I’m trying to remember the last passage we completed without drama or major issue, but coming up short. I want to tell you stories of beautiful passages, trips that are fast and filled with full sails, happy engines, leaping dolphins and sprightly shooting stars. But we haven’t had any of those recently. The droopy ineffective sails are mostly due to our location; it is very rare to have favorable winds moving southeast down the west coast of southern Mexico. We do often have leaping dolphins, and they always bring smiles. Our rainy season sky is hazy and dotted with tall intimidating squall clouds, blocking any hope of stargazing. The sad engine is the one that’s really getting us down. It’s no fun to have a sad engine.
After our Escondido restoration, we sucked out all the fuel from our fuel tank, performed a “poor man’s polish” that involved running all of the fuel through a 7-layered fuel filter (a “baja filter” to those sailor-y types) into big jerry cans, cleaning the inside of the diesel tank with scrapers (lightly – it’s a 40 year old aluminum tank, you don’t want to scrape too hard…) and rags, then putting the fuel back in, again through the baja filter. We pulled out quite a bit of sediment, stuff that could easily clog fuel filters, and hoped we had reached the end of our engine failures. But we had not.
With my sister in town visiting, we took off from the small bay where we had anchored to motor the 16 miles back to the marina. Within the first hour, the engine died again. I started out furious, but decided to give our big sputtering mess one last chance. We still had a filter installed that had seen bad fuel pre-poor man’s polish. That is the last of the sediment. John squished himself into the engine room once again to change out this last filter. Now, there is no reason she should not run perfectly, as she has for decades leading up to last month.
A few days later, after the end of a much-too-short sister visit, we took off to cross the dreaded Tehuantepecs. This stretch of water is well known for disastrously strong winds and steep grinding waves, called Tehuantepecers, or T-peckers for short. When a low pressure system develops in the Gulf of Mexico, even a relatively small one, the topography here at Mexico’s skinniest waistline funnels these winds across the land and heaves them into the pacific ocean, churning up 15 foot short steep breaking waves in the sudden 50+ knots of breeze.
But it’s low season for T-peckers and unlikely we would encounter one of these calamities. The trouble is I can’t figure out what we will encounter. Any research on weather in this region focuses solely on the disastrous effect when the T-peckers blow, and nothing else. From friends that left before us, we know the seas are lumpy and the current runs strong against us, but not much more than that. Is the crossing more pleasant if the wind is from the east or southeast? Does the current run counter to the prevailing swell? Is the current strongest along the shore or in the middle? These questions are surprisingly hard to answer.
We choose what looks like a decent weather window and set out next to cruising friends on Grace for what we assume will be a motor-fest in uncomfortable conditions. Understatement.
It had been raining and gusty all morning, so we took advantage of a few extra hours waiting for the winds to settle by jumping in and scrubbing Halcyon’s dirty barnacle-encrusted bottom (ew). Every little fraction of a knot we can squeeze out of the old girl will help on this stretch. The skies don’t look much better when we clamor back on deck to wash the sludge and tiny crabs out of our hair and bathing suits and…everywhere else. But the squalls seem localized, and we can hear the rumble of Grace’s anchor chain hauling itself over the bow. Time to go.
Sidenote: We have found a major hiccup in communications at sea. Grace has a Delorme on board, a satellite-based tracker and texting device, but no satellite phone or SSB. Both our sat phone and our SSB refuse to communicate with a Delorme. As soon as Grace was out of sight (and therefore VHF range), we had no way to contact them. We wanted so badly to be in touch, to learn if they were experiencing the same conditions, and ensure they were safe and well. It was not until we were settled into port four days later that we learned of their passage story. After slogging through this one, head over to Grace’s blog and read Charlie’s account. It’s a powerful one, and Charlie is a captivating writer.
Within two hours of hauling anchor, the winds have built, chiding us for heading to sea in what appeared to be the best possible weather window. We are bashing along with a reefed main and the engine on, fighting the choppy seas and the 1.5-knot current furtively driving the water against our keel, making about 3 knots of headway.
Within four hours, the engine sputters and dies, taking with it my optimism, my energy, and all the good parts of my spirit. Obviously, bad fuel is not the (only) problem. John bleeds the engine, this time without changing out filters, and determines we have air entering the fuel system somewhere. Trial and error reports that if we keep the RPM’s down, say around 1600, our sputtering mess will do its job much longer (3-10 hours) than if we rev it up (1-2 hours). So in addition to strong winds against us, a big fat current going the wrong way, and an engine we can’t trust, we only have 2/3 the cranking power we’re used to. It’s a long slow anxiety-inducing ride.
Our first night out, we slowly bash into the oncoming freight train of a cold front. This is no squall. The night is black, with clouds covering what little moon sliver may be up there and there is not a single bit of ambient light. The horizon is even blacker. I never knew there could be shades of black, but there it is – an inkier black swath across an already inky black backdrop of imperceptibly united sea and sky.
That night sucks. The winds build to over 30 knots, the rain pelts Halcyon like she’s target practice. The night goes from inky black to even inkier. Under a double-reefed main and an underpowered engine, we have slowed to an almost indiscernible 1.2 knots of forward progress. I sit on the edge of the companionway, soaked through my rain coat and to the bone, flinging pleas and compromises out to the storm gods. “Please don’t build up any more wind, I’m not sure my heart – or Halcyon’s – will manage it”. “If you’ll just settle down a bit, I can explain why we’re out here”. “I promise we’ll never come back, if you just let us through this time”. But mostly I hold perfectly still, listening – through my ears, my feet, my shoulders, my mostly-numb behind – for that gut-wrenching sputter.
We make it to daylight and the other side of the front. The skies are grey and the rain persistent. But there is a silver lining to this cold weather system; it keeps the intense summer heat of southern Mexico at bay, which in turn prevents lightening from gaining traction. I’ll take the rain over what is behind door number 2 every day.
The rest of the passage is mostly uneventful.
I can feel the irony in that sentence even as I write it. I have to laugh (the alternative would make a much lousier story). Everything is relative, right? Apparently, my relative version of an uneventful passage includes the engine spluttering to a halt half a dozen times, drifting backwards for several hours (several times), and too-many-to-count squalls with pelting rain. It endures a motor that limps along slowly if it limps at all, corroded apple charging cables that won’t keep our chartplotter charged, and a perpetually wet butt (swamp-ass, we call it in the south, or “swass” the decidedly more polite term used in the northeast).
The tedium momentarily vanishes behind excitement on day three when something (that is not a skip jack) hits my fishing line and demands an arm workout. Unlike a tuna that jerks and lurches, or a sail fish that spins madly, this creature simply put on the brakes. It was like reeling in a cement wall. We soon discovered why; I have caught a shark! He allows us a close look at his powerful fins and menacing teeth before a single shake of his head snaps the line and he glides away with our brand new lure (prompting the very pouty face from John). Sorry, buddy.
We approach the entrance of Marina Chiapas at midnight of day 4, desperate enough for relief to navigate a narrow shallow channel into the estuary in the middle of the night. 5 miles from the breakwater, our sputtering mess gives us one last big ole’ middle finger and goes silent. John can almost do this in his sleep now. His tools are already in place. It takes only 2 tries and 15 minutes before she coughs and splutters, seemingly quite pissed at us for leeching a little more life out of her tonight.
I’m tethered to the boat, standing on the bow armed with a high-powered spot light (to see buoys and any impending rocks) and the windlass remote (so I can quickly deploy the anchor in case our sputtering mess decides it would be fun to take a nap while we are encumbered in the narrow entrance with rocks on both sides). I can see the breakwater and the buoys marking our way. I can also see blacker water against the black sky to our right, gunning for us. By the time I’ve turned to yell something back to John, it’s upon us. A deluge. I completely lose sight of the breakwater in the driving rain. John turns the boat away from shore as I stumble into the cockpit and dive under the dodger, out of habit more than anything – I’m already completely soaked. We laugh above the deafening roar of the driving rain. It’s just too absurd not to find funny. Once I’m giggling, it’s hard to stop, even as the rain dissipates as abruptly as it arrived.
I head back to the bow, still laughing to myself, to guide us in. With only a brief introduction of our keel to the estuary’s muddy bottom, we soon slide into our slip as the rain starts up again. A marina employee is there to help tie us up. We go over the basic information he needs to start our file while I’m fantasizing about being dry and climbing into bed.
Not yet! He calls his buddy at immigration, who calls his buddy at customs, and for the next 2 hours, a stream of uniforms clomp onto the boat and a constant stream of papers pass hands. They are not as unfriendly as I’d be standing on a foreigner’s boat in the driving rain in the middle of the night flipping through papers, but they are not particularly chatty either. They speak rapid-fire Spanish and it’s all I can muster to understand (some of) what they say and respond as best I can through my foggy rain-thickened brain.
The last of the uniforms withdraw from Halcyon at 2am. We collapse into bed, possibly still wearing the same damp clothes– at least I don’t remember changing.
Enough is officially enough. Halcyon will stay docked snuggly in Chiapas for the rest of the off-season (until October-ish). We endorsed this decision by pulling down sails, rigging up tarps, and “installing” an ac unit in one of the hatches (at first having AC felt like cheating, but I’m not sure why. It is not a luxury down here; it is a requirement. And I never considered a heater in Seattle winters cheating, what’s different?).
We have some serious work to do before Halcyon attempts another harrowing passage (like the next one, which crosses a full-fledged river bar complete with breaking waves, or the one a bit later which crosses the largest ocean in the world…). It is my goal, my dream, my objective, to one day offer you beautifully boring stories of passages gone right, of fair winds and following seas, of night watches spent in comfy chairs watching leaping dolphins and sprightly shooting stars, of an engine that runs when we need it to. Wish us luck!