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Mark's Story Sailing Kinship II Blind

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Missing from Mark as he sailed from Charleston, SC, to Marina Del Mar, Los Angeles, CA

This is my first time on the internet in a week - the first time successfully logging on to my email since Costa Rica.

We are well - those that remain. It's now just the boys - Todd, Ray, and me. We're in Huatulco, Mexico and doing just fine.

We made it through the most dangerous part, the Gulf of Tehuantepec, down by the border with Guatemala. Tehuantepec is a narrow isthmus between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific that happens to also be a pass between mountain ranges. As a result, any northerly wind in the Gulf of Mexico gets funneled though this passage, intensified by the Venturi effect, and comes screaming out across the other side, without warning, at 50+ miles an hour. Tehuantepec is over 200 miles wide - 40hrs+ sailing - and the only way to not get smashed by it is to guess the calm period correctly... which is only three out of any eight given days.

If you do get caught, the winds whip up short, crashing 18-30 foot seas within an hour. These seas can sweep a vessel 100 miles out to sea in half a day, and up to 500 miles if the boat is foundering. Huge waves smashing down upon boats have been known to shear off the stainless steel - the cleats, the toerails, the lifelines - as if someone had cut them off with a hacksaw. A bimini is just a temporary fixture waiting to be torn off by the first big wave.

Actually, there is one defense against the Tehuantepec, if you get caught. You can sail to within 1/4 mile of the shore where the wind has not yet had time to whip the seas up to more than a few feet. When the winds whip up to 50 mph, the catamaran does 10 knots easily, even with the sails reefed way down. At 10 knots, you cover a mile in 6 minutes. You cover a quarter mile in a minute and a half. If you make an error in the wrong direction for 90 seconds, you crash the boat into the shore.

Sailing that close to a shore is treacherous. During the day, it's tolerable - you can watch the coast and not turn towards it. You must sail very carefully, watching the depth sounder closely, following the 10 fathom line those few hundred yards offshore, and having the autopilot keep you on a carefully plotted course, so that you don't stray either out, and get caught in the building seas, or stray in and careen into the shore. You watch the radar screen like a hawk and try to keep your nose parallel to the fuzzy oblong that represents the land.

At night, things become much more difficult. On a moonlit night, the shore becomes a phantom of shadows, playing tricks on the eyes, clouds imitate mountains, waves look momentarily like land, sending your heart into your stomach, and your hands spinning the wheel in panic, careening the boat off course.

On a night with no moon, there is nothing. Solid black and the howl of the wind and the buck of the boat as it shrieks along. You lock your eyes on the instruments, watching for the depth sounder to dip below 10 fathoms, so you can veer out to sea, tending the autopilot turning a degree at a time as the coast gently curves around, staring at the radar with that long foggy blob kept carefully to your right.

It is intensely mentally draining. You are flying blind, praying the instruments are faithful, with 30 seconds of error to your right before things start to become an emergency. After two hours you are exhausted.

That is the best case scenario on a moonless night in a Tehuantepec gale.

We didn’t have the best case. Our autopilot had died 800 miles back in Costa Rica. It had taken the depth sounder and the electronic wind indicator with it. It is sitting in Nashua, New Hampshire being repaired.

The last big blow 60 miles off the coast of El Salvador tore off our wind vane. A tattered dive flag mounted off the mast was substituting.

Without the autopilot the sail becomes physical. You grab the wheel with both hands and fight the bow back and forth as the waves shove you to one side, then the other. By the phenomenon of “weather helm” the boat tries ceaselessly to turn its nose into the wind, like a willful horse. You wrestle the wheel from side to side as you first find yourself pointed 20 degrees and two minutes toward the shore, then 20 degrees out to sea and 10 minutes from crashing seas. And you stare at the green image on the radar and the compass readings on the GPS and pray nothing hard is floating in the black water ahead.

Within 10 minutes you are exhausted. Of course, the other two guys are already exhausted as well, from their two hours at the helm, so you’ve still got 110 minutes to go. Then two hours on standby, sleeping in the cockpit waking every 20 minutes to plot the location on the chart, and God forbid anything happen, jump to the aid of the helmsman. Then two hours to sleep in your bunk, if you can sleep knowing your cabin could splinter on shore if the guys in the cockpit make a two-minute error.

You hang on and pray that somehow daybreak will come sooner than it naturally should.

And when day breaks, it is so beautiful. Light is life, so clearly, so unmetaphorically. There is the coast, here is the deep water. The eyes return to where nature has designed them to look – outward, at land, at sky, at water. Then the sail is still exhausting, but the exhilaration of flight balances the fatigue.

Then it is addictive. Todd refused to give up the wheel all day. He claimed it was to keep the nausea at bay. We know it was the thrill. Forty-five knots of wind in the sails, flat water like an iced lake, the cat reveling in what she was build for - flying ahead ecstatically, leaning ever so slightly into her sails.

We rounded out if the last of that bay’s 200 miles sometime in the middle of the following night. There is some mysterious line in the air where the Gulf of Mexico’s weather patterns no longer reign so unchecked. There was even dead calm at one point. The sails flopped back and forth and the boat lolled in the waves.

The wind quiets and blows a gentle 5-10 knots. The boat creeps through the night and the exhilaration, the fear is gone. Just exhaustion remains. The exhaustion that makes the back of your eyes hurt, that makes your stomach knot up. If it is your shift to sleep, you do. Gratefully. Guiltily. Because you know the guy on the helm is just as tired as you are. If you last a half an hour without getting up, you are lucky, because by then you’ve probably crashed into a deep, dreamless sleep for the four hours until your next shift.

That was not the end of the night. Before it was over an engine had to be opened and repaired, and we crawled though a narrow, rocky harbor mouth in the pitch blackness, frantically recalculating misdrawn charts as radar and maps conflicted, then narrowly avoiding an enormous black concrete pier, built audaciously in the middle of the sailing channel with the Mexican authorities failing to light it, or even change the channel markers to indicate a 200 meter long construction of steel and cement where once was free passage.

At five am, we grabbed a mooring line and fell into our bunks to sleep until ten. Then we went to face the governmental officials whose job it is to make visiting their country as difficult as possible.

I prefer the treachery of the sea.

xxoo Mark

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Jan 25, 2003 07:35 AM