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Gulf of Storms

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BY ANDREW W. GUNSON
My wife Janet and I departed Ladysmith harbour on Vancouver Island in the fall of 2012, bound for the Panama Canal. Our sailing vessel, Maiatla, would safely carry us some 4500 miles down the North and Central American coasts, but before reaching the canal, we would have to challenge the great Gulf of Tehuantepec with its frequent storm force winds, wicked contrary currents and steep seas.
Most landlubbers have heard of Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America, with its fearsome reputation for extreme weather. Likewise, the Pacific Graveyard along the BC coast needs no introduction, yet few people have ever heard of the Gulf of Tehuantepec, the storm ravaged sea in Mexico near the Guatemalan border. This turbulent body of water is feared and respected by sailors who cross the 250-mile wide gapping maw of this gulf of storms!
In Ixtapa, Mexico we picked up a friend and crewmember, who would help us cross the dreaded Gulf. Marina Sacht editor of Take 5 arrived by plane without a hitch, that is if you don’t count my tipping the dinghy over in the surf on Marina’s very first beach landing! The incident was applauded by many spectators on shore; the resultant soaking forced us to find an outdoor restaurant that didn’t mind the puddles we left beneath our chairs.
Marina has voyaged with Jan and I before, from Ladysmith to San Francisco, then again from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas. Obviously a glutton for punishment, she was back again to tackle the Gulf!
We had a mostly uneventful sail for almost 500 miles, making frequent stops to swim, explore trackless beaches and witness spectacular sunsets. We sailed through hundreds of sea turtles lounging on the surface, they, waiting for nightfall to broach the beachheads to lay their eggs. We saw the famous cliff divers in Acapulco.
There were also a few moments of undesired excitement; as we were motoring past a Mexican naval patrol boat and heading into Puerto Escondido to anchor for the night, the engine console on Maiatla caught fire
We rounded a headland ominously named Puerto Sacrificios, and were smacked on the nose by strong winds and white breaking seas. With a tight grip on the helm I turned to Jan and Marina, “Well we made it! This is the start of the Gulf of Tehuantepec!”
Seven miles and four hours later, we anchored in a tiny and nearly perfect tranquil bay, which included our own private sand beach and clear blue water overshadowed by canting coconut palms. The sea around us was alive with colorful fish and ashore, the jungle was filled by the calls of exotic birds and at night, aglow with flickering fireflies. I said to the ladies, “This may not be paradise but I think I can see it from here!”
Hidden from our view but just a short dingy ride around a rocky point was a series of thatched roof beach cantinas on a crescent shaped beach, full of nearly naked Mexican tourists, celebrating the Christmas holidays. After making a successful dinghy landing, that didn’t include dunking everyone into the surf, with a hot wind blowing in our faces and the waves nearly lapping at our feet, we dined on prawns and chicken while sampling cocktails of tequila and rum in pineapple shells. It was Christmas Eve in Hualtuco.
After a few days, we regretfully moved to the marina. It was time to re-provision the boat and start watching for a weather window, a calm stretch of at least 4 days, to cross the Gulf of Tehuantepec. Happily, we weren’t the only sailors waiting here as there were half a dozen, including two Canadian boats waiting to head south. But like us, they were pinned down by the 70 knots of wind just down the coast.
The ferocity of the weather of the Gulf is due to natural geography. The 125 mile wide strip of land which separates the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico-Carribbean Sea is the lowest area in the otherwise mountain-studded isthmus. This creates a very effective wind tunnel. The winds from the Caribbean side funnel between the hills, speeding up and spilling out into the Gulf of Tehuantepec.
While we waited, we didn’t waste our time as we explored the town of Huatulco (wah-TOOL-co), wandered through ancient Mayan ruins and chased bat rays between coral heads as we snorkelled every reef for miles. After two weeks of being dock bound, Marina ran out of time and had to fly back home, leaving Jan and I to wait on our own.
Almost two full months after our arrival in Hualtuco, the winds finally subsided enough for us to make the crossing..
The morning we departed Hualtuco marina, we nosed our way into a gentle swell. Jan laid our course while I set Maiatla’s sails including our brightly colored cruising spinnaker. Our plan was to stay within 1 to 3 miles of shore; normally staying so close to shore could be a dangerous tactic, especially an unlit shore at night. But, if the offshore winds were to suddenly build, being close to the beach there is virtually no fetch and therefore, no big waves. We were sailing fast and straight into the belly of the beast. For the first part of the day we had great sailing conditions but by nightfall the winds had shifted and we were beating into gale force winds. White-water broke over the foredeck and sluiced down Maiatla’s canting decks before spilling back into the sea.
Fortunately the blow (only lasted 6 hours and by dawn the sea was calm. Our second night at sea found us weaving our way through a commercial fishing fleet.. Just before dawn, a series of thunderstorms blew through with rain so dense our radar could no longer display the nearby land. I headed further offshore to give us a bit more sea room, under cloudy and humid skies, the breakwater of Puerto Chiapas came into view.
A full 16 months after departing Canada, we were safely secured to a dock; more importantly, we were on the far side of the dreaded Gulf of Tehuantepec
There is special name for people who sail across the Gulf, we were now Tehuantepecers.
While missing out on the crossing, Marina has rejoined the boat this December for the next leg of the voyage from Puerto Chiapas to El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Andrew W. Gunson is author of Voyage of the Maiatla with the Naked Canadian and Tahiti Syndrome Hawaiian Style. Follow his blog at http://thenakedcanadian.wordpress.com/

About the author: Angie