The first time we left Cabo San Lucas, the day seemed mild, the forecast was good, and we didn't have far to go, so we left in the late morning. As we approached to the point at the edge of the bay, though, the wind picked up very rapidly, the seas grew rough, and in about 20 minutes we went from wondering if we'd have enough wind to sail to sailing nicely along to reefing our sails (shrinking them to catch less wind to keep the boat manageable) to saying "OH MY GOD LET'S TURN AROUND."
We'd never turned around before! We'd never even heard of turning around until we began the Ha-Ha, because we had been day sailors; we were always returning to our own berth. A sail might be shorter or longer, but it was never "turning back". Clearly, though, these conditions were unpleasantly strong, and though we knew they were intensifying in part because we were approached a point, we didn't like the feel of this. We got ourselves turned around, called the marina we'd just left, and asked if we could have our slip back. Thankfully, they said yes!
As we were catching our breath and calming ourselves, I got a message on my phone from Sarah of SV Blossom who was up at our intended destination, San Jose del Cabo. She wanted to know if I knew where someone was, describing a person we'd had a conversation with at a party a couple days prior, because their anchor had dragged in the wind and the boat was up on the rocks with no one aboard. I had met the person Sarah was asking about through Facebook and had been exchanging messages with her there, but couldn't reach her that way. I dug around and finally found a phone number and left a message there, too.
Suddenly James said "WE NEED TO GET THE SAIL DOWN NOW"; in the interval of our relief and then re-adrenalizing as I'd been trying to reach my friend, we'd crossed the bay, were about to enter the channel, and the winds and waves were still crazy. We were about to enter the busy section with sailboats and big tour boats and little tour boats and little fishing boats and we needed to get the sail down so James would have finer steering control without the push of the wind. I dashed forward and began to furl the main. It was really, really hard in the high winds, and I was yelling and growling and, in my desperation, using my forearm against the winch for leverage. (I've figured out a better way to do this since, but I'm open to suggestions from wise sailors!)
I didn't look up at all. I didn't take care with the proper tension at all. I just aimed as hard as I could at GET THE FRIKKING SAIL DOWN NOW AND DO NOT CRASH HERE. I finished, we got through the channel, and we approached our berth. Sometimes a marina will have line handlers to help you get into your slip. We prefer not to work with them, because an extra person throws off the excellent patterns we've set up together, and unfamiliar folks often do something like what had happened on our way out just a couple hours ago when the security guard who had collected our keys and was making sure we got out safely decided we needed help, shoved us away from the dock, and threw not a small snag into a departure that had been going exactly as we'd intended.
James and I agreed that I'd keep the dock folks from trying to help this time, and as we pulled in I shouted "NO TOCAR, POR FAVOR, NO TOCAR" (Do not touch, please, do no touch." James pulled in perfectly, but before I could step off onto the dock, the wind blew us hard away from it, and I was throwing the lines to the guys on the dock; in the end it took FOUR line handlers to get us secured to the dock, a task I usually perform solo. It turned out they were there because the nice family docked beside us aboard SV Knot Home had departed just after us, intending to anchor in the bay, also turned back, and asked to have help waiting at the dock as they didn't trust docking in the wild conditions.
When we arrived at the marina office to pick up key cards again, they told us we'd gotten in just in time; the Port Captain had closed the port to boats less than 12 meters (we are 40', about 12.2 meters, a point I would not have wanted to debate!) just after we'd spoken with the marina by VHF to confirm our return. Folks out at anchor in Cabo San Lucas had an awful day; one friend said she'd never been seasick the whole trip down the coast, but couldn't get out of bed at all that day. In the marina we'd been aiming for, it turned out that the conditions were so rough that in addition to the boat that was rescued from the rocks -- which it turned out looked like but was not the boat of my new friend -- all the boats on their med mooring anchor setup spent the day fending as they gently bumped each other.
This means that in addition to their safe and lovely docks, the marina has an area where you anchor your bow/front of the boat, and then use a rope to tie off your stern/rear to cleats set up for this purpose. It's sort of a boat parking lot. In the weather that day and through the night, though, the boats were being tossed at each other and their owners had to sit on the deck and use poles and plastic fenders to push their boats away from each other to avoid impact.
We were glad we'd turned back. It was clearly the right decision. It was a sobering day, though. We laboriously unfurled the main sail at dock, unjamming it from the awful way I'd powered it away, furled it up nicely, showered, debriefed, and went to bed early. The concensus among sailors was that the unforecast awful conditions were passing and the next day would be milder.
The second time we left Cabo San Lucas, started out precisely at dawn to take advantage of earlier/milder conditions, too (wind tends to pick up with the building heat of a day.) We rounded the point quickly and easily, and I brought up a small celebratory shot of rum when we passed the prior day's turnback point on the chart plotter. That is very rare; we sail sober!
As we approached San Jose del Cabo, conditions began to pick up. The wind was fairly high, in the mid 20s, which is intense for most folks but normal for us as San Francisco Bay sailors. The waves, however, were awful: about 6 feet high, and coming quickly after one another, about 4 or 5 second intervals. Worse, they were right on our nose, meaning they were coming directly from the direction we needed to sail in, so we were pitching up and down and up and down and up and down. When a friend who had also turned come in the day before described their experience, they had used a phrase I'd never heard before: "hobby horsing." AHA! Yeah. Yup. Hobby horsing. Rocking hard, up and down and up and down and...
It was a long day. It wasn't super dangerous, it just SUCKED. And despite the high wind, we couldn't seem to make much progress, and ended up with the motor on, which seemed insane. We were gratified, the next day on the beach, to find everyone discussing their frustration with this experience. Even the most experienced sailors described it as one of their crappiest days on the water. WHEW!
However, we had yet to get to our emergency! It happened, of course, while I was below decks using the toilet. I stood up, turned and pressed my back to the wall so I wouldn't fall down while pulling up my pants, bent my knees, grabbed the waistband of my pants... and the boat pitched forward at the steepest angle yet, slamming down at about 45 degrees. I was glad to be bending my knees already! I heard a sound overhead, then footsteps, then James shouting something. I couldn't quite hear him through the hull over the wind and waves and shouted, "WHAT?" and he replied "EMERGENCY! ALL HANDS ON DECK!"
We've had a lot of laughs about that since; it was all that occurred to him to say in the moment. I yanked my pants up, dashed up the companionway stairs to the deck, and found that James was on the foredeck clinging to our kayak and paddleboard. The big wave had broken the strap that was holding the yak and SUP to their rack; they were strapped to each other and the lifelines, and to the other end of the rack, so they were still onboard, but the loose end had slammed hard, bending the rack, and they were going to do a lot of damage if they kept slamming about. James shouted at me to turn off the engine, then come to help, and I did. We had been motoring with the mainsail up, and 'Joice naturally turned perfectly to settle into the conditions and more or less hove to, as much as is feasible with one sail.
This meant that we were no longer slamming, as we were now parallel to the waves, but there was still a lot of movement, and two huge, heavy objects were tied to the boat but not secure. For perspective, here is our 10 foot SUP (stand up paddleboard) and 13 foot tandem kayak.
I ran forward and grabbed the handle of the kayak from above and together James and I held onto the pile as he shouted "FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!" He was sitting on the deck supporting our gear with his leg so it didn't fall into the sea. I begged him to take his leg out a couple times, he insisted that it was the only way to hold the gear up, and then I stopped arguing, because it was slowing us down, and just warned him when particularly big rollers were approaching. After a few seconds, he got his bearings and shouted "HALYARD! I NEED A HALYARD!" "YES!" I shouted back. (A halyard is a line that runs from the top of the mast; they can be used to support sails, like a spinnaker, or to do things like lift our dinghy or kayak up off the deck, over the lifelines, and then down into the water.)
I dashed over to the mast and got the spinnaker halyard. My hands were shaking hard from adrenaline, but I got the halyard to James, he got it onto the strap wrapping the yak and SUP, I winched it up, and we were a little more secure; we at least had all of James' limbs onboard. We agreed that we needed to get the stuff onto the deck, so James began to work on removing the remaining straps.
Undoing the straps was hard, as they had been well-secured and we were bobbing, and it was dangerous, because loosening the straps meant that the yak and SUP could go flying, which could 1. tear up our lifelines, 2. lose the expensive new toy/vehicles we had yet to use and 3. would leave big heavy objects in the churning sea to be dangerous projectiles for other boats.
Adrenaline be thanked, we got the straps undone, all my beloved's limbs onboard, and lifted the kayak and SUP over the lifelines and onto our deck. James secured the kayak on the deck inside of the lifelines and I got the SUP over to the far back side of the boat. I wanted to bring it belowdecks, but could not maneuver it enough to do so it in the conditions. Then the radio lit up as we were hailed by Julianne from SV Epiphany, sailing behind us; they could see on AIS that we were no longer sailing forward, and they wanted to know if we were safe. This was our first leg post-rally, and a lot of folks from the Ha-Ha were travelling that day; we were keeping in touch by VHF, passing news about the conditions along the line. Had we needed help, 'piff would have caught up to us in about an hour. (That's fast for nautical rescue!)
After he finished securing the kayak, we got the engine back on and got control of our boat rather than bobbing freely, which was a big relief; we'd been in a safe place, but the shore was certainly getting closer, and it was good to be under control. Then James secured the paddleboard, and we carried on. The VHF lit up again, with folks at San Jose del Cabo discussing their plans to depart shortly. I hopped on and passed news of the conditions and our experience; I said that all of us strung out along the coast were carrying on to Los Frailes, but that if I were in port, I would not set out. One boat was able to catch my broadcast and relayed the information on to others. Some folks chose to tough it out another day fending in the anchorage, and one boat carried on regardless. He had a long day.
One of the things I like about sailing is that when stuff goes sideways, you debrief afterward to see what what wrong, why, and how you could prevent it or handle it differently next time.
What went wrong for us? Well, clearly we secured our gear poorly.
- We knew it would be better at the stern than the bow, since the bow takes more motion, but the placement of our gate and stanchions meant that we could not secure the gear toward the rear without blocking a gate, so we did our best first shot and figured we'd see how that went. Ooops.
- Our gear was below maximum weight capacity the rack said it could carry, but it was close. We should have left more leeway.
- We used a bungee cord for strapping, because it was what we had at the time. It felt like the best we could do at the time. Ideally, this wouldn't have been a last minute task. We then should have restrapped things in Cabo before setting out again instead of thinking if it had been okay so far, it'd remain so.
How could we prevent this from happening again? Well, when we got to La Paz, we hired a great metalworker to replace the lifelines from the gate to the pushpit (the steel fence at the rear of the boat). This means that where we used to have steel stanchions (like fenceposts) that had steel wire lifelines running to form a light fence between them, we now have a solid stainless steel rail that runs around the entire cockpit, with steel wire on just the lower portion. Here you can see the old style on the left/front, and the new steel rails on the right/rear.
Sergio also built racks for the SUP and kayak so that we can carry one on each side, at the rear where it is best to place that weight. The racks are strong and removable. James secured the gear at great leisure with exactly the materials he thought best this time, wheras the first time they'd been secured as the sun set the night before we departed for the Ha-Ha as a final task.
During the emergency itself, we did pretty well. We communicated clearly, created safe conditions for the ship, and got our gear controlled and on the deck quickly. The first time we stopped in port again, we created a permanent solution.
Here's what those seas looked like; you can tell it's after the accident, because the kayak is on the deck.