Day Three: The last straw
4:00am John shakes me from a fitful sleep. I peak groggily at my watch. It’s late, John pulled a particularly long shift. He’s been in the cockpit for over 6 hours and it is certainly time for him to rest. I pull myself from bed and am brushing my teeth, trying desperately to convince my body it’s normal to be awake at this hour, when the engine sputters and dies. My heart sinks. John sighs. Jess peers down from the cockpit, looking perplexed.
We had spent part of yesterday sailing wing on wing (with the main on one side of the boat and the jib on the other, stabilized by a long aluminum pole), and the pole was still rigged for a downwind sail. What little wind we find now is on our nose (of course). So we don PFD’s and tethers and creep forward to first take down the pole and clear the lines from our downwind sail, then to shake the reef out of the main. With the full jib and mainsail deployed, we are making about 4 knots pointed offshore of our destination, but generally in the right direction.
I shoo John and Jess downstairs to get some rest and settle in. It is pleasant enough sailing along, peaceful without the drone of the motor, and John needs sleep and ideally daylight before once again engaging with our 180-degree defiant beast.
4:45am The peace doesn’t last long. The wind begins to build and we are soon overpowered with our full sails deployed. I begrudgingly get John back up, only 30 minutes after he lies down for his first sleep of the night, and we reef both sails then tack over, heading back towards shore. Soon, the wind lessens once again. We shake out reefs and sail along, then tack back out to avoid being too close to shore.
6:00am I find the pattern in the dark. We have 6-8 knots of wind close to shore, but just half a mile out, it builds to 17-20. For a few hours, while waiting for daylight, we tack out, then reef, then tack in, then shake reefs, then tack out again. It’s exhausting.
6:30am After the engine died at 4:00, I reeled in our fishing lines but had apparently missed one (there are often 4 or 5 lines trailing the boat … John really likes fishing). I now notice it but am unable to reel it in as it appears to be wrapped on our propeller. I let it be for now, the propeller isn’t doing us much good anyway.
7:15am I make a pot of coffee as the sun finally joins the party.
7:30am With the light, we can see that the forestay seems too loose as we unfurl the jib for perhaps the 15th time this morning. It doesn’t seem to be rolling properly so with an edge of precaution, we furl it all the way in and leave it. We have bigger fish to fry at the moment.
8:00am Somewhat rejuvenated by sun and coffee, John first prepares to get in and clear the fishing line from the prop. The boat is at a stand still as he climbs down the ladder and notices the line has freed itself. First roadblock behind us. John then folds himself back into the engine room while I steer the boat under just the main, trying to make some headway. John changes the filters and bleeds the engine once again, but it petulantly refuses to turn over this morning. Despite my excellent steering, we are simply drifting backwards.
I go forward to inspect the forestay and find that the seizing wire holding the turnbuckle in place is warped and broken. Instead of the furler rolling around the forestay, it is taking the forestay with it, unwinding the forestay from the boat with each reef and tack.
8:30am Jess holds the boat upwind while I clamor forward again with tools, hoping to at least temporarily rectify our forestay issue, but I do not have a chance to even open the toolbag before the wind builds from 9 knots to 20 on the nose. Without words, John and I meet in the cockpit and set up to hoist the cutter (thank goodness for a boat with a second forestay!) and tuck the reefs back into the main.
Halcyon just doesn’t seem to be working with us today. Lines wrap and foul, sails flog, shackles fail. The wind builds. John attempts to adjust the car on the cutter’s working sheet when the shackle blows off the clew of the sail and with it the last straw takes it’s place on the camel’s back (the line holding the corner of the sail came off when John did something nautical, and we were fed up).
10:00am When exhaustion and frustration take over, it becomes infinitely easier to make bad decisions. With both of us at our wit’s end, we could think of nothing but seeking refuge, from being out of the snarling seas and the whipping wind, away from the broken engine and the broken forestay and the broken spirits. Visions of a peaceful, calm, protected anchorage dance through our heads. And so, with flailing cutter quickly dropped and bound on deck, we turn around and we run for the closest thing that sounds like relief.
Puerto Escondido is about 25 miles behind us, enticing us with the allure of respite. What our exhausted and frustrated brains would not let us consider, however, is how we would navigate the boat into a completely unprotected bay with a lee shore (the wind was blowing directly into the bay) and onto our magically well-set anchor without a working engine or a jib in 30 knots of wind. Puerto Escondido, I feel obliged to mention, is nicknamed the “pipeline of mexico” for its excellent big wave surfing. It is a general rule that, for obvious reasons, what makes a good surfing destination does NOT a good anchorage make.
11:00am John goes down and collapses into bed. I hand steer, not trusting our autopilot to keep up in the huge seas that now chase us down the coast. The wind is in the 30’s and the seas are steep and breaking. I have a double-reefed main up and am hauling down these waves at 8-9 knots. Jess sits in the cockpit with me, offering much needed company and serenity. I fall into a rhythm with the waves, keeping Halcyon’s bow down and trying to curb our speed. The rhythm calms me and I start to grasp the impracticality of this plan. We are flying downwind, going the wrong way, retracing steps so gallantly earned the previous night, towards a potentially very unwelcome destination.
1:00pm I can see Puerto Escondido off our bow. I ask Jess to wake up John. He happens to climb into the cockpit as one of the bigger sets of waves begin to crest and break behind us, well above my head from his angle. His look validates the reality I’ve discovered. We’re screwed.
1:30pm We can’t get into Puerto Escondido. The wind is blowing directly into the bay, the shallow waters churned into steep breaking waves. Our friends Jason and Jenn on Danika happen to be on shore (they had come by land from Huatulco) so we call them for confirmation. And to hear another human voice. We jibe out, away from shore, and I fight back tears. Jess, always supportive and optimistic, sings me a silly song to make me smile.
2:00pm A wave, angled slightly different than the rest, slaps the side of our boat and douses the deck and cockpit. This detail would not have made it into the story, however our bedroom window was open, because otherwise it’s too hot to sleep, and happened to be positioned exactly where the wave made contact with the boat. By the time I looked down the companionway, about 3 gallons of water sloshes off of the bed and into the dirty clothes bag.
Danika informs our other cruising friends in Huatulco – Agape, Ardea and Grace – of our situation and in the moments of cell service near Escondido, we get texts full of encouragement, love and reassurance. Even now, thinking back on that day, those messages make my heart happy.
3:00pm Back into the engine room he goes. Our only course of action at this point is to get the engine working, wait for the winds to die down, and retrace our steps once again towards Huatulco, now 65 miles away and the nearest actual protection. I hold the boat just off the wind, trying to distance us from the rocky shore without losing more miles. In my barely functional stupor, I notice what looks like a line in the water near the bow. I can’t leave the helm, so I make a mental note to investigate when John comes back up. But my foggy and potentially defiant brain immediately throws the note in the ocean.
Jess has become our caretaker. As we try to force Halcyon to behave, Jess keeps us company, repeats encouraging words, and – most importantly – feeds us. At some point, her hand appears in the companionway holding a tortilla with 4 chunks of cheese and a piece of salami on it. I look at it, and realize I’m hungry. I may not be exaggerating when I say I’ve never had a more delicious meal in all my life.
3:30pm The engine turns over! After the 4th or 7th or 22nd time of the diesel-soaked bleeding process, she coughs and sputters and comes alive.
3:35pm To make sure everything is working right, John asks me to put it in forward. I am so excited we actually have propulsion again. I stand behind the wheel and my hand pushes the “forward” lever just as out of the fog in my brain a little voice says “wait wait wait – there was a note…..”. Too late. She ca-chunks into forward and immediately dies. The line. There was a line. In the water. I cover my face with my hands and cry.
John finds the other end of the line – it is the cutter sheet that broke off the clew 25 miles from here; the one that was the last straw. But that was so many straws ago. We are uncomfortably bashing through steep seas without making forward progress. Our forestay is not firmly attached to the boat. Our cutter sheet is wrapped around the propeller. We are 25 miles further from our destination than we were 4 hours ago. Our bed is dripping. We are exhausted.
5:00pm We regroup and form a plan. It is still howling, but all forecasts indicate the winds should ease in the next few hours. We decide to raise the cutter again, heave-to (a fancy sailing maneuver in which one sail works against the other to keep the boat pointed almost into the wind without speed or someone on the helm), and wait for the winds to abate so John can get in the water and clear the line from the propeller.
5:30pm I make my way forward in the pitching seas to run a new cutter sheet and secure the reefed portion of the main sail so it doesn’t fill with air like a big pocket when we tack. It feels like I am swimming in slow motion. I climb around on the bow for what seems like hours, securing lines, tying down the sail, clipping and re-clipping my safety tether as I move. Finally, I flop down in the cockpit, utterly drained.
6:00pm We are comfortably hove-to. Now it is a waiting contest; will the winds die before the sun sets? I lie on the damp settee in my wet clothes. John and Jess attempt to straighten up the cockpit disaster area. We wait.
7:00pm The winds are starting to calm. The most we see now is 23 knots. And while the seas are still very lumpy, the sun threatens us with a disappearing act that will have us heaving-to until morning. John dons a mask and snorkel, a helmet, a knife and a safety tether and climbs over the side of the boat. Jess holds a second mask and snorkel, I hold the other end of the tether.
As John ducks under the rolling stern, I hold my breath with him. He can hold his breath much longer than I can, though, so I soon resort to counting. 1 mississippi, 2 mississippi …35 mississippi… he comes back up, adjusts the helmet pushing down on his mask, breathes deep and dives again. He is able to clear the line in four breaths. I am ever in awe of what this man is capable of. It is my worst nightmare to be caught underwater, and I shudder at the thought of diving under the boat in even the best conditions. John doesn’t love it either, but he has the incredible mental capacity to overcome his fear, discomfort, exhaustion and anxiety to get the job done. He continues to amaze me.
7:30pm We are underway once again. Progress is bumpy, slow and very wet but it is progress. I huddle under the dodger, my eyes trained on the horizon, my ears straining to pick up that dreaded sputter in the engine. My nerves are shot, my body aches, and every exposed inch of skin is coated in salt. But the wind has eased, the motor is working, and we are going in the right direction.
Day 4: Recovery
2:00am I am watching our track inch forward on the chart, crossing the tracks we made yesterday going the wrong way. Where were we, I wonder, 24 hours ago? I pull up the dot in the track from 2:00am on day 3. It is les than 4 miles from our current position. How universally deflating. I sigh, take a few screenshots, and put the chartplotter down to focus on better things. Like how the engine has been running without trouble for 6.5 hours. And how through all of that mess, nobody got seasick. And how delicious that tortilla with cheese and salami was.
08:00am The sun is up. All three of us got at least a few hours of sleep in the night. The seas continue to settle down and the motor continues to chug along. We have 2 knots of current running against us, so the going is slow. Our nerves have settled a bit, though we are all on edge living without confidence in our engine.
11:00am We are 9 miles from the entrance of the marina. A small squall passes over us, courteously leaving out the wind and lightening and instead gracing us with a complete and utter deluge of rain. John and I stand in the cockpit, still wearing the salt and anxiety soaked clothes of the last 3 days, faces upturned and arms outstretched. I can taste the salt as the rain cleanses us, rinsing away the worry, helplessness and frustration of the last 36 hours. It is over as quickly as it begins, but the effect lingers. We smile and joke as we slowly tick off the last few miles.
1:00pm We are welcomed into the marina like celebrities. There are four boats full of friends on the docks to catch our lines and give us huge hugs. We lean against pilings and chat, so happy to have Halcyon tied up in a slip, to be on terra firma, and to be with good friends.
It was not our finest passage, to be certain. We made some mistakes that extended the trip and made our lives more challenging. But we also made hundreds of smart decisions that kept us safe and as comfortable as possible in the circumstance. Sailing is part skill, part boat, part preparation and part luck. We didn’t have all the chips on our side for this one. I do not take it lightly that we made it to our destination without catastrophe and most importantly without injury. Halcyon may have broken a few extremities, but the humans on board stayed completely in tact.
I was disappointed in Halcyon on this passage, a new sensation for me. In the past, it has been solely weather or conditions that have made a passage scary or uncomfortable, while Halcyon remains the constant. But this time – this time Halcyon didn’t pull her weight all the time. It is obviously we have more work to do to keep this boat passage-ready.
I still cannot believe what a great crewmember Jess was. She demanded nothing of us and remained calm and optimistic even when we weren’t. She sang us silly songs, kept us company on watches, cleaned tools up off the floor about a dozen times, and kept us fed and hydrated. Thanks for being a rockstar, Jess.
These hard days remind me how incredibly fortunate I am to have the best possible partner on my team. I don’t mind tooting my own horn when I say that John and I make a formidable team, especially when the straws just keep piling up on that poor camel’s back. Of course we have our challenges, it is a marriage after all, but I’m proud of how we handle stressful days on the water. We are able to work through the stress, take a breath and reassess, admit bad decisions, and get it done. I wouldn’t choose anyone else to be my co-captain.