Friends in paradise

After the whale sharks, we went once more in search of a Belize flag, in vane, and packed up, paid up and said goodbye to El Milagro Marina.

At helm

We sailed out from Isla Mujeres at sunset and headed south through the night, past the insane lights of Cancun and into some more frustrating currents, not to mention the added fun of tiny fishing boats without lights to dodge – at the last minute they’d grab a torch and shine us in the face to get us to miss them. Not much fun, especially after Artie the autohelm pooped out on us during the night!
Cozumel
By the time I woke in the morning to relieve Tadd from his watch, we were already sailing right offshore… and I mean right offshore… only maybe less than a quarter of a mile, past the beaches of the north end of Cozumel.
It’s totally crazy how deep the water is just off the island – it really is just smack bank in the middle of the depths of the Caribbean Sea.After much discussion we finally picked a spot to anchor, knowing that it would be a bit of a challenge as it was rock covered in a little bit of sand. Just for confirmation we did our due diligence and called into the port captain… but he was not interested in chatting with us, so we went with our instincts and picked an anchorage.

We’d planned to do some diving on the island… but ended up only snorkeling on the anchors… but we did get them solidly in there.

Our time on the island was mostly spent catching up on the internet… searching for a replacement for Artie and hanging out with Teri, John, Jaime and Tyler – can you say margarita???

Cozumel sailing
As ever, Tadd and I don’t have a lot we can offer in thanks to all the generous people who’ve been helping us out along the way… but we do have to boat and, obviously, we do LOVE to sail…. So, especially in light of the fact that John and James had just done a sailing course (with the crazy, shouting instructor!) back home, the least we could do was to take them all out sailing.Now, our little dinghy already offers a rather soggy ride with just Tadd and I and a jerry can of water… so adding 4 more people… wasn’t going to happen. So, having seen all the local tour boats just pull up to the ferry dock, we though what the…

Ferry dock in Cozumel

As you can imagine the officials were not having any of it…. Waving us off…. No can’t come in…. well, until, that is money was mentioned. It worked out damn cheap. They had to pay the price of a ferry ticket (we think) which was a whopping $1… and bob’s your uncle… all the courtesy in the world… they helped us tie up… help us head off… and when we got back from a couple of hours of fantastic sailing (gusting to 18kts and running at a top speed of over 7kts with the current) the guy came running over to grab our lines – I thought he was going to be a new guy rushing to tell us we couldn’t be there!

After a couple of evenings with everyone, and some other friends of Tammie and Dad – Jan and Leo… we came over early and cleared out Terri & John’s kitchen, fridge and drinking water supply and saw them off.

The rest of the day was just preparing to leave (oh and getting my shoes stolen from the cooler in the dinghy…. Was that the drunken fishermen spiting us for not tipping them for their useless drunken dinghy security on the beach??)…

Cozumel Steaks

and a huge steak for dinner (we did save the other one for later!!)So just as the last few bars of salsa were fading into the breeze of the pre-dawn morning from the nearby disco… we upped anchor around 4 am and set sail back towards the Mayan town of Tulum.

Swimming with Giants

Floating on the surface, bouncing around in the waves, I looked this way, then that way, and then twisted around to look behind me… ahah! Head down, paddle, paddle, paddle… shark!

I’d stop and watch, in the semi-silence of the muffled sounds below the surface of boat engines nearby, as a big, gaping white, toothless mouth slowly came towards me, like great yawning granny without her false teeth. Just when I started to become a tiny bit concerned that I’d get sucked in with the plankton, the giant changed its course ever so slightly and passed me by. The long, grey body speckled with white splodges gracefully slid by me, and even as the distinct pointed tale of a shark swished back and forth only inches away, we never touched.

There were several hundred Whale Sharks just swimming around and around, and back and forth… milling in the convergence of the currents rich with their favorite snack of plankton. Occasionally they would slither past each other, but generally the sharks maybe 40 feet in length would just gently swim by the boat. They were everywhere, surrounding the boat for about a quarter of a mile in every direction. Absolutely incredible!

Whale shark face

My impression of a whale shark feeding!! 🙂

Chillin’ on the Isle of Women

After four days at sea we were ready to just relax on Isla Mujeres for a few days, and as promised by Eric (the owner), the cost of sitting on the dock at El Milagro Marina was impossible to resist.Third Aye tied to El MilagroNot exactly a hard life! Moored in the stunning clear, blue, blue, blue water of the Caribbean Sea – our very own enormous saltwater swimming pool just off the side of the boat – a far cry from the tiny, rather stagnant looking salty pool, that was raved about, next door at El Paraiso. Taking our cue from Eric, Tadd and I would punctuate our days by jumping off the boat to refresh in the cool sea for a quick swim, followed by a rinse in the outdoor shower, and all washed down with a huge, ice cold Sol… mmmmm!

The first evening we borrowed the marina’s sea kayak and paddled across the bay for a little snorkeling. We didn’t manage to spot the Virgin Mary statue (turns out it’s only a few inches tall and wedged into some crevasse in the rocks), but there were all manner of brightly colored fish milling around… I was really impressed and the reds, blues, yellows, greens … the array of colors… then I remembered I was no longer in Key West.

A fair chunk of most days was spent in the pursuit of work… job hunting is a job in itself… jumping through the many hoops of the yacht brokers and crew-finder sites… filling in forms, uploading CVs, online interview questions… we drew the line at the personal videos, not convinced that we really need to get into that… but we could certainly do with some better headshots… to come.

South end of Isla MujeresBiking around the little town on the free loaner bikes from El Milagro, we explored a little… found a cheap local place for breakfast… found the supermarket and headed back along the promenade on the eastern shore of the island… you could really see the effects of past hurricanes… new homes built up amid the chunks of cement and rebar from a previous incarnation of the house.

That middle part is the LANDING STRIP!
That middle part is the LANDING STRIP!

On our first day in town we’d seen someone cycling down the landing strip… and we were informed that there’s no longer an airport on the island… so we thought it’d be fun to cruise down the lumpy tarmac… my arms outstretched like a plane… laughing and joking as we went… until I looked up and forward and…. Hang on a sec… I could swear that’s a plane ahead…. Lights… wings… oh crap!! Only then did we notice the guy on the other side of the runway, clad in camouflage and quite emphatically waving at us…. OOOPS!! We wouldn’t make that mistake again… guess they do still use the runway.

Baby TurtlesWe spent a cooler, overcast day checking out the south end of the island… at the Tortugranja… looking at huge tanks of water with a hundred or more baby turtles rather frantically trying to push and shove each other out of the way headed towards the light coming in from the doorway. It was not paradise in there for them… definitely a turtle eat turtle world… I mean it… we even saw a couple of them munching on the fin or tail of their brother or sister or cousin!! The farm gathers up the eggs from the beaches and incubates them in a protected environment until they hatch. Some are kept in the tanks until they’re bigger, while others are released into the sea.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAWe also checked out he crappiest mansion ever… no wonder that guy didn’t get the girl!
But there were some spider monkeys in a cage to amuse us. And when we reached the southernmost point… we had a beer and cooled off before heading back on the bikes.

The food was great between cheap tamales and tacos and what we cooked on the boat… Tadd got a great deal on a big ol’ bag of conch. The cracked conch was good… the fritters will need a whole lot more work!!

Chillin' on the Isle of WomenDuring our stay, rainstorms came and went on the island, as we kept a close on Anna and Bill heading across the Atlantic. By the end of our week there we decided it was safe to keep heading south… but not before we did one last thing…

Landfall Ala Mexicana

Making landfall is always exciting. In our case it was a mixture of relief, anxiety and humor.

Landfall in Mexico

Being without significant wind for the last day, we had just finished motoring through the night at a very slow rate in order to make landfall at dawn. It’s just good seamanship to arrive in the day at a new location. It is challenging enough to distinguish between the flashing lights in familiar waters. Can you imagine trying to fix your position using lights, buoys, and towers when you don’t trust the charts? Right! So, we planned to arrive in the shallow water right at sunrise. However, I forgot to check the GPS clock and it did not automatically adjust to the new time zone, so we had another hour to wait until dawn. We took the time to tidy up inside the boat, and I had a long overdue shave, in case we were boarded by any officials. The local fisherman were already heading out to sea in their multi-colored pangas as the eastern sky started to glow pale blue.

Isla MujeresI can’t imagine sailing into a new harbor without an electronic depth sounder. I constantly shift my eyes between my beloved GPS, the compass, then the shoreline, and then take a glance at the depth before starting all over again in the next minute. Lindsay held the guidebook in her lap and repeatedly confirmed that my pilotage made sense to her and she also assumed our location was safe. We crawled in at about one knot ( ~1.1 miles per hour), with no problems. Lindsay hoisted the yellow quarantine flag and the Mexican courtesy flag up the starboard halyard, while I hailed the port captain to formally announce our arrival. It was too early – no response.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAWe had set our sights on a specific marina that our Key West sailor acquaintance, Terry, had enjoyed two years ago, and was also recommended by Rauscher’s guidebook. We were about fifty feet from the end of the docks, squinting and drifting along when I heard someone in English hailing us, and Lindsay noticed some men wandering down the dock next to us waving their arms in greeting. The happy voice introduced himself as Eric, and proceeded to offer his marina services to us. Three Mexican men in blue shirts were waiting in the wing. This marina was called El Milagro and was listed in the book, but we were supposed to go Paraiso Marina next door, so I told him no thanks, we were going to a different marina. I saw the blue shoulders slump, and Lindsay said, “There’s something to be said for a crew standing by at the dock this early, maybe we should consider them.” Eric gave it one more try and said over the radio in slow salesmanship fashion, “Clean showers…. shore power….fresh water…free wifi….” Okay, we had to get a price out of him before we tied up, so I asked him. “I’ll make you a deal you can’t refuse” said Eric. Too funny, we both laughed loud enough for everyone on the dock to hear us. In we came, and what a great place. Only a hundred bucks for a week, and they took very good care of us.

Third Aye tied to El MilagroThis was our first landfall in a foreign country. The Rauscher’s guidebook and Reed’s almanac gave us a general understanding of the different governmental departments that would be interested in our being there, but there’s nothing that takes the place of experience. We planned to use a local agent to assist us, and we are glad we did. It would have taken most of a day to do what Jaime and Julio did for us in two hours and forty USD. I kept my mouth shut and asked Lindsay what the papers said that I had to sign. Different agents came to the marina and filled out forms and stamped papers and Voila! We were in Mexico!

We met some other live-aboard sailors: Chic, an old timer from Key West; Storm, a delivery captain from Australia; Gary and Niki, catamaran sailors from California; Steve, the handy guy who knows chiropractic methods; and Michael, a power boater with cool Hindu artwork on the stern of his boat.

We looked in at the Paraiso marina next door, and it was a dump. It looked like it hadn’t been maintained for two or three years. We found out that some investors bought the property and intended to make big improvements for a profit. Apparently, the local authorities gave them too much trouble with their permits and nothing has been done since the process started.

That was close… rundown paradise marina?? Or the miracle marina…. Brilliant!

Bienvenidos Al Mexico

As the sun began set on the last night out in the Yucatan Channel, with our sights set on an early arrival into Isla Mujeres, we sat relaxing after another tasty dinner, when we heard a telltale splash followed by a spurt of water…. DOLPHINS!

 

Always a welcome sight, whether they seem to be trying to nudge us one direction or another away from some hazard, or they’ve just come along for the ride to enjoy a snippet of our journey with us, no one can deny the joy they feel when they see dolphins off the bow.

3 or 4 headed in and took up their position in our bow wake. A quick check to ensure Artie the autopilot had the boat in hand and Tadd and I rushed up to the bow to take a look.

There were 5 bottlenose dolphins taking turns swimming in the push of our bow wake. Another would slide in from the side or from below and another would head out to let his friend have a turn.

Then I spotted a couple more jumping out of the water up ahead a ways… they joined to pod and us…. Then a few more from another direction came in… and another… and another. It was totally incredible! As far as we could count there were 25 dolphins jumping and playing and breaking the water and taking their turn under the bow. Fantastic!

They seemed to be just about as curious about us as we were fascinated with them – a couple of them would turn on their sides and swim at the bow so they could get a good look at the strange humans grinning and talking as they leaned out over the bow. Amazing!

The pod hung with us for quite a while – the longest I’ve ever seen. Only after about half an hour or so did the last one take his last trip at the bow and head off eastwards after his friends.

What a wonderful welcome to Mexican waters! Que viva Mexico!

Head for Cuba, then turn right

 

Sailing route from Key West to Isla Mujeres

…so, we made it out of Key West finally and headed west towards Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, before heading more southerly down into the Gulf of Mexico and onto the Caribbean.

Chart of Key West and the Dry Tortugas

One of the old sailors in Key West, Terry, who’s done the trip a few times told us that all we needed to do was simply, “Head for Cuba and then turn right!” But after some consideration and lots of research we decided to take the advice of Freya Rauscher, whose cruising book of the area everyone swears by, and cut the corner a bit more, across the gulf of Mexico and avoid any chance of pissing off the US Coast Guard by getting to close to Cuba (there are stories of people getting their boats impounded!).

The problem with our choice of route is the current that comes whizzing up from the Caribbean Sea, through the Yucatan Channel and into the Gulf of Mexico…. The very same current that would be up to several knots trying their best to push us back to the U.S.

So we spent the next 4 days trying to stay on our course of 228°T with often uncooperative winds and to the point of fighting a current so much that we were actually not making any way south at all.

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We spent the 4 days and nights of the trip hanging out around meals (which we had precooked in Key West and frozen for convenience underway) and then one of us heading down for about 4 hours sleep – or at least as much as you could get down in the pilot berth sweating in the humid air that was almost more that even two small fans could have any effect on. While on watch, by day and by night, we entertained ourselves reading, playing on the computer, catching up on podcasts or simply sailing, looking out over the water in the moonlight and watching the lights of the enormous cargo ships heading straight for us, or the flashes of lightening beyond the clouds and hoping that the storms wouldn’t cross our paths. Well, after all we had our trusty friend Artie…. The autopilot! A saviour on the long trips – he stops you getting totally worn out.

Linday driving

We made it across in good time, and only had to use the engine really on the last day, when the wind died…. And in retrospect, we reckon Terry’s advice was the best and have vowed that if we ever make the trip again we will, most definitely just head for Cuba and turn right!

Weigh the anchor, heading SW from Key West

Up before the sun, we grabbed our stuff off the dock and prepared for our getaway (before someone tried to come and charge us for staying the night at the dock)… nrrrr…. nrrrr…. nrrrrr…. what the! It couldn’t be… our starter battery had somehow gotten switched over to power the fans and refrigerator that night and was almost dead!!

nrrrr…. nrrrr… uhoh…. Tadd saw someone coming to open up the marina office….. nrrrrr…… nrrrrr….. brrrrrrrrrrrmmmmm….. there she goes…. and we’re off!

 

Stormy days

The last days in Key West we spent a fair amount of time watching the weather for the upcoming trip, but were not immune from it while still anchored off Key West Bight.

Key West sundown storm

We had some pretty crazy weather – a far cry from the normal hot and sticky summer weather of Florida. One minute everything is sunny and then the wind shifts and you look out and there’s a big, nasty black cloud spreads across the sky. It becomes like watching an accident – you can’t stop staring as it bubbles and grows, practically tumbling over itself as the wind pushes it across the horizon and blotting out the sun.

Video of Key West Squall developing in anchorage

The first of this wave of storms gave us a lashing – the mad winds that came first had us bouncing all over the place, and at the time we still had our solar panel tied down with string to the bimini (canopy shade) and, unfortunately, my fears started to be realized as the panel first slid to one side and then the other… just as I shouted to Tadd the wind caught the front edge of the pane and tried to make it fly. We spent the next half hour getting soaked by the rain as we clung to our coveted solar panel.

Needless to say we made it a priority to get the panel up and screwed down on our davits off the back to the boat!

Davits

Any day but Friday

If you didn’t know, it’s bad luck to leave on a sea voyage on a Friday (it’s also bad luck to change the name of a boat… in fact it’s bad luck to do lots of things in the sailing world… pretty superstitious bunch us sailors!). So, having realized that there was really no way of getting everything done by Thursday…. early Saturday was set as our departure.

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With what we thought were only a few final things to do, we managed to totally lose Friday getting that stuff done… including hoisting a brand new main halyard, making sure the dinghy would actually stay put behind us on our fabulous new davits (and not drag itself and the solar panel down to the depths), and not least, to get in the water and check that my new dive gear actually works.

Even though we only had time for a quick dip right next to the boat where she’s been anchored, the dive turned into a bit of an adventure. Tadd tossed his gear in the water and jumped in after it… and no sooner had he thrashed and wriggled to it all on and comfy … than he found himself already about 50 yards behind the boat. I mean we knew there were strong currents – we’d been swung back and forth every 12 hours for weeks by them… but it was never so clear as when I stood looking out the back of Third Aye watching Tadd paddle his heart out and make no headway back to the boat. Finally, he stuck his head out the water and said, “&^%*%* this! Come and get me in the dinghy!”

We managed a quick dive under the boat, holding onto a line and gave my regulator and dive computer the all clear. Then quickly jumped back aboard, Tadd hauled up the two well-buried anchors and we sped our way to the city dock, in hope of getting to fuel dock before the delightful staff buggered off early for weekend… no such luck.

Conch Harbor fuel was a fine substitution for filling up on everything, before sneaking over to another spot to surreptitiously tie up for the night.

Conch Harbor Fuel dock

As we ran around, up and down the companionway and all over, packing and emailing and stuff, a few friends came down to see us off with a few beers, cheer, and some souvenirs.

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Finally, exhausted, by 9pm I finally managed to get the bloody navigation software to work and we could grab a quick drink and dinner before crashing for the night….