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The Two Captains


Volume 62
17 Janurary 2002
The Gulf of Tehuantepec

The problem with weather windows - i.e. periods forecast to be free of nastiness - is that they are often free of any kind of wind at all. All the weather faxes we studied and the radio reports we listened to suggested nice mild breezes of 5-10-15 knots from the northeast. This would have been just ducky for our northwesterly course, but not once did we see a breeze from the northeast!

To be fair, this is not a failure of the forecasters, but is rather a phenomenon resulting from sailing in the lee of a big land mass. Instead of getting the real prevailing winds, we get land and sea breezes. The 2Cs certainly know about land and sea breezes in principal, but it is not something with which we got a lot of experience in the Caribbean.

So, there we were, under pressure to travel 530 miles as fast as possible in order to arrive on the other side of the Gulf of Tehuantepec before the next cold front came down from the US mainland into the Gulf of Mexico. Weather, as you surely know, is not always so predictable, but at this time of year the fronts march pretty steadily southward in four to five day patterns. Indeed there was already a front nudging into the north corner of the weather faxes. Honestly, even with the old engine laboring at full throttle, I thought we'd have to break off after two days at Puerto Madero, Mexico's first port of entry just south of the Gulf. Who knew how long we would have to hunker down there for the next break in the gales? I mean this is January, after all, the worst time of year to be making this crossing!

And if we thought that before we left Barillas, we thought it for sure after our first night out where a counter current slowed our progress down to barely three knots. We'd had a nice sail that afternoon (with the wind 180 degrees off what'd we'd expected) and under sail we'd pulled away from our buddy boat. But under power, Po' Oino Roa ("Crazy in the Head" in Tahitian) steadily left us in the dust! If we thought we were going to catch at least a glimpse of Guatemala from the sea, those thoughts were dashed thanks to a thick haze (cane fields burning) that screened the whole coastline from us. Instead, they sent out a fleet of shrimpers to make our second night doubly stressful on the moonless night.

Incredibly, however, as we approached Puerto Madero and the beginning of the actual Tehuantepc, the cold front in the Gulf turned around and went north as a warm front. This effectively threw the weather window wide open, and not only were there no gales, but the seas had had sufficient time to drop to a milk-pond like state. In these conditions, the Gulf of Tehuantepec is a downright pleasant trip! The prevailing strategy is to transit the Tehuantepec with "one foot on the beach," that is keeping a half mile offshore and in 30-50 feet of water! That way should a gale kick in, all you have to do is round up and drop your anchor. Although you can't hide from the wind that way, you are close enough the seas don't get room to build.

Despite the idyllic weather, both boats opted to stick to the plan and this made for some quite pleasant sightseeing. On the southern part of the Gulf the low shore is backed up by high mountains, very like southern California. In the center part the endless white beach has big lagoons behind it with low mountains in the distance behind them. Where the lagoons open into the Gulf, some dramatic bars are formed with big breaking rollers, which force the course a bit more offshore to pass them.

Somewhere along here was where the trans-isthmian canal planners of the late 19th century proposed the third option for a canal. Only about 800 miles across the Gulf of Mexico from New Orleans, it surely was the best looking choice on paper, and like Nicaragua it once did a good business shortcutting the transit to California for miners and cargo by rail road. But, like Nicaragua's volcanoes, the Tehuantepec's winds were something the engineers couldn't do anything about, and the canal was cut in Panama. Even today, the Mexican government bandies around various schemes for high speed railroads and/or highways to compete with Panama, but the guidebook also admits that top-heavy vehicles are sometimes blown right off the highway!

The best part of the Gulf transit was that we steadily picked up speed. By our fourth and last night, right where the worst of the Tehuantepecker gales are alleged to kick in, we got instead a fine sailing breeze. With everything up, we got brave and cut across the last corner of our course, saving not only a few miles of travel but at the same time keeping clear of all the obstacles off the oil port of Santa Cruz. By the time we rounded the corner into the anchorage at Huatulco, we were only an hour and a half behind Po Oino Roa! Not bad after four days of playing catch-up!

Huatulco, it turns out, is a resort fabrication of the last twenty years or so. There are nine beautiful bays in this ten-mile stretch of coast, all with lovely white sandy beaches, and clear diveable water, so the government decided they would create a new Cancun of the Pacific. Presto, chango!!! Huge hotels, resorts and a Club Med sprang up along the shores of the bigger bays to the east.

The original fishing village that was here, of which there lingers nary a trace, was called Santa Cruz, and the real workaday town of the area is inland and called La Crucecita. The day we arrived in Sant Cruz de Huatulco we found a picure-postcard waterfront and a big cruise ship at anchor with tenders ferrying passengers in and out. There were vendors and buskers all over the plaza fronting colorful tourist shops, and pasty white tourists in outrageous outfits! Deja vu of St. Thomas, except that instead of four to ten cruise ships a day they only get about two a month here! Up on the ridge, jack hammers work away all day on architectural flights of fancy, and there are a couple of hotels in town. Apparently it hasn't been quite the success with foreigners that they'd hoped for, but vacationers from within Mexico provide enough business to keep the tour boats working and the jet ski businesses flush.

Getting cleared in turned out to be quite the adventure, and, sadly a real wake-up call to any delusions we had that Mexico was going to be a cheap cruising ground. Wonderfully polite and friendly officials from five different agencies had papers for us to fill out and fees for us to pay, and three of them, including a detachment of four marines complete with automatic rifles felt the need to visit aboard and check out our
lockers! After all that, we went ashore with Kathy and Jerry of Po Oino for something to eat, and ignoring all the recommendations of locals we asked (who told us to get in a taxi and "go into town") we got suckered into a mediocre meal on the beach that ended up busting the budget for the week! One redeeming feature of the meal (well, other than that we were sitting on solid ground and someone else was cooking and washing up!) were the two guitarists with nice voices that Kathy paid to sing three old standards tableside.

The next day we did follow the locals' advice and taxied into La Crucecita to check things out there. The taxi driver responded to our request for a good, cheap local lunch by dropping us at the central market where we had, for one tenth the previous night's expense, a delightful lunch of real Mexican taquitos and frosty cold beer (remember, in Mexico beer is the healthy alternative to water!) The market was full of gorgeous vegetables - including GREENS! - and the very clean town offered quite a variety of shops and restaurants to browse through.

Po Oino headed on north to Acapulco this morning under pressure to get some repairs to their refrigeration. We are settling in a bit, with hopes of breaking out the dive gear today. In a few days, after another trip to the vegie market, we will shake loose and check out some of the other, more deserted bays before cruising on north. It is nice, at long last, to have no pressing deadline.

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