Hello All (again), and you two again!
First Jessica’s FACEBOOK post on the trip, then some screen shots and the like…
Here is one way to start the New Year. Take a little journey with me from La Paz, Baja California Sur, to Mazatlan, across the Sea of Cortez, aboard the gallant sailing vessel Hajime.
We left La Paz in the morning and had thought to take Cerralvo passage. This started off mild and then shifted to wild, not in a good way. It turns out that Cerralvo is like the golden gate, it turns into a narrow funnel which wind and wave and tide can make into a horrible passage, stacked with high waves and a howling wind in, of course, the wrong direction. So we did an about-face, got back to the top of Isla Cerralvo, and started across the Sea of Cortez.
The water was lumpy, stirred up by contrary winds and not yet finding itself a quiet moment. I was queasy, but our first overnight was not so bad. We said happy new year as we changed watches, and saw the moon through clouds, and the stars hardly at all. I picked up my second night watch at 0400 and had a single luminous dolphin in the middle of the Sea of Cortez for my pains, and thought it was a wonderful gift.
My weather gribs, which we had pulled an hour before our departure, showed a south flow of wind along the mainland coast until close to 0200 the morning of the 2nd, and my considered opinion was that I didn’t want to be in it. Jim and I agreed to turn right and do our southing there in the middle. We hit a flat calm. No problem, expected from the gribs, then the wind and waves freshened from the west and we shifted course towards our goal and we were moving along at sundown, which was when we heard a mayday.
Now, I had no desire to deal with this. Jim had no desire to deal with this. My mind was already in Mazatlan, where I was promising myself all sorts of earthly delights—massage, dinner at Angelina’s Kitchen, all the things that would motivate me to keep my chin up in sketchy weather and uncertain passage. We would be there at sunrise.
But there was a mayday, and we heard it and so we answered. The call was from a boat called Green Dragon 2, which was taking on water. They were 26 or so miles north of us, which is at the outside edge of normal radio transmission. There were lightning storms up there. I could see them. Damn it, I hate the idea of lightning when I’m on the boat. But we turned north with the wind now coming out of the west and the seas getting rowdier, and continued to call for the Mexican Navy, relaying for the boat in distress. Ominously, no one responded. There was complete radio silence.
We used our Garmin InReach to text my brother Alex to call the US coast guard. This is, by the way, one of the most frustrating modes of communication it has ever been my experience to deal with. It’s supposed to be linked by bluetooth to my phone, but that connexion is not really clean, it’s hard to add in new numbers, and sometimes it just didn’t seem to work. Jim wound up having to do most of it, and had to do it using the Garmin, which has no keyboard, only an alphabet panel and a directional pointer, which is hard to use properly when the boat is moving in all directions at once.
The CG told us that they had received the EPIRB alert (That’s a satellite distress call) from the boat and alerted the Mexican Navy. At this point, communications screwed up. They said that the Mexican Navy had dispatched a unit, causing us to heave a sigh of relief. But we kept going because Mazatlan was 80 miles south of us, and that’s a long way off in water time. Even a fast boat only does 20 knots. How long does it take a boat to sink?
The wind turned to the north, so we were fighting 8 foot seas of 5-8 seconds period, and everything inside the boat was shaken, not stirred. Nothing stayed put. However, we’ve been in worse seas, and we know our boat is tough. We were ‘walking’ the boat, standing behind the wheel and moving from foot to foot as the waves threw the boat from side to side, and holding on to whatever handholds we could as we motored on, through lightning storms on either side of us, and looked anxiously for a boat. Any boat, where the hell was the navy?
Very close to midnight on the 1st of the year, we approached our target. We could finally see her, lit up with her running lights and masthead. This in spite of the fact that the water was reported to have reached the battery level at about 10:00 pm. We had been in intermittent radio contact with Green Dragon, who reported water still rising, they could not figure out where the water was coming in from, they were prepared to abandon ship.
The scene became surreal. We approached the boat. We turned on our deck lights, to give us some idea of what was going on. We had been asking ourselves how we intended to do this, and we knew that in these seas we could not come along side. There was too much movement, and if we banged into them we could both need rescue. We circled once, assessing the scene, the seas, the situation. The boat itself was low in the water, down at the nose, like a dejected donkey. They had the life raft deployed behind the boat, and it was a terrifying thing. It is essentially an igloo, inflated rubber in the bottom and a fabric tent roof over it, and it made me want to puke just looking at it moving in the water. It was an orange and black bubble of hope and horror.
They weren’t in the life raft yet. We circled again. We had agreed, by radio, that they would get in the life raft and stay tethered to Green Dragon while moving away from the mother ship and hopefully towards us. This is more easily said than done. The waves and water were moving, foam flecked, the wind was howling at 20 knots, and the lightning was occasional illuminating everything like a flashbulb. Water birds were strafing something just beyond the reach of our brilliant deck lights, looking like restless and relentless ghosts as they flickered into shadow.
Jim was piloting the boat, while I was scampering around on deck trying to get good visuals and ready to catch a throw line. I was clipped onto the jack lines, in my lifevest, and swearing at how restrictive the bloody tether was. Somewhere around the fifth pass, they were in the life raft and heading our way. I cannot imagine what courage it took to actually step into that thing. I’m not sure I could do it.
The first throw of the throw line fell short. We were moving past them, as we had to keep the engine moving to keep some way on in order to have a hope of piloting rather than drifting. We circled back around and tried again. I tried to catch the next toss, and damn near went overboard. Jim’s voice came from the cockpit. “Jessica! Don’t go off the boat!” We are not all very smart about coaching when stressed. I believe I swore a lot while ignoring him and getting the boat hook and trying to get the line. A third throw of the line went across the foredeck, and then we had some control.
Ever tried to winch in someone from the water, with a multi-ton vessel on one side and your bare hands on the other? Cleating them off, pulling, swearing, cajoling the gods, till the man got a hand up, couldn’t get around, got pulled off, pulled back on, heaved himself heavily up the ladder. “Welcome aboard,” I said formally. He moved aside and his wife handed up a bag, and then tried to get on the ladder. Both hands slipped and she fell back into the life raft, and it slipped away.
“We’ll come for you!” yelled Jim, and we did, and he grabbed something, some sort of handle on the life raft tent roof, which ripped away. Loosing her. Loosing the raft. It was a moment of quivering fear. “Line, throw a line,” he told me. There was one he had prepared at hand, the heavy nylon rode of our spare anchor.
I’m not a good aim. I tossed it left handed because of the lay and the situation and because I’m a bad aim on either side. It somehow landed where it needed to go, and she grabbed it. We started pulling it in. “I can’t hang on,” she said breathlessly. “Just hold on a moment,” and she did, and we got her alongside, and she reached, one handed, for the ladder. I had elbowed her husband aside for space, for my agility, and I’d be damned if I’d see her slip again. I caught her wrist. Reached down, other hand, grabbed a handful of jacket and life vest and hauled up. “I’m caught, my ankle is caught!” she said. I decided that whatever in the life raft was holding onto her could just come with her. Changed grip down to her trousers at the base of the spine, thank heavens she had on foulies that wouldn’t rip, and hauled. Jim abandoned his post to grab something, and we rolled her aboard, with some part of the sleeve of her jacket snared on the ladder pin. A fuss for a knife. A screech of metal as Hajime’s bow hit the aft end of the sinking vessel. Jim says he saw their dinghy engine, which had been clipped to the aft rail, flip up through the air as we pried it off with our prow like someone prying off a the cap of a bottle. He backed us off and took control of Hajime, I cut the sleeve to free her, and we spent a moment or two collecting ourselves back into the cockpit.
That was when the engine overheated. We turned it off, and let her drift. It was almost peaceful, the wind pushing us away from catastrophe, nothing of urgency for the moment. Two dripping castaways on our deck.
The rest was not as bad. Granted, the queasiness that had been dogging me for days took over. I went below to get our guests water. I came back on deck and made for the lee rail and made my donation to Neptune. I went below to get towels. I came back up, and did the same thing. Went below to start tea, ran back for the lee rail. There were a lot of repeats on that theme.
We nattered about the engine. The wind was pushing us, with bare poles, where we wanted to go. We were making three knots. . . so we weren’t overly stressed. The engine has been overheating this season, this was the third time, but it was always when we’d been running at low rpms. We decided that we could try starting up again. Running at normal revs, we were moving enough water through the system that everything stayed in normal range. We headed for Mazatlan.
Meanwhile, there were communications. Coast Guard said that they had been informed that Mexican Navy was already on site. We told them, and it would have been tartly, if we could have mustered it through the Garmin In-Reach, that they were nowhere to be found.
We got our guests below, in dry clothes, and tucked into our bunk. We don’t often sleep there during passage, preferring the quarter berth. I took helm, Jim took the Garmin for communications, which were mostly “We have them, the boat is abandoned, headed for Mazatlan,” which was enough to make him want to hug the lee rail for a bit. Small screen, frustrating letter-by-letter hunt and peck, while the boat is doing her downwind wallow with a twist in the tail. Still, it was an easier ride running with the wind than it had been coming up. I stopped puking, but then the adrenaline crash made me shake and shiver like I was going into shock. I found some Dramamine left over from our guests last summer, gave Jim one, took half myself, then went below and honestly slept for an hour and a half. I don’t think I’d actually done that since we left La Paz. I woke up and came up and let Jim come down for the same.
There was another lightning storm between us and Mazatlan, an evil thunderhead blocking the stars. I, alone on deck, eyed it grimly and told myself that we hadn’t been hit yet, and if it was going to hit us there was nothing I could do about it. Carry on, sailor. And yet, yes, the wind was moderating, and the seas were starting to lay down a bit, and just maybe we could carry a jib and get home a little sooner.
The sun came up. Coffee happened. The storm dissipated. Our guests woke and were fed a real breakfast, at least, all the eggs that hadn’t smashed on the deck during our run north to save them. The skies cleared and a pod of dolphins played around us. Jim saw a whale in the distance. The sea started to boil with fish feeding, birds wheeling overhead, all the celebration of life that is the heart of Mazatlan.
We made it into port at 16:30, welcomed by the marina office, who graciously agreed, to my exhausted pleas, to explain to the port captain, who had been looking for us, that we would be happy to talk to him tomorrow.
Jim’s expert pilotage in heavy seas deserves high praise. His unhesitating willingness to change course in spite of personal desire was admirable. His patience in assessing the scene and having ready lines to throw was important in this rescue. Having me as an able deck hand was also critical. Being a judo player and knowing that bodies move when hauled upon was important, having that visceral knowledge that I can hold and move a person, that was important. Knowing what to grab and haul without thinking about it. . .all of this contributed to the relative smoothness of this event.
We did take some damage: The second anchor roller, which we never use, is bent straight up at a ludicrous angle. The lower pulpit rail got bent up as well. The shaking and beating we took on the run north appears to have worked loose a chain plate seal, causing water to come in and drown Jim’s computer, and dampen some cushions and books, All of this is cheap at the price of two lives.
This is tomorrow. Our guests are bound back for the US, the port captain, who sent a pair of men to take their data and ours, is happy with us. The communication glitches with the coast guard were that the Mexican Navy was attending a different boat in distress. Then they couldn’t get out to our station because of adverse weather conditions. I find no fault with that assessment. And now the sun is out in Mazatlan and the world is holding still, and if we can do this for a couple more days I may be willing to go to sea again. In fair weather. At least, until it turns foul.
Some screen shots from the chart plotter…
The plan was:
Jessica studied GRIBs and we decided to take a southward tack to avoid the possible coastal weather, whew!…
At 7:30PM ish we took the MAYDAY VHF call from Green Dragon 2 and headed for their reported LAT/LONG…
All over by 1:00AM ish and heading to Mazatlan to arrive next day at 4:00PM… Note the due south bit at the start of the track below the yellow X, Jim set our route for Isla Isabela instead of Isla Venados, oops!
We have been re-hashing this trip over the last couple days NOTES TO OURSELVES…
- Next time, the skipper stays at the helm REGARDLESS, hitting the sinking vessel with our bow pulpit could have turned disastrous times TWO. We were lucky! (I have to admit, I’ll never forget the sight of a 4HP outboard motor doing a double gainer off GD2’s pushpit though.)
- WHEN THE GRIB MODELS DON’T ALL mostly AGREE, DON’T GO! So normally the GRIB models, and there are maybe three popular ones, mostly agree, at least, on general wind direction. WHEN THEY DON’T … We think that the situation is chaotic enough that three models on the SUPER COMPUTERS can’t even agree on WIND DIRECTION then we should AGREE NOT TO SAIL!
- I’m sure there will be more…
FIN for now!
PS: boats similar to GD2, Beneteau First 44 deep keel, drafts 8.5 feet.