Saturday, March 31, 2018

Day 666 to 678 of the Third Voyage: In which we travel 499 miles without any problems and an additional 89 miles with what may or may not be a problem, but overall, we’re feeling pretty good. And we think the boat might be possessed.

Remember how I said that we were leaving Zihuatanejo on March 18th even if we had severe hangovers from our sea trial victory dinner? Apparently, I don’t know us very well because we totally couldn’t leave the next day due to severe hangovers. It was the consensus of ¾ of the crew (aka the ones who have now forsworn margaritas for a while) that it was in our best interest to only venture out when rested and in full control of our faculties. The rest of the crew (aka the one that stuck to beer) acquiesced to our decision based on the fact that she’s not sure which button starts the engine.

And so it was that we set out on the 19th at 2:30 in the afternoon with plans to arrive at the anchorage at Bahia de Puerto Marques the following morning. But not without one near disaster. While hoisting the outboard motor up to the deck, the strap used to attach it to the hoist gave way. It was the “Oh, shit!” heard round the harbor as we all screamed in unison, causing panga drivers to stop and look, flocks of birds to take to the skies, and all roosters within a three-mile radius to start a frantic chorus of cock-a-doodle-do. Had it not been for the quick actions of the Captain and ABS Brian, it would have gone plunging into the bay and sunk straight to the bottom. With hearts firmly in throats, we finished stowing the outboard and dinghy, hauled up the anchor, and headed out of the harbor. I am happy to report that we had extremely calm seas. As there was no wind, we motored the entire way—a solid 16 hours. The temperature held; the pressure held. When it became apparent that we were making too good of time and risked hitting the anchorage at three in the morning, we throttled way back and coasted along outside the bay until first light. We passed Acapulco just as the sun was coming up and whereas we had toyed with the idea of stopping there, opted instead to anchor in the next bay over. Mainly because we wanted to keep moving while everything was working, but also because we only have ABS Brian until Puerto Chiapas or April 1st, whichever comes first. And we really, really want him with us on the dreaded Tehuantepec leg.  We couldn’t afford to be sucked into Acapulco and besides, we’d already experienced the big draw—namely the famous cliff divers. The Deck Boss saw them when she visited Acapulco in the late 1940’s and figured the show probably hadn’t changed much since then as there’s not too many ways to dive off a cliff, and the Captain and I have been to Casa Bonita in Denver. Editor’s Note: If you’re from Colorado, no explanation is necessary. If you aren’t from Colorado, just picture a fabricated Mexican village (complete with adobe facades, marketplace, palm trees and waterfalls) throw in some roaming mariachi bands, add games and arcades, garnish with mediocre food (be sure to put more cheese in the furnishings than on the burritos), and put the whole thing in a strip mall. It’s fantastic. And they have cliff divers.

We spent that day and most of the next reveling in the sensation that we were at an anchorage and there wasn’t much to do except sit back and relax. Nothing needed fixing. Nothing was acting up. We didn’t need to do any provisioning. And there wasn’t any sightseeing to be done as Bahia de Puerto Marques is a big bay surrounded by lots of ritzy resorts. It was kind of nice knowing that the only order of business was to launch the dinghy to get the dogs to shore. Fun Dinghy Tip! If you’ve already been to shore in the dinghy and are aware that the beach drops off sharply, it’s always a good idea to let the next person know! Especially before they hop out expecting the water to be at calf level and end up getting dunked up to their armpits instead. Just saying.

We set out late afternoon on the second day for the 240 nm trip to Huatulco—a good 34 hours away—and even though the wind was gusting pretty good and the water was choppy leaving the bay, by the time we turned south, everything was calm again. And I’m happy to report that we had no problems with the engine or the transmission and enjoyed fairly calm seas. I say “fairly calm” because we did get caught in a big swell on our approach to Huatulco in the wee hours of the morning which kept the boat swaying side to side with a little bow to stern thrown in for good measure. Not ideal conditions for doing anything down below but, aside from the person on watch, the rest of us were sleeping—or trying to sleep—at this point. I say “trying to sleep” because it’s kind of hard to sleep when it’s 95° in your cabin (and no, I REALLY wish I was making that one up) and the boat is rolling around.  The Captain had just came off of his shift, and I was three hours off of mine, and we’re dozing like you do when it’s hot, humid, and the bed is suddenly way too small for two people when there was a loud CRASH accompanied by a high-pitched “MEOWR” and Edgrrr came tumbling through the hatch over our bed bringing the whole screen with him. And that’s when we decided that maybe it’s time he went on a diet.

In the past six months, the vet had tactfully observed that he was “well fed”, our dock mates referred to him as “that larger cat”, and one of our mechanics called him “chunky”. But I think it was when the electrician pointed at him, laughed, and said, “Garfield!” that we realized that maybe he was a tad on the hefty side. That and he was starting to leave a swath of dusted floor in his wake because his belly tends to drag on the ground.
“When I lays, I splays.”

But I digress. We arrived in Bahia de Huatulco early in the morning and found a berth at Marina Chahue to wait for our weather window across Tehuantepec. We didn’t have to wait long—two nights only—and mid-morning on the third day, we moved out into Bahia Tangolunda to relax at anchor before a planned 2:00 am departure. This is when something very odd happened. That afternoon, we went to turn on the generator and first it was fine, then it started clunking loudly, then it sputtered and died. We checked the oil, the temperature, the connections, etc. Everything checked out, but each time we turned it on, it would immediately shudder to a halt. That’s when the Captain noticed that the two fuel valves were closed. And upon opening them, he noticed that there were two additional fuel valves behind those and they were closed, too. Now this is where it gets weird. We never touched these valves—didn’t even know two of them existed. And whereas it’s possible that our mechanic in Zihua closed them while working on the engine, it doesn’t explain how we were able to run the generator for at least 24 hours over a four-day period without any fuel whatsoever. The reservoir pan isn’t that big and there’s no way that much fuel could have still been in the hoses. We’re at a loss.

But there was no time to dwell on that as the Gulf of Tehuantepec lay ahead of us. If you look at a map of Mexico, you’ll see where the country starts to taper as it gets closer to Central America. At its most narrow point—where the Gulf of Mexico is a mere 124 miles from the Pacific Ocean—is the Isthmus of Tehauntepec (an isthmus being a cool word to describe a narrow piece of land that gets clobbered by the weather systems of two bodies of water) and here can be found its infamous gulf. Why infamous? Because this is where most Pacific hurricanes are formed. And when hurricanes aren’t in season, it still likes to whip up mighty gales that stretch out for hundreds of miles and move really, really fast. At the very least, you want a three-day window of predicted calm before setting out, and even then all the cruising guides stress a “one foot on the beach” strategy in which you literally hug the shore line at about 60 to 100 yards off so you can hunker down in case of a T-Peck. In other words, it’s not to be taken lightly and, I must admit, has always been a source of concern for us given our constant parade of mechanical maladies. Which is why we consider ourselves incredibly fortunate to have had a five-day window and were pleasantly surprised at how calm it was throughout the entire 238-mile trip. The highest seas we experienced were maybe two and a half feet and the strongest winds we felt were 14-18 mph—easily some of the most serene conditions we’ve encountered yet. So much so, that we got a little saucy and ventured about 15-20 miles offshore to cut down on our travel time. We even got some fishing in.
Behold the mighty T-Peck Tuna!  

In short, we were finally starting to relax—starting to get the hang of this “nothing going wrong” vibe that had long eluded us. But all good things must ultimately come to an end and ours ended around 11:35 pm on the second night—only a little over halfway across—when the Captain uttered those dreaded words, “Does it smell like burning rubber to you?”
No. Only the aroma of crushed dreams and bitter disappointment. And the tang of cat poop. I think Edgrrr is compensating for his smaller meal portions by eating the upholstery.  

Whereas the engine was cool enough, the transmission was clocking in at over 300 degrees and spurting oil everywhere. It was all the Captain could do to get the dip stick out without incurring third degree burns. A regular funnel would have melted, so he fashioned one out of aluminum foil and managed to get some more oil into the tranny.

So now what do we do? We were afraid to shut off the engine for fear of not having gears when we turned it back on. There was no wind to sail anyway. There were no other boats around. No one showing up on the AIS. There was no cell service. The VHF was quiet. Nothing was stirring except the awareness that we really were all alone out in the middle of nowhere. All we could do was hunker down and ride it out. And at daybreak, when a little wind came up, we took a chance and shut off the engine. Which of course meant that the wind immediately died, leaving us hurtling along at a soul-sucking 1.5 knots. After a while, the Captain added more oil to the tranny and we fired up the engine. And we had gears. And the tranny kept to a stable temperature. And this is when the Captain had a weird epiphany. The dip stick/lid had come off way too easily. They go on with a great deal of torque because the tranny must create a pressure seal for everything to work. He had checked and topped off the oil in the tranny before we left Bahia de Puerto Marques and the dip stick/lid had been tight as a drum. How was it so loose now? It didn’t make sense, but it did account for the tranny losing pressure. And the spewing oil was localized to that area. Could it really have rattled loose while in transit? We’re at a loss.

But we ultimately made it to Puerto Chiapas, and under our own steam. And that’s where we are now. Fifteen miles from the Mexico/Guatemala border; Bahia del Sol in El Salvador just another 215 nm beyond that. Despite whatever did or did not transpire with the generator and the transmission, we’re still feeling pretty confident about our chances of making El Salvador sometime this year. But then something really weird happened. It was our first night at the marina—dog tired after 34 hours at sea—and the Captain and I are awakened at 2:00 in the morning because there is water all over the bed. Not just a little water. A lot of water. Neither one of us had water by the bedside. It wasn’t pee. It wasn’t drool. It wasn’t coming from the hatch. The headliner wasn’t even damp. We couldn’t and still can’t explain it. We’re at a loss.

Are we just weirdly unlucky? Is it the ghost of our old transmission come back to haunt us? Is it the Curse of the Cliff Divers? Did we pick up a poltergeist along the way? 
Or is someone just really pissed off about being put on a diet?

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