At last some video! Sailing across the Bay of Chetumal:
It’s not much of a video but it took more than an hour to upload so it’s all I can manage for now. It appears my old SD cards are infected with a virus which has foiled all previous attempt to upload video… this is a new card.
That night in Tulum I wandered about too tired to drink or have “fun” so I returned to the beach to find my hired guard nowhere in sight. He showed up twenty minutes later so concerned and apologetic I had to pay him anyway, nothing was missing after all.
At 1 am. a police foot patrol awoke me, looked at my papers, said I could not sleep on the beach. I said it was the first time in 1500km of coast that this had happened; did they expect me to go out into that black and blowing ocean? They relented and let me stay just this one night, but they were quite uptight about it.
I did not visit the Mayan ruins at Tulum, I don’t do old piles of rocks. It is an extensive area of solid edifices of which a couple overlook the sea. The largest, a well-preserved temple-like structure atop the sea cliff still performs a wonderful function as it is placed more or less opposite the big reef pass, and there are two windows high up that pass light from clear through the building. When light shows through one window only, one must move towards the other window, when light shows through both one is lined up with the deepest part of the pass. I sailed out to confirm this and indeed it was so, though I did not use the pass. And I forgot to take a picture.
A day of no wind, then a strong northerly, then the next day a calm start to the south with a light following breeze. Typically along this coast after dismantling the Asphalt shack and drying out my dew-soaked bed as much as I can I pack everything below and set off straight out from the beach, watching out for coral heads and aiming for whatever gap in the reef I’d run in through the day before. Once outside I keep going straight out for a mile or three to be well clear of reefy surprises, then heave-to and jump over the side for a poo. Poo extruded under water does not break off as it does in air, so some impressive lengths are possible.
I regain the deck, sheet in, pull on the tiller and head downwind to the south. the wind has been right behind me mostly which is counterintuitively not the fastest point of sail for a boat, but if it is strong enough I can go along at a fair speed, seven or eight knots. The sail shades the rising sun and with this north wind cold has become a real issue, I wear clothes but these get wet and I get colder, until my teeth are chattering and I am straining every muscle to keep warm. I have raingear but the spray goes right through it, it needs waterproofing compound of some kind and I am not about to use the only available stuff, roofing tar. If the spray is light it dries off of me multiple times leaving me white with salt.
A coast of no dolphins and few turtles. I expect they are all inside the reef where I dare not travel much for fear of the coral heads. Out at sea flying fish scatter away before me, often thirty or forty at a time.
There’s a strong current heading north, up to four knots, the Gulf Stream. This can mean that despite a speed of say six knots through the water I may only be doing two past the land. The reef breakers boom on my right and further away the coast slips past agonizingly slowly, a low limestone shelf interrupted by long white beaches, low scrub, a few coco palms. Past Tulum the hotels faded out entirely and both sea and land became almost completely deserted. A lone shack on the beach once in a while would be the only sign of humanity. Blue water below, varying in shade with depth, swells from behind lifting and surging the boat forward then passing on ahead, the boat wallowing a bit in the trough with its nose up on the back of the departing hill. Surge, wallow, surge, wallow, hour after hour. No break from steering on these downwind courses. I may heave-to for a few minutes now and then to change clothes or dig out a bag of Globitos but mostly I sail without any breaks. The reefs give me the willies, especially when they boom with surf. The charts in my GPS are the only ones available, 32 years old, made I guess by sextant so things are often off by a kilometer leaving one with only one’s eyes and wits to rely upon.
I am plagued with anxiety and doubts about what to do when I reach Chetumal and run out of Mexico.
I came near Punta Allen, where a big bay opens up in the coast. The mouth of the bay is perhaps 25 km across and I did not think I could cross that with certainty before dark so I moved in towards the coast with the idea of camping the night, crossed the reef but found myself in a horrible maze of coral heads, some just breaking the surface and all virtually invisible with the sun reflecting off the water ahead. I had a merry time getting through, standing, squinting, shouting stuff like “Enemy off the port bow!” and trying not to get backwinded during extreme hasty turns. I hit one coral head pretty hard but ground over and beyond without I think much damage though the noise was distressing.
Up ahead a lone surprise hotel, a place with eight small palapas, coco-thatched cabañas, in the middle of a long stretch of steep white beach. This is the Sian Kaan nature reserve and only buildings such as this hotel which existed before the reserve was declared exist; nothing new may be built. I landed not far from the hotel thinking there might be a bar, I’ve learned a few tricks you know. I worked the boat up the sand, piled driftwood beneath the ama to level it out, erected the Asphalt Shack, cut some new sacrificial pegs for the rudders from bamboo driftwood and the woody skeletons of fan corals washed up on shore, scaled a palm and ate the best coconuts ever. Some Sol Caribe hotel guests came to say hello, they were very nice, people of taste who had elected this quiet and beautiful spot to vacation at because they are of that increasingly rare breed of person who can actually survive a few minutes without music or some vapid stimulation. Hello Maria and Seppo. I loved this beach, it was absolutely gorgeous and I had a divine, happy time beachcombing, doing my chores and sitting by my fire cooking pasta in a pot of salt and fresh water. There was no noise but the lapping of the sea, no engines, few bugs, neither hot nor cold… as close as I have come to paradise this whole trip. the ghost crabs were my friends, I was happy, and it seems to be no coincidence that I am happiest away from the tourists, in out-of-the-way places. I am unsure quite why this is.
My respects to Argentine Maurecio who was most friendly, he runs the Sol Caribe. Again and again I have met Argentines who impress me.
The next day I made a record 79km in a brisk wind with the usual following swell and the day still had a couple of hours to run when I heard a sort of faint whoop from behind me. I looked back and saw nothing but a white stick waving. I tacked back a few hundred meters and found a smiling man in a mask and snorkel with a massive lobster on the end of his speargun spear. This was Pedro. ” Was that you shouting? I asked “Do you need help?”
” I thought it was you who needed help. You look like a Cuban, or a pirate”.
I get this a lot. I am taken for a Cuban all the time although their escape vessels are never anything like mine. Also I am compared to Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean or to Kevin Costner in Waterworld. Waterworld comes up a lot. I am regularly checked for gills.
” No, I don’t need help. I’m just hungry.”
” Stop and camp here. I live there.” He gestured towards a couple of lonely shacks on the beach a half mile away. ” We will eat together. There’ s an entrance to the reef over there and Eduardo will help you when you land. Watch out, there are many rocks.”
I decided to stop, his smile was so engaging. There were indeed many rocks but I missed them and made the beach. Eduardo, Pedro’s 17-year old helper was out tending to the fish trap, a long line of sticks and net that deflected fish down to an enclosure at one end. There was a big moray in it today which is useless to them and dangerous too so Eduardo came back in with only a single fish.
Miguel Angelo “da Vinci” appeared. Ancient, eight-fingered and one-eyed. He seemed utterly unsurprised to see me. We chatted a bit though I understood little of what he said, then he went off to pole his motorless lancha off down the beach to set his net.
Three huts there were, nothing else for miles but a dirt road ran along the coast a hundred meters inland. Pancho showed up on a motorcycle and came to admire Desesperado and talk. A couple of hours passed and Pedro emerged from the sea bearing a bag of twenty lobster tails – the rest of the creatures were discarded at sea - and I was invited to eat. Dinner was deep-fried lobster tails for me, tortillas and Cup o’ Noodles all round washed down with Nescafe and the vodka I’d produced from Cargo Bay Three, mixed with coconut water which goes very well indeed. Pedro and Eduardo being Evangelists do not drink (saved from bad habits earlier in life by Dios, I must have heard this story a hundred times) but Pancho more than made up for it. He is an Evangelist too but “not a good one”. We ate seated on gasoline cans around a battered cable spool for a table and thrashed in the intense mosquitos; the typical half-assed mosquito shelter they had made was worse than useless, I swear there were more bugs inside than out. I emerged for another coconut from time to time. Pedro demolished the most enormous plate of fried fish and most of a kilo of tortillas at gustatory athlete speed – he had been in the ocean for more than four hours without a wetsuit and was famished. His girth indicated that his regular input was something more than his output. I’d found him outside the reef, alone, in about three meters of water, at least a half-mile from land. This I think takes balls: they said that there are sharks which come and take an interest but normally do not bite, if they do it is by mistake because they have such poor vision. Cutting the lobsters in half does not attract them because “lobsters have transparent blood”, but when fish are speared then carried around in a net bag this is more of a problem. We told stories, had a long talk about Dios. I don’t agree with them but the innocence of their position is endearing.
Pedro actually lives in Chetumal 200km distant and has a wife and children. He spends the six months of lobster season in this isolated spot, two weeks on, three days off, snorkeling for four hours a day. He does not own this piece of land, it belongs to “some rich guy” who does not bother them. They cannot sell the lobsters live because town is a long way off and if they stored them in a cage they would be stolen whilst unguarded, so only the tails are sold, run to the nearest town by Pancho who lives in in the presumably buggy village of Mosquitero to the north, on the bike. I had never eaten lobster before and they were pretty good. It’s just a big shrimp isn’t it really?
Six months ago a lone Cuban passing nearby had to jump overboard to fix his ailing propeller. A shark bit him on the thigh. He survived two days at sea with this injury, managed to row to land but died of the infection. Poor bastard.
A month ago an Englishman in a yacht went up on the reef a few miles to the north. He immediately jumped aboard another yacht and disappeared, leaving the whole vessel to the locals. This is considered very suspicious. Da Vinci had a sail from the wreck.
Three years ago a monster came out of the ocean and went southwards along the beach, leaving no prints. There were several witnesses. The best I could understand was that it resembled ” the ghost of a pirate under a tarpaulin”. I do not know what to make of stories like this. I suspect it my have been a Cuban who swam in from a dying boat carrying whatever he could.
That night the mosquitoes were unbelievable, coating my net and finding their way through tiny gaps around the bottom of the Asphalt Shack’s frame, but it was not so bad. My folded towel makes a pillow the size of a slice of a small stack of toast. Mmm, toast.
In the morning I was invited to breakfast and we went first to da Vinci’s hut. He had just finished butchering a sea turtle which he’d found in his net.
I am tired of the turtle issue. The people of this coast eat them whenever they think they can get away with it, despite the draconian punishments that are possible. This creature was small, the shell a foot or two long, it had probably drowned in the net but I did not ask. There was a lot of meat. I weary of arguing about this with people, they do not understand me, it makes no difference. And I have to confess they have a point – there seem to be a hell of a lot of turtles.
What to do? Refuse hospitality? Rail against eating an animal which was dead anyway? I couldn’t bring the thing back to life, nor was I paying anyone to kill another. They say they don’t eat them daily but often, yes. I sighed and ate deep-fried sea turtle for breakfast. What the hell am I coming to? The stuff was delicious, something like chicken, white and dry but tender, no fish taste. I am a very bad person and a criminal. I’m so sorry Mr. Froog.
Launch, onwards. Forty kilometers or so took me to Mahahual. On the way I saw my first lancha in a couple of days so so I approached for a gab to find to my astonishment that it was piloted by a beautiful blonde woman. I had never before seen any woman piloting a lancha. I heaved-to and crept close.
“You don’t look like a typical Mexican fisherperson”
” Neither do you”
” Yes I get that a lot”
She worked for a company doing reef surveys and had divers down. I said farewell and sailed onwards. Despite the existence of Crumpetina it is hard to leave a blonde alone at sea. I am just a man.
Mahahual. ”A little drinking town with a diving problem”. An attractive place with a small beach and a big pier touting two enormous cruise ships one of which sounded its horn as I passed under its bow, a noise fit to stun a rhinoceros, kind of thrilling. These ships appear two or three times a week and the passengers come ashore, enjoy the land, reboard and vanish leaving Mahahual very quiet again but for the local populace and a few diving and fishing tourists. I pulled ashore looking for the establishment of Dr. Primo who had very kindly invited me to visit via this blog, but my timing was bad and he was not around. I had a beer at the excellent and most friendly Nohoch Kay restaurant where I had beached because of the presence of the Nohoch’s rental Hobie cats and found that my money was no good there. Owner Jaime is a most hospitable fellow who welcomed and pampered me and was all in all a great guy, I wish him the very best and his staff as well. That night I watched mystified as a man unreeled most of his line on the wide concrete dock in a zig-zag pattern, then he stood on the edge and whirled his weight in a 16-foot vertical circle and heaved it out into the dark, the zig-zag line flying easily off the concrete. The weight must have gone 100 meters or more. Later the boat kept banging the dock in a most distracting way so I had to pull out into the dark and anchor, then I slept a little.
I’d forgotten to check the weather on the net but it looked fine out there, a very light breeze, so I left the big sail up and headed out. After my morning Yard o’ Poo I turned south. This turned out to be a bad day to be at sea.
In an hour or so the wind started to freshen. It went from bad to worse with big swells coming up behind me to make me surf down their faces. Since they were hitting me diagonally on this tack I had to surf them with the ama on the downhill side which risked it plunging way under and tripping the boat, although this has never actually happened things got a bit worrying. I like the surfing normally but it was getting a bit out of hand this time. As the wind started to clock around to the northwesterly I changed tack and that let me surf with the big hull downhill, which was better, but things were getting hairier and hairier. At first the swells were moving much faster than the boat so the surfings would be brief, but as the wind freshened further I sped up and surfed for longer and longer spurts, the boat racing along at an alarming pace, charging over and through car-sized lumps of water, great black (it was overcast) swells rearing up behind me to three meters, occasional 4-meter freaks lifting me to commanding heights with deep pits opening in front into which I would plunge, the GPS now hitting 12 knots over-the-ground despite the back-current. I sat sideways the better to see in front and behind but after a while decided it was better not to look back because each approaching mountain frankly scared the crap out of me and I didn’t want to know, the adrenaline was too much. Most of them passed harmlessly below no matter how bad they looked.
Where was Xcalak, the next town down? I was going so fast it must surely be soon, but no sign. As I surfed forward some of the wind pressure would come off the sail and with such little force from the side the sail would collapse (yard and boom coming together) and fall inboard across the bow which could lead to the spars getting hooked over the top of the mast, an ugly prospect, so I started to zig-zag to keep pressure on the sail but that was not so good as it is better to surf perpendicular to the big waves. I finally saw some smoke on the horizon – Xcalak? Oh please! I had the option of crossing the reef to land on the beach but after my experience north of Tulum I was saving that one as a last desperate measure. In fact I carefully edged away from the reef in case I had a rigging failure and needed time and searoom to fix it. So it was Xcalak or bust but this last half-hour things got so crazy at times I doubted I’d make it, I was charging along, soaked, the deck completely under sometimes, my hat gone, fighting with rigid concentration to keep my course and control and becoming increasingly alarmed. If I wavered from a run to a broad reach steering would become almost impossible due to the excessive weather helm on this point of sail, exacerbated terribly by my big sail, so when this happened I’d be slewn around broadside to the weather. The only way to get back to running downwind was to sheet in, build up speed then completely let go the sail, steer hard leewards, then try to get the sail sheeted in again before it fell across the bows. The stress on the rudders during these turns was awful and I was very worried that something would give – without steering I’d be fucked for sure. But Deseperado is made of stern stuff to my never-ending amazement and nothing broke. That quina hardwood of which the blades are made is some good shit as is the marine ply.
Anyway, onwards really really fast. Xcalak came into view but the reef was pretty much continuous here and worryingly so. I was considering breaking out the VHF walkie-talkie to ask for advice with little hope of understanding the replies, if any, when I saw a lancha outside the reef. YAHOO!
Jorge, in full raingear, was circling around in the lumps with consummate skill. I approached and grinned. Might as well pretend this kind of thing happens all the time and I’m cool with it. He had divers down, he yelled over the howling. We went up and down, up and down. He said his divers would be up soon and I could follow him in through the reef. Phew. Salvation.
I hung around, heaved-to in the mountains, tensioned the mainsheet just enough to stop the sail flogging violently, got out the Go-Pro head camera for the ride through the reef and stood on the deck admiring the sea, which was impressive, magnificent and very menacing indeed. It wouldn’t look that way on camera of course, it never does. Sailors say the best way to reduce the size of the waves is to point a camera at them. On camera it looks always looks like a millpond.
Divers started to appear and looked at me astonished and I was like, just hanging out you know? I do this all the time, sure.
The divers eventually got aboard and Jorge waved me forward. I was now on a broad reach with steering difficulties and having a hard time, but it was better than surfing. We ran for a tiny gap in the reef north of the town, the divers shivering but with all their eyes glued to the spectacle behind them. Through the gap, no trouble, I may safely say I experienced a feeling of relief at this point, then through a maze of coral heads with steering trouble but no impacts, then a shunt and a fast run southwest to land. I ran Desesperado up on the beach and sat and enjoyed still being alive.
Xcalak is a quiet and poor place, dirt roads, palms, miniscule beaches, eight year-olds driving mopeds. The people are calm and only mildly interested in my boat and journey. Real Mexico here. A few men came to check out the Desesperado. They often ask if I am afraid of sharks attacking my little boat. No, I am afraid of reef and big waves. They claim that there is a type of shark that attacks the motors of lanchas occasionally, presumably only once per shark though. Often it completely escapes people that there is no motor – they don’t notice the sail when it is wrapped around its spars on deck, and then they think that the rudders are oars and I am some kind of rowing nut. Waterworld, Captain Jack Sparrow.
The next day I took off, sailed south a few miles inside the reef and belted through the Zaragoza canal, a 500 meter cut in the land allowing access to the lagoon behind. Soldiers at the canal entrance waved at me to stop but not until I had already passed and in this narrow space with my crappy small sail up, plus a strong current I could not tack back to them. I tried for a bit but my heart wasn’t in it then I threw up my hands and carried on. The soldiers did not did not pursue. Behind the canal a lagoon opened up with low scrubby sandbars and shoals, mangroves, herons and whatnot, Belize to my left, Mexico to the right. I crossed 40 or 50 km of featureless greenish Bay of Chetumal to Chetumal, tied to the public pier, had to check in with immigration and pay to moor, kinda uptight here. Cars drive out on the pier then stop where I am moored, the only boat on a 150-meter pier, to goggle at Desesperado. The pier guards are friendly enough towards me but cars are not allowed to stop on the pier and this is taken this very seriously – I said they were uptight – so they have to walk down the pier from their office each time to order the vehicles into motion again and I think it is wearing them out. A sign says ” Beware of the Alligators” so I don’t swim in this murky lagoon water. Not even for my trousers.
I walk the streets of Chetumal as always lugging my electronics and other valuable valuables in my submersible bag. It rains here so this bag is useful off the boat as well as at sea. This is quite the noisiest place I have ever experienced… I had the misfortune to arrive on a Saturday afternoon and could hear the place booming from about 8km out, a bad sign if you are me, which I am. I walked up the main commercial street through the worst cacophony ever. About every third store has big speakers outside blasting and shrieking and pounding music. Over this a person with a microphone is often ranting like a minister about their wares. This could be a shoe shop, a pharmacy, a bank… Here and there on the wide street a tent is set up before thirty or so chairs and a man with a microphone stands in front of maybe six sitters and yells about something, thundering out of his speakers at a volume fit to strip the lichen off a boulder. I wince. A cactus would wince. But the sitters seem completely unperturbed. The only way to not hear music is if it is drowned out by some other music. Cars thump by, their huge stainless “mufflers” deafening, an open-sided double-decker tour bus goes around and around with its speakers taking up the whole rear end hammering out crap. Cars with speakers or megaphones on their roofs drive about blaring recorded commercial messages. Much of the music is the whiny kind with the semi-synthesized voices which I love so much. A fair was set up, with a main stage doing some kind of ghastly Christmas show with Santa and big rabbits dancing about, lots of refrigerator-sized speakers with this outfit. And fireworks. There are so many firework sellers on the streets that I fear some Dresden-like firestorm cataclysm may befall Chetumal.
Imagine you are inside a giant Coca-Cola can ten stories high. Put inside a dozen steel water tanks, a few cathedral bells and a dumpster load of cannon balls then roll the whole shebang down a lumpy hill. You will now be experiencing peace and quiet, a calm day by a slow-moving river with some hummus and a bottle of Merlot, in comparison to Chetumal.
And now I must decide. Desesperado is in much the same shape as when he left Veracruz, improved if anything, and I myself have a few more gray hairs but am otherwise in great condition and ready to keep sailing. Do I go on towards Panama where I may have work of a kind? Head back to Veracruz? Sell Desesperado? Ask for rescue by a friend with a trailer? This has to be one of the hardest decisions of my life.