Sailors seem to be in two groups these days, those that hunkered down when the “plague” started and stayed put, flirting with boredom; and those that took off hoping to outrun it before they were prevented from leaving, flirting with ostracism and unknown difficulties. Now, late in the plague season it is clear that every country just wants you to stay put. Most of Oceania is closed, from New Zealand and Australia to the Cooks and French Polynesia. Sailors that did arrive in the South Pacific islands are forced into quarantine, limited to a few anchorages, generally not allowed to come ashore, and asked to leave ASAP. Some have been pushed to leave their boats and fly home. We are glad we stayed put.
Mexico, having slightly more resources than most of the small islands of Oceania, was slower to close, but close it has. Recreational sailing is strongly discouraged. You can move port to port to get your boat someplace safe, but that’s it. Commercial chartering is not allowed and cruise ships are gone. The airport is still and quiet. Many ports have closed or have strongly discouraged new arrivals. Certainly most stores, restaurants and all bars are closed. Alcohol cannot be sold (Costco for some reason is exempted). Beaches and malecons and hotels are closed. Only essential traffic is allowed in the towns and cities and sporadic checking is being done. Folks over 60 are asked to stay home.
We hunkered down, partly because of health issues, but also we strongly believe in “leaving a clean wake” and not being a burden on the countries we wish to visit. I am dismayed that so many of our fellow sailors chose to go west even after it was clear we were not welcome in those ports. Now as time has stretched on we find ourselves in a place we had not intended to spend hurricane season which officially starts May 15. The worst months however are September and October.
Our original intention, like many sailors in Mexico, was to spend the winter months in Banderas Bay and points south, then head north into the Sea of Cortez as the weather gets too hot here, as the winds starting blowing from the south to ease our trip north, and as hurricane season approaches. Our specific intention was to end up in Puerto Penasco, in the very north of the sea, where no hurricanes go, at a well-reputed boatyard close to US shipping in Phoenix. We need to re-rig (replace the wires that hold up our masts) and do some other major work. It is very hot and dusty up there, but too far north for hurricanes. The map below shows the raw distances, but we would have liked to stop and explore many places along the way.
Humans Plan, Gods Laugh
But as we waved goodbye to my family in late February after a great visit two things were clear. My shoulder pain was getting worse, not better. And COVID-19 was beginning to be a real thing. We decided to stay a bit longer until we could find out more about those two things.
My shoulder problem after MRI and ultrasound imaging turns out to be a fairly messy thing with three different tendons torn (“shredded” one doctor said). I chose stem-cell and plasma injections (3 month recovery) over surgery (9 to 12 month recover). I am now in the “healing” phase after the injections and hoping for the pain to disappear and exercise to be okayed by mid-May.
The virus is, as we all know, still going on. Mexico is starting to talk about re-opening in late May, but as they were late to start seeing the virus that may be optimistic. We still have almost no official cases of the virus in our local area.
Puerto Penasco is about 1000 miles from here across a sea known alternately for no winds and for “square waves” – steep unpleasant waves that do not slide gracefully under your boat. That’s (conservatively) ten 24-hour days of sailing. Also, Puerto Penasco is currently closed. We have a paid boatyard reservation for June 15 assuming it opens by then. I am to see the doctor in mid May to find out what my next shoulder rehabilitation steps are. With luck I’ll be able to do the exercises myself and will not need the PT instrumentation. By June 1, perhaps we could be sailing north. Perhaps. That’s now Plan A.
In case we cannot make those plans happen we also looked at what hurricane season would look like down here in Banderas Bay. Maybe we stay through the summer, let my arm really finish healing. We might have to get a storage area to store all the sails and equipment that we have to remove from the boat to make it safe for hurricane season. We might buy an inexpensive car. Maybe do some road trips. Do we start some of the work the boat needs? That loose collection of questions and ideas is the extent of our plan B.
So what is the chance of a hurricane in this area?
Hurricanes in Mexico
We are fortunate in that this area has been hit by no large hurricanes, so it is considered safe by many people. But many storms do go by here and hurricanes have hit both north and south of here. How does that work? We decided to dig a bit deeper.
History of Hurricanes
Hurricanes in the eastern Pacific have been tracked since 1939. During those 71 years no major hurricane has come to Banderas Bay. See the map of all hurricanes. Below is an excerpt from that high resolution map showing Banderas Bay circled in white.
Detailed Hurricane Maps 2012-2019
The legends of the maps below are hard to read – note that pink is a major hurricane (Category 3-5), red is a hurricane (Category 1 or 2), yellow is a tropical storm, and green is a tropical depression. (Read about our experience sailing through a tropical storm – something we hope never to do again.)
From these maps it appears that Banderas Bay is protected in some way. But is it physics and topography – or chance? We can think of reasons the topography might protect us – storms do seem to get stopped at the Sierras that run right along the coast behind Puerto Vallarta (PV). Look at Manuel (track 13 in 2013) that comes roaring up behind the Sierras and PV and then converts to a tropical depression as it crosses the mainland and before it crosses the Sierra to PV. We’ve seen that smaller rainstorms seem to dump their rain on PV and never make it to La Cruz on this side of the bay. Clouds and fog that form on the PV side of the bay rarely fill in over here. La Cruz is the Alameda of Banderas Bay.
Storm surge destroys more well-prepared boats than wind in hurricanes. You may be able to remove everything that can catch wind and tie that boat down, but if the docks break loose or float off the bollards there is not much that will survive. Storm surge is affected by numerous factors, but some sources give a rule of thumb storm surge for Category 2 and 3 hurricanes as up to 12 feet. With the deep water of Banderas Bay nearby storm surge might be less, maybe even half that. But then you have to add the tides to that – another 2-3 feet. In a Category 3 hurricane it doesn’t appear the pilings in the marina are long enough – the docks would come adrift with greater than a 12′ surge and tide combination. The breakwater could be inundated too although it appears to be quite a bit taller. Can a Category 3 hurricane get into Banderas Bay? Is it only luck that has prevented this so far? We don’t know, but this marina seems to be as well prepared a place as the other marinas in this area. Would Puerto Penasco be safer? Yes, a little, if we can safely get there. Would we be ok staying here? Seventy years of history says “very likely”.
So – what are we going to do? Time will tell. We are here for another month and then presumably we’ll know more.