“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.”
-R. L. Stevenson, El Dorado
Costa Rica to Acapulco
900 miles in eight days
Suka had been under way less than 15 minutes when her full complement of sails suddenly backwinded. Her two-person crew scurried about dousing canvas in an ever increasing blow, only to find themselves in the teeth of the season's first Papagayo. So much for local knowledge. Under deeply reefed canvas the brig reached close hauled across increasingly white capped seas, with spray flashing from her bow, and a white, foamy wake trailing far astern. The thought of turning back for nearby shelter was out of the question; this was our first genuine wind since leaving the Caribbean and we were not about to squander it. The sailing was exhilarating.
And as if this new found climatic exuberance had failed to provide sufficient excitement, the fishing line jerked taut. With one foot braced on the weather rail, now intermittently awash, Jenny struggled to haul aboard a dorado that measured 52 inches in length - our largest catch yet.
The flap was mild, as Papagayos go, never blowing much over perhaps 40 knots. And as the day wore on, and as the brig progressed past the gale's source - a capacious valley between mountain ranges - the wind slowly veered abaft the starboard beam. During the night the blast swung further aft, and this markedly increased the yacht's comfort factor. Then in another 24 hours the wind diminished, and allowed us to hoist the big genoa and to shake out the mainsail. And by the third day the gale had blown itself out.
After three days of eating fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I was reluctant to restock our seafood larder by tossing out the trolling line. But compulsive fishing is a malady known to affect mariners plying these waters, and the temptation was strong. Out went the lure, and a few minutes later it had snagged another jumbo dorado.
To prevent the left-over fish from spoiling, Jenny marinated thin slivers of it in soy and Worcestershire sauce, and spread these on a pan atop the cabin. One day's exposure to the tropical sun dehydrated the pieces into fish jerky, a favorite snack aboard the brig.
In turn, we sat in the cockpit at our three-hourly tricks at night watch, bathing in astral luminescence and watching wide-eyed the brilliant phosphorescence sweeping, careening, and dancing ethereal fandangos deep within the water. In light and variable airs Suka motored along flat seas, at a speed markedly improved after de-scaling the engine's heat exchanger.
Dawn revealed the mountains of El Salvador stretching across the starboard horizon. The navigator showed her head from the hatchway to announce that we were presently crossing the border between El Salvador and Guatemala, and some 35 miles off-shore.
“From the journal:
“November 20, 1985: We have been motoring continuously for 50 hours, and are about eight miles off-shore. The wind is light, the seas are flat, and the weather is beautiful. The sun has risen and Jenny is in the galley preparing a batch of pancakes for breakfast - despite the fish fillets that we need to eat. We landed yet another big dorado yesterday, when once again I couldn't resist the temptation to toss out the lure. After breakfast, Jenny will take over, and I will retire below for a morning siesta.”
Dolphins pacing the boat.
“Sitting in the cockpit nearing the end of my watch, I am being regaled by a school of perhaps a dozen dolphins, which has closed with the ketch. We've seen many of these affable creatures on this leg of the journey; presumably their food supply is plentiful in this region, as indicated by the productive fishing we have experienced. The dolphins love to cavort at Suka's bow, and in so doing they provide us with high-grade entertainment. Yesterday, half a dozen of them put on a show lasting nearly two hours. Their repertoire of stunts included swimming in close formation, enacting an underwater ballet of twirling and graceful twisting, darting away at jet speed then racing back toward the pack with a finale of a high leap out of the water and a dive back into the group at the bow. And one of their favorites was swimming barely ahead of the cutwater. In this position, they hardly needed to move their tails. It is rather like surfing to them, as they ride the boat's underwater pressure wave. Sometimes the dolphins will leap clear of the water, and from our bowsprit vantage we see them eye-to-large-black-eye, at a distance of only five feet or so. And our excited cheering and clapping seems to encourage them to no end.”
“Yesterday we encountered numerous large sea turtles. In the distance we would see a bird standing seemingly on the water's unrippled surface. And as we approached, we would find that the bird was actually standing on a sleeping turtle. One bird meant a turtle; a line of birds, though, meant a log. With the first such encounter we pulled a tight 360 degree turn around the turtle before switching the autopilot back on, and continuing onward on our original heading. The turtle meanwhile remained fast asleep and apparently oblivious to our presence. This seemed odd considering the noise of Suka's engine.”
Large sea turtle.
A line of birds standing on a log.
Somewhere off the coast of Guatemala we were approached by two small open boats that traveled at astounding speed. For the first time ever, I unlatched our semi-auto rifle from its secret compartment and laid it in the cockpit. The two boats sped past and disappeared over the horizon. With relief we surmised that perhaps they were only hunting turtles.
Last night, as we motored placidly across the boundary into Mexican waters, a trawler-sized vessel approached from astern, and paced us at a distance of a few hundred feet, while shining a blinding light in our direction for several minutes. We cowered down below, steering Suka by autopilot. Eventually the bright light extinguished, and the vessel departed. We later learned that the Mexican coast guard watches their border closely, and commonly investigates passersby in such an odd fashion.
Our next possible stopover was Puerto Madero, but south-bound yachtsmen had warned us that the harbor master there routinely padded his pockets at the expense of any hapless skipper that steamed into his domain. So with propitious weather and ample supplies we carried on.
At one point we began seeing mackerel in the water all around. They averaged about 18 inches in length, and were passing us at perhaps double our speed. Occasionally they would splash at the surface in unison. This confusion covered the face of the sea for as far as the eye could see in practically all directions. Astonishingly, the colossal school spent eight hours passing us by.
Mackerel all around us.
Gulf of Tehuantepec
We were approaching the infamous Gulf of Tehuantepec (too-whan'-ta-peck), an area of frequent and ferocious off-shore gales, caused by winds funneling unhindered across the lowlands. Because this off-shore gale reputedly builds a deadly chop - even a short distance out - the safest way to navigate here is said to be hugging the shoreline: to "keep one foot on the beach," as the saying went.
Our first indication of difficulties was an increasing swell coming from directly ahead. This is the condition that Suka finds most problematic; for in the oncoming crests and troughs she pitches wildly, her hobby-horsing causes her clipper bow to slam down onto the next wave, and if the swells are sufficiently large, and coming at a particular frequency, her bowsprit catwalk pile-drives into the water with such force that the vessel shudders stem to stern. Perkins is not sufficiently powerful to force the vessel ahead in such conditions, so my only recourse was to bear away. However, in these conditions a brisk wind in the sails will drive Suka quite nicely. And wind we soon received, although far more than we had bargained for.
The farther we went the stronger the wind, which veered more off-shore. So we flew along, holding close to shore, generally following the five fathom contour as indicated on our echo sounder. Well after dark the wind increased beyond the capability of even our smallest sails, save the storm try, which we did not feel inclined to hoist. So we pulled down the sails and motored along bare-poled, heeling well over with the wind bawling through the rigging. Close ashore the chop was minimal, and this allowed us to move with surprising speed.
All went well until we encountered the mouth of an estuary where the six fathom line headed a mile offshore. We followed this curve until we had bypassed the effluent, then we motored full ahead into the gale, clawing our way with agonizing slowness back toward land. By then we had endured more than enough. I motored toward shore, and soon noticed that someone ashore was shining a light, presumably to help guide us in. We gave this person a blast of thanks on our horn. Being careful not to stand in too close because of what sounded like mountainous, crashing surf, we unshipped the anchor and lowered it into 30 feet. Assured that a tehuantepecer will blow continually offshore, without changing its direction, in the raging gale we retired comfortably belowdecks and spent a restful night.
Early the next morning we were working topsides in vicious winds, preparing for departure, when as if with a flick of a switch the wind ceased. Standing there in a dead calm we looked at one another incredulously. Then feeling as though we had died and gone to Heaven, we motored pleasantly along the coastline, basking in the warm sunshine.
But our reprieve proved short-lived, for later that morning we began encountering the characteristic head-on swell again. And soon this brought with it headwinds. This gale was not as intense, though, and by afternoon we were racing along, Suka flying a deep reefed main and jib. Our close hauling to weather required that I hand-steer all afternoon, but considering the calm water, the warm sunshine, and our comparatively high rate of speed, we found the sailing exhilarating.
After dark we sailed past the brightly lit harbor of Salina Cruz. Then rounding the corner, and now well out of reach of the tehuantepecers, we moved about eight miles out, to be certain of clearing any off-lying rocks.
While I was working forward, this Tern landed on me.
The next morning we moved back inshore and motored into light headwinds while following the beautifully vegetated headlands. These were attractively seascaped in rocky escarpments indented with small, white-beached bays. We passed by the anchorages of Puerto Angel and Hualtulco because we did not wish to subject ourselves to the clearance procedures, as required by any Mexican port that had officials in residence.
At 11 p.m. we arrived at Puerto Escondido, a small refuge where officials were said to be absent. This was a Friday night, and apparently the local fishermen were home, as evidenced by numerous punts, called pongas, which occupied the entirety of the small basin, leaving us nowhere to anchor. Powerful and tempting aromas of cooking food wafted from the small village, and increased our appetites a hundred times over. However, members of a band were hacking away on their electrically over-amplified instruments, playing Elvis Presley tunes at the upper decibels, and this, even more than the lack of anchorage, discouraged us from staying. We were staggeringly sleepy; all we wanted to do was to set the anchor and collapse in the bunks. Summoning our reserves, however, we made sail for the open sea, and left Puerto Escondido astern.
The wind was light and the sea calm, so we motored along while steering by autopilot. But a deep fatigue required that we take turns at ultra-short dog watches, and even then, the watchkeeper slept, albeit fitfully.
“Steering by autopilot, Jenny called urgently. I jumped up and looked out, and there in the black of night stood land - dead ahead.”
I was resting belowdecks when Jenny called urgently. I jumped up and looked out, and there in the black of night stood land - dead ahead. Jenny had been dozing, but had awakened in time to prevent sure disaster. We swung Suka around, headed back out to sea, and reset the autopilot - wondering how this could have happened. Something had affected Suka's auto pilot, and turned Suka ninety degrees toward land. The fluxgate compass that feeds heading information to the auto pilot had been affected by some sort of electric or magnetic perturbation, most likely man-made. Had a submarine passed beneath and tested its secret technology on us? Other than conjecture, I had no real explanation.
In a similarly abstruse vein, the Australians Richard and Diane Molony had reported an unexplained happening while sailing Nikki past the Amazon River, 80 miles off-shore. "We were in water 1,112 fathoms deep on a clear night with a gentle breeze," Richard reported, "when the sound of breaking water brought us both to the deck in a flash. Nothing was in sight, but all around the sea boiled and swirled, slewing Nikki one way and then the other. It sounded like tidal overfalls. Then we were clear of the area and back to smooth sailing. The disturbance was probably caused by an upwelling of Amazonian water. Strangely, though, that same night our radar detector went insane, bonging its heart out for 5 minutes, even though there were no ships or planes in sight. At the same time our Sat-nav lost all memory. We have no explanation."
Dragging a large bonito aboard, I tossed the line back into the water in order to straighten it, before reeling it back onto the spool. However, this proved a mistake, because another large bonito voraciously struck the lure. "Oh, come on," I protested, "not another bonito. OK fish, let's do this the easy way. Just swim near and I'll remove the hook and set...you...free." But no, the fish had to struggle and thrash mightily for 15 minutes until I could muscle it close enough to reach over the rail and grab the hook with a pair of pliers. One shake freed the creature, and this time I did not feed the line back into the water in order to straighten it before winding it back onto the spool.
These fresh bonito afforded a delicious sushimi. Jenny would fillet the fish, then dice the flesh into bite sized pieces. We dipped these raw morsels into a strong horseradish sauce called Wasabe, then we ate them as is. While reading in the cockpit, I happened to glance to the deck where my beloved was preparing the fillets. Without dipping them into the Wasabe sauce she was nibbling the raw flesh.
(Photo taken a bit further north, in cooler weather.)
The next day, the 25th of November, at 3 a.m in the dark of night - We entered the extravaganza of a port that is Acapulco. The huge bay was surrounded by steep hills covered with brightly lit high-rise luxury hotels and other buildings. The lights of these were so bright that we could easily see to navigate. Along the waterfront, cruise ships lay bedecked in colored lights stems to sterns, which added to the enchantment. The early morning stillness was broken only by the low rumble of Perkins as we headed for the Acapulco Yacht Club, and by greetings we exchanged with passing fishermen.
At the club we threaded our way through myriad vessels large and small, and borrowed an unoccupied mooring. The ship's sumlog indicated that in the eight days since leaving Costa Rica we had traveled a little over 900 miles.