October 1, 2003
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.

By 4:30 a.m. Friday morning, we raise and reef the main and genoa, and sail off the mooring. We’ve got steady winds from the east, and our course is just a hair west of north. The first few miles, still in the lee of the atoll, give us good speed and benign seas, but once we pass that protection, things get nasty fast. But we’re not grousing, because Ithaka’s screaming at seven knots. Good speed vanquishes a queasy stomach, and helps the mind move on.

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.

Ithaka takes off, carried by the powerful Gulf Stream at 11.6 knots
With little to do as we hurtle forward, Bernadette makes lunch, and I muse about our time in Belize, where we’ve spent the last three months. Weeks ago, before sailing offshore to Glovers and Lighthouse atolls, we’d cleared out of Belize Customs in the little town of Big Creek, just around the mangrove swamp from Placencia. Between then and now, while at the atolls, we were officially checked in nowhere – an interesting concept, and parallel to how I was feeling at the moment.

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 Placencia water taxi – preferred means of transport through the mangroves to Big Creek, and Customs/Immigration
The second way to get to Big Creek was to buy a seat on the Hokey Pokey Water Taxi in Placencia. This was a high-speed romp through the shallow back channels of the mangrove swamp, taking 20 minutes, costing $5, and generally offering several manatee sightings along the way. It left at 10:00 a.m. and returned at 2:00, which gave enough time to run the official gauntlets, and still settle into a roadside restaurant for a fiery lunch of beans, rice and chicken (about $1.50). We’ve been to Belize on Ithaka a couple of times now, have checked in and out both ways, and I prefer the taxi and lunch.

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.

Douglas likes photographing hand-painted signs, and wondered about the man who painted this one, and what experience motivated him. He inquired about the painter, but the locals couldn’t identify him.
Marriage was on my mind that day. In the Hokey Pokey Water Taxi, I’d met a 20-something German couple who were vacationing and who’d decided to get married here. It had taken three days of hassling in Belize City to acquire a license, but a $30 bribe had sealed the deal. Now they had to find a justice of the peace, one of whom was rumored to live near Mango Creek. They’d invited a friend to come along as witness, and the trio, bedecked in flip flops, t-shirts and shorts, had a spirit of all-things-are-possible.

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.

“No worries mate” he replied quickly. “I’ll see she’s fine while you’re away. And you can’t pay me for it.”

Bernadette flew home for a routine medical checkup, but got more than she bargained for.
Turns out, in the 1990s, this generous Australian had circumnavigated for six years on Fat Cookie, his homemade 21-foot by 23-foot open catamaran. No motor. Just two, three-foot-wide hulls in which he could more or less lie down. His wife called it two coffins held together by mesh. Rory single-handed more than half his trip — just him and Harry, his self-steering device.

“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.

After so long out at the atolls, we looked forward to shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables.
Before Bernadette and I returned to Ithaka a week later, after her successful surgery (all was benign), I called Rory and asked if there was anything I could bring from the States for him. “Well mate,” he said, “We’re building a little porch off the house here, and could use some dark caulk to make the floor look like a ship’s deck, if it’s not too much trouble.” It wasn’t.

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.

We’re on our way to honky-tonk Isla, a popular crossroads for cruisers headed south from the United States and north from the western Caribbean.
Onward. One hundred miles north of Banco Chinchoro is Cozumel, a narrow, north-to-south, hot-dog-shaped island just off the mainland coast. In that narrows, the current gets really getting squished, and that’s where we are now. Ithaka is accelerating from trot to gallop. Nine knots. Then 10. Then 10.5! We start making bets with each other.

“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.”

How much do you want to bet that Ithaka will hit 11?
Ithaka peaks at 11.6 With 20 to 25 knots of wind just forward of the beam, and maximum zoom from the mighty stream beneath us, this gal is struttin’ her stuff. Our progress is thrilling. We’ll be anchored long before nightfall.

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.

A snack truck in Isla, claiming their crab sandwiches are better than Viagra

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.

Douglas dinghied to the marina, filled up our water and diesel jerry jugs, and we topped off all our tanks before setting off again.
There are only a few cruising boats here and, I bet, depending on how long they’re staying, a few won’t bother checking in with Customs. Those making pit stops might try to skip it and save the money. Officialdom at Isla is pricey and takes half a day in and half a day out, because you have to make stops in four different buildings. It’s common knowledge that officials don’t inspect their anchorage regularly for new arrivals, and they’re also known to solicit “gifts” from cruisers who come to their offices. We got hit for an extra $10 in fees last 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.

Isla, where beads, and bowls, and sandals, and pottery, and all manner of things you didn’t know you needed are there for the sunburned tourist to contemplate.

Heading back to the United States, after being away three years, gives us a lot to think about; we’re excited and nervous all at the same time.

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.

Onward, toward home
David and Shauna will set sail tomorrow morning for Key West. Bernadette and I will leave a day or so later and stay in touch via our single-sideband radio during the several-day crossing. The four of us spent dinner wondering what our lives will be like in the States, wondering how the country, and we have changed – something we can’t know till we really live there again. We’re all nervous about the re-entry process. And we’re grateful we’ll have each other once we arrive.