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Isla Isabella

Baja Isla Isabella Puerto Vallarta Manzanillo Tenecatita
Barra de Navidad Caleta de Campo Zihautanejo Acapulco Huatulco
January 2004

We came close to losing our boat this morning.

We don't actually have any photos of the drama as it was happening. We were all too busy and too scared to take photos.  But we took some shots later on, after all the storm was over, to help us tell the story.  Lucas and Betsey each wrote the story from their different perspectives, and we share them both with you here.

The story from Betsey's journal:

We got into Mazatlan a few days ago after a rip roaring, rail down sail across El Golfo (the Sea of Cortez) .  We sailed into the old Mazatlan Harbor in the middle of the night, salt-soaked, tired, worn, and crusty.  

Stone Island from El Fero

After a few days, we decided to tie up to the sea wall at Club Nautico so we could hose off our salt-encrusted boat.  We were a little nervous about this, as  Club Nautico requires a Med-style tie.  To med-tie, you drop and set an anchor, then back up to the sea wall and tie crossed lines from the stern to the dock.  It’s not my favorite, mostly because its hard to get a good anchor set.  

We heard on the SSB about a tropical storm off Cabo San Lucas, about 180 miles west of us, the way we just came.  We knew we might catch the edge of that storm, but all the local folks reassured us, ‘no problemo, no problemo’.  We watched the weather and our tie-up anxiously throughout the day.  We talked about moving off to anchor back in the harbor and eventually were persuaded by the local knowledge to stay put.  

Our decision to stay tied to the sea wall was influenced by our suspicion that our anchor was fouled on the mooring buoys off our bow, and we thought we would probably need a diver to free it.

So we went to bed.

I woke up about 3 am to the pounding of the inflatable, tied up just outside the porthole by my berth.  George and I got up, quickly got dressed, and went out to take a look around.  
We watched for about 30 minutes.  Wind was dead on the bow (from the East), blowing 15-20 mph.  The sea wall was about 15 feet behind us on a lee shore (the wind was blowing us into the wall). The dinghy dock next to our stern was flying up in the air and crashing down as the wind waves hit the sea wall.  

But we were marginally ok.  

Until the wind increased dramatically, and shifted to our starboard beam (right side of the boat in the middle).  The poorly set anchor came loose, then most likely fouled again on the mooring buoys in front of us.   Soul Catcher lay  broadside and about 10 feet away from the sea wall.  The dinghy dock was crashing up and down on the swim step on our stern and mincing it into slivers. We were definitely NOT OK.

Luc was awake by now, and shortly after, Metz, J and Jock came to help us.  Mads was off Nangijala, J off Gitane, and Jock was a musician who was sleeping in his van at Club Nautico.

The scene was like a made-for-TV-movie, wind howling, rain coming down sideways, waves crashing against the sea wall, people shouting to be heard above the wind, boat and dinghy dock careening wildly off the sea wall. You can see the damage to the dinghy dock as the swim step crashed up and down during the storm. 

Where the swim step met the dinghy dock






This is what I remember:

J, running around in boxer shorts, rain jacket, and goose bumps, trying to help save our boat, desperately worried about his own, med-tied at the other end of the sea wall.

Jock, wild haired and wild-eyed, trying to help, his face saying that he thinks our boat is inevitably lost. 

Mads, thinking, watching, looking around, trying to come up with a plan.

Lucas, wide-eyed, running back and forth from the anchor in the bow to his parents in the stern.

George, trying to keep the swimstep from contact with the dinghy dock; he also thinks our boat is lost.

Finally, in the howling and the foul-smelling spray, we decided to take our 300 feet of extra anchor rode  and try to tie it to the concrete dock to the south of us (through a locked gate and across a gap in the dock over the water).  Mads –about 22 years old, and Jock, about 65 years old, go off in the wind and the rain with one end of the line. 

Meanwhile, the anchor is just barely holding us off the sea wall, now about 4 feet away from our port beam (left side of our boat).  We can use our windlass handle to tighten the anchor line  gently to keep us off the wall, but the waves are crashing into the wall and rebounding off Soul Catcher at the same time as the wind is pushing her into the wall.

Luc comes aft to say that the anchor windlass handle is gone, we assume flung off in a gust of wind.  Now we are sure we are doomed.  The line to the commercial dock is our only hope.   

It’s now about 5 am, we’ve been working to save our boat for only 2 hours, but it seems like 2 years.  We are all soaked to the skin, hoarse from shouting to be heard above the wind and waves, and we watch helplessly as Soul Catcher inches ever closer to the sea wall.

At the last possible moment, we hear Jock, Mads and a dock attendant shouting from the commercial dock.  We can see through the spray that they have secured the end of our line to a bollard and are trying to pull us toward the commercial dock and away from the sea wall. Luc goes over to add some muscle.  We are marginally safe, tied to the commercial dock with one line, and with our fouled anchor somehow holding us off the wall.  

Another view of the only line
You can barely see the line, very taut, holding us off the sea wall

300 feet of line

Here's the other end of that line

Our friends tie us off when our stern is clear of the still-flailing dinghy dock, but now Luc is on shore and George and I are on board.  So Luc, Jock and Mads go off to help J and Jenny on Gitane try to keep their boat off the sea wall.  I watch my 15 year old son grow up, as he runs off into the wind and rain with the other cruisers.  He was a different person the next time I saw him a few hours later.  

After it was clear that Soul Catcher was safe for the moment, George took the dinghy over to try and help Gitane kedge another anchor to keep them off the wall.

  Now its 10 am. 

Gitane, J and Jenny's boat, is still not out of danger.  Her transmission is still in pieces, so she has no working engine.  J and Jenny decide they will feel safer on their own hook in the harbor (as far away from the sea wall as possible)  George and Lucas and the other cruisers get into inflatables to help move Gitane  off the sea wall and back at anchor in the harbor. Now we are waiting for the diver to come and help us unfoul our anchor so we can get back to the main harbor and away from this hateful sea wall.


George is tired of waiting for the diver, who is understandably busy in the aftermath of the storm.  Luc went off with Jock to find a replacement for our windlass handle.  We called all our cruising friends on the VHS to a gathering to help us get off the commercial dock and back in the harbor on our own anchor.  Our friends helped us put out another 300 feet of line to the commercial dock amidships.  Now we have two lines holding us to the commercial dock, and we can try to get our anchor unfouled.
Mads, holding the critical line

George fussed and worried at the anchor chain, trying to get it unfouled from the mooring buoys.  Finally he dropped a huge chunk of anchor chain to try and dislodge it, and up she came.  So its still blowing some, we have 2 lines to the commercial dock, one stern line to the sea wall, and many friends standing by.  

John, Ruth, Spot and Metta, minding the safety lines

We had to pass over a mess of mooring buoys (the same ones that fouled our anchor) so our friends hauled us closer and closer to the huge commercial dock, I put the engine in gear, and off we went.  

We’re now safe at anchor in the old Mazatlan harbor.  Of course we set the anchor a few times and are considering a third try.  George has finally gone to sleep in the cockpit, Luc is doing r & r in his berth.  I’m sure its time for a nap. But I feel compelled to stand a watch for a while.

The Story from Luc's Journal

We arrived in Mazatlan main harbor after an awesome two-day ride from Cabo San Lucas.  We sailed most of the way at hull speed (8 knots), close reaching in 25 knots of wind.  We arrived in Mazatlan main harbor at 2:00 am on January 10th.  By the time we reached the port Soul Catcher had been completely drenched in salt spray and was in dire need of a hose down.

We made a new friend, Jock, who is an ex-cruiser and expatriate living in Mazatlan.  He convinced us to Med-moor nearby at Club Nautico's sea wall.  

Club Nautico

Med-mooring, so called because of its origins in the Mediterranean, is also popular in some parts of Mexico.  Med-mooring is simple in theory and difficult in practice.  First, an anchor is dropped from the bow and anchor rode is slowly paid out while the boat backs down to a sea wall. Then the stern is secured with lines to the wall, usually along side a float or small dock that is used to get on and off the boat.  We completed this operation on the 11th, and proceeded to clean our boat inside and out.

Sea wall at Club Nautico

On the 12th, the cruiser’s weather guru, Don on Summer Passage, called for a small deep low pressure trough to move up the Mexican coast and into Cabo San Lucas. The storm moved a mere 100 miles east, and ploughed directly through Mazatlan.  Don was almost dead accurate. 

            On the 13th, the weather was cloudy with a smattering of rain and we were a bit nervous, wanting to move back to the harbor on our own anchor.  But the locals assured us that there was never heavy weather in this part of the year.  So we stayed where we were, hoping that the bad weather would pass us by.

After about  3:00 am, the wind slowly began to climb from about 5 knots to the low 40s.  For a while, the wind was on the nose, and we had no problems.  Then the wind shifted.   I don’t remember what happened after that.   At one moment, we were safe and the next we were parallel to the sea wall.  We were held at the stern by an old piece of line. And held at the bows by an anchor that had thankfully fouled after it came loose. Then the wind shifted back, determined to put our boat on the wall.

  Soul Catcher, safe for the moment

This photo shows the dinghy dock, the commercial dock, and the sea wall.  At the worst of the storm, Soul Catcher's  port beam was parallel to the sea wall, about 4 feet off.  Imagine her bow pointed into the lower left hand corner of the photo.  The  swim step on her stern connected with the long part of the dinghy dock as each wave crashed against the wall.

Mads and Metta were anchored in the harbor.  Meds waited long enough to be sure their boat, Nangijala,  was safe.  Then he left Metta on board, and rowed in from the harbor through heavy chop to see if he could help.  Jock, who was sleeping in his van parked on the sea wall, had also woken up and was ready to assist.

On Soul Catcher, things had gone from bad to worse.  In the violent motion of the seas, the handle used to work the windless was launched overboard. Also, with all the debris in the water we sucked a plastic bag into our raw water intake causing our engine to run much hotter than anyone wants, while the whole time my dad had one foot on  Soul Catcher’s stern and one foot on the dinghy dock to keep them from splintering each other.The broken swim step

Notice the damage to the swim step where it met the dinghy dock

Pretty soon we had enough people showing up to help that we could try something new.  About 50 yards from our mooring was a long concrete pier and we happened to have 300+ feet of old anchor rode.  However we now had enough people to try something new.  About fifty yards from our mooring was a long cement pier, and George had recently changed out the anchor rode so we have about 300 feet of 5/8ths line.  Jock, in his 70s, jumped the fence at the pier, and asked the security guard to open the gate.  Next I tied one end of the line to a bow cleat and ran the rest of it out to the pier.  Jock, Mads the security guard and I ran out on the pier and took hold of the line.  Three of us would pull as hard as we could while the guard would turn every inch of slack around a big set of bits until finally Soul Catcher was safe.

The line holding Soul Catcher

To keep her safe, we tied her away from the dinghy dock, so my parents couldn’t come ashore, and I couldn’t get on board.

I don’t exactly remember this next part.  Someone told us that J and Jenny’s boat, Gitane, moored farther down the wall, was also in danger.  As I could not get back on board, my father told me to go and help. 

had the same problems we had. Her anchor had let go, only she was lying over on two sport fishers. This time there was no pier to tie her off to.  The only solution was to kedge out another anchor and pull her straight. Once again Medz rowed his dingy through the storm and prepared to row out with J and Gitane’s second anchor.  My job was to get into the cockpit and use one of the jib sheet winches to pull the boat straight once the anchor had been set.  The cockpit was pitch dark.  I knew they had their transmission out and the last thing I wanted was to fall into the engine compartment.  With some difficulty, I found my way to the winch with the anchor rode on it.  Before long I heard some one shout to start cranking, so I did,  and slowly the bow began to come back into the wind.

By the time Gitane was secure the first light of dawn appeared through the clouds on the horizon, and the wind began to drop.  The morning of the 14th saw lots of people hitting the showers to wash out the salt, more than a little damage assessment and a lot of talk about how to pull the two sail boats off the sea wall, Soul Catcher  with a fouled anchor and Gitane missing a transmission.

To move Gitane back to the harbor, J and Jenny’s plan was simple: use two dinghies with outboards as tugboats to maneuver Gitane out into the harbor and anchor her.  The two tenders came from Chrokeva and Soul Catcher. George and I were in one dinghy, and Jim from Chrokeva, (with Bruno from Freelancer  to help) were in the other dinghy.  The plan worked perfectly; we were able to move Gitane to a safe anchorage in the main harbor, dodging the sport fisher that sank in the storm.  

Moving Gitane

The dinghies moving Gitane into the main harbor.  Notice the bow of the sunken sport fisher below.

The sunken sportfisher

After helping J and Jenny anchor, I went with Jock to have a new windless handle made at a stainless steel place downtown.  I brought back a piece of scrap metal back that would allow us to work the windless until the new handle was ready.  Using the piece of scrap metal, we were able to raise the anchor to the surface.  We saw that the anchor had fouled on a three-inch hawser, probably attached at both ends to a double mooring block.  We freed our anchor by dropping the anchor very fast and then pulling it up.  Since the anchor is heavier and denser than the rope hawser, it should sink faster and out from under the thick line.  This took a few tries, but before long we were able to move out and set the hook in the harbor. 

That night George and I were up on deck, and in every direction we could see lightning running in the clouds.  Still worried about the weather, we took both dinghies aboard, lashed them down and secured the deck. Before long, the wind went from light and variable to 45+ in under ten minutes.  We stood an anchor watch most of the night but we did not move an inch.  For the rest of our stay in Mazatlan, we remained happily at anchor in the harbor.

This story has some lessons, and three of them are very important.  First, always trust your intuition. Accept advice, but make the final decision yourself.  Second, you can always count on other cruisers and sailors to help in dangerous situations.  And third, there is no such thing as too much line.  In fact, we carry two 300ft drums, three strand and braided, in addition to stern anchor rode, mooring lines, and some scrap lines for odd jobs.  Happy sailing.

Many thanks to our new cruising friends:

Roseanne and Scott from Ariel
Jim and Laurie from Chrokeva
John and Ruth from Gabriola

J and Jenny from Gitane
Mads and Metta from Nangijala
Bruno from Freelancer
And Jock.
This sunset over Mazatlan Harbor hardly seems was the second storm brewing Sunset over Mazatlan Harbor.jpg (66942 bytes)

But there was so much more to our stay in Mazatlan 
than a few scary nights...


Our friends Joe Crell and Kathryn Currie came to visit us. We planned to spend a few days in Mazatlan, then sail down the Mexican coast to Puerto Vallarta, where they would catch a flight home. wpe8B.jpg (30272 bytes)
Shopping at El Centro.jpg (131467 bytes) There was such good food at the Mazatlan market, and it looked so beautiful as we washed it that we took tons of photos.  Then we cooked and ate and cooked and ate.  We still talk about the wonderful food we cooked from the Mazatlan Market.  Especially those Taquitos con Rez. 
Here we are buying basil in the Mazatlan Market. Betsey, Kathryn, George, Luc in the market
Near El Centro, Mazatlan.jpg (117350 bytes) Mazatlan, near El Centro. The bus service in Mexico is very good. All you need to do is raise your arm at the curb and the bus drivers will spot and pick you up. It only takes a little while to get comfortable with it. Our friends Dick and Pat from Crusader often will jump on a bus just to see the sights wherever it takes them.
More yummy food from Mazatlan. Our friends Joe and Kathryn  are truly food aficionados and helped us get into the shopping and cooking. We really like having the mercados to shop in! unfiled 006.jpg (113466 bytes)
wpe11E.jpg (42276 bytes) Strolling in Plaza Machado, a beautiful square in old Mazatlan. It gave us the flavor of old Mexico. It is still one of or favorite places.



Home Up Isla Isabella

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Last modified: April 27, 2010