I’m not a sailor. I didn’t grow up around boats or spend that much time in or around the water. I didn’t get on my first sailboat till the Captain bought a 16’ Razor and took me out on Lake Washington. That first outing lasted a grand total of 15 minutes. We headed out, he went to tack, the boom hit me square upside the head, and before he could tell me to duck, it swung back around and hit me square upside the other side of my head. I demanded he take me back to shore. It was six years before I stepped foot on another boat.
Where am I going with this? Strap on your life vest, this here’s quite a story…
We left Puerto Chiapas at 4:00 pm on April 14th with an anticipated travel time of 42 hours. The timing had to be perfect as the only way to get to Bahia del Sol in the Estero Jaltepeque in El Salvador is via a very nasty bar. Editor’s Note: In this case, a “nasty bar” does not denote a sketchy watering hole where you might get your ass kicked. Here, it refers to a large sandy obstruction between two bodies of water. Of course, you can also get your assed kicked there too. At any rate, it’s only “open” during slack tide and it requires the assistance of a pilot boat that guides you over the bar via radio instructions. Our window was between 3:15 and 3:45 pm on the 16th so, barring any (ahem) complications, we had planned to be near the mouth of the bar that morning where we would anchor for a few hours and wait for the pilot.
The first 30 or so hours were 90% awesome. There wasn’t any wind, but the seas were smooth, the skies were clear, and the engine was purring. The night watches went off without a hitch, and the Deck Boss did her first-ever solo shift the following morning so that the Captain and I could get a few more hours of sleep. The only part of the journey that wasn’t so awesome, was that neither the Captain nor I could stomach any food. Maybe it was nerves or maybe we got into some bad shrimp at lunch, but he had zero appetite and I couldn’t keep anything down.
A few hours before dawn on the morning of the 16th, the engine began to do that old ditty of rev down/rev up only this time it added a new refrain of rev down/rev up/rev down/die. We tried keeping it at a lower RPM; it would die. We tried switching the fuel tanks; it would die. We tried polishing the fuel; it would die. We tried switching out the Racor filters; it would die. The Captain even tried installing a secondary fuel pump, but I think you can guess the outcome. We finally gave up on the engine. All we could do now was hope we could keep some wind in our sails, but as the old adage goes (and apparently it only applies when things are crappy), “Be careful what you wish for.”
Pictured: Our first glimpse of El Salvador right before we wished we hadn’t wished for anything.
Just as the sun was rising and the coast of El Salvador came into view for the first time, our steady winds of 6-8 mph steadily increased to sustained winds of between 25 and 30 with massive gusts that sent the needle over 40, and our flat seas suddenly turned into 8’ rolly waves that pressed right up on our bow, slowing our speed, and pushing us off course. It required constant trimming and constant correcting. In addition, we were taking water over the bow and into the cockpit, because there’s nothing like a face full of salt water to remind you who’s in charge out there.
This went on for a couple of hours and then as quickly as it had come up, it went away. A couple hours after that and it was all gone—no wind, no waves, not even a current to help us along. And that’s how we found ourselves about 18 miles from the anchorage, racing along at a blistering 1.5 knots. With only four hours till our bar crossing appointment with the pilot, it was becoming very apparent that we would miss our window. Now by this time, the engine had been caput for about eight hours, and even though we were trying to conserve power by shutting off all non-essential items, the house batteries—without the engine to charge them—were starting to get low. No problem. The generator can charge them! So we went to start the generator and instead of that comforting rumble we normally hear when it comes to life, we got, “click, click, click” instead. Because of course—OF COURSE!—the 12-volt starter battery had not charged up properly when we were last plugged into shore power and was obviously not drawing enough power from our solar panels to make up for it. And here’s the stupid part…whoever installed this thing in the first place (not us), thought it would be a good idea to have this one battery not only start the generator, but run all the sailing instruments as well. So we immediately started turning off all pseudo-essential items to save the house batteries and as many 12-volt items as we could to keep the instruments going. So, let’s recap…no engine, no generator, waning batteries. Oh…and the Captain’s lack of appetite has, by this time, crossed over into liquids as well, so now he’s fatigued, cramping up, and exhibiting other signs of dehydration. It didn’t help that he also spending copious amounts of the time in the engine room/sauna. In the meantime, I’m still throwing up everything I eat, including the anti-nausea pills, and this has caused the “hurling domino affect” and now the Deck Boss is spending quality time hunched over the head.
We got on the VHF to try and raise anybody at Bahia del Sol but must have been out of range because we couldn’t hear anything. Luckily, another sailboat, S/V Illusion, had broken down in the anchorage just outside the bar (okay, so… lucky for us, not for them.) and they were able to relay our messages to the organizers of the El Salvador Rally. Within 45 minutes, Bill arrived in a panga with Steven, a fellow cruiser/nurse, to do a wellness check and bring us some cold water, juice, and charged-up VHFs. Unfortunately, we were still about 14 miles from shore, too far out for the panga to tow us in. Bill and Steven suggested that the Deck Boss might go back with them to Bahia and I jokingly replied, “No, she wants to go down with the ship.” Editor’s Note: Remind me to keep my mouth shut. I think we put on a brave face, but it was a sad sight seeing them go. Bill had suggested that we hip tie the dinghy and use that as our “motor” so that’s exactly what the Captain and I set about doing once they were gone. And for about an hour and a half, as we chugged along at 2.8 knots with our little dinghy deftly propelling our 66,000 lb. beast through the water, we were hopeful that we might make the anchorage sometime before midnight and maybe even get some sleep. By this time, our battery bank was extremely low, so we shut off absolutely everything except for the sailing instruments, autopilot, and navigation/steaming lights to conserve as much power as we could.
Pictured: Our brave little dinghy powering us through water.
Not Pictured: The knife it had stowed under the seat in case it had to save itself.
And then of course—OF COURSE!—the wind came up, and up, and up some more. And with the wind came waves and the dinghy started to get caught up in the side swell. And when it threatened to flip up onto its side, we untied it and secured it via a line to trail behind us. At this point, with the sun setting, the wind and waves picking up, and us in the precarious position of being pushed toward an unfamiliar shore to anchor in the dark sans motor, we decided our best option was to just sail through the night and try again when it was light. We pointed the bow south and off we went. By this time, it was pitch black out, the wind was howling, and the boat—which was getting hotter and stuffier by the minute down below—was pitching back and forth. It was a bumpy, uncomfortable ride. Then, one hour in, we saw on the charts that we were coming up on some shoals. We would have to tack and tack hard. The Captain asked me if I wanted to steer or handle lines, and since I always tend to oversteer when I’m nervous, opted for the latter. So I knelt behind the two winches (we were rocking too hard to stand) and got ready to release the one line and start cranking on the other. And we started the tack. But instead of the sail moving smoothly from starboard to port—and the boat moving with it—everything suddenly stalled at the halfway mark and the sail started to flap wildly, then fold over on itself, and the Captain tried cranking the wheel as hard as he could and that’s when he realized…we had no steering. The whole boat started to heel heavily to starboard. He quickly went aft and manhandled the lines to get the jib back into place and us upright. So here we were…no engine, no generator, no steering, no lights or electricity down below, it’s blowing like stink, and we have no idea how we’re going to turn around. We had skirted this group of shoals via the bad tack but now we were headed out to sea (aka nowhere) and had no idea what lay ahead. We decided it might be time to call for help. We tried to raise Bahia del Sol on the VHF but were too far out. We tried to raise the El Salvadoran Navy (if there is such a thing) but got nothing. The Captain sent me below to apprise the Deck Boss of the situation and get the flare gun while he checked the EPIRB. If we came up on more shoals and had no way to steer clear, we needed to be prepared for the worst.
And as I was pulling the ditch bag out of the wet locker, checking the flare gun, and readying Otter’s life vest and Edgrrr’s carrier, a weird feeling took over. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t even slightly panicked. Instead, I was concerned as to what would happen to Raven if the situation did ultimately call for a rescue. Would they try to tow her? Would they sink her? Or would they just let her drift out to sea? Never having been in this situation, I didn’t know the protocol and the thought of abandoning her really depressed me. Because even after all the problems we’ve had with Raven—and they’ve been considerable—she’s part of the family. Not just a home, or a mode of transportation, but an actual member of the family. Like a living, breathing thing. Granted, she’s the relative that you don’t talk about at family reunions because she’s always in and out of rehab and just can’t quite get her shit together, but you’d never begrudge including her on the Christmas card. In short, she may be a hot mess, but she’s our hot mess. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to let anybody sink her or send her off to die. There had to be another way.
I went back up on deck to talk to the Captain about it and found him laying down on the cockpit cushions, as if about to take a nap. In truth, I was taken aback—I was expecting a sense of urgency and a lot of running around, but instead it was like time had slowed down and maybe this was all a dream after all. In actual fact though, he had tweaked his back during the disastrous tack because why just have a dead engine, a dead generator, dead steering, dying batteries, and dehydration when you can add some acute back pain to the deal? But I think lying down, looking at the stars, and trying to ignore the spasms gave him some time to think, and by ultimately disregarding what didn’t work and instead focusing on what did work, he came up with a plan. Namely, we would continue on our current course as best we could using whatever influence the autopilot still had over the rudder and just hope that if we had to tack or gybe, that we’d be able to do it in five to ten click increments. (As it turned out, we did have to execute one gybe to get us turned around and heading north and a couple of “pseudo” tacks to keep us in the wind. They were sloppy—but successful.) Needless to say, it was a long night. The Captain and I, both dog tired by this point, set 10-minute timers so we could keep an eye on our course, sails, and any obstructions. And although the wind did finally quiet down around one in the morning, what followed was unsettling in its own way. Namely, without the usual background hum of electric lights and gadgets, the boat was so silent that you could hear every creak and groan and feel the mast shudder with every movement of the boat. I’m pretty sure we were all thinking the same thing—that perhaps the mast was getting ready to fail too, because why not?—but no one dared to say it aloud.
At dawn—nine hours after we lost steerage and 24 hours after we lost the engine—we found ourselves in pretty much the exact same spot—14 miles out from the bar entrance—where Bill and Steven had met up with us in the panga the day before. We hobbled along—averaging about 2 knots—and thought of doing another hip tie with the dinghy but we were too far out and didn’t know if we’d have enough gas. That, and we were too scared to look behind us and see if we still had a dinghy left. Editor’s Note: We did. But the line had become so frayed in all the ruckus that one or two more good waves would have snapped it in half. Why it didn’t is anybody’s guess. Maybe it’s waiting to go when the mast does?
But ultimately, we did make it to the anchorage and as soon as we hit 40’ of water, let the anchor fly. With only enough electricity to run one thing at a time, I would pause the windlass long enough for the Captain to use the bow thruster to keep us in place, and thus it went until we had enough chain out. When it came time to back down on the anchor, the Captain tried the wheel as he was leaning on the thruster, and the steering answered. Apparently, whatever had caused it to seize up in the night—most likely an air bubble in the hydraulic hoses—had worked its way out. Either that, or it felt sorry for us. Wish the engine, the generator, and the batteries felt the same.
Now here’s where the story gets good. And by good, I don’t mean things got worse. This time, I mean some good stuff actually happened. It turns out that all those distress calls we’d been sending were getting through, it’s just that nobody was able to get through to us. (That, and apparently there is no El Salvadoran Navy.) So by the time we finally hobbled into the anchorage, our friends in the Bahia cruising community had already lined up a mechanic, a portable generator, water, ice, and cheeseburgers and dispatched them all via panga to meet us. While fellow cruisers Eric and Greg helped us prepare for the bar crossing, Willy the mechanic and his crew worked on the engine. After about 30 minutes, he was able to identify our primary problem. Two of the bolts in our bleeder valves were stripped of their threads and that in turn had caused a massive vapor lock. This wasn’t something that could be repaired right off so as a quick fix, they got our engine going by feeding it diesel directly from a barrel, bypassing our fuel system altogether. It was enough to get us over the bar, and that’s all that mattered.
As for the bar? The crossing itself turned out to be uneventful, yet it was extremely meaningful. We were all in the cockpit when we went over the bar—even Edgrrr—and I must admit I got a little choked up. This had undoubtedly been the most difficult journey we had undertaken thus far, but we made it through as a crew, as a family. No one panicked, no one dropped the ball, no one even raised their voice or got snippy. We worked together as a proper crew should. And despite everything that happened, Raven did her job—she got us here in one piece even as she herself was broken. It was, I felt, a huge accomplishment. And when we got into the marina, there were probably 20 people waiting to cheer us in. It was overwhelming. It was humbling. It was a total rollercoaster of emotions. If I hadn’t had to go immediately to Customs and Immigration, I’m pretty sure I would have locked myself in the head and cried.
That was a few days ago, and I’m still somewhat numb from the experience. We’re almost caught up on our sleep; we’re eating again; God knows we’re drinking again; and that which was stowed is being unstowed. We’re here for at least six months. Got to get the engine fixed. Got to get the generator fixed. Got to sort out our batteries. Got to sort out our future. But this experience has given me a lot to think about. When I got double-tapped by that boom 20-odd years ago, I learned one very valuable lesson. Sailing can be painful, uncomfortable, and certainly dangerous. Perhaps other, more experienced sailors would have thought our little “adventure” a minor one; but for us, it was a huge deal—our first real foray into “here there be monsters” territory where the hard choices must be made. But I don’t think we did anything wrong, and I don’t think we needlessly put ourselves in jeopardy. We will do some things differently next time—extra communications, for one—but we’ll get back out. And maybe it will be better. And maybe it will be worse. But sometimes there’s not a lot you can do about it, except hold fast and see where the boat takes you. Because inevitably that boom is going to knock you senseless, and the best you can do is duck before it comes back around. And if it gets to be too much, there’s no shame in heading back to shore.
Postscript: I realize that this was one of my more serious posts. In an effort to lighten things up a bit, here's some sophomoric humor: