Over the bar at Bahia del Sol

May 10th, 2006 by: joshua

We were getting close to Bahia del Sol (Estero de Jaltepeque) El Salvador so we called Tarazed and they instructed us to anchor for the night at N 13º17.2′ W 88º54.3′. High tide would be at 10:15AM and Lotus (a home built steel Felicity 40′ we met at Huatulco) should also be arriving. We finally got to at the rendezvous point at about 11:00PM. It’s an open roadstead and fairly rough because it’s totally exposed to the strong southeast wind we’d had all day. We were tired though so we just sacked out immediately.

At about 7AM Lotus arrived and Tarazed says they will guide us in at about 9. We’re watching the fishermen come in and out with the binoculars. It doesn’t look good and we seriously consider leaving. However, Sparta (another Searunner 31) called us from inside and we were reassured to learn that they had crossed several times with an 8hp outboard and they will be in the panga to escort us in.

Lotus says we can go first since we arrived first. Err… Thanks.

At 9:30 we get a call on the radio. Ready! Pull anchor and head for the bar. We go around to the east side of the breakers (not the way the pangas were going). They say we will see a passage where the waves aren’t breaking. No. It looks like they’re breaking all the way across. Trust us… Ok…. Now! Cheyenne is tied in on the poop deck ready to control the outboard because the throttle linkage to the cockpit is broken.

We take 3 waves over the stern. The first one wets Cheyenne from the chest down and totally inundates the motor. We surf. FAST. The motor sputters and stalls then miraculously comes back to life. Effectively push started by our speed through the water. It’s sputtering and doesn’t have any power. I think the only thing keeping it going was the rush of water across the propeller. Meanwhile, I’m fighting the wheel to keep us perpendicular to the surf.

For the 2nd wave we’re further in so it has already started to break when it hits us. We surf but it doesn’t feel too fast. I think we’ll actually make it.

The 3rd wave is all foam and froth when it gets us. The rudder stalls. I lose control and broach to the right out of the channel (if there is such a thing). I’m no longer sure we’ll make it. The motor is still running but howling and cavitating. However, as soon as it passes I’m able to get us pointed back at the beach. 3 feet under the keel and we’re able to use a brief lull to get out of the shallows. Finally we’re inside. Very shaken but no damage.

We circle around to watch Lotus come through.

Lotus coming over the bar at Bahia del Sol, El Salvador

Can you spot the channel? A fishing panga approached them and advised them to go back around to the west side of the bar. Our guides assured them that the best and deepest channel was on the east.

The first wave fills the cockpit but luckily doesn’t spill below even though they don’t have all their dropboards in.

Lotus aground in the surf Bahia del Sol, El Salvador

From our vantage point it looks like they took the first wave well and will come through smoothly. Then they abruptly stop and turn broadside to the seas. We hear on the radio “We’re aground!” The reply comes “turn left toward the channel.” Again “we’re aground!” They repeatedly slammed into the bottom as each successive wave crashed over and around them. The whole rig would shake and groan with each impact. A fiberglass boat may have broken the keel off already but the steel hull held together.

Lotus aground in the surf Bahia del Sol, El Salvador

We’re feeling helpless and can’t do anything but watch and take pictures. The escort panga got a line on their stern and tried to pull them off. However, it was very quickly swamped and had to cut free. Lotus’ mast was gyrating wildly and we thought it might be lost. They somehow managed to get turned around. I don’t know how. Now that they were facing deeper water they were able to apply full power and as each wave broke around them it pushed them in a little further over the bar and a little further into the so called channel. Eventually they were free and we entered the estuary together.

Needless to say, if Lotus had gone first we would have skipped this stop and gone down the coast to Barillas. Although the pilots downplay the danger, this is a dangerous crossing. No boats have been lost yet (as far as I know) but many have been damaged.

In our minds there was a very real risk of losing our boat and for a time we really thought Lotus was gone. Neither Lotus nor the Time Machine is insured. For us it would only have been a monetary loss but Lotus represents 7 years of love and hard labor for Jerry and Joni.

Our real error was trusting too much in other people’s judgment and reassurance. Once we get out of here, we don’t plan to cross any more bars but if we do we will take it a lot more seriously. We will do our own reconnaissance and ask advice from the local fishermen who cross it every day.

We wanted to come here because we heard that it has a great community, and is a safe, secure, and inexpensive place to leave the boat while traveling overland. Once inside it lives up to these expectations. However, it is not a good place for a short stopover (the risk is simply too great) nor is it a good base for cruising the coast. Once we get out (if we get out) we will not attempt to reenter.

A few other things deserve mention:

A couple of navy guys and an immigration officer came out shortly after we dropped anchor. They were friendly and easygoing and there is only a $10 per person charge for a 90-day visa. The navy guys will do a cursory search, which seems to be mostly aimed at finding things that they can request as “un regalo”. We got away pretty easy by giving them a fancy looking but inexpensive fishing lure that never elicited a strike for me anyway. May they have luck with it. Lotus didn’t do so well and ended up losing 2 bottles of liquor. You can imagine that they were in no state to argue, but did manage to hold on to their reserve bottle of Baily’s. Many cruisers offer cold drinks when officials come aboard. We don’t simply because after several days at sea we rarely have anything more to offer than warm Tang. It might be a good idea though as it may limit the “gift search.”

On arrival, we were given a rate sheet for services at the Bahia del Sol hotel. We were very surprised to see a $50 charge for pilot service as of May 1st. This is not an unreasonable charge for several hours of 4 people’s time. However, we had communicated with Tarazed by email only a week before and there was no mention of this charge. In fact, we were led to believe that it was a free community effort. Lotus was similarly surprised. In my mind charging a fee for a pilot service implies a level of responsibility and liability that no one here is really prepared to accept. They are probably reconsidering after this incident. If nothing else they need to be more up front about the risks and fees before people attempt to cross. Honestly, a little thing like $50 would probably have been enough for us to decide to push on for Barillas, which is more remote but the entry is rumored to be much more benign.

8 Comments on “Over the bar at Bahia del Sol”

  1. Peg Bowden says:

    Yikes—-you are both lucky to have escaped the bar crossing with your lives. I am so glad you were tied onto the boat, Cheyenne. I am shaken after reading this blow by blow account of your journey into the Bahia. Your presence at the wedding will be a welcome sight for me. Please be careful in your journey across the mainland. Can’t wait to see you both! Love, Mom/Peg

  2. joshua says:

    We weren’t gonna die. After all we we’re both decent swimmers, wearing life jackets, and only a few hundred yards from the beach. The worst thing that could have happened is the boat would have gone on the beach and/or gotten pounded to pieces.

  3. brad says:


  4. TimeMachine » Over the bar update says:

    […] Three more boats came over the bar yesterday (Slip Away, Ticket to Ride, and Hoofbeats). The pilots were much more cautious this time and went out before hand to take soundings. They used a panga equipped with a depth sounder to find a channel with a least depth of 11 feet. Then they actually escorted each boat in. Overall the surf was about the same as when we came in last week. However, this time everyone came in safely on the western side of the bar. […]

  5. Larry says:

    We are duly impressed with your surfing skills!
    Glad you are in one piece…. the boat too.

  6. Derek says:

    yeehaa it was pretty cool for me to see the week before how my boat handle at 15.8knots (the hull speed is 7) A big lesson I learned here was to get the boat ready for what can be a pretty bad dunking and really spend time like I didnt really do putting things away well done and nice to meet yee

  7. TimeMachine - Slowly exploring the future » Blog Archive » Family Photo Roundup says:

    […] A quick photo spread of all the visitors we’ve been having lately. Cousin Jeff, Larry, Earl, and Hans have been here too but somehow managed to stay out of our lenses. We even had a surprise visit from Jerry and Joni, our friends on Lotus who you may remember from the infamous bar crossing at Bahia del Sol. […]

  8. Jordan 11 Space Jam says:

    Good article. I think you can write more and more better articles. Take easy for yourself.

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Cheyenne Weil, Joshua Coxwell