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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!