04/22/2009, Straits of Florida,
Seabird underway from Isla Mujeres to Key West, dodging a waterspout.
No one could complain about this crossing, but I might have expected a bit more. Rather than acting as an aid, the Gulf Stream was a hindrance wherever we could feel its effects.
As we left Isla Mujeres, it was sweeping us up into the Gulf of Mexico where we didn't want to go, so we had to offset its effects, slowing us down. It flows up due north for about 250 miles then does a U-turn and descends to the Cuban coast.
One effect of this is to produce a counter-current along Cuba's northern coast. We very much enjoyed the effect of this when we sailed down in January, but on this trip it was to be avoided. So we headed north of it into what we hoped would be an area of little or no current, but we were wrong. The counter current extended further north than we expected, so we were fighting it for most of yesterday and last night.
An hour or so before dawn we had a mild cold front come through (as expected) bringing with it a few squalls. But they were visible on radar from about 20 miles away, so we could track them and maneuver to avoid them. At one point I thought they must be able to see us because, as I plotted them and took evasive action, they would change direction, heading for us again. But we got through with no trouble and carried on grumbling about the current.
Tuesday dawned with winds coming up to 15 knots from the north-west, so we took them and tried to make as much northing as possible. The wind is forecast to clock into the north then the north-east, our course, so we want to be as far north as possible when it does. All went well, a nice morning's sailing, but at noon we began to feel the effects of the descending leg of the Stream, pulling us south! So we fought this all afternoon until at dusk we finally broke through and are now sailing on a close reach towards our destination.
So the lesson learned is that, in this neck of the woods, the stream is not all that helpful even if you are traveling in its direction. But we'll be in Key West today by noon, and all will be forgotten except the excellent sailing in the cooler breezes!
04/20/2009, Yucatan Channel
Belezian Fishing Boat off Cay Caulker
Well, we left Isla Mujeres this morning at 0500 hrs in the dark, the first boat out of the anchorage. A first for us. We were followed closely by Seabird.
Exiting Isla Mujeres required us to run down a short narrow channel that was well lit, then down through the harbor where we turned west at what is supposed to be a lighted mark. We wove our way down the harbor between the anchored boats and all was well except for two boats anchored right in the channel and showing no anchor lights. But we had our hi-power spotlight out and were able to see them and avoid them.
Then we began to look for the first red mark. Its light was out too, and we spotted it when we were only a couple of boat lengths from it, so safely avoided it. Safely out of the harbor, we headed north to clear the northern tip of the island, then onto our course for Key West.
Our plan was to leave yesterday, but the wind didn't cooperate. It stayed strong and out of the east, keeping us and all the others fussing in the harbor. The problem is that this weather window lasts only until some time Wednesday. There is a weak cold front approaching, and with its approach the winds will clock (shift in a clock-wise direction) from the SE to South then west and north-west before resuming the normal north-east direction. And we want to be in before they return to the north-east, late Wednesday. But if the winds hold strong enough, we'll be OK.
At the moment they're too light for sailing, so we're motor-sailing, and we may be doing quite a bit of it on this trip, as the forecast is for light winds until they go north-west on Wednesday. But we have lots of fuel, so that part is OK, its just a bit noisy. But life could be worse!
Today's project is to maximize the benifit and minimize the negatives of the gulf stream as we sail ease. It runs north at 2.5 knots past Isla Mujeres and continues north about 250 miles into the Gulf of Mexico. Then it does a U-turn and runs south, hitting the Cuban coast and resuming its eastward route. Our route is north-east, so we got a boost from its northward pull, but we don't to get swept too far north, so we have to time it to exit and runn across the bottom of an eddy that the horseshoe run creates, then pick it up again when it heads east.
We got a set of waypoints from Chris Parker that should help us, and we just left the northward current and are trying to find the eddy to "sling-shot us across the bottom. The difference between finding the current and not, or worse, finding a counter-current could be up to 12 hours, so we'll take some time to make sure we find it.
04/16/2009, Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Cockpit thermometer, 8:00 am in Fronteras
Although we knew we didn't have to have an early start from Banco Chinchoro, we were off at 0830 hrs, after paying $3.50 each to the park rangers who happened along just as we were preparing to leave. We had spent a quiet night in the lee of the reef and in the morning set out in perfect conditions, S-E@10-15 knots.
We ran up the side of the reef to its northern tip where we passed a ferry aground on the reef. It looks like it has been there for a few years as it was abandoned and beginning to rust. Although the reef is not exactly charted, it still seems incredible that someone can run aground in this day and age with all the navigation aids. But there it was, and it has clearly been there for less than five years.
Past the northern tip of the reef, we ran back out into the swells, but they had subsided to a gentle 4'-6'. We bore off to our first waypoint, 112 miles away off the southern tip of Cozumel and spent a quiet day reading, eating and napping... typical cruising. In the gentle swell we had a coconut shrimp pasta for dinner with fresh banana bread for dessert. No point in starving just because you're sailing!!
We adopted our usual watch schedule with Jeannie taking 8 pm to midnight and I took from midnight to 6 am. As usual we sighted no ships during the day, but just after sunset we met our first, a cruise ship. We contacted them on the VHF and agreed on how to pass, then we were off. By midnight we were rounding up behind Cozumel and running up the strait separating it from mainland Mexico. Here the swell subsided and the current picked up, so that we were making 9 knots in 12 knots of breeze... excellent sailing! In fact, by 4 am I was trying to slow the boat down to avoid arriving in the dark.
In the clear sky we could see the Southern Cross low in the southern sky and the Big Dipper and the North Star to the north. Its quite unique to see both in one sky.
Running up the Cozumel coast, we passed two more ships, each time contacting them to ensure they knew we were out there. By dawn we were just passing the point off Cancun's hotel strip and sailed the last 5 miles in the early morning light. By 730 am we were safely anchored in Isla Mujeres, planning the next leg to Key West. Probably early next week based on the forecast.
Today's run was 169 miles in 23 hours exactly. Total two day run from Long Cay, Belize, 235 miles.
04/14/2009, Banco Chinchoro, Mexico
Ferry aground and abandoned on Banco Chinchoro, Mexico
Well, we were in Belize longer than we intended. We didn't check in as planned, a big no-no, because it would have been complicated and expensive. We arrived in Placencia on Thursday afternoon and all government offices were closed for the Easter weekend which here extends from Thursday through Monday. So even if we could have found the officials, we would have paid everyone overtime. So the total would have run to about US$200. Instead, we just went ashore Friday morning, bought some food supplies and left just before noon. We sailed up to Blueground Range, a group of cays with a nice sheltered anchorage inside. Running down into the anchorage, we were surprised to see Seabird anchored there! I got in the water and dove on the anchor to check that it was well set as the anchorage is known for grass, poor holding, but we were well set, so I swam over to Seabird for a chat, cooling off in the clear water. We watched a manatee surface behind us, but I couldn't see him when I went swimming. Over drinks in the cockpit we caught up on news and heard about their trip to Roatan. Then in the morning we headed north again, aiming for San Pedro, from where we could head out and up to Mexico. But by the time we passed through Porto Stuck, leaving a trail of stirred-up mud in our wake, we decided the wind was too strong for a comfortable anchorage at San Pedro, so we stopped in Cay Caulker. Since we were not checked in, we were flying the yellow "Quarantine" flag, and were reluctant to go ashore. If any authorities noticed a boat flying the yellow flag with no one on board, it would look suspicious, so we just stayed aboard for the evening. Repeated calls to Chris Parker say that we will be in Belize until Tuesday. By Sunday morning (Easter) we were getting a bit of a case of "Cabin Fever", not having been ashore for three day. We did take the dinghy over to Always Sunday, Drury and Jennifer Porteous, from Toronto for a chat, then hoisted anchor and sailed five miles south to Long Cay. Here we anchored off the empty cay and decided we were safe to go ashore. We collected some green coconuts for Gin and Coconut Water, a Hemmingway favorite, but not mine. We walked the beach and just enjoyed the feel of solid land. Back at the boat we had our daily cool-down swim and shower then drinks and dinner.
Just as we were ready to prepare dinner, we saw a boat approaching quickly, and thought we may be in trouble with the customs people. But it turned out to be a local family wanting to trade fish and lobster for booze. Luckily I had bought a few half-pints of cheap rum in Key West, so we traded two for five lobster tails and three large yellow snapper! So Easter dinner suddenly improved with grilled lobster tails, coconut rice and cole-slaw, together with a very nice Chardonnay I bought in Fronteras for 35Q, or about $5!
Still waiting for weather, we had a quiet day Monday, again beachcombing and swimming. I found two lobster in a tire but they escaped when I went to get my spear.
We were up at 5am on today (Tuesday), and true to Chris' forecast, the wind had clocked into the south-east and moderated down to 15-18 knots, ideal for our course. So we motored out Long Cay Cut, a much larger cut than San Pedro, although 25 miles further south, and headed off north! Sixty five miles and ten hours later we were approaching Banco Chinchoro, Mexico's only coral atoll. It is very poorly charted, as we knew, so we approached with caution. We could see the change in water colour from deep blue to turquoise but we couldn't see the reef. We had decided not to try to enter it, but just to approach the western side where we could anchor in its lee. And after some nail-biting, we found ourselves in 15' over sand, so down the anchor went. Seabird followed us in and anchored beside us. According to our electronic charts, we are about 1 mile inside the reef. But we're still actually outside it. Its not the calmest anchorage we have had, and it seems odd to be anchored with no land in sight, but it will do for the night. We would like to stay and explore the interior, but our weather window won't allow it. We have another 175 miles of sailing to reach Isla Mujeres, and that has us in Thursday morning, about 12 hours ahead of an approaching cold front. So we'll be off in the morning.
04/09/2009, Placencia, Belize,
Jim and Kathy Sieg on Estelle in Fronteras
We got re-stocked, to the extent you can here, (plenty of fruit, vegetables and chicken but little else) and are ready to go.
On our way back to the boat with suplies, we met passed two women, and both Jeannie and I stopped dead in our tracks. "Kathy", we called out, and Kathy Sieg, from our home yacht club tuned around! We had a quick chat, and then agreed to meet at our boat later. She came over for morning coffee, and we learned she has bought a catamatan here and is now a winter resident here! It was fun to chat and catch up, but soon time to prepare for the upcoming departure.
On Tuesday we cast off our lines from Mar Marina and crossed to the fuel dock to fill up. Fuel in Guatemala is, by our standards, cheap, so we topped up the tanks and headed out.
We just sailed about 10 miles to the head of the gorge and anchored for the night in Texas Bay, named for the Texans who run the marina there. It is a small and not fancy marina, but was filled with long term storage boats so we anchored along with a couple of other boats also getting ready to head out.
We needed to check out of Guatemala, and do it before Thursday, when the Easter holiday begins. So Wednesday morning I changed the oil in the engine and generator and after lunch, we motored down through the spectacular gorge to the town of Livingston at its mouth.
Here we visited Raoul, the "Agent" for clearing in and out. He was having a busy day with lots of small boats having come down from Belize for the holidays. But we had emailed him all our info in advance, so he was ready and we were cleared out without fuss.
It was early afternoon, but we couldn't leave until morning as we needed the high tide to get across the bar. Our boat draws 5' and two boats with us draw 6', so we were elected as lead boat.
We walked the town and spent our last Quetzales then back to the boat for supper.
It was a flat calm night and we were up early to catch the tide, high at 7:30 am. We headed out through the incoming shrimp fleet and for our draft we had always over 1' under us, but one of the following boats said he did a bit of scraping as we crossed.
Safely across we set sail and headed for Placencia, about 35 miles north. In the fresh easterly breeze we were soon racing through the waves, thoroughly covering the boat with salt.
After three weeks in fresh water, we have lost all our marine growth on the bottom. It can't live in fresh water. So we had a great sail, anchoring in Placencia about 4:30 pm.
With coming spring, temperatures here are rising. It rarely goes below 80F, so the sea breeze was welcome. From here we'll head north as weather permits.
We'll meet Seabird somewhere north of here. They went to Roatan in our absence and we have been chatting on the SSB. They left today also and are not sure how far they will go in one hop, but we'll be together by Isla Mujeres if not before. Tomorrow we'll head up towards Belize ity and watch teh weather. As it looks now, early next week will give us some beautiful sailing up the Mexican coast. We are about 250 miles from Isla Mujeres, so plan to do it in a couple of stages.
04/06/2009, Fronteras, Guatemala
Temple of the Jaguar, Tikal, Guat. (Note the people standing on the platform near the top.)
We got back to the boat yesterday after being away for almost two weeks. The first 5 days we were in Antigua, then we flew to Canada, Jeannie to Vancouver and I to PEI. We spent 5 days in Canada and then headed back to Guatemala. The best route we found was through Cancun and into Flores, from where we could catch a 2.5 hour bus ride to Fronteras. But Flores is the town closest to Tikal, the largest and most impressive of the Mayan cities, so we spent two nights there and visited Tikal.
We spent a full day touring Tikal and climbed the highest of the temples at the hottest time of the hottest day we have ever experienced. At the top we met a woman gulping on a small oxygen bottle. But it was water we needed and by days end we had drunk so much that, although still thirsty, we couldn't face anymore. The tour was well worth it, as Tikal is truly magnificent.
One of the odd things about all Mayan cities is that they were all built with no water supply nearby. I asked our guide why and he said that the Mayans built on the highest ground to be as close to the Gods as possible. This meant on high mountain-tops. And they needed to build major water catchment systems.
It is estimated that Tikal was home to over 100,000 at its peak. No one is sure about the reason the cities were abandoned (well before the Spanish arrived), but most believe it was the failure of the food supply. Food was grown nearby, mostly a corn based agriculture. It is supposed that the land failed after being overused. In spite of their lush appearance, the jungle soil is quite thin and doesn't last long under agriculture.
The other possible cause for the abandonment is water, or a lack of rain, which they could not survive with no major natural supply.
In any case, they moved down to Lago de Peten Itza, where they built an artificial island. And today the island houses the town of Flores, where we stayed. It is a tiny island, about 400 meters in diameter, and with not a square meter unused. With tiny winding streets and alleys, it has a few small hotels and some restaurants. They are clearly trying to cultivate a tourism industry, and it is a nice spot.
Sunday morning we joined about a dozen backpackers and boarded the bus, arriving at Fronteras in early afternoon. From here we'll re-stock and head out in a day or two.
03/27/2009, La Antigua de Guatemala
Dos Gringos de La Antigua de Guatemala
John (Sam the Skull) and Bruce (Seabird) proudly displaying their new hats.
We were up at the Fronteras bus station on Monday at 7:30 am waiting to board the bus for Guatemala City. With tickets in hand, we boarded the bus, taking our assigned seats in row 1, just behind the bullet-proof screen. We wondered if that made us target No 1 in the event of a hijacking. We chose this bus as it was reputed to be owned by the local mafia and was hijack-proof. Whether or not this was true, we filed on past the armed guard, but were surprised to see him not board with us. Instead, three guys in company shirts, obviously not armed, jumped in beside the driver. It turned out that one was a ticket-taker (he checked our tickets 5 times on the route), another the baggage loader/unloader and the third's job was to signal trucks we were passing. The road wound up into the mountains and was heavily trafficked with gravel and cattle trucks. With no passing lanes, the bus driver just seemed to pass at will, and if something surprised him from the opposite direction so that he couldn't get past, this guy lowered the window and waved madly at the truck we were passing to signal him to slow down. Somehow it seemed to work, and after an entertaining six hours (with a mid-morning lunch stop), we were in the chaos of the bus station in Guatemala City. Here we switched to a mini-bus for the remaining 40 km to La Antigua de Guatemala. Again we headed up into the mountains leaving Guatemala City and its slums behind.
A city of 3.5 million, Guatemala City has just two classes... the very rich and the very poor, with no middle class. In Guatemala, 95% of the land is owned by 3% of the people. The poor are also divided, into working poor and beggars. And the city is likewise divided with beautiful tree-shaded avenues in the business district, and slums clinging to the steep mountainside for miles around. I don't know how they keep from sliding down the steep cliffs into the gorges below.
But we left all this behind as we entered another world in Guatemala, La Antigua de Guatemala. La Antigua was established in 1580 to replace the previous capital that was only a few miles away. The previous capital, Ciudad de los Caballeros de Santiago de Guatemala, or "City of the Knights of St. James of Guatemala"was built on the slope of a dormant volcano and was swept away when the lake in the volcano's cone poured over the edge, drowning the town in a sea of mud. It took with it Beatriz de la Cueva, 'sin surete" or "without luck". Guatemala's first and only female governor, she had been Governor for only 36 hours when she was burried in a sea of mud.
La Antigua is nestled between three volcanos. Perhaps that should have been a signal, but if it was, it was ignored. The town prospered as the Spanish rulers built elegant homes, a beautiful administration building and churches... churches everywhere. The town's crowning glory was La Cathedral de San Paulo on the east side of the central plaza between the government and municipal administration buildings. It was finished in 1680 after 11 years of construction and 8,000 workers, mostly imported from Spain for the purpose. From front door to Altar it measured 200 metres, the largest in Central America. But it was far from the only church. We lost count of them, but for a town of about 40,000, there was certainly room for all.
All went well until 1776 when a devastating earthquake struck, destroying many of the churches, including 95% of the cathedral as well as the Government administration center.
With that, Guatemala got its fourth capital, Guatemala City, and La Antigua slid into decline. In retrospect, that was probably a good thing as time stood still in La Antigua. In 1976, the UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site and its restoration and recovery began, so that today it has been restored to its condition just after the earthquake. Some of the churches were restored and others built to replace those lost. But most buildings are original with the remains of many of the buildings destroyed still standing where they fell over two centuries ago.
Our guide book describes Antigua as "what Guatemala would be like if the Scandinavians ran the place... by-laws adhered to, no garbage, no crime, underground wiring, and stray dogs mysteriously disappear in the night." And its true.
So we spent three days here exploring the town and its ruins. We toured the re-built cathedral, and the ruins of the original, including the catacombs beneath it. It is now only about 20% of the original size and incorporates the one surviving corner. All that remains of the government administration building is the street façade, making it look like a movie scene. Behind the façade is the rubble from 230 years ago.
We toured the area around the town, including a coffee plantation and a Mayan Crafts center.
But all around the town are Mayan women selling beautiful weaving and jade jewelry. Prices varied greatly, as did quality, and we bought some at both ends of the range. It was fun to bargain for prices, and we finally learned that the final price was about 25% to 40% of their initial offering price, depending on the time of day. Prices are high in the morning, but in the late afternoon they drop, either because sales have been slow, or to avoid carrying all that stuff back home. We're not sure. It was amusing to watch as they caught sight of you and swooped in for the sale (or kill).
One night at dinner in our restaurant, overlooking the courtyard in this old Spanish villa, I looked up as someone called me by name, to see Tim Curtis looking at me. I worked with Tim a few years ago at FortisOntario. What a shock to run into someone you know deep in the mountains of Guatemala! But then, I guess no greater than running in to someone from PEI in Fronteras last week, who, strangely enough, neither Jeannie nor I knew!
But it was time to go, so on Thursday night we packed for an early bus shuttle into Guatemala City's airport. Heading out at 5:00 am on Friday morning made me a bit uneasy, but I said nothing. Guatemala is a country with a violent history, and it continues today. While we were in La Antigua, the drug gangs had stepped up violence in an effort to get the government to back off their recent anti-drug campaign. The gangs have focused on, of all things, bus drivers, in an apparent threat to the country's transportation system, and had been murdering one bus driver a day. But on Thursday, they murdered four simultaneously. Sadly this is not new to the country which has seen for much of its history a succession of brutal dictators or civil war. And for the violence of the 1970's and 80's the US can take much of the credit. In fact President Bill Clinton apologized to the Guatemalan people for the country's role in the past.
It is a real shame, as the poor are the obvious losers with illiteracy high among the poor. But in spite of it all, Guatemalans are very friendly and we enjoyed our visit.
From here its back to Canada for a week, then back to the boat and beginning the trip north.
We took lots of pictures of this beautiful place. They are in a sub-album of the Guatemala album.
03/21/2009, Fronteras, Guatemala
Estelle heads up the Rio Dulce
We left Livingston at 8:30 am in company with Seabird. Two other boats that spent the night anchored in Livingston were also getting underway with us. The river was buzzing with small boats shuttling people up and down the river. The most striking feature of the Rio is the huge gorge at its mouth. As we motored up the river, we found ourselves motoring under cliffs towering 400' above us on either side with a covering of jungle trees and vines covering the steep cliffs.
About a mile upstream we began to see natives fishing out of dugout canoes much as they must have done for centuries before. Further up when the gorge cliffs began to move back from the rivers edge, we saw thatched huts still providing shelter for the local inhabitants... a very basic form of life. Interspersed with them we saw the odd elegant home obviously not native.
The natives took no notice of us, apparently used to seeing yachts as over 600 boats spend the hurricane season in the river, considered to be below the hurricane belt. There is no record of a hurricane ever striking the Rio, although Hurricane Mitch came ashore in Honduras, about 100 miles south of here, a few years ago.
After about 5 miles of motoring through the gorge, we passed into an area of softer terrain and dropped anchor opposite to a hot springs. I stayed on the boat to watch while Jeannie went ashore with Bruce and Nancy on Seabird. And its a good thing I stayed. With no one apparently on board, a couple of dugout canoes quickly approached us, but when I showed myself, they quietly moved off.
The Rio has a reputation as a place to be careful, and it seems well deserved. There are safe anchorages and places where you should not anchor for personal safety reasons. We moved a bit further along and anchored again, this time in front of a restaurant where we had lunch, keeping the boats well in view. After lunch we continued on our way and after a mile or so we were sailing out into El Golfete, a small lake about 5 miles long and 2 wide. Along the south shore we passed Texas Bay with its marina and Gringo Bay, one of the safe anchorages, then passed down the lake to where it narrows into a river again.
About 3 miles up the river we came to our destination, the town of Fronteras. Fronteras is like the name implies, the frontier, the wild west. I have put some photos on the blog taken in town. And law and order are just barely under control. At a bank we entered we found an armed guard standing next to an airport style X-ray machine with a set of lockers in which you check your belongings. No bags go into the bank. While we stood there, asking where the ATM was, a man came out and calmly retreived his revolver from a box and left. At an old fort we visited, they have a "check your guns" sign and we watched a boat load of families come in, all 5 men checking their guns. The navy patrol the river, and at night the rule is "stay off the river after dark". We went for a hike in a nature preserve and the guide quickly turned back when she caught sight of a man ahead of us on the trail. She used her cell phone to call the owner who quickly came out to pick us up in his truck. We later learned that one of his armed guards had been killed the previous day in some sort of vendetta.
Clearly a place to be careful! But for all that its certainly a unique location. Having said that, we now plan to leave the boat here at Marina Mar (excellent security) and head inland to the town of Antigua, reported to be a beautiful old city. From there we'll head to Guatemala City and fly home next week for a week. Then back to start back north!