After two and a half years in Mexico we have finally moved on. We're writing from one of the palapas at the Paradise Fishing Lodge along the Bahia Jaltepeque estuary in El Salvador. The nearest "town" is La Herradura. The weather is cool compared to our Huatulco and Chiapas experiences, in part because it's also wetter here, even though we are told that the rainy season has only just begun. There's a lot to like about this area and we look forward to exploring it further.
But it's not the perfect place to dry out a boat after a knockdown.
Crossing the sand bar at the bocana (mouth) of the estuary at Bahia Jaltepeque is a right of passage for many Pacific coastal cruisers. It's often the first stop south of Mexico; the beginning of a new chapter in the Pacific coast cruising experience. It's a difficult crossing but under most circumstances not unreasonably dangerous. There is a pilot service that helps boats find the right time and place to cross the sand bar blocking the bocana. Most crews come away with an exciting sailing story and a notch in their sailing experience belt.
The crew of Abracadabra came away with more - and less. Less one camera, one cockpit radio handset, and one flip-flop; more salt water, adrenaline surge and scary-looking photographs.
More and less because Abracadabra crossed the bar under tow.
We were towed by a 38-foot sports fishing vessel "Fanta-Sea" operated out of the Paradise Fishing Lodge. Fanta-Sea was operated by her captain and had a crew of two. Also aboard was Bill Yeargan who, with his wife Jean Strain, operates the Cruiser's Rally to El Salvador. Bill was the camera operator for our crossing. [Abracadabra was signed up for the rally but was too pokey to make any of the rally events - though Bill and Jean have been more than helpful to us in relation to our journey to El Salvador.]
The tow was going (somewhat nervously) fine-ish --
until the particularly unfortunate moment when the tow rope broke.
Not Under Tow
The manager of the tow operation, Willy Garcia (manager of the fishing lodge), was whipped badly with the flying end of the one-inch double-braid nylon tow rope. Abracadabra and her trusty crew were on their own.
With minimal steerage and no power Abracadabra took a wave across her aft port quarter which the crew of Fanta-Sea described as being 3 meters high (approximately 10 feet).
Look BEHIND YOU
Because Here It Comes
Abracadabra was pushed up . . .
and onto her side . . .
Bryce continued to steer as best he could and Molly held on as her location in the aft starboard rolled into the water. She was submerged far enough and long enough for her inflatable safety vest to deploy and for her to wonder (in a sort of slow, disconnected way) whether Bryce had managed to stay aboard.
And because it's what sailboats are designed to do (more than one third of Abracadabra by weight is in her keel), Abracadabra righted herself.
The single-handed sailor on the boat waiting to cross the bar next (Sunrunner) said he almost decided to sail on to Nicaragua when he saw the top of Abracadabra's keel out of the water. As you can see from the crazy camera angles the crew of Fanta-Sea had their hands full too.
Bryce stayed at the helm trying to turn Abracadabra stern-to to the waves. Molly went forward encumbered by an inflated safety vest that made her look a bit like a bright yellow busty clown. She worked with Fanta-Sea's crew to reattach what was left of the tow rope to Abracadabra.
We were now over the bar in lighter one meter surf, so connection was eventually made and we were towed toward our new home. Sadly, one of the casualties of our adventure was Molly's new camera which she (foolishly) had put in her pocket. It got sucked from her pocked as she went under. So for the rest of this post you'll have to rely on word pictures.
As an ironic aside: Sunrunner did decide to cross the bar - but while still in the post-crossing surf lost oil pressure and had to be towed into the estuary.
How We Got There
For those that like to second guess other sailors, please note that we did not undertake the idea of being towed across this sand bar lightly. We had a functioning engine when we crossed the Golfo de Tehuantapec to Chiapas in April and when we left Puerto Chiapas on May 5.
Most of our journey from Mexico, down the coast of Guatemala and on to El Salvador was like previous passages: some of this, and some of that.
Day One: After receiving our international zarpe (the document that permits the transit of a boat from one country to another) we left Puerto Chiapas at 14:40 and motored for about a half an hour until we were properly angled to the wind. We began to sail and by 16:00 we were double reefed and scooting along at a speed over ground of more than six knots. The wind kept up nicely until around 01:40 in the morning. When the wind dropped below sailing speed we turned on the engine. It worked fine and kept us moving throughout the night.
Day Two: We sailed for a couple of hours early in the morning, but had to turn the engine on at around 08:45 because the wind dropped again and we were experiencing a one knot counter current. We motored for the next two hours, using the extra battery power generated by the motor to run our water maker. Around noon we traded fishermen in a passing panga three beers for a nice dorrado, which we promptly sauteed and ate for lunch. After lunch we were able to sail again. we used the spinnaker until the wind became too strong, at which time we switched to the genoa.
Day Three: The wind dropped around 01:00 and we decided to start the engine. The engine decided not to start. Only an hour later not enough wind was no longer our problem. For two hours we had very high wind -- at times up to 35 knots - and rain. Double-reefed, Abracadabra traveled at speeds over seven knots. We watched the lightening in the distance, hoping that it would stay there - in the distance. It's always disconcerting to be the highest point on the ocean for miles when lightening threatens. And then, like it came, it went. At 04:00 the rain stopped and the winds began to slow. By 05:00 we were sailing in a reasonable 12 knots of wind. And then we were creeping along in five knots . . .
Bryce tried replacing a glow plug - sadly an "in vain" attempt rather than a documented fix. The engine still refused to start. Because there had been so much cloud during the past twenty-four hours, we began to worry about whether the batteries could handle the draw of the auto pilot, refrigerator and chart plotters. We began to hand steer and turned off one chart plotter, relying on the one connected to our radio.
Finally around 19:00 came the worst - a brown boobie hitched a ride on the starboard spreader and began to shit. It shat on the dodger. It shat on the deck. It shat into the cockpit. It shat on Molly. We began to rethink our dislike of frigate birds (which are always stealing fish from boobies) and decided that in the future we would root for the frigate birds! Fortunately we weren't sailing anywhere (there's a silver lining to every black cloud) and the big genoa began to flap and flap and became so annoying that even the boobie decamped.
Back in the black cloud: At some point during the night Abracadabra began to drift and the wind began to shift and in the pitch dark without a chart plotter to rely on Molly realized that Abracadabra had drifted through a complete 360-degree turn. She did what all crew members dread - she got the Captain out of bed to help her figure out where the #@*^ she was. And he did, though he still couldn't get the wind to move us in the direction we needed to go.
Day Four: The slow-motion torture continued into the morning, and we spent the dawn hours scrubbing boobie guano off the boat (and Molly) with salt water. Once we no longer stank life began to look up. And things got a lot better when at 09:00 the wind picked up and we were able to sail a blistering three knots more on course than not. By 11:00 we were sailing over six knots and on course. And then - because it works that way, apparently, by 14:00 we had sustained winds of over 27 knots with gusts to 32 and were double reefed.
By the time we anchored (under sail - !) in the rolley, open roadsted anchorage to the west of the bocana of Bahia Jaltepeque at 17:30 we knew we would be able to sleep despite the rolley conditions. Before flopping into slumber we contacted Bill and Jean and explained our engine-less condition. Bill promised to bring someone out to see what could be done with the engine the next morning. We turned off the refrigeration to preserve battery power and went to sleep, dreaming that Bill would find someone that would come up with a way to start our engine.
Day Five: Early the next morning Bryce and Bill discussed the engine at length. Bill agreed that Bryce had taken all the steps to address our engine problem that were possible underway (our recollection is that Bill used the phrase "it sounds like it's toast". . .) and offered to arrange for a tow.
As we waited for the tow vessel we continued our ongoing discussion about whether to attempt crossing this bar under tow: One of the main reasons we had decided to press on to Bahia Jaltepeque was to access the services of John Carey, the well respected diesel mechanic that has a workshop there (we had suspected for several months that the engine was in need of professional attention). Traveling further would put us into the world of the unknown as far as engine repairs are concerned. Our batteries were very low and it didn't look like the sun was going to provide much power in the next few days; further travels would likely be without refrigeration, auto-pilot or cockpit chart plotter. We had little propane left because we hadn't wanted to leave full tanks behind when we put Abracadabra to bed for the season, and had travelled with only enough to arrive in the Bahia and cook there for a few additional days. Back and forth. Back and forth.
Finally, we decided to trust in the tow.
And thus, here we are.
- It's harder to be towed than we thought.
- Even if you don't think you're going to be knocked down (really, who does?) put in all the hatch boards (really - our one really stupid move . . .).
- Put your camera below if you're going into something rough.
- Being really scared takes some time to get through. Molly is still having trouble getting to sleep - but we trust that her natural talent for sleeping through almost anything will soon reassert itself.
- We're still trying to decide if we should have tethered. We will continue to tether on a night passage, but we're not sure about the value of tethering to a ship that is in the surf.
- We're also wondering if inflatable life vests are the way to go.
- Maybe we'll buy and find space for a tow rope, rather than rely on someone else to have one.
Next Steps: We're putting Abracadabra in the hands of John Carey, who by all reports is a capable, experienced and respected diesel mechanic. We'll let you know whether, after getting his advice we decide on an overhaul or a new engine. We leave for the States in a couple of weeks. Abracadabra should be dried out by then . . .