13/02/2012/7:52 am, Milagro Marina, Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Coming through the reef at Anvil Rock and around the north end of Isla Mujeres was thrilling. We used the instructions in Freya Rauscher's book plus waypoints from our friends on Rachel and had no trouble negotiating the passage past the beaches with sunning bodies and thatched huts, past the ferry docks - dodging the blue and yellow fast ferry to Cancun - past the fishing boats and along to what is still marked on the charts as the "shrimp dock".
El Milagro Marina is a gem! They were quick to answer on the VHF and Jaime, Julio and Steve and Sandi (Yonder - already there) were all on the dock to welcome us and help with lines. Jim did a perfect job of steering us into the slip - bow in with pilings to hold stern and spring lines. We are getting better every time at flinging lines over pilings like these and the cheers that go up from the folks on the docks only increase the sense of satisfaction! It is helpful of course if there is no current or wind pushing us forward and there is time to carefully position the boat pole with looped line on the end over the piling and let it drop. At Milagro, there are no finger docks so we are also getting increasingly agile at climbing over the bowsprit to the dock. (In Cuba we ducked under and over the dinghy davits, and I think perhaps the bowsprit is easier.)
We were barely tied up when Julio summoned us up the dock to the thatched palapa where the casually dressed Immigration and Health officers waited at the picnic table. Friday is a half-day for them and our just-before-noon arrival meant they wanted to check us in quickly and be on their way. This was a very pleasant process. Julio is the agent for the marina and he took care of the paperwork, making all the copies we needed and collecting the money ($125 US). We laughed with the Health officer as he supplied Jim with sites for finding apps for his tablet, told me with a wink that the Agriculture officer would be looking for eggs and fresh vegetables, and suggested that we read Carlos Fuentes' book the Orange Tree. With papers stamped and many copies in his backpack, he donned a bright blue helmet, hopped on his motorbike, helped the Immigration officer onto the back and away they roared.
Within minutes, the Customs and Agriculture duo showed up, on foot and in uniform, to do their bit. More papers were filled out with Julio's assistance, and we walked down the dock to the boat. The Agriculture officer did indeed confiscate a half dozen eggs, a half bag of carrots and a head of broccoli. She looked carefully at a calabrese sausage but once she found the "Italy" label, it was OK. I had planned it so there was very little fresh produce left by the time we got here, and I could probably have hidden these but what would really be the point of that? They're all easily replaceable, and we prefer not to play games with the authorities - especially on arrival! The Customs officer opened all the lockers but did no digging around, and both officers were very respectful.
So - within an hour, we were in and legal. The boat importation could wait till Monday. We took down the Q flag - the yellowy orange one that tells authorities we are new - hoisted the Mexican flag, said hello to our fellow dockmates and decided it was time for lunch.
Sandi and Steve (Yonder) had checked out the Fishermen's Cooperative the day before and we were happy to join them in a return visit. It is just a 10-minute walk up the road toward town and has fabulous fresh and inexpensive food. My grilled fish topped with tomatoes and chilies and served with rice was delicious. The fajitas looked yummy and the beer was cold. We stopped at the bank (HSBC - the bank we use most often is everywhere!) to withdraw some pesos. 100 pesos = $7.80 Cdn. Prices are marked with a dollar sign so it is a bit shocking at first to see that lunch costs $90. The town is filled with touristy stands selling all manner of goods - bags and hats and shirts and jewellery - and golf carts and scooters zoom along and there are gringos in various states of sunburn and tans on the sidewalks and beaches. But there are also Mexican families and workers on those same scooters and on the streets and Hola's and waves are exchanged everywhere.
Back at the marina, we enjoyed chatting with fellow cruisers, David and Elizabeth (Patience 1), Carey, Tom and Erika (Dragon's Toy), Bruce and Delmi (Twilight), Jeff (Pegasus), and David (Atalanta). One of the great joys of this little place is that Milagro has land accommodation too so we have also met land based visitors, Tom and Michelle, Julie and Eric, Penny and Dave, Jane and Victor, and Angelina.
We decided we could stay awake a little bit more in the evening so we trooped down the road a hundred metres to Bahia Tortuga to sit at the bar, listen to the excellent Cuban band and sip our first official Mexican margaritas of the season. This is where our second serendipitous encounter took place - so now that I've told you about the checking in part, I'd better back up and start at the beginning of this amazing story.
As we chatted at the marina with Tom, we learned that he is an anaesthesiologist in Wisconsin and knows Pat Sullivan, our former neighbour in Ottawa and also an anaesthesiologist. Not only that but Tom and Jim were at UNB during a couple of the same years. How incredible is that? We come way down here and one of the first people we meet knows our neighbor and walked the same campus as Jim? And the story gets even more unbelievable. We trooped off to Bahia Tortuga, perched at the bar and started chatting with the fellow on the next stool. Jim did the usual "Hola! And where are you from?" "Michigan" was his reply. "Oh really! My brother-in-law is from Michigan." "What part?" "He grew up in Williamston." (I'm sure you can see what's coming.) At this point, the man's wife exclaimed, "No way! That's where Lee is from!" So then they got to names and the upshot was that this fellow at the bar, Lee, played on the same football team as Jim's brother-in-law, Dave, and was in the same class as Dave's brother, Hal. Two such "less than 6 degrees of separation" experiences within hours of being here were almost too much to comprehend, but they served to convince us (as if we didn't already know) that we are truly in the right place!
With all this activity coming on top of our 4-day passage, we practically fell into our berth for the soundest sleep of the week.
12/02/2012/2:18 pm, Milagro Marina, Isla Mujeres, Mexico
In the Bahamas, we had "Island Time". I've already discovered that here in Mexico, we have "Manana" (tomorrow). I have no trouble with this concept!!
I've got 45 minutes between munching on delicious fresh corn tortillas and local cheese before walking down the road to a baseball game so I will try to get a start on our journey over the last week. (Couldn't do it yesterday like I thought because - well - there were folks to talk to and lunch at Bally Hoo and a walk to the north beach and limonada at the Avalon bar and laundry to take care of and then a party here at the marina and - well - then we just had to sleep.)
We left Key West on Monday at noon just as planned. It has taken most everyone else about 72 hours to do the trip so we thought it would be the same for us. Uh uh. Our first afternoon and evening were delightful - smooth water, some wind for sailing, a gorgeous sky in the west and a beautiful full moon coming up all silvery over the water to the east. We knew we needed to sail some and be cautious with our fuel because we can't carry enough to go full speed on the engine all the way. The sailing on Monday was lovely although slow - the Gulf Stream current against us seemed to go on forever. We saw the mountains of Cuba early in the morning and kept heading in closer to shore to try and catch the elusive counter current. We never did find that, but at least we weren't being pushed eastward anymore. Our slow speed did mean that we weren't as far along the coast as we had hoped though and we spent all Tuesday and Tuesday night making slow headway westward - again with mostly starry skies overnight, and the occasional downpour. The sky on Wednesday morning was a brilliant scarlet showing between the Cuban hilltops and if I didn't have "Red sky at night sailors' delight, red sky in the morning, sailors take warning" looping endlessly through my brain, it would have been pure joy to feast my eyes upon.
We finally rounded the western corner of Cuba at midday on Wednesday and had some decision making to do. Because of the north current in the Yucatan Channel, boats go either S 25 nautical miles or so and then W across the channel to Mexico, or head SW from there, hoping to end up a little N of where they're steering. We knew the forecast was for squalls and strong winds in the channel on Thursday and Chris Parker had originally warned us to either dawdle on the Cuban side and get in Friday, or hustle up and get there early Thurs. Well - Madcap is not a fast boat unless we've got a nice big wind from exactly the right angle and no counter current, and we dawdle in ports and anchorages, not on a passage.
We emailed our friend, Mary (Strathspey) for some up to date weather info which basically confirmed what we already knew. Wouldn't you know that our best sailing so far was S from Cabo San Antonio putting us at a good setting off point to start that W push just before midnight. It seemed so hard to contemplate the idea of dawdling there and we thought maybe there was a chance that we could make it across before the bad weather started, so being ever the optimists, we decided to just try it and turn around if it got bad.
We weren't too far into it when we realized that we really did not want to be out there. It was not terrible but it was uncomfortable and that warning about Thurs was hanging over our heads. It was pitch dark, the rain came down in 30 minute deluges and about 2 am our staysail (the smaller of our foresails) fell down. It stayed attached to the boat but was mostly hanging down in the water. Jim tethered his life jacket to the jack line (that runs from bow to stern and, with any luck, keeps a person from falling into the sea) and crawled forward on the pitching deck to haul the soggy thing out of the water. He stuffed it down between jerry cans and the cabintop to keep it from blowing away in the 23 kt gusts and successfuly crawled back to the cockpit. All the while, I was mentally running through our man overboard procedures as I tried to keep the boat as steady as I could and shine the spotlight on him so he could see what he was doing.
We got ourselves turned around - no easy task in 8 ft swells - and took turns trying to get some sleep as we headed back Eastward and then Northward to try to get in the lee of Cuba where we could wait out the weather with a little more protection.
Let's talk now about ships at night. Mostly they are fairly easy to figure out. Their lights show up in a standard pattern - red on the port side and green to starboard. Cargo ships have a high white light at the stern so you can tell which way they are going. We always have our radar up at night and that helps us spot ships and identify direction too. Our AIS isn't working right now - but it would have identified the ship and helped even more to determine its course. Jim was sleeping and I watched a boat get closer and closer - thinking I knew where it was headed and that it would cross our path long before we got close. Then I realized that it had a high bow light and it wasn't on the course I had been thinking. I took evasive action and we passed with no less than a mile between us, but it was too close for my comfort at night and it left me shaken. By then the seas were really up, the wind was NE still - just where we were heading. The radar showed squalls all around and while the wind never amounted to more than 20 kt of sustained wind, we got occasional heavy downpours and it was just plain miserable out there. As dawn came, we saw that our topping lift (the line from the stern end of the boom and the top of the mast) was frayed. With the sail up we knew the boom wouldn't come crashing down, but it was still a worry.
We kept pounding north in search of shelter, each of us trying to get a little sleep in spite of the crashing and banging that filled our ears, and the rolling that kept us hanging on to the side of the berth. But in the amazing way of weather patterns, by noon, when we were still a couple of hours away from the shelter we were hoping to find, the wind died, the seas calmed quickly and we thought - Let's turn around again and give it another try. Dawdling is certainly not the word I would use to describe what we did, but it had the same effect.
It is just incredible what a difference 24 hours will make on the water. We were unable to sail at all with a 4 kt wind on the nose, and our progress was in the range of 4 - 5 knots, but we were on the last leg, we knew we had enough fuel to make it, and the sea was smooth. The moon came up all golden this time, squalls showed on the radar but never came close to us, there were no close calls with ships and we were each so exhausted that we were able to get some sleep.
In that miraculous way of discovering light after dark, I awoke on Friday to find brilliant sunshine sparkling all over the water's surface and a clear blue sky overhead. Jim called out, "You have got to see this!" and I came up into the cockpit to share his excitement over masses of silvery flying fish undulating over the water and 7 or 8 dolphins diving and rising up to dive again just off our starboard side. Black frigate birds with their broad wings and long tails stretched out and snowy white terns fished from the sky - swooping down and rising skyward again. The sight was breathtaking in its abundance and beauty, and was probably even better than it would have been without all the troubles of the day before.
Before long, we spotted the landmarks of Isla Mujeres - the Avalon Hotel, and Anvil Rock and we set our minds to arriving. I'll tell you about that in the next posting. We covered 420 nautical miles in 95 hours - fewer miles and more hours than we covered in our passage from Veradero to Fernandina Beach last year - 4 consecutive nights - our longest yet.
We were tired. We were excited. We were never in danger but we had been challenged. The risk was worth it and the high of stretching ourselves this way was priceless.
10/02/2012/6:14 pm, Milagro Marina, Isla Mujeres, Mexico
We are here!!!!! We left Key West on Monday as planned, had a good crossing of the Gulf Stream to the Cuban coast, ran into bad weather and got beat up a little - only a little - enough for a story tomorrow!. We ran up and down the coast for an extra 24 hours till the waters settled and then had a lovely run across the Yucutan channel overnight.
We arrived at the marina around noon and are now all checked in and legal - well we are - the boat gets imported on Monday.
All is well. We are tired after this long passage but very very happy we came.
Stories and pictures tomorrow.