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Taming the Tehuano

A Great Harbour trawler delivery runs into some famously foul weather in Mexican waters

Don't get me wrong. I take comfort in the presence of law enforcement on the water. I just happen to believe it best to avoid contact with the authorities whenever possible and keep a low profile. This is especially true if I happen to be at the helm of a boat in Latin American waters, where the enforcers are military and the U.S. Constitution holds no sway.

The writer pilots Ho'Okele from the flybridge along Mexico's Pacific Coast.

The trawler yacht I was captaining had crossed into Mexican waters from Guatemala just a few hours earlier. Now, to starboard, a 100-foot Mexican navy patrol boat was cutting through the inky blue Pacific on an intercept course. And the last thing I wanted was to be boarded, searched and questioned.

When the naval vessel had approached to within a half-mile, a voice on the VHF began calling us in Spanish: "Yacht with the green hull, yacht with the green hull. This is the Mexican navy on channel 16."

Here we go, I thought. "Mexican navy, Mexican navy. This is the yacht with the green hull. Ho'Okele. Ho'Okele. We're an Estados Unidos yacht en route to Ensenada. Our last port was Barillas in Jiquilisco Bay in El Salvador."

"USA yacht. What is your name?"

"Ho'Okele. A difficult word," I confessed. "Ho'Okele."

"What is your port of origin?"

"Florida. Florida, Estados Unidos."

"Bien, USA yacht. There is a storm now. Not here, but up ahead. Forty-five-knot winds and 10-foot seas. You ought to be very careful."

"Is this storm of the Tehuantepec type?" I asked, though I knew the answer. We were purposely heading into the Gulf of Tehuantepec in time for one of its signature gales.

"Yes, yes, a Tehuano," he said, and proceeded to read an English-language marine forecast, which he pronounced using phonetic Spanish. His performance was endearing and I regretted any negative thoughts I may have directed at the Mexican navy a few minutes before.

"I understand that during a Tehuantepec storm it is less dangerous near the beach," I said.

"Yes, stay near the beach, a half-mile or less."

"Thank you for your help, Mexican navy."

"We will be here if you need us, captain. Just call. Adios."

By now you are probably wondering why my crew and I are taking a 37-foot trawler into some famously foul weather. The story begins in Gainesville, Fla., the home of Great Harbour Trawlers. The builder of Ho'Okele, a Great Harbour N37, needed to get hull No. 3 to Hawaii for owner Mark Heilbron, a medical supply company executive with a passion for offshore fishing. Heilbron chose the N37 for its outstanding initial stability, then ordered it built with some funky modifications. He wanted a sportfish-style canvas flybridge for the helm and asked that the usual deckhouse steering station be eliminated.

Following Heilbron's specifications, the N37's cavernous aft storage locker was modified to create a hold for his catch, to be iced down with an industrial icemaker. The fact that this full-displacement trawler is an 8-knot boat didn't matter a whit, since Hawaii's fishing grounds lay just a few miles off the beach. Heilbron said he wanted to use the boat to tap into the lucrative Asian sushi market.

In a moment of inspired audacity, Heilbron and Great Harbour president Ken Fickett decided that the boat would be delivered to Hawaii on her own bottom. This unusual decision was due, in part, to conditions in late 2002, when these events occurred. A longshoreman's strike at West Coast ports had run up shipping costs to the point that it wouldn't cost too much more just to drive it the nearly 7,000 miles from Florida to Honolulu. Remember, diesel back then was less than $1.50 a gallon.

Money was a factor, but both the owner and the factory saw this Hail Mary delivery as an opportunity for bragging rights. A year earlier, Nordhavn had set the standard for adventure by sending one of its 40-footers on a successful journey around the world. Great Harbour wanted its turn at what I later dubbed "heroic marketing."

My job was to get the boat from Florida to Ensenada, Mexico, where Heilbron and two other crewmen - handpicked by the factory - would take Ho'Okele the remaining 2,300 miles across the Pacific. During the five weeks before the Tehuantepec passage, I had taken the boat from Key West to Isla Mujeres in Mexico, through the Panama Canal to Costa Rica and on to the port at Jiquilisco Bay in El Salvador. With me was a longtime crewmate from Massachusetts, a seagoing chef named Charles deVarennes - Chef Charles for short.

Let's just go

Chef Charles and I were holed up with Ho'Okele at Marina Barillas in El Salvador over the New Year's holiday. We were watching the weather to gauge when best to embark on a 475-mile run to a little resort town in the Oaxaca region called Santa Cruz. It didn't look good. January sees Tehuantepec storms, or Tehuanos, on 19 of its 31 days. Anyone seeking to take a yacht from one coast to the other during winter must transit these waters.

The meteorological chain of events that causes Tehuanos is straightforward. In winter, cold high-pressure systems march southward from Texas over the Gulf of Mexico, creating pressure gradients that generate winds through three mountain passes - one in Mexico that leads to the Gulf of Tehuantepec, one in Costa Rica that empties into the Gulf of Papagayo and one in Panama. These passes through the cordilleras act like funnels, accelerating the winds. Counterintuitively, Tehuanos and their southern cousins produce waves coming out from land, not crashing against it.

Dolphins ride in Ho'Okele's bow wake along Mexico's Oaxaca region.

Reading the guides and talking to West Coast cruisers had left me with the impression that Tehuantepec storms were difficult to anticipate. Nonsense. The U.S. Navy's weather prediction center, known by the unpronounceable acronym FNMOC, clearly showed that a gale would be brewing in the Gulf of Tehuantepec days before the event. It was plain to see in the wave height and direction section of its website, which Chef Charles and I were examining at Marina Barillas. FNMOC's wave map clearly showed a patch of 10-foot seas coming off the Mexican coast at the Gulf of Tehuantepec. (FNMOC's computer-modeled forecasts have served me well for years, though most mariners seem unaware of this free public resource.)

Earlier in the voyage, Chef Charles and I had crossed the Gulf of Papagayo during just such a "Papagayo" storm, with sustained 35-knot winds. We rocked, rolled and pounded in the short chop, but reached the eastern side of Papagayo to find calm waters near shore - none the worse for it.

Eric Kunz, a product development manager at electronics manufacturer Furuno, had warned me about "Tehuantepeckers" when I explained Ho'Okele's route to him. So had Great Harbour naval architect Lou Codega, who once had witnessed Tehuano bedlam from the deck of a ship. It was Kunz who gave me the classic advice about "keeping one foot on the beach."

Charlie, I said, let's just go. Get it over with. We could sit at Marina Barillas for weeks and never get a weather window. Ho'Okele had performed well during the Papagayo, and drawing just 3 feet, she was an ideal vessel for shoal water work. No matter how bad it gets, I said, it will all be over 24 hours after it starts. Vamos.

Plotter problems

Our conversation with the Mexican navy occurred at around 8:30 a.m. Jan. 3. By midafternoon and with Santa Cruz still 30 hours away, Ho'Okele came under attack, as winds whipped up to 35 knots. As predicted, however, seas close to the beach were only 1 to 2 feet, but that did not mean we would have a dry ride. Increasing to more than 40 knots, the wind grabbed the tips of these waves and hurled water against us.

I forgot to mention that even though Ho'Okele's owner wanted the single steering station on the flybridge, Great Harbour installed a temporary helm and console in the deckhouse for the purposes of the delivery or we never would have braved the storm. Snug inside, we could see nothing to starboard; that side looked as if we were going through a car wash. At the windshield, the view was just as poor. We could only see out the port side and aft glass.

Entering the storm in daylight gave me the chance to work out a system for keeping a consistent half-mile out that could be applied once the sun had set. The chart plotter's cartography was faulty for this section of Mexico, we soon learned, as the plotter displayed Ho'Okele's position more than a quarter-mile inland. If the error were consistent along our route, the plotter might have been our primary interval-keeping tool, but I could not trust that assumption. Radar would be the answer. I got the boat on course using the radar and put a cursor waypoint on the plotter so the autopilot would have something to steer to. Then it would be just a matter of monitoring our progress and adjusting our course with new cursor waypoints as the shore curved.

All this sounds pretty straightforward, and in daylight it was. Night would be different - no moon, nothing to see but brine and blackness. One of the Spanish words for darkness has no single-word English equivalent. The word is tinieblas, which translates as utter darkness or pitch black. Tinieblas - we might as well have been a submarine. So besides keeping our right foot on the beach, Ho'Okele's radar would be our only way to avoid collision with other stray vessels or big debris - a process of regularly varying range and gain.

Our only emergency happened around midnight. I was looking down into the chart plotter and saw a number changing - 7, 6, 5, 4, 3. Holy moley! It was the depth sounder readout! I took control of the boat away from the autopilot and turned us 90 degrees to port to head offshore. The depth rose almost immediately to 5 feet, but took what seemed like forever to get past 10.

We had almost run into a sand berm alongside the mouth of a big lagoon. The plotter showed this obstacle more than a mile ahead, but, of course, we had established that the chart was wrong. In retrospect, going aground probably would have been OK because of the manageable sea state and offshore winds. With twin Lugger engines turning big screws, we would have had little trouble backing and twisting into deeper water. But with 40- to 45-knot winds and utter darkness, it was a scary thought at the time.

Super Bowl in Ensenada

We went out about a mile to skirt the sandbars and found ourselves bouncing in square 4- to 5-foot seas, which utterly discombobulated the autopilot, so I hand-steered until we were able to crab toward shore and renew our half-mile interval. I let Chef Charles play the video game for a couple of hours while I took a nap.

At 4 a.m. I took over again, wearing a sweatshirt against the cold. By the radar, I thought, we were skirting the shore a little too closely, but I had a heck of a time getting it to the correct interval and steering by waypoint at the same time. After a two-hour nap, I was out of practice.

At 6 o'clock, Chef Charles took over for the dawn watch and never thought to wake me for a most marvelous sight. I later read that the Tehuano's jet winds bring cold water to the surface and, with it, the dissolved nutrients that form the base of the marine food chain. The sea surface temperature can drop more than 20 degrees in a single day of Tehuano winds and, when that happens, the fish are biting.

Through the spray and salt-encrusted glass - the boat was covered in salt - Chef Charles saw native people in groups of two or three on the beach with great big kites. They launched the kites off the beach with fishing gear attached, flying them far out over the gulf, then dropped the whole rig into the water. Muy Discovery Channel.

Later, as we skirted the petroleum port of Salinas Cruz at the head of the gulf, our course became more westerly to follow the coast. Wind and seas were now from astern, and Ho'Okele adopted the easy motion that characterizes a Great Harbour trawler's down-wave ride. With a comfortable platform and great view of the Sierra Madre to starboard, it was a good time to rest and reflect.

As was becoming our trademark, Ho'Okele pulled into Santa Cruz, also known as Huatulco, at around 1:30 a.m. Good for the local economy, but disappointing to us, was a new 1,000-foot concrete cruise ship dock dominating the once quaint harbor at the expense of the anchorage. Ashore in this modest resort town, we officially entered Mexico for the second time. The nearby village of Crucero, where the local population lives, was neat, clean and open for business. We enjoyed an Oaxacan meal and got haircuts.

We left the next day. The next 36 hours made for a routine passage along the rugged coast, and once again we arrived after midnight, slipping between the craggy bluffs that open up to the vast, frolicking city of Acapulco. A few weeks later, we pulled into Ensenada just in time to watch the Super Bowl. In March, the next crew took Ho'Okele to her destination, carrying an additional 500 gallons of diesel in auxiliary tankage. The passage was without incident and took two weeks, nearly down to the minute. The crew caught a few fish for the stove; otherwise the ride was monotonous.

The Pacific crossing was supposed to be the glory ride, though not to my way of thinking. Routine passages quickly fade from our minds. Edgy, challenging voyages stay with us and make better stories and richer memories.

See related story:

- Panama Canal: Pacific passage

This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue.