Making A Break For Mexico

May 21-25, 2022

Every time I get a bit complacent, Exit gently (or sometimes not so gently) kicks me in the huevos and reminds me why that is unwise.

We had been making water for almost three hours.  

The one true upside of having to run the Perkins engine is that it gives us plenty of charging amps to power the water maker, which otherwise puts a heavy drain on the solar charging system that we typically rely on to top up our battery bank. 

After nearly three hours, we had made about thirty five gallons of fresh water from the ocean.  Sweet.  Or literally, sweet water.  

As I sat gloating in this little tidbit of self-satisfaction, a tingle rose in the back of my head.  Not the Neanderthal fight or flight tingle.  Rather, the oh shit I just realized something tingle.  I had forgotten to check the water at the output.  

There is a manifold with three levers on the output side of the water maker – on/off valves for the left and right water tanks and a third with an open hose on it.  Almost religiously, I check the output water with a cup at the end of that hose, just to taste it as well as to make sure the solenoid that diverts the water from discharge overboard has actually switched and the good water is really going to Exit’s tanks.

The tingle was me knowing before I saw.  When I lifted the floorboard and opened the valve, nothing came out.  Shit!  The third time this has happened in four years.  

Statistically unlikely in the overall number of running hours…high probability when I don’t check it.  In all the times I have checked the output water, I have caught it not opening once.  In the few times of not checking it, I know it has happened twice.  Damn.  This time, we donated thirty five gallons of fresh water back to Poseidon.  Hmmmm.  Bigger penalties have been paid for complacency.  I got off lucky this time; just sore balls.  Thanks for the reminder Exit.

Shortly afterwards a small family of dolphins stopped by briefly to have a chuckle at us.

We knew we couldn’t have it all.  But then again —- if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.

Regardless, while we would have preferred ten knots on the beam, we were happy to take almost no wind at all in the right direction over potentially horribly uncomfortable seas, undue stress, and a much higher potential for broken shit.

The give and take was that as May turned to June, the Papagayo and Tuantapec winds would begin to die down; however, the hurricanes would begin to pick up.  Not really reassuring.  We were fearful that may be exactly what was unfolding before us.

There was still only one of the weather models we were monitoring currently forecasting the disturbance to the south of us would develop into a hurricane, but the others were gravitating in that direction.  And the National Hurricane Center had begun looking closely at it as well.

Thirty six hours into our passage we opted to divert to Golfo de Fonseca, a massive bay almost halfway between Playa Del Coco and Chiapas.  The eastern side is Nicaragua; the western side is El Salvador; and the island in the center is Honduras.  Golfo de Fonseca offered the only alternative shelter along the entire coast before Chiapas for bad weather.  Our thinking was that in twenty four or forty eight hours we would have more confidence in the likely trajectory of the system to the south.  If Chiapas looked like the higher risk, we would sit tight.  Otherwise, we would press on.  

We had no desire to sit through a hurricane in a marina (nor anywhere else for that matter), but the fact was Marina Chiapas’ very isolated location almost a mile inland from the beach would be the best protection we would find anywhere.

We chose Punta El Pateon as our anchorage, on the El Salvador side.  Easiest access, as well as less likely that we would be regarded suspiciously and boarded by a navy boat, which we heard may be the case in Nicaragua.  

Entering Bahia de Fonseca, Exit had already been moving under engine power for hours.  Any hope of sailing had been cast aside with the realization that we needed to get to our destination before nightfall, which turned out to be a sound strategy we would more fully appreciate upon our departure.  Aside from passing through the worst red tide we had ever come across in which the water surrounding us looked like coffee and smelled horrendous, we arrived and anchored without incident at Punta El Pateon well before sunset.

Though we didn’t go ashore, it seemed like a lovely little community.  And, despite what had to have been a lack of any tourists at all, they certainly maintained their own community vigor regarding late night sing-alongs and cranked up stereos.  Still, much more endearing than listening to a lobster-red gringo drooling semi-coherent lyrics to Hotel California in a tourist bar…anytime.

The following morning we found the weather forecasts still quite ambiguous. The system still hadn’t been officially upgraded to a named hurricane yet, but it seemed inevitable now. The bigger question for us was where it was going. All indications were that it would overtake our position and continue north within two hundred miles or so of the coast all the way into Mexico.

The Bay of Fonseca, our current location, had a handful of anchorage options, but they all still seemed too exposed.  The fact that they occupied different countries made things even more complicated.  After a great deal of discussion, we concurred that Chiapas was still our best bet.   We could wait until the following morning, depart with favorable winds to sail by, still arrive at Marina Chiapas two days ahead of any nasty weather and be a mile inland from the surf and surge when things kicked up.

With the decision made, our anxieties seemed to lessen temporarily…until the boat carrying El Salvador authorities arrived at Exit.

As best we could, we attempted to explain that we were a boat in transit to Mexico, and had just taken shelter temporarily while we assessed offshore weather conditions. We did not intend to clear into El Salvador nor did we intend to leave the boat; only stay one more night and then continue on to Mexico.

They politely but firmly proceeded to explain in Spanish that, having already been at anchor for nearly twenty-four hours, our options were twofold.  Option one:  come ashore and clear into El Salvador at the immigration office which would be closing in one hour.  Option two: pick up anchor within the hour and keep moving.  

We told them thank you very much for having already allowed us the overnight stay and we’d be leaving immediately.  Casting a bit of a suspicious look our way, the guy who had been doing the talking clarified that meant leaving El Salvador waters…not just moving to a different location where they couldn’t see us and dropping anchor again.  

Yes, we absolutely understood.  We were leaving Bahia de Fonseca before sundown. 

Shortly afterward, we raised anchor and headed out.  Not a big deal.  We wouldn’t have as favorable sailing conditions, but we were already good to go.  However, the one thing we failed to consider was, as dusk approached, a number of fishermen had already set out nets and fishing lines.

We were already well familiar with the unpleasant task of dodging fishing gear.  In the best of circumstances, it might be a small panga with a guy inside hanging a line over the side.  Easy to see and relatively easy to dodge.  

However, more typically there would be no one in the vicinity.  Only a net or long line stretched out underwater, invisible to the eye, except for a small flag made from a black plastic bag attached to the top a two meter tall pole floating in the water.  If we were lucky, the other side would also be attached to a flag, or even better yet, a panga which would give us a sense of where the net or long line extended to.  Maybe a series of clear plastic bottles at the surface trailing along the length of the whole thing which, once again, at least gave a visual reference.  As often as not, there would be nothing more than a single flag.  Some people said the nets were far enough below the surface that your boat could pass over the top; more people had stories about getting caught up on them.  If that happened, you now had big problems – maybe having to get in the water to untangle; maybe damaging your engine if the prop fouled badly enough; certainly pissing off a fisherman if you damaged their gear or cut their lines.

Fishing nets typically weren’t more than a few hundred feet long and, if seen, could be navigated around fairly easily.  Some of the long lines extended much farther, even a mile.

At night, the only hope of seeing anything was if the flag had a light or strobe attached…and it worked.  This was, by no means, an absolute.

Leaving Bahia de Fonseca, we had the misfortune of passing through the fishing zone at dusk.  Exactly the time when black plastic flags and clear plastic bottles were almost impossible to spot, and before the time any that actually had lights would be illuminated – they seemed to be switched on and off by light sensors.  At one point we spotted a flag in the distance just before passing over a net, forcing us to detour back and forth before determining the exact position of a long line that extended over a mile across our path.

Fun times.

Dodging fishing nets at dusk…

Ya… but do you see that one? Really…it’s out there.

Invisible black flags

Eventually, after three hours of dodging black plastic flags and floating water bottles, with our  nerves frayed and eyes strained, it appeared that we had cleared the last of the gauntlet of fishing gear.  It was dark and we were finally in the open water heading well offshore trying to avoid any more fishing net drama…hopefully.   We could see tiny flashes of strobe lights scattered behind us, illuminating the maze of lines and nets we just passed through; however,  no flashing lights appeared in front of us, meaning we were either home free, or blind to the dangers surrounding us.  

We would later hear first hand from a friend who had become entangled in an unmarked, unlit long line over thirty nautical miles offshore just outside Chiapas in the middle of the night.  They had to dive in pitch black conditions to free their prop.  We would later have a similar, though less dramatic encounter ourselves.  But that’s a different story…

As it turned out, though we didn’t encounter any more nets that evening, there would be no escaping the excitement.

Surrounded by rain…

Our ongoing wishes for any wind at all turned against us that night; and the pendulum swung during Kris’ watch.   The night was jet black, the winds kicked up to twenty five knots, rain smashed down, and ridiculously close lightning exploded all around us.  Sometimes the majesty and power of the ocean and sky can be awe inspiring.  Other times it just scares the shit out of you.  Dawn couldn’t come soon enough.

And, while the arrival of the sun and blue skies were a relief, the drama continued when an  alarm screamed out first thing in the morning indicating the autopilot had failed. Jeeves, the name we adopted for our computer driven chauffeur, had decided to once again go on strike.  Thankfully, we were able to quickly rig up Schumaker, our ancient backup autopilot which can only be described as having far less computer intelligence but a more reliable work ethic, and our automatic steering was restored.  Sometimes simple is just better.

A welcome sunny day the next morning underway to Chiapas…

That day we experienced yet another amazing dolphin encounter while underway.  Under power of sails only, barely moving in five to six knots of wind, we were approached by a pod of  dolphins.  Typically, only brief encounters were on the menu, as the dolphins would quickly grow bored riding our bow wake at such a slow pace.  For some reason, this time they opted to stick around for quite some time.  

Much to the chagrin of Kris, who foresaw a potential catastrophe unfolding, I decided to attempt submerging our GoPro on its extendible pole into to water while we were underway trying to capture footage of the dolphins moving alongside us.  Even though the GoPro was inside an underwater housing and we were only moving at a couple of knots of speed, I admit I was flirting with disaster.  The resistance caused by the water made it much more difficult than I thought to keep ahold of the pole.  If the pole snapped or I dropped the GoPro, it would be  gone forever…we were in three hundred feet of water.   I would be keel-hauled by Kris and it would be well deserved 

Carefully, I lowered it over the edge of the deck to about a foot under the surface and maintained an iron grip.  I could only do this for ten or twenty seconds at a time.  Initially, it was pretty sketchy but I quickly got a feel for it.  Eventually, I moved to the transom where I could get down right next to the water.  One of the dolphins was unbelievably curious; I actually thought it was trying to grab the camera a number of times and I ended up quickly snatching the GoPro out of the water as it came right up to me.  After a half hour or so, the dolphins disappeared into the blue.

I just kept recording snippets, without seeing any of the footage until after it was loaded onto the laptop.  Later, we were stunned watching the video we had managed to capture; it turned out incredible.  Our Space X-it endeavor with the drone may have just evolved and expanded to include a Wet X-it branch into its program. 

Amazing dolphin encounter while underway

Unlike the previous evening, the night passed with minimal excitement.  Sporadic lights in the distance revealed the presence of fishing boats that had to be navigated well around; but the unforeseen reward of a nighttime passage came in occasional visits from dolphins.  Speeding towards us and alongside Exit just under the surface, they took on the appearance of  torpedos as the water surrounding them was illuminated in a crazy and eerie green glow due to the bioluminescence.

Approaching Chiapas the following morning, our stress levels increased exponentially.  It appeared there were floats marking fishing nets everywhere around us.  Fortunately for us but not the planet, it turned out everything we were seeing in the water – plastic water bottles, pieces of styrofoam, empty jugs, as well as flip flops, plastic bags, and everything else you can imagine – were all just floating garbage deposited by assholes instead of fishermen.  Had the choice been ours, we would have preferred that it been fishing markers we had to dodge instead of simply a pathetic and depressing reflection of our species.

We never prefer staying at marinas; in fact, we avoid them like The Plague. (Or The ‘Rona)  However, Chiapas has no alternative anchorage as an option. The swell outside is relentless and the port captain prohibits anchoring in the small bay just inside the breakwater due to boat traffic passing through.  Furthermore, the tropical depression which was two days behind us, had just been upgraded to a hurricane.  Officially, it was the first of the season – Agatha.

In our eyes, there was no choice.  We just had to suck it up.

Finally, after nearly three days and just over three hundred fifty nautical miles we were safely in a slip at Marina Chiapas. Ahead of us remained over a two hundred mile crossing of the tempestuous Golfo de Tehauntepec, for which the Papagayo winds had been merely a warm up, followed by a daunting eleven hundred nautical miles more to the relative safety of the Sea of Cortez – our ultimate destination to sit through the hurricane season.

Marina Chiapas
Memo and Rolf at Marina Chiapas

Aboard Exit we had already traveled more than fifteen hundred nautical miles since passing through the final lock of the Panama Canal and entering the Pacific Ocean just over four months ago. By our calculations, this put us barely beyond the halfway point.  Theoretically possible to complete the remaining distance in ten days, but realistically likely to be closer to a month.  No small feat, to be sure, yet we were making progress.

We were still adjusting our lines on the dock when we were boarded by the port captain, who politely took us through all the paperwork to clear in, while two men in military camouflage fatigues leading a nervous German Shepherd performed a quick search belowdecks to make sure we weren’t smuggling drugs or weapons.  

At least we now felt safe from the hurricane that had seemed to be tracking us.  The marina was located at the end of two small bays and three channels a mile inland from the shoreline.  Landlocked.  Agatha was projected to slide up the coast right past us without making landfall, but it would be close enough that we needed to be where we were.

Little did we know at the time, we would have a much easier time getting into Marina Chiapas than out of it…

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