Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Poor Old Boat
Hello to everyone from Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, Mexico.  
There were times I wasn't sure we would get here.  This trip was a life lesson that you can do only so much preparation and planning before Mother Nature makes a joke of your efforts.
Updating from the last blog post, we did make the 50-mile trip from Marathon to Key West without incident.  Then we waited out a severe cold front in a protected marina right in the midst of downtown Key West.  Andy and Jill arrived from Seattle during record-setting cold weather and we all hunkered down in the boat.
Wednesday, December 15
We had planned to travel with two buddy boats, Restless Rosie and Perception, but they each were experiencing problems with their boats and decided to postpone their departure.
Weather guru Chris Parker suggested the best time to leave for Mexico was Wednesday, December 15th, so we took his advice.  His report to us included specific waypoints designed to chart us on the safest course best suited to sailing as much as possible.  Wind speeds the first day were supposed to be in the 10-15 knot range.  We should arrive in Isla Mujeres Friday night or Saturday, just ahead of a strong cold front predicted for Saturday afternoon.
Forecasting is perhaps more art than science.  Within an hour of leaving Key West, we were experiencing 27 knot winds on the beam, causing our 36-foot catamaran to pitch wildly from side to side.  The crew began to make trips to the rail.  It only got worse as the trip progressed.  Seas that were predicted to be 3-6 feet were 6-9 feet and confused.  If we weren't being tossed side to side, we were tossed front to back.
Thursday, December 16
Poor davit.  It bent down, bringing the stanchion with it.
By the second day, weariness and seasickness were beginning to take a toll on all of us.  Captain Phil had the worst of it.  Unable to keep down even sips of water, he was showing signs of dehydration.   Then things got even worse.  Late in the afternoon, a loud snap from the back of the boat caught everyone's attention.  Before our eyes, the starboard davit broke off, sending the dinghy stern-first into the water.  As we tried to secure the dinghy in the rocking boat, the port davit followed suit and snapped in two, taking a solar panel with it.  With the turbulence fighting our attempts, we did manage to lash the dinghy to the stern of the boat.
Poor dinghy, after being pulled behind the boat for 300 miles.
On the heels of the dinghy catastrophe, the port engine overheat alarm sounded and we had to shut it down.  The starboard engine continued to run, but the RPM’s rose and fell.

At that point, we decided we could not go on and would have to seek refuge somewhere.  A quick scan of our charts showed a large land mass about 35 miles south, with a deep water protected harbor and no reef to cross.  For future references in this post, we will refer to that land mass as “Atlantis.”

It was dark when we reached the harbor.  There were no lighted markers, so Andy and Jill stood watch with flashlights as we entered.  We soon found a place to anchor off the main channel and for the first time in 24 hours the boat was calm.   Those who were able to eat had a light snack and we prepared for some much-needed rest.

Just as we were all nodding off, there was a loud pounding on the side of the boat.  Andy, who is fluent in Spanish, went out to the cockpit.  Two men in uniform identified themselves as border guards.  They were in a dilapidated rowboat which was missing part of its back transom.  They had rowed from somewhere nearby. 

They asked questions until they had written down everything they could think of to ask us about our boat, then checked our passports and boat documentation.  They finally left and we all fell into bed. 

Thirty minutes later, they were back, asking again to see our passports.  They had neglected to copy down our passport numbers and asked for a sheet of paper to do so.

Friday, December 17

The guards returned at 7:30 the next morning.  This time there were three of them.  They told Andy we were too conspicuous where we were.  This wasn’t a tourist type of harbor and they needed us to move the boat.  They told us to move the boat close to their office so they could keep an eye on us.  We were not to come ashore.  They wanted to know how long it would take to make our repairs and we estimated we could leave by noon.

At 11:45, one of the guards rowed out to our boat to confirm that we were leaving by noon.  Phil had replaced a broken hose clamp on the port engine.  Andy and Jill had retied the dinghy.  I had baked brownies, hoping to improve international relations.  We offered the brownies to the guard, who radioed his boss for permission, but was told he could not accept any gifts. 

We left exactly at noon.  The boat was repaired and we were well rested.  The wind and seas were favorable as we cruised westward along the Atlantis coast.  

By late evening, the seas and wind increased  to the point that we took down the sails and only motored.  We began taking waves over the bow.  Later, to my chagrin, I discovered that I had left a hatch open over the place Phil and I had stored our clean clothes.  Everything was soaked with salt water.

Saturday, December 18

Sometime before sunrise, we heard a friendly voice on the VHF.  It was Alan from Perception, one of our original buddy boats.  He had left Key West several hours after we did, but his boat was slower and he was just catching up with us.  Restless Rosie had gone on ahead and Perception was alone, fighting the same bad weather we were.  Alan has been sailing for several years, but said he had never sailed in weather this bad.  We decided to travel together to Isla Mujeres.

Around mid-afternoon, the RPM’s on both of our engines became unstable, a sure sign of clogged fuel filters.  Phil replaced them, but then neither engine would start!  We were making headway with only the sails, but we had another 24 hours of travel to Isla Mujeres, requiring that we cross the Yucatan Channel, with its strong northerly current.    We also knew that a strong cold front was due in a few hours.

Once again, we took refuge along the coast of Atlantis.  Our cruising guide described a marina on the northwest tip of the island about 12 miles away.  We began sailing in that direction.  

Again, it was dark when we arrived.  Andy hailed the dockmaster on the VHF.  At first he told us we could tie up at the dock, then he called back to say we should anchor for the night and come in to the dock in the morning, when customs officials would be available.

Sunday, December 19

We had a quiet night.  Around 9:00 a.m., we pulled the anchor and headed into the dock, along with Perception.  These Atlantisians were much more welcoming.   This marina was far from civilization and the staff came in for week-long shifts.  They couldn’t have been more helpful.  None of them spoke much English, but Andy was able to communicate well with them and we all quickly became friends.

I knew our families would be getting concerned, so we asked if there was a phone we could use to call home.  The closest phone with long distance capability was at a hotel two miles away.  Andy, Jill and I walked to the hotel to call Andy's brother, Matt, but we were unable to make the connection.  A recorded message said “all lines are busy.”

Back at the boat later, we remembered that Alan on Perception had a SAT phone and we borrowed it to make our call.  As expected, everyone at home was worried about us and I was glad we were able to let them know we were all safe.

The cold front that was forecast came through with a vengeance.   Even though we were tied to the dock, our boats were buffeted by the wind and waves, causing our dock lines to chafe against the jagged concrete dock.  We spent most of the day trying to chafe-guard our lines, without much success.  

Monday, December 20

The dockmaster, who was also a mechanic, came on board to help Phil assess the problem with our engines.  Neither of them made any progress, so the dockmaster called a mechanic and arranged his transportation from 50 miles away.  The mechanic arrived and diagnosed water in the fuel line  In short order, both engines were purring. 

Andy and Jill were scheduled to fly back to Seattle on Wednesday.  Fearing that they might not make their flight if they stayed with us, they decided to make their way to the capitol of Atlantis, about three hours away, where they could catch a flight to Cancun.  They spent the night there and flew to Cancun on Tuesday.  They pleaded hardship with the airlines and were able to delay their flight until Thursday with no extra charge.

Tuesday, December 21

Phil and I left Atlantis around noon, heading due west toward Isla Mujeres. The engines performed well and we motor-sailed through the night, arriving at Isla around 1:00 p.m.  We checked into the Marina Paraiso.  Andy and Jill showed up from Cancun shortly thereafter with news that they were now engaged!   

The Best of Times and the Worst of Times

The engagement news, along with spending time with both of them on this “adventure,” was the best of times.  The trip itself, maybe not the worst of times, but definitely an experience we’ll all remember.

Next blog:  Isla Mujeres....worth the trip!


Barbara said...

ok you have successfully scared the tar out of us landlubbers! I'm very glad you are writing about it, but really look forward to seeing you in the turquoise waters with a mai tai in hand!

Chris said...

Holy sh-t, what an experience! Glad you found Atlantis along the way. Don't even want to think about you folks on passage during that cold front. Thanks for the update!