Many of the differences between cruising in the US and cruising in Mexico are subtle.
Even experienced cruisers are sometimes surprised by the differences between cruising around in the U.S. and cruising in Mexico.
The language barrier is not nearly as significant as it was when I began cruising Mexico in the 1980s. Now American boaters can hop between more than 40 full-service marinas on the Pacific coasts, where English proficiency is a job requirement for staffers working with the public — mainly U.S. recreational boaters (yatistas).
About half of the gringo cruisers are studying an excellent little book called “Spanish for Cruisers” by Kathy Parsons, which serves as the course book for many Spanish classes in La Paz and Mazatlan. By the time boaters reach La Paz, they’re no longer shy about speaking whatever Spanish they have acquired.
Boaters who pull alongside a fuel dock hardly need to say “Llena lo, por favor” — “Fill it up please.” But to understand a weather report in Spanish, they might want to know the Spanish terms for wind, rain, storm and fog. And while exploring the smaller ports and cute village anchorages without marinas, a good conversation starter is to ask a few likely looking locals what they’re fi shing for, where’s a good snorkeling spot and what’s the best restaurant.
Listening to conversations in Spanish on your VHF can be instructional, too.
“Yate, no acercase el remolcador!” I was steering a big powerboat north from Turtle Bay when I heard that shout over VHF Channel 16. As I approached the narrow Dewey Channel, everything was suddenly plunged into pea-soup fog, visibility down to zero. I dropped my speed from 10 knots down to a cautious five, then responded on VHF 16 with my boat name, position and my newly lowered speed. I fine tuned my radar, which still showed no other boat traffic. I started to thumb through my Spanish dictionary. But the instant I cleared Punta Eugenia, the traffic appeared on radar less than a mile off my starboard bow.
Yikes! Crossing from starboard to port were two good-sized ships in a straight line. Plot mode on my radar revealed the two ships were actually a big, fast tugboat (10 knots easily) and a barge being towed behind it on a cable. They were crossing from the Guerrero Negro salt ponds out to their terminal on the south end of Cedros Island. If I hadn’t paid attention to my VHF and slowed when I did, I might have tangled with them in the fog. After letting them go first, I cautiously went well behind the second target, the barge being towed, then continued my route north.
Later in my dictionary I found “Remolcar,” which means to tow something. Remolcador refers to a tug boat towing something. Good to know in the fog.
METRIC & PESOS
Fuel docks at most of the major marinas can operate with U.S. dollars and gallons, but off the beaten path it’s usually “pesos por litro.” One U.S. gallon equals 3.78541 liters, so 100 U.S. gallons equals 378.541 liters. Use a calculator before ordering fuel. Write the number of liters and the anticipated cost on paper and show it to the fuel-dock operator, so he knows what you’re expecting to pump and pay for.
Know the current exchange rate of the U.S. dollar to the Mexican peso, not what it was last month. As I write this, $1 buys 18.5 pesos. Banks post the current exchange rates, which can change weekly. Expect remote fuel docks to charge a bit more, to compensate for the hefty concession fees they pay to get the fuel to the boat dock.
Kilograms (kilos) are used to weigh food. One U.S. pound of oranges, for example, equals 2.20462 kilos. Five kilos of oranges weigh 11.0231 pounds. Some hardware stores may sell scoops of nuts, bolts and nails by the kilo. Most boaters soon get familiar with buying meat by the kilo, such as a six-kilo “lomo de puerco” or pork loin.
Distance is measured in kilometers, not miles or nautical miles. One kilometer is only 0.621371 of a mile. Ten miles equals 16.0934 kilometers. One rough rule of thumb for conversion is to divide the kilometer distance in half and then add 10 percent.
Meters, fortunately, are almost interchangeable with yards; one meter is 1.09361 yards. If a Mexican staffer yells “five more” during docking, five meters is close enough to five yards that there shouldn’t be a crunch.
If something exotic breaks, it’s best to be near Ensenada, Los Cabos, La Paz, San Carlos, Guaymas, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo or Acapulco — all have chandlers that stock yachtie-type parts and supplies for boats. If not, they can order them pronto.
Despite all the nice marinas and haulout yards in the yachtie hangouts, the chandlers in the rest of Mexico focus on parts and gear for local fishing boats, such as three-strand line by the spool, Danforth-type anchors for 22-foot pangas and outboard parts.
The kind of chain sold in many places in Mexico may not have been galvanized, or it may not be sized perfectly for the teeth in the windlass. But big commercial ports — La Paz, Mazatlan, Manzanillo — have small shops that will sandblast and galvanize chain that boaters bring to them, unlike most U.S. ports. This may be a practical alternative to driving new chain down from the U.S.
South of Ensenada, a common conundrum is finding yacht braid — at least in specific sizes and colors. Of course, Sea readers carry plenty of water-maker filters and membranes, but they probably won’t find actual replacement parts for water-makers, radar systems or navigation electronics, especially if they’re interfaced with the boat’s plotter system. Those parts have to be ordered from the States. Remember, Temporary Import Permits (TIP) let American boaters avoid customs duty when importing parts.
When a group of yatistas greets locals in rural villages or resort ports, it’s slightly impolite not to introduce everyone in the party. Also, boaters from Southern California often pick up “street Spanish” and try to use it in Mexico. The slang and “familiar” tense may earn high-fives from timeshare salesmen in Cabo San Lucas, but in more traditional settings, locals respond better to visitors who speak in the formal tense — at least for a minute. Then it’s OK to lapse into familiarity.
Grocery shopping is a breeze at big-box stores in resort ports. They have tons of fresh produce, deli fare and frozen items. Taxis line up to drive yatistas back to the marina. But be prepared for a surprising difference ashore in remote villages. The tiny tienda may double as the front room of someone’s home. Shelves have cans and boxes of dry staples. Delicious local fruits, veggies, eggs and dairy products may not have been fully refrigerated. If it’s hot and you’re far from the boat, consider lugging an ice chest and an egg crate. If you find something interesting in a beach tienda, buy it now, because tomorrow it may be sold out.