rock or are dirt. That is, all but the two main streets, one coming into town and the other going down to the Navy base. Those use pavers. The road we followed up from the estuary into town becomes the main street in/out of town. From the water to the plaza, it begins as dust, then cobbles, followed by pavers. We passed shacks, two Navy dependent's apartment buildings with guards, smelly river sloughs and motor shops. Next were the 200+ year old counting house where the gold shipments were accumulated, a fancy hotel, a beautiful mini-park, bars and discos. Finally the various restaurants, tiendas, beauty shops and barbershops, photo shops, long distance telephone shops, all the typical services. The quality of the homes shoehorned between increased in size and quality. Finally we arrived in the Plaza. This was a wonderful sample of "the real" Mexico.
It was after dark and the music was building. Young people were as numerous as were older ones. The electronic game parlors were stuffed and overflowing. The elevated plaza's benches were filled with seniors. The perimeter of the plaza was lined with vendors and their wares. We wondered if this was what Mary's experiences in Tulancingo (Pleasanton's Mexican sister-city) were like. She had told us of the evenings in the plaza, hanging out with her friends and local teenagers, under the watchful eye of her "family".
The main draw in the plaza was the Huichol Indian crafts vendors. Food vendors were spotted here and there. The old and the new churches dominated the north end of the plaza. Since the rest of the cruisers hadn't arrived yet, we went into the old church. While this isn't the original church of San Blas, the original Bells now hang in its tower. They still sound mellow, although over 200 years old. The old church is small and identical to the California missions we are familiar with. We then went next door to the new church. Much larger, this church feels like a cathedral. It has very high ceilings, ornately designed and beautiful, though simple in its paint scheme: White and gold. At night, with the massive chandelier lighting the interior, it was impressive. The windows are colorful cut glass. The front window, high above the massive double doors, is dedicated to the sea and the fishermen. The rest are religious. Just what I would expect from a proud, albeit poor, community. While San Blas' best days may be behind her, the church was their jewel.
We wondered around some of the streets off the plaza but were soon collected by Loup de Mer to go to where everyone else was. "The Sandwich Shop" is what we knew it as, specialized in drink Nancy became fond of - Chocolate leche grande. We're talking about a frappéd chocolate milk that was oh-so-close to a milk shake, served in a large margarita glass!
We met Norm and his wife Jan. He is a big man, about my age, a New Yorker who has been here for 34 years. His wife is an ex-model and an artist that the years have treated nicely - she is beautiful and her art is to behold. While they are fluent in Spanish, in English their "Jersey" accents are fresh as if they were just visiting. Norm's career has been as a sport-fishing guide. Jan has acquired a reputation for her watercolor portraits of the Huichol Indians, and is under commission by the Mexican government to provide a 15-picture collection. Yet she is regularly at Norm's side, fishing. In 1986 she had the record for the largest Dorado caught in the world, in an '85 tournament, she caught over half the total tournament catch. So Jan is a Renaissance woman.
Before the party broke up that evening, we promised to visit Jama's house, make our entry in their logs and see some of Jan's art.
We felt the magnetism of San Blas the most that night. We sensed this was going to be a memorable stop. We were looking forward to the next, what turned out to be, 13 days. We collected our water jugs from Roberto and went across the channel to Nanjo, anchored behind Buoy #9.
[To be continued]
Crew of Nanjo