Monday, December 8, 2014

Rough crossing

Preparing for the short passage of only 72 miles across the Sea of Cortez from Punta Chivato on the Baja side to San Carlos on the mainland side I had been checking weather every day. All the reports, including the most current, was showing that it would be 5-7 knots on the Baja side, 8-12 knots in the middle around midnight then 8-12 the next morning on the San Carlos side when we would be arriving, all with mild seas, 1-2'.
 Tarren, Nathan and I ate dinner, watched a movie and then pulled the anchor around 10pm to head across. For the first hour or so it was as predicted...a very nice, light wind sail. Light enough that we had to motor sail. Then the wind came up a little and we turned the motor off. A perfect crossing we thought. Around 11:30 the wind started kicking up quickly. 20...25...then 30 knots and gusting higher. I continued to reduce sail by reefing the main and jib in an attempt to stay ahead of the quickly rising wind and seas. At first the seas were not terrible, just a lot of white caps. By midnight we had taken all the sail down and the seas had built considerably. By this point I had abandoned making progress toward SC and was instead was just trying to keep the boat heading into the wind and, by now, 8-10' breaking seas. It was pitch black, wind howling and seas that were steep and close together with other swells coming from different directions. The seas were definitely confused with the main train of waves following the wind coming from almost due north and other swells coming from all different directions.
With the wind steady at over 30 knots, gusting to over 40, it was all I could do to keep the boat heading into the swells and wind. Waves were breaking over the bow and several that broke over the side dowsing Nathan and I in the cockpit. We were motoring forward into the weather between .5 - 1 knot, honestly, in survival mode. Hours went by and there was no way to be relieved at the helm, nobody else could have managed the boat as It was nearly impossible for me. Nathan stayed up in the cockpit with me, not able to do anything but it was a great mental support for me to have him there. Tarren stayed down below in my bunk only to come up briefly to see if things were any better and then go back downstairs more afraid than before. I felt bad for her. Not only because she felt super crappy due to the seas but more because I knew she was scared for her life...literally. Hours passed and because of no sleep since the night before and feeling slightly felt like forever. But I had no choice. I could not leave the helm. I began to beg for the breaking light of the morning because I had hoped that the light and warmth of the morning would help dissipate the storm. Even if it didn't I knew it would be better if could simply see what was coming to help in taking avoidance measures steering into it. By 3am I was beyond exhausted and had a headache from staring at the compass and wind indicator so I could know which way to steer. I started getting a blister or two on my hands from the ever constant grip on the helm. My head felt like someone had their palm on top of my head and then jerked my head in random directions at random times, but it was only the random pitching of the boat and it all added to my splitting headache. At different times the storm added rain to the cast of elements that it threw at us. The rain stung as it hit us. Between the rain and the waves breaking over the boat along with the howling winds and darkness, it was cold. I was shivering. With no sails up to steady the boat it tossed wildly from side to side and also pitched steeply upward as we climbed up the waves then like a teeter totter pitched downward off the back side of the wave sending the bow under water as it hit the base of the next oncoming wave. The waves were very steep and very close together, about 3-4 seconds from one peak to the next.
Things downstairs were mostly staying in there places with the exception a a few shells or device chargers that were sliding across the floor as the boat pitched in all directions. Late in the early morning before light we estimated that it would begin to get light around 6am or so. That too was a disappointment. Because of the storm it was dark, pitch black until the sun was well up over the horizon and we finally began to see the beginnings of light around 7:30-8:00am.
During the night I caught a glimpse of the paddleboard, which at the start of the passage was tied to the port rail, flying wildly to the end of its tethers which at some point had loosened and allowed to move so much that I thought it wasn't tied down at all. Shining the beam of the flashlight up that direction Nathan reported that indeed there was nothing still tying the board to the boat. I knew it was only a matter of time before it would take flight in the gusting winds and be blown off into the darkness. A while later I saw a faint flash as the paddle board was lifted off the deck and took flight. "We just lost the paddleboard" I said to Nathan. He shined the flashlight up front again to discover that it was still on board...barely. It had left its spot on the port side deck and flown off to starboard only to become pinned by the wind against the mast and the wire stays...about 4' off the deck. Stuck up there only held there by the 35 knot winds like a leaf pasted against an old oak tree in a strong fall breeze. It stayed there for several minutes and then blew downward onto the starboard deck where it mostly stayed until the light of the morning came and the winds began to decline. Several hours later Nathan crawled forward with a jib sheet tied to his waist and pulled the board aft and secured it. How it did not fly off into the night is beyond me. Not that it mattered at the time, I had written it off many hours before as a donation to the storm.
The dinghy and motor were also on my thoughts as very possible candidates for being lost overboard during the storm. The motor was on the aft side rail on a board mount and was struck several times by breaking waves that hit us from the side. I pictured the board breaking and everything just being drug off the boat and quickly sinking rapidly to the bottom of the Sea of Cortez. The dinghy was up on the davits about 5' off of the water but many times I heard a loud crash when a wave would smash into the bottom of the dinghy and violently shake the entire davit system. If a wave actually broke into the dinghy it would have filled instantly and the immense weight would have torn the entire davit system off the boat, dinghy and all. It didn't happen but it was often on my mind and although that represents a large amount of cash I knew none of that mattered. My focus was keyed into maintaining control of the boat and continuing the never ending battle of keeping the bow heading into the wind and seas.
Once it was fully light around 8 or 8:30m the wind began to decline. It took another hour or two before the sea state was settled enough to return to our heading which would take to us San Carlos. We put up a double reefed main and jib and turned our heading to SC. On the knot meter it showed that we were going around 3-4 knots but on the gps we were only making about 1-2 knots of actual forward progress. The residual southbound current from the storm were long from subsiding. At this pace it would take us over 40 hours to travel the remaining 40 miles to the mainland side. The thought of that was painful, not wanting to be out on the ocean for even another 5 minutes. We should have been arriving in San Carlos by now if the passage had gone as planned. As it turned out the seas calmed considerably and the wind was now down to 15-20 knots. We put out full sail and used the engine in an attempt to reach SC before dark. Arriving just before sunset, the calm of San Carlos harbor was very welcomed.
In retrospect I learned a lot about my boat, myself and the need to be prepared for the worst...which we were not. You may think that the way this is written I have taken literary license adding in more than actually happened to liven up the story. I didn't. And although this was not a survival situation by any standard it was definitely a trying experience and one that scared me and tested me. Given the choice I hope I never have to do it again.

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