Thursday 20 Jan, passage Key West to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, day 3. Horrible Gulf Stream crossing, a near collision, squalls with water spouts, risky reef crossing, then blissful arrival. Hola Mexico!
The day starts with us rounding the western tip of Cuba, Cabo De San Antonio, fast sailing downwind wing-on-wing (mainsail one side, genoa poled out the other) in 16kts of wind and a very chaotic sea. Oana is by now several hours into her second session of seasickness, and I’m helpless to help her ☹
This area is busy with shipping. Pretty much any commercial ships heading out the Gulf of Mexico round this cape before heading west out into the Atlantic. Directly around the Cabo there is a traffic separation system in place. It’s always a debate whether we take the specified lane for our direction of rounding or stay well clear of the whole thing. Either way, we have to cut across over it. Luckily, we find a gap, and get over to the west side.
We hear an interesting conversation between 2 ships on a collision course. Interesting because both voices are Indian and when they realise each other is Indian, their English turns almost inaudible to my ears. It reminds me when I was first posted to Madras (Chennai) in India and I went to my first client meeting with the person I was replacing, Jeff. As we came out the meeting I exclaimed “but Jeff, I don’t know how I will communicate here, they were only speaking Tamil”. Jeff replies, “no, that was English they were speaking, you’ll tune into after a while” and he was right. I even perfected head nodding after a few months!
As we sailed further south towards our entry point for the 2nd Gulf Stream crossing of the passage, I was in a dilemma. We had 14-15 knots of wind which was giving us a reasonable speed, but the spinnaker would have increased it by 2 knots. And, that extra speed would have allowed me to head SW directly for Isla Mujeres, pushing against the current, rather than south then west across the current. I think no less than 4 times that I went on deck determined to get the spinnaker up, only to chicken-out due to my inner voice saying: the sea is too rough to launch at night; the wind is too high; you can’t do this by yourself; and so on. Then 20 minutes back in the serene environment of the cockpit I get all ballsy again and head back on deck saying “for goodness sake Glen, just do it”. But I didn’t. We stayed plodding south wing-on-wing, heading south.
By 8am we are starting to punch against 1 knot of current at the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream. So we change course to SW to start the crossing. To achieve the right course, we really need to steer dead downwind, but the present sail setup won’t allow that. Or at least, if we do, the genoa will be de-powered in dirty wind cascading off the mainsail. Hence at long last, I get my desire and the spinnaker goes up, and we head off downwind in the direction I want to go.
At first, the Parasailor is pulling very nicely giving 8kts through the water and 6.5kts COG (due to current). It’s nice to have the other “noisy” sails furled away. The sea is all over the place but surprisingly, with the pole holding the port side of the Parasailor firmly in place, it is not jumping around too much. And certainly, the boat is more stable than it was wing-on-wing with genoa and mainsail. The unique lifting aspect of this Parasailor does seem to reduce rolling motion. This is the worse sea state we have flown it in, so it’s a good experience to get under our belt.
But on this passage in particular, all good things quickly end. The wind dies off and we are soon only doing 4.5kts with 2.8kts COG, which would mean 18 more hours to cross the gulf stream. So obviously, the sail comes down and motor comes on. Now we have what I regard as THE most frustrating sailing condition: big, confused seas, very little wind and a downwind course. Impossible to sail in, yet horrible to motor in. But that we have to do. With the motor we manage 6kts VMG (velocity Made Good, meaning speed in the right direction). But then the current really turns it up a notch and we are soon needing to head a full 40 degrees into the current just to make it across the current, and our VMG drops to just 4kts.
Oana meanwhile has gone to a new low. She is now almost comatose in the mid-cabin, just about managing the strength not to be rolled out of bed. And it’s also hot down below in these windless conditions. I feel so bad for her. This is certainly going to get chalked up as one of our worse trips and I even think that she may just run for the nearest airport as soon as we get there.
Late afternoon, with the punishment continuing, I suddenly realise that maybe I should be heading to the south of Isla Mujeres and not my current plan to go around the north end. Because I now see the main entrance is on the southern side. This would mean extra hours against the current to get there. I then remember that we have a pilot book for Mexico which I had forgotten about, so I go dig it out. It’s a very old version but luckily it does give me reassurance that the reef on the north of the island is passable with our draft … just. It also enlightens me that the point I had planned to cross the reef actually has a dangerous rock! Lucky I read the book. Better late than never, eh?
So there I am deep into reading this outdated pilot book, pretty tired by now, more than slightly anxious about our arrival at night and depth over the reef and Oana very sick below, when I vaguely hear a noise of an engine. I glance up and there, very slightly off our starboard bow is a small open boat with 2 men in it. They are so close that I have no time to even reach the auto pilot buttons, helm or throttle before we brush passed them, missing them by just maybe 4m (12ft)!
They must have seen me coming because one of them is desperately trying to start the outboard and the other appears to be trying his hardest to pull what looks like a fishing net into the boat. The expression on their faces tells all, and all I can do is mouth to them “sorry” as we pass. As the shock passes and I look back, I realise it was not a fishing net, but a divers hose, and the engine noise was an air compressor. They have a diver down. But here? It shows hundreds of meters depth on the chart. But Cloudy depth readout tells a different story, it’s only 35m deep. They must be diving for lobster or something. But 38 miles offshore in a tiny open boat? Crazy!
Normally when we are in open sea, out of sight of land, we assume all vessels will have AIS and our alarm will trigger if we are on a collison course. But these guys didn’t even look to have lights let alone electronics. It was a stark reminder that a good lookout is always necessary, no matter how secure you are with your instruments. And that charts are not always based on actual surveys.
Along with this shallower water, the current also decreases and I wonder for a moment if I should play it safe and divert to the south of the island. But then the water goes deep again and the current comes on stronger than ever, so I maintain course to the north of the island and start to cross my fingers that I won’t regret this decision.
The next event starts with dark clouds forming up around us. With the radar switched on I can see we have a squall line approaching. We are sailing into a wonderful late afternoon sun, yet behind us the sky soon blackens with rainbows appearing at the cloud base. Then I spot a whirlwind spout reaching down from the clouds about ½ mile behind. And I’m just thinking “surely that won’t touch-down” when a whirl of sea-spray rises up from the sea and the two spouts join up in mid-air. And, OMG, it looks to be tracking right towards us! I quickly put the last bit of mainsail away and pull off the side sunshades then brace myself. But thankfully it passes safely behind us and peters-out. Phew, I’m not sure what would be worse, getting hit by one of those, or by lightning? Then, the rain comes. Lashings of it and I’m actually grateful for the wash off. The boat had got rather salty these last days.
Just before sunset, the tower blocks of Cancun come into sight, then buildings on Isla Mujeres. And finally, we are close enough to see navigational lights. There is one that is really confusing me. It is alternatively flashing green and red, matching nothing I can find on the chart. Could it be the light that is supposed to mark the dangerous rock? No. It turns out to be disco lights from the hotel that is situated on the northern tip of the island!
As I approach my chosen point to cross the reef, I slow Cloudy down to just 3 kts as we drift over it. I tell myself 3.5m is the cut off. But luckily 3.8m was the shallowest I see and quickly we go into 6m depths behind the reef. Then it’s a gentle (at last!) 1 mile motoring south with one eye glued to the iPad chart and the other on navigational lights and boats ahead. I really don’t like coming into a new place in the dark but at the same time there is a thrill about it too.
Finally, we are fully in the lee (shelter) of the island and the water is at long last totally flat. The air is warm with cooking smells, and we can hear music from the hotels as we pass. Hola Mexico!
The anchorage has maybe 30 boats anchored, but there is plenty of room for us to easily find a spot. Oana is now half-alive and she even does her usual duty, going forward to drop the anchor. And what is best … she is still speaking to me. I’m so relieved!
Instruments are off by 9pm and after a quick tidy-up on deck it’s time for a well-deserved sleep.
In summary, while there were no breakages, calamities (well, nearly) or injuries, this passage would rate right up there with our most uncomfortable passages that we have done thus far. Oana says it was her worst ever, having felt ill or being ill for most of the 3 days. For me, even though the routing went perfectly to plan (we had arrived within 15 minutes of my estimated time) it was frustrating not knowing what I could have done differently to make it more comfortable. Sometimes there is just nothing you can do other hold on and get there. One thing for certain, a passage like this makes the arrival all the more sweeter.