Dodging Hurricanes, part 2: Lightning, Blanca, and Carlos

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Like a sitting duck

A false sense of security overcame us after Hurricane Andres passed to the north.

Untroubled clouds puffed in the horizon. Light offshore wind groomed the powerful rivermouth waves. After surfing all morning, sore and sunburnt, we lounged under the village palapas and sipped coconut water.  Then in the afternoon, grey dark masses built over the distant landscape.

chacahua burraca bar

All seemed well during the mid-day break at “La Burraca Bar”

As we prepared our fish dinner aboard Aldebaran, stir frying vegetables and sauteeing the fish in soy-ginger sauce, a quiet expectation grew, like a mirror to the potential energy of the atmosphere.

The flat wetlands of Lagunas de Chacahua span towards the Cordillera Occidental, which is the dividing range between the coast and the higher valleys of Oaxaca City. The mountains brewed up the clouds seemingly from nowhere, and lightning began shooting down.

chacahua sat image

Satellite image of the massive Lagunas de Chacahua wetland region.

Bolts zig zagged the sky in the evening after glow. They blasted down to the earth several miles inland. We counted the time between lightning and thunder: 20 seconds.  That means they were 4 miles away.

Lightning_Formation

How lightning is formed. If you hear thunder 5 seconds after lightning, it is 1 mile away. Source: Unknown.

The Mexican Bureau of Meterology had forecast : “alta actividad electrica”. As it turns out, Hurricane Andres was spitting out tropical disturbances which didn’t show up in wind maps. We may have dodged its track, but Andres was getting the last laugh.

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The Acapulco marina gave us this forecast on May 27. We decided to keep heading south, overnighting to Chacahua.

Lightning was getting closer. We counted 10 seconds until we heard thunder — meaning it was now only 2 miles away. The dark village on shore flashes in strobe-like silhouettes. Anchored with our 45 foot mast sticking out of the ocean like a lightning rod, pathetically vulnerable, we watch and wait.

Boooomm!!   4 seconds away, means lightning is less than 1 mile away. Bolts pierce the sky, horizontally, vertically. I shut off the boat’s electrical system. Who knows if that actually helps but I’ve heard it’s worth a try. Our multi-colored solar-battery Lucy lights keep us company in the stifling, dead calm heat.

“Holy smokes,” someone says. Half second. Lightning is very close. No touching metal parts I remind everyone. The distant waves blaze in brightness with the flashes. The air is breathless, charged.

Craaaack!!!  It is right over us. The bolt reverberates like a cosmic door slamming directly above, blinding brightness. Out here on the ocean, exposed and unable to respond, we feel as out of control as we ever have on the ocean. There’s simply nothing to do.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Lightning brings out momentary boldness — then everyone hunkers down in the cabin scared as heck when it gets too close!

It continues for the longest time, blasting all around us. A general feeling of impotence pervades; which breeds calmness. Eventually we go to sleep despite the muggy heat and adrenaline.

At 3am, I felt rain drops on my face. “Hum, that’s odd,” I wonder. “I thought the hatch was closed.” The loud fans we recently installed drown out any sounds. The boat, I notice, is pitching and swaying more than usual.

I open the hatch and a gust of wind stings my face with raindrops. “Geezz…!” is all I can say. I put on foul weather gear, the adrenaline building. Sabrina stirs in bed, asks, ” whats going on?” I respond, “Squall…”

The rain saturates the pitch black, the wind howls and shakes the rigging. Our trimaran is exceptionally stable but even she is getting tossed around as the wind blows onshore 30knots, with building fetch. The nighttime red lights from my headlamp gives the storm an eerie feel.

I sweep the cockpit clean and put away the dishes. If we need the move, the less stuff than can fall and break, the better. On our chart plotter, I record a waypoint- it tells me exactly how far the boat has moved, to indicate whether the anchor might be dragging.

I consider: if the anchor does drag, the next step will be to turn on the engine, motor at a 45degree angle to our chain, and drop the second anchor, a 35lb delta, which is ready to deploy at the bow roller. If it’s still dragging, we can put the motor into forward gear to help keep us in position.

It holds firm. Our over-size 66lb bruce anchor and 200ft of chain, considered too heavy by multi-hull sailors, seems pretty adequate right now… we want it all.The rain belts down hard with stinging wind, but by 5:30am, with breaking tinges of sunrise grey, the wind backs down, and turns glassy by 8am.

chacahua lineup sab watching ry

Sabrina watches from the breakwater – she wanted no part of the “Bucking Bronco”!

What else were we to do?  We went surfing. With stiff offshore wind, which cleaned up the waves remarkably well, we went back out as if nothing had happened. Trading waves, steering around huge backwashes of the “Bucking Bronco”, as we nicknamed the wave, we blew the pent-up energy from the intense night with our aquatic exercise.

What’s happening out there, I wondered. The next weather check, as we were motoring overnight to Mazunte and picked up cel signal, was both uplifting and demoralizing.

Blanca swell and track

Uplifting.. because on the heels of Andres, another storm was building (to-be Hurricane Blanca), which was going to miss us completely because we had made the push to go south. Relief!

Demoralizing… because on the heels of Blanca was a third depression  (to-be Hurricane Carlos) was moving north straight towards Huatulco, our destination.  Bummer.

Carlos heat image schedule

Category 1 Hurricane Carlos skirting the coast of Mexico. The tropical depression originated off the coast of El Salvador and tracked north towards Huatulco before veering north west beginning of June. Source: Weather Nation.

Carlos was extremely slow moving, and we spent a few days anchored in glassy calm of Mazunte before hunkering down in Huatulco for the storm. Two days before landfall, the storm veered north-west, out towards open ocean, as most storms do in this part of the coast. Buckets of rain came down for five days, but since we were on the periphery of the storm’s path, there was minimal wind.

Carlos prediction landfall

So much for the dry season!  This El Niño wet season had just begun with a serious bang. We had simultaneously weathered our first lightning storm and squall. It motivated us to study the statistics and protection systems for lightning; which ultimately persuaded us to change our plans further south.

Given Huatulco’s clear historical record and tucked-in marina, we felt very safe. We spent 3 weeks in cozy Marina Chahue and nearby eastern points, hosting our co-op members like the Hope Family with 3 year old Tessa, the San Francisco duo of Deena and Cristina, and Seattle-lites Dan and Sam. By the end of June, we were eyeing the weather to make our transit across the infamous Gulf of Tehuantepec, enroute to Chiapas.

One thought on “Dodging Hurricanes, part 2: Lightning, Blanca, and Carlos

  1. Brrrrr! scary!!
    Glad all went well.

    Very interesting article , it was good to add the graphics!

    By the way, your front page photo: what a place!
    is that Costa Rica? Cocos?

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