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Crossing the bar at Bahia del Sol, El Salvador

What follows is the mail we sent out to the "southbounders" email list describing our experience crossing the bar at Bahia del Sol, El Salvador.


Sent: Monday, April 25, 2005 3:27 PM

Subject: Sula's damage and lessons learned crossing the bar at Bahia Del Sol


Since word of our bar crossing in Bahia del Sol has hit the southbounder's list, I thought I would summarize our situation and some lessons learned.  I usually shy away from sending "lesson's learned" mail, but we thought we had taken all precautions and we still got whacked and in hind sight, we would do a few things differently and some of them are non-obvious.

First, yes, we did get hit by a large wave crossing the bar this past Saturday.  The surf was quite high that day, but not as high as other days on which boats have crossed successfully.  The wave broke on us right when we were in the most dangerous portion of the bar.  A few seconds earlier or later, we would have been fine.  As it was, our timing and luck were just poor.  We were dead center in the channel, stern to the wave the entire time, our dingy was on the foredeck, our hatch boards were in, but we still got nailed.  Colette & Murray on Terazed say a large powerboat they did not see until the last moment crossed at the same time we did and caused the wave to break early.  Others say that because we were last to cross and that the last 2 of the six boats to cross that day were the ones to take damage, that somehow crossing order makes a difference and that the tide had begun to ebb and that fact somehow had a negative impact.  To be honest, I think neither of those things had much to do with it and that crossing this bar is mostly just an exercise in applied probability theory.  Sailboats don't accelerate very quickly nor once up to speed, do they travel that fast relative to the speed of the waves.  This makes timing the waves and picking a "good set" difficult if not impossible.  So, you basically just go and hope the set you are dealt isn't at the wrong end of the size distribution.  To be sure, the wave that hit us was large, larger than most that day perhaps, but it was nothing extraordinary.  We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  We were unlucky.

Anyway, the wave broke right on our stern, bending our stern pulpits, then washed forward and filled our cockpit completely with water, perhaps a thousand gallons in the cockpit.  The kids, who were wearing life jackets but not harnesses, were literally swimming in the cockpit.  We had water on top of the sliding companion way hatch, water pouring over the cockpit side coamings.   There are two 2.5" drains in the cockpit floor and it drained quickly, perhaps in 30-45 seconds, but during that that time, water poured below through the louvers in our top hatch board, spraying saltwater all over the interior.  The carpets, salon cushions, salon overhead, the instruments at the navigation station, assorted miscellaneous electronics on shelves near the companionway, all got sprayed.  The water coming in must have been under some pressure as things got wet which could only have gotten wet from water ricocheting off of other surfaces.  Books behind closed cabinets doors got wet.  There was water in all the lockers in the galley and in storage areas well aft of the companionway where we stow spare alternators and such (thankfully in water-tight containers).  Saltwater entered the engine room through the cable pass-through inside our steering pedestal.  There was even saltwater inside the stove! (It entered via the burners on top)

In the moment the wave hit, the VHF radio in the cockpit went dead as did the auto-pilot control display head on the steering pedestal and the PC navigation display console under the dodger.  We made the rest of the bar crossing on own own without being able to hear Colette's directions.  Our high-water bilge alarm, which doesn't trigger until there are perhaps 10 gallons or so in the bilge, went off almost immediately.  After the cockpit had drained and we were in less agitated water, one of the kids retrieved a hand-held VHF from below and we re-established contact with Collete and Murry made our way the rest of the way into the anchorage.  We figured we took somewhere between 50 and 100 gallons below decks.

It could have been much worse.  Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt (Melissa was thrown against the companionway boards and banged up a knee and I stubbed a toe pretty hard somewhere along the line) and nothing was damaged that time and/or money won't fix.  The kids were a little freaked out for a while to be sure, but kids bounce.  As well as providing other help and advice, Collete was kind enough to take Melissa and our salty carpets to a friends house for a freshwater hosing.  We now have most of the interior cleaned out and livable again.

The electronics damage summary is better than we originally feared.  The cockpit VHF is working again.  It was supposed to be water proof and indeed it proved to be in the end as the problem turned out to be saltwater shorting out the screw-together connection where the VHF attaches to a socket in the steering console.  The auto-pilot is also working again as it proved to be a similar issue, where saltwater had entered a cable connection behind the instruments above the companionway hatch.  Water was that high!  No major systems below were damaged.  We did lose a man-overboard strobe light (washed off it's mount on the stern rail) an MP3 player, a digital camera and flash card (our third since leaving Seattle!) one of the kid's Game Boys (small loss there says Mom) a wireless PC mouse we use for our PC-based navigation system (all victims of water below) as well as the PC display in the cockpit.  The PC display was a cheap, non-water proof "TV" style LCD monitor, something we consider sacrificial.  Good waterproof PC displays literally cost more than 10 times as much, so we choose to go this route for our display in the cockpit under the hard dodger even though it it exposed to some weather, knowing we would lose it one day to a wave or the salt air if nothing else and knowing also that it is easily replaceable just about anywhere in the world.  We figured that even if we have to replace it once a year, we are still dollars ahead relative to forking out the big bucks for one of the nice, truly waterproof displays.

The stern pulpits are another story.  The tubular stainless is bent like a pretzel and the screws holding our davit supports mounted to our transom ripped out of the fiberglass, probably requiring some epoxy work.  Luckily, the solar panel mounted on top of the davit's was edge on to the wave so it and the davit's themselves appear to be undamaged.  This week I'll rig up a system to try to bend the pulpits back into shape using a block and tackle and our winches and we will see what can be done.

As far as lessons learned, the first I would say is that besides the obvious things we did do, such as not having the dingy on the davits, we should also have removed as many things as possible from our stern pulpit.  The outboard motor on it's stern-rail mount and the plastic box for our life sling provided surface area for the wave to push on and was almost certainly responsible for the pulpits bending as they did.  Had I removed them and stowed them elsewhere, it is likely that the pulpits would not have been bent.

Secondly, we should have used our louver-less, Plexiglas hatch boards instead of our stock, louvered ones.  This would have significantly cut down (though not completely eliminated) the amount of water we took below.  Even if we had duct taped over the vents, that would have made a huge difference in the water we took below.

Third, we should have better stowed the various cameras and other electronics which tend to gather below near the companionway.  It's truly amazing all the places water got to below, places we would never have expected.  We are thinking of keeping a waterproof container in this spot for such items and using it rigorously, in the same way that previous beach landing episodes have taught us religion when it comes to using dry bags for cameras and such in the dingy.

Forth, we should have dismounted and stowed below our cockpit displays, binoculars and anything else not absolutely necessary to have in the cockpit.  We didn't need our radar or PC navigation display for this crossing.  The displays remove easily and in hindsight, should have been stowed below.

Last, though certainly not least, we should all have been harnessed up.  We all did have life jackets on, but its possible the kids in particular could have been washed out of the cockpit, even on a boat our size, and we would not have been in a position to go fetch them.  We should have harnessed up.

One thing I won't call out as a lesson learned is potentially waiting to enter on a different, calmer day.  Even though conditions on Sunday were far better than on Saturday, and had we waited a day, we would almost certainly have came through unscathed, Saturday's conditions were within the realm of normal conditions for this bar and this time of year.  Hindsight is always 20/20 and it was our choice, our decision to enter that day and take our chances.  We would probably do it again under the same circumstances and conditions, though we would certainly take the precautions above.

One more thing I will say here is that Collete and Murry on s/v Terazed did a fantastic job.  They were a tremendous help both during our crossing and afterwards and I want to be crystal clear that the damage we sustained was our own responsibility.  They put themselves at risk helping people cross the bar here everyday and we and all the other cruisers here are nothing but grateful they are here.  If anything I have said here even hints otherwise, that is absolutely not my intent.

Sorry for the length of this email.  I hope people find this more helpful that scary and in particular, that you not let our experience deter you from coming here.  Collete and Murry say that the vast majority of the 300+ boats they have helped across the bar have no problems and that we now hold the honor of taking on the most water of any vessel they have ever assisted.  A dubious honor to be sure, but one we hope to hold for a long time to come.

For those already south of El Salvador, I hope you found this entertaining if nothing else.


s/v Sula