Crossing the Harrowed Gulf of Tehuantepec
To superstitious sailors, the ocean holds many perils—some more legendary than others. There’s the Kraken, that fearsome tentacled beast that drags ships into the ocean’s depths, the ghost ship Flying Dutchman, the cursed Bermuda Triangle and, of course, the Gulf of Tehuantepec. In the case of the Gulf of Tehuantepec, where “T-Pecker” winds ravage the southernmost fringe of Mexico’s Pacific shore, the challenges are more fact than fiction.
For centuries, mariners have dreaded this 260-mile-wide bay where the ferocious wind can sink a boat, or at least blow you all the way to Ecuador. T-Peckers are caused by weather systems in the Gulf of Mexico. They cut across the isthmus that separates the Gulf from the Pacific, gain speed while cascading down the Sierra Madres, and funnel into the gaping bight on the other side.
Mariners have long been urged to hug the coast and stay in shallow water, where the sea state is flatter due to minimal fetch. But if it’s blowing coconuts off palm trees, it’s best to stay in port. Which is where we were after 10 days of waiting, watching the seas snarl outside the narrow entrance of Huatulco’s Marina Chahué (pronounced Cha-WHAY) on the western side of the gulf.
It was blowing so hard that when the wind finally eased and we raised the main to check the reefing lines, we had to pull branches and weeds out of the folds of the sail. “When ivy starts growing up your mast, you know it’s time to go!” joked Pamela Stone, who with her partner, Paul West, owns the seaworthy Irwin 43 Tugtub that was to be our vessel for the journey.
At last, a favorable weather window appeared and we decided to vámonos. Against all conventional wisdom, contrary to all cruising guides, and ignoring the professional advice of countless delivery skippers—who have traversed the Gulf of Tehuantepec “with one foot on the beach” so many times they no doubt have one leg shorter than the other—we decided to cut straight across. Wind forecasts were mild for the next week, and the only breeze expected was from the south. That night, Paul declared we were “ready to shoot the T-Peckers!”
Perhaps that was the tequila talking. The next morning we awoke groggy, feeling a good deal of trepidation about our decision to take this imprudent shortcut. Then again, the playbook for crossing the Gulf was first written when people still thought the world was flat. We would know within a few hours of our departure whether the forecasts were accurate, and agreed we would head back if they weren’t. But by the following dawn we would be 60 miles into the Gulf, and committed. Time would tell if we were heroes or morons.
Ezequiel Gutierrez Arechiga is the harbormaster at Marina Chahué, but calls himself a “deputy of the sea.” His modest marina has 80-some slips and a hodgepodge of boats in the yard, but the fuel dock is non-operational, the latrines spartan, the shower al fresco. Ezequiel helped Paul muster the required paperwork and organized the five-minute taxi ride to customs and immigration, where Paul disappeared for a few hours while Pamela and I prepared the boat to depart that afternoon.
We set sail on a heading of 110 degrees directly for Chiapas, Mexico. Winds were forecast to be light from the south, transitioning to westerlies over the next day and a half. During the first several hours a moderate breeze and two-knot current pushed us eastward at 10.9 knots, a personal best for Tugtub, which was sporting one precautionary reef in her mainsail and a high-cut yankee jib. By evening the wind dropped slightly and the seas smoothed out. Even so, we stayed vigilant for any hint of a change in weather. As night fell we saw the bright seaport of Salinas Cruz fall astern; we were on the lookout for shipping traffic from this desolate commercial harbor, but saw none.
The wind grew lighter still, but we were making incredible progress. The current must have been powerful, because Tugtub is not fast in light air.
Near midnight, Paul joined me in the cockpit. It was stifling below, but heavenly on deck. We now had winds up to 14 knots from the southwest and a river of moonlight in our wake. A falling star streaked across the sky, and I took it to be a good omen. Had we outwitted the big bad wolf?
By dawn we were more than halfway across. Puffy clouds reflected in the glassy sea. A couple of desperate-looking fishermen pulled up in a panga heaped with sharks and asked for food and water. Pamela made them sandwiches, and I handed over fruit and a jug of water. They accepted the donations, zoomed off 100 yards, shut the engine and devoured the food.
Nearly 24 hours after we left Huatulco, we started playing a mix of the Beatles and the Beach Boys to drown out the drone of the engine. As forecast, there was an absolute dearth of wind in the center of the bay. In the tropical haze no land was visible ahead of or behind us, just the dim silhouette of the Sierra Madres to port. Our only companions were a few dolphins and turtles, and a brilliant dorado that bit the line we were trolling, which added some excitement to the dull and windless day.
At 2200, when the breeze finally picked up again, it was from the north. A T-Pecker now, as we were past the danger zone at the narrow waist of the isthmus, would actually be quite welcome! Before it had a chance to get too strong we would be in our slip.
Alas, we had a second uneventful night; this one motoring. As first light poured through the hatch over my head, I heard Pamela say, “I’m jonesing to sail!” I scrambled on deck to help her raise the main as the sun rose behind the angular peaks of Chiapas. We smelled cow poop, our first discernible scent of land, followed by another characteristic odor of Central America: burning garbage.
We sailed until 0930, when we approached the buoy marking the entrance to Puerto Chiapas. Several pangas crossed our path, making their morning commute to the fishing grounds. A big dredging ship was blocking the channel, but moved away as we entered. We meandered through the buoys and range markers, past the breakwater, and into a maze of piers with trawlers rafted up willy-nilly and small muddy islands where perplexed herons watched us putter by. We skirted a military field, checking the depth constantly until we finally saw masts sticking up around a bend in the creek.
The dockmaster and a cluster of cruisers amassed around a slip we deduced must be ours. Like Marina Chahué, the docks are built for oddly configured boats, and our slip was way too short and way too wide for our Irwin 43. Marina Chiapas is quite modern, with power, water, fuel, real showers, working toilets and docks so calm, “you can tie up with a shoelace,” according to harbormaster Enrique Laclette.
Enrique called the officials, who arrived within half an hour for the mandatory inspection. The drug-sniffing dog was a friendly black lab that wandered above and below deck, tail wagging, seemingly more interested in getting its head scratched than sniffing for narcotics. The Port Captain and his assistant reviewed our documents and after a few moments we were cleared. And just like that, we had shot the T-Peckers. We had slain the dragon.
Photos by Betsy Crowfoot