Saturday, May 6, 2023

Sea Lions, Thieving Gulls, Electronics Fail

Puerto Don Juan, Baja California

Sunset through "The Window" at Puerto Don Juan

We are sitting at anchor in the very protected harbor of Puerto Don Juan, Stop #7 on the way to Puerto Peñasco. It has been a rest day after sailing all day yesterday to get here. The weather is beautiful, sunny, clear, cool and was breezy most of the day. The waters in the anchorage are calm, but cold. I dipped the thermometer in and it registered only 68℉ (20ºC). So any swims will be short-lived or with a wetsuit.

This place is teeming with sea lions hunting for fish solo or in packs. The larger, older ones seem to hunt rather languidly by themselves, the smaller, younger ones hunt in groups, swimming fast, arcing out of the water as they pursue whatever it is there are after. The larger ones are noisy, grunting as they hunt and barking at each other over fishing territory.

The sea lions often gather in a raft-up of a dozen or more to rest and warm up, floating on their backs with their fins in the air. The sun warms the blood in the thin tissue of the fins which in turn warms the rest of the sea lion's body. They jostle for an inside position among the group, where the water is warmed by collective body heat.

There are also lots of pelicans fishing. Harassing both the sea lions and the pelicans are nasty thieving seagulls. As soon as a fish is caught by either, a dozen seagulls gang up on the catcher and try to steal the fish or snatch a morsel from beak or mouth. It is like watching a mob attack, very ugly. The pelicans deal with the attacks stoically; they don't have any other choice. The sea lions seem to get annoyed and quickly dive under the surface to get away from the mob.

The whole place is in a state of constant activity, except for the lazy humans sitting on their boats just watching.

It was a mostly enjoyable sail here yesterday, except for some mild-to-moderate bashing for a couple of hours against wind and chop, and a worrying hiccup with the autopilot and instruments.

As we crashed down off a small but very steep wave, the autopilot's alarm went off, the display informed me, that there was "No Heading Data", and the autopilot disengaged. I tried to re-engage the autopilot but was not successful, further informed by the display, "Startup Required". I'd never seen that message before and didn't know what I needed to do, but turning the autopilot off and back on seemed like a good move. I tried that, but no luck.

All the instruments and the autopilot are interconnected on a network, so I figured my next step was to turn everything off, wait ten seconds, and turn everything back on. The universal magic recipe for fixing electronic devices. Before I did this, I gave some thought as to what I would do if everything stopped working as a result. It was daylight, good weather, a straightforward route, an easy anchorage to enter and I was running redundant navigation on my iPad, so I decided I could take the risk.

I shut off everything, counted to ten, and flipped the power back on. I was surprised and mildly alarmed to be informed that we had no GPS (for fixing our position) and no AIS (for collision avoidance). But the autopilot was working, as was the wind instrument. However, to my dismay, the depth sounder was just showing dashes. Bummer.

The GPS and AIS sorted themselves out in about ten minutes, which was a relief. The depth sounder, however, remained uninformative. Until then, I hadn't really appreciated what an essential piece of equipment the depth sounder is. We rely on it to avoid running aground, for navigating in shallow waters and for anchoring.

I had some hope that the depth sounder wasn't displaying any numbers because I turned it back on when we were in water over a thousand feet deep and the depth sensor only works to a few hundred feet. But whenever we have been in very deep water, the depth sounder flashes the numbers of the last recorded depth, it doesn't just display dashes. So, I was worried and needed a backup plan for anchoring and perhaps the rest of the trip. My backup was to tie a couple of diving weights to a long line that I knotted every fathom. A lead sounding line, just like in the old days. I chuckled at the idea of lowering the line, feeling two knots pass through my hand and calling out "Mark Twain", the twelve-foot depth that Samuel Clemens used as his pen name.

Fortunately when we got into water in the hundreds of feet deep, the depth sounder flashed numbers instead of dashes. Nonsense numbers, but just like it always has in deep water. When we got into less deep water, the depth on the sounder matched the soundings on the chart. All was good again.

I don't know what caused the hiccup in the electronics. Maybe the fluxgate compass didn't like getting jostled by the wave, but that has never happened before. I checked all the network cable connection, they all seemed okay, but maybe one shook loose. The autopilot is the data hub, so I'll open up its case and check the connection inside later. And if I can find the fluxgate compass (its location alludes me at present), I'll examine it as well. 

What this experience has taught me is that the depth sounder is an essential instrument and that the autopilot is nearly essential for singlehanded sailing. I plan on installing a redundant depth sounder as part of Intermezzo's refit. Another Leopard owner has rigged up a system to use a tiller pilot as a backup. This simple, relatively inexpensive system would not only steer the boat if the main autopilot failed, it would also serve as emergency steering if the main steering system failed. Two more projects for the (long, long) refit list.

I'm planning on staying here for a day or two before heading to Puerto Refugio. Northwest winds are suggested for Wednesday. If they materialize, I'm going to sit them out somewhere.