The number of days until our friends were to fly from the US to meet us in Costa Rica were dwindling. When we weighed anchor in Las Hadas, we were still trying to prepare ourselves mentally for what we anticipated would be among our longer passages. We expected to spend our first day on a beam reach heading south. Wind direction contradicted weather predictions, but we had a few more knots than were forecast, which helped us maintain speed as we close-reached south throughout the day.
Our first electrical storm
As dusk fell, conditions deteriorated abruptly. Throughout the night, we were ravaged by one line squall after the next, six in total. The storms marched upon us relentlessly, appearing as fast-moving purple demons on our radar screen. The blackness of the moonless sky was shattered continually by bolts of lightning and bouts of torrential rainfall. The outline of The Red Thread lit up with each electric flash; our stomachs wound in knots. During the worst minutes of the lightning, we hunkered down below, managing our course from our interior chartplotter in the sweaty, humid but generally dry confines of our cabin. We had good reason to be frightened. Lightning strikes can short out the entirety of a boat’s electronics, costing thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars to repair. Not to mention the possibility of injury.
Neil hand-steered for over two hours during the worst squall. Waves were 7- to 10-feet and seas were confused and breaking from multiple directions around us. Eventually, we conceded to the will of the storm and quit trying to bash our way into the wind. We turned tail and raced north, the direction from which we had sailed all day, thereby reducing the apparent wind speed from the mid-30s and helping the boat settle down. The storms were relentless, chasing and pummeling us mercilessly. We were on edge throughout the night and backtracked some 30 miles.
By morning, the galley was soaked and salty, the casualty of repeated waves crashing over the cabin top, which sent sea water rushing beneath our hard dodger and down the edges of the companionway hatch. Our nerves were frazzled and our energy zapped. The seas were confused throughout most of the day, but we had sufficient winds to maintain momentum through the seas and to help stabilize the boat.
A haze of days
On long passages, one day blurs into the next. We question (and sometimes disagree) about how many days we’ve been at sea and have to consult our log book for the correct answer. We fish, look for sea critters, read or write, and tackle small boat projects (e.g., bright work). I think constantly about what to cook for our next meal and contemplate answerless, existential questions. Neil sometimes forgets to eat altogether and enjoys watching movies and reading.During one of those days, miles out to sea, a gargantuan cargo ship some 900 feet long bobbed, awaiting its turn to enter the busiest shipping port in Mexico, Lazaro Cardenas. With hundreds of fathoms of sea water below its keel, the vessel could not have carried enough chain to drop its anchor but in calm seas it moved minimally in the absence of a tether. We passed it under spinnaker several hundred feet off its bow. From such a close distance, its enormity was accentuated. We hadn’t seen another vessel in days and wondered if its crew was as excited to watch us pass as we were to gawk at it from stories below the deck.
Like any true seafaring woman, I stand watch wearing only the most appropriate attire. Tonight’s garment is a fleece leopard-print snuggie, complements of my mother-in-law. I look ridiculous. As I review radar scans, adjust the sails, and monitor sea swell patterns, I realize I would make shoddy crew on any other boat. With good reason, this night watch uniform would be damned aboard any other vessel.
A somber fish story
We departed Manzanillo with no meat on boat, save a couple tubes of chorizo and a few tin cans of chicken and beef beneath the floorboards. Fishing is fun for us, but it’s primarily for sustenance. We were craving seafood. We hadn’t caught a tuna since north of Cabo San Lucas, and we had yet to land our first dorado or wahoo. While bonito, the only fish we had caught in the preceding two months, is perfectly edible, it’s not delectable.
Forty miles north of Zihuatenejo, our luck turned when we hooked a fish we never imagined we’d snag: a black marlin! We’d never hooked a fish so large; we estimated it to be nearly six feet long. We were elated but knew we would be unable to consume the entire thing ourselves. We began tossing around ideas, such as stopping in Zihuatenejo to share our catch with fellow cruisers. We were uncertain how to handle getting the marlin aboard given its sword-like bill. We dragged it for 30 minutes, hoping to drown it for easier handling. When that didn’t work, we decided to pull it to the aft of the boat where Neil would stab a main artery, allowing it to bleed out in the water. Unfortunately, the latter tactic led to disaster.
As we pulled the marlin to the aft of the boat, it began thrashing with such force that it snapped its bill, the location the hook had lodged. The fish was now free but severely injured. Neil and I felt traumatized that we had maimed and lost the beautiful animal, who was now defenseless and unlikely to survive. We were both raised in families who hunt and believe that taking the life of an animal should be done for food and with respect. We equated our failure to deal with the fish properly to the experience of gut-shooting a deer and subsequently losing it in the woods. In neither instance will the meat be truly wasted; there are scavengers on land and water. Nonetheless, we felt remorseful, embarrassed, and sad about what we had done. We learned soon after that a more humane strategy to hasten the death of the fish would have been to pull the fish alongside The Red Thread, to loop a lasso around its tail, and to then drag it in backwards.
Still reeling from the experience with the marlin, we found ourselves nervous about catching another fish. Ironically our next catch came in the form of a gift, a bonito, from the men working the Huatulco fuel dock where we stopped briefly to top off our diesel before crossing the Gulf of Tehuantepec. We dismissed our growing disdain for bonito and consumed it without complaint that night.
The dreaded T-Pec[ker]
The Bay of Tehuantepec is home to one of two major wind phenomena that concern sailors transiting the coast between Mexico and South America. Central America is a giant isthmus. At its narrowest point, the Bay of Tehuantepec is separated from the Atlantic’s Gulf of Mexico by just over 100 miles. Low lying sections of the Sierra Madre Mountain range create gaps in the landscape that yield a venturi effect as winds funnel south toward the Pacific, causing speeds to accelerate dramatically. Winds blowing a gentle 10 to 15 knots in the Gulf of Mexico or Bay of Campeche, can hasten to 30 knots or more on the Pacific side of the isthmus, yielding what has been dubbed not-so-affectionately as a “Tehuantepec[ker]” or “T-Pec[ker].” Winds are only one part of the equation; with the addition of waves, conditions worsen, becoming outright dangerous. Waves have been known to build to 10- to 15-feet in short sets of just 4 or 5 seconds. A similar effect occurs further south in what are known as Papagayos.
Thankfully, we monitored weather closely and with additional input from our pal, Bob (thanks, Bob!), and our T-Pec crossing was exceptionally benign. We hugged the beach to avoid being subject to large waves that would inevitably emerge further out in the bay in the event of an unforeseen spike in winds. Cutting directly across the bay would only have saved us 30 miles anyway. We motored the majority of the 265 miles, which frustrated us. After hearing tales of two large sailboats who had cut directly across the bay, got caught in a major blow and steep waves, and supposedly incurred an estimated $100K USD in damage each, however, we felt perfectly content having burned $150 USD in fuel during our crossing.
When the wind is blowing and the seas are churning, our sails fly smartly in the sky. We are happy being sailors who are sailing. At the same time, there are gifts in the calms as well. When the seas are still, movement atop the water is from its inhabitants. Throughout the passage, we were entertained by dolphins and sea turtles almost every day. As we crossed the T-Pec, we were graced with schools of leaping stingrays, who soared repeatedly above the water, flapping their rubbery wings, perhaps longing to join the birds of the sky.One day out of Chiapas, in just 60 feet of water, we watched a solo humpback whale busy lobtailing* and fin slapping wildly for nearly an hour.
Just before the dawn, my eye lids grow heavy, and I struggle to maintain alertness. This is my nightly battle, as I take the shift that begins at around 2 am and lasts until 6 am. As we settle into our passage, our watches often stretch a couple extra hours, a testament to the capacity for our bodies to adjust quickly to changing demands and a gift to each other in the form of more rest. We are in the homestretch of this, our longest passage, and my watches are frequently extending until 8 am.
Outlines of the mountains along the eastern horizon begin emerge from the black as the rising sun yawns and stretches her arms into the sky. I am reenergized by the light. This is my favorite time of the day. Twelve hours of light and possibility stretch before us. What will today bring to our floating abode? This morning dawn brings a couple of dozen dolphins. And me.
The sky is a kaleidoscope of pink and orange, and these creatures seem as eager to see what the day brings as I am. They chase our bow with focus and ease and just enough light to discern our hull from the eerie deep. I put on coffee, breakfast potatoes and eggs, and wake Neil for his watch as the last streaks of pink sky morph to blue. By nightfall, we should reach Chiapas, the southernmost port in Mexico.
Point of departure: Las Hadas, Manzanillo, Mexico — 02/02/15
Point of arrival: Chiapas, Mexico — 02/10/15
Distance traveled: 857 nautical miles
Total time: 8.5 days (205 hours)
Engine roaring: 96 hours
Sails soaring: 109 hours
Average speed: 4.2 knots
Jessie’s musings: Our trek to Chiapas was one of extremes. It shook us with a ferocious storm during which I deep-breathed and “ommmm’ed” through my fears. In later days, the passage lulled me into a state of mind-numbing boredom during suffocatingly hot afternoons when even breathing felt laborious. It provided us ample time to settle into simple routines, and it also offered moments that jarred my soul, leaving me feeling awestruck by the ocean and her creatures. By completing a passage of nearly nine days, the thought of a 20-, 30-, or even 40-day ocean crossing came to seem a smidgeon less daunting. My only regret of the passage was that we weren’t able to stop in Zihuatenejo, not because I cared to see the city (though we’ve heard it’s a wonderful stop), but because I had wanted so much to connect with Jeff and Harmony on s/v Serenity, whose blog I’ve been following for over a year. Perhaps somewhere on the sea…
Neil’s reflections: The sea will test you. She will test your resolve, your skill, and your courage. The electrical storms and squalls we faced coming out of Manzanillo are unlike anything I could have imagined. Standing at the helm while the fury raged, lightning streaked the sky and forked to the sea around us as waves crested and broke against the hull with thunderous momentum, throwing Red Thread about. This was our first true test of resolve. It was terrifying, and nothing could have prepared us for it. When the storm finally broke, some 8 hours later, it took nearly a full day for the sea state to calm. When it did, the sea showed us her other side, the magnificent beauty that juxtaposes her fury. We sailed under spinnaker for nearly a full day in glassy smooth conditions, in water so clear it appeared to be made of gemstones. We learned a lot about ourselves as sailors, about what our boat can handle, and this passage – with the incredible extremes – made us better.
*Lobtailing: When a whale or dolphin slaps the water surface with its flukes (i.e., tail), sometimes repeatedly.