Thursday, 12 July 2012

defining turbulence

When the wind is just right
Linguists say the Inuit have something like twelve distinct words for snow. Fortunately, sailors don’t need twelve words for snow. We need something else.

Do you know what an elefante is? No, it’s not the Spanish word for that large animal with tusks and a trunk. Or a chubasco, have you heard of that? It almost sounds like it should be a spicy dish, doesn’t it. Here’s a hint: They’re not hurricanes, but they’re in the wind family. They don’t just call it wind in the Sea of Cortez. Like the Inuit and their snow, sailors all over the world have many words for wind. In the Sea of Cortez, there are the previously mentioned chubascos and elefantes; there are also coromuels, hurricanes, northers (a product of the Great Basin High), and those pesky southeasterlies, courtesy of the Yuma Low. So far, we’ve become intimate with coromuels in the La Paz area.  As we head north, chubascos and elefantes are becoming a part of our regular vocabulary.

I’ve been told chubascos can appear at the drop of a hat, and hang on to that hat, because they can reach 50-70 knot speeds. (That’s up to 130 km/h.) The good news is that while chubascos arrive with a bang, they don’t usually last very long. Think of it as a short-lived, intense squall accompanied by lightning and rain. Chubascos are “a summer time convection storm that can hit at any time from the late afternoon to early morning.” 1 When you get a chubasco warning via radio nets, (that is, when there is time for a warning), you clear the decks. You take down awnings, bring the dinghy on deck, (unless you want it bouncing like a possessed demon at the end of the painter when the storm hits). You tie things down and put out more anchor chain. And then, you wait. To quote a sailor who’s experienced a number of them: They’re stressful.

Elefantes, get their name from a trunk-shaped cloud that sometimes precedes strong westerly winds. They are “localized to specific low areas generally along the mid to northern Baja Peninsula such as valleys and arroyos.”2 Cool air from the Pacific rushes across the Baja peninsula in an easterly direction and reaches the warm Sea of Cortez via lowlands. These katabatic-like winds are known to funnel into the Sea in specific areas such as Punta Trinidad and Bahia de Los Angeles.

We had our first chubasco warning on our last night in Isla Coronados before we were to head north. The evening Southbound Ham radio net warned of two nasty convections brewing across the Sea that could potentially join up and make their way to our quiet anchorage. These storm cells can move quickly. In an anchorage, news travels even more rapidly. That evening, one sailor warned another, who told another, who radioed another. Within a half an hour, a certain quiet tension could be felt in the vast anchorage. Bodies were moving swiftly on the decks around us; we were all taking awnings down and clearing our decks.

Later, Channel 22 was abuzz with boats calling other boats.3 Everyone was eavesdropping on each other’s discussions trying to get whatever bits of information we could. One veteran boat patiently shared his knowledge with nervous sailors who were anticipating the possibility of their first chubasco. Our anchorage was lucky, the SV Camille crew had internet access; they could follow the storm convection via satellite images. We all listened to their reports with baited breath.  

In the end, the storm never reached us. It dissipated in the middle of the Sea. That evening turned out to be a practice run. Next time, it may not be, but we’ll be prepared. And maybe, we’ll only be a little bit nervous.

1 Shawn Breeding and Heather Bansmer, Sea of Cortez: A Cruiser’s Guidebook. (Washington: Blue Latitude Press LLC, 2009), 20
2 Ibid, 20
3 In Mexico, channel 22 is used as a hailing channel among cruisers. It is also where VHF nets are held at specific times in locales such as La Paz, Puerto Escondido, Puerto Vallarta, etc.


  1. Glad you had your first chubasco "warning" instead of experience! It's hurricane season here in Louisiana ... keeping our fingers crossed for us and ya'll!

  2. Thanks Mid-life!! We did have a chubasco experience a couple weeks later - but all was well, it wasn't on the high end - crossing our fingers too! :)



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