Ithaka


The Whole Tooth And Nothing
But The Tooth

By Douglas Bernon
April, 13, 2001
Puerto Aventuras, Quintana Roo, Mexico
020 29 95 North 087 13 42 West

We set sail early from our familiar anchorage in Isla Mujeres, having said so long for now to our friends Harold and Diane on Sea Camp, who were staying put for three more weeks. The parting from them was downright painful, as they'd added so much warmth to our lives over the past two months. We motored by them at first light, waved slowly and were quiet, thinking how different it was going to be out here without them.

Photo of Mexican women wearing embroidered dressesMany Mexican women along the Yucatán coast wear modest traditional embroidered dresses over lace petticoats, their long dark hair tied back in buns.

There was just enough visibility to see our way through the narrow mangrove Chute de Chute shortcut pass from Isla harbor into Bahía Mujeres. From there to the anchorage at Hut Point, behind Punta Morona, was a comfortable day sail of 30 miles. After a few minutes, the Bajo Pepite buoy was to port, and we could arc south, no longer concerned about the Garrafón reef straddling the southwestern tip of the island. By 7:15, Punta Cancún was off our starboard beam, and at 7:30 we strained to catch our last snippets of the Isla Mujeres Cruisers Net on VHF channel 13, familiar voices becoming fainter with the miles adding up between us.

Heading south along the Yucatán peninsula, we stayed in as close to the reef, which parallels the shore, as we could, because once crossing out into even 70-foot depths, we found ourselves back into the edge of the Gulf Stream, going the wrong way against a two-to-three knot current. In 50-foot depths, within rock-throwing distance of the reef, we found less than one knot against us and made better time. But staying in closer demands constant water watching. Our vigilance was repaid: We didn't hit anything and got to watch loggerhead turtles swimming by.

Photo of mural from a hotel wall outside Chichen-ItzaThe Yucatán coast — called Maya Mundo, the Mayan world — is not particularly hospitable to sailors. There are few secure anchorages until you get to Belize. (Mural from a hotel wall outside Chichen-Itza)

The Yucatán coastline toward Belize offers few anchorages, and all require passage through cuts in the reef, making it critical not to have too powerful a sea pushing from behind or too glaring an afternoon sun blinding from ahead when entering. Our first option had been Puerto Morelos, but we passed that early enough to carry on another hour or so to Hut Point. Freya Rauscher's Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico's Caribbean Coast says there's a "300-yard break in the reef ... and you enter in line with the northern clump of mangroves on a course of 333 True." She also points out that the bottom has some "grassy and sandy patches," which reminded me of weather forecasts from my student days in Glasgow, Scotland, predicting "occasional sunny spells." In other words, don't count on much. The bottom is a tissue-thin veneer of sand over solid, white rock.

One price we pay for being able to stay away from an office, dive for lobsters, hang out, and pretend to be carefree is that some days I'm scared out of my wits. This turned out to be one of those days. The opening through the Hut Point reef seemed reasonably calm at deck level, but to see it well you need to perch on the spreaders, half way up the mast, hoping not to fall and, in Evil Knevil's pithy phrase, "get concussed." Bernadette drives and I climb, a division of labor that illuminates the difference between management and monkey.

In entering such an anchorage, you rely on somebody else's hand-drawn charts, and their GPS coordinates for imaginary places for which there are no real X's to mark the spots. When these don't always make sense, it's a reminder that the responsibility is not with cartographers and guidebook authors, it's with you. Our experience with Rauscher's cruising guide, which is a phenomenal accomplishment, and chock-full of useful information, is that you can't completely trust all her lat/long numbers. That said, this is a must-have book down here, and so far we've found her bearings to be right on.

Photo of two cruising guidesThere are two cruising guides to this region — the newer and more complete one by Freya Raucher, the older one by Nigel Calder. We have both and rely on each of them to corroborate information.

Hut Point is an open roadstead behind a shallow reef, OK but not ideal. We entered the cut between the reefs with 20 knots of wind out of the northeast. There was little land protection to cut wind from this direction, and precious little for a fluke to bite into. At first, our plow anchor, a 45-pound CQR, then our 44-pound Bruce, just skittered across the bottom like tin cans tossed out a car window on the turnpike. There wasn't enough sand for a Fortress or Danforth either. We decided to stick with the CQR, and attempt a new strategy. With Bernadette at the wheel, and with me at the bow, we looked through the clear 9-foot water, scouting out a darker patch on the concrete bottom as a potential grassy spot to anchor. She brought the boat to a stop, holding the bow into the wind. I stood on the bow, wearing my mask and snorkel and wobbling about in my flippers. After releasing the CQR along with a bunch of chain, lickety-split I followed it in and dived down to the anchor, picking it up and trying to wedge the point in by hand while Bernadette maintained control of the boat.

After three tries, which means three times paying out the anchor and chain, jumping in, lugging it around underwater (no weight belt required when toting anchors), and trying to set it manually without success, climbing back aboard, hauling in the anchor and chain and repeating the exercise, we got lucky. I was able to set the point firmly, and see it dig in a ways. Treading water and waving my hands, I signaled Bernadette. At the bow, she let out more chain, allowed Ithaka to fall back, then returned to the helm to ease the boat into a gradually harder and harder reverse. I hovered above the anchor, watching its behavior, and admiring the zillions of starfish that were everywhere, until I was satisfied that we were set. Then I swam back to the boat. Total elapsed time: 90 minutes.

At Hut Point, I never felt like I could go off duty entirely. Calmer types might call it a day and throw back a couple of stiff ones, but after all that time in the water, swimming and tugging and lugging, all I wanted was hot soup. Despite seeing the anchor grab, and despite diving on it again an hour later, I didn't sleep soundly that night. This was a rolly place with a flinty bottom, and no lights ashore to keep a range bearing, so I was up often to check the GPS and radar to make sure we were staying put.

Photo of mural from a hotel wall outside Chichen-ItzaFor cruisers, constant vigilance is required. (mural from a hotel wall outside Chichen-Itza)

Living on a cruising sailboat is no hardship post, but the image of idyllic sunsets marinated each night in gin and tonics is a myth not based in the reality of most cruisers out here. Speaking as a major-league fretter, even I underestimated the degree to which cruisers need to maintain a constant state of vigilance. Things happen when you least expect them, like the time some friends of ours had a genoa sheet snake down one of their cockpit scuppers and wrap itself around the strut and the shaft. When they started the engine, it nearly pulled right out of the boat. The torque was so powerful that it lifted the engine and wrenched the engine mounts back several inches.

On the other hand we've met sailors who are blissfully naïve yet seem to make out just fine. In Cuba, a handsome Croatian man and his Norwegian girlfriend, who was five months pregnant, told us that they were new sailors. They'd just come to the States and bought their Coronado 27 in Florida. "We got a very good deal," he said, "because it had been under the water for a lot of years." They sailed her to Havana from Key West, and plan to take her to Italy. She described their trip. "Seas were very big and very scary. We arrived off the sea buoy outside the entrance of Marina Hemingway at four in the morning. It was too dark to come through the reef, so we had to wait until morning. We were tired after the crossing, and I had the seasickness, so we went out a little and anchored, and went to sleep for three or four hours."

"How did you anchor there?" I asked.

"We put out all our chain," he said. "More than 100 feet."

When I returned to Ithaka, I checked the depth where they said they'd anchored. The chart said 4,500 feet.

Good fortune is great crew, but there's much to lose to the most innocent and minor acts of inattention. In some important ways, cruising is a binary world. Either the genoa line is in the boat or it isn't. You make it through the reef or you don't. Either the anchor is set or it isn't. I come from a profession where one's instinctive response to dilemmas is to muse unhurriedly over as many different metaphysical meanings as emerge, so this is one lollapalooza of a change.

Photo of a cow head ready to be made into soup in a Valledolid market"I come from a profession where one's instinctive response to dilemmas is to muse unhurriedly over as many different metaphysical meanings as emerge." (A cow head ready to be made into soup in a Valledolid market, inland from Aventuras.)

From Hut Point, we carried on along the coast another 30 miles to the completely protected man-made harbor of Puerto Aventuras, and for the past several days, with Ithaka tied to a concrete pier, I've slept soundly. This is a 900-acre gated community, resort, and marina complex. There are about a dozen cruising sailboats here, mostly folks who are either ambling their way north to Cuba or on to the States for hurricane season or, as we're doing, heading south to Belize, Honduras and Guatemala. Mostly this marina is filled with massive sports-fishing extravaganzas, boats with such names as Blank Check and Poverty Sucks, with their awesome diesels that carry them confidently through the hairy 40-foot-wide channel through the reef that stands between Aventuras and the sea. At a bargain of $17 a night, this has been a perfect place to safely park Ithaka while we went inland to explore the Mayan ruins at Tulum, Cobá, and Chichén Itzá, and swim in the cenotes, the famed underground canals and caves of stalactites and stalagmites.

This was a fun stop, but we were ready to leave three days ago. Our goal was to get out to the Chinchoro Bank, one of the only atolls in the Atlantic, and do some serious diving, but the winds have been 20 knots directly out of the southeast, blowing humongous rollers right up the Aventuras channel, and the port captain has prohibited the departure of anyone stupid enough to try. So we cooled our heels like everyone else, and got to know our neighbors on the other cruising boats, organized a pot-luck dinner, and hung out, swapping books, charts, waypoints, yarns, and horror stories. Glenn from Northstar, an Alberg 37 moored near us, told me the other night over a cervesa that while tied up here at Aventuras, he's had his first full-night sleep since leaving Cartegena, Columbia, in January.

Photo of Pyramid of the Serpent at Chichén ItzáStrolling around the spectacular ruins at Chichén Itzá, especially the great Pyramid of the Serpent (which we climbed), we wondered what could have happened to the Mayan civilization — one of Central America's unsolved mysteries.

"It's just the way it is, isn't it?" he said.

"It is," I agreed.

I found it refreshing that evening with Glenn, as well as many other times when we've hung out with fellow cruisers, how honest many of them can be about their feelings, including admitting to one another how frightening cruising can be sometimes. When you're a new cruiser, you find great encouragement in this frankness from the more experienced hands.

There's plenty of bravado out here too, and I try to sort through it so as not to feel like a complete and utter wuss all the time. One fellow named Dick, for example, who we met here in Aventuras, told us that he'd sailed here from Nova Scotia via the Mississippi River on his 34-foot Irwin. "Last year, when I was sailing in the Gulf of Mexico, I cracked a tooth on a popcorn kernel," he told a table of cruisers one night. "I only had two of my original teeth left, the rest are a plate, and this was one of those two teeth. The pain was pretty bad, so I took a needle-nosed vice grips and pulled the son of a bitch right outta my mouth." At this point, Dick had everyone's silent attention. "A couple days later, I was thinking about it and wondered, 'What the hell am I going to do with just one natural tooth?' So I pulled that one out, too."

I told him that with such determination and quick action, I hoped he never develops a urinary-tract infection.

Photo of Mexican jewelryAs we travel down the coast toward the isolated islands of Belize, we headed farther and farther away from the Mexican trinket shops, jewelry and carpet salesmen, and closer to the cays and swimming to which we so looked forward.

Yesterday, the wind finally calmed down enough so that the boats heading north could fight there way out the channel, then ride a favorable wind and current together. Two boats of new friends, Glenn and Suzanne on Northstar, and Roger and Linda on Otr, a Pearson 424, made jokes about scavenging rights to foundered vessels, but in a great push were able to power through the cut just after first light. They radioed us later that all was well and they made record good time to Isla.

For Frank and Linda on Simba, an Alejuela 38, and for us — all hoping to head south — it looks like a sunrise departure tomorrow. This morning's weather faxes showed a cold front coming through tonight, with north winds behind it. We hope to take advantage of that. Dick, who's also heading south, and whose plan it is to circumnavigate the Caribbean by beating against wind and current, left yesterday.

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