Before I begin, I’d like to express an abundance of gratitude to our friend, Doug, who so graciously agreed to join us on this voyage and whose cool head and abundant blue-water cruising experience is a huge reason why this blog has another entry and didn’t just ominously end. That being said…
We made our second attempt to leave El Salvador on June 15. It was technically two weeks into hurricane season but a good weather window, a fairly confident grasp on what was causing our mechanical issues, and a strong desire to be back in Barra made us throw caution (and sanity) to the wind and make a break for it. So as soon as the bar was reopened, we shoved off on the first day that wasn’t a Friday, crossed the bar, and set a course for Mexico. And of course, the engine died nine hours in. But we had told ourselves from the start that there would be no turning back this time and that we would make it to Mexico one way or another so we threw up the sails and whimpered along for an hour or two before trying the engine again. We were pleasantly surprised when it started right up, and I am happy to report that it continued to chug along for the next 45 hours all the way to Puerto Madero and Marina Chiapas. Bienvenido a Mexico!
Now Marina Chiapas is a really nice—albeit remote—marina and we would love to have stayed longer, but it was imperative that we arrive in Barra before the hurricanes did, so a quick-turnaround was required (that and our insurance company has no idea we’re out here. As far as they’re concerned, we’re already in Barra.) Best weather window for crossing Tehuantepec? June 21st…a Friday. As you may recall from previous blog posts (most notably The False Start of the Third Voyage), we do not leave on Fridays. Bad things happen when you leave on Fridays. But we told ourselves that these were extenuating circumstances. This was Tehuantepec; this was hurricane season; this was a “best get going while the gettin’s still good” scenario; and besides, it’s not like we were starting the journey on a Friday…merely continuing it. Unless we wanted to spend the next six months in Chiapas, superstitions would have to be set aside.
Besides, we have a black cat and a butthead on board so clearly we’re not that easily spooked.
But at this point I’d like to pose the question…how many times must your “irrational fear” be proved right before the superstition becomes an absolute fact? Because if the answer is “every fricking time” then I think we’ve officially established a new truth. Which is…don’t leave on a Friday. And especially don’t do it during hurricane season. And for the love of God, if you’re already tempting fate, don’t go for the trifecta and put me on watch. Because things will go wrong. Every time.
Now we’re not totally stupid. We checked several weather forecasts, looked at tide and swell reports, consulted GRIB files, checked for warnings from NOAA’s Hurricane Center and by all accounts we had a four-day window of nothing. And when you’re trying to get across Tehuantepec (aka the bubbling cauldron of notoriously iffy weather), nothing is exactly what you want to see. Knowing it would take nearly two days to cross Tehuantepec (230ish miles) and just as long to get to the anchorage at Puerto Marques (another 230ish miles), we left early in the afternoon in anticipation of a late morning arrival on the 24th. And for the first few hours, everything was fine. We had the the main and jib out and were motor sailing at a steady 7 knots which is practically flying on a 35-ton sailboat. As evening approached, we set up four-hour watch rotations with Doug starting us out, myself following, and the Captain coming on after me. How we work the shifts on Raven is that whoever comes off watch acts as back-up to the person going on. The idea is that if you need help, you don’t want to wake someone who is fast asleep when it’s so much easier to just rouse someone before they have a chance to fall asleep. (I feel the need to point this out in case you think I’m picking on someone as this story progresses.) At any rate, I went below at seven to try to get some sleep before my 10:00 pm shift and it was probably around nine that I started dreaming of a strobe light that was keeping odd time with a beat I couldn’t quite make out and at that point I just assumed that I had “Boogie Wonderland” stuck in my head again. It was only when I crossed over from sort of asleep to vaguely awake that I realized I wasn’t dreaming at all and that it was lightning. And a lot of it. Normal lightning (as I’ve experienced it) is random and sporadic but not overly abundant: a few good bursts of light with a thunder chaser before the rains commence. Of the big light shows I’ve seen, most lasted 15-20 minutes before they packed up and headed to the next town over. But this wouldn’t quit. It just went on and on, encore after encore. When I went up top to relieve Doug, he said that the lightning—which was hugging the entire length of the coastline about 20 miles from us—had been putting on a show for the past two hours but was now getting a bit more intense with the addition of huge bolts that zapped from sky to land, sky to sea, cloud to cloud, and occasionally bolt to bolt. It was fascinating and terrifying, and at one point I had to turn away because the endless flickering was making me queasy. But Doug seemed to be enjoying the show and not acting too concerned, so I sucked it up and tried not to panic. Before heading down below, he pointed to an ominous blob on the radar which was a good 20 miles behind us and said that—at its current speed—it would most likely catch up with us in a few hours at which time the jib would probably need to be retracted and the main reefed and to wake him if I needed help. And with that he was gone, and I settled myself in for what I thought was going to be a long night of scanning the dark waters, watching blobs, and keeping a nervous eye on the roller disco off the coast. So, imagine my surprise when not 10 minutes later, I felt a cool wind at my back. One that smelled of earth and metal and dense rain. I checked the radar and headed down below. “Um…Doug? Sorry to wake you. But that blob that was 20 miles out? It’s now at 5 miles and closing fast.”
In the split second it took to return to the cockpit, the wind had really started to pick up, so we immediately set to work bringing in the jib. By the time we were able to turn our attention to the main sail, the wind was clocking in at about 18-20 mph sustained with gusts closer to 30. And this is where things got scary. Because I may not know much about boats, but I do know that when a strong wind comes up, you don’t want a lot of sail out because a big gust could come along, fill it up, cause you to heel way the hell over and possibly even capsize. Either way, it’s the opposite of comfortable. And here’s where our sails suck. We have in-mast roller furling which means that you press a button and the sail winds itself up into the mast. It’s awesome when it works properly. Ours doesn’t work properly (surprised?) At some point in the recent past, it decided we couldn’t be trusted to bring it in proper-like and so locked down into full-on governor mode which means we can’t press the button and expect everything to roll up in one fluid motion. Oh no. Ours will only go in one inch at a time. One. Inch. At. A. Time. And because of this, there has to be constant tension on the sheet (which is the line (rope) attached to the sail) so it’s now become a two-person job. One person to constantly press the button and another to manage the sheet. So as Doug and I are trying to get 500 square feet of mainsail reefed one inch at a time, we’re relying on the autopilot to keep us fairly steady—which is getting harder to do as the winds get stronger, the gusts get gustier, and the waves get bigger. And the whole time I’m hitting the button—urnch, urnch, urnch, urnch—I’m watching the anemometer reading go higher and higher and higher and soon winds are holding steady in the 30’s with gusts cracking the 40’s. And by now the boat is rocking from side to side and to and fro and the Captain has come up on deck and is busily securing lines and just as the mainsail is fully reefed, the autopilot decides to call it quits at which point Doug grabs the wheel but not before the whole boat lurches in a gust, causing the boom to swing to port and rip the lines out of the Captain’s hands in a great sideways motion cracking three of his ribs and taking out the navigation pedestal and the autopilot controls in the process.
That’s gotta hurt. The ribs, too.
Now when the two guys with the most experience on the boat start saying things like, “Oh, shit!” and “Holy shit!” and “unintelligible cuss word” then it’s time to crawl back down into the pilothouse, huddle in the corner with your life jacket on, scribble out your last will and testament on the back of a cruising guide—you know…the one with the picture on the front of the happy people in the boat that works enjoying a nice, easy day sail—and try not to notice that the wind is now gusting up towards 50 mph and simple things that you didn’t think needed stowing (like pillows, Kleenex boxes, and dogs) have now become dangerous projectiles. After an hour, the worst was over. A couple hours after that, the squall finally left us behind and went out to sea and it was all done but for the big swell. The Captain had sustained broken ribs and developed a large hematoma on his left arm; the Deck Boss had fallen against the door in her cabin and bruised her tail bone; two cats and a dog were drafting their letters to the ASPCA; I managed to break the middle toe on my left foot…again; and the navigation pedestal will probably never walk again. If Doug broke or injured something, he didn’t let on. Perhaps he just didn’t want to add to the misery. But suffice to say that the aftershocks of the squall were felt well into the next day as no one really had the energy to do anything aside from sit their watches and nurse their wounds. Even the pedestal with the GPS/Chart plotter display lay where it had fallen. We were too tired to care.
Editor’s Note: Here’s the thing about ocean weather. NOAA and the marine apps and all the various weather agencies can predict a lot of stuff now, but it’s still nigh impossible to predict a squall. They just pop up when the conditions are right (and this time of year, it’s more right than not) and by the time it shows up on radar, it’s too late. This squall, however, stuck around long after we got out of it. It stuck around, got stronger, got bigger, and ultimately turned into the first hurricane of the season…Alvin. Not sure how I feel about that. I mean I guess we should be happy that we made it through a hurricane fetus, but it’s kind of embarrassing to admit that you had your butt kicked by a chipmunk with a falsetto and a shitty tailor.
This thing won a Grammy?
Mother Nature took pity on us and the next night was uneventful. Watches were done from inside the pilothouse where we have a secondary (functioning) chart plotter and autopilot and were augmented with frequent forays up into the cockpit to do a visual scan. The following day, we pulled apart the Furuno, got it dried out and working again, and then reattached it to the pedestal which we propped up with line and zip ties. The cockpit autopilot controller was replaced with a spare on board. We had good weather throughout the day, but by early evening it had started to get swelly and by the time I came on watch at 10:00, a light rain had begun so I opted to start my watch from inside the pilothouse. Soon, the winds came up. I had been on watch all of twenty minutes when I went outside to do a visual sweep of the area. That’s when something caught my eye—something that didn’t seem possible—so I shone my flashlight on it, made sure I wasn’t just seeing things, then went down below. “Um…Doug? Sorry to wake you. But I think we’re about to lose the back of the boat.”
In the two seconds it took to get back on deck, it had become readily apparent—even without a flashlight—that the davits (and the dinghy attached to it) and all four stanchions of the aft rail had come loose and were swaying forcefully from side to side and with each swing, you could see the stanchions and railings along the port and starboard sides start to move as well. I procured some line and Doug quickly set to work lashing stanchions and davits to winches and cleats and creating an elaborate web of crisscrossed lines to keep everything from falling off the back end and taking the side rails with it. By this time, the Captain was on deck and of course the winds had picked up and we were trying to get a halyard around the mizzen mast so it could be attached to the dinghy to alleviate some of the excess weight but every time we’d swing it out, the wind would blow it back which made for slow and frustrating work. But at last everything was secured as best as could be, which was good because it was then that the rains began in earnest, followed by the winds, followed by the swell. So of course, the engine died. And we bobbed and rocked and thrashed along for what seemed an eternity until we could get it going again. During this time—being preoccupied and all—I hadn’t had a chance to look at the radar and when I did, I noticed that yes, we were in a squall but it was moving so fast that we were already in the tail end of it. We would soon be out of it. Which would have been awesome had it been true. But the rain never abated, the winds never died down, the swell never eased, and every time I looked at the radar, it showed the exact same thing: huge squall, Raven in the tail end. Somehow this son of a bitch had stalled right over the top of us and decided to just keep us company for the next five hours. There was so much rain that things down below that hadn’t leaked in years were now wee-weeing everywhere. And all the known leaks had turned into gushers. I used up every towel, every washrag, and even spare linens just to keep things reasonable dry. The next morning, I covered every inch of deck space trying to get them all dry. We looked like a floating yard sale, but all that extra fabric flapping in the breeze sure came in handy when the engine died again and we had to rely solely on wind power.
Towels: $1.00 each. Free boat with every purchase!
Editor’s Note: This particular squall did indeed stall out at the edge of Tehuantepec. It stalled, got stronger, picked up speed, and ultimately turned into the second hurricane of the season…Barbara.
Et tu, Barbara? Et tu?
While checking out the engine, we noticed that one the Racor filters was dry as a bone which indicated a huge air bubble somewhere in the system which would need to be squelched in order to get the fuel flowing again. While this did reinforce our theory as to what has been plaguing our engine all this time—and we did get it running again—it did not instill confidence that it would get us through the two-meter (i.e. 6 ½ foot) chop that we now had to plow through to get to the anchorage in Puerto Marques. But it did its job and we eventually limped out of the chop and motored deep into the bay until we found a nice, calm, peaceful spot to throw down the anchor. We stayed for two nights to get some sleep, dry out, duct tape the boat back together, and wait out a storm that was howling off the coast while we were safe and snug and pondering if we should ever go back out there again. I wish I could say that the whole stopover was uneventful, but we had a “Gato Overboard!” moment where Cadejo fell into the water from somewhere off the bow, meow-wowed down the length of the boat, was scooped up at the stern by the Captain who had jumped in after him, and spent the next two hours desperately trying to wash the humiliation off himself…
...and/or the stink of this voyage.
One other odd thing happened there as well. When we went to pull up the anchor, it brought up a buddy. Specifically, it snagged a dorade (steam vent) from a boat that was most likely sunk and sitting on the seabed beneath us. Coincidence? Allegory? Omen?
Davy Jones' Scrapyard?
When it was time to head back out, we decided to change up the watches. Since all the shitty stuff happened on my watch, we put me on an 8:00 to midnight shift so at least we could get all the storms, squalls, and boat malfunctions out of the way earlier. And sure enough, I went up at 8:00, Doug showed me all the various blobs that were scattered along the coast 15 miles away, he went down below, and not 30 minutes later all those scattered blobs had formed into one big blob, made a sharp turn out to sea, and headed straight for us. I didn’t have to wake him up this time. I’m sure the anticipation of hearing me say, “Um…Doug?” had made sleep impossible. But at least this time the squall didn’t last so long. And I will be forever grateful to Doug for hanging out with me in the cockpit even as I looked for all the world like a damp rat burrowed down in my life preserver, clinging to the mast, desperately searching for a way out of this watery maze. Cheese be damned. I was never so happy when midnight came around. My next watch—at 8:00 the next morning—went much better aside from the fact that I overshot Zihuantanejo by about five miles and we had to do some backtracking. But what’s another two hours at sea when you’ve already been out there for what seems like an eternity.
We stayed in Z-town for a couple of nights before making our final push to Barra. First night out…my watch. Did something go wrong? Of course it did! As I was relieving Doug, he showed me how the mainsail and jib were set and said that I would need to tack if the wind shifted direction but that so far everything had been holding steady for quite some time. So he goes below and of course the wind shifts direction almost immediately. Tacking is not something I can do on my own (I can barely do it with someone else and, if truth be told, I’m a liability just watching other people do it) so I called the Captain up. Editor’s Note: My abuse of the “Doug as Back Up” privilege had gotten out of hand, so I was under instructions to not bother him with things like this so that he could get at least one night of sleep. It was time to spread the wealth so to speak. The Captain asked me if I wanted to handle the lines or handle the wheel. I opted for the lines, went back behind the winch, readied the ropes, and immediately had a panic attack when I remembered what happened the last time I handled lines on a tack (hint…I lost control of the sail and it folded in on itself. Not a good thing.) So the Captain put me at the helm instead. At which point I had another panic attack because I remembered what happened the last time I was at the wheel during a tack (hint…we lost steerage. Not a good thing either, though technically not my fault.) But the Captain talked me through it, and we executed a good tack. So of course, the wind died immediately and it all became a moot point. It was time to bring the jib in. Now remember how I said before that our mainsail in-mast roller furling sucked? Well, so does the roller furling on the jib. It used to work perfectly. In fact, it worked perfectly right up until this moment. We pressed and repressed the button, checked the fuses, pressed the button again. Nothing. The Captain finally had to make his way up to the bow—in the dark, in the pitching sea—and manually crank it in while I guided the lines. It took a solid 20 minutes of cranking to get the sail all the way in and when it was done, he was in agony. I don’t know who felt shittier. Me for putting him through this. Or him for reinjuring his ribs. Spreading the wealth indeed.
On our final night at sea, nothing happened…on my watch. I spent the last two hours of my shift keeping us out of the path of the container ships making their way to and from the port in Manzanillo. But during this time, it was hard not to notice the lightning and storm clouds gathering along the coast and as we closed in on midnight it had become evident from the radar that they were all amassing into one big system and heading our way. It could only have been more obvious had they all formed a giant arrow with neon bulbs flashing all around as it approached our little blip on the radar screen but regardless, it was inevitable. And sure enough the wind came up and the waves whipped higher but this time, instead of the really heavy rain, we got lightning. Up close, and way too personal. During the other squalls, the lightning itself had at least kept its distance. But this was right on top of us and all around. The night sky lit up so bright it became an eerie type of day. We could see bolts hit the water a mile maybe two away—which may seem far until you realize that if you’re moving at X mph and the storm is moving at Y mph and you’re inevitably going to run into each other and you’re the only thing worth hitting in this whole expanse of open water then the likelihood of a big massive Z(ap) becomes much more probable. And I don’t know a whole lot about boats, but I do know that a direct hit from a bolt of lightning can take out all your electronics. As in ALL your electronics. Navigation, VFH, wind instruments, cell phones, computers, tablets. Doesn’t matter if they’re on, off, plugged in, or not. They can fry. We put one cell phone and the Captain’s iPad (with its supplemental navigation software) in the microwave just in case, and then hunkered down in the pilothouse to ride out the storm. Being outside was too iffy as there’s so much metal on the decks and if you think lightning can screw up your iPhone, just imagine what it could to your innards. Needless to say, it was a very long night. We couldn’t outrun the storm. It wouldn’t pass us by. Every time the Captain would change our course to get away from the system, it would change along with us. What’s the saying? “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you?”
Now technically I was off watch and could have retreated down to the aft cabin, stuck a pillow over my head, and just waited for the inevitable barbecuing of the SV Raven, but I stayed with the Captain. Partly out of moral support; partly because I still felt bad about not being able to bring in a jib on my own; and mainly because if the Good Lord meant for us to be human Jiffy-Pop, then I at least wanted to be able to look him in the eyes one last time and whisper, “What the hell were we thinking?!!”
But eventually the storm moved on and the sun began to rise and we made the turn into Bahia de Navidad. In the morning haze, we could just make out Melaque at the far end of the bay, San Patricio next to it, and right in front of us…Barra! By 8:00 am we were tied up at the end of “C” dock here in the marina. That was two weeks ago, and we haven’t moved since. As in literally…we haven’t moved. Not even to go into a different slip. There’s some big mega-yacht that has this spot-on permanent reserve every December. So maybe we’ll move then.
But I gotta say, it’s kind of surreal being back. I keep thinking I’m going to wake up back in El Salvador or, worse, back out in the Pacific and it’s my turn to go on watch. We had been anticipating our return for so long that amongst the setbacks, the false starts, and the voyage itself, I was a little worried that perhaps we had pinned too many of our hopes on this place. But as the days go by, it has become readily apparent that returning here was unequivocally the right decision—that this is our home.
And what’s really made our return special, is that people remember us! We’ve been gone almost a year and a half and yet the staff at the marina, the servers at Manglito’s and Nacho’s, the proprietors of the tiendas, and the pangeros all remember us. And Senor Pipi gave us two “en la casa” rounds and a set of glasses to welcome us home.
In hindsight (wait…who am I kidding…there’s no hindsight involved…we knew the whole time we were doing it), this was a careless venture. If we were smart, we would have stayed in El Salvador until hurricane season was over. Because yes, you can avoid hurricanes but there’s a reason why hurricanes are born this time of year…because the conditions are right for it. And if the conditions are right for hurricanes, then they’re right for squall after squall and lots and lots of lightning. So yes, smart people would have waited.
But do smart people get kick-ass glassware like this? I think not.