The Log of Moira


Western Caribbean: Caribbean Mexico (March 2010)

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Moira's track, Belize to Isla MujeresThese are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.


With our headsail patched up we were ready for our jump from Belize to Mexico. Our ultimate goal for this period was Isla Mujeres, at the Northeast corner of the Yucatán Peninsula.


Squally Passage


I do not like to spend more than one night in a row at sea unless geography forces that by not providing well-spaced good anchorages. Our immediate goal on leaving San Pedro, Belize early in the morning was to see how far we could get by mid-day the next day. The unknown was whether or not we would pick up the Yucatán Current, which can add 2 to 4 knots to a Northbound boat’s speed. As you may know, the Yucatán Current is the beginning of the Gulf Stream, which provides assistance in traveling North along the US East Coast and helps to give Britain a more moderate climate. The basis of the Yucatán Current seems to be that all the water coming into the Caribbean from the East has only one exit, that being the Yucatán Channel. Much like the Venturi effect in physics, pushing all that water through a small opening accelerates the current.


The predictions were for between 15 to 20 knots of wind, which is plenty. We had a Southeast swell of 5 to 6 feet for most of our overnight sail until we picked up some protection from Cozumel Island. The swell slowed us down a bit, but we did find the current about one and half miles off of the coast, speeding us up by 2 to 3 knots. At one point we reached 9.8 knots over the ground. Wow! That was quite a ride!


By the early morning hours we had passed Bahía Espiritu Santo and Bahía de la Ascensión on the mainland (two bays with anchorages that provided possible alternate destinations), and we were both tired, not having slept well during the night. This was typical for us as we don’t sleep in our off-watch periods (we do three hours on, three hours off) on the first night on passage. In addition, our opportunities for sleep had been knocked around by a strong squall. The squall had built up on my watch with lots of lightning on the horizon, and arrived during Larry’s watch. When Larry started his watch we had reefed the main, and just before the squall arrived he rolled up the jib. When the squall hit, visibility ended and the wind roared through at 25 to 30 knots. I couldn’t sleep in that noise and I was worried about Larry, though he saw no reason for me to be on deck with him because then we would both be miserable. Eventually, Larry hove to so that forward movement stopped. The result was the noise and force of the wind and waves on the boat were so reduced that it felt like she had been parked in a safe cove. We stayed like that for an hour or so while the squall passed on, and then Larry got Moira moving again, though the ride was boisterous and rough.


<Larry: I should have hove to sooner, but I was engaged in a futile effort to pick my way between the squalls. For the sailors in the audience: Many books say that heaving to involves backing a jib or staysail with a partially freed mainsail, and we do that in light winds when we just want to “park” for lunch. But in heavier winds, we have plenty of windage forward with the rolled up jib and the dinghy on the cabin house, so in the conditions we had, a reefed main by itself did the job just fine. All I had to do was slowly head up until we lost way, and Moira began to drift perpendicularly downwind. It wasn’t perfect, but it did the job. We did have one lightning strike close-by, close enough to shut down the GPS navigation system, but turning it off and back on got it working again.>


My watch, then. I have no problem admitting that it took all my courage to go on watch by myself. The squall had been frightening and the sea was confused and large, around 8-9 feet. Larry offered to stay on watch with me but I knew he needed sleep the most. I pushed myself, held on and took my seat in front of the RADAR, watching for new squalls or ships in our way. We had not sailed overnight for almost 18 months. Overnight sails can be rewarding with the beauty of the night but they can also be downright scary. <Larry: It is also an unfortunate characteristic of tropical meteorology that squalls happen at night.> I think guys build up an immunity to night sails and Larry is a much better sailor than I am. I am not comfortable with the boat at night though I know I can call Larry at any time and in fact it is one of his rules. “When in doubt, call me” but every minute he uses on deck of his off-watch robs him of the sleep he needs. I find it more difficult to go on night watch than during our previous sails. I sometimes fear that I am losing my nerve for this level of excitement. I think sail passages are much like childbirth. If you remembered how bad it was you would never do it again. Only us women can understand this, I think. But I have never heard a guy in the cruising community say “I do not like night passages.” It is the new horizon that keeps me going. Seeing a new coastline, a landfall where I have never been from the sea, and seeing and knowing a new community and sometimes a new way of life all keep me going on the boat.


Puerto Aventuras


During my watch I needed Larry’s help to get past two large commercial ships, both of whom we talked to by radio about passing in the night. Both ships said they could see us on their radar and would pass as we suggested. It is nice to know that some ships keep good watch. Out there at night, you never know unless you can talk with the watch on board. So by the time that morning came we were both thoroughly trashed, and we headed in to Puerto Aventuras. Puerto Aventuras is a modern marina which would provide good protection from the predicted front the next day. The unknown about Aventuras is that the pass through the reef is dangerous in the wrong conditions: it is not passable with Southeast winds or the swells that come from them. If we got there and the pass was closed we would have to go on to the anchorage at Hut Point, another two hours or so. Once mid-morning came, we were getting some protection from Cozumel Island to the East of us, so the swell and the wind decreased significantly. By the time we were a hour off of Aventuras, we were motoring in flat seas, and I believed that the pass into Aventuras would be fine. When we called the marina to enter, the marina dockmaster told us that we would not need a guide in because the pass was so calm, but Bird, Puerto Aventuras Marinahe would come out to the jetty and wave at us to be sure we were headed into the pass correctly. We later learned that the pass had been closed by the Port Captain the day before. <Larry: A Port Captain in Mexico has authority akin to God within his jurisdiction. In particular, if he decides that conditions are too dangerous, he can close his port, which means that all vessels in the port are prohibited from exiting. The narrow pass into Puerto Aventuras is not a place one wants to linger, as a swell that arrives while one is in the entrance can slew the boat sideways and out of control, a maneuver called “broaching” that can put your boat on the rocks in an instant.> Once through the entrance we were directed to side-tie against a high, very hard man-made wall of coral boulders and concrete. Fortunately we had six good fenders to protect the boat. Then we could begin to enjoy the marina that would be our home for the next ten days.


We were able to take care of clearing into Mexico using an agent recommended by the marina. While it is expensive to use an agent, we have found that it pays off when we are checking into a port where the offices are not conveniently located. The agent coordinates the arrivals of the various officials (Immigration, Customs, and sometimes Health and Agriculture) from wherever, organizes the visits, pays their fees and transportation costs, and then collects the costs from us. <Larry: In many places in Mexico, dealing with an official on one’s own requires what has come to be known as the Paperwork Cha-Cha. One visits the official and gets a statement of services to be rendered with the associated fee. Next, one goes to the officially-approved bank to deposit the amount of the fee in an appropriate government account. Finally, one takes the receipt from the bank back to the official, who then provides a paper with lots of stamps, stating that one has cleared whatever hurdle was involved. Repeat with the next official.> Even if we went to Cozumel or a place on the mainland like Cancún to check in, the officials might still want to visit the boat, wherever it was, and their transportation costs would still be at our expense. Once we checked in, except for the boat importation permit (which we planned to get in Isla Mujeres; see below) we were free to roam.


Puerto Aventuras was built after Cancún, in the 1970’s. The condos and hotels mostly have three stories, red tile roofs, stucco painted in light colors, and lots of palm trees. It is almost Disneyesque in its sameness. It was not unpleasant. In fact it felt very friendly, and safe. When you are inside the resort, you could be anywhere along the Southern California coast. Lots of good restaurants were available, good, cold Negra Modelo cerveza, touristy retail galore, and nice hotels. The center plaza was built around a dolphin “training facility” which was educational. The dolphin shows could be watched by all the visitors to Aventuras, and those so inclined could pay to swim with the dolphins. Quite a show.


Iguana, Tulum“Seven-Eleven” class stores carried plenty of booze, and chips and dips, but there was no real food for sale! Try to purchase some vegetables or fruit or chicken or fish for dinner? No way! You had to go to the Wal-Mart at Playa del Carmen about half an hour away by bus or car <Larry: or to the neighboring poblado village where the workers for the resort lived, a half-hour walk>. I suppose if you are coming here from the Northeast or the Midwest during the winter, Puerto Aventuras would look very good, if you could get someone to stock your kitchen with real food, or if you always went to a restaurant to eat, but otherwise the living here feels artificial, almost claustrophobic. Long-term, this place would not be for us. But it did provide a nice place from which to travel to Tulum and Chichén Itzá.


<Larry: Puerto Aventuras is also home to an active sport-fishing community, usually for day-charter by people staying in the resort. Every evening we would see the crews of the sport-fishing boats on the docks at the sterns of their vessels, making steaks of fish that had been caught that day, but we never figured out how to get them to sell any of it to us!>


Mayan Ruins: Tulum and Chichén Itzá


Mayan Temple, TulumTulum was built rather late in the Mayan empire, around 1400-1450AD, and then abandoned about 75 years after the first Spanish contact with the area, about 1536. It is the dramatic position on the coast that makes the ruins so enchanting. Tulum is approachable from sea in a very shallow draft boat, like a canoe or catamaran, but that approach would only be feasible in very calm sea conditions. <Larry: We have read that one of the temples at Tulum was so constructed as to provide pointers through the narrow pass in the barrier reef for an approaching canoe, by lining up a pair of conspicuous architectural features.> The beauty of the site and the protection that the ocean side gives to the facilities here make some in the field believe that this was a very important religious or spiritual site limited to the elite of the Mayan aristocracy. The great unwashed did not live here and probably never saw this place. We traveled there on a bus tour which was well-organized by one of the tour agencies in Aventuras. Our guide was very good and able to answer our questions. <Larry: Tulum is a bijou, a tiny treat of Mayan architecture, maybe 1/20th of the size of Chichén Itzá. As with Chichén Itzá, and the Yucatán generally, iguanas were everywhere.>


In contrast, Chichén Itzá contains buildings from an earlier era of Mayan rule. Building began in the 8th century AD and carried on through some of the later periods of their rule. The facility was abandoned in the 9th century AD and then repopulated in the 10th century AD. At that time the Mayans merged with the Toltecs from the North of Mexico and became conquerors of a large area including present-day Guatemala and Belize, and large areas of the Yucatán Peninsula. Our guide told us that it was during this period that the Postclassical Mayan society began to practice human sacrifices. Chichén Itzá is very large, and Pyramid of Kukulkan, Chichen Itzaonly about 10 percent of the buildings have been restored. Buildings not yet uncovered remain big mounds of dirt and rock with assorted growth all over. The restored structures are very impressive. What an amazing civilization existed here. Without metal tools (they used chips of jade to cut the stone) or wheels they built monuments to their gods much like the Egyptians did. These buildings show the ability of the Mayans to tackle and solve architectural problems as well as their knowledge of astronomy and physics. The central pyramid or El Castillo has a series of serpents seemingly crawling down the sides: during the spring and fall equinoxes light and shadow form a series of triangles on the sides of the pyramid that look like a serpent crawling down the side of this remarkable building. <Larry: The “plumed serpent,” variously spelled Kukulcan or Quetza(l)coatl, was a central figure in their mythology.> While standing in front of the Pyramid, clapping your hands creates an echo that sounds like the call of the quetzal bird, a significant bird to the Mayans. The steps are arranged in a particular spacing to cause this sound. In the grand ball court, about the size of a football field, the acoustics are such that one can hear conversations at one end of the courtyard at the opposite end of the field. Again, the buildings are arranged in a manner to provide for this. It is now thought that these acoustics assured that the populace could easily hear the chief priest from afar and his message which was thought to come directly from their God. The Mayans had a remarkably accurate calendar, as accurate as ours, which also shows their facility with astronomy.


And, no, they do not believe that the world will end in 2012! We were told that the key to Mayan thinking about time is that nothing is new, and everything temporal is cyclical. There may be change, but not termination, as the calendar rolls over into a new cycle.

Chac mask, "Nunnery," Chichen Itza

While at Chichén Itzá we stayed at Villas Arqueológicas, about 300 meters from the gate of the park. This is a mid-priced hotel in contrast to the very expensive options such as Hotel Mayaland. We did enjoy a very good, very expensive dinner at Mayaland and another at the Hotel Hacienda across from Villas Arqueológicas.


For all you development junkies, the Mexican family that owns the Mayaland Hotel, built in the 1920’s, also owns the entire site of Chichén Itzá. The government operates the National Park but does not own the land. They have threatened to confiscate it from the family, but so far the government gets the revenue as well as the expenses from the park and the family has kept the land. It would seem that, in the event of an expropriation, the family wants to be paid for the land based on the expected income, which they estimate to be much more than the government does. An interesting sideshow to all of this is that the Mayan vendors of trinkets, who have a building or mercado at the edge of the park from which to operate, have moved their stalls and tables into the park lands, setting up their stands along the walkways through the ruins, and saying that they will not relocate back into the mercado until the land is publicly owned. The official mercado is located at the visitor center, right where the tour busses stop, but sort of off the beaten path of the tourists staying at the parkside hotels. A little revolution goes a long way around here!


On our way to and from Chichén Itzá we discovered Mexican toll roads. We rented a car through Executive Rentals, which worked fine, although the amount of liability insurance you can get in Mexico is $30,000, which seems way too low. The roads are labeled libre or quota. Going there we took the old roadway, free (libre), which took us through Valladolid, a large colonial town with slow passage through it. On the way back we took the toll road (quota) which cost about $30 for the 130 miles back to Cancún, at which point we picked up the coastal freeway. The road was well maintained, well marked, and took us to Cancún with no stops (other than two toll booths). There was not much traffic on the road, which may explain the cost. <Larry: Equally, the cost may explain the lack of traffic. The view from the toll road also brought home how flat the Yucatán Peninsula is: like Nebraska but really flat! For those of us used to the rules on US limited-access roads, it was disconcerting to see on the shoulder of the toll road the large, pedal-powered, freight-carrying tricycles used by the Mayans for transporting everything from firewood to passengers.>


During the return leg from our tour to Chichén Itzá we stopped at the Wal-Mart in Playa del Carmen to do some provisioning. Wal-Mart is reliable outside of the States, and provides good merchandise, produce and fish. The layout of the stores is similar to those in the US, but with an authentic Mexican bakery making fresh corn tortillas all day long. <Larry: It was fascinating. There was some sort of tortilla-making machine in the back room, and the tortillas came out via a kind of ski jump to be gathered up and wrapped in bundles for sale by a clerk. There was a woman skinning nopales (cactus pads) in the produce section.> While wine choices are limited, there was a wide choice in cervezas including our favorite beer, Negra Modelo.


Puerto Morelos


We started listening more closely to the weather forecasts. Larry used the internet to look at weather information, trying to decide the best day to take off for Puerto Morelos, our next stop on the road to Isla Mujeres. We wanted to see what Puerto Morelos had to offer. With a strong current assisting us we could have made the 60 miles from Puerto Aventuras to Isla Mujeres in one hop, but the current does not flow every day, so we wanted an alternative. Some cruisers have told us that they found Puerto Morelos to be more enjoyable than Isla Mujeres.


The marina staff at Puerto Aventuras had told us that cruisers were no longer permitted to anchor at Puerto Morelos because the area behind the barrier reef in front of the town had been declared a protected marine reserve. <Larry: One was permitted to use moorings that had been placed in front of the town, but they had a reputation for breaking loose or dragging in high winds. Thank you, but no.> A new marina attached to an all-inclusive hotel, part of the El Cid chain, had been built at the end of the reef entry to provide a place for cruisers to hang out. So we made a reservation and arrived at Puerto Morelos after a fast trip from Puerto Aventuras. The marina had slips for about 120 boats with lots of room for future expansion, and provided good amenities for cruisers such as showers, internet access, a surprisingly good restaurant, and access to the hotel’s swimming pool and entertainment at night. As the hotel was an all-inclusive facility, a casual visitor off the street would not be able to buy food or drinks there. <Larry: The marina’s published rate would have cost us about $50 per night, but they had a “promotional rate” for sailboats of $20 per night, which was much easier to swallow. In a strong Southeast wind, a fair amount of swell made its way into the marina, and the boats in the slips nearest the entrance got bounced around pretty badly.>


Downtown Puerto Morelos is a relatively prosperous Mexican small town, catering to the tourist trade without being overwhelmed by it. This is a resort area catering to well-to-do Mexicans and other Central American visitors, as well as Americans and Canadians. Many expats from America live here. While strolling around the square we found a well-stocked English bookstore, Alma Libre, owned by an American expat. It’s rare to find a good bookstore South of the border, not to mention a store with English-language titles! I browsed and looked and then bought several new titles. What fun! Transportation between the marina and the downtown was by collectivo or small public bus. The collectivos run back and forth through the area, stopping where customers flag them down. The charge is less than half a dollar for convenient, fast transportation. <Larry: While collectivos have a fixed route, they can often be persuaded to make a reasonable deviation to deliver a passenger at some destination.> Taxis are triple the price or more. We found La Suegra (“the mother-in-law”), a small restaurant just north of the square and right on the beach. After we enjoyed some delicious shrimp tacos and a traditional Mexican seafood cocktail called Vuelve A Vida (“return to life”—maybe a hangover cure?) and some very cold beer we headed back to Moira.


<Larry: One morning while we were at Puerto Morelos, I took a van to a town just North of Cancún called Puerto Juarez, where—among other things—the Mexican government has consolidated under one roof almost all of the officials a cruiser needs to see to check in or out of the country, or to take care of other miscellaneous paperwork. In particular, Mexico requires the cruiser to “temporarily import” his boat into Mexico, a procedure which costs $50 and allows one to keep the boat in the country for up to 10 years. This procedure, which also applies to bringing automobiles into the country, seems to be aimed at preventing people from bringing boats (or cars) into the country and then selling them (or their parts) without having paid the relevant import duty, which is steep. There is no legislated grace period allowed for getting the permit, and if one’s boat is stopped for inspection and one does not possess the relevant Temporary Import Permit, one’s boat can be confiscated, and it doesn’t necessarily work to say “I was gonna get it when we got to Isla.” When one’s boat is one’s home, that threat gets one’s attention! We had planned to defer this chore until we arrived at Isla Mujeres, but decided not to push our luck any further: the easy transportation connections from Puerto Morelos made it best to get it done sooner. Because I arrived at the office early, I was first in and first out, and back at Moira by noon.>


Passage to Isla Mujeres


The time was right to head the last 30 miles or so North to Isla Mujeres, an island just a few miles off the coast, opposite the mainland city of Cancún. We left Puerto Morelos with predictions of light Northeast winds, 10 to 15 knots. The predictions were correct, and we had a very pleasant daysail up the coast, though without much assistance from the current, maybe 1 knot at most.


The sail into this quite beautiful area of the Western Caribbean was memorable. As we rounded the corner of the hotel zone, south of Cancún City, and headed for Isla Mujeres, we noticed that the clouds were a pale blue color over the channel that separated Cancún and Isla Mujeres. We quickly realized that this was a reflection of the sunlight from the sandy bottom beneath the shallow water over which we were sailing. This was a startling sight, very lovely, and an inspiring introduction into this new area of the Yucatán.


<Larry: Also inspiring was the fact that our temporary patch-up job on the jib held all the way to Isla, where we could turn it over to a competent sailmaker for more permanent repairs.>


Additional photos from this trip can be found in our Photo Gallery (Tulum), Photo Gallery (Chichén Itzá) and Moira’s Ship’s Store.






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