by Dan Roark
The wizened old man entered the darkening open-air church with a large censor suspended on a chain, slowly swinging it to and fro, fumigating the air with the incense known as copal. Everyone fell to their knees and each began praying loudly in Ketchi, a cacophony of ancient Mayan. Each was completely self-absorbed and evidently praying fervently and sincerely, eyes tightly closed, hands raised in supplication. All the girls and women, some strikingly beautiful, were on the left side of the church and a much smaller group of Mayan men were on the right side with us. The candlelight gave the scene a soft and muted glow; outside in the jungle the tree frogs were beginning to chirp.
I thought of the passage in Christopher Columbus’ log of his forth voyage to the new world, in 1504, wherein he describes coming upon a large sea-going Mayan canoe off the coast of Honduras. Modern archeologists know that the Mayans carried on extensive nautical trade routes throughout Mesoamerica, sailing the same route we would be following the next day. Praying for the good fortune of seafarers had been going on for centuries, and I wondered if the present Mayan prayers, to bless us before we left on our small sailboat for Isla Mujeres, might be old enough to have once been addressed to quite a different God.
Bob and I had flown to Guatemala City the previous day and Captain Norm met us at the airport. We fled Guatemala City as quickly as possible and spent the night in nearby Antigua, the ruined Spanish capital of Guatemala and once the richest city in the Americas. Active volcanoes were clearly visible from downtown, which was full of partially-destroyed 17th and 18th century Spanish architecture. After a particularly destructive earthquake in 1774, the capital was moved thirty miles to a more seismically-stable location, and today Antigua is a tourist’s delight.
Captain Norm is a large, powerful man who spent ten years on the streets of LA as a patrol officer, then married Maria, whom he met when she worked in a hospital emergency room. Together they got into missionary work, which they have been doing for the past decade. The Captain arose before dawn in Antigua and bought a number of tortas, Guatemalan sandwiches, which he distributed to the homeless, the halt, blind and maimed beggars huddled on the sidewalks of Antigua. He never passed a beggar without giving them something.
We left early the next morning on a van for the four hour ride to the Rio Dulce; then a couple of hours more on a launch downriver to the Ketchi Mayan village of Lagunita, where the Captain moored his sailboat. The Captain and his wife Maria are lay Catholic missionaries, with missions in Mexico and Guatemala. Lagunita is their latest effort, providing medical care, hiring bilingual teachers, building a church and constructing drinking water facilities for the small jungle village of thatched huts.
At dawn we departed the village of Lagunita in the sailboat called Quetzal, named after the national bird of Guatemala. The Captain, Bob and I were accompanied by Luis Xol, the village chief and followed by a motorized launch piloted by his brother, which would bring them back, along with some supplies for the village. Soon I realized that his real purpose in making the trip was to see us off. The Ketchi prize human relations among all things; they form close friendships and are warmly attached to each other; Luis really cared about the Captain, who was a close friend in addition to being a missionary in his village.
Luis is a fine example of the modern Maya – perceptive and intelligent, resourceful and responsible. With the Captain’s help, he had recently built an 8 room hotel on the edge of the jungle. It’s very well done and extremely attractive to the eco-adventurers and sailboat cruisers. $12 a night with Mayan home cooking and cold beer. His tribe of some 300 Ketchi had relocated to the Rio Dulce about fifteen years ago, moving under the cover of night to escape detection by the army of Rios Mott, the evangelical dictator supported and armed by misguided US assistance. Rios Mott was paid to hunt communists and used the ancient tribal enmity present among the Mayans to goad the army into committing horrible massacres of civilians, mostly Mayans who had no idea of what communism might be. The Bishop of Guatemala Juan Jose Gerardi was brutally murdered by three army officers for objecting from his pulpit, and there were overtones of religious warfare, Evangelecos against the Catholicos- although as previously noted, the Mayan Catholicos had a strong basic foundation of their ancient Mayan beliefs and customs.
Over the 30 year nightmarish “civil war” the defenseless Mayan tribes began migrating towards the Rio Dulce, a navigable freshwater lacustrene system that opens to the sea, deemed by yachtsmen as the only “hurricane hole” in the western Caribbean. Two large lakes, Golfita and Isabal, are connected by river canyons of incredible tropical beauty and are very popular with sailboats cruising the Caribbean. At any one time there are hundreds of sailboats in the vicinity - sailboats piloted by people affluent enough to have cameras, satellite phones and a general liberal humanistic bent that would be offended by nearby massacres. Rios Mott’s military sported US army weapons and gear, and the field commanders were reluctant to provide the international yachting crowd with photo opportunities. The Rio Dulce became a safe haven for the Mayans and today there are hundreds of small tribes settled along the lakes. Needless to say, relations between the sailors and the Mayans are excellent.
The extent of influence played by public opinion, especially international news coverage, in the lives of these people is remarkable. I met a 22 year old Belgian backpacker staying in Luis’ hotel who had a typical European cosmopolitan perspective on the local political situation. He was heading to Chiapas in nearby Southern Mexico, where there was smoldering violence between the Mexican Federal troops and the indigenous tribes, similar to Guatemala. Tourism is about one-third of the area’s economy and the troops were very leery of negative PR in the world news, so the tribes welcomed European backpackers and posted signs outside the village, warning the troops that European guests were present. As long as they remained the troops stayed away. He claimed that the arrival of a backpacker in a remote village would be occasion for a celebration and the chief would call for a fiesta, complete with a yard bird of indeterminate species, cooked in chili sauce, hand-made tortillas and beer, if available.
In spite of the poverty and recent violent history, Guatemala is now relatively quiet. Rios Mott’s army has been converted to private security guards for the rich and the criminals generally confine their shoot-outs among themselves. Visiting there is like going to Mexico – you are safe in the backcountry and welcome among the Indios, but the stronger the modern influence –read guns and drugs - the more dangerous it becomes and border cities are actual war-zones. However, the government and the criminals are generally careful not to bother tourists, who are increasingly the predominant economic mainstay of the country. Incredibly beautiful, with highlands, mountains, volcanoes and rain forests, Guatemala has the largest population of indigenous peoples in the hemisphere, and the Mayan culture is largely intact. European backpackers are everywhere, and the Rio Dulce is full of yachties from all over the world.
We followed the river downstream through the steep canyon heavily covered by tropical jungle, where old Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies were filmed in the forties. White egrets and brown pelicans flew low over the river and there were Howler Monkeys watching from the treetops; close along the banks the Mayans plied their dugout cayucos, fishing, crabbing and traveling from village to village. At the end of the river was Livingston, truly one of the ends of the earth.
When the British parliament outlawed slavery in 1807, the British navy informed the slaves in their Caribbean provinces that they were free, but had to leave immediately. The freedmen departed in all directions in every kind of flimsy sea craft, and some arrived in Guatemala, at the mouth of the Rio Dulce, where they founded Livingston. Other groups landed in Belize and Honduras. Their descendents are known as Garifuna. The Garifuna are large, healthy, very dark Africans, strikingly built, friendly and open, who have managed to retain much of their African heritage (especially the young Rasta men, who appear irresistible to the European lady backpacker crowd). Ketchi Mayans make up the second ethnic group in Livingston, and Ladinos, the Guatemalan term for mixed Spanish-Indian heritage, are a distinct minority. Also, intrepid young backpacker adventurers from all over the world end up in Livingston, strolling along the one main street and reveling in the steamy ram-shackle nightclubs throbbing with the Garifuna beat – a wild African music produced by whistling conk shells, marimbas, drums, rattles and guitars. Gallo beer, the national brand of Guatemala, is cold and plentiful, and the seafood is fresh and delicious.
No roads lead to Livingston. The only approach is from the water, either downriver on the Rio Dulce or across the Bahia de Amatique from Belize; so everyone here is somewhat of an independent, adventurous sort. The town has recently acquired 24 hour electric service, which made all sorts of advancements possible – electric guitars, ice-makers, Margarita machines, internet cafes, etcetera, and a general heady sense of optimism prevails.
There’s a lot of activity and colorful people. Daily ferries arrive from Punta Gorda and a steady stream of powerboats shuttle back to Fronteras, the closest upriver town. We spent the hot afternoon in the shade of an open-air restaurant, sipping cold beer and people-watching: large African women balancing loads on their heads, diminutive Mayans carefully dressed in their tribal costumes, tall, blond German girls with pigtails and backpacks, Asian families on vacation, young Garifuna Rastas with fabulous muscular bodies, wearing nothing but cut-off blue jeans. Unfortunately, Bob began to feel weak and later in the evening decided to return to Guatemala City and forego the boat trip. That left the Captain and me for the crew, but we felt we could handle it.
We checked into a cheap hotel for the night while the paperwork to clear out of Guatemala was being accomplished by a hired agent. Shortly after dawn we motored across the bar and we were underway. We planned to motor as far as possible, as long as the seas were flat (they usually are during the early morning). We wanted to clear Tres Puntas, an isthmus partially blocking our access to the Caribbean. However, the seas kicked up early and the Honda 15 hp outboard began to race as the boat hobby-horsed and the prop cleared the water surface. We turned off the Honda and raised the sails, and we were off on a starboard tack, making 3.5 knots. The Captain had trouble with the outboard motor bracket, and cut his forearms nastily trying to pull the motor up into locked position.
The Quetzal is a home-built 26 footer, solid as a battleship and made to cross oceans. She’s cutter rigged, with a roller furling jib on the end of the bowsprit, staysail at the bow and a large main fitted with three reefing points. The sails were made by Bartlett Sails of Lake Travis, and appeared to be in excellent shape and well constructed. The Quetzal is very heavy for a 26 footer, weighing in at about 12,000 pounds, and it takes a lot of breeze to get her moving; plus she doesn’t like to point into the wind. But get the wind on the beam, or slightly abaft the beam and she will fly. She’s equipped with a wind vane steering mechanism, a marvel of engineering, which is the best feature of the boat. The wind vane freed us from having to steer, and performed flawlessly the entire trip in winds ranging from calm to 35 knots. Never would I attempt to cross an ocean without one.
The Captain bought the hull from Russell Yachts and finished out the Quetzal in his backyard, sparing no expense in making her strong and safe. Her mast and boom are of Sitka spruce and the standing rigging consists of ten 9/32 inch stainless wires, each with a breaking strength of 10,300 pounds. She is somewhat short on creature comfort, such refinements traded for seaworthiness. She has no footwell to capture boarding seas, so the crew sits on a flat deck, and it is difficult to find a comfortable position. Below she has a full chart table, propane double-burner stove and two single bunks, one on each side. The toilet is a seat over a stainless steel bucket. Her water storage is one 60 gallon tank above the bilge. The forecastle is reserved for storage, although there is room for an additional bunk. She has a huge 35 pound Bruce anchor with half inch chain, very heavy and a real effort to hoist.
Once we are out of sight of land there’s not much to see on the horizon and I could tell that I was going to have a lot of time to pass alone on watch. As a way to pass the time I began cataloging my personal memories, starting with the earliest ones, arranging them in chronological order. I would remember where I lived for various periods then try to recall everything I could about that time and place. This is a luxurious pastime available only to those in certain situations – solo sailors, the bed-ridden, prisoners in solitary, old folks dreaming away in rest homes… also, I was well equipped with MP3 music players, loaded with hours of Classical, Mexican and World music, so time passed pleasantly with the slowly-accumulating miles. It was about 400 nautical miles to Isla Mujeres, a delightful tropical island off the Mexican coast, near Cancun.
In late afternoon I hit the bunk for a nap, planning to take the eight pm to midnight shift, and wakened to a change in the motion of the boat. I emerged to find the winds had increased considerably and the Captain making preparations to come about to the port tack, back to the northeast. He explained that we were only a couple of miles from the Sapodilla Cays of Belize – much too close for his comfort. The Quetzal was cutting swiftly through the dark, moonless night, heeling considerably, but the motion was comfortable and smooth. The thought of hitting something solid in that dark heaving sea had the same effect on my mind as contemplating being in an airliner breaking up at 40,000 feet, a la “Lost”. We tacked and established our new course back towards Honduras. I returned to my bunk and fell asleep, happy that the Captain agreed with me that a sailboat was safest the further she was from land.
When the Captain woke me up to take my shift the motion of the boat was no longer comfortable and the winds were gusting strongly. The Quetzal was heaving and hobby-horsing, dipping over sharply with each gust. He explained that he was going to place another reef in the main, having already rolled up the roller furling jib. The main sail was full and taut and I wondered how he was going to accomplish this. He crawled to the mast and yelled for me to disengage the wind vane steering mechanism and head up slightly into the wind, to feather the mainsail and take off some of the pressure; then he lowered the clew with the main halyard, pulling it down by hand to the next reef point, leaving a bunch of sail billowing at the leach. He carefully wound the reefing line around a winch hanging under the boom and laboriously cranked the flapping excess sail down tight against the boom. I steered the boat back off the wind and the now much smaller sail filled with a pop and began pulling. The Captain obviously knows his stuff.
Reefed thusly, with a greatly reduced sail area, the Quetzal straightened up and assumed a smoother motion. I engaged the wind vane by placing a small chain on a pin atop the tiller, and the wind vane took over steering, maintaining a constant angle to the wind. The Quetzal heeled over to a certain angle, got into a groove, rose up and accelerated quickly. White slip spray made a zipping noise, shooting past us as we tore through the dark waves. The night had cleared and was spangled with stars and the Milky Way stretched bright across the sky. Off to the right I could see the loom of shore lights somewhere in Honduras. Those lights were Puerto Cortez, according to the Captain, a large industrial port in Honduras. We could expect to meet freighters and container ships heading towards Puerto Cortez. South of there were hundreds of miles of flat, jungle-covered coastline, the miserable Mosquito Coast of Honduras and Nicaragua.
The Captain retired and I spent the next three hours looking at the stars and trying to find a comfortable position. Find Arcturus by arching over from the curved handle of the Big Dipper twice its distance…Scorpio was just beginning to rise in the south. I was up to the sixth grade in cataloging my personal memories, and there were many more of them to sift through than the earlier years. From time to time I scanned the horizon for the lights of ships, and towards the end of my shift I began to detect individual specks of shore lights among the loom on the horizon. Plotting our position, I discovered that we were only four miles offshore. I alerted the Captain and we tacked again, back toward Belize.
For three days we tacked back and forth against the northeast winds, between Belize and Honduras, trying to escape the lee shore and get into the open Caribbean, and each night the loom of Puerto Cortez in Honduras haunted us; we couldn’t seem to get loose. We sailed so far to the East that we ran off the chart: Here Bee Dragons.
Finally, on the forth day, the wind shifted to the east and we were clear to parallel the coast of Belize. We took off like a shot.
Now the Quetzal began to show her stuff - with the wind on the starboard beam, all headsails up and pulling strongly, she cut through the waves with verve and purpose, and we began to make good time. The bowsprit pointed up and dived with the waves, all the sail effort forward and the two headsails arced over each other gracefully. Scarfed before the strumpet wind as the Bard says.
Once the wind clocked around from the east, we set the course we wanted, adjusted the wind vane, and sat back. The hull and rigging were shaped so that, oriented into the wind and waves at just the right angle, she begins to move, faster and faster until she is tearing along without any human influence. All we did was hang on. She is so solid and well-designed that the hull cuts through waves easily, the full-length keel tracking her straight and true and the wind vane keeping perfect control of the tiller. Of all the factors that influence a small boat’s motion through the water- the wind, waves, swells, current and seas in general- speed in a straight line trumps them all, and the Quetzal could really go.
The Quetzal’s posture and bearing, the beautiful curved surfaces of the three billowing sails and the speed at which we were cutting through the seas bespoke a lot of planning, preparation and execution in the design of this boat. The Captain had consulted with Lyle Hess, noted naval architect on the sail plan, and had remarked to Hess that the Quetzal’s hull was a unique combination of hydrodynamic performance with storage capacity. “It’s in the prismatic” explained Hess, who was by then quite elderly and a man of few words.
After several weeks of hanging on, and looking at the “servo-pendulum” mechanism of the wind vane without being able to understand exactly how it was working, I started dreaming up novel descriptions of the motion of this particular boat. I had my own boat, a Pearson Triton and I knew what she felt like at sea, so I could do a careful comparison. Both hulls were designed to achieve lift at speed, a result of crafting the aft portion of the hull to resemble the underside of a whale when heeled over. You can feel them actually rise up in of the water when the wind blows hard across the sails. Both boats could fly, but the Quetzal was much heavier, tracked straighter and was perfect for crossing oceans. However, she was slow to come about while the Triton can turn on a dime.
For most of the trip the winds were moderate and the wave trains consisted of five to eight foot waves heading the same direction as the Quetzal; they would slowly overtake us, raising the stern up a little as they passed, then the bow would rise as we gently slid down the backside, all this accompanied by a low hiss as the wave passed us by.
Lulled by the wind, waves and sky and having lots of time to mentally “woolgather” I came to regard the Quetzal as being powered by a natural generator, a focusing of human intention (the hull, keel and sails) into a complex natural situation (wind and waves and all the motion they create), carefully controlled by the wind vane, which maintains a very precise angle to the wind; all resulting in a channeling of wind energy into forward movement. The focal point is somewhere in the forward part of the cabin, where pitch, yaw, rolling, rising, falling all converge into forward motion. Our six-ton boat was hurling through the seas like a runaway freight car on a downhill run and all we had to do – besides hang on - was occasionally adjust the sails or wind vane. Momentum was on our side. I frequently had the sensation that we were sailing downhill, sometimes level, but never uphill.
Lying in the bunk, one can hear through the hull the sea rushing by, and this whisper of motion combines with the subtle vibration of the wind in the rigging to become the sound of the generator at work, an almost electric hum. If you compare this to the familiar 60 cycle hum of an electric appliance, say a refrigerator, the Quetzal is singing at about 20 cycles, sort of a long, slow background note. After a few days of this my mind equates this hum as the sound of the prismatic propelling us along. My imaginary generator ran almost continually for 1200 miles and when we finally arrived and the Quetzal was still, it were as if a large motor had been turned off.
The Captain determined that I was to be the navigator, to mark our position on the chart every four hours or so. We had several GPS and it was an easy matter to plot the longitude and latitude. He wanted a course that would clear all the reefs off Belize, especially Chinchorro Bank, a notorious graveyard for sailing ships. Chinchorro was particularly dangerous because of the fledging Gulf Stream current, coming across the Caribbean and piling up against the barrier reef of Belize right at Chinchorro, then turning ninety degrees to the right to parallel the coast. Velocity of the current sometime reaches three knots and we were sailing only slightly faster, so the current was literally a force to be reckoned with. Our guidebook intoned with sepulchral understatement: Warning: the current sets strongly towards Chinchorro Bank and many sailing vessels have been lost on the reef.
I set a course that would take us some thirty miles off the bank and we cleared it with no problem; our next task was clearing Cozumel, a place I was very familiar with, having been there many times on vacations with my family.
Here the Yucatan coast trends toward the northeast, and when the wind is out of the east there is a tendency to point closer and closer to shore to achieve the best angle to the wind. Every so often we would have to tack back out to sea to gain offing, and we were approaching Cozumel, sticking out into the Gulf Stream even further to the east, right in the way.
Cozumel is a tropical Caribbean island some thirty five miles long, lying in a slight NE/SW orientation, about five miles off the Yucatan coast. Between the island and the mainland the Gulf Stream Current really finds its identity as it is squeezed tighter and speeds up, strong enough to take control of our course unless we have sufficient wind to counter it. Clearly the Captain is concerned. He had a close call here a few years ago, actually sailing through an outlying reef without hitting anything – sheer luck. And it looks like we’ll be entering the channel after dark, a problem, according to the Captain, because of the many lights lining the shore; it’s easy to become confused. So I suggest we go outside Cozumel – nothing to the east for hundreds of miles, so we can stay as far off as we want. he Captain agreed and I set us a course that would take us just inside the twelve mile range of Cozumel’s southern lighthouse. It’s nice to get a visual affirmation, such as a bearing on a lighthouse, to check the accuracy of your plotted position according to the GPS. But the Captain would have none of it. Twelve miles is too close; he wanted at least twenty.
I calculated a heading that would keep us twenty miles off the southern tip of the island, out of sight of the lighthouse. However, when darkness fell we could clearly see the rotating white light. So I headed further east, out to sea. Later I found out that Cozumel’s southern light had been improved to a 20 mile range, but our chart was an old one that still had the light’s range at 12.
Later that night we had a course-crossing experience with a cargo ship. In the middle of my shift I began to detect the loom of approaching lights off our bow. The loom grew into points of white light on the otherwise black vista of empty dark churning seas and star-spangled sky. In accordance with directions I awakened the Captain, who sleepily appraised the situation and picked up the VHF radio microphone and spoke very clearly and calmly:
"Cargo vessel, cargo vessel, this is the sailboat Quetzal"
Silence. The lights were getting brighter, and now we could see both bow running lights.
"Cargo vessel, cargo vessel, this is the sailboat Quetzal. Do you see us?"
Silence. Closing at a combined speed of 25 knots or so.
"Cargo vessel, we are directly off your port bow. Do you see us?"
By this time I am shining my nightblaster flashlight on the sail and flashing it toward the cargo vessel. We started making preparations to come about.
Finally the radio erupts with a heavily-accented sing-song voice:
“I see you, I see you.”
At this point the freighter made a slight turn to the right, passing us by a quarter mile or so. This might seem a long distance, but the ship itself was about a quarter of a mile long and looked pretty close as it sped past. The Captain flopped back into bed and I resumed the course that would take us well off Cozumel.
The wind rose during the night to 30 knots or so, and the Quetzal occasionally topped seven knots. She was flying through the darkness and sailing perfectly, and the background hum of the “prismatic” motion generator was churning. She cut through, dived over, climbed and crested the ten foot waves with such aplomb that I lay down on the deck (just to rest my eyes) and lulled by the hum may have dozed off.
At dawn I plotted our position and discovered that our extreme eastward heading to avoid Cozumel, combined with five hours splendid sailing at seven knots, had carried us almost even with Isla Mujeres – and we had the Gulf Stream between us. We had to make a sharp left turn, or we might get swept past Isla. This put the wind directly behind us, not a happy point of sail. Plus, with the dawn the wind began to die.
My reliable (to this point) GPS signaled that the batteries were low, and after I changed them, had trouble initializing its position. No problem, we changed over to the Captain’s GPS, a much more complex instrument, with which he wasn’t too familiar. It was much more of a problem to get a simple longitude/latitude reading; it wanted us to enter a destination waypoint, then it would direct us accordingly. I spent an hour or so reading the instructions and managed to enter the coordinates of Isla Mujeres, which it showed to be about 14 miles to the east.
I was anxious to make it to Isla before dark, as my lovely daughter Sophie and her fiancé John were there, awaiting our arrival. We were already several days behind schedule as a result of the contrary winds trapping us against Honduras, and Sophie and John were going to leave the next day. Plus, I was desperate to spend a couple of days in the tropical paradise Isla, relaxing, cleaning up and re-provisioning. During the day I received a message via the satellite phone that Breck, an engineer and experienced sailor who had made several previous trips to Lagunita with me on water projects for the villagers, was going to meet us in Isla to be our third crew member for the eight to ten day trip across the Gulf of Mexico. Breck has a master’s in engineering from UT and an MPA from the LBJ School of Public Affairs. A world traveler who speaks fluent Spanish, he had volunteered for the UN Refugee Relief Efforts in Africa and spent two years building drinking water facilities for refugees in Malawli. He is a delightful conversationalist and has a calm and composed manner – plus, he has been offshore before and is part-owner of a racing sailboat on Lake Travis. With three crew members, the duty shifts would be four hours on and eight hours off, instead of four and four which had proven to be rather exhausting for me and the Captain. However, with the light following wind and the fast-moving Gulf Stream pushing us northward, it was possible that we would be swept past Isla.
The Captain suggested we start the Honda and motor the remaining distance, as the seas were flattening out with the dying wind.
I must say that I had previously decided that the Honda motor was the one weak link in all the Quetzal’s systems. It was attached with a standard outboard motor bracket to the transom, and was extremely difficult to get to. One had to reach one’s hand through a narrow slot in the railing to access the pull starter cord, and we had considerable difficulty getting her started. Then the motor bracket wouldn’t release off the up position and lock down so we could effectively motor. The Captain tried pushing the Honda down with all his weight, but she kept springing back up. Finally, he put it in gear and revved it up while pushing at the same time. This seemed to help pull her down, but she still wouldn’t lock in. Suddenly, with the motor full speed, she turned to the side just as the boat went down in a trough, and the prop bit the water hard. The bracket wasn’t designed to handle a twisting load like this and the motor bent sideways. This was a major incident of gear failure, and try as we might, we couldn’t get her straight again. We tried rigging block and tackle off the main boom, but only managed to pull the motor loose of the torqued bracket, and we watched silently as the motor disappeared into the sea with a splash. The water was so clear that we could see her for a long time as she fell through the depths, gone forever.
The Captain opined that we might have to bypass Isla Mujeres and head on across the Gulf of Mexico, a prospect which didn’t appeal to me at all. I volunteered to pay for a tow boat to come get us, provided we could get close enough before dark. The Captain agreed and we called the Isla Port Captain to request the tow. After some difficulty in getting the correct country and area code, we managed to contact the Port Captain on the satellite phone, and he agreed to send out a tow boat. These conversations were in Spanish and I was impressed by the Captain’s abilities.
However, we still had to get close enough and the GPS was giving us confusing instructions. We knew Isla was more or less to the east or northeast, but the GPS kept urging us to turn left. As the afternoon wore on the winds became lighter and we shook out the last remaining reef in the mainsail; still, we were making less than three knots, perhaps less than the north-setting Gulf Stream.
We both tried to understand the GPS but became increasingly frustrated. A deadline is a terrible thing when sailing offshore, but I was determined to make Isla, to meet Sophie, John and Breck (not to mention hot showers and lobster dinners). I told the Captain I would bet a hundred dollars that Sophie would be waiting when we arrived.
Providentially, we spotted another sailboat heading in our direction around mid-afternoon, and tried to contact them on the VHF. For some reason, they didn’t respond. A little later we heard them trying to contact the Club de Yates in Isla, asking if there were a slip available for their 44 foot sailboat, coming from the Cayman Islands.
We decided to ignore the GPS (which was now telling us to turn 80 degrees to the south) and follow the other sailboat into Isla, whose skyline soon materialized out of the haze on the horizon. Around sunset we saw the tow boat racing out to meet us; she was a large dive boat and her crew knew what they were doing. They threw us a line and towed us around the south end of the island.
Because of the scattered coral heads on the backside of Isla the tow boat had to go considerably past the island before turning north to head for the anchorage. We wound around the dark patches of submerged coral in the fading twilight and after a long while we turned again and headed toward the island. It was almost dark as we passed a series of docks and I heard a familiar voice cry out “Daddy!” Sophie and John were waving frantically and Sophie was jumping up and down with joy.
The tow boat carried us to the small boat anchorage and we dropped the heavy Bruce and hastily secured the Quetzal; we climbed aboard the tow boat and they deposited us on a floating dock, where I had a happy reunion with Sophie and John. Isla was hopping on a Friday night and the small downtown was crowded with Mexican and Mayan families, all in a festive mood. My beautiful daughter’s long blond hair made her look like an angel among the dark crowd and all the young men turned to watch her pass as we made our way down the Malecon.
These were Yucatec Mayans, related to the Ketchi but speaking a Mayan dialect that a Ketchi would have difficulty understanding, say, like Portuguese and Spanish. Their tribal costumes are slightly different, but physically they greatly resemble the Ketchi.
We weaved past families of fifteen, walking slowly in groups, several generations together, ancient tiny shawled brown women, supported by their daughters, now elderly women themselves, arm-in-arm with their daughters, on down the line. The women and children certainly outnumbered the men, and the teenagers trailed behind with the smaller children. The young Mayan girls were generally lovely themselves, small-framed, with high cheekbones and straight black hair, worn long and simple. Their dresses were white cotton shifts colorfully embroidered and I saw several who would qualify for a Vogue magazine cover. Mayan babies (and there are many) are irresistibly darling, beautiful brown, round faces with giant black shining eyes. The whole scene, in the warm tropical night with palm trees rustling overhead, the smells of shrimp frying in open-air restaurants along the beach, the young lovers sitting on the seawall, whole families slowly strolling along - all breathed a tranquil and fecund humanity that was a wonderful contrast to the empty dark seas of the previous five nights.
We checked into a beachfront hotel and took much-need showers, then repaired to a palapa-roofed restaurant for Margaritas and lobster dinners. The food and drink were wonderful and the Margaritas quickly took effect; we had a rollicking good time relating our adventure. We had to explain about the motor several times. Around ten pm we said good-bye to Sophie and John and retired to our hotel. I turned the AC down to about 60 degrees and we slept the sleep of the dead in real beds.
Sophie and John had to leave on the first ferry the next morning, to catch a 9 am flight in Cancun, so the Captain and I were left with an entire Saturday to check in with the Mexican Port Authorities – a good thing, as this took almost all day. Nobody is in a hurry in Isla Mujeres. After a wonderful breakfast of coffee, orange juice and Huevos Moltullanos, fried eggs layered with ham, cheese, peas and salsa, we started with the Port Captain, then to the papelaria to make copies of crew lists and passports; then to the hospital for a health check, then to immigration to get our passports stamped, and finally, back to the Port Captain. In spite of the check-in ordeal, I was favorably impressed with the professional bearing of the Mexican authorities. Total fees were less than ten dollars.
The casual check-in procedures in Isla are in marked contrast with Guatemala, whose port authorities won’t let the crew come ashore until the Captain alone completes the procedures.
I hired a launcha for $20 to take me out to the Quetzal to gather the dirty laundry and get the rest of our gear, and discovered that last night’s floating dock was actually quite securely attached to the bottom; it was our shaky sea-legs that supplied the floating sensation. Breck was arriving tomorrow, and the Captain and I took the laundry to a lavanderia and relaxed for the rest of the day. The satellite phone was very popular and we called Betty and Maria, to tell them we had arrived safely. Then another blissful night’s sleep under heavy air conditioning.
Breck arrived on the ferry from Cancun about eleven the next morning, and we whiled away another day in paradise, lounging on the beach, hanging out in open-air bars and snoozing in our ice-box cold room. We had arranged for the same tow-boat to haul us out of the harbor tomorrow, and because it was a dive-boat, we had to wait until their daily diving trip was over, sometime after three in the afternoon. Since we had to check out of the hotel at noon, we were forced to hang out at yet another open-air bar/café while the Captain checked us out of Mexico.
Breck and I made a re-provision run to the one grocery store in Isla and bought more eggs and canned goods, plus a few apples and bananas. We also planned to buy ice and drinking water just before departing. While we were doing this, the Captain visited the hospital to get the cut on his hand checked out; it was turning some pretty vivid colors and he thought it might be infected. A doctor looked at it and gave him some Cipro and a few diclofenacs for pain. Total cost $6.50. As the guidebook says, Mexico is a very civilized country.
Killing another afternoon in downtown Isla is no problem, and the next three hours slid by pleasantly, sitting in the palapa beachfront bar/restaurant, snacking on guacamole, chips, salsa and shrimps. We visited an internet café and looked at a wonderful website called Passageweather.com, which had a ten day weather forecast for the Gulf of Mexico. It showed fine weather until the end of the week, when a strong cold front was to come off the Texas coast. We printed out several of the weather reports to show the Captain.
The cold front was a little alarming, as I had read that many Mexican fishermen were lost in strong cold fronts in the Gulf of Mexico; winds of 60 knots were common with the stronger fronts, usually during the winter. This was the middle of May, so the fronts should be much weaker.
The tow boat crew finally arrived around three. When we get to the Quetzal, we discover that someone has been on deck and it appears they re-anchored us. All three of us heave on the deeply-buried anchor, finally get it onboard and we’re off on our tow.
All vessels drawing more than a few feet had to go inside of a green buoy that appeared to be very close to the beach, crowded with bathers and relaxing families, so we got a good last look at Isla, with its palm trees, tropical greenery, white beaches and compact little lighthouse. Altogether a very nice place.
The tow boat pulled us around the north end of the island and out into the Gulf Stream and cut us loose. We hoisted the sails and the second leg of our journey had begun, this one about 800 miles.
As soon as we got clear of Isla, we noticed a lot of sport fishermen boats, and the large fish began to jump, evidently chasing swarms of little flying fish, which scattered like quail and frantically dodged in and out of the waves. We saw sailfish and marlin gracefully leaping clear of the surface and splashing back into the sea with clumsy belly-flops – and tuna, which cut a nice arc and entered the water head-first. I had noticed that the Captain had a deep-sea fishing rod on a rack attached to the roof of the cabin, but we had no Mexican fishing licenses, and I had heard that the Mexican Navy was very strict about fishing; so I resolved to wait until we were out of Mexican territorial waters to break out the fishing rig.
We passed Isla Contoy on the left, about six miles off; as the afternoon progressed into dusk we could see the light on the north end of the island, and it kept us company for a good part of the evening. We were smack in the Gulf Stream and were doing about seven knots over the bottom. Since Breck was the new crew man, he drew the least desirable shift, midnight to 4 am; I was assigned the eight pm to midnight and the Captain took four am until eight am. Four hours on duty and eight hours off was going to be much more pleasant than the first half of the trip, when it was just me and the Captain.
To commemorate our departure I cooked a big batch of spaghetti, with mushrooms and lots of parmesan cheese, and smoked a fine Henry Clay cigar afterwards. I was looking forward to the remaining trip and gladly took my eight o’clock watch, continuing on my arrangement of old personal memories and listening to Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, The Pathetique – very beautiful and sad, and extremely warm and human; also, amazing coloratura soprano Vivica Genaux, who has a warbling vibrato like a giant nightingale, effortlessly singing 18th century Handel arias originally written for male Castrati.
John had given me a copy of Shelby Lynn’s new CD, her cover of Dusty Springfield hits. Dusty Springfield was a 60’s and early 70’s singer who appeared to be a Southern California surfing beauty singing with a Bluesy Southern Appalachian accent; but she was actually an upper-class English girl who had been educated in a nunnery. Her songs were all about young love’s angst and longing, lasted exactly two and a half minutes and were among the best pop music hits of the era. She was beautiful, mysterious and delicate, and I seem to recall she ended badly. Time is short for the golden ones.
Shelby, on the other hand is as familiar as Dusty was mysterious. She’s the girl next door who has led an adventurous life and now has some perspective on it all, and the result is a genuine down-to-earth tenderness that is most appealing. The quality of the sound engineering is exceptional, and Shelby sounds as if she is singing softly right next to your ear. She has a real Southern Appalachian voice and is just old enough to have a knowing weariness to her drawled Southern syllibants; you can almost feel the warmth of her breath, out there on the dark ocean where you are blindly hurling headlong through the night.
By the time Breck relieved me at midnight I was up to the memories of junior high school (lots of memories here) and the Contoy light was just disappearing. We were out of sight of land until the Texas coast, in about another week or so, depending on the winds.
By the next day we were out of Mexican territorial waters and I broke out the fishing rod. The Captain had a large assortment of lures and I chose one that looked exactly like a small flying fish, which in turn greatly resembled a small cliff-swallow in flight. We were still atop the Yucatan Bank and the water was only about fifty or sixty feet deep – perfect for fishing. The seas consisted of small waves about four or five feet high, very close together, but heading in the same direction as the Quetzal. The lure was skittering along about two wave trains back, when I saw two fast moving fish heading diagonally across the waves, right toward my lure. Suddenly the reel drag began screaming and I had a fish on. It took about ten minutes to land a good-sized Mahi-Mahi, a beautiful fusiform torpedo-shaped fish with a high forehead and blue, green and yellow stripes down the sides.
I quickly dispatched the fish and cut off two fine filets. They were too much to eat in one meal, so I placed one of the filets in the ice chest and set about cooking the other one. We had several cloves of garlic which I sautéed in cooking oil; I cut the filet into three pieces and coated them in beaten egg and cracker crumbs, then fried them in the hot garlic-oil. Might have been the most delicious fish I have ever tasted. Spirits were high and the winds were fair. A well-fed crew makes for a happy boat.
During my next shift the wind began to build and by the time Breck came up at midnight we were over-canvassed and beginning to take blue water over the deck. We were making such good time that I regretted doing so, but we decided that rolling up the jib and putting in another reef in the mainsail was the wise thing to do. Breck went forward and did all the reefing work; he was very good and seemed totally unafraid. Afterwards I hit the bunk and fell asleep quickly.
As always, I awoke at dawn, and the seas were fantastic. I put on my foul-weather gear and joined the Captain on deck. The waves took the form of heaving haystacks, randomly rising up and falling; they didn’t seem to be moving in any general direction, just sort of working in place. The water was so clear that the top few feet of the haystacks were perfectly transparent, and I could see blue sky and red liquid sunrise through them whenever we were in the bottom of a trough. The sky was yellow with cut-flat light and the pulsing red ball contrasted wonderfully with the white and blue haystacks, like a classical Japanese painting of an angry sea. It was like wandering through a crenellated glacier crevice, or an ice cave with translucent walls. We were coming off the Yucatan Bank, into some of the deepest areas of the Gulf, the Sigsbee Plain. Perhaps this is the reason for the unusual waves.
We were down to the staysail and the mainsail with three reefs and the Quetzal was holding her own. All three of us marveled at the waves for several hours and suddenly it seemed we just sailed out of the area of haystacks into a much calmer sea with the normal wave trains of mid-ocean – ten feet or so high and widely spaced. The Quetzal rose up on the gentle swells as they passed under her and slid easily down the backsides, then up again as another swell passed. The wind had moderated and we shook out the third reef and unrolled the jib. When I plotted our position we discovered that we had sailed 120 miles in the past 24 hours, extraordinary for a 26 foot sailboat.
For the next two days we continued this pace, with perfect weather, winds and seas. The time passed quickly and I continued my cataloging of my personal memories and listening to music. Symphonies are particularly nice because they last for forty-five minutes or so and a couple of them will make a four-hour shift fly by.
The anticipated cold front was due to meet us on Friday and we were all concerned with what it would bring – rain, cooler air or 60 mile per hour winds? Right on schedule a dark cloud appeared during Breck’s afternoon shift, and we had a quick shower of rain and a wind shift to the north, but nothing really dramatic. We had to head off to the south a bit, but were still making good time. Then the wind died and we were becalmed, mainsail slatting.
I called Sophie on the satellite phone and asked her to get on the computer and check Passageweather.com. She reported that we were right in the middle of a small area of perfect calm, surrounded by winds swirling around us. The forecast was continued light and variable winds for the next 30 hours or so, then a resumption of the normal wind flow from the southeast.
The Captain suggested we break out the wine and relax; it looked like we would be here for a while. We had several quart boxes of Chilean red wine, and it tasted great, strong and rough, but delicious. After a little wine the Captain and I hit the bunks, leaving Breck on deck. A few hours later I came up for some fresh air and discovered we were sailing again, albeit in very light airs, and very slowly, but in the right direction. Surprisingly, the breezes kept up and even began to increase, and would not fail us until we arrived at Port Aransas three days later.
As we got closer to the Texas coast we began to encounter more large ships, mostly containerships and tankers, and on Sunday morning we passed a huge offshore platform that looked like a city on the hazy horizon. The Captain warned us that we would be seeing many more platforms as we approached the coast. Here we had a general discussion about the mythical unlit wells and platforms, lying in wait for unsuspecting sailboats. The Captain dismissed these fears contemptuously, saying he had never seen an unlit platform and had never heard anyone who had. Most of them were lit up like the Superbowl. We had a better chance of hitting a whale (which has happened, I reminded him, of Steve Callahan’s 76 days in a life raft after hitting a whale).
Monday was another 120 mile day, and our trip was nearing its conclusion. There were plenty of platforms, and the seas were becoming more of a brownish-green, instead of the dark blue of the mid-ocean. We were now close enough to project our time of arrival and it appeared we were going to sight the coast late in the afternoon on Tuesday. It was unthinkable to try to come in after dark, so if we didn’t get there by seven or so we would have to heave-to for the night, amid the traffic lanes and anchored tankers. Luckily, the winds were holding up and we were making great time.
Dawn on Tuesday morning found us sixty miles off and closing fast. During the day we passed charter fishing boats out of Port Aransas and chatted with one on the VHF – he said fishing was good. By mid-afternoon we sighted anchored tankers. We calculated our approach course and the Captain called Maria on the satellite phone and arranged for the tow boat to meet us off the jetties between six and six-thirty.
As we neared Port Aransas we tried to decipher the proper approach, having a rough time squinting into the setting sun, with lots of haze. Breck alerted the Captain that someone was hailing the Quetzal on the VHF. It was our tow, who said he would meet us right outside the jetties. Luckily, Breck had sailed into the harbor before and knew exactly where to look for the range lights, to line up to guide us straight into the jetties. Soon we saw the tow boat and he pulled alongside and warned us that he heard on the VHF that the Coast Guard was coming out to board us; also, he warned, the Coast Guard has a powerful camera on a high tower that could count the fillings in your teeth.
Soon a fast Coast Guard inflatable roared up to us, with several steely-eyed young men checking us out closely.
"How many of you on the boat?" one yelled.
"Three." And we were all on deck.
"Do you have any weapons?"
"Stand by for boarding."
They pulled along side and two of them, one a female with an M-16 assault rifle, jumped aboard. The inflatable pulled off a bit but the remaining Coastguardsmen kept their eyes steadily on us. I noticed a mount for a machine gun on their bow. The two who boarded us were friendly, but reserved. The female stayed on deck while her companion went below to search. Poor guy! After eight days at sea with three middle-aged men in a very small area, I can’t imagine how the cabin smelled – and it was hot and stuffy down there. Nevertheless, he made a thorough search and if we had so much as a bullet on board he would have found it.
The tow to the city dock took about thirty minutes, and this poor guy searched the whole time. We tried to engage the young lady in casual conversation, but she was reticent.
Maria and their son met us at the city dock and they had a fine reunion with the Captain. Her positive, delightful personality set the Coastguardsmen at ease, and when she told them that she and the Captain were lay Catholic missionaries, you could see their relief at finally being able to categorize us: harmless religious nuts. They lightened up and began to be friendlier.
About this time my two buddies Ed and Tom, who had come down from Austin to meet us, showed up on the dock. They had arrived in Port Aransas earlier that morning, rented a large beachfront condo and brought a couple of bottles of Peju, my favorite Napa Valley Cabernet. Unfortunately, we were late in their estimation, and they couldn’t resist breaking into the Peju, so they were happy and loud. They fit right in with the smelly crew of the Quetzal, eight or ten Coastguardsmen, Maria and her son, and soon to arrive, two US Customs officers – all gathered together on the narrow dock. It was getting dark, and Maria passed out cold beers. The Guardsmen hesitated, but refused. After eight days of drinking warm water the ice-cold beer was a delightful shock. Ed and Tom departed to get food to go before all the restaurants closed at nine.
The Customs officers attempted another search, but were defeated by the dank atmosphere of the cabin and contented themselves with questioning us about fruits, vegetables and Cuban cigars. They handed us brochures informing us of the proper check-in procedures for future arrivals via sailboat from Guatemala.
Satisfied, all uniformed personnel departed and we were free to enter our native USA. I stuck my head into the Quetzal’s cabin for one last look; the magic point of energy that transported us 1200 miles was gone and the generator was silent.
Ed and Tom returned with many sacks of delicious-smelling seafood and we proceeded to their condo to feast and finish the last half-bottle of Peju.
After long, hot showers, Breck and I sacked out and fell asleep immediately. We were back but still rocking.