The two terrors of Central America

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Last year we crossed both Mexico’s Golfo de Tehuantepec and Costa Rica’s Golfo de Papagallo in our 45-foot sailboat and had so little wind we motored the entire way across both. Those unfamiliar with these two bodies of water are likely to shrug and say, “So what?” But those who’ve made passages along the Pacific coast between Mexico and Costa Rica are more likely to respond, “Say what?”

Squalls and high winds are part of the package when transiting the gulfs of Tehuantepec and Papagallo. According to the authors the key to a safe trip across these waters involves concentration and persistence.
   Image Credit: Bob Mehaffy

At the conclusion of the crossing, we were incredulous at the remarkable tranquility we’d found in these two often-terrifying bodies of water. During the three years previous, as we were cruising along this Latin American coast, we listened to the daily weather reports on the cruisers’ nets – in Mexico, from Don on Summer Passage, and in Central America, from Don on Tamure.

Far too frequently we heard, “Gale-force winds for at least the next three to five days in the Tehuantepec.” “Winds of 45 to 60 knots around Cabo Santa Elena” (the point at the northwestern extreme of the Papagallo).

We found these continual forecasts sufficiently daunting to prepare for our crossings months in advance. That preparation began with our learning all we could about the unique geography of each gulf. Then we read whatever we could find on the weather in these gulfs and avidly questioned any voyager we met who had transited either one.

A number of these experienced voyagers recounted the rigors of passages they had through one or both gulfs, often despite very thorough preparation. They told of blown-out sails, lost masts, dinghies and life rafts torn from their mounts, or in the saddest cases, of boats lost. A few of these beleaguered sailors, however, did acknowledge they had not been patient enough in waiting for a sufficient weather window before leaving harbor.

While preparation and patience don’t ensure an easy passage, they do give the voyager the best chance of a relaxing transit rather than a terrifying ordeal.

Golfo de Tehuantepec

To a sailor getting ready to cross it, the Golfo de Tehuantepec looks like your garden-variety gulf: a large, open body of water with a wide mouth and no excessively protruding point at either end. However, this deceptively benign-looking gulf spreads along the southern coast of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a low plains area with mountains defining both its east and west extremities. The isthmus lies between the Golfo de Tehuantepec on the south and Bahía de Campeche, in the Gulf of Mexico, to the north. When northerly winds blow across the Gulf of Mexico and into the Campeche, the mountains on either side compress the winds as they cross the isthmus, resulting in increasingly strong winds roaring out across the Golfo de Tehuantepec, frequently with gale force.

Strong winds in this gulf are not just occasional and isolated. Charles and Nancy Goodman, sailors and authors, have written that Salina Cruz records an average of almost 20 days a month with winds of Force 7 or above. That’s a staggering two of every three days. Delivery captain and writer John Rains reports that winds of Force 8 or more rip across the Tehuantepec an average of 140 days a year.

While preparation and patience don’t ensure an easy passage, they do give the voyager the best chance of a relaxing transit rather than a terrifying ordeal.

Predicting winds

For sailors anticipating a transit of this gulf, the problems begin with predicting gale-force winds. Because these winds aren’t accompanied by clouds, we can’t look to the skies to predict when heavy weather is coming. The barometer doesn’t do much good either, because the winds are typically driven by highs and lows far beyond the area of the Tehuantepec. Such a Tehuantepec gale develops when a cold front moves southward out of Texas and into the Gulf of Mexico, allowing high pressure to build behind it. As this high pressure pushes the low aside, winds from the north blow across the Gulf of Mexico and into Bahia de Campeche, then funnel across the isthmus and out into the Golfo de Tehuantepec on their way to the low that typically sits near the equator.

As the winds come down the southern side of the isthmus, the speed reaches its maximum at the aptly named Bahia Ventosa (Windy Bay), immediately east of Salina Cruz. The strong winds rip through this 70-mile stretch of coastline, often increasing from light breezes to 40-knot gales in less than an hour. After crossing the beach, these winds fan out, making the entire area from Puerto angel to Puerto Madero a place no reasonable person in a small boat wants to be.

Gale-force winds occur with greater regularity between early November and late April. Yet these months are the most popular for crossing the Tehuantepec. One reason is that Central America’s rainy season &mdash with persistent and heavy rains and intense electrical storms &mdash prevails from May through October.

Since we can’t predict the Tehuantepec gales by watching the clouds or the barometer, most of us rely on weather reports to determine a good window. Last April we were among a number of sailors who congregated in Huatulco, Mexico, waiting for a good window for the crossing. Each of us looked to a variety of weather information venues to determine when that window might open, including websites, SSB weatherfaxes and cruisers’ nets, and on our boat, Carricklee, we used our satellite phone to download weatherfaxes from Ocens and MaxSea. In addition to sharing what we had learned from the various sources, we all consulted daily with Enrique, the harbormaster, to find out what the Mexican navy weather reports predicted for the area. By waiting for a prediction of several days of light wind, we all made an easy passage across the Tehuantepec.

The best authorities regarding how to cross the Golfo de Tehuantepec, as far as we’re concerned, are those who have extensive experience making that crossing. Rains has crossed this gulf more than 100 times while delivering yachts between Florida and California. For that reason we listened carefully to his advice. He watches weatherfaxes for a cold front moving into Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. When he sees one, he gets underway.

But a cold front in Texas or the Gulf of Mexico may move out at any time, leaving room for high pressure to replace it. Rains pointed out that a window may last for days, or perhaps only hours. We’ve talked with many boaters in Mexico and Central America who’ve departed with what appeared to be a good weather window only to be caught by a gale eight or 10 hours later.

Ben and Nancy aboard their Hunter 42, Dream Catcher, encountered such a situation two years ago. Although they had monitored the weather before they began their crossing, a small gale came up without warning, giving them a miserable 24 hours. They agreed they may have departed before a perfect window was evident. Ben offered this advice, “Be prepared to wait for a perfect window. Don’t go across otherwise.”

Another piece of advice from Ben and Nancy is: “Stay close to the beach when making a crossing. Don’t be tempted to take the short cut in calm weather, because a gale may come up unexpectedly.”

One foot on the beach

Other experienced sailors with whom we’ve spoken agree that, with the winds blowing from the land, the place to be is inshore to avoid the waves that build as the winds blow over the water. Rains expressed this advice as “keeping one foot on the beach,” which to him means maintaining a course in no more than 10 fathoms of water and moving in to 5 fathoms in a gale.

Needless to say, sailors following this advice must be vigilant to avoid getting too close to shore and going aground. Last season one sailor lost his boat on a sand bar as he tried to stay close to the beach during one of the infamous Tehuantepeckers. For a long stretch, though, the beach along the Golfo de Tehuantepec is straight, allowing voyagers to stay in close without undue risk, with two exceptions: the bocas (mouths of estuaries or rivers) of San Francisco and of Tonala. Each of these bocas has an extensive sand bar extending out into the gulf. When approaching each boca, put waypoints into your GPS, and jog out to sea two or three miles. When we made the crossing, we stayed that far out until we were confident the sand bar was behind us.

The difficulty for sailors on boats with small engines is getting back to the protection of the beach after jogging out two or three miles. Upwind passages in 45-knot blasts challenge even strong engines and may defeat weak ones.

Making passages in heavy weather at night along this coastline requires special attention to navigation. For example, voyagers Jude and Linda on Jubilee use three types of navigation when crossing areas such as the Tehuantepec at night: dead reckoning, radar and GPS. Jude’s recommendation was, “Be aware of your position at all times by plotting it every hour.”

Another essential tool we monitor carefully when voyaging close to shore is the depth sounder. Though outdated charts may have landmasses slightly misplaced in latitude and longitude, those for heavily trafficked bodies of the water such as the Tehuantepec generally are reliable in identifying the presence of rocks, reefs and islands, even if their locations on the charts aren’t always reliable. With none of these impediments indicated for this gulf, we selected a course along the 10-fathom line, based on our depth sounder, to keep us safely offshore yet close enough to gain the protection of the shore and surrounding mountains.

When navigating the Tehuantepec, many voyagers can’t resist the appeal of saving perhaps 30 miles, and five or six hours, by taking a shortcut straight across the mouth. A number of our acquaintances have done exactly that, sailing directly from Huatulco to Puerto Madero.

However, those who’ve experienced the Tehuantepec during a gale argue that cutting across is too often a poor option. Carl and Robin aboard Abraxas sum up their hard-won opinion, “Saving six hours is hardly worth the risk.” On one of their four transits of this troublesome bay, they decided &mdash foolishly, they say &mdash to leave Huatulco on a bearing straight for Puerto Madero. For the first few hours of their transit, the seas were so peaceful they went swimming in the middle of the Tehuantepec. Within a few hours, they were battling 45-knot winds on the beam and huge square seas.

Golfo de Papagallo

Almost as well known for the ferocity of its winds as the Tehuantepec, the Papagallo awaits those who transit the Pacific Coast south to Costa Rica. Although the Golfo de Papagallo (also spelled Papagayo) proper is a small gulf in northern Costa Rica, the Papagallo winds affect a much larger area. After passing Puerto Madero and the coastlines of Guatemala and El Salvador, the southbound voyager comes to Punta de Amapala, the northwest limit of the Golfo de Fonseca and, generally, of the Papagallo winds. From there to Cabo Velas in Costa Rica, a distance of nearly 250 miles, a series of nautical challenges has caused many sailors to claim the Papagallo is in fact more problematic than the Tehuantepec.

In some ways the Papagallo region is quite different from that of the Tehuantepec. The passage around Cabo Santa Elena and into the Golfo de Papagallo, for example, is often an insurmountable task for sailors on small boats because this cape extends into the Pacific Ocean some 13 miles. Frequently, the wind at the point blows 40 knots or more for days at a stretch, leaving southbound sailors trapped in a nearby anchorage for days or weeks.

This past season, R.G. and Candace aboard Avaiki waited in Bahia Santa Elena for 11 days before the winds diminished. They didn’t want to undertake the passage southeast as long as the daily weather reports on the cruisers’ nets included 40-knot winds and 12- to 15-foot seas around Cabo Santa Elena. Before a favorable forecast came, two other voyaging boats had joined them to wait.

Long-lasting winds

Another difficulty of a passage through the waters affected by the Papagallos arises from the unpredictability of the winds. Unlike the Tehuantepec winds that generally follow a pattern of three to five days of gale-force winds as a result of heavy winds in the western Caribbean, the Papagallos may occur even when Caribbean winds are only 15 to 25 knots. In addition, the Papagallos often blow for a week or more before letting up.

Papagallo winds cause problems for most sailors making passages through the area from November through April. Yet our southbound trip in early November 2003 was somewhat frustrating because the wind was so light we motored virtually from Fonseca to Cabo Velas. Similarly, when our friend Rick motorsailed Garbi northbound through the Papagallo area last April, he experienced no extreme wind or sea conditions.

So, if strong winds frequently blow through the Papagallo from November through April, why do most sailors time their passages to coincide with these strong winds? Because frequent electrical storms accompany the heavy rains in Central America between May and early December. At least a few voyaging boats suffer lightning strikes along the Central America coast every year. Most of us take our chances with the wind rather than the electrical storms.

Getting weather advice

Despite the few differences between transiting the gulfs of Tehuantepec and Papagallo, many of the strategies are the same. Waiting for a good weather window is essential before crossing either. Most sailors we know obtain their weather information from regional cruisers’ nets. Don aboard Tamure gives a detailed weather report and forecast to all who tune in to the Panama Pacific Net (8,143 kHz, marine SSB, 0900 local) every morning, his style enabling even those of us who have limited knowledge of weather to understand when to hunker down and when to make a passage.

Others prefer to supplement the information they receive from the net with the weatherfaxes they download aboard their own boats, knowing they can’t ever have too much weather information before making a passage through such difficult areas.

The old saw about keeping one foot on the beach is apt advice for those making a Papagallo passage. Nearly flat water close inshore will make the passage more comfortable and less stressful on equipment. Except for the first 27 miles between the eastern shore of Fonseca and Puesta del Sol, which should be transited at least three miles offshore because of reefs and rocks, the 180-mile coastline of Nicaragua between Fonseca and Bahia San Juan del Sur can be transited within a mile of shore. Carl and Robin aboard Abraxas reported 35-knot winds when they were 20 miles offshore, but within a mile of shore, the winds were closer to 20 to 25 knots with stronger gusts only where valleys came down to the beach. But more significant was the calm water they found near shore.

Crossing either of these areas puts incredible stresses on boats and crews alike. Susan on Compania expressed a common view about the Papagallo passage: “It was difficult for me because the boat was taking so much punishment.” Linda aboard Jubilee explained her method for reducing stress on the crew, “Before setting out across these areas, I always have tons of food prepared ahead, so we don’t have to cook in gale conditions.”

Crossing the Tehuantepec or the Papagallo will not be comfortable for those caught in a gale, but that knowledge should prompt sailors to make sure their boats are up to the task. After that, voyagers need to adopt strategies to minimize the risks from these sometimes challenging waters.

By Ocean Navigator