Last night we experienced our first Chubasco. The name itself always makes me think of a cross between a Chewbacca (Chewy was Hans Solos’ seven foot tall furry side-kick) and extra hot Tabasco sauce but trust me they are a lot less fun than that. Chubasco: A violent but short lived squall, usually accompanied by thunder, lighting, rain and strong winds. The next closest comparison I could find is the tropical storms which bring winds of 34 to 63 knots –just one step down from a category I hurricane.
We have been hearing about Chubascos since we arrived in the Sea. There is a whole subcategory of cruisers who devote time to providing amateur whether reports, Controlled radio nets that spread the forecasts, Chubasco report emails, Chubasco report emails relayed over the VHF and plenty of warnings and stories. They typically occur in the late evening or early nightfall and other than static on the Ham radio and flashes in the skies there are few warning signs. We had been lucky so far to only have listened to the reports of our friends.
Segway then to dinner ashore: Bill and I had met Mauro a transplanted Italian who opened a pizzeria here in the tiny town of Bahia de los Angeles in March. He was such a nice guy and we hit it off instantly. We sat at his shop eating his delicious ice cream, talking about travel and hearing about his path to Baja and his motorcycle trips: one from Italy to Beijing and another from Argentina, Tierra del Fuego to Kodiak Alaska and on to New York. Later we started to pass on his restaurants location and a good word to the other cruisers and before we knew it we had 20 people who wanted to make his Thursday Night Pasta Night.
When we had gone to pizza a couple nights before we had run him out of pizza dough with our group of ten so Bill and I stopped to let him know he was going to have a crowd. He only has a couple of tables and a few chairs and doesn’t serve beer or wine so I jumped into the job of “event coordinator.” A couple of VHF announcements later and everyone knew our meeting time and place and the suggestion to bring their own beach chairs and beverages. After a the regularly scheduled afternoon floatie party at S/V Camelot everyone met at the beach in front of Guillermo’s, parked the dinghies above the high water mark and set off walking to Mauro’s place. He greeted us warmly and we were soon right at home. He opened this year right at the end of the regular season and sometimes his little business can go days without a single customer so having a crowd of 20 was much appreciated and I think Mauro was having as much fun as we were.
Then as dinner progressed we watched as the sky began to fill with clouds. Then a lovely cool breeze freshened. Soon we could see flashes of lightning far out to the east. We oohed and aahed for a bit with comments like “not to worry you can’t even hear the thunder until the lightning is within ten miles.” What we should have been doing was paying our bill, asking for the food to go and beating feet back to our line of dinks. Instead as we split up the bill and calculated the tip we heard the thunder and by the time we reached the beach and our dinghies the wind was roughly 20 knots and the people sitting at Guillermo’s patio watching the storm were asking us if we were actually going out into the abyss.
Well, Bill and I were first into the water and the first with our wheels back in the up position ready to rush into the night (dinghy wheels are mandatory for beach landings.) By the time we pulled alongside Island Bound we were seeing 30knot winds. I clambered aboard and started taking our sunshade down while Bill rushed to secure the dinghy on the davits. The wind and waves were building and it was crashing and flashing all around us. In the next couple of minutes we managed to get two sunshades down, three hatches closed, 16 port lights dogged down, three fishing poles stashed below decks, the cushions and pillows from the cockpit tucked away, our beach hats thrown below, swimsuits off the rail, GPS anchor alarm switched on, VHF radio on channel, floatie toys stuffed below, swim ladder out of the water and the engine turned on and idling all while surrounded by gusts over 50knots. The waves built by the minute and we were now occasional healing to 20degrees. And in the midst of all that scampering we heard a big bang that neither of us could identify.
On the boats closest to us we could see crew scurrying around trying to secure all their own deck litter. We could see sunshades finally given up on and left to flog in the wind and several dingies still in the water –the seas suddenly too rough to even attempt to bring them aboard. The next order of the day was to get a quick check in from all the boats we’d been ashore with to make sure everyone made it safely home because in the dark and the confusion it was impossible to tell. A quick radio check proved everyone aboard but Bob and Sherry on Ponderosa which was a bit scary for a few minutes but eventually we could see movement on deck and had to assume they were simply too busy to answer their radio. They were last to their boats because they had to first ferry Paul and Judy to their boat Grace before finally making it safely home to Ponderosa. The bad timing meant they were trying to unload to Grace in 50+mph winds and raging seas and by the time they arrived home they had 8” of sea water in their dinghy.
Once everyone was accounted for it was time to asses our holding. We were not dragging anchor which was great but on further investigation that loud bang we had heard was our chain hook or its line giving way. We routinely use a chain hook to attach a snubber to our anchor line. The steel hook is attached to the chain by stretchy line and tied off to cleats before letting out more chain to transfer the brunt of the load off the anchor windless and on to the line. Too many boaters have had their windless stripped by high winds when the load gets to great. The chain or rode strips the windlass wildcat allowing the windlass to spool out leaving you unanchored to your anchor. Bill was able to do a quick fix and we held fast and tight. (Note to self: never ignore the loud bangs.)
By the time everything was stowed, the chain hook problem was managed and we were certain our anchor was holding we were both sitting in the dark in the cockpit watching the storm. As soon as I slowed down I had time to evaluate my own condition. I’d knocked my right elbow pretty hard, torn my dress, my stomach was very queasy and I was covered in sweat. Hmmmm, too much dinner? Was the sausage bad? Oh heck no I’m seasick!
Yes, I still get seasick though it happens less and less often these days. Unfortunately I had spent so much time below getting everything stowed that by the time I was slick with sweat and ready to barf I was just realizing I had a problem. Thank goodness for Sturgeron the wonder medicine that even works after you’re sick. Just 15mg, a piece of candied ginger and 20 minutes and I could quit hugging the side of the cockpit long enough to keep my eyes on the horizon as it bobbed and swayed to let out a sigh of relief.
We both stayed in the cockpit for the next couple of hours watching and waiting; the engine idling and occasionally slipped into gear to take some of the load off our anchor when the biggest gusts hit. There was a lesser second act an hour or so into things but after the 50+ knots 30 knots seemed pretty tame. By 11:30 I was rocking to sleep in bed while Bill stayed in the cockpit manning the helm before eventually settling in to sleep there – just in case. Though most Chubascos blow themselves out pretty quickly this one lasted a more than three hours with a residual roll and blow that lasted well into the early morning.
The next morning’s Nets were filled with the adventures of the whole fleet but we are all none the worse for wear. For those of us who had just survived our first Chubasco we had all learned a lesson or two (never ooh and ah at an approaching front) and the only things on our minds were naps and a 400pm “we survived the great Chubasco of 2011” floatie party.