May 25 – June 30, 2022
The alphabet song? No, just naming hurricanes in the Pacific.
After passing through the Panama Canal in January, it had taken us exactly four months to travel just over one thousand nautical miles from Panama City to Playa del Coco. We had certainly taken our time.
But time was no longer in surplus.
As an awareness of the upcoming hurricane season starkly transitioned into the reality of an actual hurricane potentially bearing down on us only days into the “official” start of the season on May 15, our mindset changed almost instantly.
Consequently, we had covered the nearly six hundred mile distance from Playa del Coco to Chiapas, Mexico in just over four days!
When there is a Hellhound on your trail, you find out just how fast you can really run.
The forecast models we were continually monitoring from Marina Chiapas revealed a terrifying leviathan with the potential of smashing everything around us.
We held our breath as Agatha approached, following nearly the exact same path we had taken only a few days earlier.
Fortunately, the center of Agatha remained two hundred or so miles off the coast of Mexico as it passed by Chiapas. We appeared to just be just outside the reach of even its outermost bands and, as it slowly passed by us, we saw sunshine and calm weather.
Still, when that hurricane is over two hundred miles in diameter, by our standards, it was a pretty fucking close call. A near miss that our blood pressure could certainly do without.
Unfortunately, it appeared to be merely the first of a never-ending parade that seemed to again and again have us in particular directly in the cross-hairs.
Our intention had been to duck into the exceptionally protected Marina Chiapas and wait until Agatha passed by; then continue working our way up the coast towards the Sea of Cortez.
After four weeks, that brief pit stop had morphed into an excruciating thirty day prison sentence.
Every few days another disturbance began to form to the south of us. Even those that didn’t actually build into something significant still caused enough momentary paralysis to prevent us from having adequate time to get underway.
To get out of the marina, we needed to organize another inspection with the military and their police dog as well as clear out of the marina and obtain another national zarpe, which took a day or two (unless it was Saturday, Sunday, or Monday which needed to be organized on Friday). All time consuming. In the time it took to complete this, another storm would already be threatening us to the south again, causing us to hesitate and rethink whether it was smart to leave.
As if that wasn’t enough, we also had to seriously consider the risk of making the two day run across the Golfo de Tehuantepec. Departing Playa del Coco previously, we had lucked out avoiding the dreaded Papagayo winds entirely, but the Tehuantepec winds could be exponentially more of a concern.
With the Papagayos, we had been able to sprint across the danger zone in a number of hours. It would now take us two days to clear the Tehuantepecs. Longer distance, farther offshore, potentially even bigger seas and far more volatility. Sitting in Marina Chiapas, we had heard sailors recount stories of being hit with Tehuantepec winds that kicked up from ten to forty knots in a matter of minutes, wrecking all kinds of havoc, stress, and damage.
At a minimum, we needed a two day window to cross the Golfo de Tehuantepec and reach the relative safety of Huatulco, but that would only get us a fraction of the distance we needed to go, and we would start the whole process over again to keep moving.
Day after day; forecast after forecast. Either already messy from something that had just passed by… or the latest ominous weather coming up from the South…or the Tehuantepecs kicking up from the North…or both.
A – Agatha… B – Blas… B – Bonnie… C- Celia… D – Darby…
Oh sure. It wasn’t enough to have one “B” hurricane in the Pacific. For only the second time since 2000 a second “B” hurricane existed in the same season in the Pacific. Bonnie materialized and was named in the Caribbean before moving across land and re-forming in the Pacific. They were now crossing masses of land to find us.
We watched and waited. Day after day.
Tiny marina. Isolated from anything. One restaurant. Swimming pool fit for happy hour jam sessions if you could endure the mosquitoes (the infamous Broken G-strings in the Hurricane Hole Jam Sessions). Toad in the toilet. Yah, that was a strange one.
After three weeks we were at our wits end.
Even the toad in the toilet had moved on.
We had long ago given up on favorable sailing conditions as a threshold for departure. We had long ago given up on waiting for conditions that might allow us a long, comfortable passage up the coast. We needed the parade of hurricanes to pause long enough so we could make some fucking progress. Not much more.
Finally we could take it no more. We had to get out of the marina.
We took a taxi…which took us to a bus…which took us up into the highlands…
…where we found San Cristobal de las Casas.
Steps and churches…
An afternoon of wine, tapas, music, and people watching at La Viña de Bacco…
Kris braves the challenges of complicated communications and limited language with a haircut…
A bit of time away from the relentless pressure of weather analysis and stressing out about that we had zero control over was just what was needed.
Three days later, as we were walking down the dock of Marina Chiapas approaching Exit, we saw the woman who had first recommended that we visit San Cristóbal. We smiled and said how much we had enjoyed it. She replied, “that’s good; you missed your weather window.”
I honestly believe I heard Kris think the words fuck you.
With refreshed sense of both purpose and patience we returned to studying weather forecasts.
Mother Nature simply hadn’t been cooperating. It was either substantial contrary winds, hurricanes forming, Tehuantepec winds, or a combination of two or all three. The window of opportunity had been locked tight for a month.
And then suddenly, it opened…just a bit.
Our response was zero hesitation.
We set the official wheels in motion and prepared to leave in two days. At a bare minimum, we needed to get to Huatulco two hundred nautical miles to our northeast on the far side of the Golfo de Tehuantepec and just beyond the grasp of its winds.
Really, we needed to push farther; more like to Acapulco or Zihuatanejo to make a significant dent. That would get us beyond the halfway point of the thousand nautical miles we still needed to travel before arriving at the Sea of Cortez.
After a month at the marina, a provisioning run before leaving Chiapas was going to be necessary. Fortunately, our current status as marina residents meant we would be trading our typical dinghy commute for a taxi. Even better, no beach or potential surf would be part of the shopping equation; this time we had to go no further than the dock. Possibly best of all…we learned that here in Mexico, Kraken rum was back on the menu.
The final step on the morning of our departure was being boarded by the miltary canine unit – two men in military fatigues with their very cute, if not extremely high-strung, German Shepherd (understandable considering it sniffed out cocaine and gunpowder for a living). After passing the brief weapons and drug inspection, we were given the go-ahead to depart the marina.
Leaving Chiapas the weather looked as promising as we could hope for. We settled for no wind instead of potentially way too much…a compromise. Nevertheless, the clear skies and calm seas were both a stunning blue.
That day – a bit of blue, a bit of gray. No wind, but also no rain – despite threats on our radar display. That night – dark, wet, and choppy with very little wind was the log entry. Across the Golfo de Tehuantepec we encountered no problems. Still, even with less than five knots of wind, the mild swell and chop was at times confused and schizophrenic. The skies were constantly hinting at something that could develop. It was disconcerting; easy to see how things could get nasty very quickly. A sense of ominous and foreboding potential hung in the air. But just a sense. Nothing more.
In a couple of days, with things kicking back up again, it would be a very different story. Not the area where we wanted to be hanging out.
Despite the realization that after twenty four hours, we had sailed for a mere seventy five minutes and motored for one thousand three hundred and sixty five minutes, we were chalking that one up in the victory column. Progress. We’ll take it.
Sometimes, however, even true moments of victory can be bittersweet.
During the subsequent twenty four hours, we managed to sail far more than we had the previous twenty four hours. And still, after all the diesel we’d conserved…after rigging up our preventer…and sorting out the solent sail…and setting a second reef in the mainsail…in that very moment of triumph…
…thunk — my head bumps one of the shrouds as I turn on deck, followed by an excruciatingly long moment of slow motion silence as I watch my favorite pair of prescription reading glasses leap from my head, easily clearing the deck and both lifelines, and…ker-plunk! With a splash they hit the water and disappear into two thousand feet of water.
The question remained: should we stop at Hualtuco or press on?
The answer seemed clearer than anything I could currently try to read with my reading glasses at the bottom of the ocean.
We had been motoring far too much for our liking; but weather was holding and the last thing we wanted to do was stop and risk getting stuck again. Instead of a middle of the night arrival at Hualtuco, we quickly chose to keep moving.
We had already made good on around two hundred nautical miles, which left about three hundred fifty miles to Acapulco, or Zihuatanejo fifty miles beyond that. Zihuatanejo sounded like a more interesting place to visit, but we would consider Acapulco as the first bail-out option.
That night, storms kicked up and made us start to rethink whether our decision had been wise.
However, the same storms that raised our blood pressure, provided the winds that allowed us to raise our sails, shut off the overworked Perkins engine, and fly along at a screaming pace.
By morning, the Golfo de Tehuantepec and Huatulco were behind us, and the wind has passed ahead of us.
For the next two days, weather was mixed. We rode back and forth atop a pendulum between dead calm with beautiful weather and intermittent threats of nastiness. All part of the excitement.
And, though we were forced to do far more motor-sailing than we wanted, we were actually making incredible progress up the coast.
For days, other boat traffic was almost nonexistent. On the other hand, turtle traffic was incredibly congested. Every few minutes we would spot a turtle floating at the surface. Ironically enough, they were among the most inattentive mariners we have ever dealt with. It seemed as though every last one that we came across was either sleeping or fucking!
Every visit from dolphins has the potential to be a mind-blowing, unforgettable, and magical experience. A dozen or more persistently curious and very playful dolphins in crystal clear water is a perfect formula for one of those experiences.
Two days later, at almost the exact same time of day, we were shocked to see a giant dorsal fin penetrate the water’s surface in the distance. Though not nearly as up close and personal as the dolphin encounter, we had the rare privilege of a passing glimpse of what appeared to be a family of four orcas. Amazing.
8:12pm. Wednesday, June 29. Another incredible sunset begins to commence with a dazzling show of color shifting. We have chosen to forego stopping at Acapulco and it is five hours behind us.
Acapulco held no magnetic draw for us. It had simply been a potential location to rest or bail out if the weather turned on us. Our progress had been continuous and the weather was good so Zihuatanejo became the new destination. Unfortunately, as the last speck of sun was blinking out on the horizon, Zihuatanejo was still five hours away.
After fully taking in the spectacular gift of a sunset underway, we compromise on a destination of Potosi Petatlan fifteen miles from our current location. An easy approach, wide open anchorage, and likely lack of traffic or potential navigational hazards justify the comfort level with which we waive our no entering new anchorages at night rule.
In all, we had only been able to sail without any engine assistance for about a quarter of the time. Still, the diesel was less expensive than a marina slip and our trusty Perkins engine was simply another tool that had to be utilized at times.
Reflecting back over anchor beers a short time later, the immediate transformation seemed striking. Less than five days prior we were tied to a marina dock at the southern border of Mexico, not having made any forward progress in a month, still looking at a thousand miles between us and the relative safety of the Sea of Cortez. A rather bleak situation. Now, in less than five days, we had chewed through sixty percent of that distance.
Of the one thousand five hundred miles between Panama City and Chiapas, the first nine hundred miles had taken us almost five months. The last six hundred miles to Chiapas took just over four days. During this passage, nearly a mirror image of the previous, we had made good on nearly six hundred additional miles in only four and a half days!
Cheers to that!
…wait a minute…
…was that the alphabet song I just heard in the breeze?