Apr/May 2011 Travel

The Eye of the Shadow

by James McV

Photo by Chris Epting

Photo by Chris Epting

It was Groundhog Day. The day that Punxsutawney Phil, that furry little meteorological wizard, pokes his nose out of his burrow and sees his shadow—or not—and thus divines the weather for the immediate several months leading into spring. Winter along the Riviera Coast of Mexico is typically warm and pleasant, but in Banderas Bay it had been raining for three days, off and on, at first, beginning that Sunday night, with thunder and lightning shattering the general calm over the ocean on the western horizon. Monday it rained more and harder. A tropical express had moved into the region feeding warm moisture up from the southern Pacific waters of El Nino; storm fronts were pounding the California coast, and a cold front was streaming down the Sea of Cortez with the southern jet stream racing east at more than 180 knots. There was a feeling of unrealized trepidation among the boaters in the fleet prompted by the sighting of a waterspout that afternoon. At two o'clock in the morning, the wind shook me from my sleep, invisible in the dark, but ominous, moaning in the shrouds of my 47 foot sloop Location. She lay back hard on her anchor chain, pushed by the wind and waves, and the rain came down in gusting sheets rattling across the water. Lightning still flashed further out to sea, bursting along the horizon in bright explosions of blue-white light that illuminated the sky and backlit the squalls that hung like dark curtains from the clouds. Tuesday it rained steadily all day, and trepidation began to turn to boredom. The weather was most unusual, unseasonably cold and blustery for this time of year on the southern Sea, and we were all trapped by the weather in our floating cocoons.

Around six o'clock that evening the rain subsided, and I took the opportunity to bail out my inflatable dinghy that was tied to the stern of Location. The small boat had accumulated three or four inches of rainwater on its open floor over the past three days and was lying low in the water. It was drizzling a light rain when I finished, and I decided to remove the outboard motor and fuel tank. Then as the rain increased, I cajoled myself into hauling the cumbersome little boat itself out of the water and tied it down on the foredeck. Most of the other cruisers in the anchorage still had their dinghies in the water, and a few brave or critically bored souls had gone to shore. The wind was light and there was nothing more than more monotonous rain in the forecast for the night and not even any lightning on the horizon.

I ate dinner as night fell over the bay and then read for a while down below, sitting in one of the big, comfortable chairs of the main cabin, the steady patter of the rain on the deck ceiling above adding a soothing white noise to the night. Around ten o'clock I climbed up into the cockpit, to take one final look around to check the weather and make sure the boat was secure on her anchor. The waning full moon danced in and out of broken clouds. There was a steady light wind reaching across the dark sky from the west, and the night air was warm and clean, coming off the ocean. The mountains cast a faint silhouette that mingled with clouds to the south, and the bright-colored lights of the resorts in Puerto Vallarta sparkled across the black water defining the shore of the bay. The anchorage was settling in, most of the live-aboard cruisers had retired for the night, and the anchor lights of 35 boats waved gently above the water like Chinese lanterns strung across the ebony sea. I went back below and settled into my berth to read.

It was about ten-thirty, not more than ten minutes after I went to bed, when the first gust hit the sleeping fleet. I had barely settled into my book, and Location seemed to rise up and then jerked back with a noisy jolt as if she were caught in the vortex of a passing semitruck. It seemed innocuous at first; I waited. The next gust of wind tore through us with the roar of a roller coaster speeding by. The anchor chain snapped tight, and Location pitched down hard at the bow with a violent creaking moan in her hull, twisting in the passing wind, caught in a rushing current, straining to break away. The hair stood up on my neck, and a chill went up my back and shoulders as the boat flailed in the torrent, and I knew immediately that the night had transformed itself into something ugly, violent, and fast.

There is no sound quite like the wail of an approaching gale as you sit at anchor, but if you imagine standing in a dark subway tunnel and hearing the rumbling approach of an invisible speeding train as you stand on the dark edge of the tracks, you'd be close; it rushes at you from afar, a distant wail at first, and then it closes quickly, filling the air with a rumbling roar that consumes all of your senses. Inside a boat the sound becomes solid, pushing, shaking, and twisting the craft as if you were contained within a ballistic missile hurtling through dark uncertain space.

I had heard that rumbling wail and felt that awesome rush before. I'd been through nights at sea in sixty knot gales a few too many times. I had been in 40 and 50 knot winds at anchor more than I cared as well, and twice I had been caught in the middle of the night by a chubasco, vicious summer thunderstorms with spectacular thunder and lightning, and driving wind and rain that pour down on the sea from the mainland mountains of the Mexican coast. The last chubasco, six months before, had caught Location and me completely unprepared in the middle of the night anchored off of Isla Venado near Mazatlan. By the time I had pulled myself out of bed and up into the cockpit, the wind had built to 50 knots and a huge solid black cloud of wind and rain emitting brilliant shards of lightning in all directions was descending across the sea. It showed on the radar screen like a building toppling over on us. Within minutes the wind was more than 70 knots, and Location was being pushed across a shallow sandy shoal that I had anchored too close by. She rolled hard over on her starboard beam, dragging her anchor, 100 feet of chain, and her seven foot lead keel through four feet of seething black sea; I was grounded before I could save her. My may-day call was answered by the Port Captain in Mazatlan who complained that the storm was too severe to venture out into; no help was coming. For two hours we plowed across that shoal, the boat pounding on the bottom of the bay; she was lost. I sat on her canted deck, knowing I had lost her, and cried at the sea, and the Man in the Moon who hid behind the clouds, and God who had abandoned me; and then inexplicably, miraculously, she surged into deeper water and started to come upright and then came completely upright. I rushed back to the helm in disbelief, but was able to start her engine then, and motored out, still dragging the anchor head long into the weather. We spent another two hours then, surrounded by the steady barrage of wind, rain, thunder, and lightning as the storm passed through us.

I had hesitated in Mazatlan, unsure what to do at first, and then with too many tasks at hand, trapped in a single-hander's nightmare. This storm had the Ghost of Christmas Past all about it, and I had no hesitation. With that first torrent of wind I knew instantly, instinctively, that we were in trouble. I jumped out of my berth and ran through the tossing boat for my foul weather jacket in the forward cabin locker. I grabbed the boat keys off the chart table on my way back, flipped on the running lights and deck lights, pulling on the jacket and a pair of shorts over my nakedness as I stumbled through the dark cabin, then climbed up the careening companionway to the cockpit and the helm controls at the stern.

The conditions were already worse than that night in Mazatlan; the wind did not build in this storm, it exploded. It was instantly blowing 70 knots with heavy blinding rain blasting through the dark night air. We were caught in a raging torrent of chaos; visibility was zero. The seas were raging eight to ten feet high and crashing into us from every direction. Location jerked and dove and swerved ferociously on the end of her chain, rolling violently over on her starboard beam and then her port side, her lifelines buried in the sea. I was certain she would tear loose of the anchor as I struggled in the tossing cockpit to hang on and start the engine. I found the ignition in the darkness, the engine started quickly, but I couldn't hear it through the howl of the wind; I watched the gauges waiting for the engine to warm up, trying to formulate a plan in the ensuing insanity: stay calm, don't rush, but do it quickly. The canvas cover on the dodger tore loose from its snaps and blew backward into the cockpit, flogging madly in the wind, threatening a serious beating if I ventured forward in the cockpit; there was nothing to do but let if flog. The littoral lights of the bay were consumed by the storm, the harbor channel lights only a thousand feet away, vanished in the torrential rain. The sky closed in around me and assumed a thick, dirtied-green texture to its darkness as if I was staring out through a mossy porthole in the side of a sunken shipwreck.

The deck and mast lights of other nearby boats came on and illuminated them in isolated globes of light, thrashing wildly in the wind and rain and waves, as each vessel fought its own solitary battle to survive. Some of them were moving; some of them were moving very fast across the roiling waters, crashing through the flying sea foam; all of us were moving, dragging anchors, or broken free. There was only one thought on my mind then: get away from the shore; find deep water. The lights of land appeared and then swirled away again, disappearing in a deluge of wind and rain and flying spume; there was no reference, no stationary point of light or land. Location dove hard into a wave and healed over, violently burying her port rail in the dark green water again, the lifelines and side rails disappearing in the wave; I thought we were going under. Get away from the shore rang in my mind again. I clung to the wheel; there was no time to put on a harness or life jacket, no time for anything but get away from the shore. The wind roared from ahead as she rolled back, and her bow came up, and I saw then that the top of her headsail had billowed out from the furling rig on the forestay. The loose sail filled with the wind and started to drag the boat down and then it tore apart, and Location rose up again with the sail shredding, ripping, and roaring in the gale; I was powerless to stop it; it didn't matter.

Bright lights appeared somewhere ahead; two big shrimp boats anchored out at the edge of the fleet, turned on their working lights, and the whole bay took on a ghostly illumination in a cloudy-green torrential kaleidoscope of chaos. More boats in the fleet seemed to materialize out of nowhere then, hobby-horsing violently in their spotlights like wild, mad puppets on a roiling stage of umber-green sea. It was surreal; it was apocalyptic.

The seas were ten to 15 feet then. I engaged the engine and pushed the throttle forward, powering straight ahead into the wind and breaking seas toward the lights of the shrimp boats on the edge of the maelstrom, racing to get out of the way of a sailboat that suddenly bore down on us from my starboard side, flying out of the darkness in the corner of my eye, on a collision course. I drove straight over the top of my anchor, dragging the chain from the bow of the boat with me, trying to gain some semblance of control, searching for a clear spot in the raging sea. The night had all of the potential of a Friday night stock car demolition derby at the county fair. The sailboat on my right jumped off the top of a wave, certain to collide with us; another wave rose up between us in the same instant and buffeted it off. It appeared that the other boat's anchor bit and held it up for an instant, snapping its bow about like a mad dog at the end of a chain, and then it released, or broke, and the boat sank into the dark close behind us. The wind was gusting to more than 80 knots then; boats were scattered in every direction. Some were under power, frantically making split-second decisions to avoid smashing into an emerging neighbor. There was no sound but the roar of the wind, the rain tearing into my body, the ongoing explosion of the weather. I glanced at the red glow of my gauges to be sure that the engine was still running, even at 3500 rpm there was no engine sound; nothing could penetrate the roar of the storm.

Another sailboat, much larger than us I thought, suddenly converged out of the roiling kaleidoscope on our starboard side, bearing down on us. It seemed to be unmanned, but in the slashing wind and rain, it was impossible to see if anyone was at the helm. I turned the wheel hard to starboard, trying to steer under the other vessel, but the storm or maybe my anchor and chain held us up, unable to turn away. The boat bore down on us. I throttled back to neutral, praying the wind would blow us back and beneath the charging apparition. We hung for a moment, suspended in the chaos, on the verge of being impaled, and then the big ketch heeled hard over on her side, jumped to the right, and sprang past our bow, flying down wind toward the black shore of Nuevo Vallarta. I powered forward again, dragging the chain and anchor beneath us, plowing forward to maintain headway and direction against the violent seas, still seeking deeper water, and relative safety I hoped.

As the evening began I had been anchored near the 43 foot Fountaine Pajot Belize catamaran Rapscallion. The big cat had dragged behind us early on and disappeared into the night toward land, and I feared the worst for my friend Henry.

Other friends, David and his girlfriend Julie, were aboard the beautifully restored ketch Lady Lexi, when the storm hit. I knew David from nine months before, on the other side of the Sea when we had both been anchored at Puerto Escondido during the Loreto Fest celebration, along with 120 or so other cruising boats. We had bumped into each other again a few months later and shared a few more stories and beers at Bahia de los Muertos, further down the peninsula, as I was getting ready to jump across the Sea of Cortez to Mazatlan, and they were on their way around Los Cabos and then up to San Diego for the summer. This was Lexi's third trip back to the Sea, and David was a good sailor with a lot of miles under his belt, and a lot of "bottle" as the British say. The 50 foot ketch was knocked down on her beams-ends by the first gust of wind and immediately took on a flood of seawater below decks through her open hatch and ports as she laid over in the gale. Their other crew was ashore, enjoying a night on the town at Philo's Bar, a cruiser's hangout in the hillside town of La Cruz. Tuesdays were not a typically busy night at Philo's, which was fortunate, and most of the cruisers had already wandered down the cobblestone streets to their boats in the marina and the anchorage. David and Julie had taken a beating as Lexi was knocked down. Julie had bruised and maybe broken ribs, and they struggled through the entire ordeal trapped below decks, trying to get the engine started, praying for the boat to right itself and then stay up, and keeping their pumps running as she dragged through the anchorage—too many things to do, doing what had to be done. Triage was the strategy of the night and the only hope for most.

Location finally pushed out into deeper water, and I found an empty space in the middle of the melee and backed off on the power, content with holding our position, for a moment at least. There was still no time to relax, fighting the wheel and keeping her head up into the storm, and it seemed like hours as we beat into the weather. The wind and seas subsided slowly, imperceptivity at first, but then a little more, and the storm seemed to move on as the night took on an eerie peacefulness in its wake. The wind dropped to 50 knots and seemed calm; the noise seemed to quiet, but my ears were ringing, and shock began to register as my adrenaline waned. I was soaked to the bone, my hands were cramped and sore, my neck and shoulders stiff and aching from fighting the wheel, my legs and body battered and bruised from being tossed about the cockpit. The top third of the jib sail was shredded and flogging violently, snapping the forestay back and forth. The dodger cover had ripped free and blown away. The dinghy had been flipped over by the wind and plastered to the shrouds, but was somehow still tied to the stanchions on the foredeck of my boat. I wondered that I had had the foresight to bring it onboard that night. The wind was down to 40 knots and then to 30; the quiet grew.

The fleet was scattered for nearly a mile. A few had managed to raise their anchor or lose their anchor or drag their anchor and make a run for open water. Most had been forced to just hold on and pray as they were blown and dragged across the bay. I have no idea how long the explosion lasted; two hours I think, an hour at its peak. Others claimed it lasted several hours, and some insisted it was no more than 30 minutes; time had become irrelevant. All agreed that it was frantic and ferocious and lasted forever it seemed at the time, with no end in sight; and then it just slipped away, like a ship leaving port. The wind fell to twenty knots, and the gale passed through, leaving the bay like a devastated battlefield, illuminated by the halogen beams of the shrimp boats and the lonely deck lights of the survivors bobbing on the sea. Battered sailors slowly emerged into the light, staggering across their decks to assess their loses. Some boats headed slowly into the nearby La Cruz Marina; others motored back into the anchorage bay and reset their anchors before collapsing for a few hours of sleep.

I awoke with the first light of day still at anchor. The bay was calm, with only a slight breeze blowing off the land. The sky was gray-blue with a thin, high overcast as the sun broke over the mountains to the east. My shredded headsail hung limply from the forestay in the morning calm. The weather could not be trusted though, and so my first task was to take down the tattered sail. I pulled it down quickly and stuffed it into a sail bag as the wind started to pick up again for the typical morning offshore blow. Drops of rain began to pock the surface of the water. Scattered squalls hung from the clouds on the far western horizon still, portending the possibility of more to come.

The Banderas Bay Cruiser's Net broadcast had just started on VHF Channel 22 when I finished packing the sail and went back down below to make a pot of coffee, which I needed badly. The Net moderator was having a hard time keeping control of the broadcast as everyone had a problem, a need, a loss, a story to tell. The storm had a name according to a local weather guru; in meteorological terms the event was known as a "weather bomb." Such storms were not uncommon to areas of New Zealand and Australia, and sometimes, rarely, along the U.S. coast of the Carolinas. No one could remember anything like it before in Banderas Bay. Winds were reported at 88 knots on the water, and as high as 94 knots in the hills, equivalent to a category-two hurricane.

By midmorning most of the boats from the anchorage made their way into the Marina at La Cruz. The Capitania de Puerto was out visiting the stragglers and recommending that they come in as well until the weather pattern changed. They posted the hurricane flag then, with the possibility of another storm still lurking.

Remarkably, no boats were lost and no major injuries reported. Two boats were grounded, one with significant damage to its keel, but both managed somehow to escape the shore. A number of boats in the anchorage lost or abandoned their anchors, and several sustained damage from collisions with other vessels during the storm. The ketch EZ Lady sustained the worst damage in a collision as the captain and his lady watched in horror from their cockpit, unable to steer away or even shield themselves in a ten-second nightmare as the bowsprit of another boat smashed into their side, swiping across their starboard rear quarter like a massive club, tearing away the boat's lifelines and stanchions, ripping two mast shrouds and chain plates from the hull, then crushing a solar panel and the stern railing, and finally tearing their dinghy free from its stern davits and casting it off as the boat careened by out of control. Lady Lexi had caught them as she dragged across the bay, and I wondered if perhaps she had been the dark ketch that had nearly rammed us in the night.

Many similar stories of near catastrophe and miraculous escape circulated through the fleet in the weeks that followed. Short of a tornado, I have never seen a storm develop so quickly and unexpectedly with such force and consequences. Thankfully, it struck out of the west-northwest; if it had come out of the southwest, most of the fleet would have been beached before we could have responded. Once past, the event became an adventure for most; no reason to think of giving up the cruising life, or the sea, just because of a gale. The hair still rises up on the back of my neck when I think of it though... when I hear the wind at night.


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