Bahia de La Ventana. Baja California Sur. Our first steps in the sand of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula after arriving aboard Exit.
We still needed to get further north before our hurricane def-con status could more fully relax.
Nearly every weather system that had developed on the Pacific side since the onset of hurricane season was following a consistent general pattern. After forming off the coast of Panama, it would work north skirting along the Pacific coast until eventually dissolving or drifting back offshore as it approached the Baja peninsula.
And yet, historically, relatively very few hurricanes had actually entered the Sea of Cortez.
There had been no doubt whatsoever; the Pacific coast between Panama and the Gulf of California was Hurricane Highway…which meant we were currently on the off ramp.
Much safer. But not still without some risk of passing traffic.
Regardless, we were momentarily going to pause, exhale, and relax.
For us, passage making aboard a sailboat shares a balance – the highs that accompany the sensory overload of magical experiences coupled with the inevitable exhaustion that results from prolonged heightened vigilance and coping with whatever gets thrown at you.
That escapade, occasionally more of a roller coaster than hoped for but always an adventure, often comes with an emotional hangover attached.
Sometimes doing nothing is the something you really need to clear that fog.
After a couple of days enjoying the sunny beach at Punta Arena de La Ventana, we sailed a relaxing two hours away to Isla Cerralvo, also known as Jacques Cousteau Island.
Not sure of the politics involved in renaming an island. I understand paying tribute to the French oceanographer, honoring him with an island in his name and all. According to infinitely knowledgable Wikipedia, he did call the Sea of Cortez the world’s aquarium which must have resulted in some pretty good press [on an ironic sidenote: it would appear the Sea of Cortez was also an imposed renaming of Gulfo de California but, in this case, I believe Cortez was more of an asshole]. Still, word had it that at least some of the locals were far less appreciative of the island’s renaming than the Cousteau family was. Fair enough.
Despite its apparent exposure, we couldn’t see why the bay we dropped anchor in was not listed as a viable anchorage on any of the charts. In the right conditions, it seemed perfect.
The holding was good. The beach was easily accessible. The uninhabited island was a fascinating study in geological and volcanic formations, mercilessly arid and covered with a feature strangely unique to the mangrove, tropical, and rainforest landscapes we had grown used to – cacti. The water was clear…eighty degrees. Coral. Marine life. Wow.
Outside of the occasional power boat briefly dropping a fishing line nearby, for three days we had the spot to ourselves.
Not having found a cell phone or internet connection for a week, we had been almost completely off the grid since leaving La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. Because our navigation equipment only requires GPS, that made our Iridium Go! the only tie with the outside world. The Iridium is great for uploading weather forecasts and tracking our current position, but can’t handle anything beyond a basic text email for data transfer…nothing more than an emergency contact.
That online detachment can be a giant pain in the butt when you want or need a link to the outside world. However, it can also be a key factor in separating from all the world’s daily background noise; background noise that interferes with one’s ability to focus on the important things that really matter.
There are times when that isolation bubble can help generate moments of pure carefree bliss. However, like everything, it is a pendulum of balance that always has a backswing. Those blissful moments can be very short lived when the isolation bubble gets popped and the outside world comes flooding back in.
As had largely been the case since leaving Costa Rica, our final push for Puerto Vallarta and the Sea of Cortez was a blur of foregoing potential stops in favor of continual forward progress.
Recently, we had begun to notice that the certainty of turtle traffic was giving way to the certainty of cargo ship traffic.
At one point, despite being in three thousand feet of water fifteen miles offshore, we found ourselves surrounded by no less than seven cargo ships, all parking in the middle of the ocean while they awaited their turn loading or unloading ashore.
We had been motoring for five hours after setting out from Marina Ixtapa. Kris was at the helm. Below deck, I was startled as Kris yelled out and threw Exit into an emergency full stop.
Stretched across our path was a fishing longline. Kris had spotted the floating plastic bottle that the line was attached to just as we were on top of it. Standing on deck, I could just see the florescent orange monofilament line running under our hull. We had not crossed completely over it, which would have inevitably resulted in the line getting tangled in our spinning prop.
Exit has a line cutter attached on the propeller which more than likely would have sliced right through it, but then potentially you have a very angry fisherman on your hands. We had heard stories of irate fishermen demanding money for damages – even a first hand account from a family who inadvertently became entangled in a fishing net while underway in their sailboat. They had actually been boarded by the fisherman during the ensuing altercation.
We didn’t see any fishing boats at the moment, but one has to assume they are not far away.
Slowly backing up, our worries were confirmed. Though we had avoided fouling the prop, the longline was hung up on something underneath Exit.
Thankfully, at that moment conditions couldn’t have been much calmer… because I was going for a swim.
A quick inspection revealed that it wasn’t the florescent orange long line that was hung up. Attached to that line were endless smaller clear monofilament lines, each that had numerous hooks attached. One of the hooks had gotten caught somewhere in the centerboard mechanism. I couldn’t get it free.
Easy enough to cut the smaller line. The main line would remain undamaged, and there would only be a handful of small hooks lost. No foul. The effort would probably even be appreciated by the fisherman.
What was concerning was the amount of tension currently on the main longline attached to the hooked lines attached to us. I was quite fearful that, when I cut the hook free from Exit’s centerboard, I could be snagged by one of the other hooks as the longline snapped back. Literally hooked like a fish, I would be still be attached to the longline as it pulled away from Exit.
It did not paint a positive picture as far as potential outcomes. But neither did being boarded by angry men in rubber boots smelling of fish.
With a knife, I sliced through the clear fishing line hooked to our centerboard, holding my body in such a way as to try to create as small of target as possible. The tensioned line shot away with an audible twang. Mercifully, as the undamaged longline disappeared into the blue, I was not hooked to it.
A short time later we were back underway. In the distance, we could now just see the small fishing boat. We were glad we had sorted out our shit and could continue without fear of fallout.
An otherwise uneventful two hundred twenty nautical mile passage brought us to Barra de Navidad at 3:30am, prompting us to drop anchor in Melaque on the far side of the bay, awaiting the light of day to enter the Barra de Navidad lagoon.
By mid-afternoon, we were sitting inside the lagoon with lake-like conditions all around us, blue skies above us, and iced Kraken rum in front of us.
While we more confidently awaited what we hoped would be a bit of sailing wind to continue north, we got some projects done and tried to relax a bit.
However, an intended day of sun, food, drink and relaxation at a nearby resort turned into a stressful and depressing fiasco after a combination of communication failures and differences in interpretation of resort policies between a very pleasant and unconcerned desk clerk and one of his colleagues, an authoritarian and ill-mannered prick who took his pool policing duties ridiculously seriously.
Though one resort Nazi is hardly reason to pick up anchor and leave, a constant awareness in the backs of our minds that, weather-wise, we were sitting on borrowed time the longer we hung out here was, on the other hand, quite motivating.
Five days later, another overnight passage carried us the hundred and fifty miles we needed to travel to reach La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, which shared a bay with Puerto Vallarta.
We expected no wind at all, but by mid-afternoon found ourselves moving along at five knots of speed under power of sails alone with a full genoa and mainsail.
As the light of the day began to fade, the horizon implied that the evening’s sunset could be rather mundane. But sometimes it’s not only the colors that contribute to an unforgettable sunset.
With no earlier hint of its presence, a single dolphin leapt clean out of the water just off Exit’s starboard side.
Immediately after that, we began to see small dots appearing in the distance in every direction. Before we knew it, we were surrounded.
Another magical dolphin experience.
This time, a huge pod that seemed to converge upon us from all different directions…spinner dolphins and they provided quite a show. Not a super-pod. Still, we had never been surrounded by so many at once. Incredible!
Sunrise the following morning was spectacular.
Puerto Vallarta / Cruz de Huanacaxtle:
We were finally at the doorstep of where we needed to be. And though we felt we could breathe a bit easier now, our comfort level would increase dramatically more after we had crossed the threshold and actually entered the Sea of Cortez, or Gulf of California.
And then, within twenty four hours of our arrival, we had our first hostile incident with locals. Returningfrom a dinghy trip ashore to town, we found three locals sitting aboard Exit.
They quickly left as we scrambled aboard.
Fortunately, it appeared they had not taken anything. However, it also appeared that they had left something. Giant runny splatters of pelican shit! On deck. On the solar panels. On the windlass and anchor chain. Everywhere…
That day, our love for pelicans was truly tested. How rude!
Aside from the unprecedented pelican squatting incident, and a few nervous weather moments, we found Cruz de Huanacaxtle to be a perfect location for us to relax a bit.
Wandering about and people watching…
And an incredible view…
Still, we kept reminding ourselves this was only a rest stop.
One week later, we lifted anchor and set out. From La Cruz Huanacaxtle, the door to the Gulf of California was wide open. We left three primary options on the table.
Mazatlan, 175 miles or thirty four hours away; Cabo San Lucas, 285 miles or two and a half days away; La Paz, 365 miles or a bit over three days away.
For slightly less than three days we continued pressing forward, experiencing everything from completely becalmed seas and clear skies to a midnight deluge complete with thirty-three knot winds accompanied by deafening thunder and lightning.
Offshore storms at night can be particularly terrifying. A torrent of rain being pushed sideways into the cockpit by over thirty knot winds in pitch blackness, occasionally punctuated by a distant flash or, even worse, nearby explosion of electricity, combined with the unpredictable and sometimes violent motions of storm seas can make for some rather interesting evenings.
On the other hand, those same seas and skies create unforgettably magical experiences as well.
Sunsets under sail. Alone for as far as you can see in every direction. There’s something indescribable about being the only witnesses to such an unbelievable display of colors in nature. A private show for those fortunate enough to be at that particular location during those fleeting moments.
Sometimes you only think that you’re alone.
Offshore, when you do receive visitors, they are usually unanticipated guests arriving unannounced, but they are almost always welcome.
When we eventually dropped anchor nearly three days later it was 1:25 in the morning. We had just completed a three hundred fifty five nautical mile jaunt across the mouth of the Sea of Cortez, or more properly, the Gulf of California.
We had arrived at the Baja peninsula, not quite a hundred miles north of Cabo San Lucas and less than fifty miles from La Paz.
It had been exactly one month ago, to the day, that we had departed Marina Chiapas, Mexico. In that time, we had travelled one thousand three hundred fifty miles aboard Exit.
Since passing through the Panama Canal six months ago, Exit had made good on nearly three thousand miles of Pacific coastline.
Inside the Gulf of California…finally.
We had made it!
And, though it seemed as though we had found paradise once again, experience told us – things are never simple on a boat…
After our six hundred mile passage, the anchorage at Potosi Petatlan offered a fair weather safe haven to rest but no safe access to land.
Sitting in the cockpit with morning coffee in hand, we watched with amazement as local captains displayed an impressive set of skills, timing, and balls repeatedly landing their power boats on beaches. We would not be attempting any dinghy landings here.
Zihuatanejo, ten miles away, offered the hope of a brief though fun land excursion into town; something we felt we had earned. We picked up anchor and headed there.
Sunsets underway can be surreal, but sunsets at anchor hold their own attraction. More latitude for true relaxation.
In our endeavor to maximize our progress up the Mexican coast and minimize our exposure to potential hurricanes, we had fed over fifty gallons of diesel to our Perkins engine.
For two reasons, we typically try to keep our two hundred gallon fuel tank as close to full as possible. One, it fits into our overall supply for the Apocalypse strategy. Two, with our aluminum tank, an emptier tank equals more condensation, resulting in potential fuel contamination from water and other bio growth (a lesson we learned from a crusty diesel mechanic in Cape Canaveral during a filter clogging / fuel polishing ordeal we experienced after first departing the Chesapeake aboard Exit).
Ninety-nine percent of the time, when fueling up is required, we opt for transport via dinghy with five gallon plastic jugs, fifteen gallons each trip. We rarely are tied to a dock. It increases the workload, but decreases the complication and stress involved in docking the mothership. How we get fuel to the dinghy is almost always an adventure unique to each location.
Our last fuel up had been while Exit was tied to the dock at Marina Chiapas. Ironically enough, we had still needed the dinghy there. Turned out, instead of trying to arrange a taxi that was willing to transport fuel containers and pay for multiple trips to and from the nearest vehicle gas station —- it was much easier taking our dinghy a short distance through the channel to access a set of cement steps making the exact same gas station fuel pumps only a fifty foot walk.
Though we really wanted to explore Zihuatanejo a bit, we ultimately knew our first priority now had to be sorting out what logistics would be involved in getting diesel here. We didn’t know the specifics yet; but experience had taught us it was rarely simple.
A bit of research revealed that, less than five miles away, Marina Ixtapa had a fuel dock that appeared to have pretty straightforward access. We cringed at the idea of a fuel dock ordeal every time; still, this really seemed to make the most sense.
It was less than an hour away, so we decided to suck it up.
When we arrived just outside the channel we immediately noticed a very industrial looking vessel occupying the channel, appearing both to effectively be blocking the channel as well as not moving at all.
We temporarily dropped anchor in fifty feet of water and hailed Marina Ixtapa on the VHF. They informed us that the channel was currently being dredged and access through was limited to before 7am, after 7pm, or between noon and 1pm. The fuel dock was open from 8am-5pm.
It was currently 12:25.
We had just over thirty minutes to lift anchor, navigate through the channel past the dredging boat to the marina fuel dock, tie up, fill up our tank with diesel, pay, cast off the dock, get turned around, and retrace our path back out of the channel past the dredging boat before it resumed work and blocked our escape.
The idea flickered that we could pull it off and then immediately dissolved with the reality of what a silly notion that actually was.
There was no way we would pull that off. We would either be trapped on the fuel dock until after dark, or infuriate the working people on the dredging boat with the delay we would inevitably cause, or initiate some other unforeseen drama in our haste.
The smart decision was to accept the situation, anchor at Isla Ixtapa four miles from where we were (which would allow us to check out that anchorage as well), and return the following day with a full hour to work with at noon.
We learned two important things swinging on the hook that night at Isla Ixtapa.
First was that viable protected anchorages along this section of the coast were going to be a big concern. Despite completely calm conditions, we experienced an excruciating amount of side to side rolling all night long from a relentless swell. In crappy weather, this whole coast would be smashed.
Second, was that another hurricane was hot on our heels. Our Windy forecast predicted it would be about two hundred miles offshore when it passed by Acapulco tomorrow, only fifty miles south of us.
We needed an alternative to anchoring in a bay that was, at best, questionable in the most mild conditions.
There was no way we could be sure of making Puerto Vallarta, which seemed like the best bet for protection ahead of the weather. It was over three hundred miles to the northeast.
First things first. One thing at a time.
In the morning, we returned to where we had anchored outside Marina Ixtapa the day before and waited. At 11:59am Exit was already approaching the channel entrance at three knots. The dredging boat was a bit off to the side, and we easily surfed atop a small roller past it and through the channel.
We tied off to the fuel dock without incident and quickly topped up our diesel. With thirty minutes still to spare before our deadline to be out of the channel, we were able to breathe a sigh of relief after speaking to the marina staff, having learned that there was a slip available for us to sit in during the next couple of days while the latest weather developed. Currently, the hurricane was threatening to pass within one hundred fifty miles of our location.
The available slip was tucked in a very back corner, of course. It was tight, but manageable. Fortunately, we had minimal wind and just a bit of current to cope with. Even more fortunately, Kris was at the helm.
The situation wasn’t perfect. We were back in a marina paying for a slip. But we were now in a much more protected and secure location. This was only going to be for a couple of days…
Sometimes the best choices aren’t the preferable ones. And sometimes imperfect choices come with unanticipated benefits.
Time to check out some of the incredible wall art in town.
Beers on the beach…
Given the alternative — sitting in some exposed anchorage, rolling back and forth in brutal swell, desperately hoping the hurricane eating its way up the Mexican coast isn’t going to land square on top of you — this was Heaven.
…there seemed to be something about everything going down that just reminded us of something….
…though we couldn’t quite put our fingers on it.
We only spent four days at Marina Ixtapa. It was even more quiet than Marina Chiapas had been. More pedestrian walk-by traffic than occupied boats. But it had served its purpose well.
There seemed to be challenge after challenge to getting out.
Explosive weather just outside the marina could prevent us from even wanting to consider departing.
Even if the weather outside decided to cooperate, merely possessing a desire to leave the marina, in and of itself, may not be enough.
The port captain could choose not to open the port due to current conditions in the channel. A red flag flying at the entrance indicates port is closed. No traffic going out. Not your call to make.
In addition, daily tides meant potential currents and waves at the mouth of the channel could limit times at which the channel was navigable…maybe not for a big sport fishing boat, but for our boat things could be very different.
And then there was the dredging schedule. Daily dredging meant the channel was closed to traffic for all but one hour between sunrise and sunset. We knew that before we came in.
Oh ya…and I almost forgot. Crocodiles! Patrolling up and down the alleyways of the marina. Big…and bold.
And then it dawned on us…as one of the whopper-sized crocs floated past Exit. That big, twelve foot long bastard wasn’t just passing by.
It was the night-man.
And it sure seemed…
…as he glanced over at us…
…we may have heard faintly on the breeze…
…“you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
If it required the relative stealth of a breakout, so be it.
The latest hurricane had passed and was headed offshore. The forecasts all predicted, at the most, light and variable winds for a few days. The tide was high and the channel separating us from the ocean was almost flat.
As the first light of day began to pull back the shroud of last night’s darkness, we untied from the dock and departed Marina Ixtapa, silently passing by the dredging boat in the channel. It was 6:58am.
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?
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.
Dodging fishing nets at dusk…
Ya… but do you see that one? Really…it’s out there.
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.
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.
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…
After departing Bahia Drake, we split the sixty nautical miles we needed to travel north to Quepos in two by stopping for a night at Punta Dominical – another spot along the Costa Rica coast popular with surfers. We were learning very quickly that beaches ripe for surfing were often horrible beaches for dinghy landings. No going ashore, but still a nice anchorage to chill out at for a night.
The following day we made for an anchorage near Manuel Antonio, three miles south of Quepos, which we had to visit on order to be issued a new national zarpe.
Though the international clearing in / clearing out procedures were not necessarily that much more complicated or expensive than other places we had visited, Costa Rica introduced us to national zarpes. International zarpes, by comparison, we had dealt with. This official document issued by the country you are departing declares your next port of call. It is often asked for when you first arrive in a new country. If an authority of a country you are entering doesn’t ask for your zarpe it’s no big deal. But if they ask for one you don’t have, all kinds of problems can arise.
National zarpes seemed effectively the same but were required when moving between states or regions within the country.
They didn’t necessarily charge for these, but the process to get them could take the better part of a day to sort out or may require taxi rides to various official offices that often were not conveniently in close proximity to one another. A trip ashore was required to get the zarpe before departing, it had to be during limited office hours or business days, and sometimes included time restrictions. A destination had to be put on the zarpe. Copies of our own documentation had to be provided. Only certain places could issue them or be listed on them. Furthermore, the procedures, processes, and locations had to be sorted out each time. Overall, a giant pain in the ass for us with no clear benefit or necessity that we could fathom.
We had declared Quepos as our destination departing Golfito. We were told it was commonly used. To us, this meant a procedure the Quepos authorities would be more familiar with, thereby making it simpler. Especially with language limitations, trying to complete an obscure government procedure at a location that is not already very familiar with that procedure can be a nightmare.
Obviously, the marina just outside Quepos had decided to take full advantage of anyone not staying at the marina who needed to use their dinghy dock. Thirty five bucks just to tie up! Bastards. They took even more advantage of those choosing to stay at the marina charging boats a daily rate of two dollars and fifty cents a foot – for us that would have been over a hundred dollars a night.
Since the only alternative was a beach landing at the anchorage followed by a round trip taxi ride that would cost close to fifty dollars, we chose a bouncy dinghy ride the three miles to the marina and tied up for the day, adding a provisioning run in town and filling our jerry cans with diesel to try to help offset the marina charge for tying up our dinghy to their dock.
The town of Quepos was pleasant enough to visit, and the process of receiving a new national zarpe there turned out more inconvenient than painful.
However, at the end of the day, the three mile dinghy ride back to the anchorage was choppy, uncomfortable, and wet. The wind had kicked up, causing the waves to respond in kind. Loaded down with jerry cans now full of diesel and bags of provisions, we had no prayer of getting the dinghy up on a plane. Not pleasant at all. Downright fucking sloppy even.
The anchorage itself, though nice enough, was subject to a lot of panga traffic with an endless supply of tourists during the day, as well as seeming to unfortunately be a popular spot for mega-twats (mega yachts) to anchor at. However, the swell was what eventually drove us onward. One night, we endured the most ridiculous swell movement we had ever experienced, and a lack of any wind at all made using a swell bridle ineffective. It appears we may have to sort out a flopper stopper to cope with this in the not too distant future as we’re apparently still quite gun-shy about using a stern anchor after our first fiasco.
All in all, it had taken us five days to sort out everything we needed to before we could move on. Once we were ready, we were gone first thing the following morning.
A number of anchorages later we found ourselves at Isla San Lucas, Costa Rica’s version of Alcatraz. From the late 1800’s until 1991, this less than two square mile island housed a high security prison globally notorious for the torture and inhumane treatment its prisoners endured; or more often, failed to endure. Their crimes ranged from violent multiple murders to political dissidence.
The water surrounding the prison, like Alcatraz, added an extra security ring. However, in addition to strong currents, there was the added Costa Rican flair of hammerhead sharks and crocodiles. Didn’t see hammerheads…did see a croc. Didn’t go swimming…did go ashore.
Only a couple of years ago, it was upgraded from Wildlife Refuge to National Park status. Currently restoration efforts include a church, medical facility, and holding cells which can be walked through.
A nominal fee helps to support the ongoing restoration efforts for the prison facilities as well as numerous archeology excavations of thousand year old Indigenous sites. It also grants you access to wandering around the island for a day. Since we hadn’t arranged a guided tour, we just had to wing it.
The walls of the cells are covered with graffiti. The musings of a hundred years of misery. Sketched, painted, and carved onto and into the walls, they run the gamut of what you would expect to be on the minds of tortured prisoners— salvation, damnation, freedom, and sex.
The cement disc apparently had something to do with a water storage tank and/or a particularly nasty solitary confinement area for trouble makers.
Random wandering photos…
More than a dozen trails offer the potential for hours and hours of hikes around the island – a welcome counterbalance to the darkly morbid specter of the prison. However, the reality is that skyrocketing afternoon temperatures from an absolutely blistering sun typically quash the plans of all but the hardiest on walkabout.
With only a couple of cruising boats and a couple of day tour pangas in the bay for only a short time during our entire four day stay, we essentially had the entire calm and protected anchorage to ourselves. The visit to Isla San Lucas was well worth the stop.
To be honest, it’s the only way one wants to visit a prison… as a tourist.
Now, fresh outta prison – it’s a story often heard. It was time to drift back into orbit with our old Junkie friends.
Long before our arrival in Costa Rica, we knew one of our top priorities would be a Junkie reunion. Cindy and Juan, two of our Divemaster students over ten years ago from our days working at Scuba Junkie in Borneo, now lived in Santa Teresa – a small surfing and tourist destination along the coast. We would be sailing right by.
While many of our previous students had gone on to work in the scuba diving industry, Cindy and Juan were the only ones we were aware of who had gone on to own their own dive shop. This was a Junkie reunion that couldn’t be missed.
The beach off of Santa Teresa is a really popular surfing spot. Big waves = no dinghy option. And the whole coast was completely unprotected as an anchorage which meant there was no way we could safely leave our boat unoccupied at anchor. We found a small fishing village, Tambor, in a very protected bay called Bahia Ballena on the opposite side of the peninsula, within about a one hour drive from Santa Teresa.
Another sailboat was anchored there as well; and we befriended them enough to feel comfortable leaving Exit at anchor for a few days with eyes upon her and a WhatsApp contact if trouble arose. After a dinghy ride to the cement dock used by the local fishermen (far too scary for us to tie up to) and a brief conversation with one of the fishermen on the dock, we were able arrange a ride with one of the fishermen between our boat and the dock.
The logistics weren’t easy but, in the end, we were ecstatic to have figured it out. Cindy and Juan were fabulous hosts. It was as though ten days had passed since we saw them rather than ten years.
In addition, we had the opportunity to meet their two incredible kids, Marina and Bruno, for the first time, as well as two other diving friends of theirs, Tim and Barbara.
We were astonished to learn they had managed to arrange for us all to stay at a property which provided a base of operations unlike anywhere we could have imagined. Fortunately, the thousand dollar per night rate was waved! The place was decadent; the view was wondrous.
Sometimes it pays to know someone who knows someone…
The nearby beach, at the bottom of the treacherous hill our house was perched upon, provided an afternoon’s entertainment of socializing and even attempted surfing.
And, of course, when your ex-students own a dive shop, how can you not go diving?
The day of diving with old friends was incredible. Conditions were pretty challenging with significant swell and shocking visibility (damn red tide). Still, it was the phenomenal people we got to spend time blowing bubbles with that made all the difference.
Iguana Divers. Well done Cindy and Juan. Kudos to you as fabulous divers, businesspeople, parents, and friends!
They told me long ago, on the road…once a Junkie, always a Junkie.