Gulf of Tehuantepec, Mexico – Squeezing in a crossing between blows

Halloween, 2012 – We had enjoyed Marina Chiapas, but now it was time to leave.  However, because this marina borders a fabled body of water — one known for its bad attitude not its beauty — leaving was not such an easy thing to do!

The staccato way Mexicans pronounce “Tehuantepec” (Te-wan-te-PECK) makes it sound almost distasteful — they spit out the ending “Pec” with force.  Among cruisers, the Gulf of Tehuantepec is one of the few places in Pacific Mexico that can strike terror in our hearts.  I’ve heard it pooh-poohed only one time, by a married pair of 20-year veteran single-handers in Zihuatanejo (¼ down page) who were completing their third circumnavigation (aboard separate boats).  They brushed it off, saying, “The Tehuantepec is way overrated!” and promptly set off to sail 500 miles out to sea around it en route to the Panama Canal.  But for most ordinary cruisers, including us, it is a place to be respected and planned for, as it is known for its nasty temper and very big teeth.

Crossing the Gulf of Tehuantepec Mexico between Marina Chiapas and Marina Chahue

From red dot (Marina Chiapas) to blue (Huatulco), this is not a great time to cross the Gulf of Tehuantepec! Wind in light blue is 4-7 mph, wind in dark orange is 39-46 mph.

The Tehuantepec blows and calms down in cycles that depend on the winds in the Gulf of Mexico.  When the wind blows out of the north on the Caribbean side of Mexico, it picks up speed when it hits the Gulf of Tehuantepec and often reaches gale force.  Then it settles down for a few days before doing it all over again.

The goal for sailors is to look for a 3-day or longer period of calm to dash from one side of the Tehuantepec to the other.  There are marinas on either side, Marina Chahué in Huatulco on the west and now the new Marina Chiapas in Puerto Chiapas on the east, but there is nowhere to hide in-between other than the big, smelly industrial port of Salina Cruz that is loaded with freighters and requires the Port Captain’s permission to enter.

Going straight across this gulf is about 210 miles, but that’s a dangerous route because if the Tehuantepec suddenly gets ugly, you are stuck in a storm with hours of miserable sailing to get to safety near shore.  So the recommended course is to hug the coastline the whole way, sailing ¼ mile to ½ mile offshore, where the winds are slightly less and the waves are significantly smaller.  Going this way is 260 miles.  Crossing takes anywhere from 30 to 50 hours, on average.

Golfo de Tehuantepec crossing from Puerto Chiapas to Huatulco during calm

This calm period looks much better, doesn’t it?! Wind in light blue and lavender is 4-12 mph.

Compounding the problem of finding a good weather window to cross, when leaving from Marina Chiapas on a westbound trip, there is the additional hassle of checking out of the port.  Because Puerto Chiapas is on the border of Guatemala, every boat leaving Marina Chiapas for another destination in Mexico is required to pay a personal visit to the Port Captain’s office on the far side of town to purchase the official exit document (about $7 USD).

Also, 2 hours prior to the boat’s departure, you must invite both the Navy and their drug sniffing dog aboard for a final inspection of the boat as well as the Port Captain who comes to the boat for a final review of the paperwork.  You can’t just sneak out when the forecast looks good and the timing feels right!

The Tehuantepec had been blowing full force non-stop since our arrival a week earlier, but we studied Magic Seaweed and Passage Weather (North Pacific->California to Mexico) to determine the best time to cross, and we spotted a slim opening of about 12 hours of calm between two modest blows that would peak about 40 hours apart.  These websites, updated every three hours, seem to be very accurate in their prediction of the weather, but the resolution is small.  A one inch portion of the chart represents the entire 260 mile passage, and the time is given in GMT which was 5 hours earlier than local time in Marina Chiapas.

Some sailors don't like the Gulf of Tehuantepec

Anticipating crossing the Tehuantepec can make you a little crazy.

Studying these websites, I wrote out two pages of notes listing GMT, local time, forecasted wind states and sea states.  As of Monday, it seemed that Wednesday morning at 3:00 a.m. would be the best time to leave.  If we missed that window by 3 hours we would need to stay in port another week.

Marina management instructed Mark to visit the Port Captain right away to complete our exit paperwork.  They told us the exit document had no expiration date — it would be good indefinitely.

This meant that if the weather forecast changed, we could opt not to leave, and we’d still have a good exit document for when we were finally ready to go.  We also planned to hail the Port Captain on the radio about 8:00 Tuesday night to make arrangements for him, the Navy, and their dog to visit our boat around midnight.  We would be required to leave within two hours of that visit — or we’d have to invite them back to repeat the process.

Marina Chiapas slips and docks at sunset

It was hard to leave the safety of pretty Marina Chiapas but the windows for crossing the Tehuantepec were infrequent.

In the backs of our minds we were thinking that if the weather forecast changed on Tuesday and no longer looked good for a crossing, we would stick around the area another week or so and take advantage of the downtime to spend a few days at the coffee plantation Finca Hamburgo which has lovely cabins in the mountains.  They also have an exotic flower nursery, oodles of tropical birds and hiking trails throughout their property.  It sounded delightful.

We awoke Tuesday morning to find the marina’s internet was no longer working, so we couldn’t get a weather forecast.  On top of that, we discovered that marina management at this new marina had not understood all nuances of the rules related to boats leaving Puerto Chiapas.  It turns out that once a boat that is remaining in Mexico obtains its exit document, it must leave within 48 hours of the “leave by” date stated on the document — or return to the Port Captain’s office to obtain new exit paperwork.  So much for our option of easily sticking around for a week and hitting the coffee plantation if the weather forecast turned ugly.  We had to leave by Thursday afternoon, or spend another three hours going to the Port Captain’s office a second time to get a new exit document.

Marina Chiapas Porto Bello Restaurant Mexican Flags

Mexican flags fly at the marina’s new restaurant.

The last weather forecast we’d seen had been 10 hours earlier on Monday night.  So I hustled to nearby Puerto Madero to renew our Telcel USB modem (which provides internet access via the Mexican cell phone system).  When I was finally able to get online and see the forecast, I was horrified.  Everything had changed.  We needed to leave in 90 minutes — at 3:00 p.m. today, Tuesday, 12 hours ahead of our original planned departure time — or not leave for at least a week.

This would have us chasing a receding Tehuantepec blow for the first 18 hours, put us at the apex of the Tehuantepec at 3:00 p.m. Wednesday when it would be calm, and then have us chased by a newly growing Tehuantepec blow for the last 6 hours of our trip, delivering us to Huatulco at 3:00 a.m. Thursday, after 36 hours of sailing.  It would be a tight squeeze with little margin for error.

There was one other window a few days later that might work for very fast boats with very brave crew — but we weren’t in that category.

As Mark and I studied the weather charts, I felt a fear so palpable that my heart raced, palms sweated and mouth went dry.  “Stay or go?” I asked him.  I wanted to stay.  I wanted to run away to the coffee plantation high on that mountain and never come back.  He gave me a big happy smile.  “I have total confidence in you, Sweetie.  If you think this window will work, we’ll be fine.  You’re a great navigator and a great researcher and planner too!  I think we should go.”

Birds at Marina Chiapas

One of the best things about this marina is the constant sound of unusual bird calls.

My eyes were saucers.  He had that kind of faith in me?  What if I were wrong?  What if I’d miscalculated GMT and local time?  What if the weather changed in the next 24 hours before we got to the most vulnerable part of the voyage?  What if he got injured out there because of my decision?  What if the boat were damaged?  What if we had a horrible trip and then found out if we’d waited three days it would have been easy?  What if?  What if?  What if???  I was a mess.

Mark began organizing the boat, and after much consternation I picked up the VHF mic to invite the Port Captain and the Navy to our boat for our exit inspection.  I was intercepted by the marina manager who kindly said all the right things to the Port Captain in Spanish to convince them to come in 20 minutes.  45 minutes later, the Port Captain arrived by car.  But he wouldn’t come down to the boat until the Navy showed up in their launch boat, so he just waved from the parking lot.  Another 20 minutes went by before the launch arrived, complete with pooch.  They tied up at the dock.  The four men ambled onto our boat and took out clip boards, papers and pens while the dog sniffed everything.

Marina Chiapas at Puerto Madero - evening on the docks

At first we thught we’d leave at 3 a.m. but changed our minds to leave 12 hours earlier.

Mark watched the minutes tick by as they first had me run up to the marina office to make yet another a copy of our passports for them.  Then they struggled to understand what state had the abbreviation “SD” (our domicile) and where it was located.  “What are the border states?” they asked with great, unhurried curiosity.  North Dakota wasn’t a helpful answer, as they didn’t know that one either.  Montana got a nod.  Egads — we needed to leave, and now!!  At last they stood up to go.  Our engine was running almost before the last man stepped off the boat, and we were gone.  It was 40 minutes later than we wanted to leave, but still within the 3 hour window we’d set as our outer limit.

The Tehuantepec was blowing hard ahead of us, but we anticipated 18 hours of smooth sailing before we would get near the bad stuff, and it would be calming down in the meantime.  After an anemic sunset, the full moon we had looked forward to hid behind clouds, leaving us in the dark and making the lights on the row of 16 shrimpers off our port beam look even brighter.  Suddenly an intense white light appeared behind us.  The light grew brighter, and then we could see the red and green running lights of a boat’s bow and blasts of bow spray as it bore down on us at 30 knots or so.

Through the binoculars Mark could see it was a Mexican Navy ship.  “Maybe we’ll get boarded,” he said, shrugging.  The boat was coming straight for us.  Suddenly it swerved to our starboard side and stopped.  After a long pause (verifying our boat name with headquarters at Puerto Chiapas, perhaps?), it pulled around ahead of us and zoomed off into the middle of the shrimping fleet.  Minutes later we heard the Navy captain hailing one of the shrimpers on the radio, informing them that they were going to perform a routine inspection of their boat.  Twenty minutes after that the Navy captain hailed another shrimper for a routine inspection of his boat.  And so it went, the line of shrimpers stopped at a standstill, mid-ocean, awaiting inspections, while we slipped by on their right.

Neither of us likes night sailing at all, and since we are both light sleepers, we have found it very difficult to get good sleep while at sea.  The motion of the boat, slapping of waves on the hull and noise of the wind in the rigging are unsettling.  I tried my best to sleep, but after two hours something got me out of bed.

I found Mark in the cockpit staring into the darkness saying, “What do you make of this?  Watch.  He’s been doing this for 15 minutes…”  As he pointed, suddenly a powerful spotlight — by far the brightest I have ever seen on a boat — lit up our cockpit.  I felt naked.  When the light shifted for a moment we could see the source was a small panga, or outboard-driven open fishing boat, with two men in it.  The light flooded our cockpit again, this time strobing on and off, as the launch approached Groovy at top speed.  Then it swerved away.  The light turned off.  Then on again with another rush at our boat.  Then it was off, and the boat wheeled away from us.  All the blood drained from my face and my throat went dry.

Mark kept studying the boat.  It traveled at our speed for about 20 minutes, staying about half a mile or so behind us, and then made another rush towards us, spotlight strobing.  Finally it swerved away.  Were they trying to tell us something, to warn us about a fishing net?  Did they think we were somebody else?  Were they meeting a boat out there somewhere and we fit the description?  We’ll never know.  A few hours later another similar boat did the same thing, but with less intensity.  Who knows what it was all about.

I laid on my back in the cockpit and studied the sky to calm down.  The full moon now backlit the clouds whenever it was able to penetrate their depths.  For hours a flock of four frigate birds took turns trying to land on the top of our mast.  The mast swung wildly and it was impossible for those big wings and big webbed feet even to think about landing successfully, but they sure had a good time trying.  They easily went 30 miles with us, playing like that.

Gulf of Tehuantepec when it is calm

The Tehuantepec was calm at first

Overnight the conditions were so calm we let the distance grow between us and the shore until we were 15 miles out.  In the morning there was no dawn, just clouds.  But the good news was that a following current pushed us along as we motor-sailed at nearly 8 knots the whole time.  We had more than made up the time we had lost checking out with the officials.  The sooner we could scoot across the gulf the better — unless we went too fast and caught up to the big winds ahead of us before they died down.

The wind began to build, and with it the seas.  We started seeing 22 knots of true wind (30 apparent) and the boat began to slam into the waves.  It would rise into the air, the front half airborne, and then drop onto the water with a loud crash.

Gulf of Tehuantepec storm clouds on the ocean

Weird storms appeared and disappeared around us.

“Wow, check this out — storm cells on the radar!”  Mark called out excitedly.  Sure enough, two huge 8 mile wide pink blobs blocked our way forward, and up ahead we could see weird clouds with rain streaking out of them.  We dodged one by going towards shore, and then it disappeared, as if laughing at us for changing course to avoid it.  We tried going out to sea to avoid the next one, but it got bigger and bigger and we made no progress against it.  Then the one we had defeated reformed and suddenly we were boxed in by the two systems.  At the time I thought “who needs to see a photo of a chart plotter with two huge pink blobs boxing Groovy in?” but now I wish I could show it to you.

With rain starting and seas growing, the two storm cells suddenly began to flash with lightning.  Thunder rumbled ominously.  According to the forecast, we were supposed to be cruising along in 8 knots of light breeze with no storms, but that’s not what was here.  So it was time to seek shelter and hug the coast.  We made a beeline for shore, and after two long hours of pounding over the waves, we got to the safety zone by the beach — the recommended travel lane — where the depth is a sandy 40′ and the distance to shore is 0.2 miles.  The true wind dropped below 20 knots and the seas went flat.  Amazing!  We zipped along at over 8.5 knots for many hours on end.  It would have been a thrilling ride.  It would have been our best sailing in Mexico to date — after all, how often do you get lively wind on a close reach with flat seas? — but the fear in our hearts dissolved all sense of fun.

Gulf of Tehuantepec salt spray covers our dodger

Groovy got whip-lashed by a few big waves that smacked our dodger and soaked it.

How easy it is to walk on a 6×8 plank sitting on the ground.  Put it 30′ in the air and it’s terrifying, because all you can think of is falling off.  So it is with great daysailing in the Gulf of Tehuantepec.  Even when you get ideal sailing conditions, you keep waiting for the grisly sea monster to rise up and swallow you.

It had been 22 hours since we had last seen a weather forecast on the internet, and the one we’d just heard on the VHF radio rattled off the wind speeds and wave heights for all the regions of Pacific Mexico in Spanish — and in metric — way too fast.

Suddenly a panga with 6 guys in it appeared alongside us.  They circled us, yelling in Spanish.

“You’ve got to get out of here!  There’s going to be a lot of wind.”
“When? When?” I yelled back.  “We’re going to Huatulco!”
They all grinned heartily and gave us the thumbs up: “Mañana!”

We guessed that meant we were okay — we’d be long gone from here by then.  How incredibly kind of them, though, to make a detour to our boat to warn us of the coming weather.  We are always impressed by the thoughtfulness of the Mexicans.

As we approached the apex of the Tehuantepec’s danger zone, the true wind climbed to 25 knots, apparent was into the 30’s, and we were soaring on flat water at 9 knots, watching people flying kites an arm’s length away on the beach.  I held the laptop high overhead and was able to pick up a very faint internet signal from somewhere on shore.  After twenty minutes of standing with the laptop overhead (a great shoulder workout!), I had downloaded a tiny 599KB zip file containing a complete weather forecast from Passage Weather’s low-bandwidth site.  Nothing had changed.  Phew!!!  We were on perfect schedule.  All we had to do was let another 12 or so hours march by.  The only weird thing was we were supposed to be in 8-12 knots of wind at this point, not 25.

As darkness fell, we threaded a path between all the freighters anchored off Salina Cruz.  The coast turned more southward and we now had the wind off our starboard quarter.  The noise and mayhem settled way down as the wind from our own forward motion canceled out some of the wind blowing behind us.  We scooted along, continuing to slice through the water at almost 8 knots.

Tangolunda Bay Bahias de Huatulco

The morning after we relax in Huatulco’s beautiful Tangolunda Bay

It was Halloween, and we celebrated this eerie night of goblins and ghouls by watching the nearly full moon rise blood red in the black sky.  We’ve never seen the moon such a rich shade of red.  As it climbed higher, it slowly faded from ruby red to orange, passing through wisps of grey clouds.  What a classic Halloween image.  We tried to capture it with the camera, but the boat was rolling and all we got was blurry red blobs.

In our final hours we felt the winds and seas building again, and knew we had successfully scooted ahead and avoided the rising maelstrom behind us.  At long last, around 2:30 a.m. on Thursday morning after 35 hours and 260 miles (a whopping average (for us) of 7.4 knots, or 8.5mph), we pulled into Tangolunda Bay, a big bay at Huatulco’s south end.  We knew this bay from last year, and it was a relief to retrace our track on the chartplotter and drop the hook right where we had pulled it up eight months earlier.

We sat in the cockpit, securely anchored to the sand beneath us, and stared at the twinkling lights of the many resorts lining the bay.  All the fear and worry of the past two days suddenly fell from our shoulders, and an incredible sense of accomplishment began to take its place.  Our first Tehuantepec crossing last spring had been a breeze, a no-brainer, “pan comida” (a piece of cake), as we’d had a six day window of minimal wind.  We had crossed near the middle, covering 228 miles in 36 hours.

Tangolunda Bay in the Bays of Huatulco

It’s party time in Huatulco’s Tangolunda Bay

Our crossing now had gone equally well, but had been a tactical challenge like none we have ever faced on the water before.  Everything had gone like clockwork: we had arrived at each landmark on schedule or slightly ahead, thanks to a 1 knot favorable current, and the Tehuantepec had cooperated by sticking to its forecasted plan (except for the unexpectedly blustery conditions near the apex).  If we hadn’t been so spooked by the potential for disaster, we might have even enjoyed the ride!

But for now we were excited at the prospect of swimming and snorkeling off the boat the next morning, and waving at the jet skis that would soon circle us from the fancy resorts that surround Tangolunda Bay.  All the resorts were quiet now in these wee hours of the morning, however, and we slept like babies as soon as our heads hit our pillows.

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