Setting off on an open-ended cruise
Setting off on an open-ended cruise
Chuck Baier and Susan Landry are a cruising couple from Marathon, Fla. They recently sailed out of U.S. waters aboard their 40-foot ketch, Sea Trek, bound for ports in Guatemala, the Caribbean, Mexico, Belize, and through the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean. Their dispatches from Internet cafes along the way will appear in Soundings. This is the first dispatch:
We crossed the bar at 7 a.m. just as we had planned. Well, almost, since we originally thought we would be here yesterday. But today worked out even better after our rain delay because an astronomically high tide of a little better than 2 feet gave us more water to cross over and transit the shallow harbor into Livingston, Guatemala.
Sea Trek’s full keel and 6-foot draft make playing the tides an important part of our navigation process. We don’t run aground like other boats — we park.
By 7:30 a.m. the anchor was down off the Municipal Dock and the Q flag was up. All we had to do was wait for the officials to come out to us to start the clearance process. It all went quickly and the officials were the friendliest we have met in all of our travels. After a short trip to town to finish the paperwork process, and the purchase of a few items at the grocery store, we headed back to the boat and hauled up the anchor. We motored across the harbor toward “the gorge.”
As we entered this narrow lower part of the Rio Dulce we were awestruck. Shear cliffs rose above our masts to more than 300 feet, but they were covered with lush green tropical foliage that reached right down to the water. Even with the drone of the engine we could hear the sounds of the jungle above us. Sitting at the helm, and with Susan on the bow watching for river debris, I tried to absorb it all. The contrast of the emerald water, the dense green vegetation and the narrow strip of crystal clear blue sky above was almost overwhelming. It was at that point that I really began to reflect back to the beginnings of our adventure.
After waiting for parts, weather, and taking care of last-minute preparations, on April 9, 2005, we untied the dock lines for the last time and pulled out of our slip in Marathon, Fla. We actually began this cruise six years ago, but for a while seemed doomed by last-minute health problems, family issues and financial setbacks that delayed us time after time. At one point this included a 1,200-mile detour in the opposite direction.
The marina was quiet that morning: No fanfare or bands playing to our farewell. We just quietly pulled out into Hawks Channel and motored about seven miles west to Boot Key Harbor.
One last problem needed our attention. During the insurance survey for this trip it was determined that the cutless bearing was worn. We decided to have it replaced now so it didn’t create a problem later. The stop was short and the repairs quickly made at Marathon Boatyard. Sea Trek moved out of the Travelift bay and made a short trip out into Boot Key Harbor where we again anchored and waited for weather.
After a day or so of strong winds coming from the direction we were going and a few squalls now and then, the weather turned calm and we motored the 50 miles to visit with friends in Key West and say goodbye. Living in Marathon we had forgotten the throngs of boats coming and going in Key West Harbor. Cruise ships docking at the main piers, tour boats in an endless parade and the ever-present sportfishing boats (waking everything and everyone) greeted us as we made the turn and headed for our anchorage behind Garrison Bight.
Boats of all sizes and shapes were anchored everywhere outside the channel. Our plan was to spend a few days here, then move on to the Dry Tortugas 70 miles west of us. There we would wait for a weather window to cross to Mexico. Our go-to guy for weather, Herb Hilgenberg on Southbound II, was telling us that the forecast did not looking promising for some time. So we waited another 10 days for things to improve.
During that time, our daily discussions with Herb on the SSB radio about the weather patterns and Gulf Stream currents brought us to a change in our direction to reach Isla Mujeres.
The accepted route is to cross the Gulf Stream twice. Heading south from the Keys, most boats cross directly to the coast of Cuba, find the counter currents that usually run about 12 miles out, then follow the coast until just due south of Cabo San Antonio. From that point, most turn west and make a run for Isla Mujeres, crossing the Stream again, except it is now the Yucatan Current. But Herb’s research of the currents in the areas that we would cover revealed that the currents were very close to the Cuban coast and would be against us most of the way. Instead, we determined that a better plan would be to go due west into the Gulf of Mexico until we reached a waypoint of about 24 degrees north and 088 degrees west, then turn to the south heading for Isla Mujeres.
On April 20, with the outlook for good weather, we left Key West behind and had a great sail with winds on our port quarter to the Marquesas Keys about 25 miles west. Again we planned to go to the Tortugas for a few days and visit with our friends who bring the tourists out to the fort on the big catamarans. A check with Herb that evening told us our weather window was now and might not look better. So the following morning we pulled up the anchor and changed our plans. We were heading for Mexico.
Our first day out was a perfect sail: Wind on the starboard quarter, as promised, and soon after we left the shallow waters of the Keys the seas flattened out. Herb had been right on the money regarding the currents, and we did indeed have a favorable current with us for all but six hours of the entire passage.
On Day 2, also as predicted, we lost all of our wind and the Gulf of Mexico took on the characteristics of a swimming pool. That meant motoring. One of our under way routines is to do a check of the bilges and the engine compartment about every three hours. This has headed off many problems in the past.
During one of these inspections the gauge on the Racor fuel filter was starting to show a vacuum. This means the filter is dirty and will soon clog. So off went the engine and I did my first filter change in the Middle of the Gulf of Mexico. Since sea conditions were calm, the change went quickly and easily.
The rest of the passage went smoothly. A combination of sailing, motoring and motorsailing brought us off the southeastern tip of Isla Mujeres at around 2 a.m. We had excellent waypoints to get us up the channel on the western side of the island and with a bright full moon that you could almost read by, we dropped anchor about a mile off the island. With the moon and crystal-clear water we could see the anchor drop in the white sand below, even though it was still only 3 a.m.
The entire passage took us 68 hours — short by offshore standards — so we did not have the time to get into a good rhythm for sleeping and watch standing.
Although very tired and looking forward to a good night’s sleep, we both just stood together on deck thinking that if we really closed our eyes we might wake up in our slip in Marathon and once again this was just a dream. But not this time. Our adventure had finally begun.