"Good Morning, Isla Mujeres!"
By Bernadette Bernon
April 6, 2001
Isla Mujeres, Mexico
21 14.795 N 86 44.698 W
Every day that we've been anchored in the cleft of this funky Mexican island off the Yucatán coast, we've heard this same warm greeting, and then sat back to listen to the Isla Mujeres Cruisers' Net, broadcast each morning on VHF channel 13 at 7:30. Through this net we've gotten to know about the fish barbeques over at the Marina Paraíso ("At 4 for drinkers, and 5 for eaters. Only 60 pesos"), about where to take your propane tank for a fill-up, and about other loosely organized rendezvous that the cruisers here have pulled together. Through the net, we've also gotten to know some of the other people on the boats anchored around us — a mix of Germans, Canadians, Austrians, Swedes, French, English, Americans — many of whom are headed south to Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, and Panama, north to the States, or over to Cuba. While we wait, we've been able to tell them about anchorages and way points in Cuba and the U.S. East Coast, and they've been able to tell us the latest about where they've just been. We're finding that's how the cruising world turns, with folks giving and getting enormous amounts of information from one another, especially by connecting initially through the nets. Although the big daddy of nets in this region is the Northwest Caribbean Cruisers' Net, broadcast on the single-sideband radio (frequency 8188 every morning at 1400 Zulu, and a treasure for everyone traveling this part of the ocean,) the local Isla Mujeres net, broadcast on the VHF, has also given us great local information and introduced us to new friends.
The Isla net is the pet project of a German fellow named Johann, a singlehander who lives with his German shepherd, Ludwig van Beethoven, on his boat Talaria on the west side of the anchorage. When Johann arrived here four years ago, he fell in love with Isla, as cruisers here call the island, and he's never left. In fact, now he's building a house, and says he's here to stay. Johann started the net three years ago, and it's been going strong every day since, using volunteer "net controllers" most mornings — although Johann always does weekends — and connecting cruisers with services they might need, with one another, and spreading the word on the latest weather predictions.
Johann opens the net by asking for any emergency or priority traffic. Usually there's none, although a day or so ago someone came on in a panic saying he needed stitches ASAP for a gash in his hand. Cruisers on the net responded immediately with the name of the best English-speaking doctor on the island, including her outside-of-hours cell-phone number. Someone else said they'd be right over to pick the fellow up in the dinghy to bring him to shore.
Johann then moves on to the weather — what everyone is waiting for — which is handled by a cruiser who volunteers the morning before. Until a couple of days ago, Brendt on Motu was pulling down the weather faxes and broadcasting the information, until he and Maxine grabbed the wind they were waiting for and left on a fast train for Cuba. Frank on Simba told Johann he'd be happy to take over from Brendt for a few days, until he and Linda also got the wind they'd been waiting for to head south, the same wind for which Douglas and I are twiddling our thumbs.
For the past couple of days, our anchorage of cruising boats has been buffeted by some pretty ugly weather: 30 knots from the north, rain, then 25 knots still from the north, blazing sunshine, then more rain, then 35. I notice that not many people are leaving their boats to go ashore. Those who do are in for a rollicking wet ride (I know). Frank reports that the 1230 UTC "24 and 48 Hours Winds/Seas Forecast" predicts the wind will die down today, and shift to the northwest. It looks like tomorrow or the next day will be a good time to head south. Meanwhile, however, we have to deal with the tail end of this norther, which has not yet blown itself out.
Isla has holding ground made up of layers of sand sandwiching rubble, which may be OK during mild weather, but can be a full-fledged disaster when the wind pipes to these velocities. Also, the wind is coming from just a tad west of north, and Isla is exposed to the northwest, so we're getting this wind almost full on. During the past night and day we've seen seven boats drag through the harbor, including two who'd had their anchors down for a few weeks. We all watch each other's boats carefully now — especially if neighbors go ashore in their dinghy — and we look for signs of dragging. A few times, groups of volunteers have scrambled to the rescue of boats that lost their hold in this wind, once while the owners were ashore. At the moment, everyone seems to be stable as we listen to the morning net, and as 25 knots howls outside.
Johann asks if there are any new arrivals. To our surprise, someone says he came in last night from Marathon, Florida. He tells the net he had 20- to 30-foot seas and 50 knots in the Gulf Stream, and that he was the only experienced person aboard. I shudder to even think about this, and about what his crew must think of sailing now.
Johann asks the net if anyone is leaving. Today, no response is heard. Good, everyone is staying put. "Glad to hear it," says Johann. He calls for the general check in. We chime in, one after another: Midnight Mail, Searching, Sea Camp, Driftwood, Blue Dolphin, Shabu, Felia, Starlight Express, Westofantasea, Annemare, Norma Joanne, Horus, Mechanic ... When Douglas and I first arrived in Isla, and heard these names, they were strangers. But now, because I hear them all chatting on the net and on channel 13 on the radio (which we all monitor), I can pick out voices and accents, I know who's who, who's friends with whom, who's going where.
Johann calls for anyone willing to carry flat-stamp mail back to the States, Europe or Canada. Because Isla is so close to the international airport at Cancún, it's a great place to rendezvous with guests. Many days, a cruising boat will come on to tell the net they have friends flying home who are willing to drop mail off when they arrive. Later on, when the wind dies a bit, I'll dinghy over and deliver letters to someone flying to Florida.
The Isla net follows a consistent format. Johann next asks if there are any "treasures from the bilge for sale," or "services or information offered or needed." Bruzzi says he needs crew to Key West. Johann offers a 4-person Switlick life raft for sale. Artemis says he needs a Racor replacement filter. Thumper says he has a Bruce anchor for sale. Someone else says he wants to sell a pair of used Tevas. We laugh, but, then again, with cruisers you never know, he's probably serious. I go on and ask if anyone has any recent experience in the Río Dulce, Guatemala. We'd been hearing that there was an increasing crime problem there, and that some cruisers had been robbed. Driftwood says he just came back from the Río and that the problem has been exaggerated. We set a time to meet later on and talk about it.
Cruisers, of necessity, rely on each other. Yesterday, for example, after talking to the couple on Flow, which is anchored behind us, we learned that Karen and Horst had spent a lot of time cruising among the islands of Belize, which is where we hope to go over the next couple of months. Horst came over to Ithaka and let us borrow his cruising guide, which was filled with hundreds of annotations, firsthand GPS co-ordinates, and many shocking corrections where the author of the guide mislabeled things, or gave the wrong lat/longs. He insisted that we keep the book overnight, and add all those notes and corrections to our own cruising guide, which would save us hours of work over the next month or two. Horst and Karen are waiting for the same weather window we are, so we look forward to spending time with them down the road somewhere.
Before Johann closes the net, he always reminds everyone to show an anchor light at night, then he gives a "thought for the day." This usually comes in the form of a short reading from a favorite poem, or a beautiful little passage from one of his treasured books. We listen to his recitation and pause to think about it for a moment, and then we get on about our day.
Isla Mujeres is a mecca for cruising sailors exploring the Yucatán and Central American coast. One of the cruisers on the net, who uses the island as a base half the year, announced the other day that she's counted 137 boats checking in on the net between December 1 and the end of February. There are probably more than that, because many boats don't identify themselves on the net unless they need to announce something. Cruisers come here because of the island's convenient location as a jumping-off point, because it's not far from the fabled Mayan ruins at Tulum, Uxmal, Coba, and Chichén Itzá, and because you can find almost anything in Isla in the way of food and provisions. There's a well-stocked supermercado and, for those wanting to load up in a more serious way, a 20-minute ferry ride to Cancún puts you within a bus ride of Wal-Mart and Sam's Club. The island has three marinas, one of which is a full-service operation where one can leave a boat in the water or on the hard, and have work done at competitive prices. In fact, Puerto Isla Mujeres Resort and Yacht Club has the only Travellift between here and Panama — a good thing to know. Sure, the island does have a tourist façade of cheesy Mexican trinket shops, and all day it swallows hourly ferries full of sun-burned day-trippers from the mainland looking for a patch of beach. But by evening, they've mostly gone back to their resorts on Cancún. Then, the cruisers from the boats, and the young backpackers, and the few guests from the modest inns on the island can stroll around to our heart's content, drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice from street stands, and having the place to ourselves.
Frank's weather report on the net this morning had been great news for us in one way, but sad in another. It meant that the next day, or the day after that at the latest, many of us would have the conditions we'd been waiting for to head south. But, Douglas and I knew that it also meant that when we left Isla, we'd be saying good-bye to Harold and Diane, with whom we'd become such close friends since Christmas. Sea Camp was staying here for another month, so that Harold could do some work on the boat while Diane went back to the States to visit their daughter in New York. That night, we'd have them over to Ithaka for dinner, and do our best to say farewell-for-now to two people who'd come to mean the world to us. We hoped that they'd catch up with us somewhere in Belize, and we'd all been talking about that and planning out strategies to try to make it happen and stay in touch via the SSB. But at the same time, we also knew without saying it that cruising can be an unsympathetic maestro when facing the whims of the weather. Come what may, tonight we'd have to face the music and say good-bye.