I’m occasionally asked what was the scariest moment during our world cruise? To the surprise of many, it wasn’t a gale with 50+ knot wind and 20 foot seas. Frankly, we made it a point to watch the weather very carefully, especially in places such as Mexico’s Gulf of Tehuantepec and France’s Gulf of Leon where gale force winds can develop in a matter of hours. Storms of the type described are primarily experienced in the upper or lower 40’s (above 40oN or below 40oS latitude). Our passages were mostly inside or not very far out of the tropical zone and that zone has very predictable nasty weather such as hurricanes and cyclones which most cruisers make concerted plans to avoid.
To set the stage, after visiting the many popular winter haunts on the west coast of Mexico, we continued south from Acapulco which is the turn-around point for many cruisers who head back north for protection from hurricane season. You might imagine what was going through our minds as all vessels we saw were heading north and in addition, we didn’t meet up with anyone in an anchorage heading south. What did they know that we didn’t?
Hualtuco was our jumping off point for crossing the Gulf of Tehuantepec and the beginning of a four day
overnighter to the marina at Bahia del Sol in El Salvador. We had decided not to stop in Guatemala as our guide book related high degrees of poverty, crime, drug cartels, and administration instability. This was our longest passage to date and we were anxious and excited. The passage was generally good sailing with only occasional times of motoring. The entrance to Bahia del Sol requires passage at high tide and a pilot to guide you. Often the passage can be exciting with waves breaking over the shoal as you pass through the entrance. We radioed our anticipated arrival time asking for the pilot and was told that the pilot was going off duty in an hour and would not be around the next day. So we revved up the engine and ran at about 3000 rpms for the next forty-five minutes. We hated to tax our 27 year-old engine like that but we didn’t want to anchor out for two days in ocean swell waiting for passage over the shoal entrance. We announced our arrival at the entrance and the pilot came out to guide us. Our experience through the entrance was uneventful as it was a calm day and slack tide.
Having arrived in Bahia del Sol we finally met cruisers who were doing what we were doing i.e. working our way south for a Pacific crossing next year. That was very comforting and it was very enjoyable being surrounded by
folks who had similar interests. One of the cruisers that was there was one we had met previously, Pam on s.v. Precious Metal. She was there for an extended stay, making repairs to her boat from a lightning strike. It is rare to be struck, in fact, insurance companies note statistics that less than one boat in a thousand will ever be struck by lightning. Contradicting that, we had already met three other cruisers in addition to Pam who had been struck and we’d only met about 50 other cruisers at that point. Apparently most of those thousand boats were never around Central America. The lightning strike Pam suffered, hit the water many yards away and traveled through the water and into her engine room via her engine exhaust port, causing a fire in her engine room. Her engine was fine, but it fried all her electronics. We spent a couple of weeks in El Salvador enjoying the company of many South Pacific bound cruisers.
More than half a million lightning strikes are estimated annually in Costa Rica. … According to ICE data, the west of the Central Valley (Alajuela, Santa Bárbara, Mora, Puriscal) is the area with the highest lightning density, according to the information collected between 2005 and 2020. Skies were clear and sunshine was predicted for our 350 mile passage to Costa Rica so we and our buddy boat, s.v. Jeorgia headed for Costa Rica. We were to learn repeatedly that weather predictions were rarely reliable beyond two days and this passage would take three.
Beginning of the third day, storm clouds began to form. We could see on our radar that we were heading straight into them and they stretched beyond the horizon. We radioed s.v. Jeorgia and consulted on the best plan of action. As there was no anchorage for shelter nearby, we agreed to forge ahead. Sails were furled or flaked and hatches were buttoned up. The conditions were surreal as there was very little wind and seas were flat. Motoring was going to be required. It wasn’t long before we began to see the lightning bolts lighting up the sky and stretching from the clouds to the surface of the water. Radar did provide images of where the clouds were most concentrated and even provided what appeared to be corridors between the heaviest cloud concentrations. Within a couple of minutes of preparing the boat, we were being pelted by rain and were watching bolts of lightning strike all around us. Knowing what we’d heard from other cruisers, we could not imagine emerging from this storm without a strike. Virginia gathered up our critical handheld electronics (VHS, GPS, etc.) and stashed them in the oven (our stand-in Faraday cage). Comparing notes with s.v. Jeorgia on the storm, we would identify the lightest concentration of clouds/rain on the radar and head for those gaps. The day turned out to be a slalom between storm clouds and took many extra miles to clear through the storm. As is usual with stressful moments, it seemed a long time before the front of the storm passed and we just had residual rain. Nothing we would encounter for the rest of our six-and-a-half year voyage was as frightening as that forty-five minutes surrounded by countless bolts of lightning. In hindsight, it was probably for the best that it happened during our first year out as it gave us confidence that we could control our fear and focus on the tasks at hand.