Subj: Nanjo Chronicals 2001 - Tehuantepec Crossing

Date: 4/20/01 4:21:46 PM Mountain Daylight Time

From: (John Suter)


Travels from March 16, to April 1, 2001:



Mexico has various forms of pollution, the cruisers' choice for "most disliked" is noise - the mind-blowing and ear-paining blasts from beachside bars heard on our boats in the anchorages. In Huatulco's port at Santa Cruz, the bars continue to operate longer than at any other port we've been to in Mexico. While this usually occurs on Friday and Saturday nights, no night is exempt here. For that reason, most cruisers left Santa Cruz for the serenity of remote anchorages, returning only for provisions. We wondered if we were jumping from the frying pan into the fire, anchoring just off Club Med's beach. But the music was short-termed and rather pleasant. We relaxed, enjoyed the peace and slept well.


The Club Med anchorage provided us with some of the best protection of any of the Huatulco anchorages. Unfortunately, diving visibility was no better off the rocky point sheltering us or at Isla Tangola Tangola, so we made water, worked with photos and emails on the computer and did chores.


The last cove we went to was Chachacual. Charlie's Charts doesn't give a valid representation of this spot, yet it is probably the best of Huatulco's anchorages. In fact there are two anchorages in the bay. One is in the open bay, while the other is a small cove tucked in behind a reef and some sentinel rocks on the eastern side of the bay. Unfortunately the white sand beach-lined cove can only hold 4 or 5 "friendly" boats. At first we tucked in between the last boat and the reef to the southeast. However, after diving to inspect the holding ground and the location of the rocks, coral heads and reef, and after the wind realigned us with the nearest boat, we moved Nanjo to the open anchorage before it got too dark.


Over the next few days, we saw that the local party boats and tour boats also liked the protected cove, packing it with pangas and power cruisers. Still, in the early mornings and late afternoons, the cove returned to an ideal anchorage and beach for the boats anchored there. I had seen schools of edible fish when I dove to inspect the anchorage when we were there momentarily. So, with good water clarity, it should be excellent for foraging.


Actually the swells settled down and the wind kept us pointed into them, making the outer anchorage quite acceptable. We shared the anchorage with two Canadian boats, Tulameen and Candlewin, and we dinked over for a 3-boat party one evening.


We waited, staying away from Santa Cruz, until the forecasters agreed on a weather window for crossing the Golfo de Tehuantepec. Boats left all the coves and returned to Santa Cruz to do final provisioning and check out. By Sunday night there were 20 boats making ready for the crossing. The forecast promised moderately high winds at the head of the Tehuantepec for another day or so, until Tuesday afternoon. Even so, some boats left Monday to use the last of the wind for sailing.


Anchoring back in Santa Cruz provided us with just one more project to complete before departing. The anchorage was fairly full and we reanchored a couple of times to give Nanjo more separation from other anchored boats. On the third set, the snubber released as Nancy was backing down to set it. The shackle between the chain hook and the nylon thimble must have broken. I had a spare hook, but needed a large shackle, just one more thing to search for it town.


We checked out of Mexico on Monday, planning a Tuesday morning departure. Our checkout included our first "zarpe", a new document for us. We began at the Port Captain's office, giving them the usual 5 copies of our crew list. As our destination, I put "Bahia del Coco, Costa Rica con puertos imtermedios", as that gave us a wide range of options (and you MUST check in at Coco). Many boats just used Barillas Marina, which was accepted as a port of entry by the Port Captain in Huatulco. Actually there is nothing different for a skipper to do that he hasn't done in every other port. We did have to go to the airport to get Migracion's stamp on our crew list. The airport is about 10 miles from town. We took a bus from town for 5 pesos, rather than a taxi for $12 or more. When I returned from Migracion, the Port Captain presented me with a very official looking document which represented Mexico's official introduction of Nanjo to any inspector, with our departure and destination, our sail plan. Every vessel entering a country for the first time must have a zarpe from the country it departed from. If Mexican, Guatemalan, or even US Coast Guard boarded Nanjo on the open ocean, this document is key to "having our papers in order".


Oh-h-h Baby was the first boat out on Tuesday morning, using the early land breezes to begin their straight-across transit. Oh-h-h Baby had been unable to repair their diesel engine in Huatulco and was looking forward to finding some additional help at Barillas. They would sail the entire 500+ miles before being towed through a wild entrance to the Jiquilisco lagoon and the 10 miles of canals.


Nanjo was the next boat out of port, leaving around 1000. A southeasterly breeze was already blowing and we began to raise the main sail. It wouldn't slide past the troublesome screw in the slide. This was one area I had forgotten in my pre-cruise inspection. Murphy's Law predicts that it would give me grief. So I brought out the web ladder and raised it on the front side of the mast with the spinnaker halyard. I gathered my tools and the Locktite and climbed up the mast while Nancy motored east toward the last of the Tehuantepec winds. Up the mast, after reaching the trouble spot, I found that there was no problem. The sails were raised soon after I climbed down and Nanjo was quietly beginning her journey in earnest.


The first afternoon was filled with a variety of surprises: First, we were bucking a 2-knot current. Although we were sailing at better than 5 knots, we were only making a little more than 3 knots over-the-ground. Next was that the waves whipped up by a "Tehuantepecker" are short-duration, "square" waves like in the Sea of Cortez. We had some residual waves of this sort hit us nose-on, slowing us down even more. And finally, we found that there are some huge fish in the Tehuantepec. I had attached one of the new, heavy-duty hooks I had purchased in Huatulco and was ready for Dorado. My wish was answered around 5pm. I watched as the towed line went taught, straightening out the rubber snubber and then snapping. I had just yelled to Nancy that we had something . . . we lost something . . . and she had come up from the cabin, where she had been preparing dinner. We both saw the largest bull Dorado we have ever seen leaping out of the water 100' behind Nanjo, trying to shake out the hook. The sight was worth the loss. There was no way we could have landed that giant, except maybe by using a halyard. [As a note, the next evening we told Candlewin, who was just leaving Huatulco tracing the same route we had taken the day before, about the Dorado and to make sure to use the heaviest fishing line he had. His response was that he always used oversized, unbreakable tackle. When we saw him later, after he had arrived in Barillas, he said that a Dorado broke his 100#+ tackle.] The Tehuantepec holds some trophy Dorado! Be forewarned to go prepared!


Actually we hooked a fish every day. The second was a yellow tail tuna. I had it right to the transom, but it lunged under the boat, working the line on the edge of the fiberglass, breaking it. We ate several Black Jacks, Mexican Tunnys, dark meat but not "game1y" like Skip Jacks. We lost all the excellent food and ate the acceptable food. We still felt like we could eat fish whenever we wanted to.


We cut the corner very early, not following the coast on the "one-foot-on-the-beach" strategy. The boats ahead of us were motoring at high revs, making only 3 knots against the current and had no wind or seas as they approached Salina Cruz. With the crew agreeing, Nanjo turned out into the gulf at Bahia Grande. That evening, the other boats aimed at the same waypoint we had targeted.


Although we sailed until 2200 the first night, there was little wind for the next 48 hours. Finally, just abreast of Puerto Madero, we returned to sail-power. This was welcomed because the current was bucking us as we proceeded out of the Tehuantepec. We generally sailed the rest of the way to the "wait point" for Barillas, El Salvador.


We didn't go into Puerto Madero, the southernmost port in Mexico. The boats that did gave it mixed reviews, generally poor. Attempting to enter the port except in daylight is dangerous, since you must "thread the needle" between shoals with breakers close aboard the channel. The harbor is principally commercial - good and bad news. Low fuel price is the welcomed news. Everything else is marginal to bad, including the anchorage. The best advice is to go in for fuel and leave immediately, or pass it up.


We didn't stop at Puerto Quetzal in Guatemala. We felt that $160 for a maximum 5-day stay was ridiculous. We planned to tour Guatemala from Barillas.


We also didn't stop at Marina Del Sol, just day before Barillas. We had planned to, but northbound boats that we had talked to in the last 30 days had told us that the exit from that port was more dangerous than the entrance. We felt that the danger (at worst) or the anxiety (at least) wasn't worth the benefits at Del Sol.


The last two days were dead-downwind sails. STEVE was the sole helmsman. Nancy washed clothes and they dried on the lifelines, flapping in the hot wind. I managed the sail trim, watched for long-line fish nets and boats, made plans to integrate our GPS with the radar, and contemplated lightning protection, since we were approaching that season in the area known for it.


As far as the navigational hazards, we saw the marker floats for only two long-line nets, crossing each without snagging. I was extremely impressed with the courtesy of the Guatemalan and Salvadorian fishing trawlers. In several instances, they changed course rather than forcing me to (US and Mexican fishermen could take lessons from them). I give them additional credit for understanding that I was running wing-and-wing, being less maneuverable than if I was on a beat. .


I located a Guatemalan patrol boat hiding in one group of trawlers, but he never called me on VHF or approached Nanjo. I was lucky. Later I heard that most of the southbound cruisers were boarded several times by Mexican and Guatemalan navies. The boardings were merely interruptions to idyllic sailing conditions for them, but still not without anxiety, under the watchful gaze of young soldiers with assault rifles. Maybe I helped myself by staying offshore more than 12 miles (I used to worry about this coastal separation off the Russian coast when I navigated the Remora, the submarine I served on in the 60's). In most instances, countries use the 12-mile limit as their seaward border.


We saw very few ships or fishing boats in those last two days. We became more and more relaxed with going below to do things, leaving nobody topside. On the last afternoon, after entering El Salvadorian waters, we were both below eating dinner together while STEVE steered us along at 7 knots. I was half way through dinner, when I just felt like I should take a peek at the horizon. I was startled to see a large freighter had passed us, only a few miles away. This experience reminded us that it doesn't take much time for a freighter to pass from out-of-visual range into hazardous proximity.


Our plan for entering Barillas was based on entering in the morning (no wind), late in the flood tide in order to gain maximum depth, with no detrimental effects from the ebbing flow (a bucking current slowing our entry and waves becoming steeper because of the exiting water). Because of the excellent sailing conditions, we were slightly ahead of our ETA. When I awoke at 2200 for my evening insulin injection and to take over the watch, the main sail's full battens were popping as if there was no wind. I asked Nancy why she hadn't woken me to drop the sails. She said that we were still making over 4 knots! After careful observation, we had about 1 knot of "indicated" wind from astern (just enough to allow STEVE to work) and obviously a favorable current. After dropping the main sail, the GPS indicated that Nanjo was moving at 2 knots.


During my watch, we closed the coastline to within 4 miles. This took us into the shallow waters at the mouth of Bahia de Jiquilisco, where local fishermen worked throughout the night. The only problem is that they didn't use navigational lights. However they saw ours and would turn on strobes and flashlights whenever they felt we were about to hit them or their nets. This created a very challenging piloting task; having to make rapid decisions when confronted with imminent collisions. A combination of not being able to sleep and not wanting Nancy to have to deal with the stress, kept me on watch until about 0330.


Finally, after a 5-day, 6-night, 500+ mile transit Nanjo was poised at the "wait point". Free of the panga-based fishermen, only accompanied by fishing boats using nav lights, Nancy took over so that I could get a couple of hours of rest before the all-out dash through the surf for which the entrance to Barillas is known.


Crew of Nanjo


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