Isla Mujeres, Mexico
21° 14.766 North
086° 45.147 West
A Sleigh Ride To Isla
By Douglas Bernon
There’s a time for everything. Now is our time to head north, to Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Sadly, we motor out the reef cut from Lighthouse’s anchorage at about 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, and tie Ithaka to one of the heavy-duty moorings that are set there for use by the commercial dive boats. With the Yucatan current (farther north it becomes the Gulf Stream) only a stone’s throw away, we know we’ll make tracks, and want to time our entrance into the Isla harbor for daylight. We noodle various speeds and arrival times, and decide we ought to be underway between 3:00 and 5:00 a.m.. With such an early departure, there’s no way we’d chance wiggling across Lighthouse’s reef in darkness, so a night on the dive ball offers a convenient solution.
It was difficult saying goodbye to our good friends on Dutchess and Gabrielle. Over the next week, as Ithaka moves north, both boats will be heading south, to the Rio Dulce river in Guatemala for hurricane season. We’ll miss them and our diving, snorkeling and spearfishing. Our season for such pleasures is officially over. The trip to Isla Mujeres is the penultimate leg before returning to the States for boat projects before we head out again next season. We feel mopey; neither of us says much for hours.
After leaving the lee of Lighthouse, before regaining protection behind Banco Chinchoro (another atoll), we have 65 miles of lumpy swells, but good wind. We romp along between six and eight knots, the Monitor self-steering system (addressed as Julio in Spanish speaking waters) driving the whole time.
Clearing in and out of Customs and Immigration in Belize had been a drama. First, you had to get to a place called Big Creek, and there were two ways to accomplish this. First, you could either motor from Placencia for about two hours, wind your way up the tanker channel of Mango Creek to Big Creek, re-anchor, dinghy to shore, walk, hitch-hike or catch a taxi to a town called Independence, where you went to Immigration and got stamped. Then you had to go back to Mango Creek, where you started, and where Customs was located -- but you couldn’t process there first. So, then you returned to the Customs shed, where a surly little gnome directed you back three quarters of a mile to the Customs “annex” (meaning a smaller shed) where you had to get a form kept there by the keeper of the forms, and then return to Customs central.
The Independence Restaurant had a satellite dish, and I joined the diners who were riveted to mayhem on the Jerry Springer Show. I kept thinking how we have so much in America that’s fine, and yet this is what we export. When a static burst ended the broadcast, the restaurant emptied. No-one found out who won the fight between brothers sleeping with the same girl, nor which would have the fortune to marry her.
Now it’s early afternoon Friday, Ithaka has made good progress, and is sailing in the lee of Banco Chinchoro Atoll, where the Yucatan current gets squeezed between the atoll and Yucatan mainland. We watch the speed indicator go beyond seven. Then beyond eight. We start cheering, “Go! Go! GO!!!. Ithaka breaks through nine knots, we howl, then she tops off at 9.5. What a ride! We settle into a happy, sober stupor, and laugh about how three years before we’d clawed our way south against these same forces. Once we clear the north end of Chinchoro’s lee, and we get hit again by the ocean swell, our speed plummets to a snail-like eight knots. No matter. Life was rolling along at a happy clip. It was hard to believe that only a couple of months ago, when we first arrived in Belize from Honduras, our world almost had come crashing down.
Before going out to the atolls, we’d pulled into Placencia, Belize, to check in, and so Bernadette could fly home from Belize City to Newport, Rhode Island, for some routine medical examinations. I stayed aboard Ithaka, anchored in Placencia harbor, a short dinghy ride to the bustling little town. A few days into her visit she e-mailed me that some tests had not given the hoped-for results, and that she was scheduled for surgery four days later to remove an ovarian mass. Shaken deeply, I jumped into the dinghy, roared ashore, found an internet site, booked an outrageously priced last-second ticket to the States, and wondered who would look after Ithaka while I was gone. There’s no place between Placencia and Guatemala to tie up a six-foot-draft boat.
My first stop was the Moorings Charter Base. I found the manager, Rory McDougall,
introduced myself, explained our situation and asked if he knew someone whom
I could hire to look after Ithaka.
“An awful lot of folks helped me back then, including your wife,” he said to my great surprise. “When she was editor at Cruising World, she bought my story about the trip, and was very encouraging to me. Now’s a nice time to return the favor.”
I flew from Belize the next day anxious about Bernadette, but confident that Ithaka was in the finest hands. Indeed, I had the feeling Rory would’ve taken care of Ithaka whether he’d known Bernadette or not.
Last time we checked, Rory’s no longer with the Moorings. He and his wife have graduated to a business of their own, a long-held dream. They live in Placencia with their two young children, and offer all kinds of professional yacht services and repair to cruisers. There’s no way we can repay Rory, really. Except one. When the next person comes to us in need, we can follow his example. Bernadette and I have found that in every harbor, when emergencies arise, there’s always someone willing to put aside his own life for a bit, and extend their hands to strangers in need. We experienced that less frequently in our hurly-burly, land lives, and maybe we offered it less often, too. This is an aspect of cruising we’ll always cherish; there’s more time and incentive to be the kind of person you aspire to.
“I’ll bet you a kazillion pesos and a week of washing dishes that she’ll do 11 knots,” says I.
“Forget it,” Bernadette replies. “I’ll raise the stakes to three weeks of dishes. She’ll hit 11.5.”
Our ride from Lighthouse to Isla, 268 miles, is the best sleigh-ride of our lives. We average 7.8 knots and drop the hook in just under 34 hours. What started in a funk grows into celebration.
Isla Mujeres (the “island of women” in Spanish) is a sliver of an island — a half mile at its broadest, and less than four miles long. Inclined on a northwest to southeast axis, Isla (everybody calls it, simply, Isla) is only 2.5 miles east of the Yucatan mainland, the great thumb of Mexico pointing up into the Gulf of Mexico. Isla isn’t a subtle flower. She’s all Corona, Dos Equis, Tequila, tourism, hucksters and honky-tonk -- a rat-a-tat-tat hive with a well protected anchorage that’s become a regular crossroads for boats heading to and from the United States or Cuba, whose westernmost tip, Cabo San Antonio, is only 109 miles to the east. Packed with cheap restaurants, and easy access to all things American — Cancun, for instance, with every major American store, is only a 15-minute ferry ride away — Isla often seduces folks into lingering for months at a time. Three years ago, when we first started cruising, we’d stayed a couple weeks. It’ll be a briefer stop this time.
So, many passing cruisers arrive, keep their yellow quarantine flag stowed, maintain a low profile, keep their papers and passports in their backpacks in case an official asks to see them (“I’m just on my way to Customs right now”), and then they skedaddle back out of town. That’s what we did – in and out as fast as we could.
During our brief stay, we slept, shopped and — the best part — ate dinner with Shauna and David on Zia Lucia, an exquisitely appointed Puvieus 47 – all work done by David in Sausalito, California, where they’d lived before setting off cruising. Our paths had crossed briefly with Zia Lucia’s in the San Blas, and then, once again, briefly in Belize. We liked getting to know them now, and sharing with someone else the trepidation we felt at returning home with the boat. We spent an evening sharing our stories, and finding out about all our mutual cruising friends.