Subj: Nanjo Chronicals 2001 Storm Transit

Date: 3/19/01 1:32:28 PM Mountain Standard Time From:

Travels from March 1 to March 2, 2001:


The night watches had lots of action. On each of our watches, Nancy and I had ships pass us. We had the radar in "transmit" mode at all times to monitor their change in position and distance, as well as see new contacts. We were trying a two-hour watch schedule and it appeared to keep us more alert and rested.

It was on my watch, around 0430, that I began to recognize occasional strikes of lightening west of us. A half hour later, the radar began showing returns from rain in that direction. Soon the lightening became a more constant display, mostly just high altitude inner-cloud discharges, although occasionally slithering down to the water. The rumbling thunder didn't sound threatening, but I knew that it would only take one strike down Nanjo's mast to "fry" every electronic circuit she has. I carefully tracked the progress of the rain returns, figuring that the rainwater would create an almost perfect conductor from the clouds, increasing the probability of a hit on Nanjo. The threat was closing on us. Visually, the clouds appeared to be just behind us. I began throwing circuit breakers, turning off circuits I felt were critical: GPS, radio, radar, refrigerator, and the instruments. Finally we turned off the running lights.

Nancy woke up, probably because of the lightening flashes. It was about time for her watch anyway. As she shook out the cobwebs, she scanned the horizon and asked, "Isn't that a ship ahead of us?" It certainly was! The freighter's superstructure was visible just off the starboard bow. It was outlined by the early dawn and I recognized that it presented a favorable angle-on-the-bow, indicating that its course would take it further to our starboard. But in case it couldn't see us on the dark, northwestern horizon, Nancy turned the running lights back on.

Nancy took over as helmsman; we were motoring in no wind and flat seas. As I returned to the cockpit, after being below to turn off the water maker, I saw another freighter off our stern. This freighter was going to pass to our port, and close. We were bracketed. I reenergized the radar and saw that the ship to starboard would pass us over two miles off (they always look closer than they actually are), but the one bearing down on us from the rear would be closer than of a mile (way too close). Nancy changed course to starboard until we estimated the overtaking-ship would pass mile away. Both ships passed us without any problems.

Let me mention that before we had left Acapulco, we had listened to weather reports each day. Less than 24 hours ago, a storm front was predicted to give Cabo Corrientes some heavy weather, but that was almost 700 miles away. In spite of all our careful homework, we had been surprised by the conditions we obviously had to prepare for, a situation we had never had to handle - a rainsquall on the open ocean with lightening. At first we were focused on the lightening as the main danger. However, then I remembered some recent research I had done on ocean squalls and a threat called microbursts. This weather phenomenon precedes a squall; the wind preceding a squall is typically calm and it cannot be seen by eye or on radar. A microburst is a sudden down-flow of wind, sometimes as strong as 100 knots! It doesn't last long, but it can cause damage or "knock down" a boat with its sails out. As is recommended, I began to lower the main (the jib was already furled in).

Just as I was putting on the last "gasket", or sail tie, Nancy yelled, "You had better take down the bimini!" The wind had started to build, as I hurriedly disassembled our homemade bimini . . . the first raindrops began to hit.

Hurriedly I closed all the portholes and hatches. I gave Nancy her foul weather jacket with built in harness and went below to get mine on. Before I could get it on, the rain came in a deluge. Although everything was closed up, the cabin deck quickly became wet from a small gap in the cockpit hatch where the main sheet (rope) drops into the cabin, to keep it out of the way. I threw the sheet out into the cockpit and followed Nancy's suggestion to stay inside, since there wasn't anything else I could do except get wet.

The rain kept up and I worried about ships. They would never see us, and their radar would never separate Nanjo from the rain. Nanjo was currently invisible! But on the other hand, there weren't any lightening strikes. I kept looking out the windows to see a break in the downpour. Finally it came. I relieved Nancy, so that she could get on dry pants and shoes.

On the backside of the squall, the wind dropped off. I raised the main sail again to add a little to our motoring speed. I cooked up some of my favorite Mexican oatmeal, gave Nancy half of a grapefruit to eat while she steered, and toasted some bread (later, to be spread with Trader Joe's Soy Butter and jelly) to have with our tea and coffee. My glucose reading was 119, an excellent number considering the activity and anxiety.

The morning passed with mild, following winds. I turned the water maker back on. Still motoring, we eased past Punta Galera and changed course to our new waypoint, almost due east, Punta Angel. This port was Pot heaven (marijuana), for the flower-power group in the 60's. Pot is reportedly still sold openly there.

Just before noon, I took my reading and found it low, at 45. Nancy gave me an apple to get raise my blood sugar level quickly and I took over the helm so she could prepare the rest of lunch. She made a wonderful pasta salad, with ham and cheese in it. I eagerly devoured mine. At the same time the wind began to build and the seas increased as well.

Inside of about 15 minutes, it became obvious that we needed to make some changes. The wind was up to 20 knots and we could see a rainsquall behind us. Poor Nancy was torn from her pasta salad to take over the helm. I rushed below to turn off the water maker. Then back topside to shut off the engine.

The wind continued to increase. I recognized that we should reef, but voiced my hesitancy to do it in these winds; for fear that the sail would jam in the track (we've had a problem with a screw loosening, causing the slides to jam, requiring me to climb up the mast to fix). We didn't need to fix a mast-problem now. However, the wind and seas kept building and we knew that we were way over powered.

I quickly decided to reduce the risk of a jammed main sail by having Nancy head up into the wind. This was intimidating, since the waves were beginning to break. The memory of another article passed before me - sailing in heavy weather reefed can turn a nerve-wracking ride into a relatively comfortable one, even after having to head up into those seas to execute the reefing maneuver. So Nancy swung Nanjo up into the building seas, using the engine to keep steerage, while I used the jiffy-reefing setup (allowing me to stay in the cockpit to complete the task, rather than having to go out on deck). The strategy paid off. We experienced a quick and easy reef. Within minutes, Nancy had us headed back downwind, Nanjo was moving at over 8 knots.

The new rainsquall line continued to approach us. I chose to avoid it. However, this meant that we had to steer away from our rhumb line. It was more advisable to go away from land rather than toward it. I took over steering. The wind was at gale force now. The tops of the waves were being blown off by the warm wind. I was being pelted in the back by the spray. The GPS was showing Nanjo going over 10 knots whenever she surfed in front of one of the 6-foot wind waves. The anemometer was indicating the wind in the 20's at the same time. This indicated that the "true" wind was well over 30 knots. Nancy kept watching for a change in the relative position of the rain, to see if we were going to get away. We flew like this for at least 20 minutes before she advised me that it was going past us.

However, as the squall line passed, the wind speed and wave height increased. Suddenly we were surfing at over 12 knots for extended periods, making me think about how high the bow was. Was Nanjo at risk of pitch poling? The bow looked OK. Nanjo was at an angle to the swells and not going faster than the waves. Still, I pondered what I would do if that situation presented itself. [Pitch poling is when the bow is driven into the base of a wave, while a wave behind pushes the boat's stern forward, flipping the boat end-for-end. One strategy is to steer at an angle, instead of straight down a swell.] The anemometer indicating 34 knots, the true wind was well over 40 knots! We kept flying away from land.

Around 1500 (3pm), we noticed that the winds were dropping back to the 30's and the waves were getting smaller, not breaking as much. We decided to use our speed to get back to land. Nancy quickly went below and plotted our position and figured the necessary course to get us to Puerto Escondido. We hadn't planned to stop there but we didn't know when the storm would quit and we knew we would be exhausted before nightfall.

We started to gibe the main, still in a gale. After a few cranks on the main winch, I realized something was wrong. Looking up, I saw that the topping lift (a wire-rope attached to the boom, to hold it up when the sail isn't raised) wrapped around the upper port spreader on the mast. Going on deck, I tried loosening it to get slack, but that didn't help. Then Nancy suggested that she round up and steer into the wind. I agreed, turned on the motor for steerage, and she completed the maneuver. The slack and flogging main gave me the necessary action to free the topping lift from the spreader. Nancy swung back downwind, while I turned off the motor. With care and control, we completed the gibe and furled out a very reduced amount of the jib, steering Nanjo onto a beam reach toward Pto. Escondido. With the sails trimmed, Steve took over the helm and we relaxed. Nanjo was making 7 knots and wasn't straining, in the trough (parallel to the waves), still in a gale. If we could keep that speed, we would make it there before dark.

As we relaxed we congratulated ourselves for turning this experience into experience. We recognized that through everything, we had felt under control, confident and interested in following a plan. We made choices after considering potential risks, not recognizing risks after experiencing them. There was a feeling that the crew of Nanjo was even better prepared for storms at sea. No, not cocky, but capable of handling the situation. We understood that panicking, at times when decisive action must be taken, could lead to mistakes and accidents. We had passed a test for a certain level of risk. We also knew that exhaustion could increase the probabilities of mistakes - we needed to rest in Escondido. The wind slowly dropped and we raced against time.

Finally, under motor, we pulled into the anchorage off the large town of Puerto Escondido after dark. Another sailboat anchored there was rocking wildly. We knew we were in for a rough night. We motored all over the well-lit anchorage (the town has stadium lights illuminating the pangas moored in the shallows) looking for a shallow place to anchor, something less than 60 feet. The best Nancy could find was a brief spot with 50 feet. We tried to hit one of these "low" spots, using every inch of chain Max (the anchor) had - 220 feet. By the time Max was well set, the Fathometer read 60 feet, although Nanjo was just a 100 yards off the beach and rocks. We turned on the GPS anchor-drag alarm and ate dinner at 2000. The clock was set to wake us at 0530 for the last leg of the transit.

We slept hard and had no dreams of storms. Just another hard day in Paradise!

Crew of Nanjo