The Way to Sabancuy

Aqui estoy mis amigos:

Ok sorry about about that, but I had to stop somewhere. All these posts are done in a bit of a rush in internet “cafes” which close when the attendant gets hungry,  and open again at random times whenever someone can be bothered. I got bitten by a dog on the doorstep whilst entering just now, that’s how user-friendly these places are.

This belongs in the last post. Maritza, Joselito, Josefeta and Hugo of Colonia Emilio Zapata.

I anticipted the dreaded salt-water sores by building this airy and spray-protected folding seat. I have the driest ass of any sailor, ever.

So where was I? Yes the bridge, too low and coming towards me (relativistically speaking) much too fast. In retrospect what I should have done is veer off and parallel the bridge whilst considering my options but really it had looked plenty high until the last few seconds, and now there was no time for a turn with any appreciable clearance. I let go the mainsheet in an effort to slow down but I was now almost running dead downwind in my effort to pass through at 90 degrees and the effect of this is that the boom swung out and up so that the sail now stood like a “V” with its lower point on the bow and both yard and boom now stood fixed to strike.  So I sprang to the mast and uncleated the halyard, letting it go just as I went under the concrete so the sail dropped to my side as I shot below, and I was pulling up the sail before I even emerged on the other side. Nothing even touched, and the effect to bystanders had there been any in a position to view would have been that it was an well-practiced and professional manouver. Ok so it was an anticlimax to you but pretty exciting from where I stood.

Back in the ocean now, I headed northeast and rounded the point eastward of the estuary. The water was a beautiful clear aquamarine and weedless, a sandy bottom stretching for ever. I was beginning to climb the Yucatan along a sandy shore. The wind was strong and coming from the southeast boiling off the land, fitful and jerky, pushing me along the flat water in high-speed bursts. Lovely sailing actually, my first taste of fast sailing on flat water since the trip began. I landed on the shell-sand beach and changed up to my biggest sail again as the wind started to fail, but soon once again I was becalmed and roasting at sea. Pulling in the fishing line I discoverd a small fish, maybe 1 kilo on the end and I’m afraid it was his bad luck that I was both hungry, foodless and becalmed, for I ate him, fried on deck over the little gas stove that Santiago gave me which burns even in a gale. I have caught maybe 8  fish since the trip started but let them all go but this one. You may ask why I fish if I am just going to let them go and I don’t have a good answer, it is just curiosity really, adding interest to the voyage and satsfying some of my great interest in what lurks below.

After fishie’s sad demise a northeast wind sprang up and I piddled along the coast making reasonable time. I headed further out to sea to find smoother wind which seemed to work. Nervous about thunderstorms I was worried when one came off the land behind me and cut off my retreat, but it looked like I would escape it. It is hard to tell, for they often move in directions contrary to the wind at ground level. I kept going, looking back occasionally and WHERE THE HELL DID THAT COME FROM?

A mile dead ahead a thunderstorm coalesced out of nothing, moving quickly off the land and into my path. It was close enough  I could see the white water at its base. I could not go forward or back, nor would I make it to land. I dropped sail and anchor and waited.

Spanish for thunderstorm is tormenta, a word I find particularly evocative.

A short wait. The storm ahead cleared out of my road leaving me free to try to outrun the one behind, so I got moving. But black thunderstorms were forming everywhere over the land and moving towards the ocean. I needed shelter.

About three miles ahead I could see what might be a breakwater. There was nothing about a lagoon or river entrance hereabouts on my charts but my charts are 32 years old, the most modern available. Gives you some idea of how devoid of boats other than local lanchas these waters are. I made as fast as I could for this thing, whatever it was, worried because a particularly big storm was heading for the same spot. Would I make it?

I do hope this isn’t boring you. It really is pretty exciting out there.

I got closer. Yes, two breakwaters. I found them to be only about 25 meters apart, guarding a very narrow passage heading straight inland. If you look on the SPOT site (satellite image) you can see it. Through the passage I could glimpse a lagoon and a town. I wanted in, but a narrow passage possibly with a current between two rocky breakwaters is no place for a sailboat. But what the hell, this is an adventure.

So I went in. I didn’t get more than 30 meters inside the entrance before I discoverd the current against me was outrageously strong. The thunderstorm loomed big and black and booming most awfully. What could I do? I threw the anchor over in a side eddy so I could stop and think.

Without help I could not tow the boat throught the entrance under the bridge and into the lagoon. I could not paddle against such a crazy current. As I pondered the boat swung back and forth in the current like a fish on a line,  sometimes nosing the rocks but not hard because I had the paddle in my hands and was using it. I recently discovered that this professionally-made paddle SINKS! On the first mad career across the current the anchor line got wrapped around my ankle and damn near pinched off my foot so there I was lying on the platform wailing and paddling as best I could from my entrapped position and making a right comedy for two boys fishing on the far breakwater. I had to get out of there was my decision, and go around the breakwater and haul out on the beach. The storm was getting really scary now but had not struck. I would just pull up the anchor and float out on the current…

But the anchor would not come up! Oh shit! I pulled and pulled, the mad charging about of the boat helped me tug from different angles, but it would not budge. What to do. No way was I going to dive into that swirling lagoon-murk full of unknown toothy horrors.  With the chain vertical,  I could just see its top- it is 16 feet long. I pulled and pulled. I hated to lose my anchor, I needed it too much.

I could not pussy out of this. Most reluctantly I put on my mask and dived, pulling myself down the chain into the gloom, then the dark. I despaired of being able to see at all when I reached whatever bottom was in store for me. Creepy? Oh god yes. Suddenly I arrived, found the chain jammed between two barnacled blocks. I could not free it, had to go up for air then return. Success this time, but even though I was careful bringing up anchor and chain somehow the chain snagged again and I had to go down a third time.

Gasping back on deck I swirled out into the ocean. Two lanchas roared passed me out to sea; What the hell, with this storm coming? I waved my rope at them hopefully but they just shrugged and went on. I raised sail, made it around the breakwater to land or nearly so as I was blocked by a sandbar. I started to unload in order to lighten the boat. Jesus the storm looked bad. I was bummed I could not make it to the town and would now have to unload the whole boat and drag it across the sandbar and up the steep beach. Both hands and arms bled profusely from multiple barnacle lacerations sustained underwater. The storm, Christ!

Then an angel appeared.
In “Religulous” (well done Mr. Maher) Bill Maher interviews a man who thinks he is the second coming of Christ and asks him how he knows this. “Two angels told me” says the guy. “What, two Mexicans named Angel?” asks Bill, innocently. In any group of more than four Mexicans, there will be at least one called Angel and another called Nacho.

Angel and two young brothers were in their lancha hanging just offshore, watching me curiously. I waved my tow rope and they said yes. I reloaded the boat, dropped the mast fearing the bridge and we hitched up and took off. At this point the storm struck.

Blinding rain so dense I could barely make out the lancha. Lightning and awful thunder bashing down all over the place. No wind. The sea flattened by the pounding rain. The tow rope was too long and despite using the bridle my boat was uncontrollable, veering wildly all over the passage. Weirdly I found I was off to the side and ahead of the boat that was towing me. The brothers clearly wanted to cut me loose but they were made of stern stuff; they did not abandon me to float out to sea again in this storm. I had the presence of mind to rip open cargo bay three and pull out the headcam. The rain eased some and we changed tactic in midriver, rafting my boat alongside theirs, and he was thereafter tame as a lamb as we throttled through the worst of the current, under the bridge and into the lagoon. They pulled me across to the town and left me at a decomposing jetty, but not before I had given them a 500 peso ($45 USD) note in exchange for their gasoline and valor at which I was much impressed. This rather hurt but it was no time for penny-pinching and I had no smaller bill anyway.

The rain stopped, all was calm. I was cold as hell for the first time in months. My audience soon gathered on the dock, fishermen mostly, friendly enough, so many I feared he dock would collapse. I got mostly sorted out but far from dried, that would have to wait until the morning.

Sabancuy is a mud-puddled and mosquito-infested lagoon town. It seems to survive from fishing and farming. As always the biggest building is the church. Dry in the mornings and hot as hell, it rains in the afternoons. I have trouble finding beans here, it’s all meat and fish. With every meal one gets horribly bitten for free. There is a disco for teenagers on Saturday but no other entertainment. That lagoon entrance from the sea was cut artificially soon after my charts were published. The people are friendly – this is Mexico; I am now kin to many fishermen which can get a bit tedious when they are drunk in the afternoons, many declarations of brotherhood and so on. They have silver-capped teeth and an intolerable tendency when drunk to tug at one’s sleeve or poke one at the beginning of almost every sentence (a strangely common habit in Mexico; I cannot abide it) but they are good fellows and their respect means much to me.  I have many visitors when I am at the jetty and I explain the operation of the boat over and over to those interested; apart from on tv they have never seen a sailboat. They are gearing up to start octopus fishing tomorrow; maybe I will stay another day and join them.

As at Chiltepec nobody comes demanding mooring fees. I think that the dock was built by the town. At night a watchman for the fishing cooperative guards all the lanchas and my boat too, I bring him coca-cola. A nine year-old kid named Eric enthusiastically helps me grease my rudders and re-tar my annoyingly leaky bubble canvas. He is a damned fine helper I must say, sharp as a razor; I shall give him a penknife before I go, I still have a few.

Cargo bay three still leaks.

Sabancuy borders the lagoon.

Many lanchas are hauled out by this clever log-ramp method.

The Local Authority.

Yesterday I discoverd my anchor was broken. Outrageous that the thing could be broken by my strength alone (which was not sufficient to beat a woman at arm-wrestling over lunch earlier. It was a draw.). I am glad I splashed out on a bigger anchor though, my first one would not have saved me from the thunderstorm in the Laguna de Terminos. An expedition to weld the thing was mounted, two drunken fishermen on bicycles and a third with myself taking it in turns to power a three-wheeled pedal cart all spashed through the rain along the muddy streets to a welder who did a fine job for $8 US: I bought the guys two six-packs for their valuable time and as we worked on those back at the dock a heavily-muscled man with a sour expression walked out and approached me. I could barely understand anything he said but he definitely had a problem with my presence in the lagoon, said gringos couldn’t just sail in whenever they pleased. Well yes they can, I said, if they have a visa, which I do. But you don’t have papers to be in Campeche, he says. I have a visa issued by the federal goverment and can enter any state I please, I said, I need nothing more. Let me see your papers he says. He really had a bad attitude, the first directly unfriendly and aggressive Mexican I had ever met. Who are you to ask to see my papers? I ask. He was a fisherman. If he had a problem he could call the police and I would show them, but you, no. My brothers squirmed about uncomfortably (If there is one generalization in the world that is true it is this: Mexicans hate confrontation) He is on something, they said.
I do not want to listen to you any more, I said. Call the police if you want to, I have nothing to hide. This had gone on for a half hour. He started up again. ENOUGH! I yelled. FUCK OFF! He went and sat on some nets and glowered at me. Then he went further and must have bothered someone else because ten minutes later two truckloads of cops showed up and took him ahway in handcuffs. I was rather impressed.

Truth is, my legal status is a bit iffy. I have a tourist visa good for six months, but I have become a mariner and that doubtless requires different paperwork. The rules here are unkown even to those who are supposed to enforce them, and bendable anyway. In three weeks my only contact with officialdom has been a brief and friendly chat with policemen passing on the beach at Colonia Emilio Zapata.

A few of my brothers. Jose plays air guitar.

I am still enjoying the hell out of this like I have never enjoyed any trip before. The heat and the rain and even the bugs do not spoil it. My neck hurts a lot when sailing and my barnacle injuries are infected but these things are also fine, or will be. For a long time I was mystified as to why my face hurt in the morning; now I realize it is because I use a rolled-up rough woolen blanket for a pillow which in any normal situation would be intolerably uncomfortable but in the world I am living in I do not even notice. The only thing I really cannot stand is bass, but there has been little of that since I left Zapote. Hooray. I think that a large part of my happiness so far stems from the boat itself – were I sailing in a fibreglass yacht I would be another rich-seeming gringo, and I am sure the people would still be friendly but I would somehow be more insulated. This is the biggest reason I built a weird boat, and it is all working out.

Desesperado hangs on a mooring line strung between pulleys on the dock and a handy old post in the lagoon. By this means I can pull him between the dock and a place where he will not bash the dock or be robbed by thieves who cannot swim.

I make sure to press the Easy Button at regular intervals. A voice says "That was easy".


8 thoughts on “The Way to Sabancuy

  1. wow
    bona to vada yer fizzog me dearie-o
    What an adventure.. I’m breathless & speechless
    without running a tempest or threading a breakwater channel.
    What can I say – Respect indeed..
    Off to plumb the depths of my bathtub – which has had some
    of the erstwhile glamorous appeal wiped asunder..
    Wonderful stuff Chris.. truly wonderful xx

    • You have no idea how envious I am of your hot bathtub Mr. Froog. I wash by swimming in the murky and salty lagoon. A hot bath is the example I always use when expounding my philosophy about the value of pain and suffering as a prerequisite to experiencing joy, to anyone who will listen. Had I never been cold and filthy, a bath would be nothing special. I am rather cold and filthy right now.

  2. By the way – love the chair & subsequent well cared for bum.. excellent..
    Top marks on the photos – the words are more than sufficient but I needed a picture of that Easy button – superb! 🙂

  3. Finally, a picture of you that shows the joy 🙂 Well bro, I don’t know what to say. You’ve left me in the dust and this raises the bar even higher for me. My mom asked me yesterday what ‘awesome person’ I would like my life to be like and for a moment I thought about saying “The Gribbles”, and I only didn’t say it because she wouldn’t understand…so I resorted to Nelson Mandela—yes, of course I want to be a political prisoner. It would give me time to think 😉 But the truth is that there’s few places I’d rather be. There’s the big island, romancing my yoga teacher, and shadowing you on a Sunfish (or perhaps on a bicycle along the cost) witnessing your awesome and original journey.

    Don’t change the writing. You right very well and I can very vividly picture what’s going on. It looks like you’ll start heading north along the Yucatan! Woohoo! It’s too bad the SPOT begins to erase your trail as you add more points. I wonder why they do that. It’s not like it takes much storage space at all to save these coordinates.


  4. Chris,

    Well done on your adventure so far, your blog writing is improving too. I am green with envy. I bet all the time spent building your boat is more than worth it now. I look forward to every post.



  5. I can assure you if .. if you put your mind all you do it .. island was strange women encontrate my brother .. but very great .. the biggest coincidence can be anywhere .. luck and I will always be marked by the occasion of the ride in london 3 months ago and the occasion of salsa bar that I recognized my brother .. but I would say .. that the world is enormous .. and few matches .. good luck .. of heart ..
    Daniel Russi “the boy diver from the ride”

    P. S. only god knows why they are the coincidences

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