My Beautiful Voyage to the Island of Women.

Aqui estoy mis amigos: http://share.findmespot.com/shared/faces/viewspots.jsp?glId=02OMbJyQzLrxlajbnC79YlbiTI0uDqtG3

Sorry no photos. The only camera from which I can extract them is having battery problems.

It is only 80 or 90 km as the crow flies from Holbox to Isla Mujeres but I do not sail as the crow flies; first Cabo Catoche to the east has to be rounded before one can sail southwards towards the island. I had been dreading this Cape at the northeasternmost corner of the Yucatan peninsula – not because it is particularly dangerous in itself but because everyone says that beyond that point seas become large again and I had become used to an ocean largely free of big waves and liked it that way.

I packed up my shelter and readied the boat by flashlight then pulled up the anchor and crept out to sea against a light northeasterly as the sun rose redly over the horizon. “Red sky at night, sailors’ delight, red sky in the morning, sailors’ warning” as the saying goes but most days I see both red sunrises and red sunsets and neither seems to foretell anything so I ignore such portents. I was some way out to sea planning to take the “outside” ocean route to the Cape when on impulse I turned around and headed back the way I had just come to round Holbox and enter the great lagoon. This lagoon stretches all the way inside the Island of Holbox up to Cabo Catoche and reputedly had a cut right near the Cabo Catoche lighthouse by which I could enter the ocean (the SPOT map is deceptive, look at the satellite image for the true picture). So it provides an inside passage to the Cape. By gorgeous sunrise I threaded my way through the myriad weedy shoals some marked by sticks jammed into the mud and others by herons standing still amidst many gurking flamingoes. Fish jumped, turtles splashed, pelicans nose-dived into the water with big splashes and emerged necking their prey. Within an hour an early cadre of five thunderstorms had formed but I slid carefully by them with no more than mild soakings during which I attempted to wash the salt out of my ever-wet clothes without much success. Once I had passed the lagoon side of the town of Holbox the lagoon, so great that I could not see the far side, became completely deserted and I saw no sign of people for a long time. After twenty kilometers or so I reached a narrowing where the water suddenly became crystal clear and shoaled to the point where my keel sliced through the weeds to the mud below and I left a trail of  mud cloud in my wake. It got worse and worse and I could find no deeper water; mostly it was around 14 inches which is shallow enough that young mangrove trees had taken root and were growing up out of the water.

A lesson good mariners learn early is don’t sail where there are trees. I feel that this is a reasonable policy but now I had no choice. There were trees all around me and to go forwards looked as good as to go back. The tide was ebbing and if I did not get out of here I would soon be stuck; as it was my speed was quite reduced by the underside polishing I as receiving. I developed a new policy – sail where there are fewer trees.  Now I was in a foot of water… Desesperado draws 15 inches. I shunted desperately back and forth hunting deeper water, now seeing long tracks where lancha motors had cut swathes throught the weeds and sometimes retangular patches where lanchas had been completely grounded for some time. Occasionally big deep pools opened up below where clearly-visible big fish startled by my sudden appearance would dart in all directions into the weeds at the sides. Then I was free again, the lagoon deepened and widened and with this clear water it became much bluer. Flamingoes all around, many other birds… manatees are said to live in this area but I did not expect to see them.

I found the channel more by luck than judgement amongst a maze of mangrove islets speckled with birds and shunted out through it dead against the wind towards the ocean beyond. This was no mean feat for the channel was only twenty metres wide so there was little advancement to be had on each tack. To make any headway at all I had to use all the room available which meant nose-diving the boat into the mangroves on each side, reversing the sail just in time to kill my momentum and backpeddle out of the trees before the sail was caught in the branches. I have become one with Desesperado and can now shunt without so many disasters; I heaved at my tackline, hauled at my mainsheet, raised and lowered rudders, leapt monkey-like about the platform breathing hard and soaked in sweat and finally made it out into this new sea which I had feared so much for so long.

Instead of the roaring surf and monstrous swell I found unthreatening 3 foot waves running around confusedly with no intention of bothering me. And they were a beautiful clear blue! At last after all these weeks and miles I had reached real clear blue water! Water like this just seems so much friendlier and is certainly prettier and I had been looking forward to experiencing it without ever really believing I would make it this far.

Instead of turning south for my intended destination of Isla Mujeres I headed eastwards away from the coast out into open sea. I had a reason. I was looking for the biggest fish in the ocean – the whale sharks.

The places where whale sharks are to be found are no secret, I was able to find out about them from sea captains and from the lanchas which carry tourists out to swim with these huge but unaggressive plankton-eaters. But the season ends in mid-September after which the sharks go off somewhere else far away, and it was now September 13 or 14  so my chances were poor. Nonetheless I headed away from land for about three hours close-hauled against a light northeasterly for the nearest possible location. Away from land the swells increased and they ran about and interacted confusedly. There were swells from the north, others from the east and smaller ones reflected from the land behind me to the west. The boat heaved along now uphill now downhill, now deep in a trough, now thrown way up high where the peaks of two or more swells intersected. It wasn’t dangerous, Desesperado handled it easily and knew where he was going without being steered . I lay naked on the platform. It was beautiful.

Far out, around twenty kilometers from where I could see no land if you don’t count  the lighthouse on Isla Contoy to the south I spotted a pair of boats. Thinking they might be watching the whale sharks I headed towards them. They turned  to be a fishing boat towing a lancha and they were not watching whale sharks, they had in fact harpooned an enormous manta ray (probably weighing about one ton) which they had tied to the back of the boat and were now pulling in a second one into which they had thrown two harpoons with ropes tied to them. They were not pleased that I was filming them and I was not pleased at what they were doing. This was a violation of one of the most amazing and special places I had ever seen.

It looked like any other part of this blue ocean. I had been seeing an unusually large number of turtles on the way out but now, here in an area I’d say was no more than a half mile square I saw action everywhere. Many turtles. Pelicans diving into great schools of fish which thrashed areas of water the size of tennis courts into a rippled frenzy. Under me enormous manta rays flapped majestically past. And there were whale sharks.

Frankly I nearly crapped the shorts I was now wearing when I first saw one. It was churning around and around in the midst of a big school of fish which would panic and flap out of the way at the last second. Its mouth was open gathering plankton, and it was huge, around thirty feet long. Soon I saw others some a bit bigger, others a bit smaller but all of them much longer than my vessel. The fishing boat left and it was just me alone in a lumpy sea of thrashing fish and churning monsters. There were at least twelve of them, all going around and around with their mouths open and half out of the water, mostly in twos and threes. I would approach a pair and heave-to, filming shakily as they circled about and passed within feet of my boat. If I was directly in their path they would dive below the boat and come up on the other side. I knew that they were not aggressive creatures but had also been warned that they could smash my boat to pieces with a flick of the tail by accident, so it was terrifying! The mantas, also plankton-eaters, were not much less scary. I was quite thrilled by all of this as you might imagine; I felt that this was a very special thing that few people could ever experience… being alone with these creatures made it all the more intense. I am such a lucky fellow. I will never forget it.

After an hour or two, threatened by the setting sun I turned south and headed for Isla Contoy which seemed a good island to hide from the swells behind for the night. But as I left this wondrous spot I saw two more whale sharks ahead. I slowed and pulled out the camera. One turned into my path and the other into my only other possible route – a hard turn to the left. Oh no. OH NO! OOOHH! I could not stop…..OOOOOHHHH! I hit the whale shark and Desesperado rose into the air as my keel ran up its monstrous back, then something slapped the boat hard and we plopped back into the water as the spotted expanse of the creature gloomed off underneath to the right. The boat was unharmed and I have no doubt the fish was fine too, but it took a long time for my heart rate to return to normal. It is all on film. Why can I not upload from an SD card? Why?

For some reason – I guess the mindlessness and enormity of the whale sharks going around and around continuously feeding I kept thinking of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal. When faced by this extremely dangerous animal it is best to wrap a towel around one’s head for it is so mindbogglingly stupid that it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you.

Running southwards to Contoy enabled me to surf down the swells from the north so I crossed the few kilometers in no time, a lovely ride. I approached the light house and two figures came to the end of the dock; they said I could not land without a permit because the place was a reserve which I already knew. I said I only wished to anchor the night. They said I could do so at the biological station 8km to the south; I said it was too dark to go so far in unfamiliar waters. They made a call on their radio and cleared me with the authorities so I anchored just south of the lighthouse and slept under the stars which glowed as brightly as some  mysterious phosphorescent creatures which gathered around the boat, mystifying me as to their exact natures for they were as large as sausages yet I could not focus upon them.

The lighthouse keepers also said it was illegal to hunt the manta rays but the fishermen may (or may not) have had a permit.

A weak wind in the morning pushed me at a calm pace along the island’s west side. Thousands of birds gathered along the cliffs and scrubby trees, little lagoons and pastures could be seen beyond the spiky rocks. Fish jumped everywhere and the turtles were more abundant than I had ever seen.  A little south of the island there was a coral reef so lousy with  big turtles I just had to pull over and watch them swimming, floating and diving all around me, though they are too wary to come close. A bit farther on the reef became so shallow I became alarmed, the swells were breaking here and I could se no obvious route to deeper water. My rudder struck twice, the first impacts against solid objects of the whole voyage, and I looked down to see  the finest and most beautiful reef I have ever seen. I got out of there with some relief though.

Isla Mujeres was twenty or so kilometers further and most of these passed slowly and without incident. Perhaps 5km from the island a strong wind from the edge of a thunderstorm blew up and we ran downwind at ridiculous speed. A lancha joined us for a while –  I wish I could have seen what they saw for Desesperado at full speed in a lumpy ocean is a magnificent spectacle, one I am unable to film for my hands are always full. Both fishermen were goggle-eyed and I could only smile in return because of the need to fight with the rudder with one hand and hold the mainsheet ready for instant release to prevent capsize with the other. Decks occasionally completely awash, rudder throwing up a tail of spray, the bow piercing one wave after another and leaping from crests into the voids beyond through a welter of foam and spray, 18kmph of watery action.

Isla Mujeres is very pleasant. I landed at a dock projecting out into the crystal blue harbor, was welcomed with beers and invited aboard two different huge sailing catamarans which were waiting for their loads of tourists to emerge from the island to be taken back to Cancun. More beers aboard, very congenial. These catamarans carry thirty or forty scantily-clad people music blaring all the time back and forth to the island and are my nightmare, but the crews and passengers are friendly. I escaped to wander the little town which is very touristy- open-air restaurants, shops, tour companies and so on – and perfectly friendly. There is no mud, little bass, and amazingly I am not continuously savaged by insects here, the first time in the voyage. I immediately found affordable and delicious vegan Mexican food containing at least a few actual vegetables for which I was more than ready. I do not feel adventurous being here, I am just another tourist. I spent two days relaxing and sailing a little bit off the island’s pleasant North Beach, Desesperado must be one of the most-photographed small boats in history. I have met a few people but made no real friends. Except –

I finally saw a black man in Mexico and now he is my friend. As I write this I am on a side adventure with him in Guatemala City (yes, I am in Guatemala. The boat is hauled out at a marina on Isla Mujeres). I am having a blast.

But that is another story. A mad one.

Red Tide.

I am now on the island of Holbox (HOL-BOSH) at the northeast corner of the Yucatan Peninsula and this post concerns the many events that transpired along the north coast between Progreso and here.

A Day of Many Embarrassments

I said my goodbyes to some of the many excellent people I had met and left Progreso. It took me a lot of tacks to make it out of the harbor through the swirling winds of the lagoon mouth – Desesperado does not like winds that change direction suddenly; I get backwinded (the wind on the wrong side of the sail) and the sail then pushes against the mast and the whole rig leans inboard over the platform. I have to drop sail then climb out on the outrigger (which sinks under me) and paddle furiously to rotate the boat to a viable orientation, then raise sail again. This is frankly embarrassing as all the lanchas, motorboats and jet skis pass howl close by me and leave me rocking in their wakes of contempt. In return I feel that the accident rate for jetskis is not nearly high enough and it should be legally required that they all be strongly magnetized, half of them north and the other half south.

I need some anti slip paint on the platform desperately (surf wax briefly but soon melts off.) because about four kilometers offshore I slipped after a shunt and fell overboard.

On the way down I hit the tiller and broke the rudder mechanism. About the same time I remembered that I had not yet gotten around to rigging my “me overboard” line which I usually trail astern for such emergencies. I failed to grab anything as I went over so the boat moved on without me.

Immediately upon surfacing I swam in pursuit of the boat. I was in no danger as I had just passed and greeted an octopus boat and he was sure to help, but this feeling of swimming after one’s own boat in the open ocean was terribly frightening nonetheless, not to mention embarrassing. Only by giving it everything I had was I able to catch my vessel, and that after a long chase which left me exhausted and unable to pull myself aboard.

The octopus boat started his engine and retrieved my hat – more embarrassment. I resolved never to sail without my rescue line trailing again.

Finally a decent wind arrived and I made it around Progeso’s staggering miles-long breakwater which is constructed of hundreds of thousands of 2-meter cubed concrete blocks all piled higgledy-piggledy. Makes the pyramids look puny. How it can make any kind of sense to kiln and reform all that limestone instead of just using the limestone I cannot imagine. The locals say that the sense it makes is that the governor got very rich.

For miles and miles I raced the 50-foot wooden fishing boat “Pescamex 54” neck-and-neck but he finally won by turning upwind, the crew cheering me in a most sporting fashion. Then I was on my own in the blue clear ocean, pounding along on a close reach several kilometers out from a shore turning from vacation homes to mangroves and then to sandy beach with a few palms. The coast remained low… I doubt I have seen anything over 20 meters above sea level in 800 kilometers or more.

Eventually I tired and headed in and entered a pair of narrowly spaced breakwaters by the village of Chabihau, about 60km from Progreso. The harbor was small and snug and had a concrete wharf, towards which the wind was blowing. I thought “I’ll head for the wharf and throw the anchor over the stern, then drop the sail and the anchor should stop me”, so I prepared a line to hook to the anchor chain. My plan might have worked but 20 meters from the wharf I threw the anchor over the stern then discovered to my horror that I had not clipped it to the line! Was I completely stupid? I dropped the sail but the momentum was so great it carried me into the wharf at speed and I banged the nose pretty hard. I thought there must be serious damage but no harm was done. I was reduced to swimming about in murky water up to my neck feeling the deep slimy mud with my toes for my anchor before an audience of amused fishermen. It was Sabancuy and the lost trousers all over again. It was of course very embarrassing. I was ready for this day to be over.

At the dock at Chabihau.

Agua potable” means to at least some Mexicans water that is not drinkable. Beware.

Red Tide.

After making a temporary repair to the rudder using some neoprene cut from a pipe I found in a garbage pile I set up the shelter and went to my usual hot, airless, sweaty bed. About midnight a lancha came in and moored nearby. I asked him how he’d done that day… he said he’d gone out for fish not octopus but … something I didn’t understand, something was wrong, there were no fish at all he said.

The next morning I soon found out what was wrong. On leaving the harbor on a tiny breeze from the southeast I found the water on the open sea to have changed from transparent blue to a murky green. Dead fish were floating here and there, first tens, then hundreds, then thousands. It got worse and worse as the day went on. Everywhere as far as I could see the ocean was dotted with floating corpses. Most were white, a couple of days dead, a few were more fresh. All sizes up to 70cm and many types. Many of the puffer fish had swollen up to full expanded size and could be seen from a mile off. The stench was awful.

Big ol' gasbag puffer fish.

I was becalmed three times this day, drifting along at about the same speed as the ubiquitous floating coke bottles of Mexican waters. Huge thunderstorms completely obscured the coast in both directions and moved out towards me. In the absence of wind I could not evade them completely, the best I could do was to scoot out from under their edges using the winds of the storms themselves. An advancing storm would make a rushing noise like a bunch of girls in a shower only without all the noise the girls make which is where my image breaks down but it is a nice image and I still like it. Between all the rainy escapes from one front and into the next, backtracking and getting backwinded I crossed and recrossed my own trail of peanut shells many times. It is little known that peanut shells have long been used as an aid to navigation, as first recorded by Pliny the Elder speaking of the Phoenicans in 68 ad: “And the seamen of these parts cast upon the waters the husks of peanuts and by certain signs knoweth whether the gods sendeth tempests.” I was successful in evading the full impact of these storms. This day.

Finally I escaped and was carried along by a NE wind in the direction I wanted to go. A gunboat circled me but did not interfere. I saw them many times in the next couple of days patrolling for drug-runners. I also saw another truly enormous turtle, its head the size of that of an adolescent human. I discovered that the migrating butterflies can land on the water to rest and actually flop down on one side, then take off again. I met some dolphins, about 15 of them (it is impossible to count them if there are more than about eight because they move fast and submerge a lot. I find the best way to get an accurate count is to shoot them all. Dynamite can also be used). I dug out the fiddle but after an initial close pass they seemed uninterested , and after a bit more playing they disappeared completely. I am afraid they may have drowned themselves to escape my music; it is a normal reaction for my audience.

By the time I reached the mouth of yet another lagoon (I have always heard that the Yucatan Peninsular has no rivers (untrue). It certainly has plenty of lagoons) called I think Laguna Bocas about 50km from Chabihau the water was a soupy, stinking brown-green and death was everywhere. I asked an anchored motorboat and they said the lagoon entrance was 5 feet deep so in I went. I soon got grounded in the mouth upon the weeds and mud but was unconcerned, the tide was low and in the morning it would be high again. Birds shrieked everywhere on nearby islets and insects hummed and many creatures croaked and burped, a fabulously rich place, low islands of mangroves, shoals with herons and flamingos standing about doing their thing, all to myself. After slurping about in the lagoon on foot for a while I went to my bed on the platform which gradually leaned further and further to the side through the night and then recovered as the tide ebbed and returned and Desesperado’s ama sank and rose. The night was full of the noises of lagoon creatures to which I am now accustomed but there was one difference from normal – lots and lots of splashing noises, far more than the usual fish jumpings, and this was puzzling. Nowadays if there is no rain imminent I leave the rain cover off of my shelter in the hope of a little cooling air and the curvy frame and mosquito netting gives it, from inside looking up at the stars, the aspect of a planetarium. The lightning flashed all around the horizon but the sky above was clear and magnificent and the mosquitos were confined to the outside of my bubble. It was a lovely night.

The New Lagoon

Morning brought a fabulous sunrise. I festooned the boat with my bedding; it was as always soaked with my sweat and the dew from the heavy sea air. This dew is a bane. It heavily wets the boat as soon as the sun starts to wane, and everything that is salty (which is everything) gets a double dose. If I don’t make sure to dry my bed each day I have unpleasantly damp nights. Damp is the color of my life: I am wet almost all the time, damp clothes, shoes, bed, my hands and feet always pruned up and all my many small cuts constantly white and puffed up. My clothes are falling apart.  There was not enough wind to be very useful so I waited and looked around, just me and Desesperado on the empty lagoon drifting gently about but constrained by the anchor.  Something was weird. Everywhere there were fish breaking the surface, splashing, sticking their mouths above the water, swimming along only just submerged. The bottom was littered with dead fish and octopus. Lots of crazily-shaped flatfish which normally live on the bottom were now aimlessly wandering about on the surface. I wandered around barefoot in the mud filming them and found that I could pick them up easily. Then by paddle I followed a bunch of heads around the back of a small island and there found a most amazing thing.

Flatfish grooving on up.

Here they had gathered.  I estimated ten, maybe twenty thousand fish of many types and sizes up to 60cm in length, mostly the bigger ones, all swimming slowly about in circles and coming up to put their mouths  above water, breathing air and forcing it out through their gills. The place, about the size of two tennis courts, was filled with this bubbling noise. A red tide (not necessarily red and now more properly known as a “harmful algal bloom”) is caused by an explosion of an algae Karenia brevis which robs the water of oxygen (Apparently it can create a toxin which paralyses the respiratory system of fish, but I think oxygen depletion was the problem here). I anchored and filmed, stood motionless in the mud hoping they would come close but though distressed they remained wary and would not come closer than two meters. I stayed for an hour or two, it was incredible! 

Fish.

After filming some flamingos – more incredible here, they are so big and weird and make wonderful croaking noises and they are just so fantastically pink – outwards and onwards. The ocean was flat and glassy and strewn with thousands of floating corpses for miles and miles. Turtles still splashed but no other life moved, and the coast was completely deserted, low mangroves again. Most strangely there was a wind sufficient to carry me along at two or three knots yet the sea remained as molten glass – no wind ripples. I cannot account for it; it was as if the water itself had died. I played dodge-the-storm, more successfully this time. The wind changed from SE to NE and I belted for the lagoon at San Felipe at good speed and weaved in through the crowded anchorage and harbor to make a perfect landing at a dock. The Mexican government has taken great pains to create safe, protected harbors with plenty of mooring space and concrete wharfs (I am a little unsure of the differences between wharfs, moles, docks and quays. Piers, jetties and breakwaters I have down) and I am grateful for them as it saves all that hassle of unloading for beach haulouts. The water and dead fish had at last cleared up and I hoped it would stay that way because I was sick of the stench and felt bad for the fishermen, not to mention the fish.

Flamingism

After sorting out the boat I went to eat at the only place I could find, the cantina. Deafening as always, I would rather steer clear. They had beans though. You would not believe the miles I walk looking for a simple plate of beans with tortillas and hot sauce. The Mexicans eat MEAT and fish, lots of it, and it is just plain impossible to find any prepared vegetables at all, anywhere at all except maybe in cities. They prepare vegetables at home, but restaurants and street stands simply have no truck with them. I do not exaggerate. I am absolutely sick of these ridiculous quests. I feel like I am the only real Beaner in Mexico (Euros – the Americans call Mexicans “Beaners”) I have it is true eaten some meat and fish here but only when to refuse would give some offense and one fish that I caught because this is an adventure, but I try hard to remain as vegan as I can here. I have never had this much trouble in any other country. Of course I can buy fresh vegetables and cook them myself but they go bad almost immediately in the salty wet environment of the boat and anyway I have run out of propane for the stove. So I live on a diet of refried beans in cans or squeezed from the new plastic-bag style packaging, soda crackers, and some little inflated wheat crackers called “globitos”, and whatever prepared beans I can find in restaurants on land. As I said, there are simply no prepared vegetables to be had.

Globitos. Each one is different but they are all my friends. They do not float for long and cannot be used for navigation.

I have little doubt that the terribly unhealthy diet of Mexicans is responsible for their remarkable ugliness in later life, and of course the endemic obesity. I don’t say these things meanly, it is not personal (I like most Mexicans whatever they look like) it is just the truth – it is rare to see an attractive Mexican of either gender older than about 25, physically these people are a terrible mess. Only the wives of the ricos seem to make any attempt at preserving themselves… and few succeed.

Anyway, good beans at the cantina, good salsa, it is all about the salsa. Afterwards  a youngish fellow called Daniel invited me to his table. There were four of them, two mindlessly drunk as I so often encounter here, the usual multiple declarations of brotherhood, the frequent repeated complex handshakes, the sleeve-tugging. I cannot abide a sleeve-tugger. As Pliny the Elder wrote speaking of the Etruscans in 71 ad. “The people of these parts are wont to pull at one’s tunic, and it really pisses me off.”

Daniel said something that interested me. After discovering that I am an atheist (which I do not think means  someone who thinks he knows God is nonexistant, it means someone who thinks that the evidence for God is on the same level as the evidence for other kinds of fairies) he remarked that he had never met anyone who did not believe in God before. But then he sat back and said “Well, come to think of it, I do not believe in the god of the Egyptians”. This was such a rare and honest actual firing of brain cells in the mind of a religious person that I was almost incredulous to hear it. The point raised is this – when you can explain to me why you don’t believe in Ra or any of the other ten thousand gods of human history, you will have explained why I don’t believe in yours. Why do they all fail the test but the one you believe in passes? (Please do not claim that all gods are one, or that “all religions are getting at the same thing” because the natures of gods and the claims of different religions are clearly widely disparate and incompatible which is why religious folk are so often keen to kill each other).

Daniel

OK Ok Chris, get off your hobby horse.

I’d been there an hour and the bill came – they gave it to me! 400 pesos! I said “I had two beers. What am I supposed to do with this?” It’s ok” said Daniel generously,” I’ll pay half and you pay half” I slapped down 70 pesos – twice what I’d drunk –  and turned my back on them.

Lorenzo the harbor Master paid me a bemused visit as I prepared for bed. He didn’t really know what to do with me so I suggested he look at my passport. This has happened a few times now. Nice fellow, they all are and they all offer me every service they can. Mexico, there is no place like this.

On the way to Rio Lagartos the next morning I discovered the water had turned murky, the red tide had caught up with me. I passed a shore where many lanchas were working the shallows so I tacked in joined them for a while. Octopus had been driven into the sandy shallows by the algal bloom and could be easily seen and caught with long hooks on sticks. The fishermen said they could still be eaten if caught alive.

The Coast of Storms.

Rio Lagartos was just a few miles up the coast. Nice… flamingos, crocodiles… but the open sea called me through the lagoon mouth and pulled me out after an hour. Outside the water had cleared some and a big ray jumped fully two meters out of the water, flapping its wings like a bird in midair. Other rays could be seen racing across the bottom at great speed. I had an excellent run nearly to Las Coloradas but was suddenly stopped in my tracks by a big thunderstorm which clocked the wind from NE to E then SE and was ferocious enough to make me heave-to for almost an hour. During this time, bouncing around in the waves, a remora came and attached itself to my hull. When the storm had passed I raced in to the beach at Las Coloradas and landed. Fishermen helped me haul out above the tideline (The remora was gone).

On the beach at Las Coloradas.

This was a quiet place and I stayed the rest of the day and the next day too, making more permanent repairs to the rudder and new boom jaws of polyethylene pipe, the fourth time I have made these. There are a few niggling problems with the boat which are really annoying me – the leaky hatches which cause my things to get wet with much work to dry them out, the boom jaws which break or hang up on the rubrail causing botched shunts and backwindings, and the supposedly rainproof nylon cover for my night shelter which I have now bitumened three or four times with an irksome lack of success. Also the deck newly-painted in Progreso is already a mess – the paint never cured right and is coming off everywhere and is very slippery too. I fall over whilst shunting. Surf wax helps for a while but then melts off.

The next stop was El Cuyo. I nearly made it there but another big storm caught me out in the open; this made me drop my sail, something I had hitherto been too stubborn to do. I drifted with the wind in a sea of whitecaps, cold but huddled in my raingear which although apparently completely porous helps a lot. When the wind moderated a bit after an hour I tacked out then back in towards the harbor, racing in at great speed through a two-foot chop and putting on quite a show for the many lanchas full of soaked fishermen heading the same way and passing close by. I shot into the harbor which was packed with around 300 lanchas making mooring difficult. I was forced into a spot ful of floating garbage and dead crabs, infested with sandflies and stinking. Literally hundreds of people had watched me enter but none came to say hello. They were generally small with indigenous features and some stared at me which I am unaccustomed to because very few Mexicans do this. There were many signs around town in Mayan, or what is called Mayan (I am told it is only one of thirty or so languages descended from the Mayans). So after a brief investigation of the town in which I met no-one I cast off and headed out again in the lowering light to anchor outside the harbor. Something just didn’t feel right in El Cuyo.

It rained most of the night. Once again my shelter cover leaked terribly and I had to strip it off and thatch the bubble  with a mylar space blanket and a number of garbage bags which were mostly effective but it was too late by then for a dry night. When morning eventually came it was still raining and I had a choice – go back into the stinky harbor and spend the day trying to keep dry in a town I had not found welcoming, or put to sea to try to make Holbox island which was only 30km distant to the east. Of course I put to sea, which was the wrong choice.

There was almost no wind for two hours. Then a mild breeze from the east pushed me out to sea – the only direction I could go and a good one I thought for the usual thunderstorms were forming over the land as they mostly seem to do. Typically they then move a few miles out to sea and then either peter out or parallel the coast, so it is possible to avoid most of them by going far enough out to sea. Usually. This time it did not work.

An absolutely huge thunderstorm formed over El Cuyo behind me, entirely blotting it and the coast out for ten miles or so in each direction. It was black as charcoal with thunderheads as high as Everest and it boomed horribly and was following me out to sea. I piled on all speed that I could and the race went on for an hour as it grew more and more ominous and enormous on my tail.  I watched it swallow up two lanchas in the distance; they looked totally insignificant beneath its might, on the scale of two tiny breadcrumbs on a banqueting table. The thing was coming right bang on at me and the dread grew and grew as the distance shrank and the booms grew teeth-rattlingly loud.  I did not have enough wind to outrun it. Oh, I knew this was going to be bad. I gave up running while there was still time to take down the sail and lash it to the deck and then watched as the sky above blacked out and the wind-lashed water at the monster’s base raced towards me.

It kind of steamrollered me, smashing quite suddenly into the boat and pushing it down as the ama (outrigger) slewed around to leeward and wallowed deeply into the troughs of the waves, thrown into them and pushed deep by the weight of the main hull and the wind pressure on the mast. The  platform to which I clung sloped right over as the ama went under, but we did not capsize. The rain hammered horizontally and almost immediately filled all the grooves in the folded sail and ran in rivers from the scuppers. The waves built immediately to about three feet but were smoothed over by the rain, an effect I have always found curious. The lightning was bad and I stayed as far from the mast as I could at first then decided it was better to unstep the mast so I stood on the drastically sloped platform and wrestled it down. I kept saying “Jesus Christ!” but though my situation certainly felt perilous this is just an expression – I do not find myself calling for help from nonexistant deities in these extremes, that is for pussies. After a while I found that we were surviving and in no real danger though I did worry for the ama connections – I need to make a drag so the boat can point into the waves.

The storm lasted about twenty minutes and then raced away leaving the ocean quiet but very confused. I raised mast and sail again but there was little wind and I could make no progress towards Isla Holbox.

I was hit by four more thunderstorms that day and in between them had little wind to work with. Only two of them were bad and neither of those as bad as the first but all of them pushed me further out to sea away from my destination. Two of the storms had definite eyes through which I passed a few hundred yards across inside which the wind stopped but the rain continued. I could not see land but I could see more thunderstorms racked up to the horizon. Though it was quite beautiful out there the lack of wind was frustrating –  I did not want to spend the night so far from land. I saw a school of large rays (migrating?) in formation just below the surface, quite impressive. Finally at dusk I got some real wind and had some of the most amazing sailing yet – about forty minutes on a broad reach doing a good ten knots on an ocean with only minor lumps. My speed was so great that it enabled me to weave my way around the edges of three less intense rainstorms by varying my heading a bit – this was beautiful, I now had some control and a fair chance and found myself winning the game. This brief burst of speed took me within sight of the lights of Isla Holbox but the wind then faded leaving me a few miles short. It was now dark and I did not wish to continue into unknown territory- my GPS charts show lots of shoals about.

It is a curious thing but every time I have needed to stop on this trip there is some sort of obvious haven for me – a river, lagoon, beach or harbor. In this case I was a good way out to sea but as I looked at my GPS I noticed a little symbol right by my current position meaning “recommended anchorage area”! Though I did not know what kind of a storm might blow up in the night I found this comforting. It is the first such symbol I have seen.

The hook bit well and as I set up my shelter on the platform a nudibranch (sea slug, some types are quite beautiful) puffed by. Then I saw a phallic arrow-shaped red squid almost two feet long beneath the boat. It would sink deep when I shone my light directly upon it but would then rise close again as I returned to work. It was still monitoring me an hour or two later when I crawled into the bubble. From just outside the range of my lamp I heard loud exhalations which I took to be one or more dolphins but perhaps it was a turtle; either way it or they remained nearby most of the night. I emerged at about 3 am. to check my anchor and a small sea snake was climbing the anchor rope. I shook him off, he was not so welcome. The night was black and it is not an entirely comfortable feeling to know that beyond the blackness outside of the light of my headlamp lay a great deal more blackness, miles of it. I hoped desperately that no horrible events would occur in the night (imagine a storm blowing up and having to arise, put on wet clothes, take down the shelter, raise sail and fight through pitch blackness towards a shore which might well be rocky and was certainly invisible…) and so it transpired – I actually slept a little and rose early to ride a light breeze to town.

Holbox.

The flat low mangrovy island of Holbox is a cute little place. Narrow sand/mud streets run between small hotels, restaurants and shops, many built in a ramshackle Caribbean style, lots of varnished wood and seashell necklaces about. It lives from fishing and tourism; tourists have pretty much taken over the centre of the town. They come mainly for the whale sharks but also to visit the wildlife and islands of the nearby reserve. The thunderstorms have flooded the place and the people slosh about through the great puddles on foot or in motorized golf carts, these being the preferred local transport which is common on small Caribbean islands. Due to these puddles it is mosquito time- big time. Prices are double or more than those of anywhere I have been in Mexico and I see no reason for it except that the locals are out to ream the tourists for whatever they can. Many of the locals are not particularly friendly and some of the storekeepers are downright rude. I have found it almost impossible to buy any Mexican food with vegetables in it or any plate of food under about $10 so I have been very hungry a lot of the time here, though I could eat fish or Italian or sushi or fancy here I have no interest in these and they are not within my budget. Is an affordable plate of rice and beans too much to ask? A potato? This is Mexico! A trip in a lancha to see and swim with the fantastically huge whale sharks cost around $80 per person – they’ll pack 12 people in a lancha, take them about thirty miles out to see the fish then be back by lunchtime and walk away with around $1000 for this so clearly there is no competition between the many tour companies.

In short though the place appears charming I am not hugely enamoured of it. I hang about near Desesperado, take people sailing if I like them, write this endless blog post, make minor repairs, paint tar on my shelter cover, play my fiddle out on the end of the dock, suffer in the merciless sun, swat at bugs. I’ve made a few friends, there are certainly some characters here. Like Juan the local Casanova, 5 children by five women from five countries. Remecio the likeable bullshitter. Flaco the likeable rangy American who left his successful business in ‘Frisco to work like a dog daily in the fishing lanchas, learning the trade from the bottom up and enjoying his life. He’s 51 and and I watched him beat everyone in the bar with ease at arm wrestling – somehow it is is always nice to see a gringo kicking some ass and winning the respect of people who supposedly live much harder and more physical lives. Flaco loves physical action and the locals think he is crazy for amongst other things his addiction to standing on the little platform over the bows of each lancha and riding it as the speeding vessel rears  and bucks high into the air, he has only the bow painter to hold onto, keeping his feet braced to the deck by pulling hard. Anyone who has ever ridden in the front of a lancha knows that if Flaco ever screws up his injuries will be severe. And there’s H——, the very endearing young total strumpet who must tell all of her latest conquest in some detail. Victor, 74, a maker of mandolins. A shark bit off his oar once and the dolphins came and chased it away then accompanied him on his ratty little sailboat for thirty miles like angels in the phosphorescence. He has singing raccoons crawling over his house when he plays his instruments. When he needs money he goes out on the sailboat and catches a few kilos of octopus by diving; he is the only fisherman to use sail that I have encountered. He strummed the mandolincello (a big mandolin) very wonderfully and forced me to attempt to extemporise on the fiddle and I could actually do it a bit and there I was jamming! Fuck me! At night I may have a beer or two then swim out to the dew-soaked boat and put up my shelter for the night. Anchoring it safely is a hassle here where the wind changes direction so much and there is no shelter from the north.  One night a big swell came out of the north and played havoc with all the boats anchored along the shore. Desesperado did fine until his anchor most mysteriously came unclipped from its rope, something that is very difficult to imagine happening by accident yet it must be so for nobody has any reason to sabotage me. He sustained some minor cosmetic damage from being slammed against a wall but was pulled away by some people from a nearby bar. I myself spent much of the night securing other people’s boats, re-anchoring them so they would not smash into each other, raising their motors, bailing out three that sank. The weird thing was that the people did not come to save their boats. I sent a transvestite to the police station to raise the alarm but still only a few men came, and after dealing with their own vessels they would not help me to rescue others. I might have moved on days ago but for the crappy fitful winds and the relentless lashing thunderstorms. I am so tired of these and my constant dampness. One night a thunderstorm raised hell out there and I bounced around wildly, then found to my absolute horror that despite reproofing my shelter cover after the grim night at El Cuyo it was once again leaking, and not just a little bit. I spent hours continuously wiping my ceiling with my shirt but still wound up with a soaked bed and a need for coffee to help me face yet another sleep-deprived day.

Why is this cover such a problem? I have to make do with what I can find here. The first time I attempted to proof it I used a tarry car underbody sealant thinned with white gasoline but it didn’t work. The second attempt at Sabancuy I used roofing tar thinned with ordinary gasoline but there were still holes, so I went over it again, only to find it still leaked badly at El Cuyo. At Holbox I hit it a fourth time now with something called “microelastic DPC membrane base primer” which might have worked but before it fully dried the wind picked it up and folded it and it all stuck together, and the job was ruined when I pulled it apart though I didn’t know that so I suffered again. The fifth time was done with extreme care using the same substance thinned with laquer thinner which may be effective but I have no faith. The cover now weighs as much as a circus tent and smells intensely of solvents. I hate it passionately.

This is a turtle skull. The guy had one he described as "much bigger" but it was stolen.

I have lost my momentum somewhat here and dread the return of the big seas which I will face once I round the point at Cabo Catoche twenty miles or so away, the northeast tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. But I must go on because that is my job and my life now and I really don’t know what else to do. And ahead lies the most interesting eastern coast of the Yucatan with its fantastic blue waters, its reefs, islands and ruins and wrecks. There will be many beaches and tourists and sailboats and anything could happen. I will be sure to tell you about it, if you like.