Back in September 2011, Taylor and I sailed into Bahia Jaltepeque on El Salvador’s Costa del Sol. It was the end of a 7-month, 4,000 mile journey. And it showed. We were tired, the boat was tired. We barely even made it across the rivermouth sandbar, which requires shooting a narrow channel and taking six foot breaking waves on the stern.
We limped into the bay, tidied up the boat and left it on a mooring to be watched over by our new friend Santos, with no idea when or even if we’d back. We had amassed a laundry list of repairs – engine issues, a fried transmission, broken autopilot, and ripped sails to name a few. We had neither time nor money do deal with any of it.
Long distance sailing is incredibly rewarding, but immensely challenging. After seven months of enduring violent thunderstorms, equipment failure and long night watches I couldn’t wait to get off the boat. We said our bittersweet goodbyes and headed inland, wishes granted. Now all the sudden I couldn’t wait for the day I would finally want to get back on that boat.
A whole year passed and then the itch started. Maybe it was seeing the occasional sailboat anchored off the southern California coast, happily tucked into a pristine cove. Or seeing the channel islands offshore from the surf lineup and remembering what it’s like to explore a deserted coastline for waves while under sail with a just a few trustworthy companions. Whatever it was, the urge, the desire, the dream was back…to set sail, explore and discover. The hardships and physical discomfort (often bordering on suffering) suddenly paled in comparison to the fulfillment of undertaking one’s own oceanic expedition.
After talking with Jakob and Daniel, we decided it was time. Treks and Tracks had had a great year. We were now busy teaching rock climbing in both the Bay and LA areas as well as amazing overnight backpacking trips in the Bay area in Pt Reyes National Seashore. This meant we had just enough money to fix up the boat, but it would make it much tougher to leave this time around.
Taylor couldn’t wait either. She battles the travel bug constantly and just might love surfing as much as I do. And this time around she needed to immerse herself in the Spanish language not just for fun, but also for grad school (Congrats Tay!)
We hatched a basic plan to sail Patience back to California and put the steps into motion. We would do it in two parts to avoid hurricane season. For the first leg Daniel would step up and handle the majority of Treks and Tracks operations, Jakob and I would head down to the boat a week apart so I could relay back what extra parts she needed. A bunch of craigslisting, a few trips to the marine store and a plane ride later Taylor and I were in El Salvador, on a sailboat, being manhandled by a rough wind towards a shoreline not 10 yards away. A few moments later we felt the keel hit bottom and the boat heeled up onto the beach. Every sailor has had this nightmare, but we were wide-awake. How did we get here you ask? I skipped some things you say. Ok, I’ll back up.
We got down to find the boat still afloat. Phew. Santos welcomed us back, caught me up on the progress of his marine services business and all the happenings of the last year and a half. This included a storm with winds to 70-knots. Patience held tight on her mooring, but another boat, anchored nearby, didn’t fare as well. Her anchor dragged and into the cement pilings she went. The owner sold everything he could and gave Santos the badly marred hull. After tons of impressive work, Santos has the boat looking great. He’s planning on offering jungle cruises here, taking tourists up the estuaries to explore the mangroves and have a delicious home-cooked meal of fresh caught seafood. He invited us on a pilot trip heading out that Sunday with his family and few friends.
After several sweaty, oily days of cleaning up and working on the boat, Taylor and I had made some progress. The engine was in Santos’ shop for work so we were left to play around with large batteries and try to test and repair all the electronics. We fixed the vhf radio, installed the new autopilot and extensively tested our water-maker, which appears to be in working order.
On Sunday we took a break and hopped on Santos’ new 36’ boat for the jungle cruise. Heading down the ever-narrowing estuary the wind picked up. I’d call it 10-15 knots, gusting 20. Santos couldn’t contain his excitement and announced it was time to raise sails. Yikes was my first thought – we were in a narrow waterway with shallow sandbars, no depth sounder and a gusting, rising wind. But our captain knew the area, felt comfortable enough and made the call to let out the genoa. It fattened with wind and we heeled over and picked up speed. The energy was nearly palpable as we screamed along the water. Those first moments of sailing were glorious – I had nearly forgotten the satisfaction of harnessing the wind’s power to cut through water.
It was short lived though – the way the waterway curved we would soon be dealing with a headwind in a channel too narrow to tack in. We dropped sails and kicked the motor into gear with the wind howling around us, kicking up spray off the surface, shore not more than 30 yards away. After a few moments it became clear the motor was not doing what it should – despite the whirring sound of high revs, we had no forward momentum. On the contrary, the wind was pushing us back towards shore and fast. In a last moments before impact, amongst screams of men and cried of children, Santos tossed the anchor overboard but it was too late, our starboard side washed up onto shore. The actual collision was slow motion and rather anti-climactic, though from all the sailing lore you hear about beaching a large boat I was expecting some sort of vortex to open up and swallow us instantly. The truth is we lucked out. We hit a patch of sand a hundred yards wide in miles of rocky shore. And given that this was inside the estuary we didn’t have significant waves to deal with. After several failed attempts to haul us off the lee-shore, Santos’ panga did the job and towed us back to anchor.
I would have certainly have called it a day, but Santos was determined. We loaded our rattled crew into the panga again and ended up taking an amazing tour of the maze of estuaries and all the way up into the Rio Lempa. We stopped to eat a lunch of fresh caught shrimp, grilled on a mangrove platform on the estuary. Taylor and I then took a jungle ride in a hand-carved canoe. We fit into waterways no boat could and the mangroves closed overhead. Birds perched in trees and braches danced in the wind, some leaves singing and holding on, other relenting and falling, fluttering down over our sleek, silent vessel.
Overall it was a magical, adventurous trip and certainly one that you can’t plan for. Another lesson in the rewards of setting yourself up for adventure and then opening the door when it knocks, even though you’re not quite sure who it is. Monday came quickly and it was back to work. Hopefully by the end of the week we will have a motor and a mostly working boat.
I’ll certainly keep the updates coming as we prepare to set sail north, towards that beast of a coast called the Tehuantepec – the 250mi stretch of coast that strikes fear into sailors everywhere, infamous for averaging close to 30-knot winds year round. It can easily bash and bully a sailboat 600mi out to sea if you get caught in a blow. I’ve been monitoring the forecast, keeping an eye out for windows suitable for passage. As a parting picture, check out the most recent forecast.