#31—Mexico's Southernmost Ports
Acapulco to Puerto Angel—Thursday, May 25th through Friday, May 26th, 2000
We left Acapulco at 20:00 on Friday the 25th. All our repairs were completed and our leaky keel looked just like new. Joe Neale and Laura Kelly, new friends we met from San Diego who have a business outfitting yachts in Mexico, made the long walk down to the end of the dock to bid us farewell. We have enjoyed their company and friendship over the last ten days, not to mention all of the help they so unselfishly provided us.
Andanté departed through Acapulco Bay just as dusk turned to early evening and the city lights started to blink on. As we exited the bay I strung the lifelines, which turned out to be a good decision. At midnight, about half an hour after Dan relieved me from watch, we got hammered by the most violent squall I've experienced while sailing. One minute we were sailing gently along in a 14 knot breeze with full main and genoa. The next moment the world changed as we hit a wall of 45 knot winds, which almost knocked us down. It all happened within a few seconds.
From the way that the boat rolled, I knew from my berth that something wasn't quite right. I rushed onto deck to find Dan, with the flashlight in his mouth, furiously trying to crank in the genoa. Rain streaked the air around us with silver horizontal slashes that rocketed past us at almost 50 MPH. I went below to throw on a lightweight waterproof shell, my sandals, and safety harness. Back on deck I clipped onto the starboard lifeline and crawled forward on hands and knees to the mast so that I could roll in the main. The rain exploded like firecrackers on the hood of my shell, obscuring any other sounds. I crawled forward in blackness, into the wind, which wanted to remove me from the deck. My thin waterproof shell soaked completely within a few seconds.
Because of the high winds, I had to primarily concentrate on just staying on the boat. Although Dan had loosened the mainsheet and the main sail was luffing, I had difficulty cranking it in with my left hand and tailing the outhaul line with my right, while huddled on my knees. Dan appeared a minute later to crank in the sail while I tailed the line. The rain drove into us so hard that it felt like hail, and sometimes like nails. Imagine large water pellets hitting you at 50 miles an hour. We had to yell at each other with full lungs to communicate.
Back in the cockpit, with both sails furled, we next concentrated on Andanté's course. The force of the squall had spun us around 90 degrees, and according to the sporadic GPS we were heading directly toward the beach, which was still, thankfully, 3-4 miles away. We couldn't confirm our direction with radar, because the volume of rain obscured land. All the radar displayed was a black dense circle extending in a 12-mile radius around the boat. The GPS was having a difficult time maintaining a fix. Consequently the ship's position on the digital chart kept jumping, first showing us heading in one direction, and then showing us heading 90 degrees in a different direction. The seas and wind were hitting us so hard that the auto pilot wasn't able to maintain a steady course. I think that the situation definitely qualified as heavy weather sailing.
I turned the compass light on, and hand steered the boat for the next 30 minutes. I can't remember when I last steered the boat by compass. Because we motored directly into these strong winds, the boat wanted to blow 90 degrees port or 90 degrees starboard. I could only aim for a 10 degree window between 110º and 120º. But the strong winds often caught the bow and quickly snapped her around. Occasionally we pointed as low as 60º, and as high as 150º. The outside temperature was still warm, but the squall had brought much cooler air and rain. We could easily determine the difference between 60º rainwater and the 85º seawater that exploded over the rails and occasionally penetrated the cockpit over the top of the hard dodger.
After about 30 or 40 minutes I started to chill and asked Dan to relieve me. When Dan took the helm I turned my attention to the computer. In the excitement it had frozen up and refused to think. After I got it running again we were able to confirm our position, and the radar began to display fragments of the shore as well. It appeared that we were through the worst of it.
As this tropical depression continued several hundred miles north, it became the first hurricane of the season.
Debi awakened me the next morning at 7:00 to relieve her. She had been on deck with us in the storm, and on watch since 3:00, so she hadn't slept more than an hour throughout the night. She turned in to sleep six hours while I watched the sun break over the horizon. The new day quickly turned hot and humid, with an emphasis on hot and humid. Dan and I engineered a way to put up our large cockpit awning while under sail—no small feat because of the mainsheets which move from side-to-side across the back of the cockpit. Thankfully, the awning shielded the cockpit from most of the afternoon sun. At that point on Mexico's coastline we were sailing almost due east, which meant that the afternoon sun beat directly onto the stern from the west. While the sun shade provided relief from the sun's rays, it blocked air flow. The temperature underneath the shade was still in the 90s.
Friday, May 26th—As we sailed toward Puerto Angel a pod of 20 or more dolphins approached the boat to frolic in the bow wave. You could see them clearly through this clean lapis lazuli colored water. I whistled to them from the bow, and they squealed in a high-pitched reply. They played with us for almost 20-minutes before they spun off in pursuit of other needs. In addition to frequent pods of dolphins, we are starting to see sea turtles. A few of these turtles even have passengers in the form of birds riding on their backs. Marine synergy.
Southern Living: I drank over a quart of water today, which was not enough. I am living in my Speedo swimsuit because it breathes much better than several layers of cotton and washes and dries quickly. T-shirts become sweat soaked within 15-minutes. I sweat on deck. I sweat below. I sweat while I'm sleeping. But I think about lying at anchor last August in British Columbia with 40ºs, pouring rain, and gray skies for days on end. I have to say that I prefer the warmer climate. Until I get hot and sweaty, that is.
No heavy thunderstorms pelted us Friday night, but we did drive through several rain showers—enough to force me to close my hatch and windows throughout the night. Another night sleeping in a steam bath.
Arriving Puerto Angel
We arrived in Puerto Angel on Saturday, May 27th. Puerto Angel is a small fishing village on the Southern tip of Oxaca State, and one of the jumping off points for the Gulf of Tehuantepec—a 280 mile wide gulf that is known for bad weather.
Immediately upon anchoring a Mexican Navy skiff pulled alongside with five crewmen: a line handler, a crewman who handles the outboard engine, two Navy regulars in full combat gear, and a sergeant to manage them all. The two men in combat gear wore and carried the following equipment in temperatures approaching 100º F: long-sleeve black cotton shirt and full-length black cotton slacks, combat boots that laced six inches above the ankle, a 5-10 pound flak jacket, an orange life vest over all of that, a steel combat helmet, and a combat rifle. This explains why the military calls them 'grunts,' and why grunts have to be drafted.
The sergeant, and one of the full-combat recruits, boarded Andanté while the others waited in the skiff. While the armed sailor waited on the stern deck, the sergeant came down below to look around and ask questions. He did not speak any English, so Debi and I spoke what Spanish we knew to answer. At one point I thought he asked how many mariners were on board, and I replied "three." Debi gave me a wide-eye look and clarified that he asked how many 'weapons' were on board. Mariners. Weapons. Whatever. It's not my native language. We made sure he understood that there we had no weapons on board, and offered him a cold Coke as a peace offering.
The small bay where we anchored harbored two other sailboats: Carousel III, a motor-sailer from British Columbia, and Seabud, a 30-foot scruffy-looking sloop owned by a 50-something solo sailor from South Africa. Carousel III planned to sail north, while Seabud intended to sail south. Throughout our stay Seabud's owner asked us for coordinates of the marinas in Central America to the south, because he only had one large-scale chart on board.
That night, while Carousel III's crew dined in a palapa on shore, within sight of their yacht, someone crawled on board, entered the boat, and helped themselves to two portable search lights and a portable GPS.
Snorkeling in the Tropics
Sunday afternoon Dan and I threw our snorkeling gear into the dinghy for a trip to the local reefs outside of the bay. Large waves crashed onto the rocks all along the rock-cliff shoreline, which made it difficult to find a place to anchor the dinghy. We motored around for 30-minutes looking for a suitable anchor spot, and finally we found a flat sand bottom where we could drop the dinghy anchor close to shore.
The underwater rock walls and canyons didn't disappoint us. I wasn't prepared for the diversity of tropical fish underneath the water. Damsels, butterfly fish, clown fish, trigger fish, and puffers, in vivid bright colors, swam around us. It reminded me of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. One fish was particularly striking, and I think the most beautiful fish I had ever seen. Although he appeared to be a drab brown from a distance, up close the display turned to zebra and leopard-like patterns of iridescent gold and iridescent silver floating on a taupe background. He was a beaut.
Despite our attempt to be very cautious swimming around the waves breaking on the rocks, Dan found himself in a natural rock-formed cul-de-sac. When he turned to exit, a wave pushed him up onto a rock where he met, head-on, with barnacles that scraped his leg and stomach. He reached out to stabilize himself and, instead, came down on a sea urchin. One of the spines broke off into his finger. Back on Andanté Debi broke out the medical kit to clean, patch, and tape Dan's scrapes and cuts, and to extract the sea urchin spine embedded into his knuckle. We thought that Debi's careful extraction work had removed the barb. But during a visit to Seattle during June, an X-ray revealed part of the spine still embedded in his hand. Unfortunately, Dan had to have hand surgery to extract the final remnant.
The Illusive Zarpa
Monday morning, May 29th, Steve Bayly and crew member Natasha Thorpe, from Carousel III, pulled alongside Andanté to offer me a ride to the port captain's office, so that we could all check out. We arrived at the office at 8:00. But the port captain was not there. His dutiful assistant, however—the one with an eye, talent, and knack for bureaucratic detail—was ready for us. He completed Carrousel's documents, and then requested a 50 peso port fee, which he said needed to be paid to the Banamex Bank in Patchutla, a nearby town. Steve was anxious to return to Acapulco after his passage from the Panama Canal, so he left a 50 peso note with the assistant, announced that he was leaving, and gave me a ride back to Andanté. (Our papers weren't ready yet.)
I returned to the port captain's office an hour later to complete our papers. First, the port assistant instructed me to deposit a 20 peso port fee for Andanté, and the 50 peso port fee for Carrousel, at the Banamex bank in Patchutla. He handed me the papers and repeated loudly, "Banamex, Patchutla; Banamex, Patchutla; Banamex, Patchutla."
An hour and a half and 100 peso cab ride later I returned from the very distant Patchutla with bank receipts in hand. I thought about pointing out to the assistant port captain that spending $10 for a cab for an hour and a half ride to pay a $2 port fee seemed a bit absurd to me. But since I wanted to leave Puerto Angel in my lifetime, I simply handed over my receipts to him. He waved me off to another desk six feet away. The white uniformed woman at the next desk inspected my receipts, stamped them, and pointed me back towards the port assistant.
The assistant port captain carefully inspected my receipts to ensure that no fraud had occurred in the intervening six feet. Now, I thought, we were ready. Not so.
We had tendered our zarpa (ship's transit documents) when we arrived on Friday. This zarpa had been prepared in Acapulco, and explained in writing that we were planning to sail to Puerto Madero and points intermediate. The assistant removed our zarpa from a file, turned it over, inserted it into his electric typewriter, and s-l-o-w-l-y typed a paragraph on the back. The new paragraph said that we were leaving Puerto Angel, and we were sailing to Puerto Madero and points intermediate—exactly the same language as the Acapulco zarpa. The only difference was $10 cab ride, $2 port fee, and about two hours from where we started when I walked into his office that morning.
Completed, signed, and stamped, he returned the zarpa to me. I asked if we could go. "No." He dismissed me with an abrupt wave of his hand. "Passport," he commanded. After he rifled through the visa stamps to see where I had traveled, he walked to the copy machine, made a copy, and returned with my passport. My hands were sweating at the possibility of leaving the office, but he had not returned my Mexican visa. When I asked for my Mexican visa back, his face lit up: one more document to photocopy! He walked to the copy machine, made the copy, and walked back, with my original visa. Permission finally granted.
15:30—We departed Puerto Angel for Huatulco. En route to Huatulco, Debi reeled in a 12-15 pound bright yellow and green Dorado, or Mahi Mahi. A side note is appropriate here to say that Debi loves to catch fish. She starts beaming. She can't stop smiling. The sun becomes brighter. The sky more blue. Birds start singing. Dolphins swim on their tails in a circle around the boat. Images of Elvis, Jim Morrison, and Madonna appear silhouetted in the clouds. And that's just after she has attached the lure. When she actually reels one in, it hurts to watch someone smile that much. Dan at least knows that when it comes to fish, he's clearly number two.
We anchored in the small bay in front of Huatulco at 20:00 that evening. Within minutes we dined on freshly prepared Dorado in the cockpit, with the twinkling lights of Huatulco surrounding us.
Crossing the Gulf of Tehuantepec—Tuesday, May 30th Through Friday, May 31st
After our passage from Acapulco we needed fuel—especially because our next passage across the Gulf of Tehuantepec would require three days and two nights. Unfortunately, the closest source for fuel in Huatulco was the town's gas station several miles away. Andanté carries two (empty) diesel fuel jugs in the engine room for just such an occasion. But we had to complete the following logistics:
An additional thirty-six gallons gave us an additional 36-hours of cruising time, and about 200 miles of range. It was a lot of work in the 90º heat, but necessary to have for crossing the Gulf of Tehuantepec. By the time we had completed our fueling trips and prepared to depart it was 20:15.
The Gulf of Tehuantepec has a reputation for notoriously bad weather created by the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, an enormous north-south valley spanning the narrowest section of Mexico.
High pressure weather systems forming over Texas create strong winds in the Gulf of Mexico, which produce gale winds in the Gulf of Tehuantepec that flow toward low pressure cells at the Equator. The high 30-40 knot wind created by this effect is called (I did not make this up) a Tehuantepecker. Our weather book, Mexico Weather for Boaters, says that "though Tehuantepec winds are less fierce from May to September, the risk of hurricanes is present."
Our goal was to cross the Gulf of Tehuantepec as quickly as possible.
In addition to creating bad weather, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec also holds an interesting place in world history: it was originally proposed as the site of the transoceanic canal, prior to the construction of the Panama Canal.
Sailing throughout the evening of Wednesday the 30th was benign. I think that night was the first time that I ever awakened because of heat. I couldn't sleep. In addition, the boat was bouncing from squalls, and the accompanying lightening bursts completely filled the stateroom every ten seconds. It was like trying to sleep while someone took flash pictures directly in front of your face.
When I went on watch at 3:00 Thursday morning I was beyond tired. After my watch I slept from 8:00 until 11:00 when I was aroused from a deep sleep by Debi who notified me that Dan had hooked a five foot marlin. We had no way of landing anything that large without a gaff hook. But Dan spent over an hour bringing him close to the boat so that Debi could get a photo. The fact that he brought a marlin in on my lightweight Salmon fishing gear was amazing.
The sea temperature in the Gulf of Tehuantepec was 85.5º F. The magic sea temperature number necessary for hurricanes to form is 87º. So we had a degree-and-a-half buffer. Not much, which is why we were making haste to head south. Other cruisers informed us that the weather off the coast of Nicaragua was also bad, however. Although we were late in making our way south—it would have been better to have completed this passage two weeks ago—we made the Tehuantepec crossing in relatively smooth weather .
Puerto Madero—Heat and Humidity Crash My Laptop
We arrived in Puerto Madero, Mexico's southernmost Pacific port, around 11:30 on June 1st, 2000. As usual, the first stop was the port captain's office. We anchored in the bay while the capitania de puerto studied us with his binoculars from outside of his office. Because we arrived on Mexico's annual Navy Day, specific instructions ensued over the VHF radio about where, and where not, to anchor. Puerto Madero's three navy ships were decorated with flags, and local citizens loaded on the ships in preparation for a short cruise into the Gulf of Tehuantepec. The port captain encouraged us to anchor out of the channel in order to provide clear passage for the passenger-carrying naval ships.
Two brothers, Sam and Andy, have a palapa on the beach, near the port captain's office, where they watch for cruisers to arrive. Industrious and entrepreneurial, they help with anything you might need. Our greatest needs turned out to be a trip to immigration, located at the airport, and then an arrangement for 200 liters of fuel. Just like Huatulco, the diesel had to be delivered in jugs. However, in this case Sam and Andy had large 50 liter plastic canisters which they delivered to the boat in their panga.
Thursday evening, just as I finished sending some late-night e-mail, the hard drive in my one-year-old Sony laptop made a particularly peculiar and unhappy noise, and died. Because the temperature was still almost 100° inside the boat at 22:00, I think it may have just cooked itself. Fortunately I had a back-up IBM ThinkPad, used for navigation, that still had Outlook 2000 installed. So I was able to continue with uninterrupted e-mail. The state of all the files on my Sony was significantly in question, however. It turned out that the Sony needed a new hard drive. HDO Data Recovery Systems in San Diego later recovered the data on the crashed hard drive, including the logs #28, #29, #30, and #31, along with the respective digital photos. (Thank you Greg.)
Lessons learned: 1) Cruisers, don't run your laptop excessively in high temperatures. 2) Always bring back-up equipment and use it. [I had backed-up data in San Diego, before I left. But that didn't help with the intervening month of data.] 3) If your hard drive fails, send e-mail to Gregory Sato at HDO.
Up Next ...