2013 began for me by considering the two big milestones we would need to get past in order to get up to Banderas Bay for hurricane season: the Panama Canal and the Gulf of Tehuantepec. With the first of those being easily achieved, drama-free in January, I turned my thoughts to the second.


Tehuantepec winds are gap winds that funnel across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. At its narrowest, the isthmus is only 130 miles and is the southern tip of the Sierra Madre mountains. There are a few sizeable gaps in the mountain range and during the winter months the trade winds from the Gulf of Mexico, combined with cool air from Central America, blast across the isthmus and fan out into the gulf of Tehuantepec. The blasts of wind can last for days or even weeks, reaching gale to storm force and creating huge seas. A good weather window can slam shut in an instant; blowing boats 200 miles out to sea with 60 knot winds and 25 foot seas, breaking hatches, rigging, even dismasting and sinking some boats.


So it’s a fairly gnarly beast and one that should be approached with both caution and respect.


The vast majority of boaters opt for the ‘one-foot-on-the-beach’ approach; sailing as close to the curve of the shoreline as possible. That way, if a good weather window suddenly closes on you, then at least you won’t have to fight the big seas kicked up by a lot of fetch (wind over a large distance of water) and can hopefully still transit the gulf safely. Fortunately one of the best times to transit the Tehuantepec is around the beginning of May. We were aiming to leave for our crossing on April 22nd so the weather patterns had changed to long periods of benign conditions with just a few hours or one day of strong winds in between.


The good thing about zones like the Tehuantepec having such a fierce reputation is that it means cruisers talk a lot amongst themselves about how and when to tackle it. It also means that there are favoured jump-off points either side of the gulf for northbound or southbound boats and it’s easy to meet and discuss plans and options with other yachts that are going the same way.


So, like any well-made plan, our Tehantepec crossing turned out to be exceptionally uneventful. We left Marina Chiapas in the afternoon and managed to catch up to friends we had made on a catamaran that had left a few hours before us. The predicted weather was so mild for so long that, having taken local advice, we decided to travel straight across the gulf instead of one foot on the beach. This approach only shaves off about 30 miles but, when you know that all you’ll be doing is motoring, it can save you a fair bit of diesel. The 235 mile passage to Huatulco took only 45 hours to complete and we even managed to have one lovely night of sailing, all the time managing to stay in visual and VHF range with our friends.


That’s both the big hurdles over with and only 700 miles more to go until we settle for hurricane season.