Heirloom Coordinates

By Bernadette Bernon
April 20, 2001
Banco Chinchorro, Mexico
18 29.694 N 087 26.100W

Photo of sunset off the Yucatan Straits

Imagine. You're 26 miles offshore, out in the Yucatán Straits, and for most of the day, you've been off soundings making slow progress in depths exceeding 3,500 feet, with a one-to-three-knot current flowing against you. The sun has set; the day has cooled off; the sky is a riot of colors. As far as the eye can see, there's nothing but ocean in all directions. Your destination, ultimately, is a tiny Yucatán port town to the southwest, Xcalak, (pronounced ISH-ka-lak) where you'll check out of Mexico before entering Belize and maybe try to rustle up a few vegetables and some diesel. But from where you are at this moment, that's still five or six hours off. A few hours ago, you had to face the music; there was no bloody way to make it to Xcalak today and attempt the narrow entrance through the reef. Negotiating reefs and coral gardens with the sun in front of you is a colossally bad idea; the heads and shallows disappear in the glare. With the sun behind you, and a pair of polarizing shades, at least you have a fighting chance to see through the water and avoid the hazards.

Now add one more fact to this picture. You're anchored. Out here in the middle of nowhere, you're hooked to a patch of sand inside an ancient reef that you found from GPS coordinates passed on to you by some cruisers in Isla Mujeres a few weeks ago. You can't see the reef breaking anywhere, but you know it's under there by the dramatic change in water color as it shallowed suddenly when you sailed up to it. Within a quarter of a mile it went from dark velvet blue to a bright tray of sandy turquoise right under the boat.

But now, it's just after sunset, and there's no difference in the colors of the water. Without the sun it's all the same dark blue, and it feels weird to think that if your anchor drags here, you skid your booty into the abyss.

"Snug spot, huh?" says your partner, looking around.

"Cozy," you reply, taking in the scene. The part of you that isn't nervous about what the night could hold is experiencing a thrill, the thrill of sailing and living out here in the world of skinny water.

For the past week, since we spurted out of Puerto Aventuras, and as we've made our way south toward Belize, Douglas and I have anchored Ithaka in some pretty wild spots along this inhospitable coastline. We've piloted, white-knuckled, through slender cuts in the boiling reefs. We've anchored in exposed "coves" larger than Buzzard's Bay — Bahía de la Espíritu Santo and Bahía de la Ascensíon. And we've tucked behind a string of pretty islands called Culebra Cays with a bottom so silty that it held our anchor like a suction cup. But this reef, out on the fringes of the dramatic Banco Chinchorro, one of only four atolls in the entire expanse of Caribbean and Atlantic Oceans, is the wildest spot we've ever anchored by far.

Photo of anchor chain Most days along the Yucatán coast, we dropped our anchor and chain in only about nine feet of water.

Banco Chinchorro was formed by a prehistoric volcano that erupted under the ocean, caved in upon itself and, without urgency, filled itself in. Over the centuries, eroded by thrashing seas, its top was leveled and almost all re-covered by ocean. Imagine this kidney-bean shaped plateau, 25 miles long and 13 miles wide, fringed with a protective crown of coral reef, all just under the water's surface, all out in the middle of the deep ocean. The coral crown breaks the sea swell, keeping the lagoon inside the atoll calm, yet it's penetrable at several places by narrow but navigable gaps. On the outer eastern side, the coral crown is strewn with the sunken wrecks of the unvigilant, but inside the lagoon, it's a placid, aquatic mountaintop oasis in the middle of an endless sea.

Three days ago, we sailed the 49 miles from Espíritu Santo out to the northern entrance of Chinchorro's mammoth lagoon, negotiated an opening in the reef, and anchored in nine feet of the clearest, most turquoise water imaginable, near a small island inside the atoll called Cayo Norte. We spent our days there peacefully snorkeling the coral reef, spearing fish, reading, exploring the sunken wrecks — always a sobering reminder if you live aboard your own boat — and watching a school of dolphin that came every day to play around Ithaka. For at least an hour each morning at about eight, and for another each evening just before sunset, these joyful creatures soared around us, as if playing hide-and-seek under the boat, looking up at us sideways, sounding, snorting, swimming away, coming back for more. One had a funky-looking dorsal fin that drooped to the side — not that it seemed to impede him in any way — and I looked for him every day. Like clockwork, he was always there with his pals. Thinking of him now and imagining him playing there still makes me feel connected to the place.

Photo of mural of Chichen Itza decorating the Stardust Inn at Piste

The dolphin, the conch, the birds, the animals, the fish &mdash ;Mexico has been blessed with an extraordinary bounty of natural wonders along her Yucatán coast. Thick on the hot ground are spectacular big iguanas scurrying to and fro; the trees are filled with colorful songbirds; the white-sand beaches are nesting grounds for countless loggerhead and hawksbill turtles who migrate here from thousands of miles away every year to lay their eggs; the reef system that outlines the coast is dazzling and vast. It can't help but occur to you, as you slowly cruise along this stunning coast, that Mexico has not handled the stewardship of these natural gifts as well as would be hoped. Much of her coastline's beaches have been given over to developers erecting a parade of monster hotels and condo developments, creating an impenetrable barrier that the nesting turtles can no longer overcome — they're now listed as an endangered species — and, sadly, the raw sewage from all the hotels and condos are irrevocably damaging these reefs beyond their ability to recover.

Photo of the Plumed Serpent which is the patron deity of Chichen Itza The Plumed Serpent is the patron deity of Chichén Itzá, and his likeness, wrought from stone, appears on almost all the buildings of this treasured Mayan city, now in ruins.

For a poor country, there's almost no way to resist the financial lure of the real-estate boom that is occurring now along this coast; land prices in Playa del Carmen, for example, a coastal tourist mecca not far from the Mayan ruins at Tulum and Chichén Itzá, are said to be doubling every three years. Major ecological damage is being done by all this unchecked development, a distressing contrast to the natural beauty of those parts of this coast that are still relatively "undiscovered" and undamaged. Barbara Kinsgsolver writes eloquently in her book High Tide In Tucson about how science has taught us that, throughout natural history, creatures who foul their own nests are doomed to extinction. You ponder such things more when you travel slowly along fragile and beautiful places in a cruising boat, and become more aware of the strengths and frailties of nature, and the sometimes harsher realities of life outside the United States.

Photo of mural of Chichen Itza decorating the Stardust Inn at Piste

The first day we anchored at Banco Chinchorro, we were boarded by the Mexican navy, who have an incongruous installation on Cayo Norte. Five young men, armed with machine guns, machetes, and dressed in dark uniforms and heavy black boots, came alongside Ithaka in their gray launch, politely asked us if they could come aboard, and then proceeded to lift every floorboard and open every locker, looking for what we hadn't a clue. Finally satisfied, they thanked us, jumped back aboard their launch and, just before they began to depart, one fellow noticed our rod and reel mounted on the stern pulpit.

"Pescador, si?" he asked enthusiastically.

"Nada," I said. We'd caught nothing all day.

He looked at me as though I had two heads, probably wondering how we could be so lame at using such nice fish-catching equipment.

"Spear gun, sí?" he asked hopefully.

"No," said Douglas sheepishly, "I have pole spear."

Well, now we were truly pathetic. He stopped the launch, tied it off to our bollard, and proceeded to explain to us in great detail all about the best places inside the atoll to find conch, fish, and lobster. Another fellow on the launch proudly told us that he could free dive 30 feet. We spent a pleasant half an hour with these guys talking about fishing and diving and life out here on the bank. The more they talked, the more we could see that they were kids, really, and just starving for some company.

By then, we were old hands at this navy boarding business, as it had also happened to us just the day before. As we'd left our anchorage at Bahía de la Ascension and headed south to Bahía de la Espíritu Santo, a Mexican navy ship came at us at full throttle, called us on VHF channel 16, and informed us they were sending over an inflatable launch with some officers. Bad news. We needed to make our landfall with the sun at our backs to see the reef, which meant arriving there by 2:00. With the current against us and light winds, this would be close. The last thing we needed was to slow down, let alone stop the boat for a boarding party.

Photo of mural of Chichen Itza decorating the Stardust Inn at Piste

The inflatable soon arrived. Three men climbed aboard, the fourth stayed in the launch, and each was armed with semi-automatic rifle and knife, painting a somewhat somber overlay on what had started out to be a pretty day. I decided, while the men were onboard carrying on the inspection with Douglas, that I'd keep sailing the boat as fast as I could. Throughout the hour they were with us, I kept smiling and sailing and logging a few more miles toward our destination, as the inflatable with the fourth man powered alongside us to keep up. Finally finished, they wished us well, told us to call them if we ever needed help, and then they jumped back into the inflatable and sped over to Simba, the cruising sailboat traveling just behind us, to make Frank's and Linda's day perfect as well.

This boarding hadn't surprised us much. Since arriving in Mexico, we'd been buzzed a couple of times by military helicopters flying so close that I could see the smiling faces of the men inside, and we'd talked to members of the Mexican navy several times as they'd observed us going down the coast. We were always asked, politely, to identify ourselves, and give our destination, and our last anchorage. The navy seems to keep a sharp eye on boats traveling up and down the Yucatán. This may be annoying sometimes, but in a dangerous world, it also can be decent protection.

Photo of Frank and Linda Cassidy Frank and Linda Cassidy from Massachusetts are sailing their Alajuela 38 along our path to Belize. On many exposed black nights behind the reefs, Simba's anchor light has been a reassuring bearing for us.

After enjoying three days at Cayo Norte, at the northernmost end of the atoll, we retraced our steps out through the opening in the reef, and within minutes watched our depth sounder register seven feet under us, then 20, then 140, then we soared off the mountaintop and into deep ocean. Almost immediately, as we raised our sails, we were surrounded with spotted dolphins, at least 20 of them, racing us, sounding, playing in our bow wave, diving, having a ball with us as we romped along. One kept leaping high into the air in front of the boat, landing with a thwack, diving, roaring up into the air again and again with boundless energy. I named this one Jesse, after Jesse Jackson, as all week I'd been engrossed in Marshall Frady's terrific biography of the irrepressible reverend, and he'd been on my mind.

With Jesse and his brothers entertaining us for the better part of the morning, Douglas and I traced the edge of the reef, using coordinates given to us by Horst and Karen on Flow in Isla. Horst said they'd gotten the coordinates from a German cruiser who they trusted, and then they'd done this voyage themselves last year — dancing around coral heads and navigating south via the shallow route inside the atoll! — and they'd confirmed the accuracy of all the numbers. Indeed, just yesterday I'd given all the inside coordinates to a British fellow named David who was cruising on a shoal-draft sailboat named Pirata, anchored next to us at Cayo Norte, after he'd dinghied over to say hello. Thrilled, David said he'd always hoped to take Pirata down through the middle of the atoll, and now he was more confident doing this with Flow's meticulously recorded fixes. With our deeper draft, we'd decided to skirt the outside of the reef. Like heirloom tomatoes, the seeds of which are collected and planted season after season for generations, these prized coordinates illuminating a tricky passage through an uncharted shallow reef system are being passed along from cruiser to cruiser. It was nice to be part of this circle of cruising life.

After coming down the western side of the reef, we picked up Flow's track of coordinates as it exited the reef at its southwestern end, and this led us into a sandy cranny where the water shallowed alarmingly from 175 feet to 24 feet, then 14. We inched in further until we saw the dark patches of the reef separating and opening a passage for us, exactly as advertised. We tiptoed in a bit farther, and the depths remained constant at 14 feet. Surrounded by crystal-clear shallows, we dropped our anchor into a snug bed of sand — ironically, the best holding ground we'd found in two weeks. Without a doubt, this is the most exposed, and one of the most dramatically beautiful places we've ever spent the night.

After a cool swim, a warm sun shower, and an hour with a good book, Douglas and I made a comfort-food dinner of pasta and pesto and, as we sat in the cockpit and ate together, we mused about our voyage so far. Some cruising destinations seem to be about the local people and the natural beauty, we decided, such as Cuba, which had opened our eyes to a culture still unspoiled by tourism. Others, like the northeast Yucatán, with its rugged coast and its tourist overlay, was for us more about sailing and moving south, and less about getting to know the locals. Indeed, along this coast we met and hung out with more fellow cruisers, especially Frank and Linda Cassidy on their beautiful Alajuela 38 Simba, with whom we've become friends and shared many an exposed touch-and-go-anchorage. There's a vast difference in mood and pace when you're anchoring at places that are just stopping-off points on the way to someplace else, we decided, and anchorages that seem like destinations in and of themselves. We'd found many of the former in Mexico since we left Isla Mujeres and made our way south toward Belize, but Banco Chinchorro was a rare member of the latter, and I knew this night and this scene would be one I'd always remember.