Avante Faces Tsunami Alert

Feb 27, 2010| 0 Comment

Saturday, February 27th – 0715 — The Captain and First Mate are sleeping unusually late, but in their defense, they have been logging a fair amount of hours working on Avante since their arrival in Puerto Vallarta two days ago. The peace of early morning is shattered with abrupt knocks on the hull. Stephen Everett from Salacia, another J/160 hailing from Brisbane, Australia, calls out our names. In his broad Australian accent, he tells us that there’s a tsunami alert. A tsunami alert! How can this be? We are not in the South Pacific yet.

An earthquake in far away Chile has produced a tsunami that is heading our way. The Captain is up immediately. The First Mate can follow the conversation just fine where she lays, so she stays put while simultaneously listening to the conversation and running through her mind all and what little she knows about tsunamis. This information consists of a mere two salient points.  One:  Anywhere near or on shore is not where one wants to be when a tsunami slams into land. Two:  The best place for a boat is out to sea. This tsunami is predicted to hit us around 1700 Zulu. The First Mate knows that Zulu is a way of calculating time and if you know where you are in relationship to Zulu, well ……. you just know where you are, in a manner of speaking or thinking. She mentally notes that Zulu is another thing she is going to have to study up on, for, with our wide-flung cruising, it would be good to know where in the “Zulu” we are. The two Captains are not exactly sure what Zulu we are in either, but they figure that 1700 Zulu may be 2 or so hours from now.

With that information, The Captain returns below to complete dressing and to make two cappuccinos. Whatever the day is going to hold, it will be started as is customary aboard the s/v Avante. Cappuccinos first. Cappuccinos inhaled, The Captain ventures forth to garner more information, but there is not much to be had. The marina office is closed. All is quiet. There appears to be no alarm from the hotel staff. He returns with scant more information, except to say that we are going to head out to sea for safety. The First Mate fully concurs.


A higher than usual number of large sailboats are in the marina having sailed in with the finish of the annual San Diego to Puerto Vallarta race. Like us, they are in slips in the first rows of the marina not far from its entrance.


This marina experiences a powerful surge with the ebb and flow of the tide, and the surge is stronger the nearer one is to the harbor entrance. Avante should know! She blew out 4 brand-new fenders in the short time she was berthed here while we returned to Telluride for the Holidays and a bit of winter fun. From our sketchy sources, it does not appear that this tsunami will be extreme, but all are concerned about any added surge or rough water so close to the marina entrance. With her split fenders replaced with brand-new ones, Avante is not going to risk them or her shiny blue sides being bashed against the docks with a possible strong tsunami surge.

Around us, several boats are working quickly to head out to sea. A few of the boats had been preparing to leave the marina shortly, and they are in fairly decent shape to make a quick get-away. They also have “crews”, as in more than two. One was even planning to leave later this morning to head north. They just hustle to leave a bit earlier. The First Mate counts 7 hands on that boat all doing just that — lending hands! Our friends, the Everetts on Salacia, had also sailed down in the race. Not only are they cleaning up their boat after the race, they are also setting the boat up to sail on to Australia. The dock around their boat is overflowing with gear, sails, lines and a plethora of stuff normally stored in the innards of Salacia. They head out of harbor leaving all behind. If it’s not there when the tsunami passes, that means Salacia would not have faired well if they had remained in the slip. Better to go then stay.

Aboard Avante, the crew (consisting of two, as in The Captain and The First Mate) spring into action. We, too, had stuff scattered all over the place as we worked our way through the unpacking and stowing of gear. The Captain secured the decks. Below deck, The First Mate stowed anything that could fly in the nearest convenient spot hoping she would remember where all had disappeared to when they returned. Working as a team, all was speedily secured, and we were soon on deck releasing dock lines and motoring out of the slip. Fortunately, the tide was high, and we escaped the somewhat shallow harbor entrance with several feet below our 9-foot keel.

Out in Banderas Bay, as we motor toward deeper water, we scan the horizon for other sailboats and see several of them. We really do not have to go “out to sea”. Our goal is to motor out toward the middle of this huge bay and to idle there in deep water until the tsunami rolls through the area. Once safe in the middle of the bay, we ponder the fate of those in Chile hoping the earthquake centered in the more unpopulated areas along that long coast.

The “Cruisers’ Net” is up and running. This is a dedicated channel on the radio which local cruisers use much as one would a telephone. One boat hails another. When that boat responds, the general policy is to switch to another channel to leave the dedicated channel open to others and to provide a more private channel on which to hold one’s conversation. That is the way it is supposed to work, but that does not always happen. The chatter going back and forth on the “Cruisers’ Net” is often eye-rolling in its witlessness. Today is different. The Net is relatively quiet except for occasional reports of tsunami information culled from The Pacific Tsunami Center and from NOAA. An initial report of a 4-meter surge in Acapulco has us skeptically concerned. It proves to be wrong. The surge was slight. Finally, the Net sends out a notice that word had come in that the tsunami has passed Manzanillo, again with negligible surge. Banderas Bay is just up the coast. When will it hit us? Will we even know? Someone in a boat about a mile off Punta Mita reports 2 or 3 sudden waves higher than normal. Then our marina broadcasts the arrival of a definite surge into the harbor. Standing by for the second one, they will let us know when it presents itself.

Upon hearing this report and with almost an hour of motoring to return to the marina, we on Avante and our friends on Salacia head back in. It’s over, we think, but the worst of this ordeal awaits us. Low tide is in two hours, and we are all concerned, for the harbor entrance has been filling in and not been recently dredged. Currently, it is not very deep. Four days earlier while motoring in at the conclusion of the race, Salacia had actually scraped through mud upon crossing the bar of silty sand build-up at the entrance to the harbor. The book of Tide Charts for this part of Mexico is based on the tides for San Diego. To predict tides for Puerto Vallarta, one studies the times and tidal rise and fall expected for San Diego and then fudges in the factor of Puerto Vallarta’s distance from San Diego to come up with an expected tide time table down here. It’s not an exact science. Having checked and rechecked the book, The Captain thinks that the tide will still be adequate by the time we arrive. His concern is the predicted lower than usual low tide due to the full moon we have been so enjoying each evening. What is the lowest depth going to be as we cross the bar into the harbor?

The harbor entrance is not the usual welcoming sight. The waves are up and bashing the rocks on both sides of the channel. Because the tidal swing is unusually large, the current is strong requiring constant correcting at the helm. It is particularly rough where the strong ebbing current meets the waves, and, of course, this meeting occurs right at the shallowest part of the channel, the bar. Normally, we cross the harbor entrance at a very slow and cautious speed, preparing to quickly reverse if we hit bottom. We do not have that luxury this time. With the waves and the current, we have to keep speed up to maintain our heading straight down the middle of the channel. As we enter, a panga (long, low-slung rowboat with a bitty motor), which had been motoring in off to the right of us in shallower water, abruptly changes direction and cuts in front of us, heading diagonally toward the middle of the channel. To our disbelief, it looks like it is towing another panga on a very long lead. Suddenly, they stop, stall. We don’t know what they are doing, but they better get moving. This is not the time or place for us to backdown and stop, and there is no room to turn around in the narrow channel. The Captain moves forward to watch these two boats while keeping a vigilant eye on the depth meter.  The First Mate, working the helm, reduces speed to give the pangas time to move on out of the way, but reducing speed proves to be unacceptable. Without enough forward movement, the current quickly begins to turn Avante toward the rocky shore. Throttling forward to increase speed and regain control, The First Mate fervently wishes these guys, who are now smack in the middle of the channel, would stop clowning around and get moving. The depth meter goes down to 10, then hovers between 9.1 to 9.3. Avante’s keel at 8.7 causes us angst at depths below 10 or 11. Suddenly, the depth meter drops to a frightening 8.7. Shoot! If we hit bottom now and stick, we’re in a mess with all this current, the waves and those rocks on either side of us. The First Mate is hoping we have enough speed to plow through the mud if we do hit. All we have to do is get over this bar of silty mud. The surge, even if it does pull us askew, should give us the extra impetus over the mud. The guys on the pangas look at us like they think we’re the ones who are crazy, but with Avante looming above them and bearing down, they get the idea, get their boats moving and clear out of the way. We skate through. If we did hit mud, we did not feel it with all the wave action.

We are into the harbor — finally and safely — so we think until the harbormaster hails us requesting that we hold tight in the basin. There is too much surge in the marina to allow a boat to safely get into a slip. We have to wait for a lull. Holding tight in the basin is not a fun thing to do where the safe depth for us is limited and ill-defined. With our speed finally reduced, we coast into the basin. Soon we get hailed and, with relief, are told to proceed to our slip. We have been assigned a new slip. It is further into the marina and not as subject to the surge. The First Mate is delighted, and The Captain is equally pleased. We ease into our new slip, secure lines, turn off the engine, look around, take a deep breath and return to our various tasks of organizing Avante to sail West in a few short weeks.

Such is the start of our Pacific Cruise for 2010. If The First Mate were of a pessimistic nature, she would not consider this an auspicious omen. Fortunately, she is not given to pessimism —- yet the thought did occur! Thinking along more positive lines, she prefers to note that we dealt with a threatened tsunami calmly and correctly. We worked together efficiently to quickly get out of the harbor. Out in the deeper waters of the bay, we rode out the tsunami, and when it had passed, we returned to harbor. We kept ourselves and our boat safe. The optimistic First Mate thus proclaims our handling of this experience a most auspicious way to start our Pacific Cruise, 2010!

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