Posted on December 31, 2017
Crossing the T-Pecker: a Series of Unfortunate Events
We set out from Marina Chiapas with a real, verifiable weather window: three whole days, give or take, of reasonably low winds to get across the Gulf of Tehuantepec. That’s pretty amazing for December, and we were thrilled. Two other boats left with us; Carabao decided to head straight across the Gulf, while Mirage and Milou stuck to the more conservative plan of “one foot on the beach.”
Hours of uneventful motoring found me at 9:00 at night, staring into the phosphorescence-flecked water. Oh, look, what’s that bright streak in the water over there? Must be some kind of underwater current, churning up the phosphorescence in a swoopy line! It almost looks like it’s flowing right out from our boat! Oh, wait a second….
Yeah, we’d run right into a fishing line. Locals set floating polypro line over a mile long, buoyed with milk jugs or small buoys, perpendicular to shore. Even during the day, they’re hard to spot; if you’re lucky, you’ll see a black flag marking an end. At night they’re completely invisible, and we had one hung up on our keel, illuminated by the bioluminescence. I woke up Michu.
Enter our first mistake: we tried to back down off the line. Instead, we got hopelessly tangled. Hindsight has led us to believe that the better choice would have been to lift the line up with a boat hook and cut through it while drifting; instead, the motor cut out as the line wrapped itself tightly around our drive shaft. Time for a swim.
So here’s a little-known fact: swimming under a boat that is being knocked around in the waves, while focusing on a fine-motor skill, can make you pretty seasick. Michu had to keep taking breaks, not just to catch his breath, but to try and settle his stomach. One hour later, he’d freed us from a huge, evil ball of fish hooks and polypro line, but he was certainly not feeling his best. On went the motor—hazzah! Forward went the throttle—nothing happened! Well, the engine revved up, but failed to go into gear. Clearly something bad had happened with the transmission.
There was some aimless drifting, while Michu tried to regain enough strength to crawl into the engine room and mess with the gearbox. His diagnosis: transmission damaged beyond repair. We could try to sail across the Gulf, or we could return to Chiapas.
Remember, we’d chosen this window because of the lack of wind. In the Gulf, winds don’t gradually build over the course of a few days; they go from 0 to literally 60 in the course of a couple of hours. If we didn’t get across by the end of our window, we’d be stuck in a very dangerous position. We opted to head back.
Again, with the lack of wind: what little breeze we did have was coming directly from Chiapas. We spent 12 hours beating against zephyrs and a knot and a half of current to travel 10 miles back towards our point of origin. At that rate, it’d take us six days to get back. In an inspired moment (and with a much clearer head than the previous night), Michu decided to try and shift the transmission by hand. And hey! The transmission was fine!! The cable from the shift throttle had just jumped its track. Some quick adjustments, and we were back in business.
Our friends long gone and 12 hours poorer on our weather window, we decided to head straight across the Gulf. Happy to report that the new engine works great—we certainly tested it. A little diesel leaking from around two of the injectors, and a tiny leak in the coolant, but otherwise the engine did great, and we arrived in Bahia Organo by three in the afternoon, three days after leaving Chiapas. Time for some sleep, and a little beach Christmas, Mexican style.