Non sailors ask us what happens when we encounter bad weather. The answer:
Deal with it.
It’s 2am on Friday, December 14th and Conor is on watch. We are 40 hours in to the passage from Ensenada Grande to Mazatlan with the nearest land 70 miles away. Twelve hours prior we received an updated weather report from a passing freighter that told us to expect winds 30-45 kilometers per hour. By our calculations this was only 16-25 nautical miles per hour. We also consulted the Navigation Safety and Marine Weather chapters in Richard K. Hubbard’s BOATER’S BOWDITCH book to help us track the moving front by the changes in the wind and rain patterns. We figured the upcoming weather conditions were nothing we couldn’t handle with a reefed main.
5 hours ago the wind was blowing 20 knots (20 nautical miles per hour). 3 hours ago the wind was blowing an average of 30 knots. Then things got interesting. From 2am to 3:45am we had sustained 36+ knots from the ESE (East Southeast) which was exactly the direction of our destination. The wind may have gusted to higher levels but since we knew we couldn’t do anything more for the boat we didn’t even bother to check anemometer any more. We had to point upwind to the NE to get a better sailing angle but it took us farther from our destination. Moondance was climbing up, over, and down angry school bus sized waves in the rain. The phosphorescence illuminated the tops of cresting waves. The horizon was aglow. Sometimes a huge wave would throw a bucket of water over the boat and in to the cockpit, filling the space with glowing water that quickly drained out and back in to the sea.
“Remember when I said it was too late in the trip to turn back yesterday? I was wrong,” said Conor.
We typically take 3 hour watches during night passages. If the weather is bad that shortens to 1 hour watches. The person off watch is supposed to be sleeping. But who are we kidding- there is no sleep to be had in these conditions. The person off watch is just trying to get a break from the elements. The person on watch watches the water rush by the boat in big lumpy gobs and stares in awe. Although the waves were large, they were not too close together so there was less pounding on the boat than we would have expected and a double reefed main made for a relatively smooth ride.
At 3:45am the winds finally died down to the mid 20s again. The change in wind is noted in the log book followed by several excited exclamation points. By now the waterlogged red navigation light on the bow had gone out. We start counting down the hours and minutes until daylight.
6:30am.The sun rises but clouds cover the entire sky.
9am. We start to see blue skies appear and disappear on the horizon. The seas are still big and the wind is down to 15 knots and clocking from SE to S.
At 11am we turned the engine back on to charge our batteries. We accidentally left the radar scanner on all night and the bilge pump had been working overtime. We motored in to the swell on a direct course as possible. Then the engine stopped working. The waves had kicked up sediment in the tank, clogging the fuel filter. We could no longer take a direct route to Mazatlan and we attempted several different sailing configurations to cover as much ground as possible.
At 2pm the wind died to 5 knots and the waves were too lumpy for our sails to catch any wind. The boom was thrown from side to side as the main went FWAP, FWAP, FWAP! It costs a dollar each time the sail makes that sound. Another sail car broke. It was time to take the sail down and let the waves have their way with us until the wind picked up. Each time I went to the mast to drop the sail the wind piped up. By the time I made it back to the cockpit, the wind died again. This happened twice. Then the wind raised to 10 knots. As if a switch was turned the wind swung around to the NE and we saw 30 knots before it settled back down to the mid 20s. The sky opened up and rain assaulted us sideways. We changed course, set the sails, and scooted along at 7 knots on a broad reach as we hid below decks. Our shoes were so full of water we had to take them off in the sink.
The mixture of rainwater and sea water washing over the boat was making its way inside through the hawse pipe. The float switch was turning on the bilge pump ever 5 seconds and with already low batteries and no engine, our batteries would soon be drained. Following Conor’s direction I mixed flour and water in to a play-doh like substance in a plastic bag. From inside the chain locker I stuffed the bag in through the hawse pipe with a cloth napkin to keep it from slipping back down while Conor sat in the cockpit working the manual bilge pump. Less water came in to the boat and Conor was able to hide out down below with me.
By 5pm the wind had dropped to the mid-teens, the seas had calmed back down, and the rain stopped. It was calm enough now to add 5 gallons of fuel to the tank, change the fuel filter, and bleed the engine. It started right up. We were also able to eat for the first time in over 24 hours. Top Ramen never tasted so good.
As we neared land the running lights shorted out and tripped the fuse. Moondance was in the dark and served as a navigation hazard to the 8 shrimp boats we had pass on the way to the channel. The only thing we could do was attach the solar deck light to the boom (thank you again Karen and Joost for this going away gift!)
The large spotlights at Marina El Cid showed us that although the tide was low, there was no swell in the channel so we could safely enter. We motored past the breakwater with the red navigation light on our right and green on the left, passed Marina El Cid, passed through another set of red and green lights, and tied up at the Fonatur Marina in Mazatlan by 3am.
Finally. It was time for bed.