From the moment I arrived in México I heard cruisers everywhere talking about the infamous chubasco. And let’s be perfectly clear, a chubasco is not some awesome Méxican dish or even a refreshing, fruity cocktail to be enjoyed at the water’s edge. No, a chubasco is a severe weather event that every cruiser pays close attention to and none enjoy. During the summers, when chubascos are common, Jake on SV Jake actually does a nightly chubasco report on the net for all of us cruisers. His report is done to advise us of the probability of one. Since I’ve been here I haven’t run into a single cruiser yet who hasn’t been through at least one of these storms.
The official description of a chubasco according to Wikipedia is as follows:
“A chubasco is a violent squall with thunder and lightning encountered during the rainy season along the Pacific coast of Mexico, Central America and South America…In the northern parts of Mexico, especially the northeast and north central, the word chubasco is used especially for suddenly occurring localized storms that produce very strong winds, sometimes as high as 90 mph and intense rains of as much as 5-6 inches in less than an hour. The phenomena normally occur during the hottest days of the year (May through October).
Having spent several summers in the Sea of Cortez, Dan knows all too well what these storms are capable of and more importantly, how to deal with them. Being a newbie here I was actually feeling a little left out because I had yet to receive my official “Chubasco Badge”. Now don’t misunderstand me, I understand the danger involved in any storm, especially when you are on a boat, but I also understand the value of experience. And the truth is that you fear most the things you have yet to experience. Once you go through something like this you know what to expect and can be better prepared for the next one. I really just wanted to get the first one out of the way so I didn’t have to wonder what it would be like.
Tonight we listened to Jake’s report as it was relayed through Tom on SV Tappan Zee. The report for the La Gringa area was somewhat ambiguous as we were told it could go either way and we should just all be prepared in the event one developed. Dan and I have been watching the weather closely and there has been a lot of lightning to the east, which is where they develop. While Dan thought one could be possible we were betting on the fact that we were out of the woods so we decided to leave our awnings up. That said, at around 10:00 p.m. Dan starts to batten things down just in case. Ironically enough we’ve been begging for a little breeze all day because it has been so still and humid and now there’s a light breeze and all is well as we lay back in our hammocks and enjoy the evening.
So, you know the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.”? Well, I got my wish and it took me mere minutes to regret ever thinking I wanted to experience a chubasco. I wake up in my hammock in the cockpit around 12:30 a.m. The breeze is a little stronger than when I fell asleep but it’s nice. It might just be nice enough to allow me to complete my evening slumber in the bunk so I go below, make my water and hop in the bunk where it’s cool and cozy… at least for a moment or two. My head is literally on the pillow for less than a minute when I hear the wind begin to howl through the hatch. I wait a few seconds to be sure it’s not just a gust when I hear Dan moving about in the cockpit and then the engine fires up. It’s here! Time for all hands on deck so I jump out of the bunk, throw on some clothes and before I can get to the companionway Dazzler is listing 30° to the port side and the winds are screaming through the cockpit. I can barely keep my footing as I scramble up the stairs where I see Dan leaning hard to the port side with both hands clinched tightly on the wheel. The wind is literally whipping around us and increasing in its velocity by the second. He yells to me that the wind is between 30-40 knots and I start to think, “Well, this is just a bit more nautical than I imagined. I’m not sure I want to do this now.” Of course there’s no choice and there’s definitely no time to be frightened. No, right now I need to stay focused.
What is crazy is how quickly this thing built up. We went from 5-10 knots of wind to 30-40 in a matter of minutes. I went from being barely awake to total and complete lucidity in seconds. Yep, this is when you don’t ask questions. You watch, listen, learn and most importantly, you follow orders. At this moment Dan and I are no longer lovers, we are Captain and Mate and when the Captain issues an order you follow it to the letter. My first order is to get the hatch and portholes closed before we start taking on green water. Once I’ve completed that I walk the cabin to ensure everything is stowed and nothing, other than me, is bouncing around.
The sea state is really ramping up now and in the dark with no moon in sight it is a highly unnerving. Large waves are crashing over the bow and all you can see is the white foam surrounded by the black sea as it lands on the deck. We are rolling violently from side to side. We are still at anchor and Dan is using the engine to position us into the wind so we don’t keep healing over so much. At first he has it in forward to keep into the wind and then he switches it to reverse so we can bear down on the anchor to keep it in place. His motions are quick and calculated. You can see the pure determination in his face as we battle Mother Nature.
The winds have now hit 50 knots and we are really rocking and rolling. The sounds of the wind, waves and revving engine are loud and chaotic but Dan is unbelievably calm and focused. Ironically I’m really not all that scared. I’m acutely aware of the danger surrounding us but I think Dan’s calmness is keeping me at ease. After all, if he isn’t in a panic, then why should I be?
Before long we have waves crashing into the cockpit and we are both soaked to the bone. We are still anchored but the winds are hitting our awnings and they are acting like huge horizontal sails. This is not helping us to maintain position but there is no taking them down at this point. If we must we will cut them free but for now we are going to try to battle the storm with them on the boat and hope we don’t lose them.
About an hour or so into the chubasco we realize we are losing ground and the shore behind us is getting closer and closer. We have no choice at this point. We are going to have to haul anchor and move. Our hope is to find a lull in the wind once the anchor is up so we can re-set it but right now, time is of the essence, we must get moving.
When we anchor down or pull up Dan is on the bow and I run the boat. We have headsets so we can talk back and forth and my job is to simply follow his instructions. We have a great system and I have learned to trust his directions even when they don’t feel quite right. After all, he’s had Dazzler for 15 years and he knows what she can do. All that said, this is an entirely different beast. We are being tossed about from one side to the other like a bobber in the open ocean and now he is going on deck. Meanwhile my job is to keep Dazzler pointed into the wind with no assistance from the autopilot. It’s all me this time. As they say, “This is when you separate the swabs from the mates.” So, I put on my game face, look to the sky and ask God and Dad to watch over us and I jump behind the wheel.
Dan heads up to the bow as I hold my breath. I don’t want to think about what would happen if he fell overboard but this is a very dangerous situation and I have to go there if I’m to be prepared for all contingencies. Dan continually teaches me this.
There is no way I can turn Dazzler around in these high winds and seas without sinking her so I’d have no choice but to keep going. He’d be washed to the shore but where am I going to go? Even though I don’t want to think about it I do. First thing, hit the MOB button so you have a waypoint for where he went in, then hit the SOS on the HF and VHF radios as well as the inReach and then I’d start calling on the local fleet to let them know our status and to get advice on what to do and how to keep her afloat. The only chance I’d have is to keep sailing her south until the winds and seas subside. This line of thinking has me a bit on edge but Dan’s always telling me I have to think of the worst and how I’ll handle it so I’m not freaked out if it happens. And, it does give me a tiny bit of comfort knowing that I’ve at least pondered the possibilities and have somewhat of a plan in mind. Of course I’m praying I won’t have to use this plan.
The time Dan is on the bow seems like an eternity. Waves are violently crashing over him and he is wearing a white shirt so it’s hard to see him out there. He’s constantly talking to me and fortunately the microphones on our headsets are so sensitive you can hear a whisper so I’m hearing him breathe which keeps me calm and focused. After all, if he is willing to put his life on the line out there I need to stay in the game and do my part.
Anchor up and somewhat secured, Dan comes back to the cockpit and takes over the wheel. I’m so relieved to see him there but within minutes the wind clocks around and starts hitting us from the southwest. Prior to this we were somewhat protected by the mountain and shore but now we are getting hit full on and the waves are growing by degrees. We are seeing 8-10’ very short frequency waves with winds in the high 30 to mid 40 knot range. The waves are slamming the bow as we plow through them and Dan is pondering our next course of action. I’m sitting in the cockpit with my back to the salon to stay somewhat protected from the waves but there is water everywhere and I am beginning to get cold as the wind blasts across my skin.
As we continue pushing into the waves and the storm continues to beat down upon us Dan decides that trying to reset the anchor is a bad idea. We are going to have to keep heading south until the storm subsides. Most chubascos last just a few hours and by this time we are already over an hour into it. There is a port, Bahía de Los Angeles that is just six miles to our south. This is to be our intended destination. Due to the high winds, current and waves we are only making about 3 knots/hour so this is going to be a long trip. Add to that the fact that Dan was unable to fully secure the anchor when he pulled it so he is going to have to go back to the bow and get it secure before it starts banging into the hull.
At this point we are taking green water with just about every wave. And when I say we are taking green water I mean the bow is diving into the waves and they are splashing 4-6’ above the deck. Dan heads back on deck but this time we have determined that the autopilot is handling the sea well enough that I just need to be on watch at the helm. I don’t have to do anything but watch and make sure we are maintaining course. Dan heads up on deck and once again I hold my breath. He’s up there for about thirty seconds when we are hit by an unusually large wave. When it hits I can no longer see Dan on the bow. “Don’t panic!” I tell myself as I lean to the port side to look around the dodger. I catch just a small glimpse of him as my heart is pounding. All of my contingency plans are racing through my head but the one thing I keep thinking is how I can’t lose him. He is everything to me and losing him would kill me. “Can’t think of things like that. He’s going to be fine.” I say out loud as I’m studying the sea and searching for glimpses of Dan on the bow. I’m sure he was only up there for about five minutes but for me it seemed like he was there an hour. When I finally see him walking down the port side to the cockpit I almost burst into tears but then, this is no time for tears. This is not over yet. As Dan would say, “Suck it up Buttercup. There’s still work to do.”
Throughout all of this craziness our friends in the fleet who are in Bahía de Los Angeles are checking in with us via the VHF radio. One thing about the cruising community here is that we all take care of each other. And once they knew we were headed their way they were all listening and waiting for our next status update. Once they heard our intended course, our friends, Kirk and Kris on Linger Longer started calling the other cruisers asking them to put on their deck lights to help us see where to go when we arrived at the anchorage. It was like our own little runway.
After what felt like an eternity, we finally round the spit and arrive at Bahía de Los Angeles. It’s 4:00 a.m. We are both soaked, cold and mentally and physically exhausted. Fortunately anchor down went smooth and the winds and waves are calming down. “Whew! That was a close one.” I’m thinking as I go below to contend with the chaos there.
We took on a little water through the anchor locker because the deck plate didn’t get on the first time Dan was on deck and we took some water through the hatch because in the chaos I didn’t get it closed properly. It turns out it has a feature that allows it to be closed but vent so some air can come through. I didn’t know about that so lesson learned there. Our bunk has some water as a result of both things but nothing we can’t clean up.
Once anchored down and settled we take a quick deck shower to clean off the salt and Dan looks at me and asks, “Is there any chance we have a cold beer down there?” Being a top notch mate I of course have one chilled and ready for him. He has his beer and I have a very strong cocktail…a very, very strong cocktail! He heads to his hammock in the cockpit to sleep and I settle in around the table writing this article. I’m too wired to sleep right now. It’s going to take a bit.
I always knew and trusted Dan’s amazing sailing abilities but tonight really showed me how much he knows. He’s calm and cool in the midst of the chaos and he thinks through each and every move before we make it. I know now, more than ever, that I’m ready to sail to the South Pacific with him. There’s no doubt we will face a lot more storms and trying times on the water but with Dan as my Captain, I know I will be as safe as I can be.
As for chubascos, well, I hope to never see another. Dan even said this was the worst he’s experienced in his time here. He referred to the situation as one of “life or death.” Of course, I’m sure this isn’t the last but at least now I have my official “Chubasco Badge” …for better or worse.
Until next time…smooth sailing!