Monday, March 14, 2011

Decision Mentality
By Michael

Windy driving us down the coast, propelled by the Santa Anas (1997)
A large number of the blogging cruisers on the west coast of North America have by now written posts about the effects of the recent tsunami and their individual responses. Two cruising families in Puerto Vallarta, aboard Eyoni and Watcha Gonna Do, are among these blogging cruisers. Each wrote about the events of the day, detailing their thought processes and actions (we would have responded in the same manner had we been in Mexico; deep water beats all in the case of a tsunami). But each, in similar posts, also described the reactions and decision-making processes of other cruisers in the area, as the bloggers perceived them.
Both of these posts reminded me of a incident of fourteen years ago that not only informed my boating skills, but permanently changed the way I've approached every decision in my life since.

Windy and I departed San Diego the second week of December 1996, headed south for Cabo San Lucas and places beyond. On our second day out, powerful Santa Anas picked up and pushed us forward. As the intensity increased overnight, so did the height of the following seas. We were surfing down these building, breaking swells faster than our hull speed and with a full main, but no head sail. Steering was a challenge in the moonless night as we usually only heard the breakers, without seeing them. A couple times, waves broke over the cockpit, once washing an eight-inch squid through the open companionway and down onto the forward cabin sole.
Even after several accidental jibes, we failed to rig any kind of preventer and eventually, after a particularly nasty jibe, the main ripped open crosswise, just beneath the third reef point. We took shelter the next afternoon in the lee of Isla San Benito. After finding that the sail tape and needle and thread I'd carefully provisioned was no remedy for the length of tear we had to fix, we sailed (under triple reef) to the next outpost: Isla Cedros.

Del Viento at right, tentatively anchored at Cedros (1997)
In the tiny manmade harbor, defined by a breakwater, we found three other sailboats, all taking refuge from the very strong winds and big seas off the Baja coastline. One boat was a 40-foot C&C headed north on a delivery, her two-person crew waiting for more favorable conditions for the slog north. The other two were stout cruising boats headed south like us, each a boat like I wished I had.

Windy and I had an unusually hard time setting our 22-pound Bruce. I even pulled it back up at one point to check and see whether it was somehow fouled. We finally got it set, but then ended up dragging a couple of times through the night. This was something I'd never encountered in the dozens of times I'd anchored off California's Channel Islands. Talking to everyone the next day, we learned that they were having the same problems.

Windy and I made the decision to get out of Dodge and to sail over to Bahia Tortuga, where the holding is fine and where we could likely get the help we needed to repair our main. Cedros harbor is small and the last place I wanted to be, surrounded as we were by dragging neighbors and breakwater. After starting the motor, packing everything up, and retrieving the anchor, the couple on the beautiful, 35-foot blue water sailing vessel hailed us on the VHF.

"Del Viento, Del Viento. You guys re-anchoring?"

"No, we're headed out, over to Turtle Bay."

"I wouldn't make that crossing now if I were you, and winds are expected to increase."
"We're concerned about the holding here..."

I don't recall how the rest of the conversation went, but we didn't leave Cedros that day. I remember very clearly that I heeded the advice of the other sailor to stay, not because it was one input in my decision making process and I ultimately reached the same conclusion, but because I reasoned he must know more than I do. He was older and his boat was better: that was the basis for my decision making. I dismissed all of my own thoughts on the matter and felt reassured I was doing the right thing, happy to have the lead of this more experienced sailor to follow. Besides, nobody else was pulling anchor and heading out, what the hell was I thinking?
I was no longer captain of my own ship, just this other sailor's crew, but on a separate boat.

That night, we four boats did receive permission from the port captain to raft up alongside the concrete quay. We potlucked and talked and drank late into the night. After not too many drinks, I learned that I had significantly more sailing experience than anyone aboard the 35-foot blue water sailing vessel. Windy and I were shocked to learn that this couple motored down from Seattle, and had not once raised a sail. In Windy, the woman confided that her husband wanted to abandon this (his) dream by the time they reached Southern California, and that they continued on only at her urging.

Rafted and tied to the quay at Cedros, Del Viento visible foward and to the left (1997)
The next day, after a good night's sleep, we two boats departed Cedros about the same time. The winds were 10-15 knots, but the seas were little diminished and presented a large, steep, slightly aft cross swell on the heading to Turtle Bay. It was a fast, glorious sail. The force of wind in our sails was counterbalanced by the keel, and our motion underway was pleasant. This was in stark contrast to the wild, even violent, arcs inscribed in the sky by the two masts of our ketch-based would-be mentors.
During the 3-hour passage, we twice urged them over VHF to remove their sailcover and hoist their main, assurring them that the rocking motion they were experiencing would ease.
"We're thinking about it Del Viento, thank you!"
Today, I never fail to consider other points of view, but I am careful to qualify them and to give due weight to my own reasoned thoughts. I think that that is what being a captain means.


  1. I am learning a lot more about your trip in these posts than I ever did talking to you about the trip. I am enjoying them a whole heck of a lot. Gonna write a post on food?

  2. This is good advice and true advice--but I think the two blogs you point to only have the early on scenario. Having been on the dock and unable to leave (part of our engine was in PV and our steering was in pieces) I know that almost every boat that could go out did go out.

    There were many people looking for more advice--which makes sense. We did experience a Tsunami here last year and the initial estimates had them sounding very similar. There was bad advice coming in from the port captain and fines threatened if you left harbour. Also there were a lot of boats that were torn apart (remember this is a dock filled with boats preparing for long trips) many had crew members off in other places, dozens were like yours and had no owner aboard.

    You still get 'group think' in Mexico. We've seen it in as far flung destinations as Columbia when a whole group went out into a norther for a 4-day passage because the group blow-hard misread a weather forecast...


Thank you for taking the time to comment; we look forward to reading your feedback. Don't forget that you may also contact us directly at (please type DEL VIENTO in the subject line)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...