This post concerns my trip along the west coast of the Yucatan from Champoton to Progreso, now ancient history. Nothing hugely exciting happens but I thought I’d write it up for the sake of completeness.
Champoton faded into the distance as the octopus fleet hove into view; I threaded my way through them as I had at Sabancuy and for a while it was plain sailing over tiny waves with a light and fitful wind coming from behind and to the side giving me occasional bursts of real speed. Delightful sailing after these weeks in which I have had scarcely any favorable winds, nothing that lasted any length of time and always with some chop to sap my momentum. Here on the Bay of Campeche a pattern has emerged – light but favorable southeasterlies in the morning, fading to a long becalming, then fierce and contrary northerlies later in the afternoon
North from Champoton over a vast field of seagrass only a few feet below which deepened until the bottom faded completely from view. I encountered many octopus boats which instead of drifting as usual towing crabs across the bottom had anchored and dropped off divers in masks and snorkels to search for octopus with spearguns and long handheld hooks despite that the bottom about 5 meters down was invisible. These guys were often a long way from their lancha, completely alone in the ocean and unable to see more than a few feet. They say there are no sharks but how that would not comfort me much. All it takes is one.
This means of octopus fishing is illegal but the law has never mattered to most Mexicans no matter whether or not it is sane and ethical.
My father told me of the Portuguese method of octopus fishing – laying strings of small unbaited open earthenware pots across the bottom which the octopus find handy to use as homes, and I asked the people here if they had tried this method here and did it work? Yes, they said, they had tried it using pots made of pvc pipe and it worked very well but it was illegal and a boat could not hide the pots when it returned to port, nor the floats in the ocean. The reason it was illegal they said, was that the females full of eggs would tend to get caught as they prefer to shelter during the day, hence the eggs would be wasted. The same applied to octopussing with spearguns and hooks. Most of the octopus caught by the crab-dragging method are male. Every fisherman says the same thing – the octopus are down every year and are not a shadow of what they used to be in either size or number.
Becalmed again. Terrible heat, sitting on a platform so hot I cannot touch most of it without being burned. Two lanchas visited full of divers and we swam between each others’ craft and bullshitted. These people are so friendly, so uncompetitive and unaggressive that pretty much my every experience with them has me feeling all fuzzy inside. Green-white butterflies flew past determinedly out to sea, some kind of migration; I have seen them along this coast miles out to sea every time I have been becalmed and they are always heading southwest. Three hours of this awful heat in which I moved only a couple of hundred yards. Then a mild wind from the north, then another becalming, then a tiny wind from the north again. I was now at Point Morro just north of Seybaplaya and things looked hopeless so I headed in towards what looked like a Polynesian village. Mine is a Polynesian vessel so it seemed natural. Tuned out the place was a beach lined with thatched shade structures, palapas, for tourists, but it was almost completely deserted. I headed for the only people I could see and dropped the hook just offshore. I was almost out of water and desperate.
Alfonso immediately approached me and he and his large family fed and beered me like a king, it was embarrassing frankly. I expected deprivation on this trip but so often I am treated royally by very generous folk.
I spent the night anchored in a sort of harbor made by the tailings from a selenium mine because, you know, who can resist a selenium mine? I like sleeping afloat. There is a gentle motion and lapping noise and the feeling that nobody can bother me, and I don’t have to go far for a pee. Against this is the thought that something might blow up in the night and cause unpleasantness, or that the anchor might drag. I see that I am carrying an anchor larger than that of wide-hulled boats twice my length and I am glad of it.
A very early start next morning after packing down the bubble with a favorable light and puffy wind driving me in fits and starts to Campeche. I had wanted to visit Campeche but because of its soft and soothing name (Mexicans pronounce it Campeshay) but I could immediately see that it was a modern place like Veracruz, really of no interest to me (I am told it has an amazing antiquated center but that seemed inaccesable to me without finding a very safe place for the boat). The ripping noise of the big stainless “muffler” brigade sounded far out to sea. Can we not just beat these people with sticks? There was nothing for me here, I thought. I anchored outside the marina and swam ashore to scrounge a liter of water from the gas pump attendant, then put out to sea.
The bay of Campeche is shallow, at least near the coast. The waves are tiny, hardly deserving of the name. I had been over these weedy shoals all morning and now they became even more shallow, an endless plain of waving seagrass mostly about 3 meters down but sometimes only half that. I do not like shoals and weeds give me the creeps but in the long becalming which grounded me outside of Campeche anything was better than the heat so for three hours so I hung in mask and snorkel under the platform or wrapped around the ama or held on to the “me overboard” line which I always trail astern. I passed directly over a turtle two feet long flat on the bottom grazing, and caught a small octopus which I had half a mind to eat being once again almost foodless but I couldn’t do it and let him go. There were some round sponges rolling around down there and the odd small fish but mostly it was just seagrass with occasional patches of muddy shell sand. I discovered that Desesperado’s hull was growing tiny barnacles. I would have to deal with that.
Wind finally, a real stinking howler out of the north. It was horrible, waves small (in the two feet region) but whitecaps everywhere, the surface completely matt. I tacked back and forth off the coast and made progress and as the sun lowered searched for a landfall but here north of Campeche there were no beaches to be seen, no villages, not a sign of humanity at all. The shore was a low wall of mangroves right down to the water as far as I could see north and south. In fact even now writing this in Progreso a couple of hundred kilometers further north I still have no reason to see the Yucatan as anything but an endless level mangrove swamp.
I had two options. Sail all night or try to anchor in the open ocean. I decided on the latter. I headed in so that if something awful happened in the night I would be able to swim for land. The sun touched the horizon, sank lower, I bashed and splashed towards shore close-hauled in a howling wind, heeling badly at intervals, the ama way above the waves before I’d panic and let go the mainsheet. As the last of the sun vanished I stopped a kilometer from land and looked down carefully at the blobbly orange shapes I had seen going by underneath the boat in the last few minutes.
Rocks! Only four feet down! I touched them easily with the paddle, This I did not like at all. I did not know if the tide would go out much because my tables had expired at the end of July. I tried to anchor but it would not bite, so I pulled it back aboard and raised sail again and headed back out into the wild and blackening sea. I went a kilometer or so and stopped again. This time there were eight feet of water below me and the anchor bit instantly. Yay! Everything was going to be ok.
Even in this wind and waves I was not getting splashed at all on the platform now that the boat had stopped advancing. As the wind moderated it became rather pleasant. I had not eaten in 27 hours so I made a space on the waka (main hull) deck sheltered with gear and used the stove to cook some pasta with chile chipotle, salt and some rather rancid canola oil. Supper achieved my “not horrible” ranking, probably due to my great hunger.
I had to tie my blanket down to the platform to stop it blowing away and later on also the tarp from the Little House on the Proa because I was cold and there I lay gazing at the sky and checking the GPS occasionally to see that the anchor had not dragged. Half a moon, a few clouds and the uncountable stars. It was not a bad night, chilly but beautiful and with a bit of actual sleep. The anchor stuck in the bottom like it was nailed there.
The next day was a slow but steady dribble along a low mangrove coast through brown water over and endless shoal of seagrass and other weeds. Can’t say I like this much. The thought of something going wrong and me having to swim through the stuff, then slog through the mud, then hack my way through miles of mangrove swamp gave me the willies. And I was out of water again.
I resolved to stop for water at the first sign of human habitation but there was nothing, nothing at all for miles and miles. No beaches, no houses, no lanchas, no noise, nothing but the weeds and the brown water and the mangroves which had stained it thus. Plenty of turtles splashed and fish jumped – sometimes a whole school at once, or a big predator jumping after a jumping prey, both airborn at once. But no people of sign that there had ever been people. I passed the open mouth of a lagoon which had beaches inside but I could see not a village, but it looked lovely in there and very tempting however I figured I should keep going north as long as there was a little wind which was now very little admittedly so passed this lagoon but then I saw…
The butterflies were launching! Thousands came swarming out of the mangroves heading southwest as usual to either make landfall to the south when the afternoon northerly wind comes or to die at sea. Perhaps this meant a becalming was imminent, in which case I had nothing to lose by entering the lagoon because I would not be advancing anywhere anyway. So I backtracked a half-kilometer and cruised in towards the opening which was about a hundred meters wide and bordered by mangroves. This mouth opened up ito a lagoon a mile or two across with deep indents to its mangroved edges broken by small white beaches. It was utterly silent, no sign of people, no noise of animals or anything. Some vulture-like birds watched me from the branches of a sunken tree. I know I keep talking about getting the creeps but this place really did get to me… the total silence, the staring birds, the weed below rising towards me. The bottom shoaled further until my rudder was slicing mud so I shunted and got out before I got stuck. It was a poo lagoon.
The butterflies were wrong because the wind stayed alive enough to move me slowly along for hours and hours through the brown water over the weeds and past the endless mangroves until I was in the area of more serious shoals, a vast expanse of mud that is exposed at low tide. My GPS has charts downloaded into it (and there are paper charts in the hold which I never look at) but the information is 32 years old and untrustworthy so I stayed well out to sea, now getting very thirsty indeed. I pushed though floating bands and rafts of dead weed, saw turtles, loons, no sign of people at all. At last… A ship! A ship! I found myself crying out, like some ragged starveling on a desert isle. But it was not, merely a building standing up alone above the horizon. More of it appeared and then a small town which my GPS listed as “Punta Desconocida” or ” Unknown Point”. It appeared I was not going to die of thirst though it was really beginning to feel that way.
But first I had to land there and that did not look straightforward, what with the place surrounded by these shoals and the tide in a state unknown to me due to the expiration of my tables. At this point a horrible northerly wind sprang up, beating me severely more and more as the waves increased. Close-hauled as so often before I inched and tacked forwards wondering how to land. I needed to talk to one of the lanchas I could see in to the north zooming homewards but none would stop, they seemed to be in a hurry (as I learned later due to the falling tide; if they did not make land soon they would not be able to. I uncleated the sail and stood on deck waving my red shirt in the howling wind but still they raced past a half mile away until there were no more. I thought this peculiar and contrary to the code of the sea – seamen help seamen. That’s the rules.
I moved in. The lanchas had appeared to avoid a certain area so I did too, but eventually I just had to point in and go for it because the sea was becoming an untenable place to be. I charged inwards at crazy speed with a huge pile of spray foaming over the depressd bow (the sail pushes the bow down when running downwind as I was then). I could not tell how deep the swirling mucky water was because patchy clouds caused it to change color in splotches everywhere. 400 meters, 300, I was going to make it! 250 meters… OH SHIT!
I seem to say this a lot don’t I? But I had good reason. The water changed color, shoaled rapidly… I could see weeds on the surface, didn’t know if I was heading into rocks or what, and I could not slow down or turn in time to miss the weeds. I ploughed right into them.
I guess the following was quite funny to the crowd now assembled on the shore, holding on to their hats in the fierce wind. The bottom was mud and under full power I kept moving but at a snail’s pace. The mud slid by; I wondered if it would remove the barnacles. If I moved out to the ama I’d get another inch of freeboard on the main hull and move along a bit more. Eventually, 50 meters from shore I came to a complete halt. Time to go overboard and slog through the mud up to my knees, weeds and water to my hips, all the way to shore dragging the boat behind. As I staggered up the bank onto the concrete I exclaimed “Land!” which had the crowd rolling in the aisles for some reason.
This was the village of “Isla Arena” The Island of Sand. The people were very friendly. They had never heard of Punta Desconocida and in fact my charts say Isla Arena is six kilometers south of here. That is just wrong. Ernesto immediately approached and invited me to eat with his large family, an octopus ceviche with tortilla chips and large glasses of oh-so-sweet water. I enjoyed the food and the family equally, and got to know them that evening as huge thunderstorms drenched the town. I spread my sail during one deluge and refilled all my water bottles. I have always wanted to collect drinking water in a sail. Ernesto was 55ish, evangelist, very intelligent and personable, a real gentleman, another of so many people I have met in Mexico with whom I wish I could be neighbors. He wants an English girlfriend (Ladies? He is good looking). He told me of the two times in his life as a fisherman he has been caught out in really severe thunderstorms, completely blinded for minutes by near strikes, praying for his life.
I moved on and made a short hop to Celestun the next morning. I was there by lunchtime having entered the very sheltered harbor through the narrow breakwatered entrance against the wind in a series of quick shunts that inched me along the passage a bit at a time. I was surprised it was possible at all – one loses a lot of ground on each shunt. The reception of tooting and yelling and near-passes I received from hundreds of lanchas (all fitted out for octopus fishing of course) was heartwarming. Isodoro later approached me. “When we saw you coming wearing only shorts and a hat” he said, “we knew you were one of us.”
Celestun is nearly 300 years old, not much to blog about architecturally but it does have flamingoes in a lagoon behind. The town square would be pleasant were it not poisoned by loud music all the time. I spent a couple of days here hoping to find like-minded company wishing to take the risky (because of the likelihood of grounding in mud) trip to see them but found no-one). Celestun has something else – white tourists. I was horrified to see more gringos and euros in my first half hour ashore than in the whole previous six months put together. It took the wind out of my sails. I was no longer in mysterious unknown Mexico, I was in touristville. I have had to get used to this feeling. I am in the Caribbean Sea now and will not again be in the back of beyond where I want to be for some time.
I met Alberto. He was drunk in a bar and came over to ask me about the dead Cuban in my boat. It’s a long story, a case of mistaken identity that affected the town’s opinion of me for a while, but I hope the truth penetrated as fast as the rumor. Alberto worked persuading tourists fresh off the buses to go out on the lanchas to see the flamingos of which there were about 300 at present. I called him “King of the Mayas” for his T-shirt said something like this in Mayan which is a language many people of the Yucatan still speak; it did not die with the empire. Who knew? Alberto, a small man with indigenous features was frequently banned from bars but maintained sufficient control around me such that I did not avoid him. He asked me for nothing, brought me coconuts, spoke some English. I grew to like him. Over the next two days he told me of the three worlds of the Maya, the sacred numbers, the important colors, the square world, the great ceiba tree through whose trunk one must pass to reach the world above… much of this was scribbled upon serviettes in bars into which I let myself be enticed. I do not drink much, and not early. I can’t understand the attraction of drinking all afternoon in Mexican cantinas which are always painfully loud and have only fat women. (Oh tell me I’m wrong). I cannot abide a drunk who pulls at my sleeve for attention every sentence (this happens a lot in Mexico for some reason, and not only with drunks.)
I had moved Desesperado around to the beach by now, much cleaner than the harbor for swimming and nearer town. I sailed around a little by day and anchored out at night, swimming to the boat in the dark to go to bed.
When I say that a Mexican cantina is painfully loud I mean it. It is not just the music that is so raucous it makes your teeth hurt, but everyone shouts, and as the whole place is made of concrete (always) and there are never any soft furnishings whatsoever to absorb the noise, even when the music stops the volume makes one wince and cower. I do not know how they stand it. It is the same in every Mexican home – no soft furnishings, painful noise levels. Another thing that truly amazes me is the ability of people to live and sleep with mosquitos. Most houses have no screens on the windows or doors and the horrible insects which are often intense are free to enter. Most of the people here sleep in hammocks strung at night from hooks in the walls with no mosquito protection except that in most houses the people will light a green mosquito coil indoors (these things are not for indoor use) which emits highly toxic smoke to kill all the mosquitos in the building, and by the time it burns out and new bugs enter the people are asleep, so they tell me. But a single mosquito will wake me in the night and bite me five or six times as I interrupt its ghastly feed and this will drive me just about insane, especially as they usually target my feet which are the most painful place to be bitten. Two or three mosquitos in my shelter are absolutely intolerable. The people here say they are acostumbrado – accustomed to it, but clearly they do not like the things because I see them swatting too. I don’t get it. No American would spend money on a pinata (paper-mache figure full of sweets for suspending from a tree and hitting with a stick at parties, great fun) whilst his home lacked bugscreen.
I had better get on with this.
Celestun, northeast. The water now blue-green and clear with lovely clean sand below. I made it to the town of Sisal, rammed the beach so hard I was pretty much hauled out just like that. During the afternoon at least three thousand flamingos flew by the pier. With their long legs straight out behind and their long necks straight out in front they looked like they could go backwards as easily as forwards – like a proa. Ate, slept on the boat on the beach. Next morning on towards Progreso.
This turned out to be the most unpleasant day yet. I went out through a great swarm of millions of semi-global jellyfish as big as grapefruits through an unfavorable wind that turned strong and more unfavorable later. I had to land on a beach covered in turtle tracks to change down sail, then went out again but could make little headway with this crappy canvas sail. Many tacks later I was cold, hungry (again no food in 26 hours) and very tired so I finally gave up and landed in front of one of many tourist villas on the beach at Chelem a few kilometers short of Progreso. Carlos came out of the villa along with his big family and welcomed me; they fed me and made me part of the family and later we played loteria, a kind of bingo with pictures. One picture card amused me – “El Negrito”, “The Black Guy”as if he were just a thing. I have never seen a black person in Mexico.
In the morning I quickly polished off the last few kilometers to Progreso and joined the sail race as described in my last post.
I have met many fine and friendly people here in my eight days or so in Progreso. I would like to mention Mike Dutton in particular who owns a local marina and has been very helpful to me with no thought of reward although I intend to come up with something. I was the guest of the sailing club for dinner. A reporter came and his article I mentioned last post… I am amused by a Google translation which says “The boat can be completely submerged but continue browsing”. I have spent the last seven days living like a dog in the a shipyard, upon whose oily sands I have completely dismantled Desesperado, making several small modifications and reinforcements and revarnishing the whole boat, as well as painting his platform and ama cream on their topsides as a means to keep their temperature down as I am tired of being burned. I resisted the temptation to paint a big “H” (helicopter landing pad sign) on the platform.
I was at first a bit uncomfortable in the shipyard but the workers soon made me welcome. I could not avoid eating with them if I tried, and I do not try. I have been very happy here despite the large amount of hand sandfing I have had to do. Much shipyard activity revolves around breakfast and lunch. I swear the yard workers put more time and energy into sustaining themselves than into maintaining ships. It is phenomenal the way Jose or any of them just go strolling off down the wharf with a speargun and come back with two or three big fat fish for lunch for all. Then the fish must be fried and pico de gallo (onions, tomatoes, chiles chopped together with lemon juice) made, tortillas and soft drinks obtained… There is a great deal of camaraderie shown over lunch, and many jokes over Ruben the supervisor’s alleged gayness. A very long time after lunch starts the crew return to sanding away, maskless, at the antifouling paint of a ship.
I still have some work to do on my sail but I hope to be back on my way within three days.