Monday, June 1, 2015

Huatulco to Puerto Chiapas Marina

Sunday, 24 May to Tuesday 26 May, 2015

Huatulco to Puerto Chiapas

This is the leg of the southbound voyage that everyone approaches with trepidation. We are crossing the Golfo de Tehuantepec. During a Tehuantepec, as the winds are called, wind speeds of 40 knots, 75 kph, are common and often well exceeded. These winds can extend several hundreds of miles off shore, creating enormous seas. Many ships and boats are damaged every year in the Gulf. The phenomenon is created by a high pressure system in the Gulf of Mexico on Mexico’s east coast, occurring while a low pressure system is over the Gulf of Tehuantepec. The isthmus is Mexico’s narrowest point and there are low valleys that funnel the winds across, creating an amazing acceleration of the wind. Fortunately, our weather predictions are now quite accurate at determining when they will occur, but they can still arrive with only one to two days notice. The difficulty for sailors is that it takes 2 days to cross the Gulf.

The Gulf is a large inverted U shape and the temptation is always to try to save time by cutting across the U. The distance saved could represent up to 30 miles or about 6 hours. The danger is that once you are away from shore the winds have the distance, or fetch, to create larger waves, dangerously larger waves that do not permit a landfall on the other side, but blow you out to sea, if you are even able to handle the high winds and steep seas. So it is, that conventional wisdom is to follow the coastline closely, keeping one foot on the beach.

We departed Marina Chahue about noon to ensure a daylight arrival at Puerto Chiapas. Our weather window was good on both Passage Weather and Solemate Weather, plus May is a good month for fewer Tehuantepecs. Mags, Lexi and I quickly settled into our crossing routine with enough wind that the engine was shut down. Several turtles, 2 pairs appeared to be mating, and dolphins were sighted.
How about a little privacy?
Unfortunately the winds died and we motor sailed through the late afternoon and evening.

We passed the industrial port of Salinas Cruz, with 5 freighters berthed, at nightfall, but fortunately only one freighter was departing, passing well to our stern. All was calm as we approached the area of typically strong winds and we ghosted through the night with lightning flashing on the hills.

Sun setting into clouds on horizon
Dawn and throughout the second day continued calm until about 4:00pm when a localized thermal permitted us to sail for about 4 hours. The second night was calm until about 1:00 am when a light onshore breeze permitted another 5 hours of sailing. With all the motoring we had done our arrival appeared to be an 8:00 am landfall until, as the wind died, we tried to start the motor.

The starting motor was not engaging to turn the main engine. I removed the starting motor solenoid hoping the problem could be resolved. After reassembling, still no luck. Fortunately the light breeze had returned sufficiently to get us to within 8.9 NMiles of the breakwater entry.

No, I will not smile for the camera!
We put the dinghy in the water and mounted the outboard. The swells were 2 to 3 meters but because the wind had been so low they were far apart and the sea surface was quite calm. Mags and Lexi handled Kanilela while I sat in the dinghy tied to the side, running at about 2/3 throttle generating 3 to 4 knots. From the dinghy, the swells felt very large and as the shoreline became more visible the waves crashing on the rocks looked ominous. The fears of the Tehuantepec had given way to anxiety about a dinghy assisted landfall.

Lexi in the dinghy
When we were a few hundred meters out from the breakwater entry, I radioed the Port. A very calm sounding Guillermo (Memo) assured me that once in the entry, the conditions flattened right out and after a series of turns into the east harbour and up the Marina canal he would have staff ready to stop us at an easily entered slip. Sounded easy….

Lexi and I changed positions, I took the helm, she tended the outboard in the dinghy. Mags studied all the information we had on Puerto Chiapas and relayed the way points to the helm, then prep’d dock lines and bumpers.

The breakwater with no swell breaking
1600 hrs, 4:00 pm, we were happily tied to the dock drinking our first cold drinks, breathing a collective sigh of relief and realizing that we were only a few miles from the Guatemala Mexico border.

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