We arrived at Chiapas at 10 o’clock, tired, and beneath a heavy cloak of darkness. We had anticipated an earlier arrival, when the moderate afternoon winds we’d craved throughout our T-Pec crossing had at last arrived and then abruptly dissipated. We held out hope of sailing further until we could no longer bear the thought of bobbing in waiting. After nearly 9 days at sea, we were eager to lay our hook upon the murky sea floor and experience the sensation of relative stillness that being at anchor offers.
We followed the waypoints in our guidebook diligently and kept our eyes on the buoys that lined the entrance to the harbor. As with all our nighttime arrivals, we felt nervous as the breakwater, the shore, and other potential hazards loomed disconcertingly close. Surely they would have appeared less intimidating in the daytime. We hailed the Capitania de Puerto, and he granted our request to anchor in the northern arm of the commercial port. We didn’t want to transit in the dark a canal that had been dredged for the marina so recently that it was not yet on our charts. As we neared our destination, we were shrouded in a series of atrocious smells. Our logbook reads, “Arrived in Chiapas…the smelliest port in all the Pacific coast of the Americas, for certain. Imagine a combo of pot, cabbage, and cigarettes. Gross.”
My body takes a day or two to re-adjust from the four on-four off schedule that we operate during night passages. I slept poorly and was up at 7 am. Thankfully, the putrid smell of steamed cabbage and cigarettes that drooped in the air last night, making it feel stuffy and toxic, has faded. I assume the downpour of rain in the middle of the night helped to freshen the air.
The sound of several species of birds fills the morning air. Along the shore, I can see chickens, frigates, pelicans, and vultures. At least two dozen “tweeties”, as we’ve taken to calling the darling birds that sometimes flit around the boat, are here. The teacup-sized birds seem to be playing a twitterpated game of chase.
Chiapas is rosy
We’d heard tales that Chiapas had been an unsavory port in the past, but our experience was nothing short of delightful. In fact, had we not been in a rush to get to Costa Rica to meet our friends, we would likely have stayed a few more days.
The marina is beautiful. Its docks are pristine, and Memo and Enrique are second to none in their warmth, helpfulness, and knowledge. Enrique and Memo guided us as we prepared for our official checkout from Mexico; saved us time by dropping us off in Tapachula for a provisioning run; and drove us around Chiapas as we did the exit tango with Migracíon, Customs, and the Capitania de Puerto. And there are also masses of stingrays parading just below the surface of the water around the docks. Getting access to purified water is a snap, as the marina staff will bring garrafones right to your boat. They also offer a myriad of services, including laundry, bottom cleaning, and boatyard facilities. Internet can be accessed from the stunning palapa that overlooks the estuary, where you can also find the most spectacular octopus of your life. Daring statement? Perhaps. We both stand behind it (thank you, Craig, for sharing an early Valentine’s Day dinner with us!).A fire-fueled Kiwi
It was at Marina Chiapas that we met one of the most interesting individuals in our travels thus far. Craig is a solo-sailing Kiwi who is presently cruising the expanse of earth that stretches along the Pacific coast of the Americas, north to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, along the eastern coasts of Asia, and south to New Zealand. Better known as the “Ring of Fire”, this span of coastline is home to more than 75% of the earth’s volcanoes, hence the name. If there is a person who embodies the term “bad ass”, this guy might be it. Interestingly enough, he also personifies the words “chill” and “welcoming.” Not only is he sailing this incredible region of the world solo, he’s also climbing many of the volcanoes as he travels (again, the word “bad ass” comes to mind). His tally is somewhere above 20, and he’s just finishing Central America, the first leg of his voyage.
Staying in Chiapas Marina before proceeding south was our best option. Although we might have felt the urge to remain anchored in the northern arm of the commercial port, we would have most certainly been plagued with a great deal of hassle to provision and to complete checkout procedures. At only $0.80 per foot, Chiapas was a deal. Not to mention that marina time is a big treat for us. It means we get to work on boat projects all day…and then step off the boat at the end of the day for a shower. The definition of “treat” has clearly evolved since we set sail.Back to boat projects. We got down to business. In 72 hours, Neil changed the engine oil and filter, the Racor and Yanmar fuel filters, the Racor pressure gauge o-ring, and the transmission oil; replaced the tachometer; tightened the engine mounting brackets; and replaced the shower drain float switch. I served as a trusty Robin to my Batman and did my best to diffuse his near emotional breakdown when our saltwater head took a proverbial shit the night before we were to return to the sea (more on that later). We also completed a major provisioning run at the nearest market (an hour away), checked out of Mexico (which took nearly half a day), and posted two blog entries (the time it takes to edit phots and text is considerable). We rode in a combi on our return from Tapachula, a tin can on wheels, in which some 20 people (not including babies) are sardined into a 16-person van with full grocery loads also in tow (no exaggeration here, I counted). And everyone is pleasant. I can only imagine the havoc that would break lose in a similar public transportation situation in the US.
*Disclaimer: the crew of s/v The Red Thread does not encourage traveling in situations that defy seatbelt regulations (that’s for you, Dr. Q).
From 1 to 5: Five nations in five days
On Valentine’s Day, we set our course for a new nation. More accurately, we set sail thru the waters of five nations in five days. We spent 72 days in Mexico and crossed the borders of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and Costa Rica in only 122 hours. We opened a bottle of Okanagan Late Harvest wine and sailed into our last Mexican sunset. The green flash still evades us.
We traveled thru Mexico at lightning speed according to most. We agree. Mexico is a tremendous and beautiful nation, and we want more. We missed the much-heralded embrace of Barre Navidad, and we did not explore the estuary of Tenacatita, among other special places. Although our curious eyes longed for those experiences, however, the most difficult part of leaving Mexico was the awareness that with each new country, we would meet people whom we wished would become a part of our immediate community but whom would only ever be a part of our scattered but beautiful world village. The boats Namaste, Sarita, Adagio, and Astraea boasted crews we laughed with, confided fears in, and shared dreams with. We knew that crossing into the border of Guatemala meant leaving those relationships behind…at least for a time.Hearts heavy and eyes wide, we sailed. Well, that is, after we got off the damn fuel dock. The Chiapas fuel dock stands three feet above our deck at high tide. We filled our tanks and set our boat to reverse from the cement stage. Our lines freed, our aft began to hook to port, threatening the tenuous safety of a panga chock-full of tourists that had glided in during our brief tenure. The corner of the platform took a bite out of our metal rub rail and teak, and we departed; a spicy farewell Mexican kiss. Damn.
Five thoughts to sum up our experience in MEXICO
- Ceviche de camarón (shrimp) on every corner
- Massive cruising community
- Fireworks for any occasion
- Round, smiling faces with beautiful, café con leche complexions
- Pacifico beer
The Intertropical Patience Zone (ITPZ)
The light winds prophesized by cruisers gone before us (and by passageweather.com and weather.solmatesantiago.com and NOAA.gov) were quite right. Winds faded as the waters of Central America welcomed us, and we struggled to maintain speed. We hoisted ours sails when winds accelerated and pulled them down when our speed plunged below 2 knots for more than an hour or two. We had friends packing their bags for international flights, and maintaining pace was a priority.
Sunrise came and with it the peaks of El Salvador were revealed. Puffs of smoke, like those I would imagine from a dragon bellowed from the crowns on the shore. The Ring of Fire was alive, and from the sea at dawn, we bore witness to her breath.
For three days, our passage was uneventful. We sailed, we motored, we ate and slept, and we caught fish we weren’t interested in eating. By the time we reached Costa Rica, we had caught nine bonito, six crevally jack, and three skipjack tuna. We kept one skipjack tuna and were less than thrilled by the not-so-appealing entré we fashioned from the less savory cousin of the big-boy tunas. Feeling a bit cursed, we pulled in our lines and stopped fishing altogether.When will the mast snap?
And then the winds came. Winds were forecast at 13 to 19 knots out of the east, and although we reviewed our cruising guides to refresh our understanding of the strange land effects that cause the wind to accelerate significantly along southern Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica, we were not prepared for the impending hours.
A segment of Neil’s logbook entry reads:
When we entered Bahia Santa Elena, the wind picked up to consistent high 20s – about 30% more than forecasted, with gusts to the low 30s. Though this was bigger than expected, we kept on, swell building to 4+ feet behind us. Dolphins came after us and gave chase, shooting through the phosphorescent waters like glowing neon green torpedoes, brilliantly beautiful and awe inspiring, even though our anxiety was building due to the increasing weather. As we turned southwest down the 5 nm stretch of Cabo Santa Elena the winds screamed behind us at near gale force 35+ kts with gusts to 50 kts. Having furled the jib [and double reefed the main], Red Thread surfed down 6-8 ft waves, coming 5-7 second intervals, at 9.5 kts boat speed.
Dawn came and winds began to mellow a bit. We shifted our sails and close-reached on a port tack 20 miles across the Golfo de Papagayo. Thirty knots of wind wailed against our portside, and waves crashed over the hull. In the most dramatic of moments of the next six hours, a wave broke over the cockpit, sending a mountain of water port-to-starboard across the boat. I was at the helm and was swept off my feet and slammed down upon the teak flooring. Thankful for our life jackets and tethers, I stumbled to my feet and spit a gulp of seawater from my throat. Neil erupted in laughter, and I followed suit. Punch-drunk from nearly 40 hours of sleep deprivation and at the mercy of fitful seas, what more were we to do? I threw back by head in the sunshine, knowing that the ocean would eventually calm and that several of my dearest friends were at the other side of a lively but beautiful bay.Passage perks
Point of departure: Chiapas, Mexico — 02/14/15
Point of arrival: Playa del Coco, Costa Rica — 02/19/15
Distance traveled: 550 nautical miles
Total time: 122 hours
Engine roaring: 49 hours
Sails soaring: 73 hours (60%)
Average speed: 4.5 knots
Jessie’s musings: Among my most amusing memories from Mexico came the morning after we arrived in Chiapas. The Capitania de Puerto and Mexican Navy arrived in a panga, drug canine in tow, to clear us into the port. They were politely but firmly completing a pile of paperwork beneath an already-scorching sun. As I gazed at the shoreline, I spied pale, naked bum! A local panguero was thigh-deep in the muddy water scrubbing his boat. The combination of Mexican officials and a skinny dipper simultaneously before me made me smirk. Mexico is a wonderfully colorful nation! Checking out of the country tugged harder on my heart strings more than I expected. Our most momentous night at sea, the last night of our passage, tested The Red Thread and our capability to ride her through a violent and stormy sea. When the rosy light of dawn at last painted the sky, I felt more love than in any calm morning past for our sturdy and determined boat. She had sailed well, and so had we.
Neil’s reflections: Leaving Mexico was bittersweet. There were so many places that I wanted to see and that our schedule didn’t allow. In retrospect, we could’ve easily spent a full year (or more) just exploring Pacific Mexico. It is remarkable how benign the waters of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua were for us. The only challenge we had was avoiding fishing boats and their gear (a close call in the darkest wee hours of the morning does keep things interesting). There aren’t adequate words to describe our experience crossing northern Costa Rica. The adrenaline and, at moments, sheer terror kept us awake and alert until we arrived, set our anchor, and passed out for 14 hours, while swinging at anchor in 20- to 30-knot gusty winds. “Protected anchorage” really means something different out of the PNW. Making it in time to see our friends was paramount, and though we wouldn’t have braved that stretch had we known the winds would be so harrowing and brutal, it was worth it to get there and see them.