Dodging Hurricanes, part 1: Zihuatanejo, Andres

US history and 2015 storms

We broke two important rules of cruising… at the same time.

Rule number one: “don’t cruise during the rainy season”.

Hurricanes, rain deluges, floating logs, and intense lightning are some of the hazards that keep nearly all cruising sailboats in port during the wet season. We headed south from Santa Barbara on March 26, and hurricane season runs mid-May to mid-November.

Rule number two: “don’t keep a schedule”.

Weather trumps all in sailing. If the winds are bad, wait. If the winds are good, go. Having a schedule can prevent sailors from following that time-honored wisdom. Furthermore, that’s why it’s called cruising… sailors don’t want a schedule during their vacation.

But this really isn’t exactly a vacation…

The Green Coconut Run was crowd-funded by almost 40 friends and fellow ocean lovers, banking time on coming aboard; people back home needed a schedule, and we would do our best to make it happen.

What is the “conventional” way to cruise?  The majority of sailors on cruising boats are either retired in their 60s, or are young with small boats. Neither of those models would give us what we wanted – a boat capable of taking us to remote dive sites and surf breaks throughout the whole Pacific, while we were still young with minimal money in the bank!

DCIM140GOPRO

To pull off a scheduled approach on the edge of hurricane season (that timeline being unfortunately the same as prime surf season) required both bravado and naivety – both qualities that the “surfer-sailor” has in abundant supply.

Logic helps us feel better about our decisions. We analyzed historical storm statistics and determined that most near-shore hurricanes occurred in August-October. If we arrived in Huatulco, which is far south-east of most storms, by early June, we should be fine, right?

That simplistic assumption was now being questioned as Aldebaran’s crew sat in a sweaty taco shop in Zihuatanejo looking at the computer models for the 5 day weather forecast. With great apprehension, we saw the animation on PassageWeather.com of satellite images showing the swirls of a tropical depression forming offshore, with potential to turn into a nasty storm.

5 day forecast with ports

This is the 5 day wind forecast that we saw while at the sweaty taco shop in Zihuatanejo.

That disturbance would become Cat 4 Hurricane Andres, only the 6th hurricane to form in mid-May on record. Strong south-east winds were forecast in 2-3 days to plague the coastline… even if the hurricane stayed offshore.

Was there enough time to get south, away from the mayhem before the beast found its strength?  It would theoretically go away from the coast, as most storms do in the Eastern Pacific.

zihuat fisherman friend

Michael (front) and fisherman friend in Zihuat, who insisted that there would be no storm, “it hasn’t even rained yet this year!” We went with NOAA’s opinion on the matter.

We calculated our transit times from Zihuatanejo to Huatulco, in southern Mexico. If we hustled, we would get far enough south (and east, because that is how the coastline bends) to avoid the storm’s effects. If we stayed, we might actually be in a worse position in a week. “Let’s go for it!” we decided.

In a show of cosmic support – as if to encourage our choice to push south – just 30min after we left Zihuatanejo, we had our greatest animal encounter yet. We hooked a fish… a BIG fish. The kind of fish that people spend years searching for on charter sport boats.

Serendipitously, it was exactly the two month celebration of the Green Coconut Run; it was May 26.

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He was little too big for our bellies. Time for catch and release!

A flash of blue shone as he crested the waves: “oh my God it’s a Marlin!” With disbelief, over the course of an hour, we pulled in a majestic Blue Marlin close to 8ft long (from eye to base of tail), possibly as much as 300 lbs.  We must have snagged him in some sensitive area, otherwise he would have broken our 30 pound test line in a flash. Michael described our small battle with the marlin in his blog post about fishing in Mainland Mexico.

After coming alongside the boat three times, the blue marlin took one last look at us, and with a slight wave of his noble bill, plunged back into the depths and finally broke our line. Even if we had the skill, here was an animal that we didn’t want to conquer; its power was in its living.

Dumbfounded, we laughed that such novice fishers like us lucked into such an encounter. We were ecstatic!  The powerful omen gave us confidence to sail through the night, ahead of the building tropical depression.

chacahua sunrise closeup

Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning

The next morning in Acapulco, the sky showed signs of the developing low pressure system. Ominous winds were freshening when we stopped to re-fuel. We reviewed the Mexican government’s meteorological report: it painted a glum picture, with heavy lightning and strong SE winds in the forecast. The tropical storm was very far offshore, but it could turn towards the coast at anytime.

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The Acapulco Skyline. Just looking at it costs $$$. Everything was expensive including the uncomfortably warm swimming pool. Storm or not, after a few hours we were back on the move! 

There would be no harbor protection for 250 nautical miles… which equates to 2 nights underway. A lot could happen in that time frame. Yet, our intuition was that Huatulco would be safer, if we made it there.

Who could we ask for an opinion? Sailors were mostly parked for the season. Fishermen live day by day. Port authorities recited the official report. Our research and weather forecasts were as good as anything, I figured.

 “Keep going!” we decided.

After motoring through the night in lumpy seas and variable winds, we arrived in the state of Oaxaca. Our gamble paid off — conditions were improving the further east we went. Using our cel phone internet, the weather update showed that Tropical Storm Andres was beginning to whip 25 knot south east winds around Acalpuco, and the storm center was now past us to the north.

chacahua wave

Both the lighthouse and the wave are attractive navigational aids for Aldebaran. 

What a relief!  Were we in the clear?

We celebrated with a stop at the gorgeous Lagunas de Chacahua. We surfed the “bucking bronco” at the rivermouth, which was crazy with its backwash but mighty fun. The estuary is beautiful, and we enjoyed drinking coconuts from the beach vendors with no tourists around.

That decision to stay wasn’t without its repercussions, though!  It gave us our first real scare of the trip, as relayed in the next part of this story.

chacahua aldebran

The “bucking bronco” was challenging to surf because of intense backwash, which was probably why nobody else was there. Ah.. and the lightning storm in the forecast, that’s right, I forgot about that!

3 thoughts on “Dodging Hurricanes, part 1: Zihuatanejo, Andres

  1. Yikes, bravado and naivety can be a dangerous mix, along with interpreting good luck as an “omen.” And don’t forget El Nino. That water’s warm out there.Stay safe, sailors. Great tale!

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