by Sharon Kratz, Sailing Vessel Rose of Sharon
NOAA Nautical Charts 411, 11438, 2802
Joe plotted two courses, one was the rhumb line from the Dry Tortugas to Isla Mujeres; the other was to travel south and hang a right at Cuba, staying within the 25-mile nautical boundaries of the island. Joe and I visited Cuba as tourists in the early '90s, when political tension was more relaxed. We flew in a Russian prop plane from Montego Bay, Jamaica and landed in Santiago, Cuba for a day trip.
I found their history fascinating. We visited the gravesite of Jose Martí, a national hero and the rum factory that was owned by the government but founded by the Bacardi family. During the nineties, I read several stories about and essays by cruisers who celebrated a wonderful trip by boat to Cuba, and I'd love to visit Cuba again. Joe assured me it wouldn't be on this trip. I'll be glad when we are openly friends with Cuba; there's probably some good anchoring over there to break up the trip to Mexico.
We left Fort Myers, Florida about noon on Day 1 and arrived at Isla Mujeres about 8:00 p.m. on Day 3. The passage was without problems and we spent every minute eternally grateful that we had no boat / engine / prop / cutlass bearing / radio / bilge / generator / water tank issues. The first day was, for me, perfect: seas 2-4, winds 7 knots. I perched on the back of the boat, reading my novel.
The second day, the winds picked up to 15 knots and the seas . . . well, they were high rollers. With the wind out of the east, we spent much of the time surfing sideways. We were consistently heeled to starboard except for the occasional rogue wave that slammed into us, practically laying the boat down. We never for a minute unharnessed ourselves in the cockpit from Day 2 until we entered the harbor at Isla Mujeres.
By Day 3, Joe and I were punchy and tired. Neither of us sleeps on an overnight passage. We recline and close our eyes, but we are never far removed from the sounds and the feel of our boat. Toward early morning, I finally did it. I slept, really slept. I left reality behind and slept a REM kind of sleep, surfacing only occasionally to check on Joe. At daybreak, he was ready for his rest and I climbed into the cockpit, still groggy. I think Joe passed out as soon as he was horizontal and I promised myself that under no circumstances would I wake him.
No fun, I said to myself. This is just plain boring. Just like everyone always says it is: intense boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. There was no terror on this passage, for which I was eternally grateful. But boredom? Yep, there was some boredom. Huddle in the cockpit, scan the horizon, contemplate your bruises, scan the horizon, paint your fingernails, scan the horizon.
Then a school of dolphin swam toward the boat. I gasped in surprise and delight. There were 12-15 dolphin swimming alongside of Rose of Sharon, and it was the greatest show on earth. Minutes later, a lone flying fish hurried past me, northbound with the determination of a commuter on his way to work. I began to smile and look around. The sun was just coming into its own and the wind was lessening. I listened to every creak on the boat. I heard, with intense clarity, the snap of the mainsail as the wind filled and left it. The winches clicked in their holder as we rocked back and forth. I am so blessed, I thought. Thank God I was able to be a part of this! By the time Joe returned to the cockpit, I was almost sorry to give up my watch. A school of flying fish swooped past us and we laughed. Rush hour!
We arrived at Isla Mujeres as darkness settled. I know, I know, never come into a strange anchorage at night, but the prospect of circling around in the Gulf all night, another night, just didn't work. We were so tired, and we could see it! Land, ho! Joe had programmed the entry into the GPS and we carefully followed his coordinates to the anchorage site.
We dropped anchor, it set, we kissed, hugged and had tequila shots then went to bed. About 1:00 a.m., a pounding on the side of the boat wakened us. Joe went topside while I scrambled into my clothes. By the time I made it to the cockpit, I saw two men on board. One went to the bow with Joe while the other stayed in the cockpit with me. NOW I was terrified. Both young men were bald. While Joe trusted them because they were white and spoke English, I distrusted them because they were bald. Skinheads, I thought. Nazi skinheads who are going to murder us and steal our boat. As it turned out, we were drifting and the guys' boats were on our collision path. They had knocked before they boarded the boat, but we were too exhausted to hear them. They were merely two nice young men helping a tired older couple get secure in the anchorage.
The next morning, Joe and I were still numb with disbelief. We did it! We finally got out of country with our boat and it only took eight years! Coffee in the cockpit revealed more than 20 other sailboats, most appeared to be from the U.S., all flying their tiny Mexican flags, all with a dinghy tied behind them. It was a very crowded anchorage!
We spent our first day in Isla Mujeres on the boat, reorganizing and re-stowing. And resting. After a semi-good night's sleep, we were still tired.
The next morning, we tuned into the Isla Mujeres Cruisers Net on VHF 13 at 7:30 a.m. local time. And there was a potluck dinner planned for Wednesday. Where there are cruisers, there is always at least one social director.
Outside the office at Marina Paraíso we met a U.S. couple who had sailed the same route at the same time as we and the woman and I were immediately bonded by our aches and pains. We both had sore shoulders from "hanging on" and I had an interesting bruise on the heel of my palm from using it to brace myself as I slammed into various areas of the boat.
As Joe and the man discussed what a rough passage it was, I was surprised to find myself thinking, Gee, I didn't think it was that bad. We'd certainly been in worse. The bad thing about this particular passage was that we were surfing sideways and on some kind of regular, sea-timed basis, a rogue wave would slam into us, hard, knocking the toe rail into the water. When that happened on my watch, I debated what to grab if the boat lay down. GPS, autopilot or both? But it still wasn't our worst passage ever. I figured if it wasn't cold and raining, even a rough passage was a step up from some of our previous ones.
The U.S. couple had also been caught in the hellacious norther-would-have-been-a-named-storm that we had endured under anchor at Sanibel Island. Only they were underway during it! The man had us doubled over with laughter as he recounted the saga. It's always easy to laugh about it, after you've gotten through it.
I was unhappy to learn that we needed an agent to clear into Mexico, but later changed my mind. At one point, I had created a Lista de Tripulantes (crew list) and a Zarpe (clearance documents from the last port of call), but one book I was reading seemed to indicate the Lista de Tripulantes was not needed, so I only gave Joe the Zarpe. Wrong. Our agent was Miguel at Marina Paraíso and he created all the papers we needed, called the Sanitation representatives who then went with Joe in the dinghy to inspect our boat while I checked our land email, then told us where to go next: the Immigration Office.
A German couple joined us as we made our trip into town. It was in the Immigration Office that I got my first look at how we as Americans now appear to some countries. A U.S. man was clearing in and was angry that we are not allowed to anchor at Cuba. He held forth, loudly, in the Immigration office and stated that U.S. citizens/cruisers were losing our constitutional rights because of Homeland Security. Our German acquaintances nodded. "You should see how popular American boats are, in Cuba," he told me. "But your government will take your boat away if you go there."
The man boasted that he was offered $70,000 by the U.S. government to report any U.S. citizens arriving in Cuba by boat, but he would personally shoot anyone he discovered was ratting out his fellow cruisers. I began to smell a rat. This guy was weather-beaten at best, and when I asked him what he was doing for a living, he said he was "in transit." But the German couple listened to what he said, carefully.
Later, when I told our German acquaintances I did not foresee returning to the U.S. in our boat; that we would leave her here somewhere in the Caribbean, they said, "Why would any U.S. citizen take a boat into the U.S.? Your government makes it so hard on you! We can bring a boat into the U.S. easier than you can" I was familiar with the "ugly American," but this new persona: the persecuted American, was strange to me. It's no fun to be from the country everyone loves to hate, but it's also no fun for people to feel sorry for us. I feel proud and privileged to be an American.
In fact, when we arrived at Isla Mujeres, we were the only boat flying a large U.S. flag off the stern. Two days later, I saw other boats putting their larger country flags on their boats' sterns: Italy, Canada, Germany, Switzerland . . . it was as if they wanted to ensure they too were recognized as patriots.
We left Immigration and went to the bank to pay our $40 entry fee, then hurried back to Miguel at Marina Paraíso just in time for the office to shut down. Between 1-3 p.m., most businesses in Mexico close. Every day. Already acclimated to "Don't worry, be happy," we marched back to the dinghy and boated back into town for lunch. Two beers, 8 grilled shrimp and 2 fried conch fillets later, we could care less who was open for business when.
In another life, I flew Southwest Airlines from Houston Hobby to Dallas Love and back again every week. After doing this almost a year, I began to get nervous about my odds. Joe laughs at the things that make me nervous versus the things I don't worry about. "How could anyone who did a free fall from an airplane be nervous about flying?" he would ask me. Well, it's all about the odds. I only did one free fall from an airplane; odds were good that I would survive it. But after more than 100 commercial flights in Boeing 737s in less than a year, I figured my flying odds weren't that good anymore.
As I nervously scurried toward a terminal in Dallas Love airport, a nun handed me a medal. "What is it?" I shouted over my shoulder without missing a step. "Saint Catherine!" she shouted back. "CATHERINE!" Later, on the plane, I studied the medal carefully and decided it was a Saint Catherine medal. I taped it inside my passport as additional insurance and it is still there. But it isn't a Saint Catherine medal. It's a Virgin Mary medal and it says, "O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee."
Maybe the nun was from Saint Catherine's Church or a nunnery called Saint Catherine's, but I wasn't going to mess with my karma by second guessing. I ordered 100 Saint Catherine of Sienna medals to be given to officials and other people we met along the way, figuring the odds were good that while Mother Mary might have been praying for me, Saint Catherine was keeping an eye out.
I had also burned CDs with a combination of Hispanic/U.S. music and designed covers for them. The covers featured a sailboat at anchorage and a Winston Churchill quote: "Friendship will hold the world together." ("Amistad mantendrá el mundo unido.") I gave the medals to the various officials who helped clear us into Mexico and gave the CD to our agent Miguel, who seemed delighted with it. When I downloaded the music and burned the CDs, I had used some of the "top ten" Hispanic hits of that time and added some of my favorite Hispanic music; I hoped the mix would appeal to Miguel.
As we dinghied slowly toward the boat at day's end, Joe kept repeating, "I can't believe we finally made it. Isla Mujeres." While he was still overwhelmed by the enormity of our accomplishment, I was already pondering: This is so wonderful; I am so happy to be here . . . how in the world can we leave such a terrific place?
Joe wanted to effect some engine maintenance, fix the waning autopilot, bolt on the sacrificial anode . . . he had an agenda for repairs so we moved the boat to Marina Paraíso and paid a month's rent in advance. Marina Paraíso is considered one of the best marinas on Isla and they accept cash only from transient boaters. We had a combination of U.S./Mexican currency, enough to cover one month at a dock with water and 30 amps of electricity ($4/day; 50 amps was $8/day).
We were SO GLAD we made that decision the day we made it, because that night, a major norther blew in. The air temperature stayed the same, but the wind gusted between 20-30 knots for several days. There were whitecaps in our previous anchorage, and boats still there complained of the jostling and missed sleep monitoring anchor lines. Everyone had at least two and most had three anchors set.
Golf carts and motorcycles provide the primary means of transportation to visitors on Isla Mujeres. Buses run from one end of the island to the other and the cost is pennies (pesos), but taxis are extremely affordable. Our most expensive taxi ride was fifty pesos, about $5.00 U.S. at that time. All day long, auto and pedestrian ferries shuttle back-and-forth to Puerto Juarez and Cancun.
However, our legs provided most of our transportation. For me, just climbing off the bow of the boat every day was a challenge, depending whether or not the wind was out of the north. The walk from Marina Paraíso to town took about 30 minutes, with the downtown area just a few blocks off the main road. I was glad we were walking so much, but some days were easier than others. I could handle the walk to town and through town, but the walk home would put me over the top some days, and send me immediately to bed with aching legs. I was impatient with my lack of mobility but Joe kept telling me he could see improvement, so I kept on walking.
An election was approaching and Volkswagens with huge speakers mounted atop zoomed up and down the island's main road, blasting politicians' promises and age-old ad copy: "Nuevo Caudillaje Por Nuevo Mexico!" Huge posters for gobernar and presidente were plastered on every available exterior wall space. It was a state (Quintana Roo) and city election, I think, slated for the first week of February 2005. Political rallies, complete with music and free ice cream, were often held on street corners, and much as I enjoy free ice cream, we avoided them. The Mexican constitution forbids visitors to its country from participating in politics; the penalty could be jail or deportation. I didn't want anyone to misconstrue our participation in a political rally - we are ice cream eaters, not activists!
The sports bar most frequented by U.S. travelers to Isla Mujeres is Jax, where Joe and I went to watch the New England Patriots soundly squash the Indianapolis Colts. As we exited the bar post-game, wearing our Colts and Hoosier t-shirts, we had to back out, bowing humbly to a roomful of tourists in Patriots t-shirts. We wished them well against the Steelers for the next week's playoff game, but we were lying. We wanted the Pittsburgh Steelers to mow them down.
Cooking on the boat was an adventure too. At a corner market, I tried to buy hamburger and I kept saying "carne . . . BEEF . . . mooo," to the smiling teenager who brought out some kind of ground white meat in a baggy and insisted it was hamburger. We think it may have been veal, but we made a spaghetti sauce with it and didn't suffer any ill effects, so . . . Our nightly bedtime treat was caramel lollypops made from goat's milk.
Marina Paraíso offers internet connectivity; it was slow but at $3.00/hour U.S., was a fair price. The week we left, they acquired high-speed internet. I accessed our land email service provider and Joe paid bills. I asked him if he had checked the credit card we used most often and he said he was "afraid to look."
I addressed my issues with internet connectivity and telephoning the U.S. to our 7:30 a.m. Isla Mujeres net on VHF 13 and received a wealth of information about how and where to make phone calls to the Estados Unidos. Many people were using an internet-based telephone system in the downtown internet cafes and had praises for the connectivity, cost and clarity.
We took a taxi to the south side of the island to see the Mundaca ruins and the Mayan ruins. Tourists who hear there is a "zoo" and attempt to visit it are bitterly disappointed, for Mundaca offers a few lonely, caged animals as a sideshow. It is actually the site of a once-lavish plantation of which only crumbling remains can be seen, but its legend is still strong: A pirate and slave trader, Fermin Mundaca de Marechaja, came to Isla Mujeres in the early 1860s and fell in love with a beautiful young woman, Prisca Gomez. To persuade her to marry him, Mundaca built a palatial hacienda fit for a queen. Romantic interpretations of this story indicate that because Miss Gomez scorned him, Mundaca became an embittered, broken-hearted man, but when reading of his cruelty to slaves and servants, you have to wonder if perhaps the young Prisca Gomez had insight beyond her years into his surly character and made a wiser choice: She married another suitor and became Prisca Martinez.
It is said he burned his pirate/slave trading ship in the bay behind the plantation and was buried in a graveyard on the north end of the island; his tomb is engraved with a skull and crossbones and reads, "What I am, you will be. What I was, you are." Bitter to the very end, it seems.
The Mundaca ruins are worth a walk-through, just be sure to bring your insect repellant. We were told by other tourists that the caged animals appeared "sad and neglected," but they were in fact quite healthy and seemed well tended. The San Diego Zoo it's not, but I liked the spider monkeys.
For me, the best thing about the very touristy Mayan ruins at the very southernmost tip of Isla Mujeres is the Sculpture Garden. As Mayan ruins go, I don't think Isla's make the cut, but if you like metal art - and I do - the sculptures you pass as you are walking to and from the remains of the Mayan temple are worth your time and examination. The Disney-like "Caribbean Village" at the park's entrance is worth your scorn.
For Joe, this Mayan structure was intriguing because it is believed to have been some kind of observatory or lighthouse for pre-Columbian mariners. Joe rushed past the sculptures and climbed to the site of the architectural ruins. He showed me the stunning view and extreme visibility available at that point of the island and I knew he was visualizing mighty ocean-going Mayan vessels and aeronautical spaceships of Atlantis, circling Isla Mujeres for a landing. I pointed to the distant area where the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean merge and said, "That's the road we came in on."
We clambered up and down the rock pathways, peeking into inlets and peering over cliffs to the rocky shore below. As I looked at the walls of the cliff, I told Joe they appeared to be fossilized coral. "They look like what we see below us when we are snorkeling," I offered. In fact, the Yucatán Peninsula is the remnant of an ancient coral reef which lay exposed from the receding waters of the Ice Age.
As we walked to and from town almost every day, I became familiar with every crack in the stone walls and the pavement. I knew when the sidewalk would change from old concrete to old brick. One morning my hand brushed a crumbling wall and startled an iguana, which jumped and in turn, startled me. He was about 20 inches long, from nose to tail, and his spiky skin blended into the wall stones. Being professionals, neither of us made a sound; we eyeballed each other for a few minutes then I turned away and continued walking.
Dogs and cats rule in Isla Mujeres, and I began recognizing the local dogs, including one very old, anesthetized dog that lay in the sunshine, hardly moving except for an occasional twitch from whatever doggy dream he was dreaming. Once he opened his eyes to look at me, and they were red and bloodshot, as if he'd had too much tequila the night before. The day I saw him standing on all four legs, I nudged Joe, "Look! He can move!"
We explored the small streets of Isla Mujeres, crammed with mass produced souvenirs. We entered a few of the artesian shops with genuine hand-crafted items and couldn't afford most of the wares anyway, but couldn't bring ourselves to buy any of the traditional tourist merchandise on the street, priced to sell. I finally bought tiny painted turtles with bobbing green heads for the grandchildren, knowing I wouldn't leave this place without a Isla Mujeres tote bag.
I buy tacky bags with the names of places visited boldly splashed on one or both sides of the bag. Traditional touristy U.S. women buy fun tropical print bags. Maybe, I thought, I'll get another bolsa, which is what the natives carry. The durable plastic mesh bolsas are available in a variety of plaid patterns, and when you walk along a U.S. street (or dock) carrying one, it's as if you belong to a private club: bolsa owners recognize other bolsa owners as Mexican travelers, not tourists. My old bolsa had appeared frail when I got it, and had survived weekly use for over ten years. I don't know why they last, but they last. I decided to get a larger one, purple or green plaid.
On Isla Mujeres, we found the store with the best prices for canned and paper goods, liquor and soft drinks (the government-subsidized commissary on the Naval base), the best location for pork filets (Miritita Supermarket), and the best all-around grocery store with the most produce available (Super San Francisco de Asis, downtown on the square). We found DVDs available in English or with English subtitles in a small room above a mini mart in the building adjacent to the Palacio Municipal building on the square. The video shop was well hidden and often carried only one or two copies of the latest releases.
We bought wonderful food from street vendors, knowing full well we were dancing with the devil.
We found a small restaurant off the tourist track called La Lomita, which carried simple Mexican fare at local prices. Joe's fish came complete with eyeballs and a fanged frown; my meat was the pale color I was learning to identify as "beef," and both our meals were prepared fresh and strongly seasoned with lime.
Almost all restaurants offered some version of fried bananas, sometimes accompanied by fresh-whipped cream. We reveled in the varieties of flan preparation, but still had not become epicurean enough to determine commercially prepared flan from individually crafted flan. Some just tasted better than others. Trained from birth to believe that when it comes to roué and mole, the darker the better, we found light brown mole sauces often revealed a blend of subtle spicery that enhanced the flavor and fragrance, despite the color.
As Joe and I sat at outside tables, lazily drinking our mineral waters and beers, for long periods of time we were wordless, simply watching the pedestrians and vendors on the busy streets of Isla Mujeres. The majority of the European and North American women strolled in groups or with a male companion, never alone. The young women wore cowboy hats and tight knit pants or baggy crepe pants that exposed pierced navels or tiny tattoos on slender hips. The matronly Midwestern U.S. women wore flowery polyester knit shirts with their solid-color shorts and comfortable SAS shoes while 40+ European women's breasts spilled out of tight knit tops as they teetered on stacked-heel sandals. My favorite passers-by were the women "of a certain age" who wore flowing skirts and neutral-colored blouses accessorized by bold scarves, dangling earrings, silver bracelets, and khaki no-nonsense hats. These women could be seen walking alone and purposefully, carrying leather book bags or Louis Vuitton purses and not making eye contact with anyone, especially the eager souvenir hawkers on each side of the street.
You can see the Indian heritage in the faces of the darker-skinned Mexican people, but you will seldom see a dark-skinned Mexican on television. The Mexican soap operas and commercials are dominated by fair-complexioned and often blonde-haired actors and actresses. The network news featured attractive Mexican men and women with brown/black hair but never brown/black skin.
Life in the harbor of Isla Mujeres became comfortable, familiar . . .
Every day, a U.S. boater who had a very excited Black Lab would motor past us and the Lab perched on the front of the dinghy, paws gripping tightly and ears a-flyin.' Sometimes, overcome with the thrill of it all, he barked nonstop. This hyperactive dog will never become a Mexican dog.
The boaters came together on VHF 13 every morning at 0730 and then returned to their individual routines: some took a daily brisk morning swim, and almost all perched in their respective cockpits, reading for hours. Exhausted from all that activity, there was the requisite siesta, then Happy Hour at 4:00 p.m.: You get your one-dollar Sol beer from the small refrigerator in the marina office, check to see if any of the beers in the freezer have gotten cold and if they have, move them to a bottom shelf and put a couple more bottles of warm beer in the freezer.
For the boaters, sunrise and sundown are the clocks by which they live their days.
Cruisers arrived at the island, relieved to have made the passage and starry-eyed with success, and the liveaboards who never seem to leave Isla Mujeres shared the same information with the newcomers over and over again, happy to be the source of local knowledge.
A beach on the north end of the island beckoned, so we spent several days reclining in beach chairs, reading and dozing. The beach waters of Punta Norte are calmer than the turbulent Punta Sur on the opposite end of Isla Mujeres. Joe said the January water was still too cold for him, but I swam several times in the lagoon, rejoicing in the clear water and white sand.
We ferried over to Port Juarez and took a tour bus to Chichen Itza, stopping en route to visit a beautiful cenote. This particular underground water reservoir, Cenote Dzitnup, came from an underground river, according to our guide. The water was indigo blue and the tourists who'd had the forethought to wear bathing suits simply jumped in! They splashed happily in the chilly waters and posed for photos. Most of us on the sidelines were jealous, and some of us were tempted to jump in with our clothes on.
Chichen Itza is the site of one of the most well-known Mayan ruins and is located about 120 miles west of Cancu´n in the Mexican state of Yucatán. Its construction is estimated to be between 650-800 A.D., and its population at one point may have reached as high as 100,000 residents who lived in palapas, or thatch-roofed huts. The Maya believed the path to "heaven," or whatever symbolized the blessed afterlife was a long and arduous journey with seven levels of attainment. For a successful warrior or athlete to be beheaded was an honor; a shortcut to heaven without having to endure the arduous journey here on earth. Chichen Itza is thought to be a major sacrificial site for the Maya.
The Mayan people had preserved their long and rich history in books, most of which were burned by Franciscan monks in an effort to convert the people to Christianity. Fortunately, the Maya also told their stories in their pottery and building designs. Our guide explained the meaning of the hieroglyphics on some of the structures. He was very graphic about the human sacrifices that were Chichen Itza's legacy.
The story of the Ball Court is fascinating! At 545 feet, the playing area is longer than a football field, and two huge limestone hoops were centered 20 feet above ground on each side of rectangular walls. The game played by the Mayan teams was called "Pok-a-tok," and the games lasted days. The winning team's captain was ceremonially beheaded and apparently he was thrilled to have that honor (I guess there were no "I'm going to Disneyworld!" Superbowl commercials), then a new game with two new teams was immediately begun.
Our guide said the players could use their feet. Some references say they could not use their hands or feet. Like baseball, they could bat or sling the ball with some kind of stick they carried during play for that purpose, and like soccer, they could use their heads. Like basketball, they had to get the ball into an overhead hoop. The ball was made of rubber, resilient and bouncy, but the ball weighed 41/2 pounds. Team players wore protective gear, helmets, face guards and one shoe. This is when I thought of quidditch, the game of Harry Potter. I mean, those hoops were mounted about 20 feet off the ground.
There's truly something very cosmic about the Ball Court. Again, the walls are intricately designed with symbols of war and the court has almost perfect acoustics. One sharp clap of your hands inside the Ball Court results in exactly seven echoes.
Standing in the yard outside the famous Castle of Kukulcan, clap your hands loudly, one time, and a lone echo - the sound of an eagle's cry - is the response. Archaeologists and anthropologists can only guess at why the acoustics were an important consideration of the Mayan architects.
The magnificent Castle of Kukulcan dominates the area, and an ambulance stood ready and waiting, should any of this pyramid's climbers take a tumble. Each step is twice as high as a standard step and there are 91 very steep steps on each of the four sides. Including the top platform, this represents 365 days in a year. There are five adornments on each of the four sides, representing 20 days in the Maya month.
The sun was merciless but a brisk wind from the north made walking almost a pleasure. Joe and I strolled most of the grounds, climbing into what remains of the Temple of 1,000 Columns, studying the Temple of the Warriors and the Platform of Venus. We stopped for sodas and, playing with the camera, took close-up mug shots of each other. It was so wonderful to feel healthy and happy and alive in this setting of the long-dead ancients. Sometimes you want to feel history, to somehow be a part of it, but not this place on this day. We were the quintessential tourists, outsiders looking in.
Visiting Cancun was like leaving Mexico and stepping into a Disney version of Mexico. It was one of Mexico's first large tourism projects and they literally created the site from nowhere. Just 30 years ago, it was a dusty little island inhabited by a few fishermen. The production and promotion of Cancu´n was an unprecedented success and it is a fun site for worldwide visitors to Mexico. Familiar restaurant chains and hotels lined the well-paved four-lane highway, and clean crumble-free sidewalks lined the well-lit streets. When I saw an Outback Steakhouse, I insisted we stop there. No pale, bland beef tonight! We were stunned to discover our meal was thirty percent higher than what we normally spend at Outback. We also noticed there were no Mexicans in the restaurant. This place was wall-to-wall U.S. of A. tourists.
I was having white wine withdrawal, but at $9.00 per glass for a very off-off brand of Chardonnay, I decided to skip it. I felt a little guilty about a restaurant meal that was so clearly not part of our cruising budget, but I got a red meat fix that I hoped would last for awhile.
Joe wanted to keep the card with the ferries' arrival and departure schedule as a reference, but I thought it was pointless. When the ferry is at the dock, you board and leave. With the ferry is gone, you wait on it to arrive. They ran on a schedule, kind of. When we arrived at the ferry dock at 10:45 p.m. and asked when the next ferry was due, we were told "10:20 p.m." And that was when the next ferry was due. We were surprised at how easily we made the adjustment to living on Mexican time.
NOAA Charts 28190, 28202
Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico's Caribbean Coast, including Guatemala's Rio Dulce, Coast of Mexico Chart -and- Exploring the Great Maya Reef (Part 1 The Mexican Caribbean), Nautical Charts
A Mexican political election can be volatile at best, violent at worst, and the city/state elections at Cancun went smoothly, despite the losing party's resistance to its loss by seizing a stoplight at a main intersection and refusing to let traffic pass normally to and from the hotel district. After a few days of protesting, they acknowledged defeat and gave the streets back to the tourists and the taxi drivers.
A U.S. cruiser arrived at Isla Mujeres from Cuba and had had a very bad experience. His vessel was boarded by very nervous, very aggressive soldiers who were abusive and tried to take the captain's GPS and CDs. They pulled out his anchor chain and secured his vessel to their patrol boat. They insisted he leave immediately (it was 10:00 p.m.), but he protested it was too late. At midnight, they moved him to another site and at 4:00 a.m., they drug his boat through a reef and told him to leave. The latest information was if your vessel goes to Cuba, it is subject to seizure by the U.S. government and you are subject to fines. Maybe it was always that way, but now it is being strictly enforced. One person had received a letter from the government that his vessel was seen in Cuba and he would be assessed $2,000. He decided not to go back to the U.S. For most of us, that will never be an option.
The two major differences to note in the current situation are 1) cruisers to Cuba are normally treated politely (albeit firmly) by Cuban Navy personnel and that appears to have changed, and 2) the U.S. government is actively enforcing sanctions against travel to Cuba by U.S. cruisers. The possibilities of fines and impounding of vessels by the U.S. government should not to be overlooked by U.S. cruisers. Our European friends are enjoying wonderful stopovers at Cuba, but for now, at this time, it is not available to the rest of us.
An informative session on VHF 17 led to some Bush-bashing and an angry Republican fussed about it. Another man came on and said, "Well, we still have freedom of speech in this country, don't we?" and another cruiser replied, "Exactly which country are we in?" You could almost hear the laughter from the other boats. God bless Americans and our wonderful, funny ownership-attitude of the world. The best representative U.S. cruisers out of country who have that attitude lose it quickly!
We spent our last week in Isla Mujeres filling jerry cans, provisioning, and engaging a refrigeration man to bring our refrigerator up to speed. He was scheduled to be at the boat at 10:30 Monday morning and arrived at 2:30 but didn't have the right type of refrigeration coolant, so he said he would return the next day. "See you mañana," he waved as he left the boat. On Tuesday, he came early and still wasn't satisfied with his coolant, so he said he would be back mañana with the right stuff. Wednesday, he added the coolant, left, then returned an hour later to see if it was working and it wasn't.
Joe was at the fuel dock and the repairman seemed distressed to have to deal with me and my Spanish dictionary instead of mi espousa (I don't think Joe tries to communicate; he just smiles and nods agreement, which seems to be more effective than my requests for information, like "How much will it cost?" and "How long will it take?"). Nervously, he left the boat to find an English-speaking comrade, and they returned when they saw Joe board the boat with the jerry cans. I overheard the conversation in the cockpit and picked up words like, "You need a new one." I sighed. Then I heard "mañana."
Two days later, the refrigeration man returned to tell Joe he was sure the compressor was okay but that we needed a new evaporator. It turns out the coils in our refrigeration unit are subject to clogging, and also need a strainer. None of this stuff costs a great deal, but none of it was to be found in Isla Mujeres or Cancun. Joe found what he needed online, printed off the page, and was encouraged by neighbors to "take it to West Marine. They'll match the price!" At any rate, we'll pick it up on the first trip back to the states. So, no refrigeration. I really didn't care; we pretty much lose refrigeration at anchor anyway and I was stocked up with boxed and powdered milk, Butter Buds, and had learned to love hot Coke and warm Kool-Aid.
Joe also discovered a cracked motor bracket which had caused the engine to misalign slightly, causing a drip less seal to drip. He found a local tool shop where the repair was made while he waited. He replaced the bracket and tightened the strut and an odd little rattle we'd been hearing disappeared.
Meanwhile, I had developed a nasty little infection under my arm. A teeny, tiny zit had become a lesion about 4 inches long and 2 inches wide. It was ugly and it ached, so on our last day on the island, Marina Paraíso contacted the English-speaking physician for me. We caught him en route to Cancun and he said he would stop by on his way out of town. I sat patiently on the curbside outside Marina Paraíso and soon, a compact car pulled over and out hopped a kind-faced man who looked like a guy in a hurry. We stepped behind a nearby wall, I raised my shirt (this was a first for me, but me being me, stepping behind a stone wall and raising up my shirt for a strange man was not a problem), and he shook his head. "That's a bad infection." He said. He wrote a prescription for two antibiotics and told me to be sure to see my physician about it when I "got home." I said okay and didn't go into details about the "going home" part, which would be 3 months later. I paid Dr. Sala $20 and as soon as Joe was ready to clear Immigrations, we went into town. The prescriptions were $100. For us, back in the U.S., they would have been $10 at the most, but I'm sure we can submit it to the insurance company, paperwork back and forth for about 6 months and finally get reimbursed.
Joe had a leaving-Isla Mujeres panic attack and bought three bottles of Kahlua; the liquór is a luxury for us back home, to be used in coffee on chilly Sunday mornings, but the price was so cheap, it made sense to stock up. I had my own leaving-Isla Mujeres panic attack and had to return to the one of the best Italian restaurants on or off the island, Rolandi's. Located downtown on Hidalgo Street, I think Rolandi's also has the best selection of wines available to Isla Mujeres diners (and believe me, wine is in short supply on Isla Mujeres). I had a wonderful ricotta-filled spinach pastry and Joe had their delicious pepperoni pizza, and we both had a dish of ice cream. They have a delicious coconut ice cream and tiramsu´! Thus fortified, we thought we might be able to finally leave Isla Mujeres.
Leaving Isla Mujeres! Not easy, after a month of pure luxury. Recommended to us by Marina Paraíso neighbors Ken and Becky of S/V Polaris, we purchased another book for this leg of the journey, Exploring the Great Maya Reef (Part 1 The Mexican Caribbean). This book is published by Mexico's Secretary of Tourism and has nautical waypoints accompanied by beautiful overhead shots of the various lagoons and anchorages along the coastline.
Five other vessels left Isla Mujeres the same day; two British boats and the rest U.S. vessels. I finally saw Cancun's impressive hotel district along the shoreline and some of them reflected the Mayan culture in their architecture. The Caribbean was at her bluest best, the sky was clear, and we were happy. "We be sailin'." chortled Joe. Kicked back, both sails raised high, we were averaging 7 knots without the engine. It was a perfect day.
Punta Maroma (Hut Point) is 37.8 nautical miles southwest of Isla Mujeres. Joe's route included 7 waypoints, with last being N 20°42.3 and W 86°59.3. The entrance is unmarked and difficult to find, and if you use that waypoint as a reference for making the turn through and past the reef, you should be fine. But we didn't do that.
As we approached the reef, we caught up with the boats that had left Isla Mujeres ahead of us that morning. There were 2 other sailboats and three catamarans. They eased into a cut in the reef and as we lined up behind them, I said to Joe, "Does this match your waypoint?" He said no, but the other boats were doing okay, so . . . We were about 1/4 mile too far south of the correct channel leading through the reef and into the anchorage, and actually went into a tiny cut in the reef and right upon a patch reef. It was mass pandemonium, with three sailboats bouncing off a hard rock bottom, no one knowing which way to turn, people screaming, "What's your depth?!" What's your depth?!" men and women hanging off bows, trying to see which way to go, the cats swishing past us and trying to offer direction . . . It was truly a bad scene.
Amid all the chaos, I heard music. Choir music. The words and even the language were obscured, but I distinctly heard the sound of a professional choir singing a hymn. I was on the bow of the boat and I shouted to Joe, "Do you have the radio on?" and he looked up from his half-in, half-out of the cockpit stance and shouted, "No!" I returned, "Do you hear that music?" and he looked at me as if I was crazy. "No! There's no music!" he shouted. It was amazing. In the middle of what was potentially a disaster at sea, I could hear something that sounded like the Vienna Boys Choir at a high mass. Then it stopped, but I was not aware of its stopping, I just noticed I couldn't hear it anymore and for a brief second, tried to put together how long it had been since I'd heard it. I returned my attention to the madness that was Punta Maroma. Later, Joe told me that one of the questions asked by psychiatrists is if you hear voices or music "in your head." He was implying that I became temporarily insane. Crazy or not, the choral voices were very real to me at the time.
When it was all said and done, two sailboats foundered on a rocky coral reef bed and we were one of them. For four hours, we tried to winch off the rocks, heel off the rocks, we were tugged and towed by dinghies and all to no avail. The other hapless sailboat was manned by a British couple were buddy boating with Freelance, a British vessel, and Freelance spent the night with the two of us on the rocks. Joe says it was one of the worst nights of our cruising life for him, because every time we slammed against the rocks, we felt like a chisel was chipping away at our hearts. We just didn't know how much of a pounding Rose of Sharon could take.
The next morning, Freelance got his sailboat buddy off the rocks and helped us too, by hooking onto our halyard and rolling us to safety. You cannot, I mean you simply cannot imagine the feeling of relief we enjoyed when we were free of the rocky reef. Rose of Sharon floated serenely as if she already had forgotten the hammering and pounding she'd received the night before. Joe and I did not recuperate that easily, however, and spent the day sleeping at Punta Maroma. We had prayed many prayers during the night that there would be no major damage to the keel or the hull, and wouldn't know until the next haul-out the extent, if any, of damage we incurred. No damage would be a miracle!
Punta Maroma is an uninhabited, unspoiled area perfect for anchoring, diving and snorkeling (assuming you follow your correct waypoints into the anchorage). The television and DVDVHS player had flown to the floor, as had many items during the night, so we picked up, tucked away, and tried to take as good care of the boat as she obviously had of us. Occasionally during the day Joe would say, "Never again," and I didn't ask him for an explanation. I knew what he meant. We would never again follow other boats into an unknown anchorage without ensuring Joe's math cleared with the entry. "It was a lesson, a hard lesson," said Joe. "I figured they were better sailors than me."
"I don't know why, after all this time, you would think that," I said quietly.
The next morning, Joe consulted his GPS as we eased out of the correct southern exit in the Punta Maroma reef into the Caribbean. Joe was all smiles behind the helm and I was all smiles in the cockpit. It's too bad that it often takes a bad jolt to remind us to appreciate the wonders we have available to us: good seas, good weather, good health, healthy boat, and an abundance of beauty no matter where we looked. We were very appreciative on this day.
Life is good.
Tulum is about 39 nautical miles southwest of Punta Maroma. We hugged the shoreline in 60-70 feet of water throughout the day, and saw heavy resort traffic near Playa del Carmen, an absolutely lovely place to visit. Ferries from the nearby island of Cozumel rushed to and from Playa del Carmen, and parasailors waved to us from above. We dodged dive boats (and divers!). Several lumbering sea turtles watched us sail by; I scared one with my shriek of excitement, so I remembered to keep quiet when we saw the others. There are three main types of sea turtles to be found in this area and the turtles are protected in Mexico.
In fact, the Great Maya Reef along this stretch of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula supports more life forms than any other ecosystem on earth, and according to Exploring the Great Maya Reef (Part 1 The Mexican Caribbean), over 500 species of fish inhabit the reef. It extends along the Caribbean coastline of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras and hosts many of the most popular dive sites in the world.
As we neared Tulum, the coastline became less inhabited and more roughly tropical. Years ago, Joe and I had visited the site of Tulum's El Castillo, a Mayan temple facing the Caribbean Sea, and I could remember standing on a rocky and stark promontory, overlooking the magnificent blue waters below us while Joe searched for pieces of obsidian on the ground. Now we were below the cliff, in the Caribbean, looking up. The anchorage at Tulum proved to be rolly and troublesome; we spent a bouncy, sleepless night watching our anchor. The next day we sailed from Tulum to Bahia de la Ascension's Cayo Culebra. A weather system was moving in and we were seeking shelter for a few days.
Bahia de la Ascension is about 5-11 miles wide and provides excellent anchorage; Cayo Culebra is located inside the bay at N 19°43.20 and W 87°29.45. According to Joe's calculations, the waypoints shown by Captain Freya Rauscher in the Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico's Caribbean Coast are a tad bit too far south, but not "on the reef" as one unhappy cruiser claimed, who insisted he had followed the waypoints in that book and hit the reef. His trimaran was ashore and after one year, he had nearly completed repairs. Another vessel, a couple with 2 children, hit the reef about three weeks prior to our arrival. They simply gave ownership of the boat to some locals and left Mexico rather than deal with whatever fines might be incurred by the Mexican government for leaving a boat high and dry, parked on a reef. By now, the boat had been stripped of anything of value.
Nestled near a mangrove-lined shore, we spent two idyllic days and went on one "hunting" expedition, which we considered a great success. A little stingray swam under the dinghy, then a barracuda swam in front of it. We found a huge frigate bird colony and I hope the pictures I took did it justice. They were on and inside the mangroves like Christmas ornaments, their white heads and long beaks popping out all over. THEN, two dolphins raced us back to the boat, playing tag with our bow. What a nice day!
Joe wanted to investigate the small fishing community at Punta Allen (see: continued search for The Perfect Lobster Dinner), so we left Cayo Culebra and made the one-hour trip over to Punta Allen (Rojo Gomez). We motored to N 19°46.5 and W 87°29.5, then eased over to the shallow coastline, finally dropping anchor at N 19°47.05 and W 87°29.11 in 20-knot winds out of the southeast. Another sailboat at the anchorage hailed us on VHF 16 and after we were anchored, they motored over in their dinghy to give us directions through the Mangrove jungle into town. Without their guidance, we probably would not have been able to find even the entrance to the small canals.
The trip to town was an adventure in itself! Without adequate directional information, you can wander for days in the tiny waterways and channels that twist and turn throughout the mangrove jungle between our anchorage and the town of Punta Allen. We made one false turn that had us dead-ended in a canal just barely wide enough for our dinghy, with mangrove branches brushing our heads and swishing against our backs as we struggled to back out. A stingray swam under the boat as a tiny green snake swam past and I remembered that snakes like trees too. I hunched down in the dinghy, eyes darting in every direction, until we managed to navigate out of the tropical tangle. There were thatch-roofed watch towers lining the island, most likely for nature-lovers and bird-watchers, and the first one we encountered marked the entrance to the last little waterway leading to Punta Allen. It opened into a small bay, and at the opposite end of the bay we saw a dinghy and two fishing boats anchored. Land, ho!
As we gauged which side of the tiny beach to tie up to, a large barracuda swam under the dinghy. "Honey, you get out first and see how deep it is," Joe encouraged, so I did. Deeper than I thought, but I stomped enthusiastically to the beach, scattering fish (and barracudas) as I went. Joe tied up to a post and had no other choice but to follow, so he eased into the water and hurried to shore before the barracuda had time to return.
For the less adventurous, there is a dock at the western tip of the island where dinghies and some fishing boats tie up.
Punta Allen was as untouched by tourism as it could be, but there were some tourists on the island, and we met all 8 of them. This tiny village has electricity only 12 hours every day, ice is hard to find, meat is available once a week, and ice cream is nonexistent. The streets are paved in sand and instead of the customary speed bumps that you encounter in every Mexican city and town, Punta Allen had large fishing ropes twisted across their sand streets to slow the auto traffic. We saw about 10 vehicles that day and only three of them were moving. Quite frankly, there were more dogs than people or cars, and it was all the dogs could do to open one sleepy eye to look at us as we walked past them.
Our first stop was "Nikki's house," and I think Nikki runs one of the island's resorts. She drew a tiny town map for us to get us to the supermarket and the internet office and when we left the island to return to our boat, offered us a jug of frozen water to put in our cooler. The water on the island is very limey and while it may be drinkable, has enough lime in it to cause kidney stones.
Punta Allen is part of Mexico's largest reserve, Sian Ki' Biosphere Reserve, and the lobster fishermen in the fishing cooperative use special traps that do not touch the bottom but hover a few protective inches above the ocean floor. They also gaff the lobster by hand, returning smaller and some female lobster to the sea. In this way, they hope to prevent over-harvesting and to preserve the integrity of the marine life at Punta Allen. Punta Allen ships tons of lobster to the U.S. every year.
Everything needed to sustain human life on Punta Allen is trucked in. But everything you need for a good life occurs quite naturally. The lush foliage was enchanting. The cool breezes were invigorating. Palm trees lined the white sand beach and provided shade from the tropical sun. The marine life thrived in its unpolluted environment. The people we met along the roads and at the Cuzan Restaurant were friendly.
Cuzan's fish sandwich is excellent! Their salsa has what I thought was a subtle heat that sent one French woman into spasms of beer-gulping. Joe watched a lively cribbage tournament played on a homemade driftwood cribbage board, where the contenders, John (a cruiser whose boat engine died 15 months ago and he's not overly concerned about speedy repair) and Quinn (a handsome young man who took tourists on kayak expeditions), were not too serious about winning or losing. While Joe was a spectator at the cribbage game, I was enjoying margaritas with a lawyer from Mississippi and his new bride. They had a Coke bottle full of tequila, with which they "enhanced" their margaritas, and when the bottle was empty, requested margaritas with additional tequila, "special" margaritas. I was on my third one and requested mine be "special" too. Then I wanted a "special" margarita "to go." I barely remember leaving Cuzan's, but Joe says I was quite animated.
The next morning, as I sipped my Alka-seltzer, I listened carefully to the Northwest Caribbean Cruisers Net weather report on our single sideband 8.188. There were gale warnings for a few more days, then a cold front. We were unsure how long we'd be at Punta Allen, but blissfully unconcerned about it! It's a very nice place to anchor and weather-watch. We made one return trip to the tiny village, bought fresh fruit and had our lobster dinners. The lobster was incredibly fresh and deliciously prepared. A local vendor came by and I bought tasty cream cheese balls and sugar cookies for later.
Punta Allen! What a wonderful understated hidden treasure along the Mayan Riviera! As with Isla Mujeres, we left vowing we would someday return.
We departed Punta Allen, southbound to Bahia del Espiritu Santo in 20-knot winds and 6-foot seas. The winds were just off the nose, making for a rough ride; they were supposed to lay down that day, but never did. We were looking forward to a quiet anchorage behind Isla Chal (Owen Island), which is about 4 miles past the reef at the entrance to the bay. Utilizing information from Exploring the Great Maya Reef, Part 1: The Mexican Caribbean and Rauscher's Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico's Caribbean Coast, Joe set several waypoints for this anchorage. Leaving the Caribbean for Bahia del Espiritu Santo, we turned 264° at N 19°22.63, W 87°25.0. The next waypoint was N 19°22.4, W 87°28.0. Joe had three more waypoints but we never made it any further because we hit shallow water. We eased left, then right, then left again and then forward, trying to find deeper water, then ran aground in sand. I went up to the bow of the boat and Joe worked the throttle and the rudder until we floated free. I returned to the cockpit and said nervously, "We're in 9 feet of water. What's wrong with dropping anchor here?" Joe decided it was a fine idea. Memories of our night at Punta Maroma were still too painful to put our rudder at further risk.
Later, as I uploaded our position report, Joe re-checked our coordinates and showed me a tiny shoal area on the map. "I don't know why, but I'm sure that's where we ran aground. We're anchored southeast of it now, but we have enough room to swing," he added. Our anchorage was N 19°22.49, W 87°29.71. Later, as we discussed the waypoints and the anchorage, Joe said, "Calder couldn't make it behind Isla Chal, either." Quite frankly, if you are cruising the Northwest Caribbean, you cannot have too many reference books and charts, and Calder's 1991 Cruising Guide to the Northwest Caribbean is still a necessary nautical reference book for those of us following Calder's paths.
Another anchorage that receives much discussion and one we decided to bypass is Cayo Norte on Banco Chinchorro. We were told by several cruisers that this anchorage is no longer available to cruisers and "the Mexican Navy will run you off." We were told by other cruisers that the anchorage is still available, and if the Navy approaches you, simply tell them you are anchoring for the night and there will be no problem. My guess would be that the latter is correct; it's fine for an overnight stopover, but don't plan an extended stay at Banco Chinchorro. I never asked why the Mexican Navy is policing this particular site more than in previous years, but didn't really care. I grew up in a home where "Mr. Policeman is your friend" (and when it came to the Sheriffs' Department, he was my Dad), so if the Mexican Navy says "no squatters," my boat won't be a-squattin'. We were getting a bit reef-challenged anyway.
We planned to depart for San Pedro, Belize the next morning, but after a hard day of bucking winds from the southeast and a strong current, we decided to wait on a norther that was coming our way. I snorkeled our anchorage site and saw we had plenty of depth in the sandy and grass-covered bottoms around our boat. I spotted a beautiful starfish, about one foot in diameter, and later, Joe saw several more.
The norther blew through that night and the following day, we departed Bahia del Espiritu Santo in 10-knot tailwinds and calmer seas. As we were leaving the anchorage, Joe complained about not seeing any turtles. "You'd have thought there would be a few . . ." he began, then said, "What's that?" I looked where he was pointing and saw a very large floating object. "It's like, debris or a piece of cardboard or seaweed," I said. "Turtles always have to raise their - " and at that very moment, a turtle head surfaced, blinked our way, then lowered itself back into the water. "I guess it's a TURTLE!" I laughed.
Getting in and out of reefed-in anchorages is serious business and makes overnight passage making look good. "Maybe I'll change the name of my Telltales articles to 'Reef Madness,' I joked. We were happy to be underway and in 2,000+ feet of water, which always makes our depth sounder go bonkers.
Our passage from Bahia del Espiritu Santo began in lovely low seas with a 9-knot tailwind. "If this is it," said Joe, "We'll have one of the best overnighters ever." We were motor sailing, and I had cautioned Joe to keep the boat at or under 6 knots. "I did the math," I said, "And between 5-6 knots gets us there just after daybreak. Anything more and we'll have to deal with circling around outside the reef." Our worst-case scenario (now 4 knots, after we discovered what a strong current can do) put us in Ambergris Caye near noon. When another sailboat moved up behind us, Joe turned inland, seeking the countercurrent most boaters use. The main current flows north, but there is a tiny counter current that flows south. "Why would you do that?" I asked. "Well . . . for additional speed," he explained. I looked at the knotmeter. "And why do we need additional speed? We're already moving at 6.5 knots." Joe doesn't blush, but if he did, he would have at that moment. "Well, because of the other boat," he mumbled. "You know, you see another boat, your instinct is to go faster than him." We stayed further out and continued to motorsail.
As darkness approached, we were hailed by the other vessel. With two couples onboard, they too were bound for San Pedro but only as a stopover to catch up on sleep. Their ultimate destination was another site in Belize. We connected with them off and on during the night, especially when a large cruise ship seemed to be northbound on a direct path with the southbound sailboat. "We're watching it," they reported.
At 10:00 p.m. (and it seems to me that 10:00 p.m. to midnight is the witching hour for offshore sails), the wind picked up to 18-20 knots. Not a problem, but the swells started building to 6-8 feet. The wind was directly behind us, but the seas crossed our stern back and forth, causing the mainsail to jibe. Once we jibed over, the boat wanted to turn up into the wind, the autopilot screamed, and by the time Joe could get control of the boat we'd be on a close reach, sailing 7+ knots. The rolling seas would hit us broadside, making for a very wild ride. At least the TV and DVD didn't crash to the floor, but the salon area looked like the old "Flying Toasters" screensaver. Anything that wasn't secured, flew. Joe spent the midnight-to-dawn shift trying to find a calm place for us in the turbulent seas. I took two very brief watches but Joe couldn't even leave the cockpit; he dozed on his cushion in the seat across from me, waiting for the next jibe and the next autopilot surrender.
Our timing was perfect. We approached Ambergris Caye and San Pedro at sunup, entering the cut in the reef about 7:15 a.m. Joe used N 17°54.36, W 87°57.56 as the center of the opening in the reef. Miss Jody, a vessel we'd met at Isla Mujeres, radioed us and assured us that the large yellow buoy in the middle of the reef was a true guide. Once past the big reef, another tiny reef is dead ahead and we had no information about its exact spot. You just get past the main reef and turn right. "And you don't know exactly when to turn right?" I asked Joe. "No, not really. You just clear the big reef and . . . turn right." He finally told me that incoming vessels use the tallest radio antenna in San Pedro as a range marker for easing past the smaller reef.
We made it in safely, dropped the mainsail, dropped our anchor, lowered our Mexican flag, raised our quarantine and Belize flags, and I was ready for a spit bath and bed. Joe, who'd had a grand total of 30 minutes sleep in 24 hours, was raring to go. He wanted to get to shore, clear Customs/Immigration and eat a big meal. "You're kidding," I said from under my pillow. "Can't we just wait until tomorrow to clear in?" The energetic captain Joe said no, so I dressed and climbed into the dinghy like a zombie. Joe was eager to get us officially "into" Belize so the next adventure could begin!