Squalls, Storms and Surf

The first night in Huatulco we anchored off the beach in Bahia Santa Cruz. After the 24 hour passage from up north and several rolly nights on the hook the arrival was a relief. The naval presence here was unparalleled to any we had seen in Mexico. Maybe it was because it was Easter. There were swarms of people were swimming, jet-skiing and partying, like any good Catholic nation. It took a while to find an ATM that didn’t dispense US Dollars. Odd isn’t it? I got myself a margarita and we shared some fish at a restaurant on the water watching the boat float around to her hook. It was nice having arrived at our final Mexican destination where we were planning to take a couple weeks off to rest and prepare for the long voyage ahead. The next morning after checking in with the port captain a cruise ship started to back in to the bay. As the currents washed Arcy in circles and the passengers looked down at us with binoculars from their little decks we hauled up the anchor and took the boat to Marina Chahue in the next bay.

Why hello up there! How does it feel to have that nice little deck – mmm?

Tied up in the cheap section at .35 cents/foot  (the best rates yet) we packed our bags to get the off the boat for a while. We got some helados (cold icecreamies) and a cab to Barra De La Cruz, a tiny town about 25 minutes South known for it’s perfect right hand, sand bottom, point-break. We spent a week in Barra and then went back for more. The town is set back from the ocean and there are only a few little places to stay or eat. We stayed at Pepe’s and it was a great set-up. There was a floor fan, showers, cows, hammocks and a kitchen open all day… luxury!

The low and fragrant forest turned from brown to green nearing Barra and the country side was so beautiful, still and peaceful… the perfect get-away from the boat. The 20 minute walk to the beach is lined with lush valleys, livestock, and fruit trees. Hitching a ride is a happy encounter for everyone.

The waves were good. Arguably the most consistent and perfect ones we had seen this trip. The water was clear and blue, the scenery was gorgeous. Big granite rocks made for a sweet look out and a fun climb. There were lots of aussies and american grommet pros and also our friends who paddled out to meet us up North. We spent the days at the beach and nights sleeping hard. Oh! the joy of breaking away from the boat, and for the first time since leaving we weren’t anxious about her either.

Not the best of the wave – but Barra on a beautiful day

Pepe’s cows are proud cows

The point, a cone shell, the fruit bowl and relaxing

From the rocas

The scene

The attraction

When we returned to the boat, that had nearly chaffed through it’s dock lines, we met Evan. He was full of laughs and life and while waiting out a Tehuantepecker that’s blast exceeded 45 knots to the south, we spent a week drinking beers in his roomy catamaran. He became our new best friend and joined us on the second trip to Barra. My memory of Barra also included the best fruit bowl ever for less than 2 bucks… Cantalope, papaya, mango, banana, yogurt and granola…. Ow, I could go for one right now (it’s in the picture above in the collage).

Anyhow, back in Marina Chahue it was so hot and humid on our little swamp finger of a marina that sweating was done at all hours and there was no escape. Getting cold things was usually the most important to-do item every day. Stopping into an air-conditioned store was amazing. We later heard this is the hottest month of the year… It was 95 degrees, 70% humidity, most of the time. Don’t even think of touching anything without sliming it. It was like melting into a fine slime… Andrew says his pillow started to smell like a piece of gymnasium equipment. Eeew. Nothing like fresh laundry! Evan said we hadn’t lived until we had pastor tacos and from then on it was pastor tacos followed by helados every night. The little town of Huatulco had it’s charm and was packed in the evenings with Mexican tourists. There are 800 cabs in Huatulco and it cost 20 pesos to go everywhere.

Pastor highway

The time had come to do the paperwork for leaving the country. The paperwork was easy and it cost 20 bucks. Migration and Customs have to come down to the boat to stamp your zarpe papers out of the country and that was the most difficult arrangement we’ve dealt with mexico. Customs says they are coming later that day around 5 or 6… Migration shows up at 7. Two sweet girls who hop on board, plop down on the settee and start fanning themselves saying.. it’s so hot! They pulled their stamp out of the hello kitty purse and stamped us clear. Customs shows up the following day after calling a few times and that was that. Not so bad I guess… it seemed streesful – ah, but it was fine.

Migration officers aboard

So we were preparing for our longest passage yet. Heading to El Salvador – a little less than 500 miles South East. Step one was getting across the Gulf of Tehuantepec. This nasty region enjoys the mountain gap-wind phenomenon blowing violent offshore gales that have been said to blow tankers hundreds of miles out to sea, it’s been said by naval captains to be more dangerous than rounding Cape Horn. The Tehuantepec is every South setting sailors biggest fear. The Tehuantepecker, as they call them, that blew in early May – the one we waited out – was only the 9th recorded blow of up to 45 knots since 1999 in the month of May. Some suggest it may be the safest month to cross to avoid a tehuantepecker blast but then it also marks the start of Hurricane season – May 15 to be exact as well as the rainy season in general. Fortunately the weather men are quite keen on keeping sailors away from the hazard and they are careful to analyze the cause of the winds and give fair warning. From a look at the weather patterns in the gulf of Campeche, high pressure including a strong Easterly trade is a sure sign that one is coming. The strategy is to keep one foot on the beach, so they say, and hug the coastline so if a t-pecker blows you can drop the hook and stay put until it’s over. There are other strategies too – but that’s the safest.

So once provisioned, fueled, checked-out, mentally prepared, and cleared on the weather Evan pushed us off the docks and the bloody boat wouldn’t go into gear. After some greasy investigation we figured out that the cable was shot and the tightening nut on the gear lever to the saildrive was loose. Once tightened and cable removed we got her in gear by hand shifting from the engine room and decided to head out the next morning. The boat a disaster and tired from a day of work we went for swim. A couple days prior I had checked out this amazing, secluded, white sand beach a quick walk from the marina so I convinced the guys to head over there and to my entertainment the guys were throwing themselves into the impact zone for a good old fashion wrecking and in some weird way it renewed the spirit to head to sea.

Huatulco white sand beaches

From above

After a big dinner, a hard goodbye and a good sleep – we left.

It’s 10pm. I’m sitting in the cockpit… it must be 80 something out still. The main sail is flapping and the engine is on. The exhaust fumes are rolling right over me from the light wind off the stern and I feel a little queezy. We are off the coast of Guatamala and it’s our fourth night at sea. Last night we experienced our first storm. It was small, but it was real. After crossing the tehuantepec at the fastest rate possible which included full sails and motoring and lucky for us strong current we made our fastest 24 hour passage ever I think at about 125 miles – sometimes hitting 7 knots. I was so thrilled to be out of the T-pecker shot gun blast zona and passing the Mexican border I was swigging wine from the bottle and smiling to the sea gods.

It was a mellow blue day that began with magic. A lone dolphin (very rare) who was one of the largest dolphins I’ve ever seen was riding the bow waves doing some little jumps. I grabbed my camera and went up to see if I could snap one of him coming out of the water. I watched him turn back towards the stern and come speeding towards the bow where he was clearly going to go for it, oh and he was looking right at me. I have never seen anything like it and somehow I got the shot:

Do it again! Do it again!

Being back at sea in our quiet meditations and thoughts while the stars sparkled in the sky I felt in awe in every sense of the word. So small I am. So small and insignificant. Yet – the importance of the insignificance was great. When we are on a long passage we take turns on watch… three hours/three hours the whole time so neither of us are asleep at any time. Odd as it seems, there is a lot of alone time while the other one of us sleeps. On this passage there was barely an hour or two before the other headed back to nap.

Anyhow, A SW sea breeze pushed us along all afternoon. As the evening settled in there was a rather ominous feel to the sky, it was dark purple and big cumulus clouds hung above the land… up ahead looked darker. As night set in it started to rain and offshore winds were blowing harder than felt right… maybe 15 knots. The lightening started and the the wind shifted to the nose from the SE. Andrew woke me up and said… don’t be scared but I need you on deck – NOW. It was pouring and lightening was flashing. The wind was howling. Andrew had already hauled in the head sail. We double reefed the main while the wind continued to build. WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?!! We had read about these things… these nasty storms. They call them Chabascos… I think. But tonight?! us?! Nooo. Hopefully it won’t last long. I turned the boat off the wind a little and the seas were horrendous… we had yet to have waves wetting the decks like these. Soon enough the dinghy (being towed as usual) was airborn and flipped. Oh shit. Andrew was able to quickly unflip it… and it flipped again… and again. We fastened it close to the stern and decided to heave-to. We were only about 10 miles offshore and there were several lights on the water… assummingly fishing vessels. We were both feeling sick and the boats motion was jarring. Heaving-to is a magical thing. It can not always be done, but usually it can.

Morning clouds showing what’s to come

We had only hove-to one other time off of the Northern Baja. Mmmm… that’s funny coming and going. When hove-to the headsail acts as a brake and the boat sort of drifts to leeward at a very slow rate. We successfully hove-to and took refuge in the cabin. It lasted roughly three hours before the violent winds died off. I wrote in the log book: 11:30pm – Violent gale – rain – lightening. We felt sick, but fortunately there was no vomit. I felt like another was going to come at any moment. The lightening remained gnarly until morning although the rain was just a drizzle.

That was night number 4. I wrote that while underway and while I was about to sum things up to say smooth sailing up ahead and all of that my second watch ended and Andrew’s began to another ominous looking cloud at dawn. He was below making a coffee and we got hit by our first squall. We had only the main up and were motoring as there was little wind. The squall hit and the boat heeled to her limits. Andrew dumped the sheets and I scrambled out of the berth on deck to pouring rain. I couldn’t see 20 yards beyond the boat the rain was so thick. We tried reefing the main but it was no use – the rain was so heavy and hard it was filling the sail pinning it to the decks. It was like all the water in the ocean was being sucked into the sky and dumped down again. We knew enough to know that squalls are short and don’t usually raise seas so we took the sail down completely. Drenched to the skin and briefly thinking it felt fabulous to be getting such a shower from the heavens a flash of lightening lit up the sails to a nearly blinding white and a crack of thunder so violent, so terrifying, so loud and so vicious pulled the most frightened scream out of me it nearly knocked Andrew off deck. I jumped into the cabin so fast. This lightening… was on top of us. It was a flash and then a thunder within the first Mississippi. We shut everything off and stood in the cabin away from anything metal. The winds died down in about ten minutes and the lightening seemed to move on by… the rain pounded and poured for a solid 20 minutes until it let up. The boat was so clean! We were OK…. our first squall. Frightening.

Looking back to the night before, the lightening was never so close as this. This lightening was on top of us no doubt and the previous couple of nights the lightening was around but usually high in the sky or far enough away that thunder came quite some time after the flash or none at all. The next day was hazy and looked as if we would have yet another nasty night and we were closing down the miles to our destination. Less than 60 miles to go and that meant another night before getting into the estuary.

The nighttime, with it’s darkness, is one thing… but now it’s another. The scary crap comes at night, when the sun is down, the heat plays off the sea, the night brews up electricity and clouds and storms and wind and it I was growing to hate it. The stars and the moon couldn’t entrance me. The 5th night was a lightening show if nothing else… with strong enough winds and some rain too. At midnight we were nearing the river mouth and we headed towards the beach to drop anchor. We were both so incredibly exhausted that communication was getting rough. As we turned to head towards the beach while lightening lit the sky every 3 seconds… the engine rpms dropped and it started making some horrible rattle and shake noises that vibrated the boat so bad it seemed the thing was trying to dig itself through the hull and into the ocean. We were nearing 50 feet of water and were forced to drop the hook and kill the engine. The wind was picking up… oh lovely… could this get any better? Andrew came back from the bow bleeding after nearly loosing a limb letting out the anchor and when all was set we went below and pounded a couple warm beers and tried to sleep.

There was no relief to be on the hook, I hate to admit. Now our engine appeared deranged and in the morning we hoped to cross the river bar – where the engine was required to be in top shape. The morning came and we called the Marina who quickly responded and reported high tide was 11am and we would be able to get a pilot through the bar. YIPPEE! The winds having calmed and all being still Andrew dove to see if there was anything around the prop… we checked all the usuals and everything seemed in fair shape. We fired up the engine and there appeared to be no problems… Now, we rejoice! They were ready for us at the bar and we headed over to meet the jetski with the pilot. After a couple mushy waves we were in… we motored over to the docks, got checked right in and here we are… in El Salvador on the first official day of hurricane season.

9 Responses to “Squalls, Storms and Surf”
  1. Tyler and Fabienne says:

    Wow! What a journey, sounds like a few scary and sleepless nights. So happy that you two have made it safely to El Salvador, what an accomplishment! Thinking of you, and feeling your presence as we read your blog. So awesome. The picture of the dolphin is unreal, such a beautiful animal. Hope you two are getting some well deserved rest and a few cold ones. Miss you and love you!

  2. Chris says:

    Sick… got out of mex just in the nick of time!

  3. josee says:

    Wow Julie and Andrew! I was sitting here, holding my breath, while reading your blog Julie. Those must have been very scary moments with the lightning, thunder etc. Glad to hear you survived a challenging passage to El Salvador, and hope you two got your well deserved rest and “cool ones”. Julie, I really love reading about your adventures; safe sailing!!! May the sailing gods be kind to you!

    Josee and Easa

  4. Joaco says:

    Epic post there Julie!!

    Nice to know that everything is going smooth besides the 45+ knots you were talking about….. Vientazo!
    How mysto was Barra!!? ripping rights on boardshorts is my dream yet to come! Im writing from Chañaral so you can imagine where am I ripping rights…. hehehe. Winter swells are crushing into Chilean coast line.

    Wish you the best of sailings and let the wind carry you to Peru so we can catch up and eat fresh Ceviche this next month!!!.

  5. Pat says:

    Woo Hoo!! You guys made it to El Salvador! Yeah those Chaboscos can be something to behold. Glad to hear all is well.

    Pat and Ann

  6. Lela Childers says:

    WOW!! That was so scary. I’m so glad that you made it & that you are safe & sound. Once again, your writing & pictures are spectacular. Will you be staying in El Salvador for awhile?Anyway..just dropping by to say HI!
    Still wishing you safe travels & calm seas..Lela

  7. Jenny Shade says:

    Crazy! I’m happy to hear you guys are OK. Sounds like you have things well in hand, even if they get a little scary. Good for you both!

  8. Kelli Childers says:

    Holy smokes Julie! I’m sitting on my porch sweating while reading this!! I’m soooo happy to hear that the two of you made it to El Salvador safely! The pictures once again are amazing….the dolphin one especially! Hope you and Andrew are able to relax a bit and have some good times on this stop. Miss you like crazy. Love you and thinking of you always!

  9. James Hart says:

    nice, your first squall! your storm story reminds me of the ones that would hammer FL in the summertime. Awesome trip to El Salvador

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