Q: So what do you do all day?
A: It’s not just what we do all day, it’s what we do all day and night. I can best explain this in a chronological breakdown for you. For illustrative purposes with entertainment value, I will combine several typical situations that may or may not all occur in one 24 hour period. If all of these things happened in one day, most assuredly, we would either move to a new location or sleep the entire following day. I’ll start in the morning, using the 24 hour clock, or military time.
0200: Wake up for a squall. Winds are blowing from a new direction. Lie there and feel for the tug of the anchor lines and wonder if we are adrift. Worry if the anchors will hold. Get up out of bed and stand up on deck. Watch the lightning in the distance and gage the direction of the center of the storm. Wonder if the wind will blow harder or subside. Decide that there is no way to predict this and go back to bed, but don’t sleep until it starts raining. Get back out of bed and close the hatches. Turn on the fans, start to sweat a little under your back and wait for the storm to pass.
0400: Fall back asleep.
0600: Wake up with the sun. Wonder if the batteries are approaching the critical level of 10.5 volts. If they do, they will never last as long again. Get out of bed. Look at the battery meter. Look at the refrigerator temperature. Decide to start the engine to save the batteries. Let the engine heat up the cabin while you go back to bed for a bit. Sweat.
0800: Peel yourself off the sweaty sheets and be disgusted. Get out of bed. Scratch yourself all over. Put the kettle on. Check the battery meter and refrigerator temperature. Turn off the engine. Go topsides for a look around and rub your eyes. Make sure the dinghy is still tied to the boat. Make breakfast of coffee or tea, hot or cold cereal, perhaps yogurt or fruit and if you’re really hungry, both. Put up the bimini and the tarp over the boom for shade. Bring in any laundry that’s still on the lifelines.
0830: Wash the dishes and check the to do list. Realize it’s longer than yesterday. Dress for the day. Tilt the solar panel to the East. Check the battery meter. Make a stink in the head.
0900: Try to get a free internet signal. Read something. Discuss with your mate what it is that seems most important to get done during daylight. Fix something that’s broken. Write down on the list what you have found to be broken while fixing the thing that was already broken or corroded from salt. Sweat some more. Write a blog.
1100: Apply liberal amounts of sunscreen. Gather your things. Put them in a waterproof bag. Stow the rest. Think in exacting detail about what it is that you’ve set out to do ashore. Talk out loud about those things. Realize you’ve forgotten to pack something that you need. Go back down below and get it. Repeat the process from think until you’re irritated about it and decide to just get going. Get going. Pull the dinghy alongside. Tie the dinghy alongside. Shut the hatches and lock up so it gets real hot and stinky inside, if anyone breaks in, they won’t be able to stand it long enough to find anything of value. Get in the dinghy. Untie the second security line from the dinghy. Load the dingy with the items needed ashore. Look for your flops. Get back out of the dingy for your flops and sunglasses. Rotate the solar panel level to the horizon. Get back into the dinghy. Hope the engine starts. Untie and putter to shore.
1130: Approach a dock or the beach. Assess the waves and depth. Abandon the original plan and find a new spot to come ashore. Bounce all around in the surf and get salty. If you swear, now is a good time for it.
1200: Beach it or tie it to a dock. Run a cable through everything that remains in the boat and lock that cable around something that cannot be easily pulled up or cut off. Bounce all around as you hand up all the things you need ashore to your mate. Don’t take your eyes off the item or dare let go until they have firmly taken it from you. Clamber out of the dinghy and quickly get your sandals on your feet or be burned. Sweat some more. Get your backpack or shoulder bag on and get going to the first place that has shade or air conditioning.
1500: Finish the banking, shopping, exploring, or whatever it is that seemed so important earlier. Accept the fact that prices are different for you because you look like a tourist. Notice that you are carrying more weight and there is much less wind onshore. Sweat profusely. Smile, you’re in paradise.
1600: Fill the water jugs before leaving shore. Carry them back to the dingy. Load up and look offshore to be sure your boat is where you left it. Sigh relief and get going. Get salty from the waves splashing up over the front of the dinghy. Again, if you cuss….
1630: Unload, tie up the dinghy with two lines, fill the water tanks, rotate the solar panel to the West. Check the battery meter and refrigerator temperature. Open the hatches. Hand things down below to your mate. Stow everything. Drink something cold. Sit up on deck in the shade on cool off. Swim if you feel like it, you’ll have to shower later anyway.
1700: Wash yourself with a hose in the cockpit. Hang your clothes on the lifelines. Go online and look for free internet. If you get some today, check for tropical depressions, go to Facebook, look for a job online, and read your email.
1800: Play the ipod and have another cold drink. Feel the contentment of living in a beautiful place. Watch the sun go down. Take a picture of it.
1900: Think about starting dinner or watching a DVD on your laptop in the v berth. Pump out the holding tank. Check the battery meter and refrigerator temperature. Decide to run the engines again. Wonder if you have enough diesel fuel in the tank. Check the tank. Top up the tank with 5 gallons and start the engine. Talk very loudly over the engine noise and sound irritated even though you’re not. Cup your ear at your mate. Give up on communicating.
2000: Make dinner. Wash the dishes. Wonder if the water in the tank will last until the last dirty dish. Shut down the engine.2100: Finish the movie or read if you haven’t started watching one. Perhaps you can write a blog now that it’s really cooled down outside.
2200: Go to bed and be happy that today, the wind is blowing right down the wind scoop and onto your face. Read a couple of pages and drift off to sleep.
On the way to Tulum we’d had such strong currents working against us, so on our next leg we gave ourselves lots of time… of course this time we didn’t need it, and found ourselves headed for yet another tricky passage through the reef at Bahia de la Acension, in the pitch black of a new moon at 11 pm… not good… so some quick recalculations and we were off again.
But we had come in too close to shore, and Tadd found that we were being sucked in closer and closer… the usually stoic Tadd was quite flustered. Then to top it off… having yelled to wake to me for help… the depth sounder suddenly fluttered and read 15 feet!! Aaaahhhh!
Luckily it was just another of those whalesharks, or giant schools of fish, or perhaps just a phantom reading. But we were taking no chances and so headed further out into the Caribbean and on to the next bay, Bahia del Espirutu Santo.
What a strange isolated place – a big, wide shallow bay. A little more tricky navigating through the shallows, winding our way in behind the reef to the north of the bay, and we found a nice anchorage. Although there were a couple of houses visible amongst the trees, we really seemed to be in the middle of nowhere.
So after brunch went for a snorkel on the reef in search of a free lobster dinner.
It was a bit of a swim against the waves, but there was some really nice coral… on top of coral… on top of what looked like huge outcrops of ancient petrified Elkhorn coral… and forests of purple fan corals, waving in the tide. We were followed around by couple of typically mean looking barracuda… they were kind of like barracuda police… decided there wasn’t much going on except the isolation and to head out again that night….
But not before one last search for those cockroaches of the sea with a torch… then a stressful exit… the tide had dropped a foot or so… just enough to make it hairy in the total darkness.
Tadd having one more go at lobster fishing… at night! No luck!
We spent yet another night sailing from Cozumel to Tulum… it’s not our choice, it’s just that the tricky thing is always needing to arrive with plenty of daylight in order to navigate the next hazardous entry into a new place without navigational aids like the ones we’re used to in the US and UK. And in places like Tulum, where there is so much reef, even the daylight isn’t always enough…
It wasn’t a bad night on the water, and Tadd finally got his first sighting of the Southern Cross, faint though it was. By early in the afternoon the next day, we finally came around a bend and spotted the ruins (also Tadd’s first sighting of Mayan ruins). Tulum truly is a spectacular sight, even from a couple of miles offshore… and to think that the Mayan traders would have sailed in to the majestic town just like we were doing.
While we continued south, past the waves crashing on the white sand beach below El Castillo, in search of the tiny gap in the reef, we spotted a sea turtle swimming along, rolling on his side and eyeing us up as we went by.
We reached the coordinates according our trusty cruising guide and tried to line up the heading to get in. The current was pushing us south and the waves were pushing us in towards the reef… there was no sign of the gap… no sign of the exposed rock … and the waves didn’t seem to be breaking anywhere in particular… we kept going, but when we reached 9 feet of water we balked and turned around.
We headed back out and regrouped… the next attempt was no less scary, and again, at 9 feet we turned tail and headed back out for deeper water.
As we were only a couple of hours from sunset, we started to weigh our options and were just about to give up and miss out on visiting the ruins, kill some time, and then head out for a second night at sea to reach the next stop, when a fishing boat came along. Tadd grabbed the brightest thing at hand… his yellow foulies (sailing rain jacket), ran to the bow and started waving for all his worth.
After some discussion, a call to see if there was enough depth for us to make it in to the beach and a lot of driving around in circles (and avoiding the rock splashing out of the water nearby that we had completely failed to see as the book had us looking in the completely wrong spot) we nervously followed the fishing boat in… woohoo! We made it!
We anchored and congratulated ourselves over a celebratory beer… but perhaps a little too soon… the anchors were dragging… ugh… another snorkeling trip to the anchors. It took a couple of tries, during which we managed to bend the stem of one of them (it still works fine) but we felt fairly sure we were set… but going nowhere that evening and I can’t say it was the best night sleep I’ve had… gotta love waking up convinced you’re drifting into the beach!
The next day we enjoyed a visit to the ruins, though it was unpleasantly hot, so we didn’t hang out long, and headed back to the beach for a beer and a dip. After a trip into town for lunch (yummy arroz con mariscos and fish tacos) and to stock up on big beers, we headed back to the boat to relax before heading out, only a little less nervously, through the channel, just before sunset… Yup! You got it! Another night of sailing ahead! Ugh!
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.
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.
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???
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??)…
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.
Biking 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.
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.
We 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.
We 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!!
Making landfall is always exciting. In our case it was a mixture of relief, anxiety and humor.
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.
I 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.
We 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.
This 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!
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!
…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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!