Sailing in Southern Mexico

Southern Mexico

We were told that boats don’t sail down here. That large fuel tanks were a cruisers best friend and that we should expect to motor the whole way. Well… that’s just not our style!

If you look at GRIBs, the southern Mexican coastline is void of breeze. It’s a wind deadzone that waits for hurricane season before it blows at all.

I’m here to tell you, its all wrong. You CAN sail here, and with a bit of patience, it can even be fun!

After leaving Zihuatenajo, we experienced one of the best passages we have had on the entire trip. No, we were not making record miles per day, but 100-120 isn’t bad for our pequeno barko. And we really wanted to see Oaxaca after everything we have heard about it.

It did not disappoint.

Almost all of the winds that we have experienced down here are diurnal. During the day you can expect the sea breeze to blow up to 15kts, though mostly in the 8-10 range, and at night the land breeze kicks in, but it’s a little calmer. The best part, flat seas. The cherry on top, sea turtles everywhere!

On the stretch from Ztown to Huatulco, those breezes are on the beam! The beam! Cindy sat at a nice easy 6kts for most of the day just cruising along. At night, the wind died for a couple hours between 9 and 11pm before the land breeze started to blow and we would jibe the kite.

The flat seas meant that cooking was easy and the experience aboard was really pleasant. We had an opportunity to tackle some of those projects that are on that never-ending list, and even work out! And they told me you couldn’t sail here!

We made two stops in Mexico after Zihuatanejo, Puerto Angel and Huatulco.

Puerto Angel was one of our favorite places in all of Mexico. We find that we get along well with the local fisherman everywhere we go, and this tiny, beautiful spot was well off the beaten cruiser path. If you stopped to take a look

We stopped along the way to try some local Mexcal

A short camineta (cheap public transit truck) away was a breathtaking coastline of a series of beaches. Zipolite, Mazunte, San Augustinillo.

…. We took advantage of the inexpensive transit and explored to our hearts content. Through a friend we met, we even got a tour of the local University! (more on that in another blog)

Huatulco was a sleepy tourist town, very dependent on cruise ships for income. There are several bays that you can anchor in, but it was HOT and we were antsy to see Costa Rica and Central America.

The biggest challenge we have experienced down south is the heat. Being PNWerners, we aren’t use to it.

Without shade and cold beverages it can be downright dangerous. Ava is struggling with it a bit more than I am, but I attribute that to all that time I spent in hay lofts stacking bales of hay in the miserable summer heat back in Indiana. At least here the dolphins keep us company and I am not inhaling all that hay dust and pollen that caused even the strongest of immune systems to have allergic reactions.

It took us a while to adopt our schedule and learn how to live down here, but after a few weeks of deliriously sweating we are starting to figure it out. We started to adopt rules to make life better.

#1 Hydrate Hydrate Hydrate. I am so glad we stocked up on gatorade and tea mixes before we left and installed our watermaker. Water is going through us like crazy. The sweet additives have the effect of making you crave drinking more, and otherwise I just couldn’t drink enough water. We always try to keep two bottles of something in the fridge.

#2 No cooking! No matter what, no cooking during the day. It is not wise to stoke the hell-fire, and any extra heat in the cabin could be what causes heat stroke to set in. We have become mediterranean in our cooking habits, we wait until the sun goes down and have late dinners. If we can, we make enough to have leftovers the following day for lunch and that gets us through the day. Thank you Poseidon for the fresh fish that allowed for fresh poke lunches.

#3 Shower and shower often. For us this means we break out trusty ol bucky (our rubbermaid bucket) and pour a few gallons over ourselves. We headed South for warmer waters, and it feels amazing to get a nice ocean-water shower. I wish Cindy had a swim step…

#4 Sleep when it’s cool. We have adjusted our watch schedules to allow each of us to get some sleep in the cooler hours. If not you will simply go mad. Waking up in a puddle of your own sweat and dehydrated is not the making for a pleasant watch.

As I write this, we are 4 days into a 760nm passage to Costa Rica from Huatulco, MX. It’s 7am and we are sailing hard on the wind at 5.5-6kts exactly on our rhumb line. Yesterday we freed ourselves of Mexico and the Gulf of Tehuantepec. By tonight, we should be sailing in El Salvadorian waters.

Our passage through the Gulf of Tehuantepec, or the “devils mouth” as some refer to it was one of the slowest we have experienced. Down here the winds are calm and it seems like the only bit of wind anyone wants to talk about. “How are you going to cross the Gulf?” “You mean you can’t just motor across?!” “Have you seen the lates Tpeck forecast?”

The Venturi Effect caused by the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is said to produce hurricane force winds, BUT if you stay near shore (which you can) that wind doesn’t have enough fetch to create the seas that make hurricanes so dangerous. You just get lots of wind, the GRIBs say 50kt gusts. These gusts are enough to blow tractor trailers over on the highway. Put it this way, you want to avoid it.

Although the racer/adventurer in me would have been excited about blasting across the Tpec testing myself and Cinderella, the conservative engineer in me realized this boat has to last us all the way around the world, and pushing her hard is how things (and people) break. We waited for a lull and crossed when the winds were light.

And boy were they light!! The lightest and most fickle we have yet experienced. Not only were they light, but the lagoons and estuaries that line the bay produce strange currents and counter currents that really put the brakes on.

On our third day out of Huatulco, we were sailing along close-hauled in about 10-12kts of breeze. Cindy was fully loaded up and somehow we were only going 4.5-5kts. In those conditions, we should expect to see 6.5-7kts, so I knew something was up. Sure enough a few hrs the fickle wind died and we were drifting right back down our rhumb line at 2kts, heading back into the Tpec’s danger zone. Damn!

We decided to motor straight to shore. One thing that is nice about this gulf is that it’s basically one giant beach. The beach has a gradual slope to shore, and about ½ mile offshore you find yourself in 30-50ft of water, and you can simply anchor anywhere. Being that we don’t trust the charts, and we like having sea room, were were sailing only a couple miles offshore. Close enough that we could tuck in if a Tpecker kicked up, but far enough away to give us some sea room.

Our plan was to throw the hook down until the breeze picked back up. That way we could avoid losing any ground. As we neared shore a very interesting thing happened, the current began to ease. We were both exhausted. The relentless heat was only quenched when we had a breeze, and there was none. The thought of anchoring and getting some sleep was the only thing that kept me going.

As we neared shore, we could hear that ominous sound of crashing waves grow louder and louder. According to the charts we should be in 30ft of water, but the sounder said 80 and wasn’t budging.

Something doesn’t seem right. The moonless sky was pitch black and all we could see was the blanket of stars above our running lights. Louder and louder that ominous breaking-wave sound grew.

We were about ½ mile from shore now and the depth was finally starting to drop, the current had oddly subsided and sure enough, we started to feel a light breeze. Just as the sounder started to read 50, we had 6kts or so of land breeze.

Once again we adjusted our plan, out came the sails and on we went, keeping just ½ mile from shore. That sleep would have to wait. 6 kts on the beam meant 3-4 kts of boat speed, and the less time spent in the Gulf of Tehuantepec the better.

As I sat in the cockpit looking up at scorpio bold as ever, I realized that we are sailing in that place everyone says you can’t. They say you can’t probably for the same reasons we struggled in the heat for weeks. It’s not what we are used to.

If Mexico has shown us anything, its that we need to be open to change. Don’t let ourselves get locked into the idea that all sailing should be trade winds sailing. Or that our typical way of doing things is the only way. Open your mind, be open to change, and you never know what you might find.

One Reply to “Sailing in Southern Mexico”

  1. Really enjoyed your blog and writing skil. I felt your pain. I have sailed a very little but could sense what you were going thru. Keep keeping on!

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