Learning the surf landing, watching the swell

waves breaking anchored boats

Every so often there’s an adrenaline-rush day for the small craft operators in Bahia Tenacatita, as illustrated in this photo taken by Aimee aboard sv Terrapin. Is the “Featured Image” missing above? Visit this post on GalivantsTravels.com.

West Coast accessories?

The first time we saw a dinghy with wheels, on a shiny new boat from California, we thought it was another example of what some of us from the little states in the eastern US think of as West Coast, over-the top, accessorizing.
Hauling the boat up the beach is easy with drop-down wheels bolted to the transom and the horsepower of the bocce players.
Hauling the boat up the beach is easy when the wheels  bolted to the transom are flipped down. Horsepower from the bocce players is useful too.
However we’re finding that a lot of the anchorages in the Pacific are open to the swell of half the Pacific ocean, and have marginal headlands to hide behind, or bays to enclose us. Our present dinghy is a ten-foot AB Alumina inflatable, more like an SUV than a kayak, as is appropriate for its duties as our one and only ‘do anything everywhere’ transportation interface. Doug has always wanted a strong dinghy,  but it also has its disadvantages.
At nearly 200 pounds when loaded with a 15 hp outboard and a full tank, it’s not easy to drag up the beach. Being inflatable, it’s not a good rowing boat. Despite its aluminum floor, we wouldn’t want to drag it over rocks, or even sand. And on some beaches you have to pull the boat up pronto, before the next wave, and pull it a long way. Once we understood what the wheels were for, we wanted some.
One basic theory is to put down your wheels and wait just beyond the line where the waves reveal themselves. When you see a potential big one, rev up and try to stay just on its back side. That way you get carried as far in as possible up. Then, hop out of the boat (you’re dressed for wetting, I hope) and haul it up before the next wave breaks. The steeper the beach, the more important this becomes. In some places, with careful timing, and a lot of luck, one might feasibly hop out in dry pants, maybe even dry shoes!
A second theory, which works pretty well on the flat beach of Tenacatita, is to not deploy the wheels. Sometimes the wheels hitting the ground can brake you before you’re clear of the surf break. But then you have the full weight of the dinghy to deal with; the trouble is getting it far enough up the beach to avoid it washing away on the incoming tide on a long day away.
 The local pangueros are expert at landing on the beach – that’s what their boats are designed for.  But they have 20′ high-bowed boats*,  bigger engines, and a transom deeper in the water, so the prop keeps a better bite. They often back in, with the propellor a bit lifted and the bow lifting nicely to the breakers. Sometimes someone (the junior crew member!) jumps in the water to keep everything lined up. Usually when a panga delivers you to a beach, you can step right off onto sand.
The panga is designed to be operated from a beach.

 Most important lesson so far

Don’t get in front of the breaking wave if at all possible, and especially, don’t get sideways to it. Also, the kill switch, which turns the engine off when the clip is pulled: you want its lanyard on your wrist and the switch in good working order. You could dump the dinghy, douse your outboard in salt water, lose whatever you were carrying, etc. Better not to chop up the remains while you’re at it. Who needs that kind of excitement?

This is the surf landing we're practicing up for.
This is the surf landing we’re practicing up for. This photo was borrowed from the blog svyolo.com, in a post called Pitchpoled in Tenacatita.

Two families with four young children between them, headed ashore in kayaks last year, and got in too far to turn back. They got dumped on the way in, and as conditions worsened with the tide, they decided to stay at the hotel down at the end of the beach, rather than take on the waves they photographed above.

It’s an interesting story, since the hotel isn’t set up for that kind of guest, and they weren’t set up to be there. But it reinforces one of our rules, which is: when you go ashore, no matter where you think you are going, always take shoes and always take money.

Feel the surge!

The other day we had some surge-y conditions, and I don’t think anyone went ashore. According to  surf sites like magicseaweed.com, there was a 2.3 meter swell train from the northwest, trending down some violent-looking weather systems battering northern California. And there was a 1.4 meter southwesterly swell, can’t say what is generating that without looking south of the equator. These were long period swells, up and down every 15 or 20 seconds. Listening, particularly in the wee hours, you can hear the boom of surf on the other side of the bay.

The swell, often 20 feet tall every 20 seconds, is getting them cranked in Hawail, but it, or similar swells, can affect coasts thousands of miles away.
This swell, often 20 feet tall every 20 seconds, is getting them cranked in Hawail. This, or similar swells, can affect coasts thousands of miles away. magic seaweed.com

We are well-anchored, but it is disconcerting to watch our neighbors zooming forward, as if they’re getting underway, and to know that we’re doing the same ourselves. We just can’t  feel the conveyor belt we’re riding.

Feel the Roll too

But we can certainly feel the side-to-side rolling that comes when the swell and the wind are perpendicular. There’s an accessory for that too. The flopper-stopper is rigged to hang from a pole stuck out the side of the boat. In the water is something that resists being lifted, but sinks readily, like a weighted platform, bucket, basket/check valve, or a big flat hinge. Even if it doesn’t stop the roll completely, it breaks the harmonic cycle.  That’s one accessory we haven’t yet acquired.

The 'traffic cone' flopper stopper slows down the boat's roll.
The ‘traffic cone’ flopper stopper slows down the boat’s roll.

And no one is going ashore today, at least not in their dinghies. Surfing in would be one problem, getting back out would be another kind, and maybe more difficult.

Landing on the beach lessons cancelled today.
Landing on the beach lessons cancelled today. Photo courtesy of sf-terrapin.com

Launch techniques

We’re learning that the wheels aren’t always the answer to getting out either. The problem is that they leave the bow of the dinghy down, easy for the waves to break into while you’re trying to get into the dinghy, get the engine started, get the passenger aboard, stay steered straight out, etc.

They're just about to make their move, and did a great job of it, for an appreciative audience.
They’re just about to make their move, and did a great job of it, for an appreciative audience.

As for ourselves, well, we sometimes come home wet, and glad of a dry bag for storing things. It does help to decide early who is calling the shots, or you’ll both get doused in the space between go, go, go and wait, wait, wait!

Footnote about the panga

*from Wikipedia, I learned this about the ubiquitous panga.

  • The original panga design was developed by Yamaha as part of a World Bank project circa 1970.
  • Key features of the panga design are a high bow, narrow waterline beam, and a flotation bulge along the gunwale, or top edge of the hull. The high bow provides buoyancy for retrieving heavy nets, and minimizes spray coming over the bow. The narrow beam allows the hull to be propelled by a modest-sized outboard motor. The flotation bulge along the gunwale provides increased stability at high angles of roll.
  • The original Yamaha panga design had a length of 22 feet (6.7 m), and a waterline beam of approximately 5 feet 6 inches (1.7 m).
  • Pangas are usually between 19 and 28 feet (5.8 and 8.5 m) in length, with capacities ranging from 1 to 5 short tons (0.89 to 4.46 long tons; 0.91 to 4.54 t) and powered by outboard motors of between 45 and 200 hp (34 and 149 kW). Their planing hulls are capable of speeds in excess of 35 knots (40 mph; 65 km/h)

Costa Alegre and Tenacatita’s Blue Bay

We arrived here on Christmas Day, after a nice sail around Cabo Corrientes, under the light of a gloriously full moon. Full moon brings with it a whole different set of thoughts than a dark and windy night, especially when it’s Christmas Eve and you can imagine a world full of people looking for Santa’s sleigh silhouetted on the very moon we’re watching.

They like to call this the Costa Alegre, alegre meaning cheerful. Happy, joyful, maybe a little drunk, says one dictionary.

When we arrived in the middle of the afternoon, there were a handful of Big Mexican Motor Yachts, who left within hours. And there were just two other cruising boats in this capacious bay. Everyone else had gone to the next bay for a Christmas pot-luck dinner. Out came the swim ladder and into the warm salty pool we slid. The water really was 84 degrees. I don’t even remember the dinner, but I’m sure it was pot-luck too. And alegre.

Since then a cruising community has slowly been evolving, to the point that there were 40 other boats here last week, although now half have moved on.

What’s Here?

There’s a half-mile of beach, punctuated by all-inclusive resort, Los Angeles Locos, (formerly Blue Bay) at the far end. The hotel suffered damage during Hurricane Patricia, but is up and running. The vegetation is recovering and the sand has been pushed back down onto the beach. Behind the road was a shrimp farm owned by the hotel, but that’s still being rebuilt.


At the near end there’s a palapa-roofed restaurant called La Vena, a tent campground, and the barred mouth of a small river which wanders back into the mangroves for a couple miles. There are herons and chacalacas  (turkey-like birds) and terns and no doubt much else upstream, even some small crocodiles. Don’t molest them, say the signs. Don’t worry!

Tenacatita upstream to estuary resize crop

Supplies, groceries and the like, are available not too far away, but not too close either. The small town of La Manzanilla is three miles across the bay by water, when it’s not too rough, or half an hour by taxi. The bigger towns of Barra de Navidad and Melaque are in the next bay, about 14 miles southeast. And a cell phone tower twinkles, although it sometimes seems that’s all it does.

The Mayor and his constituency

Tenacatita is the kind of place some people stay for months, and come to year after year. So perhaps it’s fitting that there be a Mayor; Robert aboard Harmony of Alameda is the latest, and maybe the longest serving too, although I suspect that the First Lady, aka “The Lovely Miss Virginia” is the real Mayor. Being a background Empress myself, I recognize the signs.

They keep the morning radio net going, and the social calendar up-to-date, and generally know what’s going on. The Mayor also hosts a Friday afternoon raft-up.

Robert, the Mayor of Tenacatita, surveys his constituency on New Year’s Eve.  ‘Bring your drinks, and a plate, and some food to share. And make sure to bring plenty of food, because the mayor is always hungry” is the weekly announcement. You’ll be asked to introduce yourself, and sometimes there is a talent show, or jokes, or show and tell, or a topic for discussion.

Turtle launch

The hotel ‘rescues’ sea turtle eggs, holds them until they hatch, and then involves the hotel guests, particularly the children, in the ‘launch.’

fenced in labels marking turtle egg nest locations
The security guards try to calculate when the eggs will hatch. Then they move the hatchlings into a concrete tub until nightfall, when it is deemed safer for the turtles to be released to the sea.
New Year’s was a busy time, 90-plus sea turtle hatchlings and nearly as many kids.
Man holding sea turtle
This turtle is ready to get swimming
sea turtle babies surf line
“Hurry up! We’re almost there!”
Photo courtesy of WorldWlidlifeFederation.org

Boys at play

“Bocce on the beach at 2 PM” is the main item on the social calendar. It’s usually followed by drinks in the palapa. It’s not always all men playing – anyone is welcome. But the women tend to walk the beach or sit in the shade and chat while the men knock bocce balls around.

Bocce ball on the beach



Two dolphins , one rubbing on anchor chain
One of our neighbors in the anchorage, John Rogers aboard Moonshadow, who took the top picture of Galivant (foreground) and Gia from his masthead, also saw these dolphins using his anchor chain as a fin scratcher, and went to investigate, camera in hand. Image courtesy of  ‘Lectronic Latitude 38.

Several years ago I read a book called Beautiful Minds, which compared intelligent animals, particularly primates and cetaceans. I was struck by the authors’ observation that, because of the environment in which they lived, their anatomy, and the tools not available to them, dolphins and whales have few options and many limitations when compared to the great apes. Backscratchers would just be the start of the list.