We spent our one night in Ixtapa enjoying the spoils of a freshwater shower and we readied ourselves for a 300-mile crossing to Puerto Escondido. The imminent passage was to be a significant one for several reasons. Zihuatanejo, we were told, marks the southern end of typical cruiser traffic. Almost all the sailing vessels we had encountered thus far were on a several month tour, heading as far south as possible before having to scurry back due to the Pacific storm season in May.
As it was already, late in the season, our last few stops were becoming devoid of veleros, and most of them were northbound, en-route home. Leaving Zihua bearing southeast would see us cross an important and very real threshold in the journey. We were nearing the end of our Mexican sailing guidebook, the last few pages warning us that infrastructure for boats like us quickly wanes south of here. That locals won’t be “cruiser-friendly”, and that we won’t find many cruiser comrades. We were nearing an area wrought with political and border strife. Oaxaca and Chiapas, the southern states of Mexico, are well known for their prolific production of cocaine and marijuana, and the murderous guerilla battles waged near the border of Guatemala.
To head south of here is to cross a point of no return. We would be too late in the season to return north before the whole Mexican coast became minefield of hurricanes. We would be irreversibly committed to pushing south and facing the most dangerous section of coast in thousands of miles – the gulf of Tehuantepec. Picture a map of Mexico. The very southern end the landmass slims down to a svelte 125 miles. The Sierra Madre mountains flatten out, essentially giving the frequent high pressure systems in the Caribbean a 200 mile-wide vent, through which winds of 40-60+ knots blast unforgivingly out into the Pacific. When these blows happen, and they happen often, no sailor wants to be caught within hundreds of miles of the Tehuantepec.
Vessels attempting to transit this section of coast sail within tens of yards from the beach, in extremely shallow water. Any further offshore and you allow the vicious offshore winds a chance to rally the seas into a seething, spitting mess, seriously risking your vessel, life and limb, in no particular order. Sticking with the lesser of two evils means we will be sailing through the night with “one foot on the boat, one foot on the beach” as they say. Our means of ensuring we don’t ground out and wash up ship-wrecked are carefully watching the depth sounder and radar, as well as straining our eyes and ears in the dark for clues that breakers may be upon us.
On many fronts, both human and natural, our next several weeks were to be fraught with risks. To quell any second thoughts, I told myself “the torment of precautions often exceeds the dangers to be avoided. It is sometimes better to abandon oneself to destiny”. That quote sure sounded good from the safety of a San Francisco apartment building. Now, with seas building and precaution in the rearview mirror, this “destiny” was a much tougher pill to swallow.
I sought mental refuge in thoughts of the coast ahead, which is rumored to host some of the best, and most un-crowded surf breaks in the country. As we prepared to cast off and head right into the heart of this peril I couldn’t help but think…oh the things we will do for a good surf. It must be said though, that this risk versus reward paradigm is an oversimplification. We were all undeniably intrigued by the dangers that lay ahead, but also by how we would react to them. In essence, exposing ourselves to the risks was the reward, or at least the key to it. What we sought was both the experience itself as well as the opportunity to learn and change and grow as a result. And so with the existential desire to know and be the person that would emerge from this voyage, we pushed onward.