Wind: The Difference Between Exciting and Frightening

  SIDE NOTE: I have always written my posts chronologically, but this post will be the exception. Don't be alarmed. El Salvador has provided the most consistent cruising experience. This is not necessarily a good thing. The rhythm of this place is hard to break, and the nearest town - a typical rhythm breaker - is an hour bus ride away. If you have ever seen the movie Groundhog Day, you know exactly how a month at Bahia Del Sol plays out. Essentially, the only decision you have is whether or not to get into the pool, and most days it’s so hot that it isn't even a decision you can make. Molly, from Knee Deep, described it perfectly: I wake up bored So why mention all this monotony. Well, The Gods must have listened to all the apathetic pleas for excitement, because they responded with a Microburst, a surprise weather phenomenon that left the cruising community more scared than excited. The day started out hot. The week had progressively gotten hotter, and I was staring up at the sun at the peak of this burning weather. I was on the run, hunting down all the necessary pieces for my new custom stove I was having fabricated in Zacatecoluca. Nicole from Bella Star was nice enough to be my translator during the whole transaction, and by the end of the day I had spent $40 and I had a one of a kind industrial strength propane cooking machine. If the weather wasn't hot enough for us, the bus ride back pushed my understanding of heat. Every time the bus stopped, the cool breeze did too, and the temperature shot up a good 20 degrees. Or at least felt like it.

Dinghy raft up El Salvador Rally. The calm before the storm.

Nirvana was a dingy raft-up back at the marina that quickly broke our feverish body temperature. This is exactly what I needed after scrambling all day in a constant sticky sweat. Free beer and bragging rights for the great deal I scored on the propane stove. After the last beer was opened and drunk, Aaron, Nicole and I motored back to the marina to stabilize a strong buzz with dinner. Bella Star has practically adopted me as their problem and renamed me Chivo, meaning goat in Spanish. Tonight they decided to feed Chivo once again. It was burrito night. During preparation, night settled in and thunder and lightning started to grumble in the distance. This was standard.

Free beers at the dinghy raft up!

Chill time with Bella Star.

Lightning was a nightly occurrence but was usually several miles away from the marina. Only on two occasions did lightning strike within a mile and produce winds around Force 5, or 30ish knots. The rainy season was on top of everyone in Central America, but I was oblivious to how bad it could get. Gusts of wind were blowing into the cabin, and a storm was definitely on its way, but nothing to get excited about. The burritos were done and being served. We expected another Force 5 on the Beaufort Scale, like in previous weekends. Bring on the 30 knots. Whatever. Half way through burning my mouth off with the first burrito, the rain started. By the time I was finished with dinner, wind was creeping to the high 20s and low 30s. I was starting to get worried, but equally satisfied with finishing dinner and continuing to listen to loud music. Some radio chatter started but Nicole, Aaron, and I decided to turn the radio off and turn the music up. Little did we know, that radio call was a warning from upwind of the shit-storm that was about to hit Bahia del Sol. Lightning was now striking within a mile or so. I stuck my head out of the companion way and saw Mick from Tolerance race out to his boat that was anchored right next to Panache. The burritos were finished but I was questioning my 3-horsepower outboard’s ability to get me to my boat. While I was perched halfway in Bella Star watching Aaron and Nicole in unison call out the knot meter reading, “35 knots, 40 knots ... 50 knots!!!!” My eyes were like saucers, “67 KNOTS!!!” By the time I turned around, the rain literally blinded me. By the time I acclimated to the wind speed and rain all I could see was black. A huge bolt of lightning struck the background less than a mile away and lit up everything for only a moment and then faded back to complete darkness. Was Panache safe at anchor? I was in panic mode, and I could see nothing. The wind was without a doubt too strong to dinghy out - dangerous even - and I was certainly underscoped for these conditions. Between the blinding lightning strikes I could see nothing. Aaron handed me the flashlight (I’d really like to call it a torch, but I’m not British), and I pointed it towards Panache. Through my squinted eyes I could make out three bands of reflective tape bounding briskly towards us. Upon closer inspection, I realized the boat was in fact Panache. The blood in my body had all but disappeared. I grabbed my point-and-shoot camera and rushed out onto the dock. Panache had broken free from the ground and was dragging rapidly and recklessly towards the marina.

Panache in the distance dragging anchor while I helplessly watch from the dock.

Panache, completely unmanned, drifted within 30 feet from creaming Swift Current, a beautiful 40ish foot Saber. I ran along the dock as Panache plowed parallel to me. As rough as the sea state was, Panache seemed to slow. Did she catch the ground? I didn't have time answer because when I looked back to Bella Star, Swift Current had ripped out the stern cleat from the dock and were starting to swing away from the dock. I rushed over and started to help pull the huge Saber back into place while the bow sawed the dock apart. Amidst all the craziness there was no point one could reflect on what was happening. It sounds stupid, but I never had an opportunity to get scared in the moment. However, it is a little chilling in reflection. The dock was getting thrashed from the several tons of yachts rocking within. Fifty-gallon barnacle-encrusted drums the marina used to float the dock were popping out from under the floorboards and causing dangerous footing for the barefoot crowd. The sensation of of hot water gushing up from the dock coupled with the ice cold rain firing at my body made for a strange sensation. The dock was moving like it was an earthquake, and the rain was lit-up like comets making for a dreamlike, correction, nightmare-like landscape. Once the line handlers seemed to have Swift Current under control, I ran back to Panache who seemed to have stopped but was dipping alarmingly close to the end of the dock.

Force 12 wind. All hell is breaking loose.

Aaron from Bella Star going GI Joe on something while I watch and take pictures.

The epitome of helplessness was reached while standing on the fracturing dock, watching my lonesome Panache bob dangerously close to destruction. I was so close to her I could almost reach out my hand and grab her lifelines. I could even jump in and swim aboard to take active control of the situation. I hated just sitting by and watching. It was painfully frustrating. Aaron and Nicole discarded my thoughts of rescue, deeming it too dangerous. The current/wind/lightning was still ripping the world apart. I clearly wasn't thinking straight. Boats are replaceable. People aren't. While my drama was unfolding, another drama was occurring out in the mooring field. Sundancer broke free from its mooring and safely drifted its way through the mooring field. Talaria saw Sundancer pass by, and in the confusion thought they had broken from their mooring. Talaria’s fears were realized shortly there after when they broke from their mooring and smashed into Hotspur, smashing cap rail, stanchions, and solar panels on both boats. When Talaria de-tangled from Hotspur, they motored over to where Panache was violently resting at anchor so they could tie up to the dock that was surprisingly still intact. I helped get Talaria settled and noticed another boat that had broken from their mooring just past Panache.

Talaria docking after breaking free from a mooring.

Damage on Talaria.

Talaria’s mooring chain that broke free.

It was Knee Deep. I could tell because Ben, possibly the tallest man on Earth, was wandering around on deck. On the surface everything seemed ok on Knee Deep. At that moment, a moment where everything might be ok, I found out that Tolerance, the boat anchored just 100 feet from Panache, had dragged violently into the concrete pier and was under threat of sinking. I glanced at Panache and my whole body shivered. I have never felt so lucky and yet strangely guilty for dodging such a huge bullet. Panache could have easily joined Tolerance against the pier.

Surveying the damage on Tolerance.

I ran as fast as I could to Tolerance to help in whatever way I could. Hurtling around the barnacle covered barrels that littered the dock, the yacht owners that were tending to their rocky boats and marina workers who were busily doing their best to manage a degenerating dock. The reality was worse than my thoughts, Tolerance was being pressed like a grape against the pier. Hopping on deck to help Mick pull up his anchor, I could see a concrete column stretching out of the fiberglass with a huge gash in its wake. This was bad. Luckily, the gash ended literally right at the waterline. The weather was fading and Knee Deep, now in a slip, rallied to help get Tolerance off the pier. With all the weight on the port side, wounded Tolerance puttered into a slip and the total damage washed over all the gawking onlookers.

The concrete pier became part of Tolerance during the wind storm.

A concrete pier sticking into Tolerance.

Mick was given Tolerance by the previous owner a month prior, and while his blood, sweat, and tears weren’t part of the boat, it still didn't change the crushing feeling of losing his home. I was speechless. So was Mick.

Pushing Tolerance off the pier.

The damage report from Tolerance.

It was time to tend to Panache. Aaron and I tried to free the anchor, but we determined that it had caught on one of the underwater cables stabilizing the dock. If it wasn’t for that cable, who knows where Panache would have ended up. So let’s tally Panache’s score: 1. I missed smashing into the pier. 2. My anchor magically caught on an underwater cable, preventing me from causing Panache, or other boats, potential damage. 3. I was anchored close enough to the dock that I was able to weasel a slip at the end of the marina even while my anchor was fouled. The only blemish on Panache’s tally sheet was that I left my forward hatch open. I was one lucky son of a bitch.

The view looking out from Tolerance.

A Bahia del Sol worker holding up a cleat that snaped free from the dock.

More 50 Gallon drums

50 Gallon drums popping up from the docks make for challenging footing.

This account covered less than an hour of time. The actual storm was categorized as a microburst, “a very localized column of sinking air ... similar to, but distinguished from, tornadoes.” The worst of the weather lasted maybe 15 minutes, but the wind speed topped out at 73 knots ~ 84 miles per hour. That is Force 12 on the Beaufort scale, or in landlubber’s speak, hurricane force. Oh, and there is no Force 13; the Beaufort Scale only goes up to 12. In that short 15-minute period, one boat was totaled and numerous others were severely damaged. Miraculously nobody was hurt. The locals said they hadn't seen wind like that for 30 years. I can only imagine what 15 more minutes of weather like that would have done. The next day I welcomed the rhythm of Bahia del Sol, El Salvador. And yes, I was going in the pool.

It seemed that everyone was scared except the boys from Knee Deep. Troopers!

Hugging Panace after a really close call.

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2 Responses to Wind: The Difference Between Exciting and Frightening

  1. william says:

    Yikes, that’s just painful to see the boat against the pier. Glad Panache made it out ok… Crazy story.

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