Family Magazine

Northbound to Mexico: Lessons from the Country-per-day Plan

By Behan Gifford @sailingtotem

birds on the bow at sunset

Northbound to Mexico: lessons from the country-per-day plan
The Pacific side of Panama felt palpably different even before the channel markers switched near the continental divide, green buoys replacing red on Totem’s starboard side. It was partly an earthy smell of the hot wind blowing through the Gaillard cut. A changed quality in the light, maybe, on the far side of sawtooth mountains catching tradewind-blown clouds from the Caribbean. The temperature cooled along with the water, and large swells slowly lifting Totem on the exit from Mirabella confirmed her homecoming to the Pacific.

Jamie and I booked flights from Puerto Vallarta to the Annapolis boat show later in April. PV is about 2,000 nautical miles from the canal, so there’s pressure to make tracks to the north…but only after some fun with the family of Shawnigan and a stockup at the Mercado publico in Panama City. It’s north… but it’s actually very much a westbound path as well, as the picture of our sunset bow view attests!

Edging away from the crepuscular splendor fostered by canal zone smog, a first hop to forgotten islands off the coast helps to optimally time rounding Punta Mala at slack tide (the Spanish being very literal with names, if this was designated ‘bad’ that’s worth respect!). From there ahead to Costa Rica, where weather-window waiting began.

Passage planning begins in earnest at Playa Hermosa, towards the western end of Costa Rica. There are two weather hurdles: Papagayo winds that form over Nicaragua, and “Tehuantepeckers” that blow from the Caribbean over the isthmus to the Gulf of Tehuantepec. Rubbery plans stretched hesitantly out. It drives home three principles for safe and comfortable cruising. First, that having a schedule is generally not good. Second, that you should never be tempted toward preferential forecast interpretation. Last, that it’s always OK to change plans at the last minute if the weather tea leaves aren’t lined up in your favor. OH, there’s a fourth: it’s always worth looking beyond your immediate forecast. Had we considered only what the Papagayos were doing, we may have missed that by holding off a couple of days we’d time well for the Tehuantepec.

Northbound to Mexico: lessons from the country-per-day plan

Traffic on the Pacific side of the canal at our first-light departure

Expected windows evaporated, plans postponed at the last minute; it’s best for the boat and the crew. And then, finally, our patience is rewarded. Not only is there a window to cross the Papagayo zone, but it appears by the time we reach the Gulf of Tehuantepec there will be a weather window to cross here as well. It feels like finding a four-leaf clover in a field and comes with the trivia fun fact that we’ll spend each day off the coast of a different country during the five days to Mexico.

OpenCPN screenshot of our route from Panama to Mexico

OpenCPN screenshot of our route from Panama to Mexico

Departure day – Costa Rica – March 29

Cabo Santa Elena has a reputation like Punta Mala for washing machine seas. We play slack tide again and anchor in the lee to eat lunch until the timing is right. Did it make a difference in the sea state? We aren’t sure. But we did have very comfortable conditions, relatively flat water and a breeze in the mid-teens. Ironically it had been much windier at our lunch hook in the lee of the point, where the wind was probably funneling and spilling over the ridge line.

Crossing into the Gulf of Santa Elena, the seas built to only about 1.5 meters at the greatest point of fetch, when the coastline fell off to a little over eight miles from our rhumb line course. The islands here are beautiful, and all along this coast are mental marks of bays we hope to revisit at leisure.

Scanning the Murcialagos islands

Jamie scans the Murcialagos islands through the binoculars: this is a place to revisit

Along the way, marine life puts on a show. Twice there are pods of whales; nothing is close enough to identify. Part of me is wistful, but part is grateful. It’s actually terrifying to be too close to whales in the water! Dolphins come to play several times, the magic of their directional shift to join our course always heartwarming. A meter-wide ray jumps behind Totem, and three turtles swim by later in the afternoon.

Passage eating: skillet bannock for breakfast, a lunch of couscous salad with beets, garbanzos, chicken, and eggplant parm for dinner… prepared at anchor to enjoy without effort.

Day 2 – Nicaragua – March 30

We wake up in Nicaragua, Totem’s 47th country/territory and what turned out to be our 1,500th anchorage while cruising! Papagayos are worse at night; this curve of bay in the surf town of Pie del Gigantes was a good place to stop. Winds were in the mid-30s, nothing like the force they can pack but still enough to whip up some nasty seas. Picking a mellow bay to get another night of sleep while the wind blew was definitely the right course for us. Although close enough to shore to watch families on their Semana Santa holiday romp in the surf, we remain aboard and don’t try checking in. Technically we should… our usual rulesy selves are passing on the hassle, still smarting from the 10 hours to check in and out (concurrently) in Costa Rica.

Kids swim from the bow of the boat

The kids want to chalk up a swim in every country: Niall and Siobhan get ready for a dip in Nicaragua

Diurnal winds bring better conditions than expected, and with nice morning breeze Totem makes miles under sail. It fades at midday, we fire up the engine and then 15 minutes later breeze is up in the opposite direction… without a change in course we just pull the jib out on the other side and BAM making 7-8 knots again! Flat water in the bargain. Reminds me of being back in Madagascar, except the difference at night in our northern hemisphere carpet of stars.

Passage eating: a late breakfast of ham/cheese/egg sandwiches, snacking our way through lunch pangs, a hearty bean ragout with sautéed cabbage at sunset in the cockpit.

Day 3 – El Salvador – March 31

Some hitchhikers are especially fun, and today was Bird Day on board. The booby on the spreader was cute until it flung fishy poop on our strataglass. But the pair of terns that snuggled up on the bow in the evening, cooing and grooming and occasionally nipping each other, were nothing short of adorable.

Painfully cute pair of nuzzling terns on Totem's bow

Painfully cute pair of nuzzling terns on Totem’s bow

We have a full moon on this passage, and it’s a particularly stunning strawberry color as it rises from behind low-lying clouds this evening. As a general rule, full moon is a welcome feature as it makes it easier for the on-watch to see the sea state at night. It’s also something we have had comically bad timing with in the past! But the seas are board flat, our nights will mostly be motoring as the wind dies after sunset, and I find myself missing the carpet of stars as most are eclipsed by the bright moon. Yet during my watch in the wee hours of the morning, I can see the southern cross on our port side and the north star to starboard. The unusual occurrence of these pole harbingers never fails to feel special. As if to agree, I hear the huff of dolphins aspirating somewhere just out of my sight.

Passage eating: make-your-own-oatmeal-when-you-rise, team lunch of arepas with sweet potato/black bean hash, and a rich, creamy beef stroganoff in the cockpit for dinner.

Day 4 – Guatemala – April 1

Apparently, it’s Easter. When we started cruising this would have been preceded by a week of eggy crafts and making natural dyes to tint blown-out eggshells; on Easter morning we’d have hidden chocolates in the cabin and hoped they’d all be found before melting in the subtropical heat. This year is lower key, we’d almost have missed the holiday if not for the Semana Santa (Holy Week) that takes over in Central America. The thump of music from beach revelers reaches us as far as 12 miles offshore.

Mairen and a plate full of hot cross buns

Mairen and a plate full of hot cross buns

Our subdued nod to the holiday is a big pan of hot cross buns, complete with shortcrust pastry decoration. Checking social media through our Iridium GO, I learn that Easter is becoming like another Christmas with Santa suits swapped for bunny outfits. This addition to the consumer driven holiday panoply is startling. I’m glad it’s absent from our reality, and reflect on how our relationship with Stuff has been changed by the way we live.

Passage eating: hot cross buns, eggs optional; yogurt and fruit; a Provençal stew (if only we had rabbit).

Day 5- Mexico – April 2

At dawn we’re off the coast of Chiapas, Mexico. If the Pacific felt like home, arriving in Mexico is yet another homecoming: it’s a few skips north up this coast where we will cross Totem’s outbound track to complete circumnavigating. In a twist of fate our landfall is within 24 hours of the precise eight year mark that we pointed Totem away from Mexico to begin our passage for the South Pacific.

Cownose ray winglets disturb Marina Chiapas water at dusk

Cownose stingray winglets disturb Marina Chiapas water at dusk

Puerto Chiapas is the jumping point for the Tehuantepec, and as the forecast has held the window to cross. We have just enough fuel to make it, and it’s tempting, but could have us arriving on fumes; we’d rather have a buffer. The window won’t close if we stop overnight here to check into the country and top up diesel, so by 8am we are tied to the dock at Marina Chiapas. The marina staff are smiling and friendly; the ebullient welcome from the charismatic manager Memo buoys us further.

Arrival celebration: bacon and eggs for breakfast, because bacon; lunch on the run during clearance; chicken on the braai; tequila. Viva Mexico! ).

Rest, then northbound again

Passages have a rhythm. There’s a stride that sets in on the third morning; no longer sleep deprived, accustomed to the body clock shift into multiple sleep cycles. Stopping in Chiapas was the right thing to do, but it resets the rhythm. That the passage across the Tehuantepec is only one night is awkward again, but a mixed-up body clock is not even a blip in the decision to go. The window is open, and what we’re paying closest attention to is… well, look at our PredictWind screenshot below. What do you think?

PredictWind view of Tehuantepec

Meanwhile, we heard from friends on the far side of the Gulf – a family we last saw in Mexico just prior to departing for the South Pacific, and they’re waiting with bubbles. Time to go!

Boobies wrangle for spreader ownership

MY SPREADER.


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