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Voyages - Seeing and being seen in the Caribbean

In this leg of their voyage, our cruising couple finds the tables turned as they become a tourist attraction

In this leg of their voyage, our cruising couple finds the tables turned as they become a tourist attraction

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 third dispatch, written by Chuck:

We had been anchored in the harbor at Isla Mujeres for two weeks. This was short by some others’ standards since many boats had been here for months and some even for years. This Caribbean island has much to offer so we do understand why many linger. From the tourist shops and restaurants in town to the reef at El Garrafon and the excellent beaches, the days are filled with all sorts of activities.

But for us it was time to move on.

A few days prior to departure we began the process of restocking the boat. This means provisioning for food, filling the water and fuel tanks, including the extra jerry jugs on deck. We also wanted to take an extra couple of days to finish a protective cover for the dinghy. Monitoring the weather forecast for several days finally gave us a departure date.

The departure drill

We have a pre-departure routine that is always followed without exception. This simple routine is done whether we are just planning a daysail or crossing an ocean. Some tasks we can take care of the night before, but usually we wait until just before we haul up anchor.

All necessary charts and guidebooks for the passage are at the helm or the nav station. We go through a checklist in our log, which includes checking all fluid levels in the engine, checking that all electronics and radios are working properly, and all through-hulls are secure.

In addition we note current as well as expected weather conditions. Our forecast was for east-northeast winds at 10 to 15 knots — absolutely perfect for our move to the south.

The anchor washdown system is activated and the time we begin to haul up the anchor is noted in our log. We also note how much fuel and water is on board. We turn on and test our two-way radio headsets for communicating between the helm and the foredeck. The engine is fired up and allowed to warm up for a few minutes. A visual inspection of the engine compartment and bilge is performed.

Under way again

At 7 a.m. we hauled up the anchor and got under way. By the time we had the chain and anchor washed off and hauled aboard, and moved out of the harbor, the morning net on VHF had begun. We said goodbye to all those we had met during our short stay, and motored south along the island on the same course we had come in on two weeks earlier. As usual at this time of the morning, the breeze was very light.

Once we were out of the lee of the island it began to freshen, and we shut down the engine and raised all sails. Going past the beaches and hotels on Cancun we were amazed at how it reminded us of Miami. This resort area has prospered since its days as a small fishing village in the 1970s, and it is evident even from offshore.

This would be a short run, since our destination of Punta Maroma — also affectionately known to cruisers in the area as Hut Point — was only a little more than 40 miles to the south.

The entire coast of Mexico here is paralleled by one of the longest barrier reef systems in the world. Any stops along this coast mean finding a break in the reef and negotiating it safely. That would be our challenge all the way to Belize.

The other issue we would have to deal with is a strong 2- to 3-knot current running north along the coast. When you average 5 or 6 knots under sail in light conditions this can be a big factor. But if one follows the reef line at about a mile or two off, you can actually find a counter-current setting south of 1/2 to 1 knot. This passage is best done in daylight hours and during settled weather since the onshore winds could set a boat on the reef.

Surf breaks on the reef almost the entire way down the coast, so even by sight you can see its location, and we found it did show up well on our radar screen. This was to be one of those perfect days that you read about in the cruising magazines.

Making the move

Around 2 p.m. we were at the GPS coordinates that had been given to us by our cruising friends for the break in the reef. Since this was to be our first run through a reef break we were a little apprehensive. With Susan at the helm, I climbed the mast steps to the spreaders to get a better read of the water and reef location. We could obviously see, even from deck level, where the reef stopped breaking. We had been told to stay about 200 feet south of where the breaking waves stopped. My climb up the mast confirmed this.

Each time we are in a situation like this we realize the value of our two-way radios. We would have liked to have had the sun behind us, but since we were heading west behind the reef that could not be. Still, everything went smoothly and we crossed behind the reef with 10 feet of water under the keel. About two-thirds of the way in toward the beach we turned north and ran parallel to the reef.

Our guidebook noted the best anchorages were north of the resort located there and in the sandy patches. The bottom here is a thin layer of sand over hard coral, and there is a lot of turtle grass covering the bottom. The water is crystal clear so it’s easy to tell where the sandy patches are. Finding sandy patches would be our routine for anchoring for some time to come. After three attempts, following our usual anchoring procedures, we finally were able to set the anchor just before 3 p.m.

The water behind the reef was flat and comfortable. We made sure we were anchored behind an area that was breaking fairly heavily since that meant the swells were being knocked down by the reef. We began shifting into our at anchor mode, not yet realizing this would prove to be an interesting anchorage.

Taking in the sights

On cue the winds dropped after sunset and we had a very peaceful night. The next morning dawned an almost perfect day. After the morning SSB nets, retrieval of weather faxes and breakfast, we began to explore. As is found along this entire coast, we were anchored off a beautiful white beach. Tall palms waved in the wind and the occasional Casuarina Pine dotted the coastline.

There is also a small resort here. We saw several large catamarans and tied to their dock, and a series of small powerboats with large outboards beached.

Shortly after we were up and about, the first of the catamarans came out to the reef loaded with tourists for a snorkel excursion. They would be ferrying the tourists back and forth all day.

On our first day we had designated one of the cats “the naked boat” since it had obviously been chartered by a group of nudists. They came close by us and invited us to “take it off.”

Circle the wagons

Suddenly, all of the small outboard powerboats on the beach launched one after another. They seemed to be playing a game of follow the leader with an employee of the resort as the leader. He would take them out and have each one follow in his wake as he did figure eights, circles and other geometric shapes, all at maximum speed.

At some point another boat would station itself in a designated spot and the leader would bring his followers close in to the stationary boat. At that point the tourists would have their picture taken as they sped past the photo boat. This, too, went on three or four times a day.

We found they took great delight in making our boat a tourist attraction, which made us think of what the early settlers must have felt like as their circled wagon trains were surrounded by the Indians. However, the boaters were always friendly and everyone waved as they went past.

Observing the tourists

We decided to do a little snorkeling on the reef and exploring of the beach and resort ourselves. We were disappointed with the condition of the reef. It was obviously distressed and damaged, and fish were scarce.

A trip to the beach offered a few more surprises. The resort has a very nice restaurant right on the beach. The rooms looked inviting and all of the grounds were well-kept. At the far end of the resort area on the beach we found a line of tourists standing next to a couple of horses. Each tourist would get on the horse, which had no saddle, and a resort employee would walk the horse into the water. When the horse and rider were walking back out of the water after circling a piling, another employee took their picture, but they never actually rode the horse anywhere.

We finally figured out how the package worked. The tourists were bussed in each day in shifts. When they arrived they were taken to the reef for snorkeling. On the way back to the dock the boat would anchor and the spinnaker would be raised. Anyone could sit on a plank attached to the spinnaker and ride it up as the wind filled it. There was lots of screaming and squealing with delight. Next they returned to the dock and hit the beach where the powerboats were waiting. They would then play the follow the leader game for maybe 20 to 30 minutes. After returning to the beach they would then be taken to the line for the horse in the water ride. After that they ate and drank in the restaurant, boarded their bus and returned from whence they came. This process continued all day until about 5 p.m., then we would have the anchorage back to ourselves.

This was amusing to watch, but after five days of swimming, beach walks, and boat wakes, we were ready to move on again, especially since we had only planned to be here overnight. More new experiences awaited us.