Friday, April 18, 2014

Puerto Chiapas -- Beyond The Safe Line -- April 13 - 15, 2014

Checking and Double Checking

We stayed in Marina Chahue (pronounced "Cha-HWEY") in one of the nine Bahias de Huatulco for over two weeks. On March 31, our friend and fellow sailor Bob Romano joined us directly from a week vacationing with his wife at the splooshy time-share they own in Puerto Vallarta. We can only imagine Bob's culture/weather shock on exchanging an air-conditioned two bedroom suite with pool and nearby restaurants for life aboard Abracadabra. He may have missed the chocolate on his pillow at night -- but only until he realized that on Abracadabra it would have melted into a little chocolate puddle . . .

During our stay at Marina Chahue we caught up on some blog posts and committed some acts of tourism (more on that in a separate post).  But mostly we checked the weather. We checked Buoy Weather. We checked Predict Wind. We looked at Gribfiles. We even found new sites to check. [For a totally cool view of the wind blowing through your neighborhood see:]  

The reason for all this checking is that our next passage included crossing the Golfo de Tehuantepec -- a passage that worries all thoughtful cruisers who venture to and from Central America. The Golfo is on the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrow (125 mile) band of land between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific. On the isthmus the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca stop and the Sierra Madre de Chiapas don't rise for about 75 miles. In this gap the isthmus is flat and, to quote the author of several cruising and weather guides, Cpt. Patricia Rains: 

"That's where the wind funnels through." 

File:Isthmus of Tehuantepec-aeac.jpg
Where The Wind Funnels Through

When there's activity in the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean it can really funnel through. So much so that the wind has been given it's own name: a Tehuano or to many cruisers, a "T-pecker".  A Tehuano in full force will fan out from the town of Salina Cruz on the north shore of the Golfo (about 60 miles east of Marina Chahue) for several hundred miles into the Pacific. A Tehuano can have sustained force of 60 knots and create a sea state of 25 feet or higher. A Tehuano is not to be taken lightly.

So - before taking off on the 240 mile long journey around the Golfo we wanted to make sure we would be able to do so between Tehuano events. 

As you may have gathered from prior posts, calculating how fast Abracadabra can travel over an extended distance is not an exact science. She can motor at about five knots, if there's no heading current or swells. In some winds she sails six knots; in others, two; in others, not at all. Add to this calculation the fact that over the last three months her engine has begun to consume oil at an unfortunate rate, exhibit low oil pressure and smoke. All signs of advanced age. We rolled all this information around - and decided to gamble on being to make an average of four knots, either under sail or by motor. 

Eventually all of the weather predictions showed a window of at least 50 hours between Tehuano events (most more, none less). An average speed of four knots would see us at the far side of the gulf and out of the heavy wind area before this window closed.  So - it was time to go.

The Crossing

The safest approach to crossing the Gulfo is to creep around the shore rather than go directly across. In fact, many recommend staying at the 30-foot depth line, which is quite close to shore - the "one foot on the beach" approach. The thinking behind this recommendation is that if a Tehuano starts to howl one can anchor on the (then) windward shore and ride it out. 

In light of our clear, if short, weather window, we decided to take the "modified one foot on the beach" approach in order to avoid a couple of shoals and to sail more of the trip to spare the ancient engine. We traveled between six and 20 miles off shore: 

The Modified One Foot Method

We left at 11:00 on Sunday, motoring, Captain and Chief Mechanic Bryce adding oil to the engine after four motor hours, a practice he maintained throughout the passage. We were aided by a strong current in our favor. Around 17:00 the winds built enough to let us sail at or faster than our four knot number. We sailed for five hours with the main and spinnaker. We usually take the spinnaker down for night sails because it is hard to gybe and furl in the dark, but there was a full moon and it was like sailing at dusk, so we were able to leave the finickity sail up until the wind was too strong for it. Around 23:00 we furled the spinnaker and sailed with the jib instead. 

At around 01:00 we passed Salina Cruz (see the third waypoint on the chart above) -- historically the heart of Tehuano activity. 

Around 02:00 the wind began to drop and we began to experience a counter current of one and a half knots, causing us to slow below our four knot average. We continued to sail as we were making around three knots and had hopes for higher wind near dawn. Around 05:00 the wind did rise to a respectable 16 or 17 knots, but the counter current was joined by a swell pattern against us, and we were still making less than our 4 knot average. 

At 10:45, despite our concerns about the health of the engine and our desire to sail we realized that, unless we motored we weren't going to make it to the "safe line" (a point after which Tehuano activity has historically been relatively slight) within the predicted weather window. So, despite the fact that Abracadabra was moving smoothly through the water, and the sea was so calm that it was hard to believe any bad weather could be on the horizon . . .  we switched on the beast and started meeting our four knot production number. 

The gulf was eerily empty during most of our trip but at about 13:00 on Monday afternoon we were approached by a panga occupied by three fishermen and a pile of recently dead sharks.  Bryce was off watch and resting below. Bob and Molly struggled to understand what the fishermen were saying. It didn't help that their motors were louder than Abracadabra's little 33-hp diesel. Whatever they were saying had to do with food, but didn't appear to be the usual offer to sell fish. Just as Molly began to understand that they were asking for food for themselves the panga-generated surf splashing into Abracadabra's port-side ports woke Bryce from his nap. He was able to confirm that these poor guys had been out fishing for two days, had run out of food and were really, really hungry! Molly went below and began digging through the food lockers trying to find food that didn't require any preparation before consuming.  We tossed them a plastic bag containing a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. The poor guys were so hungry that, after thanking us profusely and offering a weather report, they motored only a few feet away and began chowing down. Their weather prediction was that the next Tehuano event wasn't going to happen until Tuesday night.

We were initially happy to get an updated prediction that gave us a few more hours of calm weather - until one of us suggested it might not be a good idea to rely on three guys who hadn't planned ahead to bring sufficient food to work. So we motored on.

Around midnight we reached the "safe line" - the part of the gulf that conventional wisdom considers outside the arc of most Tehuanos. We hadn't realized quite how tense we had become until we reached something that we (rightly or wrongly) had decided to consider a "safer" zone.  We were then able to enjoy something that Bob's wife Kathy had told us about - a "red moon".

Red Moon Party

We were all up at 02:30 Tuesday morning to watch a total eclipse of the moon that we had heard would cause the moon to look red. And it did. Because our cameras were too wimpy to capture the event, here's a picture from Wikipedia:

We had a great time watching the movement of the shadow the earth cast across the moon through the binoculars. Though more than one of us had a pretty sore neck the next day! 

Marina Chiapas

Happily the heading current dissipated during Monday night and the wind came up around 07:45 on Tuesday. We were able to sail the last seven hours of the trip - making well above our four knot average even though we no longer needed to. 

And we picked up a radio weather broadcast from the Capitan de Puerto of Chiapas.  The prediction was for sustained winds of 110 kilometers per hour (60+ knots) and six meter (20+ feet) seas. Soooo glad to be beyond the "safe line" and, really, it was just a prediction. 

We arrived at Marina Chiapas at 15:45 and after tying up and checking in we headed directly to the marina restaurant for a beer and some nachos. Bryce got called back to the boat to meet with the Capitan de Puerto so his dedicated crew saved him from cold nachos and ate them all. They did send his beer back to be held in the refrigerator. .  . . .  

While checking Abracadabra into Chiapas, the Capitan de Puerto told Bryce how lucky we had been. The port at Salina Cruz had been closed the day before as a result of -- sustained winds of over 60 knots and seas over 6 meters.     

Whew.  Like life, sailing really IS all about timing . . . 

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