Tehuantepec Tale

What the heck is a Tehuantepecker, and who came up with that name??? The Gulf of Tehuantepec spans about 250 miles from Huatulco to Chiapas on the Mexico/Guatemalan border.  On land is a narrow peninsula between the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Ocean.  This low lying area creates a funnel effect drawing strong winds from the Atlantic to Pacific side.

When a Tehuantepecker (the name for the strong winds) is blowing, the winds can reach over 60 knots. But, the real danger is the short, steep waves that can develop.  These waves can build up to 10 to 15 feet at 4 to 5 seconds.  That is pretty gnarly.

All of the books and sailing blogs, etc. warn you not to become another “Tehuantepec Tale” arriving at your destination exhausted with torn sails or worse.  Basically, they all try to scare the shit out of you.

So, the prudent thing to do is to closely watch the weather forecasts and go when there is no Tehuantepecker predicted.  There are also lots of “strategies” for how to make the crossing.  You can do the straight shot, rhumb line approach and take your chances.  But, you have a greater area of exposure to the strong winds.  Or, you can take the 16 degree short cut where you head northeast into the Gulf and then cut the corner when you get to 16N.  And, of course, there is the “one foot on the beach” approach where you hug the coastline all the way around the bay.

Mike and I read and read all these different pieces of advice and looked at weather forecast after weather forecast.  Finally, we just decided we had to go for it.  We did NOT want to be stuck in Huatulco for another week waiting for a more perfect forecast.

After we returned from Oaxaca, the forecast started to show the winds dying out the next Monday afternoon, Tuesday looked calm, and then the winds started up again Wednesday afternoon.  The 250 mile trip would take us approximately 48 hours.  So, the weather window looked tight.  But, the funnel effect of the winds means that it really is only about 60 miles or so of that 250 where we would really need to worry about the wind.

We kept looking at the forecast for days as it was changing slightly but still looked like a good window.  We had to time the crossing just right.  First we decided 6pm Monday would work.  But, as it got closer to Monday, we realized we need to leave even earlier.  Finally, Monday came and we decided 2pm was the perfect time.

We said goodbye to our friends in Huatulco.  Several of them were also going to make the crossing, but they were a bit trepidatious about the window we picked.  Everybody has to make their own choices as to when to sail and when not to sail.  We certainly would not be pressured to go if we were uncomfortable, and we weren’t going to do that to anyone else either.  We made it clear they shouldn’t go just because we were going.

We started out sailing just beautifully, 10-15 kts of wind and not too much swell.  As we started to get closer to Salinas Cruz the seas were getting bigger and a bit confused, but we still only had about 10 kts of wind. That changed pretty quickly when we arrived at the “funnel” in the Tehuantepec.  As the wind creeped up to 18-20 on a close reach, we put a double reef in the main and pulled in some of the jib.

I had the overnight shift as we headed past Salinas Cruz (the beginning of the funnel effect) and had to drag Mike out of bed twice to reduce sail.  We ended up with a triple reef in the main, pulled in the jib completely, and just had part of the staysail out.  (Just FYI, we always get the other person up if someone has to go up on deck out of the cockpit, which we have to do to reef the main. We also are clipped in with harnesses to the jacklines.)

The winds settled in at 22-23 for a while and then slowly crept up.  I saw it hit 28 and stayed in the 26-28 range for less than an hour before settling back down to 20-22 for the rest of the night.  With the wind in my face, I was perched pretty tightly behind the dodger for most of my shift.  It wasn’t cold out, but that’s a lot of wind to take for 4 hours!

By the time Mike got up around 5am, the wind had backed down into the teens.  The boat handled the wind beautifully, we were properly reefed so the boat wasn’t overpowered, and the hydrovane kept us right on course!  But, I was definitely ready for a few hours of rest.

We ended up taking that 16 degree shortcut I mentioned above, but not intentionally.  It was just where the wind allowed us to sail.  And, we were happy to sail that first 100 miles.  We do not like being a motor boat. Unfortunately, after we made it through the funnel, the wind died completely.  We only sailed about 3 hours during the day Tuesday, having to motor the rest of the time.

The ONLY advantage to motoring is that it is much easier to fish!  If you’ve followed this blog, you know that Mike LOVES to fish.  Unless it is really rough out, the trolling lines are off the back of the boat.  On Tuesday Mike was in fish heaven.

First we hooked 2 skipjack and threw them back.  Next was one of those big jack crevalles.  Then we hooked a marlin and saw him jump clear out of the water behind the boat!  But, he shook the hook loose (fine with us).  Then another jack crevalle.  Mike was getting a serious workout at this point trying to drag in those big crevalles.

We had a bit of a lull in the fishing in this point until we hooked another skipjack.  But, just as Mike was reeling in the skipjack, we saw a huge dorado going after the skipjack.  (I don’t know if he was trying to get the dorado or the lure the skipjack had).  Anyway, we tried to get another lure in the water in front of the dorado who was on the surface right next to the boat, but it took off.  After throwing back the last skipjack, we were feeling a bit defeated on the fishing front.  All those fish, and none that we kept to eat.

A couple hours later, right before sunset, we finally got our fish!   After the line started peeling out we saw a huge splash behind the boat and Mike knew it was a dorado.  We reeled this guy in and couldn’t believe the size.  We measured him at 51 inches!  That is the biggest dorado we have ever caught.  Mahi mahi for dinner!!!

We had an uneventful last night and the next morning motoring.  We arrived at Marina Chiapas around 2pm on Wednesday.  We had survived the Tehuantepec and had not become another Tehuantepec Tale.


4 thoughts on “Tehuantepec Tale

  1. Lori

    So glad you made it safely. Wow! That was one big fish.

    Questions: Who made all that wonderful looking sushi? When and where are you meeting up with. Jeff? All is well here. Getting ready to leave on a two night trip to Vegas for Cheryl’s 70th birthday.

    1. katie

      Mike & I made the sushi with the fish we caught! Jeff just left this morning. Hope to have a post up about our adventures by next week. Vegas sounds fun!

  2. Rick & Dana

    You are a FANTASTIC writer/illustrator because your description of almost everything that y’all are seeing and doing is “spot on”.
    I was looking at Farkwar today and y’all are 1466 nautical miles from the Sea of Cortez. Damn, that’s a long way, especially from Newport Beach. Sounds like y’all got through the Tehuantepecker without very much trouble. Beware, I’ve heard that a “weather-related pecker” is NOTHING compared to a “California sailboat pecker”, so YOU need to be extremely careful when you’re around one. Again, I am really enjoying being able to go on this journey with you two. We certainly enjoyed seeing you and getting to meet Mike during the holidays. Take care, be safe and enjoy the ride. Later …….. Rick


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