31 January, 2010

Isla Mujeres

Location: Isla Mujeres, Yucatan, Mexico
Position: 21 14.574 N 080 44.574 W

We have just spent 3 delightful weeks in Isla Mujeres, an island off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. The island is only 4 miles long and less than ½ mile wide. Ferries carrying tourists and locals going shopping run back and forth all day to Cancun on the mainland. It’s a very colorful town with lots of reds, blues, yellows, greens, and oranges.

The town is definitely set up for the tourist trade. There’s a pedestrian-only street full of vendors and restaurants. No idea how authentic any of the stuff is, and since neither of us is all that interested in tourist knickknacks, we don’t have much trouble bypassing the stalls. There are not many hotels here so tourists flock in every day from Cancun and then leave in the evening, making late afternoon and evening a lovely time to wander round the town, listen to music emanating from the many little restaurants and partaking of a margarita or two. We even found a club with a live salsa band!
Here's a lovely view from inside the Hemmingway bar. The beers were lovely too and really, really cold.

The locals are very friendly and VERY forgiving of our bad (barely existent, really) Spanish. We try not to talk in English and they try to understand. Often they will ask if anyone speaks English and a passerby will pop into the shop and translate.

We’ve spent many happy hours wandering round the back streets, discovering new places each time.

Prices are cheap here, once we figured out how to convert pesos per kilogram to dollars per pound, we were amazed. Oh and did we mention the $1 beers? Unfortunately with this warm weather and the price we tend to drink more than we normally would (yeah, right).

Launchas, local fishing boats moored up to the beach

The town has an open market every day, 2 grocery stores, and lots of little shops selling almost everything you need. And if you can’t find what you want you can get the ferry over to Cancun and shop at Wal-Mart, Home Depot, OfficeMax, Burger King, MacDonald’s, or any of several other familiar sounding retailers.

The local grocery has big fresh baked bread rolls for a peso (about 8 cents) and tenderloin steak for 74.95 pesos per kilogram ($2.65 / lb) plus lots of fresh vegetables and deliciously sweet local oranges. If you have a lot of groceries to carry the cab ride from downtown back to the marina, about a mile, is only 20 pesos ($1.58).

Colourful Isla Mujeres cemetery

We have taken advantage of the cheap prices and actually eaten out a few times; fresh fish in a beachside restaurant, sopes (pronounced “so-paiss”) at a roadside stand, the best guacamole on the island at a little restaurant on a side street downtown, lunch in the one room home of a small “mom & pop” eatery in the local residential part of town, etc. Life doesn’t get much better.

We spent a few days at a marina when we first got here, unusual for us but we needed to ‘clear in’ (go through the immigration and customs routine which is normally done at the airport). It’s usually a bit of headache when cruising and involves going between different offices (immigration, customs, health and sanitation, the port captain, etc.) in different locations in town and lots of waiting. The marina provided the service for us for a small fee so we took advantage of that. Being a bit off our best from sailing for three days to get here, the last thing we wanted was to try and negotiate a bureaucratic clearing in process – especially with our “limited” Spanish.

On a day trip to Cancun we were serenaded at the outdoor market (mercado municipal)

Marina Paraiso is great!! It’s more like a little community - everyone there is very friendly and helpful. The owner had been out fishing the day we arrived with some of the ’residents’ and they came back with a big sailfish. That night they hosted a happy hour and served sailfish sushi and everyone brought other side dishes. We had several of these sunset gatherings during our time here. They continued to invite us to these gatherings even after we left the marina and anchored out in the harbor. We thought that was nice. They have an honor bar, too! You just help yourself to a beer and mark it down on your card and at the end of the week, when it’s time for them to go and buy more beer, everyone pays their tab and the cooler is refilled. Are you getting the idea that we might have put on a few pounds, or kilos, these last 3 weeks?

We can see why people come here and spend a month or two or a season. It’s really grown on us and we look forward to returning here one of these days.

Now, however, it’s time for us to focus on finding a favorable weather window for the three day passage down through the Caribbean Sea to the Bay Islands of Honduras.

Hasta la vista!

08 January, 2010


Location: Isla Mujeres, Yucatan, Mexico

Position: 21 14.574 N 080 44.574 W

Right after we leave the harbor on our way from Marathon to Isla Mujeres several huge dolphins are leaping out of the water playing in our bow wave, bidding us Godspeed on our journey. We take this as a good omen and feel better about our last minute decision to leave.

That is until we get to the Marquesas. The wind has built to 20-25 knots and is forward of beam, making for an uncomfortable ride. We feel like a cork bouncing around in a washing machine in these 8-10 foot waves with a 7 second period. For those of you who don’t understand that, the “period” is the time between one wave top and the next. A longer period makes for a more comfortable ride. When the height of the waves in feet is more than the period in seconds, watch out! The ride gets really bouncy and the boat moves abruptly in every direction, twisting and turning like a bucking bronco. All we can do is wedge ourselves in somewhere and hang on. For the first time ever on Rachel we both get seasick and “call for Huey”.

After we crack off the wind a bit and head more southerly to cross the Gulf Stream the ride becomes more comfortable and we begin to feel better. In the deeper waters of the Florida Strait the waves are a bit further apart and we're on a more comfortable point of sail. We sail across the Gulf Stream toward the coast of Cuba. We skirt the Cuban coast about 20 miles out and continue westward. Some dolphins appear from nowhere and play in our bow wave for a few minutes.

In the afternoon of the third day we are visited by a whole pod of dolphins. These seem to be a much smaller Cuban variety – only about 3-5 feet long. They leap out of the water and frolic around us for an hour or so. So far dolphins have come to visit and play every day of this passage. We decide, again, to take this as a good omen.

The wind decreases as we approach the Yucatan Channel, the narrow passage between Cuba and Mexico. The Gulf Stream runs through here at a pretty good clip and conditions can deteriorate rapidly if the wind picks up. We motor from Cabo San Antonio, Cuba to Isla Mujeres, Mexico in light and variable winds and have a lovely, uneventful, and easy, albeit non-sailing end to our passage.

On arrival, we decide to take a slip at Marina Paraiso for several reasons. The first is that we’re pretty tired and a bit weak from not eating or sleeping much for the past 3 days – we can use a few days free of stress w/ easy access to shore and the marinas hot showers.

The second reason is the marina provides “full service” clearing in for a small fee. We’ve heard from other cruisers that this process can take a day or two of long waits when done without help and that it’s worth the minimal extra cost. Especially with our very limited Spanish.

And last but not least, gale force winds are predicted out of the northwest the next day at dawn. The northwest is the only point of wind from which the anchorage is unprotected and we hear on the local cruisers net that “the bottom is like 3 feet of soft ice cream on top of rock”, meaning that the holding could be better. We have a plan in place for secure anchoring in this sort of bottom, but are reluctant to put it to the test until we’re better rested and better prepared. So we go in to the dock.

Clearing in is uneventful, but from watching the process we’re glad we decided not to try it on our own. It is made readily apparent that we need to work on our language skills if we’re going to be spending time down here.

So here we are sitting on Rachel tied safely in our slip, awaiting the bad weather and looking forward to exploring the town. As we contemplate our crossing, we decide to title this Khronicle ‘Crossings’. We consider all the ‘crossings’ we’ve done to get here: so far we’ve crossed the Florida Straits, the Gulf Stream twice, the Yucatan Channel, a time zone from Eastern to Central time, our eyes while being sick, our fingers hoping we wouldn’t get sick again, our legs while we were on watch in boisterous conditions and needed a pee, our arms trying to keep warm, and our own personal Rubicon, reaching beyond our comfort level to sail here.

We're glad we did it and are looking forward to spending some time on this beautiful island.

05 January, 2010

Hurry Up And Wait

Location: Marathon, Florida
Position: 24 42.371 N 081 05.706 W

When you live on a boat it’s ALWAYS all about the weather. We’ve spent the last two weeks listening to our weather guy tell us a window is opening. Then we’ve watched it carefully and decided it’s not quite long enough to allow us time to get to Mexico with any safety margin. Here’s how it’s been going:

Morning: Wake up early listen to our weather guy on SSB radio, check the weather on line to get our own take on the weather, chat with our travelling companions to see when we all think might be a good time to leave. This all takes 3 to 4 hours. Then we go shopping.

Note: Shopping definition - walk a mile each way up a LOUD busy road for groceries, hardware, pharmacy, general goods. Walk a mile in the other direction along the same LOUD busy road to the chandlery, dollar store, thrift shop, and book store. We have to make a lot of trips because we can only buy what we can comfortably carry the mile back to the boat. We need to keep our ships stores topped off as we eat and use things so we’re always ready to leave.

Afternoon: Do a few boat jobs, get together with friends, pick their brains about good places to visit in W Caribbean, do any “other direction” shopping we need to do, and check weather again to see how much it’s changed.

Most of the time we see a potential weather window open a few days ahead only to watch it get shorter or disappear altogether.

On Friday, Sun Jan 3rd was starting to look good. On Saturday it still looked good. Ok this is really it, we decided, we’re leaving tomorrow.

Hurry up and wait.

Saturday afternoon we went through the usual routine. We hauled the dinghy onto deck, stowed everything, and prepared meals to be warmed up under way. None of us slept much that night, always tense with the anticipation of an upcoming passage into the unknown, remembering last minute things that need to be done when we get up in the morning.

We were all up before dawn and listened one last time to the weather. Hmm. It was still a window but it had changed a little. We would have to leave and hurry south then dawdle for a day off the coast of Cuba waiting for the seas to die down in the Yucatan Channel. Then we’d have to quickly get across the Yucatan Channel before a really big front came through the Gulf of Mexico on Friday. We got on the radio with our friends. We were ALL ready!!! But after a discussion we decided to wait, it just didn’t feel right. All of us except one boat decided we’d wait for the next window. The one boat took off out of the harbour at 7am. We watched them go, wishing we were going, but glad we weren’t.

Hurry up and wait.

We got the dinghy back into the water and did a few jobs around the boat, feeling a bit glum and out of sorts. Julie decided since we weren’t going (and it was starting to look like another week before we could) she may as well start re-covering the cabin cushions. This project involved making a total mess of the cabin until it was completed, so she decided she might as well do it while we were sitting here waiting. By Monday evening she had all but 2 cushions complete. We got up on Tuesday morning. We were listening to the weather and one of the boats we are travelling with asked some questions about the big front that was scheduled to hit the Yucatan on Friday night right after we would have arrived. It had slowed down – now it wasn’t going to get there until Saturday morning. And the weather in the Florida Straits was looking milder, as well.

Hurry up and wait.

We knew there was going to be yet another discussion with the other boats so the Rachels were talking about it with each other when our new friend Dave called on the VHF at 7am. He and his wife have made the trip several times.

Dave: “You know, I was just looking at the weather and it looks like you have a window”.
Us: “Yeah, we were just discussing that.”
Dave: “You’d have to leave today, this morning”
Us: “Yeah. And we just paid for another week here yesterday, after we decided not to go on Sunday.”

So we chatted with our friends and all agreed we’d have 4 days before the big nasty front reached Isla Mujeres. If we left soon and didn’t dawdle we could make it. We called our weather guy on the SSB radio at his 9am broadcast and he agreed that it looked like a good opportunity. Ok, how long would we all need to be ready?

We were already pretty well stowed, we just needed to get the dinghies back on deck. So we decided to leave at 9:00am, just 45 minutes away! Holy smokes! We looked around the cabin. Sewing machine, fabric, foam, thread, needles, lots of other stuff that was stowed before but isn’t now…sheesh. Mark went on deck and prepared to haul the dinghy. Julie started putting everything away down below. Once everything was put away, out came the gear we’d need for the trip. It was still cold so we’d need foul weather jackets and pants, gloves and wooly caps, not to mention our life jackets and harnesses.

Hurry up and wait.

We set up the salon settee to be our off watch berth since it’s too lumpy to sleep up forward under way – you would spend half your time airborne up there. By 8:55 we were all ready to go. Wow, not enough time to even get nervous. We were really going. We led the way out of the harbour, only 3 of us now, off on the toughest crossing we’ve attempted so far in our Rachel.

So now we’ve got 3 days to hurry up and get there before the nasty front, and three days to wait until we get there to see what it’s like.