After our decision to head to central America instead of the lesser antilles, Dani and I had a sort of nagging excitement to get there. I know that is a very uncruiser like emotion to have but it was there none the less. It was exacerbated by the fact that we had no cruising guides, no special notes, no real advice on where to go or how to get there. The only thing we knew was that we wanted to drop the hammer and get there.
A second gulf stream crossing loomed like a cloud in my mind. You know, like a big grey thunder boomer over on the edge of the horizon that you really don’t pay much attention to while you’re basking in your sunbeam.
The closest port I knew of in Mexico was Isla Mujeres and so we went with it. We’ll just go there. Right. Without much access to Internet in Cuba we didn’t even do much research on the place. We just lumped all our hopes on making landfall there like laundry in a basket and thought no more of it.
A weather window emerged… Some gentle easterly winds followed by south winds. South winds in the north flowing gulf stream should make for calm(er) seas than if the wind was northerly and so I was okay with it. I thought, oh well, we’ll just burn some diesel on this one but its time to get out of Cuba. We paid the marina bill and decided we’d ship out on Monday morning. Our plan was something like this:
Well, actually our plan was to duck south after we cleared the tip of Cuba and make some southing before heading further west but things didn’t quite work out that way in the end. But about clearing out of Cuba…
I’m sitting there at the desk of the harbor master who presents the bill and I pay it dutifully using the VERY last of our CUC pesos (the last of our “Cuban” money) we’d set aside for this. We get a stamp and a receipt and all that good stuff then the harbor master gets this terrible look on his face. Like he’d been sucking on a lemon. He stares real hard at the bill and apologizes, “Oh no, I’ve charged the wrong number of days…” He had shorted the marina one night, the last night we’d be staying. I looked at him and said, “Well do I need to get some more pesos?” He got that screwed up lemon face pucker again and there was a crushing silence. I wondered if he’d committed some sort of sin in the communist bureaucratic system that was simply unsolvable. The clock on the wall clunked its second hand along sounding like a rock tumbler. Finally the dock master gets a sly smile and says, “Can you leave early?” I ask how early. He says, “Tomorrow before the other dock master arrives, perhaps 6:30am.” I nod. He goes on, “I will be in hot water if he notices. Make sure if he notices you tell him you had some sort of…” And I cut him off mentioning that my rudder had some real problems that needed looking into before we left. He flashed me a sly smile, I slid him a tip.
We also made out like bandits on one other count exiting the marina and I’m not sure how we did it and no one reading this should assume it will be the same for them, but I’ll relate our renegade exploits. This blog is sort of a warts and all affair anyway right? When clearing into Cuba they tell you that as American’s, you must buy Cuban health insurance EVEN IF YOU HAVE YOUR OWN. We agreed. All the other boats in the marina seemed to have some guy come around after a couple of days and fill out the insurance paper work and they are charged for it at a rate of 2 or 3 CUC/day/person. This roaming boat insurance seller simply never materialized at our boat and we never said anything about it and no one else did either. This saved us a lot of money. Dumb luck I guess.
Being mindful of the dockmaster’s good reputation, we got up at 5:30am and made ready to head out in the dwindling morning darkness. We had said goodbye to all of our Cuban buddies. The interesting mix of people, black white, and brown but all of the same behavior and language. So different than back home where racial differences preceded behavioral ones. We would miss the way they sat in a sort of malaise until you said “Hola!” and then they’d show a great big smile almost without fail. We said goodbye, slipped our lines, and went to clear out with Immigration and Customs who gave our boat a quick once over and then repeatedly asked us if it were correct that we were really going to head straight to Mexico. “Of course” we confirmed. So finally the man gave us a Zarpe (an official document saying you’re cleared out and must leave) saying in broken English, “Give to Mexico.” We motored out of the marina, hoisted our sails and set a course to the west-southwest.
Those predicted east winds filled in and we hoisted our spinnaker. We had fine sailing and beautiful weather during those first few hours. It was glorious. Until it wasn’t…
That first day included our first major mishap during a sail. We came into the lee of one of the mountains of Cuba that blot the western coast and the wind dropped so much that the vane couldn’t hold a good course so we started hand steering. So enchanting was the landscape (or so we told ourselves this was the reason) that we let ourselves drift just far enough off course that the spinnaker flogged and went forward around the forstay and wrapped itself up into a hideous mess confounded by tangling with the jib sheet which was also wrapped around that stay. As if that weren’t bad enough… We drifted out of the lee of that mountain and the wind kicked up and we sighted lighter colored water straight ahead. What a mess!
Water color is more important than you might think. It isn’t just about matching your evening attire to it so the photos come out right, and it isn’t just about picking your favorite colors or ooohing and ahhhing over the beauty of it all. No. When the sun is high and the sky clear, the water color reveals depth. The more blue, the deeper. Then green. Then a sort of sandy color finally, which means something shallow. This was literally the first time Dani and I had seen such water color depth guessing conditions and seeing what seemed like a color SOOO much lighter than the bluer-than-blue we were in just a quarter mile ahead in the middle of a kerfluffle was daunting. We got the motor started and Dani steered while I tried to unwrap the tornado of a spinnaker which is not easy in a bit of breeze. I kept trying to see which way to unwrap it but I couldn’t and it kept getting worse. Flustered, steaming and quite unhappy I retired to the cockpit and considered getting a martini to you know, calm things down, but instead I took the helm and Dani trompted up to the front of the boat and somehow (God bless her little hands) unwrapped the spinnaker as I motored us around the “shallow” patch.
Dani asked, “Couldn’t you just see which way to untwist it?” Of course I couldn’t, maybe my eyes are getting worse I had responded. “Yeah, we def need to get you some prescription lenses,” she went on. She kept talking about it as she is apt to do when plotting a solution for something while I took off my shades and looked at them as though they’d betrayed me. Then I noticed it. Sunscreen smears. I washed them and put them back on and suddenly I was all Eagle-Eye again. Let this be a lesson to all. On a boat, so I’ve read, a disaster is almost always a series of events that converge in a terrible event. If even one of those events is stopped or alleviated you can disconnect the disaster chain. Wipe those shades!
As it turned out, the shallow water wasn’t so shallow either. We were just being over cautious and had never navigated by sighting depths like that. We later crossed over more and more lightly colored parts of the water very slowly testing the depths. We have a lot to learn about colors of water. Nothing we went over that looked shallow registered very deep on the depth sounder. Better safe than sorry though, we do know that Cuba has many reefs and some aren’t charted, its a real “keep your eyes open” sort of joint.
So with the spinnaker up again, we made good way. And discussed the impending sunset while making a mutual decision that such a spinnaker tangle at night would be unacceptable and that we’d take it down and put the jib up at night. Which we did. Which slowed us down terribly. So terribly. And the wind shifted so we got pushed north and had to gybe to head back on course. But we didn’t tangle up!
Tuesday morning we put the spinnaker back up and made good our south west course. Nothing so wild or hairy occurred. Only a great many sail changes as the winds were unsettled. They spun around the clock and changed from light to heavy and back again as though taunting us. In this one day, we changed sails more times than we had in our previous two passages combined.
And finally that evening at some point when I came on watch, I looked out at the glass flat sea and said, “Time to burn some diesel.” Dani protested because we figured we had only between 20-25 gallons on board from looking at the sight glass, but I wasn’t okay just drifting around in the lee of Pinar Del Rio for a second night. This motoring enabled us to make good the 84 miles of progress on the second day through a totally flat and calm sea that looked like a black blanket of velvet laid out all around in the moonless sky.
When we came out of the wind hole by passing beyond the western tip of Cuba, Sundowner made a great groaning sound and leaned over as the wind hit her. Strong south winds. Our plan had been to beat south at this point but with south seas running 4 feet and wind in our face it was just not happening. We decided to take a hike west as fast as possible and hope to get past the gulf stream. Sailing into a port to wait for better weather would mean “clearing in again” and we weren’t doing it. So we again changed sails and took off.
The next twenty four hours were some of the most frustrating sailing and motoring I’ve seen in my short sailing career. Wind from the south ranging from 20kts to light and variable. Constant direction shifts from southeast all the way to south west. Waves mainly from the south west (where we were supposed to be going!). The waves varied from a swell all the way to 1.5m choppy little short ones that would slap Sundowner in the face and all but halt her forward progress. And as if the slap across the bow wasn’t insult enough this would of course send spray into the air and slosh water down the decks wetting everything with salty spray. And then there was the killer. The flush.
When we crossed the Florida Straits, it wasn’t so bad. The gulf stream didn’t seem all that big of a deal. We made very little easting because of it. But out here between Cuba and the Yucatan was a different story. It was like fighting a raging river. I started getting OCD on the chart. Calculating things. I figured at some point in the night, the current was pushing us north at about 3kts. And based on this estimated we’d be 30 miles off course if we could get across it! We fired up the motor and motored, but this didn’t help. Wind, waves, and current all against us, all we could do was head 230 degrees by the compass which barely put us going due west on the GPS. Hours ticked by. Dani came on watch and looked at the chart, “We’re going to be flushed into the gulf!” And there it was… I felt like a wad being flushed down a commode at great velocity and little control of my final destination.
Then the fear of the motor running all those hours set in. Would we have fuel to motor into port at the end of it, would we even have enough to make it to the coast?! Dani checked the sight gauges again. She popped her head up out of the engine room, “Something is wrong!” What is it I had asked. She told me, “One of the tanks sight gauges hasn’t moved at all.” Oh shit. I figured out why instantly, one of the gate valves to the tank was still closed, which in turn destroyed our estimate of our diesel reserves. Luckily, it was in our favor. We had started with an almost full forty gallons in the port tank but had assumed it was only 15. This gave us the required gas to get across the nasty little jump. We had cleared the toilet bowl and sailed right out of the strongest part of the gulf stream by morning. And as it happens so often with sailing, the beautiful sunrise brought calmer seas, calmer emotions, and a sense of well being as our little BetaMarine chugged along.
The last part of the night when the seas and current had backed off a little we could “point” closer to our true course and made up some of the 30 some odd miles we’d lost. And the next morning we just motored straight south luxuriating in the sound of diesel turning into horsepower. We made it into Isle Mujeres and dropped anchor in ten feet of water, tired, but happy.
The crossing wasn’t just treacherous for us. Along the way, somewhere in the second day, we picked up a passenger who was obviously not in the right place a the right time.
He stuck with us a whole day until a bigger ship passed by and made his escape sensing that we were just too slow. Or maybe he thought Dani smelled funny. Who can account for bird brain tastes?
Isle Mujeres turned out to be beautiful. The water, the temperature, the swimming, everything we wanted.
On the second day we dinked over to El Milagro to find Julio who handled our clearance procedure for 50 dollars plus the official fees. This was straight forward and we felt “worth it”. All the officials came to us, stamped everything, and no one felt it was worthwhile to come inspect our boat. So we cleared in just like that…
We still have to go to Cancun to get a Temporary Import License, but beyond that, we’re all settled in. Sundowner rides happily in the free and well protected waters. Despite warnings of “Bad holding” she has been stuck to the bottom since we arrived.
You can see our anchor at the end of this video. Oh who am I kidding, this video is way more about Dani swimming around like a mermaid than anchors.
We’re happy here in warm Mexico. We have a lot to report as soon as we can catch up on the blog. We love ya’ll. Until next time… Enjoy a Sundowner for us!