Key West to Isla Mujeres

The first of July was a Chamber of Commerce kind of day. The cobalt sky over Key West was dotted with cotton-ball clouds ambling off to the northwest on the trade winds. The temperature was in the lower nineties and more than willing to fry the hide off anyone foolish enough to leave the shade. But shade’s where it’s at, and the same breeze pushing the clouds made it comfortable if you were in some. The only thing that could possibly improve such a day would be a hammock and a pretty girl to keep fetching some kind of frozen drink in a coconut shell; hold the paper parasol, please.

I’d been dicking around the Keys for almost a month and was tired of all the “characters” who had abandoned the drudgery of their nine-to-five paper-shuffling jobs, bought some shirts with parrots on them and went to live in Buffetville. That was as far as their anemic imaginations could take them. I was ready for something completely different.

After stowing the last of my provisions on Nancy Dawson I slogged off through the shimmering waves of heat, almost visible a foot or so from the buckled sidewalks on Simonton Street to the Customs office to obtain a courtesy clearance. My buddy Cheshire Bill had warned me that the Mexicans were very touchy about paperwork. While it’s not necessary, by U.S. law, for an American flagged vessel to officially clear out of the States. Cheshire had been fined the last time they entered Mexico without clearance. The people at Customs had been through this before and the process only took a few minutes.

Back at the marina I paid my bill, slipped the lines and eased into the channel to catch the ebbing tide out to the ocean. That’s the way good sailors have done it since time immemorial. I was in for a surprise.

Entering Key West I’d ridden the flood with the wind at my back; always a deceptive experience. Now the southeasterly trades were blowing dead against a four-knot current and setting up an extremely nasty, slab-sided three-foot chop. Under normal circumstances three-foot waves are nothing to write about, but it presented a real problem for Nancy Dawson.

Nancy’s handicap was the absence of an inboard engine. It’s great having all the space where a dirty, smelly motor used to live to be filled with cruising supplies. (Major provisioning hint: If you’re sailing to Central America it is absolutely NOT necessary to buy rice BEFORE leaving the States.) But I digress. In calm conditions the eight horsepower Suzuki outboard was more than adequate, but now as each wave passed beneath her shapely keel the propeller would lift clear of the water and the engine, relieved of the strain of pushing a few tons of fiberglass through the water, would rev to the red line and scream as though mortally wounded. Then, as the bow rose to the succeeding wave, the stern dropped away and the power head would come close to submerging. It was agonizing to hear the gallant little engine alternate between screaming and glugging.

Since the channel was narrow, and my course dead to windward, I hadn’t bothered to raise any sail, intending, instead, to motor out to ample sea room before getting underway as a proper sailing vessel.

I was certain that at any moment the outboard was going to completely submerge itself leaving me at the mercy of the current to be thrown onto the beach and ignobly end my cruise before it had properly begun. In addition to what nature was throwing at me, lunatics in their go-fast powerboats were hurling outrageous wakes from every point of the compass. Thank God it was only Wednesday so the majority of the idiots were safe and sound behind a desk somewhere.

When I kicked the tiller hard over Nancy turned on a dime and skittered down to the anchorage I’d passed moments earlier. Shortly Nancy was swinging gently to her anchor. With the hatches open, a pleasant breeze kept the cabin comfortable as I calculated that slack tide would come a couple of hours before sunset. I made a sandwich and ate in the shade of the dodger before going below for a nap. I wanted to be well rested since I would be sailing through the night.

I’ve always found it easy to sleep on the water and it took a few minutes to shake off the drowsiness when the alarm jarred me awake. A quick cup of espresso and a sandwich restored my condition and in short order I had the working jib hoisted and the anchor secured in the chocks.

I’d discovered, from carefully reading the chart, that I could save several miles travel by slipping between two islands near the anchorage. There would be plenty of water under my keel and we’d soon be in open water on the other side. After easing through the opening, I shut down the motor, lifted it out of the water on its bracket and side stepping between the dodger and the lifelines I jumped up on the cabin top and raised the main.

Back in the cockpit I hooked Florence, the wind vane steering system I’d named after an old girlfriend because they were both French and often a pain in the ass, to the tiller. With a couple of tacks I passed Sand Key Light which had started flashing its signal as the golden ball of the sun sizzled into the sea behind Key West.

The evening weather was perfect. It was a typical southern summer night but without the scent of jasmine in the air. I stood to the southwest on the port tack with the wind around ten knots. The temperature was in the upper seventies and the breeze was a sensual caress on my cheek. Florence held the course without complaint as the evening darkened into night and the ruby and emerald dots of fishing boat’s lights became visible as they went about their work.

I’ve spent a lot of time running boats at night, but this was my first time alone on a sailboat. I wore my safety harness and attached it to the large eye bolts secured in the cockpit every time I would hike out on the fantail to adjust Florence’s vane in order to alter course to avoid a fishing boat.

From time to time I would slip below and fire up the gimbaled stove and make a pot of espresso. I’d gone through the thermos of the strong coffee I’d brewed earlier. There’s something soothing about a making a fresh pot in the glow of the red chart light and drinking it sitting in the hatch opening beneath the dodger listening to the water hissing past Nancy’s sleek red hull. I’ve spent more nights than I can begin to count on the water, and a dozen of them crossing the Atlantic on Jolie Aire, but this was different. I was following in the wakes of Joshua Slocum and Tristan Jones, finally realizing a goal so long in the making. The run to Key West had been day sailing. This was passage making and I was content.

Finally the eastern horizon paled and individual items on my little ship began taking on definition. Slowly I could make out the shrouds and the netting in the lifelines that made Nancy look so salty. There was nothing on the water as far as the eye could see. I hadn’t seen any lights for a couple of hours and the VHF had been silent longer than that.

The wind had shifted a bit more easterly and dropped to about five knots. I was about 35 miles out of Key West towards the Dry Tortugas, where I planned to meet up with the Gallant Lady, at that time the largest American-flag yacht in the world. I’d worked as mate on her for six months or so before going to France. She’d been in Key West on the dock across from where I was tied up. I’d made arrangements to meet them in the Tortugas to examine their weather fax maps before committing myself to the 355 nautical mile (409 land miles) run to Isla Mujeres. I’d had to replace my VHF antenna that was lost in a tropical depression when I’d spent a few days in Marathon, and now, in the middle of the hurricane season, I was more than a bit leery about getting caught in a storm in the Yucatan Straits no matter how sturdy my craft. After listening to the weather broadcasts from NOAA on the VHF and the single sideband I was convinced that no evil lurked to the east and I decided to bypass the Tortugas and go for it.

I’d been towing the dinghy and now, with the long, passage ahead, I needed to bring it aboard. I doused all sail and, lying broadside to the gentle swell, brought the dink alongside. I jumped down into the dinghy, attached the jib halyard to the towing eye, and then, back aboard Nancy, I cranked it clear of the water. Even though the swells were small, they were enough to make the dinghy swing violently from side to side threatening to tear the lifelines and bend the stanchions while throwing me over the side.

I finally got the dinghy’s transom down on the cabin top, just forward of the mast, and lowered the rest of the boat on the lifelines. Inflated, she was too wide to fit comfortably between them but after crawling underneath and letting the air out of the tubes she nestled inside the bow pulpit. She filled the entire fore deck. Her transom stood nearly a foot above the lifelines putting me in a precarious position every time it was necessary to change headsails. But it was the only place she could be tied down aboard the mother ship. It proved to be an excellent dinghy over the course of the next seven months but its semi-rigid construction didn’t make it easy to stow aboard.

It took over an hour to bring the dinghy aboard and get her tied securely. Then, after calling the Gallant Lady to tell them not to look for me, I set course for a point about 15 miles off the western tip of Cuba called Cabo San Antonio. There you are supposed to be able to pick up an eddy from the Yucatan Current, one of the major tributaries of the Gulf Stream, which was actually an awesome ocean river flowing north at between three to five knots! Good sailing for my pretty Nancy Dawson was five knots! Plus, this is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Virtually every ship heading east out of the Panama Canal and bound for the U. S. and Europe rides the current I would be trying to cross.

All day the wind held, building to a steady 15 knots in the afternoon and I was making slow but steady progress against the current. I was tired after having been up for more than 24 hours and now I set up the routine I would use for the rest of the trip to get some sleep. I had two wind-up alarm clocks and set them to go off at 12:30. That way I could reset them easily in the dark. I crammed them into a little nook between the cabin side and the dodger and would stretch out on cushions with the clocks no more than six inches from my ear and nap. When the alarms would go off I’d get up and survey the horizon for ships. If any were in sight I’d drop below, fire up the stove and make a pot of coffee. I tried, as much as possible, to stay awake through the night, working on the premise that it was safer to sleep during the day when Nancy’s red hull would be most visible. But circadian rhythms are a bitch to overcome. Caffeine wasn’t that big a help for me. I have the kind of constitution where it gives me a lift in the morning when I wake up but I can go to sleep a half hour after drinking a steaming mug of espresso.

But these “naps” were neither legal or safe. The International Rules of Navigation require that a watch keeper be on duty at all times when a vessel is underway. Therefore, since I was the only person aboard there would be no one to keep watch while I slept so I am automatically in violation of the rules. Secondly, a container ship headed north on the current at normal cruising speed can go from horizon to horizon in about 15 minutes! That is, from the time it would become visible to the time it disappeared all in 15 minutes. I slept for twice that amount of time and it’s entirely possible that ships passed me without my being aware of them. Alternatively, I could have been run down by a ship in the middle of the night while asleep and be writing this in some parallel universe.

I’d been making about 50 miles a day against the current, which was only two-thirds of what I’d been hoping for. At dawn of the third day Nancy rocked gently in the swell and her sails slatted lifeless in the windless air.

Mornings are often like that in the tropics so I dowsed the jib, pulled the main in tight against the vang and used the time to charge the batteries having used the running lights through the night. With the Generac generator blasting away in the cockpit there was no sleeping going on so I used the time to make a tour of the boat to check the rigging and take a salt-water shower. I ran the generator for three hours, eating and reading in the shade of the dodger.

Occasionally I caught sight of a ship’s stack along the horizon but all were hull-down and presented no threat. By 10 o’clock I was nearly eight miles northwest of where I’d been at 6 a.m.! I waited until almost four in the afternoon for some kind of wind to come along to help me get back the 27 miles I’d lost since dawn. A whole half day’s progress down the tubes and now a day and a half further from my anticipated arrival date.

Patience has never been my long suit so I lowered the sails and fired up the outboard. The Speedo said I was doing 4. 5 knots to the SSW but the Loran told me I was going due west because of the set of the current. That was fine with me since cutting across the stream at a right angle was the fastest way out of trouble, especially since once during that afternoon I’d had seven ships in sight at one time. I felt a like a pedestrian walking down the center lane of the Interstate.

Some of the ships were simply masts above the horizon but a couple came within a mile or two of my little vessel. They were no threat, but I took the opportunity to call one whose name I could read off the bridge with the binoculars and ask if they had seen me on their radar. I was curious to know if my radar reflector was doing its job. The second mate said they had picked me up almost ten miles out. That made me feel a little better. There wasn’t always someone paying attention to the radar, but at least it gives one the illusion that things are going well.

As night closed in and the sun left a gold and crimson trail across the glass tabletop of the sea I was cheered to see no lights aside from the millions of stars in the sky, and I plowed straight ahead.

All through the night and well into the next day the outboard droned on, silenced only when it was necessary to refill the gas tank and check the oil in the injection reservoir. I drank coffee to stay awake and gulped aspirin to dull the headache from the noise of the outboard and the pain in my back from the interminable hours at the tiller. As wonderful a device as the wind vane is, the operative word is wind. No wind; no work. I would have liked to have had an electric auto pilot, but the choice had been between a pilot and a couple of months cruising funds. A no-brainer there. Once, during the afternoon of the second windless day, what I thought was a drifting coconut turned out to be a huge turtle sleeping in the gentle swell. I must have awakened it. It blinked its cold, reptilian eye at me twice with an irritated expression and then submerged into the depths. I could make out its progress for a long way in the clear water.

The motor worked fine with no waves to disrupt it. A couple of hours before sunset my first school of porpoise visited. I’ve seen hundreds of dolphin before, but these were the first to come to a boat of my own. Somehow that made the visit all the more special. I’m not sure if it was my pretty ship’s shiny red hull that attracted their attention or the irritating drone of the outboard. The babies in the group delighted in playing around my little vessel but the adults grew bored with the slow pace and the whole group soon departed.

I wasn’t happy with motoring. It’s not what sailboats are about. The high pitched whine of the engine blotted out the calming hiss and gurgle of the water sliding past the hull as it does when all was right with the world. I’ve made a living for many years on power boats and I don’t have anything against them. In fact I like them a lot. I like going fast on the water, but this was really boring. Hour after hour droning over an absolutely flat sea heading in one direction and being pushed by the current in another. It was so completely still that there weren’t even ripples on the surface of the sea. Being in such a confined space as the Yucatan Channel with all the ships and the contrary current compel one to use every possible means of escape.

The next day something happened that you don’t read about in the wonderful cruising articles: diaper rash! Big, horrible, painful red blotches covered my butt and crotch. Every movement caused my clothes to chafe and rub against the sores like 60-grit sandpaper. For the last couple of days I’d been working and living in salt-saturated clothes ranging from damp to soaking wet. The result was bad butt blush, and the best medicine was to sail naked.

During the night I saw a couple of ships and turned on my tricolor masthead light. Though contrary to international law I ran “dark” most of the time. It’s good to at least think you’re being seen, but it gobbles up the amps. All through the third windless day I motored on. Fluffy cumulus clouds were the only things visible and they filled the sky and were reflected in the vast mirror of the sea.

As the sun edged toward the horizon I shut off the engine and refilled the gas tank from one of the three Jerry cans I had along. Topped off I carried 21 gallons of gasoline, 35 gallons of water in the tank and 10 gallons of drinking water. The space under three of the bunks were filled with a wide assortment of food, and I had a gimbaled single-burner propane stove to cook on underway. I dug out a can of beef stew and put it in the pressure cooker after adding some spices and sat in the cockpit watching the sun set for the third night of no wind. A pressure cooker is a great utensil aboard a small boat at sea. The locking cover, without the pressure rocker, allows food to cook but should it be accidentally displaced from the stove the cover keeps everything inside saving you from cleaning up a horrible mess.

As I washed the dishes after dinner, well just the pressure cooker and a spoon, I sighted a single white light moving on the horizon heading northeast. She was about five or six miles astern. After plotting my position and despairing at the poor headway I was making, I put on the life harness, cranked up the Suzuki and headed SSW once more towards where the sun was now but a memory lost in the clouds ahead. When I remembered to look for the ship she was gone and I was alone again. It would be a couple of days before I saw any sign of humans again.

Near midnight the light in the compass burned out. There was no way I could repair it in the dark. In the past six hours I had gone 15 miles to the west. Two and a half miles an hour for the boat three miles for the current. So I droned on through the night drinking coffee, steering towards a distant star on the horizon for a while and checking the compass now and then with a flashlight and trying to stay awake.

The next morning, after having been up for 40 hours, and not having seen a ship for about 10 hours, I had to get some sleep. A very light breeze, just enough to ruffle the surface of the sea, had sprung up so I hoisted the working jib, put a double reef in the main, and hove-to. This maneuver is often used in storm conditions, but there are other times when it comes in handy. When you heave-to the motion of the boat changes. Though close to the wind, she was not fighting to gain ground to windward and it makes things comfortable in fair weather for cooking, eating and sleeping.

I went below, charted my position and slept for six hours. It was the only time on the entire nine month trip that I slept below when not at anchor. When I woke, and the water was boiling for coffee, I plotted my present position astonished to find that while I hadn’t lost any of my westing, I was now almost 18 miles north of where I had been when I went to sleep!

It was the middle of the day when a light breeze of about five or six miles an hour rippled the water from the southeast. I would have liked to have motor sailed some more. Though the previous days had been mostly windless, there had always been a few tempting zephyrs when I could slack back on the throttle and still keep the speedometer reading at 5 to 5 1/2 knots. Once when I was butt naked on the bowsprit hanking on the jenny after a tantalizing breeze sprung up a Cuban fighter jet buzzed me. He came in front of me about 60 feet off the deck circled once and then headed east and was soon out of sight.

Now I had to do what sailors on sailboats do and sail because what fuel I had left I needed for the generator and to be able to use the outboard when maneuvering in the anchorage at Isla Mujeres if I ever got that far.

A couple of months later I would go into an anchorage under sail, maneuver to where I wanted to anchor and then, heaving-to, I’d walk forward and drop the anchor, go back to the cockpit and back the main sail to set the hook without using the motor. The motor was always running while I was doing this, but I never had it in gear. Marina sailors, those

odd creatures who seem able to exist only with the yellow umbilicus of a shore power cord, used to think this maneuver was salty as hell.

The next day the trade winds returned and I started to click off miles to the south. I had nearly crossed the Yucatan Channel and in the late afternoon I spotted two Mexican fishing boats, called “pangas“, just a few miles north of Isla Contoy which was 14 miles north of Isla Mujeres, my destination. Contoy was a wildlife preserve and landing there was forbidden without special permission.

Suddenly the fishing line I always trailed when under sail went taut. It was the first thing I’d caught since a big barracuda in the Keys. Once, somewhere on the first couple of days out of Key West, a gigantic dolphin had struck the lure, leaping clear of the water with his strike and broke the 80 lb. leader! It was just as well, because it must have been upwards of thirty pounds and there was no way I would have killed a fish like that for one meal with no ice to keep the remainder.

This was a good sized fish, though, fighting for its life 150′ astern. I tore into the lazarette for the gloves I kept there so I wouldn’t rip up my hands pulling the catch aboard. This wasn’t sport fishing. This was food fishing and the six pound tuna was just what I wanted after eating canned food for almost a week. When it was aboard and clubbed into submission I dug the charcoal grill out of the cockpit locker and within an hour he was filleted, grilled and delicious! The light was fading fast and soon I could see the loom of the lights on Isla Mujeres ahead.

As always at sundown I swapped the genoa for the working jib, hitching the harness to the jack lines running along the deck on either side of the cabin. Gingerly I’d climb up over the dinghy, pull down the sail, unhank it from the stay and cram it between the sides of the dinghy and the netting on the life lines. The sheets were always left running through the blocks as each jib had a different lead. Then I’d hank on the new sail, scramble up over the dinghy bottom again, hoist the new sail and edge my way back into the cockpit once more, steady up on the course and reset Florence to doing her job.

It’s never a good idea to enter an unknown port in the dark and the cruising guide warned of coral guarding the narrow entrance into Islas’ harbor from seaward, so I slowly made my way down the eastern side of the island three or four miles offshore. When I reached the southern end I put a double reef in the main and hove-to. With my running lights shining brightly, I took pleasure in relatively long one-hour naps.

By the middle of the night I’d drifted a couple of miles north of the island so I sailed south again to about the middle of the island judging it would be near sunrise when I’d drifted this far north again.

When the night slowly vanished and I could easily make out features and people walking along the shore I slipped below for a mug of coffee and to read and reread both of the cruising guides I carried. They gave conflicting versions on how to enter the harbor. Back on deck I raised the Mexican courtesy and yellow quarantine flags from the starboard spreader and then, throwing caution to the wind, I did what any sensible sailor would do: I followed the ferry boat from Cancun in.

As the ferry closed with its dock I slid past it and the Navy base to the anchorage where eight cruising sailboats bobbed in the crystal clear water. I chose a spot at the south end of the anchorage near where Hurricane Hugo had beached one of the car ferries. The anchor bit into the coral sand in 10 feet of water six days, 12 hours after leaving Key West.

Three hundred fifty five nautical miles (409.25 landlubber miles) at a speed of 2.13 knots per hour or 2.44 mph in a car.

It wasn’t like crossing the Atlantic alone, but it was a good trip for this single-hander. I had done it and now all I had to do was go through the paper work two-step on shore.

The next day would be my 50th birthday.

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