Safety at Sea: When Fury Overtakes a Cruisers’ Safe Haven
Anchoring lessons are learned, some the hard way, when a freak winter storm blows into Mexico's Bahía de Banderas.
Lessons Learned in La Cruz
• Buy the right anchor: Manufacturer guidelines typically suggest sizing an anchor according to boat length and for maneuvers in average conditions; they’re not envisioning a heavily loaded cruising boat anchoring in a wide range of situations. Err on the side of “Bigger is better,” then set the heck out of it.
• Use enough scope: More than a few sailors on boats in La Cruz admitted to using too little scope, the length of rode paid out based on a ratio of length from the seabed to the height of the bow.
This was something the cruisers all thought they could add once bad weather hit. The reality was that the boats that tried to let out scope were among those that lost their anchors.
• Secure the bitter end: More than a few boats lost their anchors because the bitter end wasn’t secure. After their snubbers chafed through or the windlass brake failed, the anchor rode ran out. The bitter end was either not attached at all or attached too weakly.
• Have a plan for recovering your anchor: Several anchors were lost in La Cruz, but only a handful were recovered. No one had time to buoy their anchors, but one boat had a 20-foot length of yellow polypro line secured to the bitter end. The yellow line floated below the surface and marked the end of the anchor line for searchers.
• Stay prepared: The boats that had just completed passages and still had gear stored away and their decks clear fared better than their less orderly neighbors. Boats with dishes and computers out ended up with cabins filled with broken glass.
• Watch the weather: The weather anomaly, which pushed a subtropical blast north to collide with a cold front that had strayed down from California, caused a near classic weather bomb. No one forecasted the storm, but the falling barometer and other atypical weather signs did provide clues.
• Keep the safety equipment handy: Easy to grab life jackets, flashlights, handheld VHFs, and ditch bags topped everyone’s lists as items that they should’ve had better organized and available. Having a snorkel and dive mask handy can also help with visibility in heavy spray.
• Establish a radio net: If you’re in a harbor with more than a few boats, assign one person the role of net control. In La Cruz, the radio chatter got in the way of Mayday calls and other information. No one, for example, ever followed up with Stepping Stone after the crew’s Mayday call.
• Have an escape plan: Once the lights on shore went out, most of the crews became disoriented. Having an escape route programmed into a GPS and knowing the compass course out to safe water saved at least two boats.
• Double-check your furling gear: Be sure you furl your sail with several wraps securing it, and tie the furling line so it won’t unwind in a blow. At least 30 sails were badly damaged because they were poorly furled.
• Label your stuff: It’s amazing what can blow away in 80 knots of wind. Jerry jugs, dinghies, oars, kayaks, surfboards, and paddles all littered the shoreline the
next day. Most carried no identification.
Diane Selkirk set sail from Vancouver, British Columbia, in September 2009. After a year in Mexico, she and her family continued on through the South Pacific to Australia—carefully watching the weather and avoiding storms whenever they could.