Friday, June 14, 2019

Day 1060 to 1119 of the Third Voyage: In which we tried to leave El Salvador and yet here we are…again.

You know what a mulligan is, right? It’s when your first attempt at something goes unexpectedly awry so you get to try it again in anticipation of a better outcome. Basically, it’s a do-over. We don’t get mulligans anymore.  After you’ve had two or three or twenty, your mulligan rights get revoked. We no longer get do-overs; we just get do-agains. As in, “Swell, the engine died…again; or great, the transmission blew a seal…again; or, awesome, this thing that has always worked has decided not to work just when we need it most…again.”  Yet despite our track record, we really thought this was our moment. This would be the time when everything would go in our favor. So when the inevitable happened, the disbelief was profound—a punch in the gut that sent us to our knees.  

We don’t get mulligans. We get Kerrigans.

So what went wrong?  Well, first off…let’s talk about what went right.  To say that this was the best prepared we’ve ever been for a passage would be an understatement. Over a month before our departure window, we printed out a list of everything that needed to be done and posted it in a conspicuous place in our cabin so that it stared/slapped us in the face every day and twice on Sundays. It ran the gamut from oil changes and systems checks to provisioning and stowing charts—a full two pages of to-dos—and damned if we didn’t cross every item off the list. We even took the boat out of the slip and put her through her paces, running up and down the estuary testing gears, speeds, temperatures, and loads. We wanted to leave the last week of March but ended up pushing that out two weeks for an optimal bar crossing. And then, just for good measure, we talked our friends into going with us because we were so sure we’d have the perfect cruising experience that we wanted to share it with fellow Boaters-With-Engine-Troubles to prove to all of us that it could be done.

We were set to depart on April 15th, but I woke up nauseas, head-achey, and loathe to get out of bed so we opted to wait until the next day so I could get some rest. At the time, I chalked it up to multiple days of toiling in the extremely high heat and humidity, not enough sleep, and pre-voyage jitters. An excessive amount of drinking due to all the going away parties that we threw/were thrown for us probably didn’t help. But looking back it was probably a premonition. Kind of how animals can predict earthquakes before they happen, maybe I’ve developed a sixth sense that things are about to go terribly wrong. Or maybe it’s just because things always go terribly wrong. But at any rate, we pushed off around noon on the 16th, rendezvoused with the pilot boat, made it over the bar safely and in one piece, and turned the pointy end toward Mexico. With no wind to sail, we settled in at a motoring speed of about 7 knots and there wasn’t much to be done except sit back, look for fishing pangas and long lines, and contemplate the 30-hour voyage ahead. And for four hours, it was awesome. Until the engine died. And then it wasn’t so awesome.

We put out the sails, but the light afternoon winds did us no favors and our speed dropped down to an excruciating three knots.  So the decision had to be made…do we cut our losses, turn back, and hope we can get the engine working long enough to get us back over the bar? Or do we push forward, hope for some wind, and pray that the Mexican navy can tow us into Marina Chiapas should it come to that? I think had we been anywhere near the half-way point, we would have gone with the latter, but four hours after leaving Bahia del Sol we were barely out of the state of La Paz, let alone the country of El Salvador. Because here’s the sucky part of boating. It’s amazingly, incredibly, agonizingly slow. Even on the good days. One knot is roughly equivalent to 1.15 mph. When the engine is working, it’ll hum along nicely at 7-8 knots which, given wind/wave/water resistance coupled with the gross tonnage of the boat and all that other physics stuff, is considered quite a good speed until you realize that you’ve been chugging along for four hours and you’ve only gone 25 freaking miles.

Had there been wind in the forecast, we probably would have just said “screw it” and kept going, but the forecast called for winds of 2 mph. Two. Miles. Per. Hour. I’m pretty sure Otter farts with more velocity than that. And here’s another sucky thing about boating. When you have no means of propulsion to flatten out the ride, you’re at the mercy of the waves and the swell and all the up and down and bob and sway and side to side that comes with it. And if you were already a little unsettled to begin with (like I was), it’s very easy to get seasick (like I did), and that just adds to the fun quotient right there. Because why be depressed when you can be queasy and lethargic as well.  It made the most sense to turn around, so that’s what we did. And because no good deed goes unpunished, our reduced speed meant that it would now take over eight hours to go back those 25 freaking miles.

It was close to midnight by the time we got to the “anchorage” which is in quotes because it’s not really an anchorage so much an okay-ish place to set an anchor while you wait for the next bar crossing opportunity which in our case was the following afternoon. The last time we were in this “anchorage” we had just come off one of our more hellish journeys and no sooner had we set anchor than we were met by a panga full of mechanics to slap a Band-Aid on the engine so that we could at least get over the bar and into the safety of the estuary. Amongst all the people and commotion, I hadn’t realized how roly-poly the anchorage was then, but I sure got to experience it now—over twelve hours of bobbing and weaving and swaying in the heat and humidity and not a breeze to be found. Because why be depressed, queasy, and lethargic, when you can be miserably hot as well.

Now on a positive note, the engine had decided to work again. A couple hours in to our return trip the night before, we tried the engine and it turned over and for a split second we thought about turning around and heading to Mexico after all, but we erred on the side of caution which was a good thing because approximately four hours later, it died again. Out came the sails and down went our speed. A couple hours later, as we approached the anchorage, we tried the engine again and it started right up so at least setting the anchor was easy. It started again the next day after having been off all night. We were starting to see a pattern. But at least it was working now for this, our third time across the bar. The first time—going in—was totally anticlimactic. Of course, after the voyage we’d had, we could have ended up on the beach and it would have been the least of our many ordeals. The second time—going out—was a bit more of a ride as we got on a pretty good outgoing tide and surfed our way out at a blistering 14 knots.  This third time was a bit more dramatic. Just as we were making our approach, we got caught by a big wave that got up under our stern, buried the bow deep into the water, and then swung us hard to starboard while surfing the wave at over 15 knots. It was such a sharp veer that at first I thought the Captain was aborting the crossing, but he stayed calm, corrected our course, and got us over the bar in one piece.

By now, you’ve probably figured out that this bar is not something to be taken lightly, and you’d be right. We’ve been over plenty of bars. Most were straightforward, a couple were on the scary side. You hit them at the right time—some at high tide, some at slack—and in the right conditions, and you generally don’t have any problems. This one, however, requires “local knowledge” which is an ominous term describing anything that will kick your ass unless you were born, raised, and reside within 100 yards of said obstacle. This bar shifts and changes on a daily basis and is subject to the tides, swells, waves, and whims of the Pacific Ocean, so you must be guided in by a pilot boat that gives you instructions over the VHF in terms of where to steer, when to throttle, and what’s coming up behind you. And if you’re really lucky, they take your picture while you’re doing it…
This is us being pushed SIDEWAYS toward the bar. If they’d had a telephoto lens, you’d see four people, one dog, two cats, and a small child with “Oh Shit!” looks on their faces. All except the Captain. His just says, “Screw this. Nicaragua is just down the coast. I hear it's nice.”

Overall though, we were lucky. Some things went flying down below when our bow went down, but nothing was broken. We’ve seen other boats come in with broken stanchions, bent davits, loose rigging, and overwrought gears. Some didn’t close hatches before they came over and ended up with more water in their boat than under it.  One couple was towing their dinghy (big no-no) and it overturned and got ripped up on the way in. And in one heartbreaking case, a rogue wave came down on top of a catamaran, swamping the cockpit, and flattening a little dog before a second wave lifted him up and out. Despite an exhaustive search of the surrounding beaches, he was never found. Now obviously these are not the norm and most just experience a high-speed surfing sensation, but the potential for hazard is there and must be respected.

Tail tucked firmly between legs, we limped back into the marina where friends gathered to grab lines, Leo was on hand with extra-strong welcome back beverages, and the Port Captain was there to record our arrival. The Immigration Officer also met us on the dock. Why? Because our visas had expired the day we left and as we had not made it out of the country, we were now officially illegal aliens. Because why be depressed, queasy, lethargic, and overheated when you can run afoul of a country’s immigration policy as well?

Back at his office, he went into a lengthy discourse in Spanish regarding our situation in which the only words I caught were “problema”, “mucho problema”, and “penalizacion” with a look on his face that could only mean a very large fine. But this mess was our own doing, and we were quite willing to (literally) pay the consequences. We asked him how big of a fine and he very sheepishly said, “$11.43… por persona.” And then immediately winced as if he was fully expecting one of us to throw a chair at him. But we’re calm, and thinking “Okay, $11.43 per person per day. Even if it takes us a month to repair the engine, we’re looking at about a thousand dollars. That’s cheaper than flying out of the country, especially since it was Easter week and flights would be difficult to find and ten times more expensive even if something was available.” And that’s when he clarified that no, the fine was $11.43…regardless of how many days we overstay our visa accompanied by a look that said, “I can’t believe you’d think that of us. We’re not total monsters. And thank you for not chucking a chair at me.” This was confirmed by others we spoke to (the one-time fine of $11.43, not the chair chucking.) Of course, rules and regulations change as frequently as the honchos in many of these government agencies, so I guess we’ll find out when we attempt to leave again.

In the meantime, we think we identified the problem with the engine and once again, it’s related to fuel delivery. The fact that the engine would run perfectly fine for four hours then quit, only to start up again after a couple of hours and run for another four, got us to thinking that there must be a small air leak in the fuel line. How I understand it is that air gets in the hoses, gets caught somewhere, slowly forms a bubble, fuel can’t get around it, the engine starves, the engines quits, the engine cools down, the bubble dissipates, fuel gets through, the engine works, lather, rinse, repeat.  It makes sense, right? And when the Captain found some dodgy fittings that were absolutely letting air in, it just seemed to validate the theory.

So the engine was fixed and has been tested twice (the first time for 15 hours in gear while tied securely to the dock and a second time for four hours tied loosely to the dock and maybe in gear but who knows because we lost all those brain cells from huffing in diesel fumes from the first go-round.) We’ve been ready to go since mid-May. Yet here it is June, and we’re still here. Why? That damn bar. Bad weather on the other side of the fricking globe has wrought havoc all the way over here in the form of huge waves and swell that effectively closed the bar. Because despite thousands and thousands of leagues across vast expanses of ocean dotted with myriad land masses between here and there, a storm in Indonesia means there’s no leaving an estuary in El Salvador. And perhaps we’re taking it all too personally, but when you’ve been someplace for a really long time and all your previous plans to leave have been thwarted and you’re so ready to go you can taste it, it’s quite disheartening to hear things like, “The bar has never been closed for this long! It’s gotta be some sort of record!” and you begin to wonder who you screwed over in another life. And what were you doing in Indonesia in the first place?

And that brings us to now in what feels like Day 2,743 of the “Great Wait” in which the boat sits in a perpetual state of readiness…nothing has been unstowed; boxes and bins are still tucked away or crammed Jenga-like into cabin corners; bungie cords are at the ready to secure moving items; passports and paperwork are near at hand; and any foodstuffs eaten or provisions used are immediately replenished. We don’t venture too far from the boat—a reprovisioning trip to San Salvador or a jaunt up the coast to Cadejo in La Libertad is as far as we like to go because you never know when the time will come and the next favorable bar crossing window will not catch us unawares. We are resolved to be within two hours of shoving off at any given time. So if the storms on the other side of the world suddenly subsided, the swell settled down, and the bar became calm, we would be ready in the time it would take for the Immigration Officer to come down to the marina, collect his $11.43 per person, and wave us off with his white hanky.

At this point it seems weird—to me at least—that we’re so anxious to leave when we know what’s waiting for us out there. But I think deep down it’s more that we are determined to make it back to Barra and whether we motor, sail, bob, limp, or tow ourselves with our own dinghy, we will get there. Something will inevitably happen…it always does, but better to get back out there and let it do what it’s going to do rather than sit here and fret. Because we’ve been “ready” for a long time and we’ve been stuck in “set” for what seems like ages. It’s time to “go” and do it again.  The big question is when. And who knows? It could be tomorrow…

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