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Voyages - Wandering off the beaten path


Fresh tuna, a friendly feathered visitor and a reminder that guidebooks are not always right

Fresh tuna, a friendly feathered visitor and a reminder that guidebooks are not always right

Chuck Baier and Susan Landry are a cruising couple from Marathon, Fla. They 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 fifth dispatch, written by Chuck:

By 8:30 a.m. we had crossed the reef line and watched with regret as the beautiful beach at Tulum faded behind us. The weather forecast was for another perfect day with the exception of predicted light wind. Our destination was only 35 miles south of our current location, but it would be a motorsail all the way. As with our arrival, we were holding our distance from the reef line to approximately one mile, and as a result a favorable current of 1.5 knots helped move us along. Since we were under power and charging batteries from the engine we used the time to run the watermaker and fill our tanks. The system is 12 volts and takes around 25 amps, so the assist from the alternator was welcomed.

At around 10:30 a.m. I did my usual visual inspection of the bilge and engine compartment with no surprises. The autopilot was steering us effortlessly to our next waypoint and all was good with the world. It is days like this that make all our hard work and efforts to prepare for this trip totally worthwhile.

Around noon we were sitting in the cockpit contemplating lunch when the familiar sound of the fishing reel set us into action. We had done well on this part of the coast so we knew what to do. Susan eased the throttle back to idle and I grabbed the reel. Within a few minutes we had landed another blue fin tuna. We were beginning to wonder if any other species roamed these waters but we were not complaining. Once again, fresh tuna would grace the captain’s table for dinner. And fresh tuna salad is always one of Susan’s favorites for lunch.

A dramatic reminder

The break in the reef at Bahia Ascension is very wide and there are few or no breakers to show us the edges at the entrance. As we approached the bay we first noticed something large and white some distance off to our starboard. As we moved further along the reef we both determined what it was at about the same time.

The shining white hull of a pretty good-size sailboat was lying on its side on the top of the reef — a dramatic reminder that a mistake along this coastline could be serious and disastrous.

We wondered aloud how the wreck might have happened. Did the boat lose steering and drift up on the reef? Did the crew make a fatal mistake in navigation? Was a storm responsible? The hull seemed pretty much intact so it must have only been there a short time. Anyone who has spent any time cruising will understand the feeling you get in the pit of your stomach anytime you encounter such a sight.

Now it was our turn to cross that same reef without mishap. We had been provided a set of waypoints by a friend in Isla Mujeras that had been in and out of here only a couple of weeks before. Even with first-hand waypoints we are always cautious and a little apprehensive. We had plotted them on our paper charts, and on the electronic charts on the computer as well as entering them into the GPS as part or our route. All seemed in agreement that we would enter with a good margin of safety.

The first waypoint was outside the reef line and put us in a good position to maneuver to the second waypoint inside the reef line. Even with good coordinates we still always maintain a watch on the foredeck and, when entering a pass, will even climb the rigging using our mast steps to get us high enough to get a good visual on the depths and the periphery of the reef pass.

Our third waypoint put us well inside the bay. Our anchorage was a good five miles once we had crossed over the reef line. From our third waypoint the rest was all eyeball. We knew from information we had gathered and from our guidebook of the area that there was a shallow bar that extended almost a quarter-mile off the north end of Culebra Cay, where we planned to anchor. So from our third waypoint we headed directly for the north end of the cay, then maintained the quarter-mile distance once we were close in. We saw no less than 12 feet of water all the way to our anchoring spot on the west side of the cay. There we would have good protection from the swells that worked in from the sea as well as the prevailing easterly winds. As usual, things were going too easily.

An uninvited guest

It became apparent from the thick grass on the bottom and a few attempts to set the anchor that our CQR was not going to grab. Both our primary and secondary anchors are CQR so that meant switching one out for our Danforth. This takes a little time since we always make sure the anchor shackles are wired closed for safety. But by 3:30 p.m. local time we were anchored, and began to open the boat up and settle in for a few days of rest and relaxation. Almost as soon as we had the cockpit stowed and went below we heard a scratching sound on deck.

We both noticed it and went topside to inspect. We both know that new sounds unfamiliar to us sometimes mean problems.

As we came out on deck we found a pigeon had landed on deck and was walking around as if disoriented or not well. This has happened in the past when a stray bird came in contact with our wind generator. This one did not have any visible injuries. But we also knew what kind of a mess birds make on the deck and canvas. So we made an attempt to coax her off and convince her to fly away. She would have none of it and ran around the deck staying just out of our reach. The end of any passage, no matter how short, is time to just relax, so we decided to leave the bird be for now and perhaps she would just leave later.

We went below and started planning dinner for the evening, and doing a few boat chores. Not giving the bird another thought we finally sat down at the table for dinner a couple of hours later, and suddenly noticed the bird standing outside the companionway screen watching us eat.

Since Susan is an old softy she insisted on giving her food and water. I warned her that if we did, the bird would move aboard, and reminded her of what the decks would look like the next morning — but she insisted. The bird stayed with us for another day and a half, then just flew away. No thank you or anything, just little deposits everywhere.

Questioning the guidebook

For the next couple of days we just relaxed and enjoyed our quiet and peaceful anchorage. The VHF radio is always on and we had picked up the conversations of two boats that were heading into the bay. They were happy to hear that we were already inside, and we gave them our waypoints in. We had also picked up a boat on the Northwest Caribbean Net that morning that was heading in, and we shared our waypoints.

The anchorage was soon to get crowded. By that evening we were sharing the anchorage with two trawlers and a large motorsailer with friendly crews aboard. We found that we were all heading in the same general direction, for Belize. The folks on the motorsailer had just made a five-day passage from the United States.

The settlement at Punta Allen was about three miles due north of us in the bay. Our guidebook suggested it was unimpressive and not worth a visit. In addition, there was a naval base there and a visit could result in a hassle from officials.

One morning we happened to pick up a conversation on the VHF from a couple of boats that sounded close by. So we jumped in and introduced ourselves. We were surprised when they told us they were anchored near the settlement, and it was really a great little place and we should visit before we left. Within the hour we’d hauled up anchor and moved the three miles to the anchorage behind Punta Gorda.

After we splashed the dinghy we stopped to chat with one of the boats we had communicated with earlier. They gave us the scoop about the town and where everything could be found, including the new town-built dinghy dock, the local tiendas — or grocery stores — and the all-important Internet cafe.

We found the town delightful, and the people friendly and helpful. We learned they are trying hard to attract tourists since this area is famous for its fishing, and diving and snorkeling on the reefs. As evidence of their sincere intentions, it appeared they had converted every other house on every street into a restaurant.

We stayed another two days just to enjoy the settlement. The navy presence was never a problem, and they were always friendly and polite when we met them on the street. But we knew it was time to continue pushing south.