Thursday, March 9, 2017

Puerto Chiapas to Huatulco: Crossing the Tehauntapec and the Boat Lay Up Curse

Our weather window for leaving Puerto Chiapas to cross the Golfo de Tehuantapec last Sunday afternoon held firm, so we spent Friday and Saturday working hard to prepare Intermezzo for the passage.

On Saturday night, I updated the software for the chartplotters and, to my horror, the main chartplotter froze and would not boot up. We have redundant navigation systems (iPad plus paper charts), so it wasn’t a disaster, but we have our helm station navigation system tweaked to work really well and after thousands of miles of using it, can operate it in our sleep. Which is almost the case sometimes during night watches. Thankfully, I managed to get it working again, but the second chartplotter wouldn’t even power up after I did. Strange and discomforting. I was begining to get the feeling like I did when we resumed cruising in Costa Rica in November after the boat was laid up for a few months. A feeling like a boat gets cursed if you leave it sitting around unused for too long.

By Sunday morning, we were down to just a few items on the list, including the pre-passage engine check which is normally a perfunctory exercise as our Yanmar engines are relatively new and have been very reliable.  However, this time I discovered coolant dripping from the starboard engine’s fresh water cooling pump, the drips falling onto the alternator belt and spraying dirty water dots on either side of the engine compartment. Bummer. My belief that boats are cursed when left alone too long is getting stronger.

We were scheduled for our departure inspection by the Port Captain, Customs and Navy at 3:00 pm. Once that inspection is completed, you are supposed to leave the port at once. So I had to make a decision: Was it safe to cross the Tehauntepec with a compromised engine. It didn’t take me long to conclude that it was indeed safe to proceed. We have two engines, the weather forecast indicated we would be sailing for a good portion of the passage and the drip didn’t compromise the operation of the starboard engine, it just makes a mess and uses up coolant, but at a manageable rate.  So I declared Intermezzo fit for the passage and the crew did not object.

The departure inspection was relaxed and basically useless. The Port Captain representative filled out the same form that has been filled out three times previously and drank a glass of water. The Customs representative entered some numbers into her smartphone and flirted with the Port Captain guy. The heavily armed Marines with drug sniffing dog tromped around the cabin not even bothering to look interested in what they were doing. The dog tried to look serious, though.  When the short kabuki performance by officialdom was over,  we pushed off from the dock and were underway just before 4 pm.

It felt great to be sailing again and we fell into our watches and duties easily and naturally. We motor-sailed for a few hours before the wind died and then started the non-leaking port engine. Funny that I felt sort of bad for the port engine having to do all the work on this passage while the starboard engine could just sit there and enjoy the ride. Normally, we are very careful to be fair to both engines and keep their running hours balanced. 

The first night sailing was glorious, the sky lit by a bright half moon, shimmers of its pure white light on the ocean’s surface. We sailed quietly through most of the night on a reach under the Code 0.  When the moon set, the sky turned into a brilliant tapestry of millions of stars and the sea turned totally black, the perfect background for sparkling bioluminescent creatures excited by our wake and the white torpedo streaks from dolphins racing alongside and playing with each other at the bows.

The following day (Monday) and night weren’t so pleasant as we both succumbed to seasickness brought on by the confused seas of the post-gale Tehauntapec.  I hardly ever get seasick and don’t like it. (Does anybody?) Thankfully, it lasted less than 24 hours and we both recovered by Tuesday morning.

We hit the strongest winds about three quarters of the way across the Gulf, 20 to 25 knots.  Rather than being a problem, the wind was coming from a favorable direction for us to have a very nice reach and fast sailing through the night and the confused seas settled down to give us a pretty smooth ride the rest of the way to Huatulco.

We arrived in Marina Chahué in Huatulco around 1 pm on Tuesday.  I immediately set to work trying to figure out how I was going to get a replacement water pump for the starboard engine.  There is no Yanmar dealer here and parts for our engines are hard to find in Mexico in general. So I had to come up with multiple options.

After making phone calls all Wednesday morning, I concluded that there was no pump anywhere in Mexico and that it would take over two weeks to obtain from a Mexican dealer. That meant getting one from the US. Express shipping is expensive and scuttlebutt is that often parts get “lost” at customs. My friend Louis offered to carry the part down and sail with us for awhile, but when I looked into the logistics and timing of that option, it just didn’t pencil out. I’m offering him a raincheck for sailing in the Sea of Cortez later in appreciation of his offer. The option that worked out the best (least bad) is for me to fly back to San Francisco, pick the part up and fly back down. It results in a very expensive pump, but we can resume sailing by next Tuesday this way.

So I’m flying out today to pick up the pump.

I want to acknowledge Bob Hennesey and the chandlery at the KKMI boat yard in Richmond. I have been bringing my boats to this yard since 2003 and have always appreciated the professionalism and service there. Over the years, Bob has become a good friend and  areliable, trusted advisor. He really stepped up to help this time. He responded instantly to my satellite email asking for help and had the pump sourced before we arrived in Huatulco. He made sure the pump would be ready for me to pick up on Friday, taking the initiative to order it before I had even confirmed my plans. He worked with the guys in the chandlerly to make sure they had a second source for a pump if anything went awry with the first supplier. I’m so grateful and it is so comforting to have Bob and his team at KKMI there to help when Intermezzo is far from our home port.