Life In The Spin Cycle

By Douglas Bernon
March 16, 2001
Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, Mexico
021 14.769 N 086 44.694 W

We left Cuba reluctantly, with personal matters weighing on our minds, and perhaps this is why we opened ourselves up for a morning of messing up. Pulling out of the anchorage at Ensenada de Abalos, a well-protected cove surrounded by mangroves, toward the western end of Cuba's north coast, within minutes we replicated our botched entry of the previous afternoon. We ran aground on the west bank of the channel, constructing a perfect symmetry, as we'd run aground on the east bank the day before. A pre-breakfast grounding in humility does little to leaven the heart, so we cursed and fumed and wiggled ourselves free, then calmed down and re-embarked. Two minutes later, a buzzer blared; Bernadette immediately stopped the engine, and I dropped our anchor. Ithaka has three warning alarms: a truck-back-up horn for high bilge water, and two similar sounding shrills — one for the loss of oil pressure and one for excessively high engine-water temperature. When I'm feeling discombobulated, those last two sound alike to me, and mercifully we've not heard them often enough for me to develop a discriminating ear.

Photo of ocean waves

Initially I thought we'd lost oil pressure, but when I looked at the water-temperature gauge, we had enough heat for the seventh circle of hell. I re-started the engine for just a moment to see if water was being discharged through the exhaust. Because our diesel is cooled by circulating saltwater that's been sucked up from under the boat, if none is being spit out we know we're cooking steel. I looked over the transom: not a drop.

Seeing as how we'd run aground twice in two days, we wondered if the water intake hole under the boat had become clogged and was not allowing water in, or if the impeller in the water pump had become gunked solid. Praying not to have to disassemble that hard-to-reach unit, I looked at the clear plastic water strainer that's mounted above the engine (a last-chance filter to stop grass, twigs, plastic bags and small critters from getting sucked up the hose and into the engine). It was crystal clear, and there was water in the hose, so why wasn't the water getting from there into the engine? I wondered if a hose clamp vibrated loose or if the hose had split somewhere. Everything seemed tight, which meant I had to consider the most obvious and usual cause of 99 percent of the problems on this boat: O.E. (Ithaka code for "operator error").

What had I screwed up this time? As part of usual pre-departure checklist, I'd examined the strainer the night before, unscrewed the lid, taken out some grass and screwed it back on. Our standard rule when anything goes wrong is to first look at what we may have attempted to fix, check or alter the day before because, generally, therein lies the answer. Fortunately Bernadette quickly noticed that I'd misaligned the strainer cap when I'd screwed it down, which had prevented a perfect seal. So instead of an air-tight system that can suck water uphill and push it into the engine, it was huffing and sucking but not able to do its job. It would be like trying to use your vacuum cleaner at home with a hole in your hose.

Without the necessary cooling water, our diesel engine was starting to overheat. Should you ever wonder if that's happening to you, in addition to the obvious signs, like looking over the transom to make sure water is being expelled, or listening to high-decibel buzzers, or examining gauges that spell trouble, there's also a unique odor to glowing, expanding, un-marinated steel. Smell it once and you'll etch permanent olfactory traces into the stink-detection part of your brain.

To bring this morning into greater perspective, it was still not 7:00 AM, and in fewer than 10 minutes we'd run aground, overheated our engine, and I'd eaten a second helping of humility. Considering we were to cross the Gulf Stream later that night, we wondered if bad events come in threes and, if so, what we might anticipate next. Sure enough, halfway across the Yucatan Straits, in the of middle of the night, crossing one of the world's stronger currents, in a major shipping highway that may not frighten experienced hands but scares the daylights out of me, our radar shorted out. When it fizzled, I actually breathed a sigh of relief, figuring we were home free because who ever heard of bad shit happening in fours?

Photo of starfish on the bottom of reef The water inside the reef is so clear, sometimes we could see starfish on the bottom.

From our shallow anchorage that morning, at Ensenada San Francisco, our course was about 240 degrees for the first 25 miles, which took us over a number of coral heads in sandy-bottomed, turquoise clear water of between 15 and 70 feet. Then, at 22 degrees North, we altered slightly more to the south and crossed that magical line from skinny water into deep. In less than a minute we were off soundings, moved from 30 feet to 1,800 and watched the water below turn the darkest of blue. Cabo de San Antonio, on the far western tip of the Peninsula de Guanahacabibes, was due south of us, and we were headed out toward the Stream and on to Mexico. Our rhumb-line course, to which we adhered reasonably well by just steering a bit south, measured 140 miles, but in the end our distance traveled, measured by the paddle wheel on our knot meter, was 178 miles, which took us about 33 hours. The mileage difference was a function of going up and down in what became a churning washing machine full of 6- to 10-foot waves through much of the Stream.

Photo of Ithaka sailing to Mexico

We'd left Cuba anticipating an ideal weather window to cross the Gulf Stream. Our barometer was steady; there was a benign-looking and mild high-pressure front well north of us. The NOAA and Coast Guard forecasts — in fact, every weather report we listened to and every weather fax we pulled down — predicted 10-15 knots of wind out of the east-southeast, meaning we'd have mild and friendly breezes that roughly paralleled the direction of the Gulf Stream, without churning it up too much. That was the theory.

We left with milder winds than predicted, and by mid-afternoon, it was only blowing four to eight knots, and we were motor-sailing. Bernadette and I both said how nice it would be to get a more consistently and stronger easterly wind, raising the inevitable question of when will we learn not to ask for what we don't have, because sometimes you just get a whole bunch more than you really want.

Until 1800 hours, the winds remained light, I was chowing down fists full of leftover lobster tails, and feeling pretty pleased with myself. By dawn the next morning, I was nibbling around the edges of saltine crackers.

Once we were 10 or 15 miles off the Cuban shore, we were finally able to use our Globalstar satellite phone and let our families know we were okay. The phone had been rendered useless in Cuba because the government there scrambles the satellite signal. We felt more secure just being able to use it again. Later that evening I made a check-in call with my friend John Geller, to let him know when we should be arriving in Mexico and when he should expect to hear from us. Sitting in the cockpit feeling funky in the very unpleasant seas, I noticed that as I talked and laughed and joked with John, my nausea seemed to disappear. "This phone is buena medicina," I said to Bernadette, "much better than a patch!"

Our predicted east-southeast winds of 10-15 knots copped an attitude and became east-NORTHeast winds of 20 to 25 knots, with higher gusts. Formerly calm seas became short, stacked and very confused. The wind vane couldn't hold us on course in these steep, short wave trains, and the autopilot wasn't powerful enough to hold us either, so we had to resort to hand steering a lot of the time, which I sort of loathe. We surfed down all kinds of mixed-up waves at more than 9 knots. For a while, Bernadette, who's an infinitely better driver than I am, found this exhilarating. I merely cataloged the number of things that would break and listened for the tell-tale sounds of impending catastrophes. It was not a dangerous night, but it was a tiring one. We took watches of two hours on and off, but woke each other if there was any confusion about ships. Until I have proof otherwise, I assume we're on a collision course with all tankers.

Photo of a compass

Closing in for a final approach to Isla Mujeres we got spooked. Using Freya Rauscher's excellent Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico's Caribbean Coast for the first time, we read and re-read the descriptions of what to look for and tried to find the pyramid-shaped building she says marks one end of the island (I thought I counted four of them), and the white lighthouse (I found two of them in disparate spots). We had the GPS coordinates and were following them in, but as reefs and land neared I became increasingly unsure, especially when we saw a buoy to starboard that was not on the chart and was not in the cruising guide. (We would find out that it was a new buoy added by the Mexican government.)

There was a large island to our right that didn't conform to my notion of what should be there. I rushed below to check another chart, and said, "Bernadette, I don't even see that island on this chart!" But of course it was on the chart, because it was Isla Mujeres, which was in fact what we were looking for. I'd missed forest for the trees, looking for a smaller island than the massive one to our starboard side. Bernadette turned Ithaka around and headed back to deep water so we could regain our bearings.

Photo of Douglas at the bow of Ithaka

Okay, so in a day of many lessons, what's this one? We hadn't slept enough and were pooped. We didn't trust our instruments nor our navigation, and we locked into a vision that conformed to what we wanted to see instead of what we were seeing. Despite my obsessive-compulsive nature, my checking, rechecking, even triple and quadruple checking the coordinates from the charts and my entering them correctly into the GPS, my confidence in myself is easily thrown off. Also, we'd been using a Calder cruising guide in Cuba, we'd just switched to the Rauscher cruising guide with which we were not yet familiar, and nowhere had we seen a reference to that bloody buoy. In the best of times there's enormous pressure to get this stuff right. So much to lose and no-one but ourselves to rely upon. As one of our cruising friends said, "Hey man, there's no AAA out here. We're all on our own." One must trust some combination of what the instruments say and what one sees, and avoid manipulating one's senses and impressions.

Flying our yellow quarantine flag and the courtesy flag of Mexico, we found a spot we liked in Isla harbor, dropped the CQR in about 15 feet of water, payed out about 100 feet of chain, slowly backed down on it a couple of times to make sure the anchor was securely set, hooked on the snubber and breathed more easily. Before lowering the duck and going ashore for the required check-in with the port captain, customs, immigration and the hospital, my amazing Personal Commodore pulled together a brilliant lobster, tomato, and feta frittata — the last of our Cuban seafood bounty — and we washed it down with an icy beer.

While we sat in the cockpit letting our anchor settle, and while we enjoyed our late lunch, we talked about what the next few days would bring; Bernadette would jump on a plane home to Newport for our niece's heart surgery, and I'd remain here on the boat at anchor. Around us were anchored many foreign cruising boats. As we watched them, and looked ashore at the busy coastline, we began to relax again, and laugh over the foibles of our passage.

Bernadette reminded me of some friends of ours, much more experienced sailors than we, who once sailed from Block Island toward the Chesapeake. They decided to stop for the night in a harbor along the New Jersey shore. Upon their approach, they were a little thrown off at first when two sea buoys were not where they expected them to be, but somehow they "made sense" of it in their minds. They entered the narrow entrance to the anchorage, dropped the hook and went to sleep. The next morning they dinghied into town for a hearty breakfast at a local greasy spoon. As they munched away on omelets, one of them noticed that the placemat under his plate listed the name of the restaurant, the address and the city. They were two towns and 30 miles away from where they thought they were.

With this new story from sailing hell fresh in my mind, I stole another quick look at the GPS, just to make sure we were indeed in Isla. One thing's for sure, Dorothy, we're not in Kansas anymore.