Thursday, April 16, 2015

Running the Yucatan Coast

Marty and Sue Wells joined us in Isla Mujeres at the end of February for our next leg of the cruise, from Isla Mujeres through Belize. They have cruised with us last year through the Exumas and up to Spanish Wells. They were great guests more than pulling their weight, and we were excited to have them aboard for the long lee shore of the Yucatan coast.

We weren't sure what to expect of the coast run. We did know we weren't going to attempt 250 miles of coastline against the strong north-flowing Yucatan current with the wind coming from anywhere near the south. Which it blew for the first two weeks Marty and Sue were with us. Let me explain – a sailboat can't go directly upwind, instead the boat goes upwind at an angle and then “tacks” through the wind to go off the other way, thereby making net progress into the wind, we can do about 100 degrees between tacks, and we sail at about 7 miles per hour, half of that is lost to the sailing-at-an-angle thing, ie about 3.5 mph net into the wind, and the Yucatan current runs at upwards of 3 mph in many palces, ie 250 miles at 0.5 mph would take a very very long time (we leave the arithmetic to the reader).

Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres

So we waited, as sailors do, for the winds to turn favorable. We fixed a “fix” to the main sheet exit from the boom . Having reenginered the exit in FL, we discovered in the gulf that our new “fix” actually caused more chafing to the main sheet, not less. Thankfully, Joe Hanko worked up a prototype repair, fitted to the Manta's boom, then FED-EX'ed the parts we'd need to install. Fed Ex however, delivers to Cancun, and comes to Isla once a week. So off Royce and Marty went to find Fed-ex, then find the parts,.... And that was the easy part. If not for the guys making a jig, and Marty's incredible finger calisthenics, not sure if we'd have pulled it off. But we did, and now the fix is perfect! No more chaffing!  We explored Isla and did a lot of beaching on their famous Playa Norte. It is a tight community of about 15,000 “Isleros”, of Mayan heritage, a very quiet and kind folk. The tourists are generally just day-trippers over from Cancun, so after the last ferry leaves about 6pm, the island gets really mellow and authentic. We especially loved a little restaurant run by a very colorful local guy, large and grandfatherly, the classic publican, the best chile rellenos we have ever had, period. Then, we got a window just after a cold front pushed into the Gulf of Mexico which didn't go as far down as Isla, and turned the winds to the NE. Ideal for our run due south. Off we went.

Sun set over Mexico from offshore

First leg was an overnight from Isla past Cozumel and Playa del Carmen at night, then our favorite little bay on the land there, Bahia Solimon, at about 3am, and arrived mid-morning at the entrance to Bahia de la Ascension at the very southerly tip of Punta Allen and we turned in through the pass. The cruising guide said that there was anchorage in the lee (west side) of Punta Allen in 15 ft of sandy grass, and indeed there was. And the fascinating little town of Punta Allen right on the beach at the tip of the point. The village has about 300 residents and a few hardy ecotourists who brave 3 hours of dirt road from Tulum to then take day boats out in the largest ecopreserve in Mexico, the S'ian K'an. Trouble was, we had cleared out of Mexico in Isla because there are no offices of the authorities south of Cancun. Meaning we weren't really supposed to go ashore. But we did. And glad we did. Met a delightful local, the brother of one of the founders of an ecofishing lodge there, he showed us around, introduced to the watering holes (along with some very colorful locals), inquired about availability of lobsters for a dinner for us, and then left us to our own devices. So we enjoyed our lobster dinner by the beach and wandered our way back to our boat. The next day was repairing the jib where the stitching had failed. Using a sail-makers palm and too large a needle (all we had), it was a quick 5 hour job.

The next step was to reach the Chinchorro Banks, the northern-most coral atoll in the world, 25 miles off the Mexican coast. We had planned to arrive later in the afternoon so we still had light to find our way in through the reef. But the stiff north-setting current and confused seas made for slow going, and we bailed out into Bahia Espritu Santu at about noon and tucked in behind the bay's barrier reef for a lumpy night. First light we were off again, worked our way out through that reef, and pushed again for Chinchurro Banks. Where we arrived early afternoon and found, much to our relief that their one mooring ball was available. The north end of the atoll is the only opening for large boats but has very marginal anchor-holding in a thin layer of sand over coral rock. Hence the mooring ball. They also have, on the Cayo Norte there, a tiny Mexican Navy station manned year-round by about a dozen Navy guys. We didn't see them all afternoon, but the next day just after we got back from snorkeling the extensive reef and a wrecked steamer, they turned up in a launcha. The XO and his two men were extremely polite, asked to come aboard as if it were an imposition on us, apologized for the their big boots on our white decks, AND left their assault weapons with the boat pilot. These guys are the first defense against really nasty drug runners and live a difficult life of 6 months on duty station on a cay that is maybe 400 yards long. The XO, wish I had gotten his name, took a few photos to document that our boat really was a yacht and not filled with bales of contraband, filled in his forms with our passport numbers etc, and bravely accepted our offer of rootbeer. With a cheery wave, they stood off again and putted back to their cay. (It did not seem like a good idea to photograph them, so no pix here) We snugged in for the night with the plan to leave at 0-dark-30 so we would be sure to arrive at our next stop, Ambergris Cay (San Pedro) , in time to have high sun for running the very tricky entrance cut through their lee-shore reef.

We made great time on the passage, it seems that the Yucatan current finally gave us a break by staying way offshore, and we had light winds but enough to sail well down to the last few miles. We arrived at the pass at about solar noon, and ran west in to the cut, successfully made the hard turn to the north just after crossing the main barrier reef to doge a nasty reef segment right in the middle of the straight-to-shore route, and got an anchor in the hard-sand-over-coral-rock. Andrew, a single handle cruiser we had met at Isla was on anchor right next to us! He bopped over and we asked about exact local procedures for checking-in: the cruising guides and written reviews all had slightly different procedures detailed, and it was very confusing as there clearly was no consistent procedure set. I loaded up with extra cash, all the documents I could think of including Marty and Sue's boarding passes into Cancun, leapt into the dinghy and headed ashore to clear us in. It took nearly an hour but the they officials were courteous and generally bored so they seemed to find the novelty of a yacht entry with an inexperienced skipper (me) to be kind of interesting. With guidance and some flexibility on their part (What do you need 25 bottles of wine for? You know you aren't supposed to bring that much alcohol in to Belize? Just make sure you consume it aboard and don't sell or give it to any locals”). A long taxi ride out through the residents' section of town to the Port Captain's office to pay for our 30-days of boat permit, and we were (officially) in Belize!


From our anchorage in Belize

Our first sunset behind the reef