Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Dispatch 26 Golfo de Tehuantepec

April 7 – 11, 2007
The Golfo de Tehuantepec is the last hurdle before leaving Mexico and it’s a doozy. It stretches 240 miles from Puerto Angel to Puerto Madero (approximately) and is known for gale force winds 140 days/year or more. The gulf sits on the Pacific side of a gap in the mountains of Mexico across a very narrow waist of the country. In fact, due to its geography (the gap in the mountains and short stretch across land), the Tehuantepec was one of the considered sites for the canal that was eventually built in Panama. The big blows occur when North winds blow from Texas across the Gulf of Mexico, then funnel directly across the gap into the Golfo de Tehuantepec (in other words, hot air blowing out of Texas—you can just imagine how often this happens...) These “gap winds” accelerate the wind from the Atlantic side up to 2-3 times their original speed. A 15 knot wind can become a 45 knot wind after it is funneled through the gap, the seas build to 12-20 feet and it is surely a place you don’t want to be in a small boat. The boating world has dubbed these blows “Tehuantepeckers”. Fortunately for us boaters, these winds are almost completely predictable now. In the past, the strategy for transiting the gulf was to sail “one foot on the beach”, that is, barely offshore, so that if the winds started to blow, the seas or ‘fetch’ would be smaller since the wind comes off the land. Now, although that teaching dies hard, people are a bit more daring.

But let me digress to review the events to this point. Thanks to the many who wished Richard’s tooth well—so far it is. We had as good a dental experience as one could hope for and all is well to date. We bid Acapulco goodbye happily and spent 2 more days getting to Puerto Angel to stage ourselves for a Tehuantepec crossing. Puerto Angel was a cute town and a cute little anchorage which we shared with 3 other boats. Apparently we missed the large swells that swept into the bay the day before we arrived and we continued to be lucky for the following 6 days as the Tehuantepec was quiet. You see Puerto Angel really is right on the edge of the Tehuantepec and, though the area doesn’t feel the winds, it does feel some waves. We left there after a nice visit and found a scenic anchorage on the way to Huatulco, our final stop in Mexico. La India, this scenic anchorage was amazing. There are no shore services in this bay and from 4 PM to 10 AM we had the anchorage to ourselves. From 10-4, pangas carrying tourists and larger tour boats stop in for an hour or two to snorkel and then leave. The snorkeling there was some of the best we had in Mexico—the water clarity was stupendous and the reef was like a carpet over the bottom and healthier than any we had seen to date. We loved our stay in our little bay and left the day the swell started to increase and the visibility dropped. Another Tehuantepecker was starting.

A few miles away, we could escape into a new marina in Huatulco. The marina experiences a very uncomfortable surge, but is quite secure, and, best of all, run by a darling man Enrique who goes out of his way to help cruisers in every way. He helped us all get our international zarpe, a document that clears us out of the country and that is required for entry into the next country. He drove us to the gas station to fill up jerry cans. He drove a cruiser to the airport to pick up his wife, and on and on. He even made it possible for Richard and I to keep our FM3 documents which are supposed to be confiscated upon leaving Mexico—we wanted to keep them for souvenirs.

We left Huatulco, with the intended destination of Barillas marina in El Salvador, in the company of 4 boats. Because the weather windows are well defined, boats tend to leave in bunches and a natural camaraderie develops by traveling together. The boats were Seascape, a motor boat that traveled at 8 knots, Cop Out, a catamaran that traveled at 7 knots and Ventura, Cynosure and us, 3 sailboats who were fairly well matched and traveled at 5 knots. The initial foray into the gulf was lumpy with small to moderate winds right on the nose. The forecast was for the wind to die the afternoon/evening of our first day so we persisted despite the somewhat uncomfortable sea state. We decided to cut across the gulf due to the favorable weather forecast even though that would leave us little option if the wind should start to blow unexpectedly.

The group quickly split into their various speed contingents. The 3 sailboats ended up buddy boating the whole passage to El Salvador. Although it is not our typical choice to do so, buddy boating certainly afforded a sense of security in case of boat issues. Ventura had engine problems due to, we think, dirty fuel. The problem temporarily improved with a fuel filter change, but this had to be done at least once/day. Cynosure just happened to have a diesel mechanic aboard who paid a boat call to check the engine. Toward the end of the second day, we were motoring across the Gulf of Tehuantepec with 80 or so miles to go to reach the other side and the water was glassy, absolutely no wind. It seemed there were turtles every 100 yards or so. We all stopped to help troubleshoot Ventura’s engine problem, and, since neither of us had much expertise in the matter, I said to Richard, “Lets go swimming.” We all had our mainsails up by habit so we hung a line off the boat so that, if it should start to sail, we could grab the line to get back on board.

Secretly, it was one of my fantasies to swim on this daunting piece of water and my wish came true. In fact, everyone decided that was a grand idea and we all threw off what little clothes we had on and jumped in. The water was not all that refreshing—the temp was 86 degrees at the surface, but about 3-4 feet down, it became a little cooler. Just getting wet then getting out to air dry cooled us off. It was exhilarating and not the least because of the tiny risk that we would all leave the boat and it would leave without us!

As we all rinsed off and got set to go, Jordan got on board Ventura to look at the engine and Richard and I set the sails to ghost along in the 1-2 knots of wind that had started. We had been the slowest boat for the first day and a half and this got us a few hundred yards “ahead”. The other boats followed suit quickly and both also quickly got ahead of us. We watched as the wind climbed to 5-7 knots and looked at each other and said, “spinnaker” which was what we did. Fwooom, the spinnaker filled (well, it doesn’t exactly fill with a snap in 5 knots—forgive the poetic license), but it gave us our edge. We started gaining on the other boats. The wind built to 9-12, our boat speed was over 6 knots. As everyone knows, a sailboat race happens when 2 boats are on the water together so just as fast as they could, one, then the other boat put up their spinnakers. First and during all this, pictures were taken as we were sailing very close to one another. At one point I even radio-ed one of the boats and said, “Hey, head down a little and we’ll get your picture,” which they did, during which time we handily pulled ahead of them (and got their picture). Well, we concentrated on boat speed, uncharacteristically hand steered and actually pulled ahead of the other 2 boats both of whom were under spinnaker too. It was a glorious moment, enhanced by the radio call from Ventura who asked who was driving and complimented us on our seamanship. I think he said something like, “here you are this mellow cruising couple and all of a sudden you whip out this killer spinnaker and take off. I’m impressed.” He does single handed racing. I must admit, a spinnaker run in the Tehuantepec was another fantasy come true.

Well, if I were you I would be thinking that this is the part of the story where the wind continued to build and became 50 knots and those fools were hanging on for dear life, but, luckily, sportsfans, this story has no such drama. Just like airplane flights, the best description of a successful passage is, “uneventful”. At sunset, the wind died and we all turned on the engines. By morning we had successfully transited the Gulf in 2 days and were on our way into Guatemala.

We never saw the coast of Guatemala. It remained cloud shrouded with flashes of lightning at night and we were 15 miles offshore purposely to avoid fishing nets. Alas, apparently that was not far enough off shore. On the 4th day out, we caught one of the fishing lines on our rudder. Suddenly the boat speed dropped by a knot as we were towing hundreds of yards of fishing line and floats. We pulled the line on board and cut it hoping it would float free, but no dice. Richard had to swim the rudder and pull it free. Luckily it did not catch in our prop. Later the same day, we caught on another line—this time we saw the line, but there was no real way to get around it so we hoped to float over it like the other 2 boats we were with, but, no luck, we caught it again. This time it did float off once cut. We felt terrible about cutting the fishermen’s lines, but didn’t really have an option.

Because of the one boat’s engine trouble, we elected to travel very close together and were in visual distance through the whole 100 hour passage. While this was comforting, it meant that group decisions were made. Rather than our own speed (we would have chosen to sail much more and likely be slower,) the group decided to motor and maintain speed so we could arrive on the 5th day before it was too late to get a guide into the estuary. We sailed only when we could make good time and motor sailed a lot (kept the engine going while we sailed). We were able to move at above 6 knots with this approach and our overall average speed was greater than 5 knots, more than respectable for us.

The coast of El Salvador unshrouded herself as we arrived and we could see a couple of the volcanoes rising in the distance. Both El Salvador and Guatemala are very geologically active and have several volcanoes, too bad we didn’t see the coastline of Guatemala as we transited it. As a result of motoring, we arrived 4 hours earlier than our best estimate, first thing in the morning, and had almost no wait for a guide. The catamaran who took off like a flash the first day had to dawdle for almost a full day to avoid a night arrival and we all 4 went in together just a day behind the 8 knot motor boat. (Reminds me of the tortoise and the hare fable…) The guide is needed to transit the bar into the estuary. As we sat outside in 30-40 feet of water, we could see breakers along the coast in front of us. The guides sped out, lined us up like ducklings and guided us through the non-breaking part of the seas. It took 2.5 hours to get up into the estuary (against the current) and the first half of that was unnerving and a bit uncomfortable with breakers on each side and the residual confused seas to toss the boats around. This guide service is provided by the marina at no charge—logical once we got in there because there was no way we would have found the place otherwise!

The guide took each boat up to the mooring buoy, tied us up and went to report our arrival so Customs and Immigration could have a go at us. We are now in El Salvador! The check in was so comfortable it was almost embarrassing. The officials came out to each boat, boarded us, filled out paperwork, did a cursory inspection then drove us into shore to clear immigration and get our 90 day tourist visa for $10 each. El Salvador uses American dollars as its currency so the whole process could not have been easier. While on shore, the lot of us that arrived together decided we really must try out the pool and showers and have our first complimentary beverage so we hung out at a palapa by the pool, swam, visited, showered and thanked each other for good companionship on the voyage. Other friends are here as well and have just returned from inland travel in Guatemala.

We hope to land travel back to Guatemala while the boat sits here at the resort quietly. First, we have a trip planned to the US for Betsy’s mom’s birthday.