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.