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1964-1972 > Mexico by Sailboat

Tricks of Tired Minds | Two Dinghies | Mazatlan Hike | Valhalla | Cyclone! | Isla San Martin | Panic

Cyclone!

By October, the cyclone season on the west coast of Mexico is almost over and it is safe to sail again. Robert and I didn’t know the storm that would hit Mazatlan in October would be an exception.

After spending the summer on our sailboat, Valhalla, anchored in Mazatlan harbor, we were looking forward to sailing down the coast of Mexico and then across the Pacific to the Marquesas Islands. We returned from town to the boatyard next to the sea wall where we kept our dinghy with the last of our supplies for the trip. Valhalla was on the ways for some last minute work in preparation for our departure. As we unloaded the taxi, I glanced at our little craft. Out of the water, she looked awkward, her plump twenty-five foot hull resting on the tapered keel. She was in a cradle designed for a much larger fishing boat and the best the men could do was to tie her to one of the sides and prop her up with two-by-fours jammed against the larger frame of the cradle.

Carlos, the boatyard manager saw us and strode in our direction.

on ways
On the Ways

“Buenas,” he said. After greetings, “Posible otro cyclone viene en la mañana.” and filled in the details.

“Another cyclone warning,” I translated for Robert. “Winds to sixty knots.”

“That’s what that other one was, while we were in the mountains,” he replied. “Valhalla did fine in that one.” We had been backpacking for several days in the national park near El Salto, east of Mazatlan, and only learned about the previous cyclone when we returned to town. Valhalla had weathered it with no problems. Carlos suggested that since the boat was already out of the water, it would be safer to leave her there until it passed. Robert considered his suggestion but said “You saw the men replacing the props this morning. It doesn’t seem to take much to loosen them. I think we’re better off on our mooring. It’s been down all summer and has been tested once already.”

My thoughts exactly.

I looked again at Valhalla. Her bottom gleamed with its new coat of red paint but I was painfully aware how vulnerable she would be in a high wind out of the water. She looked like a kid teetering on one tiptoe. Choosing the harbor over dry land, we had the men slide the cradle back into the water. When she floated free, they released the lines and pulled her over to the dock.

at anchor
At Anchor

We loaded our supplies, motored out to our mooring and tied off. The mooring was made of three anchors set in a triangle about twenty feet apart. After working their way into the sandy bottom all summer, they were well set. They were linked together with chains to a common point on the bottom where we had added another weight to increase the strength of the mooring. With a single line to the surface and to the boat, Valhalla was able to pivot in a small area as the wind shifted without the risk of hitting other boats, important in a harbor full of other craft.

In spite of our confidence in our anchors, the unusual activity around us was hard to ignore and we had time to think. What could happen in a heavy wind and choppy seas? Our little boat was seaworthy and her fiberglass hull was strong but thin. She couldn’t survive much of a hit from another boat or the jab of a rock if we were blown ashore. The hull kept us afloat but would easily swamp and could sink if heavy waves washed into her cockpit and loaded her down with tons of water.

We got to work, preparing her in every way we could imagine. We bolted the plywood shutters that Robert had made before leaving San Diego onto the large cabin windows. Everything on deck was tied down, and then tied again to survive the impact of a wall of water.

The main hatch was large and loose and Robert had prepared a piece of oak two-by-four, which he called a strongback, that could be bolted onto the underside to prevent it from flying off. He had a shorter one prepared for the fore hatch. But would we really need them? We debated and fussed and watched the activity on the other boats.

“Do you think we should bolt on the strongbacks?” Robert asked during one pause in the activity.

“Well, the main hatch is so large, a good gust could rip it off.”

“Yes, but if we do bolt it down, the hatch won’t open and the sideboards will be locked in place. We wouldn’t be able to get out if we go over.” Our exit to the cockpit was through the aft part of the cabin. With the main hatch open and the boards removed, it was easy to get out, but if we weren’t careful we could be trapped inside with no time to struggle through the much smaller forward hatch. A dangerous situation.

“Good point.”

“OK, no strongback.”

Big mistake.

As we worked, many of the sport fishing boats left our outer harbor to go up into the inner bay where there was more protection. They had lived there long enough to know the worst possibilities. We took their caution to heart, though if we moved we would only be able to put down one anchor that could easily be ripped out when the wind shifted as we knew it would in a cyclone. They had heavy motors to relieve the pressure on their anchors. We didn’t. We stayed put.

While Valhalla was out of the water, we had cleared from customs yet another anchor that we had ordered from San Diego, an extra precaution in anticipation of cruising in the Marquesas Islands near Tahiti. If we ever made it to the South Pacific, we would be on our own. Call it what you will, but having a fourth anchor felt mighty comfortable. We needed that larger anchor sooner than we thought.

The new anchor weighed twenty pounds, and would hold a boat up to forty feet. It was sitting in the cockpit.

When Robert was beefing up our bay sailor to go to sea, I had teased him about his tendency toward overkill. When he asked if he should put out the fourth anchor, I did not think this idea was at all excessive.

Robert rigged the new anchor with a hank of extra nylon line he dug out of the hold and rowed it in the dinghy to the southeast, where the heaviest winds are supposed to originate, and threw it over. The bow cleat was full with our mooring line, so the new line was fed through the other bow cleat and aft to one of the winches in the cockpit. That decision turned out to be a life saver.

What else? What else? Our minds buzzed, but we felt we had done all we could.

We slept lightly that night, listening to the wind and waiting for the storm.

In the morning, the breeze was light. We ate breakfast and watched the men ashore finish their preparations. The last of the motor launches left, including some that had always stayed after previous warnings. Only a few of the smaller boats remained anchored in the outer harbor with us and most appeared to be deserted.

We joked nervously with Nicole, the young Mexican on his father’s dark green sixty-one foot schooner, Marilyn, which was anchored next to us. He said he had called the Naval Sector and they had said that there would be no cyclone. That was hard to believe with so many captains taking refuge upstream.

The wind rose and the rain began to fall. Men from the boatyard pulled three boats that were tied to their dock out to moorings: the Locura, a fiberglass power cruiser, their tug, Luly, and a twenty-four foot fiberglass sloop, Shishami, which had been left in their care. The boatyard was at end of the harbor road. Next to it, the long floating dock used by the Marlin Fleet boats protruded into the harbor. It was deserted. Even the dinghies had been pulled inland.

As the wind picked up, the water became choppier and the Marlin Fleet dock began to wobble and rock. We could see men standing on shore, watching the dock wracking and wrenching. They seemed to be discussing something, pointing and looking around. Then, they all moved to the edge of the water and one of the men jumped in with a rope in hand. He swam out to the nearest buoy and threaded the rope through the eye. When he returned to shore, one man leaned down and grabbed the rope from him and tied it to the dock while the others hoisted him out of the thrashing water. He sank down, heaving and coughing, while the rest tied the rope to the dock. The brave man’s swim did help settle the dock and the wracking calmed down for moment.

reading
Studying Bowditch

During all this, we read, watched the shore activities and commented on the height of the waves splashing over the fifteen-foot rock jetty that protected the outer harbor from the open sea. During the summer, we had never seen splashes come over the top but by mid-morning, solid water rose twenty-five feet above it. Inside the harbor, the wind howled from the east-southeast at perhaps forty knots, driving before it a chop that hit the retaining wall of the bay and reflected back at a slightly different angle, making the water surface rough and confused. This was fine with us, as it did not create large waves. We were riding smoothly, the boat hunted only a little in the wind, moving back and forth like a bird dog sniffing for a scent. We were like excited kids watching a thrilling movie. We felt prepared and safe behind that solid wall of the jetty that protected us from the angry sea.

At about 11:30 a.m., I was reading at the dinette and Robert was watching the activities ashore. To keep the heavy rain out he had closed the hatch and had slid two of the three boards into the vertical opening.

“It’s starting to happen,” he yelled over the wind’s roar. “Things are breaking up.”

I joined him at his post, peering out the ten inch gap. The dock at the Marlin Fleet had lost one of its floatation chambers and was nose down in the water. Four of the small sailboats at the adjacent yacht club had fallen off their supports and lay on their sides.

On the Valhalla, the shock cord holding the tiller had come loose and the tiller was flopping wildly. Robert slid back the hatch, and climbed outside to secure it. He was wet immediately in the mix of rain and seawater that was blowing almost horizontally by now. When he looked forward he squinted against the stinging assault.

“What’s going on out there?” I yelled. Through our peephole we could only see aft.

“The dinghy mast is straining the shroud it’s tied to,” he yelled back. Then he turned to check the boats around us.

“That shrimper to the east looks like he’s moving toward us.”  Beard flapping in the wind, he paused to watch the sixty-foot steel hulled boat we’d watch anchor earlier. “I think he’s dragging anchor.” His voice was a shrill. “If he doesn’t do something, he’s going to either hit us or hook our anchor system and turn us loose.”

My heart raced. We had been told about shrimp boats that lost their anchors or motors in a storm and drifted into smaller boats, demolishing them. We felt our anchors were secure, but we couldn’t hold a much larger boat as well.

At that moment, Nicole yelled something from the Marilyn and pointed toward the Marlin Fleet float. Andale, a sailboat about our size, had broken loose and wedged between the remains of the Marlin Fleet float and the wall. As the waves bounced her up and down, she banged up under the overhanging slab of concrete. She thrashed helplessly and the fiberglass deck began to collapse. My heart sank. We had been anchored near her for three months and I winced with each blow. That could be Valhalla, shredding herself with every strike.

Then Shishami, the other sailboat that had been moored near Andale, stopped fighting the wind. Her anchor line was limp. She bobbed easily until she hit the retaining wall. The men thrust poles at her to keep her away from the wall. Two men jumped on her to catch a line thrown by the crew of Luly, moored just upwind. Together they strained to pull the little boat away from the rocks. Finally, they tied her alongside Luly. The two boats were as secure as their mooring and I crossed my fingers. It was too dangerous for the men who had jumped onto the Shishami to get ashore or onto the Luly. Apparently, the cabin of the Shishami was locked and they hunkered down in the cockpit and remained there throughout the storm.

“The wind is still from the east. This could be a good storm, if not the cyclone itself.” Robert laughed with nervous excitement. We still felt safe, but maybe a bit less confident after seeing the other boats break loose.

The barometer needle did not move when I tapped it again. “I don’t know about that. The barometer seems steady. It might be at the peak now.”

I was curious what the wind speed might be. We had no anemometer, but our copy of Bowditch, the big blue sailor’s manual, showed pictures of the ocean’s surface at different wind speeds. I sat at the dinette and compared pictures to what I could see out the back. Of course, we were in a harbor, not the open ocean where the pictures were taken, but I didn’t need an exact answer. The ten pictures showed water surfaces at first glassy smooth, then rippled, then choppy. With increasing wind speeds, they became more organized with larger and larger waves. The last picture showed the tops of the waves being ripped off by the force of the winds at sixty knots, and the sea flattened. There were no more pictures for stronger winds. Perhaps at extreme velocities, the photographer was busy doing something more important than taking photos. What I could see matched picture #8, almost the wind speed of the previous storm that had passed through Mazatlan.

“That shrimper is getting way too close to Goldcoaster.” Robert yelled. Goldcoaster was a motor cruiser anchored nearest to us.

“Better put on our life vests.”  I said. “If he keeps coming, we’re in deep doodoo.” Humor has always helped us in tight situations.

As I pulled the yellow vests out of the storage compartment, Robert said, “He’s about a hundred yards from Goldcoaster now but I think he’s slowed his drift. He may be pulling his anchor.”  After a few minutes, he added. “I can’t tell if he’s moving up river, or just re-anchoring. His motor is churning, but this wind is so strong, he’s not moving.”  We watched closely, comparing his position to a point on the land behind him. With relief, we finally saw more land appear behind the ship as his propellers managed to pull the ship forward. Slowly, he crept toward the inner harbor.

Andale
Andale Barely Visible

The wind shifted to the south-southeast and we swung with it. The velocity continued to increase. Andale was very low in the water. The broken shrouds whipped the air from the top of the mast, which wobbled wildly with each new wave that hit her. Sections of the tin roof of the boat yard were peeling off, sailing down the road like corrugated Frisbees.  Men huddled for protection in doorways, watching.

 I tapped the barometer again.

“OK, Robert. Now we’re in trouble. The barometer just fell two tenths of an inch.”

“That’s it, then. She’s coming.”  Robert said. “Sixty knots wasn’t a problem, and I think we’re close to that now. From the angle of the wind it looks like there’s more to come. I think the Navy guys were wrong. This could be a real cyclone. Let’s do what we can”

The adventure was over. This was real.

The bow of our sky-blue dingy rose on a wave above the stern of Valhalla, and then disappeared out of sight, yanking the rope that secured it with each dive.

“I think the dingy rope is caught under the outboard,” I said. “Look at how it’s moving. The propeller could saw it through or else the rope will rip the motor off.”

“Damn. I should have taken it off and stowed it,” Robert said.  “Too late now. I’m not going out there.”  Valhalla was thrashing, now, and anyone who went out in that wind risked being thrown overboard when she took one of her dives into a wave. “We need the strongback for this hatch, now,” he said. “Guess where it is.”

“In the lazerette, where the motor should be,” I moaned.

We could only stare at the eight feet of spray that separated us from the lazerette in the stern and berate ourselves for not having the foresight to at least move the strongback into the cabin just in case. Robert dug out the smaller oak piece and bolted one end to the underside of the hatch. At best, it was just a handle for what might come and Robert hung on to the free end hoping he could prevent the hatch from blowing off.

I took care of other details.

I rolled up the soggy rug so I could see the floor and the bilge cover. The bilge collected any excess water in the space above the lead. It was only ten or twelve inches deep. In the bow, the anchor hawser cap had blown off so I stood the bow cushions on their sides to try and keep them dry.

“Shut off all the through-hull fittings,” Robert shouted from his perch

He shifted uncomfortably, but clung stubbornly to the impromptu handle. I screwed closed the intake for the head with no problem but when I twisted the outflow valve which was located in the top of the keel cavity, the keel shook with the impact of a wave and the whole fitting wobbled. Only a quarter inch of fiberglass held it in place. I hoped that was enough.

Next, I reached under the sink to close the drain outlet. I twisted the handle and as I bore down, it felt strange. Suddenly, the handle was free in my hand. A pencil-sized stream of water spurted at me from the hull. I stared at the fitting, stunned, and then thrust it at Robert.

The sound of the wind grew ominous.

“Shit,” he said as he spun from his post, leaving the hatch to its fate. “Those damn cheap boat builders. If they’d put just a little more money into these things, this wouldn’t happen.”  He grabbed the handle and dived under the sink. Angry as he was, he quickly reassembled the fitting and twisted the valve shut.

“Hope the few threads that are left are enough to hold that thing in place,” he said and went back to his post.

I was numb but continued to follow Robert’s ideas for shoring up our little craft. I secured the fore hatch by running nylon line through the bolt holes and tying it down. Our brand new battery in one of the dinette seats was hammering against the backside of the fire extinguisher box and injuring itself in the process. I stuffed shoes and plastic bottles around it to still its violent rocking.

I stopped for a breather.

“Robert. I’m feeling a bit sea sick.”

“Hang on,” he said. “This storm should only last two or three hours, if it is a typical storm, but the wind has to shift to the south first.”

“Who said it was going to be a typical storm?  We’ve already passed the predicted velocity,” I said, but the clock and the compass took on a new importance.

Shoreward, the docks were thrashing, though most were still afloat. Waves in the basin smashed against the protective rocks. As soon as the spray cleared the top of the rocks, the wind caught it and carried it twenty or thirty feet inland, drenching everything in its path. All that was left of the palm shelters at the edge of the harbor were the posts that had held up their roofs.

I looked for Andale. Near the spot where I last saw her, just the tip of her bow broke the surface of the churning water.

dinghy
Fighting Dinghy

Our dingy was still fighting its tether, lifting and plunging, jerking angrily. Suddenly, as it reached the crest of a high wave, the wind caught its blunt bow and flipped it over. She settled upside down and was quieter. Hard to tell if her drag would be a problem as Valhalla sought out a position of least resistance.

Something zinged over our heads and landed in the sloshing water in the cockpit. Through the thick spray, we could make out a broken shock cord settling to the bottom. It had to be one that secured the dingy mast. What else was breaking loose that we couldn’t see?

From the forward cabin I heard Robert yell, “I’ve lost sight of the Marilyn.”  The rain and spray were so thick that we could not see much, but she should have been visible. I scrambled back to the rear hatch and peered out. Nothing out there but black water and white spray.

A wind gust caught us broadside and slapped the boat over. We braced ourselves until she slowly righted. The gusting wind threw Valhalla onto her side again and again. Water sloshed into the cockpit, and the small drain holes were dangerously inadequate. The boat moved sluggishly until the weight of the water was gone. If the water filled the cockpit too fast, she might swamp but as long as it didn’t get inside, we were probably safe.

Robert tried to stop the water that poured in under the hatch boards by stuffing a tea towel in the crack but it washed out almost as soon as he took his hand away. My job was to check that the sink valve was still holding and to look in the bilge for water. Every time I lifted the cover to the keel cavity, I could see the lead-weighted keel wobble with increased vigor. As the wind slapped the cabin to and fro, the keel followed just a little later. In fear and fascination I wondered, could it just fall off? I visualized the huge hole where the lead was. Could we get out before it sank?  Before it rolled over? I glanced toward Robert. He saw it, too.

Robert still held the small strongback. The spray thinned enough for us to find the Marilyn again. She was further from us than she should have been and had either dragged or broken her stern anchor, but she was holding well on her two bow anchors.

The waves still pounded and broke over our bow. The wind roared, rain pelted, and cans of food for our trip crashed about in the lockers. We were both a bit nauseous, aggravated by watching the water churn outside, but we couldn’t stop gaping at the destruction in progress.

I went back to muffling the banging sounds in the lockers, when suddenly I heard a heavy thud from the bow. I slid forward to see what it was. Above the chain locker, the knot that Robert had tied in the loose end of the mooring line was tight against the underside of the deck where it threaded through the hawser hole. The cleat must have broken. All that was holding us from being blown ashore was that knot. I hoped the deck was strong enough to hold it. As a precaution, I tied a larger knot in the rest of the line in case the first one worked its way through the hole.

Two hours after the main part of the storm had hit, and the barometer dropped again, another huge drop of half an inch to 29.2”. Valhalla desperately tried to point into the wind, but the weight of the water in her cockpit would not allow her to move freely.  She was caught and thrashed to her side again and again. How much worse could it get?

“Check your life vest again,” Robert said. We were in our seperate worlds, imagining scenarios, creating precautions.

I tugged at the zipper and pulled the straps tighter. “We need to prepare as if we really might have to abandon ship,” he said.

“We can’t carry anything and swim, but we could take our I.D.s and our American Express credit cards,” I said and dug around to find our wallets. We pinned the plastic cards in the tiny breast pocket of the life vests. “At least they can identify our bodies.”

“Not funny. If we’re separated, let’s name some place to meet.”

“That hotel on the esplanade is pretty sturdy. It should survive with minimal damage. Meet in the lobby. And if I don’t show up, check out the hospitals. I’ll do the same.”

BLAM!  The boat shuddered with an impact from something big and hard.

It had felt as if a giant had thrown us against a stone wall. I was confused, not certain were I was. Then I realized I was stuffed into the cramped space between the counter top and the ceiling.

“Shit. We just hit another boat,” Robert yelled. “It’s the Goldcoaster. I can see her drifting astern. She must have broken loose.”  He turned to find me where I had been thrown, my hand bleeding. The window next to me was broken, but the storm shutter held out the water.

“Get down and dig out the life ring in case we have to abandon ship. We don’t know what damage might have been done,” Robert said.

 “No, I think I’ll stay here,” I mumbled in shock as I wrapped a handkerchief around my hand. I felt quite secure wedged in right there.

“Uh-oh. We’re adrift. Get down and find that life ring,” he commanded. He slid the big hatch back some, and peered into the salt spray.

I responded sluggishly but went forward. Then I noticed that the knot that had held us to our anchor system was now resting in the chain locker. No line fed out the hawser hole. No anchors.

That jarred me into action and I grubbed around for the hard orange ring. Then I realized that motion of the boat was calm. It could only be that we were drifting. That was nice, I thought, not quit tracking what it meant. Robert called out our movement down the harbor, and finally the seriousness of our situation registered. The wind was driving us toward the rocks.

“Open that hatch all the way. We’re going to have to get out of here, fast,” I said, breathing hard.

Then, the boat started to fight again. She began to hunt and roll as she had been doing before the collision. How could that be?

We looked at each other. What was going on?

“The other anchor,” Robert said finally. “It must have dug in.” He grinned

 “I hope so,” I said. “Now, I just hope that one line that’s holding us doesn’t chafe through before this storm is over.”

I felt as if I was hanging onto a cliff with my fingernails. We were stopped, but for how long?

There was still work to do. The water in the bilge was over my ankles and needed to be pumped out to lighten the boat. I pulled the plastic bilge pump out of the rubble and managed to dig a little hole in the calf-deep pile of supplies that had flown out onto the floor. I gave Robert the outlet tube to hold out the peephole. When the wind pushed us onto a port side and the water pooled under the inlet, I pumped like mad hoping the pink and yellow pudding mix that had spilled wouldn’t gum up the pump.

A pinging noise insinuated itself into my busy brain, like the noise of a wire attached to a drumhead being plucked. It had to be the rigging popping. I tensed, waiting for the mast to fall.

At last, the wind shifted to the south and the barometer began to rise. The direction of the wind moved around further so it was moderated by the lighthouse hill. The water began to calm down, but much too slowly. The rain and spray still drenched the boat.

About four o’clock in the afternoon, we could see the other boats and the shore again. We were half way across the harbor from where we started. The Luly, with the Shishami in tow, had dragged to a position between the shore and us. The Goldcoaster was very near the north shore, but apparently anchored, and the Locura was on the beach. The harbor entrance lights and towers were gone, several walls had collapsed. Everything we could see was a mess. The boatyard tools and supplies were scattered for a mile or so along the shore.

Inside Valhalla the radio direction finder lay on the floor, covered with pudding mix. The food we had bought for our trip lay under my feet, soaked with seawater, labels falling off the cans. All garbage now. But the hull seemed undamaged and the water level in the bilge was low. And we were not seriously injured.

At about five o’clock, the wind had died enough for us to go on deck. Most of the damage was on the bow. The collision with Goldcoaster had smashed the bow pulpit but the hull was undamaged. During the storm, one of the mooring line cleat bolts broke. With only one bolt, the line spun off. When the line went taut and the knot was pulled up inside to hold us temporarily but the force broke the side of the hawser, leaving a jagged edge that quickly cut through the nylon line.

One halyard was loose and tangled, and the lower shrouds were sagging. The dingy was still with us, dangling underwater, with only one of its three lines still intact. We turned it over, and bailed it out.  Then, we pulled in our remaining anchor line past where it had begun to chafe and tied it off again.

On land, all the palm-roofed palapas had been destroyed and the hillsides were stripped of vegetation. As daylight faded, we scavenged something to eat from the mess, and found a relatively dry hole in the bow, soggy but not dripping, and lay down, exhausted. We fell asleep with the clear, star-studded sky swaying past the open hatch, as if nothing unusual had happened that day.

The next day, we rowed ashore. The large powerboat that had had been in the cradle next to ours in the boatyard lay smashed twenty feet from its support. Our decision had been a wise one.

powerboat
Boatyard After the Cyclone

Inland, most of the buildings only had minor damage. The trees and bushes were stripped and shredded. The streets were full of rubble, but the injured people had been moved to safety.

I knew my mother would be worried, so we searched the town for an operating telephone. At last, I dialed, eager to share my adventure and survival.

“Hi, Mom.” She was surprised to hear my voice. “I just called to let you know we are OK. The cyclone was a real doozy, though. We had some tight moments, but the boat is fine, and so are we.”

After a moment’s silence, she said, “What cyclone?”

Author’s note:  The storm which hit Mazatlan on October 11, 1969, had spun off of a bigger but less intense one out to sea being tracked by U.S. meteorologists via satellites. That one had winds to 60 mph. It did not touch land and did little damage. The Mazatlan storm was a local, intense storm that was not even felt sixty miles south. Average wind velocity at the height of the storm was 90 to 100 mph. according to one of the larger boats in the harbor. The airport, which is 17 miles south of town, reported gusts of up to 130 mph.

After the storm, we decided a larger boat might be safer and we sailed back to San Diego, but that’s another story.