Sunday, March 13, 2011

Tsunami Warning: A study in Group Think

As Michael posted yesterday, the entire Pacific coast of Mexico was subject to a tsunami warning two days ago as a result of a devastating set of earthquakes that hit Japan.  We awoke to the warning on the VHF radio, and began doing our own research online with the weather reporting sites that we have become accustomed to checking on a regular basis whenever we are heading out on a passage.  The warnings at first were pretty benign, and so we decided to sit and monitor the situation since we knew that any tsunami would not hit for another several hours.  However, the panic on the VHF radio began almost immediately.

The VHF radio is a pretty interesting mode of communication in moments like this.  One can get a play-by-play of what's going on in all four of the Banderas Bay marinas at the same time.  The first thing we heard was that the Port Captain closed all the marinas.  This was later updated to say that the ports were closed only to commercial vessels but that recreational vessels were permitted to leave.  Some recreational vessels (i.e. crusisers like us) left even while the news was that all ports were closed, and I can't blame them.  The worst place for a boat during a tsunami is in a marina.  The best place to be is in deep water (i.e. 400+ feet).  

It was incredulous to hear some on the VHF saying that last year the tsunami was a non-event and so this year they weren't going to go out to sea.  That's like saying that last year we weren't affected by any hurricanes so this year we can ignore any coming our way.  After all, last year's tsunami was triggered by an earthquake in Chile, a completely different direction than Japan, and at a lower magnitude.  We also heard people saying that since no one was leaving, they weren't going to leave either.  Fascinating reasoning.

In the meantime, Michael and I kept monitoring the situation and made our decision to leave the dock, with all our belongings (including hoisting our dinghy), approximately 2 hours before the tsunami was expected to hit, and once we learned from the website that the surge was expected to be in the 3 to 6 foot range with currents up to 14 knots.  This means that an extra 3 to 6 feet of water will flow into the marina and then immediately get sucked out, leaving only a few feet below our bottom, within only a few minutes.  This also means that if you were using your motor to drive your boat at 8 knots (which is fast for a sailboat), you'd be going backwards 6 knots if the current were going against you.  While it would have been fascinating to watch, it was not something we wanted to experience, if in fact it were the worst case scenario. I was most concerned that our boat would get a beating against the docks with all that surge and current. And our philosophy has also always been: if we are thinking about doing it, we should probably just go ahead and do it.  We had nothing to lose.  And so we were one of the first to leave the La Cruz marina, just as the news of the 3-6 foot surge with 14 knot currents came in over the VHF. I do have to say that I am proud of how Michael and I decision-make in these stressful situations.  We stayed calm, weighed the situation, and did what we thought was the most prudent thing we could do, regardless of what everyone else was doing.

The panic continued through out the day as we heard news of Crescent City and Santa Cruz harbors being destroyed, and another earthquake that hit Guatemala.  The news of the devastation in Japan kept rolling in as well.  We were advised that the 'event' would continue for several hours into late afternoon, and that the marinas would likely be closed during that time due to strong currents.  People who stayed in the marina reported seeing eddies and whirlpools that looked like washing machines, and the water levels rising as high as five and a half feet and then back lower in only minutes.  One of the docks in Marina La Cruz broke off as a result of the currents, and the electricity and internet went off as well.  Luckily, there was no damage reported to any of the boats, other than some refrigeration breaking down due to very silty water going into the refrigeration exchange filters.  Everyone in the marinas were then advised to turn all refrigeration off.  

The panic reached its peak close to sunset, when, after a beautiful day of sailing, the marinas were still closed.  We heard one woman complain that there was no leadership around the whole thing.  I'm not sure what she was hoping for.  We all got the same information and had to make the decisions that we felt comfortable with.  Unfortunately, I do believe that this is part of what's wrong with modern society in America today:  people do not take responsibility for their own actions but rather wait for someone else to tell them what they should be doing.  [I don't mean to open up a political debate here - there is a lot more wrong than just that!].

The results of the tsunami lasted longer than expected.  People who were out sailing wanted to get back in and many were harassing the marina operators over the VHF to let them in.  The marina operator at one of the marinas was shouting over the VHF to several sailboats trying to enter: "THE MARINA IS CLOSED. THE MARINA IS CLOSED. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO ENTER!"  There was a 'pan-pan' too: one boat lost his motor, and for some reason couldn't raise his sails, claiming he was taking on water.  Several boats had removed their anchors from their boats that morning because they were participating in the Banderas Bay Regatta scheduled that day and wanting to get rid of some weight so they could go faster (this is, by the way, against racing rules).  This meant they could not anchor out for the night.  This meant more panic.  It left us wondering how they got their boats down to Mexico in the first place.  True, it's not the best scenario to be hanging out all night until daylight, but what's the alternative?  There was none, if you ask me.  I also believe that this type of panic comes from staying on the dock too long.  As cruisers, we need to be prepared all the time to make decisions for our own safety.  If we are always on the alert, there are not surprises and no panic.

By the next morning, the marinas re-opened although there was still a tremendous amount of current going into Marina La Cruz.  One of the marina operators actually had the nerve to announce to everyone on the VHF that, by the way, none of the large yachts in his marina, all with professional captains, left the marina.  This was wholly inappropriate, if you ask me.  First, he was judging our decisions to leave the marina when it is a known fact that the best place to be is at sea.  People should not be faulted for being cautious.  Second, the professional captains don't own their boats so it's easy to take the easy way out and stay put.  He did not earn any points from anyone around here.

The moral of the story:  Think for yourself.  Always be prepared.  Stay calm. Be patient.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  We here in Banderas Bay should be counting our blessings.  I know I am.

Back in Marina La Cruz (aka Marina Riviera Nayarit)
La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, Nayarit, Mexico


  1. Good prudent seamanship at work by the Mitgang/Gottesman crew. No rationalization or apology needed for taking responsibile and appropriate action to keep you vessel and crew safe!

  2. Barb (Whatcha Gonna Do)March 14, 2011 at 11:06 AM

    I forgot to mention that the Mexican navy's small vessels were all out to sea shortly before the tsunami surge was expected to hit, and remained so for the entire afternoon. Although I could be wrong, it did not appear that they were out there to monitor and board other vessels, as they appeared to be simply bobbing in place. I suspect they did so because they wouldn't have been able to get out of the marinas if necessary once the surge hit.

  3. Allan and I waited anxiously for this and Michael's report. And, as I told him - better safe than sorry! Both were great and "exciting" descriptions. Nevertheless, it must have been quite a bit of excitement for awhile until the surge and afterquakes subsided.
    I sure hope things quiet down before you all depart for your major voyage...

  4. so strange to be sitting in the comforts of our home, in our same routine, and watching what is happening to people around the world!! Great Blog as always Barb! You guys are definitely a great team. xo