Monday, December 8, 2014

Rough crossing

Preparing for the short passage of only 72 miles across the Sea of Cortez from Punta Chivato on the Baja side to San Carlos on the mainland side I had been checking weather every day. All the reports, including the most current, was showing that it would be 5-7 knots on the Baja side, 8-12 knots in the middle around midnight then 8-12 the next morning on the San Carlos side when we would be arriving, all with mild seas, 1-2'.
 Tarren, Nathan and I ate dinner, watched a movie and then pulled the anchor around 10pm to head across. For the first hour or so it was as predicted...a very nice, light wind sail. Light enough that we had to motor sail. Then the wind came up a little and we turned the motor off. A perfect crossing we thought. Around 11:30 the wind started kicking up quickly. 20...25...then 30 knots and gusting higher. I continued to reduce sail by reefing the main and jib in an attempt to stay ahead of the quickly rising wind and seas. At first the seas were not terrible, just a lot of white caps. By midnight we had taken all the sail down and the seas had built considerably. By this point I had abandoned making progress toward SC and was instead was just trying to keep the boat heading into the wind and, by now, 8-10' breaking seas. It was pitch black, wind howling and seas that were steep and close together with other swells coming from different directions. The seas were definitely confused with the main train of waves following the wind coming from almost due north and other swells coming from all different directions.
With the wind steady at over 30 knots, gusting to over 40, it was all I could do to keep the boat heading into the swells and wind. Waves were breaking over the bow and several that broke over the side dowsing Nathan and I in the cockpit. We were motoring forward into the weather between .5 - 1 knot, honestly, in survival mode. Hours went by and there was no way to be relieved at the helm, nobody else could have managed the boat as It was nearly impossible for me. Nathan stayed up in the cockpit with me, not able to do anything but it was a great mental support for me to have him there. Tarren stayed down below in my bunk only to come up briefly to see if things were any better and then go back downstairs more afraid than before. I felt bad for her. Not only because she felt super crappy due to the seas but more because I knew she was scared for her life...literally. Hours passed and because of no sleep since the night before and feeling slightly felt like forever. But I had no choice. I could not leave the helm. I began to beg for the breaking light of the morning because I had hoped that the light and warmth of the morning would help dissipate the storm. Even if it didn't I knew it would be better if could simply see what was coming to help in taking avoidance measures steering into it. By 3am I was beyond exhausted and had a headache from staring at the compass and wind indicator so I could know which way to steer. I started getting a blister or two on my hands from the ever constant grip on the helm. My head felt like someone had their palm on top of my head and then jerked my head in random directions at random times, but it was only the random pitching of the boat and it all added to my splitting headache. At different times the storm added rain to the cast of elements that it threw at us. The rain stung as it hit us. Between the rain and the waves breaking over the boat along with the howling winds and darkness, it was cold. I was shivering. With no sails up to steady the boat it tossed wildly from side to side and also pitched steeply upward as we climbed up the waves then like a teeter totter pitched downward off the back side of the wave sending the bow under water as it hit the base of the next oncoming wave. The waves were very steep and very close together, about 3-4 seconds from one peak to the next.
Things downstairs were mostly staying in there places with the exception a a few shells or device chargers that were sliding across the floor as the boat pitched in all directions. Late in the early morning before light we estimated that it would begin to get light around 6am or so. That too was a disappointment. Because of the storm it was dark, pitch black until the sun was well up over the horizon and we finally began to see the beginnings of light around 7:30-8:00am.
During the night I caught a glimpse of the paddleboard, which at the start of the passage was tied to the port rail, flying wildly to the end of its tethers which at some point had loosened and allowed to move so much that I thought it wasn't tied down at all. Shining the beam of the flashlight up that direction Nathan reported that indeed there was nothing still tying the board to the boat. I knew it was only a matter of time before it would take flight in the gusting winds and be blown off into the darkness. A while later I saw a faint flash as the paddle board was lifted off the deck and took flight. "We just lost the paddleboard" I said to Nathan. He shined the flashlight up front again to discover that it was still on board...barely. It had left its spot on the port side deck and flown off to starboard only to become pinned by the wind against the mast and the wire stays...about 4' off the deck. Stuck up there only held there by the 35 knot winds like a leaf pasted against an old oak tree in a strong fall breeze. It stayed there for several minutes and then blew downward onto the starboard deck where it mostly stayed until the light of the morning came and the winds began to decline. Several hours later Nathan crawled forward with a jib sheet tied to his waist and pulled the board aft and secured it. How it did not fly off into the night is beyond me. Not that it mattered at the time, I had written it off many hours before as a donation to the storm.
The dinghy and motor were also on my thoughts as very possible candidates for being lost overboard during the storm. The motor was on the aft side rail on a board mount and was struck several times by breaking waves that hit us from the side. I pictured the board breaking and everything just being drug off the boat and quickly sinking rapidly to the bottom of the Sea of Cortez. The dinghy was up on the davits about 5' off of the water but many times I heard a loud crash when a wave would smash into the bottom of the dinghy and violently shake the entire davit system. If a wave actually broke into the dinghy it would have filled instantly and the immense weight would have torn the entire davit system off the boat, dinghy and all. It didn't happen but it was often on my mind and although that represents a large amount of cash I knew none of that mattered. My focus was keyed into maintaining control of the boat and continuing the never ending battle of keeping the bow heading into the wind and seas.
Once it was fully light around 8 or 8:30m the wind began to decline. It took another hour or two before the sea state was settled enough to return to our heading which would take to us San Carlos. We put up a double reefed main and jib and turned our heading to SC. On the knot meter it showed that we were going around 3-4 knots but on the gps we were only making about 1-2 knots of actual forward progress. The residual southbound current from the storm were long from subsiding. At this pace it would take us over 40 hours to travel the remaining 40 miles to the mainland side. The thought of that was painful, not wanting to be out on the ocean for even another 5 minutes. We should have been arriving in San Carlos by now if the passage had gone as planned. As it turned out the seas calmed considerably and the wind was now down to 15-20 knots. We put out full sail and used the engine in an attempt to reach SC before dark. Arriving just before sunset, the calm of San Carlos harbor was very welcomed.
In retrospect I learned a lot about my boat, myself and the need to be prepared for the worst...which we were not. You may think that the way this is written I have taken literary license adding in more than actually happened to liven up the story. I didn't. And although this was not a survival situation by any standard it was definitely a trying experience and one that scared me and tested me. Given the choice I hope I never have to do it again.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Typical day

It's about 7am and the light flowing into my aft cabin has already awaken me. I'm lying here in my bunk not wanting to get up but knowing that the ham radio nets providing me with daily weather reports are more important than a few lazy moments in bed.
Last night was a pretty normal night at anchor here in Playa Santispak and it was mostly quiet once the Mexican music stopped playing in the restaurant on the beach around 11pm. I woke up around 5am when a panga raced by carrying a couple of poor fisherman out to their hopeful spot in the wee hours of the morning. I'm sure they were completely oblivious to the fact that their wake was spilling through the anchorage sending the other boats into a gentle rolling motion and in doing so waking me before I had hoped.  I grumbled to myself through the fog of my sleepy mind then quickly fell back asleep until later when the light began to pour into my cabin just before 7am.
Rolling over and swinging my hips and legs over the front of the bunk and placing my feet on the teak floor I catch my balance by grabbing the wooden doorway as I make my way into the galley to get some coffee brewing while I turn on the Ham radio. Through the blur of my early morning mindset I press the little red button on the coffee pot and scratch my head tying to figure out why it is not turning on. Ah, I remember now...I had forgotten to turn on the inverter which converts battery power to AC current so I can enjoy a few of the conveniences like coffee pots that I took for granted back home. Turning the inverter on it makes a low, quiet hum and brings to life the coffee maker that will help my mind to move into the day ahead.  Almost immediately I start to hear the water bubbling and the occasional steam spewing as it drips the dark droplets of coffee into the carafe. I look up at the clock on the bulkhead at the far side of the reads 7:05am. The round, brass barometer sits just below the clock and I notice that the pressure continues to remain stable around 1015 millibars so I assume that the fair skies and good weather should be with us for at least a while longer.
I flip on the Ham radio and begin to spin the dial. As I turn the dial the speaker broadcasts a variety of high and low pitched noises mixed in with the ever constant scratching sound until I finally hone in on a familiar voice. It's Robert on Harmony, the net controller for today taking the morning check-ins from various vessels spread around the Sea of Cortez and the Mexican coastline. Shortly after 7:15 he turns the control over to some guy up in Arizona who gives us a detailed weather report including wind, sea state, crossing reports and forecasts for the next 3 days. The report has the weather good for today and tomorrow but starting on Friday they are expecting a norther to blow in bringing a bit colder temperatures and winds in the 20-25 knot range for the following 3 days.
Santispak is a great spot to sit out a norther. The anchorage is about a 1/2 mile crescent bay with room for several boats anchored over a very good holding sand bottom with mountains flanking to the west, north and east sides of the turquoise waters. Protection to the south is not perfect but even in that direction there is partial shielding from the various small islands that dot the shallow waters of the Bay of Conception going southward toward Buenaventura.
I had planned to head north toward Punta Chivato on Saturday but with the forecasted norther coming I will stay put and wait it out. There isn't much here but some campers on the beach and a restaurant named Ana's. The last few days I have been alone onboard so every so often I have rumbled ashore in the dinghy to get a meal at Ana's. So far I have yet to see anyone else in the restaurant except for the two owners and myself. However, regardless of the lack of customers, they open up the place promptly at 8am every morning with the sand parking lot out front cleanly raked and inside everything is neat and tidy awaiting their customers, customers who seem to rarely come. Business in Baja is rarely booming.   Indifferent to the infrequent patrons and lack of income, they are a very happy couple and are grateful for a roof over their heads and a few pesos in the till to take care of their basic needs.
The coffee is done and I pour a cup and take it upstairs through the companionway and plop myself down on the semi soft cushions of the cockpit.  The sun is now well above the horizon and I climb out of the cockpit onto the deck to see if the solar panels on top of the bimini are being blocked by the boom.  As karma usually dictates, the boom is casting a shadow across the forward three panels so I move the boom over to the port side and secure it with the main preventer line allowing maximum sun exposure to the panels that will recharge my batteries that I had partially depleted since the sun went down yesterday afternoon.
I'm bored. There are definitely things that I need to attend to but none of them must be done this moment so I grab the current book I am reading, slide the Mola pillow that my mom made for me under my head and soon I find myself quickly turning the pages completely unconcerned with the passage of time.  After a few chapters I decide that I had better at least make an attempt at checking an item or two off of the perpetual to do list.  My mind goes through the various items that need attention...polish the stainless up on deck.  Ugh, I've been putting that one off for a few days now but it can wait a few more.  Clean the bilge. Yuck, that is a really greasy job and do I really want to get into that right now?  No, not really.  Clean the sand out of the dinghy.  Hmmm, what's the point?  It's just going to get sandy again today, tomorrow or the next day... lol.  Ok, maybe I will just head down below and wash the dishes and maybe if I'm really energized I will clean the cabin floor.  Where does all of that hair, lint, dirt and various bits come from anyway?
The day passes as I manage to check a few items off of the list.  However, the list is now longer than it was when I started the day.  Par for the course!  As I go about one task I am introduced to several others and so they get added to the list.  If it sounds like cruising is a perpetual to do list, it is...kind of.  It is true that the projects needing attention on a 25 year old cruising boat never end.  However, most are not "have to do now" projects and so they eventually get done as time and energy permits. Actually, very few things have to be done immediately.
The markers of the end of another day on the ocean begin to reveal themselves.  The afternoon breeze has lightened, the water calms and the seabirds begin to feed as the sun slowly loses it's brightness and instead gives way to colors of pink and orange gathered around the western horizon.  Before it is fully dark I connect the dinghy to the lines hanging below the davit arms off the stern of the Liahona. Pulling on each line the dinghy slowly raises off of the water and into a secure position off of the back deck.  I see other boats in anchorages that simply leave their dinghy in the water with nothing other than a bow painter to hold it fast to the mothership.  In theory, that should be sufficient but it is a bit like leaving your cars keys in plain site in the car in a sketchy neighborhood or wafting a savory piece of meat in front of a hungry lion. What most don't think of is the fact that your dinghy and motor represent about 6-12 months of income for a fisherman pretty much anywhere in Latin America.  They are good people, and for the most part very honest, but some temptations are simply too much to resist.  So I have vowed to never be too lazy to remove that temptation from their view hoisting my dinghy 5 to 6 feet off of the water every night.  No exceptions.
I walk through the cockpit and tidy up a few things as I move toward the companionway carefully walking down the 6 steps that lead into the main cabin.  Dinner tonight will be simple.  After boiling some water and softening the noodles I pour in the seasoning while trying to decipher the instructions written in Spanish on the back of the packaging.  My Spanish is pretty good but sometimes my vocabulary in specific arenas, such as cooking, makes me realize that there is still room for improvement.  Just before the pasta is done I grab a bottle of tepid water that has been sitting on the countertop since I filled it from the water maker earlier this morning and pour a packet of fruit flavoring in.  Cold drinks are a rare privilege on a boat.  While it is true that I have a fridge and freezer onboard, drinking water is not among the contents getting chilled because it takes a great deal of energy to cool down that much water just to be slurped up in a few minutes of mostly under appreciated guzzling.  Power aboard is a limited resource and therefore is closely monitored and carefully guarded.  There is only so much reserve in the battery bank and the solar panels can only recharge the batteries at a certain rate and, of course, only during the daylight hours.
After dinner I scrub the dishes under the salt water tap and then carefully rinse them with another precious commodity that is carefully and wisely used...fresh water.  After placing them on the dry towel I lay down on the settee with my book and read until sleep begins to creep into my mind.  It's fully dark now so I turn on the anchor light atop the mast, turn off the cabin lights and stumble back into my bunk.  As the boat slowly rocks in the gentle swells of the bay, I fade off to sleep with a smile on my face and a heart full of gratitude for the way I get to live.  I will awake tomorrow realizing that today has bled into tomorrow... and the cycle gets repeated.  Sometimes with different scenery, sometimes not.  However, at the end of the day I will fall asleep thinking the same thing I did last night...I love this life!