The Log of Moira

 

Western Caribbean: Isla Mujeres (March -- May 2010)

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These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.

 

Cancún

 

In the 1970’s the Mexican government decided to build a new tourist city, Cancún, at the northeast tip of the Yucatán Peninsula. At the time, nothing was there except a small fishing village. The government underwrote some of the infrastructure costs and sold hotel parcels to private developers. Cancún started with three hotels, and now serves up 20,000 rooms every night. The return on the government’s investment has been terrific. Bravo for Mexico!

 

As we sailed northward past the island of Cozumel toward Cancún, we could see the extent of the hotel zone (zona hotelera) sprawling southward along the coast from Cancún City. The architecture in the hotel zone is varied, but lacks the serious distinctiveness of parts of Mexico City, for example. Every major chain has a presence in the hotel zone, with many exotic all-inclusive facilities. Many tourists never leave the hotel zone/beach area. The hotel zone doesn’t feel or look particularly Mexican. It could be Miami Beach without the art deco. In contrast to the hotel zone, Cancún City has 500,000 residents and is the service center to the hotel district, with much bustle and activity, good availability and variety of retail goods, and horrendous traffic.

 

While Cancún does not offer a vacation choice that interests us, it certainly seems to be thriving with tourists and all of the byproducts of tourism. I suspect the appeal to Americans is that it is supposed to be “foreign”. Out of the States it may be, but it doesn’t look or feel “foreign,” and English is widely spoken. Actually, Cancún reminds me of Phoenix with a sea nearby.

 

(In the middle of our stay at Isla Mujeres, I got a chance to fly back to the States. Cancún Airport could be anywhere in the world. The airport is of international quality, and is so gringo-friendly that, until you pass through Immigration, you would not necessarily know you were in Mexico. However, there is one caveat. If you want to feel the third world in Cancún, arrive on a Saturday afternoon or early evening. This is a peak period of arrivals and when I entered the arrivals hall of the airport to face immigration there were at least 5,000 frustrated tourists from around the world waiting for four clerks to process them into Mexico. What a scene…the crowd was on verge of being unruly but everyone kept their cool and waited their turn. Most took three hours to get out of there. I was fortunate to find myself in an outside line that finally got its own clerk and got out after two very long hours.)

 

Isla Mujeres (“Isla”)

 

<Larry: Isla Mujeres (“Isla”) is “the island of women,” named by the Conquistadors after discovering an abandoned Mayan temple full of images of women, perhaps a fertility goddess, at one end of the island. A small fragment of the temple remains today.>

 

Isla Mujeres is an island 8 kilometers long and only 500 meters wide, about 11 kilometers off the coast from Cancún. Where Cancún is a big resort city with 3 million visitors a year, tiny Isla Mujeres has 12,000 residents, with day-tourists arriving by ferry from Cancún’s resorts in search of a more relaxed, casual environment, and perhaps a bit of snorkeling on the reefs around the island. <Larry: Where Cancún City and the hotel district go on for miles, one could walk from the north end of Isla to the south in a couple of hours, and from the east to the west side in minutes. The downtown of Isla is maybe 3 blocks by 5 blocks.>

 

As we were sailing up the coast from Puerto Morelos toward Isla Mujeres, we became aware of an azure-colored reflection in the clouds over the shallow, sandy channel separating Cancún on the mainland and Isla Mujeres. The sunlight, reflected off the sandy ocean floor and filtered through 20 feet of clear ocean water, becomes a bright blue azure (“blue” in Spanish is azul), reflected into the bases of the clouds above. Quite an entry statement! Lets hear it for the Chamber of Commerce! The water color and clarity is part of the Caribbean experience. Out in deeper water on a clear day, the water is a deep blueberry color, but close to shore with a sandy bottom the light becomes a pale, turquoise-blue that is stunning. But do not conclude that the water is very clean… it is not. In some areas like Puerto Morelos, a national marine park, Mexico has created no-discharge areas for raw sewage. Cancún and Isla have no such protection. It may yet come to this area of the world. <Larry: When I scrubbed the bottom just before we left, I made sure to take an especially thorough shower afterward.>

 

Dock scene, Marina Paraiso, Isla MujeresAs Cancun went high-rise, Isla developed as a low-rise, casual comfortable place, perhaps less artificial and insulated than Cancún, but still a tourist “t-shirt and jewelry town.” Fishing and tourism have made the island a prosperous and comfortable place. No hustle and bustle here <Larry: unless you count being hustled by those selling silver jewelry>, just a relaxed, calm place to enjoy the Caribbean.

 

Isla Mujeres is connected to Cancún by a fast, safe ferry system which runs about every half hour from 6:00AM till midnight, taking about 15-20 minutes to make the crossing. The ferry makes getting from Isla to the international airport in Cancún, or anywhere else in Cancún City, fairly simple. <Larry: There are actually two ferry systems joining Isla to the mainland: the “fast ferry” and the “car ferry.” Upper-class locals and tourists tend to use the “fast ferry,” which completes the trip in about 15 minutes, while lower-class locals (and those bringing a car or truck to the island) use the “car ferry,” which takes longer. It is serious Bad Timing to be walking south from downtown Isla toward the marinas when the “car ferry” has just landed, because the pedestrian passengers are all going the other direction. One is confronted with a river of pedestrians disembarking from the ferry which clogs the sidewalks for half an hour.>

 

<Larry: The Mexican Navy (Armada) has several buildings (barracks, offices, maintenance yard, and a commissary) at the edge of downtown Isla. Most mornings we would hear the chanting/singing of the platoons as they jogged down the island as part of their morning exercises.>

 

Boat jobs

 

Whipping new docklines, Marina Paraiso, Isla MujeresIsla Mujeres and Cancún City are also service centers for cruisers. We needed a repair for our jib because the head of the sail had torn out on our first attempt to leave Belize. While we were able to repair it temporarily, it needed professional attention to get us to Florida and beyond. We had received a recommendation for a sail maker in Cancún City from Tom Boylan, the extraordinarily helpful manager at Marina Paraiso (Paraiso Club de Yates), and we took the sail to Cancún on the ferry and delivered the sail to the sail maker there. While in Cancún City we also visited a marine store (where which we found a reasonable deal on new dock lines, a new fender, and suchlike), an electronics store <Larry: to get a digital voltmeter to replace our premium Fluke, which was hors de combat>, a hardware store, and a store selling polyester resin filler <Larry: the boating equivalent of Bondo, for rebedding some of the ports on the boat; see below>. We found all of these places with the help of a taxi driver also recommended by Tom. Without the assistance of the taxi driver (at a reasonable 100 pesos an hour) we would have been lost in this big and complicated city.

 

We also wanted to have some canvas work done for the boat, replacing sail covers, awnings, dodger and bimini canvas, some of which were ten years old. Again Tom helped to find the right person to do the work. The canvas work was done by Francisco of Isla Mujeres. The canvas work was well done; for the most part Francisco had the existing items to use as a pattern. Francisco Haulout, Isla Mujerespurchased all of the materials and cloth needed, except the leather for stress points which we provided from our stock. Five years ago, Sunbrella canvas was very difficult to find in Mexico, particularly if you wanted color other than blue or white, but no longer, at least in Isla/Cancún. The price for the Sunbrella was a little less than the States. The work was about two weeks late, which caused us to miss a nice weather window, but we lived with it. If we were to do it again we would buy all the material and hand it to Francisco in increments as he was ready for it. Had we done that, we could have packed up and left once we saw the weather window coming, just paying Francisco for the work completed. You learn with time.

 

We had Moira hauled for a “bottom job” at Puerto Isla Mujeres, a yard near us, for an estimated four-day job. <Larry: The crew of Lorelei helped me with line handling on the exit from and entry to each end. As I get older, it gets harder for me to be in two places (the wheel and the bow) at the same time. Thanks, Lorelei!> No one mentioned the extra time for weather too rough to get into the boat yard, nor the Mexican holiday in the middle of the job. But it all worked out. Larry found a pleasant, small hotel between the marina and the boat yard to stay during the haul out and I headed back to the States for a visit with relatives with time out to help organize our son’s apartment in Portland.

 

<Larry: While Susan was gone, I took care of the messiest of the jobs, removing and rebedding some of the ports on Moira’s cabin. The sides of the cabin are a sandwich of fiberglass-balsa-fiberglass, and if water can get at the balsa core, it rots, causing all kinds of nasty problems. So far I have removed and rebedded six of Moira’s ports, as each shows signs of problems. I figure the other six will come along in due course.>

 

<Larry: The yard at Puerto Isla Mujeres caters to megayachts as well as little ships like Moira. There were two mega (motor) yachts in the yard that to all appearances had been there for a long time, and would be there for a long time to come. One had apparently run up on a reef: the bottom had the aspect of a jagged saw blade. She’d been salvaged (high-expansion foam bulged out from the rents in her hull) and brought in to see whether she could be returned to service. The other had originally been built in wood, and sheathed in fiberglass. Rot had gotten loose in the wood, and now the fantail was literally falling off the hull. Water oozed out of the wood and dripped continuously onto the ground through the cracks in the fiberglass. A sad sight.>

 

Cruiser society

 

Isla Mujeres is a fabled isle to cruisers. For us, it marked the end of our six years in Central and South America, and the beginning of our trip up the east coast of the United States. For cruisers coming from Florida or the Gulf Coast it is often their first “foreign experience.” Some cruisers run a circuit between Florida, the Bahamas, and Isla Mujeres. Isla would be a nice place to spend the winter months, going north or south in the summer to leave the hurricane zone behind. Our insurance company required that we be north of Florida by July 1, which leant some urgency to our stay in Isla.

 

Moira in Marina Paraiso, Isla Mujeres<Larry: The “foreign experience” has its attendant culture shock and, one hopes, attitude adjustment. We crossed paths in Isla with cruisers who took great exception to the idea that a sovereign nation might want to inspect their paperwork and their boats, require forms to be filled out, and charge for the operation. One suspects that those cruisers will either soon lose the attitude, or not get very far on the road to nowhere.

 

A culture shock for us was the increase in the prevalence of power boats. “Out there,” perhaps one or two percent of cruising boats are power, with the rest sail. While the preponderance of power boats in Isla and Cancún were local sportfishing types, Isla and Cancún are close enough to Florida and the Gulf Coast to allow even short-legged power boats to make the passage. By the time we got to Florida, the reversal was complete: the majority of boats in Florida marinas and anchorages were power boats.>

 

Isla offers lots of variety for tourists and cruisers. There were lots of touristy shops hawking just about everything. There were a couple of good grocery stores, though without the variety of Belize’s Brodie’s. No arugula here, but the tortillas were excellent and plentiful. <Larry: The tortillerias, being low-margin vendors, occupy less-favored real estate in Isla. One must seek them out in narrow alleyways off the beaten path.> Good restaurants were everywhere. We particularly enjoyed the restaurant of the Hotel Na Balam, located in the northern section of the island. There were several fishing cooperatives within walking distance of our marina, from which we bought beautiful snapper and grouper. Wow… eating fish caught the same day makes a big difference!

 

Our transport on Isla was mostly by foot or golf cart: we rented a golf cart from our marina for a day’s tour of the island which gave us some “ time out” from the work on the boat, a chance to look at some of the upscale housing being constructed on the south half of the island, and a chance to enjoy another excellent restaurant on the south end of the island near the old Mayan temple. Many 125cc scooters were available, and a variety of cars and taxis, and golf carts were everywhere. Snorkeling and diving were available, though mostly in big groups, which did not attract us. We figured we had seen the best of snorkeling in the Galapagos, Roatan, and Costa Rica.

 

Our time in Isla was pleasant. There was a diverse group of cruisers with an active VHF radio net every morning. Tom, our host at the marina, arranged weekly “potlucks” for cruisers at the marina and anchored in the harbor. Potlucks bring out the best and sometimes the worst in cruisers but generally are fun, and full of interesting food dishes and conversation. Eileen Quinn has been one of our favorite singers during our cruising time, and she has memorialized the cruisers’ potluck experience in one of her songs, “Piranha Potluck.”

 

Heading to Key West

 

Moira's track, May 2010It was high time to move on. The cruiser’s experience of Isla is much about waiting for the weather to provide a window to go north or south. The prevailing wind in this area of the world is east and northeast. We were going east and northeast, directly into the prevailing wind, which is not a pleasant way to sail. So we waited for the wind to shift to the south, southeast, or south west. About every 8 to 10 days something causes the wind to shift and gives 24 hours of good weather for heading north. If you are ready you jump and go. Three days would be best, but 48 hours almost gets you to Key West, the first port of entry in Florida. In the event, we had two days of good sailing weather. Then the wind went light, as forecast, and we turned on the engine for the last part of the trip.

 

<Larry: Cuba was just a few miles south of our track. We were conscious of Cuba for two reasons. First, due to the “Trading with the Enemy Act,” Cuba is forbidden territory to US citizens. While we’re aware that some ignore that injunction, the power that the Treasury Department has to confiscate our boat (and home) outweighs our desire to see that fascinating country. Second, the presence of the landmass compresses shipping traffic heading from the US into Central America into a relatively narrow lane. We had a busy night dodging freighters. The BP oil spill was still in its infancy when we went through the Florida Straits, and wasn’t an issue for us.>

 

Fishing line, Florida StraitsIt was during one of my night watches that the engine several times slowed down by itself and then, just before we turned it off, fearing it was about to die altogether, the engine slowly chugged back to life and returned to normal speed. This behavior was not good news, as it boded some sort of internal problem, perhaps with the fuel system. The weather in the Florida Straits can turn nasty quickly, so it is prudent to move along smartly, and sailing in light breezes was not the preferred answer. After the sun rose the next morning, we noticed some unattended, buoyed fishing lines that had begun to appear around us in the water, which of course would have been invisible at night. We now believe that the engine problem was in fact due to a series of fishing lines that got caught around the propeller. The engine slowed down due to the drag of the line around the propeller or shaft, the “Spurs” line cutter chewed through the line, and the engine came back up to speed. <Larry: In the photo, there’s a marker at the right end of the photo, and various floats in the middle and left end of the photo, supporting the fishing line.>

 

The nicest part of the trip north was the assistance from the Yucatán Current which runs north up the Yucatán coast and eventually becomes the Gulf Stream along the eastern coast of the USA. We easily saw 1.5 to 2 knots of assistance, sometimes more. For a short time were speeding northeast at 9.8 knots (our usual cruising or sailing speed is 5.5 to 6 knots). One night was full of beautiful stars, while the other was squally, turning into a clear starlit night toward dawn. So the weather cooperated and on the third morning, Land Ho! Key West welcomed us.

 

Moira was seeing the United States for the first time in six years. It looked good! But that’s the next story.

 

Additional photos from this trip can be found in our Photo Gallery and Moira’s Ship’s Store.

 

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