The Gulf of Tehuantepec

Similar to rounding point Conception long ago in California, we dreaded this peculiar freak of a coastal passage before we left Moss Landing. We heard many a sailor yarns about the treachery of emabarking these waters. ¨Knock downs are common there.¨ Told us one sailor. Not only was this the first we heard of the dangers of this notorious gulf, but it was the first time we considered a ¨knock down¨ while sailing. It made us feel a little queasy.

¨I had to sail 500 miles off shore and still got hit by a Tehuantepecer¨,  said another. Like everything else, we figured we´ll deal with it when we get there. So we put it on the back burner…

The danger of this gulf lies not in the ocean, but in the uniqueness of the nearby geographic layout. As the Pacific Mexico coastline turns eastward in southern Oaxaca, the land distance to the Atlantic Ocean becomes shorter. At the same time the Sierra Madres mountains progressively diminish to sea level. In an earthly coincidence, the thinnest part of Mexico is also the flattest. In addition, as the land mass becomes thicker again, a new set of foothills begin to rise.

The thinnest part of Mexico also hosts a mountain opening allowing wind from the Atlantic to funnel into the Pacific.

This produces a flat piece of land open to the Atlantic ocean as well as the Pacific. When there is a significant pressure difference on either side of this land, wind funnels south from the Atlantic into the Pacific. As it moves through the keyhole opening between the mountains and cools as it hits the Pacific it accelerates enormously. These occasional events are called ¨Tehuantepecers.¨ They can be a sailors worst nightmare, but thankfully they are somewhat predictable.

Wind blows so hard here, vegetation can't grow...hence the dunes

At the point before crossing this Gulf, we were blissfully surfing remote point breaks in southern Oaxaca and couldn´t help but feel a bit more relaxed about the 200 mile crossing. We checked our wind websites a few days earlier and it looked ok. So we went for it.

And so it began...

We were told repeatedly that the safest way to make this jump is to sail ¨with one foot on shore.¨ It felt odd sailing in 35-60 feet of water 0.5-1 mile from shore. But it gave us a close look at the unique landscape. There are such strong winds here regularly, it is barren, even though it is a tropical climate. No vegetation has the grip strength to grow here.

Barren lands and intense looks as we enter The Gulf.

We didn´t get hit by a Tehuantepecer. Thankfully. In fact, we ancountered everything but a Tehuantepecer: We had flat seas and choppy seas, clear skies, cloudy skies and rain, no wind, 20 knot wind and gusty wind. All in a two day period. These were the most varied conditions we´ve had during a crossing and required some attention. Underneath all, it was a somewhat eerie. It felt as if we were silently creeping past a sleeping monster.

This computer screen image shows a Tehuantepecer hitting a mere 3 days after our passage. The red (beafort 9) is equal to 50-60 knot winds and 20-30 foot wind waves.

In the end we made it into our next port of calling in good form. We had passed our final barrier (that we know of), before entering the ventures of Central America. The only dangers left now are tropical storms, Papagayos (similar to Tehuantepecers) and lightning strikes.

1 comment for “The Gulf of Tehuantepec

  1. May 17, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    well — hey, if it’s only those dangers, tropical storms, gale winds, high seas and lightning strkes they surely you’re past the worst. Like tough surf spots, calm seas and comfortable weather. Whew!

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